"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"
My mind had gone totally blank. Even the Beast was relatively quiescent. I suppose I should have been terrified, or in a rage, but instead all I felt was a numb calm. And a faint irritation at the way Marcus was hamming it up. Having been inside his mind so recently, I knew him to be cold, rational and calculating. The wild-eyed Hannibal Lecter wannabe performance was totally unconvincing.
Marcus ran the pointed tip of his knife under my throat. "Violation of the Andover Accords. That's a very serious offence, you know. We're empowered to deal very..." the knife pressed slightly into my Adam's apple, "... sternly with anyone we catch doing that. You're in very, very deep shit. I could do anything I wanted to you, and no-one would give a damn".
It was just as well I was paralyzed, or my damned too-readable face would have given me away. Marcus wasn't talking like a Sabbat infiltrator, he was talking like he was part of the Camarilla guard force. Maybe it was a bluff - he couldn't know that I'd experienced a chunk of his own personal memories. At least, I hoped he couldn't.
Or maybe it was the truth. Three different fiefs contributed to the guards, after all. The guards from one fief wouldn't necessarily know anything about the guards from another. If Irina and her coterie had managed to intercept the guards from one fief and somehow assume their identities before they'd reached Andover...
"It is considerably more complicated than that"
Marcus seemed a lot more surprised to hear Irina's voice than I was. He started violently as she moved into my field of vision. "Irina, I thought..."
"The original plan will not work. He is aware of your identity".
What original plan? I wanted to ask. I couldn't speak, of course. But I realized I could feel that strange alien otherness in my mind again, the sensation I'd got when Irina had used her telepathy on me, back at the Grange. Evidently, she picked up on the question. She hesitated for a second, and then shrugged.
"I see no harm in revealing that. As you correctly surmised, my pack is a part of the Camarilla force keeping watch on Andover. We had intended to offer you your liberty in exchange for accepting a Blood Bond. We felt that you would be more willing to accept this if you believed Marcus to be a loyal Camarilla agent. Knowing that Marcus was Sabbat, you would be more likely to attempt to escape and warn the rest of your sect of our infiltration of the Andover force - and less worried of attracting a Camarilla Blood Hunt on your coterie if you fled. Therefore we intended to keep his true allegiance a secret. However, since that most perplexing misfire of the Tremere ritual has forewarned you of Marcus' identity, we must rely on your loyalty to your friends to secure your co-operation".
That most perplexing misfire? So Irina wasn't responsible for it?
Again, she read the thought, and frowned. "Indeed not. I am at a loss to explain it. Mrs. Malcolm's speculation that you have become attuned to the Priory's aura, and drew the extra power from that, is frankly about as convincing as the Single Bullet Theory".
Despite the situation, I would have grinned if I could. Questioning her technical expertise like that would have gotten a very satisfying rise out of Kathryn. But thinking of Kathryn sobered me again almost immediately. What was Irina planning to do to her, and Nick?
"Provided you co-operate, merely imprison them for a time. Once our business at the Priory is concluded, we shall be leaving England. Their elimination would offer us no tactical advantage. But I am prepared progressively to maim and disfigure them - ultimately, to destroy them - in order to force you to co-operate".
Not much choice, unless Irina got sloppy guarding them and I got the opportunity to rescue them.
She smiled thinly. "Rest assured that I will not. Many adjectives might justifiably be applied to me. "Sloppy" is not one of them".
I believed her.
The stake hurt like hell coming out, but I was expecting it to. I was braced enough to stop the Beast seizing the opportunity, although it was a close-run thing.
The hole it left was pretty small, and I healed it over easily enough. Fortunately, I'd fed well in the Tremere transport, so I had plenty in reserve. Which raised the question of how we'd been captured from out of the damned thing in the first place.
"Indeed. But I do see harm in revealing the answer to that question to you"
I wished she'd stop doing that.
"No doubt you do. Drink". Irina handed me a silver chalice with a small amount of blood at the bottom.
We were in the upstairs living room which I'd seen in Marcus' memories. Owen had carried me up here without the slightest effort. He, Wilhelm, Irina and Marcus were all standing around my chair now, so Nick and Kathryn were presumably guarded only by ghouls, but I couldn't see a way to break past the four vampires. And even if I could...
"Even if you could, there is a thaumaturgical ritual protecting the cellar. If you attempt to enter it without my permission, it will become an inferno. Your friends will be incinerated almost instantly".
Neither the threat nor the image sat well with my Beast. Resisting the urge to snarl at her like a wolf, I took the chalice and swallowed. The usual fiery ecstasy of Kindred vitae filled my body, but I also felt an odd sort of cramping in my stomach.
"How do you feel?" Irina asked me. I looked at her over the top of the chalice as I considered her question. In fact, I felt pretty good, considering. It was generous of her to be so concerned, in fact. I found myself liking and admiring her. She and her coterie were only trying to protect us all from the threat of the Old One, after all, and they were pretty straight-arrow types - look at the way Owen had kept his word about the truce, back in the Grange. And Marcus was just the sort of self-confident, in-your-face kind of guy I'd secretly admired at school. I wanted their approval, their acceptance.
Mentally, I shook myself. I knew where the feelings were coming from, of course. The tug of the bond from the blood I'd just drank. Oddly, I was feeling a sense of loyalty to all of them, not just Irina.
"Yes. The Valuderie". I didn't recognize the word, but Irina pronounced it with great satisfaction. "Still too weak as yet, however. In a few more nights you will be one of us, and then we shall return to the Priory with you as a part of our coterie. This time, we shall attack in force, with you as our... ace in the hole, I believe the expression is".
I was in a hole, all right. Refuse to get bound, and Irina would start chopping bits off Nick and Kathryn until I changed my mind. Accept the bond, and I'd wind up a Sabbat psychopath.
First law of holes: when you are in one, stop digging. Only I didn't have a clue how the fuck I was going to manage it.
And I still didn't two nights later, but by then, I didn't want to. Each night, I partook of the Valuderie, and each night, I felt that odd cramping sensation in my stomach as I swallowed the blood. Each night, my feelings for Irina and her coterie grew, and my feelings for Nick and Kathryn, still staked in the cellar, diminished.
