"As nearly as we can calculate... approximately three months. Four at the most. Then the Old One will break free."
There was a long silence. I sank back in my chair, glancing around dazedly. Nick looked grim, Kathryn looked concerned but in control. Of course, she probably knew this already. I heard a low, shell-shocked voice that I belatedly recognized as my own.
"And I did it."
Linda Durham shook her head. "Don't blame, or flatter, yourself to that extent. Your own influence upon events was comparatively minor, as I've just explained. But you may yet be an almost literal key to resolving this situation - which is why we're having this conversation."
I shook my head. "The Abbot thought the same thing. But I don't have a hope in hell of stopping something that ancient and powerful. I can't see what's so special about me."
"In specific terms, neither can we." Ms. Durham sounded thoughtful, and perhaps a little curious. "But there is something special about you, nonetheless. You were able to penetrate the regio surrounding the Priory without difficulty. Several of our most capable agents have been attempting to duplicate your feat for the past few nights, without success."
I frowned. "My power has to be totally insignificant compared to a Tremere elder. How could I have managed something that several of them together couldn't?"
"It's not a question of power." Ms. Durhams voice remained calm, but there was a hint of impatience beneath it. "To attempt a simple analogy..." One that a dumb kid like you can understand, her tone implied, "... no amount of strength will allow someone to grasp a wisp of smoke. The metaphysics involved would take me several nights to explain, even if you were a trained magus, but in essence, Fetch Priory is simply out of our reach."
"But I got in. And so did the Sabbat Gangrel, Reinhardt."
"Yes. How, we aren't sure. Irina Kobarev..." Ms. Durham hesitated for a moment. "Well, this information will be protected by the ritual of the severed tongue, I see no harm in revealing it. Irina Kobarev practices a twisted thaumaturgical variant, verboten, which involves sacrificing a part of oneself to hostile spirits. It's possible that she gained the ability to penetrate the Priory regio through that perversion. As to you...to switch metaphors slightly, you seem to be, as I said, an almost literal key which fits the lock."
"And you want me to open the door for your agents. What then?" So that was how Irina had ended up a renegade from the Tremere. She'd chased forbidden knowledge.
"What indeed? There's been a great deal of debate on that very topic. One idea that was mooted was to cast a ritual, which would turn you into a walking incendiary bomb. You would get close to the Old One, the ritual would activate, and you would both be incinerated. Other elders felt that you should be completely Dominated, to such an extent that you would be able to resist the Old One's influence for long enough to get close to it and attack it with explosives or perhaps chemical corrosives."
She was talking about destroying me as casually as she might speak of swatting a fly. The Beast, ever eager for opportunity, was moving closer to the surface. My fingers tightened around the armrests of the chair as I struggled to force it down. It was a chilling reminder that however cordial this woman might seem, she was still an elder vampire, cold, deadly and utterly ruthless.
"Had such a course of action seemed likely to succeed," Ms. Durham hadn't missed my reaction. "I would have endorsed it and sacrificed you, without a moment's hesitation. Your personal survival cannot, and would not, have taken precedence over the survival of thousands, if not millions, both Kindred and Kine alike. Although I should point out that Adepta Malcolm had no part in these discussions - was, in fact, unaware that they were taking place."
I looked across at Kathryn, but her face was like a stone mask. I didn't have a clue what she was thinking.
"I am telling you this now because it's necessary for you to understand the stakes here. The plans I've mentioned were rejected, not out of any concern for you, but because none seemed to have an acceptable chance of success. The Old One has demonstrated an ability to regenerate even after complete dismemberment and incineration. No ritual or weapon available to us would be guaranteed to destroy it."
"Moreover, the precognitive vision experienced by the monks suggested that you would defeat the Old One by making some form of choice - which implies free will. And given their remarkable feat in foretelling your arrival so many centuries in advance - not to mention the degree of power they displayed in creating the regio around the Priory in the first place - we are compelled to take that vision seriously. Dominating your mind and depriving you of free will might, therefore, be potentially disastrous."
I was still struggling to hold back the frenzy. Nick spoke up. "You can't destroy the Old One, but you were trying to get into the Priory anyway. So you must have some kind of alternative plan."
"To a degree. What you might call our "fallback position" is to hope that Mr. Tyrell fulfills the monks' prediction, and succeeds in neutralizing the threat in some way. However. We are reluctant to rely solely on that, as I'm sure you can appreciate. Our best available option is for a small team of specialists to enter the Priory, negotiate access to the Old One with the monks, and cast a series of supplementary rituals to prolong its torpor."
"Which was another reason for allowing Mr. Tyrell to retain his free will, incidentally. He appears to have gained at least a small measure of trust from the Abbot, and it was felt he could assist with the negotiations. Were he being mentally controlled, there's a high risk that the Abbot would sense it and discount any argument for co-operation which he might present"
I was back to normal now, more or less. "Given the importance of stopping the Old One, why are you willing to negotiate at all? Why not just force your way in."
For an instant - just the briefest of instants - I thought I saw a flicker of surprise cross her face. She sounded faintly amused as she replied.
"Do you have the slightest idea of how much power Ranulf and his followers must have, to create and sustain that regio? No, of course you don't, how could you? Suffice it to say, it would be more than sufficient to destroy any assault team which Clan Tremere presently has available. And even if, by some extraordinary fluke, they were able to defeat the monks, that would leave the Old One. Which is currently being held in torpor by the monks powers' I assume you're familiar with the phrase pyhrric victory?"
I nodded. "Quite familiar, yes. Thanks for being so... candid."
She actually gave a very small chuckle. "You're welcome. I believe that concludes our business. Adepta Malcolm will show you to the ritual chamber and we'll proceed with the most unpleasant part of the evening's work. Tomorrow evening, you'll be provided with transport to Fetch Priory. Hopefully, you'll provide us with the means to enter."
