“Defense just lets you lose more slowly.”
Tuesday night, 22 March 2016, PM
Caroline: Caroline draws heavily upon her ghouls to find a lead on Claire’s safehouse, especially when Ferris relates that he cannot directly tie Donovan to any of their murders. She proposes a solution of her own, trying to catch a break.
As Claire’s stepdaughter, it’s no great challenge to acquire a copy of her death certificate. She turns that, her legal knowledge, and the tech savvy of Ferris’ team to the matter of Claire’s missing phone.
She has no doubt the phone is encrypted. She has no doubt she’ll never see it again. It also doesn’t matter: with the death certificate in hand (and perhaps a few hundred dollars) they’re able to convince a worker to clone Claire’s last backup—either via the cloud or from the last time she upgraded her phone—onto a new phone. A new phone without the same security features.
It’s not even something uncouth: the frequent death of individuals with their passwords going to ground with them has made the business of providing access to accounts after death a common matter for tech companies.
There are certain things the phone doesn’t have: access to all of Claire’s more sensitive documents or accounts hidden behind their own passwords, for one. But it does have access to a few items of note, most notably an application she once made Caroline download for herself. An application that ran in the background on Claire’s own phone thereafter.
Find my phone.
Complete with data on where the senator’s wife spent the last month of her life.
Caroline doesn’t expect that Claire was so foolish as to bring the phone into her ‘safehouse’ but she also knows that she couldn’t be away from it for long.
No, she had to leave it stashed nearby—in a car perhaps. And that, combined with Ferris’ knowledge of her routine, is far more than just a start.
Caroline has them pull additional resources to narrow things down: various satellite and local mapping sites available publicly are updated irregularly, but the brief time investment to look over the last several clips from various locations rules out some, and more importantly might give them a break: the right car parked on the street, the right flash of color as a blonde goes by at the same time as the mapping vehicles.
GM: Ferris’ people already had a lead via the bug transmitter in Luke’s apartment, and were working that, but the ex-CIA agent directs them to follow up on the phone’s lead as well. Several nights later, he has an address for Caroline in Gentilly. It’s a middle-class suburb northeast of the CBD. Satellite imagery shows Claire’s safehouse to be an unremarkable-looking single-family house, invisible amidst its many neighbors.
Caroline: Harrington and Graves keep the building under surveillance through the day.
The early following night, Caroline packs Ferris, Fuller, Autumn, and Goodman into two vehicles alongside herself, the two elder ghouls, and a fair amount of equipment related to breaking and entering.
She articulates two concerns to Ferris, seeking his concurrence or input.
First, that the building is almost certainly conventionally booby trapped.
Second, that those booby traps are likely aligned against supernatural beings specifically.
Her intentions are to push Goodman forward first, with herself, the casquette girl, and Ferris behind him, in that order. Autumn and Fuller will follow behind them, while Kami will ensure the perimeter is not disturbed.
Autumn and Fuller will be responsible for bagging anything they encounter as quickly as possible for removal—she thinks it likely that her mother’s choice of trap would be set on a delay and/or designed to destroy any evidence within.
She judges Goodman the least likely to set off any supernatural traps, herself and the casquette girl the most likely to notice them or others in time to react, and Ferris’ familiarity with Claire’s method to be vitally important.
If Mahmoud is in town, Caroline inquires as to her ability at foretelling, if any. If she answers in the affirmative with regard to such abilities, Caroline offers her a debt to meet them on site and provide short term insights.
If not, she and her ghouls proceed alone.
GM: Mahmoud is not in town.
Ferris concurs the site likely has mundane and supernatural defenses. There’s no reason not to give it any. Especially without any guards.
He agrees that traps to destroy evidence would accomplish an objective just as important (if not more so) as killing any intruders. Not to mention, it’s easier to rig a trap to destroy some hard drives or paper files than it is to kill a vampire.
Caroline: If Ferris has no further inputs, she has them move forward.
To their advantage, she judges that an especially complex system is unlikely—mystically, it’s likely to have been too power-consumptive, and conventionally difficult to install and likely to attract attention.
Beyond the obvious, she’s leaning heavily upon her own broad and deep knowledge of Claire personally, and Ferris’ specific knowledge of her stepmother’s operating pattern as a hunter.
Her inclinations, her pattern of thought, her habits, the things that would constrain her action.
It’s not much, but it’s something.
GM: Ferris helps as he can. He and Autumn both identify some concealed cameras and sensor alarms—“almost certainly not infrared,” both ghouls observe. Claire would obviously want ones to detect vampires.
Goodman wonders why not infrared—“it’s the most available on the market”—but Ferris brushes him off. Goodman seems fine with that and comes on to a somewhat annoyed-looking Autumn.
“I don’t see your stepmother sharing this place’s location with anyone, though, or wanting any alarms that summon a police response,” Ferris muses as he ignores the two, “so fat lot of help they can summon with her dead.”
“Unless third parties already await us inside,” Kâmil observes. “Your stepmother’s secrets could be a useful bait to draw out those who meant harm to her and her allies.”
Ferris considers that. “Not impossible. But if Claire’s friends are in that house, then her files are already gone.”
