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Blood & Bourbon

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Adán I, Chapter III
St. Columba's Vertebra

“I know the work you do now is God’s will.”
Father Fontenot


Friday morning, 5 February 1937

Adán’s friends anxiously asked him what had befallen in the many hours with Father Fontenot, but Adán waved them off, holding his tongue. Eventually, they stopped asking, especially once the semester resumed, as all were swiftly overwhelmed by the rush of finals and graduation.

Particularly for Adán, the last few months at Loyola were brutal. His private instruction with Father Fontenot continued, even increased. Nor did the exacting Jesuit lower his academic standards, as he fully expected Adán to complete his thesis with the same rigor as any other student aspiring to the Notre Dame Seminary. In his ‘free’ time, Adán hunted for the Society of Leopold’s lost relic. That search started in the university’s library, but swiftly transitioned to off-campus excursions. During such forays, he also always kept an ear out for any lead on Alcide’s host. Saul always promised to help that search, but he also always found a reason to renege and delay his aid. So stymied, Adán’s search for Marie bore little to no fruit.

In the meantime, Adán’s investigation for the relic turned up several leads. The relic was a pair of vertebrae of St. Columba of Sens, the once pagan noblewoman of Saragossa who was baptized in Venice and later imprisoned by the Roman Emperor Aurelian in the local amphitheater’s brothel’s to be raped, tortured, and killed alongside other Christians.


Spared from rape by a she-bear, Columba and the bear were sentenced by Aurelian to be publicly burned in the amphitheater. However, the bear escaped, and God sent rain that quelled the Romans’ fires. Unrepentant, Aurelian had Columba beheaded near the fountain d’Azon. According to Adán’s research, Columba was later buried by a blind man who recovered his sight after praying for her intercession, with the Abbey of Sens later built over her tomb. Her remains, however, were reportedly destroyed by Huguenots in the 16th century.

The reason for the destruction varied, with some accounts claiming the Huguenots did so as part of the French Wars of Religion. Other accounts suggested they were trying to recover, versus destroy, Columba’s body, to use as a symbol of their martyrdom, as Columba was said to have advocated for tolerance and peace between the Christians and pagans. A few rarer accounts, however, indicated that their act had to do with Columba being the patron saint of witches in Galicia, with her allegedly interceding both against witches and for witches. Further details, however, could not be found in Loyola’s archives or any other library associated with the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

Fortunately, Adán’s prior visits to New Orleans’ churches was not restricted solely to Catholic ones. Indeed, over the past four years, he had made several trips to the Protestant Christ Church Cathedral.


There, he studied not only the 19th century architecture of its extant cathedral, but also its four earlier iterations. During those visits, Adán had gained the favor, if not friendship, of the cathedral’s rector. Thus, when Adán told the rector he was researching Huguenots and Columba of Sens, the rector said he would look at the cathedral archives and ask some colleagues.

A week later, Adán found a typewriter-punched letter beneath his pillow. Its message was terse:

3:33 am

Riverside corner of Canal and Bourbon.

Come alone


Summer 1937

With a prayer on his lips, Adán followed the rendezvous’ directions. He waited several minutes, and was about to leave, when a Rolls-Royce Phantom glided down Bourbon St., and stopped in front of the recent Loyola graduate. Its rear passenger door opened. Inside was dark, save for the small ember-glow of a lit cigarette.

“Get in,” ordered a voice from inside, then added, “the night vapours are simply dreadful on one’s lungs.”

Trusting that God would protect him while on His errand, Adán climbed in, only for the vehicle to speed off into the night. It would be his first but not last ride in that seemingly driverless luxury vehicle, and it was the beginning of a delicate working relationship with a man who eventually identified himself as Sir James Gallier IV.

Sir Gallier was the descendant of James Gallier Sr. and Jr., the famed if ill-fated architects who built not only New Orleans’ civic hall, Théâtre de l’Opéra, Luling Mansion, St. Charles Hotel, and Leeds-Davis Building, but also the second and third buildings for Christ Church. Moreover, Sir Gallier–or Jamesie as he eventually had Adán call him–was a Knight of St. George, of the Congregation of Vasago. Jamesie shared that a long-time rival of his in the Congregation of Foras was also searching for the vertebrae of St. Columba. Moreover, Jamesie confided that he had information on the relic’s whereabouts, but would rather help another procure it over his rival–provided the other did not intend to use the relic for “nefarious ends.”

Yet, long before Sir Gallier revealed the above secrets, or further ones, he first put Adán through a gauntlet of tests to confirm the truth of Adán’s character and aims. Some were simple tests, such as Sir Gallier ‘accidentally’ dropping a loose emerald-studded cufflink when he opened the door, as if to tempt the young man’s lust for lucre. Others were more devious, such as when Jamesie hired some local dockworkers to stage an all-too real looking, street-side beating of a confederate. Jamesie had his violent stooges time their ‘act’ so that Adán and Jamesie would pass them in the Phantom, just as Jamesie began to relate some key secret about Columba’s relic.

Fortunately, Adán ‘passed’ the test by halting the knight and car and leaping out to rescue the ‘attacked’ man. A third test involved Jamesie taking Adán to a mental asylum, where an alleged Vodouisant witch was possessed by El Taumaturgo, a demon who professed knowledge of the relic–as well as Alcide’s location. The demon-possessed witch offered Adán the knowledge of both if the young Leopoldite gave her his “virgin seed.” Adán adamantly rejected the pact and exorcised the demon–though not before both witch and fiend swore vile vengeance.


Summer 1937

The last experience rattled the would-be-priest, and made him question Jamesie’s motives to the point he nearly broke off his meetings with Jamesie. Summer had had begun, and the recent Loyola graduate longed to return to the simple, pure life of fishing Lake Pontchartrain with Pierre and his godly kin. Yet, just as Adán prepared to tell Father Fontenot and Sir Gallier of his intentions, the British-blooded ‘knight’ announced that he was sufficiently convinced that Adán had the “cœur de lion.”

During their next witching hour drive in the Rolls Royce, Jamesie revealed that both his grandfather and great-grandfather were commissioned, while designing Christ Church’s buildings, to include two secret spaces for the twin reliquaries of the veterbrae. Allegedly, the vertebrae–the very same which were cleaved by the Roman executioner’s blade–were all that remained of St. Columba. The Huguenots’ nominal leader, Jeanne d’Albret, had planned to give the vertebrae to Catherine de’ Medici as part of their peace treaty and children’s betrothal.


Learning this, several Huguenots stole the relic. When Jeanne informed Catherine of the theft, the queen consort sent Jeanne a pair of perfumed gloves that were skillfully poisoned by her perfumer, René of Florence. Jeanne perished two months before her son’s wedding, and Catherine’s agents searched for the relic in vain.

The relic remained safe in Huguenot hands for several generations, even as the likes of Marie de’ Medici continued to hunt for it during the Huguenot rebellions of the 1620s. Yet, as Louis XIV’s Edict of Fontainebleau and violent dragonnades nearly exterminated the Huguenots, a group fled with the relic across the Atlantic to Louisiana. It would be guarded and passed down for multiple generations, till it was interred in Christ Church’s first consecrated building in 1816–and then later hidden in its second building in 1837, then in its third during the next decade, and finally in its fourth several decades later.

Yet, when the Great New Orleans Hurricane of 1915 destroyed the cathedral’s steeple, the relic was lost–or more specifically one of the two vertebrae was. Jamesie shared his doubts that the steeple’s destruction was due to a ‘mere’ hurricane, noting that while many buildings were damaged by the storm, only Protestant churches–including the Presbyterian Church on Lafayette and St. Anna’s Episcopal Church on Esplanade–utterly collapsed. Rather, James had come to suspect that some manner of witchcraft or sorcery had been used to channel the hurricane to specifically target New Orleans’ Protestants, or at least their sanctums. He posited that Christ Church’s cathedral also would have fully collapsed, if not for the relic’s protection.

James shared with Adán his uncertainty as to whether the assailants–which he intimated might have Catholic ties–had been intentionally seeking Columba’s relic, or if they had been more opportunistic thieves after the magically toppled steeple revealed one of the reliquaries. Jamesie claimed the Knights of St. George sought to protect the remaining vertebra–whose location he refused to share–but also to reclaim the lost one, or at least prevent it from being in the “wrong hands.” Fortunately for Adán, Jamesie considered his rival knight in the Congregation of Foras among the ‘wrong-handed.’

Thus, Jamesie agreed to help Adán recover the missing vertebra. To that end, he shared with the young exorcist that a specific group of longshoremen had been oddly asking after the relic–the one not stolen–hinting that anyone with information would be “taken care of.”

Thus, rather than return to Lake Pontchartrain and the Jeansonnes, Adán went ‘undercover’, working on the docks of the bustling, if rough Port of New Orleans.


Summer 1937

Sir Gallier was instrumental in helping Adán forge a cover identity and teaching him the “intricacies of obfuscation and deception.” This ‘education’ was difficult for Adán, as it required him to not only live among rough and often godless, blaspheming men and similarly loose women, but it required him to lie–to claim to be things he was not. Seeking spiritual counsel from Father Fontenot, the Jesuit commiserated with the young man’s discomfort, but he advised that he continue his path, explaining:

“You once compared yourself to David, and today, I abjure you to consider how the youngest son of Jesse acted while amongst the Philistines. When he dwelt in Ziklag, upon whom did he lead raids?”

“The Geshurites, Girzites, and Amalekites,” replied the young scriptorian. “All of whom were Israelites’ enemies.”

“Indeed,” the Jesuit priest replied, “but did King Achish know that?”

“No, Father, he believed David led raids against the Israelites.”

“Why?”

Adán faltered in his answer, not because he could not recall the intellectual answer, but because of its hitherto unconsidered moral implications.

“Because… David deceived him…”

“Yes, and before then, when David was discovered hiding among the Philistines and was brought before King Achish, what do the scriptures tell us?”

Once again, Adán hesitated, nodding slowly as he contemplated his unspoken answer, which the priest voiced:

“The Book of Samuel records he pounded his head on the city gate, and foamed at the mouth, with spit dripping from his bead.”

“He pretended to be insane,” Adán agreed, “causing Achish to declare him a madman rather than his fated foe, and cast him out of his house.”

“And did such deeds deny David the crown of Israel or the blessing of God’s prophet, Nathan?”

“No, Father Fontenot… that came later….”

The Jesuit priest, nodded, but then admonished his pupil to stick to “today’s lesson.” When Adán admitted that he could not refute the priest’s logic, he still struggled to reconcile it with the myriad other scriptures that warned against deceit and falsehoods.

“I… am not sure I fully understand, Father.”

“Nor, I, my son,” the priest replied. “But I know the work you do now is God’s will.”

At that pronouncement, Adán sat silent for a long time before he eventually gave his answer:

“As God wills it.”


Fall 1937

Still, even with his spiritual conflict resolved, or at least mostly quelled, Adán did not find it easy to deceive the ‘King Achishes and other Philistines’ of New Orleans’ docks. Granted, his summers with the Jeansonnes did give him a passing familiarity with commercial fishing rigs and docks, but he was once again a stranger in a strange land–and this time, he had to assimilate rather than cloister himself away.

Moreover, there were no erudite, ecclesiastical authorities he could impress with his scholarly aptitude and scriptural knowledge. Instead, his dock bosses and peers admired crude braggadocio, lewd jokes, ability to hold one’s liquor, and bare-knuckled boxing skills–none of which were ‘talents’ Adán possessed or wanted to possess.

Still, spurred on by Father Fontenot’s support, Sir Gallier’s tutorship, and increasingly potent and disturbing visions of what would occur if he did not recover the relic, Adán managed to adopt the mien of a ‘madman.’ His cover identity–one Bruno Legaré–had him being from Lake Charles, where his father, a union dockworker, had earned the favor of the International Longshoremen’s Association and allied Teamsters during the violent, ten-week Gulf Coast longshoremen’s strike of 1935, and used that favor to leverage a job for his relatively inexperienced son in New Orleans, where most maritime traffic had permanently diverted to after the strike. That ‘pedigree’ earned Adán some measure of slack, if not respect.


That meager respect grew when Adán threw himself into the dock’s illicit boxing circuit. He lost terribly, especially as the bet-taking ringmasters placed the bantamweight against experienced heavyweights, as the crowds enjoyed the bloodsport. Still, being nearly beat to death on several occasions, only to still arrive to work on time and without complaint, earned him his peers’ and bosses’ appreciation. Moreover, when the circuit bosses rigged a fight so that Adán ‘won’ against a towering alley champion named Gator Johnson, his renown swelled.


Unbeknowst to Adán, Gator Johnson had taken the fall for some extra cash, but he couldn’t stand being heckled for losing to the comparatively scrawny bantamweight. When he threatened to expose the circuit bosses’ duplicity, they gave him a new pair of concrete shoes and took him for a swim in the Gulf of Mexico. To divert suspicion, they spread rumors that Adán had killed the man for disrespecting him, stealing his broad, or some other machismo-sufficient cause. As others accepted or at least shared the dark gossip, Adán’s respect amongst the seedy, rough longshoremen soared.


Winter 1937

Due to that newfound esteem, one of Adán’s dock bosses began to hire him to do some “off the books” jobs. Initially, these jobs involved unloading or loading what he later learned was unregistered cargo for the Black Hand. Next, he was asked to act as a lookout for NOPD patrols during meetings between the union bosses and Mafia lieutenants. Adán loathed each of these tasks, and the corrupt men for whom he presumably did them, but he reminded himself that he was ultimately doing God’s–not Mammon’s–work. During these morally precarious times, he found particularly solace in silently reciting Psalm 34, which David presumably wrote about his time masquerading amongst the Philistines.

Notwithstanding, there were moments when his facade almost broke. Chief among these was after a meeting between the local union bosses and the Black Hand’s then-underboss, Carlos Marcello. The Mafia had wanted to assure the unions that “business as usual would continue as usual,” notwithstanding Don Carollo’s two-year-stint in Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. At the meeting’s end, Adán’s chief dock boss, Tito, approached Marcello as the latter walked to his chauffeured car. The conversation they had was painfully, if providentially, close to where Adán had been stationed as a ‘guard.’

“C’mon, Carlos, just between you and me,” Tito had said, “you really think Old Silver Dollar Sam’s gonna shed his stripes soon?”

“Jesus on a stick, Tito, you think I’d lie to all you boys?” the Mafia underboss replied with false hurt. “It’s like I said–Sam shot a fucking fed in ’30, did four measly years, and popped out of the pen with a senator kissing his cojones the same year. This time, it was just a little coke charge, capiche?”

Adán all but bit his tongue at being forced to listen to the mafioso first take the Lord’s name in vain, and then brag about the Black Hand’s corruption of justice. Fortunately, neither Tito nor Carlos noticed. Instead, the former pressed his inquiry:

“Yeah, yeah, I remember, but this time they’re talking about shipping him with a one-way ticket to Sicily.”

“Jesus fucking Christ, Tito!” the underboss exclaimed. “You worry more than a fucking nun about to get her cherry popped. It’s like I said, we–”

This time, Adán could not keep silent, but all but growled at the blaspheming, lewd underboss. Noticing the snarl and withering glare, Carlos turned to the undercover dockworker and shouted:

“Hey, buddy, you got a fucking problem?!” Turning back to the dock boss, he added, “What’s your kid’s problem, Tito, because if he don’t straighten out his face, I’m gonna give him a fucking problem!”

First confused, then conciliatory, the dock boss replied, “Bruno? He’s a good kid, just a tad touchy. ‘Member how I was telling you about Gator Johnson getting his lights knocked out, then cut? Well, that’s the guy who did it.”

“Him?” Carlos asked, his shock diverting his earlier ire. “Tito, I’ve eaten shrimp at Antoine’s bigger than him.”

“Well, it’s as you say,” Tito replied with a shrug, “it ain’t the size of the dog in the fight—”

“—but the size of the fight in the dog,” the underboss finished with a chuckle. “Sure, why not, after all, it’s easier to choke a guy with chicken wire than anchor chain.” Giving Adán another look-over, he said to the dock boss, “Look, Tito, I’ve got an upcoming thing where I could use some extra muscle of the chicken wire variety. Send your boy tomorrow to Catfish Freddy’s, and I’ll make sure you get a piece of the pie.”

Placated by the promise of profit, Tito agreed, leaving Carlos free to depart without further question. It also paved the way for Adán to do God’s will amongst the Philistines.


Spring 1938

The next day, Adán reported to Chiafreddo “Catfish Freddy” Putanesca at his Acme Truck Line garage. Like Carlos, Freddy was similarly surprised by the bantamweight’s mismatched appearance and reputation, but the impatient ghoul had “bigger fish to fry.” Namely, as he explained to Adán and the other gathered ‘crew’, the Black Hand planned to infiltrate the Boston Club, the city’s elite, ultra-exclusive gentlemen’s club.

More specifically, the Mafia had caught wind that the Boston Club would be soon hosting a lavish midnight ball, after which time its members and a few, select guests would play a tournament of the club’s eponymous card game. Individual table winners would earn items donated by club members, many of which were of historical if not material value. However, the tournament’s grand champion would earn an exceeding rare artifact: the vertebra of St. Columba.

Freddy told his crew that one of the Black Hand’s Old World benefactors greatly desired the item–and if possible its matching piece. Much later, Adán learned that this ‘benefactor’ was Don Vico Giovannini, who claimed kinship not only with the fellow Italian d’Medici who had vainly had hunted the relic, but also the Roman Emperor Aurelian who had beheaded Columba, back when the Giovannini were known by their original, millennia-old surname of Ioveanus. As Freddy related, the Black Hand’s benefactor suspected that the auction would entice the other piece’s owner to attend.

Indeed, this was precisely the aim of the auction’s instigator: Rhett Carver, the Nosferatu Invictus and de facto primogen of his clan. In mortal life, Rhett had been one of the Boston Club’s founders, alongside John Randolph Grymes. In his Requiem, Rhett continued to claim the club as his domain, granting him influence over local and state politics and commerce, as the Club included prominent judges, state legislators, governors, lawyers, businessmen, diplomats, and bankers, while also hosting the likes of American presidents, generals, and British nobility.



True to Sir Gallier’s suspicions, the relic’s theft had been perpetrated by ‘Catholics’–though not of the living variety. Rhett and Rosa Bale–both allies of Savoy and heterodox members of Lancea et Sanctum given their mélange of Vodoun and Catholicism–had joined forces to channel the hurricane of 1915 to strike against their enemies. New Orleans’ Protestants were particularly ‘safe’ targets, as neither had the protection of Vidal or Baron Cimitière. The destruction of their spiritual and mercantile bastions, such as Huguenot-owned sections of the French Market, also would foster Rhett’s political-economic schemes in the First Estate–all of which would benefit Savoy, their would-be prince.

Their ritual proved successful, if extremely expensive and dangerous, but the pair believed that if they possessed both vertebrae, its power could help gain better control of future hurricanes, allowing them to make more targeted, direct attacks against Vidal’s and the Baron’s forces. However, neither Rhett’s mortal contacts nor Rosa’s ghostly spies had been able to identify the second vertebra’s exact location or owner–though their quarter-decade hunt had revealed the relic was somewhere in the Crescent City. Thus, Rhett had devised his card tournament scheme to draw out the owner of the second vertebra.

And it worked.


Spring 1938

When Adán related what he had learned from the Black Hand, Jamesie used his high society connections to secure an invitation to the exclusive tournament. As his ancestor had built the Boston Club’s current clubhouse on 824 Canal Street, the Knight of St. George was able to share many of the structure’s architectural and geomantic defenses and secrets. These clandestine passages and passcodes would prove invaluable to the Society of Leopold, as Father Fontenot passed on all that Adán had learned to his superiors. Both Father Fontenot and Sir Gallier commended Adán on his service, just as both said they would handle the rest of the messy, undoubtedly dangerous affair.

However, the young exorcist felt compelled to see the task through to its end, even if it was a bloody one. Part of this desire was due to zeal, but another motivation was caution. Namely, Freddy and the Black Hand expected ‘Bruno’ to be part of his crew of ‘busboys’ tasked with surreptitiously eavesdropping on the tournament contestants and attendees. Thus, they hoped to identify who had the other vertebra, rig the game, and/or potentially steal the ‘grand prize’ (which the Black Hand planned to do if their benefactor failed to win the tournament). If Adán did not play his part, he reasoned the Black Hand might suspect their mission was compromised, which could foil the vertebra’s recovery. Reluctantly, both Jamesie and Father Fontenot agreed with their pupil’s logic, though both warned him to be careful.

They were right to have done so.


Spring 1938

Just as the Black Hand ‘busboys’ were to begin their shift, Chiafreddo shared their mob’s backup plan. In the event that their patron’s cardsharpe lost, or someone else tried to steal the relic, they had rigged the tournament room, so they could flood it with nerve gas. Meanwhile, the ‘busboys’ would don their gas-masks, sealing the doors and making sure no one escaped.

The Giovannini, meanwhile, had summoned the wraith of the infamous Earl Beardie, the same cardsharpe who had been cursed by the Devil to play cards till doomsday, and whose lineage included not only Mackenzie Bowes, but the Devil Child of New Orleans. The Giovannini nigramancers found it all-too easy to tempt the ghostly card addict into their scheme, and they provided Lord Glamis a host that few would suspect: Percy J. Parker, a descendant of the more famous Boston Club members and brothers, John M. and Arthur D. Parker. However, the Giovannini’s plan did not account for Rosa Bale’s numerous spectral spies stationed in the 45-foot dining room. Moreover, none of the guests and schemers–not even Adán–were prepared for the Brotherhood of St. Athanasius.

When Father Fontenot had passed on Adán’s discoveries to his Leopoldite superiors, the Shadow Congregation’s leaders had called upon Phineas Constantin, the mulatto leader of the local Brotherhood of St. Athanasius. Brother Constantin, or ‘Stan’ as he was known, led the local Brotherhood in a form of anarchist communism that tried to emulate St. Peter’s practice of proto-communism in Jerusalem. As part of the Society of Leopold, Stan and his group were known more for their brutal efficiency than their precision or concern for collateral damage.

True to that reputation, the Brotherhood barged into the clubhouse, bypassing the geomantic wards with the information Jamesie had shared with Adán. Under the thin pretense of being a working class mob protesting local labor laws, the Brotherhood stormed the tournament hall, then violently assaulted those–like Rhett Carver, Earl Beadie, and Rosa’s ghosts–whom they divined were supernatural entities “in league with Satan.” In the resultant chaos, Chiafreddo signaled his crew to strike, and nerve gas began to pump into the room. So exposed, the poisoned mortal guests and Leopoldite intruders began to sweat, convulse, and involuntarily soil themselves.

Adán, meanwhile, donned his mask, then knocked out one of his Black Hand ‘colleagues.’ He then opened the door he was supposed to be guarding, preventing most of the room’s inhabitants from asphyxiating or going into cardiac arrest. Then, taking the gas mask off the knocked-out mobster, Adán fought his way through the chaos to rescue Jamesie, placing the extra mask over his toxin-afflicted friend, and helped him upstairs. There, they faced several of Rhett’s ghouls, who had been charged with guarding the relic that had been hidden in a billiard table. Adán tried to defend him and the aged Jamesie against the ghouls, but he was quickly outmatched. He would have been undoubtedly slain or worse, had not the puissant Knight of St. George summoned a goetic demon that slaughtered the Nosferatu’s thralls.

Thus, Adán and Jamesie were able to flee with the relic before the Vidal-backed police arrived to quell the unrest and cleanse the scene of its myriad Masquerade breaches. Chiafreddo and several mobsters were able to flee, and eventually concluded that ‘Bruno’ had betrayed them. Meanwhile, most of the Brotherhood were slain, or worse, ghouled by the Lancea et Sanctum. This later group–which included Brother Constantin–was eventually detected and eradicated by the Shadow Congregation, but not before several of the ‘double agents’ passed on significant Leopoldite secrets to their vampire domitors.

Furthermore, Adán initially returned to Father Fontenot empty-handed. Jamesie had refused to relinquish the vertebra, as he was wroth with the Society of Leopold for almost causing his murder and near-loss of the relic. Adán’s own temper was hot, as he felt betrayed by Jamesie–first for not relinquishing the relic, but second for his demonic summoning. Harsh words were exchanged between the Catholic and nominal Protestant, and when the former exited the latter’s Rolls Royce, Adán promised he would never take another breath inside the “Hell-tainted machine.”


Spring 1938

Thus, with his prospects of attending Notre Dame Seminary slim, his relations with the Society of Leopold in tatters, and the Black Hand searching for him, Adán returned to Eden Isle and the Jeansonnes to heal his physical and spiritual wounds. While the former quickly healed, the latter were more persistent, as Adán struggled to find God’s will in all that had occurred. He never doubted his own will to do God’s, but he worried whether he had strayed from the path of righteousness. Moreover, Adán was unsure what he should do next. Those questions only increased when, after partaking of the Feast of Corpus Christi at Our Lady of Lourdes, he sat at Sister Jolicoeur’s deathbed. Her final words to him were simple, yet piercing:

“God is not done with you.”

Her death and subsequent funeral made him ponder his childhood and first vision–experiences that seemed unfathomably distant. He tried to seek the old cypress grove, but found the swamp had been drained for commercial development. Unsure what to do, Adán eventually returned to the Jeansonnes. There, Pierre gave him an unmarked parcel that had appeared during Adán’s absence. The butcher block paper had no indication of its sender or intended recipient, but the fishermen had sensed it was meant for their adopted ‘priest.’

Opening the parcel, Adán saw it contained the vertebra of St. Columba. A typewritten note accompanied the relic:

Perhaps mine are also the wrong hands

May yours be better, Cœur de Lion

Adán was shocked by the gift, but his prayers of gratitude soon became prayers for guidance, for he was unsure what he should do with the relic. Similarly concerned that his presence could cause harm to his adoptive family, he borrowed a small boat and sailed into the center of Lake Pontchartrain to fast and pray. As the days passed, and his starved body ate itself, Adán struggled to divine God’s will. So intent was he on some esoteric epiphany, that Adán missed the heavens’ more exoteric omens.


Monday afternoon, 15 August 1938

One summer day, a hurricane crashed into Louisiana’s southern coast. Its sudden fury caught Adán completely unprepared. Lake Pontchartrain’s waters whipped into giant waves that towered over his small sailing vessel. The hurricane’s wind savagely tore apart Adán’s sails just as Jamesie’s demon had devoured the Nosferatu ghouls. Adán tried to pilot the boat back to Eden Isle, but the massive waves broke over his boat, swiftly swamping it. As the boat sunk, Adán tied St. Columba’s relic around his neck. The waves dragged him to the depths–and what he was sure was his death. His prayer to God in that moment was similar to that of the Lord’s disciples upon the storm-wracked Sea of Galilee, petitioning not only for himself, but also the hard-won relic:

“Lord, save us! We perish!”

No sooner had he silently prayed those words, then did the hurricane’s fury miraculously cease. As Adán surfaced, he realized he was under the eye of the storm. Knowing that the providential relief would be temporary, he tried to swim to the storm–as his boat had sunk to Pontchartrain’s depths.

Yet, belong long, his long-starved and already enervated muscles began to fail him, even as the winds and waves resumed. The shore was in sight, but he could swim no farther. As he started to sink a second time, he felt something, or someone, take hold of his hand and lift his head above the water.

It was hard to see amidst the storm, but Adán recognized the face that stared down at him. It was his father’s. Tomás’ spirit had pulled him up onto a floating bole of cypress–the very same from Adán’s first vision. Cut down by loggers, the tree had been swept out into the lake by the storm. Riding upon it, Tomás’ spirit shone like a pillar of bright blue fire. Tomás wept as he bade farewell to his son:

“As God wills it.”

Tomás’ spirit then ascended up a heavenly ladder, disappearing from mortal view. Yet, the bright manifestation had alerted Pierre to Adán’s location and plight. The Jeansonnes had been looking for their ‘priest’, but they had been forced back to shore by the redoubling storm. With the aid of the buoyant cypress, Adán was just able to hold on and float long enough for Pierre, his brother Andre, and their neighbors to haul him from the water like the miraculous fish of four years past.

Once safely sheltered inside, they marveled at the good fortune of seeing “St. Elmo’s fire” shinning from the cypress branch. Adán–half-drowned, near-starved, and utterly spent–could only call out his father’s name before physical and spiritual exhaustion pulled him firmly into sleep’s embrace.

View
Adán I, Chapter II
Fish Out of Water

“Blessed Michael, archangel, defend us in the hour of conflict."
Adán St. Cyprien


Fall 1934

With Pierre–or God, depending on one’s view–paying for Adán’s college tuition, books, room, and board, the lector enrolled in the Jesuits’ Religious Studies program at Loyola University of New Orleans. Much like his beginning at Our Lady of Lourdes, Adán struggled to fit in with his new environs and peers. The sheer scale and size of the university, much less the metropolis that surrounded it, was beyond anything in the rural man’s experience.




Adán had expected a cloistered religious institution akin to a monastery. Instead, he discovered that the vast majority of Loyola’s students were pursuing secular vocations, such as dentistry, law, pharmacy, music, and business. Things like football bewildered him, especially the fervor of its collegiate and community fans. Their borderline bloodthirst reminded him of his readings on the Roman Colosseum’s spectators. He was glad when the Jesuits discontinued the Wolf Pack’s football team in his sophomore year, especially as the unused field paved the way for the construction of the Memorial Library–though it would not be finished before his time ended at Loyola.

Even without football, the university was still rampant with worldly influences and related sins. In the recent wake of Prohibition’s repeal, Adán was surrounded by all manner of drunkenness, both in and off campus. Neither his family nor the sisters of Our Lady of Lourdes had drank alcohol, save for sacramental wine, so Adán was shocked at seeing the drug’s effects on his peers, but also astonished that anyone would willingly partake of something so “diabolic”, as it clearly “enslaved the mortal mind and body and drove it to all manner of frivolity and debauchery.” Naturally, Mardi Gras also did not suite the would-be priest.

Even amongst his fellow seminary students, Adán often felt like the shepherd boy David amongst King Saul’s war captains. Given the high cost of tuition, his peers came from even richer, more established families than that of the youths at Our Lady of Lourdes. Similarly, Adán’s rural accent and austere, threadbare clothing (as Pierre did not consider his friend would need money for a wardrobe) made him even more of an outsider than he had been in Eden Isle’s church. Most of his well-heeled peers mocked and derided him, and their derision only increased as Adán quickly became a favorite among the professors for his surprising erudition, memory, love of learning, and critical thinking.


Summer 1935

He did make a trio of friends, though. By the end of their freshman year, the four would-be priests became half-mockingly known as Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. The sobriquets came courtesy of Adán’s first dormmate, Saul Freneau, as the old monied scion liked to consider himself King Nebuchadnezzar, “Monarch of Marquette Hall.” Yet, even with those friends–who increasingly fell into Saul’s circle–Adán often felt more ashamed than included after some of his friends, like Thaddeus Malveaux, confessed that they were only studying to become priests out of familial obligation. Others disclosed more selfish ambitions of political and economic power. Both camps further disheartened Adán when they started accepting Saul’s invitations to co-ed parties, or worse, trips to Storyville’s red light district. When they in turn started to invite Adán to join them in their “levities”, Adán was not sure which invitations saddened him more: his friends’ attempts to include him and mollify their consciences, or Saul’s intent to tempt and tarnish the “peckerwood prude.”

Nevertheless, Adán resisted all such sinful enticements and cloistered himself inside his second-story Marquette Hall dorm and the Bobet Library above it. He only exited to attend lectures, find new reading materials, and begrudgingly eat in the dining hall when his dormmates rightly decried his thinness. Otherwise, his only ‘hobby’ was visiting the city’s many churches, as he enjoyed partaking in and, when permitted, assisting with their sacraments and services. Additionally, he adored studying the local churches’ and cathedrals’ famed historical architecture, as he considered their structures and decorations to be testaments of divine glory and the power of communal devotion.



Thus, notwithstanding all the venial distractions, Adán soon settled into content rhythm. This rhythm included Loyola’s academic summer breaks when Adán would return to Eden Isle, to visit with his former teachers at Our Lady of Lordes and help Pierre and the other Jeansonnes with their fishing business. They were happy, comfortable times.

But as God so often desires, Adán’s comfortable life was soon discomforted.


Friday morning, 5 February 1937

It occurred near the end of his senior year, on the Friday before Shrove Tuesday. Just before dawn, his three ‘friends’ and then-dormmates returned from a series of debauched Mardi Gras celebrations.



Unlike prior years, they neither collapsed with sybaritic exhaustion nor teased Adán about their hedonistic exploits. Instead, they were frantic and fearful, physically dragging Saul Freneau into the room. Saul jabbered, howled, and swore in a foreign, feminine voice even as he tried to strangle, scratch, and bite his fellows. Although Adán had never witnessed something like this before, his copious readings led him to suspect a form of malign possession. Alerting his dormmates to the possibility, he suggested they tie their demented friend to one of the dorm’s beds. They were dubious, but desperate, so they did as he directed.

Meanwhile, Adán sought his thesis advisor, Father Simon Fontenot, a learned if heterodox Jesuit with whom Adán had had ongoing conversations about the biblical exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac, the related writings of St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Thomas Aquinas, and the implications for Christian ethics regarding animal rights. Father Fontenot, however, was absent–as were most faculty during Loyola’s academic break during Mardi Gras. Yet, when Adán touched Fontenot’s office door with his stigmata-marked palm, the door opened. Thinking the man might be inside, he explored. Still not finding his advisor, and concerned for Saul’s state, Adán borrowed several texts, sacramentals, and icons he had seen the priest refer to when discussing exorcism. So empowered, he returned to his dorm. There, he found the others had gagged Saul after the man had tried to bite off his own tongue.

Adán drew upon his ecclesiastical training and faith to perform the exorcism. He recited prayers according to the rubrics of the rite, making use of the Jesuit priest’s relics. He invoked God’s name, as well as the name of Timothée and his other dead relatives as representatives of the Church Triumphant. He drew out his rosary–its wood beads hand-carved from the same cypress tree of his vision–and recited St. Michael’s Prayer against Satan and the Rebellious Angels:

“Sancte Michael Archangele,
defende nos in proelio;
contra nequitiam et insidias diaboli esto praesidium.
Imperet illi Deus, supplices deprecamur:
tuque, Princeps militiae caelestis,
Satanam aliosque spiritus malignos,
qui ad perditionem animarum pervagantur in mundo,
divina virtute, in infernum detrude.
Amen.”

(“Blessed Michael, archangel,
defend us in the hour of conflict.
Be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the devil
(may God restrain him, we humbly pray):
and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host,
by the power of God thrust Satan down to hell
and with him those other wicked spirits
who wander through the world for the ruin of souls.
Amen.”
)

As Adán completed the invocation, fresh blood began to well from the long scabbed-over wound in his palm. He then bade his awed companions to unbind Saul’s gag. Saul–or whatever had possessed him–immediately began screaming a host of invectives and made all manner of vile prophecies, including Adán’s damnation. Unheading those words, Adán called upon the Archangel Michael, compelling the unclean spirit to identify itself. It gave the name of one of Saul’s infamous ancestors, Madeline Freneau. Adán then banished the unclean spirit by using his rosary-touched blood to paint the sign of the cross upon Saul’s brow. With the ritual complete, Saul instantly became still and silent, collapsing into a deep sleep.


Friday morning, 5 February 1937

Exhausted from his own spiritual labors, Adán slumped into a nearby chair. He brushed aside his friends’ questions of what he had done–or more specifically how he had done it. Instead, he bade them explain themselves and how Saul had come to such a state. That tale–which was further filled in when Saul awoke and appeared once again in his right mind–indicated that Saul and the others had attended the Knights of Momus’ bal masque, with ‘escorts’ from Storyville. Saul, however, had left early with his companion in order to seek more “exotic” adventures.

His companion, who identified herself by the clearly false name of Mademoiselle Marie Délicieux, took the old monied Freneau to Rosa Bale to attend a séance. Saul was happy to liberally part with his family’s money, and even the blood offering she demanded, but the drunken young man foolishly insulted the mambo, repeatedly accusing her of being a charlatan and boorishly asking what “gimmicks” she used to “con” her clients. Naturally, the Ventrue mambo did not take kindly to her dignitas and faith being besmirched, especially not by a drunken kine.

Rosa.png
In retaliation, Rosa summoned the devil-cursed wraiths of Madeline Freneau and her lover, Alcide Cancienne. She caused the former to possess Saul and the latter to possess Marie. The ghosts immediately tried to reenact their last, murderous meal. Saul vaguely recalled chasing the Alcide-possessed Storyville prostitute into the streets, where they engaged in a manic, murderous game of cat and mouse. Privately, he told Adán of haunting memories of violence unwillingly wrought by his on hand. He recalled catching Marie in a French Quarter alleyway, where he ripped her hair and mask, beat her with a brick, and then started to strangle her. However, Saul believed, or at least fervently hoped, that he had not killed her, and Adán guessed that he would have, had the Freneau wraith not seen a krewe of devil-dressed partygoers and mistaken them for the diabolic minions of her former St. Charles Avenue lover.

Fortunately for Saul, at least, Madeline’s flight took him providentially into the path of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. When ‘Madeline’ pushed them aside, screaming about “Le Diable”, and tried to run, they gave chase, thinking it was another of Saul’s rakish pranks. When they finally managed to catch him and overpower him, they realized that something far worse was afoot, especially as Saul’s masquerade costume was speckled with blood. Unsure what to do, they had taken Saul back to their dorm.


Friday morning, 5 February 1937

For Adán’s miraculous assistance that followed, his dormmates expressed fervent appreciation. At the same time, they also expressed concern that their deeds, if made known, could lead to their expulsion, of in Saul’s case, imprisonment. Adán, however, was far more concerned about Marie’s fate, for even if she had survived Saul’s brutal attack, she was likely still possessed by Alcide’s evil shade. Adán convinced the initially reluctant Saul that finding and rescuing Marie was not only his first step in penance, but also the most likely action to keep him being charged for murder.

So roused, Saul, Adán, and the others took to the streets. The search was difficult, particular with the French Quarter choked with Mardi Gras celebrants and parade litter.


On Toulouse Street, they found a group of French-Arcadians from the nearby ‘Great Gumbo Orgy’ who saw a girl that matched Marie’s description. They related that she had psychotically thrown herself through a storefront glass window and then begun to roll and crawl through the broken glass. When they approached her, thinking her mad and in need of aid, she threatened to kill them with a knife-like shard of glass.

Entering the alley the gumbo celebrants said the wraith-possessed woman fled into, the five companions found a disemboweled cat, with its entrails arranged in a Satanic pentagram. After that, they lost track of their quarry. Exhausted, Saul and the other students convinced Adán to rest and regroup back at Marquette Hall–though Adán made Saul promise to return and help him find and free the young woman from the unclean spirit.


Friday morning, 5 February 1937

When they reached their dorm, Father Fontenot was waiting. Alerted to his office’s intrusion, the Jesuit rightly suspected Adán as the prime suspect for the absence of his exorcism relics. Those suspicions were confirmed when he inspected the lector’s dorm, finding his books. Moreover, he also found evidence of an attempted exorcism: as the four belts they used as makeshift restraints for Saul were still tied to the sweat-drenched bed. Thus, Father Fontenot was not surprised when the five students returned to their dorm room with Adán carrying the remaining icons and relics. All five, however, were very surprised, if not worse, when they shuffled into their room and found Father Fontenot sitting at Adán’s desk. The priest did not provide them time to properly recuperate from their fright before he affixed a particularly stern gaze upon Adán, saying:

“Exodus teaches us that thieves, even if able to return their stolen possessions, must make a twofold restitution, lest they be sold as slaves.”

Beckoning his pupil to follow him, Father Fontenot gave Saul and the other three students a final, sobering rebuke before departing:

“You may yet inherit your families’ fortunes, but remember the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians–‘Nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.’”

Once back in the Jesuit professor’s office, Father Fontenot first ascertained the safety of all of his relics, then meticulously questioned Adán about all that had transpired. The priest listened intently, then admonished Adán that he was only ordained as a lector, and did not belong to the higher order of exorcists.

Adán, fearful of being expelled–or worse, excommunicated–tried to invoke David’s use of the tabernacle’s holy showbread despite not being a Levite priest. However, Father Fontenot easily parried his pupil’s line of reasoning.

“And here I thought you were Daniel, not David?” the Jesuit jested, then added without humor, “But David asked the priests’ permission; he did not sneak into the tabernacle when no one was around, pilfer the holy bread, and then run back to Nob.”

Adán tried to reiterate that he had not ‘snuck’ anywhere, but Father Fontenot cut him off:

“No, Adán, an error has been made, and,” he said firmly, “the Church Militant must rectify it.”

Yet, rather than levy any of the myriad punishments that swirled in Adán’s mind, Father Fontenot stood up and passed back the book containing the formulae of exorcism, and said solemnly:

“Adán St. Cyprien, the Lamb of God has bestowed upon you the charism of an exorcist, and by His holy name and the Statuta Ecclesiæ Antiqua, I confer upon you its order. Receive, and commit to memory, and possess the power of imposing hands on energumens, whether baptized or catechumens. Amen."

Overcome with gratitude and relief, Adán thanked the priest, explaining that he had expected to be punished. Father Fontenot smiled, though a pained sadness was in his eyes:

“Who says you have not?”


Friday morning, 5 February 1937

While Adán pondered that cryptic remark, Father Fontenot proceeded to instruct him further in the sacraments of Senergumenic exorcism, including the Benedictine formulae of Vade Retro Satana, and exorcism variants of the Memorare, Sub tuum, and Quicunque Vult. Although much of this instruction was material that the priest and pupil had already discussed–and had proved pivotal in Adán’s exorcism of Madeline from Saul’s body–the Jesuit shared many new revelations. Chief among these involved the induction of the newly ordained exorcist into the Society of Leopold, also known as the Malleus Maleficarum and the Shadow Congregation.

As part of that process, the Jesuit explained the purpose of the secret society of apostolic life, the Society’s 1231 founding by its namesake Leopold von Murnau under Pope Gregory IX, its 15th-century rise to prominence under Bishop Ambrogio Baudolino and Pope Innocent VIII, its release from the Holy See’s direct service several decades ago in 1908, and its many varied sects and sub-orders. Father Fontenot identified himself as belonging to the Order of St. Ambrose, the order responsible for scholarly and ‘in situ’ research on energumenic influences and activity. Father Fontenot disclosed that he had been grooming Adán for induction into his own same order, but that Adán’s recent actions made the priest ponder whether the more confrontive Order of St. Longinus might be more appropriate.

To ascertain God’s will, Father Fontenot said he would need further prayer and communion with his superiors–whose names he poignantly did not share with the recent inductee. In the meantime, he charged Adán with making ‘restitution’ by tracking down the location of another energumenic relic that had been lost to the Society. When Adán expressed concern about allowing the mambo to continue practicing “witchcraft”, the priest nodded, but said that such was the affair of the Order of St. Longinus. Adán, however, persisted, disclosing that he and Saul had sworn a vow to find and free the young woman possessed by Alcide’s shade.

Sighing, Father Fontenot rebuked his pupil:

“You of all souls should not forget the Epistle of James,” then quoted its fifth Part, twelfth verse, “But above things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea, and nay be nay; lest ye fall into condemnation.”

Still, the priest relented, acquiescing to if not quite blessing Adán’s and Saul’s endeavor. He then dismissed his physically and mentally exhausted pupil, but not before reminding Adán to protect the orders’ secrets. As if to reiterate its importance, he asked the new Leopoldite:

“And why did the Lord command us not to cast our pearls before swine?”

“Because they will trample them as things of naught versus holy,” Adán answered.

“Yes,” the priest nodded. “But the Lord’s injunction had a second reason–a warning that the swine will ‘turn again and rend you.’”

With that ominous warning, Adán returned to his dorm.

View
Adán I, Chapter I
As God Wills It

“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not, and it shall be given him.”
James 1:5


Monday morning, 31 January 1916


Adán St. Cyprien was born on Eden Isle in St. Tammany Parish, along the northeastern cypress-swamps of Lake Pontchartrain, in 1916. His indigent French-Creole family dwelt in a humble pine-hewn cabin. His father, Tomás, had been taken by his own father to the region to “escape New Orleans and its evil ways that rivaled Sodom and Gomorrah.” Tomás himself was a strict but fair father, who taught his children how to survive by trapping turtles, fishing for sturgeon and paddlefish, and diving for clams. They traded what little excess they had for those few items they could not obtain or make from the land and lake. One of those items was medicine. When Adán and his eldest brother, Timothée, became sick with the ‘yellow jack’, Tomás swallowed his pride to beg for aid from the nuns of the local isle’s church, Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church and School. They graciously gave the family a package of paracetamol and their prayers. Tomás gladly accepted the former, and in time, both of his sons recovered.

In repayment, or tithe of gratitude, Adán volunteered every tenth day of his time at the church. There, the boy served the Ursuline nuns, performing menial chores such as weeding the church grounds and scrubbing its tomb markers. During these tasks, the young boy often lingered nearby rooms and windows, eavesdropping on ecclesiastical and secular lessons. Noting this, one of the nuns, Sister Jolicoeur, kindly taught him his letters and catechisms, and was surprised at how readily he learned both. After a few more private lessons, with equally surprising results–such as Adán memorizing the entire Epistle of James after only a few readings–Sister Jolicoeur convinced the local priest, Father Maggard, who in turn convinced Adán’s parents to allow him to attend the Catholic school, courtesy of a scholarship.

