“The prince demands justice for your crimes! And I am here to claim it in his stead!”
Wednesday night, 23 March 2016, AM
Caroline: The sheriff always scared her, from that first night. This ancient evil spawned into darkness long before her first breath, much less breathed her last. He has stalked the night since before the birth of her parents. Before her parents’ parents. For longer, she suspects, than any in the city know.
The palpable dread that surrounded him had cowed her more than once. She once sought to pit her Beast against him in her place, to hide behind it. The monster that emerged from behind those gray eyes cowed it utterly. Terrified it.
The Ventrue draws the long blade on her hip with her left hand.
He still scares her tonight. Old in the blood, a practiced killer, a treacherous snake that wound its way around her sire’s kingdom and is slowly choking the life from it. If she’s correct, he orchestrated her death once already.
She draws a jitte with her right hand.
She sees no fear in his eyes: and why should he fear her? Her Requiem is a pinprick of night beside his own. How many Kindred has he destroyed in his time? How many life and death battles has he fought? Countless—and against far greater odds than she’s arrayed before him tonight.
Fearing him does not preclude facing him. Courage, her uncle Carson had told her, was not the absence of fear. She seizes those words tonight. She’s allowed to fear him. His swiftness, his skill, the merciless precision that has made him an incarnation of death.
She balances in the balls of her feet, meeting his gaze.
Fear, yes, but also resolve. Courage. She’s done ‘living’ in fear of him. Done dreading his name and presence. No matter how it ends, it ends tonight. No more running.
GM: There is no courage, too, without fear, Carson had told her.
“Take that fear,” he’d said. “Make it your strength. Take heart that you’re probably braver than whoever’s trying to scare you. Would they be able to stand up like you are, if the shoe was on the other foot?”
But courage does not come so easily to Caroline’s companions.
Perhaps it is sublimitas, the inborn gift of the Toreador clan. Perhaps it is something deeper. But as Caroline’s assembled force faces the sheriff in open battle, not merely the halls of Elysium, dread falls upon them with all the suddenness of a solar eclipse. Ghouls start screaming, sobbing, or staring dumbly ahead with enormous and bloodshot eyes. Meg, she smells, has fouled herself. No one notices. No one cares. All hope, courage, even color, drains from most of the ghouls’ faces as surely as any Kindred might drain their lifesblood. The vampires can look little paler, but Caroline sees the same mindless terror in their eyes that threatens to overpower all reason and common sense. She can see the will to fight dying before the first shot is even fired.
She can feel it welling in her breast, too, a formless and nameless dread threatening to suffocate her will and drag her screaming into an endless abyss of blackness and terror.
This was madness. Folly. Insanity. She ignored so many warnings.
He’s going to butcher them all.
She will fail her sire. Fail him, like she failed her father. Like she’s failed everything.
She was never worthy of his Blood.
Vidal’s true heir stands before her now, and the prince’s throne shall pass to him.
Caroline: A year ago she might have collapsed into existential terror under that dread.
But a year ago he could have slaughtered her like a calf, kine that she was.
Six months ago she might have fled in terror.
But six months ago he held her Requiem in his hands, the illegitimate fledgling that she was. Literally held a sword over her neck, moments from ending her at any time.
Three months ago she might have cowered in the corner.
But three months ago she was only just out from under a death sentence, a meaningless fledgling in the night, still beset and bullied by others among the Damned. A nobody in the city whose Requiem he could have ended with marginal effort.
A month ago she might have burst into bloody tears, filled her lungs to scream in terror.
But a month ago she was Caroline Malveaux, pathetic sireless nobody and failure of a daughter—who had seen the prince only through the crowd.
Tonight she is Caroline Malveaux-Devillers. She’s bathed in the dark majesty of her mother’s power. She’s stood before her sire, weathered his wrath, and tasted his blood.
Tonight he might still take her Requiem, but it will be no easy thing.
Still, she can feel the room cascading into chaos, their carefully planned defense crumbling before the first shot is fired.
She takes a deep breath and fills her lungs, but not to scream in terror.
“COWARD!” she brands him.
A jitte is not an ideal weapon to for throwing—poorly balanced, but it’s what she has in hand. Some show of defiance, something to break the spell he’s cast. She flings it at him.
“The prince demands justice for your crimes! And I am here to claim it in his stead!”
GM: The small blade flies towards the sheriff. Then it’s in his hand, snatched from mid-air faster than any save Caroline might follow. The expressionless features on his still face do not change.
But the assembled ghouls and Kindred slowly blink. As one of their own—the only one of their own—finds the courage to name, curse, and pronounce sentence upon their adversary. Finds the courage to strike at him.
Kâmil and Ferris breathe haggardly for a moment.
Then they open fire at the sheriff with their subguns, scant moments before a still wide-eyed Westphal yells, “FIRE!” and Mahmoud gestures sharply.
Over half a dozen automatic weapons explode at once. Mahmound and Westphal send tendrils of living darkness flying forth. Cimpreon, sluggishly ambling to his feet, squeezes an uzi. Lead death rains against the gymnasium’s wall, punching hole after hole after hole through the drywall.
There’s nothing there.
The sheriff is gone, like a half-remembered nightmare.
Like a coward fled.
Westphal sneers, then frowns.
Then the bleachers explode.
Grenades, one after another, burst apart into lethal payloads of shrapnel, armed and tossed with all the speed and rote efficiency of an assembly line. Men scream, bleed, and scatter, trying to present harder individual targets, and send scattered weaponsfire through the air. Is he using a grenade launcher, or just faster by hand?
Mahmoud snarls and sends a larger wave of soupy blackness through the air. It splatters against the walls and runs down them like tar—perhaps an attempt to slow or make visible the sheriff, to turn this flying and unseen menace into something men can shoot at.
Then the barricades piled at the doors start hurtling through the air, one after another, crashing into the bleachers. Men scatter and fire in their direction. Westphal and Mahmoud send forth more tendrils of inky darkness. More windows above the bleachers shatter apart, then tiny canisters plunk in. Choking clouds of smoke fill the area where they fall, followed by heavy thuds.
Caroline: No defense can withstand a credible attacking force forever.
It’s been true throughout history.
It was true earlier tonight against Claire’s safehouse.
It’s just as true now. The sheriff can lay siege to them, can bleed them. But every minute he does is a minute longer for the counterstrike to gather. Longer for the seneschal to return. Longer for her sire to be roused into action.
The attacker controls the initiative—but only for so long. Eventually he must commit.
Caroline is a blur through the gym—flinging the gas grenades back into the night, batting the falling grenades back out through windows. So much of their strength is the ghouls—losing them so easily isn’t something they can afford.
She knows the truth, though: they have to endure this. They have to bleed. They have to lure the sheriff and his forces in for the kill.
It’s possible Lou has hung her out to dry, but she doubts it.
No, she can see the cunning old man’s plan—in many pieces. Better for the treacherous and tough vampires to take the first punch. Better to lure the sheriff in for the kill with her. It’s the same line of thought Claire used. A trap is only worth springing once you’re sure you have your target.
Left to fly into the night, the sheriff could be a terror for years.
They intend instead on finishing this tonight.
At least, she hopes it’s true. Otherwise this’ll be the shortest battle of all time.
GM: Pandemonium reigns throughout the gym as Caroline catches as many of the deadly little balls and canisters as she can and throws them away. Explosions rock the gym, some close, some distant. Clouds of gas billow forth. Kâmil is close beside her, even as he continues to squeeze off bursts from his subgun in the sheriff’s approximate direction. Desks, weights, and other barricade items continue to rapidly fly away from doors, as though flung by a poltergeist. Finally, the double doors burst open.
No offensive teams burst forth.
Instead, there’s an enormous and impossibly thick swarm of locusts, buzzing and droning discordantly—like one of the great plagues o’er Egypt. It streaks towards the ghouls on the bleachers. Thick fog rolls in from the doors, obscuring lines of fire, only then followed by the pound of footsteps—footsteps rapidly spreading out and not concentrating a press of bodies in the doorways. Someone bellows orders. Multiple people bellow orders, on both sides. Voices are swiftly lost over the roar of blazing autos. Rockets and grenades fly back and forth, rocking the gym with further detonations. Fire spills from shattered Molotovs. A huge monster of a gun that can only be Donovan’s M20 belches forth lead death as spent shall casings plunk against the ground. Plunks sound from the bleachers, too, and within the fog bank. The metallic tinkle is a nonstop rain, perhaps all but imperceptible to those with lesser senses than Caroline’s. And perhaps not. There are so many rounds being fired.
Equally devastating is the exchange of sorcery. Westphal and Mahmoud send chill waves of blackness lashing into the fog. The conjured shadow beasts mindlessly tear forth. Caroline can only guess what suffering they inflict, but suffering is returned and then some. Crackling blasts of lightning leave men on the bleachers burning and convulsing in drooling, self-shitting heaps as the locusts make everyone’s life a living hell. Caroline can barely hear anything. Can barely smell anything, past the free-flowing blood, the acrid tang of gunpowder, and horrifically charred and cooking flesh. Men and monsters alike scream in bloodlust, mania, terror, and pain.
All is chaos. All is pain. All is death.
