Kirkdale Grange. A vast, grotesque monument to the hideousness of Victorian gothic architecture. It sat atop a high cliff, which I found absurd for a place supposedly to hold captured German agents during the war. A quick climb down the rocks, a stolen rowboat, and they'd have been safely back with the forces of the Third Reich in occupied France. Maybe they only used to keep very elderly, infirm or overweight German agents there.
The cliffs were lovely to look upon. Wind and wave had carved them out into a set of elegant abstract sculptures, adorned with flashes of white foam. The contrast with the Grange could hardly have been greater. It was though Nature were playing a practical joke, mocking Man's puny efforts to work stone as well as she. Three stories high, the building consisted of one central wing, with two smaller wings lying parallel - like two capital T's joined together at their bases. Behind it, a huge but neglected garden meandered its overgrown way to the cliff-edge.
The architect had apparently decided that the squat, square structure was insufficiently interesting, so he decided to... well, "improve" it would be quite the wrong term. "Embellish" it, perhaps? Every square inch, at least, that was what it looked like, seemed covered in little statues, tortured twists and whorls of stone, and angles that could give someone brain fever if they were to stare at them too long.
The statues were something else. The gargoyles were so cute and cuddly you wouldn't have been surprised to see them cradled in the arms of a sleeping three-year-old. The cherubs, on the other hand, were the best argument for infanticide I'd ever seen. Some attempt had been made to cover the building's embarrassment with ivy, but apparently even the ivy had more taste than to be seen dead alongside such ghastly excrescence, and large portions of the exterior façade remained bare stone.
For once, I was grateful that my bat shape had such poor vision. If I'd seen the place any more clearly I might just have gone into the world's very first nausea-induced Rotschreck.
The approach to the Grange was a broad, gravel driveway set in about half an acre of well-kept lawn, with night-lights illuminating the whole area, so there wasn't a hope in hell of a covert approach that way. I'd hopefully asked Kathryn if she could make us invisible, but she just muttered something about Hollywood having a lot to answer for. I took that as a "No."
So, after chewing the fat a lot, we settled on a three-pronged attack, utilizing our various talents. Nick had what looked to me like the most difficult approach - he'd snuck beneath the cliff in a small inflatable dinghy and was going to climb up to the garden behind the house, which wasn't protected by night-lights. I winced when he first suggested the idea, but he assured me that it would be a "piece of cake." I could only hope that he was right.
I was to fly on ahead in bat-form, sneak into the building through any convenient crack, and open a window or door to let him in, switching off any alarms I encountered along the way. Kathryn had assured us that there should only be a couple of guards, at most, in the building, and Nick's "these-aren't-the-droids-you're-looking-for" Ventrue mind tricks should easily take care of them. With the guards docile and cooperative, Kathryn would be able to drive up openly to the front of the house, and the search of the archives would be on in earnest. She and Tony were waiting in Nick's van, our faithful Mystery Machine, right now. We'd needed Tony because we had to drive through the day to get from York to Cornwall.
It was a pretty vague plan for my peace of mind, but it was the best we could come up with. The indescribable sensations of my echolocation were beating against the sensitive membranes of my ears as a turned towards the building. The tortured stonework was throwing back an amazing and distinctly unpleasant set of signals, but I hadn't yet spotted anything that would...
Ah. There, in the second story. A gap left by a half-opened window, a gap easily wide enough for a bat to fly through. I shifted my delicate wings, catching the slight night breeze and compensating as it threatened to push me off-course. It would be quite a delicate proposition, to slow myself down and skim through that small opening, but I was confident that I could do it. I've never been as comfortable in the air as Eirik - I much prefer being a wolf - but the bat shape seems to come with its own set of instinctive reactions. The trick is to kind of suppress your conscious awareness and let your animal body take care of things on autopilot. Which isn't easy for me. I'm an analyzer. Trusting to instinct isn't my style. Eirik always considered that a weakness in me. I sailed through the window with pinpoint precision, only to come within inches - literally - of colliding with the opposite wall as I was congratulating myself on my skill. I felt the strain in my wing muscles as I back-fanned frantically to slow my forward momentum. At the last moment, I noticed the half-open door to the left, and managed to shift my trajectory and skim through it.
I emerged onto an upper balcony above a broad, sweeping staircase leading down into some kind of main reception area. Stand-alone lamps were on in the hall below, but the overhead lights were off, leaving several small pools of light surrounded by a sea of shadow. It looked as though I was directly above the main door to the house. There was a big desk to the left of the grand staircase, with a slumped figure sitting in a chair behind it.
A dead slumped figure. Even if I hadn't been able to smell the blood, or hear the absence of a heartbeat with my ultra-sensitive bat ears, the ruin of the skull was something of a give-away. I was about the fly down for a closer look, when an internal door creaked open and two figures walked through. I settled myself on the balcony railing, well concealed by the darkness, and watched.
I felt a stab of recognition as the first of the two figures stepped into the pool of light around the reception desk. So Poster Boy had escaped from the mist too. My first thought was that he must be responsible for the corpse in the chair, but even with my weak bat's eyesight I could see the expression of shock and disbelief on his face as he saw the body. He turned to his companion, still veiled by the darkness, and let off a stream of rapid-fire German.
Before she could respond, the outer doors leading to the front of the house few open, and a third guest joined the party. His silhouette looked gravely misshapen, and at first, I thought he must be a Nosferatu, but as he joined Poster Boy in the light I saw that what I'd taken to be some kind of humpback was in fact a body slung over his shoulders. Nick's body, to be precise. With a stake through his heart.
If my own heart had been beating, it would have stopped at that point. My mind started to race. Three of them, one powerful enough to overpower Nick without apparent injury to himself, the second very probably a trained military officer with decades of experience under his belt, plus the third, shadowed figure. No way I could fight them and win. No way I could help Nick. No way I could just leave him there helpless, either. Caught between two fires.
"It seems we have company," the new arrival announced, dumping Nick's paralyzed form unceremoniously across the reception desk. He saw the dead body. "But I managed to capture him too late, I see. Damn." The voice was magnificent, a deep, resonant bass which echoed throughout the hall. Its owner was no less impressive... a burly giant of a man with a short, neatly trimmed beard, thinning brown hair, and deep-set eyes.
His huge hand closed around Nick's throat as he leaned in close. "Why did you kill him?" A lesser interrogator might have shouted. This man kept his voice low, allowing the rumbling cadences to project the menace. Which they did, very effectively. I wondered how he expected Nick to reply, as he lay there paralyzed.
The response came from the shadowed figure. A female voice, not young, but vigorous and commanding. There was a trace of an accent - Russian, I thought - but it was very slight. Her diction was extremely good. Poster Boy and Mr. Voice exchanged startled glances. Poster Boy asked something in German, and the shadowed woman replied in the same tongue.
"Very well." Poster Boy switched to English, "Let us find out." He held his hands in front of Nick's face, and I saw the claws extend. So could Nick, of course. That was the point. A single razor talon stroked down Nick's throat, leaving a thin line of blood. "Why are you here? Who do you work for? Who are you?" The talon paused over Nick's jugular vein. For dramatic effect, I supposed, since we don't have a functioning circulatory system the way mortals do.
"Dominic Baron. Neonate, Clan Venture. He's a free agent, here because... ah, interesting. For much the same reason that we are, to seek out the Round Table's records. His companions...." The Russian woman's voice tailed off. Evidently she'd been reading Nick's mind, because now she stepped out into the light and called out to me.
"Damian Tyrell? Hello Damian, I assume that you have entered the building by now and are watching us. No doubt you are trying to think of a way to rescue your friend. I suggest that the best way to ensure his safety is for you to present yourself to us, now. If you do not do so, I regret that it will be necessary to inflict injury upon him. Remaining at liberty will not allow you to assist him."
