Gothic Rhapsody: Third Stanza

I was lost in a world of fantasy,
Yeah, yeah, I was caught,
Caught in a game of make believe,
Lost in a world of fantasy . . .
--Triumph, "World of Fantasy"

He looked up at his reflection in the mirror, slowly turning his head this way and that to get an idea of the effect. Not bad, he had to think, though it would probably take a bit of getting used to. At least the stuff would come out in a few washes, leaving his hair back to its normal golden color. Still, though it was startling to see his beautifully masculine face framed by dark copper hair, he had to admit that he was still damned gorgeous.

Considering where he was going, it should be enough to get just enough attention to not be ignored. He just hoped that it wouldn't get him too much of the unwanted kind of attention. That could be quite . . . messy.

Reaching out, he picked up a brush and raked it through his now dark red locks, watching how the shimmering, fiery highlights played along the surface of his wavy mane. I'm sure Lis isn't going to be thrilled, but I can't just stand by and do nothing at all. A smile curled slowly across his face as he recalled the scene this morning, of seeing the angelic Kindred in her death-like sleep next to him. Somehow, waking up to the solid reality of that had made the night's events bearable. She was terrible and deadly, yet gentle and tender when it came to himself. The thought of that made him seem far warmer inside than just the coals of her blood sitting there in his belly made it seem.

Of course, he just had to frown a bit at remembering the scene in the kitchen. Intellectually, Zoey understood the biological necessity of not overdoing it as well as the fact that the effects of the Kindred Kiss was that way to facilitate a vampire's feeding. Still, there came just a small twinge at the memory. Zoey, jealousy might actually be the death of you, if curiosity doesn't get you first . . . Shaking his head, the dark flame locks swirling, he drove those thoughts from his mind, concentrating instead on what had happened at breakfast.

Victor didn't seem happy at his announcement that he was going to be gone all day and probably not back before nightfall, but the musician hadn't cared. After all, it was true enough that he had things to do here, at his own apartment. He'd not been here for close to three days, and any apartment had upkeep to be maintained. Once again, Claude was disappointed at the then-blond musician's apparent lack of interest in his fine cooking; Zoey had actually picked at it only because he was planning what he was going to do, and that had kept his interest there. Certainly more relaxed and friendly around the other three of Lis's retainers than before, Zoey had only been distracted, thoughts elsewhere. He only hoped now that the other ghouls wouldn't have a clue what he had in mind. Lis just isn't going to be happy about any of this . . .

Leaning over and opening a drawer, the guitarist pulled out a few bottles and tubes. Most guys didn't wear makeup, of course, but he had learned a while ago that makeup can be very effective in subtly shifting one's looks. As he skillfully applied the various creams and powders, giving his face the illusion of being more angular, more rugged and less pretty, his mind wandered on to other thoughts. He'd called Frank and asked the manager to look into the nightclub; though Frank was a bit surprised by the request, he'd come through with the information Zoey had wanted. The Black Sphinx had a karaoke/amateur night going on that evening, though his manager warned Zoey that the crowds there were generally tough and looked forward to any excuse to get abusive at bad acts.

Like I have anything to worry about. I've got talent. Smiling to himself, rather admiring the effect of the makeup done so well that it looked like he wasn't wearing any; his insistence at learning professional tricks for on-stage paying off, he grabbed for the brush and hairspray next. For an afternoon, while Kindred slept and only ghouls and normal folk were around, and maybe into the early evening, he was going to try being someone else and see if he couldn't learn anything useful about the things holding Alex, and part of that plan was to try to look different enough from his usual self to not tip anyone off that it was really him. Zoey teased out his dark red hair with the brush and hit it with just enough hairspray to make the fluffed-out look stay. Another critical look in the mirror and he grinned at his reflection. He didn't exactly look like his normal self, but he sure looked attractive still. Dressed out in an outfit that was ragged, tastefully tattered and composed of denim and leather, his hair looking long, loose and slightly stringy, the man that looked back at him had an appearance that just screamed "Seattle grunge". Satisfied, he stepped out of the bathroom and turned out the light.

Exotic and racy, pandering to opulence and pleasures, mostly of the flesh. That was the impression Zoey got from the Black Sphinx as he strode through the entryway. Or rather, that was the impression he got from what little he saw before a deep voice addressed him. "Hey!"

Turning to look in the direction of the shout, the musician paled slightly at the sight of the bouncer. The bruiser was *huge*, like a mountain on two legs. Looming over the grungy-looking redhead, the big man reached out a hand. "ID please."

Oh shit. That's one detail I forgot. "Um . . . Come on, man. Be nice. I'm twenty-three."