I exchanged glances with Nick as her image winked out.
Time to have our tongues cut out. Wonderful.
Hopefully, you'll provide us with the means to enter. Then again, maybe not.
I emerged from the earth for the third time, to be confronted with the same scene as on the other two occasions. The modern Priory, the gutted, burned-out ruin. No Old One, no monks.
"Screw it," Nick muttered. He was standing off to one side with his hands in his pockets. "Daim, are you certain you didn't do anything else to get in the last time?"
"For fuck's sake," I snapped back at him, the frustration etched in my voice, "I let Kathryn probe my mind to make sure! I'm doing exactly what I did the last time, on the same spot as the last time! It's not working! Nothing's happening!"
"An over-hasty and somewhat inaccurate assessment. It is not working. That is not, however, to say that nothing is happening. Observe!"
The speaker was a tall, thin man with brown hair heavily streaked with gray, and a small, neatly trimmed goatee, dressed in conventional English tweeds. He stood amid a cluster of floodlights and trestle tables that the Tremere had set up to hold their equipment and occult paraphernalia, studying the glowing screen of a small laptop. Seated at the tables, several other Tremere, an oddly-assorted collection ranging from a leather-clad girl sporting a punk hairdo to an elderly Chinese man in a business suit, were performing incomprehensible tasks using everything from Geiger counters to bones and feathers. But the goateed man was clearly the leader.
He'd been waiting for us when we'd showed up at the Priory. Kathryn had greeted him as "Doctor," and seemed to be in tremendous awe of him, but she'd given one of her rare smiles when she'd first caught sight of him, so she liked him, a lot. She doesn't smile at just anyone.
I crossed to join the Doctor at the table. The screen of the laptop was showing a mix of angular glyphs and overlapping circles in different colors. I shrugged at him. "I'm sorry... Doctor, but all I see are colored blobs and strange symbols."
His eyes glittered with amusement. "Commendably succinct and undeniably true, if somewhat lacking in informational value. This is the recording from the period where you interred yourself in the earth. But if we change the view to the current situation..." a long finger tapped a key and an equally incomprehensible diagram replaced the first, "... we see here that your attempt to enter the Priory regio caused a marked increase in the blobbiness quotient, a notable increase in the strangeness coefficient of the symbols, and a much prettier color scheme."
Kathryn's face wore a tortured expression, which meant she was trying not to laugh. I kept my own features as deadpan as possible as I replied, "My apologies, Doctor, but your terminology is a bit too technically specialized for me."
He chuckled faintly, and gestured to Kathryn. "Well, Adepta? I trust you haven't forgotten the theoretical grounding I took such trouble to drill into you? How would you interpret these diagrama hermetica, hmmm?"
So she'd been his apprentice? That was interesting. Another small piece of the puzzle which is Kathryn. She came to stand beside us and began flicking between the diagrams, all business now.
"The regio is responding to Daim, reaching out to draw him in... but something is missing. A threshold, a catalyst, but what?"
"The German guy, Reinhardt?" We all turned at the sound of Nick's voice. "He got into the Priory at the same time Daim did, almost. We all saw him do a fade-out. Could whatever he used to get in be your missing element?"
Kathryn frowned. "Perhaps. Daim is linked to the Priory, though. The monks incorporated the prophecy of his arrival into the magics they used to weave the regio. Reinhardt is a hostile interloper with plans to slaughter the monks to the last man. Why should the regio be keyed to accept him?"
"Unless he's supposed to have something to do with setting up the choice I'm going to make. Maybe we're supposed to go in together, like last time?" I was thinking out loud, speculating idly, but from the glance which Kathryn and the Doctor exchanged, they thought I was onto something.
"Irina or Reinhardt," Kathyn muttered. "Or both."
"It seems most likely," the Doctor agreed. "Can they be found? Made to co-operate?"
"They took one half of the Hand of Glory. I have the other. The affinity between them should allow for a fairly clear fix. Naturally, Irina will have set protections around her half to stop us from locating it, but if you take the lead in the tracking ritual, we can probably overwhelm them."
"Agreed. Very well, we seem to be finished here for tonight. Ladies and gentlemen, make ready to leave, please." The Tremere got busy straight away, packing stuff up and loading it into the small fleet of unmarked vans behind us. There was a suggestion of instant, unquestioning obedience to this "Doctor." He must, I surmised, be pretty important.
Nick and I exchanged glances. "So we wait around until we're needed again?" He asked for both of us.
The Doctor seemed about to reply, then paused. From the pocket of his coat, he produced an old briar pipe. There was no tobacco in it, but it began to give off a strange-smelling smoke, like incense, as he puffed on it. I found something disconcerting about the look he gave us. It wasn't menacing in the conventional sense, just intensely thoughtful. But he was contemplating us like specimens on a slide, to be manipulated and discarded at his whim. I shifted slightly under his scrutiny, nervous and uncertain. It was almost a minute before he spoke.
"I think not. A ritual concerned with affinities is the best available method to test our hypothesis, that this Sabbat Gangrel, Reinhardt, is also connected to the Priory and to Mr. Tyrell. If Mr. Tyrell is willing, I believe he has a part to play. And Mr. Baron, since your discretion has been guaranteed by the Ritual of the Severed Tongue, I have no particular objection to your observing."
I was half-expecting a sarcastic "Gee, thanks," from Nick, but he held his newly regenerated tongue. I suppose the childe of an archon learns a certain amount of discretion, after all. I shrugged at the Doctor.
"If it can help speed things along, I'm willing. Ms. Durham said we were pressed for time. What do I need to do?"
*Note to self: next time, ask what you'll be taking part in before you agree to take part in it.* A bit late to worry about that now.