Marcus had been appointed - or appointed himself - my new best buddy. He amiably showed me around the old mansion, showing me the training areas, the firing range, the improvised assault course. He was quite proud of what he'd managed to do with the place in the four months since its unfortunate owners had found themselves on Irina's evening menu.
There were some very attractive young women there, too. Teenage runaways, for the most part, who Marcus had acquired and blood-bonded to provide his ghouled troops with "recreation". He presented me with one as a gift, grinning as he told me he'd spiced her blood with a little something "extra" to give me a buzz. It was a sign of how far gone I was that I never even suspected him of trying to betray me or poison me. Instead, I eagerly drank from the girl's neck. Marcus hadn't been kidding about it being a buzz. For the first time since Eirik had changed me, I found myself getting horny. Marcus sat and watched, grinning, as I took the girl, then took her himself after I was finished.
Between us, we drained too much of her blood. Marcus made a faint sound of annoyance as he stood over her, naked, with a smear of blood dribbling from his lip.
"Damn. She was one of my most entertaining little toys. Oh, well. Plenty more where she came from". He pulled on his clothes. "C'mon Daim. Irina says tonight'll be the last Valuderie you need, then we can make plans".
"Okay". I felt a vague unease as I pulled on my jeans and shirt. That would be enough - we were in Marcus' bedroom in the upper floor of the house, I could make it downstairs barefoot. I took a last look at the girl, her exposed breasts rising and falling with her increasingly laboured breathing, and then I followed Marcus with a mental shrug, dismissing her from my mind.
The odd cramping in my stomach was even stronger as I lowered the chalice, but it wasn't important. As I looked around Irina's coterie - my coterie, now - I knew that I was willing to die for them. Nick and Kathryn weren't even on my radar.
Irina held my gaze for a long moment, and then the alien intrusion was gone from my mind. "Good. You are ready. Now listen".
"The Old One cannot be destroyed because its spirit - its soul - can exist independently of its body. If the body is destroyed, the soul simply re-forms it. The only way to inflict Final Death upon it, therefore, is to consume its soul. In other words, Diablerie".
"While we believed that the Old One was a Cainite, we were certain that this could be achieved. Your discovery that it is a living being introduces an element of doubt, but now that its awakening is imminent, we have no choice but to try anyway. If we fail, we must hope that the monks' prediction of your role was correct, for the good of all our kind".
I'd told Irina about the Tremere projection of the timescale, but it wasn't news to her. She'd arrived at the same conclusions herself.
"In two nights time, we leave for the Priory. A small private aviation club near this house will provide us with our transportation; Marcus has several pilots amongst his ghoul shock troops. Until then, I suggest you occupy yourself with some small-arms instruction, since you have no previous combat experience".
"Good idea". Idly I asked "Will we kill Nick and Kathryn before we go?". The idea didn't worry me. I was just asking.
Irina snorted. "You may dispose of the Ventrue if you wish. Our Tremere allies, unfortunately, insisted on the long-term safety of their clan mate as a condition for handing you over to us. A pity. I would take great pleasure in eliminating her personally".
It didn't bother me that the Tremere had double-crossed us. In fact, they'd done me a favour, seeing as I'd joined the Cryptographers - as I'd learned Irina's pack called themselves - as a result. But I was very surprised, and naturally, it showed. Marcus gave a howl of laughter at my expression. "How else do you think we found that truck you were in and got you out of it so easily? The Tremere are protecting their dirty little secrets!"
"Huh?" I asked intelligently. Irina threw me an amused glance.
"To be strictly accurate, not the entire clan Tremere. Just a small cabal within it. Moles, you might say"
I whistled in admiration. "The Sabbat have infiltrated the Tremere?"
"No such luck", rumbled Owen. "It's a long story. But ask yourself this: how and why, after all those thousands of years, lying in torpor, did the Old One awaken in the Middle Ages?"
I blinked. "The Tremere? They woke that thing up?"
"A small cabal of them - but given the havoc it wrought, they are understandably anxious to make sure that no-one will ever find out about their involvement, even their own clanmates. Especially their own clanmates. They want the Old One destroyed before its reawakening prompts too many awkward questions, and they see us as the best way to achieve that. But destroying Mrs. Malcolm would also prompt too many awkward questions. So they agreed to help us on condition that Mrs. Malcolm survived".
I shook my head. "Circles within circles. When did you make contact with this Tremere cabal?"
Irina smiled thinly. "Ten years ago. They were amongst the elders I spoke of when we met at Kirkdale Grange. They were also responsible for arranging our position as part of the Aldershot guardian force. It caused them a great deal of panic when you brought Mrs. Malcolm into this affair". She didn't bother to hide her disdain for their fear.
I laughed, imagining it. "I can guess. Ten years of planning, and just as you're about to make your move, a green neonate blunders into the middle of the whole thing".
Wilhelm chuckled. "Indeed"
"I'm surprised you set that fire trap in the cellar, though. What if I hadn't believed you and tried to rescue them anyway?"
"Then I would probably have looked rather foolish", Irina said dryly. "Since there is no fire trap in the cellar, just several burly ghouls. It was a calculated risk, I'll admit, but the odds of you calling my bluff were slim. Would you like to visit your friends now?" I felt her odd telepathic touch again, checking my loyalties, but I had nothing to hide from her. I laughed again, in honest admiration for the skill she'd showed in deceiving me.
"No, they're nothing to me now". Well, that wasn't entirely true. I still felt a twinge of conscience about abandoning them, that's why I didn't want to look at them again. But my loyalty was to the Cryptographers and the Sabbat. Nothing was going to change that.
Irina's telepathic touch withdrew, and she nodded, satisfied. "Good"
The odd stomach cramp hit me again as I wandered through the extensive grounds at the back of the house, relaxing and enjoying the moonlight for half an hour before my first firearms training session. They'd gotten progressively worse each time I participated in the Valuderie, but they hadn't lasted long, and I'd just shrugged it off as some kind of odd side-effect of the blood mingling. This time it was worse, though. It actually felt as though I was going to...