"Just gimme your ID, kid. Can't have teeny-boppers slipping inside."

Zoey paled a bit more, thinking rapidly. Slipping a hand into his pocket, he suddenly realized that he could feel a tightly bundled wad. Deft fingers separating out a few bills, his emerald eyes widened slightly when he saw that he'd pulled out about a hundred dollars in twenties. "Well, you know . . . I had my ID and my wallet stolen, but I was really looking forward to a good time to forget about all that, and here you are disappointing me there as well." Smiling as sweetly and innocently as he could manage, Zoey tentatively offered the money to the bouncer.

"Well . . ." The huge man smirked, looking quite pleased; Zoey felt a chill run down his spine at the man's expression as he realized that this was something quite normal here. However, it was his ticket in, so he made himself keep smiling as he slipped the twenties over to the bouncer. Swiftly pocketing the money, the huge guard grinned and mockingly bowed, hands outstretched in a gesture pointing the way for the redheaded guitarist to go. "Enjoy your stay, friend. I'm sure you'll find plenty to brighten your spirits inside."

"I'm sure I will too," Zoey muttered to himself as he strode through the doors and entered the nightclub proper. One look and he stopped, frozen in place, emerald eyes sweeping over the area. It was impressive, almost like it had come from the sets of the movie "Cleopatra"; he half expected to see a gold-bedecked, young Elizabeth Taylor to suddenly appear.

The theme was gorgeously ancient Egyptian, and luxurious to boot. Everywhere he looked, he saw tits and ass--the beautiful waitresses, many of them redheads of various shades, though all colors of hair possible were there, were dressed in diaphanous Egyptian kilts that ended just below the curve of their very fine rears and their torsos were bare save for costume jewelry pectoral collars. Blinking, mouth hanging slightly open, Zoey could easily see why his friends would keep coming here once they'd been inside. It was like a male fantasy come true.

Swallowing hard and focusing his attention once again, the slender redhead pulled his gaze from the alluring waitresses and took in more details of the place itself. Booths and tables lined a dance floor, and a bar stocked with just about everything lined one wall. Tonight, because it was going to be a night for karaoke, a small stage was set up at one end of the dance floor. Off to one side was the stereo system and electronic mixer, and closed circuit televisions were up in numerous strategic places. At the moment, the club's usual sound system was pumping out the usual dance songs, the elaborate lighting system turning the area into an even more surrealistic high-tech pleasure palace with an ancient motif and feel. It was a very intriguing place, Zoey decided.

Walking over to one of the tables at a good vantage point to the dance floor with its low stage, the slender guitarist dropped down into one of the comfortable chairs there, noticing the requisite little playbook for the karaoke sitting there on the center of the table next to the candle. Reaching over and grabbing it, he was about to open it and see what songs were available when he became aware of a very intriguingly feminine form standing right at the edge of his table. As his long-lashed, emerald eyes froze, unable to look up any higher than the waitress's lush breasts, he heard her fetching voice.

"May I get you anything, sir?"

"Um . . ." Okay, so he sounded simple-minded. With *that* staring him in the face, it was hard not sounding that way.

The waitress smiled, a beautiful sight, one that made Zoey's heart beat just a bit faster. Obviously used to having stunned males looking at her, she patiently waited for the gorgeous redhead's reply. "Sir?"

"Oh . . . Yeah. Um . . ." Recovering, Zoey smiled back and leaned back casually in his seat. "I'll take a blackberry margarita. I'm in the mood for something sweet."

The fetching waitress grinned back at him, writing down the order. "Oh, you certainly look like you're in the mood for something like that. I'll get that for you right away, sir."

Curse it all, he couldn't keep from staring at the interesting way her rear looked moving underneath that almost see-through white kilt. Swallowing hard again, Zoey picked up the playlist and flipped through it, looking for a song he knew and felt like singing. It would be a while yet before the karaoke started; right now, the numerous people already there were milling around, drinking, playing pull-tabs, dancing and otherwise engaged in revelry, even though it was early mid-afternoon. It was certainly going to be an interesting time, if nothing else.

Still looking through the playlist, Zoey concentrated on that as he waited for the waitress to return with his drink--and kept his ears open for anything that might lead to a clue about what was going on with Alex. Hopefully, this trip--and the inherent risks--wouldn't be a wasted effort.

I just know Lis isn't going to be happy with me . . .

"Mistress, mistress--"

"Go away, fool." The words were followed by a long yawn. "I'm sleeping. You know better than to wake me before dark!"