I stood in what was basically a giant, squared-off birdcage, although no bird would ever need bars so thick and strong as these. The iron was blackened and covered with suspicious-looking stains in places, and I preferred not to speculate on what they were or how they'd got there. The cage swayed slightly beneath my feet, suspended from the shadowed ceiling by a complicated array of chains and pulleys.
The cold, circular chamber was immense. You could have fitted a swimming bath inside it with room to spare. The walls were mostly built of unadorned blocks of gray stone, although the few entrances were set into elaborate gothic archways with fantastic sculpted figures cavorting around them. No windows, so I assumed that we were underground. I didn't know for sure because Tremere ghouls had transported us here while we slept during the day. A security measure to protect to location of the Chantry, the Doctor had explained.
In the exact center of the floor was a gigantic bas-relief map of the British Isles, carved in stone, with at least fifty feet separating Land's End and John O'Groats. Quite an odd-looking map; Cornwall was too fat, Wales too squashed in, Scotland proportionally shrunken, and Ireland too square. I'd mentioned this to Kathryn after we'd walked into the room and I'd finished gawking. She'd shrugged.
"It was made in the mid-seventeenth century. For that time, it's the cartographical state-of-the-art. In any case, it works just as well as a more accurate representation. It's... symbolic, not practical. Plus, this chamber hasn't been used in half a century or more. I've never even been in here before myself."
Nick had pointed to a complex triple row of glyphs circling the perimeter of the map. "So what was it used for? Magic rituals to control all of Britain?"
"Oh, puh-leese. If you must know, it was used to maintain Tremere communications throughout the British Isles before the kine came up with telephones."
"This is the Tremere version of a telephone exchange?"
"After a fashion, yes."
The cage, when they'd invited me to climb into it, had been explained to me as part of the communications rituals. Someone inside it, Kathryn and the Doctor told me, could act as a sort of focal point for several simultaneous exchanges within Britain, while at the same time maintaining a connection with a counterpart in another cage in another ritual room on any continent in the world. A sort of long-distance conference call. Not the most convincing explanation I'd ever heard. If this thing were really for the use of a Tremere elder, they'd have swapped the birdcage look for something a little more luxurious. But I got in anyhow. I figured that they wouldn't need to resort to tricks if they actually wanted to kill me.
The half-seen mass of cables and counterweights in the ceiling, I was informed, allowed the cage to be raised, lowered, and most importantly, swung over any portion of the map. The ritual would try to move both me, and the torn-up remains of the Hand of Glory, above the part of the map representing Irina's current location. I might also get minor visions of her, which - so they claimed - were nothing to worry about, and I was please to remember as much of them as I could to help narrow down the search.
Censers and wall sconces were lit now. Several Tremere, including Kathryn and the Doctor, were processing around the circle with slow, stately movements, pausing occasionally to bow in different directions or sketch symbols in the air with their fingers. Their sonorous chanting reminded me of a chorus of medieval monks, almost musical in its many-part harmonization, although what the language was, I couldn't even guess. The air was filled with the smell of incense from the censers, and tendrils of smoke were looping and coiling around above the map, writhing like the tentacles of an octopus. A knot of them held the fragment of the Hand suspended in mid-air, directly below my cage.
The air had the charged-up, greasy feeling you get just before a major thunderstorm, but so far, nothing seemed to be happening. Quite frankly, I felt like a bit of a pillock, swaying around up here.
The Doctor and Kathryn paused next to censers on opposite sides of the great map. Drawing back the sleeves of their robes, both slashed their wrists with small silver knives, and allowed their blood to drip into the flames. The chanting reached a crescendo as the vitae sizzled and burned.
And then silence. Both Kathryn and the Doctor looked at me, at the floating hand. Neither of us moved. They exchanged glances across the ritual circle, frowning...
My cage began to sway. I gripped the bars to keep my balance, as the feeling of power in the air grew stronger and stronger, as though the very walls of the chamber would burst apart from the force of it. The tentacles of smoke lunged for the cage, passing around me, through me. A giddy sense of weightlessness took hold of me, and looking down, I saw incredulously that my feet had left the swaying floor of the cage and now drifted, unsupported, in mid-air. Then the smoke filled my vision, and there was nothing but formless white.
I heard the chanting resume from below, hastier and more frantic-sounding than before, but the sound was muffled. As I tried to listen, it receded into the distance and faded out altogether.
This was rather pleasant. I was drifting in a sea of gently glowing whiteness. I couldn't see or feel my body. I couldn't hear any sound. I couldn't even feel my Beast. For the first time in five years, that maddening, exhausting, primal presence was gone from my mind. There was nothing but me, drifting through the white light, and the quiet, and the peace. It was the most relaxing thing I'd ever experienced. Or at least, I thought it was. Now that I stopped to consider it, I couldn't really remember much about my past. I'd grown up... where had I grown up? I must have grown up somewhere. It stood to reason. I must have had friends, and companions, and lovers, and enemies. I could almost call their faces to mind. Almost, but not quite. The images drifted apart like smoke as I tried to focus my thoughts upon them.
Well, perhaps that was too ambitious. Let's start with something simple, like my name. My name was... my name was... I almost had it. I was sure it began with a D, or maybe a T or a W or an E.
Oh, well. Never mind. My identity didn't seem important right now. In fact, nothing seemed important. Why worry when you could drift, and relax, and be at peace? I floated on, wallowing in the lack of fears, of doubts, of worries. I was enjoying it a great deal. I must have had a lot of problems before... before... well, before whatever happened, happened... to be enjoying their absence so much.
There was a ripple in the whiteness ahead. I felt the faint stirring of curiosity, and reached out towards it. It tasted like an identity, a flow of thoughts and ideas and memories. Could it be my identity? I didn't especially care, but it might be quite interesting to watch.