GM: Kâmil nods. “Leaving any third parties waiting in ambush our best lead to recover Mrs. Malveaux’s files—or in absence of any third parties, then any trace they have left behind. Gisèlle’s abilities may prove useful in discerning their identities.”
Caroline: The heiress nods, “I think it more likely they would have destroyed this place, than risked it, unless they were fanatics.”
“Typically those raiding a place like this are foot soldiers, expendable types, not the fish they’re after.”
More than summoning help, Caroline is afraid that the safehouse will have a self destruct system of some kind. That would be a problem for a variety of reasons.
“I want everything photographed before it’s moved, and each room photographed as we enter.” This place is a treasure drove—any minor detail they can recover if something goes wrong is worth the effort.
“You can put it on the cloud for now.” Her father once told her the NSA and associated alphabet agencies essentially collect everything in the US, but that photographs were a lot harder to sort through for the algorithms that helped flag items of interest than text was.
That typically required individual personnel to look through each one—something they deemed not worth it unless they’d already flagged the source for special interest. The downside of collecting everything has always been sorting the wheat from the chaff.
“If there is anyone inside, apprehension is the goal. No firearms.”
GM: “Expendable foot soldier,” grins Brett. “You just call me raunchier names every time, ma’am.”
Autumn rolls her eyes.
“I can handle the photos,” she says.
Ferris and Kâmil both concur with Caroline’s order against firearms. Gunshots risk a police response even if their goal wasn’t to take any waiting parties alive.
GM: The group takes several further moments to prepare. Caroline and Goodman take point in inspecting and unlocking the front door.
The safehouse’s interior proves a death trap filled with just about every booby trap they can imagine—and a good deal more. The first one Caroline spots an narrowly disarms is a shotgun blast from a spring gun—loaded, she observes after disarming the weapon, two dragonsbreath rounds. Ferris is glad there’s no ruckus from a firearms discharge. Goodman narrowly spots and de-rigs a trip wire that would’ve activated some further nasty surprise that isn’t immediately apparent. The group’s luck, however, cannot hold out forever. Proceeding into the dining room triggers an elaborate series of traps that seal the doors and fill the room with tear gas and thick, foul-smelling smoke. The group’s living members cough and gag as the awful stuff gets in their eyes, burns their throats, and panic starts to set in. When Goodman throws his weight against the door out, against Kâmil’s warning, the scent of blood fills Caroline’s nostrils as something slices open his cheek. Indeed, though Caroline’s dead lungs are unaffected by the smoke and gas, she still finds they severely restrict her vision.
Most of the group shows their quality, though: only Autumn and Goodman seriously panic. Ferris, Kâmil, and Fuller all maintain discipline and cognizance of the fact that the sealed room is doubtlessly full of trip wires and other booby traps designed to be carelessly triggered by blinded, suffocating, and panicking intruders. Everyone except Caroline and Kâmil looks on the verge of unconsciousness by the time they’ve located and disarmed the booby traps before forcing open the door out. They take a few minutes to rest and recover, but the rest of the house is no kinder. There are spring gun traps, IEDs, stake-launching traps, and traps that threaten to spill gasoline and ignite fires. Caroline and Goodman disarm many of them, and likely save a number of the team’s lives. They suffer the worst for it; Goodman’s thigh gets sliced open and leaves him bleeding like a stuck pig. Caroline inadvertently triggers an occult ward hidden underneath a rug that causes her blood to boil beneath her skin. Gisèlle alone makes it through without suffering visible injury.
Eventually, everyone makes it to a concealed room hidden behind a bookcase. Ferris thinks that it’s “potentially where the files are hidden.” He gets to work combing through it with Autumn, Kâmil, and Gisèlle.
“Who the fuck booby-traps a house like this,” Goodman grouses from the floor as Fuller improvises a tourniquet for his leg. “Who the fuck is this paranoid.”
“Someone who’s right to be,” Ferris deadpans.
Caroline: “Someone who expects the level of opposition they’ve faced?” Caroline adds on. She’s grateful Goodman isn’t her type.
The larger question is who else Claire might have thought could penetrate such a death trap: a mortal team would have taken far more casualties than her own. Even if Claire had a dead-switch that would turn over the house’s secrets to another, she can’t imagine she’d also give them all the keys to it.
Only one name jumps immediately to mind: Gettis.
An elder ghoul, centuries old, might be able to do so.
GM: “Guess she was right to be this paranoid if we made it this far, anyway,” says Autumn.
“You could even make the argument she wasn’t paranoid enough.”
GM: Ferris shakes his head. “She did everything that was tenable and practical under the constraints she faced. No amount of home booby traps will keep out a determined enough force.”
Caroline: Caroline nods. “Defense just lets you lose more slowly.”
GM: The group turns the room upside down and disarms some further traps before finding another concealed door. The room on the other side contains a staked and hooded woman’s body in a circle similar to the one that Caroline recalls entrapping her. This one, though, is bereft of any fire. There is a nearby lighter, along with a USB stick and paper note in Claire’s handwriting that reads, “Read the information contained here before you do anything else.”
Caroline: The staked and hooded vampire trapped within the circle brings up unpleasant memories of how her own Requiem could have ended quite quickly at Claire’s hands more than once.