I believed her implicitly. There was something about the precise, matter-of-fact way she spoke that was very convincing. She talked about torturing Nick as though she were reading a weather report. I launched myself off the balcony and spiraled down to floor level. When I was learning to shape-shift, back in Norway, I had to land on the ground before I changed back, but with practice I've learned to initiate the change in mid-air and land on my feet as my wings disappear and gravity takes over. I hit the floor about six feet away from the Russian woman and walked forward until we faced each other.
I guessed she'd been in her fifties when she'd been Embraced. Her hair was a mix of pure white and gray, with a few remaining strands of the coal-black it had been originally. It was cut short, neatly trimmed and immaculately styled. Her square-ish face had few wrinkles beyond the laugh-lines around her large, dark eyes. She was dressed, with impeccable style and taste, in a long dark skirt, sensible flat shoes, a white blouse, and dark jacket. Her poise and self-assurance reminded me a lot of Kathryn. She might have been a successful businesswoman, head teacher, or ranking politician.
Except of course, that she was none of those things. She was a vampire who was holding my friend captive and threatening to torture him. The Beast urged me to lash out at her in a rage, but its effort was half-hearted. There was too much danger here - to Nick and to me - to take foolish risks or indulge in displays of bravado.
Her eyes locked onto mine and I felt a telepathic contact, a very familiar sensation from my time with Eirik. This contact, though, felt... I don't know. Different, odd, off-kilter, as though there was something alien about the woman's mind. I was angry at the intrusion, the violation of my mind, but I didn't dare raise a protest. Yet.
Her expression grew more interested as she rifled through my memories. I felt them flow through my mind, unbidden... the newspaper report on the Priory, my arrival there, the conversation with the Abbot... she raised her eyebrows thoughtfully as she came to the stone image of my face above the Abbot's door, but it didn't break her poise.
When we reached the point where I'd seen the Old One, though, her head jerked up with an expression of shock. It looked like she'd gotten nasty surprise. We continued through Poster Boy's...Her lips twitched in a smile. Casually, her mind supplied me with a name, Wilhelm Reinhardt...attempt to assassinate the Abbot, the pursuit through the mist, the council of war at Kathryn's place - I tried to hold back the fact that Kathryn was out there waiting for us, but it was useless - right up to the present moment. The alien otherness pulled away from my mind, and she swung around to the burly giant. "Owen, there is a third vampire hiding in the trees at the end of the drive... a Tremere. Please go to the front door and flash your torch - three short, two long, four short."
That was the signal we'd agreed with Kathryn. I took a step forward, but before I could protest, Poster Boy's - Wilhelm's - talons pushed lightly against Nick's neck. The threat was pretty clear. Make trouble or call out, and I tear your friend's head off. Literally. The Beast was rising inside me as I watched Owen walk to the front door. My mind was racing to find a way out of this, but unfortunately it was racing in little circles, without success. Owen reached the door and...Blink.
Without warning, he was suddenly facing the other way. He hadn't actually turned around... there was just a flicker of something indescribable in the air around his body, and he was standing in a different position. I obviously wasn't the only one to be startled. Owen looked astonished and baffled, sending a menacing and suspicious glare in my direction. What he saw of my expression seemed to convince him I wasn't responsible, because he broke off eye contact abruptly and turned towards the door again.
I looked at the woman. Her whole body had tensed and she was staring at the front door as though she were trying to burn holes in it through sheer will-power, but unlike Owen, she didn't seem either astonished or baffled. Just very, very worried.
"Owen, stop trying to reach the door. You will not succeed."
My nostrils flared. There was an odd odor starting to seep into the room. Stale, unpleasant, sickly-sweet. I didn't pay much attention to it, though. I was concentrating on Owen, who was frowning thoughtfully. "You said there was a Tremere outside, Irina. Could she be responsible for this? In which case, we have an initial negotiating position." He gestured towards Nick and I.
"She is not responsible, any more than her servants are responsible for this man's death." The woman, Irina, indicated the slumped figure behind the desk. Servants? That would do wonders for Nick's mood, which probably wasn't too happy as it was. "We have all walked into the same ambush - and for the moment at least, we all face a common foe."
"Then if we're going to have to become allies," I suggested. "Maybe you should unstake Nick."
Irina and Owen both turned towards me. Wilhelm hadn't taken his eyes off me the whole time. Very professional, very disciplined. Poised to take Nick's head off if I made one false move. The smell was growing stronger, impossible to ignore. What Irina would have said, I'll never know. She opened her mouth to reply, then her eyes widened. Her voice cracked out like a whip. "Down!"
I'd hit the deck and rolled forward before I realized what I was doing. Impressive, particularly since I was pretty sure she hadn't used vampire Disciplines to enforce my obedience, just her natural authority. The nauseating stench filled my senses, and I finally recognized it as rotting flesh mingled with some kind of chemical even as the sustained roar of gunfire echoed in my ears.
My experience of real firefights is almost nil, but I've seen enough movies to know the first rule: keep your head down. Twisting awkwardly on the floor, I looked back about a yard behind me, where I'd been standing only an instant before - and saw an abomination that should never have existed.
He was dressed in what I vaguely recognized as a First World War uniform, tattered and bloodstained. What was left of his flesh was either burnt raw or bloated with rot, although mercifully not a lot was left of his flesh - most of what showed outside his uniform was yellowed bone. One skeletal hand clutched a bayonet of some kind - rusty and stained with blood, but still lethally sharp. He must have snuck up behind me and tried to use it to slice my head off. The Beast gave a vicious snarl of outrage as I realized how close I'd come to Final Death. Irina's barked command was all that had saved me.
Wilhelm had moved away from Nick to concentrate on the more immediate threat. He and Owen were standing shoulder-to-shoulder, blazing away at the zombie thing with small machine-guns of some kind. The impacts were knocking it back, but didn't seem to be hurting it any. Irina was standing off to one side, making a series of complicated gestures, which experience with Kathryn had taught me to recognize. She was casting some kind of spell. All three of them had their attention on the... monster, zombie, whatever. I'd never have a better chance.
My forward roll had already carried me half out of their line of fire. I rolled the rest of the way and scrambled over to where Nick still lay prone and helpless. I braced myself as I yanked out the stake. I was more than half-afraid that he'd go right into frenzy. He didn't, but I could see that it was a close thing. His fangs slid out and his whole body trembled with the effort of maintaining control. I lifted my hand. "Hold it! Don't lose it now, or we're both dead. The kind you don't come back from."
He nodded, still shaking, but he didn't speak. Gunfire was still going off behind us, but it was quieter now. I took a couple of steps back before I took my gaze off Nick - I didn't want to be within arms-length if he suddenly lost his battle with frenzy - and looked back at the zombie. Irina had her hands extended towards it. What seemed to be a rope made out of mist extended from her outstretched hands and coiled around its neck, but she was having trouble holding on. The zombie tugged her to and fro, threatening to wrench loose at any moment. Wilhelm was continuing to fire at it, timing his bursts so that the shock knocked it back every time it threatened to tear free of Irina's grasp. Owen was raising his fist, staring fixedly at one of the pools of shadow near the abomination's decaying feet.
Shadows, which seemed to ripple and writhe outwards, forming inky tentacles of blackness that lashed around the foul thing, gripping and holding it. Its struggles intensified, but between Owen's efforts and Irina's, it finally looked to be securely trapped. Wilhelm tossed his gun onto a nearby chair and moved forward. I saw that his claws were still extended, and I wondered if the gun must have some kind of special trigger grip to let him hold and fire it, even as I realized what he was about to do and moved forward to help him.
Extruding my own claws, I joined him in slashing away at the zombie's bound form. Some kind of stinking fungus splashed from the rents we made in its body, and I screamed as I felt it eat away at my flesh. The Beast surged to the forefront of my awareness, outraged, demanding revenge, urging me to tear apart the creature that was hurting me. For once, its goals and mine coincided perfectly, which helped me maintain some kind of tenuous control.