"But, mistress . . . there's another one here!" The weaselly, swarthy little man with the gold front teeth and the swirling tattoos that covered virtually all of his exposed skin was nearly hopping up and down in excitement.

With an impatient sigh, the slender form that lay in the satin-draped bed rolled over, yawning again. "Another what?"

"Another man with red hair!"

"Idiot! You woke me for *that*?" The woman, hardly more than an alluring silhouette in the near-total darkness of the room, pushed herself up on one elbow.

"He's very pretty, mistress Vanity," the tattooed man sniveled, prostrating himself on the floor. "Almost as pretty as the one we have now!"

"Oh?" The word was drawn out thoughtfully . . . and became another yawn. "Well, then. Keep an eye on him. If he tries to leave before I wake, make sure that he's detained. I'll be interested in seeing him. Now, Radur, *get out*!"

Radur backed away, out the door, still on his knees and bowing every few moments.

Vanity turned over in bed and pulled the covers higher. It would be interesting to see just *how* pretty this new one might be. She glanced briefly at the silent form that huddled in the corner; *this* one was quite pretty indeed, though he had no true value without the ring . . .

Other eyes watched the Black Sphinx. Concealed in the nearest buildings and in vehicles parked discreetly along the streets, the watchers were silent, patient as stones. A dozen heavy crates, sealed almost airtight, were scattered among the watching groups; one man, standing near a window in one of the overlooking buildings, absently stroked a hand over the top of the case in his keeping, mumuring under his breath.

They all waited for sunset--the watchers, and the torpid creatures in the crates that they guarded. The insults had become intolerable, the offenses too numerous to count; a reckoning was at hand.

The wonderfully made blackberry margarita was almost done by the time the deejay for the karaoke show stepped up to the elaborate system. Zoey had been carefully sipping it, lingering over it while his emerald gaze had wandered over the people and decor time and time again. So far, there were no indications at all that there was anything going on under the smooth, luxurious veneer of a hedonistic nightclub with an ancient Egyptian theme. Neither were there any hints that he was attracting any attention other than what you would expect from any other handsome, normal patron of a place like this. The musician had to slyly smile to himself, his lips hidden behind the curtain of his graceful, folded hands, elbows propped up on the top of the sturdy table at which he sat, as his gaze shifted from yet another drop-dead gorgeous woman trying to flirt with him over a distance to the man fiddling with the mixing board. Mother would die if she knew I was in a place like this. Then again, Mother would die if she knew even half the stuff that's gone on in the last couple of weeks.

The disc jockey was still another very good-looking man--it seemed as if the very nature of the business attracted the young and truly beautiful here, especially the employees, though Zoey noted that many of the patrons had that desperate look about them that indicated addictions and hedonism--clad in a masculine version of the same Egyptian-style "uniform" of pleated, white linen kilt, bare torso and eye-catching, costume jewelry that looked very much like what you'd expect to find in the Museum of Cairo. At least Zoey assumed it was all costume jewelry. He couldn't see that much gold and that many gems being the real thing.

Setting his empty glass down after drinking the dregs of his margarita, the guitarist wasn't overly surprised to see a waitress suddenly appear as if by magic, smiling and asking him if he'd like another. That was something else he'd noticed about the place; the service was outstanding. Even as he grinned back at the waitress's inquiry and assured her that he'd take another of the same thing, he couldn't help but feel the fine hairs on the nape of his neck start standing on end. It was quite obvious to someone really paying attention that there were eyes everywhere, watching everything going on. Swallowing his nervousness, Zoey leaned back in his chair in an outwardly casual manner as his attention turned to the deejay once more.

As preparation for the late afternoon's entertainment, the anciently attired and jewel-bedecked brunette man circulated among the customers at the tables surrounding the dance floor, picking up the pieces of paper upon which everyone willing to give singing a go had written their names and what song from the playlist they wanted performed. As he handed over his request, the beautiful, black-haired server returned with Zoey's second blackberry margarita, leaning in very close to him as she set it on the table; the musician couldn't help but get an eyeful of her flawless, faintly olive-toned skin and pert breasts. His mother just had to be turning over in her grave; her good, little Catholic boy shouldn't be in a place like this, even if he'd been something of a rebel as a teenager. At least he was getting used to the sight of half-naked people.

The first performer--if you could call the various ego-driven and/or tipsy patrons giving voice to their chosen song "performers"--was some giggly blond woman having far too good of a time for so early in the approaching evening. Zoey couldn't help but grin to himself as she swayed slightly on stage, forgot the words and "la la"-ed her way through half the song, and giggled through most of the rest. All in all, it was an amusing sight to see someone having that much fun; the crowd laughed far more with the stranger than at her, at least, not really drunk enough yet to immediately get belligerent with anything lame.