She lets the ghouls and kine go about the business of documenting the room, including the staked vampire and the circle entrapping her, and heads outside to get a tablet from the cars to examine the USB stick on.
GM: Autumn has a tablet in her bag she lets Caroline borrow.
Caroline: She plugs the USB into it.
Who might Claire have left a message for? She imagines Gettis would be more comfortable with had written than with an electronic. For her?
GM: The USB stick is encrypted and asks for several passwords, including “the name of your first crush”, “your favorite book”, and “your favorite menu item at Galatoire’s”.
Caroline: She provides them, answering for herself.
GM: The USB stick promptly erases itself.
Kâmil frowns as he observes.
“Regrettable, but perhaps little surprise.”
Caroline: It was stupid, she realizes, the moment she hits send. She could have had the casquette girl break the passwords: she’s seen her do it before.
Perhaps she’d hoped there was something here for her, that Claire had left something for Caroline. She’d wanted Claire to care for her, to have trusted her. Perhaps it was arrogance—the desire to break in herself. Regardless, an opportunity lost.
Stupid. Sentimental. Weak.
She blasts herself silently.
“Better to know.”
Even even as she says it, she knows it’s not true. Knowing the desired passwords though would have been quite helpful in identifying who exactly Claire had hoped would breach her safehouse, perhaps as much so as the actual information within.
GM: Claire didn’t trust her, that much is plain.
And she was right to, wasn’t she? She died at Caroline’s hand. Even if that hand was forced by Claire’s own actions, Caroline had said to Maldonato:
I suppose it was very foolish, to get closer. To believe there might be an ending other than tragedy. To hope. She wasn’t so blind.
Caroline: The past has always haunted her, the memories of her past mistakes surfacing as she lay in bed, both as kine and one of the Damned. She’ll save the reminiscing for that time: there’s still work to do here, even with the ghouls hard at work searching the room for hidden materials and documenting everything they find.
She turns her attention to the hooded and staked vampire.
GM: The vampire looks Caucasian and female, judging by the hands and body shape. She rests undisturbed in the center of the circle.
Autumn snaps pictures from her phone.
“Why keep a lick here if this place is supposed to be so secret?”
The ghoul keeps her voice low, mindful of Brett in the other room.
“That’s what I don’t get, vice a headquarters she and her other hunter friends used.”
Caroline: “The blood is valuable. We know she was working with Gettis. Possible her people wouldn’t have approved—or would have wanted to take them off to some other site.”
It’s a fair question.
“Claire always wanted to be in control.”
But that answer still doesn’t feel right. Not complete. Bringing the vampire here was a risk.
“We’ll interrogate her later—maybe she’ll have answers for us.”
GM: Ferris frowns in thought.
“No need for an intact Kindred if all you want is their blood. Bag it and stick in a fridge.”
Caroline: “It’s possible she was experimenting on them,” she postulates.
GM: “Possible. She’ll be able to tell us that much.”
“What do you want us to do with her for now?” asks Autumn.
Caroline: “We’ll take her with us,” Caroline answers. “Need to finish poking around, though, before we start disturbing things.”
GM: “All right.”
The ghouls leave the staked vampire in the circle and get back to their search. Gisèlle is the first to eventually locate a well-hidden cache of documents, two encrypted laptops, and several more encrypted USB sticks. Autumn reports there’s no internet connection originating in the house, and upon pulling open the laptops, finds they don’t have wireless network cards. The devices are physically incapable of connecting to the internet.
“Jackpot,” says Ferris.
Caroline: Caroline nods. They’ve discussed this eventuality.
The seneschal will know of their findings shortly, if he doesn’t already with Gisèlle spying for him. She doesn’t expect the seneschal will allow them to retain the laptops, the USBs, or the documents, and for her purposes whether they vanish into the elder’s possession or are handed over to the sheriff and his progeny is irrelevant. She needs to know what’s here for herself.
“Fifteen minutes, people. We’ve been here a while as is.”
“Autumn, same rules apply. Document everything as it is including how we found it. Kâmil can you help Brett to the cars? Then I’d like you to help Ms. Rabinowitz with staging and removing any material she finishes with. Roger, you knew her better than most: keep an eye out for any further fail safes while Autumn works. Gisèlle, can you check the perimeter? We’ve been here a while, and the last thing I want is uninvited guests.”
The invisible ghoul’s powers of perception eclipse all of theirs—and she’s likely to notice anyone sneaking up far before anyone else in the group.
GM: “I believe Mr. Fuller may suffice for that purpose, bayan. I do not believe it wise for me to leave your side in this place,” Kâmil answers.
Autumn is already snapping pictures of the laptops, USB devices, and contents of the manila folders.
Caroline: “Very well,” Caroline answers. “I’m going to examine our guest.”
GM: Gisèlle is already gone as the words leave Caroline’s mouth. Ferris continues to scan the perimeter. Kâmil tells Fuller to get Goodman back to the cars.
Caroline: Caroline surveys the hooded Kindred from every available angle, making note of any distinguishing marks that might reveal their identity, before finally breaking the circle that holds her and laying heads on the dead woman.