Wilhelm made a sound halfway between a scream and a snarl as more of the fungus splashed onto his arms, and as I briefly met his eyes, I could see the kind of barely repressed madness in them, which I could feel in myself. We both saw the opening at the same time. Our claws jammed into the neck from opposite sides, barely missing each other, and ripped away the head. The stench grew even worse, and I was grateful I didn't have to breathe. For a moment, I thought the decapitated body would continue to fight.
And then it was over. The zombie simply vanished. The stench, the fungus, the disgusting mucus and body fragments that Wilhem and I had torn away - they all just vanished as if they'd never existed. My wounds, unfortunately, remained. Hastily, I willed my Blood to close them. A group of humans would have been panting with exertion, but of course none of us was human, none of us was alive. The room was totally, eerily silent. I turned towards Nick. Just in time to see him level a large and brutal-looking handgun at Owen.
"Impressive," Owen said coolly. "Where did you find that? I believed that I'd searched you for weapons."
"You did. And since you've brought it up, I want my fucking revolver back, now." Nick still sounded like he was on the verge of losing it. "The guy behind the desk dropped this. I thought of going for your pal's machine-gun, but I figured he wouldn't leave a loaded weapon lying around like that."
"You figured correctly. It's empty," Wilhelm told him.
"Too bad. I'd guess this baby packs quite a punch, though. Shall we find out?"
"It's unlikely that you could get off more than one shot before Wilhelm and Irina could reach you." The rumbling cadences of Owen's voice sounded almost bored, like a Professor explaining an elementary math problem to a backward student. I had to admire his nerve, staring Nick down like that.
"A blast from this would probably vaporize most of your head. One shot would be enough."
"My death would be avenged very swiftly."
"Enough of this." The whip crack of authority was back in Irina's voice again. "We are all in great danger. We do not have the time - and I do not have the patience - for you to squabble like animals in rut. If we wish to survive we must declare a truce."
Nick hesitated. "That thing - whatever it was - is gone. The danger I see right now is the three of you." He could have been right. I'd never met a Lasombra, but that shadow magic, which Owen had used to snag the zombie resembled Eirik's descriptions of their powers. Could this be a Sabbat pack? The only Sabbat I'd ever met had been that bunch of Lost-Boy wanabees in Norway. They'd been howling, bestial, and barely able to string a coherent sentence together. The brisk, controlled professionalism of this group was a far cry from that.
"That thing, as you call it, was merely a fragment of the whole. Others will come." Irina sounded certain of it.
"Nick, she's right." Actually, I wasn't sure she was, but I was damned sure that starting a firefight would lose us more than it gained. Nick was still hovering close to frenzy, and I felt like I was trying to talk someone down off a tall building. "We can only lose by fighting."
"I will pledge myself to a truce, if you will do the same," Owen put in. Wilhelm nodded agreement.
"But you have to tell us what you know. We need to know what we're dealing with here." I decided to get in the demand for information while they were in the mood to negotiate. Irina gave a curt "Very well," her gaze still on Nick.
Nick kept right on hesitating for a moment, and then lowered the gun. Rather to my surprise, neither Wilhelm nor Owen leapt forward to relieve him of it. Owen caught my expression.
"I have agreed a truce, Mr. Tyrell. My word may be relied upon."
"So now what?"
"The fact that we are under attack complicates our situation, but does not change our objective," Irina's clipped, precise phrasing reminded me of Kathryn. Her English was technically perfect, but too exact. You could see that she was speaking a foreign language. "It is still necessary to reach the archive section and retrieve the information on the ritual. I suggest we go there now before our enemy recuperates sufficiently to attack us again."
"Talk while we walk, Lady. Who are you and what the fuck is going on?" Nick found himself talking to Irina's retreating back. Her voice floated behind her as she headed towards a doorway on the other side of the hall.
"I am Irina Kobarev. My comrades are Owen Tyler and Wilhelm Reinhardt. We are here to recover information compiled during World War Two by the Round Table. This information pertains to a ritual conducted at Fetch Priory, which was designed to liberate a Methuselah..." she broke off for a moment, and something clicked inside my head.
That was why she'd acted shocked when she'd accessed my memory of the Neanderthal. She'd believed that he was our kind of vampire, far more ancient and powerful than we were, but the same order of being. The truth had been an unexpected and - as far as I could tell - unwelcome surprise.
"... a Methuselah," Irina continued after a moment "known variously as the Great Beast, the Old One, or the Most Ancient. It is our hope that by discovering enough about the ritual, we will find a way to reverse or reduce its effect."
No word games, no bullshitting. I could tell that getting straight answers was having a calming effect upon Nick. Maybe that was why she was doing it. She was a smart cookie, you could tell that at a glance. She had to be aware of the state he was in. Of course, that didn't mean that everything she was saying wasn't just a pack of lies. We headed out through the doors and down several darkened corridors. Irina was guiding us unerringly, as though she was familiar with the place. Or maybe she'd just memorized the floor plan. I looked at Wilhelm as we strode forward through the darkness, remembering our conversation in the mists beyond the Priory.
"I thought you said the effects were irreversible."
Wilhelm shrugged slightly. "In all probability, yes, but we may at least find a way to buy more time."
"So where'd the zombie come from? How does it fit in to all of this?" Nick sounded more curious, less hostile. I started to relax a bit concerning him.
"It was not a zombie in the sense you intend. It was an aspect, a fragment if you prefer, of what is left of a man named Arthur Bowen."
"The last owner of Fetch Priory? How is he involved?" I was starting to feel a touch of excitement overlaying my apprehension. Finally, some answers.
Owen half-swung around to face me. "You don't know?"
"He knows the circumstances surrounding the Old One's internment - in truth, he knew more of that than I did - but not what happened fifty years ago." Irina said briskly. She halted in front of a heavy oak door and started picking the lock with some metal implement she'd withdrawn from the pocket of her jacket. "He was not even certain that the Round Table had a hand in the Priory's destruction. He and his associates came here to confirm it."
Owen's bushy eyebrows rose. "Then let me confirm it. Yes, the destruction of the Priory was our work."
"Our work? You were part of the Round Table?"
"Once, as a young officer. After the war, I was assigned to undercover work in Spain, where I met my sire."
"So why do you need to look at the archives? Don't you already know what they say?"
"I wasn't personally involved in the Priory incident. I don't know the details. Certainly not the details of the ritual."
"Daim, you're wandering off again," Nick cut in. He sounded almost back to normal. Almost, but not quite. He was still on a hair-trigger. I guess getting staked will do that to you. "Let's get back to Arthur Bowen."
The door creaked open, and there was a sudden glare from a naked bulb as Irina found a light switch on the wall beyond it. The light revealed a rough set of concrete stairs leading downwards.
"Arthur Bowen was responsible for casting the ritual which is gradually reviving the Old One," Owen said simply. "He used a series of human sacrifices to build up a reservoir of magical power, which is what drew the Round Table's attention to him in the first place. He'd gathered a small cadre of acolytes around himself, mostly aristocratic young officers who'd become invalids in the army because of the wounds they'd received in the Great War.
"An agent of ours infiltrated the group, and once we realized what was going on, we knew we had to stop him. On the night that the Priory was destroyed, he planned to complete the ritual by sacrificing a final life - his own. The idea was essentially to defile the holy aura holding the Old One captive, through blood sacrifice."
We headed down the steps as Owen continued, his tone grim. "He almost succeeded. The ritual was already in progress when the bombs hit the house. The Round Table was convinced we'd managed to thwart him, but we were overconfident."
"So he became, what? Some kind of ghost?" It wasn't that I had a hard time believing in ghosts. I'd seen one with my own eyes. But I'd thought they needed magic to appear in the real world, and even then, they stayed incorporeal. That thing in the hall had been very, very corporeal. A corporeal corpse. Stop it Tyrell, you're getting hysterical.