Despite Adán’s thirst for knowledge and intellectual aptitude, the young boy initially had trouble integrating with his new life, as he was not used to the highly structured setting and rules, much less sitting in a chair. The astute youth was also keenly aware that his clothes, dialect, and prior education (or relative lack thereof) marked him as a poor bayou-born Creole. In contrast, his ‘peers’ were relatively wealthy, white, and well-educated students whose parents paid for their children’s parochial tuition and boarding fees. Those tensions only intensified as Adán quickly caught up to, and then surpassed his peers in both scriptural and secular knowledge. Moreover, Adán’s curiosity and rough politesse meant he occasionally drew the ire of his teachers when he asked piercing, but highly unorthodox questions.


Spring 1927

However, Adán’s studies almost came to a premature end when his elder brother, Timothée, once again caught yellow fever, and then seemed to pass it to Adán’s sisters and mother. Desperate for a cure, the family sold their only item of significant value: an heirloom liturgical relic that was a 14th-century Medici porcelain figure reportedly commissioned by Cardinal Ferdinando de’Medici, and later possessed by his 15th-century descendant, Pope Leo XI, and his close friend, St. Philip Neri. Despite this esteemed historicity, the porcelain figure sold for a meager 30 dollars.

Yet, the money still allowed Tomás to transport his family–all save Adán–to Abita Springs. There, he hoped the famed artesian waters would cure his sick son, daughters, and wife. Upon hearing of the desperate journey, Adán had wanted to accompany his family, but his father demurred, nominally citing the importance of his religious study, but in truth fearing that Adán would at best be another mouth to feed and shelter, or worst, also become ill.

Left behind and overcome with worry for his family members, Adán struggled to reengage with his studies. At the same time, his scriptural learning and questions were no longer driven by idle curiosity, but had became painfully personal. Namely, he wondered why there must there be sickness and death, and why did the priests no longer seem to possess the miraculous healing powers of biblical prophets and apostles? Once again, the Epistle of James–and specifically the fifth verse of its first Part–guided his path. Namely, from the Vulgar Clementina, he read and readily recalled its translation:

Si quis autem vestrum indiget sapientia, postulet a Deo, qui dat omnibus affluenter, et non improperat: et dabitur ei.

(“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not, and it shall be given him.”)

So inspired, Adán left the church grounds to privately pray for understanding and wisdom. He traveled deep into the swamps, far from any other human soul.


There, he shed his clothes as if in reverse imitation of the antediluvian Adam. The young boy then knelt and prayed with all his fervor. Night fell, and he heard predatory, hungry things stalking the woods, but he did not relent. Instead, he further poured out his soul, his pleading words like a never-ceasing stream of incense up to heaven.

Then, just as he felt a claw-like hand on his neck, the cypress tree in front of him became engulfed in flames. The claw and any other predators instantly retreated. Adán opened his eyes and beheld the burning cypress. In its bowers, twelve seraphic pelicans nested, their pure-white plumage gleaming like lightning. In the roaring flames, Adán heard the voice of God–or what he presumed to be God. The voice called him by name, then told him that his brother, sisters, and mother were all dead. Adán could not help but weep. But the voice comforted him, explaining that their souls were in heaven, where they were free from sickness and all other mortal pains.

As if sensing Adán’s questions, the voice continued, expounding on the purpose of sickness, disease, and death, explaining that death ultimately is a divine gift, a doorway through which all save the most damned souls can cross freely. Many other things did the voice share with the young boy, but it ended by foretelling that Adán’s father would return from his sojourn on the morrow and attempt to take Adán away from his studies. The voice warned Adán that he must not let this happen, for he was being called to serve God’s will in other ways.

Elated, yet humbled, Adán asked what he should do to prevent his father and the nuns from ending his studies. In reply, one of the angelic pelicans flew down from the burning tree. Sensing some unvoiced command, Adán offered a palm to the seraphic bird. In response, the pelican opened its mouth, regurgitating a burning fish hook that punctured Adán’s hand. The boy felt it immediately–not just the pain of the partial stigmata, but also power.


Spring 1927

The next morning, true to the voice’s prophecy, Adán’s father returned from Abita Springs, informing Father Maggard that Adán’s brother, sisters, and mother had all perished from the yellow fever. Tomás also announced that he had come to reclaim his sole living child, as he would need his help to maintain their cabin homestead. Although Sister Jolicoeur tried to explain the boy’s scholarly aptitude and promise, Tomás was adamant–and also seemed in no mood for further discussion, as he seemed not only heartbroken and exhausted, but also ill and jaundiced. Reluctantly, Sister Jolicoeur retrieved Adán. The boy both comforted and disquieted her with assurances that he already knew what had happened–and must happen. Seeing his father, Adán calmly related that he must remain behind and complete his studies “as God wills it.” Irate at the boy’s seemingly sanctimonious defiance, Tomás harshly recited the fifth commandment:

“Honor thy father and thy mother!”

Adán countered calmly by reciting Luke 14:26:

“If any man come to me, and forsake not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.”

Nigh-apoplexic with fury, Tomás attempted to drag his son forcibly back to their cabin homestead. Yet, just as he grabbed the boy, Tomás’ fever overcame him. He violently collapsed, blood leaking from his nose. Spasms overtook his body, and he began to violently wretch black vomit. Recognizing the fatal, if surprisingly sudden, symptoms of yellow fever, Father Maggard and the gathered nuns hesitated, unsure what they should or could do. Adán, however, calmly approached his father and unwrapped his bandaged hand to reveal his pierced palm. Anointing his father with the stigmatic blood, Adán called upon God to restore not only the dying man’s body, but also his faith. At the benediction’s conclusion, Tomás was miraculously hale.

As Tomás regained his health and speech, he slowly rose, then turned to Father Maggard. He proclaimed that Adán should stay and complete his training, glancing to his son, as he added, “As God wills it.” Tomás then left without another word, leaving the shocked priest and nuns with their strange ward.


Summer 1937

Adán never saw his father again–at least not in life–as Tomás and their homestead were reportedly washed away by hurricane storm-surges on June 16th, 1934. In the same year, Adán completed his minor seminary at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church and School. True to his teacher’s predictions, he had become an exemplary scriptorian and religious scholar. His other ‘gifts’ had been rarely displayed, and never again in such a dramatic manner. Notwithstanding, his tutors had great aspirations for him, and none ever questioned whether Adán would continue his path to becoming an ordained presbyteratus.

At the same time, neither Adán nor the others at Our Lady of Lourdes ever really answered how the poor, orphaned teen could afford college, much less a graduate-level seminary. For all his ecclesiastical and scholarly education, he had no significantly marketable skills and even less money. Moreover, the state and country were in the nadir of the Great Depression. Jobs were few and far between, even for those with employable skills and vocational experience. Yet, true to the motto of the seminary whose admission he sought, Adán believed that Deus providebit: ‘God will provide.’

And He did.

Yet, as is common with providence, divine aid came only after a trial of faith. The need for work drove Adán back to the ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ from which his grandfather had fled. News had trickled to Eden Isle that workers were needed to help excavate the swampland south of the Gentilly Ridge and north of Bayou Bienvenue for the rerouted Intracoastal Waterway. With naught a penny to his name, Adán departed his beloved tutors and long-time home at Our Lady of Lourdes. Reaching Lake Pontchartrain’s shores, he contemplated whether he should walk the NO&NE railway line or the equally hazardous I-10 Twin Span Bridge that connected St. Tammany Parish with New Orleans. As he contemplated his path and tried to ignore the growing hunger in his belly, the recently ordained lector paused to pray. A local fisherman happened upon the praying would be priest, and teasingly asked:

“I don’t reckon da Almighty has any recommendations on bait, eh?”

Still kneeling with eyes closed, Adán replied, “I can ask the Lord if you wish–though you may do the same, as God’s grace allows all men to petition His throne through Christ’s intercession.”

“Well,” the redbone, heavily bearded fisherman said with a feigned chuckle, “I haint sure I done understood all dem fancy four-dollar words, but me and da Lord aren’t exactly on speakin’ terms dese days.”

That confession gave Adán pause, leading him to shift the petition of his prayer, silently asking aid to rekindle the man’s faith–‘as God willed it.’ What next ensued was a lengthy talk between the lector and fisherman. The former introduced himself, sharing tales of his upbringing in the cypress swamps and church, as well as his present mission of seeking employ in New Orleans to pay for college, pursuant to serving as a Catholic priest. The latter in turn introduced himself as Pierre Jeansonne, who like his father and brother, Andre, worked a fishing trawler on Lake Pontchartrain. Pierre related how the fishing had been poor as of late, with money being particularly sore. His mother-in-law needed a surgical operation, but was on her deathbed as the family could not pay for the necessary but expensive anesthetics the city surgeons required. Sympathetic to the man’s plight, Adán inquired if Pierre’s mother-in-law had received a priestly anointing. Pierre scoffed, saying he and his kin had long ago lost faith in a “Church dat seemed only good at takin’ coin, or a God dat seemed fine wit watchin’ his world go to da shitter.” Those confessions in turn led to a longer series of theological conversations that stretched to sunset, with both men sharing their soul’s deepest questions about the divine, even as Adán tried to stoke the last embers of Pierre’s faith.

By the end, Pierre seemed almost ready to take up again his abandoned faith, but he faltered as he looked at his empty fishing pole. Rising, he bid the would-be priest good fortunes, and half-heartedly asked the lector to say another prayer that his wife would forgive him for spending the entire evening talking to a stranger versus catching dinner for his family. Adán, however, halted the man, saying there was no need to ask for his wife’s forgiveness, as “God had an answer to his first petition.” Perplexed by the lector’s remark, Pierre paused to watch as Adán plucked a blade of St. Augustine grass, tied it in the liturgical outline of a fish, and then dipped the object in what looked to be a deep puncture wound in the lector’s palm. Adán then passed the anointed ‘bait’ to the fisherman, bidding Pierre to cast his line into the lake for him to catch “as God wills it.” The experienced fisherman wanted to scoff at the bait, but there was something in the lector’s gaze that halted his tongue, if not doubts.

Thus, Pierre attached the ‘bait’ to his hook and cast his line. Immediately, he caught something–something large. It took all of both men’s strength, and the help of several passersby, to pull in the catch: a giant 12-foot gulf sturgeon.


Uncannily, the line never snapped. Yet, the greatest part of the miracle was revealed when Pierre went to retrieve his hook and “lucky” bait, as the man spotted something else inside the fish’s mouth. It was a rusted money box, and inside was a collection of 18th century Spanish doubloons.


The antique gold was more money than either man had ever seen, and would more than cover Pierre’s familial surgical fees. Pierre broke down in tears, thanking Adán and praising God.

Demanding the “holy man” accompany him to his house, Pierre introduced the lector to his family and related the miraculous events. They shared a joyous meal, during which Pierre promised to not only ferry Adán to New Orleans, but also to use whatever remained of the doubloons’ post-surgery proceeds to pay for Adán’s college education. Adán accepted the man’s offer with a humble bow, proclaiming,

“As God wills it.”

View
Adán I, Prologue I; Jean-Marc I, Prologue I
Pseudepigraphon

Tuesday night, 16 February 2016, PM

Jean-Marc: The city smelled of hot sweat and half-hidden sin.

Just like a shameless, fecund harlot whose flimsy facade of modesty is meant only to tease and titillate.

Oh, that’s a good one, mused Jean-Marc, Gotta tuck that one away for a future piece, though the alliteration might be a bit too much. No need to over-sugar a good beignet.

The man took a long, slow inhalation, as if savoring New Orlean’s scent.

Yes, just like a shameless harlot whose facade of modesty is meant only to tease.

And just the way I like it, smiled Jean-Marc. The man sauntered past the urban boundaries of Vieux Carré into what was once Faubourg Ste. Marie. He preferred the old name; Central Business District just doesn’t have the same ring, no flair, no soul. Then again, Jean-Marc usually wasn’t one to care about souls–even his own.

He took another swig from his bottle of Bourdeaux wine. It was a 2005 Château Pétrus, a fine Merlot vintage–though in New Orleans its year was infamous at best. To Jean-Mac, the ‘venial scandal’ made the red wine taste all the sweeter. Not that it needed the help. After all, it was one of the finest bottles of wine he had ever tasted.

Damned well should be, too, Jean-Marc privately groused, Given that I blew more than two grand on less than a liter of the damned stuff. Still, his irritation was, like the Crescent City’s pretense of modesty, nakedly insincere.

After all, he thought with a returning smile that reflected the neon marquee of the Orpheum theater, Some days you just deserve to spoil yourself.

And today, at least according to Jean-Marc’s twisted ‘ethics’, was one of those days. Just this morning, several national tabloids had printed his expose on the Archdiocese of New Orleans and how over eighty of its currently serving priests had been involved in sexual abuse of children, nuns, and secret wives. Within a few hours, his article–or at least the most salacious (and mostly true) parts–were being passed around the Internet like a Rohypnol-laced red cup at one of Duke Elmhearst’s frat parties. By the afternoon, even prime-time cable networks like RED had picked up on the story, and their talking heads had further stirred the pot.

Much like the media’s autocannibalistic orgy, Jean-Marc’s path meandered. He dipped inside one of the CBD’s local department stores, Godchaux’s, to pick up a present for one his favorite ‘girlfriends’: Leslie St. George. After digging up her real name, Jean-Marc had long stopped using her pseudonym of Kristina Winters.

“Seriously, it’s a snooze-fest of a sobriquet,” he had told her during one of their ‘dates’, “Don’t get me wrong, I understand the need for using another handle. Hell, I only publish a quarter, maybe a tenth, of my material under my real name. But my dear, sweet, luscious fucking legs, you live in La Nouvelle-Orléans. If you’re going to come up with a fake name, let it at least be something with a little panache or Rabelaisian éclat. Kristina Winters… it’s like calling a vintage of Bourdeaux something atrociously banal like Bob or Karen. Your ears just vomited, didn’t they? Of course they did, because they, like you, are far too couth and chic."

Stepping back outside, he followed their agreed upon protocol of leaving the receipt inside her gift. This time, the present was a handbag: a baptismal white leather affair made by Mark Cross. It wasn’t Gucci or Louis Vuitton, but he appreciated the irony of the brand’s name, particularly the ‘passion’ Leslie would give him for the ‘Cross’. Still, the handbag left him $745 poorer. Passing by Gallier Hall’s Greek Revival architecture, he idly wondered how much of the handbag’s refund would go to his ‘girlfriend’ versus her boss, Ms. Roberts. He swallowed those thoughts just like his next swig of his Château Pétrus.

Hell, it doesn’t matter. It’s worth it, just like this damned good wine.

His thoughts turned back to his nationally circulating piece. It had taken him six years of hard investigation. Well, some of it was hard. After all, the line between artistic license and libel had long ago become fuzzy for Jean-Marc, just like how his head felt from the bottle of red. But the fuzziness helped him look past the bribes, false credentials, and blackmail. Just the usual ‘tabloid tricks’. It wasn’t his most solid piece of investigative journalism. It had holes, some of which were pretty gaping. He could have spent more time on it, verified all his sources, double-checked the purported facts and dates. But six years is a fucking long time–long enough. And there’s bills to pay. The boys at Harrah’s don’t let you play for free. Here and there, he may have ‘gilded a few lilies’, thrown in a few names of priests who might have been honest, good, and innocent men versus child-sodomists and nun-rapists. Then again, he didn’t really believe that honest, good, or innocent men existed.

So even if they didn’t molest some choir boy–, Jean-Marc rationalized to himself as he stepped onto Camp Street, –they were probably up to something else. That’s just life–a big bucket of shit we’re all swimming in. Ain’t nobody clean, so you’re either eating it or shoveling the shit.

And Jean-Marc definitely preferred to shovel. It didn’t matter whether it was a state senator’s son caught wearing blackface for a high school Halloween party, the newest starlet of Zodiac Productions busted for a DUI, or a respected philanthropist suspected of tax fraud. Ever since his days at Loyola, he had learned to love digging up other people’s dirt and rubbing it their ‘better-than-thou’ faces. And no one, in Jean-Marc’s eyes, was more sanctimonious than the Catholic church.

He took another hit of the red, then stared up at the towering Gothic architecture of St. Patrick’s church.

Looks like a giant ass-plug.

He raised his middle finger to church and to the heavens above it.

Well, God is a giant pain in the ass, so maybe it fits. Hmm, file that away too, maybe save it for a snarky tweet.

Resuming his stroll home, he gleefully considered how the article and related press coverage would hurt the church.

Hell, maybe it’ll finally bankrupt the archdiocese? If it does, shit, they should give me the fucking Pulitzer and Sydney Award. Oh, that would be so wicked delicious. They’d have to close down some more churches for sure, just like ’08 all over again. I wonder which one’s they’d axe… They’d soon as hand over the fucking Lance of Longinus as shut down St. Louis, but maybe Immaculate Conception? St. Alphonsus?

His speculative schadenfreude took him all the way to 812 Gravier Street, at the corner of Carondelet.

Ah, home, shit home.

As he had with the church, Jean-Marc gazed up at the historic Hibernia Bank Building. He took some pleasure in knowing the 23-story skyscraper was 355 feet tall; whereas, Patrick’s belltower was only 185 feet fall.

Take that, God, Mammon’s prick is way bigger than yours!

He laughed hard–perhaps a bit too hard at the crude jest–and then entered the lobby. On the way to the elevator, he passed by the floor’s retail bank and all that had remained of Hibernia Bank. If his sources were accurate, even their relocated St. Charles offices were about to be swallowed up the bigger Whitney Hancock or Bank of Columbia.

“Big fish eat the little fish, bigger fish eat the big one,” he drunkenly sung to himself as he stepped into the elevator and pressed his floor button: 21. He wasn’t surprised that he had the elevator to himself. The joint development venture hadn’t finished converting the upper bank floors into their planned 176 mixed-income apartments. He also wasn’t surprised when he entered his flat and found himself once more alone. Tabloid gossips make for coveted party conversationalists, but few want them around much longer.

Inside, the apartment was dark, but its large windows provided a sumptuous view of the city that sprawled out below and around the Hibernia building. Its fellow skyscrapers of former Faubourg Ste. Marie provided an angular backdrop of shadows and light that simultaneously obscured and revealed the Louisiana night-sky. Further off, the less vertically piercing wards of New Orleans glittered like an opera diva’s gem-studded brassière.

And just as fucking hot and sweaty too, I imagine, the man mused, momentarily taking in the grandeur of the sight that siphoned so much of his salary.

Not wanting to ‘depreciate’ that view, he didn’t bother turning on the lights inside his apartment. He still hadn’t decided whether he loved or hated his apartment’s interior. It was done in the Transistional Style. Jean-Marc wasn’t entirely sure that meant, though his “interior decorator”, an old Loyola acquaintance, had described it as a “mélange of fashions that incorporates the traditional old world and contemporary world of chrome and glass, blending curves and straight lines to balance the masculine and feminine”.

Yeah, whatever the fuck that means.

He did know that it was cheaper than some alternatives, as it meant minimal ornamentation, decoration, and accessories. His floors, walls, and even upholstery were all monochromatic, all the same shade of an ambiguous, pretentiously named gray that in certain light could look like a blanched blue, tan, or green. Otherwise, the only color in his apartment was from a few pieces of artwork, foremost of which included a massive oil painting of a winged lion–the symbol of Mark the Evangelist. It had been a joke from several of his friends, but he liked it.

After all, aren’t I a fucking evangelist? I tell the truth–or at least the tabloid headlines kind of truth. Short and powerful like a jab to the mouth. None of the obscure as hell, purple prose of St. John, or the pedantic, who-the-hell-cares minutiae of St. Matthew. Nah, my style is more like Mark’s. Shock and awe. Who got killed, who got fucked. Miracles, scandals, disasters. That’s all people really care about–the only truths that matter.

Unable to admire the oil painting in the dark, Jean-Marc sauntered over to his favorite couch, its soft, cashmere fabric the same gray as nearly everything else in his apartment. He set down the Godchaux’s shopping bag and bottle of half-drunk Bourdeaux on a nearby coffee table. Its high-gloss lacquer trapped some of New Orleans’ tequila, crimson, and amber night-lights. Stepping past the table, Jean-Marc plopped himself down onto the goose-feather and down-filled sofa. He then fished out his phone, a Sunburst Solaris. He had heard rumors of the smartphone’s secret backdoors and security breaches, but he had jail-breaked the device and added some patches. Plus, he figured that all of the newest phones had similar skeletons in their digital closet–just ones that were better hid.

The devil you know…, the man reflected as he unlocked his phone. He scrolled through his feeds, and became delighted to see how his article had started a firestorm. Posting a few comments here and there, he poured several strategic shots of textual gasoline onto the digital blaze. Satisfied with his ‘evangelism’, he opened up a custom chat-app and fired off a message to Leslie, seeing if she was available for a ‘date’.

Setting his phone down on the table, he waited for her reply. Sinking back into the sofa’s comfort, he gave a contented sigh. Yet, that sybaritic solace was soon broken when he heard a small, rustling or oscillating sound from within his apartment. He sat up and leaned forward to better listen.

What the hell is that?! he groused unhappily, Busted air compressor? Cockroach? Fuck, please let it not be cockroaches. I hate bugs.

Yet, no sooner had the sound started then it stopped. Jean-Marc tugged his earlobe, wondering if he’d drunken too much wine–or at least as much to start hearing things. Yet, just as he began to forget the incident and relax again, something flew out of the darkness. It landed with a small, flittering ‘thwap’ against the Godchaux’s shopping bag. Jean-Marc would claim he didn’t give a tiny shriek–but he did. After composing himself, he leaned forward once again, his eyes straining with little but the Solaris’s blue LEDs to help him see. Yet, even with that dim illumination, he spotted his intruder.

Is that a… cricket, or no, grasshopper?

His second guess was closer, as it was a locust. Jean-Marc watched as the insect crawled up the dangling strap of the Cross handbag. Although Louisiana had more than its fair share of bugs, locusts were not one of them, and the man wondered how it had found its way inside his skyscraper apartment.

Probably the construction, maybe it got sucked up the ventilation system? he mused idly, before reaching out to flick the fat insect away. As he did so, the locust leapt. It landed hard against the neck of the wine bottle, only to then leap away into the darkness. Its weight and movement tipped the bottle of Château Pétrus, causing it to fall and spill its ludicrously expensive red liquid all over his phone.

“God damn it!” the irate man yelled, and frantically tried to save both his phone and what was left in his two-grand bottle of wine. But the already imbibed alcohol made his hands fumble, causing him to knock the bottle off the table, only for it to uncannily crack against his porcelain tile flooring, spilling more of its precious contents. Reaching down to retrieve the bottle, his palm was painfully pricked by a silver of glass, causing him to reflexively drop and fully shatter the bottle. He swore as the last of the Bourdeaux spilled onto his floor.

“God damn it!” He roared again, flinging his likely ruined phone against a wall in a rage, “God damn this fucking night, and God damn me!”

“He has,” came a voice from the shadows.

Jean-Marc instinctively froze. Some animalistic, subconscious part of his brain processed that he was in the presence of a predator–and he was prey. Yet, the more rational part of his mind recognized that paralysis was a paltry defense. He silently cursed himself for keeping his Herculean handgun locked up in his bedroom. Without other options, he slowly reached down and gingerly felt for the neck of broken wine-bottle, hoping to find a make-shift weapon to defend himself.

Fear and alcohol muddled his thoughts. He couldn’t remember if he had relocked his front door after entering–or even if the door had been locked at all. He silently cursed himself again for throwing his phone away, as he was effectively in the dark now, with the city lights doing little to reveal his ‘second’ intruder.

“Who’s there?!” Jean-Marc shouted, his voice echoing against the gray walls, floors, and ceilings of his apartment. Against the sound of his own hammering heart, Jean-Marc heard something ‘plink’ against his floor with the light staccato of tapped porcelain.

“To you, I am Hãsîl,” spoke the intruder with a hollow, dead voice.

Hasil? Jean-Marc tried to scroll through his mental Rolodex, checking if the name rung some bell. Maybe a handle from one of my chat groups? No… wait, sounds Arabic… yeah, shit, I did do that one tabloid piece on the Saudi prince. Okay, it was more like twelve… but, shit, yeah, I did just ghostwrite that alt-right piece suggesting Westley Malveaux didn’t just take a drunken dive off Talal’s yacht, but got off’d by the Saudi as part of a power-move–a fuck-off to the Americans to stay out of the oil business. It was just click-bait, but what if…

Once again, Jean-Marc cursed himself for not having his gun, but he turned to the one weapon that had so often served him well through his years: his tongue:

“Look, Hasil, was it? If this is about the thing with the prince, consider it done. I’ll pull the plug on the whole fucking site if it floats Talal’s boat.”

Jean-Marc couldn’t help but flinch when a locust jumped up on his couch and begin to crawl towards his arm.

Damn, is that the same motherfucker or another one?

His attention, however, was soon drawn back to the darkness as his intruder spoke with a mirthless tone:

“Oh, I do serve a prince, but not the one of which you speak. Nor do I come on his behalf. That said, I am… disappointed that you would retract the piece. Are you not Jean-Marc the Evangelist? The Winged Lion would not so cravenly withdraw his words, but rather sealed them with his blood when the offended pagans of Alexandria placed a rope around his neck and drug him through the streets until he was dead.”

Shit, was Jean-Marc’s first panicked thought, as few besides his closest friends or rivals knew of his painting and private sobriquet. Furthermore, talk of martyrdom also didn’t ease his fraying nerves.

“Well," he said, "Maybe I’m a little more attached to my neck, so forgive me if I’m no saint.”

“Forgiveness used to be my divine mandate–,” the intruder whispered bitterly, “–but no longer, Jean-Marc.”

Double shit, Jean-Marc thought, then flinched again as a second locust leapt up on the handbag’s protruding strap. Despite the more immediate danger, he couldn’t help but try to brush away the insect, What is with these fuckers?

“They smell it,” the intruder said, as if answering Jean-Marc’s unspoken question.

“Smell what?” the man asked, both confused and irritated, as a third locust leapt onto the handbag.

Hamas.

“Hama-what?”

Hamas,” the intruder reiterated, and then elaborated as if Jean-Marc was back at Loyola attending a lecture, “It is a Hebrew word, occurring sixty times in the Old Testament, where it is used most prominently to describe mortal, versus divine, violence.”

“ותשחת הארץ לפני
האלהים ותמלא הארץ
חמס׃.”

“Or to translate in the lay tongue–,” the intruder continued, “’the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.’”

Jean-Marc shook his head in the darkness, unsure whether he was involved in an imminent shake-down, hit, lecture, or sermon. He wasn’t sure which he’d prefer.

“Look, I don’t know anything about all that,” Jean-Marc said. “I’m not a violent man, I just write–“

“Aren’t you though, Jean-Marc? Otherwise, I and they would not be here. Know that you are no longer among the living. Any falsehood you now speak is not made to men, but to God alone.”

Triple shit, Jean-Marc silently swore, This fucker’s a religious fanatic, probably a deluded zealot stirred up by today’s piece, looking for blood…

“It is your delusions that should concern you this night, Jean-Marc,” the dark voice intoned. “For despite your protestations of innocence, you are a violent man. Or have you so soon forgotten your bodily violence against the harlot.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?!”

“The harlot you intended to give this ‘gift’ to, the one that reeks of hamas. One of your nights of fornication was frustratingly curtailed when she told you her mother was sick. You let her go, in one of your few acts of charity. But you became enraged when you later discovered she had lied to you. Her mother had been fine, she just played on your sympathy, so she could go to a party aboard the Saturnalia. Warren Whitney’s lucre has always been filthier than yours, but it has also always been so much more.”

“Wha–h-how could you know that?!”

“You nursed your bitter hurt for a week, till you next fornicated with her. Then your rage boiled up. Things got ‘rough,’ as you would say. But the truth–even the tabloid kind–was that things became violent. You nearly strangled her to death. You wanted to strangle her to death. You coveted, Jean-Marc. Power, control. In your lust and rage, you wanted to own and use her as you and you alone wished.”

“But I didn’t!” Jean-Marc protested, not even noticing as a fourth locust crawled unto the handbag, while a fifth leapt onto his sofa. His face was hot, like it had been slapped with a plugged-in iron, and he felt not only shock but shame as he was forced to relive that dark moment:

“I didn’t strangle her–not… I backed off, I apologized, I swore it would never happen again, I made things right, she told me I made things right…”

A single tear streaked down the man’s face, and he wiped it away with his bloodied palm.

Across the room, the intruder seemed to draw in a deep breath, as if savoring some heady scent–much as Jean-Marc had done during his nocturnal stroll that now seemed so long ago.

“Yes,” the stranger said with an impassioned breath. “The Evangelist now speaks truth. But there is a second meaning to hamas, as the word also denotes ‘wrongdoing’ or ‘wickedness’, as for example, used by the prophet Isaiah:"

“ויתן את־רשעים
קברו ואת־עשיר
במתיו על לא־חמס
עשה ולא מרמה
בפיו׃.”

“’And they made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich his tomb; although he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.’"

“But unlike the Lamb of which Isaiah prophesied, you, Jean-Marc, you have done hamas, and your mouth has been filled with deceit. You have done much violence with your evangelism–and you have done it willingly and without penance, wallowing in your covetousness, jealousy, hatred, and pride.”

With each word of condemnation, another locust seemed to appear out of the darkness, till Jean-Marc was surrounded by a swarm that crawled over the table, sofa, and walls behind him. Terror seized him, and like a man desperate for aid, he uttered a vain prayer to the God and faith he had long ago abandoned and so repeatedly blasphemed.

His only answer was another set of ‘plinks’ as something tapped against his porcelain tile floors–something that was drawing nearer to the swarm-surrounded man.

“Vae desiderantibus diem Domini: ad quid eam vobis? Dies Domini ista tenebrae, et non lux.”

This time, perhaps by some dark miracle, Jean-Marc needed no translation, but perfectly understood the eschatological recitation from the Book of Amos:

(”Woe to them that desire the day of the Lord: to what end is it for you? The day of the Lord is darkness, and not light.")

Once more there was the tapping of porcelain, and the intruder’s voice was much closer. As before, it spoke another dark malediction, its voice the rustling of dead cypress branches. But this time, its malediction was accompanied by a growing, stridulating chorus of locusts–that, to his horror, had begun to crawl onto and over his flesh:

“Et quintus angelus tuba cecinit: et vidi stellam de caelo cecidisse in terram, et data est illi clavis putei abyssi. Et aperuit puteum abyssi: et ascendit fumus putei, sicut fumus fornacis magnae: et obscuratus est sol, et aer de fumo putei: et de fumo exierunt lucustae in terram et data est illis potestas, sicut habent potestatem scorpiones terrae: et praeceptum est illis ne laederent faenum terrae, neque omne viride, neque omnem arborem: nisi tantum homines, qui non habent signum Dei in frontibus: et datum est illis ne occiderent eos: sed ut cruciarentur mensibus quinque et cruciatus eorum, ut cruciatus scorpii cum percutit hominem. Et in diebus illis quaerent homines mortem, et non invenient eam, et desiderabunt mori et fugiet mors ab ipsis.”

(”And the fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit. He opened the shaft of the bottomless pit, and from the shaft rose smoke like the smoke of a great furnace, and the sun and the air were darkened with the smoke from the shaft. Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given power like the power of scorpions of the earth. They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. They were allowed to torment them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it stings someone. And in those days people will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them.")

Jean-Marc screamed in terror. He tried to rise and run, but his foot slipped in the “damned” wine, causing him to trip and fall. One of his arms fell into the broken glass, further shattering it and lacerating his flesh. The locusts’ hymn of hunger grew. In despair, the prostrate man cried out to the darkness, his tears falling like the rivulets of blood from his body:

“W-what do you want? Please–please, just tell what you want, whatever it is, I’ll do it, j-just tell me, please…”

In the stygian dark, the kneeling, bleeding man felt a hand on his cheek. Its touch was cold and hard, like the porcelain beneath him. Then, with a gentleness that seemed to mock Jean-Marc’s pain, the inhuman hand tilted the ‘Evangelist’ to look up. Doing so, Jean-Marc finally saw his tormentor.

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Its shape mimicked a small, slight man clad in liturgical vestments, but its ‘flesh’ and clothes were fused and fashioned entirely from time-worn porcelain. Outside, the city lights gauntly stretched into the room, reflecting off the figure’s pale porcelain face like a ghostly halo. To Jean-Marc’s horror, that inhuman face regarded him with only one ceramic eye. Its other orb was an empty, abyss-black pit from which locusts crawled and flew into the room. The porcelain horror smiled, revealing sharp ceramic fangs:

“Why, Jean-Marc,” the hollow monster proclaimed, “I desire what I have always desired: God’s will. For your unrepentant sins, for your hamas, I call you to serve God’s wolves, since you would not serve His lambs. By the Undying Rite of the Lancea et Sanctum, I call you—command you—Jean-Marc the Evangelist, to accept the blood of the Damned, since you would not accept the blood of the Redeemed.”

“I-I… I d-don’t understand,” the man blathered amidst his tears, horror, and wounds. “I-I jus–“

But the monster silenced him with a porcelain finger pressed against his lips.

“You will, Jean-Marc. But for now, be silent:"

“Ideo prudens in tempore illo tacebit quia tempus malum est.”

(”Therefore, the prudent shall keep silence at that time, for it is an evil time.")

“Verily, Jean-Marc, I tell you that it is indeed an evil time. So listen and learn how it came to be, from the Malediction and Torments of Longinus, to the Hagiography of St. Cyprien the False, whose confession you shall hear and pen so that others might fear and learn the damnation that awaits them.”

The inhuman terror then closed its sole remaining eye and drew its porcelain hands together in supplication:

“Archangel Vahishtael, Amoniel of the Dominions; Sanctified Longinus of the Spear, and the Five Martyrs; St. Daniel of the Theban Legion, Maron of Icaria, Pazit of the Mount, and the crucified Adira and Gilad; hear my confession:"

“As Adam, I was born in Eden, where I conversed with God amid paradisiacal glory.”

“As Adam, I was tempted by a serpent, and partook of the forbidden fruit.”

“As Adam, I fell from grace, and was cast out from God’s presence.”

“Forever and ever, until the execution of all things,”

“Amen.”

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Celia IV, Chapter XX
Breaking Masks

“Mom. Fucking. Listen. Okay?”
Celia Flores


Sunday night, 13 March 2016, AM

Celia: There’s no time to dither on what to do. No time to run downstairs to tell Roderick the problem. No time to even gather any supplies. Her hands blur across her face to set her features into the right visage—it’s painful, made worse by the broken bones that she can’t even set properly because she doesn’t have the blood to spare, her greedy Beast had stolen it from her after her sire had fed her as a petty act of revenge for standing there and letting him hit her—

But within a moment the process is over. Her entire body twists and shifts after that, and the nighthawk she has become sweeps off into the night on silent, feathered wings.

She flies for her mother’s house, everything else a distant concern to the thought of protecting the woman who has already known so much pain in her life.

GM: The nightjar’s flight takes tortuously long until Celia swoops down over her family’s home. She sees Diana outside, bundled up in a raincoat and leaving the house with a miserable but resigned expression.

She locks the front door, winces, then trudges through the rain on foot, heavily favoring her good leg.

Celia: That’s not what she expected. Where the hell is Diana going this time of night?

Celia tucks her wings into her body and dives, slowing her descent only when she’s leveled off a handful of feet above the ground. A fence provides the cover she needs to change back; she hurries forward after the woman.

“Mom!”

GM: Diana almost jumps out of her skin at the exclamation.

“Oh, h-hi, sweetie.”

“What are you doing here, so early…?”

Celia: “Where are you going?”

GM: “Oh, I’m just out for a walk… I was already up, and to give myself a little time to rest before church.”

“Sweetie, what are you doing here so early? You’re soaked to the bone!” she exclaims, looking over Celia’s clothes.

Celia: She’s also bleeding from her face with a broken nose, but bless Diana for being worried about her daughter catching a cold with wet clothes.

“You’re lying to me,” Celia says baldly. “You were going somewhere. Where?”

GM: “Why don’t I get, get you in and make some hot cocoa, you can borrow some of my clothes… you can stay for breakfast, too, it’s been forever since we had breakfast…”

Celia: “Is Emily inside?”

GM: Celia’s mother shakes her head. “She’s with Robby, she spends a lot of her weekends with him,” she says, wincing as she limps closer.

Celia: Diana was going to leave Lucy by herself while she went to do… something?

Celia purses her lips.

GM: “Oh my god, sweetie, you’re bleeding!” Celia’s mom exclaims, her face a mask of shock.

Celia: That makes it easier, though.

“Yes.”

GM: Diana takes off her hooded pink raincoat and fastens it around her daughter. She’s wearing a nice, semiformal dress underneath. Church clothes. “Oh my god, my poor baby… let’s get you inside, we’ll call Emily to come take a look…”

Celia: “No,” Celia shakes her head, “leave Emily, don’t bother her, I’ll get it looked at later. We need to talk. Get Lucy. We need to go. Now.”

GM: “My poor baby… you’ll catch cold…” sniffs Diana, only half-seeming to register Celia’s words. It’s as the kine woman gets close to her, fussing over the coat’s buttons, that Celia really breathes in her scent. She’s so warm. So loving. So weak. Exactly what her kind mean when they use the word kine.

And her Beast is so, so hungry…

Celia: It’s her mom, Celia all but snarls at her Beast. She beats it down, stuffing it deep inside of herself where it can’t cause any damage, where it can’t get out to ruin yet another thing for her. It’s the Beast’s fault she’s in this fucking mess; she’s not going to let the damn thing make it worse.

Celia yanks away from her mother. She’d rather be rude than a murderer.

“Stop,” she hisses through her teeth. “Listen. To. Me. I just beat the shit out of the girl who turned you into a doll and she is going to send someone for you so go get your daughter and let’s fucking move.

GM: Diana stares at her for a moment, then starts crying.

“It’s… it’s okay… that won’t happen…”

“Lucy’s safe… she’s going to be safe…”

“Your coat’s not on… let me finish… you’ll catch cold…” she fumbles for the buttons with trembling fingers.

Celia: Celia, once more, yanks away. She takes a handful of steps away.

“Mom. Fucking. Listen. Okay? I literally do not have time to argue with you. Either stop the half sentences or get a move on and get Lucy. And don’t come near me.

GM: “B-but baby, your coat… you’ll catch cold… let me finish your coat, let me get you inside… oh, sweetie, I love you so much, you’ll look after her, you and Emily…” She advances forward and tries to embrace her daughter.

Celia: There’s no time for this. Maybe if she was just hungry and didn’t have the sun about to burn her to a crisp. Or maybe if she was just running out of time. But not both. She can’t fight both.

She dips around her mother’s arms once again and finally does it.

She snarls at her mother.

She pulls her lips back from her teeth to expose long, sharp fangs in her mouth.

GM: Diana’s face blanches. Her eyes go wide.

Oh, the fangs might be enough.

But the snarl emanating from Celia’s throat sounds like nothing out of a human throat. It sounds like nothing out of most vampire’s throats, not with Celia as ravenous and on edge as she is. There is no mistaking that hellish sound for anything even remotely human.

Diana stops trying to hug her daughter.

“C-Celia…?” she gets out. “What…”

For a moment, she just dumbly trails off.

Then she just points.

Celia: Once the woman has finally stopped trying to fucking touch her, Celia lets the fangs fade away.

“Yes. There’s a lot we need to talk about. And we have very, very little time to do it.” Not enough time to get to a hotel to talk. Not enough time to book a room, check in, put the card on file, not before the sun rises. She’ll send her mother with Lucy by themselves once they’ve had this talk.

And she’ll… risk being here today when and if Elyse or Harlequin send someone.

She’s dead. She’s dead, that’s pretty much all there is to it. She’s dead as fuck. All sorts of dead. Really dead this time, not just fake dead, not animated corpse dead, not vampire dead. Truly dead.

“Inside,” Celia says, pointing at the door. “Inside, Mom, so I can explain. Please. And stay… back. Ten feet. At least.”

GM: Her mother’s mouth hangs open for a bit.

Then, falteringly, she nods.

She limps forward and unlocks the door.

She walks in first, looks uncertainly back at her daughter, then leaves the door open and strides backwards.

Celia: Celia swallows the lump in her throat. She doesn’t know how everything had unraveled in one night, or what she’s going to do now. But she’ll figure it out. She always does.

She follows her mother into the house and closes the door behind her.

“We need a room without windows,” she says to Diana.

GM: A furious hiss immediately goes up. It’s Shadow. The calico, so named for her dark markings. Her tail is bushed as thick as a beaver’s as she bares her teeth and slowly backs away from the superior predator.

But Celia barely hears the sound. Barely sees the cat. All she feels is the torturous thirst. All she smells is blood. Poor blood, tofu-like blood, but still blood. Coursing through the feline’s tiny body with every pump of its heart.

“Shadow! Shhh!” her mom exclaims, scooping up the cat. Shadow yowls and claws Diana’s arms.

Celia: Celia can’t even be bothered to hide her contempt for the cat. She starts to snarl at it, too. The Beast starts to appear, rearing its ugly head again. Again. Again. It won’t leave her alone. It’s supposed to be gone. It’s supposed to be tamed.

Is this what she gets for even thinking that? Is this what she gets for sleeping around on Roderick, for killing that girl, for letting Josua fuck her, for letting down her grandsire, for beating the shit out of Elyse?

That a cat, a fucking cat, is going to make her lose her shit in front of her mom and kill the bitch?

Celia clamps down on the thought. She doesn’t move. She summons every single bit of herself that she can, forcing the Beast back into the cage in the middle of her chest where it can’t cause more problems for her. Its nails rake at her insides, snarling, itching to get out. There’s blood inside of it. Weak, shitty blood, but blood all the same. The stupid cat hissed at her, they should destroy it. Drink it.

But Celia wins.

Celia has to win.

Because if Celia doesn’t win then she’s going to destroy her mother, and everything she has ever sacrificed for her will have been in vain.

Tight-lipped, she orders the woman to get rid of the cat, to contain the other one, and to lock the door to Lucy’s room so there are no more surprises.

GM: Diana quickly hurries away with the still-scratching cat. Celia hears several pained “ows!” before it hits the floor unceremoniously and bolts off down the hall. Diana’s mother turns around and rubs her leg, but doesn’t come any closer. Her face is pale and she’s looking straight at Celia’s.

“Ah… her door doesn’t have a lock, sweetie, I’m sorry…”

Celia: Celia uses the time to send a text to Alana. SOS. 911. Mom’s house Now. She sends a similar text to Randy.

Of course Lucy doesn’t have a lock on her door. Diana wouldn’t do that to her; she’d seen Celia, Isabel, and the others locked away often enough after annoying Maxen to not want to do it to Lucy.

“I don’t have a lot of time to explain,” she says to her mom once the woman turns again. “If you hear Lucy get up you need to keep her away from me.”

Her eyes study Diana’s face.

“You don’t seem surprised. Surprised it’s me, but not that people like me exist.”

GM: There is a buzz from Celia’s phone, but not from any of her ghouls. It’s from Roderick.

Getting late. We still on?

Celia: Fucking. Fuck.

No. Thing with fam. Let yourself in. Will explain later. Love you.

GM: K. Love you too.

Diana nods slowly at Celia’s first statement.

“The cats… they’re so sweet, normally… but never around you…”

Celia: “No. And I don’t eat. And you don’t see me during the day.”

GM: “I… I do see you eat, though…” her mom says.

“Do you want some… hot cocoa, sweetie?”

She gives a pale smile.

Celia: “It hurts to eat,” Celia says by way of explanation. “I can force it, but… Mom, I’m happy to explain all of that later. I really am. But we need to talk. I’m going to be a corpse in about twenty minutes.”

GM: “Wh… a corpse…?” she asks, concern clouding her eyes.

“Oh. The… the sun. The sun hurts?”

Celia: “The sun hurts,” Celia confirms. “I lose my… animation, or whatever it is that keeps me walking around.”

She doesn’t take a breath. They never do anything for her anyway. But she wants to. She wants to just be normal.

GM: Her mother swallows. “I’m… afraid the rooms all have windows, this isn’t a big house… but there’s my bedroom closet, or I could wrap you up in a lot of blankies, and cover the windows too…”

“You know, pull the shades, maybe duct tape some blankets or clothes over the windows…”

Celia: At her mother’s offer of protection her composure cracks. She blinks back bloody tears.

“How d’you… how d’you know about..?”

GM: “Oh… is that wrong?” her mom asks, her face flickering. “Would that not be enough…?”

“That’s just how it is in the movies, you know, when Peter Cushing pulls away the curtains, and Christopher Lee starts to burn up…”

Celia: “You just… you’re just… casually accepting that I’m a vampire.”

GM: “I… there’s just… there’s just a lot of things in the world, baby… strange things, that… I don’t know, you said with Max and a demon…. and… well… ah… your…”

She points at Celia’s mouth again.

Celia: “Oh.”

There’s a pause.

“I thought maybe you might have had experience with us. You were named for the goddess of the hunt, and all. It wasn’t very subtle on Payton’s end.”

GM: “S… sorry…?” her mom asks confusedly.

“I think she just liked the name, sweetie…”

Celia: “Right. Okay. We’ll talk about that later. But… listen. The girl who did what she did to you. She’s like me. And she and her friends are very, very angry at me because I kicked the shit out of her. They’ve already tried to kill me.” Celia doesn’t gesture at her broken nose, but the evidence that she’d been in a fight resides on her face.