Caroline: The Molotovs burn away flying waves of the insects, and the smoke from both the smoke grenades and the fires chokes more—bugs notoriously choke and die in smoke. It’s just as well—she has no answer for them, nor for the waves of exchanged sorcery.
It’s a nightmare hellscape that rapidly loses all sense of order. This fight will be fought, as much as anything else, among individuals.
She lingers near their sorcerers as long as she can, batting away grenades and distractions, but then come the footsteps, and Caroline is there, at the doors as the first of the sheriff’s forces finally enter the gym for the first time. A blade to stem the tide. It’s a blade that is painted crimson in short order.
GM: Caroline’s sword punctures through a man’s throat, sending streams of red leaking down his chest. He gurgles helplessly like a fish as Caroline smells his bowels release. He stares at her with an expression that looks, of all things, simply bewildered. Then terrified. He looks younger than she is. His mouth moves, as he tries to say something, but it’s lost over the sounds of battle, and then the light finally goes out in his eyes. He gasps and collapses to the ground in a heap. Piss leaks from his pants.
Cimpreon is there too, staggering as if drunk. Caroline hears something gorily crunch in as he swings a fist. Someone’s face? She can’t tell amidst the fog.
Kâmil dispenses with the subgun for his sword. The elder ghoul’s blade mercilessly swings back and forth like a grain thresher, cutting down anything that approaches Caroline. The Ventrue hears screams as steel slices through flesh and the coppery tang of blood fills her nostrils. Who dies and who merely bleeds, she cannot tell amidst the billowing fog and the rush of bodies.
Caroline: The Ventrue and the elder ghoul make a blender of death, circling each other in a ring of lethal steel. Anything that doesn’t fall before her lighting fast blows is hewed down by the mighty ghoul.
She does her best to keep them spinning around Cimpreon’s flank, to shelter the drugged vampire from the worst of the fighting, but it’s all but a lost cause in the chaos.
GM: How many does she kill? How many does she wound? She can’t tell among the chaos, only smell the ever-stronger flow of blood. People are dying and there are more still to die. Time means little amidst the raging battle—for all that enough time might mean her salvation. She’s sure she’d be exhausted by now, if she still numbered among the living, but weariness has no power over her dead muscles as they move back and forth, machine-like, doling out death.
The shadowy beasts mindlessly rampage and tear into anything their conjurer hasn’t (presumably) told them to stay away from. Nothing about this hellscape is noble or glorious, but Mahmoud’s pets feel like something else. It feels like they actively enjoy the chaos and the suffering. Like it is as native an environment to them as the sea is to fish. She can feel the hatred seething in them, too, as they refuse to stay put, as they mindlessly rip and tear into yielding flesh. Their ghastly cries as they’re destroyed—what’s doing that?—sound like some monstrous amalgam of dog and reptile dragging a full mouth of fangs across chalkboards. They smell like, oil, and things fouler still as they die. They don’t feel like they even care, as long as they can destroy others before they themselves are destroyed.
Relief does not come. But chaos at least partly recedes when the clouds of fog, smoke, and locusts eventually disperse, revealing the state of the nightmare battlefield like a shroud yanked off a mutilated corpse.
Cimpreon’s face is a bloody and shattered ruin as he fights a ferocious melee against Alexander Wright. Preternaturally sped by Caroline on one hand, and drugged by Jocelyn’s tainted vessel on the other, perhaps that boon and bane even out. Perhaps they don’t. Either way, he is clearly on the defensive—and steadily losing against the lightning rain of crushingly hard blows from the Brujah’s titanium bat. “That all you got, suit n’ tats?” Wright half-laughs, half-snarls, blood freely running down his grim face. His baseball cap is little more than burned cinders.
Mahmoud, standing atop the slagged and all but destroyed bleachers, is missing half the flesh and hair across her face. Her waves of conjured shadow dissolve against Camilla Doriocourt’s prayers and seemingly divinely answered blasts of lightning. The Toreador’s clothes are ruined, and cuts and burns mar her porcelain skin. Yet little disturbs the face of the sheriff’s childe as she impassively counters the Lasombra’s sorceries, one after another. Shadows flow away from her like water. Mahmoud, too, looks like she is fighting a defensive battle against the decades-older hound. It’s all her shadows can do to swallow up the rain of hail, flies, and bloody water—more plagues out of Egypt—that Camilla conjures forth.
Rocco is there. Probably. Someone yells “Agnello.” Caroline can only presume the monstrous beast caught up in its own private war is him.
The creature resembles an enormous great cat with oversized claws and fangs. It bristles everywhere with barbs, but they’re thickest around its fleshy ‘mane’ from which protrude several more horn-like pairs of claws.
It’s also bleeding like a stuck pig. Something ugly, crimson, and poison-like burns from the wounds along its flank. Raaid is dancing atop the beast’s back—did he get here recently, or was he always here?—while ducking blows from another male vampire with an arrogant face who Caroline isn’t sure if she’s seen around. Rocco looks like he is already posing the battered and bloody Assamite a substantial challenge, but being harried by a second attacker makes things that much uglier. Raaid, too, looks like he is fighting on the defense against his two opponents.
Westphal’s barked commands to the ghouls, both his side’s and the enemy’s, are answered by a cool but vice-like voice that steels their wills against his. Some of the ghouls scream and clutch their heads as contradictory orders jerk their minds back and forth like ill-used marionettes. The Lasombra’s conjured shadows flicker and melt away beneath languid waves of his foe’s hand. Karena Cingolai’s once-austere appearance is marred by blood and battle, but the Ventrue looks coolly assured as she weathers his shadows and steadily advances upon the child Lasombra with sword drawn. More than either of his clanmates, Westphal looks badly outclassed by his elder in the Blood. How old even is she who Embraced the bishop?
The battle goes even worse among the ghouls. Kâmil does not leave Caroline’s side. Gisèlle already lies dead. Raaid’s ghouls, too, are dead. Many of the Lasombra’s were already depleted in battle against Cairo’s Sabbat. Their replacements can be but weeks old in the Blood. The dozen or even score of ghouls belonging to Cingolai, this newcomer, and the Guard de Ville are not only more numerous, but older in the Blood, and further supplemented by Blackwatch mercenaries—themselves ghouled as cannon fodder?—who are steadily grinding through the remaining opposition. Bodies are strewn about on both sides, but the sheriff’s has quantity and quality to spare. Caroline espies Donovan’s mimic and the sadistic black ghoul who punched her in the face before Eight-Nine-Six, what feels like a lifetime ago.
Even as Caroline’s allies fight a losing battle, their ghouls fight an even faster-losing one. Soon the winners’ strength will be added to the Guard de Ville’s.
Caroline: It’s nothing like the fight against even the Sabbat—here they have no initiative, no surprise. Their foes fight in careful coordination, and the only hope—barring the late arrival of Lou’s strength—is to tip the balance somewhere, to start an avalanche they can roll into the rest.
It’s tempting to start with Camilla—the most certain traitor among the treacherous hounds—but she’s also the furthest away. Time is precious. Instead the death blender that is elder ghoul and Ventrue turns its attention first to Alexander Wright.
A fierce snapping announces her arrival as she races across the dead locust that cover the ground.
Snap, snap, snap, snap.
Finally a crack like thunder as her blade sweeps under the Brujah’s baseball bat wielding arm from below, aiming to take the arm and weapon with it.
She doesn’t stop to follow up—trusting Kâmil will finish what she started—as they move past and onto Camilla who she judges is the next most vulnerable target of her attentions. Cingolai is perhaps the larger immediate problem, but she remembers well how ungodly tough the elder Ventrue’s childe was. Better to hit softer targets first, just like the sheriff has.
GM: Wright’s bat all but explodes apart Cimpreon’s mouth, sending the Lasombra staggering to the ground as the Ventrue’s blade sweeps down low. Yet the hound releases his two-handed grip over the weapon, dropping his arms to his sides, then flips the bat around in one hand and brings its butt smashing up into Caroline’s throat, past her guard. The force behind the blow is incredible. Something audibly crunches and sends her staggering back.
“Not gonna be that easy, girl,” the Brujah laughs. “I been doin’ this since before you was a broke condom.”
Perhaps a quick one-two will not dispatch the hound. But two on one is another matter. Kâmil’s blows rain down even as Caroline mends her shattered throat and unleashes a blitzkrieg of strikes. Wright, soon, is the one on the defensive. Two on one is ugly odds—and three on one is even uglier as Cimpreon roars past his destroyed face and throws himself at Wright. Beset on all sides, the grunting hound does not look as if he can keep this up for long.
Once Wright’s down, the three of them plus Mahmoud can take out Camilla. Then they can finally take the pressure off Westphal, and if Raaid holds out long enough against Rocco and the newcomers, so much the easier. Knock down all the dominoes, one by one. That leaves all of them against—
Hope dawns, for a second.
A black shape swoops down from the air, rainwater trailing like tears from an unsheathed blade.
Straight for Caroline.