"In a sense. But he is also both more and less." Irina led us out into a small antechamber at the bottom of the stairwell, with a heavy metal door in the far wall. "As intended, his ritual sucked the life-force from his body - and did it before he was killed by the bombs, or so I believe. So although he is no longer alive, he never truly died, either. His essence actually became a part of the spell, which he was trying to cast.
"I am uncertain how much volition and awareness he retains. In effect, Arthur Bowen has transmuted himself into a quasi-sentient magical spell, a spell that has been unraveling the Priory's protections for five decades. He is less of a self-aware person now than he is a primal force, a primal force fueled by the energies of several dozen-blood sacrifices. Clearly he has enough intellect left to understand what we are trying to do and seek to thwart us, but beyond that..." The metal door flew open with a god-awful crash, and two more of the hideous zombies stepped through it, their ghastly stench rolling ahead of them like a toxic tide. "Beyond that," Irina concluded, stepping back. "We have more immediate problems."
Nick shoved his way past her and leveled the enormous pistol. The sound of it going off was deafening in the enclosed space. I thought my eardrums would burst. I didn't think there was that much noise in the world. I worried for a second about ricochets - we were in a small room made of concrete, after all - but I saw that he'd aimed the gun to let the bullets whiz through the open door after they'd punched through the zombies. I guess I should have known better. Nick grew up around guns. He knows how to use them.
Unfortunately, the shots didn't seem to be doing much good beyond knocking the creatures back. Irina raised her hands, and I could see blue-white flame form between them and lance towards the two abominations. It must have hurt - they staggered back with guttural choking cries. Why the hell hadn't she tried that upstairs, I wondered, but the remembered image of the room answered that question for me. Wooden stairs, wooden furniture and wooden floorboards. If the burning zombie had staggered into anything, the fire would have spread like - well, like wildfire, and we'd have been trapped in the middle of an inferno. The Beast screamed and gibbered at the back of my mind at that thought.
Wilhelm stepped up beside me. Both of us still had our claws extended, but it was going to be a lot tougher to fight these things with one-on-one odds, without them being restrained. I wondered if Owen could do his little shadow-trick again, and looked around for him just as he moved alongside Nick and added his own gunfire to the general din. The zombies were being forced back.
"Quickly! Back up the stairs!" Irina called out as she hosed the creatures with searing white fire. Wilhelm and I exchanged glances and began to fall back. Owen and Nick ran out of ammo within a few seconds of each other and followed us. Irina backed up, still spraying fire, holding the zombies at bay to cover our retreat.
When the rest of us were at the top of the stairs, Irina broke off the flow of flame, turned, and lunged upwards after us at impressive speed. The zombies pursued her, little the worse the wear for having to endure an inferno. Even as they shambled up the stairs in pursuit, the burned-off flesh was re-growing itself, the scorch-marks disappearing. As decayed as they looked, their rotted bodies apparently regenerated themselves continuously in the face of any attack. Impressive... and thoroughly scary. At least cutting off their heads seemed to stop them. From the inner pocket of his coat, Owen produced a pair of metal eggs that he lobbed down the stairs as Irina dashed through the doorway.
Wilhelm uttered a curt "Get back," but it was unnecessary. Nick and I may be young, but we're not stupid enough to stay close to a grenade that's about to go off. I flattened myself against the wall, closing my eyes and bracing myself for the inevitable thrashings of the Beast in reaction to the explosion. The sound was more muted that I'd imagined, a couple of heavy thumping noises. I felt a rush of hot air flow past me and then joined Wilhelm at the entrance leading to the stairs.
The two zombie-things were down but not out, lying at the bottom of the steps, half-blown apart but gradually re-forming. Wilhelm and I exchanged a quick glance of perfect understanding and rushed down the steps. Our claws flashed as we completed the job the grenades had started, tearing the heads off the enfeebled monstrosities before they could recover enough to fight back. It was grim, repulsive work, and I was grateful that I no longer breathed. I would have been overcome with nausea if I'd been forced to endure the stench in all its horror. This time, I managed to avoid getting splashed with too much of the corrosive fungus.
As had happened in the entrance hall, the zombies faded into nothingness once they were... well, "dead" is the wrong word. "Neutralized," perhaps. I was shaking slightly with reaction. I'm a fucking archaeologist - and not the Indiana Jones variety. I'm not used to dealing with this sort of shit.
Wilhelm was holding up rather better. Scarcely pausing, he moved to the base of the stairs to signal the all clear. Nick was already halfway down, looking worried but not frantic. I guess even nerdy, bookish Gangrel like me cut an impressive sight when we're using our claws to tear something apart. That thought provoked an uncomfortable memory of Otto, but I forced it down.
"Remarkable," Irina commented with almost clinical detachment as she strolled calmly down the steps to join us. "The amount of power required to create these manifestations is enormous. I had anticipated some interference from Bowen, but I had no idea that he could achieve so much at this distance from the Priory. His essence is essentially bound to that location."
"How do you know so much about him?" I wasn't really expecting an answer to my question, so my surprise was - naturally - noticeable when I received one.
"Ten years of study. When I learned of Bowen and the Round Table's part in his downfall from Owen, I was intrigued enough to research the background to his ritual and the reason for it. I discovered a great deal - far more than I was expecting - in certain archives held by the eastern European branches of several clans. I had to trade a great many favors to gain access to them, but in the end, I was able to piece together the story of the Old One and its confinement. What I learned from Owen, combined with my own thaumaturgical knowledge, allowed me to guess the outlines of Bowen's ritual."
"You're a Tremere?"
She looked at me for several long moments, then her lips twitched into a smile. "I don't believe you could find a Tremere who'd acknowledge me as one of their own." Very ambiguous, but maybe she was saying she was a renegade. My Sabbat-pack idea was starting to seem more credible. I considered just asking, but I was afraid of provoking a confrontation.
"And you're giving away all this hard-bought knowledge for free? How come?" Nick was back to his normal, sarcastic, smart-ass self. Although the question seemed to have crossed the minds of Wilhelm and Owen, as well. They were paying a lot of attention to Irina's answer.
She turned to face Nick. "Because I want to secure your friend's co-operation. In the event that my primary plan proves unworkable, he represents a possible contingency."
I turned that over in my mind. It clicked quite quickly with the conversation I'd had with Wilhelm in the mists, his claim that he had a way to destroy the Old One. "Your plan for destroying the Old One was based on the idea that it was our kind of vampire. Now you know that it isn't, you aren't sure the plan - whatever it is - will work. But that carving of my face above the Abbot's doorway makes you think that I could be the key to some kind of alternative."
She raised her eyebrows. "Very good, indeed. That is quite correct."
Wilhelm and Owen exchanged glances. It was Owen who spoke. "What does he mean, not our kind of vampire? I thought we'd established that it was either Byelobog or one of its direct childer?"
That name didn't mean anything to me, and looking over at Nick, I wasn't seeing any sign of recognition from him either. Irina closed her eyes, and Wilhelm and Owen's expressions shifted from blank to startled. She must have been using her telepathy again, to bring them both up to speed. Owen gave a low whistle. "Well. This alters things."
Irina shook her head. "Not significantly. The creature remains a threat which we must eliminate, for the good of... all our kind." The pause was slight, but not so slight that I didn't notice. What had she been about to say? "The good of the Sabbat," perhaps? My paranoia racked up another notch.
"Then we should get to work." Wilhelm indicated the door the zombies had emerged from. At Irina's nod of assent, he headed through it with the rest of us following in his wake. The room beyond showed signs of damage from the hail of bullets, which had gone through the zombies. Built of the same rough concrete as the stairs and antechamber, it was huge and basically square, with various alcoves and short corridors leading off from the central area. I was bizarrely reminded of the floor plans of certain Egyptian tombs. Functional metal racks, open on both sides and filled with cardboard and wooden boxes, filled most of the available space, dividing the place into a long series of narrow aisles. There was a faint, constant hum of air-conditioning, which probably explained the chill.