There are things I miss about being a mortal, but puking my guts up is not one of them. Particularly when it's a bout of projectile vomiting that sprays the vegetation for almost a yard in front of me. The rich scent of the vitae sang out to me, but amazingly - impossibly, I would have said - it aroused revulsion in me, not hunger. My vision actually swam for a second, and bizarrely, I found myself thinking of a mountain in Wales. Cader Idris, the Chair of Idris in English, where anyone who slept a night would awaken either a poet or mad. I hadn't set eyes on it for years, but I had no time to puzzle over the non sequitur. Another bout of heaves shook me, and I was spitting frantically to clear the taste from my mouth. The physical discomfort was so great that it took me a moment to realise what I'd lost with the blood.
My Vaulderie-driven loyalties were gone. I was myself again.
My first thought was guilt about Kathryn and Nick. My second was fear for the girl that Marcus and I had... I flinched from the ugly reality of it, but I couldn't hide the truth. That Marcus and I had raped.
I turned back towards the house, and there was a sudden flutter of wings from above me. I looked up to see a pair of big black birds, ravens or crows, perched on a tree branch about twenty feet above my head. It crossed my mind for a second that they looked insufferably smug and pleased with themselves, but the fear and guilt over the girl drove that bizarre impression from my thoughts pretty quickly. I set off across the lawn at a dead run, hoping like hell I'd not encounter any of the other vampires before I reached the girl. It seemed like my luck was in. The still night air carried several sets of voices from the front of the house; the rest of my pack...
Shit. Gotta stop thinking like that.
... were supervising the loading of weapons and equipment into vans. I dashed through the back door and up the stairs.
She was still breathing as I burst into the room. Frantically, I slit my own wrist with an extended canine, forcing my blood to flow into her half-open mouth. After a few seconds she convulsed. Her breathing evened out and a little colour stated to come back to her skin. I forced more vitae into her, rubbing her clammy skin to get her diminished circulation going. I could feel her heartbeat, slowly stabilizing, and I breathed a silent prayer of relief to any God who might be listening.
But I'd taken too long. I heard footsteps outside the door, and Marcus called "Daim?"
Damn, damn, damn.
If he saw my face it'd be over. Without any other options, I buried my head between her generous breasts, and mumbled a "come in".
I heard him chuckle as he saw what I was doing. "Couldn't keep away from her, huh?"
"Wanted to get a last bite while the blood was still warm", I mumbled indistinctly. Then a desperate plan occurred. "Here... want a taste?"
He willingly took my place, biting lightly around her nipples, teasing himself with a few drops at a time before going in for the kill. "Budge up", I told him, with a casualness which sounded forced even to my own ears. "Room enough for two".
He willingly shifted further up the bed. Closer and closer to the dressing table and the small stack of weapons which Marcus kept there. I flushed blood through my body, boosting my strength and agility. Closer, closer... there would be no second chances at this. With a growl of pure animal lust, Marcus reared back with his fangs fully extended, and lunged for the girl's throat. It looked like he was going to rip it out. It was now or never.
In a single smooth motion, I grabbed a stake from the dresser and rammed it through Marcus' heart. The point of it just grazed the girl's skin as it poked out from the front of his chest.
Wasting no time, I picked him up and dumped him under the bed. His wide-open eyes stared at me with shock and disbelief, unable to believe the betrayal, but after what he'd been about to do to the girl, I had no pity for him.
Any more than I had pity for myself, after what I'd done to her.
I hesitated to leave her lying there - if Marcus were freed, he'd frenzy and tear her apart - but I couldn't think of a better idea. No way I'd get her through the house without help.
I ducked through the bedroom door, down the stairs, and along the corridor. Racing against the clock now...
"Damian", Reinhardt's voice called to me. "It's almost time to start your weapons practice"
"No problem", I threw back at him over my shoulder. Couldn't let him see my face. "With you in a minute".
He was about twenty yards away, behind me. The cellar door was about two yards in front of me. The key wasn't in the lock, but with my boosted strength I'd have no problem kicking it open.
"Where are you going?" He was getting closer.
"I didn't want to see them again before, but the Vaulderie gave me a taste for Cainite vitae. I figured, we've got a nice little vintage in the cellar, why not drink a little? As long as I don't kill Kathryn, I can drain Nick dry".
He chuckled. I couldn't believe it, it sounded as if he were buying it. "Why not? In fact, why don't you invite Marcus to join you? He could raise his generation with a little help from your friend Nick".
I'd reached the door. "Good idea". Incredibly, it swung open. It wasn't even locked. "I'll remember to save him some. Where is he, anyhow?"
"Upstairs, I think. Just don't take too long". His footsteps began to recede. "Remember, I'll be expecting you on the firing range in ten minutes. Don't be late".
I breathed out a faint, unnecessary sigh of relief as I started down the steps. Mistake. The footsteps stopped, and started coming towards me again, this time in a dead run.
But I had too much of a head start. I dashed into the cellar, knocking aside a couple of ghouls with my enhanced strength, and grabbed Kathryn's stake. A third ghoul, a huge, shaven-headed bruiser, smashed a fist into the side of my head and sent me crashing into a wall, but I didn't release my grip on Kathryn's stake. Which came loose. She was free.
I saw stars as my head cracked against the wall. I had a vague impression of Reinhardt barrelling into the cellar, the two ghouls I'd knocked aside getting to their feet, Kathryn making a gesture which sent the stake in Nick's chest jerking free as though pulled by invisible wires. Then all hell broke loose.
Correctly estimating the greatest source of danger, Reinhardt drove straight at Kathryn. Her voice cracked out like a whip, barking a couple of harsh syllables which ignited his shirt. He screamed but didn't lose control, immediately dropping to the ground and rolling to extinguish the flame. Nick drove at the two ghouls who'd just gotten to their feet, wild-eyed and frenzied, going for their throats. Marcus had chosen well; it takes a lot to hold off a vampire in frenzy, but these two just about managed it, somehow twisting and turning until they yanked him off his feet and held him suspended in midair. But it was taking everything they had to hold him, and even with their vitae-granted stamina, they weren't going to be able to keep him there indefinitely.
Kathryn gestured again, and the stake from Nick's chest rose from the floor and hurled itself through the air to impale Wilhelm. Unfortunately, it missed his heart. He screamed again as it pierced his still-smouldering clothes, but still managed to get back on his feet and face her, his expression murderous.
Which left me. Facing a guy, who, I realised belatedly, was armed. The muzzle of his gun looked enormous as he plucked it out of its underarm holster and aimed it at me.