The blitz of strikes comes from all directions at once. Blinding speed, bone-crushing strength, surgical precision, and machine-like efficiency all come together in breathtaking tandem to produce the most flawless display of swordsmanship Caroline has ever witnessed—outside of the Dungeon. The Ventrue is sent reeling beneath the blitzkrieg of merciless blows. If her duel against the Hussar was a trial in staying one step ahead of disaster, here disaster is one step ahead of her. She’s slower. The sheriff does not stand still. He doesn’t stand at all. One moment, steel streaks towards her gut. The next, her back. The next, a foot above her right shoulder. The next, at her hip. The next, plunging straight down from the ceiling. It’s an incredibly unorthodox fighting style, taking full advantage of its possessor’s flight and the three-dimensional battlefield he is afforded while his foes can only confront him upon two. Stephen never taught any of his pupils how to fence against an opponent who could fly. How many Cainites even have the training to? So many rules go out the window. Blood freely wells from a panoply of horrifically deep cuts that lay open the Ventrue’s flesh to the bone—or shatter through it altogether. One stroke severs the better part of her jaw from her mouth. Another stroke shears through her ribs, another snaps her clavicle. Another punctures her dead lungs and flays them open. Guts spill from her punctured stomach. She can feel her undead body literally collapsing in on itself under the onslaught, as it’s sliced and flayed and chopped apart faster than she can repair it. There is no time to mount a counter-offense. It’s all she can do just to stay alive. The reality of things is all-too plain:
She is outclassed.
Kâmil does his utmost to delay the descending doom. Sweat beats from the elder ghoul’s brow as he throws himself at the sheriff, tying up the thresher-like blade in his own. He pays scarce heed to his own defense, pouring everything into just scoring hits against Donovan, forcing the sheriff to deal with him, taking the pressure off of Caroline. He fights like a lion. But Caroline can tell, from the reflection in her foe’s icy eyes, that Kâmil, too, is outclassed. He can but further delay the inevitable. Donovan intercepts his strikes without even attacking him back. The sheriff’s target is Caroline. His corpse-like face is utterly impassive as he duels both his foes at once, the machine-like sword in his hand a nonstop whirl as it bleeds and breaks and forces them back—every stroke bringing his triumph and ascendancy that much closer.
Caroline: The rest of the battle fades into so much background noise as she focuses entirely on her conflict with the sheriff, pairing her own attacks and defenses with the ghoul’s.
She always knew she couldn’t win against Donovan—not alone or in a fair fight. It’s why she’s brought four other Kindred to the fight tonight—and a dozen-odd ghouls. It wasn’t supposed to go like this. They were supposed to get the jump on him. To lure him into their fight.
And then Lou blew that entire plan to hell and left them high and dry. When he brought down not the sheriff, but every hound as well, and more to boot.
She’d believed the old man, but she knows the truth now: he’s left her to die. Left them all to die.
If anything, he’ll sweep up the pieces. Perhaps Donovan and the others will die beside her—but that brings her no peace.
It fills her with a cold fury as she fights, as she regenerates from gruesome wounds at a fraction of the speed with which they’re inflicted on her.
There’s nothing else to do but fight.
She knows some people shut down when confronted with impossible odds, with unwinnable situations. They cry. They hide. They freeze or cower. Perhaps they beg or pray.
That’s never been her.
No, she fights. She fights until the very last minute, because even when it’s all but decided there’s still a chance. That they could err. That something breaks just perfectly. That Donovan’s blade gets lodged in a bone, or by some riddle of steel snaps against her own. That a stray bullet takes him at the right moment. That he stumbles.
Impossible? Unwinnable? Hopeless?
Maybe. But she can’t control those things. Not now. All she has left is to fight for every single second she can.
It helps, too, that she hates him.
Hates him with every fiber of her being.
He’s not actually the root of all evil, but he is the root of so much of her misery. Of humiliation, he or his mimic treating her like she was worse than garbage in front of half the city at Elysium. Of loss. Ericson. Bishop. Polk. Deaths she lays one way or another at his feet. Of pain—his stake shoved through her chest. The fear and hunger haunting her as she waited in a cell for judgement.
Even if she didn’t fight till the last breath against others, she’d fight to the last against him, then spit it full of blood in his face for any minor inconvenience she might offer him.
Traitor to her sire, who has trusted him for centuries. Traitor to the hounds who trusted him when they came to fight her on his behalf. Traitor to the covenant he serves.
She’s fighting for her Requiem. She’s fighting for every second. But she’d fight him with every ounce of her being even if those weren’t the stakes. She’d fight him for free, just for any opportunity to hurt him.
He’s going to kill her—again. And she hates that. But she’s going to make him work for every ounce of flesh.
GM: It wasn’t supposed to go like this.
But it’s finally happened, hasn’t it? Older Kindred have finally stopped underestimating and half-assing things with Caroline. No more contemptuous dismissal by Bishop Malveaux as he blindly walks into lethal ambushes, scornful of the idea that she would attempt such a thing. No more ill-planned assaults upon her guests by Caitlin Meadows, who thought nothing of leaping by herself into the center of Caroline’s power. Not even solo assassins from out of town hired to do away with her. No more half-measures. No more subtlety. No more wait and see. Caroline’s finally met a foe throwing everything he has at her, before she can grow into an even bigger problem—or at least everything he could assemble this quickly.
It says a lot that it’s even this much. How much planning and preparation he’s put into this. How urgent a priority it was, to kill her now, even walking into a battlefield not of his choosing. Oh, yes. The sheriff and his foes are working for every ounce of flesh. They are working like they surely must against few other threats.
The only problem is they’re winning.
“An’ STAY down!” Wright laughs over a particularly gory-sounding crunch from his bat. “What the fuck douchebag wears a suit an’ tats anyway?”
A particularly large blast of lightning briefly illuminates the battlefield. From the corner of her eye, Caroline sees that Mahmoud has been driven literally to her knees. The Lasombra’s gathered shadows weakly flicker beneath the onslaught of Doriocourt’s sorcery, and then a hail of rubble crashes down around her.
Raaid is still staying alive, dancing and flipping this way and that to avoid the huge beast’s swiping claws and his second foe’s smashing fists. Blood now wells from gouges along his side. He cannot keep up the two-on-one battle forever.
Cingolai finally closes upon Westphal. The ghouls around them all lie dead or comatose, his shadows splash harmlessly off her outstretched hand, and his barked commands do not stall her advance. Her sword flashes high, then swings low.
Caroline can’t say which of her allies are dead, torpored, or still barely hanging on. It’s all her still-newly enhanced senses can make out, in the breaks between assaults. The sheriff literally flies back and forth from the one-on-two duel, stabbing, thrusting, parrying, and retreating in a blur, then plunging down from the sky. The momentum behind the strikes is incredible. Fortuna, that ever-fickle of patrons, does not intervene. The sheriff’s blade does not lodge, nor do stray bullets hit, nor does he stumble when his feet touch not the ground—he never flies low enough to give his foes an advantage in reach or height.
Worse, he’s changing tactics. The assault on Caroline breaks off, giving her a desperately needed reprieve to regenerate her ravaged body. But Kâmil pays dearly for it as Donovan’s blade finds a new target. The ghoul staggers backwards as gouges and slashes blossom across his body, forcing him onto the defensive. Caroline presses the attack on the sheriff’s flank, anything to split his attention. Donovan’s sword shreds through Kâmil’s stomach, cutting the white-faced ghoul almost completely in half as his sword falls from limp fingers. The sheriff blurs behind him, burying his fangs into Kâmil’s neck. The ghoul smiles grimly, then a yatagan slips past the joints in his foe’s armor. Blood wells over his hand as blade plunges into armpit. Caroline’s sword pierces their foe’s flank at the same time, drawing a second and still deeper crimson gout. The sheriff’s face does not change in the slightest. A vice-like hand clamps around the ghoul’s throat, lifts him off his feet, then flings him away like a ragdoll. Perhaps dead, perhaps not. Caroline doesn’t hear a crash.
The sheriff swoops back, coming straight at Caroline. He doesn’t try to dodge. She rams her sword into his stomach next, and is rewarded with more red dripping down the blade, but there’s no time to twist the handle as Donovan’s arms clamp around her body. Then she’s soaring through the air with him, locked together like embracing lovers as the battle rages—or, perhaps, concludes—below. The gym floor races past. Something painfully explodes against Caroline’s back and head. All she sees for a second is dust and rubble before she feels herself falling. Floor crashes against her back. They’re in a derelict storage room with a body-shaped hole in the upper wall, along with dust-covered basketballs and moldering sports equipment. The sheriff’s on top of her, pinning her beneath his weight.
A short blade springs from one of the bracers along his wrists, gorily sawing through flesh and muscle and bone alike before he wrenches Caroline’s swordarm from its socket with his other hand. The pain is incredible. He tosses the severed limb aside. Her Beast screams in her head. Ceiling smashes into her head. They’re in the air again, his arms locked around her. His fangs pierce her neck. He drinks. The sensation is like ice entering her bloodstream. He drinks and drinks.
Then she realizes, with terrible certainty, that he is not ever going to stop drinking. He is going to drink past blood, past satiation, past mere physical liquid, to devour the naked soul beneath. Like she devoured the bishop’s. Here. Where none of his allies can see.
Caroline: Not like this.
Losing her arm hurts, but far more so for what it means than the actual agony of it—which is is really saying something as raw jagged flesh hangs from the bloody stump. No, it’s not the pain that really hurts her, it’s the loss of her grasp on her sword, still buried in the sheriff’s stomach. It’s the loss of the one weapon she had that was effective against him, that drew his blood this night. It’s the loss of any chance of winning. She screams in agony, but it’s as much rage as pain.