Marcus. That was the name of the identity I'd tasted. It didn't feel familiar, but if it wasn't mine, why had I found it? Marcus was going to the Club. He was going to sell some shit to the soldier-boys and maybe find a stupid airhead bimbo or two to fuck while he was there. He liked to work off a bit of tension after he'd put in a solid night's work dealing.
None of this sounded in the least familiar. Marcus was smart, and I was smart, I thought, but Marcus was also callous, and selfish, and violent. I wasn't any of those things. Was I? Perhaps that was why I was here, so that I could stop being Marcus. But I wouldn't know for certain until I'd sifted through more of the memories...
The noise and light and heat smashed into him like a solid wall as he walked into Gomorrah. He liked that. He liked the fury of it, the raw, animalistic violence of it, the savage, no-holds-barred assault on his senses. He felt comfortable here. He flexed his muscles, knowing that the tight sleeveless black shirt would show off his steroid-enhanced physique to its best advantage. He saw several girls lick their lips as they looked at him, and grinned inwardly, though his face stayed hard and impassive. Down, boy. Business before pleasure. He was good-looking enough to be a model, he knew that,with his high cheekbones and his coal-black hair and blue eyes, and his skin heroin-chic pale from his nocturnal lifestyle. But it wasn't his looks that attracted him, or not his looks alone. Power is an aphrodisiac. Didn't some politician say that? He'd read it somewhere.
He walked through the crowd. As packed as the dance-floor was, it parted for him like the Red Sea before Moses. Not that he believed in that crap. Where had it gotten his mother, her with her Bibles and her rosaries and her confessions? In hospital with her face bashed in by her alcoholic husband, that was where. Seems like Jesus couldn't give a shit about her. Not that Marcus did either, really. She was weak. But he figured he owed her for lugging him around in her belly for nine months, and it pissed him off to owe anyone. Besides, she wasn't the only one who'd been beaten. Marcus had gotten plenty of it himself, when he was younger. So he waited 'till his father got released on bail, followed him home from the pub, stuck a knife in his back, then slit the old soak's throat. All debts paid. To both his parents.
It really pissed him off to owe anyone.
He'd been fifteen. Two years ago, now. There was plenty of suspicion, but nobody could prove it. Nobody really wanted to. The neighbors hadn't actually stopped his father's abuse, for all those years, but that didn't mean they liked him for it. They figured he had it coming. And the rumors had helped Marcus, a lot. A patricide was quite a catch for his local drug gang. He had status, money, sex and the occasional free sample of his own wares. Nobody fucked with Marcus Slade, except for any girl he damn' well wanted. They called him Blade, now not Slade, like the Wesley Snipes character. He loved his blades. Polished, silver, beautiful and deadly. He'd found them one day, lying half-concealed in the grass by the river bank. Can you believe that? Just fucking lying there! Who'd abandon a pair of knives like that? There were fucking nuts. Well, their loss was Marcus' gain. They just better not change their minds and come looking for them. The only way he was giving them back to their previous owner was in the belly or the throat.
The reputation was good, and the knives were better, but that wasn't his real secret, though. His real secret was that Marcus knew things. He could look at someone and sense, instinctively, if they were lying. He could tell, from night to night, which clubs would have the most money, where the police were, where the other gangs were. Sometimes he thought he could hear people's thoughts. He loved the feel of their fear, echoing inside his mind. He'd have dreams of the future, dreams that would always come true. When two rival gangs had joined forces against his, and set up an ambush, Marcus had dreamed of it the night before. He hadn't even had to deal with them himself. He'd just had one of his tame junkies call the police, pretending to be a concerned citizen. The punks had been arrested carrying a shitload of concealed weapons. He still laughed at the memory. People whispered about him behind his back. Some said he'd sold his soul to the Devil.
He sat himself at the bar and snapped his fingers. He loved doing that. Just snapping his fingers and making people run like little puppy-dogs. The bartender was a middle-aged guy, paunchy and flabby. He abandoned the clubbers he was serving and rushed across with Marcus' favorite drink, a shot of neat malt whiskey. Marcus could always rely on him for prompt service, and screw the fact that Marcus was underage. The loser lived alone. And Marcus knew where.
He put two fingers on the man's arm. It was a feather-light touch, but the barkeep shied away as if burned with a hot branding iron. Marcus loved that, too, but he didn't let any pleasure show on his face. His voice was low and gravelly as he said. "I hear there's someone else dealing on my patch. I want to know who. I want to know where. And I want to know now."
The barkeep didn't prevaricate. He knew that it was more than his life was worth. Literally. "She calls herself Irina. She comes here every Tuesday and Thursday and sits at an upstairs booth. She's old, in her fifties. Nobody ever heard of her before a couple of months ago."
Today was Thursday. Good. Marcus let the pitiful creature sweat a couple of moments more before he said. "You can go." The barkeep almost fainted with relief. Marcus had to struggle not to burst out laughing. Downing his shot of whisky in a single gulp, he headed to the upper bar level, overlooking the dance floor.
It took him precisely thirty seconds to spot Irina. She sat alone in a secluded table in a far corner, dressed in a plain black dress that looked as though it belonged at a funeral, not a nightclub. Every now and then, a patron would walk up to her. Money and small packages would change hands. Marcus' lips curled in contempt. Unbelievable, pathetic amateur. She wasn't even hiding what she was doing. For a moment, he tensed, suspecting a police setup. Could she be there for him?
One way to find out. That was Stacy making a purchase now, one of his regulars. He waited for her to return to the bar, then sat down beside her. She whimpered in pain and fear as he clamped a hand on her wrist, and the little packet dropped into his outstretched hand.
Cocaine, all right. Quality stuff, too. He'd have to get the name of the supplier from Irina before he slit her throat. That ruled out a police operation. He released Stacy - time enough to give the stupid little cow a lesson in customer loyalty later - and sauntered over to Irina's table.