The stake from Kathryn's chest was still in my hand. Without even consciously thinking about it, I hurled it at the third ghoul with all my freshly enhanced speed and strength. Swift and smooth, he turned his body to avoid it, but he couldn't do that and shoot at me at the same time. I lunged forward, tacking his legs while he was still distracted. He pivoted to avoid that attack too, sending his heavy combat-issue boot smacking into the side of my face, but the move cost him some balance. He tripped over one of the loose piles of papers scattered across the floor, and went sprawling.
There was a cracking sound. Still a little dizzy from the boot to the side of my face, sprawled out on the floor, I saw several wooden packing cases tearing themselves to pieces. Jagged shards of wood shot towards Wilhelm. He ducked and dodged, avoiding being staked with amazing skill, but it was only a matter of time, and he must have realised that too. He ducked, rolled, and sprinted up the cellar steps, yelling for reinforcements.
A vast, meaty hand yanked on my collar. A vast, meaty fist shot towards my face. Another hand, this one small, long-fingered, and coffee-coloured, seized it and yanked it away. Something made a cracking noise, probably a bone, and the big ghoul cried out in pain, dropping me. Kathryn whispered something into his ear and he collapsed. Some kind of sleeping spell?
There was a dual scream, a yell, and a choked gurgle. Nick had recovered from his initial frenzy, mostly, but he was still mightily pissed, and being dropped on the floor like that can't have helped. He sent a flurry of fists into his two ghouls. More cracking sounds, meaty Thud of bodies hitting the ground. We ran up the steps, pausing at the open door to the corridor.
"Scissors cuts paper?" Nick asked me.
I shook my head, still guilt-tripping. "I'll do it". Crouching low, I popped my head around the doorframe.
Irina and Wilhelm stood in the corridor, surrounded by the scorched, broken and bleeding bodies of several armed ghouls. The fallen men looked as if they might be dead. None of them moved. Kathryn's improvised burning arrows had been quite effective.
Irina's face was shocked and disbelieving as she saw me. "How..." she began, furiously. Wilhelm was less concerned with how than with stopping me. He scooped up a machine-gun from a fallen ghoul and levelled it. I ducked back as a hail of gunfire ripped through the air.
"Here, let me". Nick had retrieved the big gun from the even bigger ghoul. I moved aside, and he ducked out quickly, shooting blind. I heard cursing in German. Wilhelm must have been startled, even if he wasn't hit.
I turned to see that Kathryn had headed back down the stairs. She was staring around as if searching for something.
"Cellar, cellar..." she muttered. "Old houses like this normally have access in the grounds for wine deliveries". She saw me looking and beckoned. "Which wall is the outside wall?"
From above, I heard another exchange of gunfire. It took me only a second to figure out the answer to Kathryn's question, and a moment longer to see the newer patch of brickwork where the part of the cellars we were in at present had been walled off.
The savage claws sprang from my fingertips and I dived at the wall, tearing into the brickwork like a maniac. I heard a splash as some of the displaced bricks hit water on the other side, and a wall of fetid air rushed out to meet me, stinking of mildew and old rot.
The wooden trap door in the roof of the chamber beyond had partly rotted away, allowing pools of rainwater to collect on the floor. The sight of the moonlight coming through the gaps in the decayed planking was a relief. I calculated the trapdoor's position rapidly: Well towards one side of the house, out of sight of the front fašade where Irina's ghouls were loading the trucks. The tradesman's entrance. Thank God for Victorian snobbery!
A running jump got me high enough to grip the wood. On my first attempt, the wet planking crumbled to nothing and dropped me back into the cellar, but my second effort was more successful. Kathryn boosted me up, and I clawed my way through the biggest hole in the wood and out into the open air. I saw Nick come running into the newly opened chamber as I heaved Kathryn up. Nick, being the tallest, was even easier, especially with Kathryn helping.
Shouting echoed from the front of the house. It didn't seem to be getting any closer, though. The ghouls must be moving to back up the siege of the cellar entrance, not realising we'd found another way out.
I looked around. "Where now?"
"We can't escape on foot", Kathryn pointed out practically. "I assume that the cars are out the front?"
I nodded. "Lots of ghouls, though"
"We'll deal with them as necessary. Come on". She started forward.
"I'll catch you up. There's something I need to do".
She froze, her expression unreadable. Nick was more straightforward. "What the fuck? We have to get out of here"
"There's a girl upstairs, a ghoul. If I leave her here, she'll be killed"
"If you don't, she'll still be killed, and you will too", Kathryn's face was hard, unyielding. Not truly an elder yet, her expression still betrayed every minute of her hundred-plus years, for all the youthful beauty of her face.
"I'll risk it". I was astonished that I hadn't even needed to consider that. I knew this was a defining moment for me, a point where a part of myself could be lost. Like the time I'd frenzied and torn Otto to shreds. I'd failed the test on that occasion. I wasn't going to do that now.
Kathryn's great dark eyes bored into mine. Whatever she saw there stilled her protests. "Where is she?"
"Around the back. First-floor bedroom. Um, first floor above the stairs", I added for Nick's benefit, belatedly remembering that North American nomenclature was different.
Nick drew breath to protest again, then looked at my face more closely. He let the breath out, slowly, muttered something about "Fucking crazy", and shrugged.
We ducked around the house in a half-crouch, half-run. I invoked on the simplest of my supernatural powers, the first I'd ever learned. Burning crimson fires ignited in my eyes, and the area around the house jumped into red-tinged clarity
"Nobody back here that I can see".
"I suggest you start climbing"
I kicked off my sneakers and extended the wicked claws from my feet, too. That particular ability was rarely useful to me, although I'd met a young Gangrel, a Hong Kong expatriate, who could combine it with martial-arts style kicks to pretty gruesome effect. But it was invaluable when it came to climbing. Nick, an experienced climber, easily followed me using the handholds my claws had gouged out for him. Kathryn just floated upwards.
Marcus' bedroom was exactly as I remembered it. The door was slightly ajar, so presumably somebody had come in looking for him, just seen the girl, and ducked out again.
Nick pursed his lips as he saw her. For one horrified moment I though he was going to whistle, but he had enough sense to keep quiet. Softly, he muttered, "I can understand why you want to keep her. Though you aren't usually the type to let your balls rule your brain".
