“I’ve said goodbye to too many, for too long. But I’m ready for the big goodbye.”
Wednesday night, 23 March 2016, AM
GM: At Lou’s sudden appearance, of Caroline’s protectors whirl on the old man at once. Ferris draws a gun. Kâmil, who’s driving with one hand, produces a knife in his other hand, perhaps to throw—the car’s tight confines are too small for swords anyway. The casquette girl draws no weapons, but her posture shifts into one of battle-readiness. Her face remains placid as ever.
Caroline and Lou can see the same thought in Kâmil’s and Ferris’ eyes:
Where the hell did he come from?
Louis: Hell indeed, the old man muses—though it’s the hell he’s going to that concerns most of his thoughts these days.
Caroline: Caroline isn’t the girl who Lou saw six months ago. She’s changed. Harder. Colder.
She’s still dressed in black, but tonight there’s nothing but function to see: pants, shirt, practical shoes. All of it singed, much like her. The bottom of the shoes are melted, and pink flesh shows through charred holes down her left side. Her strong side, he recalls.
The damage to her clothing gives lie to the modesty of her injuries now.
There’s still pink flesh and blisters across the backs of her hands and forearms, and flash burns redden her cheeks, one eyebrow is mostly ash, but the heiress is more whole and hale than the rest. More than anyone has a right to be after emerging from an inferno.
For all that, she looks like death. The blisters and burned flesh stand out all the more starkly against her oh-so-pale flesh. The genuine vulnerability of only half a year ago has been replaced with something hard and cruel, like someone pounded the girl out of her and left behind only the monster. Lou’s pulled more lifelike corpses from the Mississippi.
The shadows of vehicle hide it, but in the light he knows what he’d see, and so does she: she’s a monster.
But then, so are they all.
“I rather expect if Mr. Fontaine were here to kill me, he’d have waited to announce his presence until after he’d put bullets through most of you.”
The voice is the same. More confident, perhaps. If his appearance frightens her, she hides it well.
But then, she’s here in an armored convoy with three other ghouls with centuries in the Blood.
The other ghouls relax perhaps an inch. They’re tired. Wary. Hurt. And very alert.
GM: The other ghouls relax perhaps an inch.
Kâmil still drives, with one hand. He doesn’t lower his knife.
Ferris doesn’t lower his gun.
The tranquil-faced casquette girl doesn’t look away.
But for all that, they don’t look as if they’re about to use their weapons on him.
Caroline: Caroline turns to watch Lou in the third row of seats. He catches a flash of now-blue eyes.
“I expected a visitor this evening. But not you, Lou. I confess, I’d hoped you’d cashed in your chips, old man. Were retired on a beach somewhere.”
The Ventrue’s eyes sweep up and down him with all the humanity and compassion of a bar code scanner. Taking him in. Measuring his worth. His value. Perhaps his price.
“You look better.”
Louis: “You still look blonde,” he fires back like a shot from his Smith & Wesson.
Caroline: “Trick of the salon, don’t believe it.”
She flashes a smile that would be charming if there weren’t two sharpened points among her teeth.
“You still look alive. I was worried the sheriff had found you, hunted you, after you brought down his man.”
“You know, since you didn’t call, didn’t write.”
Louis: “Looks are like dames,” Lou replies. “Some are pretty, some ugly, but all of them can lie.”
Caroline: She might have winced last time they met.
“I don’t recall many lies from me. But then, you held all the cards back then, so you might know better than I.”
Louis: Lou has enough winces for both of them. But the old man first turns briefly to the casquette girl, his bourbon-colored eyes washing over her. He scratches his rough jaw as if trying to remember her name—or what century their paths last crossed.
He settles for a shrug and an offer of the gelato.
GM: He receives a placid stare from the seeming teenager’s milk-pale face.
Louis: His eyes, however, turn back to the blonde who could make a bishop kick in stained glass windows.
Caroline: She’s done more than that to a bishop.
“Forgive my lack of hospitality—you understand there are many demands upon me these nights—but to what do I owe the pleasure of your return this night, Mr. Fontaine?”
There, he can see it. Not fear, but the darkness lurking in the shadows around her eyes. What might in a mortal be too many sleepless nights. What might manifest in gray hairs that will never trouble this ageless monster. But it’s there all the same. Pressure, the kinds that makes bombs or diamonds.
Louis: “Back then, the only cards I held were from a tarot deck, Caroline, and all of them were the Fool.”
Caroline: “You seemed to wield a fair few more: Justice, Judgment, Death even.”
Louis: Lou shrugs, but doesn’t plead ‘not guilty’ to the charges.
Caroline: “What cards do you hold tonight, old man?”
Louis: “More of the same, Caroline. I’m old, tired, and full of no coffee. But this time… this time I’m almost ready to say goodbye. The French have a phrase for it, just like they have a damned phrase for everything. ‘To say goodbye is to die a little.’ I’ve said goodbye to too many, for too long. But I’m ready for the big goodbye.”
There’s more coming, Caroline can tell. But it takes a while for the old man to draw up the hard truths from the deep, bitter-hurt well of his heart.
“I’m done with hating your old man.”
Caroline: “If you’ve come to kill me, know these nights that it is not easy.”
Louis: Lou shakes his head.
“I know you’re as blue as any blood can be, but I’m not talking about you, blondie. I’m talking about saying goodbye to New Orleans. To a city worth dying for. Living for too, though that’s a hell of a lot harder.”
“But eventually, we all gotta say goodnite.”
He pauses, and wishes for the hundredth time tonight that he had a bottle. A full one—so he could make it empty.
He scowls and tries again.
“I’m done hating your old man.”
Caroline: That makes one of us.
She loves him. She hates him.
Louis: “And I’m not talking about the senator.”
Caroline: “No, I don’t imagine you are,” Caroline answers.
Louis: “Remember what I told you?”
“About what you were, are?”
Caroline: “That and more.”
She remembers many things the old man told her. Some were more true than others.
“But if you’re turning out the light, and you’re not here for me, I’m not sure what it is to you.”
Louis: “Poison,” he coughs up the word like someone’s ripping duct-tape off his lungs.
Caroline: Poison. He’s not wrong, he didn’t lie, but it was half the story.
“It’s in deep, old man.”
It sounds like a confession, the first real one she’s given in months. The words rob the tension from her shoulders.
Louis: “It’s in all of us, but some deeper than others.”
It’s not an accusation. Not tonight, at least.
“When I was a younger, wiser man, I thought it was the deepest in your old man.”
Caroline: The city continues to move past them.
“Nothing is free.”
Louis: “But I’m not young anymore. Nor wise. Time has taught me both of those hard truths.”
Caroline: She mulls over what Savoy said about the prince.
It wasn’t something she’d expected.
“Few of us truly see one another for what we are.”
Louis: He looks like he wants to wearily run a hand through his dishwater gray hair. But he’s got one, and it’s still occupied by a melting gelato. He settles for a sigh.
“So if I gotta pick a poison…”
Caroline: “Picking a side? Late in the night for that.”
There’s a strained smile, all the same.
“I might be able to put in a word for you.”
Louis: Lou looks out the window at that. Or maybe he just looks away from that truth. He knows what it looks like anyway.
“Remember the last time we parted from my office? I told you something.”
“I thought it was true, and maybe it was back then.”
“I told you that I didn’t want to die, but that if I had to, I was gonna die last.”
“Tonight, though, I know better. I told you I’m almost ready to die. Almost. Now it’s just a matter of who dies first.”
“So I’m picking a poison, but not a side, at least not any of the unbreathing ones.”
“And this poison, I don’t plan on drinking, though it will likely kill me all the same.”
Caroline: Realization cracks across her mask like a spiderweb of cracks across a window.
“If not the old man, then who?”
“Who’s worth your life?”
Louis: “My life? My life’s not worth that much, honestly. And I’m not being modest either, blondie. Reality is, most people go through life—and beyond—using up half their energy trying to protect a dignity they never had. No, the lives worth living and dying for are the few saints that still walk in this devil-ridden town. They’re a dwindling species, these days, but God was willing to let Sodom slide with only ten.”
The names and faces of those rare souls flit before his eyes. He’s failed them. Time and time again. Maybe he’ll fail them again. But damned it he won’t try to at least fail them better.
Caroline: She doesn’t leave him to that reminiscing.
“You really must be getting old, Lou. Your sentimentality is showing.”
There’s no gentleness in the girl these nights. It’s been beaten out of her like a blade upon an anvil. And everyone has taken a turn with the hammer.
Louis: “There you go telling another lie, blondie. I’m not getting old. I’ve been old. A long time too. Too long.”
Yet, when he looks at Caroline, Lou’s eyes are no longer watery like aged bourbon, but sharp as a smashed bottle.
“Your old man has a snake in his garden.”
Caroline: That gets her attention.
She runs her tongue across her fangs unconsciously.
“In that, at least, we can agree.”