I raised my eyebrows at Nick. The plan had called for Kathryn to go through the archives - she'd claimed that she knew this place quite well, although she'd refused to say how. But she was locked outside by Bowen's ghost - remnant, whatever - and without her it was going to be a hell of a job to search though all this stuff. Nick shrugged at me and gestured to Owen.
Sure enough, his burly form was navigating its way through the various racks, his manner that of a man who knew exactly where he was going. We had to slip into single file to follow him - Irina at his back, Nick and I following Irina, and Wilhelm bringing up the rear. The Beast whined uneasily, not happy to be bottled up with prospective enemies on either side.
It took several twists and turns to get where we needed to go, a section of shelving about two thirds of the way across the room. Owen bent awkwardly and lifted several small cardboard boxes and a couple of box-files from the lowest shelf next to him. Irina took one and - to my surprise - passed another to me.
"The Bowen Archive," Owen told us unnecessarily. "Papers and artifacts recovered from the bombed Priory, plus the reports of our agent. There's a small office on the other side of these stacks. I suggest we take them there to study..."
His voice trailed off as I caught the now too-familiar stench of chemicals and rot. The zombies were coming back, and this time they had us cornered in a narrow, confined space where we had no room to maneuver... and where we were surrounded by flammable paper which would prevent Irina using her fire attack as a defense. The Beast surged to the front of my find, screaming at me to tear aside the vampires on either side of me, to drain their blood in a bid for extra strength, to flee... I held it back, but only just. I looked around, frantically, seeing my companions trembling with their own internal struggles as I searched for the zombies I knew were coming...
A rusty bayonet speared through the files on the shelf to my right, and jabbed Nick in the side. This time, Nick lost it. He let out a guttural scream of rage as the Beast took him, and lunged forward against the shelf rack. He must have been burning blood to boost his strength; or else the shelf wasn't as solid as it looked. The entire section of metal racking toppled over, knocking the down the shelf running parallel to it in a domino effect, and momentarily pinning the zombie between the two fallen stacks. Still screaming incoherently, Nick somehow managed to wrench the creature's bayonet away from it, and began stabbing at it with manic savagery.
But the pinioned zombie wasn't alone. There were two more like it in the next section of the aisle. Raising their own bayonets, they rushed at Nick. I moved to intercept them, frantically choking down the Beast's desire to flee, but Wilhelm beat me to it. I actually saw thick patches of blond fur growing from the backs of his hands as his own frenzy marked him. Hurling himself at the nearer of the two zombies, he swept his talons down faster than my eye could follow. Such was the power of the blow that the zombie's arm was severed near the shoulder. I flinched back as it went flying overhead, still clutching its bayonet.
The zombie didn't even seem fazed. Without a pause, it grabbed a handful of Wilhelm's shirtfront with its remaining arm, lifted him, and hurled him screaming through the air. I was amazed at how fast the damned thing was moving. Zombies in B-movies are always slow and lumbering. This thing could have been an Olympic sprinter. A mighty series of bangs and crashes marked Wilhelm's passage as he brought down several more shelf sections in another domino effect. In another time and place, it would almost have been funny, but right there and then, the noise and chaos was simply terrifying. Still screaming, Wilhelm started tearing up metal shelves as he struggled to extricate himself from the mess.
Nick's victim had dissolved into nothingness under his onslaught. Unfortunately, its bayonet had vanished too, leaving him unarmed and facing the two remaining monsters. Another shining rope of mist coiled around the neck of the one that Wilhelm had... disarmed, yanking it off-balance, but the other was still free. Nick charged it, howling insanely, going for its bayonet again, but this one wasn't as easily overcome as the first. Nick managed to grab its arm and stop it from using its bayonet, but the monstrosity clamped its other hand around Nick's throat, squeezing, crushing. Both of Nick's hands were involved in the struggle for the blade, so he couldn't pry free, but at least this kind if attack was relatively ineffective against vampires. Without the need to breathe, a crushed windpipe just fucks up our ability to sing arias. Even Nick's boosted strength was no match for the zombie's, though - he was being driven steadily back. I dropped the box I was holding - in the chaos, I'd forgotten it was there - and dived forwards, stabbing at the hand holding Nick's throat with one talon, and digging the other into the zombie's neck. It must have hurt - the creature made a choked gurgle which might have been a scream, and released its hold on Nick's neck. Before I could follow up my attack, however, it used its newly freed hand to grab me.
The world spun about me as I was hurled backwards over the shelves that Nick had knocked down. The Beast's panic paradoxically helped me to hold it back. I rolled slightly as I hit the ground and felt something-hard dig into my back. Twisting my body to scramble back to my feet, I saw why Owen and Wilhelm hadn't come to our assistance. Three more undead soldiers had appeared from the opposite side to the first three. The two vampires were putting up a magnificent fight, Wilhelm carving at the monstrosities with his claws and Owen's huge fists pulverizing rotted flesh and yellowed bone with pile-driver blows, but both were showing extensive slashing and stabbing wounds of their own from the zombies' bayonets. They were losing. It was only a matter of time before they were overwhelmed.
I was starting to panic. Nick screamed, a sound of pain this time, and I saw that his zombie had managed to stab its bayonet into his side. Irina was grim-faced as she struggled to hold her captive in the rope of mist, but it was tugging her increasingly off-balance. All of us were in deep, deep shit. I was about to try to help Nick when I saw what had dug against my back when I'd fallen. A withered, human hand, with a peculiar will-o-the-wisp glow dancing about each fingertip. A hand, which had fallen from the box I'd dropped, the box from the Bowen Archive. I recognized it, of course. A Hand Of Glory. A grisly magic, which would supposedly keep all the occupants of a house asleep as long as the fingers burned.
"Remarkable," The memory of Irina's voice floated back at me. "The amount of power required to create these manifestations is enormous. I had anticipated some interference from Bowen, but I had no idea that he could achieve so much at this distance from the Priory. His essence is essentially bound to that location."
I stabbed my talons as deep as they go into the filthy thing, and wrenched it apart. It was dry, mummified and tough as old leather, but I forced the vitae into my limbs, boosting my strength. The hand ripped into two jagged, irregular halves. The witchfire around the fingers died away.
Then there was a titanic explosion. No fire, just sound and motion. Imagine a thunderclap, magnified a thousand times, going off in an enclosed space. I was hurled backwards, knocking flat another shelf, then another, then another... I felt bones break as I smashed through the room like an unliving battering ram. Everything went totally silent, and in the small part of my mind that wasn't stunned, I realized that my eardrums had ruptured. The wall was behind me now, and I was blasted against it, held there like a bug mashed against a windshield, arms and legs spread-eagled helplessly. Papers and boxes started to bury me as they, too, were flung against the wall. Then an entire metal shelf rose into the air and rammed into me. I screamed as I felt ribs crack, and everything went dark.
I don't know how long I was out. A few seconds, a few minutes at most. The first sensation I registered was pain from the pressure of the fallen shelf against my ribs. Barely able to hold back another scream, I levered it off, and willed blood to my injuries. There was a sudden pop of pressure and a resumption of sound as my ruptured eardrums restored themselves, and a blessed cessation of pain from my ribs. Groaning, I shoved aside the rest of the detritus that covered me, and lurched unsteadily to my feet. I'd fed well before we came here, but I'd need to feed again before too much longer. Healing myself had taken a lot out of me.
The room was a total wreck. Not one shelf was left standing. Loose papers coated every surface like a blanket of snow. Badly worried, I looked around, trying to figure out where Nick had been standing the last time I'd seen him. It must have been...right about where he was struggling to sit up. I slithered hastily over all the loose paper and fallen shelving to join him, cursing in Welsh as I banged my shins several times. I heard a moan to one side of me and saw Irina clawing her way free of another fallen shelf. Of Owen and Wilhelm there was no sign.