"Stop what you're doing and get out of here. Now. Run far enough, run fast enough, and maybe I won't find you."
She didn't move. Didn't even look at him. The rage boiled in him. How dare some shriveled-up old cunt treat him like that? He was Marcus the Blade. People showed him respect, or they died. He seated himself next to her, slipping one of his knives out of its hidden forearm sheath. Hidden by the table, he pressed it against her belly, just hard enough to cut a little, hard enough so she'd know he meant business..
Or rather, he tried to. The moment he got close, an indescribable sensation of tearing agony ripped into his palm. Incredulous, no longer caring if he had witnesses or not, he brought up his hand, and stared in horror at the nest of waving silvery tendrils emerging from the back of it... tendrils which had shot from the hilt of the knife the moment he'd threatened the old woman, passing right through his hand in the process. He wanted to puke, or black out. The pain was unbelievable, but something was denying him the mercy of unconsciousness. His vocal chords had seized up. He couldn't even scream. He tried to get up, to run, but his legs wouldn't work.
"The knife you hold is mine, Marcus. It cannot be used against me." Irina spoke, not looking at him. "It will, however, serve very well to punish you for the disappointment you've caused me. I sensed the potential in you the moment I saw you - the special insight, the capacity for magic. I had hopes that you might prove to be a worthy apprentice, and I crafted those blades for you at great effort, to help you to sharpen and focus your abilities and to reduce your scruples and moral weakness. And what do I find when I check on your progress? What have you used your gifts, and mine, to achieve? A worthless, insignificant career as a petty criminal, an ego grown monstrously bloated on the fear and regard of mindless cattle..." she spat the last word with searing contempt as a single sweep of her fingers took in the entire nightclub.
"I had thought to present you with a simple test - the problem of a rival drug dealer - and see how intelligently and imaginatively you would deal with it. Intelligence? Imagination?" She shook her head in self-disgust. "I must have been quite mad. No analysis, no investigation, no attempt to evaluate this new player to see if she could be used as a pawn to your advantage. Just crude, mindless threats.
"Well, if I must look elsewhere for an apprentice, you may yet prove of value as a servant. Many soldiers come here, yes? And you sell them cocaine, pot, ecstasy; whatever craving betrays their weakness. Perhaps, if you survive my next test, you shall continue to do so. But for certain soldiers, you shall add something extra to the drugs, something which shall secure their allegiance to me. But for now, come." She snapped her fingers.
Marcus lurched into motion. He had no choice... it was as though the fucking demon blade had taken over control of his body. Lurching like Frankenstein's monster, dripping blood from his wounded hand, he followed in her wake. Just like an obedient little puppy-dog.
I drew back into the whiteness. That had been thoroughly unpleasant. I very much hoped that I wasn't this Marcus. He didn't feel like me at all. But I wanted to know the end of the story. That had always been a weakness of mine.
I paused. At least, I thought it had always been a weakness of mine. I had no way of knowing for certain. I drifted back into the flow of memories.
Marcus whimpered like a child as the tendrils withdrew from his hand and the knife dropped to the floor. For the first time in three days, he was free of the agony.
He hung in chains from a dank, dripping wall... even more dank and dripping now, because he'd soiled himself in the three days he'd hung here, without food and water, without sleep, in constant torment. The door to the chamber opened and Irina walked in, wrinkling her nose in elegant disgust at the smell.
"At least I wasn't totally mistaken as to your potential. She gestured casually, and the chains unlocked themselves and fell to the ground. Marcus fell with them, but even here, even now, he wouldn't surrender. Driven by will-power alone, he struggled to rise. Irina nodded. "Strong enough to be useful, yes."
"There's a shower unit outside. Strip naked, cleanse the foulness from yourself, and come upstairs." She turned and left without another word.
The shower was a temporary affair running off a rusty pipe, draining into an iron grille, and the water was freezing, but there was a bottle of liquid soap on one side. It took him three tries to stand, four more to scrub himself properly clean, and his reserves were almost exhausted by the time he reached the top of the stairs, naked, dripping and covered with goose bumps. But he had passed the test, and survived it. Perhaps Irina would let him live.
He hated himself for that thought, for his weakness, for being in Irina's power. But he couldn't deny the truth.
He emerged into the hallway of what looked like a large, old house. A towel and clean clothes had been slung onto a table beside the cellar entrance he'd just emerged from, and he dressed himself as quickly as he could, the trembling weakness in his limbs causing him to drop things several times.A doorway at the end of the hallway stood ajar, and he walked through it, presuming his presence to be either invited or demanded.
Irina sat at her ease in an overstuffed armchair. Opposite her was a second chair, with a tray of cold meats and a large jug of water standing beside it. He seated himself at her gesture.
He resisted the urge to wolf down the food, fearing to betray any sign of weakness. She nodded, satisfied, as he carefully selected a cold pork pie and began to chew on it.
"You will be working for me from now on. A room has been prepared for you upstairs. Inside are dossiers of key targets, to whom you will sell doctored drugs, which I shall supply you with. If you perform adequately, I may reconsider my decision to accept you as my apprentice. You've shown more resilience over the past three days than I'd anticipated. Few mortals could have survived the continual pain with their sanity intact and their will unbroken. Koldun sorcery is not a power for the weak."
The whiteness enveloped me again as I pulled back to mull over what I'd seen. Marcus has survived, had gone on to serve Irina. But was that the end of the story? I sensed more...
Marcus stood at the window of the house, watching the men train in the courtyard below. He felt powerful again, in control. But this was a far different sense of power from the crude physical intimidation that he'd relied on before. Looking back, he not only understood Irina's disgust at the way he'd squandered his potential, he thoroughly agreed with her.