The second "act", however, was downright pathetic, and the crowd let the scraggly-looking brunette know it. Singing off-key and dancing around to the music like he thought he was some sort of rock and roll god, the most annoying thing about the display to Zoey was that the guy was taking himself so seriously. Sipping slowly on his margarita as an excuse to not let his annoyance show, the redheaded musician mentally smirked. Madre de Dios, he really believes he's doing spectacularly. It was all Zoey could do to not laugh out loud as the brown-haired stranger ended his song, looked expectantly around for the audience's wild approval, and was met with only a pointed silence.

Looking profoundly bewildered, then angry, the sour-noted man was stomping back to his table when the amused-appearing disc jockey picked up another one of the slips of paper, looked at the name, then leaned forward to announce the next performer. "Zachary Saint-James, come on down. Let's see if you've got what it takes to wow the crowd."

Zoey started, realizing that the name he was "playing" had been called. For someone that knew his entire name, the identity was rather transparent; he'd picked "Zachary" because it would be easier to respond to a name that also began with a "z" sound, and "Saint-James" was the literal translation of his own Hispanic middle name, Santiago. Setting down his quarter-finished drink, Zoey gracefully rose and walked up to the deejay. He didn't have to act nervous; the musician had never really gotten over having before-performance jitters. He'd only gotten better at hiding his unease, appearing supremely confident when he truly wasn't.

Smiling to the other man, Zoey absently tucked his loose, autumn-fire hair behind his left ear--a subconscious, characteristic gesture he had when his hair was unbound and felt like it was in his way--and spoke, "Give me a nod when you start the track. It begins a capella, as you know, so I'll need to know when it actually starts."

"Can do," the brown-haired, Egyptian-uniformed man responded, then gestured toward the small stage.

It felt strange, Zoey had to admit, taking a stage--even one this small--with no instrument in his hands. Even so, he could feel the nervousness and excitement both twining together into that special something that always made him feel like he was caught in ecstasy. Music . . . this was his truest and oldest addiction, a love that eclipsed all others, though the dark-tinged passion he'd found of late with Lis ranked a very close second. As his emerald eyes shifted over to watch the deejay for the other man's signal, Zoey found himself swallowing hard. Would he miss the cue? Get the timing wrong and screw it up? He missed the presence of his guitar; without the instrument to focus on, he was far more aware of everyone staring at him expectantly than he normally was. The song he had chosen was a currently popular one; composed and originally performed by the band called Live, "The Dolphin's Cry" always made him think of Lis, for some reason.

Then the nod came, and there was no more time to wonder. Taking a breath and grabbing onto the long, shiningly silver microphone stand, Zoey launched into the song.

The way you're bathed in light . . .

He knew he had the timing pegged perfectly the moment he nodded his head, sending his red-dyed hair swirling around him, and heard the expected first chord of the music swell out of the speakers.

Reminds me of that night,
God laid me down into your rose garden of trust . . .

Letting himself relax, Zoey dropped his hands from holding the microphone stand and closed his eyes. Allowing the melody and the words to sweep over him and carry his awareness away, he shifted his stance slightly, taking up the position needed to get the proper distance between the mike and his mouth for the best annunciation of his clear, tenor voice.

And I was swept away,
With nothin' left to say . . .

The musician slipped deeper into that familiar mental state into which music always transported him, that ecstatic, joyful celebration of energy and being that was the high that drove him to music in the first place. Hands needing something to do as the rest of his body moved to the rich sound that made up the whole of his focused awareness, it was the most natural thing in the world for Zoey to start playing air-guitar, his fingers going through the motions on an imaginary instrument. Anyone familiar with how a guitar was played would quickly realize that this person knew the correct chording for the song and wasn't yet another wanna-be that had no clue at all.

If only Zoey's entire attitude hadn't screamed some sort of intimate knowledge of actually performing music before an audience. Or the voice hadn't been enough of a tipoff. Clear as a bell, resonant and perfectly pitched, just about anyone who had heard the lead singer of the band Ravensblood would recognize the distinctive sound of Zoey's singing voice--especially any fan--despite this being the first time the musician had ever performed this particular song in front of an audience.

Some helpless fool, yeah I was lost in a swoon of peace,
You're all I need to find,
So when the time is right,
Come to me sweetly, come to me,
Come to me . . .

Unaware of his very talent blowing the cover of his masquerade, Zoey continued on. As the sound of the CD blended with the effort and tones of his vocals, the young ghoul slipped beyond merely performing the piece. Instead, he seemed to become a part of the music, just a living vessel of expression of the symphony that surrounded him.