It’s rage against the dying of the light. Against the death of hope.
Then he sinks his fangs into her and the agony in her shoulder is nothing like the pain of knowing he’s going to suck down all that she is, that even in death she’ll serve his interests. That she’ll make him stronger.
She’d say they just needed a single break, but there were too many things that went sideways tonight.
Damn Cingolai for siding with the sheriff.
Damn the Guard for not second-guessing their master’s murderous intent when they saw the seneschal’s ghouls at her side.
Damn Adler’s cowardice in not wanting to get involved.
Damn Lou for not fighting beside them.
All of those things could have gone differently.
Instead she’s going to meet her end in a dilapidated storage room.
Well, that might be so. But she’ll be damned again before she lets him diablerize her. Before she gives him anything, much less the satisfaction.
And there is a chance. With the sheriff drawn so close, with the irresistible distraction associated with feeding. She can’t defeat him, but perhaps she can take him with her. She still has one hand. She can’t swing a weapon when it’s pinned at her waist by his embrace around her, but she doesn’t need to. All she has do so is pull a pin at her belt or attached to his own gear. They can join each other in death.
Her fingertips hook on the pin of a grenade along the sheriff’s bandolier.
She spits blood into his face through clenched teeth.
I’ll see you in hell!
GM: That’s when Lou emerges from another hole in the wall, hefting a sawed-off shotgun. At least a dozen grim-looking spectral figures float after him—through the wall. Many bear sores and still-bleeding wounds. At least half of them are bleeding from two fang-sized puncture marks around their necks. Hatred festers on all of their translucent faces.
But it festers no blacker, no uglier, and no hotter than it does on the shade floating beside Lou.
The wraith wears his pain nakedly like an open sore. The right side of his face is a broken jigsaw of cruel scars, the most severe of which runs over the dark void of his right eye-socket. While his left bears a rheumy-yellow orb, the cheek and jaw below it are haunted by sickly bubbling boils that burn and weep like rancid, spermaceti candles. His balding pate is framed by wispy, ash-hued locks that’s being desperately pulled at by an infant-sized spectral fist. His mid-nineteenth century garb has the air of uncomfortable, anachronistic grandeur despoiled not just by time, but by the gaping stomach wounds that have only festered since his death one can only guess how many years ago.
He and Lou look like two peas of a pod. A long-dead man and a half-dead man, who’s old and been old for too long, by his own words.
Lou’s grin doesn’t make his face look sadder, this time. His watery gaze fixes on the sheriff with all the sharpness of a stake to the heart.
“Hey again, doll-face.”
The sheriff’s head whirls.
That’s when the grenade explodes. Shrapnel shreds apart Caroline’s already broken and destroyed flesh as her ears ring and she twists in mid-detonation to let her back catch the worst of the blast. She’d have preferred to shove the lethal device into the since-healed wound in his side, but the effect it achieves as she crashes to the ground is good enough. Lou’s dragonsbreath rounds belch fire where she was a second ago—and where Donovan was a second ago. He’s only just teleported away from the column of fire when the one-eyed ghost streaks towards him, brandishing an ancient-looking colichemarde. The mob of howling shades follows close behind.
Just like that, the sheriff is gone again. Heedless, the ghosts pour through the gym walls, screaming bloody murder.
Caroline: Contrary to popular belief, most grenades don’t really explode in blasts of fire and flame. They instead send razor-sharp shards of shrapnel through their targets. For that reason, they’re more lethal to mortals with their fragile organs than to vampires. The lack of fire is particularly acute in those chosen by the vampires: they were never designed to kill the other Kindred, just their servants.
She’s grateful for that.
At that close range though, caught directly between Caroline and Donovan, the concussive effects from the blast might have blown them both apart—and into pieces—much like a firecracker held in a closed fist vice open palm.
On the verge of being diablerized, that was an outcome Caroline could settle for. With the appearance of Lou, that calculation changes. She’s particularly grateful for the distraction caused by the ghoul at that last, critical moment that allows her to put a layer of the sheriff’s Kevlar between herself and the grenade—as well as twist away enough to prevent quite that catastrophic of an explosion.
Which doesn’t mean that shards of steel don’t tear through her flesh at 24,000 feet per second, but does mean that instead of ripping her in half they leave quarter-sized holes in her back despite the titanium plate sewn into her coat.
For a moment she only lays there, reeling in pain as her ears ring.
GM: It might also be the comparative silence that makes the room seem to spin, makes her wonder if her hearing is gone. The battlefield in the gym was an unending cacophony. It still is a cacophony, if the sounds outside are any indication—though it’s one that’s worryingly decreased in volume.
It’s also not even the first time in the night that the room has spun from what were probably ruptured eardrums. But those heal up too. It’s an idle thought, how many of the surviving ghouls tonight will deal with long-term hearing complications.
“He’ll be back,” Lou grunts as he reloads his shotgun. “With the rest of his people. You’re their target, so get ready to pull back. Odds are good they’ll follow you and stumble through the surprises my people and I have left.”
Caroline: She knows she looks like absolute hell. Almost every piece of exposed pale flesh is painted red with blood, viscera, vitae, and worse. The arming coat she added is in tatters—entire pieces sliced away by repeated strikes.
She doesn’t have time to catalogue the injuries. The still-open gashes from the sheriff’s blade. Her missing arm. The dozen-odd bullets she caught in the fighting at large earlier.
She doesn’t have time to lay on the ground either.
The Ventrue rolls onto her right side, using her remaining arm to prop herself up onto her knees, then hauls her reeling form to her feet. The whole room is spinning—likely, her medical background suggests, because the explosion ruptured her eyedrums as she stumbles over to recover her missing arm.
The macabre scene of holding the severed limb to the stump is lost on her as she tries to clear her head.
She takes a breath that whistles as air escapes her punctured lungs. If she were kine, she’d be dead several times over. She gets enough through to say, “I can’t leave my people here…” She has to pause as she runs out of oxygen, much of it escaping through her chest and back, before continuing, “to fight his alone.”
She lets more vitae run out of her mouth, down her chin, rather than waste the breath spitting. “If any are left.” She doesn’t try to hide the hatred, accusation, and the anger behind the words.
Lou’s late arrival may have dealt the prince’s rule a deathblow if it’s allowed her allies to all meet their final deaths tonight.
“You want…. to move venues… your people can cover…. our retreat.”
She’ll be well past damned before she’s left in a room alone with him and his ghost friends when this is said and done.
He’s fucked her twice already tonight. At least two over her quota.
GM: Lou gives a humorless smile.
He doesn’t look too upset at the thought of more dead vampires.
Not one bit.
“Your people are dead if they don’t retreat, blondie, cover or no,” he says, brushing debris off his coat sleeves. He must have dived for cover when the grenade went off. Easy to do when his friends are insubstantial.
Easier to do, too, when it’s not going off less than a foot away from him.
“None of my people are inclined to stick their necks out for leeches. Leech-related neck injuries are how a few of them wound up insubstantial, you probably noticed.”
He grins and tosses Caroline a spare sword from his belt.
“But don’t worry. There might be no love lost between your people and mine, but there’s plenty hate for the sheriff. And they know the plan. They’ll keep him occupied, long enough enough for you—and your allies, if any are left—to beat feet, so that he’ll hurt more trying to follow you.”
“You can always count on the dead to dish out more hurt.”
Caroline: Lou may not look upset over the death of more vampires, but there’s something else in how she looks at him tonight: distrust.
It was never there before. Not even less than an hour ago when he appeared without warning and set this entire fiasco in motion. Not when others in her group doubted his intentions.
Whatever monster she might have been, that monster had believed in him, on some level. Had, in the past tense. Apparently, getting left to get mauled as bait and leaving god knows how many of her servants and allies to suffer and die does that to people.
That distrust is present when the Ventrue doesn’t draw the sword he offers, instead throwing it back to him with her off hand. She doesn’t need it anyway. Where she’s going, she expects there will be plenty available on the floor.
She gasps as her left arm flares with pain, every nerve on fire as it reattaches to her shoulder. She heads back into the gym to rally what’s left of her people. She draws the second dagger from her belt—the last of the bladed weapon there—and holds it underhanded in her right hand while she waits for full functionality to return in the left.
Caroline has no further words for the old ghoul. None that are worth the ragged breaths they would cost.
GM: The bitter pill that was Pearl’s marriage offer may now seem a lesser evil.
For all that her aunt may have absolutely refused to permit further amaranth, it’s harder to see her leaving Kindred who would support her childe’s reign out to dry.
Not when they will be so badly needed.
Caroline: Or not.
Her own pitiful performance against Donovan, to say nothing of his own complete lack of hesitation in committing amaranth, only drives home what a fool’s errand it would have been to hobble herself to her current strength for what might be centuries.
Even if all the seneschal’s plots go as desired, after even a half in the Blood she might be little more than she is tonight—a princess made of spun glass left to rule a kingdom from her castle, a prisoner within that feared too many of her subjects—to say nothing of her husband she would forever be a pale shadow of.