She removes the hood, studying the revealed features.
GM: The staked, pale-skinned vampire is around five and half feet tall and slim of build, with small breasts and narrow hips. Two decades ago, she’d have been a trendy heroin chic. She’s casually dressed in jeans, a dark windbreaker, rebellious-looking shirt with a skull face, and sneakers. Caroline makes note of no distinguishing marks.
With the hood removed, the vampire appears around 16 or so, with a smattering of freckles to complete the teenage and draw out the creeps. It’s her build together with her features and long black hair that really sells her age. She looks like she never quite grew into her body and now never will. Her apparent youth, combined with her slight frame and large eyes, gives her a seemingly harmless if not naive appearance that Caroline imagines has fooled more than one kine into mistaking this predator for prey.
Obviously, it was wasted on Claire.
Her eyes are blank and nonresponsive, seemingly making no note of Caroline’s presence.
“Fortuitous,” states Kâmil, waving an experimental hand over her eyes. “I would not have this stranger know of our activities here.”
“You don’t recognize her from anywhere?” asks Autumn.
“I do not,” replies Kâmil. “There are many Kindred in the city who are unpresented and unknown to our prince, alas.”
GM: “Looks like a greenfang, if the clothes are anything to go by,” says Autumn. “Obviously had the bad luck to run into hunters.”
She glances at Ferris, but the ex-CIA agent doesn’t return the look.
Caroline: “She’d remember what we desired if it came to the point,” Caroline observes, bringing the girl’s wrist to her lips and drawing a whisker of blood from a puncture that she gathers on one finger before gently testing it.
GM: The vampire’s blood has a rosy, velvety undercurrent like Jocelyn’s. Like Josua’s. Like Celia’s. It’s sensuous blood, that stirs some memory of life in Caroline’s dead loins. Blood that makes her appreciate the girl’s pretty features and sets her mind to ways that pretty could be made beautiful. Maybe if Celia had a few minutes to work magic with her paints and brushes.
Definitely Toreador blood.
It’s weak blood, too, like Jocelyn’s. ‘Greenfang’ seems even more likely.
Caroline: “A rose,” Caroline agrees. “Recently bloomed. And late blooming.”
GM: “She doesn’t look like she’s been harmed,” frowns Autumn. “So, maybe not any physical experiments by your stepmom. And she’s out of it.”
“Why keep her here like this?”
Caroline: Caroline shakes her head. “Hard to say. A message?”
GM: “I guess we’ll see if she has any answers once she’s up.”
Caroline: “That’ll wait. Better if she doesn’t wake here.”
And that they’re not caught in company of an unknown, unpresented, and likely illegal fledgling.
“Proof of the supernatural, perhaps?” she muses.
GM: “Whom do you believe she would be proof to?” inquires Kâmil.
“Certainly, any individual to whom the existence of Kindred was new information would likely be a poor custodian for Mrs. Malveaux’s secrets.”
Caroline: “The sheriff alluded to a failsafe she’d threatened him with,” Caroline observes. “Exposure, shattering of the Masquerade.”
GM: “I wouldn’t assume we’ve taken care of that without proof, ma’am,” Ferris offers darkly.
“It has been some time since her death now,” Kâmil concurs.
Caroline: Caroline nods. “Perhaps proof for her chosen successor—I feel she’d have wanted someone from the family.”
Stupid. Not getting the casquette girl to open the USB. Knowing who it was intended for would have been extremely valuable.
GM: “That’d be consistent with the questions on the USB stick,” considers Ferris.
Caroline: “Could have demonstrated the blood, and if he had her in the circle, shown the monstrousness of frenzy with the fire.”
“Hard to imagine many of them could have gotten inside though. Not without help.”
GM: “She’d have been their first kill,” says Ferris.
“Don’t need her anymore after she’s proven vampires are real.”
“Lets them get their hands dirty in a safe environment. See what it’s like.”
Caroline: Caroline nods. She wonders who Claire had earmarked. Her brother, perhaps. Or her cousin Adam. It fits into place—feels right.
“I think that’s the answer.”
GM: Ferris considers. “If it were me, I’d have left blood somewhere to revive our friend. I’d want my successor’s first kill to be a walking, talking, responsive vampire. Especially if they’d never killed a person before. Better learning experience. The warding circle, the lighter, some gasoline—that lets them do it all with training wheels.”
He strokes his beard.
“Think you’re on to something. This explanation feels right.”
“What was on the USB stick, then, you think?” asks Autumn. “Instructions on how to kill a lick?”
Caroline: “Not worth dwelling on,” Caroline doesn’t quite snap.
“Let’s move her to the entrance—we can have Gisèlle veil when we’re ready to move her to the vehicles.”
GM: “All right. Least she looks pretty light,” says Autumn.
Kâmil slings the staked vampire over his shoulder.
“Veil her against Mr. Goodman, bayan? She would attract little enough notice stored in the trunk.”
Caroline: “Veil her against being carried out into the residential neighborhood,” Caroline clarifies. “As you say, little enough notice in the trunk.”
GM: Kâmil considers.
“The hour is late, the night is dark, and our vehicles nearby. But if you wish to veil her, bayan, there is no harm and potential good.”