GM: The other three ghouls remain silent throughout the pair’s conversation.
Weapons still drawn.
But it looks as if it gets theirs too.
Louis: Lou sets down the melting gelato, and pulls out the humble wooden cross that still hangs around his neck. But the words that next come out of his lips aren’t from the man who hung on Calvary’s tree, but rather the man who allegedly nailed him to it:
“‘But the Damned serve as the sign to humanity of the price of sin, and to make mortals fear and to understand that their lives are brief and full of pain, and they can only see the most pitiful reflection of the glories of Heaven, for they do not see clearly, but see as if through a blurred mirror, and the Damned do not see through the mirror at all.’”
“‘And it is the lot of the Damned to take the blood of mortals, that mortals might know that they will die, and that their only salvation is in the next life.’”
The recitation, if not resignation, hangs heavy on the man. But he trudges on. Like an old habit he can’t quit kick.
“Bringing Claire’s secrets to the House will only feed the snake.”
Caroline: She runs her tongue across her fangs again.
Pithy replies dart across her mind, like someone’s been brushing up on their Longinus, but she aborts them, lets them die, as he finishes and his latest condemnation washes over her.
“I have to make him see. Make one of them see.”
Louis: “Maybe there’s a needle in all this haystack,” Lou says, waving his plastic spoon at the inferno-spared cache. “The Barrett Commission is, or was, well-connected, and Claire was one of their best.”
He shakes his head, as if to deflect some anticipated blame, or dislodge some inner guilt. “And no, I didn’t know who she was when we last met.”
He shakes his head again, and points again to the ‘haystack.’
“But searching for that needle, and making sure the sheriff doesn’t snatch it up is going to require time, and a safe space. A space safe from him.”
“And the snake, as I said, is already in the garden.”
“But as you also said, you assumed the sheriff had found and killed me over these many months.”
“He certainly wanted to, tried to, but he failed.”
“He doesn’t like loose threads.”
Caroline: “I’ve got threads. There’s more here.” She gestures.
Louis: “There is more,” Lou admits, laying down another one of his cards.
“Like the identities of good men and women trying to stem the poison’s tide.”
Caroline: “Trying. Failing. They’re doing more damage than they’ll ever prevent,” Caroline answers.
Louis: “Maybe. Maybe not. But that’s my price. I’m asking for that which you ultimately consider is hay. And in return, I’ll help you find the needle—and then drive it into the serpent’s heart.”
Caroline: “The individuals,” Caroline parries. “Not the big fish.”
Louis: “There are many fish,” Lou says. “Some bigger than others. Which one seems big to you?”
Caroline: “Gettis.” Caroline spits out the name like a curse.
“Anyone in bed with Savoy already.”
“And I want to know about the big picture events in the city. The government players, especially the spooks.”
“You can have the dorm room warriors, the lone wolves, the moms and pops, and the faithful. And we can parse out other individuals.”
Louis: It takes Lou a moment to catch his breath, as Caroline’s first word sucker punches him in his sclerosis-scarred gut.
That’s what she says—but he hears another name. A far older name.
Caroline: “We have a visitor.”
Louis: Lou looks out the windows, expecting it to be his ride. His other ride.
But as Twain said: assuming is good, finding out is better.
Then again, sometimes finding out is worse.
“Might be one of mine,” Lou admits. Reluctantly.
Caroline: The heiress has nothing further to say about that.
“I hope you have a plan, old man. Otherwise things are about to get very interesting.”
She runs her tongue across her teeth and meets his eyes.
“You’ve got the snake’s attention, but you knew that already. So I guess the only question left is where are we going?”
Louis: “To hell, I fear,” the old man quips, but with more sorrow than sarcasm. Still, there’s a hard steel behind his eyes. A grit that’s been worn down but also hardened and honed through centuries of his half-life.
“But we all have to sleep in the beds we make. Even if it’s the big sleep.”
He then trudges on, no time for self-indulgent shrugs or sighs.
“So you got a deal. You get the big fish, but I need to be there when he goes down. I know about his history with you, but I swear on Antonio’s cross that mine is longer and with a hell of a lot more pain and blood.”
He doesn’t wait for her to agree or understand. They’re fast out of time.
Instead, he continues, “But you’ll need this.”
He once more offers the gelato to Gisi, but this time with a clear sign that he will drop it in her lap if he has to. The man, after all, only has one hand.
GM: The casquette girl silently accepts the gelato without change in her serene expression.
Louis: Lou then fishes out a burner phone which he passes to Caroline. For any who look, the burner is hot pink, with knockoff Hello Kitty stickers, and a background lock-screen that seems to be an oil painting of Caroline. A damned good one too.
“Password’s the age of the Kentucky bourbon you brought to my office.”
“My old office,” he says with a sour look. He then nods to the phone. “It’ll have what you need, or well, some of what you need.”
Caroline: “We could just drive there now, together,” Caroline offers, glancing at the casquette girl.
Louis: That’s when his hand snaps. His other hand. The dead one that exists beyond the Shroud—and signals the waiting Knights of St. Balacou, or at least the Undying ones.
GM: Ferris and Kâmil remain just as silent as Giselle. The gray-bearded man’s gray eyes methodically take in every detail…
Every detail that he can see.
It happens in an instant.
A cold chill descends on the car’s occupants as translucent figures pour through the walls like smoke. One flows up Caroline’s nostrils, ears, and mouth like an inhaled mist. Suddenly, she is no longer there. She is in a distant and faraway place. She feels asleep. She feels underwater. Was something happening…?
But something stirs beneath that water.
A maelstrom bursts from the Devillers scion’s heart, black as sin and furious as a hurricane. Caroline vomits the invading spectral figure from her mouth as a scream nearly inhuman in its agony splits the air. Foul-smelling black mist pours from the writhing figure’s half-dissolved, rotted flesh in pungent streams. The ghost looks like they’ve been aged a hundred years and dipped into boiling wax at the same time. Their emaciated, fleshless limbs writhe like a drowning insect’s.
Another has already laid claim to Caroline’s soul.
Meanwhile, the Ventrue sees that Lou is rapidly absconding with every single document, laptop, and flash drive in the vehicle, his hands moving like lighting as he stuffs the treasure troves of information into his voluminous trench coat.
The ghouls aren’t doing anything.
Just staring sleepily ahead.
There’s a knife embedded in one of the seats. Gelato is running down it too. The air smells like gunpowder. There’s a gunshot against the car’s wall.
Louis: Lou gives a split second glance.
He’s always told her true.
The only one, from the beginning.
But he can’t help but raise a brow at the horrific display of dark magic. A chill runs up his spine, reminding him of a certain painting he’s seen…
Caroline: Ferris was quick, but not quick enough. She’s impressed.
The heiress eyes him for an instant.
It’s a lot of trust to ask.
Claire’s documents are her best chance to flip others against Donovan. The information on the hard drives is vital to dismantling her mother’s ticking bomb, to earning her sire’s favor, to cleaning up the disaster that Donovan has fostered with the city’s hunters and Savoy.
She has Lou with his pants down, perhaps for once… but how many times has he had her hopelessly vulnerable? How many times did he have need only to turn aside, to step aside, to close his eyes, for her to die?
If there’s someone in the city worth trusting… perhaps Fontaine is it.
She could stop him. Delay him, perhaps.
Their eyes meet.
You better be worth it, old man.
She dives across the front of the seat to take control the steering wheel in the sleepy-eyed elder ghoul’s hands.
Louis: If she could hear his thoughts, they’d ring like a bullet off an old, battered police badge.
I’m not. But the city is. Or at least her saints are. They’re a dying breed. But even if they were a dime a dozen, they’d still be worth it.
And with that shared thought, his ghostly hand gives another sign. An old symbol to Jacques to remember his family’s oath. The real prize awaits. Lou cannot stay to see if Jacques understands or hearkens. He too will have to trust tonight.
And so, in a supernaturally fast series of movements, the old man stows the last of the documents, laptops, and USB sticks. He unlocks the door and exists the slowed but still moving SUV, falling into a roll that prioritizes protecting the pilfered cache versus sparing him pain. He eats the latter. Just like all the nights he’s served this city. He eats the pain and keeps moving.
Caroline watches the old gumshoe run down an alley, only to disappear behind a dirty plume of sewer-vented steam. And when it clears, the old man is gone.
So too is the car with the old man’s presumed allies, having long taken off during the spectral attack and mass diversion.
They are gone. Gone without saying goodbye, yet a little deader all the same.
GM: The sleepy-eyed ghoul is still alert enough to bat Caroline away as she tries to seize the steering wheel. He doesn’t say a word. Just continues driving.
He doesn’t have to say anything.
Just the look on his face for Caroline says enough.
Raw and bloody and hideous like a picked-at pustule.
Caroline: Like she hasn’t seen that before.
Trusting that she has a moment of privacy from the ghouls, Caroline tucks the phone Lou gave her into her bra and sends a text from her own.
Tonight. Location to follow.