"Nick! You okay?"
He swayed unsteadily as he stood up, and gave me a long, long look. "One of the things Ford Prefect noticed when he first arrived on Earth," he told me. "Was the way in which humans keep stating and restating the perfectly obvious, things like, it's a nice day, or, you're very tall, or oh dear, you seem to have fallen into a thirty-foot hole and landed on a bed of spikes, are you all right?"
"Pardon me for giving a flying fuck, I'm sure. I knew it was a mistake to let you loose on the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy the moment I did it."
"Thanks." Thank God. We were falling back into the old, familiar, comfortable bickering. Probably a reaction to the stress, but it felt good. Nick did seem pretty much okay. His frenzy had burned itself out, and I could see that he'd healed the gash in his side from the bayonet, although the rip in his shirt was crusted with dried blood. I scrambled over to Irina and offered her my hand. She didn't bother being macho - she took it with a nod of thanks, and leaned heavily on it as she worked her way free. Her jacket was ripped, her hair disarranged, and as she stood, I saw that she'd lost one of her shoes. But her authority was scarcely diminished. She immediately began looking around the room, trying to locate her comrades.
"So, what happened? I'm guessing that all this..." Nick's sweeping gesture took in the room. "Has to be your fault?"
"It certainly looks like an example of his remarkable talents, yes." Kathryn's voice made all three of us turn. She stood in the doorway, contemplating the wreckage with an air of grim resignation. "It seems as though I missed quite a party. I suppose I should have known better than to leave you boys alone in the house. What..."
Then she saw Irina, and the air was abruptly filled with electric tension. They stood staring at each other like two cats squaring up for a fight. Kathryn spat something that sounded like "cold" or "culled" or maybe "cult". I lost the nuances because I'd just felt a wad of paper slide away under my foot and had to grab a fallen shelf to keep from overbalancing.
"Traditional values," Irina said coolly, "in a modern context. Isn't that what your new Prime Minister is always saying? However, I suggest you reign in your own traditionalism. The threat we face is rather more important than historical grudges."
Kathryn gave her a look of aristocratic disdain. "And you would have me believe that you're a part of the solution, rather than part of the problem? I would have thought the Sabbat would rather like the idea of turning the world into screaming maniacs." Well, there the word was, out in the open, no longer hanging between us. Sabbat.
"My experience of the world, madam, is that it already holds an elegant sufficiency of screaming maniacs. I have no wish to create more, nor do my colleagues." Owen's magnificent bass rumble at least interrupted the stare down between the two women. He and Wilhelm had finally emerged and were helping each other to stand. They looked, frankly, like shit. One of Owen's arms hung limp and loose; Wilhelm's shirt was shredded by gashes. They must have burned a lot of blood in the fight if they didn't want to use their reserves to heal such serious injuries.
Kathryn looked at him as if she'd seen a ghost. "Owen?"
"Indeed. You are as beautiful as ever, Mrs. Malcolm." The clichéd gallantry was clearly an ironic acknowledgment of Kathryn's unchanging, undead condition.
Mrs. Malcolm? I'd never thought of Kathryn having been married. Interesting. "You've met, obviously."
"During World War Two, yes." Kathryn's eyes hadn't left Owen, and she sounded almost in shock as she answered. Then she rallied "I can't say I like the company you've been keeping, Owen."
"Perhaps you need to get to know them better." If her contemptuous tone bothered Owen any, he wasn't showing it.
"I already know all I wish to know of the Sabbat, thank you. I think it would be best if you and your... colleagues," Kathryn's lip twisted with distaste as she gestured back at Irina. "Were to leave. Now."
"Not before we have obtained the information we came here for." Irina's voice was level, but absolutely implacable.
Kathryn looked as close to losing it as I'd ever seen her. "Sabbat War Parties in Camarilla domains don't get to dictate terms. Go!"
"We are injured, madam, but not incapacitated." Wilhelm told her grimly. "If you persist in a path of confrontation, we will..."
I must have spoken more loudly than I intended because everyone seemed pretty shocked. I forced down my irritation and tried to sound reasonable. "Look, I don't think fighting will get us anywhere. Nick and I took almost as much of a beating as Owen and Wilhelm. The only one here in any shape for a fight is Kathryn. If we start tearing into each other there's no telling which way it'll go, and if we wipe each other out who's going to be left to do anything about the Old One?"
"Admirably reasoned." Irina didn't mean it as a compliment, though. She was just using it as a barb at Kathryn.
And Kathryn knew it, but after looking us all over, she nodded in grudging acceptance. "Very well. We will both look up the records on the Priory - assuming that we can find any of them in this disaster area - and we will all leave. After which all bets will be off if we meet again."
"Agreed." Irina didn't seem the least impressed by Kathryn's threat. "Let us begin."
I was quite surprised at how easy it was to find the papers. To me, the room looked like total chaos, but Irina and Kathryn apparently discerned some pattern to it all and worked out how the blast had expanded outwards. Since the stuff we were looking for had been near the dead center of the effect, they were able to extrapolate its location easily enough. Which, naturally enough, brought up the question of what had caused all this in the first place.
"I remembered what you said about Bowen being bound to the Priory," I explained to Irina. "About your being surprised that he could be that powerful at this distance. Then I saw that a Hand of Glory had fallen out of one of the boxes of his stuff, and the fingers were alight the way they were supposed to be when they're working. I figured it might be some kind of... I don't know, booster relay, something which let Bowen manifest in this location. So I shredded it, and..." Nick looked up at me from where he was crouched on the floor searching through the debris. I caught his expression and concluded a bit sheepishly "... all this happened."
Kathryn and Irina exchanged glances. The disconcerting thing was that there wasn't a lot of enmity in the exchange. There was a lot of worry, though. "Okay, talk. What did I do?" I'd been pretty pleased with myself for finding a way to banish the zombies, albeit by accident. But now I was getting a nasty feeling that I'd fucked up, badly.
Another exchange of glances. "We'll know more when we find the description of the ritual." Kathryn's normally a lot smoother at that when she wants to deflect a question. The nasty feeling got nastier.
"These?" We turned towards Nick. He was waving a motley collection of documents - some typewritten, some scrawled in different handwritings, some of them sketches and charts.
"Those are the notes," Owen confirmed. "Some were recovered from the Priory after it was bombed, others are reports submitted by our infiltrator. Between them, they describe the ritual in some detail."
Irina and Kathryn reached for them simultaneously, froze, and eyed each other like a couple of tomcats squaring up for a fight. It was Kathryn who broke the impasse. "There's a side office over there. With a photocopier, if it's still working."
"Copies of the documents will be acceptable."
Rather to my surprise, the office was still more or less in one piece, although the glass of the door had been shattered. The photocopier was still flashing a little green Ready light, too. Whatever had hit us hadn't disrupted the power supply to the building, then. In fact - I craned my head back to look as the thought occurred - it hadn't even taken out the lights in the archive room. Ah, it was lit by strip-lights. Very close to the ceiling. The force of the blast must have expanded outwards, but not upwards, and left them unscathed.
The two women hovered over the photocopier, half-heatedly pretending that they knew how to make it work, passing sheets of paper to each other and muttering things about "sympathy," "contagion," "disruption to Umbral boundary layers" and much else besides. There was a certain irony in their being able to master such arcane formulae, yet not be able to figure out that you turned on the photocopier by pressing the little button marked "On." I finally took pity on them and flicked the right switches, but they barely even registered my presence, just started absent-mindedly passing me the stuff they weren't looking at. Despite the remarkable poise they both possessed, they were looking more and more nervous. The four male members of the party were starting to get twitchy, too, as our Beasts responded to the rising tension.