Love will lead us, alright,
Love will lead us, she will lead us,
Can you hear the dolphin's cry?
See the road rise up to meet us,
It's in the air we breathe tonight,
Love will lead us, she will lead us.

Still playing his imaginary instrument, Zoey belted out the vocals, body moving in a graceful, nearly sensual rhythm in time to the beat of the song. Eyes half-opened, mind a million miles away in whatever shining place he went to as his muse took over, he never once thought about trying to perform poorer than his true talent. Swept up in the music, to have tried to cover his tracks--or play a character who was a poor musician--would have been nearly impossible for him. After all, he'd spent so much time fine-tuning his abilities to the peak they were now at; it would be hard for him to try to be deliberately bad.

Oh yeah, we meet again,
It's like we never left,
Time in between was just a dream,
Did we leave this place?
This crazy fog surrounds me,
You wrap your legs around me,
All I can do to try and breathe,
Let me breathe, so that I,
So we can go together!

Crystalline tenor dropping low and seductive again, his slender body swaying gently in time to the beat and fingers still making the chords of the lead guitar track in the thin air, Zoey certainly wasn't aware of just how much attention he'd attracted to himself with his performance. Compared to the other two so far, his smooth, well-practiced professionalism stuck out like a sore thumb. Had he known what his performance truly looked like, he would have realized that he'd most likely undone everything his careful planning was attempting to achieve.

Radur, accompanied by two of the larger, stronger men, watched Zoey carefully. Disobeying Mistress Vanity and letting the young man escape would result in dreadful punishment; all three knew that from previous experience. But they had to be careful not to draw too much attention; keeping things running smoothly, at least on the surface, was one of the paramount rules of the club. Attention could be all too quickly followed by destruction.

When the man with the autumn-fire hair rose to make his arrangements with the disc jockey who handled the karaoke performances, Radur frowned. The way the young man stood on the stage looked oddly familiar for some reason; when he stepped to the microphone, moving with an elegant, loose-limbed grace, the memory prodded harder at Radur's mind. But it wasn't until he was halfway through his song--his rich, clear tenor carrying the words with exquisite precision--that the wiry ghoul remembered.

"Zoisite de la Vega," he hissed under his breath. Jabbing one of the larger men in the ribs, he whispered, "That man--he is a friend of our guest downstairs! I doubt that this is some coincidence; *he* would never come to a place like this without good reason. We must warn the mistress, and that man must *not* be allowed to leave here!"

"Can we let him finish singing?" the second hulking guard whispered almost plaintively. "He's got a good voice . . ."

"Of course we will let him *finish*, halfwit! We can hardly leap upon the stage and hustle him away in front of the crowd! Must I do *all* the thinking here?" The tattooed little man scowled, hunkering down on the barstool, watching the young singer with intense eyes.

Love will lead us, alright,
Love will lead us, she will lead us,
Can you hear the dolphin's cry?
See the road rise up to meet us,
It's in the air we breathe tonight,
Love will lead us, she will lead us.
Life is like a shooting star,
It don't matter who you are,
If you only run for cover, it's just a waste of time,
We are lost 'til we are found,
This phoenix rises up from the ground,
And all these wars are over . . .

Once more, his voice rang out loud and clear, the chorus of the song filling the club from the professional-quality sound system's speakers. It was obvious in every move he made, of the expression on his subtly-altered-by-makeup face, that he was having fun and really getting into the song.

Over . . .
Over . . .
Singin' la da da, da da da,
Over . . .
Come to me . . .
Come to me . . .
La da da, da da da . . .
Come to me . . .

While his voice dropped to a soft whisper barely caught by the mike, his nimble hands picked out the chords of the lead guitar piece of the instrumental bridge on the imaginary instrument, his concentration centering there just as if he were actually on stage for a concert performance. The lights of the club's sophisticated system shimmered over the copper highlights of Zoey's wavy, autumn-fire hair while he moved to the music, reveling in the feel and the emotions of the swirl of sound. Yes, here and there he made a wrong note or struck an incorrect chord--he was still learning the song after all--and didn't pull off the instrumental bridge as perfectly as was possible, but since he wasn't actually playing guitar, the flubs went basically unnoticed.