GM: Affirmative, reads the answering response.
Caroline: She tucks the phone back away.
She’s put her trust in Lou. The die is cast.
She’ll see soon whether she was a fool or not.
Wednesday night, 23 March 2016, AM
GM: ‘Kâmil’ drives for a while. Suburban houses give way to cityscape. It looks like they’re now in Mid-City, the Esplanade Ridge neighborhood. The other black SUV follows along behind.
Louis: Eventually, Caroline feels a buzz from the burner.
Caroline: She checks it, plugging in the 18-year password.
Louis: It’s a text—but one that seems to contain little save for a second ‘security measure’.
Who brought your chair to my office after it was renovated.
Even via text, the last word drips with sarcasm.
Caroline: If the situation weren’t so dire, she might laugh.
Carla, after she finished throwing out all your filth.
Louis: Although the gumshoe has taken only a handful of footsteps, Papa Legba’s gift has taken him far across the city. But the distillation of distance does nothing to dilate time. The latter is vanishing like the counting-down digits of a stop-clock. The old man wishes he had time to quip back about ‘one man’s trash being another man’s treasure’. But he doesn’t. Not tonight. Maybe not ever again.
Instead, his response to Caroline is a phone-sent photo.
The burner’s photo app isn’t the best. Far from it, actually. But even a casual glance can tell it’s one of Claire’s documents. The paper kind—the electronic ones would take far too long to crack. After all, it’s only been a few minutes since the gumshoe rolled out of her SUV.
But a casual if squint-worthy read of the document makes clear the document’s content. Dirt on the sheriff.
The next text interrupts her inspection.
Several pictures pop up on the phone, pictures of the two laptops, drives, and the physical files. In the background, she can make out what is clearly a school. Not a living one, but one of New Orleans’ zombic collection, a Katrina-ravaged affair left to rot and fall into ruin.
One picture has a paint-peeling montage of local city legends such as Satchmo, alongside a moldy, laminated poster that reads:
Watch your habits, they become character.
Caroline: Don’t get comfortable.
Louis: Been so long since I have, I can’t remember what that would even feel like.
He follows up that indulgent if true quip with an address.
1901 N. Galvez
Caroline: Keep the phone in the evidence you snagged. Smashing this one, she sends.
Sending friends ahead to meet you.
She forwards the images to her own phone.
GM: Incorporeal figures pour from the mouths of the three ghouls, then abruptly vanish. So too does what’s left of the fourth one on the floor.
It’s been a long time.
And she looks uglier than ever.
But Caroline can still recognize the face.
Caroline: Caroline takes that particular punch in the gut and rolls with it. She’d hoped the woman had gone on to whatever awaited her. But what awaits most of them, she has to admit, is probably none too pleasant.
Plus Turner was too pissed to die the right way.
She’s happier than ever for her mother’s influence that so violently ejected her. Caroline doesn’t imagine Turner had anything pleasant to say to her.
The Ventrue drops and steps on the tiny pink phone and steps on it while she waits for the ghouls to come to. Her gaze fixes on the casquette girl.
GM: Gisèlle’s head gorily explodes as the car’s window shatters under a bullet’s unmistakable crack. The corpse slumps forward off its seat.
Caroline: Caroline remembers, even early in her Requiem, the question that came up with uncomfortable frequency: could she react more quickly than a shooter? Could she stop a bullet? Could she throw herself in the way of Wright, for instance, if he took a shot at Aimee? Could she shove the co-ed out of the way or take the bullet herself?
Hindsight will tell her that given the amount of energy required to punch through Mr. Ferris’ armored vehicles, the round was moving at a fraction of the speed it started at. That in the open air there’s no way she’d be faster than the supersonic high velocity round that her people can explain cut through the window. The slow down that maybe, just maybe, let the animistic portion of her brain react to the sound of the shot, the sound of the shattering glass.
That will all come later.
For now, instinct bounces Gisèlle’s face off of Mr. Ferris’ headrest as Caroline herself violently dives for the floor, putting the significantly more armored doors between the two and any further fire.
Her voice cuts into the night. “Kâmil, drive!!”
She pulls the other woman down on top of her.
GM: Tires squeal as the car speeds. Ferris shouts something and dives for cover too.
But Caroline smells it before she even looks at it.
Before she feels it.
The body’s limpness against her own.
Before she sees it.
The gory remains of a head, red blood and gray brains and white skull shards over black hair, messily spattered across the car’s floor.
The casquette girl is dead.
“We are returning to Perdido House, bayan!” shouts the other ghoul as the wheel spins in his hands.
He’s reacting, not thinking.
There is only one group that knew their location. Only one group that knew where they were going. That could set up an ambush with the resources available. One group that would take out the casquette girl first, over herself or the heavily armed men in front.
They killed Gisèlle with purpose. To blind them. To cut them off from the seneschal. To make the rest of their deaths an unfortunate cost of their current operation.
She knows who’s coming next, and she knows they’ll never make it to Perdido House.
“1901 N. Galvez, Kâmil! Or we’re all dead!”
She rolls over, the ghoul’s bloody corpse on top of her and digs out her phone rather than glance into the night to give the shooter another chance.
“They knew we were going to Perdidio House. They can’t let that happen. We won’t make it.”
Her fingers work over the phone, sending the address to her allies.
1901 N. Galvez. Tonight. As soon as possible. He’s coming.
She sends another to her sister.
Wake him now. The phone with him will have all the answers he needs.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this, but you play the hand you are dealt.
GM: The response from Cécilia is immediate.
Ok. He’ll be there soon.
“It’s a setup! Exactly what they expect!” snarls the ex-CIA agent, already pulling out his own phone.
Caroline: “The sheriff,” Caroline snarls.
No one could make that shot, through the passenger window of a speeding vehicle. Through bulletproof glass. A head shot like that? Not humanly possible.
But then, he’s not human.
GM: Ferris pulls the casquette girl’s corpse over Caroline’s body as grisly cover. There’s not the faintest semblance of respect for the dead.
“We need to get off the road, ma’am! That shot won’t be the last!”
Caroline: “The school, Kâmil. 1901 N. Galvez. Drive like hell.”
She punches in the number for her phone to Mr. Congo.
GM: The Turkish ghoul hesitates for only a moment.
Then he drives.
“Hello, Miss Malveaux-Devillers,” greets the seneschal’s other ghoul.
Caroline: She doesn’t sugarcoat things.
“Mr. Congo, Gisèlle is dead and I may join her shortly.”
The screeching of tires in the night punctuates the comment.
“She was in contact with the seneschal when a sniper killed her.”
“They targeted her first because they knew she was in contact with him. The list of people that knew that as well as our current location is pitifully short.”
GM: There is a grave pause.
“The seneschal has already left Perdido House, Miss Malveaux-Devillers, on a matter of some urgency.”
Caroline: And perhaps wandering into a trap of his own.
“Can you contact the Hussar? This message must reach the prince. There’s a traitor in Perdido House. I have the evidence, but I can’t reach him and may not live to deliver it.”
GM: “Yes, madam. I will do so as soon as possible. What is your present location?”
Caroline: “We are en route to 1901 N. Galvez. If we can make it there, it is where we will make our stand.”
“Mr. Congo, trust no one but the Hussar.”
“The traitor is Sheriff Donovan. It always has been.”
GM: “Grave findings, Miss Malveaux-Devillers. I will attempt to dispatch aid to your location.”
Caroline: “The message is more important than my Requiem. Guard your life carefully. You may be the only one with this truth before the night is over.”
Another pause behind squealing tires.
“God go with you.”
GM: “God go with you as well, Miss Malveaux-Devillers. I shall ensure your message is delivered to my domitor and the Hussar.”
Caroline: She lets the line go dead.
GM: Another ear-splitting crack sounds as glass shatters. Caroline can’t see the damage from her position on the floor, but she smells the unmistakable tang of blood over a wetly gurgled gasp.
Caroline: “Ferris?!” she demands, seeking an update.
She makes a decision in a heartbeat as she waits and sinks her fangs into the warm body atop her.
They’re all hurt. They’re all going to be hurt worse before this is done. And Gisèlle doesn’t need it anymore…
GM: “Notified the others to meet us there, ma’am!” he shouts.
“I… live, bayan,” rasps the Turk’s voice from the front seat.
The blood is odd. Most of it tastes like piss. Gisèlle was evidently not enrolled in college.
But there’s a strong undercurrent of something far headier. It’s quality seasoning on top of cheap food.
But to a starving man, even the latter by itself will do.
Caroline: It feels disrespectful, but there’s little room to worry about that now. The sheriff is coming to kill them all, and she expects that Gisèlle would offer up freely if it meant bringing down her killer.
She sucks down the blood as quickly as she can, all too aware of the other ghoul that may be bleeding out in the front seat. As it turns out, that’s quite quickly.