I felt another surge of shame. "It's not like that".
Kathryn's eyes narrowed, the expression she gets when she's sensing something telepathically. Pulling back the bedcovers, she pulled out Marcus' staked form and nodded in grim approval. "Your work, I take it? Turnabout, so they say, is fair play". Her fangs extended. I caught a glint of horror in Marcus' immobile eyes, but she snorted scornfully. "Don't worry, childe, I have no plans to drink your soul. But Thaumaturgy takes a considerable amount of blood. Yours will serve as well as anyone else's".
Nick, meanwhile, was looking over the contents of Marcus' dresser. It held a neat, obviously custom-built rack, holding several stakes, pistols, and what I vaguely imagined to be machine guns, although I'd never seen the latter outside of TV and movies. From the little grunts of satisfaction he was making, he recognised then a lot better than I did, and approved.
I opened Marcus wardrobe and pulled out trousers and a shirt. Both were way too big for the girl, but I managed to tighten the belt enough that the pants wouldn't fall off, and at least they covered her nakedness. Her bare flesh was like an accusation.
Heavy footsteps sounded on the stairs as I got the shirt over her head.
Kathryn rose in an instant and motioned Nick and I into the shadows before stationing herself next to the door. It opened inwards, so from where she was, she'd be concealed when it opened.
Owen's huge shadow was unmistakable as the light from the hallway spilled through the opening door. He took two paces into the room, froze as he saw Marcus' prone body, half-dragged from its concealment beneath the bed, and drew breath to shout. He never made it. Another of Marcus' stakes rose from the dresser with blinding speed and impaled him. Unfortunately, his body made a tremendous crash hitting the ground, and there was a commotion from the hallway below as the sound echoed through the house.
I crossed the room in grim haste and snatched up a gun from the dresser, feeling a sinking sense of defeat. Even allowing for the edge which Kathryn's magic gave us, we were outnumbered and outgunned. Maybe the three of us could escape, but the girl was dead. I cursed myself for mishandling the whole situation. I might have saved everyone if I'd waited to rescue Kathryn and Nick until after I got the girl out. The Sabbat pack wouldn't have questioned my taking away a little snack-cum-plaything while they believed I was still... loyal.
Deed followed thought. I lunged forward and jammed the pistol I carried against Owen's temple as Irina appeared at the top of the stairs, with Wilhelm and a group of ghouls in tow.
"Drop the guns!" I yelled at her. "Or I'll blow his head off!" I had no idea how much damage the pistol could inflict, but at this range I guessed a lot. And Irina and Wilhelm's Valuderie-induced loyalties couldn't let that happen.
They all froze. Irina stared at me. "You are one of us, now. You would not..." I felt the alien presence in my mind again and she faltered, sensing my changed emotional state. "The Vaulderie... it has been broken. Wait!". The last was barked at her troops. They froze.
Kathryn's laughter came from behind me, cool and mocking. "That was your plan? To subject him to the Vaulderie? You should have known better". There was a hiss of flame and a burning smell behind me, and she stepped forward into my field of vision, both her hands wreathed in flame. "In any case, even if he doesn't do it, I will. So call off your dogs. We're leaving here, and we're taking your childe with us".
"I think not".
A small jet of flame speared out from Kathryn's fingers. The skin on the back of Owen's hand started to scorch and blister. A sickening cooked-meat smell filled the air. "Think again"
"Wait. I will allow you to leave here, with the girl. But Owen and Marcus must remain".
"Owen you can keep. The girl too. I only want Marcus, if that's his name".
"No deal", I told them both sharply. "The girl leaves with us".
"There are not enough of you to carry all three of them". Irina sounding as though she were explaining an elementary math problem to an especially dull student.
"So? Lend us a ghoul"
Irina hesitated. The spur of flame from Kathryn's hand grew stronger, and a sizzling smell filled the air. It reminded me of bacon frying, but it was coming from Owen's flesh. Finally, the Russian woman held up her hand. "Very well. Guards, lay down your weapons. You", she indicated the nearest ghoul, "pick up the girl and carry her out. You, take Marcus".
"So you can get close enough to unstake him? I don't think so", Kathryn told her coolly. Her head jerked up. "And you can stop trying to remove the stakes telekinetically, as well. As you can feel, I'm a little too strong for you".
Irina spat a short phrase in Russian. Kathryn replied in the same tongue, sounding scornful, then continued in English, "I'll pass the girl out to you. You take her down, and then you walk out ahead of us. Nick, take Marcus. Daim, I'll levitate Owen. You just keep that gun to his head. Make sure we're out of the line of fire though. It's powerful enough to take out a chunk of wall after it's vaporised his skull ".
That powerful? I was taken aback. I also wasn't too happy about her plan.
"Too easy for something to go wrong. I'll stay here 'till you're both out of the house with Marcus, then I'll join you".
From Irina's expression, I'd just fouled her plans, presumably for some sort of ambush. Good. Kathryn nodded slowly. "I'll alert you when we're clear. Good luck".
The girl floated into the air and into the arms of the ghoul Irina had indicated. Nick picked up Marcus easily - he must have burned some blood to boost his own strength - and followed Kathryn as she stepped over Owen's prone body. The door swung shut behind them, cutting off my view of the hall - but more importantly, preventing the ghouls in the hall from seeing me.
It seemed an eternity before Kathryn's voice echoed in my mind. Daim, we're clear. Nick's going to put some bullets into the other cars, to stop them from following us right away. When you hear the gunfire, shape-shift and reach for the sky.
I shoved Owen closer to the door as I waited for the sound of the shots. Hopefully his considerable bulk would block the entrance, buy me a few seconds more. I was shifting into a bat before the sharp cracking noises had finished echoing.
I swooped through the window and arched over the house, beating my wings in frantic haste. There were guards stationed on the lawn - Irina taking measures to prevent my escape, no doubt - but none of them saw my small, black body against the large, black sky. The jeep holding Nick and Kathryn was going much faster then I could manage, but it was forced to negotiate a maze of winding, twisted country lanes, whereas I had the luxury of going in a straight line. I sped through the air in pursuit. So fixated was I on not losing track of the land-rover, that I almost failed to notice the small, fast presence which suddenly showed up on my echo-location. The cries of rage that pounded my enormous ears were no less blood-curdling for being ultrasonic.