Love will lead us, alright,
Love will lead us, she will lead us,
Can you hear the dolphin's cry?
See the road rise up to meet us,
It's in the air we breathe tonight,
Love will lead us, she will lead us,
Life is like a shooting star,
It don't matter who you are,
If you only run for cover, it's just a waste of time,
We are lost 'til we are found,
This phoenix rises up from the ground,
And all these wars are over . . .
Over . . .
Over . . .
Over . . .
Love will lead us, alright,
Love will lead us, she will lead us,
Can you hear the dolphin's cry?
See the road . . . rise up to meet us,
It's in the air we breathe tonight,
Love will lead us, she will lead us . . .

The silence following the end of the CD was almost deafening to Zoey, his cue to step out of his music-induced trance. Grinning to himself--he was rather pleased with his performance, especially for a first-time out in front of an audience--he tossed a nod of thanks to the disc jockey and stepped off the stage. Slightly sweaty from the lights and the exertion of giving the song his all, he reached up and wiped off his brow as he started back towards his table right there next to the dance floor. Flicking his deep red hair back, he concentrated for a moment on the sounds the audience was making, momentarily curious as to what effect his performance had on everyone.

The crowd was silent for only a few moments after Zoey had finished the song; then the applause swelled into an almost deafening roar, echoing off the walls, mingling with the shouts of approval--and feminine calls of appreciation for more than just the young man's musical talent.

The roar of the crowd had its own sort of high to the now-redheaded musician; he couldn't help but bask in the warm glow of the adoration of the patrons there. It was all part of the rush of doing something he truly loved. The shouts and calls all blended together into a joyful cacophony--it was easy to ignore the individual voices that clamored for his attention--that was its own music to Zoey's ears. Pulling out his abandoned seat and getting ready to sit down and finish his drink as well as listen to the other "acts" following him, he let his emerald gaze dart over to look at the Egyptianesque-clad deejay. Seeing the surprised wonderment on the handsome brunette man's face, the young ghoul pretty much figured that this pleasure palace either never saw true talent on amateur night, or the frequenters were never sober enough to truly shine--until he saw the disc jockey's expression shift to a sly smirk.

Just like that, the slender musician realized he'd been recognized. My voice . . . The deejay had seen him perform before; it was a detail Zoey had never even considered. A thrill of pure fear lancing through him as the barechested man's smirk widened in realization that the singer had discovered that he had blown it, Zoey almost missed the distant, panic-tinged sound coming from somewhere in the club.

The noise drowned out another sound for several moments--but when the applause began to die down, that other sound became audible to those who were alert enough to hear it . . . including Zoey.

The sound of someone screaming in panic--a voice that was definitely male, and very familiar to the young singer. Zoey's head jerked slightly sideways as he recognized the voice.

"Zoey! Get away! Run!"


Like hell was he going to run away, though it probably would have been the most prudent thing, especially with the deejay almost laughing at having his suspicions so eerily confirmed. However, the brunette employee of the Egyptian-themed den of iniquity then began to warily look around, seeing if anyone else in the party-going crowd had noticed the screaming. Watching the other man become occupied, the redheaded musician darted from his table.

Zoey made his way quickly through the crowd, politely refusing the exuberant offers of drinks, drugs, and sex that were freely presented by various members of the audience, male and female alike; the singer slipped into a hallway that led to the bathrooms and to the upper floor of the club, judging by the staircase at the far end. The stairs rose about six feet off the floor, then turned sharply right; a narrow doorway was set into the wall below the stairs. The panicked voice was clearer here--but only for a moment. The scream cut off quite suddenly, and Zoey's gut knotted in apprehension. He turned back toward the doorway, knowing that he needed to get help.

A short, weaselly man and two much larger men blocked his way. The skinny, tattooed man smiled widely, exposing far too many teeth--the front pair capped with gold. "Hello," he said with false pleasantry. "Please to come with us?"

Zoey took a wary step back, then opened his mouth to shout; the two larger men were on him almost instantly. Restraining him with brutal efficiency, they dragged the slender young man to the doorway set into the wall beneath the stairs, and down into a stifling darkness. The tattooed man scampered down ahead of them, his movements jerky, disjointed, unnerving.

It was a good bet that the twin big uglies that had a hold of him were ghouls as well; after all, they and the twitchy, tattooed man that had confronted him were obviously in the know and it was still not yet sunset. Angry and frightened both--God only knew what they were going to do with him--Zoey decided to at least not make it too easy on them. Balking them as best he could as they started down into the darkness, the musician tried to reach into himself and tap that hot strength that the coals of Toreador vitae had apparently given him. However, this time, they remained untouched, dormant. It was probably just as well, Zoey decided as he continued to resist. They probably had an equal strength, and then some. Last thing he needed was to be torn apart by Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

At the bottom of the stairs, the two men turned right, dragging Zoey's struggling form between them; there were more turns after that, a confusing labyrinth. Finally, a door was opened ahead of them; a cloying perfume of lilies swept through the door, making Zoey's throat tighten at the sickening sweetness.