“I need you to book a room somewhere, or get out of town, or something. Just for a day or two. Call off work on Monday, tell them you’re still not feeling well.”

GM: Diana’s lip quavers.

“They… they called here, Celia… I have to go back… they said they’d take my granddaughter, take Lucy, if I didn’t come back…”

Celia: “They called you again?”

GM: A frown briefly downturns her mother’s face, as if wondering how Celia knew, but it barely has a chance to form before a renewed look of abject hopelessness washes it away.

She nods.

Celia: “I was there when she called you,” Celia says quietly, “that’s why I kicked the shit out of her.”

And it had felt great.

She might feel bad for it, but Elyse had certainly deserved it.

GM: “I… I have to go back…”

“You’ll look after Lucy, please, you and Emily…”

Celia: “You don’t. If you go back, they’ll kill you, and Lucy, and me.”

“That’s what this is. They’re mad at me. I need you to not give in to this. I will keep you safe. I promise you that. I have done it for years. Please, Mom, please trust me.”

GM: Celia’s mom hangs her head, sniffs, and wipes at her eyes.

“I’m such a bad mother… I’ve never, never kept you safe… that’s supposed to be me…”

Celia: “You just offered to wrap your vampire daughter in blankets to keep her safe from the sun.”

“That’s a great mom.”

GM: In spite of herself, Diana gives a low laugh. It’s half-sobbed, and more than a little desperate, but the laugh is there.

Celia: Celia answers that with a weak smile of her own.

“I’m sorry that I don’t have time to tell you everything. I will. Once this day is over, I’ll tell you what I can. Okay? Tonight. I promise.”

GM: “Okay… just… tell me what to do, sweetie.” Her mother closes her eyes for a moment and slumps her shoulders.

“Just tell me what to do.”

Her voice is calmer at those words. They’re comforting words.

Celia: So she does.


Sunday morning, 13 March 2016

Celia: There isn’t much to explain, in the end.

Despite Celia’s penchant for overly-complicated plans, and despite the fact that she really, really wants to see Roderick today, her family has to come first.

She tells her mom, very casually, that she is going to smuggle Celia in a blanket-covered cat carrier to Randy’s house. She explains that Randy knows what she is, but that she can’t let them know that she also knows, and Lucy definitely can’t find out because there are rules and they will all be killed for it. Lucy can watch TV today and hang out with Rusty and Reggie and Randy while Celia sleeps the day away in one of their beds (or closet, literally whatever), cuffed.

She sends another text to Alana to tell her to meet with Randy today, to avoid the usual hangouts, that it’s urgent. She cancels the call to go to her mom’s place. And then a text to Dani with the new address (Randy’s house) and that shit hit the fan and she needs to get there now. And a final text to Mel to alert her that Dani is moving locations, and the new place.

Coded, of course.

She thinks she has all of her bases covered.

Emily, she tells her mom, needs to stay with Robby today.

GM: “All right, so… you want me to stay with Lucy, Randy, and his brothers?” Celia’s mom asks.

Celia: “Yes. They will protect you.”

“They’re uh… they’re kind of like… you read Dracula, right?”

GM: “Ah… sorry, sweetie, only seen the movies. Should I, now?”

Celia: “Some of it is wrong. I’ll explain. But basically Randy and his brothers work for me. Like, uh, butlers.”

That’s a really nice way of putting it.

GM: “Oh, I thought they worked for the bail bond company…?”

Celia: “Yeah. But me on the side. I’ll explain tonight.”

GM: “Okay. When can we come back here, sweetie? I need a while to make dinner for the Garrisons.”

Celia: “Right. So. We’re going to reschedule.” She lets Dani know to tell her dad, too. “Because I don’t think it’s going to be safe tonight, and I’m not putting you in danger.”

“Unless you want to do it at their house.”

“Honestly, Mom, if you want something to do today, I’m pretty sure that Reggie and Randy would love you to cook for them.”

GM: Diana looks apprehensive. “Stephen’s dad is an important man, Celia! We should give at least a couple days’ notice, for something like that.”

“I don’t know that Randy would be a good guest, to be honest. He didn’t know Stephen, I don’t think, and this is probably better if it’s an intimate affair…”

“And, well… he’s a nice young man… but I feel like he might, I guess we could say, care about housekeeping a mite less than I do…”

Celia: “So. Dani is going to come meet us there. Why don’t you discuss it with her? See if her dad can move the date. I just really don’t want to risk them finding you.”

GM: “Oh. What’s she doing there, sweetie?” Diana asks.

Celia: This is very quickly spiraling out of control. She’s not sure she has enough fingers to plug all of these holes.

“Long story. Tell you later.”

GM: “Okay. She’s a sweet girl, by the way, I taught her in my dance classes.” Diana gives a brief smile at the normal-sounding topic.

Celia: “She really liked you,” Celia says with a smile.

GM: “Oh, that makes me happy. I’m sure we’ll be able to have a wonderful dinner together. Maybe she can ask her dad to reschedule, for us, and he’ll take it better from her.”

Celia: “That was my thought, too.”

GM: “How am I, ah, going to get you to Randy’s place in a cat carrier, sweetie?”

Celia: “So, uh, fun fact: I can turn into a cat.”

GM: Her mother blinks.

Celia: “Yep.”

“Please don’t freak out. And please don’t let Lucy pet me. Not right now. Later, she can. But… not tonight.”

GM: It’s so easy to spend time just talking with her mother.

It’s so easy to just be honest.

To finally drop all the lies.

It’s so, so easy. It’s such a relief. A balm upon her ravenous Beast. A cool cloth against the terrible thirst burning her up inside.

But time and tide wait for no man.

Nor does the sun.

The curtains around the house’s windows are un-drawn. Faint rays of early dawn light kiss Celia’s skin, leaving it blackened and sizzling.

Celia: For two seconds, Celia lets herself get distracted.

For two seconds, Celia thinks of a future where she doesn’t have to lie to her mother, where she doesn’t have to force down dinner, where she can say things like, “Stephen is like me and we’re back together and I want to marry him,” and “my sire finally accepts me,” and “Mom can you rub my belly?” She can tell her mom everything she’s been through. She can fix her leg without lying about it. She can tell her why she thinks Maxen might be telling the truth about the demon. She imagines a future where her mom says, “Have you had enough to eat, sweetie?” and means blood instead of casserole.

And then reality rears its ugly head. Her flesh sizzles as soon as the morning sun streams through the windows. Immediately her skin turns black, epidermis seared beneath the hateful rays of dawn’s touch. Celia snarls, Beast rising to the surface, and for a moment girl and Beast are in alignment. For a moment they work together, diving out of the path of the light to sprawl, huddled, beneath the kitchen sink. She knocks aside cleaning supplies, rags and buckets and bottles, and curls her body tightly under the space. It’s a snug fit, but she’s a small girl, and here at least the sun cannot touch her.

The fantasy of the future fades away.

She’s a monster and she has brought trouble to her family.

“Mom,” she calls out from her hiding spot, voice pained, “we need to go. Now. No more questions.” She doesn’t have much longer before the daysleep of her kind claims her. Already she’s fading. “Get the carrier. Get me into the trunk. Pull into Randy’s garage to get me out. Make sure they cuff me before they wake me. Tell Dani to reschedule dinner. Go. Now. Go.”

GM: Diana gasps, “Sweetie! Are you okay!?” and drops to her knees in front of Celia’s hiding spot. She tries to reach inside until her daughter grits out instructions.

“Ah—would a suitcase or picnic basket be better? Something the sun can’t shine through? They’re a tighter fit, for a cat, but the carrier has holes in it…”

“I could get a blanket over it, it just seems a little less secure, since it’s a pretty big carrier, and we use one meant for dogs, since most kitties don’t actually like the normal carriers…”

Celia: “Anything without gaps. Suitcase is fine.”

Go, she urges the woman. Go. Now.

GM: “Okay! Sit tight!” Her mother scrambles off.

She returns with a pink backpack that has stars and a unicorn on it. “Ah, this is Lucy’s, I wasn’t sure where I’d left the suitcase, but this doesn’t have any gaps, so long as we keep it zipped up…”

Celia: It’ll do. Celia gives her mom a grateful smile and a word of warning before it happens—she changes. Her body twists, muscles and bones and organs reworking themselves within her to make her smaller, more compact, feline. She grows fur, a tail, ears that sit at the top of her head. She scoots into the backpack and settles uneasily amongst the pencil shavings and cough drop wrappers at the bottom of the bag.

GM: Diana still gives a start and little gasp of alarm. Actually, more like a big gasp. She drops the backpack at first, then picks it up and holds it open. She zips it up once the cat’s inside.

“Ah—are you okay, sweetie?” she gets out.

Celia: A meow comes from inside the bag.

GM: “Okay, I’ll—take that as a yes,” Diana says with a weak chuckle.

“But… you really are? One meow for yes, two for no, you are okay?”

Celia: Celia the cat meows once to let her mother know that she’s okay.

She’s been through worse. Way worse.

GM: “Okay, that’s… good. I’ll pack some clothes to bring with us, yours are… ah, they sort of…” Transformed with her. “…well, they were soaked anyway.”

“Should I still really hurry, now that you’re safe from the sun? One meow for yes, two for no?”

Celia: A single meow comes up from the bag.

GM: “Okay, I’ll just, just grab what we really need. Sit tight, I’m going to lift you up.”

Celia feels herself getting lifted into the air, then her mother’s back pressing against her.

There’s movement as the woman starts off through the house. Uneven, with her still favoring one leg. Celia hears a door opening, then a closet, and the sound of her mom going through clothes and picking some out.

“I just love how we’re about the same size, you know, sharin’ clothes is something every girl and her mother should get to do.”

Celia: Within the confines of the bag, the cat—does the cat have a name? Cats should have names—curls in on herself, head beneath her paws. Her tail flicks. There’s not much for her to do but wait while her mother gathers what she needs. She doesn’t breathe if she can help it; like all kids, Lucy just tends to stuff things into the bottom of her backpack and forget about them.

Silently, she tells her mother to hurry the fuck up like they’d literally just talked about.

GM: “Oh, here’s the suitcase, silly me.” Celia hears her mother gathering up assorted things, tossing them inside, then making her way to Lucy’s room. Celia hears her opening the girl’s dresser and throwing clothes in.

“Hey, little Goose. We need to go,” her mom says.

The cat feels its position shift.

“Mmmf… Mommy…?”

“Come on, sweetie, let’s get you in your shoes. Your glasses, too. I’ll tell you more in the car, okay? We’re taking a little trip.”

“Mmm… I’m sleepy…”

“Okay, I’ll carry you.” Celia feels Diana bend again, then a sudden weight fill her mother’s arms. “We’re gonna spend the day at Randy’s, won’t that be fun?” she says as they walk out.

Lucy yawns.

They make their way down the hall, the luggage case rolling along behind them. Diana bends again, then tells Lucy, “Hold on to your shoes for me, okay Goose?” as she opens the door. Celia doesn’t feel the dawn’s burning rays from within the backpack, but it’s still like getting into a car that’s had its doors and windows closed for hours on a hot summer day.

The car door opens, followed by the sounds of Diana helping Lucy into her booster seat. The backpack comes off next. Diana gently places it on one of the car’s seats. More doors open and close, then Celia hears the engine’s ignition, followed by movement underneath her.

“Why’re we goin’ to Randy’s…” mumbles Lucy. “I wanna go back to bed…”

“We’re a lil’ sleepyhead, huh?” smiles Diana. “Okay, sweetie, you can sleep when we’re there. That’ll be fun, won’t it, to sleep someplace new?”

“I wonder, how many places have you gone to sleep outside our house? Isn’t that an interesting lil’ question? Can you count how many?”

“Uh… not a lot…” yawns Lucy. “We sleep at home…”

“Oh, that makes this an adventure then, Lucy Goose!” exclaims Diana. “Lucy the explorer, fallin’ asleep someplace brand new!”

The six-year-old yawns again. She’s far from the only one to feel tired. The sun can’t be fully up, because the cat isn’t a corpse yet. Its eyelids just feel heavy.

“Brand new adventure for us all…” their mom murmurs.

Celia: Almost halfway up is enough to keep the cat in the bag. Any other day, if she weren’t hungry and maybe if the windows were tinted, the cat would loose a string of meows to alert the little girl in the front seat to its position in the bag and let the six-year-old cuddle with her. They could fall asleep together, child and cat, and wake up in a new place.

But her hunger and the sun keep her alone in the dark.

Her daydreams will have to wait.

View
Celia V, Chapter XX
Hidden Bodies & Open Hearts

“I love you. I don’t care what else happens.”
Celia Flores


Friday night, 18 March 2016, AM

GM: The tiger’s frenzy might last for a second. It might last for a thousand years. Time loses meaning in the sea of red. The tiger likes this place.

When the red fog clears, tiger’s face is pressed flat against a tree. So is the rest of its body, from its neck down to its chest. Its paws are awkwardly splayed in the air. It can’t move. It feels a monstrously strong human-shaped weight pressing into its back, holding it in place against the tree.

“Right,” comes Roderick’s tight voice. “You don’t feel apeshit anymore. Turn back into a human and I’ll let you down.”

“Or at least a lick.”

“Is, is that…?” comes Dani’s voice.

“A lick? Yeah. Some of us can turn into animals,” answers her brother. “First time I’ve seen one become a tiger, though.”

“Jesus, that thing was terrifying,” says Dani.

Celia: The tiger doesn’t like this position pressed up against the tree. It’s unnatural. Painful, even, with its limbs stretched every which way and the weight of a body behind it. A familiar body. A boy that another cat knows.

The feline instincts run strong. It chuffs at the boy, tail flicking, and then it shifts. Its body twists and shrinks, its stripes spreading out across its body until the fur remains a single color, lightening to a dark gray from solid black.

Luna meows at her boy.

GM: A mortal man might stumble at the sudden disappearance of the big cat’s bulk and weight, but Roderick just lithely catches the smaller feline in his arms. The cat gets a look at him. He looks bad. His clothes are shredded tatters, there’s blood all over him from head to toe, and the mask is torn too. It’s now obviously a mask, as bits of his real face peak out.

He blinks upon recognizing the cat.

“C-Jade?!” he exclaims, catching himself.

Celia: Luna takes stock of her boy, then the girl behind him. Irritation surges through her tiny little body. He’s hers. Hers to protect. Someone hurt him, and she’s going to make them pay. She rubs her face against his chin, then twists again, looking past him for the bodies of Carolla and the goon.

GM: Both of them lie in heaps on the ground. As bad as Roderick looks, Carolla looks worse. His throat is a shredded ruin and his stomach’s actually been ripped open, replete with guts hanging all out. The torpid vampire’s eyes stare blankly into the night sky.

Celia: The cat hisses at his corpse, ears flat against her head.

GM: His ghoul lies equally motionless, but his guts are still inside his torso. Dani is bent over him. A handgun rests nearby on the very, very red grass. The cat can just smell the blood. It suffuses the entire scene like a primordial perfume.

“R-”

He cuts her off. “Shit, don’t use our names!”

“He’s not gonna make it!” says Dani.

Celia: Good.

GM: Roderick drops the cat, then bends to one knee over the fallen ghoul. He bites his wrist and holds it to the man’s mouth.

Celia: Jade shifts again, barefoot in the grass, and launches herself at Roderick.

GM: Her lover’s lightning-faster and brutally stronger arms snap out and slam her to the ground like she’s nothing.

Celia: “He tried to murder you both,” Celia snarls at him.

GM: Roderick lets the blood flow into the ghoul’s mouth. His eyes have barely had a chance to open before the Brujah’s fist descends against his head, and then he’s out again.

“Wait, why did you…” starts Dani.

“He’ll be unconscious for a while,” says Roderick. “Won’t remember this fight, either.”

“Wait, that’s not how knocking people out works,” frowns Dani. “Hollywood m-”

Roderick shakes his head. “It’s a trick of the Blood. He’ll forget.”

Celia: Celia climbs back to her feet, eyes moving back and forth between the siblings.

“We need to go. Now.”

GM: “We do,” Roderick says tightly. “We need to take care of his car. Where’s yours?”

Celia: “Taken care of.”

GM: “Fuck. Look at all this blood. We need to cover this up.”

“There were gunshots,” says Dani. “I don’t know we’ll have time. If there’s Gangrel in this park like you say. Those were LOUD.”

Celia: “Put the bodies in the car. I’ll take care of that. You use your speed and scrub it.”

GM: “Are you going to try to kill him again?” Roderick asks.

Celia: Celia glares at him.

“I wasn’t trying to kill him.”

GM: “I’m not doing that again,” he says flatly. “Doesn’t matter who. I’m not killing again.”

Celia: “I’m not going to kill him. We don’t have time to argue.”

GM: “Right. Taking them to our car. Back as fast as I can.” Roderick hefts his sister (who gives a started sound) and the ghoul over his shoulders in firemen’s carries, and then he’s gone in a blur.


Friday night, 18 March 2016, AM

Celia: There’s a brief moment of indecision as he goes. He’d taken off the same way as Carolla’s car. Of course they used the same lot; how hadn’t she noticed his car when they’d arrived? What was she paying attention to instead? The thug in front of her, probably.

How long does it take to drain the body to the point that Caroline had told her about?

Longer than she has, she bets.

She could try it anyway. Maybe she should. She bends—

And hears a footstep behind her. The decision is taken from her when she looks up to see the two ghouls she’d summoned from the car finally arrive. Her hackles had been up the entire ride after Carolla smacked her around, and she’s glad she’d texted them when she did. Late to the fight, but just in time to be of some use.

“Take him. Get the blood off him. Go. You know where. Don’t let anything happen to him. Go. Hurry.”

GM: “Uh, gonna take a while to get off this much blood…” says Randy.

Reggie just grunts and hefts up the body.

Celia: Is this the right thing?

Or should she leave the body with Roderick? Let him taste that blood first hand?

She should, shouldn’t she? That’s what Savoy would want. What her sire would want.

Then what? How will she get it from him later?

She won’t. She won’t let him take it at all.

“This way,” she says instead. Toward the SUV.

GM: The brothers follow after her, torpid body held aloft.

Celia: “There’s a car. We need to get rid of it.” A quiet explanation, only the need to know.

GM: “Okay, there’s chop shops,” says Reggie.

Celia: “Mafia related. Can’t get back to us.”

GM: “Shit, really?”

Celia: Could take it to Shep, but what if he recognizes it?

“Yeah.”

GM: The three are interrupted as Roderick blurs to a stop in front of them.

He looks at the ghouls. “Can they help?”

Celia: “Yeah, that’s what I’m explaining to them now.”

GM: He shakes his head. “Stupid question.” He moves to relieve them of the body.

Celia: “They’ve got it.”

“We need to clean. They’re not as fast.”

“And they need to get out of here. Take the two cars. Randy can leave his keys. We scrub. Anyone comes by we just say we’re fucking. Explains the blood.”

“Randy will go with Dani. Reg, van.”

“Or she can drive your car. Give them your keys.”

GM: Roderick considers her plan, then nods.

“She’s already got them. I’ll text her to take off.” He pulls out his phone and taps away.

“A’ight. Same plan.” Reggie and Randy head off with the body.

Celia: They know where to go.

Celia makes sure to get Randy’s keys before he leaves.

Nothing like being stranded.

GM: “We can’t hide this completely,” says Roderick. His form blurs, and then he’s picked up several spent shell casings from the grass.

He tucks them in his pocket. “Too hard outdoors.”

“Maybe we should actually fuck, though. Get our blood everywhere.”

Celia: She does what she can, following his lead with her own burst of speed, picking up any stray articles she finds.

She pauses at his words.

“Yeah? Think it’ll help?”

GM: “Dunno, but it’s that or try to get out all the blood from everywhere.”

“Wait, we could pretend we were playing Nines. Explain the gunshots.”

Celia: “You don’t think the kine will wonder?”

She doesn’t say no, though.

GM: “Probably will.”

Celia: She wishes they had a Tremere right about now.

“Enough to get us in trouble?”

“Six Nines. I was the kidnapped lick. He took off after losing, you and I fucked.”

“Maybe better not to mention him.”

GM: Roderick shakes his head. “Rather not have him attached to us at all.”

He pulls out the shell casings. “Okay, these ones are from Dani’s semiauto, these others are… god fucking damn it, why did that guy bring a rifle? Mobsters don’t even use those!”

Roderick’s gone in another blur, then he’s back with another gun.

Celia: She starts to explain that he was trying to kill Roderick, but the Brujah is gone and back before she can open her mouth. Her eyes fix on the gun.

GM: “Took this from your ghouls. Someone who really knows guns and heard those shots might be suspicious when these casings don’t match the sounds, but not much we can do about that.”

“You don’t use rifles in Nines either.”

Celia: “How fast are you?” she blurts.

“I assume enough licks don’t use guns to know it doesn’t match. We’ll do what we can to cover it.”

GM: “Not fast enough to do that all the time. It’s giving me munchies. Bad. On top of that fight.” He grimaces.

Celia: “You gonna go postal?”

GM: “I’ll hold it in.”

Celia: She just nods.

GM: “Fuck. Maybe this whole thing is a dumb idea. More gunshots to get more spent casings is just making this worse.”

Celia: “Then let’s just clean it up and dip. I don’t know what else we can do.”

“What do you guys do after the games? How do you hide it?”

GM: “I don’t know either! But those gunshots happened and Carolla still came here. Nines is one way to explain it, but licks have to know it was us for it to actually seem like that and not just a random shooting, and that connects us to the place Carolla last was.”

“Fuck. Maybe I’m being paranoid wanting to explain all of that and the blood too, but I’d rather be too careful than not careful enough.”

Celia: “No. You’re right. We need to handle all aspects.”

Not to mention being seen together.

Fuck.

GM: “You think we should try to scrub as much as we can or stage it as Nines or what?”

Celia: “Cleaning up after Nines.”

Briefly, she explains. It already looks like they’re cleaning up from a game, trying not to draw notice from any breathers. Protecting the Masquerade and all that. They’ve got the shells in their pockets, they’re working on cleaning up their spilled blood… but it’s blood, you know, and they’re two horny neonates, and they got a little carried away, and Torrie Beasts only ever want to fuck anyway, so they did, and now they’re just scrubbing away the evidence of their tryst.

Because she has to assume that Anarchs don’t play their games and just abandon the sight.

GM: “All right. So you want someone to see us here?” he asks.

“That’s the only thing that will really cement Nines as a story.”

Celia: “Then everyone knows about us.”

GM: “If we don’t it’s just a random act of violence that somebody made an effort to up.”

“I have my mask, but obviously it’s not perfect anymore.”

“God damn it. What I’d give to be able to change faces right now like a sewer rat.”

Celia: “What, to bail, or to not get caught together?”

GM: “To get caught, looking like two licks who aren’t actually us.”

Celia: “Got a frame job in mind? Or two randoms?”

GM: He shakes his head. “Doesn’t matter. I don’t know how to veil.”

Celia: She’s going to throttle him if she has to ask what he wants one more time.

“I do. So tell me.”

GM: He raises his eyebrows, but answers, “Two randoms is easier. Anyone we try to frame might have an alibi.”

“Or, actually, we could make one Carolla. His blood is actually here.”

“Wait, no. That’s a pretty advanced veiling trick.”

“Two randoms, then.”

Celia: Celia nods. She turns away while he continues to talk. Her fingers blur across her face, then the side of her head. Her form flickers, blurring as the shadow dancing takes hold, just something to misdirect his eyes while she molds her skin like putty. It’s quick. When she turns again she’s not Celia anymore. She’s not Jade anymore. She’s someone else. Cute, but fuller cheeks and missing half the hair on the side of her head, like a buzz cut. All the rage these days, that style. Goes with her leathers, too, so she doesn’t even look out of place.

Guess_Who.jpg
“Hold still,” she says, reaching out to him. Another burst of speed, but a smaller one this time. Blood coats her fingers. She murmurs while she works, a string of vaguely Latin-sounding words that may or may not be an actual language but sure as hell sound like something out of a medical textbook. Her fingers move against the mask that he still wears, smoothing out the torn pieces, altering it to look like the thug they’d just beaten the fuck out off.

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Her Beast doesn’t even give a fuck. It’s still riding the high that she’d beaten the shit out of the douchebag she’s now looking at, pleased that she had let it out of the cage.

GM: He touches the mask, then stares at her, and reaches out to touch the shaved side of her head.

“That’s not shadow dancing.”

Celia: “No,” she agrees. She hesitates. Then, “Surprised?”

GM: “It explains the Jade face, too.”

“And how you’re also good at shapeshifting.”

Celia: “Yeah.” She reaches for his hand. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”

GM: “Why didn’t you?”

“I’m not just another lick. I wouldn’t try to use it against you.”

He sounds hurt.

Celia: “We were broken up. And it never seemed like a good time for it, lately, with everything going on. I didn’t know how to bring it up. There’s… a lot I didn’t know how to bring up, and I… I was going to talk to you about it tonight, when we got back, because things are getting really serious again and I don’t… I don’t want to lie to you about anything.”

“I was going to tell you before. A few years ago. I told you that you couldn’t tell anyone, and then you said ‘Maybe don’t then, I know how secretive night doctors can be,’ and…” she trails off.

GM: “You said knowing a night doctor was the secret. That there was a night doctor who owed you.”

Celia: Not-Celia looks away. Technically she’d just let him draw his own conclusions and said she wouldn’t confirm anything, but it doesn’t seem the sort of thing she should point out.

“We broke up before I got a chance to tell you.”

“And… I was going to. Tonight. Like I said.”

“Your si—” she cuts off before she finishes the word. “We had a talk tonight. In the car. She said that it seemed like I was still bitter and carrying a lot of baggage around because of everything before, and we’d never really aired it out, and I realized she’s right. I’m still holding part of myself away because… because it hurt. It hurt so much when you left. And it took so long to put myself back together and not mope and wait in my haven, watching the door, waiting for you to come back, praying that you’d come back, and then… and then you did, when I called, you did, and I’m still… good things don’t happen to me, they don’t, I’m just waiting for the moment it all falls apart again, and then she said that I just… I knew I didn’t want to be like that. It can’t be like that. We can’t be together with all this built up fear and paranoia and hurt and grief, I can’t be half-in because I think one night you’re going to wake up and realize you’re just better than me and don’t want to slum it because you won’t. You’re not like that.”

She wipes at her eyes. Her fingers come away red.

“So I was going to. To tell you. A lot of things. Because I don’t want us to be like every other lick in the city. I want what we had. Something real.”

She finally looks away.

“I just needed to get out of my own way and stop being afraid.”

GM: She feels her lover’s arm encircle her, as strong as ever but oh so gentle. He tilts her face up by the chin to meet his gaze.

“You don’t need to be afraid,” he says softly. His face is Carolla’s, but the expression on it is utterly at odds with the mafioso Celia knew only scant hours ago. There’s no mistaking them for the same person. “Okay? You don’t need to be afraid.”

“I’m sorry what I did to you when we broke up. I’m sorry I hurt you. I’m sorry what that did, what I did, to our relationship and how I made you believe you couldn’t tell the truth without getting dumped and physically beaten. I’m sorry I made you afraid to be honest. I’m sorry I made you afraid of me. It was shitty of me and I don’t have any excuse. I’d give anything to take it back.”

Celia: She wishes they were Stephen and Celia again, not William Carolla and Not-Celia. That they were in her haven and not the middle of the park with a crime scene to clean up. That she didn’t have a handful of other things to come clean about, so many lies that she doesn’t even know where to begin.

She tries not to think about it. She doesn’t want to think about it. It’s a problem for future Celia.

Celia presses her face against her boyfriend’s chest. No matter who she looks like and who he looks like, they’re still that.

“I… I have a lot to tell you.” The words are whisper-soft. “Promise me you won’t be mad later. Please. I hate being afraid of losing you.”

GM: He gives her another squeeze.

“I know. Dani told me about your conversation in the car. I figured… well, I suppose I didn’t figure anything. There’s just been so much else going on and I was happy just to have you back.”

“I can’t promise I won’t get mad at anything. But I do promise I won’t hurt you like I did last time, and that I won’t let my feelings ruin our relationship again.”

Celia: She’s quiet for a long moment.

“I love you,” she finally says. “I’m sorry I was afraid.” She touches a hand to the side of his face, thumb soft against his lips.

“Not to change the subject… but we should either fuck to sell the story or get out of here.”

GM: “I love you too. But we should get caught, with these faces. Cleaning up our game.”

“Or I guess fucking, that sounds more believable.”

“And makes us look kind of dumb, too.”

Celia: “If we get in trouble for this I’m going to be so salty,” Celia mutters, but she’s already pulling her shirt over her head.

GM: Roderick smirks and leaves his on. “They’re bloody enough.”

Then he tackles her to the grass and pierces her skin with his fangs.

Celia: Well that’s all she needs to get in the mood. She arches into him, keeping her breather reaction under control—few enough licks in the city get off that way—and sinks her teeth in to whatever part of him she can reach.

GM: The lovers know passion in one another’s arms (though Roderick still makes sure not to drink her blood before it’s cooled) until two Kindred appear on the scene. Jordan Petrowski, who Roderick mention was present at the Cypress Grove Massacre, and Ed Zuric, who Jade has seen in the French Quarter.

“Jesus H. Christ…” mutters Petrowski.

Celia: Celia thinks that maybe this is the face of a girl who had once been named Cici, and Cici doesn’t care if they’re being watched. She only stops if “Carolla” does, casting a glance at the two who’d happened upon them. She’d been a little rougher with him than normal, urging him to do the same (“he seems the type”), and her body wears the marks of their rough sex. She giggles, pointing out their audience to Carolla.

GM: ‘Carolla’ smirks up at the two Gangrel.

“Were those gunshots yours?” glares the gray-haired professor.

Celia: “We jus’ playin’.” A little more of a nasal whine than usual, the type of bitch who’s had her nose broken a time or two for getting lippy.

GM: Zuric rolls his eyes.

Petrowski shakes his head.

“You folks are lucky it’s not Meadows who found you. Go on, get.”

Celia: “Yeah, yeah,” Cici mumbles, pulling away from Carolla so she can find her shirt. “Jus’ blowin’ off steam. We’s goin’. C’mon, Willy, there’s better places to bone.”

She yanks her clothes on, makes a small scene about not being able to find her boots (“some pervert is prolly jackin’ off to ’em right now”) and stomps off.

GM: “The johnny laws are gettin’ your names and faces if there’s any shit over this,” says Zuric, rolling his eyes again.

‘Carolla’ just gives a thuggish glare.

Celia: Cici doesn’t even bother slowing down. She tosses her hair, scoffs, and keeps going, muttering about busybodies.

GM: That part’s not even a lie.

All she’d wanted was a romp of good sex in the park.


Friday night, 18 March 2016, AM

GM: ‘Carolla’ follows Celia off.

“You have any idea where his car is?” he mutters.

“Ah, wait, shit. Keys.”

Celia: “Yep.” Celia leads the way, grateful to put the park, the scene, and the Gangrel behind them.

“What about them?”

She holds up the keys she’d gotten from Randy.

GM: He smiles with relief. “Oh, that’s right. Perfect. Didn’t want to have to smash in a window and deal with a car alarm too.”

“I guess we’ll try cars until one unlocks.”

He takes the keys and heads over to the nearest vehicle.

Celia: Celia gives him a look.

“I know which car is his.”

GM: “Same reason you were here in the park too?” he asks.

Celia: “…Randy left his car for us, I’m real confused what you’re on about.”

GM: “Wait, I thought you meant Carolla’s car. He probably had his keys.”

“I don’t want to leave it here.”

Celia: “Reg took it.”

“Weren’t you listening?”

GM: “Yes. It wasn’t clear whose cars you meant. But whatever, this works almost as well.”

Celia: “You were distracted by how cute I am, it’s okay.”

GM: “Always,” he smirks, getting in the car after she points it out. He waits for her to buckle her seatbelt, then pulls out of the lot.

“How did you wind up here, though? That obviously wasn’t a coincidence for a tiger to fall out of the same tree.”

“…how did you learn to morph into a tiger, while we’re at it?”

“Most I’ve seen shapeshifting licks turn into is wolves.”

Celia: Celia laughs.

“Kind of a long story, but the short of it is that Flanagan’s kid caused some trouble in Audubon Zoo, and the tiger was gonna be put down. I don’t know how much you know about shifting, but… you have to drain an animal to get their shape. Prove you’re the better predator. There’s actually a whole ritual I heard some licks do when they’re going to master another shape, real kind of Native vibe where they honor the spirit and soul, that kind of thing. Hard to do with a tiger, they’re not really local, so I couldn’t do a hunt like that. But… I mean, it was going to be put down anyway and… it seemed like a waste. I found out what company, hacked some records, snuck in during the day, bada-bing, I’m a tiger now.”

“I couldn’t really do the whole thing like some of the licks do. Could hardly release it to hunt, would have caused too much issue. But I did what I could.”

“Clawed the fuck out of me, tell you that.”

“Figured if I couldn’t even give it a fighting chance then I don’t deserve to wear its form.”

Celia touches a hand to her stomach, no doubt remembering the claws that had almost eviscerated her.

“I can’t scry,” she says after a minute. The words are almost blurted; it sounds like a confession. “I pretend I can since I’m supposed to be able to, but I never learned. Veronica used to get mad at me for it. She never… I mean she never said ‘stupid,’ but I think she was probably thinking it. And I used to wonder, you know, if that was why. Because we consider it a mental art, and my dad… but… I dunno, Pietro says most breathers are boring anyway, that their thoughts aren’t worth listening to, and I’m good at reading their bodies, and I’m just… I’m good at this. I learned this instead. I’m… I’m good at it.”

GM: Roderick listens.

“Well, that happens. Wright sucks at star mode, but he’s a better hand at mind control. I don’t envy what happened to the lick who called him a ‘discount Ventrue.’”

“It’s as I said. We’re all good at different things.”

Celia: “Guess I’m not dumb enough to say that to him. Jeeze.”

GM: “Your being able to change our faces was a LOT more useful than mind-reading would’ve been, too.”

“So foo to your sire if she thought you were stupid.”

Celia: “I still wish I could do that telepathy thing. Send you messages across the city.”

GM: “That’s a pretty advanced scrying trick from what I hear anyway. I’m just glad you could change our faces.”

“And I have heard that, about draining the animal. I didn’t know there was a ritual to it, though. That makes total sense.”

“Lot of Gangrel who say they like animals more than people.”

“There’s people who say that, too.”

Celia: “It’s easy to get sucked in when you’re shifted.”

GM: “I can attest,” he smirks.

“I think I read about that tiger in the news, too. Just such a stupid waste. It was a wild animal. It didn’t do anything that another wild animal wouldn’t have done under the same circumstances. All tigers are ‘man-eaters’ if a human gets in their faces and provokes them.”

Celia: “It was. I’m… honestly kind of surprised the kid got away with it.”

GM: Roderick frowns.

“Maybe she didn’t.”

Celia: “What do you mean?”

GM: “I just don’t see the sheriff letting something like that slide if he knew it was her.”

Celia: “Right.”

“What, you think he doesn’t know?”

“Did you know?”

Shit, did she just spill something on accident?

GM: “I mean, it’s possible. And I didn’t know, actually.”

Celia: “…oh.”

“Uh, don’t tell anyone?”

GM: “I’ve heard of Edith and her kids. It’s really fucked.”

“But I won’t.”

Celia: “I feel bad for her. And them.”

GM: “I feel worse for them.”

Celia: “I think sometimes that she’s not quite all there. She’s… a lot of us, you know, we go through it. Wanting kids. Not being able to have them. Hating it. And we get past it, but she’s so… fixated.”

GM: “I wanted kids with you. Would like them. More than anything.” He looks at her meaningfully. “But that’s not in the cards. God knows I’m not going to suggest we find a couple orphans to ghoul.”

Celia: “I know.” She squeezes his hand. “I would have loved to have your children. But ghouling them…” Celia shakes her head. “We could have a childe. You know, with an E. Pop out fully formed, that’s not weird at all.”

GM: He gives her a sad smile. “It’s not the same.”

“At least you have a ton of brothers and sisters to give you nieces and nephews, though. The Garrison name looks like it’s died with Dani. At least through my dad.”

Celia: “We can be godparents. For their entire line. Make up a story about being reclusive older relatives. Real eclectic.”

GM: “Godparents would be good. Keep our distance.”

“Then again, Lucy calls you mom, doesn’t she?”

Celia: “As far as everyone knows, I am her mom.”

GM: “Technically, almost everyone. But I’m glad you have that. Really. You have a sweet kid who thinks of you as her mom, who’s actually related to you, and whose life you can be in without living with… it really is the next best thing.”

“There’s a lot of licks who’d give a lot just for that.”

Celia: “Lot of licks who would try to take it away, too.”

“That’s why…” She gestures to her face.

GM: He nods. “Right. Smart.”

“I’m sorry I told Coco. I was new, I was devastated, I wasn’t thinking.”

Celia: “I wish she didn’t know. I don’t… dislike her, Rod, you know that right? I just… she knows…”

GM: “I just had to talk about you, us, to someone. I had no one else.”

“But it was irresponsible.”

“I made her swear not to ever tell anyone else, or to play any games with them. I told her we’d be through if she tried to use innocents like your family for any purpose.”

“I thought she would be mad at me. But she just said she understood and swore by her son’s memory that she wouldn’t ever touch them or reveal who they were to other licks.”

Celia: Moisture gathers at the corners of her eyes. She wipes at them before it has a chance to overflow and spill down her cheeks.

“Thank you. For that. For them. That means… that means a lot to me. More than I can put into words.”

GM: “It means less than if I’d just kept my mouth shut and not been so emotional. But it was the best thing I could think of after the milk was spilled.”

Celia: “You can’t change the past. You can only learn from it and move forward. And you have me now. Us. When you need to talk, I’m here.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

GM: He nods and gives her hand a squeeze. “I know.”

“Speaking of… where are your ghouls headed?”

Celia: “To strip the car. I told them to take care of it.”

GM: “Where are they dropping off Carolla?”

His voice gets an edge.

Celia: Celia shrinks against the door at the tone.

“Wha—what are you gonna do with him?”

GM: “I don’t know,” Roderick says frankly.

“Courts can’t try him. He’s a mobster with effective legal immunity.”

“But he can’t be allowed to go on preying upon people.” There’s a meaningful pause. “And I don’t just mean as a vampire.”

“Maybe stake him and bury him underground forever. The Sanctified actually believe in doing that to some criminals.”

Celia: “He’d deserve it.”

GM: “Yes. He would.”

“It’s unlife imprisonment. Seems the only realistic way to permanently curtail his crimes without simply leaving him to brighten sunrises.”

Celia: “How would you explain his disappearance..?”

GM: “Licks disappear semi-periodically without explanation.”

“Look at Evan Bourelle.”

“Lots of things that get them.”

“It’d be preferable if there was an explanation, but that also risks tipping our hand. Might be better for us just to stay as far away as possible.”

Celia: “No one can connect us to him. Those two saw this face. Except… well, the ghoul…”

GM: Roderick grimaces.

“We can’t stake him.”

“But, Celia, we’re not murderers. We don’t kill because it’s convenient.

“We can say it’s for a just cause, but what do reasons matter if our actions are the same?”

Celia: “He had the gun trained on your sister,” Celia says quietly. “He didn’t care that you didn’t look like you, or that you didn’t even smell like a lick, he was going to kill you both because it might be you.”

GM: “You think I don’t know that?”

“You think I don’t have any idea what these people are capable of?”

“What fucking animal scumbags they are? How much misery and suffering they cause?”

“I’m sure he’d have killed my dad and mom and anyone I’ve so much as talked with too, if he thought that would help bring me down.”

Celia: “I… I didn’t. I didn’t. I didn’t know. You told me about it but it was never… it was never real to me, just something you once said about them.”

Celia swallows.

“Why? What did you do to him? Why was he after you?”

GM: “I told you, on our first date. How they’d pick up the kids of people who crossed them from schools. Or break a ballerina’s legs if she couldn’t pay back her debts.”

“But I don’t blame you if it wasn’t real.”

“Frenzy wasn’t real to Dani until she saw, wasn’t it?”

Celia: “That’s what I mean. I’ve never been that close to it.”

GM: “Did he hurt you?” Roderick asks, suddenly looking her over again.

Celia: Celia looks away.

GM: “What happened?” he asks.

“How did you get here?”

“But, first, let me know where I’m driving.”

Celia: “Spa.”

GM: “Okay.” He finds a place to park the car. “Change my face. I do not want him seen showing up at your spa.”

Celia: It’s less of a face change than it is simply removing his mask.

“Easy off,” she explains.

GM: He pulls it off.

“Yes. But that’s still my face underneath.”

Celia: “You want a new face?”

“So ‘Roderick’ doesn’t show up at the spa?”

GM: He nods. “We still can’t be linked.”

Celia: “Can I make you cuter?”

She’s only teasing, but she gets to work on his skin with a warning that it’s going to hurt.

“Probably don’t refer to yourself in third person,” she says as she works, “it causes disassociation.”

GM: He lays his head down on her lap and gives a hiss of pain as she starts.

“Roderick will—nh—keep that in mind.”

Celia: Maybe now is a good time to tell him that she thinks there’s more inside of her than Celia and a fake name.

Or maybe it’s a conversation for another night. How would she even bring it up?

She works quickly, moving her fingers across his flesh to sculpt him into someone else. Someone attractive, with more facial hair and a sharp jaw. Someone who looks like they could be seen with Jade as a breather or a lick. Someone whose gaze smolders and makes her want to bare her throat and—

Well. Maybe it’s better she just focus on her work.

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“I made you older. Maybe Italian. I dunno. What do you think?”

GM: Roderick does not enjoy the process. She has yet to meet anyone (well, with one exception) who does. But once the grimaces and grunts of pain are over and he looks in the mirror, he raises his new eyebrows.

“Wow. That’s… effective.”

“This could make spending time together a lot easier if we can be someone different every date…”

Celia: “It usually gives me the munchies,” Celia admits. “But I can hunt more, maybe.”

GM: “I can bring juice to cover my half.”

“Seriously. This would let us go out so many more places.”

“Without worrying all the damn time about being seen together.”

Celia: “I’d like that. Going out more.”

GM: “Me too. Could even just take turns changing faces, too. It’s plausible Roderick or Jade might go on dates as part of hunting.”

Celia: “More plausible Jade is seen with a new guy every night.”

She can’t quite keep the bitterness out of her voice.

GM: “And yet, she’s going out with the same one.”

“They don’t know you as well as they think.”

Celia: She doesn’t want to lie to him, so she just smiles, kisses his cheek, and starts fixing her own face.

GM: He pulls out his phone and taps out a text as she does.

“Telling Dani to come by the spa too.”

Celia: “Are you going to tell her about me?”

GM: “What about you? That you can change faces?”

Celia: “Yeah.”

GM: “She told me how friendly this Dr. Dicentra was. Hugged her, didn’t mind she was a thin-blood, was a mentor to you. Also said you’d paid her for the mask job.”

Celia: Celia nods.

GM: “Why lie to her? She’s duskborn.”

Celia: “I lied to everyone.”

GM: “Dr. Dicentra charged me favors,” he hmphs.

Celia: Celia rolls her eyes.

“Never cashed in, did she?”

GM: “That’s normal. Lots of licks sit on them for a while.”

Celia: “What I meant was, do you really think I was going to take advantage of you like that?”

GM: “Of course not. It was just another thing to worry about when I’ve already had a lot.”

Celia: “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to add to it.”

“You don’t owe me anything. Just… don’t tell anyone it’s me.”

GM: He sighs. “It’s fine. It’s harmless. But, why lie to Dani? She’s excited to see the night doctor again. The only lick besides us who’s been really friendly to her.”

Celia: “Do you want to be the one to tell her that Dicentra was only nice because it’s me?”

“How do you… how do you tell someone something after you’ve already lied to them?”

GM: “You tell them what you lied about, why you did it, and you say you’re sorry. It might hurt at first, but it’s better for you both in the long run.”

Celia: She’ll see if he stands by that later tonight.

GM: “Dani would rather have truth than lies. All our family would.”

Celia: “Even if it’s a really bad lie?”

GM: “Especially if it’s a really bad lie.”

Celia: “I thought you might hit me. Back in the park. After I changed your face, when you looked like him, and I thought… you know, at least it’s Will doing it, at least that’s consistent.”

“It doesn’t come easy. Being honest. Not now. Not when I’ve had to lie to everyone about everything for so long, juggling two different lives, trying to remember who is supposed to know what.”

GM: “I think, after all that, it would probably feel like a weight off your shoulders just to be honest.”

Celia: “Unless they hate you for it.”

GM: “And wonder the entire time if they’d actually hate the real me, and feel like the whole relationship is fake? That sounds awful.”

“I’d rather have honest hate.”

Celia: “But I don’t want you to hate me.”

GM: “I think we hold pretty different values in that regard, Celia.”

“If someone would hate the real you, then you never had anything.”

Celia: “Why can’t you just tell me that of course you won’t hate me and you’ll hear me out before you decide my face looks better split apart?”

GM: “I did tell you that. I told you I might be angry, but also that I’d never hurt you in that same way again.”

“It’s okay for couples to get angry. The emotions are there. Better you have them out honestly than bury them and let them fester and taint everything.”

“You can’t eject them. You have to deal with them somehow.”

Celia: You can eject other people, though. Kick them out of your life and never see them again. Make them wish they’d kept their mouth shut and believed the pretty lie in their little world of pretend.