Perhaps fortunately, Irina and Kathryn snapped out of it before things came to a boil, and started demanding additional papers. Back into the ruined archive room we all traipsed, and started digging around once more. At one stage, the two sorceresses started speculating about the torn-up remnants of the Hand - was it mystically "burned out," or did it still hold power? Only one way to find out. Go fetch it, guys. With the heat of battle passed, I was distinctly reluctant to handle a mummified human body part, but as it turned out, I didn't need to. Nick called me a Limey Wuss and scooped it up himself.
Something caught my eye as he headed back to Irina and Kathryn with his prize. A simple, worn brown-leather book about the size of a desk diary. I would have ignored it, but that nagging little itch started up in my mind again, telling me it was important. I hesitated, shrugged, and picked it up. I have a large inside pocket in my coat - useful for a compulsive reader, and note-taker - and the book fitted in quite nicely.
The witches' conference seemed to be drawing to a close. Irina and Kathryn had a neatly divided collection of papers spread out on the desk inside the office. I noticed they'd each taken a piece of the Hand, as well. A happy co-incidence that I'd ripped it into two roughly equal pieces.
"So," Kathryn said.
"So," agreed Irina.
"A truce to remain in effect until both our parties are clear of this house?"
Each of us picked up part of the spoils laid out on the table. We filed out nervously, acutely aware that our brief period of co-operation was drawing to a close, and the next time we met, it was likely to be as enemies. In the event, none of us tried anything. Irina and her group headed for the gardens behind the house - presumably, they had some sort of boat moored beneath the cliff, which must have been how Owen had caught Nick - while we went out through the front door. The Mystery Machine was sitting waiting for us, its glossy black paint job shining in the building's night-lights. Tony was pacing up and down in front of it, chain-smoking his herbal cigarettes. I thought he was going to faint with relief when he saw us - especially Nick, his domitor.
"We waited for you," Kathryn explained, "until it was obvious something had gone wrong. Tony suggested he drive the van up as a diversion while I tried to sneak inside. But no one came out, and I soon found I couldn't get in, either. Whatever barrier our Uber-Ghost put up around the Grange, I couldn't crack it with any spell I know. I was trying to project past it astrally when Daim pulled his little stunt. The disturbance threw me back into my body and I came inside."
Only a couple of reading lights illuminated the cramped, sun-proof interior of the van. Nick was sprawled out on one of the couches, staring into space - "unwinding," as he put it. Kathryn and I shared the other couch. Kathryn was re-reading the description of Bowen's ritual, having put off my questions about how she knew Owen and what kind of sorceress Irina was with a promise to explain later. How much later, she wouldn't say. I was absorbed in the book I'd taken. I could see why some sixth sense had prompted me to take it. It was a journal or sorts. Bowen's journal.
-My name is Arthur Bowen. I was an officer of the Great War, a conflict in which I lost, in increasing order of painfulness, my leg, my innocence and my faith. I write these words partly in confession of crimes too terrible to be forgiven, not least by myself, and partly in explanation of that dreadful Necessity which compelled me to commit them.-
Quite an attention-grabbing preface. The reference to the Great War also made it easier to understand why the zombies Bowen had sent against us resembled the corpses of First World War troops. I'd read a little of the war poetry of Wilfred Owen, studied some of the history of the period, and I'd thought I'd known about the horrors of the trenches. But Bowen described life and death there - the mud, blood, sickness and death - with a stark clarity that made me sick to my cold, dead stomach.
I have pondered upon these things for anguished weeks and months. I cannot, any longer, conceive of any God. Who would permit such horrors. If God is a lie, and Man is, in truth, Monster, then what meaning, what sanity, lays in this world?-
What, indeed. But Bowen had found his answer to that question. Or more accurately, been given an answer.
-At first, I believed the Old One to be a fever-dream, a symptom of my descent into madness. But the powers, which I have gained under his tutelage are too real to be denied. I hear the thoughts of Man and Beast alike. My crippled frame takes on the strength of a dozen men with but a thought. This Sunday past, I visited my dear comrade, David, at the institution, which has cared for him since the madness of the trenches addled his wits.
-In a single instant, I discerned the fissures in his tortured mind, and saw how I might draw them closed. His ravings ceased almost at once; within hours, we held our first true conversation in ten years. He cried like a child at all that he had lost, and now had regained... he labors with me now upon the great and terrible task to which we have devoted ourselves.
-Yet the Old One's true gift to me has not been Power, but Wisdom. He has shown me that the answer lies not in Man, nor in any false God, but in Nature. In its natural state, no creature kills for sport, or fights for pleasure. Each takes only what it needs.
-The Old One is the last of his kind. I feel his aching loneliness in my dreams, the dreadful loss of the world that he once knew and loved. But through me, he hopes to re-create that world. The horrid slums, the stink of pollution, the dreadful factories where hollow eyed workers toil like worker ants, less alive than even the slaves of Greece and Rome, and above all, the unthinkable horrors of war. All these will be ended, and the human race returned to purity and innocence once more.-
I shook my head. Bowen had been a Utopian. And like so many of the breed, he had come to believe that the ends justified the means. David had been his first follower. Over time, Bowen had gathered others - men he knew personally, men who'd been physically and mentally scarred by the War. And together they'd set about the next phase of the plan - the blood sacrifices which they'd needed to empower the ritual.
I shall see their faces as long as I draw breath. Waking or sleeping, they accuse me, and they are not alone. I can no longer bear to look in the mirror. I cannot face the accusation, which stares back at me from my own eyes. We have murdered innocents who were scarcely more than children. So much blood is on my hands, on all our hands. I think that we are starting to go a little mad. Yet we cannot turn back. We take cold comfort in the fact that we have condemned ourselves for our crimes. The final deaths shall be our own, and we shall know peace at last.
But at the last moment, something had gone wrong.
We found Richard dead in his room. The doctor from the village diagnosed a simple heart attack. How bitterly ironic. I believe we are all a little envious of him. We long for our own release. I have recruited a new member to replace Arthur. I remember Philip as a schoolboy. Now he has but one eye, and half his face is a mass of burn scars. He has agreed to join us, yet I am uneasy. His thoughts are veiled from me. Two others in our group are similarly immune to my perceptions, so this is not of itself suspicious. But we are so close now! I live constantly with the fear that we shall fail, that all our ghastly crimes will be for naught, and any unfamiliar element increases those fears.
Philip. Presumably, that was the Round Table agent who'd infiltrated Bowen's group. I frowned, a little disturbed by the implications. Had Richard been murdered, poisoned perhaps, to create a "vacancy?" At any rate, discovery had been swift.
The Old One warned me of Philip's treachery, but too late. He has escaped, and we must assume that his confederates will soon move against us in force. There is no more time. We must act, tonight, or all our sacrifices will have been for nothing.
I grimaced at the unintentional double meaning of the word "sacrifice." The journal ended halfway through. Presumably, Bowen had written those final words on the day before the Priory had been bombed.
I closed my eyes and leaned back, very weary. There, but for the Grace of God, go I. Poor Bowen. I could pity him without forgetting those he had killed. He had been as much a victim as any of those he had slain. A single blood tear trickled down my cheek. Absently, I licked it up.
The House of Books is a pretty exclusive place, at least as far as vampires are concerned. Kathryn part-owns it, and it was only that which got Nick and I - mere neonates - the right to feed there.
The stereotypical vampire hangout is a bar full of Goth types. The House of Books is about as far from that as you can get. It's a coffee shop - no alcohol served on the premises - which is laid out like a seedy gentleman's club, polished wooden floors, shelves groaning with books and periodicals, and overstuffed sofas dotted throughout. It's a favorite of the local student community, though, because of its open "secret" - it serves, to favored clients, the best pot in the entire United Kingdom. It also has a few discreet "private rooms" where kids who have nosy roommates - or just an inability to delay gratification - can go.
I unlocked the door to one such room with Kathryn's passkey, and opened it to reveal Nick and a local college girl lying on a bed together. Both naked, of course. The girl was already asleep, her generous breasts still heaving slightly from the after effects of her exertions. Nick looked up from licking the bite marks on her throat closed, and grinned.