GM: There’s another shark crack through the glass. Caroline can smell the blood wafting from the front seat. Kâmil drives like mad. Caroline can only guess what state the elder ghoul is in, beyond ‘alive’ and ‘hurt.’
“We… are being… followed, bayan! More cars!” Kâmil gets out.
Caroline: Caroline shoves the empty body off of her and leans forward across the center console between Ferris and the elder ghoul. She holds a bleeding wrist before him.
“Drink, if you pass out and crash we’re dead.”
She takes the opportunity to look back at the pursuing vehicles.
GM: The ghoul is bleeding from his chest, but drinks thirstily from Caroline when she offers. The Ventrue sees several black cars that look much like her own.
With preternaturally fast reflexes, she whips her head out just in time for the next sniper’s bullet to demolish a chunk of nearby seat. It leaves an angry red trail from its graze along her head.
“Get down, ma’am! You’re the primary target!” calls Ferris.
Caroline: She lets the ghoul drink until she feels her hunger begin to cloud her thoughts, even as the last of her own wounds molt way.
Not quite the primary, her mind retorts. But she can’t deny she’s the most desirable one remaining.
Mind, also a rather hard target.
She can do something about that.
She offers the same bleeding wrist to Ferris with a, “You’ll need this,” even as she keeps her head moving. Looking, searching, for the next shot while she’s exposed.
She seizes a dark thread too at her heart and pours her emotions into it. Danger. Anxiety. Violence. Worry.
GM: The seat’s headrest explodes just after Caroline pulls her head away.
“Get down, ma’am!” Ferris yells after quickly imbibing.
Caroline: Two fewer rounds in Ferris and Kâmil are a win for her.
GM: She looks in the mirror.
The car with the other ghouls is nowhere in sight.
Caroline: Stopping will get them killed.
The others weren’t the target.
She grits her teeth.
Hopefully that’s enough.
“I’m a lot closer to bulletproof than you are!” she snaps at Ferris, more out of frustration than anger.
Fish in a barrel.
They’ve done everything right. Changed direction. Changed route. Varied speeds. They’ve prepared for this—bulletproof glass, tinted windows, multiple vehicles….
And yet all they can do now is to drive. Dodge. Run.
GM: The dark thread is answered by feelings of love. Warmth. Equally grave worry. Desire to help.
And, above all:
Willingness to endure.
Desire to endure. For her.
Where… are you…?
Caroline: Fighting… sheriff… wake… Raaid.
She’s grateful she’s already confirmed her sisters are safely within their mother’s embrace tonight.
GM: The connection dies with that final word—just as Kâmil pulls into the parking lot of an abandoned, decrepit school that looks as if it was wrecked by Katrina only yesterday. Caroline recognizes it from Lou’s images. Cars roar behind them as the school’s intercom system blares to life. An unfamiliar man’s voice starts directing “proper guests” down the hallway route inside.
Kâmil all but crashes the car as close to the school as possible. He gets the door for Caroline and leaps out in front of her, shielding the Ventrue with his much larger body.
Caroline: Caroline doesn’t extend Kâmil’s time in the line of fire by arguing with him. Instead she races into the building, putting solid walls between them and their pursuers.
GM: Caroline’s velocitas-imbued blood proves a great boon yet again to her servants as Ferris blurs towards the building alongside her. Bullets whiz and crack past the trio. Kâmil staggers as he catches one in the thigh. It is perhaps a testament to the mighty ghoul’s endurance that it doesn’t blow off his limb wholesale.
Tires squeal as the black cars come to a stop. Figures pour out from the doors. Camilla Doriocourt’s cold and haughty face is among them, but Caroline can’t make out much more before they open fire, belching hot columns of lead after the swiftly retreating trio.
A bird of prey silently divebombs. Its form shifts in mid-flight, the avian features becoming those of a roaring puma. The great cat tackles Caroline to the ground, roaring, biting, and shredding her flesh before the Ventrue blurs away like lightning and delivers a savage kick to its flank. She staggers as another sniper’s bullet takes her in her hip. Kâmil and Ferris catch several more bullets before the group makes good their retreat into the building.
Caroline: Caroline looks at Ferris once they’re inside with a savage and blood-splattered snarl.
GM: The bloodied, raggedy-bearded man doesn’t say a word in response. He just pulls out and hits the detonator.
Caroline: They’d talked about this early on—which isn’t to say long ago.
Really there were two arguments in favor. First, that it was highly probable that the vehicle might have significantly incriminating materials in it, and that they might have to abandon it. Her blood. Their blood. Another lick. Whatever it might be. Plenty of reasons the vehicle couldn’t fall into the wrong hands.
Second, more pointedly, Caroline had no interest in ever becoming someone’s prisoner. After Ferris’ experiences in the Middle East he wholeheartedly agreed with that sentiment.
Which is why wrapped around the giant SUV’s massive American gas tank is a sharped charge. Another reason Ferris always rode with her, given he held the detonator.
The time it takes for Ferris to draw out the detonator is enough—more than enough—to draw in the men, the ghouls, the vampires pursuing them, smelling their blood. Rushing in for the kill.
Caroline can’t see the explosion, but she can feel it through the building as the bomb goes off and turns two tons of steel into two tons of flaming shrapnel.
She just hopes someone, anyone, stopped to stick their head inside and look around the vehicle.
Plaster shakes around them and dust rains from crumbling ceiling tiles.
Because fuck them, that’s why.
Wednesday night, 23 March 2016, AM
Louis: A few miles away in the Seventh Ward, Lou receives Caroline’s last texted reply inside the rotted bowels of the century-old, now decade-abandoned Velena C. Jones Elementary. He looks outside, peering through a gunshot peephole in one of the school’s boarded-up windows. Across the street, the white steeple of Mt. Carmel Baptist Church points to the night-black heavens.
He’s chosen the abandoned school for a variety of strategic reasons, including its location, extant utility, labyrinthine interior, evacuation, and planned demolition. But it was ultimately the name of its neighbor that sealed the deal.
The Vineyard of God.
In the days of the prophet Amos, Mount Carmel had become a haunt of criminals and sinners, a place where apostates, blasphemers, and infidels thought they were safely hid from God’s sight and wrath. But the Lord told Amos the truth: He could still see them, and His justice would not be denied.
Even more famously though, Mount Carmel was the renowned location of the epic showdown of Elijah versus the 850 priests of Baal to determine whose deity was the true god of Israel. That biblical battle involved bloody sacrifices, a deluge, and a great slaughter of the wicked by blade and fire. God’s fire. So much so that in Islam, the location became known as El-Muhraqa.
The Big Easy is a far cry from the Holy Land, but tonight, Lou prays that its Mount Carmel sees a similar miracle. The bloodletting sinners are coming. They, like those in Amos’ time, are confident in their safety from God’s sight and wrath. Lou, like, Elijah, is outnumbered. Outmanned. Outmatched.
Unless God hears his cry.
And so he prays. He pours out his heart like four large jars of water Elijah used to baptize his altar.
And so he prays. He pours out his heart like four large jars of water Elijah used to thrice baptize his altar. He prays for God to fulfill His promise made to Amos. To once more use His power to save Israel. Not that Israel deserves God’s mercy. Nor does Lou, after all. The gumshoe ghoul has no delusions that he’s a holy man like Elijah.
But he still prays. He still pours. Some of that pouring is with words. Others with tears.
He clutches Antonio’s humble cross between his hard-boiled fingers, and he pleads. Pleads that God might know his heart—and not hate him too much.
After all his centuries, despite all the darkness and sin and depravity, the old man still believes. He doesn’t need faith to know that devils are real; he’s been fighting them for centuries. Compared to those devils, saints are scarce. But Lou has met them. Loved them. And perhaps most piercingly, they have loved him back. And so Lou believes. He believes that God and His angels are real, and so too is the forgiveness that He offers.
Perhaps even to a half-damned sinner like Lou.
Not that Lou deserves it. At all. His hands are unclean, and the blood that runs through his veins is even uncleaner. But that’s it. No man deserves forgiveness. No man earned Christ hanging on the cross for him. No man is worthy of His blood. But the blood was still shed all the same.
So he confesses his sins. It takes a long time. His throat burns, and his face is drenched, but he keeps on praying. Pleading for God’s mercy. Like the red-robed woman shown to Longinus by the Angel Amoniel, the old man begs God for forgiveness, begs that Christ accept him, and vows that he will “drink no more of any blood save the Blood of Christ.”
Yet, when the old man finishes his prayer, no sky opens. No fire descends. No light receives him to Heaven.
But the old man still believes. Still dares to hope. He will wait for God to do His work.
In the meantime, he has his own to do.
Much of that work has already been done. For like Elijah of old, Lou has toiled long to prepare his ‘altar.’ However, Lou’s preparations do not involve twelve stones, cut wood, a trench, and a sacrificed ox.