Celia doesn’t say anything for a long moment while they drive, her eyes on the window now that she has finished with her face. She supposes they’ll find out tonight if Roderick thinks he can stick around knowing who she is.

“He hurt me,” she says finally, eyes still on the lights passing by their borrowed car. “You asked earlier.”

GM: “How?” he asks.

Celia: “He was looking for my sister.” Her voice is quiet. She doesn’t look at him. “I guess he was mad at her, she crossed his uncle. He wanted to teach her a lesson. He was going to… I don’t know. Rape her. Let some kine rape her. Said she’d never leave the studio, so I figure he’d probably just kill her when he’s done. Licks disappear, right?”

“But he couldn’t find her. I thought, you know, he seems to know all these places she’s been to, all her usual hangouts, and I don’t have any proof that Meadows killed her, and I thought maybe if I went with him I could find something, like a trail or something, but there was nothing. And he was getting mad. Really mad. And I said… I don’t know, I don’t even remember, I asked something about his uncle I think, asked about what she’d done, and he… he lashed out. You know how it is. Brujah. The strength. The speed. I’m not much of a fighter on my best day.” Her attempt at a laugh is hollow. “And we were in the car. There was nowhere to run.”

“He had his hands…” Celia touches a hand to her throat. “We don’t need to breathe, I guess, but it’s still… I felt everything grinding together, and he put me…” her voice gets quieter. “I was on my knees, with my hands up, I guess I thought I could fend him off, make him stop, and he… he told me how pathetic I am. How weak. Like a woman, he said.”

She doesn’t need to explain the way he had turned it into an insult. Roderick knows all about the sexism inherent to the Mafia.

“So I tried to divert his attention from me. I offered to take him to a party because… Rod, the way he spoke about what he wanted to do with Isabel, what he’s done to other women… what if it was me? What if he just…?”

Easy to picture. Celia on her knees. Smacked around. Forced into some weird sort of Mafia-run prostitution ring. Turned into a whore for Carolla’s amusement. Unable to get out. Eventually disappearing, with no one the wiser. Who would look for a harpy’s childe?

“Everyone knows how much he hates Gui. I said he’d be at this party, that we could do something there. It made him back off. But then he said he had another idea. A better idea. That he’d been tracking ‘this asshole’ for a long time. That he was going to finally pounce. Showed me a blip on a map on his phone. So we went to the park and I started to get a really bad feeling about it, but he threw me up into that tree with his ghoul and the gun and… I saw you before he did. And I knew what he was going to do.”

Celia looks down at her hands.

“So I tried to divert his attention again. To me. To make him mad at me so he wouldn’t hurt you. The rifle was right on Dani. I know they can mend but… I wasn’t going to take the chance. I kept talking. Loudly. And he told me to stop, told me to shut up, but I didn’t, so he… pulled me over and silenced me with his hand, and since I’d pissed him off he thought he’d just break my wrists while he was at it. Both of them.”

Celia stares down at her hands, circling the wrist of her left hand with her right middle finger and thumb.

“So I started crying, because, you know, blood. He already thought I was weak, who cared if I cried. I thought maybe you’d smell it and know something was wrong. I was trying to make you turn around, or at least tip you off so you didn’t walk in blind.”

“But you kept coming.”

“I figured the tiger was my only way out. Distract him long enough so that you’d take Dani and run.”

“I should’ve known better. Of course you wouldn’t run. Even against an apeshit tiger, apparently.” She can’t help but laugh. It’s less strained than before. The danger is over. Carolla was beaten. There’d been no lasting damage, not to Celia.

“I’m fine now,” she says. “But you asked. And there are other, bigger issues it brings up.”

GM: Roderick listens and holds his tongue as he drives. The talk about Carolla slapping Celia around makes him clench his jaw and grip the steering wheel, but at this point, he looks more relieved that it’s over with and Celia is clearly safe.

“Okay,” he says slowly when she’s finished. “This raises a lot of questions.”

“First. Does he know about the Celia/Jade connection? Because that seems like a hell of a coincidence he’d bring you to go looking for Roxanne.” Roderick shakes his head. “And then go looking for me. There’s no way that’s a coincidence he’d go after two Embraced people from your mortal life, at the same time he’s dragging you along. Just no way. How did you run into him?”

Celia: “I… don’t think so?” She puts the question in her voice. “I don’t think he knows, there are only a handful of people who do know and none of them would have any reason to tell him. I don’t think he expected me to defend you. He thought it would be me, him, and his ghoul against you, so the whole tiger thing caught him by surprise.”

“As far as Roxanne… I, uh, I mean there’s nothing that links us together. He seemed like he expected me to be cool with what he was going to do to her. I guess I did kind of make fun of her on Friday and he was there for it.”

Her brow furrows.

“He said he’d been tracking you for a while…”

“Rod,” she says, reaching for his hand. “He’d been tracking you. How was he tracking you? It was like a GPS thing. He pulled it up on his phone.”

GM: Her lover frowns deeply.

“I have absolutely no idea. But we need to fix that, ASAP.”

Celia: “It couldn’t be your phone. You had a new one. And it’s not like you hang out with him.”

“Who have you been with recently?”

“Anything you wear all the time?”

GM: He shakes his head, parks the car, pulls open his phone, and starts going through it.

“I don’t see what else it could be. There’s a million ways to hack a phone. I’m not a tech expert.”

Celia: “…what if it’s inside you?”

“Like what if someone put something in you?”

“And made you forget?”

GM: He raises his eyebrows.

“It’s possible. I guess we should scan me for…” he frowns. “The spa might not be a good idea after all.”

“In case it’s the phone, though, here’s what we’ll do.”

Celia: “I can look. When we get there. Inside of you. If there’s something in you I can find it.”

“God, what if that’s how the hunters found you?”

GM: Roderick grimaces. “Only one way to find out. I’m going to hide this phone somewhere close, though, and get a new one. I’ve installed a tracking app on it.”

Celia: “Clever.”

GM: “If it stays where it is, then okay, phone is probably fine. If someone finds it and moves it, then we’ll be the ones tracking them. I figure getting all my data will be a tempting prospect. I’ve deleted everything sensitive. I’m sure a specialist can get it back, but we’ll call that good enough for now.”

Celia: Celia nods. It’s a good plan.

GM: “As far as searching me, though, do it here.”

Celia: “I… I can’t. It hurts. A lot. And we’re out in the open. Someone might see.”

GM: “Okay. I don’t want to do it at your spa, though.”

Celia: “Then where? Anywhere we go before we find out is going to be an issue.”

GM: He thinks. “What about my old haven? It’s obviously already compromised, but it should give us privacy for a little while. We can use the tub if it’s messy.”

Celia: “What about Dani? And the bodies?”

GM: “I told her to stop by Flawless.”

Celia: “The boys should be there. Soon if not now. It’s at least extra muscle if anything dumb happens. And I have blood there. I’m riding the edge, Rod. I don’t want to risk something.”

GM: “Would you rather risk going apeshit or someone tracking me back to Flawless?”

“If you lose it I can hold you down until it passes.”

Celia: Celia rubs a hand across her face.

“I’m more worried about you losing it when I cut you open.”

GM: “Valid. You could stake me.”

Celia: “All right,” she finally relents. “I’ll let Luna out when we get close to the border.”

GM: “How’d you get her shape, by the way? If you have to kill the animal…”

Celia: “Alana found her at a shelter. It’s supposed to be a no-kill shelter, but I had her look into it a little. Apparently they get around that technicality by sending excess pets to another place to put down, so they can still claim they don’t. Good for their image. The lady at the shelter said she’d been there for a long time and they didn’t have room anymore. People only want kittens, you know?”

GM: He nods.

Celia: “I didn’t just murder a cat. I tried to… be decent about it.”

GM: Roderick effects a faint sigh.

“That’s sad.”

“That’s really sad.”

“When you just think about all of those unwanted pets sitting in shelters. Or dying on the streets.”

“This is why you spay and neuter. And we still have puppy mills!”

Celia: “Everyone wants the purebred puppies with the perfect looks. One of my girls at the spa adopted a dog from a puppy mill. The mom, I mean, after she was rescued and the place was shut down. She was like 13 and had a bunch of health issues but Piper took her in and kept her comfortable for a few years until she passed.”

GM: “Good for Piper. The conditions for dogs at those places are beyond deplorable. And we still have them whelping out crateloads of puppies when there are so many unadopted pets!”

“It’s just as bad for cats with kitten mills. Everyone wants kittens.”

Celia: “It’s pretty awful. People kind of suck.”

GM: “Yeah. Animals don’t.”

“I miss Ajax.”

“He was such a good boy. Such a gentle giant.”

Celia: “He was really friendly. I always thought big dogs were kind of aggressive, but he was gentle, yeah, like you said.”

“You could get another dog, you know.”

“You said animals like you.”

GM: “They do. I’m just… worried about sewer rats.”

Celia: “In particular? Or anyone who can tame?”

GM: “I suppose anyone who can tame makes it a risk, but they do it the most.”

“Pets can have a lot of valuable information about your haven, your activities, your comings and goings.”

Celia: “Abellard tried to put a rat in my cunt,” Celia mutters.

GM: “Jesus Christ,” mutters Roderick.

“What a pervert. Tried and failed, I hope?”

Celia: “I snagged its tail before it got anywhere.”

“Just fucking gross.”

GM: “Amen.”

“I’d feel better about pets, anyway, if I could tame.”

Celia: “You could learn.”

GM: “I could. It’s a valuable discipline.”

Celia: “I know a few people who know. One of them is pretty desperate to trade favors.”

GM: “I might take you up on that. I’d like another dog.”

“Dani tells me Ajax passed away a few years ago.”

Celia: “If shit ever hits the fan for me I’m coming to live with you as Luna, just so you know.”

A pause.

“Oh. I’m so sorry to hear that.”

GM: He effects another sigh. “It happens. Dogs don’t live forever. But thanks.”

Celia: Makes her wonder what happened to Sugar Cube.

GM: She lost interest in that pony pretty fast.

Celia: She was eight.

She shouldn’t have been given a pony.

GM: For so many reasons.


Friday night, 18 March 2016, AM

GM: The pair drive back to Roderick’s old apartment at The Preserve. His lease isn’t actually up yet, so he still has the space. He finds a place to ditch his possibly hacked phone. He also suggests Celia not turn into Luna. “You already look different, and maybe someone will recognize another guy carrying the same cat. Unlikely, but at this point… I’m just feeling pretty paranoid.”

Celia: She’s happy to go along with his plan.

GM: “Also, crap. My clothes. These things are a bloody mess.”

Celia: “Randy might have something in the back…” Celia twists in her seat, searching through his things.

What sort of Toreador ghoul would he be if he didn’t?

GM: The fit isn’t perfect, but Roderick strips and changes without complaint, giving Celia a nice look at his abs and muscles as he does.

Celia: She doesn’t mind the view.

Not at all.

She keeps her lips closed to hide the growing boner, though.

“Is it weird if we fuck wearing different faces?”

GM: He thinks on that. “I suppose it’s a way to mix things up.”

Celia: “As if you’d ever get bored of me.”

GM: “Ha. I’d never ever.”

Celia: “Come on, Romeo, let’s go digging through your insides.”

GM: “Keep up that dirty talk and you’re going to make me jump you right here,” he smirks.

They bring a stake from the car and take the elevator up. Rod hoists Celia into a bridal carry when he sees she’s missing her shoes. “I’m not going to have you getting crud over your pretty feet.” Rod’s old unit looks like any bare apartment unit does. Everything has been moved out.

“What happened to your shoes, by the way?” he asks as he turns for her to close the door.

Celia: “Carolla made me take them off. If I was serious about fighting, he said, I had to get rid of them. They’re in his car.”

GM: “Sensible if they were impractical. At least you didn’t lose them.”

Celia: “They were cute. I’d be sad if I did.”

GM: “You make everything look cute, though,” he says as he carries her into the bathroom.

“I’ve always dug how short you are.”

“Fun-sized.”

Celia: “I’m not that short,” she huffs.

GM: “5’3” is below the female U.S. average."

Celia: “Who wants to be average?”

GM: “Lot of us aren’t. But I’m happy to be taller.”

Celia: “Mm. Perfect size for me.”

GM: “Yep. Tall guy and short girl really does it for me.”

“Also another reason I hate your dad. He’s just so much bigger than you and your mom. It’s a grotesquely unfair fight even if he didn’t have more training.”

“Big enough height and weight differences can be incredibly hard for even expert martial artists to overcome.”

“And he just… smacked around women who could never in a thousand years have taken him in a fair fight. It’s so disgusting I get mad just thinking about it.”

Celia: Celia remembers well the size difference between her parents. Watching her dad launch himself down at the stairs at her mom. The sound of her screams.

“Yeah,” she says vaguely. It takes her a moment to come back into the present.

“He’s coming over on Sunday.”

GM: “Dani thinks you and your mom are nuts.”

Celia: “Maybe.”

“I’ll find out soon, I guess.”

GM: “What do you hope to achieve that you didn’t at your last dinner?”

Celia: “Mom just wanted to see him again. And Emily wanted a chance to call him on his bullshit. And… there’s a… there’s a lot, really, that I haven’t talked about with him, that I’m still looking into.”

GM: “He’s scum.”

Celia: Celia doesn’t know how to answer that, so she just nods.

“Feel free to say you told me so, I guess.”

“You ready?” she asks, hefting the stake.

GM: Roderick seems to visibly hold his tongue, then removes his clothes and lays down in the tub.

“Do it.”

Celia: “Say it,” Celia says.

“Whatever you were just holding back. Just say it.”

GM: “I think it’s a bad idea, demons or no demons.”

“Dani thinks the demon talk is pure crazy.”

Celia: “Yeah well Dani thought that reading Dracula counted as research.”

“And she’s been around for like a week.”

“I bet she doesn’t believe in werewolves or fairies either.”

GM: “She doesn’t know better. But demons are just so many question marks and unknowns even for us, Celia.”

“Do you really want to gamble your dad hurting your family again over ‘a demon made me do it?’”

Celia: “I found someone to talk to me about it who knows more.”

“I don’t know what else I’m supposed to do.”

“You never knew him, before.”

GM: “Cut him out of your life.”

“That’s the other thing you can do.”

Celia: “Tell you what, Rod. Tomorrow, at Elysium, I’ll put myself in the sheriff’s path and ask him if we can chat about my daddy, and I’ll let you know what he says.”

GM: He sighs.

“It’s your decision. You wanted to know what I was holding back, so that was it.”

Celia: “You think I’m kidding?”

“I’ll do it.”

GM: “Uh, I see no possible way that ends well.”

Celia: Maybe Roderick doesn’t know him as well as Celia does.

And maybe Celia is just making up stories in her head about what she thinks the reality of the situation is, and Roderick is right: there’s no way it ends well.

“Sorry,” she sighs. “Maybe you’re right.”

“Mom had a vision that Maxen was going to take Lucy away. Maybe bringing him into the house is just a really bad idea.”

“I guess I wasn’t as on guard around him at dinner because I wanted so badly to believe what he was saying.”

GM: “Cost-benefit analysis. What’s the worst that could realistically happen, what’s the best that could realistically happen, and how likely are both?”

Celia: “Let me think about it while I cut you open. I think better when I’m elbow deep inside of people.”

GM: He smirks. “All right. Have at it.”

Celia: So she does.

She presses the stake into his chest and makes sure he can’t move before she begins her work, using her claws to cut him open and sift through his insides. She’s not sure how much he still feels, even staked, but she knows he’s conscious at least—he’d told her how he’d counted the bodies flying out of Cypress Grove. So she keeps up a running commentary on what she’s doing, tells him that most of his insides are basically useless at this point, and looks for anything out of place.

GM: The stake easily slides in past his rib cage. Like a knife through flesh rather than bone. Her lover lies there, helpless and immobilized beneath her hands, utterly at her mercy, but his eyes are trusting.

Celia: She’d had trusting eyes like that, once.

On the roof.

When her sire had smacked her around and broken her jaw.

She wonders if she’d have to stake him to go through his body, or if his iron-fisted control would just let her do her work while he watched.

GM: The latter, of course.

Because he’s better.

Celia: Maybe she can cut him open and find the thing that has him in his grasp. Cut it out of him.

GM: Roderick’s eyes bulge as Celia slices him open and literally rips through his guts. The heady aroma of Brujah vitae with the stink of years-atrophied internal organs (after she slices bits away) hits Celia’s nose. Her lover can’t scream, or even move his mouth, but the muscles in his jaw go tight as a drum.

She recognizes, too, when it’s no longer him staring out past his eyes.

Celia: She’s glad for the stake. Glad that it keeps him pinned, that she doesn’t need to try fighting him off.

She stops talking when he disappears into the red.

It’s not worth saying anything; he won’t remember it anyway.

Maybe now’s the perfect time to confess, though. Tell him about all the shitty things she’s ever done. Tempting, isn’t it, to bare her soul to him like he bares his guts to her.

GM: He won’t remember.

Celia: She opens her mouth. But the noose around her neck jerks tight, constricting unnecessary breath, and she can’t say what she was going to.

It’s not her secret.

There’s something else she can do, though. Another way she can take advantage of his gap in memories.

She can bond him. Cut into her flesh. Drip it into his mouth. He’ll never know. When he comes to he’ll just be in love with her; he won’t feel the rest of them breaking. Snapping. Like hers had done when she’d taken that third drink from her sire.

She can tell him everything then. Confess to what she’d done. He’ll still love her. He has to love her. The blood demands it.

She checks that the Beast still has him in thrall.

GM: Hate, pain, and hunger is all that stares out from his maddened eyes.

Celia: He’ll never know.

He’ll never know she did it to him.

If he finds out, she’ll mindfuck him. She knows enough people who can do it.

And he’ll love her.

Forever.

He won’t spill her secrets. He won’t be able to. He’ll be caught, just like she is. And she’d told him so much. So, so much.

It’s the best thing for them, isn’t it?

Coco had already betrayed him. He’ll be so hurt by that. But he can turn to her. Will turn to her. He’ll come over. They won’t have to hide what they are anymore.

Celia bites into her wrist.

She moves it toward his mouth.

…and she stops, staring down at the staked, raging Brujah, who had trusted her enough to let her do this to him, to make him helpless, to work with her on ways to be together even though they’re on different sides of the fence.

She can’t.

She can’t do it to him.

Not like this.

Quick as that, she licks the wound closed, hating herself for even thinking about it.

She’s not a monster.

Celia turns her face away from his, resuming her search through his body.

GM: That proves less illuminating, perhaps, than the search through her own soul.

She finds nothing out of the ordinary in her lover’s insides.

At least on those grounds, he looks safe to bring back to Flawless.

Celia: She hopes she didn’t miss something. That she wasn’t distracted by the pull to bond him and overlooked anything out of the ordinary.

She closes him up, but waits until he’s calm to remove the stake.

“I didn’t find anything,” she says once she has.

Maybe her conscience.

“Sorry I had to rip you open for that.”

GM: Roderick gives a wet, ragged-sounding gasp and clutches his stomach for several moments, closing his eyes.

“Still… glad… you looked.”

“But… fuck… that… hurt.”

Celia: Celia holds a hand against the side of his face.

“I’m sorry,” she murmurs. “I was going to give you a sedative at the spa, but I don’t have any on me usually. I guess I can carry it from now on, just for stuff like this.”

GM: “That’s… smart.”

“So was… staking. Beast… definitely got out.”

Celia: “Yeah,” she nods. “But it’s okay. It didn’t do anything.”

And she didn’t do anything.

GM: “Can’t do much… staked.”

Celia: “I love you,” she says abruptly. “I don’t care what else happens, or how our talk goes tonight. I love you. So much.”

GM: So much.

But not as much.

Celia: No.

Never as much.

But he’s what she has.

GM: “I love you… too,” he smiles, stroking the hand against his cheek. “It’ll go… it’ll go well. I know.”

Celia: Celia leans over the tub to press a soft kiss against his lips.

It’ll go well.

Everything rides on it.

View
Celia IV, Chapter XIX
Dark Deliverance

“Anyone else would have broken.”
Celia Flores


Sunday night, 13 March 2016, AM

Celia: The dolls pull her under, bit by bit. Wave after wave of them, surrounding her, tripping her, pulling at her with their grabby little hands and glaring at her with their hateful little eyes. She isn’t fast enough. She’d hesitated for too long, tried too hard to bring Key to her side, thought too hard on how to fix it. She’s going under, drowning in a sea of porcelain and chiffon.

But the doll in her arms: Lucy. Grace. Diana. One of them had given everything to tell her to flee. She’ll be punished as a traitor. But Jade won’t let that happen. The dolls might get her Kindred body, but they won’t get Lucy’s. She drags sharp claws down her front from sternum to pelvis and stuffs the doll inside. A pinch of her fingers seals the wound. It’s her last action before the enemies catch her, overwhelming her in sheer numbers. Her fingers brush against the door; she’d been so close. Then they’re on her. Around her. Under her. In her.

In her.

She’s there. Then she’s not. Something shatters inside of her, a tinkling chime of porcelain and glass. It tears at her skin, her eyes, her mind.

It breaks.

She breaks.

Leilani’s gentle smile is her smile. Jade’s sneer is her sneer. Celia’s face is her face. The Beast skulks nearby, half-shrouded in shadows, red eyes smoldering in hatred. And more, the others, the dolls: Princess, with the ballet slippers and the daddy who had always loved her. Blossom, whose father had never taken a hacksaw to her mother. Lucy, with the kind eyes and patient smile, a larger part of herself than she will ever admit. And the new ones, the ones she and Elyse would have made together had things not gone so poorly, had she not learned Diana’s truth: Lacey, Daisy, Bambi, Angel, Belle, Bonita, Bellamy. Dolls that don’t exist and never will. They surround her. They pull at her. Out there, in here.

Play with us.

One of us.

Stay forever.

Who are you?

What is its name?

And Lotus. The first, maybe the favored. Lotus watches. Lotus, with her curling black hair and her pretty face and her dress made of memories: her first kiss, first date, first time, first “I love you,” the dress she wore on the eve of her release into Kindred society, the dress she wore when she spoke to her sire for the first time during their rooftop interlude, when he had made love to her and told her that what they had was something special, the dress she wore the evening of her Embrace, when he plucked her from her childhood home and carried her into the sky and she was cold, so cold, and he trailed wintry kisses down her face and neck and sank two points of ice into her veins and drew forth the fire and blood and life from her body and her breath came out in ragged, throaty gasps and she knew without any shadow of doubt that he would drop her, kill her—

Frigid arms embrace her, cradle her against a hard chest. She looks but doesn’t see, eyes blinded by buttons. It’s not him. He’s not real. He’s a figment, imaginary like the rest of them. The nameless one.

Blood assails her senses.

NEVERAGAIN!”

Someone screams.

“You’re killing her!”

Wind whips across her face.

“I’ll tuck you in.”

Is this how it ends? An echo of how it began?

GM: Yes.

This is how it ends.

Him tucking her in.

Because Key’s screaming and there’s blood flying from his severed fingers.

Jade doesn’t see what happens next, doesn’t see if any of the dolls lose their hands too, because she’s soaring through the night air at breakneck speed, scores of feet above the ground and climbing still higher—

Donovan_Large.jpg
Celia: The air, the cold, the movement tug at her. The buttons fall from her eyes. The nameless one beats them back with the saber at his side, cutting through the horde in unchallenged efficiency. He doesn’t need anything, she and Elyse had long ago decided, but maybe he wants something.

Maybe he wants her.

The taste of freedom dances across her tongue as the nameless one slaughters the last of them. He turns to her and extends a hand. He pulls her out.

Only it’s not the nameless one. It’s the dark one. The cold one. And he’s not a doll: he’s real. There. With her. For her.

She’s not in her mind anymore. She’s not in the house anymore. She’s soaring through the sky. In his arms. Safe.

Safe.

Safe.

Safe.

Despite the cold, the altitude, the dread in her belly at his ire, she finds comfort in his embrace. Nothing can touch her when he has her. Nothing but him. Her sire. Cold, merciless, meticulous; his is the composure that she strives for, the the mask she had sought to don this evening.

Now, seeing it in front of her, she knows she had not come close.

Reality comes back to her in little snippets. She touches him, fingers but a whisper against his cheek, and remembers who she is.

Celia. The name. Her name. Not Jade. Not Leilani. Not Star, Neveah, Jasmine, Princess, Blossom, Lotus, Lily, Lucy, Dahlia Rose, Em, Emil, Emily, Caroline, Veronica, Antoine, the Beast, the Beauty, the Bitch, the Madonna or the Whore.

She’s Celia. Just Celia.

Celia.

Celia, of the heavens. Celia, reborn from the sea. Celia, childe of Donovan, chosen for… something.

CrAaazZYyy… someone giggles.

Celia finds the anchor that she needs in front of her. Uncertainty and the remnants of humanity slip away into the night, falling like the sanguine teardrops from so long ago to splatter against the ground. She touches him and the tips of her fingers freeze. She freezes.

“Celia,” she whispers. Frozen in time. Frozen forever. This is who she is. Everything else is a mask, a lie, a part she plays like a puppet on a string, like the dancer in her chains, each move choreographed in advance by him, for him. For him.

“Donovan.” His name leaves her lips, soft as a sigh, no longer a question but an answer. She curls her fingers in his clothing and tucks her face against his chest. She comes back.

She’s home.

GM: Flight with her sire could last forever. Celia, more than any of her other masks, has perhaps no place she’d rather be than held aloft in his arms. They’re cold, like the rest of him, but strong and unyielding. Like the rest of him.

She can be certain here. She can know who she is here. She can know what role she is supposed to play. The good childe. The obedient childe, working always to please her sire.

She can ignore Leila’s words.

She isn’t crazy. She’s not. She’s not. He won’t allow her to be. He’ll just cut it out of her, like he cuts down anything that would threaten her.

Rain pelts against the pair as they fly. It always rains in this city. Celia’s sire is dressed in the same black, double-breasted trench in which she saw him last. Water runs does down his expressionless, marble-like face.

Their flight feels as if it ends too soon when a familiar rooftop approaches. They land atop Celia’s haven. The one close to Vidal’s border. Donovan sets her down.

Home, in more than one sense now.

Celia sees the blade extending from one of her bracers. Any blood on the edge is long since washed off by the rain. Her sire runs the flat against his palm, wiping off the excess moisture, and retracts the blade back into its sheath.

She doubts he would care if he knew what the leather was made from.

His voice seeps into her thoughts like a chill night mist.

:: Explain. ::

Celia: It ends too quickly. Here, in his arms, she could enjoy the rest of her Requiem and never want for anything else. Petty worries and troubles fade away: there’s just her, him, them, the sky, his arms, the frigid temperature. She doesn’t need to breathe but she does it anyway, taking in long, deep, shuddering gulps of air as they move through the night. She breathes him into her lungs, lets his scent fill her.

The relief at her rescue ends as soon as her feet touch the ground. She has to come back down eventually. He’s not a hero. Her hero, maybe, but not a hero.

All the same, she doesn’t step away. She doesn’t give him the space that she should. The blade he wipes clean could gut her before she has a chance to start the movement. The thought shouldn’t make her shiver as it does. But despite her apprehension she’s glad to see it put to use.

How can she explain? She lost control. She’d let him get away with hurting her mother because it’s him. No one else will be afforded that luxury. A dozen lies flit through her mind, dismissed as quickly as they occur.

She’s in trouble. She’s in so much trouble.

:: We were friends. Then she sought to destroy something that belongs to me. ::

Her eyes don’t leave his face. She refuses to drop her gaze. She will not hide from him. He can see it anyway, watch it play through her mind: her Beast slipping its leash and attacking Elyse.

She’d lost control.

She has never seen him lose control. She’d thought it had been beaten out of her, but tonight just proved that she’s no closer to mastering her Beast now than she had been years ago.

It would have been easy to say that she needed to see him anyway and orchestrated a way to do so with none the wiser. Cause problems in his parish and he’ll be sent to deal with it; who would suspect that there was anything more to it than that?

She had even told Key she was going to call the regent or Elyse’s sire. Now the ghoul will just think that she had done so while he was busy orchestrating the defense and the sheriff had whisked Jade away to mete out his own sort of justice. No one has to know it was a rescue.

GM: His icy eyes linger on hers.

Perhaps he is watching what happened.

Perhaps he is angry at her. Perhaps he is disappointed.

His face gives away nothing.

Like the nameless doll.

She could be in so much trouble, and she cannot even tell.

:: Describe how you have been of use to me since our last meeting. ::

Celia: Of course.

Coming for her had nothing to do with her. He just can’t lose his little spy. His pawn. Not even a toy; at least you play with toys.

Her Beast simmers just beneath the surface, already on edge from the multiple times it had been set free this evening. Maybe if she rakes her claws down his face he’ll finally show something resembling emotion. Had it really only been hours ago that she’d thought he’d chosen her to save him? What a laugh.

What if she says she hasn’t? What if she tells him she’s done absolutely nothing but play house with her boyfriend and fix the mortal family he ripped apart when he decided to get involved?

Finally, she looks away. She stuffs it down deep where it won’t bother her. She turns away to hide the hurt; it doesn’t matter. He doesn’t care.

:: Making allies. Gathering intel. Putting plans into motion. ::

Rain slicks down her face, flattening her hair against her scalp and cheeks. She swallows the rejection. It doesn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter. It can’t matter.

Be patient. Be patient so he can get what he wants from her and—

She stops the thought in its tracks.

:: You told me not to trust him. But you put me with him. Told me to help him. Weaken the prince, you said, so you could take the city. He says you are the frontrunner for the spot. If I continue down this path with him, will it harm your interests? ::

GM: :: No. ::

Celia: She’s silent for a beat. She sends another thought. A question phrased as a statement. Here, privately, where no one else can listen in, she requests the truth.

GM: The mental answer is the same.

:: No. ::

Celia: It’s not the answer she expected. She hadn’t even expected an answer. The picture begins to fall into place, but it’s a puzzle to which she’s missing pieces. No matter how firm a grasp she thinks she has on things there are parts that continue to elude her.

Until it clicks.

Another piece finds its home. But it brings up more questions, more uncertainty on how she should proceed, on what it means for her, for him, for them.

Celia reminds herself there is no them. Her “them” is down below waiting for her to come home, unaware that she stands twenty feet above his head, so close to the city’s sheriff that she can count the lashes on his eyes. Celia turns back to Donovan, lifting her gaze once more so she can see those same eyes that have long starred in her dreams.

One step separates them. She closes the distance and her eyes search his face, though she expects to find nothing.

Finally, she sends another message. Softer words. For all that she tries to be Celia the childe around him, not too many moments ago she was Celia the broken.

:: I have information. Plans. But I hesitate to take action without a complete picture. I will not be the reason that your goals stall. ::

There’s no one else she can talk to. For all that people say he’s a monster, he is at least the monster that she knows.

He doesn’t stand much taller than her. But this close he’s a giant. This close, when she thinks she’s finally unlocked some of the truth, when the request lingers in the back of her mind, he towers over her. He rises above mere Kindred as something other.

Nameless one. Donovan. It’s hard to keep them straight.

She reaches for him. Not because she does not respect him or the sanctity of his boundaries but because she does; because he is what she holds sacred; because she knows the power that lurks inside his mind and body; because when her fingertips brush his coat, his shoulders, his cheek it creates the tether that she needs to anchor her to reality. She knows exactly who she is.

She is his childe. She trusts him. Loves him. Needs him.

And for all that, she doesn’t know how to ask for what she wants.

GM: He’s there.

He’s not tall, as far as men go, but he’s always felt as though he is.

The rain is cold, but he is colder.

He does not touch her back with his hands. She feels his mind inside of hers, his presence chilling her thoughts like she’s stepped into a freezer. It’s as cold and dark as the rest of him. Others would recoil, but Celia does not. In her sire’s presence, she is secure. Safe. Destined for greatness.

So long as she is worthy of him.

So long as she does what he asks.

So long as she is a good childe.

He wants her to be useful because one can only be useful if they are strong. Only a childe who is strong is worthy to carry his blood. That is why he asks how she has been useful. She wants to be strong for him. She wants to be worthy of him. He wants her to be strong and worthy.

Storm clouds on the horizon. A darkening of his thoughts.

Tonight she showed she was weak.

Ruled by her emotions.

Ruled by her Beast.

Ruled by Elyse’s children, had he not saved her.

He gives her a chance still, to show she is useful. To show she is strong.

Yet bitterness and resentment still welled within her thoughts? For the mercy he now shows her? After his rescue of her?

Celia: The dark clouds of his thoughts gather, but her lightning strikes first.

There was another night where she had stared into his eyes too long. Then, he had pulled her in and showed her his Hell. Tonight she opens the door for him, throws it wide, and invites him into hers.

He fills her. Even here inside her mindscape where she rules his presence looms. But he is no king here. This watery terrain is hers, and while he gets caught up by the roiling storm on the surface—the anger, bitterness, and resentment he thinks he sees—she takes his hand and pulls him under.

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Water closes over their heads. Others might think they’re drowning. Perhaps they’re meant to drown rather than swim. A strong current surges against them, half-formed monsters…

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…with fins and rows of jagged teeth…

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…and luminous little eyes meant to lure you in…

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…made of shadow and stray thoughts surround them.

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But this is her mind, her domain, and he her welcome guest. The monsters watch, wary of intruders, but keep their distance.

They go deeper.

Light disappears the deeper they go, but they are creatures of the night; when the trench looms before them, silent and dark, she does not hesitate to lead him toward it.

Here, too, the current runs strong. This time she lets it catch her and he comes along for the ride. It yanks them toward a whirlpool…

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…chaos waters swirling, swirling, swirling…

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…dragging them around, around, around…

…closer and closer toward the point of black in the center.

She dives.

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They fall.

The rules of reality don’t apply here. Light bends around them. Space and time distort. He sees things whiz by in their mad descent toward the bottom of her mindscape’s ocean:

a girl in a pink dress, the hum of a ventilator, a green statue, jagged edges, rage in its eyes, a stuffed bear, the long teeth of monsters, eight candles on a chocolate cake, a bullwhip cracking through the air, perfectly painted nails, claws and fang and simmering anger, beautiful lies and ugly truths, ugly lies and beautiful truths, blueberry pancakes, questions asked a thousand times, words spoken by sealed lips, broken bones and severed tendons, mermaids, bubbles, porcelain dolls, a tiger in a gilded cage, a name carved into flesh, a bird with broken wings, the whispered words of long ago…

“I think there’s a monster under my bed”

“it’s all in your head, sweetie”

“Cici was just pretending”

“stay”

“it’s okay”

“please”

“it’s all okay”

“help me”

“you’ll feel better in the morning”

“who are you”

“I love you, Celia”

They plummet.

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He wants truth?

She’ll give him truth.

He wants to know what she has done with her time?

She shows him.

A thousand fractured fragments splinter past them, some so quickly he can’t see them all. Everything she has ever done for him. Every lie she has ever told for him. Every mask she has ever worn for him. Every word, every action, every thought, all of it wrapped up in him, him, him, every waking moment, every agonized decision, every betrayal, every hurt, every scar, every drop of blood—his, it’s his, his.

His.

Seven years of his. Seven years of serving without knowing why. Seven years of no questions, no demands, no second-guessing. He had handed her to his enemies and she had made herself a place. She had carved a niche. She had made friends, collected allies, sought the favor or mentors to further his goals, his plans, his schemes, and she has not once ever resented him for it, has not been bitter for it, and her only reason for questioning him now, the only reason she asks anything now is to avoid destroying what he has so carefully wrought these long years because now, finally, everything starts to come together.

She doesn’t want to know his secrets, but she shows him hers. She doesn’t want to see his plans, but she shows him hers. She doesn’t need the answers to her questions, but she shows him hers.

All of it.

Strong? She shows him strength. Obedient? She shows him her devotion. Good childe? She shows him the line she has walked, the masks she has worn, the ways she has bent but never broken. Every night she finds the jagged edges of herself and smooths them over. She paints in her cracks. She fills the holes that this work leaves behind.

Anyone else would have broken.

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The vortex batters them from all sides. It pulls them under. It pulls them deeper. It spins them around, over, under, backwards, sideways. It thrashes them, throttles them, pummels them.

Anyone else would have broken.

Night by night, she stitches herself back together.

Anyone else would have broken.

Anyone else would have broken.

Finally, it spits them out into a small cave, the one secret piece of her that no one has ever touched, the thing that the monsters, the lies, the claws and fang all protect. Calm waters lap at their feet, and even his ice isn’t enough to chill it.

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The bare rocks hold no further answers for him. There are no words etched across their surfaces that he can peruse, no pictures painted in clay or mud or blood. It’s just them, him and her, the monster and his maiden.

Celia Flores, nineteen years old, in flowing chiffon and silk that match the storm in his eyes stands before him. Waiting for him all this time. Knowing that one night he would come back for her. The girl he had dropped into the ocean has made it her home. And like the rest of the world’s waters, very little has ever been discovered about its depths.

Until now.

The thing about secrets…

… is that the greatest of them are hidden in the most unlikely places…

… and to keep one, you must hide it from yourself.

It starts as a ripple in the water at their feet. No moon controls the tides here, no earth quakes beneath them, but all the same the water ebbs and flows in gentle waves against their shins. Warm, tropical, like the long ago summer sun against their skin. It stirs at her command.

He’d thought she was tapped? That these bare rocks hold no more secrets?

Oh no. She’s just beginning.

The answers aren’t written on the rocks because they reside within the water, hidden away like her cave. She wouldn’t leave them out in the open where anyone could steal them; she’s tied them to her core, to the real her hidden beneath the tons of ocean above, the guardians, the obstacles. Even the empty room is but another trap; were she not with him he would be caught here in this little cave, a prisoner inside her head, crushed beneath the weight of the water that would rush in. Intruders are drowned.

But he is no intruder. She has invited him in, and now she shows him what he has asked for.

She summons the soul.

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Drops of water bead together at her urging. They coalesce, lifting, seething higher, disconnecting from the larger body around them. In vaporous rivulets they snake upward like smoke from a fire.

How could he doubt her?

Water takes so many forms.

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The molecules bind. They separate, divide, amass. Hues emerge, particles of light glinting off their surfaces. He may be an achromatic creature, but she is made of color.

Wispy tendrils converge on one another, swirling together to form coherency. Translucent bubbles take shape.

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Something moves in their midst.

White, it flashes through the orbs like lightning through the sky. Energy. Her energy. Little pieces of her that dance and twist and cavort. It bubbles and froths inside the spheres. Fluid, flexible, mercurial.

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Seven orbs form from the waters that separate. One by one they take their place in front of her, between them. Seven orbs for seven chakras, seven memories, seven thoughts, seven plans, seven secrets.

Seven orbs for seven years.

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A wave of her fingers sets them to spinning in circular orbits through the air. All he has to do is touch them to learn what’s inside.

Worthy?

She will show him worthy.

Every building and painted face begins with foundation. Everything has a base. So too does her vision for the future, and so too do her goals. She has spent long years building her repertoire, honing her skills, and practicing her craft. Now, she unveils it for him.

She starts with red.

The globule pulses above her hand: crimson, claret, and carnelian, currant, cherry, and carmine. A hundred shades of red reside within the confines of the rondure, bubbling and gurgling in effervescent glee.

It all comes back to red with their kind. Red is the foundation of their society. It is payment, barter, sustenance. It is love and life and family ties. Red is blood. It is what binds them together.

Red is the base. The root chakra. It ties to the physical identity of every being and oversees their base needs: security, survival, stability. Without the root there is nothing; a building without a solid foundation will crumble into pieces. Red allows her to stand on her own two feet and withstand whatever challenges come her way, but even the strongest king doesn’t rule alone.

Fitting, isn’t it, that the gemstone most associated with the root chakra is onyx.

He is her foundation. Connecting to him, touching him, it centers her. It reminds her who she is, what she is, what their goals are. She can wear a thousand masks and be a thousand things to a thousand different people, but when she is with him she knows the truth: she is Celia Adelaide Flores, childe of Donovan. Nothing else matters.

He had told her once that she has a place with him in his new order. Then, she had not understood what he meant. How could she possibly serve a god? How could she offer anything that he could not take for himself? In time it had come to her: the role he has cast her into, how she can make herself useful. And she has made herself very, very useful.

She shows him her vision: the darkened throne room, and he on the stone chair. He does not want it for himself—(he kneels, he waits, his time will come… they place a crown upon his brow… he assumes the throne, then casts the crown aside… he kneels once more)—but she puts him there on the pedestal in her mind. And beside him, with eyes that burn like green fire, she waits in leather and lace. The door opens, admitting a petitioner that bows before him and says his piece. The Donovan on the throne is silent. He does not do so much as turn to her, but when he speaks the word she knows her orders.

The Chameleon vanishes before her steps have finished carrying her from the room.

That is the place she wants in his new order. So she has set herself up to take it.

Starting with the roots.

Like the rose of her clan, she spreads her roots through the city, an interlocking system of connections that she has forged across all manner of borders. In New Orleans that tangle is the thickest; here is what matters, but their city is not an island cast adrift in the middle of the ocean. The roots reach out to other cities where she has planted seeds, each of them blossoming into little gardens of their own that she has tended over time: allies, mentors, favors, secrets, debts, and safety. Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, Miami, DC, Seattle, Las Vegas.

All of them ripe for plucking whenever she needs a hand.

She moves on. The garden grows.

Her name has not been connected to the woman who owns the company, but she has had more than a hand in it all the same.

The thing about insects is that you don’t notice them beneath your feet until they start to bite. They scurry, scurry, scurry through your house and learn your patterns; they catch you with your mistress, watch you do lines of coke before your big meeting, know exactly where and how deep the bodies are buried.

Kindred and kine alike, she has been inside their havens and theirs homes. She has seen their dirty laundry and the skeletons in their closets. Silently, she observes it all.

Bugs catch everything.

She moves on. The garden grows.

In nature, many plants and animals form symbiotic relationships. Some of them are parasitic, where one organism benefits and the other is actively harmed. Some are commensalism, where one organism benefits and the other is neither harmed nor helped.

And some are mutualism, where both organisms benefit.

Star and Stanley both benefit from their arrangement: he gets a hot Latina lover on the side, and she gets to see every single bit of paperwork that passes his desk and overhear every single conversation that takes place in his office. She sees their faces. She hears their stories. She learns their secrets.

And when she wants something looked into she uses him as her intermediary so that her hands stay clean.

She moves on. The garden grows.

Dolls are funny things, aren’t they? Cute. Feminine. They wear what you put them in, stand how you arrange their limbs, smile contentedly even when they witness horrible atrocities.

They see everything. They hear everything. And when they’re living, breathing, things and can move of their own volition they get into even more. They travel in their little boxes, far and wide across the country, but some of them find homes right here in the city.

The little girl shows him her dolls.

“This one is Sunshine. Her father didn’t think she was very bright, so we gave her a name to make her shine. Now she’s married to a political consultant and takes notes at all the meetings.”

“This one is Jewel. She cheated on her husband, so he sent her to us for refining. One of her sons works in media, and the other is a real estate attorney.

“This one is Chastity.” The little girl giggles. “She’s a secret from the mother. Her aunt wanted her to join the family business, and now she makes bank on her back.”

“And this one is Bree. She’s not like the others. She inherited an arms dealership and her daddy just wanted to make sure that she wouldn’t blow up the world in a fit of feminine rage. Girls can be silly like that.”

She moves on. The garden grows.

The foundation has been set. The roots have taken hold. Now that the web has been spun by the spider, she shows him the flies that she has caught.

Once upon a time, the story goes, a singer loved a sculptor and asked him to be hers for eternity. The sculptor was taken by the singer and agreed to her request. But the singer was a fickle sort, and soon her interest waned. The sculptor spent long years vying for her attention before he finally gave up and walked into the sun.

But everyone knows that the Beast won’t let their kind take that sort of easy out.

Wounded, the sculptor left the city. His abandoned clan thought he had been destroyed. But he was only waiting, biding his time to avenge himself upon the singer who so callously threw him aside. One night he met another sculptor, one who deals with flesh instead of marble, and the two sculptors devised a way that they could help each other.

She moves on.

“The thing about kine politics,” Celia explains to a girl whose face is in the process of being transformed, “is that every Kindred wants a piece. They know that ruling the kine can make for a better Requiem. And while Marcel and Marguerite may have years of experience on me, while they can sit back in their plush offices and consult to their heart’s content, I have one thing that they don’t: I can get in on the ground level.”

“To charm them, mistress?”

“No, ‘Lana, not the way you’re thinking. I don’t need the gifts of my clan to wrap someone around my finger.” She adds the finishing touches to the look and steps back, admiring her work. “And the mental and emotional tricks are too heavy-handed to use like that. Start blasting everyone with it and rivals or hunters are sure to come knocking.”

“And tonight, mistress?”

“Tonight,” Celia says as she begins the work on her own face, “we are two pretty co-eds who are oh-so-interested in what Mr. Coxx has to say, and pretty please won’t he take us back to his room and show us a good time.”

Back in the cave, Celia stands in front of him. A single sphere remains unviewed; it pulses and throbs in hues of green, a veritable forest teeming with life and plants.

Green, for the heart. It’s the middle chakra but she saved it for last, and she sends it to him now with a flick of her fingers.

“They say that this one bridges the distance between above and below, spiritual and physical.” Her voice is liquid, it ebbs and wanes as the tide, at once both ancient and innocent. “It’s the ability to connect to others, to give and receive love, to show empathy.”

She will be his bridge. She will touch the people he cannot touch, break them with compassion just as easily as he breaks them with cruelty. She has done it before. She knows how the game is played.