Pearl’s ‘offer’—and later demand—was a death sentence in spirit and in fact.
GM: Pearl’s help came with strings.
Savoy’s help, no doubt, would have come with strings.
Lou’s help, as has been oh so bitterly made plain, comes with strings.
The old man shrugs as he catches the thrown sword.
“This school’s built on a land plot known as Mt. Carmel,” he remarks. “There’s an adjacent Mt. Marcel Baptist Church, too. You ever catch that name in Sunday school, blondie?”
She did. Mount Carmel. ’God’s vineyard of vengeance.’ In the Bible, it was where Elijah restored the Israelites’ faith in God and shattered their belief in Baal—long that supreme and most all-powerful of pagan deities. Then Elijah slaughtered all of Baal’s priests.
“Then Elijah said to the people, ‘I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets.’”
Lou gives another grim smile.
“I’d say our odds tonight are better than Elijah’s, but he had Almighty God in his corner.”
The old man traces the worn-looking crucifix around his neck.
“Let’s hope we do too.”
Then he’s gone in a blur.
Caroline: It was no string of Pearls she sought to wrap around Caroline, it was a chain the Ventrue would have worn around her neck. A trap she saw through.
Savoy’s strings would have been a garrote he strangled her with. Another trap avoided.
Lou, though, the old man was cleverer than both ancient Cainites by far. He gave her no opportunity to avoid his trap. Donovan may be his target tonight, but he’s made her every bit a victim of it as any other—he spun his web far enough to trap her, and used her as nothing but unwilling bait faced with the dubious prospect of crawling further into the web to avoid the onrushing predator.
The deeper message of his parable is not lost on her: she’s just another one of Baal’s priests in his eyes. Whatever mercy or affection he once held for the mortal girl she was is long gone. Given the option, he’ll slaughter her and all of hers here alongside Donovan.
Noted, old man.
Wednesday night, 23 March 2016, AM
GM: Caroline and Lou re-emerge in the gym. The battle between the Guard de Ville and Caroline’s allies looks largely over, and won by the former. Bodies and rubble are strewn everywhere. The bleachers have been reduced to little more than slag beneath the hail of bullets, grenades, and worse. Only a few lone figures are still holding out and trading fire.
The appearance of the ghosts, however, has turned aside the executioner’s blade. Literally. Westphal’s head looks half-severed from his neck. Mahmoud’s charred, still-smoking body looks almost unrecognizable—Caroline can only presume it’s her from the curves and the vitae she smells coursing through its veins. Both of the Lasombras’ almost-killers, instead, have been interrupted by and have their hands full with the ghosts. Cingolai and Doriocourt have become first line of offense against them. Wright, Agnello, and the unknown male vampire are fighting their own side’s ghouls—likely possessed like Caroline’s were in the car. Blade and bullet can do little against the wraiths’ incorporeal flesh, but sorcery from the two female Kindred still blasts and burns and obliterates them. The hounds and their ghouls have formed a defensive line around the blood magicians to ward off Raaid and the possessed ghouls. The Assamite looks amply pleased by the arrival of reinforcements.
High above, Donovan is locked in aerial battle with the one-eyed wraith and a handful of other spirits. The one-eyed wraith is putting up a heroic fight against the sheriff. He’s actually holding his own. But he’s also fighting defensively—not to win, just to prolong the engagement. To buy time.
Lou takes aim with his shotgun and blasts Doriocourt. Fire belches from twin barrels. The hound blurs out of the way, avoiding much of the inferno, but fire still hungrily devours her right arm. She drops and rolls to smother it. The ghosts surge forth as the pressure on them abates.
“There’s your cover, blondie. Get your people out!” shouts Lou.
Caroline: “We’re going!” she yells into the gym, taking the opportunity as she blurs towards Mahmoud’s charred body to kick up a fallen blade—from whom she isn’t even certain, into her hand. She sheathes her dagger as she throws the steaming, smaller vampire over her shoulder, almost nauseated by the horrific sticky flesh that comes away in her hands—sticking to them like the charred fatty meat that it is.
It’s pure pragmatism that drives the decision: the effect of the Guard’s own sorcerers against the ghosts gives her ample reason to want the Lasombra witch to recover. Whether she will is an open question.
GM: Ferris, who Caroline is pleased to see still alive (if looking noticeably worse for wear), doubles for Westphal and slings the half-decapitated vampire over his shoulder. Perhaps that’s motivated by pragmatism too. Of Cimpreon and Kâmil, Caroline sees no sign. The small company takes back off, doubling back for the storage room.
“Fuck… zhis…” snarls Mahmoud. Her lightning-charred and sick-smelling flesh starts to slowly regenerate from black to red. “I didn’t sign up for zhis. I’m out. Fight your own fucking pattle.”
Westphal gruesomely aligns his nearly neck back into place, hands wet and slick with his own blood. A ragged snarl issues from his throat as bone and tissue start to mend.
“There’s no… sense in doing… things by half-measures,” the Lasombra offers with a feral smile. His voice comes out with a distinct rasp. “I’d rather switch sides to the sheriff than run. Believe me, I would, if I thought it was on the table.”
“Regrettably, for him, it makes more sense just to kill us both.”
Caroline: Caroline’s tempted to drop the Lasombra for the other vampires to finish off. Instead she continues to carry her and almost snarls back, “Nor can they let anyone escape. Every single one of us has to die tonight for them to have any hope.”
“And there’s our chance… they have to chase us now. They had their chance for a knockout blow, they swung, and they missed. In case you missed it, things are suddenly looking a lot less cheery for them.”
She turns the corner into storage room from which Lou exited, and continues in a less hostile tone.
“We’re all hurt, but when you’re going through hell you keep going. Pull yourself together. The only way out is through, and it’s far from over for us. The stakes we’re playing for are worth it.”
She grins. “Besides, you’re not going to let some soft Camarilla assholes get the best of you, are you?”
GM: Lou’s already ahead of the group. His gray outline disappears down the hole in the drywall from which he emerged.
Mahmoud gives a bitter laugh as her scorched flesh continues to mend.
“He’s not Camarilla. Nozhing apout him feels Camarilla. Maype ze ozhers are.”
Caroline: “He came for me, and I’m still standing,” she offers defiantly.
“We can win.”
GM: “We’re all fucking dead,” the Lasombra says flatly as she re-takes her feet.
“Get ofer yourself. Eferyzing dies. Eferyzing falls into ze Apyss. Now it’s happening to us. Yipee.”
“Would you like a pep talk?” sneers Westphal as Ferris puts him down. “These odds look terrible, and if I’d known what they were, I’d have told our gracious host to fight her own battle. But there’s no alternative now except to play out the hand that’s been dealt—and leverage greater rewards from the prince if we survive.”
“You zhink if we delifer zhe sheriff her staked corpse we make it out of zhis?” Mahmoud asks. “Petter odds against her zhan him.”
Caroline is not sure if it’s meant as a joke.
“No, I think there’s better than even odds he still kills us,” Westphal replies mournfully. “That’s what I’d do, if I were him.”
“You’re right that he doesn’t feel Camarilla at all, though. Where did the prince find him?”
Caroline: “Allegedly the childe of his rival,” Caroline answers, ignoring the quip about staking her.
Neither is in a position to do so, and she understands their frustration. None of this has gone according to plan.
“I suspect that was a cover, though, to slip a Trojan horse into my sire’s house.”
GM: “That doesn’t make any sense as a cover. Why pose as a rival’s childe? That just makes it harder to earn trust.”
Caroline: “It does if you show up with damaging information about him and accept what appears to be a full blood bond.”
“Tell me you can’t see why an elder might appreciate the irony of stealing their rival’s childe as their own servant.”
GM: “Seems chancy. Some might like it. Some might blame the childe for the actions of the sire. Trusting to chance is stupid for a long-term plot like that.”
“How do you know zhe childe isn’t shust plood pound to zhe sire?” says Mahmoud.
“Even they might not know,” agrees Westphal.
Caroline: “Presumably they actively take hostile actions against said sire for years,” Caroline suggests. “Or you use sorcery to determine he is not so bound. Or both.”
“But this all happened a century ago, before my time. The prince was more active in that era. He had another sheriff, other hounds. Donovan was one of many—he was not simply handed the keys to the kingdom immediately.”
“Funny how the old sheriff supposedly met his final death at the hands of hunters not long after. There was some sort of cover-up associated with his death, but a mountain of women and children got executed by the prince to punish their ‘hunter’ husbands that were responsible. The event drove another senior hound from the city in disgust and paved the way for the remarkably effective, skilled, confident Donovan to take the job.”
GM: Westphal smiles. “That’s very efficient. The wives and children might turn into hunters themselves. Safer just to kill them all, if you can cover it up. I imagine that sort of mass slaughter was easier to arrange a hundred years ago.”
Caroline: “The prince thought so. Burned alive, I heard. Quite a spectacle.”
She doesn’t shiver like she did when she first heard about it.
“It would have all been opaque to me, except the wayward hound showed back up a century later after getting some kind of message from a third party my source close to him couldn’t identify. He showed up and dragged me off the street, took me to the kind of party you don’t want to be a part of as a kine. I think it was a setup for the seneschal, to assassinate him, but that went sideways on the assassins and instead I was sentenced to hunt down said hound.”