Each of the men in the courtyard had been a professional soldier - tough, disciplined, loyal to Queen and Country. Many had been family men. He had taken their lives apart, piece by piece, using his special gift of insight to find their weaknesses, the buried, secret vices hidden deep in their minds. Alcoholism, wife-beating, sadism, even repressed paedophilia in one case. He'd weakened their wills through addiction to Irina's thaumaturgically-altered, vitae-laced drugs, while making them Irina's ghouls using those same drugs.
And then, once they'd been thrown out of the Army, lost their families, livelihood, and self-respect, he'd rebuilt the lives he'd destroyed, turning them once more into tough, disciplined, professional soldiers. But not loyal to Queen and Country, this time. Loyal to Irina, and Irina alone. That was power, true power. The ability to reshape a life, a destiny, to whatever form you chose.
"They will provide us with the strike force which we need to take the Priory, unaffected by the sun or the monks' so-called 'holy' magics. You have done well, very well indeed," Irina said to him softly. He hadn't heard her come in, but no twitch or start betrayed his surprise. She'd schooled him very well. He shivered with pleasure, partly from her words, and partly from the expert blowjob he was receiving from the teenage runaway crouched at his feet. Neither he nor Irina paid any attention to the girl. She was a junkie, a kine, and a ghouled slave. Cattle to be used and discarded as her masters saw fit, no more worthy of note than an item of furniture.
"You have, if belatedly, understood the true nature of power, the true extent of your potential. You have demonstrated skill in the practical application of that understanding. And you have, indeed, proved worthy to be my apprentice."
Her fangs pierced his neck, drawing away his lifeblood in a great rush. The last orgasm he would ever know as a living man combined with the overwhelming pleasure and pain of the Embrace to blot out all conscious thought. An involuntary twitch of his arm brought his fingers into contact with one of the items of occult paraphernalia lying on Irina's desk, the ripped-up remnant of a hand. It drew his thoughts away, to a place of quiet and stillness and whiteness...
... a place which I returned to as the flow of memories came to an end.
I wasn't Marcus. I was sure of that now. Marcus had survived, and been turned into a vampire. I had an idea I was a vampire, but I was somehow sure that Irina hadn't been the one who made me.
So who was I? I still didn't care, exactly, but the question was starting to occupy more of my attention. I started to cast my thoughts about, trying to scent another identity, another flow of memories. I felt nothing at first, but eventually, I was rewarded by a distant flickering. I willed myself towards it, reached out, and drew it into myself.
The sky was a clear, perfect blue, the kind of blue very rarely seen in the cold, wet northern lands of England. Ranulf smiled to himself as he touched the gentle old man's weathered hand one last time, and beckoned to his monks to nail the coffin closed. The weather was surely a sign from God, a promise that his slain follower now resided in the perfection of heaven, amongst the saints.
Alcuin's face was grave as they walked behind the pallbearers carrying the coffin into the churchyard. "Fourteen, now, Father Abbot".
"I know, Alcuin, I know".
"They are with the saints, now, of course... but our duty was to guard them until God saw fit to gather them in. And I cannot help but fear," said Alcuin grimly, "that we are failing in the duty, Ranulf. The night-feeder was too quick for us. By the time we discovered it within the precincts, it had slain our poor brother and almost reached the entrance to the Beast's crypt."
Ranulf nodded quietly, accepting the implied rebuke from his old friend. "Gather those of us who have received special gifts into the Church tonight, directly after Compline. We shall pray together for guidance."
I drifted in the whiteness. The monastery, the monks, had all looked ancient. Had I been Ranulf, back in the middle ages? Was I a ghost? Was this Heaven, or was it Limbo, the celestial waiting-room where those who were not truly damned became purged of sin?
Somehow, I didn't think so. I couldn't remember my history, but I was sure there wasn't that much of it. But I was getting closer, somehow I could sense it.
There was no chanting in the church, no incantations. Just robed figures, and a single figure in rough leathers, Davydd the master-archer, all with their heads bowed low in prayer. Slowly, their minds drew together, their thoughts and memories merging, as they called out to the Divine for guidance.
And the Divine answered.
The Priory, fading from reality like a dream...
The long waiting, walled away from time and space...
There shall be two visitations at the end of the vigil. The Ancient Beast shall reach out to one who has fallen to the Sin of Despair, and he shall send servants into the Priory. The first shall be too strong, and the Despairing One shall fail to control him. But the second will be a creature of sorcery, and the sorcery of the One Who Despairs shall enter him and possess him. The Ancient Beast shall be freed
It wasn't quite as clear-cut as that of course. What I was getting was mostly a confusing melange of images, flickering across my mind's eye at dizzying speed. The 'first servant' was a man with blond hair, green eyes, and strangely distorted feet. He looked familiar, but I couldn't place him. The second servant, though, was instantly recognizable: Marcus Slade. I saw him with his hands raised in some sort of spell casting gesture, his features twisted with tortured grief as the blood tears rolled down his face. I heard him mutter something about forgiveness and dire necessity in the kind of accent you used to hear on BBC broadcasts fifty years ago...
I paused at that thought, but the recollection was gone. I could no loner even remember what the BBC was, much less what its broadcasts had sounded like fifty years ago. I saw Marcus stand above a Neanderthal lying on a stone bier, heard a mighty heart-beat grow faster and faster until it was loud and strong enough to shake the flesh from a man's bones.
Yet hope is not lost, for at the moment when the triumph of the Beast is assured, the One Who Must [Choose?] shall stand between Heaven and Hell, and the Beast shall be defeated by his [judgment]?
I wasn't sure about those two words, choose and judgment. It was very hard to interpret what the vision was actually saying. I saw the Neanderthal standing beside an Asian-looking man with red hair and green eyes. A shock of recognition went through me as I saw his face, but I couldn't say why. Was this my face? The Neanderthal reached out to the Asian guy, who looked momentarily triumphant, then tortured. On his other side, a tall, robed figure wreathed in glowing light stretched out a hand towards him, as if to plead with him or help him. Face twisted with strain, the Asian guy straightened up, and...