She presents this final creation.

She shows him the bridge that she has already built and the plants that teem along it: the lilies, the crocuses, the violets on their lines of ivy that wind and stretch around every baluster and blanket the space between in floral fragrance. Small things yet, still being tended by the girl who planted the garden and built the bridge with her own two hands; many of them have begun to bear the fruits of her labor, but she would not yet call them “finished.” Some are still just empty stalks, waiting for the right conditions with which to flourish.

Except for two.

There are two here that she wants to show him. Two that have grown larger than all the rest. Two that have flourished under her careful cultivation and can now be harvested as desired. One has heart-shaped blossoms that dangle from slender, arching stems, interspersed with delicate and fernlike foliage that creates the perfect backdrop to the flowers. The other is taller, willowy, with six lobes that fan outward from the center stalk. A common garden plant, no one notices what hides within the petals.

The iris and the bleeding heart have bloomed.

The heartstone is Jade.

The colorful orbs fade. The bubbles pop. Surface tension that had once held the warbling globules together dissipates; teardrops rain from the seven spheres to splash into the water at their feet. It ripples outward in ever-expanding concentric circles before crashing into the edges of the pool.

Tonight she was weak. She doesn’t deny that. Tonight she lost control. Tonight she needed him like she has not before, and the resentment and bitterness he felt coming off of her was not for him; it was for her own failings. For seven long years she has not needed him to hold her hand and guide her through her Requiem. She has been content to make her own way, forge her own alliances, collect her own friends. But tonight, yes, tonight she needed him.

And he came.

How her heart had rejoiced when she emerged from the prison in her mind to find herself in his arms. How could she say that, though? How could she tell him the words etched across her heart and soul, how could she explain that he means everything to her and that letting him see her like this is just another punch in the gut after an evening of abysmal disappointments?

She has only ever wanted to be worthy.

Even now the the events of the night spin through her mind. How she can explain what happened to Elyse. How he can secure the position of cold-hearted, merciless sheriff and prevent anyone from ever knowing that he had saved her. How they can twist a setback into a victory.

She sees it so clearly in her mind: he wakes Elyse, binding her to him, and tells her that Jade Kalani has been apprehended and punished. He tells her that already he has taken a dive inside her mind to see the events of the evening, and that Miss Kalani’s consciousness had unraveled to reveal the truth: she had been given a deeply submerged directive by an enemy of Elyse, the Invictus, the Sanctified, Donovan, or the prince himself. Torpor Elyse so that the enemy can take her place. Torpor Elyse so that it looks like the first shots fired from the lord of the Quarter. Torpor Elyse for personal reasons. It could have been Sabbat. It could have been Tremere. It could have been a Ventrue, and the blue-eyed blonde flashes through her mind; Elyse was a target because of where she lives. The four-toed, raven-haired zealot flashes through her mind; Elyse was a target because of what she had done to Diana, for all she hates the woman. Or it could have been another: A new night doctor who has heard of Jade’s abilities and sought to sour their relations and remove the competition. A Nosferatu who has picked up tricks outside their clan and thought it would be hilarious to watch the two beauty-obsessed Kindred in the city tear each other apart; after all, she made such a decidedly easy target when she wandered so willingly into their sewers and night club. Jade will smooth over the relationship from there and retain her position with Elyse to keep her network secure.

She has only ever wanted his attention.

But not like this. Not this cold fury. Not this dissection of her person and purpose. She wants what Roderick has: she wants to learn. She wants him to show her. Centuries; he has had centuries to hone his skills, and she just wants a small portion of what he can offer. An hour of his time without demands for answers and information and plots and plans and schemes. Just him. Her. Together.

She has only ever wanted him.

Barefoot in the water, Celia Flores lifts her gaze to her sire’s. Darkness swims in the depths of her brown eyes; his storm gathers within her.

GM: Celia dives, and her sire follows under.

He is well at home among the monsters. She’s seen the inside of his mind, after all. He follows the current. He does not need to fight it or to confront its monsters. He has nothing to prove.

He waits, patiently, at her demonstrations of filial loyalty.

He does not reply aloud. There is no need to speak in this place.

But Celia knows.

He told her that she had a place at his side. She did. As a mole and agent by his own sire’s side. If she desired a greater place than that, it was incumbent upon her to envision and incumbent upon her to seize. Competence cannot be bequeathed. Initiative cannot be bequeathed. Vision cannot be bequeathed. Even his own sire, for all his charming veneer, has not declared that he wishes Celia to be his spymaster: others cannot realize one’s ambitions for them. Some Kindred have ambitions and some do not. Some Kindred aspire only to exist from night to night, used by their elders purely as tools, and others aspire to be more.

He believes, now, that she aspires to be more.

Is he pleased?

Even here, so deep within her mind, he shows so little of himself. No warmth radiates from his thoughts. No smile creases his features. But he would not be the same Kindred if he did. Perhaps Celia would not have brought him here if she thought he was capable of such. He is who he is.

Yet.

There is a place for one who plants gardens and plucks their fruits.

There is a place for one who can become as an insect.

There is a place for a mutualist organism.

There is a place for a dollmaker.

There is a place for a sculptor of flesh.

There is a place for the pretty co-ed.

There is a place for the chakra opener.

There is a place for one who would be his bridge.

There is a place for one who would wear all of these faces and many more.

There is a place for one who would be his spymaster.

There is a place for one whose identity is what she needs it to be.

There is a place for one who would be more than simply a mole.

There is a place for the Chameleon.

He had but waited for her to claim that place. He could not do it for her.

His storm gathers within her, then about her, and she knows its frigid kiss.

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Celia: The storm crashes against her. It does not rage for he does not rage; it consumes. It consumes everything in its path and would sweep her along with it, but the mental projection inside her mindscape is a maiden in the monster’s arms; it has long been her safe harbor.

She welcomes the frigid touch of ice and wind and rain against her skin.

She welcomes what it means for her. For them. And for their city.

She gives herself to the storm.

GM: She gives herself to him. His wintry and all-consumptive kiss freezes out all lesser sensations, but is all-too brief.

He is pleased she would be more than a mole.

He is pleased she harbors ambitions for greater things.

But her lapse of control was a weakness.

Weakness must be punished.

Weakness must be purged.

He punishes so that she may improve.

He purges so that she may be all she aspires to be.

She will accept her punishment if she loves him.

He offers her a choice: physical chastisement or a third draught of his blood.

Celia: It’s always too brief with him. Every moment that she has with him ends too quickly, and tonight she will not push for more. Tonight, despite what she has shown him, despite his pleasure with her shared ambition, she knows that she made a mistake and that she must pay for it.

The choice he presents isn’t a difficult one.

She will not shy from her sire’s lessons. She will fix this. She will show him that she will not make the mistake again, that she accepts his judgment and her place. The physical chastisement will correct her behavior and the blood will make sure it never happens again.

Both, she tells him. She will take both.

GM: Reality dissolves around the pair as Celia’s sire withdraws his tendrils from her mind. They’re back on the roof of her haven, rain pouring down around them. Celia is soaked to the bone under her wet clothes. She’s not sure how long they were in there for.

Then, her sire hits her.

The attack comes without warning. His rain-slick fist smashes into her mouth, splitting her lip, crunching her jawbone, sending teeth flying. Celia’s knocked off her feet from the force of the blow. Her ears ring. Her Beast, furious, howls to counterattack.

This is love.

Her sire’s booted foot stomps down on her hand, noisily crunching delicate finger bones, cracking apart her perfect nails.

He lifts it, then stomps down again. Her wrist audibly snaps against the roof.

He yanks her up by her hair. For all the struggles of her Beast, its instinctive urge to flee or fight when confronted with pain, Celia forces it down.

This is love.

His pale fingers reach inside her mouth. Squeeze. Wrench. There’s a burst of pain as her jaw breaks from the force. It dangles almost limply from her head. She can’t close her mouth right. He must have snapped her mandible. Jaw’s weakest point.

This is love.

He takes hold of her lower jaw with his other hand. Shifts position, so they’re at opposite points. Squeezes. Celia feels her lower teeth press against his palms as he squeezes, squeezes, squeezes. She can all but hear the cracks running through her jaw before the bone crunchily fractures again, at two equidistant points under his palms. The pain is horrific. There’s blood, red and coppery, but not a lot. He isn’t cutting her. Her lower face is a ruin.

This is love.

It goes on for a while. Celia thinks he draws it out. He isn’t trying to kill her, just inflict pain. There are so many nonessential bones one can break. So many more that are nonessential to the undead.

This is love.

She hurts, everywhere, as the blows rain down, as his merciless pale hands squeeze, crush, and crack. Maybe he’s going to break every bone in her body. That would take a while, but he could do it, she’s sure. Who knows how much time remains in the night. He could do it faster. Leave her a Kindred slug, like one of Elyse’s fifth-order dolls, helpless to move under its own power, just a useless lump of bruised and bleeding and broken flesh. At least the dolls get their bones removed so they can remain in some way whole. He could just leave her broken everywhere.

This is love.

He seizes her head between his palms. Perhaps to squeeze. To just push his hands together, a horizontal nutcracker with her head as the nut. Squeeze and squeeze until she cracks. He hasn’t spent as much time destroying her face as Roderick did. Perhaps he should. That’s part of her she values most, if one asked her paramour.

This is love.

Yet through it all, Celia smothers her howling Beast, throws herself upon it like a soldier diving onto a grenade to save their unit. She can’t let it get out again. Can’t disappoint him again. Can’t fail him again.

This is love.

And perhaps it is. Her broken body screams with a hundred inflicted pains, but no new ones are visited upon it. Instead, she feels her sire’s pale wrist press against her fangs. Press until they puncture, and heady vitae wells forth. Ice-cool vitae, cold as any corpse’s.

Colder than any corpse’s.

He’s proud of her, for holding the monster in. That has to be it. He’s proud of her.

This is love.

She lies broken and bleeding on the cold, wet, hard ground like a wounded animal left to die, and he kneels to feed her.

This is love.

Celia: It’s love.

He loves her.

He has to love her.

If he didn’t love her, he wouldn’t take the time to correct her behavior. If he didn’t love her, he wouldn’t care what she got up to or how she spends her time. If he didn’t love her, he wouldn’t care that she is weak.

He loves her.

He does.

And he shows it to her with every blow that he rains down upon her. Over two hundred bones in the body, and she will let him break them all if he thinks it necessary for the lesson to sink in.

Let him. As if she could stop him. As if she would stop him.

The first strike sends her reeling. She stumbles, staggers, and finally drops to the rain slicked roof. His boot upon her hand shatters phalanges and metacarpals, delicate little bones that cannot stand against the weight of his blow. Her nails chip and splinter. Her wrist fractures. Her claws come out—but just as quickly they slide away when she beats her Beast back with her own white-knuckled rage. It has ruined so much for her this evening and she will not let it take this from her, too. She will not hide in the red haze and let someone else—something else—take her punishment.

She deserves this.

She is weak.

He will make her stronger.

Pain blossoms through her body, but she does not shy away from what he does to her. She does not run. She does not beg him to stop. She does not cry, not in front of him, never in front of him. She refuses to, even when her Beast claws at her insides, even when it howls in her ears, even when it demands justice for what he does to her. She fights that internal struggle and stuffs it in, stuffs it down, stuffs it so far within herself that it becomes a backdrop to what he does to her.

With a broken jaw she can’t clench her teeth. There’s nothing to stop the noise from escaping her throat and mouth. Shame burns in her eyes the first time it happens; what must he think of her that she can’t contain the song of pain? More weakness. More failure to be purged.

Fractured fingers try to curl to stop it, but another broken bone draws it out of her, an agonized, formless whimper that drowns out the crack and grind of bone.

He wouldn’t scream if someone hurt him. He wouldn’t grunt with each blow, each punch, each splinter of bone. He would silently bear it. She searches for the ice inside of her, willing herself to become as cold as he is, to halt the noises in their tracks. Maybe it works, or maybe at some point the pain hits diminishing returns, but eventually she falls silent.

He shatters her jaw, mandible, clavicles, ribs, sternum. Her chest caves, but her heart doesn’t cease its useless beating. It swells. Through the pain, it swells. Through the agony, it flutters. Through the excruciating torture, it loves.

She loves.

He loves.

They love.

Do strong enough words exist to describe what he does to her? Pain. Agony. Torture. Burning, wrenching, aching. Sharp, gnawing, throbbing. She’s lost in it, drowning in it, and only his hands on her body keep her from disappearing into the red haze. Only his hands on her body keep her grounded. Only the repetition of her name reminds her who she is, who he is, who they are.

Blood drips from her useless jaw when he’s done with her. When he finally lets her fall back onto the roof she sprawls in a dirty puddle, every bit of her broken. She follows him with her eyes and he can see the apprehension, the nerves, that he isn’t done, that he will do more, and she readies herself for another kick, another wallop, another explosion of brutality against her person.

And the trust. He can see that too. It swims in the depths of her eyes, trust and gratitude and steely pride, and something softer, something like affection. But deep. So very, very deep. An endless, bottomless pool of aching, yearning, devotion.

This is love.

The final strike never comes. Wounded and helpless, Celia can only hold still when he presses his arm against her mouth; she can’t even move her jaw to bite, can’t sink the points of her fangs into his flesh, so he does it for her, cradling her like a newborn while she suckles at his wrist. The first drops don’t even make it into her mouth; it’s not until he tilts her head back that she tastes him upon her tongue, her broken jaw hanging uselessly inside its fleshy prison.

Cold. So cold. Had she expected any differently?

She sucks eagerly at what he offers her, replenishing what the Beast had stolen from her earlier. She drinks deeply, savoring the taste of him, ardor curling in her belly and spreading outward in a living ember that engulfs her. While she drinks she sends the blood to the areas of her that have been hurt the most: her fingers snap back into place, her wrist straightens, her jaw clicks. She becomes an active participant in the feeding rather than a passive doll, though she knows better than to grab at him or take more than he is willing to give.

She drinks.

It’s love.

Her fingers brush against his coat.

It’s love.

Her Beast is finally silent, tamed by her sire.

It’s love.

And perhaps even more importantly, it’s acceptance.

GM: It is love.

All she knows is death and cruelty and paranoia. But cold though his vitae is, something within it warms her to her core. It’s comfy and enveloping and makes her feel safe and whole. There’s no more doubt. There’s no more pain. There’s no more fear. There’s no more being alone. It’s the light at the end of the tunnel, and that light ends with her sire’s face. She is warm and safe and loved here, deep in her cozy place. The cozy place will be with her always. He will be with her always. She need only close her eyes, and she will be back in the cozy place, the mother’s womb, her sire’s arms snugly around her. And if there are thoughts for Roderick or Diana or Lucy or Emily, they are as bugs spattering against a windshield. They don’t understand her like he does. They are not father and lover and sire and protector like he is. That is what it is to be someone’s everything. To be everything they could ever need. Right there in the cozy place.

She can’t imagine why anyone doesn’t want this.

Celia: One by one, the collars that have been thrown on her by other people snap. The bonds break. Her grandsire, Coco, Veronica, Josua, Pietro, Reynaldo, Caroline, and Roderick.

Roderick.

She sees his face as it snaps. The dead girl inside of her wails at the loss; they were meant to marry, to bond each other, to be happy. Tiny fists beat at the inside of her rib cage, venting ineffectual frustration and heartbreak. How could she do this to Roderick, that dead girl cries, how could you? She had one good thing and now it, too, slips away.

Her heart cracks.

His blood binds it back together. It fills in the gaps and chasms that Roderick leaves behind. He fixes it, enveloping her in warmth.

She chose this.

She wants this.

Roderick will never understand her like her sire does. She has to lie to him constantly, hide the core tenants of herself, deceive him about who and what she is. Donovan demands no explanations when she carves someone apart or ends their life; he just wants her to be strong, to be better, to be great. He chose her.

He chose her.

It means everything.

His blood courses through her. It kills everything else in its path, destroys every part of her that had ever belonged to anyone else. She’ll wear the masks, she’ll pretend, but nothing will ever come close to what it feels like to be wrapped within the comfort and security of his arms. No one will ever be able to pry her away from him. They can’t force her to betray him. They can’t make her work against him. The bond is a punishment, but it’s no prison.

It’s protection.

Celia rises, body returned to its pristine condition. He broke her, rebuilt her, saved her. Gratitude thrums through her in the wake of his blood. Her mind opens to him again, one final thought she would share this evening if he’s listening.

GM: He is the only one who truly listens.

Celia: :: The Malkavian. ::

Elyse’s face swims in her vision: pale and porcelain with painted on freckles, a living doll. Essential to Jade’s operation, or at least a portion of it.

She asks if he will wake her. If he will lie to conceal the truth. If he will use his position as regent and sheriff to plant the falsehood Celia had sent him earlier, the lie that turns setback to scheme and protects the nature of their relationship. It explains away his presence. No one will ever know that they are more than sheriff and harlot. He binds someone further to him. It benefits them both, this small thing.

GM: A single, cool word echoes through Celia’s mind.

:: Foolish. ::

A supporter of the French Quarter lord’s who attempted to slay one of his vassals would never leave the parish.

Not if he caught them.

Jade knew this and fled with her rescuer, whose face the Malkavian’s creations did not see. It is too coincidental that the sheriff and his agents would have noticed Jade’s flight, apprehended her, extracted the story, spared her unlife, and done it all in the remaining hours before dawn.

He will wake Benson. When and if others bring her torpid body to him, and explain to him what has transpired.

Celia can hear it in her ear. A too-familiar voice that tries to pull her out of the cozy place.

Stupid.

Celia: Just like that, her hope of an easy reparation vanishes.

She had told Key she was going to call someone to help, someone to wake her. She had been in the bathroom with Elyse, no dolls in sight, no one to report that she had never used her phone. It had been in her hand when she had left the room to find Lucy on the ground before the dolls attacked. She remembers tucking it back into her pocket so she could use her hands for the doll. She could have made the call.

But if he thinks it has no merit then it has no merit.

The familiar voice knocks at the entrance to her bubble. She closes her eyes against it, keeps it from taking root. Not here. It will not bother her here.

She doesn’t know what to do with Elyse now. If it’s better to stay away or push to fix it immediately. How could she just leave her friend lying naked in the tub like that?

She tells him that she understands.

GM: Were he nearly slain by an adversary lost to their Beast, he would slay any underling pathetic enough to entrust that same adversary to awaken him.

Key will not care what calls she has made or not made.

The ghoul will exercise his own best judgment on how to revive his mistress, if her sire has not already sensed her near-destruction and arrived to investigate.

The too-familiar voice whispers in her ear again.

Stupid.

Celia: Another knock on the door. It’s harder to ignore this time.

A tutor had once told her that it’s okay to be wrong in front of the person who is meant to teach her. That they’re guides and will correct her if she takes the wrong path. She thinks he might have never met the sort of monster to whom failure is not an option; she thinks he might have never had a figure like Donovan in his life, who expects her to be her best at all times. His admonition almost makes her flinch.

All the same, she’s grateful for the correction and explanation.

GM: :: You have struck her. ::

Then, Celia tastes blood in her mouth as her nose gorily crunches in, re-shattering the just-healed bone. Her vitae drips from her sire’s fist.

:: She will strike back. ::

What would she do if she were Benson, and the Kindred who struck her elected to ‘stay away?’

The companion who mauled her nearly to death for showing a tape of a favorite doll?

Celia: Pain explodes across her face. Her head snaps backwards; blood drips from her freshly broken nose to stain her skin and lips. She makes no move to wipe it away or reset it. The lesson needs to sink in.

Strike back, as he said. Find out what made Jade react that way to that doll when she has never had any trouble breaking women to turn them into dolls before, when she has shown such talent for it. Find out and use it.

Her family.

Maxen, Logan, and David are safe behind the walls of Audubon. But Diana, Emily, Lucy, even Sophia… and Celia herself.

They make such pretty little targets. Fragile, defenseless, one of them already trained.

Her mother is once more cast as the damsel, caught up in her daughter’s world. Maybe another city is the best thing for her.

GM: She seems happy enough to get back together with Maxen. Who seems just as happy to make Baton Rouge his new home.

Celia: She had been avoiding the thought. She does not want her sire to see the dinner she had with her father, does not want him to think that she interferes in his plans.

But it’s there in her head.

GM: :: Key will take his mistress to me, as her regent. Her sire’s choice, should he recover her, will depend upon his inclinations. ::

The Krewe of Janus’ leader carefully tries to avoid favoring either bloc of the Sanctified.

But most Kindred believe his personal temperament is far more in line with Savoy’s.

Dawn, however, is fast approaching. Celia will have to act soon if she wishes to avoid Sol’s burning eye.

Celia: If Elyse’s sire sensed the attack and has already arrived on scene there isn’t much she can do. She wouldn’t trust the lick that attacked her childe; most wouldn’t listen to what they had to say before sticking a stake in their heart to let someone else sort them out. And why would Harlequin take his childe to Savoy when one of Savoy’s was the person to attack?

Had she just inadvertently driven a wedge between the pair?

The thought pops whatever is left of the cozy feeling she had enjoyed only moments ago. Maxen’s whispers win.

She doesn’t want him in her head anymore. She doesn’t want him to hear the voice that won’t leave her alone. She doesn’t want him to see the desperation in the half-baked plans that flick through her mind to fix this before she loses Elyse forever. She doesn’t want him to know that she’s lost on how to salvage this, or that she’s afraid to go back into the house again because what if all of those things catch her. She doesn’t want him to see that the thought of being stuck in the sun paralyzes her, that she can’t spend the night elsewhere because she needs to talk to Roderick, needs to go to this dinner, needs to meet with her grandsire on Monday, and if Diana is picked up then she won’t make it to dinner and then Celia will have to explain who she is on their terms instead of hers and what if her family is just a loose end now, what if he expects her to get rid of them, what if he gets rid of them?

He can’t.

He could.

He knows what they mean to her. Knows they’re a weak spot, an easy target of enemies. But he uses them, too, to keep her in line. It’s not something she can afford to think about right now. She has to trust him. She does trust him.

She’ll set a guard, she’ll—

None of it will matter if Harlequin or Elyse really want to get to her. The parish lines don’t matter to the Regent of the Masquerade.

She has to move them. Move them, send a message to Elyse, beg for a chance to explain, balance the social scales. She already knows how she’ll do it.

It will be okay.

It has to be okay.

Her eyes find her sire’s, the storm inside of them finally settling into an icy chill as her panic subsides when she settles on a course of action.

:: Thank you, sire. For tonight. The lessons. And for… for saving me. Thank you. ::

There’s more. There’s always more she wants to tell him, ask him, discuss: the trick with the blood, Savoy, Maxen, the future, their future. But the night draws to a close and she has taken enough of his time this evening.

She doesn’t know when she’ll see him again. The thought shouldn’t hurt as much as it does. If he were anyone else she would reach for him, tell him that she loves him, kiss him goodbye. But he’s not someone else. He’s him.

GM: He’s him.

Just like that, he streaks into the night sky, a darker spot against so much black.

Then he’s gone, and the only answer to Celia’s thanks is falling rain.

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Celia IV, Chapter XVIII
She Hurt Mother

“Come play with us, Jade.”
The Wedding Cake House dolls


Sunday night, 13 March 2016, AM

GM: Celia has some time before dawn to arrive at the Wedding Cake House. The text is from Dani, asking when she’s going to be back. She’s getting “a little stir crazy here.”

Celia: The meeting hadn’t gone as expected. She should have waited for another time, perhaps, to tell them about Hurst. After flipping Roderick. It could have been a night of celebrations rather than… that.

Celia fires off a text to Dani that she’s collecting her things tonight and will be back shortly to drop them off. She asks if there’s anything in particular the girl wants from her house.

GM: Dani replies, My laptop, textbooks, some of my clothes and shoes, and my notebooks would be great!

Celia: Celia assures Dani that she will.

Then, smile in place, Jade slips into another mask.

GM: It’s a moderate drive to reach Elyse’s haven. She’s greeted at the door by Key. Honey and Butterfly are long since graduated (last Jade heard, Gabrielle was doing quite well), but there are new dolls in the house. There are always new dolls in the house. Key shows Jade to a sitting room, where Elyse is standing beside two dolls. The first must be of the second order, judging by its happy expression. The second doll must be of the first order, judging by its tears and the fact that it is writing onto a chalkboard,

Its name is Pink. Its name is Pink. Its name is Pink.

True to its name, the doll is dressed from head to toe in pink, including a pink bonnet to frame its long blonde curls.

Elyse turns to Jade as Key shows her in.

“Lucy has had much to say to me, Miss Jade. She says you are pregnant.”

Celia: Pregnant.

The word almost makes her choke, but Jade maintains her composure.

GM: “Pregnant with new siblings for her that we might deliver into the world.”

“She says also that her first mother weighs heavily upon your mind.”

Celia: She nods at the clarification, and then again at the second statement. Her eyes travel to the new doll, Pink.

“Yes to both, Lady Elyse.” How had Lucy known? She’d been with Elyse the whole time. The bond must be strong. “I had hoped that you might assist me with shedding some light on the topic.”

GM: “Tell me how I may, Miss Jade,” says Elyse, departing the room without a backward glance for the dolls.

“Key, retrieve Lucy and bring her to the birthing room.”

“Yes, mistress,” the ghoul bows.

Celia: It’s a difficult situation, the conversation with Elyse. She doesn’t know how much to share. She doesn’t know how much she’s willing to share. But she has a big mouth, doesn’t she? So she starts at the beginning.

“When I first met Lucy,” Jade says slowly, following after her hostess, “I was reminded of someone I knew. I believe I told you at the time, Lady Elyse. It might be why I felt such a strong connection for her, and she for me. I didn’t mean to pry, but the thought wouldn’t leave me alone.”

GM: “Lucy’s first mother also bears the same surname as Flawless’ kine owner,” Elyse observes as they make their way through the house.

Celia: “Indeed. I was struck by the similarity. Diana Flores was Lucy’s mother?”

GM: “Yes.”

Celia: “Her mother brought her in?”

GM: “Yes. With good cause. She was a rebellious and ill-tempered creature.”

Celia: “Your treatment has worked wonders on her. I could hardly believe anyone would say that of her now.”

GM: “Thank you, Miss Jade. I have checked in on her occasionally, as I do many of my former dolls, but especially those whose creation I took greatest pride in.”

Celia: “Are you familiar at all with the details that brought her in, Lady Elyse?”

GM: “Yes, Miss Jade. I familiarize myself with the backgrounds of all of my dolls. Grace assaulted its mother with a firearm, robbed her house, and attempted to run away with a stolen car. By all accounts, a poorly-considered plan. The police easily found and apprehended Grace. Rather than pursue criminal charges, its mother delivered it into my care with the expectation that I would reform its poor character.”

“I named it Grace for how it was a ballet dancer, and for the fact that its aptitude at dance was its sole saving grace.”

Celia: Grace. The name makes sense. Diana had always been graceful. Pity about the leg.

“If I may ask one more question, Lady Elyse. Were you ever given the impression that Grace could buck its lessons for a night? Or rather, was it ever brought back in to recondition shortly following its release?”

GM: “No. It was released prematurely.”

Celia: That gets a look of surprise.

Then her brow furrows.

GM: “Grace’s mother wished to visit it. I do not permit dolls to have contact with the outside world. She made an increasing nuisance of herself. I informed her that she could have the doll released immediately, or she could wait until the work was done. She elected for an immediate release.”

“Much of Grace’s work was already finished. All that remained were several coats of polish. In truth, I released Grace early because I was curious as to what effect this would have.”

Celia: “And how have you found it?”

GM: “I would require closer observation of Grace to say for certain, but the final coats of polish appeared nonessential.”

Celia: “You don’t believe it could have had an extramarital affair of its own volition, then?”

GM: “I find that unlikely but possible, Miss Jade,” Elyse answers thoughtfully. “Dolls are trained to be loyal to their husbands. However, like any porcelain doll, they are subject to wear and tear if poorly cared for.”

Celia: How had she possibly ended up with Ron?

GM: “Dolls are trained to be quiet, but press one’s hand to a stove and it will cry out.”

“So too do I believe the capacity for infidelity exists if a doll’s husband is a poor husband.”

Celia: “But it wouldn’t be likely to happen prior to its marriage or the poor treatment from its husband if it lacked any outside persuasion or coercion.”

GM: “An extramarital affair by definition cannot happen outside of marriage, Miss Jade, unless you were referring to an unmarried romantic partner of the doll’s. I generally do not advise that dolls be placed in such relationships, however. They benefit most from a single life partner whom they know they are permanently subordinate to.”

Celia: “Yes, Lady Elyse. I was asking after both.”

“I was curious if it was something the doll would do on its own, or if being involved in a sexual relationship prior to its marriage would be something unusual for it.”

GM: “That would be atypical, Miss Jade. Dolls are unable to experience sexual pleasure.”

Celia knows her mom wasn’t subject to female genital mutilation, at least. She watched her push out Lucy.

Celia: “And they don’t have the urge to imbibe alcohol?”

GM: “Dolls are taught not to pollute their bodies with alcohol and non-medically prescribed drugs, but the conditioning is typically not as deep as their sexual conditioning. A doll fed alcohol will still become drunk.”

Celia: “Thank you, Lady Elyse.”

So Ron is a rapist. Or someone had fed her shots. Or something else had happened.

GM: “I would consider it a blemish upon my work for any doll to attempt to imbibe alcohol under its own violation. Such a doll would be in clear need of a touch-up.”

Celia: “It was a long time ago,” Jade tells her, “and I do not believe that was the case. I had simply wanted to rule it out.”

GM: “Is Grace in need of a touch-up, Miss Jade?”

Celia: “No, Lady Elyse.”

GM: “I take great pride in the work I did on Grace. I believe it to be one of my finest creations.”

“The great challenge, and my greatest work, lay in breaking it. It was a stubborn and truculent doll. It refused to respond to its name no matter how many times I made it write upon the chalkboard. Or what corporal punishments I administered. I believe it inherited these qualities from its mother, who also struck me as a strong-willed woman.”

Celia: “What broke it, in the end?”

GM: “Do you wish to see a video, Miss Jade?”

Celia: No.

“Yes, please.”

GM: Elyse leads Jade to what looks like a storage or records room on the upper floor. There are a large number of file cabinets with folders organized by name (doll names) and year. Elyse goes through them until she procures Grace’s. She removes a VHS tape from the folder.

Celia: She mentally prepares herself while Elyse gets the video ready, killing everything inside of her before it has a chance to be affected by what she’s about to see. If her feelings are a garden she rips them out, root and stem. She will never be a block of ice like her sire, but tonight at least she is has frozen everything resembling emotion.

GM: Elyse leads Jade down to a sitting room with a large TV. She tells a doll along the way to retrieve Key and to tell him where to bring Lucy. The room is filled with dolls, like every room in the house. Elyse inserts the tape into a VHS player.

Celia: “Grace named its doll Lucy,” Jade says idly as they move. “Was there a reason for that?”

GM: “Yes, Miss Jade. You will see in the video.”

Key arrives and sets down Lucy on Jade’s lap. The doll is dressed in a new, lacy blue dress. She stares up at her mother with silently knowing eyes.

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Celia: “Hello, darling,” Jade says to her Lucy. “I missed you.”

GM: Lucy’s large, wide eyes rest endlessly on her mother’s.

She really does look so much like Diana.

“Grace would not break easily,” says Elyse. “I knew it would break, with time. All dolls break after sufficient time. Yet an infinitude of monkeys pounding on typewriters could also produce the works of Shakespeare after sufficient time. An artist does not rely on time alone.”

Celia: Jade inclines her head. “It takes great skill to do what you do.”

GM: Elyse hits play. The screen shows Diana in a classic ballerina costume. Pointe shoes, light pink tutu. She’s younger-looking and has longer hair, rather than the bob cut she gets once a month at Flawless. Manacles hang from her wrists, elbows, and ankles, along with a steel collar around her neck. Slender chains dangle down from the ceiling and attach to each one, like the strings on a puppet. Her face is made up with full ballet makeup. Lots of white, bright red lips, and sharp black and silver wings swooping out from her eyes.

Hate burns in Diana’s eyes. The same hate that burned in Butterfly’s, when Celia first transformed her.

Celia doesn’t think she’s ever seen a ballerina look hateful before. The look is unsettling.

Celia: She has never seen Diana look so hateful before. That is even more unsettling.

She has seen the woman’s attempt at a glare. Like an angry kitten, more adorable than it will ever be fierce. The difference is… startling.

GM: There’s nothing remotely adorable in the look on her face. It’s hate, slow-burning but furious, and renders terrible what should be beautiful.

The chains clink as they pull up and taut. Diana’s arms and legs move with them, a puppet to another’s strings.

“Grace’s passion was ballet,” says Elyse. “It had a very promising career ahead of it, potentially in the London Royal Ballet. It was necessary that Grace practice and maintain its skills.”

“But when it danced, it was free. This would not do.”

Celia: “You took dance away from it.”

Celia had always thought it was her fault that her mother didn’t dance. And perhaps if she hadn’t come along when she did Diana would have gone on to have a long career. But it hadn’t been her fault. It had never been her fault.

Her mother took her dream away when she sent her to become a doll.

And Celia can’t even hate her for it.

Jade watches the tape, transfixed.

GM: “I did more than that, Miss Jade.”

Key and another doll appear. They lift Diana’s tutu and remove her panties. She struggles against her chains and snarls a filthy name at them. The two fasten an adult diaper around her.

“There you go, baby Grace, this’ll keep it nice and clean…” murmurs the other doll.

The second order doll. It has to be.

“Fuck you,” Diana spits.

Celia: She has never heard the woman swear in her life.

GM: Only once. When she was lying broken-armed and bloody-assed over her mother’s lap in the car, after Maxen hurt her too badly to sit down.

“Okay, dolly Grace, this is gonna hurt lots, but I need you to be really brave for us, okay?” says the other doll as she takes a firm grip on Diana’s head and tilts it back. Key inserts a thin yellow tube up her nose. Diana gags, spits, and struggles as she scrunches her eyes. She makes mangled sounds half-cut off by the tube.

Key keeps going and going. The tube has to reach all the way down to Diana’s stomach. She looks sick.

Celia: “What’s in the tube?”

GM: “You will see imminently, Miss Jade,” Elyse replies. Approval is evident in the Malkavian’s china-like eyes.

Celia: Jade simply nods, her eyes on the TV.

GM: Key produces a wad of cloth and tries to insert it into Diana’s mouth. She clamps her mouth shut.

Key pinches his fingers over her nose, just like Jamal did.

Celia: If she had a stomach, she’d be sick.

GM: “Mghphm-mgph!” noises go up from Celia’s mother. She struggles against her chains, increasingly desperately. Her eyes roll up in her head as oxygen deprivation sets in.

She finally opens her mouth to take a great big gasp of air. Key shoves the cloth gag inside.

The other doll wraps a thick roll of tan masking tape around Diana’s mouth several times, keeping the gag secure. She applies some pale white makeup foundation over the tape until it matches Diana’s skin tone.

Then she draws a pair of bright red lips over the gag, set in a huge smile. It’s very realistic. The other doll is a good makeup artist.

She holds up a mirror for Diana to see her reflection.

“There we go, big smile for dolly Grace!” beams the other doll.

Diana’s eyes burn with the same hate, but now she has a huge, happy smile over her mouth. The effect looks even more discordant than before.

“The smile was not my idea,” says Elyse. “Glee showed excellent initiative.”

Celia: “It has a deft hand.”

GM: “Okay, Grace, we’re gonna be right behind the windows the whole time,” smiles Glee. “We can’t wait to see you dance!”

She and Key exit stage right from the camera. The tube going through Diana’s nostril hangs suspended with the other chains.

Then the music starts.

The chains around Diana’s limbs tug. She dances. She is truly a sight to behold on her feet. She glides and turns and spins and leaps like a hummingbird. Celia’s mom always told her that the “point” of dancing en pointe is for the dancer to look like a sylph, a fairy, unfettered by anything except her own joy for her craft. And yet, the dancer here is undeniably fettered. With every second she dances, the chains pull and clink, reminding her of her imprisonment through sound and touch alike. And sight. The room’s walls are mirrors. Diana sees herself the entire time, chained and smiling her huge painted-on smile.

But it’s the music that truly does it.

It sounds classical. It’s powerful. It’s grand. It’s riveting. It’s incredibly loud. With every booming note, the chains tug, forcing Diana to bow as the music crashes over her, making her as small as possible. There’s no soft or delicate or chiming sounds to the music. It’s hard and bass and relentless. It’s imperious and terrible, a wordless declaration as to human insignificance, but beautiful too.

Diana’s chains move as others direct. They must be puppeteered or remote-controlled from the ceiling, because sometimes she stumbles when they’re too fast, interrupting the beauty of her dance (which she watches, the whole time), subliminally driving in that she is too slow, too clumsy, not good enough, even when Celia knows her mother is. She dances, but she is not free.

The dance goes on and on and on. Elyse hits the fast forward button, but the music continues to play from the TV’s speakers. The chained dancer becomes a blur of motion as the time stamp skips ahead. One hour, two hours, three hours. Four. Five. Still she dances. Her eyes are exhausted.

The video plays faster. Six hours. Seven. Eight. Twelve.

The tube leading into Diana’s nostril darkens as substance finally passes through it.

A feeding tube.

The dance goes on. Diana eventually can’t hold it in. She soils the diaper. Her cheeks faintly flush, but she seems only half there. The terrible music endlessly crashes over her, grinding down her spirit as she endlessly dances.

The numbers in the time stamps blur past. Days pass. The chains move for her, when she can’t, dragging her along, making her that much more helpless. She is not allowed to sleep. She eats and drinks through the tube. The diaper turns increasingly brown, but no one changes it.

She’s finally permitted a break when they remove her used-up pointe shoes (Celia remembers her mother saying they’re only good for one performance, or two if you push it). Her bleeding feet are covered in sores and blisters. Elyse appears to inject Diana with a red-filled hypodermic needle, and time turns back for her feet. They’re pink again instead of black and red. Glee fixes new pointe shoes to her feet. Key slaps her every so often so she doesn’t fall asleep, and then she’s right back to dancing.

Two days pass. Three days. Four days.

Five days.

Six.

The changings and injections repeat every so often. Jade knows it takes only three or four days before hallucinations start. That might explain why Diana starts screaming and thrashing with renewed vigor. But it just makes everything worse, to interrupt the dance. All she can do is keep going.

Keep dancing.

Celia can’t make out what her mother is trying to say past the gag. Her sweat- and tear-rimmed eyes are mad and delirious. The hatred once burning so hot within them is all but guttered out.

All she wants is for the dance to finally end.

Finally, mercifully, it does. The terrible music dies. The chains release. Diana hits the floor in an unceremonious heap, a puppet with its strings cut. Her diaper spills, further soiling her sweat-, blood-, and feces-stained costume. Elyse, Key, and Glee all approach. The doll removes the gag around Diana’s mouth. Key pinches her nipples so she doesn’t fall asleep.

Elyse tugs the chain attached to the collar around Diana’s neck. She tilts up the ballerina’s chin with her other hand, making eye contact.

“What is its name?” asks Elyse.

Diana’s voice is a croaked, broken, barely audible thing. Jade only hears it because Elyse turns up the volume to max.

“Its… name… is… Grace.”

Celia: It is not beauty. It is not art. It is torture. The breaking of another artist. A mockery of ballet, her chosen craft, turned into nothing but a puppet show. Endless hours of it: spinning, twisting, leaping. Her toes burn to look at it. Her nails must have fallen out. How much blood coats the inside of those shoes? She can’t begin to imagine the feeling of dancing in a soiled diaper for days on end, the fabric getting heavier and heavier as her bowels release, the rash on her skin from foul moisture and semi-solids.

Chained, she is clumsy. Slow. Awkward. Robot dancer, like her daughter had once been. It hurts to watch.

And she had asked about it. Casually. Like she’d had any idea what her mother had been through.

How much love is in her heart for dance that she still does it after all this time? How much passion had she once had that Elyse had not been able to kill it, root and stem?

“You broke it.”

Her voice lacks any emotion.

GM: “Yes,” replies Elyse.

There is no emotion in the Malkavian’s voice either. Dolls don’t show feelings.

But Jade can see it in Elyse’s dolls.

Dolls show so much in their eyes.

Satisfaction.

Pride.

“Grace was truly born that day.”

Celia: “Its enjoyment for dance did not die.”

A question. How could Diana dance again after this?

GM: “Yes. Curious. I had expected it would not dance again without inducement.”

Celia: It’s love.

Love that monsters like them will never understand.

Her wings might be clipped, but when she dances she can still soar.

GM: “I had expected further behavior modification to be necessary. But when I offered it the opportunity to dance again, wearing but no longer guided by its chains, it said yes.”

“Grace had learned its place.”

Celia: “It doesn’t dance like that anymore. Its husband broke it further.” Jade finds Elyse with her eyes.

GM: “A pity. But no art save ours lasts forever.”

Celia: She would have lasted longer if the hacksaw had not been taken to her leg.

GM: “I feel in a nostalgic mood.” Elyse presses an intercom button. “Key. Name reminder for Grace.”

Key enters the room shortly later with a phone he hands to Elyse.

The Malkavian taps it twice. Jade hears a ring.

More than several pass before they’re answered with a groggy-sounding,

“Hello…?”

“What is its name?” asks Elyse. The Malkavian’s voice is as cold, silent, and terrible as a knife to the throat in the middle of the night.

Diana makes a sound between a gasp, a heart attack, and someone attempting to remain deathly silent.

“Its… name is Grace.

Celia can all but hear the woman’s heart pounding in her chest over the phone, pumping distilled terror through her arteries.

“Grace will go back to sleep,” the Malkavian replies pleasantly. “It had a nightmare.”

“Grace will be a good doll.”

Elyse hangs up.

Celia: It’s too much.

She’d known that when she’d said yes to the tape. She should have said no.

And again when she’d heard Elyse call for the phone. She should have stopped it.

But she’d stood. And watched. And listened.

Like a child.

Like an eight-year-old watching her dad shake hands with the devil.

Or the fourteen-year-old watching her dad take the saw to her mother’s leg.

Or the nineteen-year-old, frozen forever, sitting pretty in stony silence while others berate and mock her for her artistic talent, medium, perversions, degrees.

Degenerate.

Useless.

Stupid.

Whore.

She had never been as strong as her mother. She had never told her tormentors to fuck off. She had been bred weak. Bred by those who meant to control her. Bred to cause strife, cause heartache, cause complications.

It taught you strength.

No. It taught her to bow.

And she is fucking sick of bowing.

She has enough of herself left to set Lucy aside.

Then rage overcomes her, an explosion of snarling, snapping, biting. Claws and fangs erupt from her skin. Her nail beds split. She bleeds.

And the Beast comes tearing out.

How dare she. How dare she break her mother. How dare she take the only thing she loved, her only saving grace, and turn it into savage mockery. How dare she clip that beautiful ballerina’s wings. How dare she call her in the middle of the night to remind her of her place, a place that she never wanted, that was thrust upon her by people too ignorant to the results of those sorts of environments to give a damn about their actions.

She sees red.

And she lunges.

GM: Jade has seen Elyse’s powers of the mind. Seen her invade her doll’s heads, break them in little ways inside, break them like she broke Diana. Force them to be people they are not. Haunt them all their lives. Butterfly is an obedient mother and trophy wife now, last Jade heard.

Jade has seen what the Malkavian can do. Seen the way she terrifies and tortures and breaks the victims in her dollhouse of horrors.

Yet, when the red haze recedes, it’s Elyse’s shredded, barbie doll body that lies broken and gore-spattered on the floor. Her dress is torn off, showing her nipple-less breasts and the smooth flesh between her legs where she used to have a vagina.

Elyse may be a mistress of horrors within her dolls’ minds.

But barbies evidently can’t fight worth a damn.

Celia: Well.

Fuck.


Sunday night, 13 March 2016, AM

Celia: Jade’s claws slowly recede. She stares down at the body. Her third time losing control this evening. A third victory for her Beast.

It rings hollow. She won this and lost a friend.

Stricken eyes search for Key among the dolls, as if she expects to simply find him there waiting.

GM: Jade does not see the ghoul.

Celia: Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

She can’t just leave Elyse here, she’s not an asshole.

“Key!”

GM: There is no response.

Celia: She searches for the intercom.

GM: It’s there on the wall.

Celia: She presses the button. Calls for him again.

GM: “Yes?” answers the ghoul’s voice after a few moments. He sounds positively… something. His voice is thick.

Celia: She doesn’t know what that emotion is.

“Key. I need your help. The lady interpreter needs your help.” A pause. Then, “please.”

GM: “Of… course, Miss Kalani. What can I… do for her?”

Celia: “I need someone to wake her. Her sire? The regent? Do you know who she can safely drink from? A change of clothes. I’ll get her cleaned up. She shouldn’t be seen like this.”

GM: “I do not… know, Miss Kalani. Either of them… perhaps…”

Celia: Helpful.

“Everything okay, Key?”

GM: “No, Miss Kalani,” Key says slowly. “No, there is nothing okay.”

Celia: Right. She’s aware.

Her eyes finally lift from Elyse’s corpse to survey the room.

GM: Many eyes stare back at her.

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Celia: Her vague “call her sire and ask him to wipe Elyse’s memory” plan falls to pieces. The dolls will tell.

“I’m sorry,” she whispers to the room. “I didn’t mean to.”

She presses the intercom again.

“Bring the dress, Key.”

GM: Silence is her only answer.