“I would sooner not leave a staked Kindred unattended or further split our group. Gisèlle and Mr. Fuller should return soon.”
Caroline: “We can wait for them with her,” Caroline agrees.
GM: They don’t wait long. Gisèlle and Fuller eventually return, by which time Autumn has finished documenting everything. The casquette girl veils the staked vampire’s body in shadow at Caroline’s request. Ferris and Autumn carry the laptops, USB sticks, and documents.
GM: The group moves to depart.
The Ventrue is the first one to feel it.
Before the soft ‘whoosh’.
Before the heat at their backs.
Before the pungent smell of rising smoke.
Before the telltale hissing and crackling.
But not before her Beast’s instinctive, soul-deep panic.
Everywhere. Fire behind them. Fire beside them. Fire before them. Fire between them and the exit from the sudden death trap the safehouse has become.
“Shigh-!” exclaims Autumn, coughing as she shouts.
Caroline: Of course Claire wouldn’t let them go that easily.
Of course she’d use her knowledge of magic to rig the house.
And of course it would be fire. Fire, which will destroy all evidence of this place: including Caroline if given the opportunity.
In the earliest nights of her Requiem, she fled at the sight of fire. She remembers being forced into howling, terrified frenzy by Claire when she invaded her haven during the day and built a circle of flame around her. Remembers how the very sight of it, even bound by the circle, had driven her Beast into a whimpering but powerful thing that controlled her.
She remembers that, and she knows very well that if she does so now this trap will consume her ghouls, consume the evidence they desperately need, and consume every trace of her.
Caroline is ready when the Beast comes charging out of her breast, when its frantic rage boils over. She’s just as ready to violently clamp down on it in that moment with all of her will, bottling up its useless—and likely lethal—terror response like a pressure cooker.
She wins that first battle, and as she does the rest of it slides into laser focus.
This is the actual trap. All the blades and wires and even explosives before were window dressing: at best, they kept out the riffraff. This is intended to be the lethal one: it’s not lost on her that it triggered when she attempted to leave the building.
It’s brilliant in its simplicity, actually: let the vampire send in their people, let them clear out the traps and suffer, and then report it clear. Trigger the actual trap when they are inside. When you’ve lured in the bigger fish.
And it could easily kill her, or any other lick. A moment of frenzy and it’d all be over—lost in the burning building, all obvious exits blocked. She’s certain there’s a path clear of flames—but it’s one that will lead back further into the house. The kind of path the Beast might take while fleeing the immediate threat, oblivious to the real one.
She’s just as certain plunging through the door they came in will be suicide: that’s where she’d concentrate her own efforts.
No, the answer, she concludes at the speed of thought, is somewhere else. Somewhere the inherent logistics of the house work in their favor.
The kitchen window. It was large enough for them to escape through, and the tile and stone countertops will retard the spread of the flame—as will the piping. She’s certain it’ll be trapped. And she’s just as certain that she will be the one who has to ensure the bite of those traps.
It’s tempting to send Kâmil through first—the tough old ghoul might even shrug it off (whatever it is)—but he’s the only one capable of handling their torpid lick and anyone else that goes down in the smoke. The rest of the ghouls are too soft—too fragile. She, on the other hand, might beat it outright. If she doesn’t, recovery is much less painful for her. Hasn’t she become accustomed to pain anyway? She needs the other ghouls to carry out the goods in any case—escaping is not enough tonight.
It’s not a happy thought, the prospect of braving whatever pain her wicked stepmother has in store for her, but there’s little in her Requiem that has been pleasant where the older woman was concerned.
She takes a breath, the hot air searing her lungs in a way that would no doubt deal internal injuries to a kine, and yells into the fire, “Follow me! Kitchen window!” She gestures to Kâmil. “Carry her!”
She’s just grateful they got Brett out first: she wouldn’t like the lamed kine’s chances.
And then she’s blazing a path through the heat and smoke.
She could move more quickly on her own, but she can’t leave them behind. Won’t leave them behind. It’s not in her nature. They battle their way through the burning building, through a living room choked with fire, the ceiling full of billowing smoke ready to ignite and roll over at any moment. She can feel her skin blistering as they go, feels her cloths smoke and start to melt: too much plastic in them.
Then there’s the window.
She knows, especially with a running start, that she could dive through a single pane—perhaps too fast for any remaining traps to go off. But that wouldn’t help the others—and hauling their ill gotten take they need her to blaze the way—to tear a hole the softer ghouls can get through.
No—this is going to hurt. It’s going to hurt a great deal. But that’s something her Requiem has prepared her for. The whippings, the beatings, the knives. the duels, and bullets. She can suffer. If that she’s certain.
She snatches up a small chair from the table in the kitchen as she goes past. She’d dearly like to hit the window with that first, to save her pale flesh, but the others need something to step up to onto the counter, then into the sink, on their way out the window. She leaves it behind with a deftness she could never have managed in life as she vaults into the counter and through the still closed window, arms held before, bent with her elbows and forearms out to make first contact as quickly as a speeding car.