Damn. I wasn't the only one around here who could become a bat. Wilhelm Reinhardt also had the skill. And now he was chasing me.
I had a small head start; it must have taken him a few moments to realise what I was up to. But my lead was shrinking steadily. Try as I might, I couldn't match his speed, and he was going to reach me before I reached the others.
* What else can go wrong? * As though in answer to my thought, two more presences showed up on my echo-location, even larger and faster, heading towards us. Planes?
Planes. World War One Biplanes, from the "shape" I was getting from my bat-sonar. They were driving in from behind us, shooting straight past Reinhardt (who ignored them), and heading towards me.
Which was when a completely insane idea occurred.
The planes were bearing down on me terrifyingly quickly. I shifted position again, and again... do this wrong, and I'd wind up like a bug on a windshield. Closer, closer... I'd only have one chance to...
I didn't make the mistake of trying to meet the landing strut head-on. That would have sent my tiny, broken body spinning earthwards towards an ignominious Final Death. Instead, I caught hold from behind and allowed the plane to yank me forwards. I felt a savage wrenching from both my jaws and claws, and the Beast - always closer to the surface while I'm in animal form - almost seized control. Ironically, that helped a little, since the involuntary clenching of my jaws gave me a more secure purchase. Reinhardt cried out behind me in shrill, impotent rage as he sensed what I'd done. The plane's speed carried me away from him, far faster than he could follow. In mere seconds, we were above the speeding jeep.
I was about to let go when the plane dived down, spraying the road ahead with machine-gun fire. The jeep swerved wildly, although it managed to stay on the road. The second plane copied its partner's manoeuver, and again the speeding vehicle ducked and weaved. I considered what I could do to help, came up empty, and hung on grimly as my unwitting ride bobbed and swayed beneath me.
A third strafing run. A fourth. A fifth. The planes worked in perfect synchronisation, like a professional display team. Which they probably were. Where else would Irina have gotten hold of working biplanes in this day and age? There had to be some sort of museum attached to that local flying club she'd talked about. Presumably she'd suborned some of the pilots and added a few illegal armaments to their machines. One of her ghouls must have had his wits about him, and called ahead while Irina was still facing off against us back at the house. The planes had gotten here pretty damn fast - too fast.
The jeep was lurching increasingly wildly now. But it wasn't helpless. Without warning, a bolt of crimson fire surged from the passenger side window and burned away a good portion of the wingsail from the second plane. It swayed and rocked wildly as it fell out of the sky, but the pilot was superb. Somehow, he managed to transform the wild plunge into a more-or-less controlled crash landing. The nose yanked up at the last minute, just as it was about to smash into the ground. The wheels on the undercarriage hit the road, but the hedgerows on either side were too thick and too close. Wings and bushes tore at each other, ripping each other to shreds and threatening to tip the plane over. Once again, the pilot kept control, swinging his machine around, dumping momentum with its skid. It juddered to a halt more or less upright, but with most of its wings torn off and its tail badly mangled.
The bad news was that the crash-landing put the bulk of the wrecked plane in the middle of the road, squarely in the path of the land-rover. The car cranked hard left to avoid collision, careered through an already-damaged hedgerow, and landed in a ditch at an angle of about thirty-five degrees, its back wheels spinning impotently. Presumably unwilling to risk a similar fate to either of the two wrecked machines, my own plane started to spiral higher.
I let go. My wings ached abominably as I circled towards the ground, but I was going to make a better job of landing than that other plane had. I did my usual trick of shifting into human form a few feet above the ground, but had immediate cause to regret it as the force of my fall drove me into soft mud up to my knees. It didn't help that I'd lost my sneakers back at the house. Cold mud slithered up between my toes.
Kathryn had already pulled Marcus' prone body from the car - luckily, the stake hadn't gotten dislodged in the crash - and was watching as Nick pulled Jane Doe free. She didn't seem to have taken any injury, and my two fellow vampires were both fine. I breathed a deep sigh of relief.
Jane Doe was still unconscious, but Kathryn and Nick both turned to face me as I squelched messily to earth. Kathryn raised her eyebrows. "That was quick"
"I hitched a lift". I gestured to the retreating plane, now a mere dot in the sky, and winced at the pain from my shoulders, carried over from my other form. That reminded me that the crashed plane must also have had a pilot and gunner. Sure enough, my crimson-eyed gaze soon spotted them, scrambling dazedly out of the wreckage a few hundred yards down the road. I looked over at Nick. "Got a gun?"
"There were several in the glove compartment. Why... oh". He followed the direction of my gaze, though I doubt he could have seen the men without the advantage of Gangrel night-vision.
"Never rains but it pours", Kathryn muttered ruefully. "Let's hope they're too shaken up to put up much of a fight".
"Amen to that", Nick agreed.
"They'll hear the two of you coming, walking across this mud", I pointed out. "I can distract them if I shift into a wolf and sneak around behind them".
At a nod from Kathryn, I let the change wash over me. I'd been burning blood fairly freely tonight. I needed to refuel, and soon.
As it turned out, it wasn't much of a fight. The gunner had taken a nasty concussion when the plane hit the ground. He was too busy throwing up to be a threat. The pilot was in better shape, though pretty banged about. He froze like a statue when I crept out of the night, reached my head between his legs, and closed my jaws lightly around his groin. The fool actually told me I was a "nice doggy", although I greatly doubted his sincerity. Nick's face was a picture as he and Kathryn slurped out of the night, mud clinging to their lower legs, and saw me standing there like that. I winced inwardly as I calculated how long it would be before he stopped razzing me about this. Kathryn merely arched one elegant eyebrow as she relieved the man of his gun. "The G Gordon Liddy school of negotiation", she murmured. "When you have them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow"
A few minutes of interrogation under Nick's hypnotic influence yielded little of interest. Neither of the men were ghouls, just career criminals who'd proved to have an aptitude for piloting after Irina hired them. They gave us the address of the airstrip, and confirmed my guess about Irina having suborned the attached air museum. Nick was vocally incredulous. "Biplanes? What the fuck is this, the dark ages?"
I shrugged, wincing slightly at the tinge of pain the movement caused. "It's pretty smart, actually. The government and police would get interested fast if you tried to buy up military choppers or modern hardware like that. But who bothers to check an aviation museum? And it still provides a useful bit of airborne firepower, as we've just found out to our cost".