"I'd offer to share, but I think I took as much as she can safely give. From the buzz I'm getting from her, the weed here is getting even better."
"Whatever." The Embrace pretty much killed my libido, but if anything, it just made Nick hornier. I suspect that his fondness for sex has something to do with his Ventrue feeding restriction, but that's not the kind of question you can ask, of course. We're close friends, but we're still vampires. There are boundaries you don't cross. "Kathryn sent me to get you. We've been invited to a teleconference."
Nick yanked on his jeans and shirt, looking intrigued. "Who?"
"She didn't say, but someone pretty important. She mentioned Vienna."
A whistle. "Pretty important, right." It had been four days since we'd gotten back from Kirkdale Grange. Kathryn had gone into seclusion to work on the notes practically the moment we'd gotten back to York, and we hadn't heard from her 'till we'd both been invited here tonight. A ghoul doorman told us to amuse ourselves until we were sent for, so we both picked out something drugged and attractive and had a bite to eat while we waited.
We headed down through the door marked "Staff Only," along several corridors, and into a room that screamed "wealth," "luxury," and "the designer of this room has no taste." Kathryn was sitting in one of the expensive leather chairs arranged around the expensive, huge oak conference table, with her feet dug into the expensive red pile carpet. She gestured for us to be seated, and flicked a switch on the control pad build into the table. The lights dimmed - if they could have dimmed expensively, I'm sure they would have - and an enormous video screen slid down out of the ceiling with the faintest whir of servos.
The face that winked into existence in front of us was oddly reassuring and unintimidating considering that it was about four feet high. The screen was showing a head-and-shoulders shot of an attractive, middle-aged woman in a red burgundy jacket and white blouse. There were a maze of laughter-lines around her eyes and a faint smile playing about her mouth, but all the same, I wouldn't have wanted to cross her. There was something very disturbing about her eyes. Power, old sins, I don't know. The Beast seemed to have its own ideas, though. It squirmed inside me, wanting to flee.
"Maga," Kathryn's voice was very respectful, but admiring rather than intimidated. "May I present Dominic Baron and Damian Tyrell, my associates? Daim, Nick, this is Ms. Linda Durham, a senior representative of our clan."
I nodded. "Ms. Durham." I hoped Nick wouldn't act goofy and say "Hi!" or something equally gauche, but her eyes must have gotten to him as well. He just nodded to her without speaking.
"Gentlemen, thank you for coming." Linda Durham said. Her voice was cordial, remarkably so given her evident importance and our insignificance. By the brutal protocol of vampire society, she'd have been perfectly within her rights to treat us like dirt, but instead she was treating us as near-equals. "I'll get the most unpleasant business of the evening over with first, if I may. Both of you have seen and heard things, which the Camarilla would much prefer kept quiet. And we intend to reveal even more confidential information to you here this evening. Before we do so, however, we need to take certain security precautions.
"There is a ritual, which was designed for circumstances such as this. I'm afraid it's necessarily painful, involving the severing of the subject's tongue. But it will ensure that neither of you can divulge anything in the event you fall into the wrong hands."
"Like the Sabbat pack at Kirkdale Grange?"
"They were certainly one of our worries, yes." Ms. Durham leaned forward. "Gentlemen, this is a request, not a demand. No penalties will be leveled against you if you refuse. Should you accept, however, Clan Tremere will be in your debt."
A Prestation debt from a Tremere heavy-hitter. Wonderful. We really were in deep shit if we were being offered that.
"Rest assured that Clan Tremere doesn't act alone in this." Ms. Durham saw my unease, but apparently misunderstood the cause of it. She reached for a switch out of the view of the camera. "Mr. Tyrell, this message was recorded for you last night".
A new face replaced hers on-screen. A young man, little more than a boy in appearance, with shaggy gray hair and long pointed ears. There was the indefinable suggestion of the squirrel about him. We'd never met, but I knew him from Eirik's telepathically shared memories. Marc de Brabant, childe of Megan of Bristol, elder of the Camarilla.
"Hello, Damian." There was a faint accent in his voice, but I couldn't place it. Not French, though, despite his origins. "I'm sure you know who I am. I'm sorry we couldn't meet in person, but the business at Fetch Priory has caused quite a stir and I'm dealing with the fallout. I want to assure you that Ms. Durham is acting on behalf of the Camarilla authorities in this. I'd urge you to accept her request. Good luck, blood-cousin."
A stir amongst the elders of the Camarilla. Shit, shit, shit.
I looked at Nick. He was thinking the same thing I was. We turned to the screen just as Ms. Durham came back on. Both of us nodded our acceptance of her terms.
"Excellent. We'll make it as painless as possible, I assure you. We'll proceed with the operation as soon as our conference is concluded. Now, to the meat of the matter. You've discovered a great deal about the Old One. What you don't know is that, before the disappearance of the Priory, it caused utter havoc amongst the Kindred societies of Eastern Europe and later, England. The two clans most directly harmed were the Tremere and Ventrue, which, as you can imagine, makes its awakening a matter of grave concern to the Camarilla leadership." Ms. Durham smiled wryly.
"The Old One's powers attack and exploit our one great vulnerability- the Beast. It caused waves of contagious madness amongst our kind throughout vast geographical areas when it last arose. Younger and less experienced Kindred seemed most susceptible. Sires saw their prized childer fly into uncontrollable rages for no reason. Worse, the strength of their madness allowed those childer to overwhelm and in some cases, devour, vampires who would normally be far stronger than they. The plague caused a lot of paranoia amongst the European elders of the time, and led, I'm afraid, to them imposing repressive controls on their progeny which may have contributed to the outbreak of the anarch revolt."
Ranulf had said that the creature had been able to exert some sort of control over "night-feeders," but apparently he hadn't known the half of it. No wonder the Camarilla were worried. Shit.
"In any event, the Old One was a threat which no-one had an answer to. How could we fight something, which could drive us into madness at a glance? And which shrugged off attacks which would bring any Kindred to Final Death, in any case? We were relieved beyond measure when the monks managed to subdue it, although we played no part in their success. It seems, however, that out relief was premature. We owe you a debt for stumbling on Bowen's scheme and the resultant erosion of the creature's bonds, particularly since the Sabbat seems to have discovered the situation before we did. Our analysis of the ritual, which Bowen used suggests that the Sabbat operative you met in the Priory Regio was correct. The Old One is breaking loose.
"And I'm afraid that events at Kirkdale Grange have accelerated that trend. Mr. Tyrell, you theorized that the Hand of Glory was a 'booster,' which allowed Bowen to manifest at a distant location. True as far as it goes, but I'm afraid that was merely an accidental side effect. Based on our analysis of the documents you recovered, the Hand of Glory was a focal point of the ritual. As you know, extinguishing the fingers of a Hand will awaken the occupants of a house from an enchanted sleep. The ceremonial dousing of this Hand at the climax of Bowen's ritual was intended to awaken the Old One. Although bombing took place before the ritual could be completed, the spell still "activated," so to speak. As nearly as we can tell, the un-doused Hand was acting, not as a booster, but as a blockage, preventing the spell from taking full effect."
I sank back in my seat in shock. "And I removed the blockage when I destroyed the Hand."
"I'm afraid so. The explosive force you experienced was a by-product of the energy released when the 'blockage' was removed. The energies of the spell are now taking full effect." She saw my expression. "In truth, however, I suspect that the same thing would have happened in a year or two even without your intervention. The weakening of the Old One's bonds suggests that the barrier was being eroded at an accelerating, possibly exponential, rate. The Sabbat Gangrel's estimate of fifty years was grossly optimistic. I myself doubt if the Hand would have held things back for more than two more years, three at the most. At least, thanks to you, we are forewarned."
My voice was a near-whisper. "How long?"
"As nearly as we can calculate... approximately three months. Four at the most. Then the Old One will break free."