“Except Donovan later dumped me right in his lap, nearly got me killed, and nearly facilitated the ex-hound’s escape from the city. But it did give me a chance to hear some interesting things from him.”
“That was my first clue that the sheriff was dirty.”
GM: Westphal listens attentively, Mahmoud less so. Even with final death looming, the first Lasombra doesn’t turn down the chance to pick up political information. Who knows how it might come in handy, if he survives?
“Yes,” he muses, “I’m hardly in a position to know all of the facts, but what you’ve described sounds like rather too many coincidences.”
“We stop here,” says Lou, holding up a hand. “I don’t want you to get too far ahead of them, blondie. The sheriff won’t spend forever literally chasing ghosts if he’s smart.”
Caroline: “Was rather hoping they’d be doing more chasing him, old man.”
“But I guess it’s hard to do the heavy lifting without bodies.”
GM: “You and your pals have plenty more to do, too,” the old ghoul smiles.
The group have passed through two more concealed literals holes in the walls. Lou doesn’t make any effort to re-conceal them after everyone gets through. Everyone has to stoop to do so; there’s no way Donovan could fly inside unless he were to completely smash through the walls, which may not be an impossibility.
Caroline and her allies are inside a cafeteria kitchen that’s as ruined and derelict as the rest of the Katrina-ravaged school. Flour is spilled all over the floor. The actual doorway is boarded up, seemingly to force Donovan through the holes.
Lou grabs some more flour from an open sack and spills it over the group’s footprints.
Mahmoud looks around.
“No salt, huh,” the Lasombra says with a thin smile.
Salt hurts ghosts, after all.
Caroline’s known that since the fateful car ride with her mother.
“Not one grain,” Lou answers Mahmoud with an equally humorless smile. “Less sodium is good for your diet.”
“Who the fuck does he work for?” asks Westphal, not even deigning to directly address the ghoul.
Caroline: Caroline smirks at Westphal.
“He’s a free agent. Probably the oldest independent ghoul in city—if not one of the oldest on the continent.”
“I think he used to serve Maria Pascual, though,” Caroline speculates, searching the ancient ghoul’s scarred face for a reaction she doesn’t expect.
GM: True to Caroline’s expectation, Lou just offers an unassuming smile.
Caroline: “Important part for our purposes is, his friends aside, I’d bet on him alone against any of our pursuers except the sheriff. I watched him beat one of their predecessors like a rented mule.”
GM: “He was a tougher fight than a rented mule, blondie,” the old man demurs. “But I’ll take the vote of confidence for what it is. If things go our way tonight, ‘beat like a mule’ will nicely describe the rest of the Guard.”
“Is he independent?” says Westphal. “Remind me to put a leash on him if we live through this.”
The Lasombra finally stares at Lou with a very mean smile.
“I think I’d enjoy breaking you, ghoul. I’m not going to forget the servants you’ve cost me tonight. Or the Requiem you nearly cost me.”
Caroline: She wonders if this is the first time the old ghoul has heard such words.
“You’d not be the first to try, but you would join a distinguished group of Kindred that all share something else in common: they all met final death.”
GM: Lou just offers Westphal’s threat the same unassuming smile he did Caroline.
“I’m too old for the johnson-waving, kid. Too old by far. But if you’d like to settle accounts after this is over, you’re welcome to it.”
“Count on it,” sneers the Lasombra.
Caroline: It didn’t have to be this way.
Old man, I’d have kept up my end.
But it is what it is.
Apparently, she has to learn every lesson painfully.
Wednesday night, 23 March 2016, AM
GM: Lou holds a hand to his ear. Heavy footfalls are now audible.
Spectral figures suddenly materialize through the walls. Many of them look badly scorched, torn, and mauled. Caroline isn’t so how much worse the one-eyed wraith looks; he already looked terrible to begin with.
“Right on time,” Lou murmurs. “Glad they heard us flapping our gums.”
He exchanges something with the one-eyed wraith in another language. There’s definitely a French influence, but Caroline has a hard time understanding it; it must be one of those derived languages. There is one word, though, she understands.
Lou grimaces when he hears it.
The old man turns away for a moment. When he turns back, he’s holding a nail smeared with blood.
“Cover me, blondie,” he murmurs. “If this works, he’ll be grounded. No more speed, no more flying around.”
Caroline: That’s something she can get behind.
Caroline double checks the sword she picked up and draws a knife.
“That’d be a good place to start.”
GM: Grenades and canisters suddenly fly into the kitchen, one after another. Lou and Caroline react with lightning-fast reflexes, seizing the lethal tossaways and flinging them back. They get some. They miss others. If Caroline thought the cacophony earlier was deafening, it’s nothing now as god knows how many explosions rock through the close quarters environment. Wood, drywall, corroded steel, plastic, and more join the grenades’ 24,000 feet-per-second steel shards to turn the room into a slaughterhouse. Caroline’s vision warbles like she’s underwater. Her ears don’t ring so much as scream.
Caroline: Where the hell did they get so many damn explosives?
Caroline doesn’t have time to wonder, though she does take some small pleasure in the fact that they gave at least as good as they got in that exchange. Perhaps that will discourage further volleys.
GM: It’s then that she sees the black figure striding through the billowing vapors, his chill presence plummeting hope to despair, sword held casually aloft in his hand.
Then he’s gone.
His sword, though, is intercepted centimeters away from Caroline’s neck by the one-eyed wraith’s. Translucent, blood-spattered and ancient steel clangs against modern stainless carbon with an eerily hiss-like ring. The ghost screams something in his native tongue that would be kind to describe as a curse. It sounds more like blasphemy. Hatred seems to literally burn and seethe from his skin’s festering, popping boils, like fire against the sheriff’s ice.
Caroline lunges into the fray, stabbing and lashing at the nonstop steel whirlwind blurring about the sheriff’s face. Perhaps Lou’s ally will fare better than Kâmil. Perhaps he will not. Sorcery explodes through the already fog-choked room: blasts of lightning, waves of darkness, more swarms of locusts. People scream on both sides. Gunshots roar. Steel clangs. If the gymnasium felt like an open field of battle, here the close-quarters fighting feels downright claustrophobic. Caroline can’t tell who’s fighting, who’s dead, and who’s not even here.
Lou, somehow alive like an indestructible cockroach, flings himself behind Donovan. The sheriff’s blade slices through his fedora but misses his head as he rolls under it. He throws the nail on the ground. Donovan’s sword flies up to sheer through Caroline’s stomach, brutally splitting through ribs. His boot descends towards Lou’s hand. The ghoul rolls away and flings the nail over his shoulder to catch with his artificial hand, only for the sheriff’s lightning-fast word to slice cleanly through the small piece of falling metal.
The old man’s lips move in a curse, the sound all but lost amidst the battle’s roar. Then he’s shouting,
Caroline: That satisfaction is short-lived as the sheriff nearly takes her head off. She immediately presses the counterattack opposite the ghost, but even together they aren’t able to distract him from Lou’s workings. She’s bleeding again to pay for the failure.
She’d thought the narrow quarters, the lack of ceiling space, the familiarity with his attacks, and the addition of the ghost would make some difference. It doesn’t.
And then the old man is calling for the retreat and she’s giving ground, her blade weaving a web of steel before her.
GM: Nothing goes how it’s supposed to go.
It’s at once an elaborate game of cat and mouse, randomly falling dominoes, and a savage brawl for one’s life. Lou’s plan seems to be to divide the Guard de Ville’s forces, baiting them with dragonsbreath, driving them to frenzy, and taking advantage of his allies’ insubstantiality to force Donovan’s allies to fight him scattered groups. That plan is gone halfway to hell, though, with Donovan not nailed down. The one-eyed wraith is giving everything he can just to check the sheriff’s advance, removing him as a piece usable against Donovan’s allies.
Worse, those allies can fight the ghosts. Doriocourt and Cingolai assail them with blasts of sorcery. Wright’s pump-action shotgun blows holes in incorporeal flesh. Rocco can’t seem to make any difference against them, but he has more than enough corporeal foes to keep him occupied, between the Lasombra, Caroline, and Raaid—the Ventrue isn’t sure at what point he reappeared, but the male vampire who’d been fighting him alongside Rocco is gone. Dead? Fled? Lost? It’s impossible to say. The wraiths give as good as they get, hurling objects, igniting bursts of spectral blue fire, and pouring into ghouls’ mouths like so much smoke. Doriocourt and Cingolai exorcise some of them, but not fast enough. Donovan takes off more than several of his own people’s heads just to stop them from attacking him. Caroline’s allies don’t hesitate to strike down others. The Guard de Ville’s once-substantial advantage in ghouls slowly dwindles against the incorporeal meatgrinder.
Lou has other surprises up his sleeve, too. Other allies that join the fray—perhaps when he’s counting on the Guard de Ville assuming everyone is accounted for. More ghosts, for one. Caroline can’t begin to guess how many, but their hate burns no less hot than their fellows—and seems to burn only hotter still as Donovan’s allies cut them down. Another of Lou’s surprises is an urban amazon with sharp-pointed limbs, ash-blue skin, and a sloped face alight with facile media. She’s accompanied by several large and rough-looking men. Fangs glint from her mouth as she hurls herself at Cingolai, smashing her over the head with a tire iron the Ventrue swiftly disarms, only to stab her through the gut with short sword sheathed in lacquered sugarcane. The two warrior women disappear as a classroom’s ceiling crashes down around them, blades running slick with one another’s blood.