Celia: Jade grinds her teeth together. She bends, lifting Elyse into her arms. She’s been to the bathroom here enough times—breaking women like her mother, turning them into dolls—and knows exactly where she’s going. It’s the same place Elyse sat for her when she ripped out all of her internal organs and smoothed over her sex and chest. Jade sets the limp body down in the tub and runs the water.

She stares at the phone in her hand. She could call her sire. It’s his territory. She’d been hoping to avoid him pretty much forever, but if he can wake Elyse…

The masked harpy is another option.

Neither of them are particularly appealing choices. Sheriff will likely keep quiet about it. Just mad at her for starting shit in his territory. Again.

Cool. What a fun night. Absolutely nothing has gone right. Even the sex with Josua is now just a quickly fading memory.

She doesn’t have time to fall apart. She needs to make a decision.

Jade takes a breath she doesn’t need. She has to fix this. She will fix this. She isn’t going to let one night ruin her entire Requiem. It’s a setback, that’s all it is. Roderick will come over to her side. Savoy will forgive her for messing up his plans. Elyse will forgive her. She’ll explain, that’s all, just explain. Tell her a secret, maybe. Grace is my mom. Grace was raped and couldn’t defend herself because of this; the fire was snuffed out of her. Grace could have gone on to have a future in ballet if her mother hadn’t forced this on her. Grace is my property, and you’re stepping on my toes. I don’t even know if she’d love me if she were to wake up from what you did to her.

She pushes the negative thoughts of a ruined Requiem from her mind, watching them swirl down the drain with the pinkish water running free from Elyse. She’ll think of something. She always does.

She’ll find Key. Find out what the problem is. Fix Elyse. Make sure she’s presentable. Deal with the anger of one of their sires. The harpy is an unknown quantity; she can’t predict how he will react to finding his childe destroyed on the floor. She doesn’t know if he knows that Jade assists Elyse with her dolls. But Donovan does. He knows Jade comes into his territory. He knows that Elyse pays the toll, that they have some sort of working relationship.

She doesn’t want to see him. She has too much going on in her head right now to want to see him. He’ll berate her for losing her cool. He’ll berate her for causing problems. He’ll demand to know what else she has done, what information she has gathered since Wednesday, and what does she tell him? He’ll look and see and she’ll never know, he’ll mind-fuck her into forgetting, and then Savoy will think she’s causing problems on purpose. She’s not supposed to have any contact with Donovan. What if he keeps her again, like last time? She’ll miss the meeting, the dinner, won’t be able to provide for Dani.

What will she say? “I lost control of my Beast.” They all have a Beast. It’s not an excuse. She should have had a better handle on it. Three times tonight it has caused problems. She killed someone. Murdered her. Like it was nothing.

Was it nothing? Is that who she has become, someone to whom murder means nothing? Will she, too, turn into someone like Veronica who slaughters thin-bloods because they try to go to a party?

Stop it. The thoughts don’t help. She forces them away again.

Jade rises. Elyse isn’t quite clean yet, but she can finish cleaning her once she calls someone. She looks around the bathroom to see if there are any dolls in this room, or if it is one of the few in the house that offer any semblance of privacy.

Then she strides from the room to find Key. She can do it without him, but if there’s another problem, something that happened while her Beast had control, then she’d prefer to fix it now.

GM: Elyse’s body is extremely light. She was already a thin, near-anorexic thing before Jade removed her nonessential organs, and Elyse had the Toreador remove as many of those as she could.

The bathroom appears to be the sole room in the house without any dolls in it. It occurs to Jade that the room’s humidity would likely be bad for any dolls kept there. Even if they had no hair or clothes, the humidity still wouldn’t play well with its composite body. The only doll that could last in a bathroom would be more statue than true doll.

They’re there, though. More of them. Right outside the door.

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Jade can’t even begin to recollect how many dolls there are in the Wedding Cake House. But lying right there on the floor, seemingly dropped and abandoned, is an all-too familiar one.

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Celia: “Lucy,” Jade murmurs, stooping to pick up the doll. She brushes it off, removing the wrinkles from its new dress and any dirt or lint it has accumulated in its time on the floor. “I’m sorry, darling. Sit tight. I need to fix this.”

She sets the doll down with one of its many siblings, then moves through the house to find Key.

GM: Lucy stares into Jade’s eyes as her mother picks her up. The doll fits snugly in Jade’s arms, and today she feels like a babe desperately clinging to her mother’s breast. It’s uncanny how much she looks like Diana, all the way down to the woman’s present-day bob cut. Even their expressions feel like mirrors of one another’s. Lucy just smiles a little less.

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But that isn’t a coincidence. Looking into Lucy’s glassy eyes and wide black pupils, Jade can see the young, angry ballerina who was turned into a doll even as she built her own doll. Every doll has a story inside of them. Every doll has a mouth. But no doll may speak.

Lucy’s porcelain lips do not move. But Jade hears the word, heavy as porcelain, screaming with urgency:

RUN

Celia: The doll is halfway down when the word strikes her. Jade swallows. She doesn’t want to leave Elyse. What kind of a monster leaves someone behind that they’ve hurt?

But the urgency does her in. Something had been off with Key. Something had been off with the dolls. She might not speak their language as fluently as Elyse, but even she knows something is off.

“Diana?” Jade whispers down to it. Wary, she tucks the doll against her side and steals through the house.

GM: There is no response from Lucy. There are countless other dolls in the house, and their glassy eyes all bore down on Jade, the Kindred who hurt their mother. There are so many of them. Jade always took it for granted, or perhaps she did not truly realize the depth of the Malkavian’s obsession, but they are everywhere. They’re sitting on the tables. Perched from the lamps. Leaning against the walls. Hanging from the banisters. Peaking out from the chandeliers. They’re like ants. They’re everywhere. They’re fire hazard, a tripping haz—and then Jade’s falling down the stairs, each step slamming into her flank, she must have tripped over a doll, because there are dolls all over the steps, and she’s crushing them, being crushed by them, their hands catching in her hair, stabbing her sides, and the doll with the wooden hands misses her heart by inches as it penetrates her wood-vulnerable Kindred flesh like butter—

She lands at the bottom of the stairs with a crash, aching everywhere as dozens of hateful china eyes bear down on her.

She. Hurt. Mother.

Celia: It was an accident.

She was going to fix it.

But she can’t, not with them all around her. She runs, Lucy tucked against her side.

GM: She.

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She. Hurt. Mother.

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She. Hurt. Mother.

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She. Hurt. MOTHER!

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GETT HHHHEEEERRRR!!!!!!

Celia: The hatred coming from the dolls batters against her as she runs through their tiny little bodies. She’d never been afraid of dolls. But their angry, vengeful faces stare at her, and she can’t—won’t—destroy them, too. She flees, feet moving as quickly as they can against the floor in her bid for freedom.

GM: She trips over another doll. How are they always under her feet—

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come play with us jade

She scrambles to her feet, running, but there’s more, there’s so many more—

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play with us jade

play with us

play with us

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you’re just like us

just like us

just like us

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She runs, she runs, but there’s more dolls, the living dolls, marching towards her like zombies, throwing themselves in her path with blank, glassy-eyed expressions—

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you’re a doll too

doll too

who are you

who are you

one of us

one of us

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play with us

one of us

play with us

one of us

play with us

one of us

Celia: No, no, nope, no, not even a little. She’s not a doll. She’s not. Maxen didn’t send her. Payton sent Diana. She did. He told her. He said he didn’t send her. Jade isn’t a doll. She’s not a doll. She’s a lick. A Kindred. A vampire. Childe of Donovan, grandchilde of Antoine Savoy, great-grandchilde of Maria Pascual. She’s a person. She was human once. She’s not now, but she used to be.

Jade. Her name is Jade.

She runs, the only doll who loves her tucked against her body, protecting it from the hateful, savage dolls in the rest of the house. It was an accident, she might scream. It was an accident. She’s sorry. She was going to fix it. She was. Dolls break sometimes. Elyse taught her how to fix them. She would have fixed Elyse.

She’s not a doll. She runs. Daddy didn’t send her to become a doll. She keeps running. She’s not a doll. She runs. She doesn’t want to play. Step by step she moves to the door. She’s Jade. Celia. She’s someone, but she’s not a doll.

She doesn’t want to play.

GM: It’s like running through quicksand. Through a jungle. Her environment fights her at every turn, and every footstep is treacherous. There are so many dolls. Dolls everywhere. They fall all around her like swarms of spiders. She can barely even see the walls and ceilings. Jade isn’t even sure where they’re coming from, there are so many, more than she ever saw—

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Living dolls, unliving dolls, and half-living dolls, and Jade remembers now, how she pulled the bones out of those womens’ arms and legs and hands while Elyse watched, left them floppy useless boneless bits of flesh, cut out their tongues, plucked out their eyes and replaced them with shiny buttons—how are they even moving, without bones in their limbs, these half-human, half-dolls—

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you did this to us

you did this to us

did this to us

stay with us

stay with us

one of us

one of us

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“Stay with us, pretty please?” smiles Leilani.

“There’s so many dolls to play with…”

“So many dollies…”

“She understands you, Celia… all the pieces have a home here…”

Lani’s voice warbles, and it sounds like she said Jade, not Celia.

Jade. Celia. Jade. Celia.

“You don’t have to be confused anymore…”

Celia: Leilani needs to go back where she came from. She isn’t real. She’s just another mask, another lie, another part of her that Celia—Jade? Celia?—Jade ties on when she needs it.

“She’s not my mother,” Celia/Jade says to the figment of her psyche. One face of the dozens, hundreds, thousands in front of her, all around her. Each step is an effort, slogging through the sea of dolls. Her muscles don’t grow weary but she can feel them clinging to her, pulling at her, overwhelming her in their onslaught to keep her here. She’s slowing.

Her hands bat them away. She keeps Lucy next to her as if the doll will lead the way to safety, a shield against the horde. Boneless fingers reach for her, rubbery skin slipping off her frame, and she shrieks at what she has done, what she will become.

“Let go, let go, let go!”

She swims through porcelain.

“I’m not confused.”

Another step.

“You’re not real.”

More faces peer down at her.

“It’s just pretend!”

It was a game. Wasn’t it?

“I can’t stay.”

She’s cracking.

“It was an accident.”

Splintering.

“I didn’t mean to!”

She would have fixed it.

“Go away.”

Fracturing.

“Let me go!”

Fragmenting.

“You’re not real.”

Shattering.

“You’re not real.”

Disconnecting.

“You’re not real.”

Disassociating.

“You’re not real!”

Broken.

GM: “Why are you talking to me if I’m not real?” smiles Leila.

“Unless I am… or if you’re crazy…”

Craaaazy….”

I’m real or you’re crazy…

GET IT!” screams Key, thrusting a finger out at her. “Get that doll! Runaway doll!”

“Craaaazy…” goes Leila.

CCRRAAAAZZZYYY…!”

“HahaHaHahaHAHaHahAhaHAhAHahAhAhAHAhHaHAhAhaHhaHAHahAHHAhaHAHAHHaHAHAHaHhAHaHAhaHHA-
HAhahAHhaHaHahA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Laughter spills from a million throats as the porcelain sea swallows Jade. Her free hand only just brushes the front door when scores of rubbery and porcelain ones seize her from all sides and pull her back, drowning her under the weight of their numbers.

Too slow.

YES!”

Too weak.

“The mistress is avenged!”

Too stupid.

“You’ll play with us, Jade… you’ll play with us forever, now…”

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Caroline VII, Ch. XVII; Celia IV, Chapter XVII
Forbidden Dalliances

“Most of us will excuse almost anything from someone we love, no matter how awful.”
Caroline Malveaux-Devillers


Sunday night, 13 March 2016, AM

Celia: The Giani Building isn’t far enough into the Central Business District that Celia is worried about being picked up as an interloper. It’s not even far enough away that she needs to drive, which further cuts down on the probability that she’ll be detected. Flanagan had proved the other night that the licks who patrol the borders pay attention to make and model of vehicles, but this evening Celia skips it all.

She walks. Just another girl alone at night, aura drawn in to prevent any of her kind from looking at her and simply knowing what she is. Masking her smell, she calls it. Hiding in plain sight. She wears her Celia face tonight, made up with spots of color on her cheeks, lips, and lids.

Quick steps take her across Canal Street to the building’s front door. The doorman asks who she is here to see and she gives him Caroline’s name, smiling sweetly all the while.

In the end, there had been no way for her to ascertain that this is not a trap. Trust does not come readily to her kind, but trust she does. Trusts herself to react accordingly. Trusts the Ventrue to offer her this visit on an act of goodwill. Trusts that she will not meet her final death if she steps into this building as soon as the clearance comes down.

Caroline: If the shapely young woman didn’t have the doorman’s full attention when she walked in, she certainly has it when she mentions Ms. Malveaux-Devillers. He inquires as to what name he should give when he calls up.

Celia: Celia tells herself she isn’t offended when the man doesn’t recognize her. How many middle-aged men really browse Instagram or MeVid, anyway, and how many of those who do meander on over to the makeup side of things? Soon, though, she’ll be recognized everywhere, not just by teens and tweens and young women. L.A. is calling her name. As soon as Rick comes through, she’s out of New Orleans and on her way to something better.

“Celia Flores,” she tells the doorman, her smile never slipping. “I believe Ms. Malveaux-Devillers is expecting me.”

She hopes so, anyway. The call from her ghoul had implied as much. Awkward, if not.

Caroline: The doorman buzzes up. Celia’s sharp hearing is enough to her her name clearly. He answers affirmatively several times then returns his attention Celia. “Someone will be right down for Ms. Malveaux-Devillers,” he informs her.

“You can wait in the lobby if you’d like.”

Celia: As if she has another choice. Still, she smiles at him and steps inside, thanking him for his time. Her eyes scan the lobby while she waits. She’s poised enough to not tap her heels on the ground no matter how nerve-wracked this waiting makes her.

Her grandsire’s missive weighs heavily on her mind. Coincidence, maybe, that the call from the ghoul had come shortly after she’d left the Evergreen. She hadn’t voiced her concerns to her grandsire, but they pace through her thoughts now like a caged tiger, back and forth, back and forth. Sire and grandsire. One wants to destroy the blonde, the other wants to offer her friendship and an alliance. Both of them want her assistance with the matter. What does she want to be? The knife in the dark, or the smiling friend?

She supposes this meeting will let her know.

Caroline: The lobby feels more spacious than it is. Marble floors and high ceilings give it an robust elegance, and the entire space is decorated in whites and golds. Several comfortable looking leather chairs sit to one side, a handful of magazines arrayed in the end table between them.

To one side Celia can make out a short hall that terminates in a mail room, complete with the array of numbered boxes. Branching off of it is another room with an opaque frosted glass door.

Several security cameras beat down from various angles. The small round black ones, rather than the more conspicuous ones of gas stations and resteraunts.

Two keycarded elevators sit on the north wall.

Celia doesn’t have long to wait before a serious-looking blonde in a black suit emerges from one of the elevators and makes her way to her.

“Ms. Flores?” she asks.

Celia can smell it before she gets close.

Ghoul.

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Celia: She hadn’t even had time to enjoy the magazine she’d picked up and begun to leaf through, one leg crossed over the other in that bank of leather chairs.

She doesn’t recognize the girl. Smells like vitae, though. Should she recognize her? Probably. She should pay better attention to people’s ghouls; apparently someone is paying enough attention to hers to start fucking with them.

She rises.

“That’s me,” she says to the ghoul, setting the magazine aside. “Lead the way, Miss…?”

Caroline: “Widney, ma’am,” the ghoul replies easily. “Ms. Malveaux-Devillers’ last appointment ran late, but she told me she would be along shortly, and instructed me to extend every courtesy in her absence. She’ll receive you in the penthouse.”

Celia: Irritation surges through her. Not the ghoul’s fault, she reminds herself, so she keeps her tongue in her mouth and her lips pressed together.

She couldn’t have called? Texted?

And this is, what, another game? From a fledgling? No matter who her sire is, the girl is a scant few months old.

How dare she.

“How unfortunate,” she says dryly. “This is why I make it a point to be the first one in the morning to visit the doctors, you know. But I’m happy to see the penthouse in the meantime.” She sounds chipper, at least.

Caroline: “It shouldn’t be long at all, ma’am. If you follow me, I’ll get you settled in. Can I offer you anything? Sparkling water? Cocktail?” The blonde leads her to one of the elevators and swipes a badge.

Celia: Sparkling blood. There’s a thought. She wonders if carbonation would improve the fare any. Either Widney doesn’t know what she is—which means Caroline is preserving the secret for her—or she’s pretending not to know because of the public locale. Maybe she should accept. Keep up the ruse.

No, no reason to waste the blood just to choke it down and throw it up later. She’s had enough of that.

“Oh I couldn’t,” she says, Southern accent coming through a little more thick than normal. She waves a hand, stifling a giggle. “I’m already jumpy as a rabbit in a teakettle as is, I doubt liquor would do me any good.”

Caroline: Widney nods, business-like. “If you should change your mind, don’t hesitate to ask. Ms. Malveaux-Devillers maintains a fully stocked bar.”

She swipes the badge across another scanner inside and the dim ‘th floor’ button illuminates. She presses it quickly. The trip to the rooftop is short.

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“Would you prefer inside or outside, ma’am?” the ghoul inquires.

A pool and array of seating arrangements beckon on the patio.

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Celia: “Outside.”

Always outside. She follows the ghoul onto the rooftop venue, scanning the area for any sort of… anything. Traps, maybe. More ghouls. People. Does she have this whole area to herself? Plant a few trees, she thinks, and Caroline will have her very own rooftop garden.

With a pool, though. Now that’s tempting. What would the Ventrue do if she showed up to find Celia naked in the pool? She’s often wondered that about her grandsire, too. If he came upstairs one evening to find her waiting for him.

Ah, well, the blonde has already seen everything she has to offer, anyway. Something something mystery of modesty and all that. It looks like Emily described, at least, which means that her memories weren’t altered. Maybe. Aren’t you supposed to make small changes, though? She’d sigh but she doesn’t need to.

Celia takes an offered seat and waits for her host.

Caroline: Widney pauses after the elevator arrives to send a brief message on her phone, before leading Celia out to a high round table with a black umbrella jutting from the center and two stool height chairs. A small portable electric heater sits off to the side, and the ghoul stops to turn it on as well.

There’s not a soul to trouble them, though the faint sounds of the street reaches them up here. The dull hum of cars going by and occasional peels of laughter from tourists.

There’s no dedicated lighting on the patio on other than those that ring the pool: it’s left to bathe in the faint lights of the city and cast in a modest gloom.

Celia doesn’t have long to wait, perhaps enough time to briefly check her Instagram.

From her seat facing the club house the Toreador can see the doors to the elevator open once more to discharge the Ventrue and two others.

The first she recognizes as the same ghoul that was with Caroline in the Garden District.

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What was her name? Spring? Summer? Some kind of season name.

She says something that Celia can’t quite catch to Caroline as she exits the elevator that makes the Ventrue snap shut the leather portfolio she’s holding and all but shove it towards her, whatever words exchanged lost in the wind.

The second individual with Caroline is short, stocky, and bald. He wears black cargo pants with a gray shirt and a matching dark jacket that doesn’t fit him as well as it should. Everything about him almost screams military, not the least of which is the pistol on his hip and matching magazines on the opposite.

Autumn_Alt1.jpg
Then comes the Ventrue herself.

That Caroline doesn’t expend the same effort as Celia in her daily makeup routine is obvious. Just as obvious is how little she needs such a thing. Her blonde hair seems to fall in exactly the right way to frame her face, especially those piercing blue eyes.

She’s not quite dressed for Elysium in her black dress, but it’s far from casualwear, hugging her body in all the right places and standing out sharply against her so pale skin. Paler perhaps than the night before. Even more inhuman.

Her heels make her seemingly endless legs just go on further. They snap across the deck as the blonde makes her way out towards Celia with casual lack of effort.

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Celia: She should, she reflects, get more ghouls like this. The useful sort that flank her when she visits other licks, instead of a boy who disobeys and a girl who can’t be bothered to protect the sanctity of the Masquerade. Christ, she’s still waiting on the blowout from that. An excuse to strip her of everything useful she’s accumulated over the past years. The heads of the ghouls she’s currently bemoaning, even.

No, no, she won’t let her mind go down that road. No one that knows who she is has any reason to want to mess with her. No reason to check Celia’s phone.

Except the reason in front of her.

The beautiful, deadly reason in front of her. Scion of two powerful houses, childe of the prince of the city, apparently bested Meadows in combat… power, beauty, what’s not to like?

The pull of her clan, thankfully, lies dormant this evening. She blames it for her actions in the Garden District.

Her eyes follow the assembled ghouls—Winter, she thinks, which is similar to Widney, which definitely makes sense if you’re too busy to learn their names—until Caroline starts towards her. Then it’s all she can do to avoid staring. Were she still alive the lick might take her breath away. As it is, only conscious effort reminds her to breathe and blink.

She rises as the Ventrue draws close, a smile tugging the corners of her lips upward. The corners of her eyes would never dare crinkle, but there’s warmth there all the same.

She’s less formally dressed than her counterpart, in any case. This must have come from the Celia side of her closet, and soon it’ll be too warm to pull it off, even at night. Still, she does so enjoy her sweater dresses, and this wide-necked tan (beige? who cares) one hugs her hips and waist before giving way around mid-thigh to dark gray boots. Even the heels don’t make her tall enough to look the Ventrue in the eye.

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Not that she would. Celia studiously avoids doing so, looking at her lips instead.

No, wait, that’s dangerous too.

What a mess.

Caroline: Celia may not have heard the jokes at Elysium about Caroline, but Jade certainly has.

Not from the harpies (why would they spare their attention for some fledgling?) but from the would-be crowd. About how clearly the reason the Ventrue has so many ghouls is because no lick wants anything to do with her. How she has to lord over someone. How it’s a pathetic commentary on her existence. The lost fledgling surrounding herself with slaves and bodyguards in some pretentious imitation of the powerful and important. Unable to accept her irrelevance, not realizing how foolish it makes her look. Who would bother with her anyway?

On the other hand, Caroline doesn’t look very pathetic as she outpaces the bald ghoul on her way towards Celia.

She intentionally doesn’t bite her lip like she wants to as she approaches, as she takes in the Toreador. Caroline’s skin is too pale to pull off a dress like that, but it works on Celia. Works very well, especially paired with the boots.

She forces away the irritation Autumn’s last news left her with and puts a smile on. Smile’s are good, right? Not threatening? Celia’s smiling at her. Because she’s trying to be non-threatening as well? Or because she’s genuinely happy to see Caroline?

The Ventrue shoves that latter thought away along with her irritation. Why would Celia be happy to see her?

More to, why did she accept the invitation? How confident must she be, of either her rouse or her abilities to waltz into Caroline’s lion’s den here.

Well, she’s not the first.

And then she’s there, in front of the Toreador, and she realizes she doesn’t know what she’s going to say.

“Celia, I’m so glad you could come. I’m sorry to keep you waiting.”

Offer an excuse? The truth? No. That’d just look weak, wouldn’t it? She’s been on the receiving end of the ‘make people wait’ game other licks play often enough to know what it means, how irritating it is. What it looks like, no matter how good the reason.

On the other hand, does Celia? Caroline admits to herself she honestly don’t know. She’s never seen her at Elysium. Never heard of her. Is it possible that Celia’s been mostly isolated? Then there’s that ugly secret between them. How does that play in?

Celia: Could be the bond Caroline forced on her. Celia had tried so hard to prevent it from taking hold in the bedroom and Caroline had all but shoved it on her in the shower.

The smile seems genuine enough, in any case. Hard to imagine Celia without a smile, really. Maybe it’s her default expression. Maybe she hasn’t been a lick long enough to know she shouldn’t smile like this, like she hasn’t been around long enough to know she shouldn’t trespass in the Garden District. It’s not as if Caroline has heard anything about a Celia Flores among the Damned.

She’s glad they’re skipping the titles, in any case. Caroline’s nonchalant familiarity puts her more at ease than anything else probably would.

“It’s not a problem,” Celia tells her, “I’m sure you have plenty of things to keep you busy these nights.” It was only a moment, anyway. Not like when the elders do it.

Maybe she’s not used to those games, either. How much digging did Caroline do about the Toreador?

Caroline: “You have no idea,” Caroline answers with a light laugh.

Or does she?

She glances at Widney. “There shouldn’t be anything else tonight.”

“Yes, ma’am.” The ghoul nods and withdraws.

And just like that the two of them are standing out on the roof alone.

She’ll never get a better chance.

And yet Caroline can’t bring herself to fear. Perhaps she’s being foolish tonight, but nothing ventured is nothing gained, and she’s not so exposed here as others might believe.

Celia: She probably doesn’t. Still posting photos on Instagram, isn’t she?

Must be new. Hadn’t even tried to put off the ghoul for a night when she’d called for a meeting. Doesn’t seem bothered by waiting.

Very new.

She watches the ghoul depart. Now it’s just two monsters on the roof.

“Is all of this yours up here?”

An idle question. As if she hadn’t grilled Emily about it. Not that the girl would know, but even some information is better than none, isn’t it?

Caroline: “In practice. I don’t own the building, but I have some… influence over it. Officially, the roof closes at sundown. Most people’s cards won’t even let them select it as an option in the elevator.”

Her eyes meet Celia’s. “We won’t be disturbed.”

Celia: Is that a threat or an invitation?

“And for anyone who tries to take the stairs it’s a simple matter of telling them to leave, I imagine.”

Not that it would stop certain others in the city from appearing if they so chose. She turns to look out across the city, perhaps to keep the lick from doing the trick she’d just alluded to. Not wanting the girl in her head is what had gotten her into this mess. The building isn’t the tallest in the city, but the view across Canal Street to the lights and merriment of the Quarter is appealing all the same.

“It’s nice up here. I see why you invite people.”

Caroline: “Roof doors lock out too, at least from the inside. Building security is pretty extensive. Something about upgrades after an unfortunate incident a few months ago,” Caroline answers, turning her own gaze to the city.

It’s not quite the equal of her sire’s view, but it’s not bad.

“I worked hard to make something mine after my Embrace.” She bites her lip. “It wasn’t easy.”

An invitation.

Celia: “I should upgrade my security,” Celia admits. She’s seen what other people do now and hers is decidedly lacking. Not just at her haven, but the spa as well. One suite is well guarded, the rest…

“Hard to carve a niche in a city that seems like it’s been picked clean over by everyone at the top.”

No heat, just steady facts. What’s left for the little people in this game of giants?

“But it seems like it’s going well for you. Maybe I can pick your brain about it sometime. Borrow some tactics about developing things. "

Caroline: “I mean, it’s not all that different than our last lives. All about what parts of yourself you’re willing to sell or cut away to get ahead.”

She wishes she had a drink.

“Get in line behind someone. March to the beat of their drum. They’re no more accepting of individuals than either of our fathers.”

Celia: “Isn’t that the truth.”

What would they be like if their fathers hadn’t been the monsters they are? Would she chafe more at the rules of her Requiem, join the Anarchs to fight for equality? Maybe. That’s the way the world works, though. The strong rule at the top.

“Someone—” her sire “—once told me that growing up as I did taught me strength.”

Caroline: “There’s a reason a lot of us come from those kinds of backgrounds.” She runs her tongue over her fangs.

“Your sister, for instance.”

“A good Sanctified would also tell you that your sins in life are part of why you have this existence. I think we all had our own sins long before the Embrace.”

Celia: Turned away as she is, maybe Caroline doesn’t see the overlong blink at the mention of her sister. She has half a second to decide how to play this. Tell Caroline who she is, let her know she’s been Embraced far longer than her, that she knows about Roxanne.

Or feign ignorance. Play the innocent, wide-eyed childe, so new to all of this. Harder to explain how she fits into their society if she’s more than a handful of months old, isn’t it?

It had worked with the hunters.

And, in the end, it’s not her secret to tell. The noose makes her do what she does best: lie.

“My sister?” Celia furrows her brow. “I don’t think the scandal made either one of them strong. Sophia left for college, and Isabel… she’s been in Sudan since she graduated.”

Caroline: Does she really not know? How many masks are they wearing with each other tonight?

Still, if she really doesn’t know, she deserves to.

“Isabel has been one of us for years,” Caroline answers after a moment. “She leads her own krewe. Or, at least she did. They had a difficult year.”

Celia: What’s the appropriate response to this? She’d been furious when she found out initially, but her feelings since then have long cooled.

Dismay, maybe. Who would want this for their siblings? Wounded betrayal that Isabel hadn’t told her. Sadness. Regret. She reaches for the old wounds she has carried on her heart since the night she made Maxen rape his daughter. The story Roxanne had told her about her pregnancy moments before she’d ripped out her heart. Or what she should have felt, anyway, if she weren’t the monster that she is.

It’s a real mixing pot of emotions across her face, eyes widening, lips parting, fingers moving to cover her mouth while she takes a completely unnecessary breath.

“Isabel has… oh, oh no…” She turns away.

And the Oscar goes to…

Caroline: Celia’s either a fantastic actress (which Caroline knows is true) or she’s genuinely been kept in the dark about most of Kindred society.

She supposes, on reflection, both could be true, despite what she knows about her. Caroline certainly was.

She shrugs. “It’s not all bad. Someone observed to me once that this thing can be what breaks relationships, what destroys us with others, but it can also be an opportunity to reconnect with someone under different circumstances.”

Never mind that she murdered that person. Someone who trusted her, or at least cared for her. Cared enough to stick her neck out for Caroline.

“For what it’s worth, I think your sister would be happy to see a familiar face, and that she could use one.”

Celia: Huh. Too bad Celia killed her sister.

Not that she shares that tidbit.

She shoves the thought from her mind as quickly as it comes. It takes her a moment to put herself back together after that blow. Or at least that’s what she makes it look like she’s doing. She doesn’t dab at her eyes—Caroline won’t smell blood and would see through the ruse more easily than a mortal—but she hunches her shoulders slightly for a moment and gives a shake of her head.

“I didn’t know. I had no idea…” she trails off. “We weren’t close, you know, after our parents split… I just thought she… with everything that happened…”

Her face plastered all over the internet. Maxen between her legs. It’s a dark thought.

“I would have wanted to get out, too.”

Caroline: Not close? How are you ‘not close’ with a sister. The entire idea is alien to Caroline. She tries to imagine what it would take to split her from her sisters. Probably a hacksaw.

“She’s a clanmate. I could put you two in touch. Or at least pass along your number, if you wanted.”

What say you to that? How far does she take the game? If it even is a game.

Celia: Good luck.

“Y-yeah,” Celia finally says. “Thank you. I should speak to her. Maybe together we can…” she trails off again.

Bury the hatchet. She really had wanted to bury the hatched with Isabel. Only she’d become unhinged, either after her Embrace or had been all along, and Celia’s attempt at bridging that gap had ended disastrously.

Caroline: “Few enough reasons to trust someone, among the Damned. You could do worse than shared blood.”

Of course, Caroline did far more than destroy the only Kindred that shared her blood as a mortal, so maybe she’s not the best authority on that topic.

“Remind me to give you her number before you go, and I’ll pass on yours next time I see her.”

Celia: She should unburden herself of that guilt. They can swap stories about the terrible things they’ve done to their families.

Call it a bonding exercise.

“I don’t know if she’d want to see me,” Celia admits, “but… I guess she and Logan still talk. I messaged her, you know, recently. There’s this app he showed me, because I thought she was in Sudan… but she never got back to me. But… you know, dying, it made me think of all the things I should have fixed. And now I have the chance. And to hear that maybe we could fix it…”

She takes a breath she doesn’t need.

“Thank you, Caroline. I really appreciate that.”

Caroline: Caroline nods. “She goes by Roxanne now. Apparently that’s a thing a lot of licks do: change their name after the Embrace.”

Not that Caroline will. The time for that is long past—if it ever existed for her.

Celia: “Oh. I should… probably do that too. Roxanne.” She tries it out, lets it roll off her tongue.

As if she doesn’t know.

What had Coco and Roderick told her? Truth comes out. Maybe she should stop spinning tales.

“I never understood how she could do it, you know. Take his side. I saw him. I watched it happen.”

This, at least, isn’t a lie.

Caroline: That makes Caroline pause. What would she have done, if she’d seen her father beating Claire? Would she have defended her now-stepmother against him? Have stood up against him? Would she have gone with Claire if they’d split, knowing she was right? Or would she have stayed with her father, who she loved?

She knows the answer.

“I could say that you were kids, and that to kids who’s right matters a lot less than who you love. I could say that he appeared strong and your mother appeared weak. Maybe your sister thought she was backing the side she had to because it was going to win anyway. I could blame the entire thing on who you were then… but that’s not really true, is it?”

“The truth is most of us will excuse almost anything from someone we love, no matter how awful. We’re myopic in our view. The only thing that matters is what we care about.”

She pauses. “Your sister made clear who she did.”

Celia: “Isabel—Roxanne—she had no reason to side with Dad. None. He used to… God, he was awful. The last nice thing I remember him doing was my birthday party when I was eight. And then we moved into Audubon and everything became shit. Just shit. He just… changed. Not overnight, it wasn’t that dramatic, but what kind of person takes a hacksaw to a ballerina’s leg? How can you do that to someone? And then everything after… what he did to her, to me… watching my mom live in literal squalor because of him…”

Celia shakes her head.

“I don’t even know what they were fighting about, why he suddenly went after her. He said she was cheating, but she… Christ, Caroline,” Celia looks up at her, and the truth is there in her eyes. “She’s still in love with him. He’s trying to get back into her life and she’s going to let him. Would it really be so bad, she keeps asking. It’s… it’s sick. It’s so messed up.”

As if she isn’t doing the same thing with her sire. Letting him use and abuse her to fulfill his own twisted ends and meekly accepting it because she hopes he’ll care enough about her one day to not.

Caroline: And he’s the puppet of your sire, Celia. What do you think that says about what his view was on what happened to you?

Does she really not know? Or is she just like Caroline? Too broken to care.

“And yet, making peace with that level of cognitive dissidence is a daily part of our Requiem. I sit in rooms across from other licks who literally tortured me, tried to enslave me, and humiliated me every week and have to do more than pretend to be nice,” she observes pointedly.

“As I said, there’s a reason people like us are attractive to our sires—and by ‘us’ I include your sister. Like a beaten dog, we’re not inclined to bite our masters, even if we show our teeth to everyone else.”

It’s an ugly thing to say, an ugly truth to put out in the open, but Caroline made her peace with it. What was it the seneschal had said? “Your background made you a compelling candidate for the prince’s Embrace.” She doubts he was talking only about her achievements.

Who else but the daughter of a man who spent most of his life ignoring her, expecting perfection of her, and using her for political purposes, would fight so hard to stand beside a sire who just wants to do the exact same thing.

It’s like poetry, how her Requiem echoes her life. Not that she’s ever much cared for poetry.

Celia: Celia blanches. The effect might be lost beneath the foundation, but the blood she sends spinning through her body drains from her face regardless. Beaten, humiliated, enslaved. She hasn’t had it that bad. She’s been relatively privileged, even.

“Sorry,” she says quietly. “I didn’t know. He just… I hate him. I thought he was out of my life and he’s back and…” she wrings her hands, finally shrugs. “It doesn’t matter. I shouldn’t be airing this to you, anyway, I don’t mean to dwell on my family drama. Breather drama.” She lifts her brows, as if unsure of the term.

Caroline is more right than she knows, anyway. Celia might show her teeth to anyone else, but not to him. Never him. Even denying him the night he’d have made her lick blood from the ground had stung. He’d tried to kill her mother and she’d stood by like some… pathetic, weak mortal while it happened. As if it were okay. What would she have done if she hadn’t managed to save her mom? Bow her head and politely accept her failure?

“Why are they all so awful?

Caroline: “How many people have you killed?” Caroline asks in turn.

“In your Requiem, I mean.” She remembers the loaded gun.

She waits a beat, then continues, “I’m sorry, that’s a rude question. But what I mean is, when life gets cheap, there’s only so many things left that can end up shocking you. Extend that out a hundred years, or two hundred years, or five hundred years.”

She shrugs. “I mean, it probably doesn’t help that they probably all started as fucked as we are. The ones that were normal, well, they don’t make it very long.”

Celia: Five, this week. Three of them were hunters, though, so she’s not sure that it counts. Plus her sister. One innocent, and even then who knows how innocent the bitch actually was. She’d goaded someone else into killing two more and wonders if they count.

“Maybe,” Celia admits. She doesn’t answer the question about death. “Maybe they don’t last long. But if they keep taking the beaten and the broken, they’re going to end up with a society of broken people. That just continues to the problem. Isn’t it better to grant someone the Embrace if you know they’re going to do good with it? If we have eternity, as they say we do, why not make it better?”

She sounds like Roderick. She remembers how Garcia sneered at him in Elysium, spitting the word “idealist” as if it were a curse. She glances away.

“We become jaded, you mean,” she continues, “inured to doing what we need to do. We become like them. If not, we die.”

And isn’t she worried about that very thing with Roderick? That he doesn’t know how to bend so he’ll break instead, rush off to do something heroic and die for it, let his temper get the best of him at the wrong time? He’d cried over killing hunters. That doesn’t bode well for his future.

Or maybe her lack of care for their lives speaks to what’s wrong with her.

Caroline: “Going to end up with a society of broken people? Have you met many of us?” There’s a brittle smile in her eyes.

Celia: Ah, whoops. Here’s the delicate part. The lie she needs to spin.

“There are different ways of being broken.”

Caroline: “Of course there. Elysium is like a case study in a mix of borderline personality traits. The sadists, the masochists, the control freaks, the lushes, the hedonists. But normal people can’t say normal people and be Kindred too.”

“Even the most wannabe moral lick with no ghouls they’ve addicted and enslaved to their will, who has never killed or frenzied by some miracle, is still a rapist that goes out every night to prey on and hurt people. We’re obligate predators by creation.”

“And even if they avoid the petty politics, even if they navigate the Masquerade perfectly, it’s only a matter of time. Eventually they’ll frenzy and hurt or kill someone. If you really want to be the good person, the best thing you can do for the world is get a tan. Otherwise you’re just another monster justifying your existence of hurting and killing with some bullshit excuse about the greater good.”

“Mind you, the kine can be little better—the greater good is the excuse of every tyrant for five thousand years.”

“I think it was Sophocles that said, ‘The soul that has conceived one wickedness can nurse no good thereafter.’ He wasn’t being subtle about the idea that you can’t fight evil while being evil. Fruit of the poisoned tree and all that.”

Celia: Celia doesn’t have much of a counter to that. Roderick probably would, but she’s not him, and she’s never pretended to not be the monster that Caroline speaks of.

Except for right this very minute.

“There are levels of crimes,” she finally says, “things you can do that are worse than the others. Hunting doesn’t need to end in death. You could even argue that we’re better than the mortals who slaughter cows and pigs for their meals.”

She sounds delusional.

Caroline: “Or you can just make peace with it.” Caroline shrugs, tilting her head to the side.

“How much do you really care about some random kine on the street?” She arches an eyebrow.

Celia: “I care more for my family. But I think anyone would say that.”

Part of her family, anyway.

“Are you suggesting,” she asks at length, “that we round up a few and kill them to stop caring?” She sounds intrigued rather than accusing, if that’s any consolation.

Caroline: “I mean, it would help most licks figure out pretty quickly if they could stomach the Requiem.”

Didn’t it help her? It wasn’t the killing that shattered her. As it turned out, blood wiped off porcelain easily enough. Like all china dolls, it was the fall that broke her.

Celia: “Is this what passes for a date when you’re dead?”

Caroline: “Is this a date?” Caroline asks, amused. “I’d have brought a bottle of kine.”

Celia: Celia giggles, delighted at the play on words.

“It can be.”

She honestly has no idea why she’d been invited over, but they’d been in the shower together last time they spoke of it. If she misjudged… well, awkward. Then again, she’s also in a relationship, so it’s awkward either way.

Caroline: A moment of weakness or a genuine temptation? The game wears at her patience—better not to pretend there are truly friends among the Damned. Better to slam the door than gaze into the abyss.

“And here I thought you were here to kill me.”

Celia: She falters. Her smile dips, stopped short by the bold accusation.

“I’m doing a poor job of it, if so.”

A brief pause. Then,

“You asked to see me again. After we were intimate. Or at least I thought that’s what you meant. If I was mistaken, then I apologize for the trouble.”

Caroline: “I meant everything I said,” Caroline answers too quickly.

She pauses for a moment, seemingly realizing the eagerness of her answer.

There’s a wistfulness to her tone when she speaks again. “They told me to be careful, you know. To be watchful. But God, I didn’t see you coming at all. Not even after you dropped the veil.”

There’s something in her gaze.

“Then… then I got a taste of you. I’ve tasted your sire’s blood often enough that I had no doubt who you were, and I knew it was coming. A blade. A poison. Something more subtle, maybe, but an end all the same.”

“I’d grown accustomed to looking for it. To expecting it. There were worse ways than in your arms.”

She stares at the sheriff’s childe. “Except it didn’t come. I couldn’t figure out why. But I had a sort of hope, about the reason.”

Celia: Tasted her sire’s blood enough times.

This is who he gives it to, the prince’s childe. Not Celia. Not his own childe. There’s another beast inside of her that surges at the words. Not the Beast, capital B, but the other one. The colder one, named for the green-eyed bitch. And a little girl who used to believe that monsters weren’t real, a teenager who had been whisked away from the horror of reality by too-cold hands. They fight for dominance inside of her: the Beast, the Beauty, and the Innocent.

You’ll never be good enough, one of them whispers. The Bitch.

Caroline might see the way her face turns to stone while it happens. A micro-expression where, for a blink, Celia becomes just as dead as the rest of them. It’s replaced almost as instantly with something like uncertainty. Apprehension. Nervous, maybe, at the mention of her sire… or Caroline’s confessed desire, the suggestion in her words.

She’s playing with fire. Walking the edge of the knife, where each step cuts into the soles of her feet. She has too many secrets. Too many people vying for her attention, too many people pulling her in different directions, too many people demanding her loyalty. Her sire. Her lover. Her grandsire. Caroline.

She doesn’t know if Caroline is bluffing. If she knows who Celia’s sire truly is. To lie here… one misstep and everything will come crumbling down around her. Will she tell? Celia will lose her head, she’s sure. She can spin it. She’s done it before. Make a bluff of her own. Mutually assured destruction if Caroline tells. But she can’t confess. The noose around her neck tightens at the very thought, his blood warning her to keep quiet. Play stupid, it says, you’re so good at that.

When had his voice replaced her father’s?

“I didn’t come to the Garden District for you,” Celia says. She wonders if her mouth is always this dry. If words are always so difficult to form. Even the truth she speaks rings hollow to her ears. “I didn’t know you’d be there. I came to see my mom, my daughter, your sister. It’s been too long since we…”

You give up friends when you die. That’s the sad truth of it. She’s managed to make it work with some of them, but there will always be those who slip through the cracks. She has held onto Cecilia for years, but now she wonders if that time is up. If Caroline will stake her claim on her family, like Celia would do for hers if another lick were getting too friendly.

“And then I saw you, and I just…”

Blame her clan. Easy, isn’t it. But it had been more than that. She and Caroline had never been close as mortals, but they’d known each other. They could have been friends. If Celia hadn’t died that night…

“I didn’t know who you were. Whose childe. I didn’t know. I wasn’t sent there.”

None of it is a lie. None of it even stretches the truth.

The pause is long enough to set her head to spinning. She looks away, licks her lips, and finally looks back.

“Is that why I’m here? Are you going to… to kill me? Hurt me?” Turn her in? Her weight shifts, as if she might flee. Laughable, really. She knows how fast Caroline is. The railing is close, though. She can jump. Preferable to being executed. To having her blood spill the truth of it. It will hurt less than watching them take his head.

Caroline: She’s such a good liar that Caroline wants to believe it. The naivete of believing in the serendipity of just happening to meet each other again. The night after the sheriff was let in on the secret. She wants to believe that. And she doesn’t want to believe it. Because she’d built up the idea in her head that if Celia, perhaps, could refuse an order from her sire, if she could make her own way, that maybe Caroline could as well. Stupid. There’s no room for sentiment or wishes in her Requiem, only what is.

And what is now? She came back. ’Didn’t know whose childe’ suggests she knows now. Few enough places she could have learned that. Did she go asking questions? Knows now, and still came back. What the hell does that mean?

And then there’s the fear. What does Celia have to fear from Caroline? Celia’s sire is arguably the most feared lick in the city. Certainly the one Caroline fears the most. Well, other than her own sire. Kill her? Hurt her? Who the hell does she think Caroline is?

She was the same way back at her mother’s house as well, though, wasn’t she? Almost skittish. How does that happen?

Except, Caroline suspects she knows exactly how that happens. How many times has she wanted to run? How many times has she been terrified? She pictures Donovan. Cold. Efficient. Demanding. Distant. He’s like a mirror image of her own. Is it really that simple?

“I think I already signed your death warrant once, in life. Once is enough for eternity.”

Celia: She doesn’t know what that means. The tape? That’s hardly a concern anymore. If Maxen had just stayed in Audubon where he belongs she doesn’t think she’d have given him a second thought. But her sire had offered him to her. Silver platter. All she has to do is deliver Caroline.

And she doesn’t want to, that’s the kicker. She doesn’t care about the bald boogey monster from her past anymore. She was finally happy. Finally free. For all that Lebeaux thinks this isn’t her sire finding another way to interfere in her life, Celia still has her doubts. And her grandsire had given her another out, another way forward. Still delivering Caroline, just in a less deadly way.