A single light was on in the room. It was just enough to see Alex's nude body, shackled hand and foot, lying on the floor; a large snake was wrapped around his head and neck, a section of its body forced between his lips and serving as a gag. The young man writhed, his breathing labored through his nose.

A dark-haired woman was sitting up in the bed, her naked form just as enticing as the half-bare bodies of the waitresses in the club above. There was an overpowering--almost overripe--sensuality around her, but Zoey was repelled more than aroused. He could almost see the corruption in her, as evidenced by the gleam in her heavy-lidded eyes, in the languid movements she made as she lifted a hand to push her hair back over her shoulders.

"Is this the one, Radun?" she purred drowsily, looking Zoey up and down. She licked her lips; he saw, to his dismay, that her tongue looked as though it had a forked tip. "He's very, very pretty . . ."

And you're very, very disgusting, the redheaded ghoul responded within his mind, still trying to not gag on the obnoxious amounts of perfume wafting in the air. Emerald eyes narrowing slightly behind long, spun-gold lashes, he met the nude woman's devouring gaze, one corner of his expressive mouth curled up in the faintest of sneers. Better to at least concentrate on her than that snake gagging Alex. Zoey suppressed a shudder thinking about that; he was nearly phobic of serpents to begin with.

"Yes, Mistress Vanity," Radun answered, rubbing his hands together anxiously, watching the woman. "Do you want us to put him with the others, or leave him with you?"

Vanity considered for a long moment, then yawned. "Yes, put him with the others for now. We'll see about handling him differently after sundown." She waved a hand in dismissal, lying down among the heaps of pillows and tangled sheets that sprawled over her bed. "Take him away now. Give him something to keep him quiet, too."

"Yes, Mistress Vanity," Radun crooned, his voice dripping servility. With a vicious smile, he turned toward Zoey, drawing a small bottle and a hypodermic from his pocket even as he nodded sharply to the ghouls that restrained the singer.

He noted her yawn, realized that she must be one of the Kindred that ran the joint. Sunset must not be too far off, if she's active. That thought alone gave him some hope. Lis might be angry, but she'd kick ass first and punish him afterwards. Still glaring almost defiantly at the sleepy Serpent, Zoey couldn't help but wonder what the hell she meant about "something to keep him quiet". Movement off to the side catching his attention, he sucked in a breath in dismay as the tattooed creep pulled a bottle of something and a hypodermic, grinning with vicious glee as he made sure Zoey saw what he held. Lithe body struggling between the two huge man again, the young musician tried one last time to touch that fiery strength that he knew was sitting there in the depths of himself. God only knew what they were planning on giving him, and he had noticed, with growing panic, that the other redheaded man's struggles were weakening rapidly.

Zoey shouted his best friend's name as the pair of huge ghouls dragged him out the door. "Alex!"

The sting of the needle was the only reply he got as the pair of muscle-bound goons drug him out of the room and the door closed with a sound of finality that made Zoey involuntarily shudder. As he softly growled, a sound that really seemed weak with his voice that was far better suited to melodic speaking and singing, he had to be content with once more doing his best to drag his feet.

By the time they tossed him into what was apparently a holding pen of sorts, Zoey was feeling a bit lightheaded, reality seemingly slightly distorted.

"It's almost sunset," whispered one of the watchers, his lips brushing the smooth wood of the crate that he crouched beside. "We're ready. It's almost time . . ."

Something moved within the crate, and the wood groaned very slightly.

"Just a few minutes more," the watcher promised, stroking the heavy casing with a lingering caress. "Just a few minutes, and the blasphemers will pay . . ."

Lis knew instantly that Zoey was not nearby. Her hand slid across the sheet beside her as she rolled over; her eyes opened, jade lanterns in the darkness of her bedroom. She could feel that something was wrong--could sense Zoey's fear and disorientation.

A moment's mental communication with her ghouls told her all she needed to know. Zoey had gone out earlier, had not left a message, had said he might not be back by sundown . . .

The Toreador rose from her bed and went about her business with brisk efficiency. When she had dressed--a bodysuit of matte black leather that looked merely decorative, yet was lined with a layer of Kevlar, a matching long coat buttoned from the waist up that hid a steel breastplate and a number of small, deadly weapons, knee-high boots with thick, solid soles that concealed blades in heel and toe--she stopped only to pick up something from her dresser.

The scarab ring shimmered as she slid it onto the third finger of her black-gloved right hand.