The flow of memories ended, leaving me floating once more in the whiteness. For the first time, I experienced anger and frustration in this realm of nothingness. I'd been so close! Another few seconds and...
The whiteness was fading. I felt sensation again, weight and pain and the hot red rage of the Beast, straining at the bars of its prison in the darkest recesses of my mind. The voice was leading me to something. Daim... Damian...
"Damian Tyrell," I croaked feebly. I opened my eyes to see Nick peering down at me. "My name is Damian Tyrell."
"I can think of some other names I'd like to call you." He can be an asshole when he's relieved about something. He flipped me the finger. "How many fingers am I holding up?"
My arm was trapped underneath me. I was lying on my side. I twisted awkwardly to free it, and a stab of agony shot through my left temple, but I gave him the finger right back. "This many."
Kathryn's voice came from somewhere behind me, muttering about "boys will be boys." I tested the sore spot on my temple, gingerly, and felt it slightly soft under my fingers. Hastily, I willed blood to the injury, feeling the fragmented part of the skull knit together and heal. I shook my newly regenerated head in wonder. Something that would have meant serious brain damage to a mortal, gone in just a few seconds. Vampire resilience never ceased to awe me.
I was still in the cage, but the cage wasn't hanging from the ceiling any more. It lay on its side on the stone map of Britain. Looking down, I saw an impressive crack cleaving the map from London to Yorkshire. The cage must have hit it with a hell of a jolt. I was lucky not to be banged up worse. Fortunately, it had come down with the doorway on one side, so I'd have no problem getting out. Kathryn came into my field of vision brandishing a ring of iron keys, and set to work releasing me.
"What happened?" I reflected that I was asking that question too damn much lately. When did I start to lose control?
"We had a little problem with a power surge." The door creaked open, hinges protesting, and Kathryn straightened up and gestured around the ritual chamber as I scrambled out.
I gave a low whistle as I took in the scene. Censers overturned and battered against the walls, scorch marks on half the occult symbols inscribed on the floor around the map, bent, twisted, and melted steel cables trailing down from the ceiling. "This is a little problem?"
"Compared to what might have happened if we hadn't managed to dampen it down, yes." She actually shuddered slightly, which by Kathryn's iron-willed standards is practically a fit of hysterics.
"What caused it?"
"As nearly as we can tell, Daim... you did."
I blinked. "What? How?"
She looked at me intently. "You really don't know?" Seeing the answer in my readable face, she pursed her lips in irritation. "Damn, I was hoping for some hints. Okay, without getting too technical, the ritual was going as planned. We expected that Bowen might still be able to feed power through the remains of the Hand, so we had various... think of them as baffles and surge suppressors... around that. But what actually happened is that there was a sudden massive power surge channeled through you, which we didn't anticipate at all. A small miscalculation."
Nick rolled his eyes. "Give me an example of a big miscalculation."
"Pissing off the Doctor by razzing him about it. He was quite annoyed with himself for not seeing it coming. He's not a man who's used to making mistakes. Anyway, we saw what was happening and put everything we had into a dampening field to contain the effect. Mostly, we succeeded, or nothing in this room would have survived, but there was some leakage. You were unconscious for about half an hour, Daim, with your aura doing a son-et-lumiere performance. And here we are."
"I had a few words with the Doctor before he headed off to coordinate with the damage control teams. The favorite theory at the moment is that Daim's aura has become attuned with the Priory regio, and the locator spell somehow stimulated it into bleeding off power from that source, like an electrical spark jumping between two points. I must say I prefer it to theory number two."
"Which is?" I asked, looking around ruefully. First Kirkdale Grange, now this. I was starting to leave a trail of chaos and destruction in my wake.
"That someone - or something, possibly Bowen - has gotten its claws into you, and used you as a relay to disrupt the ritual."
I winced. That was just a little too close to my own suspicions about my odd little hunches and compulsions - like the one which had started me investigating the Priory in the first place. Except...
"I don't think the ritual was disrupted. I got what we needed to know."
Her eyes widened. "Really?"
"Two complete sets of memories. One was Abbot Ranulf's - I even got a chunk of his vision, the one that led him to take the Priory out of the world. The other was from a childe Irina made, a small-time drug dealer with some sort of limited ESP ability, called Marcus Slade. I think I know how we get back into the Priory. You won't like it, though."
"Come on." She headed for a doorway. "The Doctor needs to hear this."
The conference room was a near-mirror of the one at the House of Books, no expense spared and no good taste in evidence. The Doctor was listening to me with unnerving intensity, a small tape-recorder whirring at his side.
"... so I think it was Bowen who opened the door to the Priory that night the Californians were there. Reinhardt was prowling around - a fox remembered seeing him - and Bowen figured he could let Reinhardt in, then take over his mind and use him to kill the monks and free the Old One. Then the two Yanks showed up, and Reinhardt ran off.
"Maybe Irina tried to use her magic to get Reinhardt inside after that... he was already half-way into that mist layer when we first saw him - but Bowen let him in the rest of the way. I just managed to slip inside after him because I'm linked to the Priory and the door was still half-open. Bowen tried to take over Reinhardt, but Reinhardt was too much for him - low generation, maybe, or just a strong-willed sonofabitch. Bowen might have made him a bit trigger-happy - Irina probably sent him in there to reconnoiter, not pick off the monks with a sniper rifle - but Reinhardt was still basically in control.
"But then I got an image of this new childe of Irina's, Marcus Slade, and he was talking like someone out of the nineteen-forties and casting a ritual to wake the Old One up. I think he's weak enough for Bowen to take him over completely. And I think our only hope for getting into the Priory is for Bowen to do that, and open the door so we can follow him in."