Rather, the old man has made the defunct elementary school into a trap as deceptive as it’s deadly—at least to his foes, or so he hopes. Certain doors have been strategically locked and blocked by tipped over lockers. Others have been left unlocked. In certain places, drywall has been cutout and covered with classroom posters or rotting backpack cubbies to create secret passages. The effect is a maze within a maze.
Cafeteria supplies have been ransacked, with seemingly harmless if rancid flour and sugar packets spread across strategic corridors and thresholds. Such ‘spills’ blend seamlessly with the other detritus left behind by the schools’ former students, teachers, staff, and subsequent squatters. Rubbish and ruin is everywhere, giving the place a post-apocalyptical look that distracts the eyes with too many details and too many places to hide. At least for those unfamiliar with the ‘renovated’ school.
Further adding to the death-trap is its placements of burning candles. Enough rooms are completely bare of such Kindred-feared flames, but others are full of them. If you looked at each of these flame-lit rooms, which most vampires wouldn’t, you might even find a moldy birthday cake that had been left in the staff fridge, and repurposed with lit candles and ‘fresh’ strawberry jam icing that roughly spells out:
HAPPY RETIREMENT, SHERIFF
Less obvious—but far more lethal—are the school’s new supernatural defenses.
Blood-painted veves adorn the walls of multiple rooms, alongside Cainite and Voudun fetishes, some in rooms with flames, other without. In the locker-lined corridors and metal doors, spray-painted dogs mingle with older gang graffiti. There is magic here. Waiting like a web for flies.
And at its center sits Lou, an old spider.
Patient, but no less deadly.
Wednesday night, 23 March 2016, AM
GM: The silence in the explosion’s aftermath is literally deafening.
“Let us make haste, bayan,” says Kâmil, taking off down the hallway in a jog.
Ferris grunts and moves after him.
“Should buy us some time. This is a good place to set up an ambush.”
“Take a right at the end of the hall,” sounds the crackly intercom voice.
Caroline: Caroline follows the voice, burning away more blood as she goes against the gaping rents in her body.
If she had time to put the others back together, she would. But at some point she has to trust to their own abilities: they don’t have time to stop and ghouls are hard to kill.
GM: Not hard enough, in Gisèlle’s case.
The intercom voice continues to issue directions. It’s a large building. Ferris voices his suspicions. He isn’t sure they should play along—the old man who sent them here has already fucked them over once.
“Might be he decides to cut a deal with the sheriff, ma’am. Right now I’d give better odds to Donovan’s side than ours.”
Kâmil silently pounds the keys of a dumbphone as he runs.
“I am summoning aid, bayan, but I cannot say whether it shall arrive in time.”
Caroline: Caroline looks to the blood-splattered spy and the blood-soaked elder ghoul. She knows she’s covered in blood, brains, and worse. Her clothing charred away. They’re a pathetic sight.
“We started the night with seven, Roger. More than half are already dead or missing.”
She wipes blood off her face with the back of a sleeve and gives a grim smile. “If that’s what he decides, it’s all over but the crying. But I think the old man will play it square. He hates Donovan more than us.”
She digs out her phone to send another message, this time to Adler. He made his move. It’s happening now. 1901 N. Galvez. Either victor will appreciate your presence.
“Tell them to group up,” she advises Kâmil. “Anyone rushing in alone is going to get mowed down.”
Well, almost anyone. There’s still one hope that stirs something fierce in her breast, unlikely though it is.
Only twice before has she felt him through their blood—once at the trial, again at her reveal. Both times in anger, in hate. She’d felt his unbound fury such that the first time it overwhelmed her. She wonders if he’s ever felt the same from her. Felt a stirring in his blood at the dangers she has faced.
Surely he’d feel it now. She can almost feel her dead heart roaring in her chest. The odds stacked against them are… frightful, but it’s not fear she feels. It’s anger. It’s hate. The same hate she felt through him.
Traitor… Donovan… fighting…
Snakes in the garden.
She’ll kill them all.
GM: The first response she receives is a text on her phone. Not from Adler, but Westphal’s number.
Where are you and where is he?
Caroline: She looks down at it as they set off into the building, following behind Roger.
We just entered the building through the north entrance, on Miro St. He was right behind us—and brought friends.
She sends it out to Raaid (via the phone her sister should have supplied), Jocelyn, and the three Lasombra—the allies she’s arrayed for this battle.
Not that she intends on using Jocelyn in battle. No, she instead asks the Toreador to bring her a vessel. They’ll need one, and badly.
GM: All four of them, besides Lou.
All too few against the sheriff and the forces he might bring to bear.
Caroline: It’s not so bleak an accounting as she might have feared weeks ago.
Five vampires—each of them battle-tested, punching well above their weight and age. None of them individually may be a match for the sheriff, but none of them have reason to fear the others among his traitorous pact individually—save perhaps the bishop’s sire. None of hers have grown fat and soft. They’re all bloodied, tough, and battle-tested.
Two elder ghouls—Lou and Kâmil both. She knows well how fearsome both are individually. She has seen Lou cut down a vampire the match of any in the sheriff’s gang.
The parade of lesser ghouls each might bring to this battle—and the strength she can give them through both her blood and the frightful weapons the sheriff so inadvertently placed in her hand with his last assassination attempt.
Whatever strength Lou might bring to bear in this battle—she does not imagine he leaped into it blindly or alone. The centuries-old ghoul has a plan, an agenda. He’s laid his trap, and while she may be the bait used to spring it, she’d rather be the bait than the target of the cunning cruelty of the old man in a profession most die young in.
Then there is the crushing weight of time bearing down on the sheriff—not upon her. The longer this conflict goes on, the more chance another will intervene. Two specific others that leap readily to mind: sire and seneschal, the great pieces that might sweep the board before them clear.
And the cards in her hand she has yet to play, few though they are.
It’s far from hopeless—the strongest hand she could hope to play for this confrontation, barring her trump cards.
GM: That same hope looks as if it weighs upon the minds of both ghouls. Or at least Kâmil.
Just prolong this.
Just hold out.
“Right,” sounds the intercom again.
“Don’t like this,” growls Ferris.
“Whomever is here has anticipated this confrontation,” says Kâmil. “That gives me hope.”
But Caroline is the first to hear it. Distant crashes.
“Second classroom on the left, through the poster,” sounds the voice on the intercom.
The thump of footsteps, of many footsteps, echoes loudly off floors. The preternaturally sped ghouls burst from jogs into sprints as gunfire explodes behind them, shredding apart drywall and blowing chunks in floors and paneled ceilings. Ferris swears profusely and stumbles. Caroline smells the fresh of aroma of blood. Kâmil seizes the other ghoul, slings him over his shoulder, and takes off in a blur with the Ventrue for the second door on the left. The dusty classroom inside is completely trashed, but there’s still a moldering poster of a cat hanging onto a tree with the caption ‘hang in there’. Gunfire continues to echo as Kâmil shoves aside a turned-over desk and peels away the poster, revealing a crudely excavated hole in the drywall that one must crawl to enter through. The ghoul regards it approvingly as he waits for Caroline and Ferris to get through first, then crawls after them, doing his best to right the desk and poster after he’s through.
“I fear this may do little more than delay the sheriff, but in delay too is hope,” he murmurs.
Caroline: “I knew this night was coming,” Caroline agrees, shoving a desk in front of the hole as soon as the elder ghoul clears it.
“We will not face him alone, even here.”
GM: “Alone’s best. If it were me, I’d let him break his strength against us and any booby traps, then swoop in for the mop-up after we’re dead,” Ferris blackly observes. The ghoul is pale-faced and sweating as he pushes several bullets out of his bleeding legs, regenerating the chewed flesh.
Caroline: “That’s why you make certain most of your ‘allies’ value you more alive than dead,” Caroline answers wryly.
“I don’t trust anyone else Lou brought farther than I can throw them, but I’m not relying on him alone.”
GM: “Right, left hole, then third door on the right,” says Kâmil, holding up a note on the floor as he takes off in a jog. “Our ‘allies’ are prudent not to use the intercom alone.”
“Fuller and Green haven’t gotten back to me,” says Ferris as he takes off in a jog. “Or the others. Would assume they’re compromised or dead.”
“Chandler and Graves are making their way over.”
Caroline: Caroline grimaces. She doesn’t like Fuller and Autumn’s odds against the forces that were pursuing them, if even a fraction broke off to finish them off, and she’s missing Ericson’s blade tonight—exactly as the sheriff had intended when he named her.
“Widney had other directions that are likely consuming her attention tonight,” the Ventrue offers.
The administratively focused ghoul was the most ready attaché she could attach to her Lasombra allies—the one least missed in the safehouse raid and fighting. She’s hopeful that will pay dividends tonight—her charred clothing and lack of weapons leave her feeling distinctively naked in the moment.
GM: If Ericson’s blade could even be counted on. The mother of two was not eager to risk her life again in Caroline’s service after the clash with Meadows. The Olympic athlete had never actually fought to kill someone before.
Perhaps some hidden blessing that the sheriff didn’t know that.