The collision is cataclysmic—Einstein’s equation for energy is brutal at that speed for a human body, even a dead one, when colliding with a much firmer object. She feels something pierce her chest—though not her heart. Feels the glass slice bloody tears into her arms and torso as she goes past. And she feels a dreadful blossom of heat as her momentum carries her through the window frame. Sorcery? Another dragonsbreath round? It doesn’t matter. She doesn’t see it, and the effects are the same.
Flesh smokes and crackles, blackening beneath it. Hair turns to ash and fingers swell, the flesh bursting like swollen sausages to let vitae drip out. She hits the grass outside in a smoking blur leaking crimson from half a dozen wounds and rolls.
One hand painfully plants in the grass to force herself up, to look back, but her body betrays her. She teeters, falling as darkness rushes up like it never has in her Requiem.
She’s put her body through horrific ordeals, but this is something else. Everything hurts. Everything is on fire—and she can’t tell if it’s physically or figuratively. The darkness rises to engulf her in blissful nothingness.
She slams into the darkness like she slammed into the window, like a car hits a brick wall at seventy miles per hour. There’s no fall into oblivion, into the nothingness sleep that she knows awaits every vampire that pushes their corpse too far. Instead she careens off the the inky depths at the same moment she feels something else—like a pinprick through her heart—a yank upon a black thread wrapped around her unbeating heart as that energy that should have carried her into torpor travels through it into something else. Then, a moment later, she realizes, with a sinking and growing sickness, into someone else.
GM: Caroline feels the blistering, flesh-roasting heat evaporate from her body like steam released from a fogged bathroom. But energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transferred. The black thread spins towards its terminus. She suddenly feels lightheaded and vaguely nauseous, like she’s having a heat stroke-induced headache. She feels ‘her’ body pushing out sweat to cool itself as the air absorbs the moisture and the heat with it—a crap shoot outdoors in New Orleans’ humid weather. She feels footsteps beneath her, the sound of water running from a faucet, and then water running down her throat.
She feels awareness, too. ‘She’ knows ‘she’ isn’t having a random heat stroke. She feels Cécilia trying to talk to her, trying to communicate thoughts as words, but words are lost against the burning pain. Both of their pain.
But for all that, she feels no resentment. She feels fear, worry, concern, desire to know what’s happening—and thankfulness.
Thankfulness, that Caroline is being spared pain.
Caroline: The heiress burns vitae at a terrifying rate when she realizes with a sickening feeling who her pain went to, who paid the price to keep her from slipping into torpor. How could she? How could she be so reckless? Doesn’t she know how important she is now, as a member of the family? She should have let everything else burn. The evidence, the ghouls, the torpid vampire.
Caroline stomps down on that line of thinking. It’s small—shallow, narrow in its vision in a way she cannot afford.
She had to. It was objectively the right choice. The information in the files might save her Requiem from the most terrifying foe she has known. He isn’t going to stop trying to destroy her just because she sisters now.
She made the right choice—even if it feels so wrong.
Singed skin falls away, molting as fresh unblemished pale flesh grows beneath it. Some of it flakes away, other badly damaged pieces slough off in rapidly putrefying fashion. There’s a sickening crunch as her broken wrists snap back into place. It’s not even about the pain or damage tonight, it’s about not putting her sister in that position again. Where she has to suffer in Caroline’s place.
The Ventrue looks up to see how the others are faring.
She can call Cécilia when they’re on the road. Right now they still need to make their escape.
GM: Thumps sound against the lawn behind Caroline. The others are following her out. It hurts to roll around, even on the soft grass. Her Beast’s never-ending whine is not far from her ears, like a baying dog constantly tugging at its leash. Behind her, the house has gone up in flames.
The first out is Gisèlle. The casquette girl’s once-immaculate white dress and face are singed, stained, and burning. Flames enshroud her long black hair, now so clearly a terrible fire hazard. The unmistakable scent of cooking flesh and burning hair assaults Caroline’s nostrils. Gisèlle flings aside a laptop and folder of documents—seemingly liberated from the clearly slower Autumn and Ferris—to stop, drop, and roll over the grass. Her white form blurs to and fro, quickly smothering the flames. She gracefully springs to her feet and disappears around the house.
The next out are Autumn and the staked vampire, both bodily flung out the window if the latter is any indication, Autumn still clutching a laptop against her chest. The screaming ghoul’s red hair has never looked so red as it does now, burning and smoking along with her peeling, grotesquely orange-brown flesh. She’s lost her glasses.
But doubtless her companion’s cries would make Autumn’s sound as a sleeping baby’s troubled whimpers. The staked vampire cannot stop, drop, and roll like the ghoul—the ghoul who is also spared Michael’s dread curse. The vampire has gone up like a torch. Nothing remains of her hair, and almost nothing of her clothes, but for a moment Caroline thinks she’s clothed. Her blackened, roasted flesh looks almost as dark as her jacket did. Skin literally melts from her body like a foul wax. Perhaps it’s a mercy that she lies in torpor. It is a mercy that she lies in torpor.
Gisèlle abruptly reappears with a garden hose to spray down them both.
The laptop-clutching ghoul gets the water first.
Caroline: It’ll be a bitter awakening back to the Damned, assuming the girl gets one. If Caroline had sympathy to spare, she’d have it for the girl. In the moment, she doesn’t.