That’s all she is to them. A tool. A pawn. Someone else to use and manipulate into doing what they want.

Her Beast snarls at the thought. She’s more than that. She has to be.

“I don’t understand,” she admits, as if her inner debate had never happened. “Covering up the scandal hurt Isabel more than it did me.”

Easier, maybe, if she weren’t collared to someone else, if the bonds didn’t tug her half a hundred different directions. What is it like to have free will? She hasn’t known since she was nineteen.

Caroline: “You asked for help, for someone to help save you from the monster in your home, who tucked you in at night. And we threw you back to him.” She runs her tongue over her fangs.

“I told you, I meant everything I said. I regret that day.”

Celia: It takes her a moment to realize Caroline means Maxen and not Donovan. Her mind, as ever, is with the sire that stole her from her home. That kept her there. And he had tucked her in. Does Caroline know that? Know what happened when she was fourteen, when he’d carried her down the hall to her bedroom and told her that she was his special little girl?

“You’re hardly the only one to blame for that event.”

She’d been the one to sell out her family to her sire as soon as he asked.

Caroline: “Wouldn’t it be doing the exact same thing?” she asks.

Her expression softens, almost playful. “There’s nothing stylish about repeating yourself.”

Celia: “Why would you think that he sent me to do something to you?” She doesn’t say his name. She still isn’t sure if Caroline is bluffing. “He serves your sire, why would he want to hurt you?”

Fishing.

Caroline: Other than the fact that he probably arranged my death to lure the seneschal to his own?

“Does he? If so, he’s proven an incapable servant indeed over the last years.”

Celia: Celia wouldn’t know anything about that, though, if she’s as new as she pretends to be.

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“But he didn’t…” Celia falters. She’s as good as admitted that he’s her sire. What is he going to do if he finds out that Caroline knows? “He didn’t send me. When he found out I was there…”

She looks away again, closing her eyes briefly. The pain that flickers across her expression when she looks back to Caroline says it all: it was ugly.

Caroline: A flash of anger. She knows that expression intimately. She’s worn it plenty. She’s so tired of it.

How much of her hand to tip, though? Is this all just bait? A subtler knife?

The Toreador stares at her with those big eyes brown eyes, and they seem to pry secrets from her better than a crowbar.

“Then I imagine he was especially unhappy. I’m sorry.”

,An ally, perhaps? Can she turn the knife around?

“The night before I’d graduated from source of irritation to genuine problem. I think you know why.”

Celia: “I shouldn’t have been there,” Celia says quietly. Just like her mom: blaming herself. Her fault. Nothing would have come of it if she hadn’t let her libido get the best of her, either. She could have been in and out and Caroline wouldn’t have had any idea, and then when her sire came… well, no, she would have still be in trouble for going there.

Her fault.

She doesn’t know what to say to Caroline. The stories in her head become more muddled with every word she speaks.

“Nobody knows I exist. That I’m his.” The words pour out of her before she can stop them. Her eyes search the Ventrue’s face. “That’s why I’m not…” she gestures down at herself, the way she masks the Beast. “I’m just… hiding.”

A beat. Then,

“Are you going to tell?”

There it is. The heart of the matter: will Caroline turn her in for being the sheriff’s unknown childe, thereby sentencing them both to… well, she’s seen her sire’s sense of justice in that regard.

Caroline: “How little you must think of me,” Caroline answers.

She waits until the Toreador is about to speak again, before continuing, “That you think we need so many lies between us.”

Celia: That earns a smile from the Toreador, at least.

“Would you have me spill my soul to you, then?”

Caroline: “Maybe I would,” Caroline answers. “When you lie to everyone all the time, you either forget the truth or become the lie.”

Celia: “You wouldn’t need to turn me in, if I did.” There’s no sense of humor on her face. “He’d do it himself.”

Caroline: “So you spend your Requiem in fear of him, but also in thrall to him. You’re his pet. His tool. His slave.” Caroline’s voice is soft, almost gentle.

Celia: Her jaw tightens, but she doesn’t deny it. She jerks her chin down in an approximation of a nod.

Caroline: “Do you love him?”

Celia: “That’s… that’s… you can’t love someone like him.”

Caroline: The Ventrue arches a skeptical eyebrow.

Celia: “He doesn’t have feelings. Loving him would be… stupid.”

Caroline: A silent stare.

Celia: “He murdered me. He kept me in that house, knowing what my dad did. He was there the night he tried to kill my mom. With a hacksaw. He was there. He protected him.”

Caroline: The blonde nods, her attention entirely focused on Celia.

Celia: She breaks eye contact, dropping her gaze to the rooftop beneath her shoes. She finally nods. She blinks at her feet, red liquid threatening to spill out of her eyes.

“Yes,” she says.

“But it doesn’t matter. Because he doesn’t. He never will.”

Caroline: Caroline shakes her head in agreement.

“It’s just what they are.”

Celia: “Is it? They have to be that way? Or do they just choose to be?”

Caroline: “Would you love him if he wasn’t?” Caroline asks back.

Celia: “I suppose that depends on your view of Freud, and whether or not you think every girl grows up wanting to fuck her dad.”

Caroline: “A man just like him,” Caroline agrees.

Celia: “Is yours? Do you love him?”

Caroline: “We’re not even pawns on the board to them,” Caroline answers with more bitterness than she wants to admit.

After all, a pawn might someday become a queen.

Celia: There’s no prince on a chess board. She’s doing herself a disservice to forget that.

“Tools, like you said. Pets. Not even that.” Her voice is just as bitter. At least Savoy gives her affection. From her sire… nothing.

“He cares more about my father than he ever will me.”

“Why do it, then. Why create someone. If you’re just going to… throw them away.”

Caroline: Hadn’t she answered that already? They’re all broken in different ways. Even their sires.

She wishes she had a drink. Instead, she takes her eyes off the Toreador for a moment. She doesn’t want to look at her when she admits this.

“I’d hoped, when you didn’t strike me down at my mother’s home, that it was some act of rebellion. Defying his will. Showing that we were more than that, even if we weren’t to them.”

Stupid.

But then it has to start with someone, doesn’t it? She has every reason to bring this other fledgling forward. To stake her and deliver her as the irrefutable evidence of the sheriff’s treachery. The collar digs in tight around her throat. There’s a stake under the table. It wouldn’t be so difficult.

She tugs against it and her next words catch in her throat, like a dog at the end of her chain. Straining. Digging into her flesh as she tugs towards something she wants.

But she’s not just a fucking dog, is she? Isn’t she something more? Can’t she be something more?

Caroline Malveaux, her father’s dutiful daughter, is dead. She’s something more now, isn’t she? Caroline Malveaux-Devillers, and for all of her mother’s desire for her happiness, she knows too that she wants more for her daughter. Caroline didn’t even know the concessions she was making until she cataloged them, the list of everything he silently demanded of her. But she sees it now. And her mother is right.

The collar tugs, its chain tied to the far end of marble monolith, and she bleeds. But Caroline’s bled before. It chokes her, but she doesn’t need air. It makes her feel like she’s failing him, but she’s failed before. It makes her feel like she’s nothing, but he’s made her nothing before. The collar’s sharp edges do not bite into the tender flesh of her earliest nights, but calcified scars.

She doesn’t finish the thought to Celia. Doesn’t need to, because her next words give birth to it. She grips the table edge like she’s holding on for her life.

“Your secrets are safe with me.”

The words take something out of her, and just for a blink, Celia can see what’s behind the porcelain mask. The weariness. The exhaustion of dragging everything she’s supposed to be with her at all times. The cracks in the marble puttied over and faded paint haphazardly sprayed over in desecration of the beautiful thing once beneath.

It’s only a blink, though, and the moment is gone. Gone so quickly that it must make Celia wonder if it was only her imagination. The Ventrue stands there, tall, haughty, in control of everything around her. Poised and unbowed.

Celia: Celia remains blissfully unaware of the internal struggle that her very existence brings to Caroline. Blissfully unaware except for that single blink, gone in a flash. Not real. It can’t be. She’s the prince’s childe, why would she be anything less than the golden goddess Celia turned her into that evening at her mother’s house?

Roderick’s words come back to her, though. Powerful families. Sireless nobody. Bowing and scraping and trying to keep herself above it all. Arrogant. Her own words, too. Beaten, enslaved, humiliated.

Your secrets are safe with me.

It’s a risk. A big risk. But Caroline already knows the biggest one, doesn’t she: that Celia Flores is Donovan’s childe. Other people know Celia is dead, other people know Celia is Jade, but only a handful know about that. None of them part of the prince’s regime. None of them with any incentive to turn her in.

“He didn’t know,” she says again. She sounds surer this time, more secure in the truth that she speaks. “I wasn’t sent there. I went of my own volition. He didn’t send me there.”

There’s a pause. A brief pause, while she collects her thoughts.

“And I’m not interested in the rest of it. Hurting you. Killing you. Spying. Whatever you think this is, why I came. It was for you. Not for someone else.”

Caroline: For her.

What does that even mean? What the hell are they doing? Celia even admitted it, she’s in love with Donovan. Caroline knows better than anyone how impossible it is to break that kind of hold.

They’re both circling black holes, caught in the gravity, being drawn further and further in by their sires.

For you.

It’s a terrible idea, but maybe that’s why she likes it.

Celia has every reason to run away, and she didn’t. They both know there’s nowhere for this to go, both hopelessly enthralled to their sires. But here they are.

There’s no pathetic desperation like Jocleyn… or even like Caroline and her sire. Just… whatever this is. Whatever they are to each other.

“Would you like to step inside?”

Celia: It is a terrible idea. More than Caroline realizes. His demands weigh on her. His chain pulls at her. So easy, it would be so easy to use this, to find a way to twist this to her advantage, his advantage…

None of which keeps her from saying no.

She nods instead. Closes the distance between the pair of them, standing just in front of the Ventrue. Prince’s childe. Heiress. Daughter of a soul-eater. The biggest threat to her Requiem, but Celia holds out her hand.

“Yes.”

Caroline: Caroline is heedless of that danger. Maybe she assumes Celia is bound. Maybe she just doesn’t care.

The Ventrue takes the hand, but slides in close, slipping an arm around Celia’s hip.

She’s always like that.

The smile on her face as she leads Celia to the elevator is almost girlish.

Celia: Celia doesn’t complain. She’s probably the last lick in the city that will throw a fit over some casual touching. It’s easy to imagine getting used to this. Being on her arm, in her arms, whatever. Who else could she ever share this much of herself with? Celia falls into step beside her, tugged along by the hand on her hip—how did she know?—and the sheer presence of the Ventrue.

Into the lion’s den? God, she hopes not. Hopes this isn’t a mistake. A trap. Luring her inside to… well, she’s seen what their kind can do.

Caroline had said her secrets were safe. That means the rest of her is too, doesn’t it?

Caroline: The way to the elevator gives lie to the idea they were totally alone—there’s yet another ghoul waiting inside the clubhouse—but Caroline strolls without giving her a moment of attention. The doors to the elevator open and close behind them with the swipe of a keycard, but the moment they do Celia has Caroline’s undivided attention.

The prim Ventrue abandons her hold on the brunette’s hip and hand in favor of cupping Celia’s chin in both hands, turning her head up to meet Caroline’s demanding kiss, even as she all but body checks Celia into the wall her into the wall, the Ventrue grinding against her.

Celia: If she still had a need for such human frivolities, she might lose her breath at the assault. Back against the wall, Caroline pressing her into it, the forceful way she takes what she wants? Oh, yes, Celia is into it. It’s not the same as it was last time; there’s nothing shy about the way she responds. Mindful of cameras—don’t all elevators have cameras?—Celia keeps her fangs where they belong. But that’s it. The rest of her is eager, lips parting, hands sliding up the Ventrue’s body. One settles around her back, the other at the back of her head, pulling her further against Celia.

Caroline: Further against Celia, further into Celia, getting lost in her. There’s no need to break from the kiss, no need for such pretty kine things as breathing, and Caroline takes full advantage of it. Her fangs catch Celia’s tongue, and suddenly there’s the taste of blood in her mouth that Caroline can’t resist.

The elevator doors open. The elevator doors close. It takes a moment for Caroline to realize, for a hand to blindly snake back to mash buttons. The other snakes around Celia’s head to match the brunette’s own hold on her.

Celia: Caroline’s fangs pierce her tongue and a shudder runs down her entire body. Her dead flesh responds like a living person’s would: beneath her dress her nipples tighten, heat rises to her cheeks, and she makes a noise that is entirely human. She slides her hands down the Ventrue’s body, stroking and squeezing.

Caroline: Celia’s reaction electrifies Caroline, urges her on. It’s almost as though the other neonate is still alive. They don’t miss their stop this time, and Caroline practically drags Celia down the hall, still entwined with the Toreador, her feet nimbly dancing around obstacles with a deftness that seems more than human. That is more than human.

They arrive at the last door on the left, and Caroline brings them to a stop, Celia’s back against the door.

One hand snakes behind Celia, under her dress, rakes her back. The other frantically, almost frustratedly, works the door. She breaks the kiss, moves to Celia’s throat, and though fangs drag themselves across her skin, they draw no blood. Instead they settle for a far more human touch.

Celia: Celia totters after Caroline as best she can, her hands and lips busy upon the Ventrue’s body. The breath left in her lungs leaves her body in a woosh when Caroline slams her back against the door. Heedless of whatever audience lingers in the halls, Celia gives herself fully to the sensation of Caroline’s lips at her neck. Her head tilts to one side, throat exposed to the mouth and fang of the Ventrue that towers over her. Blood wells in the scratches down her back, dress hiked up over her hips to expose a pair of black panties.

Celia reaches a hand behind her back, searching for the doorknob. She wiggles it and it doesn’t move. Locked. A frustrated growl passes her lips; half a second later her hands are at Caroline’s shoulders and her entire body leaves the floor. She wraps her legs around the Ventrue’s waist and nips at her neck, her fangs leaving shallow cuts behind. She laps at the blood without even bothering to let it cool.

Caroline: Caroline arches her back in ecstasy as Celia’s fangs find her flesh. Seconds tick by as she continues to fight the door. Blood runs down the Toreador’s back, stains her dress. At last the door gives way and the two almost tumble in, Celia’s weight supported entirely by Caroline in a moment of weakness. For all her grace, she lacks the puissance of either of their sires.

She stumbles in, one hand slamming the door behind them, bouncing first off an empty counter, then off a pair of stools, and finally landing on top of Celia on the sprawling black leather sofa. The blonde pauses, looking down, long enough to slip either end of her dress off her shoulders, to slide her hands free of sleeves and let it fall around her belted hips.

Pale flesh and a strapless bra await Celia, as the Ventrue leans back in over her, arms free. She’s eager, demanding even, but not rough. That’s happened once before.

She knows the truth. Knows that neither of them is who the other really wants. She knows it somewhere deep down. Tonight, though, perhaps they’re enough. And if not, who’s to know? What’s the harm? They’re both slaves to their sires, enslaved by blood and their very beings the men who will never be what either wants or needs. And she needs something tonight.

Oscar Wilde said all sex was about power, but there’s nothing of it here. She neither wants power over Celia nor is willing to concede power to her. She needs something more fundamental than even her sex drive.

One hand traces up Celia’s leg, bunching her dress above her hips even as they slide under her panties as they slide across the Toreador’s perfect skin. The other hand buries itself in the girl’s dark hair, traces the pint of her chin. She’s like a reflection of Caroline through a darker mirror in so many ways.

Maybe that’s what draws her in, what consumes her in Celia. What drives her lips back to the Toreador tenderly, her hands to caress her, what makes so shy her fangs. What pulls her eyes to Celia’s own eyes. She wants to see something in Celia. Needs to see something in Celia. Something she can’t see in herself.

Celia: It might be a giggle, the high-pitched noise that comes out of her as Caroline stumbles through the door with Celia in her arms. Someone had told her once that laughing during sex isn’t funny, but someone else had said it’s one of the most intimate things people can do together: laugh during a time when two people are extremely vulnerable. She doesn’t see the path of destruction in their wake, the scattered items, the stool that crashes to the ground, but she pictures it clearly in her mind, and it brings a moment of levity to an otherwise frantic situation.

Frantic? No, that’s not right. Sprawled across the couch, her back covered in blood and scratches, her dress destined for the garbage bin, that may have been. But now? …slowing. Tender. Not ripping and tearing and snarling. Stroking, caressing, the Ventrue’s fingers soft against her. She leans into that touch, mimics it with her own.

Her fingers start at her shoulders and work lower, slide around the back of her, reach for the hooks that keep her contained. At her touch they pop free, and Celia drops the material to the side. Bare from the waist up. It’s a beautiful sight. She is a beautiful sight. Poised, strong, steady; she wants to know what it was that Caroline had to conquer, what earthquakes she weathered, what scars weave their tapestry across her back, because there is no star without the collapse of a nebula. But here she stands, shining as brightly as any sun.

Pervert, they call her, and Caroline learns the truth of it when she finds the Toreador wet. Her eyes rake the blonde’s form, taking it all in; a shiver runs down her spine. Anticipation. Need. More than that, though: want. Someone who knows the truth of her. The full truth, not the carefully concocted lies and half-truths she shares with everyone else, but the honest, raw, awful truth—that she’s in love with the monster who ruined her family and murdered her. That she’d give him everything, if only he opened his mouth to ask for it.

Two sires whose childer were accidents, that’s the truth of it. Two girls who grew up with dads that never loved them the way they needed to be loved. Two women who want more than the hand they’ve been dealt. One manipulated by a knife, the other a smile. A mirror, a coin, an echo; a flame and her shadow, perhaps. Dark and light: there is not one without the other.

Celia traces Caroline’s face with her hands, her thumb across the brow, the cheekbone, her lips. She lifts up off the couch to press her lips against the blonde’s, fangs hidden away inside her mouth.

Caroline: Gentle. Soft. Tender, even. So very different than sex with other vampires, than even their first coupling.

Does it help or hurt that they both wish it was someone else with them there? Someone so very different than each of their current partners. Ultimately, Caroline doesn’t care.

She loses herself in Celia’s lips, in the roam of her hands across the Toreador’s body. She finds the secret between her legs with a spike of curiosity, then a surge of satisfaction, and perhaps a bit of jealousy as she discovers its effect on Celia.

One hand finds its home there, even as she nips Celia’s writhing tongue with her fangs, thrilling as the taste of the Toreador’s vitae fills her mouth.

Celia: There’s a sound she makes that’s too close to human to fit in with the idea of normal vampire sex. A delicate inhale of breath as Caroline moves her hand between her legs, then a shudder that travels down her entire body. Even the foundation doesn’t do its job in keeping her cheeks from turning pink as Caroline discovers this last secret of hers.

Her back arches, mouth pulling away from the Ventrue for one long moment as the inhale turns into a shaky, needful sound. Not the hissing and spitting and growling that Caroline might have come to expect; no, Celia seems all too alive for that sort of reaction.

Fangs, though, like all the rest of their kind, and when she leans in again they find purchase on Caroline’s skin. She bites, drinks, and licks a series of cuts across her chest until her mouth fastens around the tip of one breast. She loses herself to the taste of thick, potent blood on her tongue.

Caroline: Caroline pulls her close, loses herself in the ecstasy of Celia’s kiss, even as the Beast rolls inside, growls as she takes from her. She bottles that up, bottles up the Beast so she can be ‘just’ the woman. So she can pretend this tenderness means something.

A moment where she can pretend that they’re not two undead monsters that thrive on pain and suffering, two killers without conscience and a trail of bodies, and two slaves without hope or future—all too happy to wear their chains.

It’s not rebellion if their sires don’t know. It’s not betrayal if their feelings don’t matter. It’s not monstrous if they keep the monsters locked in the cage of their souls.

Celia: Of course it means something.

It has to mean something.

They’re not ripping and snarling and tearing. They’re just… two girls on a couch, both of them trying to figure it out, to get around whatever ties bind them to their sires, to their families, to their respective factions. Two girls dancing to someone else’s tune, pulled along by someone else’s strings, because… because fuck being anything other than a pawn, maybe.

So their Beasts rattle their cages. And the women beat them back so that they can have this one moment together where it’s just about them. What they like. What they want. Soft and sweet.

Caroline: They don’t make it past the couch, but it’s just as well. It’s expensive. It’s comfortable. Her bed is both of those things as well, but it’s also large. Sprawling, even. The couch isn’t so large, and when they’ve exhausted each other there’s nowhere they can get away from each other.

Caroline ends up on her back eventually, Celia pulled tightly against her. An intimacy that makes the Beast uneven, but there’s nowhere else for Celia to go, not on the couch. They can’t get away from each other here.

One hand runs idly through Celia’s hair.

Celia: Celia snuggles contentedly against the golden-haired girl beneath her. Her Beast is quiet in its cage, sated on blood, and Caroline’s fingers bear the evidence of the other girl’s enjoyment as well. Celia moves her lips against her throat, lingering in the moment with whisper soft kisses on her skin.

Peace settles across her like a warm blanket on a cold night. Or is she the warm blanket to Caroline’s cold skin?

She’d always thought herself more as fire than ice.

She could say something. Should say something. But what does one say after something like this? How does she put it into words? ‘This was nice’ lacks her usual eloquence. But it is. Nice.

What a silly thought from the silly Toreador.

Caroline: Maybe that’s why Caroline is content to lay in silence, not even the sound of someone’s breathing to disturb them. What is there to say?

But silence cannot persist forever. Both have others that have laid claim to them. She would take the time they have left.

“They’re taking me away soon.”

Celia: Celia shifts, lifting her chin so that she can look upon Caroline’s face.

“Are you in trouble?”

She can get her out. She knows people. Knows plenty of people. Can change her face. Give her a new identity. She’s leaving for L.A. soon anyway, just… take Caroline with her.

Caroline: A smile. Is it a sad smile?

“The opposite, I think. I’ve done well. Done everything they asked and then some. Enough that I no longer have to wander the desert and hide who I am.”

Celia: “Oh.”

How is it possible that a single syllable, nothing more than the sound of a letter, carries so much emotion? Loss. Longing. And… yes, underneath it all, jealousy. She’ll be recognized as the prince’s childe. She’ll get whatever that means in terms of respect from others of their kind. And Celia will… stay in the shadows, where no one knows who she is, and watch it all happen from a comfortable distance.

“Like for training?”

Caroline: Training. Like for a dog. She supposes that isn’t entirely wrong.

“My sire, I’m told, has extremely high standards. Standards I am expected to meet before I can be introduced to polite society.”

She sounds… almost melancholic at the idea.

“This has been the worst year of my life. They killed me, ruined me in the eyes of the world, made me worse than a nobody. And the worst part wasn’t all the things they did to me, or that were done to me… it was knowing that it should be better. That there was another path.”

She looks at Celia. “I could live with being a failure, in its own way. But to be his failure?”

“You know?”

Celia: She does know. She knows the things they say about Caroline. The way Roderick speaks of her. The way the Anarchs see her. The mess she has made of her Requiem these past few months.

She knows, too, what it feels like to be a failure in her sire’s eyes.

“I do. I always…” she pauses. Maybe it’s the collar telling her it’s safe. Maybe it’s the body beneath her, what they just shared. Maybe she’s just so tired of lying and just wants someone she can talk to and just be her. Just be Celia.

“I always wondered what it would be like if I wasn’t… if I didn’t have to hide who I am. If he told people I belonged to him. If he taught me… anything.”

There’s another brief pause.

“I think it’s a good sign, though. That they’re taking you away. So you can be what they want, or need, or… better now than… than never, isn’t it?”

Caroline: “You could have that for yourself,” Caroline muses. “If you came forward, you elevate yourself in a single swoop.”

“But never as high as he might raise you… and the cost would be him. I had that choice. Your grandsire offered it to me, in so many words.”

She bites her lip. “I wanted to. To spit in his face, declare myself before everyone and scream, demand to know why he didn’t want me enough. Why it was better to abandon me.”

“But I couldn’t do that any more than you can.”

Silence. A knowing silence.

“And now I’m going away, and this nightmare ends. Faith rewarded, fidelity rewarded. He made me his.”

“There were times this year when I considered just ending it all, stepping into the sun.”

“And yet… though I hated it. Though I despised it and everything it made me—a groveling whore to half a hundred petty tyrants—I think in some ways I’ll miss it.”

“I wasn’t ever free—not really. They always stood over me, ready to snuff out my flame if even its direction changed in the wind, but I think flying around the locked room, even with the net armed man watching, even with the pain of bouncing off of things I didn’t understand, was the closest I’d ever been to being free, the farthest I’d ever been from the cage.”

Celia: The cost would be him.

It’s a price she’ll never pay. Not him. Anything else, but not him.

But that’s not true, is it? She’d spat in his face last time he’d come to her. Turned him down. And she’s doing it again, here and now, as she lies with Caroline on the couch. Maybe she isn’t as attached to him as she once thought. Maybe Caroline’s freedom can be her freedom, too.

“It’s a change from the mortal life. The Requiem. A difference in what is expected from us. Their rules… they chafe, sometimes, and it scares me—what someone could do with the right whisper in the wrong ear—but it’s… I can understand what you mean about the freedom. Part of it, but above it. You were living, in those moments, for you. Not him. Not them. Just you. Figuring it out on your own. Making your own mistakes. Winning your own victories.”

Jealousy again. Even though he had abandoned her, she had still always been his.

“Do you think they’ll put you back in the cage?”

Caroline: “For a while, for a brief while before I learned the truth,” Caroline agrees. “When I was free to be proud of what I carved out, rather than weighing it against what he would say of it. I could say to myself, ‘no one could do better.’ Now I know what he would say, ‘I expect better.’”

She gives a short, bitter little laugh. “Like a child proud of their macaroni picture right up until they see the disappointment in their parent’s eyes.”

Not that she knows anything about that. Or of trophies scoffed at. Or report cards ignored. Praise was faint and she contented herself with silence: it was better than the alternative.

“Do they ever have to put us in the cage?” Caroline answers. “Don’t we hop back in like eager birds able to return home?”

Celia: “When I was nineteen I stood up against my father. You saw the result of that. The tape that was leaked. And that might have been the worst of what he had done, but it wasn’t the only thing he had done. Nights prior, when he was arrested? He beat me bloody. He locked me my bedroom, took out the mattress so I had nothing to sleep on, and promised to do it again the next night if I didn’t admit… if I didn’t admit that I was stupid. My siblings sat and watched him do it. None of them said anything. No one ever stood up for me. And I broke my arm going out the second floor window so I could get out.”

She doesn’t need to shift or blink or clear her throat. She’s dead. But she does all three regardless.

“While I was waiting at the hospital… and later, when he took my mom and… and tortured her, and I saw what he did to her, I wondered if I could have prevented it. If I had just gone back like a good girl, and told him I was sorry, and that I am… that I was stupid. He won anyway, didn’t he? Got off.”

She makes a bitter sound. A laugh, maybe. Short and choked.

“I never went back. I looked at that life, at what he wanted from me, what he wanted me to be, all the… the monsters that kept him safe, and I walked away. How could I not? How could I submit myself to what he wanted after seeing what he truly is?”

“And then… and then he comes along, and he… snaps his fingers and tells me to jump, and I go on leaping, and I wonder… would he like me more if I didn’t? Would they like us more if we went on carving out a place for ourselves, or will they only ever see us as pawns and tools?”

“What if we didn’t go back in the cage? What if we stopped being the tamed birds and just… flew away?”

Caroline: “What if,” Caroline muses quietly.

But they’re not words of wishful thinking. The very idea makes her almost sick to her stomach. It tears at her thoughts—like the cornerstone of her carefully created home getting ripped out with all the rest to collapse on her.

Run away? Flee her sire, her responsibilities. Would it be to accept being something less than she could be or to seek something greater than she ever will be? She doesn’t know if she physically could, but she knows a deeper truth.

It’s there, half formed and obvious only by the crimson color. She sits in the silence and stillness only the damned can for a long moment.

Finally, she draws a breath. “Domesticated. It’s a sweet word for a bitter truth.” Her face contorts for a moment, an ugly grief threatening to tear a sob from her, but the sound never comes. Instead she forces it to stillness and continues.

“I never wanted to fly. I never learned.” Her voice cracks, almost choked. “And now I never will.”

Celia: Celia goes so far as to blink at the words. She shifts, lifting a hand to touch the side of Caroline’s face. Fingers against her cheek, the pads of them soft against her skin. Warm fingers, still so full of life; how bad can she really be if she’s still so… human?

Perhaps the frosty severity of her sire hasn’t rubbed off on her. Maybe there is something inside of her that rebels at imagined orders given by the dark one. Maybe his brutality has not crushed whatever spirit stays alive within her heart; maybe even his chill cannot quench her fire. Difficult to imagine a less fitting childe to the city’s sheriff.

Perhaps this is why he does not acknowledge her.

Or perhaps it’s for the reason Caroline guessed earlier, and Celia is just the pretty wrapping paper that hides the blade.

When was the last time the Ventrue left herself so vulnerable?

“They want us in the cage. To look pretty behind the bars. To eat what they tell us, when they tell us, how they tell us. To make pretty little songs for them. Happy noises, little toy. And on we go, chirp, chirp, chirping. Even the wild ones follow the leader. The Vs, you’ve seen them. Back and forth across the world. Same route, year after year.”

“So they beat us and threaten us and humiliate us until we fall in line.”

Celia locks her gaze upon the Ventrue.

“They broke our wings and forgot that we have claws.”

The knife never comes. Not for Caroline. It twists inside of Celia instead, buried up to the hilt where her heart should be. Phantom fingers squeeze her throat, threatening to choke her, warning her to stay silent, that she’s doing it wrong… but the words keep coming.

“You,” Celia whispers to the dead girl, “are Caroline Malveaux-Devillers. Daughter of two influential families, childe of the prince of New Orleans. If you want to learn how to fly there is absolutely nothing that will stand in your way.”

There’s no moment of hesitation. Nothing to suggest that she’s shy, uncertain, or faltering. Not now that the fire has been lit.

Celia finds her feet. Naked, bloody, she stands before Caroline with claw marks down her back and red stains on her skin. A mess. But a beautiful mess, for all that her wild mane of hair has pulled free from the confines of the tie to curl down her back and around her face.

“Come with me.”

Celia extends a hand.

Caroline: The choking near sob dries up as Celia speaks, replaced by an almost wistful, sad smile.

Caroline looks at the hand and Celia can almost see the old order trying to reassert itself. The Ventrue call to decorum. The Malveaux drive to dominion.

Why show vulnerability here, to this childe of her enemy? To her enemy?

But she knows why: Donovan already thinks so little of her there’s nothing to lose. She’s neither losing face nor burdening her family. Not her mother, not her sister, with the truth. There’s an honesty to not having to put on any masks between them: the lines are well-drawn.

“Don’t you see, though? That’s it: they didn’t have to break my wings or beat me, or even force me in the cage. I hopped in eagerly, bowed before him joyously. I just didn’t expect him to weld the cage closed.”

“It’s not like your sire’s. What he did was forever. Long after he is laid to rest I’ll still be in the cage, alone, singing for the memory of him.”

She brings Celia’s offered hand to her lips, kisses the top of it softly.

Not that she wouldn’t have been singing that song anyway.

Celia: Dead muscles don’t get tired. Celia doesn’t need to let the hand drop; it stays extended in the air between them even after Caroline’s lips brush against her skin.

Not like your sire’s. What does that mean? His cage? The… hold over her?

Realization dawns, though her body does not betray her thoughts. Not until she swallows, looks down, and finally makes a noise that might be a laugh. One corner of her lips quirk upward.

“How silly,” she says at length, “that they weld shut the cages and forget that there are keys and shovels and dynamite.”

Her fingers close around Caroline’s, but she doesn’t tug. She won’t drag the Ventrue out of her self-imposed captivity.

“Come with me,” she says again, “I want to show you something.”

Caroline: The Ventrue allows herself to be drawn from the sofa by the Toreador, her bare skin pale in the darkness.

“Where are we going?”

Celia: “Upstairs.”


Sunday night, 13 March 2016, AM

Celia: They have to dress first, and clean the worst of the blood off of them. Celia spends a minute mending the raw, jagged marks Caroline had left on her skin. Her dress, shredded, is unfortunately unsalvageable, but she borrows something from the taller girl to cover her nudity and the pair make it to the roof in mere moments. The hem of her borrowed pants drag the floor even after she has rolled them, and the shirt looks more like a tunic than a tee. Still, she makes it work, like a kid in her mother’s clothes.

Barefoot, Celia leads the way across the roof to where the railing keeps the kine contained within the confines of the safety zone. But Celia doesn’t stop. One leg and then the other slide across the metal railing, until she’s perched on the small strip of steel that keeps her from plummeting to the cement waiting stories below.

She stands with her back to the railing, staring out across the city. The people are not so far away to be like ants from up here—and there are few enough to be found this time of night—but the fall would shatter anyone. The moon lights her profile when she turns her face to one side, watching Caroline from the corner of her vision.

“I didn’t tell you what he did,” she remarks after a moment. Her eyes unfocus slightly, as if recalling the events of that night. “He knows where my mother lives. Where I live… where I stay. He heard that I had trespassed and wanted to teach me a lesson. What are the kine to those like us? Just lessons.”

She blinks. Her lips twist in bitter mockery of a smile.

“You gave me a gift that night. Without it, I wouldn’t have been fast enough to catch up when he threw her from the roof.”

Celia extends a hand to Caroline.

“I’d like to return the favor.”

Caroline: Celia’s words turn Caroline’s stomach. Taught her a lesson. Using her mother.

Caroline wonders if she’s lying to her, making it up, but it’s so very believable. Wasn’t the bishop willing to destroy Orson just to make a point with Caroline? And Orson is a far more useful pawn than the broken and forgotten dance teacher.

Just lessons. Or toys. Or pets.

She supposes in the eyes of her sire few kine are worth more than a properly trained childe. Whatever she thinks of Donovan’s loyalty, the two have always felt cut from the same cloth.

“Is she all right?”

Why does she care? Isn’t Celia her enemy?

Perhaps, but that doesn’t make her mother one. And she’s seen Donovan’s lessons firsthand.

Or maybe the idea of dead mothers just sits particularly poorly with her tonight. She’s slain one and seen another beheaded this week — both memories seared into her mind, still raw and throbbing.

Celia: “I kept her from splattering, if that’s what you mean. Got her home. Put her back to bed.”

The extended hand finally drops. Maybe this is stupid. Maybe there’s nothing here, maybe they’re not as similar as she thinks. Maybe their similarities ended when they died.

Maybe Caroline is just another lick who sees Celia as stupid but pretty, and she’s taken what pleasure she can from the girl.

“She got sick,” Celia hears herself say. “From the rain. The cold. The nightmare. I wasn’t… I wasn’t there for her.” A breath comes in. Shaky. Her fingers curl around the top of the railing.

“Daddy was, though.”

Caroline: Caroline knows better than most how real the animosity is between Celia and her father. Animosity that goes back years, to before their Embraces. She knows the truth about the tape — that it was oh so real. Knows the monster he is, and how far the mortal Celia was willing to go.

It would be a long way to go, make that trade in her life, just to get closer to Caroline.

No, it feels… real.

Callously threaten the kine she cares about, then wrap coils around them, slowly squeeze. It’s not just about punishment. It’s also about control. Yes, their sires are not so different.

“He’ll kill her eventually, you know. It’s only a matter of time.”

They can’t have anything else so important in their lives.

“You should get her out while you can. If you can.”

Celia: “Bleak.”

True though, isn’t it? There are a handful of people she cares about and he’s familiar with each and every one of them. The noise that she makes might be called a giggle if there weren’t a hysterical edge to it.

“Emily stabbed him. Maxen, I mean. When she saw him in bed with Mom.” Her face turns again, fixing her eyes on Caroline. There’s nothing insincere about the wariness that borders on fear. “I’ve been waiting for him to show up and do something about it. But it’s been…” she trails off. “Nights. And nothing.”

“They won’t leave.”

And I don’t want to be alone. Selfish. She could push harder.

“Is that what you’re doing, with yours? Getting them out? So yours can’t… turn them into lessons?”

Caroline: Caroline’s smile doesn’t reach her eyes, an empty thing. “Didn’t I? Cut away my father, my brothers, more. That ruin did not come from carelessness.”

Celia: “The girls, I meant. Your mom.”

The inhuman one. Who knows how much of a lie that had been; ghosts dancing through dreams with her hardly need to tell the truth.

Caroline: The Ventrue’s expression turns positively wolfish in every possible sense, eyes narrowed, cheeks pulled tight, her perfectly white teeth exposed in a way that leaves no doubt of their vicious potential.

“A good Sanctified can have no attachments to their kine family. It’s my blessing then that I have none.”

There’s a glimmer in her eyes, the mischievous savagery of a fox let loose in the chicken coop that’s almost a smile.

Celia: The look is enough to make her glance away.

“Right,” she finally says to the open air. Then, “Convenient that the catechisms so closely mirror the Traditions. Less for the laity to confuse.”

Except for how Caroline hovered over the child when Celia did her makeup that night. But she doesn’t bring it up.

She’d lie about her family, too. Does so now, even.

She waits a beat.

“You’re right, though.”

Caroline: The Ventrue shrugs, the tension leaving her shoulders. “There’s a great deal of wisdom shared by different belief systems. I may hold it originates from God, but whether you share that belief, I’d as soon you accept it for what it is.”

“You have to come to terms with it. Something is going to take her from you. Whether its your own actions, your sire’s, or time. As one of the kine there’s no future for the two of you.”

Caroline approaches the lip where Celia waits, effortlessly tiptoeing to it alongside her. After the fall from grace, a fall from the building doesn’t scare her.

She lays a hand on the Toreador’s shoulder. “That doesn’t make it easy to accept, and some ways of losing them are easier for them, and others easier for us.”

Celia: “Self-imposed isolation,” Celia muses. “It wreaks havoc on the psyche, you know, to be alone like they want us. No one to turn to. No one to trust. Cut your mortal ties, rely on the system, let them be the hands that guide you…”

It’s a cult.

Like any religion.

Make a list of the characteristics of each and you’ll get the same words. It keeps the people in charge powerful and the “others” disenfranchised and marginalized.

But it’s not what she came up here to talk about. Her fingers close around where the Ventrue’s rest on her shoulder.

“And one day… one day I’ll lose her. And my siblings. My daughter. I’d lose them anyway. Everyone dies. Can you blame me for holding onto it while I can?”

Caroline: A sympathetic smile greets her. “When I said you should get them out of you can, I didn’t just mean if you physically could.”

“Not everyone is as fortunate as I am, and whatever I might counsel, I could never judge another Kindred for their attachments. Some lessons you have to learn for yourself… and even then, some costs are worth paying. Something about those without sin throwing the first stone.”

She gives a short, sad laugh. “Most Kindred like to forget that part.”

Celia: She might afford the words more weight if she hadn’t managed the juggling act already for seven long years. What’s the worst that could happen?

Not that she can share. No one is supposed to know about Celia.

“One more thing to add to the long list of things to figure out,” she says instead. “Lying to them has been… both more difficult and easier than I anticipated.”

Celia finally turns. She shouldn’t, but she does. One hand stays on the railing, back to the open air and the long drop. The other stays steady on Caroline’s. Once, it might have scared her. Now, though, she’s more nervous about a different sort of leap.

“It would be nice to have someone with whom I don’t have to pretend.”

Caroline: “I think that’s what knights and generals of old waxed about poetically,” the blonde answers, her hair catching in the wind over the long drop.

“It’s easier to have no lies when there are no expectations.”

“You and your sire are the only ones that won’t think less of me for the truth.”

Celia: “I don’t know what you mean. Which truth is that?”

Caroline: “That I have doubts. Fears. Insecurities.” She smiles, looking out over the city.

“That neither my love for him nor the bond to him blinds me to what he’s done to me.”

“To him, to all the city, to all Ventrue, to all Sanctified, to all the world I must be the perfect childe. Flawless.” She turns to Celia, half her face cast in shadow.

And yet, Celia can still hear it. In the way Caroline says it. Him. The only ‘him’ in her life.

Celia: Flawless.

Her lips twist, bitterness crossing her features before they smooth once more. She knows well of what Caroline speaks. The same ideal she has pursued these long nights of her Requiem, though the closer she thinks she has come the further away it dances, always out of reach.

“It’s a heavy burden, I think, to be the childe of an elder, let alone a prince. The stiffs expect no less than perfection from their childer.” Her shoulders lift.

“And yet… and yet he chose you for a reason. Embraced you for a reason. I have not met him, I admit, but does anyone that age choose their progeny lightly? Accidents seldom spring from their blood. They are not kine that they make a mistake, forget a pill, and whoops, there’s a childe.”

“We’re young. We want their approval. The father figures we never had.” Her grip on the rail tightens, knuckles white. “I do. Insecurity, fear, doubt… I know it well.”

Caroline: Caroline’s faint laugh is like breaking glass when Celia speaks of chosen progeny, but she says nothing.

The wind catches her white dress, whipping it around her as she lets Celia’s admission hang in the air.

“Well, there’s your truth. As alone as our suffering makes us, we’re not alone in our suffering.”

Celia: She doesn’t know if that laughter is directed at her or with her. Heat rises to her cheeks, dead though they are. Her gaze drops.

“That hardly makes us less lonely. I still want what I’ll never have.”

Caroline: “It’s not Vidal,” Caroline says after a moment.

“Everyone assumes he’s bound to the prince, but he’s not. It’s someone else. Someone got to him first.”

Her eyes meet Celia’s. “I don’t know if you knew. I don’t know if it helps.”

Celia: There’s a fist around her heart. She’d never even considered it, that their shared blood hadn’t cast a hold over him. Just the once they’d shared, a second time the night the truth of Caroline came out… she remembers the blood on his lips when he’d finished kissing her.

What had he done instead?

“Who.”

What does that even mean? If he’s not bound to her, why come for her? Why protect her? Why kiss her?

Every time. Every time she has seen him he has kissed her. Just once they took it further, but even before that… she well recalls the feel of his lips on hers. The insistent, cold way he demands her attention, her affection, her… everything.

Is that all pretend? Or is her secret fantasy, her dawning realization at her father’s words, based more in reality than she dares hope?

Caroline: The Ventrue shakes her head, blonde hair streaming in the breeze.

“Someone playing a longer, deeper game.”

Does she tip her hand?

Celia: A name tugs at her memory. It never meant anything. She’d never looked into it. Not enough. She hadn’t known how to, not without betraying… everything. She still doesn’t know if he meant to show her, or if she had simply taken it.

“How do you know?”

Caroline: “He and I are tied together.”

“Quite unintentionally, and undesirably, he set me on this path.”

There’s a fluttering laugh. “Or at least he thinks he did.”

Celia: “You’re tied together,” she echoes. There’s a pang inside her chest. A desire to throw the girl from the roof. Jealousy, that ugly brute, comes snarling to the surface.

She beats it back. Pushes it down. Keeps her nails from shredding through the blonde’s face.

Of course there are others. But she knows—he’d told her, hadn’t he? She knows the truth. Part of the truth.

Why won’t anyone tell her the truth?

Her brow furrows at the final words.

“What do you mean?”

Caroline: "That I should have died a meaningless kine in every sense of the word. A means to an end for him. "

“But that end went unfulfilled, because he chose poorly his kine. Or another chose well where their to lay their feather’s weight upon the scale.”

Celia: “I’m not familiar with the story,” she admits. Her shoulders lift once more, almost a shrug, the apology in her eyes. She’s not even lying.

Caroline: “You should ask him, about the night I was made. The night he called in his marker with René. The night they carried me into the Dungeon.”

Celia: She doesn’t mean to huff, but the sound escapes her lips before she can stop it.

“He’s so very forthcoming.”

A pause, then her brows lift.

“Isn’t the Dungeon a sex club?”

Caroline: The Ventrue almost shivers, but shakes her head. “Only to the Masquerade.”

“The Dungeon is a place for Kindred and kine connoisseurs of agony, explorers of the furthest reaches of experience. The rapists finished with their mothers and daughters, the murderers jaded of strangling their victims with their own guts.”

“For sadists, it’s a paradise. An orgy of flesh in which they can subject victims to things beyond imagination, with each descent into a lower level a trip beyond the possible into a new realm of agony.”

“The further you go, the more divorced time and even reality become from what you see and experience, and the more divorced the lines between victim and victimizer become.”

“If you go far enough down, it’s a hell from which not even death can release you, in which time has no meaning, your suffering is without end, and in which all reality becomes subjective.”

“Are you the crying child being ripped from their mother’s womb or the mother screaming as she’s sawed open from twat to sternum? Are you the skin suit on the rack being pulled apart or the flayed mass of writhing flesh on the floor slow roasting over coals? Are you the teeth chewing on your raw flesh or raw flesh being devoured? It doesn’t matter, because you’ll be all those things, and it will not stop, ever.”

Celia: Everything clicks into place.

It’s Hell.

The Hell inside his mind.

She’s thought it was a different time, a different place, but as Caroline speaks the words wash over her, drowning her in visions of the past. High above the city. Safe, she’d once thought; but she had been there. Inside of him. Brought into his mind, into the horror within, the vile wretchedness that had made her sanity slowly slip away.

She had seen him. His truth. His… master.

It’s here.

This city.

Beneath her feet.

Blocks from her home.

“Please,” she whispers. She reaches, groping blindly for the girl in front of her, the girl he wants her to destroy. The girl with the answers. The enemy. His enemy. But her salvation. The desires of her sire and grandsire fade away when the answers dangle themselves in front of her, nothing but insignificant moves and countermoves that pale in comparison to what she desires.