“Or she’s been taken out or compromised too,” says Ferris as he stoops through the next hole in the wall.
Caroline: Caroline gives a bloody grin. “Your cynicism is inspiring, Roger.”
She wishes she could have shared more with him—about her ties to the newly-arrived Lasombra and other countermeasures she has in place—but there were some secrets she’s kept very close to the vest. At least until Donovan was removed, and especially after learning about the brazen invasion of Adler’s mind.
GM: The next few harrowing minutes can only be described as navigating a maze—one of musty corridors and derelict classrooms filled with concealed drywall holes and secret passageways, all of them ensconced amidst squalor, detritus, and filth. Sometimes the voice over the intercom tells them where to go. Sometimes there are notes left on the floor. That measure is clearly intended to throw off pursuers—anyone who followed the intercom’s directions without also following the ones on the notes would be hopelessly misdirected. All throughout the Katrina-ravaged school, rancid flour and sugar is spilled across floors and doorways at random points. In other locales, tiny pinpricks of fire wheedle at Caroline’s badly aggravated and on edge Beast.
For there is another source making it whine and snarl.
Sometimes the noises of many, many footsteps behind them die off. Sometimes they start again. Sometimes there are tremendous crashes and explosion-like booms as Caroline’s hunters rip and tear and brute force their way through the maze-like school. Caroline isn’t sure how he’s following them. Sorcery. Preternatural senses. Simple if uncanny powers of deduction. Other methods. Perhaps several of them, or all of them. Like with Claire’s security, like with any security system, the most Lou’s precautions and defenses can hope to accomplish against a truly committed force is delay and resource taxation. Caroline’s foe has committed himself to this gamble and cannot back out now. Not without risking all coming to ruin.
So the Ventrue and her ghouls run, the hounds almost literally nipping at their heels—and finally duck through another drywall hole and emerge inside the gymnasium.
But Lou’s countermeasures have succeeded in one of their purposes.
Mahmoud, Westphal, and Cimpreon are gathered there. Of Raaid, Caroline sees no sign. Barricades close off the entrances. Around half a dozen ghouls with shotguns, assault rifles, swords, molotov cocktails, and—most deadly—Raaid’s several rocket launchers are lined up in rows at the top of the bleachers, the highest ground available, behind more barricades. Shadowy presences with vaguely demonic features lurk in the room’s darkest corners, their presences radiating malice and hate. None of the ghouls look eager to stand any closer to them.
Caroline: It’s a sight that brings a genuine smile to the Ventrue’s soot-, drywall dust-, and blood-stained face.
Not seeing Raaid doesn’t immediately concern her—he had further to come—and might be present all the same.
She observes with satisfaction that the Lasombra have set up a textbook L-shaped ambush. The ghouls can pour heavy weapons fire—to say nothing of actual fire—into the forces advancing through the double doors. It will be a killing field for any ghouls with Donovan’s party, and one that will bleed its vampires as well. She’d noticed the distinct lack of cover in the hall leading into the gym.
Any attackers that make it into the gym itself can be contained by Caroline, the Lasombra, and Kâmil—a ‘security’ force that will hold either side of the entrance to prevent breakouts—to allow the shooters to continue to pour fire into the kill zone as long as possible to maximum effect.
With the Molotovs and rockets there’s the hope, too, of spreading fire in the hall—sowing chaos in the vampires pursuing them—and if the ghouls can place the fire only in the hall, at least to start, it may allow the defenders to avoid its effects.
If they can set them into flight through the school, she has little doubt it’ll prove a death trap for them—full of traps designed specifically to catch, destroy, or incapacitate frenzying vampires.
Against almost any other force she could imagine arrayed against them, it’d be a slaughter.
But against the sheriff she knows it’s not enough. Knows it in her bones. She remembers well her duel with the Hussar, the gap in skill, in strength, in brutality. She expects the sheriff will prove all the more frightful—none of them can stand against him if he comes through the doors.
Too, there’s sorcery aplenty on the other side—perhaps enough to control the fires, to raise barriers, to shape this battle.
Their initial strike will maul the sheriff’s party badly. If they’re lucky, it’ll torpor or destroy vampires and kill most of their ghouls. But it won’t be enough. The sheriff and his remaining Kindred supporters will carve through them.
She hopes this isn’t what Lou has in mind.
The absence of other figures concern her as well. Jocelyn was supposed to arrive with a vessel. It shouldn’t be a surprise that there was an answer in place to remove her from the board—she’s been one of Caroline’s most well known ‘supporters’, but it still stings—and justifies her decision to drain the slain casquette girl.
She doesn’t let the concerns show on her face as she approaches the Lasombra.
“I’m glad you could make it. Sorry about the late notice—he decided to start the party early.”
GM: “His funeral, and my payday,” sneers Westphal.
“I been waitin’ a long time for this,” smiles Cimpreon.
“But he ain’t gonna go down easy, even with this setup, if he’s brought friends.”
Caroline: “He did.”
Caroline briefly elaborates on those she saw.
“They’re not far behind us—but I’m expecting additional company still.”
She looks into the openness of the gym.
“You hear me, old man?”
GM: Ferris and Kâmil, meanwhile, move amidst the other ghouls to procure extra weapons. Both of Caroline’s protectors (though just as often this evening, protectees) already bear sidearms, but Kâmil gladly avails himself of a proper sword. The group’s hasty flight from their vehicle forced him to abandon the blade he’d stored there. Ferris accepts a heavier submachine gun. As weakened as individual bullets might be against the undead, massed automatic weaponsfire is no laughing matter even to them.
No response from the old hunter answers Caroline.
“You look like shit,” says Mahmoud.
“What forces did you see and what backup can we expect?” Westphal asks crisply.
“Do zhey haf any sorcerers?” asks Mahmoud. Faintly contemptuously. It’s clear who she considers the real threats.
Caroline: “At least two sorcerers of equal or superior skill,” Caroline offers Mahmoud as she breaks open the trunk she’d left with the Lasombra for tonight and peels offs the tattered and charred remains of her clothing.
“And at least one other Kindred—a shapeshifter. Multiple ghouls. Maybe more. I counted at least three vehicles total. Minus whatever losses they took here.”
She belts on a sword and dagger, then loosens the sword in it scabbard.
“I’d expect four or five Kindred, plus Donovan, and call it an even dozen ghouls.”
GM: “Donovan… Doriocourt, Agnello, Wright,” counts off Cimpreon. “Who’s our other pals?”
He regards Caroline appreciatively as she changes.
Caroline: She raises an eyebrow at the Lasombra as she pulls a fresh long-sleeved turtleneck on, then shimmies into pants.
“Kâmil has a couple centuries in the blood.” She gestures towards him to as she pulls a hand through a sleeve. “I had a casquette girl, but she was their first target. Most of my other ghouls are dead or missing, but I’ve got half a dozen kine that can use an automatic weapon on the way.”
“We’ve got a Banu Haqim with what I’d wager is about a century as well.”
“The old man—ghoul—and whoever else he’s brought to the party. I’d stack him even against anyone but Donovan, and he has friends.”
She gives a savage grin.
“And the prince knows.”
GM: “Damn, they plugged a caskie?” Cimpreon lets out a whistle. “These guys really want you dead.”
Caroline: “Me more than anyone in the city,” Caroline answers with another grin as she fits a gorget under the turtleneck.
“But don’t get any ideas, love. If I don’t walk out of here, the prince will kill everyone involved, and probably everyone they’ve ever known. But just as surely, the rewards for those that survive standing with me will be just as large.”
GM: “That’s precisely what I was counting on,” says Westphal with a thin smile.
“Though I’m sure there’ll be a story for your final death, if they manage to pull that off. I doubt that Donovan or anyone on his team is as smart as me, of course, but I’ll give someone who’s wound up sheriff some credit. He has to know how the prince thinks to get and hold the job.”
“Yeah, and doubt they’re as modest, either,” Cimpreon smirks at the off-hand boast.
Caroline: There was no winning if they weren’t all brought in. She couldn’t spend this fight wondering if a knife in the back is coming, if someone offered Westphal a better deal, or if they’ll turn if things look grim. Even if there’s an immediate cost.
“Maybe with any other lick in the city it could be an unfortunate accident in the broader fight,” Caroline answers. “But I have a rather direct line to him, and my message my sire to was unequivocal.”
GM: “Good, we’ll cause a broplem efen if we lose,” says Mahmoud. “One last ‘fuck you.’”
“I have no plans on losing,” sneers Westphal.
“How long do you estimate we have and what further preparations would be most efficacious?”
Caroline: “Minutes at best, probably less,” she answers, pulling on a tailored Kevlar arming coat and buttoning it tightly at one wrist and at the throat, leaving the other wrist loose for now.
Whether it’ll stop any of the higher-caliber bullets being used tonight is an open question. She doubts it. Similarly, she doesn’t expect it to hold up to any weapon wielded with inhuman strength or speed. What it does offer is a significant degree of protection against that most feared of banes, fire. She can’t imagine a stake surviving impact against the small titanium plate sown into the back over her heart, either.