Caroline’s attention fixates on Autumn, assessing: not life-threatening. Still, Caroline doesn’t disagree with the application of water—and applauds the casquette girl’s quick thinking on it.
GM: Ferris hits the ground next, wheezing and hacking past smoke-filled lungs. He’s already rolling over the grass to put out his burning clothes, hands shielding his face, when Gisèlle sprays him down.
After him comes Fuller. Caroline rapidly identifies a pattern emerging. After Gisèlle, who was seemingly fastest and clutching as many of Claire’s materials as she could, came the most vulnerable among them. Autumn, the least in shape, and carrying more documents. The helpless vampire, all-too vulnerable to the house’s last and deadliest trap. Then Ferris. Then the ex-Corpsman who runs a gym. Fuller’s peeling skin is no less hideous a shade of orange-brown as he hits the grass, trailing smoke and embers, before Gisèlle turns the garden hose on him.
The last to fling himself from the burning building is Kâmil. The large-framed man could’ve been first, or at least second, if he wanted to. He clearly waited behind to get out the others first. He’s coughing the least of anyone, and as with Fuller, no hair burns atop his bald head. What’s left of his suit and dress shirt are little more than burning rags. He drops and rolls as Gisèlle sprays him down.
Ferris staggers to his feet, still coughing, and seizes up the fallen laptop and documents.
Behind them, increasingly thick and pungent smoke wafts from the burning house. Caroline can feel the air growing hotter and hotter as fire hungrily consumes wood. Her Beast will burst its chains if it must face the flames.
Goodman’s voice swears and shouts behind them as he hobbles up.
Caroline: It’s a remarkably orderly exit from the building, some part of her mind reports, though her admiration is buried behind the still hovering shame and throbbing pain.
There’s a surge of relief as the last of them exits: out, safe, with everyone. And the files..
She doesn’t test her luck with the Beast and the roaring inferno behind them further. She held on through sheer need, through force of will, when inside. She has no illusions that she’ll be able to do so again. Instead she stays turned away.
“We need to go, now.”
The weariness hits her like a tsunami—the sheer bone-deep exhaustion brought on by agony and the high of the discover, then escape, but she fights through it.
They need to make good their escape, with their prizes. Now, much more than before the fire. With so many wounded and such a treasure trove they’re a prime target.
She forces her way to her feet and marches towards the vehicles.
GM: No one disagrees.
The burned, now-soaking wet ghouls stagger into the waiting vehicles with their precious findings. Kâmil, Gisèlle, and Ferris take the car with Caroline. Fuller, Autumn, and Goodman pile into the other vehicle with the staked and half-incinerated vampire. Kâmil starts driving.
Caroline doesn’t look back to confirm. Her Beast still whines anxiously in her ears. Doubtless, the conflagration behind them is spreading and consuming the house.
Caroline: Caroline settles into the backseat.
There’s some symbolism in the conflagration that is Claire’s legacy—one that nearly consumed Caroline. There’s symbolism, too, in her refusal to look back upon it as she speeds away. Both are lost on the Ventrue tonight.
Her thoughts are focused on the future. On the opportunities tonight may offer. On the challenges the next nights will hold.
The past can burn. She has no past.
It’s up to her to determine if she’ll have a future.
Tuesday night, 22 March 2016, PM
GM: The SUV speeds into the night. The ghouls, or at least Ferris, look wet, burned, and miserable. Gisèlle’s once-beautiful mane of waist-length black hair is unevenly burned away, resembling nothing so much as a ragged and hole-lined old blanket, and interspersed with bits of lawn grass. Ferris’ badly singed beard and hair look in an equally sorry state. The ghouls’ horrid skin burns, though, fade away before Caroline’s eyes. Orange-brown reverts to sensitive-looking pink, though ugly splotches of yellow-white dead skin still mar their hands and faces. They’re technically growing -_new__ skin, not undoing the damage to the old.
They’re a sight prettier than any mortals, though. Neil told her about the horrors of TMC’s burn unit.
Burning is a horrible way to get hurt, even for the living.
When Caroline brings up the subject of the fire’s origin, Ferris nods grimly.
“Didn’t see or smell any accelerants. Had to be magical.”
“With how fast it spread, and from so many points.”
“Didn’t know your stepmother could create fire. There was a lot about her capabilities she didn’t tell me, at my recommendation.”
Caroline: “She was always extremely cagey about it,” Caroline agrees.
It’s a lesson Caroline could stand to learn.
“I’d call it a miracle that everyone made it out, but I think it has rather more to do with sublime execution. That place was a very expertly crafted death trap.”
“It took some very clear heads to get everyone, as well as the majority of the documents and materials, out.”
GM: “Not expert enough for us to get out without fatalities,” remarks Ferris.
“But if she wasn’t dead, it’d have still done its job softening us up. I’m sure we tripped a dozen alarms.”
Caroline: “Do we know for sure that Claire laid the fire trap, and not a Kindred?”
GM: Ferris strokes what’s left of his beard.
“Could’ve been her. Could’ve been someone else.”
Kâmil observes that if another Kindred laid such a booby trap they’d have probably taken all the documents and devices by now.