Caroline: The heiress is seemingly everywhere, but nowhere definitively. Driving Wright back from Mahmoud in a flurry of steel and leaving a dagger embedded in bone in his back, just inside the shoulder, to cripple that arm as he fights to remove it with the other. She curses as she leaves the blade behind: all things being equal, she’d rather have kept it, but she’d have even more trouble ripping it from the furious Brujah than he will.
Reduced to one weapon, she barrels through some nearly complete ritual Doriocourt works with all the grace of a raging bull. She comes away with her left side convulsing and twitching in payment after catching part of a blast of lightning, but her sword stained in the hound’s blood and the mystic energies raging uncontrolled.
She snatches her falling sword from numb fingers in her left hand in time to fight opposite Raaid against Rocco. She pricks the beast every time it tries to press the attack on the assassin, drawing blood in shallow rivers down its flanks, but she can’t press the attack with only one hand against the beast’s wooden flesh. Feeling starts to return in her left hand and she swaps the sword…
Just as Donovan fights free of the wraith and presses his attack against her again, taking the front three inches of her sword away with a particularly savage blow. She gives ground until she’s nearly pinned against moldering drywall and takes a shallow but bloody slash across her throat that fills her mouth with blood and robs her of her voice before the fearsome spirit is able to recapture Donovan’s attention.
She knows she’s the target. She knows how tempting she is. She uses it to her advantage to disrupt the momentum of the sheriff’s war party, offering herself as bait for one attacker or another. It helps keep them from losing, but it’s definitively not winning. She never has time to press an advantage, lest she get pinned down and swallowed up herself.
And god does she suffer for it.
Claws, swords, baseball bats, sorcery, bullets.
She loses track of all the ways she’s hurt amid the fighting. Her body doesn’t.
GM: Everyone suffers.
The battle rages nonstop through the school. Classrooms. Hallways. Storage closets. Bathrooms. Cafeterias. Lou feels like he’s at least trying to keep Caroline’s allies out of his traps at first, but whether out of desperation or misfortune, the never-ending melee and shootout carries them through rooms lit with fire and spilled blood, driving the vampires’ Beasts to frenzy. Some of them flee. Some of them run headlong into booby traps. Some of them just fight all the more savagely. The Beast is a night-constant howl in Caroline’s head, its roars louder than any grenade’s. Caroline isn’t even sure if she frenzies, of if she does, how many times, as the battle wears on. The only relief is that there’s no more grenades. Maybe Donovan’s ran out. Maybe he just doesn’t think they’re effective weapons. There’s hardly any ghouls left anyways—Caroline’s lost track of Ferris. She’s losing track of everyone.
Wright furiously repays the dagger in his back with a bat strike that feels like it shatters Caroline’s skull into chunks, only for a snap kick from the Ventrue’s feet to send the titanium weapon flying away. That’s when another adversary appears: an elderly, gray-haired and grim-faced woman with dead eyes and faintly bulging cheeks. Her blurring fists smash into the dagger wound Caroline left in Wright’s back. The Brujah roars as he drives a cement-shattering fist into her kidneys. That’s when Caroline leaps into the air at Doriocourt, driving her sword into the flying hound’s back. Sight and sound disappear beneath uncontrolled arcs of lightning from the disrupted ritual. When Caroline’s vision returns, Wright and his assailant are gone, though that’s nothing new. People appear and disappear like black spots in a mortal combatant’s beleaguered vision.
Rocco’s enormous war form proves as much hindrance as help against the ghosts in tight quarters: he’s a bigger target against foes he can’t fight. Raaid takes advantage of Caroline’s attacks to leap atop the monster’s back and bury a knife in its spine up to the hilt. A whispered invocation sees foul-smelling, steaming blood leak from the wound like poison. The great beast doesn’t go down without a fight, though: Mahmoud and Westphal both disappear in the melee, alongside the Assamite.
The whole battle feels like a game of tug-o-war. No one’s winning, or at least for long. Nothing’s going according to plan. For anyone. Lou can’t pin down Donovan. Donovan can’t just kill Caroline without finishing her defenders—plural. The one-eyed wraith doesn’t slow or tire, and fights with incredible skill and fury. But as the battle drags on, it becomes plain that he, too, cannot withstand the sheriff’s machine-like bladework forever. Lou seemingly abandons his plan to take out Camilla when Donovan’s sword threatens to part the wraith’s spectral head from neck. A second ancient-looking sword joins the fray. The sheriff’s expression does not change in the slightest as he duels both swordmasters at once. The steel in his hands a nonstop dance of death, a storm of swords only barely checked from consuming Caroline in its warpath.
The mimic is there. Caroline isn’t sure if he was always there, or if he just appeared now. He presses the attack against his domitor’s target, weaving a second lethal dance of steel. But in even this, he is but a hollow facsimile of his master. There is no ferocity, not even icy detachment in his movements. He seems almost disinterested. He might as well be mowing the lawn. He duels Caroline as Lou and the one-eyed wraith keep his domitor occupied. He slashes his sword across her knuckles, causing her to drop her blade. Ferris shoots him in the back. He staggers. Caroline delivers a snap kick that knocks his sword from slackened fingers. She catches it and stabs him straight through the heart.
The empty-eyed man stares down at the steel embedded in his chest with all the interest that a spinning laundry cycle might evince.
Like his death isn’t even worth noting.
Like his life wasn’t even worth noting.
Caroline would be lying if she said the light went out in his eyes, for she cannot say if there was any light in them to begin with. He gasps no final words. He makes no sound, not even a death rattle. But his body makes the same thump as any body when it hits the ground at her feet.
Caroline: Later, perhaps, she’ll reflect on this moment. When the ghoul that repeatedly humiliated her met his end on the edge of her sword. She’ll reflect on the moment with satisfaction.
There’s not time tonight.
Caroline pulls his sword from his chest, then kicks her own broken blade from the floor into her other hand. Then she plants it back in his chest.
She’ll take no chances of him getting up.
She flashes Ferris a grin, then she’s gone again.
GM: All that’s left of the Guard de Ville now is Donovan and Doriocourt. They’re arrayed against Caroline, Lou, Ferris, the one-eyed wraith, and perhaps a half dozen more ghosts. Hope returns. But freed now from all concern for allies save his own progeny, the sheriff seems only to grow stronger and more terrible. He brings down ceilings. He opens cavernous rents in the floor. He explodes through walls. He cannot be contained. He cannot be controlled. He cannot be stopped. His form is a nonstop blur, when it’s even visible between his seeming teleportations from place to place to place. His thresher-like blade savages apart Lou, Caroline, and the one-eyed wraith from a thousand directions at once. He’s driving them, they realize with dawning horror as they bleed and break and suffer, into the auditorium—one of the biggest and high-ceilinged rooms in the school.
It seems impossible that René could have so easily staked him.
Doriocourt keeps the ghosts off her sire’s flank with prayers and invocations that merely hold the small mob of wrathful shades at bay—it feels like she’s run out of grander, deadlier sorceries. That fact is no more evident than when she pulls a sidearm from her ruined coat and calmly shoots Roger Ferris. The bullet takes him square in the throat. He collapses behind an aisle seat and doesn’t get up.
Lou looks horrible. The blood- and dust-stained rags that used to be his clothes are sorrier than anything Caroline ever saw him wearing. His face looks like it’s been through a wood chipper. But he fights like she saw him fight René. With unrelenting purpose and conviction. With grace and skill and flawless technique that’s as startling to witness from a washed-up old bum as finding out he’s a billionaire. The old man’s sword slips past Donovan’s guard, once, twice, repeatedly, drawing deep red lines across the sheriff’s chest. Lou’s implacably set face is beaded with sweat, the battle clearly challenging him to his utmost.
The one-eyed wraith fights no less ferociously. The dead man’s hatred feels like an elemental force, an ocean of burning loathing that his man-sized frame is but vessel for. Every stroke and cut and slash that drives back the sheriff burns with hate. Caroline has no doubt that hate is what allowed this man to conquer death and exist past death.
But Donovan gives as good as he gets.
He gives better than he gets.
His whirring blade smashes past Lou’s guard, eviscerates his stomach, then severs his remaining hand at the wrist. The sheriff seems to all but teleport away from the one-eyed wraith’s blitz of strikes, then raises a pale hand. Foul-smelling black and blood-red fire immolates the shade’s incorporeal flesh, turning him into an unliving torch. He collapses to the ground, knees sinking through the auditorium’s solid floor. His screams still sound more hateful than pained, though, and in his wrath sends chairs and sundry hurtling towards Donovan. The sheriff’s sword whirs like a helicopter propeller as it slices them apart in mid-air. Lou impossibly rises to his feet and gruesomely re-affixes his severed hand to his wrist as he wills broken flesh to mend. He’s literally fitting his guts back into his stomach as he staggers after Donovan with another blood-smeared nail. Donovan’s foot comes down on his just-healed hand with a hideous crunch of bone.