She looks at the ghouls. “Pull the least effective shooter off and give him a fire extinguisher. Hold the shadow beasts back around the ghouls to intercept anything that gets past us.”
Caroline brings her exposed wrist to her fangs and draws blood. “Who else is getting fast?”
GM: “Someone get a container,” calls Westphal. “All three of us, and whatever else you have to spare for the half-bloods.”
One of the Lasombra’s ghouls produces one and approaches.
“Lot of security contractors going to be dead after tonight, I expect,” he observes.
“Inconvenient. The market here can’t be anywhere nearly as good as Saudi Arabia’s.”
Caroline: “If each of you hit me back we can make it go further,” she suggests.
GM: Westphal empties the ghoul’s water bottle. The three Kindred drink their fill after Caroline bleeds herself, then bleed themselves and pass it back.
“Zhe Apyssal entities work best swarming enemies,” says Mahmoud. “Zhey hate life and lofe killing, and I don’t care if zhey die. Zhere’s always more to call up.” She smirks faintly at Westphal. “Unlike your mercenaries.”
Caroline: “You know better than I do—but they’d make ideal catchers for those that make it out of the kill zone, because while they’re fighting the ghouls don’t have to worry about where their bullets and Molotov’s go.”
She checks her phone as she swigs down the other Kindred’s vitae.
GM: It tastes dark and hard and smoldering with ambition. There’s a refined flavor to it, even a nobility of sorts, but it’s… got a more direct kick to it, Caroline can only say, than the vitae of her own clan.
“Pullets won’t do much to zhem, put as creatures off incarnate darkness zhey’re still hurt py fire.”
Caroline: “That makes all of us.”
GM: Two of the ghouls, one of Cimpreon’s gangsters and one of Westphal’s security contractors, imbibe from the water bottle after Caroline bleeds herself.
Caroline’s phone has one new message.
Adler still has not responded, but there is a text from Jocelyn:
Hey I’m here with the juicebag where are you
Caroline: She bites back a curse.
Jocelyn’s timing isn’t actually the worst, but it’s not great either. Too late to sneak in with the Lasombra, too early to help with cleanup, and just in time to cause a problem with Lou and any hunter friends he brought.
Running late here. Can you park a street over? I’ll let you know as soon as I’m done.
GM: No I don’t want to wait around
I’m already being your maid bringing over food on demand
Caroline: Petulant child.
Her patience for the Toreador is at an all-time low amid a fight for her life against the sheriff.
Do not approach the building, Jocelyn. Things are about to get very violent. I’ll let you know when it’s safe.
She swaps to texting Cécilia.
I may need you again tonight, she sends, feeling guilty even as she taps out the words. I may need everyone. Things not going as planned—he made his move early. Things are about to get bad.
She hates the idea of shifting her pain to her sisters, hates to even ask. But the alternative may be dying on them—and she knows that would hurt them in more than one way more.
It easier, in some ways, when she was the only one she was going to hurt if she failed.
GM: Too late I’m doing it, Jocelyn texts back.
Fuck you ordering me around when I’m already doing you a favor
A moment later:
I’m inside now :)
The smiley face feels more than a little passive-aggressive.
Caroline: She stops responding to the Toreador, looking up to the Lasombra and her ghouls. “Any word, Kâmil?”
GM: “Aid is en route to our location, bayan,” he responds. “I am told the seneschal has already taken some portion of the covenant’s strength with him upon another errand, however. And with the Guard de Ville accounted for, our prince’s remaining forces are now spread thin between two fronts.”
“Good time for Savoy or the B-man to make a move,” Cimpreon observes.
“If they know the prince is so besought,” muses Westphal.
Ok. We’ll be here for you, Cécilia texts back. Thanks for the heads up.
Actually I’m gonna try the gym, texts Jocelyn.
Caroline: Caroline runs her tongue across her fangs, thinking of a certain other Toreador.
“I laid a false trail with Savoy’s side, but if we succeed tonight obviously there’s going to be a pretty large red flag going up for Savoy pretty immediately. We need to be ready to dip as soon as the sheriff goes down for good. And if the seneschal is gone with additional forces as is, pretty good odds whatever have left is going to divert to counter their thrust.”
She looks at Westphal, then the other Lasombra.
“Obviously that goes beyond our deal, and assumes a lot of things, so we can cross that bridge when we get there.”
GM: Already thought of a couple ways you can pay me back, hint hint ;) texts Jocelyn.
Caroline: “I’ve got a friend coming in,” she adds for the other licks.
GM: “More the merrier,” smirks Cimpreon.
“What would I do if I were Savoy and felt my childe die?” considers Westphal. “An attack on Perdido House is probably too risky, without clearer intelligence and advance planning. But I’d hit secondary targets, knowing there’s going to be a delayed and/or less effectual Hardliner response with their most effective field agent out of commission.”
“Yes, zhat’s fucking great and all, put right now I care a lot more apout zhis pattle,” says Mahmoud.
Caroline: The Ventrue nods. “Eyes on the prize, not on the horizon.”
GM: Westphal shrugs. “We’ve made as many preparations as we can. There’s little else to do now except wait.”
“If I lose enough of my people, I may let you and your sire off the hook for some of your promises in return for that CIA agent of yours,” says the Lasombra. “If he survives tonight.”
Westphal had already offered to buy Ferris from Caroline. The man’s background in the Middle East very much drew his interest.
Caroline: Caroline grins. “It’s possible we could find some manner of agreement about his future, assuming all of us survive tonight.”
She imagines her suggestion is less than aligned with Westphal’s own ideas.
“If I die and he doesn’t tonight, feel free to extend your job offer—I expect you’ll both be looking for a speedy departure from the city.”
GM: “You hear that, ghoul? You have a backup option,” smirks Westphal.
“Glad for it, sir,” answers Ferris. “I’d rather not be left high and dry if she dies tonight and I don’t.”
There’s a banging against the gym doors.
“HEY LEMME IN!”
Caroline: Caroline’s grin becomes a smile at Ferris’ diplomatic answer.
Both fade with the banging at the doors.
Jocelyn is no fighter. It’s possible that the sheriff made no accounting for her when he accounted for so many of her ghouls and allies.
It’s possible, but that doesn’t mean she thinks it likely. If she’d been on the other side, Caroline would have had forces outside to account for late arriving forces—to pick off everyone they could.
Jocelyn sauntering up doesn’t feel right. Doesn’t smell right.
She approaches the door. “Be ready,” she murmurs to those around the doors, indicating they should not remove the barricades just yet.
Instead she calls on the blood, on the connection between her blood and Jocelyn’s, the Toreador completely in her thrall, to bend her will and ask the question with the Beast’s voice.
“Are there other Kindred with you?”
GM: “No,” Jocelyn answers in a sleepy voice.
Caroline: “Did you meet other Kindred or ghouls on your way in?” she persists.
GM: “No,” she answers again.
GM: Cimpreon frowns. “If you don’t trust her, I say leave her out for the De Villes.”
“What value does she bring to our force?” asks Westphal.
“Not a strong will, zhat’s opvious,” remarks Mahmoud.
Caroline: “Let her in,” Caroline answers.
There’s a risk here, but she’s mitigated the worst of it if Jocelyn hasn’t seen or interacted with other Kindred, and doesn’t present a Trojan horse for them in that way.
GM: Westphal motions. Two of the ghouls climb down the bleachers and move aside the barricades. Jocelyn’s standing outside, casually dressed in jeans, raincoat, and backpack. Meg is there too, similarly dressed. Both of them are half-carrying a half-conscious-looking man around college age. He’s dark skinned and dressed in jeans and a hoodie.
“Finally,” Jocelyn mutters, letting go of the man shoving him off towards the ghouls. They catch him before he hits the ground. Meg gives a squeak.
Jocelyn takes off her wet coat and shoves it into the ghouls’ hands, then smiles, straddles up to Caroline, and wraps her arms around the Ventrue. She plants a kiss on her lover’s lips.
“Seeee, wasn’t dangerous at all.”
She looks over the three Lasombra. Her gaze passes off Mahmoud and Westphal, but settles on Cimpreon.
“You’re cute. I like the suit and tats. You wanna fuck my carmilla here with me?”
Cimpreon looks amused.
“Maybe after this is all over. Killing always gets me worked up for fucking.”
“Somehow I’m guessing Toreador,” Westphal sneers to Mahmoud, who rolls her eyes.
The ghouls hand Jocelyn’s coat to Meg and lay down the man. They close the doors and start re-assembling the barricade.
Caroline: Caroline slides out of Jocelyn’s embrace.
“The sheriff is coming, Jocelyn. And we’re going to kill him.”
GM: “Uh, wait, what?”
“You eating him?” asks Cimpreon, nodding towards the man.