Set him free. That’s what she wants, isn’t it? And if this Dungeon is not the sex club it professes to be, if what Caroline says is the truth, if he serves a different sort of monster…

She’d seen the truth that night, never realizing what it meant. The name dances across her heart. The marquis.

Demon. Monster. Master. It’s all tangled together, and she… where does she fit in?

He’s stuck. Captive. Like so many others who get caught up in a game of more powerful pieces.

She can free him.

That’s what she thinks, isn’t it? Why he’d chosen her. Embraced her. The sickness—the demon—had spread to her father, to his other childe, to the ghouls of his that have no souls. Paul, with his plastic smile. Jamal, with the anger in his eyes. And the mimic. The empty thing that pretends to be him.

But not her. She’s still… her. Half-alive, someone had once sneered, with a heart that beats and feels and loves. Even without the collar, even without his blood on her lips, she loves.

Coco had told her it was rare. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

It’s like every twisted fairy tale she’d ever seen growing up.

She reaches for Caroline. Reaches, because her knees threaten to give, and the ground is suddenly so far away, and right here—right here—these are the answers she needs.

He loves her. He had saved her. Had hunted for her. Killed for her.

Can she do any less for him?

“There’s a demon.” Urgent, whispered words. Stupid. She sounds stupid. The coppery, tangy scent of blood wafts from where the tiny droplets pool in the corners of her eyes, threatening to fall. Her mask slips.

“If he’s… if it has him…”

There’s no one else to talk to about it. How could there be? She’s been lying since before she died.

Caroline: Caroline stares at the crying girl latched onto her with a knowing expression.

She nods. “You know what he serves.” Her mother had called it a thing that God could not permit to desecrate the very earth it walked on.

“Bury that deep. It’s a secret he’d kill to keep. Has killed to keep.”

She considers, then continues, “It’s possible to break free. Not easy, but possible. But not so long as that thing is here to rule over him.”

Celia: Celia wipes at her eyes. Her hands come away bloody. She swallows, the motion useless. All it does is show the frayed edges of her nerves.

“He doesn’t know that I know. I don’t even…” she trails off, shakes her head. “He’s in there. He’s in there, I know he is.”

He cares about her. Has proven that he does. It’s not something she can say, not something she can share, that the city’s cold, scary sheriff has a weakness in his armor and its name is Celia. Even the thought makes her look away. Another stupid fairy tale.

She waits a beat. Another. Pushes the emotions down. Dries her bloody tears. And finally looks back to Caroline.

“Then I’ll find it.” She sets her jaw. “And I’ll kill it.”

Caroline: Caroline rolls her tongue across her fangs.

“Vidal.” The word sends a shiver through her. “He defeated it twice before. There’s a reason it has used your sire to cut him down, that they’re trying so hard to drive him into torpor.”

Celia: The name almost makes her shiver, though for an altogether different reason than Caroline.

“Then why isn’t it dead? Why is it here?

Caroline: “An excellent question that perhaps your sire could answer.” Caroline replies.

Celia: “It would be the last thing I’d ever do, asking that.”

Caroline: Caroline laughs lightly. “Something else we have in common.”

Celia: “Realistic expectations of my sire?”

“Not him,” Celia continues after a moment. She looks as if she wants to pace, but the edge of the roof is too narrow for her to try. Not that she’s afraid of falling. Not anymore. “The results of that would be disastrous. But maybe… maybe someone else. Someone who has been there. Who knows, even if they don’t know they know.”

Caroline: Caroline flashes a wry smile at Celia’s joke, balancing effortlessly on the edge beside her.

“That’s a path you’ll have to walk alone, but you can find them, can bring them forward, I can pull it out of their mind.” She flashes a fang-filled smile. “I’m very good at it.”

Celia: “I thought the stiffs were better at hiding things,” Celia says, amused. She can’t help but think back to their meeting in the Garden District, her mother’s addled memories. “I was going to say that I’m very familiar with ways of making them sing.”

She shares a conspiratorial smile, the tips of her fangs just barely visible behind her lips.

“You’d be amazed what comes out on the spa table… so I suppose that means between us no secret is safe.”

Her smile falters, dims just slightly.

“Your memory manipulation,” she says after a second, “have you ever known it to cause… visions? Of the future?”

Caroline: Caroline might be less shocked than Celia thinks: it’s amazing what she’s heard other girls talk about to hairdressers.

She frowns at Celia’s question, then shakes her head. “No. Maybe some obscure devotion might, but I’ve only ever been able to deal with the past and present, and even then I’m not as skilled as some are. I can only play with the memory itself, not the underlying feelings.”

“That’s where unsubtle licks screw it up, actually, trying to superimpose memories that don’t match the target’s emotional state. It’s why, for instance, I left your mother with the memory of me with Autumn instead of wiping the slate clean. If I’d papered it over, it would have left a mental scab she might have picked at. Honestly, she still might with what I left. She might ask herself why my being ‘homosexual’ set her off so badly.”

She flashes a strained smile. “Best case, she simply attaches it to mixed feelings about her bigotry.”

Celia: Celia nods at the explanation, though it does little to set her at ease.

“She… had a vision,” Celia says slowly, “after we left. In your driveway, she started crying about falling, and Maxen taking Lucy away from us.” A brief pause. “She did fall. My sire saw to that. I had just wondered if losing my daughter is something I need to be worried about, or if she was simply hysterical. He has recently re-entered my… orbit.”

Caroline: Caroline arches an eyebrow. She knows who lays claim to her father. “It’s more likely that it set off previous trauma. Has your mother been subject to memory manipulation in the part?”

Celia: “I don’t have proof,” Celia sighs, “but I would say so. The incident with the hacksaw, at least.”

Caroline: Caroline winces. That’s gruesome even by Kindred standards. “Lots of mental scar tissue, lots of wounds that never properly healed. Your father had custody for a while, right? Might have been a return to past traumas.”

She bites her lower lip. “I didn’t think of how that might affect her, how that might interact. Small amounts of manipulation, carefully done, isn’t really much worse than minimally invasive surgeries, but if she’s been subjected to significantly more…”

“I’m sorry.”

Celia: Celia shakes her head.

“It wasn’t my intention to make you feel bad about it, just simple curiosity. I haven’t developed the ability to manipulate memories like that, and… there are few enough Kindred I can discuss my mother with. You averted awkward family conversations, at the very least.”

A tilt of her head, eyeing the blonde sidelong.

“And forced me to reveal myself… though I am not unhappy with how that has turned out.”

Her brows lift, lips twisting into a satisfied smile.

Caroline: A whisper of a smile dances across Caroline’s face. It fades.

“You might have more luck than you expect digging into his past. He’s older than people think. Significantly so.”

Celia: The abrupt change in subject makes her pause.

“My… sire?”

Caroline: The Ventrue nods. “Unless you, he, and your broodmates are all diablerists.”

Celia: “I… what?”

Caroline: Caroline arches an eyebrow. “All of your blood is abnormally potent. Your broodmate’s is as thick as mine. Only two reasons for that.”

“I’m betting it’s the same reason mine is.” She casts a dark smile. “Unless you have something to confess.”

Celia: There’s other ways of pulling that off. And getting strong blood.

The warden’s words to her hadn’t made much sense at the time. Now, here, a key piece of information she’s missing.

“I’m… not familiar with that word,” she finally confesses. “Diablerist.”

The root, she knows, is Latin or Greek. Diabolos. Demon. Her brother had played a game with a similar name, and her ghouls as well enjoyed the series, though she had never been much for gaming.

It still doesn’t mean anything to her.

And even this hint about her sire’s past—his true age—doesn’t pique her interest quite the same way, though it’s certainly something she’s going to circle back to. After the chat with her father she has been searching for any sort of anything about demons.

Caroline: Caroline supposes not every vampire has a mother like hers. She can’t remember a time where other Kindred even mentioned the word ‘diablerie’ around her. Would she have gone her entire Requiem without knowing she could devour an older vampire’s strength, if not for Abélia’s dark gift during the car ride?

She can’t see many elders being displeased by her ignorance. Becky Lynne’s purchased lessons certainly never touched on the subject.

“I suppose it’s not the sort of thing good sires teach their childer about.”

“There’s references in Sanctified theology, though it’s taught in a more obsfucated way these days. About not hastening one’s own descent into torpor by seeking to unnaturally thicken your blood.”

Celia: Souls for power.

The ghost had told her that was the trade, that the inhuman thing in the Garden District eats them. Pete and her grandsire had told her about the soulthieves, how they had stolen souls as well as blood from their victims. The blackest sort of magic, he’d said. And they’d worshipped demons.

It doesn’t fit, though. She had certainly never done anything like that.

“I’ve done a lot of questionable things since my Embrace,” Celia tells Caroline, “but not… whatever it is you’re talking about.”

It’s confirmation, though, isn’t it? That her sire is older than he pretends to be. That the ghoul who’d said as much to her hadn’t been lying. But how would Caroline know?

Caroline: “I suppose you should know, since if his age and generation came out, you’d be a target just like me,” Caroline muses darkly.

“It’s simple, really, and that’s why the elders are so terrified of it. The Sabbat even makes a practice of it. When you drink a lick past the last drop, you can actually keep going. Keep taking. You can take so much that it’ll destroy them.”

“The stronger their blood, the closer their lineage to Caine, the more you take. The children of elders are thus prime targets. Too weak to defend themselves, with thick enough blood to promise a payoff. And the weaker your own blood is, the bigger the payoff.”

Celia: You are what you eat. Absorb the soul, absorb the power. Tale as old as time, isn’t it?

“All you have to do is take away the last chance someone has at an afterlife. Destroy any lingering sense of immortality.”

No wonder Pete had said it was a vile, black sort of magic. A nasty trick. Lucky Caroline that her mother is… whatever she is. Warned her about it.

There are so many things to consider. So many implications. She tries not to dwell; it’s not spoken of for a reason, she’s sure.

“And you think he either did that, or he’s older than he is.”

Caroline: Caroline nods. “It’s punishable by final death if caught, and most of them get caught. They keep doing it over and over until they make a mistake. Not that it’ll make you feel any better when they’ve eaten your soul.”

“Diablerists are the serial killers of our kind. Not that it stops the Sabbat from actively encouraging it.”

Maldonato mentioned a great Anarch Revolt, hundreds of years ago. He didn’t mention what she says next, but it doesn’t take a genius to imagine what a bunch of furious Anarchs would have done to elders they were destroying anyway.

“Or even the Anarchs back in the day. I’m sure diablerizing elders was all the rage.”

The Ventrue laughs. “It’s funny, I’ve heard the whispers in Elysium. People aren’t whispering not to be heard. About how pathetic I am with all my ghouls. A neonate playing at something beyond their station. A rich girl that needs someone to boss around.”

“The truth is rather more nuanced, you see.” She nods back to the deckhouse where a rifle-armed woman stands casually alert.

“Anonymity is a poor shield given how widely my secret is known.”

Celia: She doesn’t contradict Caroline’s words. She’s right about what they say about her, how the Anarchs snicker behind their hands, how the harpies don’t bother lowering their voices. Jade has heard all sorts of things about Caroline Malveaux-Devillers.

But Celia isn’t Jade. And she’s not supposed to know.

She takes the warning for what it is.

“I hope, then, that mine stays buried a while longer yet.”

Caroline: Caroline nods knowingly, but her words hold a different message. “Don’t trust to hope. Be ready when it comes out.”

“Your sire’s secret won’t stay buried forever. His master is approaching the end game and pieces are trading off the board with alarming swiftness.” That’s the mark of a grandmaster—that willingness to race to an endgame, confident that they can execute flawlessly while others falter.

She turns her gaze back to the city again, drinking in the lights. “I have no love for Donovan. I never will, even if he did serve my sire in truth.”

“But he’s a valuable piece in the board. I should rather flip him from that hold than trade what would be required to remove him.” To say nothing of how she’s the most likely piece to trade him for. A final nail in her sire’s coffin, driving him into the earth with the dual blow of betrayal and loss.

Celia: She can’t even tell Caroline what worries her the most: that if the truth of her sire comes out she has more to fear than someone trying to steal her soul from her body. It’s worse than all of that. It’s her head rolling across the floor. It’s Veronica’s head joining hers for covering up the crime. It’s Preston and Lebeaux and Savoy and everyone else who knew and didn’t say. It’s seeing the revulsion in Roderick’s eyes as he realizes she’s the worst sort of monster, and no wonder she was always so fucked up. It’s her family dragged from their beds in the middle of the night. All of her renfields executed with her.

And it’s her sire. Him most of all. Would he care if they took her head? Would his position at the prince’s side prevent him from catching the worst of it? Would he be exiled rather than executed, decades of planning down the drain because his childe couldn’t keep it in her pants?

The old wound reopens. Stupid. Worthless. Whore. Only it’s not her father’s voice, it’s her sire’s. It’s Jade’s. It’s Roderick’s. It’s her own.

No. That’s not quite true, is it? She’d be the only one who paid for the crime. Not her choice, not her fault, but that is the sort of justice she’ll receive in the All Night Society.

It’s a cruel thing her sire has done, putting her in this position.

Sometimes she thinks that is all they know: cruelty. What are the fleeting lives of the kine and childer compared to such centuries? Her lover had pointed it out to her before and she hadn’t listened: life is cheap.

Theirs too?

She is afraid that she knows the answer to that question.

She doesn’t know what Caroline expects her to say. She will hardly confirm the girl’s thoughts as to her sire’s true motivations and master. She wishes she didn’t know. That he hadn’t told her. That he hadn’t shown her.

He kneels before a throne. All are blind in the dark.

Why her.

Why show her.

Why tell her.

Why trust her.

He hadn’t meant to. He doesn’t know she knows. That’s all it comes back to, that he doesn’t know he had shared it with her. He was so busy killing her that he doesn’t realize what she had ripped from his head.

…none of which explains their interlude atop the roof, the secrets shared, his demands of her.

He’s in there. He has to be. There’s a reason for it, no matter how much her rational self rolls her eyes at the idea. She can’t just be another pawn on the board. The old wounds threaten to tear her apart at the seams. The words hiss in her ear.

“I’ll find it,” she says again, drowning them out. She straightens her spine, hardens her heart, finds her resolve. “And I’ll kill it.”

What is she compared to a demon? A mere slip of a girl. A young nobody.

Souls for power. She’s made that trade before. She’ll do it again.


Sunday night, 13 March 2016, AM

Celia: Celia doesn’t let herself linger overlong on the thoughts that plague her. She had known since the first nights of her Requiem that her Embrace would eventually be used against her sire. She had only thought that she would have longer to enjoy immortality before they sent for her; she hopes that she has been useful enough to her grandsire that he will not discard her when he is done with her. Lebeaux had implied he isn’t that sort of lick, but Celia frets all the same.

And this girl in front of her. Malveaux-Devillers. Childe of the prince. Daughter of a soul-eater (if the ghost can be believed). Soon-to-be announced heir, possibly, for all that she is young yet. Enemy.

If it were only that, Celia would have no trouble throwing her from the roof. Watching her body splatter. Staking her, delivering her to her sire. Taking her place at his side.

To finally be acknowledged… the collar pulls. Her hands clench. She is not a dog.

There’s more between the pair of them than that. A fellow daughter of the perfect family tree. Expectations heaped upon her. Someone who had once helped, for all that she claims she assisted with the cover-up. How can Celia blame her when it was from her own lips that the plan spilled forth? Apologies, years late, but apologies all the same.

A fellow bird whose wings have been broken, who hops and chirps and sings for her sire and hopes only that it has been enough. She recognizes that. And she hates it. Hates them, for what could have been. For what isn’t.

That’s the true definition of evil, isn’t it? What could have been. What should be, but isn’t. Death may no longer threaten them, but their existences are fragile all the same.

Fragile, like the body she’d once had that he had dropped into the Gulf. Shattered. As her mother would have been. As Caroline might be.

“Earlier, you said that you will never fly.” Celia turns her back to the city, her eyes falling upon the golden-haired Ventrue. “You are lying to yourself if you believe that. Worse, you are letting them hobble you and tell you how far you may go.”

“I have a theory, you know, about why people become so complacent in the middle of the mountain. Not because they do not want to go higher, but because they are afraid to fall and lose everything that they have gained. Without risk there is no reward.”

Celia steps backwards into the night. The roof gives way beneath her feet…

And yet, she doesn’t fall. Her body remains suspended in the air. The rolled cuffs of her borrowed pants unfurl, wind tugging at loose hair and clothing. Curls dance across her face. Lit from behind by the light of the moon, she is every bit the ethereal goddess she had turned Simmone into that evening in the Garden District: Celia, reborn in the sky, come down to pass on a gift from the heavens themselves.

Celia extends a hand.

“Let me show you how to soar.”

Caroline: Caroline’s eyes light up at Celia steps into the night, into the emptiness. Her hand dives into the darkness for the Toreador’s like a striking serpent even before Celia’s own hand extends, catching it, holding it, a second pale hand locked in a death grip with the railing.

She looks down, then back at Celia almost incredulously.

Balanced on nothing. An elder’s words come back to her and she takes a shallow breath.

Without risk there’s no reward. Doesn’t she know it. But does she dare presume to flirt with the sky in this way?

It’s not just the fall that scares her.

Slowly, finger by finger, she loosens her grip on the rail, until only her fingertips test it.

A trap? A poor one if so. She isn’t afraid of the fall, not really. And she’d like to pretend there’s more than just their sires between them.

Celia: Celia has every reason to want her dead.

She knows the truth of her sire. She’d fucked with her mom. She’d covered up the scandal with her father.

But there she waits, eyes on Caroline, hand extended. A warm hand, so different than the sire from which she came. So different than the rest of their kind with their cool temperatures and their frigid temperaments.

She watches the play of emotions across her face and says nothing, waiting for the girl to come to her. She doesn’t rush. Doesn’t push. Just waits, until only the tips of her fingers remain on the rail.

“Let go,” she finally says.

Caroline: A leap of faith? Well, not exactly a leap. Just the gentlest kiss of her fingers leaving the rail.

Celia: Celia is not her sire. Not Roderick. She has never been that strong, and to look at her one might wonder how she can hold the weight of the other lick. But the moment Caroline’s hand leaves the railing Celia is beneath her, one arm behind her back and the other under her knees; the Ventrue hangs suspended in the air, held aloft bridal style by the levitating Toreador. For a long moment they simply float.

Then—

Rushing.

Wind whips past their faces.

It claws at Caroline’s dress, their hair, Celia’s borrowed garments.

It howls in their ears.

The ground is suddenly not so far away. Every second it looms closer and closer. It can’t kill them, and might not even torpor them, but it will certainly hurt to have their bodies splatter across the pavement, and—

They slow.

Celia’s giggles are all but breathless in Caroline’s ear as their movement halts. Still two stories above the ground, their bodies tucked so closely against the building that they appear as no more than shadows in the night, the wild descent becomes something much more manageable. She might not be able to make them invisible, but she can certainly make other things more interesting, and she directs any stray attention elsewhere as the girls slowly descend to the pavement.

Caroline: Caroline’s hold on Celia becomes a deathgrip as they plummet, holding her tighter and tighter, pulling her closer and closer until…

They slow, and Celia’s giggle replaces the rush of the wind.

If she were mortal she might be breathless, but death has robbed her of that. Finally, her eyes on Celia, she cracks a grin.

“That’s some ride,” she whispers.

Celia: “Falling is the first step toward flying.”

Amusement dances in her eyes. Her feet touch pavement and she lets the Ventrue down, once more the smaller unit in the party. She gazes up at Caroline, lips lifted in the corners to echo her grin.

“The first time I fell, no one caught me. I made sure that I would never shatter again.” Light tone for such a heavy topic.

Caroline: Caroline bites her lip. “Fell.”

She lets the word hang. “I’m certain you just tripped off a building, right? Or did you fall down some stairs like your mom?”

She regrets the words as soon as they’re out of her mouth. But that’s how it goes, isn’t it? Mistakes are always easier to see after the fact.

Celia: “I said the same thing to my sister when we were younger. ‘Our ballerina mother just fell down the stairs, did she?’

Celia still remembers the fallout from that. Things were never the same; the little sister she had once tried to protect was turned into… whatever she became. She could lie here, but why bother? Caroline knows what sort of monster he is.

Her shoulders lift in an aborted shrug.

“Things he does to me… it’s not lasting. I can come back from it. He never took my leg.”

Just her life.

Caroline: It’s not lasting. But isn’t it? The physical wounds are the least they suffer. He never took my leg. No, only her wings, only her spirit, only her future.

And here Celia is, making excuses for him, hopelessly in his thrall. Hopelessly tied to a demon given flesh. Even though he hurts her, maims her, tortures her. Even though he threatened, nearly murdered her mother. Even though he serves a devil in the pit. Celia still loves him unconditionally.

If she could hate Donovan more she would.

And yet, for that, she recognizes the hypocrisy of it. Would she turn away from her sire if he beat her? If he threw her through a wall? If he ordered those close to her murdered?

She doesn’t pretend that she doesn’t know the answer. She wonders if Celia sees it the same way—each of them blind to themselves but wide-eyed.

Does Celia see in her the same Caroline sees in Celia? Reflected through a mirror darkly.

Words visibly catch in her throat.

She could offer sanctuary. Could offer help. Could offer shelter from him and aid. But Celia can no more take it than Caroline would in turn.

Her gaze settles solemnly on Celia’s own. “Thank you for the evening.”

Celia: There’s more she could say. Should say. Wants to say. To wipe away whatever look it is that Caroline gives her, pity or grief or… something. Something she doesn’t like.

He’s not a monster. Whatever you think he did to me, he has been good as well. Merciful. I loved him before he took me completely.

The words stay dormant within her. It doesn’t matter. It can’t matter.

He’s the only one who understands her. The only one who understands him.

Celia tucks a stray curl behind her ear, eyes once more finding the Ventrue’s.

“It was nice to… not pretend.”

Caroline: Caroline stares into her eyes. “It was.”

How many lies have we told each other tonight?

The more meaningful question among the damned: how many truths?

“We should do it again.”

Celia: Celia shouldn’t smile. The offer shouldn’t send butterflies rippling through her stomach. But it does. And she does. It lights up her face, lifts the corners of her eyes; there’s nothing insincere in that smile, or the words that follow.

“I’d like that.”

Caroline: “You don’t have to pretend when you’re with me.”

Wouldn’t ever have to pretend if you were with me.

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Celia IV, Chapter XVI
New Man, New Face

“You’re like me. A man without a face. But that’s okay. We’ll find you one.”
Dr. Dicentra


Sunday night, 13 March 2016, AM

GM: Mélissaire calls Celia not too long after she leaves the Evergreen: there’s a newly-Embraced fledgling who could use a new face. She gives him a new one, he’ll owe her. Simple transaction.

Celia arrives an hour-ish later in one of the Louis XIV-style sitting rooms to find a handsome, goateed, dark-skinned Kindred in his late 20s in conversation with another vampire. She has caramel skin, dark hair, red lips, and poisonously green eyes.

Celia: Celia—and Jade—disappear completely when she adopts Dr. Dicentra’s persona.

To the waiting Kindred, the night doctor looks as if they’ve taken care to hide their identity. Red has long been the Kindred color of choice, but the night doctor has taken the night for their own in their garb: black on black on black. Black combat boots with a chunky heel laced to mid-shin, black leather pants that cling to every curve, a black shirt that shows off an ample chest and well-muscled arms, and black gloves with black nails that longer than any lick’s should be. They look sharp, those nails. Even her hair is black, and the eyes that peer out from truly ebon skin obscured by some sort of glamour are black as well.

The form is feminine enough to call it “her,” though perhaps that is yet another way to mask their true identity.

Pic.jpg
The night doctor halts in the room’s doorway.

“My services have been requested,” she says without preamble.

Support: “Which services were those again,” the male vampire mutters, looking her over. “You’ve made me forget everything except how to ask for you name.”

Celia: The black-clad doctor might smile, but it’s hard to tell beneath the mask. She steps into the room.

“Your appearance. You wish it altered, I have been told.”

Support: “I think so,” the male vampire says, “But I’m on the fence about what I need it altered to. You might be able to help me decide.”

“This face isn’t really mine to begin with, if you want to know the truth. I’m not sure if I should ask for a new one altogether, or try to make do with my old self.”

GM: “What advantages do your old face and a new face have?” the female vampire poses.

Support: “My old face is dead, at least to those who know me. If I show it to them, they’ll recognize me, which breaks the Masquerade. But I am easily disguised, and it might be useful to reveal my identity to certain people. For, ah, dramatic flourishes, if nothing else.”

“But a new face is a chance to start over, and this is a new beginning. Not many people ever get that chance, and besides, there’s a lot of baggage in that old face. A lot of hate, too. Maybe it’s better to wear a new one.”

The male vampire considers the night doctor. “Whoever you are, you’ve done this before. What do you think?”

Celia: “Many Kindred seek my services for different reasons,” she answers. “They want to be stronger, bigger, more imposing. They want to erase old scars from their bodies. They tire of the nightly shave and a haircut routine.”

The doctor studies the male vampire.

“If your former face is known to be dead, let it stay dead. Do not break the Masquerade. There are other ways to prove your identity than a face should you desire to seek out old acquaintances. But appearances are everything. A charming smile will get you far when you pair it with quick wit and a silver tongue.”

The doctor nods toward the female vampire, though she continues to speak to the male.

“Kindred and kine alike remember the eyes. Should you seek a face easily disguised, something plainer will do. Then you can become your own canvas. Alternatively, I can create an ideal version of the old you with enough changes that no one who was not intimately familiar with your face will recognize.”

“If you are still undecided… I am a sculptor. Sometimes the flesh speaks to me and tells me what it wants to be.”

Support: “Sculpt,” the male vampire says. “I will talk with you as you do. Maybe I’ll look more like myself than I did before."

“But… you said the eyes have something of the soul. If you saw a picture of me, could you give me my old eyes back?”

Celia: “Yes. I could. I will warn, however, that eye modifications are among the most painful bodily altercations I can perform.”

Support: The male vampire smiles faintly.

“Well. Maybe you can give me a treat if I don’t cry, afterwards.”

He looks at the other vampire. “Do you happen to have an image of my old face in your phone, or something?”

GM: She only gives that question a thin smile.

Support: “Fine,” the male vampire says. “I’ll get it.”

He holds out his hand. A pair of eyes float inches above his palm, staring into the night doctor’s. They’re dark as a dark night and full of cruel mirth—but for all their cruelty, most people would kill to get the joke. Gathered and held for the good doctor to see. By the time the conjured gaze dissolves, he expects it’s left an impression.

GM: “Well done,” the female vampire purrs. “Veiling can also be used to resume your old face, should the need arise.”

“Or should I say, the rest of your old face.”

Celia: It’s difficult to tell whether the display leaves an impression on the doctor or not. The black mask gives nothing away.

“I can see,” she says mildly, “why you’d like them back.”

“Consider it done.”

Support: “Then let’s get started. Where do you want me?”

“Um. Also. Do I need to be naked for this?”

Celia: “Not yet.” A flash of fangs accompanies her amused tone.

Dicentra looks to the female vampire.

“I do not allow others to observe my process. I will take him to the Red Room and send for you when we are done.”

GM: “Of course, doctor,” answers the female vampire as she rises from her seat. A smile plays across her caramel features as she brushes past the masked Kindred. One of her hands strokes the night doctor’s breasts as lightly and idly as a serpent’s flicking tongue.

“What luscious thoughts swim underneath the mask, I wonder…” she murmurs into Dicentra’s ear, “that one with the power to alter flesh would wear so luscious a form, even disguised… I bet you’d be a lot of fun, with it off.”

She winks knowingly, then turns slightly to address the male vampire as well.

“Sami will swing by in an hour or so. Think of a new name to go with your new face. It can be real-sounding, or something poetic like Harlequin or Sundown.”

Celia: The doctor looks as if she might follow in the female vampire’s wake at that touch; she reaches out, snagging the snake’s wrist in her hand before she can go too far.

“Perhaps,” the voice from beneath the mask purrs, “one night I shall seek you out and grant your wish to see beneath the leather.”

Dicentra only turns to the male vampire once his sire has taken her leave and beckons for him to follow her. She leads him through the halls of the Evergreen with casual certainty, obviously familiar with the layout of the club. She makes no idle chatter as she walks, though the vibe that he gets from her is less “foreboding” than it is “contemplative.”

Eventually they reach the Red Room. She takes him inside and closes the door behind her, ensuring their privacy with the click of a lock. Looking around, the fledgling can see the reason it is called the Red Room: though they have been drained of blood, bodies sit on metal shelves around the room. Some of the corpses have had their throats torn out. Others have been split from sternum to groin. Still others carry a multitude of marks upon their skin, holes from which they bled their last. Male, female, black, white, and in between, but all of them have been stripped of their clothing and their life.

It might be cold to the kine, but the freshly dead fledgling does not feel the chill upon his skin. A table has already been set up in the middle of the room.

“You can remove your clothing now.”

She gestures toward the table. Metal, like the shelves, reminiscent of the sort of gurney found in a coroner’s office. Holes have been drilled into it to allow for easy cleanup; beneath the fledgling’s feet the tile floor slopes gently toward a drain set in the middle.

Support: He does so in efficient, experienced bursts. He removes his clothes and then approaches the table. The whole thing is very Six Million Dollar Man.

“This seems uneven,” he says wryly, as he sits the stolen body on the table.

Celia: The doctor watches from behind her impassive mask. It’s hard to tell how she thinks or feels when her features are thus hidden.

“You must be new,” she says, though the words aren’t unkind. “You will get used to being naked in front of other Kindred.”

Support: “Oh, I’ve been a whore. That’s not the hard part. It was more of an invitation by way of observation.”

Celia: “Clever,” she purrs, “I can see why your sire chose you. Shall I call her in and let you share me?”

Support: “Is it wrong that I don’t want to share my first time?”

Celia: Low, throaty laughter sounds from beneath the mask.

“Perhaps if you don’t scream that will be the aforementioned treat.”

Dicentra tells him to lie back and removes the gloves from her hands, reaching for his face. She stops just shy of touching him.

“May I?”

Support: “Please.”

Celia: Her fingers stroke his skin, their touch cool.

“Young,” she murmurs.

The pad of her thumb traces his lips. He can feel it shift beneath the gentle pressure; pain flares, but it is fleeting, banished by the light touch that follows. A moment later it dissipates.

“Made for smiles.”

Two fingers slide down the bridge of his nose, squeezing as they go. For a moment he’s blinded by the pain. Then it, too, flees before the words that come.

“Guilty.”

The doctor pauses.

“Dead.”

Cool fingertips brush against his skin from his hairline to his jaw. They trail down his cheek, a whisper-soft touch that reminds him of butterfly kisses and the wind on his face. They remind him of every girl he’s ever embraced, every longing thought, every moment of ecstasy.

“Close your eyes,” she whispers. “Go inside.”

Support: He does so. He looks like he finds it easy to listen to her.

And like he’s enjoying those fingers.

Celia: The last thing he sees before closing his eyes is motion behind the mask the doctor wears, the slight suggestion of a smile.

Then she’s gone, and him with her. He’s transported; no longer lying on a metal table within the Red Room, he finds himself in a long hallway. Rich carpet gives beneath the soles of his shoes, burgundy tussore woven through with saffron and ivory. Cream walls hem him in to the left and right, their continuous lines broken only by the frames of doors that open onto empty tableau. Colorful lights shine from beneath the frames of the doors: crimson, coral, amber, viridian, azure, indigo. He recognizes the settings as he passes, but the night doctor does not.

What visions he sees are his alone.

Not that she tells him.

All of the visions speak of his past. It is the door in front of him, however, that speaks to his future. White wood inlaid with swirls and whorls of gold and silver that dance before his eyes, slithering across the frame. A golden handle waits for his touch.

Support: He touches it, hopes his fingers can do the same thing to it the night doctor’s touch does to him as he turns it—

Celia: It opens into a well-appointed suite. A king-sized bed sits in the center of the room, its ornate bedspread covered in rose petals that have spilled from the bed to the floor in a puddle of red. To one side another set of doors open onto what he imagines is a closet, beside it a mahogany armoire and floor length mirror. The windows look out over the city he has called home for most of his life, an idealized, colorful version of it that makes the real one seem like grayscale. The yellow, green, and purple of the Quarter dominate the scene.

A champagne bottle rests on ice in the center of the bed, but when he pops the cork the heady scent of blood reaches him. Blood. The bread and butter of their kind now. The only thing he will ever taste again. A glass waits beside it should he choose to quench his thirst.

Support: He drinks. Like someone who’s never had a problem with that.

But there’s such a large bed, and plenty to drink, yet nobody to share it with.

Celia: Despite the ice the blood within the bottle is hot. It slides down his throat, viscous and warm; it tastes like a comforting embrace, like the mythological siren of Poseidon or Hades beckoning him down into the depths of the water to deprive him of his last breath; it tastes like unrequited love, like ruby red lips and kohl liner, like leather and lace. It sets a fire in his belly, unfurling outward to sing through his veins.

“Delicious, isn’t it?”

A black-clad woman reclines on the bed beside him. Black gauze obscures her face; there’s no movement beneath the fabric, no way to tell if she has a mouth or eyes or features beyond the flat mask. Different than Dicentra, but somehow the fledgling knows: it’s her.

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“You’re like me,” she tells him, “a man without a face. But that’s okay. We’ll find you one.”

He looks into the mirror and sees that she’s right. He has no face.

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Her voice echoes through his mind and body.

“Who are you?”

Support: His voice answers hers in a murmur, one that tugs his lips in the waking world as surely as they responded to the taste of blood.

“A bad, bad man. I’m worried I might be too good at being a vampire. People have always been disposable to me.”

Celia: The mask over her face moves, suggesting a smile.

“You are in good company, then. Those whom you call friend and ally will tell you that to be good at one thing you must be bad at another. They will ask you to shed your human shackles.”

Support: “Do you believe something different?”

Celia: “Not in so many words, though as in all things I believe there is balance to be found within your Requiem.”

“Strong enough connections can keep you tethered to your humanity. You need not be a purveyor of wanton destruction to succeed, though many will say that is the swiftest path.”

“But this is your rebirth. Who do you want to be?”

Support: “I want to be free,” he says. “To love who I love and fuck over who I don’t. Free to watch movies and maybe make one when I get bored. Free so… mmh.”

Her hands are clearly having an effect.

“I want to be on top,” he finishes without so much as stuttering.

And winks.

Top-shelf flirting for a dead man, really.

Celia: “Big dreams for the freshly dead,” the masked woman tells him, “but we all start where you are now. I’ll give you the advice that was given to me when I was still a greenfang: make yourself useful to someone. You’re at the bottom of the mountain now, but it is not insurmountable.”

There’s definitely a smile beneath the wrapping. The hands touching his body have moved from his face lower; beyond the scene in his mind he feels the tips of her fingers against his traps, unwinding muscle fiber.

“The great thing about hierarchies is that they change. As do people, Kindred included. Take your time to try on new masks as you will, but you need a face beneath that.”

Support: “Could I be of use to you?” He pushes on, lost in her touch.

Celia: “Aside from the favor you will owe me for this work?”

There’s a momentary pause, though the hands on his body do not cease their work.

“Perhaps I will see what you make of your Requiem and seek you out. Pick a pretty enough face and I know a former whore with whom you might compare notes.”

Support: “And what if I wish to find you?”

Celia: “I have a phone. Unlike the Anarchs, you won’t need to rely on tagging a random surface and hoping that I find you.”

Support: “Anarchs are which ones again? Vampire communists?”

Celia: “Rebels who think they have a cause.”

Support: “I didn’t even have to die to meet those.”

He lifts a hand to her obscured face. “Could I see yours? Since you’re the first ever to see mine.”

Celia: The doctor does not resist his touch. His fingertips brush against the gauze and it fades away like smoke, dissipating into the air.

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His own face stares back at him.

Support: He blinks.

“You know me.”

Celia: “We’re inside your head. You know yourself.”

Support: “How are you doing this? This dreaming thing.”

Celia: “Shadow dancing,” she tells him. “Not dreaming. You can get out of it at any time. The lick I mentioned earlier taught it to me in exchange for some work. If this is truly your face, she has a pet that might be interested in knowing. She can tell you more.”

“But we’re here to pick a new face for you. The man you were is dead. Who are you now?”

Support: “Tired. Older. Wiser, maybe.”

Celia: Dicentra considers him for a moment. A wave of her hand opens the set of double doors to the side of the room, where a thousand faces hang from a thousand gilded hangers. A crook of her fingers summons one to them.

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“Tired and old,” she tells him, “and perhaps some wisdom in there somewhere. Is this the face you seek?”

Support: He laughs. “Some men age gracefully, don’t they? I want a face people trust, for all that. Thirties, more than forties.”

Celia: She laughs with him, dismissing the first face into smoke and shadow.

“Your own face, but better? Older?”

Another takes its place. Him. The two sides of him: young and old, light and dark, dead and alive. Wicked and innocent.

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Support: “Older,” he agrees. I always wanted to be grown up, some day. Now I suppose I have forever.”

He requests some cosmetic changes, too. A few roguish scars about the face. A bit of aging here, smoothing there.

His face lies. Makes him a new man.

But his eyes will tell the truth.

Celia: The face of the man floating in front of the two of them shifts as the fledgling speaks. Dicentra controls the movements with a twitch of her fingers, and every word that comes out of the fledgling’s mouth makes another alteration to the flesh in front of them. They build the ideal face together. Dicentra remains predominantly silent; she just sculpts. She is the paintbrush and he the hand that directs it, and only when he asks for input does she speak to offer a word of advice—“that scar will suit you better on this side,” or “the symmetry is off.” She offers guidance without judgement.

She asks if anyone has explained how their bodies work, and tells him that any changes she makes will be permanent, though any that he himself makes will only ever be temporary. He could shave his head one night and will find that the next it has regrown to its original length and color. Some Kindred find ritual in their daily grooming, while others despise the wasted time and curse the styles that were en vogue when they died.

Younger, he says, and she teases him with a boy.

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Messy hair, he says, and laughingly she gives him a mop of curls that will never be tamed.

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He wants a smile that can shatter hearts, and she smiles at him with his old face and gives him the smirk of someone who might have cut those same hearts out of their chests.

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Less like a serial killer, he asks, and it changes again.

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Distantly, the fledgling feels the doctor’s hands across his body. His flesh shifts beneath her touch; there’s pain, dull and sharp by turns, and inside the suite of his mind the doctor tells him to keep going. She distracts him with this game of faces, preventing the pain from overwhelming him, teasing and coaxing him to make absurd changes to make him laugh. He feels it, but it’s muted, and all the while the new face comes together.

When they’ve decided on a face she asks about the body, and the pain that flares at her touch shifts to something less red hot while she reworks muscle and skin at his direction. Buff or willowy, hard or soft, big or little—yes, even there—she gives him what he wants.

He doesn’t know how much time has passed when the work finally ends. But the Dicentra in his head smiles at him and tells him it is done.

She withdraws from his mind, her black-clad form dispersing into smoke and shadow.

When he opens his eyes, she holds out a mirror.

Support: It’s not such a young face, really. Younger than many men, as far as that goes.

But this face looks like maybe it’s been to prison. Like maybe it’s seen the ugliest parts of being human, from the inside looking out.

But for all the ugly it’s seen, most would think it comes out looking pretty good.

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Maybe a little soviet, at that.

Celia: As if Lord Savoy or his sire would give him some second-rate night doctor.

Behind the mask, Dicentra smiles down at him.

“There are showers to rinse yourself of blood,” she tells him. Her hands, he sees, are bloody up to the elbow, and his body is covered in it.

Support: “Oh,” he says.

“How do you feel about saving water?”

Celia: “I’d hate to waste such a renewable resource.”

Support: “So we should share a shower? That’s terribly unfortunate.” He rises.

Celia: “I hope you’re not looking to bump uglies,” the doctor drawls, eyeing his new form with blatant interest. “The breather way doesn’t do it for us anymore.”

Too bad, that thing between his legs looks rather nice.

“But it’s this way.”

The Red Room isn’t too far from the semi-public showers that Savoy has had installed for his guests. Dicentra tells him on the way that there’s a “lost and found” closet if he needs clothing for his new form, as well. She leaves the discarded parts behind.

The Boggs will eat well.

Support: “What uglies?” he says easily, following her like a satisfied puppy. “Your work is flawless.”

“I suppose I’ll have to find somebody to teach me how vampires fuck, then. Otherwise I’m going to be all awkward at parties.”

Celia: “Fangs, mostly.” But she smiles at the compliment. “Blood. Like everything. If you’re looking to lose your V-card, Lord Savoy hosts parties on Saturday evenings after court. There are plenty of horny licks around.”

Support: “V-card? Really? That’s a long lost cause, even if this is a new body. Anyways, what day is it?” He reaches for the knob that activates the shower, and a pink mist levitates off of his skin and spatters the both of them.

“Saturday seems like a long time to wait.”

Celia: “It’s Monday,” the doctor tells him, “but I’d be stunned if your sire doesn’t fuck you before then. She has quite a reputation.”

Blood from her hands rinses down the drain. She has yet to remove her leathers.

Support: “You’re letting me start off my Requiem with a rejection?” He pouts. “I was just trying to thank you.”

Celia: “You already owe me a boon, pretty boy. Didn’t anyone tell you how our economics work?”

It’s not a no, though.

Support: “I’ve worked very hard to become a man,” he protests, “with a few wrinkles and facial hair and everything. And besides. Economics is one thing. I’m talking about gratitude. Completely different phenomenon.”

He turns his back on her. Blood runs between his shoulder blades down the channel of his spine. “But if you prefer your privacy, I won’t look.”

Celia: “Don’t blame me if your sire is upset she didn’t have you first,” Dicentra says to that.

But she turns around and gestures at the zipper in the back of her suit, letting him have the fun of unveiling her.

Support: It seemingly takes him a minute to realize she has also turned around.

But he obliges her, running his new fangs against the nape of her neck as he sheds the layers between them.

It feels like he hasn’t had an actual fuck in a while.

Like, a long while.

He’s almost nervous.

Celia: He shouldn’t be. Dicentra seems more than happy to explain the rules to him and let him get his feet wet; she’s been patient enough so far. Em knows he doesn’t need to breathe anymore, but there’s a little gasp of pleasure and a shiver that runs down her spine at the touch of fang to neck. Her blood pools in the wound, waiting for him to lick it clean.

The leather slips free from her like a second skin, revealing the body beneath. Just as luscious as the leather implied. Pale. Pierced. Thin brows, full lips.

Pretty.

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Support: “You’re sure I don’t know you? You’ve got one of those faces,” he deadpans, albeit with a note of sensuality since he’s talking quietly into her ear. She has a feeling the question is ceremonial more than earnest.

For one thing, he is not looking at her face when he says it.

Celia: The question makes her laugh.

“I think you’d remember me,” she purrs in his ear. But she seems to like the attention all the same; she stretches luxuriously, arms above her head to lift that beautiful rack even higher, as if now that her outfit has come out she can finally breathe again.

Then her fangs come out and his back is against the wall when she puts a hand on his chest to shove him back, the tile cool against his skin, her body cool against his, but the water is warm. So very, very warm. His blood flows where she nips at his neck and chest and shoulder, letting it sit for long, precious seconds before she comes back to drink.

Support: He knows better than to keep talking.

It’s probably bizarre for him, this vampire fucking. Rougher than most humans are into, for sure. More about the nuances of pleasure that is ripped from your other’s pain, and learning that pain enjoyed the right way can breed enormous pleasure.

They hurt each other, and it is glorious, and the sordid details of the coupling are lost in blood and drainwater.

When they’re done, which is some time later, he lays with her below the raining showerhead, and mutters,

“Wait a while before dropping the other shoe, will you?”

Celia: Despite the tile, neither one of them are uncomfortable. Dicentra seems content to rest next to him with her head on his shoulder while the water rinses away the evidence of their coupling. Her fingers trace idle circles across his chest and lower stomach.

“No other shoe to this, just fun. The Saturday parties I mentioned earlier almost always end up something like this.” He can hear the delight in her voice at the thought.

Support: “Maybe not to this. But you?” He squeezes her shoulder. “I’m in danger of actually liking you, Dr. Dicentra.”

“I suppose I’ll have to come back on Saturday, then. You mentioned a phone, earlier? It seems a shame to wait so long before we… talk.”

Celia: “You’re a shameless flirt,” the doctor laughs. “I don’t even know your name and already you’re asking for round two?”

“But yes. I’ll give you my number before we go. You have seventy-two hours to decide you want minor modifications before it costs you more. For your… gratitude.”

Support: “Finally. A woman who appreciates my nobler qualities.”

“The least of which is my name, really.”

Celia: “Shame the best part of you doesn’t work anymore. I heard it’s rather enjoyable to have it sucked if you give a little nip.”

Support: “That’s a strange way to talk about my eyes.”

Celia: Her eyes find his face.

“Mm,” she muses, “I stand corrected. Those are gorgeous. I’d say I good do work—and I do—but that was some great starting material.”

The doctor finally rolls off of him, rising to her feet to rinse off the results of their tryst beneath the spray of the shower.

“I’ll get you that number. And the one for my friend. I think she’ll like you if you make it a habit of showing gratitude with sex.”

Then she’s gone, plucking her outfit from where it had been left on the ground on her way out the door, and just a card with a hastily scrawled name and a pair of numbers is all the memento he has from his time with the night doc.

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