The sheriff’s face remains utterly still. He has not once spoken during the battle. He does not speak now.
There is nothing to say. His only words are the death and destruction he rains down upon Caroline and her protectors.
Caroline: Donovan is no ancilla. Those lesser predators lie scattered about the school in pools of their own vitae.
No, this is what it’s like to fight an elder. To fight a vampire with centuries in the Blood and the know-how to use them.
She’d known it would be bad: known that he would be terrifying: known he would be powerful.
This is something else. It’s almost otherworldly. He’s as far beyond her as she is any kine, with predictable results.
Still, Caroline is no princess of spun glass. She doesn’t wait for him to destroy her protectors or hide in the keep. She levels the mimic’s blade at him, even as he cripples Lou.
Her resolve is unbroken: if she’s going to die, it’ll be with a sword in her hand.
GM: Nor will she die alone.
A shadow swells to man-sized height behind Donovan. Cimpreon, Westphal, Mahmoud, and Kâmil emerge forth.
The elder ghoul looks like death. He looks like he’s lost half his body’s blood volume. But his sword is no less sharp as he lays open Donovan’s back. Caroline seizes the opening and attacks from his flank. Mahmoud’s and Westphal’s shadows pour between them in a black tide, leaching what little color remains from the sheriff’s body.
Beset on all sides, he takes to the air. Cimpreon leaps after him, missing his shoulders but seizing his leg, arresting his flight. Donovan’s fist drives into the Lasombra’s collar bone with an audible crunch when two more blasts of writhing, grasping shadows streak towards him, along with a hurled knife from Kâmil, a flung sword from Caroline, two knives from Lou, and three auditorium seats wrenched from the floor by the one-eyed wraith.
Caroline isn’t sure which of the attacks causes him to crash back to earth, but she’s there, caught sword driving into his prone body. Cimpreon leaps atop him too, laughing as his fists smash into Donovan’s face,
“That’s for makin’ me do Jade, you cocksucker-”
Lightning-fast, a blade springs from Donovan’s bracer and stabs completely through the Lasombra’s neck, then saws through the rest. Cimpreon’s head tumbles to the floor.
“Thanks for… the assist…” Lou gurgles to the fallen Lasombra, then spits the bloody nail between his lips onto the sheriff’s bootprint, left amidst the dusty stage.
Donovan is gone in a flash. He leaps into the air.
He soars above them all.
Then he plummets back down to earth. Cat-quick, he lands on his feet as the floor slams up to meet them.
But he lands.
On his feet.
“Groun… ded…” Lou hacks, smiling.
Caroline: The final death doesn’t even have time to register: there’s so many dead already, and so many at the sheriff’s hands in particular.
Lou’s words do, though. It takes her a split second—a near-eternity for the Ventrue—to process what the ghoul means. Then it’s a lightning bolt across her mind—and she’s a lightning bolt across the auditorium.
No longer invincible.
He may still be a physical terror. He may still be tougher than nails. He’s certainly her better as a swordsman, and her elder by countless decades if not centuries in the Blood.
But he’s suddenly so slow.
She’s not. It’s the heiress’ turn to be everywhere, for her blade to sing around him. And not just an heiress to a kine fortune or family, either.
Caroline takes her blade to her sire’s enemy, to the traitor that has robbed him of so much strength, to the monster that has haunted her entire Requiem, and it feels so right.
Perhaps more to point, her surviving allies are equally swift—a the benefit of the Ventrue’s blood—and they fall upon him like a swarm of piranha upon a wounded shark. They can smell the blood in the water—and the blood finally flows from the sheriff in the rivers to match the blood they’ve shred tonight as a thousand cuts open across him.
GM: It’s not unlike fighting the Hussar was.
He’s quick enough to intercept her strikes, still. Remarkably many of them, by a mortal man’s standards. But there are so, so many of them. And he is so much slower than he used to be. He’s had to completely retool his fighting style in the middle of the battle. His sword is no longer a whirlwind of steel, it’s just a man’s sword. For all that his strikes leave gaping rents in the drywall—they’re missing. She’s not. For all that she can’t afford to let him land a hit on her broken body, for all that the cuts she lands are so slow to bleed—the pace of their duel feels almost like a relief.
It’s an almost bizarre sensation when she realizes she’s still losing.
It’s like fighting the Hussar was. It doesn’t matter she’s faster. Like the Hussar, her foe stoically accepts the hits. He bleeds but he doesn’t slow. He rains down disaster through the end of his blade with staggeringly powerful and surgically precise blows. It’s like fencing against a charging bull. When it connects, it smashes right through her guard. Like the Hussar, the sheriff seems all-too capable of fighting on—and winning—without preternatural speed or flight.
But it’s also not like fighting the Hussar was.
It’s not like fighting the Hussar was at all.
Because this time she isn’t fighting alone.
Kâmil lays into Donovan, raining down blow after blow from his heavy sword. The seneschal’s still haggard-faced ghoul looks more than a little satisfied as he avenges his previous defeat. The sheriff’s blade flashes to keep up with the other swordsman, unable to commit his focus entirely upon Caroline.
Perhaps eager for a rematch, Mahmoud throws a blast of shadows at Doriocourt, whose arms are still raised as she mouths prayers to ward off the remaining ghosts. The hound jerks one hand away, catching the shadows in her palm. Mahmoud grins as the rival sorcerer is caught between hammer and anvil: her on one side of the invisible barrier, the raging ghosts on its other. Doriocourt cannot hold off both of them at once. The barrier collapses. The ghosts spill forth. The hound is gone in a blur.
Lou finishes shoveling back in his insides with a gruesome expression and flexes his mummified-looking reattached hand. He takes up his sword. He streaks across the stage. A third rain of steel descends alongside Caroline’s and Kâmil’s.
The ghosts pour into the auditorium. They fall around their leader, smothering the evil-looking red flames. He looks worse than ever—but so too does his hate seem to burn impossibly hotter than ever, as if all the heat and suffering of the sheriff’s conjured fires has only added to the inferno raging within his heart. With a bone-chilling shriek, the swarm of unquiet shades descend upon the sheriff.
Four blades now beset him, and far more incorporeal hands.
“And you’re not even bound to her…? Perfect,” sounds Westphal’s voice amidst the auditorium seats. “I did my homework, when I was looking into buying or stealing you—just the sort of background we’re looking for.”
Donovan fights on.
But he is now one man against many—and a far slower man. He cannot retreat. He cannot escape. For the first time, it is the sheriff who now fights defensively and finds himself driven steadily back. Donovan could not ask for a more loyal childe as Doriocourt flings herself at the foes menacing her sire, heedless of their numbers. Wide sweeping arcs of her blurring sword attempt to clear a path for him. She fights as zealously as she does skillfully—Caroline saw little of the hound’s bladework amidst her earlier sorceries. She tries to clear a path for her sire. She tries to grab him. She tries to rise aloft into the air with him, to blur above their foes’ heads and streak out of the auditorium, to retreat and fight another day.
But the others don’t let her. There are too many of them. Caroline. Kâmil. Lou. Mahmoud. The one-eyed wraith. His followers. Westphal, if the second blast of shadows from the auditorium seats is any indication. Through sword and sorcery and sheer numbers, they preempt all escape. The walls close in. Sire and childe fight valiantly, but it is so much rage against the dying of the light. Blood freely runs from their ruined bodies. Caroline never needed to surpass the sheriff’s might by herself. The power to defeat him was always there. In others. She saw it in Cairo. She sees it again here. Many might achieve what one alone cannot.
Donovan’s sword clatters to the floor.
He sinks to his knees.
He raises his hands.
Caroline doesn’t believe it for a moment.
Nor is she inclined to accept it.
He sought no prisoners, took no quarter. He would never accept her own surrender: hell, he sought to diablerize her.
She looks down on the defeated sheriff with no pity in her eyes.
She came here with a purpose: his destruction. She will not be turned from it.
“Go to hell,” Caroline snarls.
Her blade flashes.
GM: The one-eyed wraith doesn’t even wait for Caroline to finish her curse. His sword already flashes out at their fallen adversary.
The sheriff’s head mechanically tilts up. His attackers behold his eyes.
Time hangs still.
His achromatic gaze is as still, cold, and dead as any shark’s, but something seems to stir within its frigid depths. Motion just beyond sight, imperceptible to the conscious mind, but ominously visible to some deeper instinct, to some part of oneself best kept locked away. Motion like the clouds to a troubled sky. A gathering storm.
There is a dark eye to that hurricane. Inscrutable, save that it cannot promise respite.
It beckons to Caroline, to Lou, to everyone present, like that innocuously self-destructive one sometimes feels at great heights. To just—jump.
A pulsating sound echoes in everyone’s ears, like the beating of an impossibly vast heart. The auditorium seems somehow darker than it once was, but there is no light in this long-abandoned place.
The sheriff’s assailants are blasted off their feet as he spreads his arms like a dark messiah. Hissing rivulets of tar-black blood freely pour from his ruined body. Blood-hued fires spread as droplets sizzle through the floor. The sheriff’s feet rise aloft into the air. There’s gaping pit where his heart should be. A hole, a no-space, a nothing, pitch black and fathomless. It spreads across his chest like a great beast’s yawning mouth.
And at long last, he opens his eyes.
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