Caroline: She gestures across the room for Jocelyn, to the rows of heavily armed men and ghouls. To Kâmil and Ferris.
“I didn’t wave you off for giggles.”
She turns to Cimpreon. “That was the idea—either before or after. Didn’t expect that I’d show up as full as I did after my earlier activities.”
GM: “Uh, you have a death wish, or just some other reason you wanna pick a fight with the De Villes?” says Jocelyn.
“Well if you’re not going to eat him now, I will. I sbent some plood calling up zhe Apyssal peasts,” says Mahmoud.
Caroline: She nods to Mahmoud. “Split him if necessary—we’re all going to need it. Alternatively, I could use the blood to speed up all the remaining ghouls.”
She turns to Jocelyn. “He’s a traitor. He tried to kill me—three times.”
GM: “Okay, this is completely nuts. You should leave,” says Jocelyn.
“Fuck ’em,” says Cimpreon, and sinks his fangs into the man.
He drinks for a bit, then stops and licks his lips. “Mm. Funny flavor.” He hefts the man up by his shirt and casually throws him across the gym. He lands at Caroline’s feet with a crash.
“Drink up, ladies.”
Caroline: “Funny how?” Caroline asks, planting a foot in his chest to stop the others.
GM: “Relaxed, I guess.”
Caroline: Caroline tilts her head. “Maybe better to wait, then, if there’s anything unusual.”
“And I don’t know that our other associates would appreciate us killing him.”
GM: “Squeamish?” Westphal sneers.
“So far I’ve seen a fat lot from these associates beyond an intercom voice. This feels like us being used to do someone else’s dirty work.”
Caroline: “Wouldn’t have been able to group up without their prep—you didn’t see that the rest of the school is a deathtrap and maze.” She licks her lips.
GM: “No, we saw,” says Mahmoud. “Zhere’s wardings on zhese walls. And zhe ceiling.”
“No effect on anyzhing coming in. Going out’s bropably anozher matter.”
“Dirty work,” repeats Westphal.
Cimpreon abruptly collapses to his feet.
“Wha’… the…” he slurs.
“Don’t move,” Westphal snarls at Jocelyn, who halts in mid-step.
“What the fuck!” she exclaims.
Caroline: Caroline’s expression twists into anger as she rounds on Jocelyn. “Where’d you get the vessel, Jocelyn?”
“Mahmoud, is there anything you can do for him?” she asks.
GM: “Fuck you! Tell short stack here to let me-”
“Freeze,” Westphal hisses next at Meg.
The ghoul cowers in place.
Mahmoud stares daggers at Jocelyn. “No, I’m not a fucking healer. Who wants to kill zhis cunt?”
Kâmil draws close to Caroline, hand on his weapon. The other ghouls instantly move into positions of readiness.
Caroline: “Toss the backpack through one of the windows,” she tells Kâmil.
She turns back to Jocelyn.
“One job, and you fucked it up.”
GM: Caroline’s order is exactly when the pack explodes.
The sound is beyond deafening, shredding ears as surely as the shrapnel shreds their bodies. The concussive shockwave rocks everyone off their feet, but deadlier still is the fire as the room turns into an inferno. Napalm burns and clings to everything through the cloud of dust. Caroline can only guess how many explosives were crammed into the backpack.
She can guess, because her screaming Beast does not claim her as the others burn and suffer and scream and succumb to frenzy. The Ventrue is there one second, right by the backpack. The next she’s gone, seemingly teleported across space if not time. Did she merely run at incredible speed, dodging shrapnel, napalm, dust—solid, liquid, gas—alike? Did she soar through the air, unbound by laws of gravity, like unto the sheriff and seneschal? There is no witness quick-eyed enough to say. They can but observe that the prince’s childe is now perched atop one of the back-most bleachers, pale flesh hale, clothes intact, even her hair scarcely disturbed.
Caroline: Too slow.
She knows it before the words leave her mouth.
Whether they’re listening in with a bug on Jocelyn, some discipline, or sorcery, she knows what’ll happen the second the words leave her mouth—and she knows exactly how devastating it’ll be.
Too slow, and bringing Jocelyn in at all was her decision, her fault.
The others can’t say afterwards exactly what happened—even with her blood in their veins, she doesn’t so much move as simply teleport to their eyes—one second standing beside Jocelyn, the next stumbling away, having flung the Toreador’s bag with all the speed and strength that is her vampiric deathright.
She narrowly avoids an outright fall only with the same inhuman speed and grace that lets her catch herself mid-fall with half a dozen lightning-fast steps to regain her balance.
GM: The backpack explodes.
That still happens.
Shrapnel flies everywhere. Fire blossoms as napalm flies everywhere, riding the cloud of dust. The shockwave sends people staggering and stumbling—those too slow or unawares (or held frozen by the sanguine voice) to throw themselves on the ground for cover. The sound leaves even Caroline’s dead ears ringing, and she cannot imagine how much worse it is for the living. The floor is completely wrecked and gutted. Groans rock through the structure. Rubble and dust fall from the ceiling.
But where it happens is another matter.
It happens, instead, at the far opposite corner of the gym. Kâmil, Jocelyn, Meg, Westphal, Cimpreon, and the motionless man are caught at the outer edge of the blast, rather than ground zero. Flames cling and burn to clothes. Blood wells from abrasions. The vampires howl their rage as Kâmil throws them to the floor and stamps on them to put out fires. The other ghouls leap down from the bleachers with fire extinguishers. But no one looks too badly hurt. No one looks dead—or looks like an unrecognizable mess of charred and scattered bits of meat.
“Put a round in her fucking head!” Westphal screams at his ghouls, his face livid.
Caroline: Caroline draws a stake out of her belt and drives it into Jocelyn’s breast.
GM: Even as wood pierces the heart of Caroline’s already paralyzed lover, the Lasombra’s servants have little chance to obey.
A rumble doesn’t build—it’s been building, hardly perceptible over the explosive detonation, but audible now to Caroline’s sensitive ears. The thump of onrushing feet. Many feet.
Then the window above the bleachers shatters.
Outside, rain and wind howl. Glass spills like falling tears as rainwater whips inside—
And Caroline’s foe comes forth.
He’s dressed in a dark, double-breasted trench coat, its style vaguely reminiscent of a World War II German military officer. On someone else, it might look offensive. On him it feels like the Third Reich is back—and pounding on your door in the dead of night, each sharp bang promising you’re next. He bothers with no umbrella. The rain weeps against his waxen, corpse-like face, and perhaps seems to trickle down its frozen contours more slowly than rain should. He does not blink as the moisture runs down his eyes, nor move his mouth as it beads on his lips. He looks like a statue. Chiseled stone indifferent to its state in the gloomy weather.
He’s dressed for war, too, beneath his coat, in full Kevlar body armor. Does he even need it? It’s some protection against fire, Caroline knows. He’s armed to the teeth. A heavy-looking sniper rifle is strapped across his back—surely the weapon that slew Gisèlle—along with an M16A4, that 20-lb monster of a gun most soldiers fire either prone or mounted, and an AK-47. Hardware enough to weigh down a lesser man. Sword and machete hang from his hip. Bandoliers of ammunition crisscross his chest. His coat pockets are full with what can only be further devices and instruments of destruction.
There is no mistaking the mission of this black-garbed templar.
There is no mistaking what lurks in his inscrutable, storm-colored eyes, those empty eyes that chillingly pierce through to the very soul, and threaten to make them as empty as their possessor. The thing that lurks in those icy eyes is same thing that has stared at Caroline since she first saw the sheriff in Perdido House, what feels like a lifetime ago.
It was always there.
She always knew it was there.
The seneschal delayed it for as long as he could. Kept her ignorant of her heritage. Kept him ignorant of her heritage. Gave her time to grow from a frightened and ignorant fledgling into the prince’s rightful childe and heir. Gave her time to grow into something that could meet this nemesis—and perhaps cannot, if the forces she has assembled tonight are inadequate. But Philip Maldonato can shield her from her destiny no longer. Can delay this confrontation no longer. The seneschal is so conveniently occupied tonight upon another “matter of urgency,” and the would-be usurper who surely lusts for her sire’s throne is here. Here to remove this threat to his ascendancy, once and for all. Before her sire can spirit her away. Before her strength can further wax. Late is his coming—doubtlessly he wishes he had done this long ago (and was it truly so long ago?) in Perdido House, when she was a babe in the night and would have been helpless to withstand him. He, too, can delay this confrontation no further. He sought to preempt it with Raaid, she suspects. Do the deed without dirtying his own hands. But the assassin’s mission failed and now he must handle the job himself.
She is out of time.
He is out of time.
Her doom, that archaic word for ‘destiny’ that now carries such sinister connotations, has arrived upon dark wings amidst a miserable and storm-lashed night. The nameless and dreadful thing lurking in the sheriff’s empty eyes has come forth. That thing she glimpsed a terrible preview of, when she met his gaze in Perdido House, and all masks and lies were finally stripped away from them both.