"Fascinating. Actual memories, you say? Hmmm." The Doctor steepled his fingers and gazed at me over the top of them. "The ritual isn't capable of granting actual memories. At best, hazy visions... this tends to confirm our earlier theory that the disruption of the ritual was the result of a deliberate external intervention. However, much as I would like to investigate further, more pressing considerations take precedence. You can supply a location for Irina and her group?"
"That's one of the worrying things. It's a country house... near Aldershot."
Nick's voice broke through the moment's silence. "Is somebody going to clue me in? Why the sudden silence when Daim said "Aldershot"? Is it cursed, or something?"
Of course, he was American... sorry, Canadian. He didn't know the ins and outs of the local political setup. I couldn't blame him. I'd not have known myself if Iain hadn't taken the trouble to brief me when I first arrived back in England.
"Not cursed, Nick, prohibited." I got in a second or so before Kathryn, so she settled back and let me keep speaking. "Aldershot is the home base of the British Army. There's a long-standing agreement amongst all the fiefs in Britain that no vampire sets foot in the place. Partly because all that military and security presence makes a Masquerade breach more likely, but mostly because no elder is going to let any other elder have access to a huge number of trained professional soldiers to turn into ghouls and childer."
I belatedly realized that the Doctor was an elder, but he merely smiled in rueful amusement, taking no offence.
"The only Kindred there should be security enforcers from the fiefs of London, York and Birmingham - the three most powerful Princedoms all share the job of policing the ban."
"A classic solution to the problem of quis custodiat ipsos costodes," the Doctor put in. "Who guards the guards? In addition to guarding the prohibited zone, the enforcers from the three domains keep watch upon each other."
"Except they haven't been doing so well," I said bluntly. "Irina's managed to recruit at least a dozen ghouls, soldiers or ex-soldiers. I saw them in one of Marcus' memories."
Nick frowned. "So Irina's either found a way to slip under all the noses of all three groups at once, or bribe them all at once? I don't know which would be worse."
"Neither, do I," agreed the Doctor dryly. "I believe a small internal inquiry is in order. Mr. Tyrell, we shall need you to guide us to Irina's base of operations. Mr. Baron, you've proven yourself resourceful and cool-headed under fire. And Adepta, you have given me ample reason to place my trust in your abilities, on many occasions. It will be necessary for us to locate our errant Mr. Slade and bring him to the Priory in any event. Eliminating these ghouls you mention should also be a priority - I have no wish for the enemy to have significant numbers of additional gunmen at their disposal when we engage them, to say nothing of the possible risks to the Masquerade."
His casual use of the word eliminate send a chill down my spine. Even if our involvement hadn't been a classic offer-you-can't-refuse, I'd have wanted to play a part, just to give those poor buggers Marcus had suckered a chance to survive. All the same... "Excuse me Doctor, but I see a possible problem. If Marcus Slade is in our custody when we bring him to the Priory, Bowen might not choose to possess him. And Marcus is coming to the Priory anyway... Irina must be planning to assault the place. Why move to grab him now? Why not just watch the Priory until he shows up there?"
"You're forgetting the timescale, Daim," Kathryn reminded me. "We can always let him think he's escaped once we have him close to the Priory... but we have to get him there within the next couple of months. Irina may still think she has years to play with. Besides, if we let them get close to the Priory before we try to grab him, some of his soldier-boys might get into the regio. Do we want to unleash a bunch of homicidal ghouls on your peaceful monks?"
"Oops." I felt foolish. "Sorry, stupid question."
"Well, you have just banged your head." Nick's tone was oh-so-sympathetic, saccharine-sweet. In deference to the presence of the Doctor, I bit back my retort. Revenge is a dish best served cold
The Camarilla guards around Aldershot had not been informed of the arrival of our team, on the grounds that Irina had probably compromised one or more of their number. Which meant that we were, technically, trespassing, in defiance of a treaty which every elder in Britain at least nominally supported. That didn't make me very happy, but I consoled myself that the Tremere still had a use for me, and probably wouldn't sacrifice me just yet.
We travelled down to Aldershot in a big tractor-trailer rig that Nick aptly described as "the Mystery Machine on steroids." Packed into its armoured black shell was a compact but superbly equipped storage area, with racks for weapons, scientific equipment, and other less readily identifiable items, bits of bone and shards of crystal. It had sleeping berths for five Kindred, although only the three of us, and a pair of taciturn ghouls, occupied it this time.
The plan was for us to drive down to Aldershot by day - or rather, be driven, by one of the ghouls - and start cruising around until I spotted Irina's refuge, using a car which a third ghoul was taking into the town separately. I was nervous, but not especially tense, as I felt the sun press me into sleep for the day. All those weapons hanging around me gave me a great sense of security.
*The trouble with weapons, lad, is that they tend to give you a false sense of security.* I closed my eyes. "Oh, shut up, Eirik." I mumbled just before I passed out.
I woke. Something was wrong. I wasn't in the trailer any more.
There was a searing pain in my chest. I tried to open my eyes, but I couldn't even do that. I was lying back at about a forty-five degree angle, on something hard. There was a familiar smell. Musty, but not unpleasant. The smell of old paper and old books.
A rustle of movement. Footsteps coming closer. The sudden glare of a naked bulb as fingers slid my eyes open. I was in a cellar or store room, manacled to a hard metal table. I could guess only too clearly what it was for. A torturer's rack. Around me were cases and battered shelves filled with books and papers, as I'd guessed. Kathryn and Nick lay opposite me. Also on metal tables... and also with stakes through their hearts.
It only took me a moment to take all this in. Then my attention became totally focused on the figure standing above me.
"You must be Damian," Marcus Slade crooned softly, as his silver knife caressed my cheek. "I can't tell you how much I've looked forward to meeting you."