"Whatever. Now what?"
"We start walking. It's only a matter of time before Irina fixes the rest of her cars and gets after us".
"I put bullets through the hoods", Nick protested. "Messed them up pretty good"
"That won't keep her sitting there forever. We need to find a farm or a village. If I can get to a phone, I can call the Doctor for reinforcements. And we need to find shelter before dawn". Kathryn checked her watch. Irina's pack hadn't bothered to remove it when they staked her. "Which gives us less than three hours".
That added urgency to all our movements. Nick picked up Marcus, and I grabbed the girl. Kathryn seemed about to protest at that, but thought better of it. Instead, she threw a last look at the jeep, lying nose-first in the ditch. "Everyone remember where we parked", she said drily.
"It may not be safe to call the Tremere", I warned Kathryn after we'd walked for a few minutes. "Irina said you've got some quislings in the ranks. Claimed that it was a cabal of Tremere who woke the Old One up, back in the Middle Ages, and they cut a deal with her to bury the evidence".
I half-expected angry denials. What I got instead was grim acknowledgement. "I'm afraid she may well have been telling you the truth".
Nick and I both stopped dead. "You knew?" The Beast whimpered in excitement as it sensed my outrage, and wormed its way closer to the surface. Kathryn caught the dangerous edge in my voice.
"Calm down! We didn't know anything. There have been rumours for centuries, whispered speculation, but not even we know who the guilty parties are, or even if they exist. We tried to keep this trip a secret by limiting knowledge of it to a few Kindred, all of them Embraced centuries after the Middle Ages and therefore clear of suspicion of involvement. But even that was a precaution taken on an off-chance".
"Well, unless your truck drivers screwed up very badly, it's not speculation any longer", Nick didn't sound too happy, either.
"Apparently not. But the Doctor is still our best hope of rescue. Unless anyone has a better idea?"
"Actually, yes. Tony's in Aldershot. If we can find a phone fast enough, he can get the Mystery Machine here and collect us".
This time it was Kathryn's turn to stop in surprise. "What's Tony doing in Aldershot?".
Nick shrugged. "I had this weird idea it was a bad plan to put too much trust in the Tremere. Just as well as it turns out".
That didn't sit too well with Kathryn. I saw her fingers clench and unclench as she fought for control. Finally, she asked icily, "And what is Tony going to do about all the other ghouls running loose hereabouts? Deal with them all single-handed while we sleep for the day?"
Another shrug. "Nah, you Warlocks are welcome to 'em. But after we get clear of danger".
Kathryn resumed walking with a little more energy than before. Outrage rolled off her in waves.
But it was interesting that she didn't try to argue.
We walked for another three-quarters of an hour or so before I saw the farmhouse. We passed a number of sleeping cattle en route, and Kathryn and I took the opportunity to top up. Their thin vitae was weak and tasteless, but better than nothing. Nick declined - something to do with his Ventrue feeding restriction, at a guess. We didn't press him.
The farmhouse was still in darkness, and the residents weren't going to appreciate being hauled out of bed, but hopefully our cover story would soften their attitude. Sticking to the truth as much as possible, Nick and Kathryn were going to pretend to be a young married couple (an odd quirk of Kathryn's Victorian sensibility insisted on that over the more realistic boyfriend-girlfriend scenario), who'd been forced off the road when the biplane crashed. They were shaken up, and had walked miles to find help. Kathryn made a couple of neat little cuts on her face, which, combined with the blood on her shirt from her staking, gave her a truly alarming aspect. I crouched down in the field a few hundred yards away, Marcus and the anonymous girl laid beside me, listening to the performance with some admiration as they roused the sleepy family and poured out their tale of woe.
I kept on expecting something to go wrong, but nothing did. They made the call. Not quite an hour later, the Mystery Machine rolled up and they piled in. A few hundred yards down the access road, unseen by the kine in the predawn darkness, the van stopped to take on me and the two immobile bodies.
I felt myself relaxing gradually as the van turned onto the motorway and headed north. Safe with time to spare. The girl was still alive, her breathing steady, her pulse strong, her eyelids starting to flicker with returning consciousness. We still needed to clean out Irina's house in Aldershot, but the chances were that she'd evacuated it by now, taking her ghouled soldiers with her and abandoning the other slaves. But those soldiers wouldn't do her much good now, not with a cabal of Tremere elders standing guard over the Priory when we made our next attempt to breach it. We'd done what we set out to do, and retrieved Marcus Slade. The Tremere would deal with their own renegades - as hierarchical as they were, they got really intense about that kind of disloyalty.
Now the only thing we had to worry about was the Old One. My lips twitched in gallows humour. Piece of cake.
Kathryn had plucked a spare cell phone off its wall rack and was busy punching in numbers. "Now we're under way", she asked Nick, he voice dripping sarcasm, "I assume you have no objection to my alerting the Doctor to our situation?". He made a "sure, whatever" sort of gesture.
She frowned. "I can't get through. Odd... the signal's fine, it's just not transmitting". She fiddled with the phone, gave up in disgust, and tried the second spare. Her expression darkened.
"This isn't coincidence. Something's interfering"
"Something at the Tremere end? Your conspirators, maybe? You said the signal was fine"
She looked at me. "Not the most reassuring theory I ever heard, but it makes a disturbing amount of sense. Unless...", she tapped the intercom. "Tony, any sign that we're being followed?"
"Nope. Clear road in front and behind as far as the eye can see. Couple of container lorries went by about five minutes ago, but they were going in the other direction"
"Thank you". She flicked the intercom off. "Not Irina, then".
"We'll be back in York by tomorrow", I pointed out. "You can warn the Doctor personally. Irina isn't going to do anything by then. She still needs Marcus to get in".
"Are we sure of that?"
I raised my eyebrows. "They say nothing's certain except death and taxes. And we both know immortal elders who don't pay taxes. But he was the one I saw in my vision, Ranulf's vision. If the monks powers are worth anything, I think it has to be him. But it's going to be a neat trick, letting Bowen possess him to open the way, then restraining him fast enough to stop him getting in and waking up the Old One"
Kathryn nodded soberly. "Yes, it will. But we'll have a number of very experienced and powerful thaumaturges there to make sure we pull the trick off".