“Mrs. Malveaux has been dead for long enough. And to one who laid her safehouse’s defenses, it would be child’s play to retrieve the secrets contained therein.”
“Unless the files we have are all fakes,” Ferris muses.
“Gisèlle—and the seneschal—may psychically examine them to verify their authenticity,” states Kâmil.
Caroline: “Better the seneschal,” Caroline muses. “Anyone powerful enough to breach the home and set those traps almost certainly had the power to lay false impressions. I would.”
“Even if someone didn’t have reason to suspect they were false, reading is something I’d want to do.”
She stretches. “Not many licks I can think of that are known for wielding flame, if one did set the trap.” The heiress inclines her head to the two elder ghouls. “Any names jump to mind?”
GM: “A rarer skill, but I would nevertheless concur in having the seneschal examine them,” agrees Kâmil. “To command fire, too, is an infrequently seen skill among Kindred.”
Images silently fill Caroline’s head upon her question.
Grunewald’s pale and blonde face, that she saw at the trial.
Faces she senses as Steinhäuser’s and the Baron’s, for they are largely unknown to hers.
Then, with greater uncertainty:
The archon Caroline glimpsed at one Elysium.
The seneschal himself.
Eliza Curry, another near-unknown.
Symbols of a jackal-headed god of Egypt and a stylized “G”.
Caroline: Caroline bites her lip. “Few enough.”
GM: “An uncommon skill,” Kâmil repeats, “though there may be others who keep their talents even more closely hidden.”
Caroline: “We’ve foes aplenty without seeking them out in every shadow,” Caroline states.
GM: “Could also have been other hunters,” considers Ferris.
“Speculation gets us nowhere, though.”
He’s already reading through the paper documents.
He scowls at their half-burned state.
“Fortunate you had Rabinowitz take pictures.”
Caroline: “Half the evidence without the paper,” Caroline answers with a scowl.
“But better than nothing.”
GM: “The authenticity of electronic images’ contents cannot be psychically verified,” concurs Kâmil. “But as you say, bayan, preferable to have those contents than not.”
Caroline: “Better to get them to him sooner than later.” She turns to the casquette girl. “I presume the further into the past an event, and the more damage and changes of hands it’s seen, the harder it is to get accurate impressions?”
GM: Gisèlle dips and then raises her head in confirmation.
Caroline: “Perdido House, then. Better not to waste time.”
It’s also not lost on her that injured and tired as they are, they make a fat target with their prize in hand.
She digs out her phone and sends a text to Cécilia.
Are you ok? I had a hot flash while looking at a property, but am feeling better now.
GM: “Gisèlle has already alerted the seneschal,” states Kâmil. “He has dispatched emergency services to the site of the fire. As well as our own people, in the event the Masquerade is still at risk.”
The phone’s casing is partly melted and the screen painfully hot to the touch.
Caroline finds several texts from Cécilia already asking if she is all right.
Yes, nothing too serious. Had some water and wet a washcloth to cool down. You’re sure you’re feeling better?
Caroline: Worst I’ve felt in a while, but I’m ok now. You know I bounce back.
GM: I do. Do you want to come over?
Caroline: Always. But I have to visit my father first about the house I looked at.
She pauses, then adds,
May be big moves tonight. Might be a good idea to keep a handle on where everyone is.
GM: It’s a school night, thankfully, so we’re all at home. I’d been thinking of taking a walk, but I’ll maybe get some more work done instead. Unless you need me? How did things go at the house?
Caroline: Not a fun experience, but outcome looks good so far. Need to talk to my father about it.
Caroline then tells Kâmil that she desires to bring the materials to Perdido House, but intends on conveying them directly to the seneschal. She does not outright state that her intention is to keep them from the sheriff, but there is little doubt as to what other motive she could have, and she leave little ambiguity.
She intends on sending either him or Gisèlle—whichever needs the elder’s potent blood more after the death trap they braved—to deliver that message directly or to Mr. Congo.
GM: “That is acceptable, bayan,” states Kâmil. “Gisèlle has alerted His Grace as to our mission’s success. She will inform him now as to your imminent arrival.”
The casquette girl closes her eyes.
She re-opens them and stares at Caroline. The Ventrue sees Maldonato’s face.
:: Tell Miss Malveaux-Devillers she has done well. Bring the materials to my office in Perdido House. I will be available to receive them. ::
:: Tell her to remain on her guard. Many parties sought Claire Malveaux’s secrets—and seek them yet. ::
Caroline: She can think of one off-hand.
Louis: Those thoughts are interrupted by a loud slurp.
As heads whip back to the sound, Caroline and her entourage finally notice the old man sitting in the back of the SUV. How long has he been there?
He’s been around far too long. And he’d be the first to tell you.
Presently though, his mouth is occupied. Slurping down another spoonful of Brocato’s lemon gelato. He swallows, but lets the plastic spoon dangle from his sour lips and lantern jaw like his old cancer-sticks.
A half-heartbeat later—at least for the SUV’s half-living passengers—Lou removes the spoon and gives a smile that somehow makes his face look sadder. His watery gaze drinks Caroline in. Slowly.