Then it hit me: Irina didn't know that Marcus was the key to opening the Priory. She had no idea that Bowen was going to possess him before he opened the doorway between realities. How the hell could I have avoided mentioning something like that, under the influence of the Vaulderie? The ritual of the severed tongue? But it wasn't like I'd felt restrained from telling Irina. It just never occurred to me to mention it. To her or Marcus.
That thought gave birth to another. I looked at Kathryn. "By the way, what was that spell you worked on me to block the Vaulderie?"
She blinked, and her face became an indecipherable mask. "Spell?"
"Uh, yeah. The thing that made me throw up all the blood they'd fed me, and snapped me out of it"
The unreadable mask continued for a second. Finally, she said. "We didn't cast a spell to do that. I don't even know that we have a spell to do that".
Nick had his eyes closed, but he wasn't missing anything, it seemed. "They blood-bound you, and you broke free?"
"Something broke me free. I didn't do it deliberately. If not you", I added, to Kathryn, "then what?"
There was another long moment of hesitation. Finally, she said. "You said you sometimes feel manipulated. Perhaps there's a reason for that".
"And perhaps you're holding back on me. Again".
She sighed, and closed her eyes. For an instant, an expression of utter weariness crossed her face, but then the impassive mask reasserted itself.
"In 1697, a small cabal of Tremere traitors defected to the Sabbat. At that time, your sire was very active fighting the Sabbat, and they decided to destroy him using a ritual of sympathetic magic. They obtained a sample of his hair and blood, preserved it somehow, and used it as a material link for a spell which would consume him in flames. The ritual was flawlessly executed, the magi involved were elders of considerable power and skill. Eirik should not have survived.
"Two years later, a coterie of Tremere investigators breached the rebel chantry. They found the ritual participants totally insensible. They hadn't suffered Final Death, but their spirits had been drawn out of their bodies in some kind of bizarre reverse astral projection. The bodies are now in one of our secure facilities. We still don't know what happened to their spirits. There is no possible way that even a catastrophic misfire of the ritual could have had that effect on them. Yet it did. And Eirik wasn't even singed. Presumably, something very powerful had intervened to protect him. Investigations since then have uncovered a number of... curious incidents, involving members of your bloodline. As Nick might put it, you seem to be magnets for weird magical shit. And possibly, for powerful protectors. None of the incidents I've heard of involve the failure of a blood bond, but it's not... inconsistent".
I digested this. "You think that might explain what happened during the tracking ritual"
Another pause. "Your guess is as good as ours. They were still doing analysis when I left".
"Okay, thanks". This information was interesting, but I couldn't see any immediate use for it. If I had a "protector", he, she, or it hadn't stopped me from destroying that hand and making things worse. In fact, I think I faintly recalled a nudge encouraging me to rip the thing apart. Some help.
Nick gave a sigh. "Dawn's coming"
I'd sensed it too. My limbs were growing leaden. So were my eyelids. I sprawled back in my seat and let oblivion take me. I'd have to do something about the girl when I woke up - detox her, talk to St. Cloud about getting her memories erased, try to find a place for her. I owed her that much. But for now, I needed to rest.
Something was wrong.
I half-expected another damn stake in my chest as I opened my eyes, but I was free and uninjured, slumped where I'd been when the sun rose.
The van was still. The back door was open, and cold, foggy air blew into the interior.
I felt a rising sense of dread. I knew we were parked back at the Priory even before I scrambled out. The sun had just set, and the sky was still blue near the horizon. The light made my skin itch, like a rash, but it wasn't enough to scare me or hurt me.
Tony and the girl were slumped in the driver's compartment, out cold. Curiously, Tony was in the passenger side. I slapped him. "Tony! Tony, wake up, what are we doing here?"
"Wake up, damn you"
"Yes it's me. Now for pity's sake wake up and tell me what happened!"
"Girl... called me on the intercom". He sounded almost drunk. "Said you were all having fits, seizures. Stopped the van... used the blackout curtains to get inside..."
We'd installed those as an emergency precaution, in case he needed to get inside during the day without frying us.
"She... told me she wanted to drive. She sounded weird... like a bloke. Really posh..."
Bowen. I heard Kathryn and Nick come up behind me, but I was too busy cursing myself to acknowledge them. A blood-bonded, drugged out mortal, who'd been in close proximity to Irina's part of the Hand of Glory for days. A weak enough mind for Bowen to get in without even trying. And I'd insisted on bringing her. Damn, damn, damn.
Yet I also know I couldn't have done anything else.
"I felt like I was high, or doped. Let her drive... she came here... sun had gone down. Lots of goons, soldiers. Guy you staked came out of the back... she must have unstaked him. He was talking like her. The old woman argued with him and he did something to her. She screamed... the others tried to stop him, couldn't... they all vanished..."
Tony's head lolled back, and he started snoring.
Shit, shit, shi, shit, shit.
The three of us exchanged glances. No more time. We all took off at a dead run. I could see the shimmering in the air as we approached the still-open gateway. I extended my arms, and Kathryn and Nick both grabbed one. I was still the one with the affinity with the Priory regio. They'd have a lot more chance of getting in by holding on to me.
The shimmering distortion enveloped us. Shapes and angles seemed to blur, twist, rotate and distort in an impossible dance. Senses reeling, we staggered onwards.
And fell out in front of the massive, unruined Priory gatehouse. We'd done it.
"Is this it?"
"Yeah, Nick, this is it. This is where I was before".
"Looks like Irina's here ahead of us. But she's not doing so well".
Three of Irina's troops were lying on the mud track in front of us. All had arrows protruding from their throats. I remembered what Ranulf had said, about one of his "gifted" companions being a master-archer. Faced with a mixture of holy magic and lethal archery, the poor bastards hadn't stood a chance.
As I straightened up from examining the bodies, I caught the sound of gunfire, explosions, and screams of pain. And beneath it all, a faint Thud... Thud... which started my Beast clawing at the bars of its prison, looking for escape.
Nick looked at me. "What we're feeling... is that...?"
I nodded grimly. "It's the Old One's heart-beat. Only it wasn't that fast the last time I was here. And I couldn't sense it this far out.
"We're too late. It's waking up".