"I shall stretch out my hand," she murmured, gazing at her fingers before her face, "and smite Egypt with all my wonders . . ."

The attack on the Black Sphinx was swift, merciless, perfectly orchestrated. The sun had fallen below the horizon, darkness spreading over the city; the dark-clad figures that burst into the nightclub from every window on the second floor met with little resistance as they locked down that floor. That floor concealed a brothel--the good-looking waitresses did more than just hand out drinks, obviously--and the main office with its safe full of money. That little coup was accomplished in efficient silence; nothing escaped to warn those below.

When the attackers struck the ground floor, things got noisy quickly. Drunken, drugged-out clubgoers were easily contained and incapacitated; most of them, seeing the two beings that led the assault, were almost happy to slip off into unconsciousness.

The woman, a splendid creature with a mane of fiery red hair, was nice enough to look at, for all that she was clothed like Isis gone Goth--her silken gown midnight-black, her jewelry all silver set with dark, sullen gems--but it was the thing beside her that truly made the observers flee screaming.

It was nearly eight feet tall, a monstrous fusion of man and serpent; its dreadful skull, with gaping jaws distended horribly to voice hissing screams of rage, was hooded like a cobra's, its limbs short, yet powerfully muscled. Clothed in thick, dark scales, it was something from a nightmare, its eyes ablaze with a hellish glow.

Together, their retainers at their heels, the grotesque man-snake and its pale, lovely companion tore through the club, bent upon the door that led down into the labyrinth.


A pause in the monotonous sound as the soft feel of satin ran over the heated, now-sensitive skin. Muscles aching from the position, Zoey swore that all reality had ever been was one strike after another until his skin tingled, followed by the almost expected relief of her caress. If she had been conditioning him to accept her touch, she was doing a mighty fine job of it. He had to admit that the longer it went on, the more and more he looked forward to her pauses and the feel of her gloved hand stroking over him.

"Mistress Vanity!" Radun screamed in panic, almost falling through the door.

Frowning, Vanity--clothed only in garter stockings, satin elbow gloves, and her own long, dark hair--turned from her work. A broad, flat paddle dangled from its cord around her wrist; the marks of the paddle showed lightly on the buttocks and back of the man tied spreadeagle, facedown, on her bed. "What is it now, fool? Can you not give me more than an hour alone with my new pet before you must intrude with your hysterical screamings?" She ran her hand lightly over the paddle-marked backside of her captive, who shuddered weakly.

An afternoon drugged half out of his mind and in the company of half a dozen similarly drugged men--all of them young, rather good-looking, and disoriented--had not made Zoey feel very positive at all about his current situation. Being tied down and spanked by someone who was basically a spoiled brat, despite all her sexiness, didn't improve his outlook either.

The fact that she was a Serpent of the Light didn't help at all.

Alex, only semi-conscious, obviously very heavily sedated, lay across the head of the bed, sprawled naked on his side and facing the wall. Zoey liked his friend well enough, but it was just fine that Alex wasn't facing him. Friendship stopped at about the point where Zoey might wind up with his face pushed into Alex's groin.

He still had to wonder just why he was lying there with the small of Alex's back right there only a scant inch from the end of his nose. Each wrist secured to a post of the bed's headboard by a stout length of rope, Zoey's forearms rested against both the side of one of the redheaded bassist's knees and against one of his biceps, forcing the guitarist into a very uncomfortable position that had nothing to do with the fact that his best friend was nude and lying very close to his face. Arms and shoulders having become fatigued long ago, Zoey's head hung down and his breathing was labored, the muscles supporting both involuntarily trembling at times and their aching complaint only adding yet another thread to the overall tapestry of pain and pleasure.

Even so, the interruption was a welcome one. Trying to pull together his concentration through the haze of drug-induced disorientation, pain and fatigue, Zoey softly panted and did his best to listen to what the panicked, simpering voice was telling the Serpent.

"Mistress," Radun babbled, "we are under attack! They have taken the upper floors of the club! We must flee at once!"

"Under attack by who?" Vanity demanded irritably. "Radun, who?"

The door almost exploded inward, propelled by a powerful blow from the lashing tail of the monster that burst through the door immediately, roaring. Behind it, the red-haired woman stood framed in the doorway, her voice rising above the creature's dreadful cries.

"Amon-Kep, High Priest of Typhon, and Lilis-Kheperah, Priestess of the Ecstasies, have come to punish you, blasphemer! Prepare to feel the wrath of the true Children of Set!"

Vanity screamed in absolute horror, dropping the paddle and stumbling back; she shoved Radun into the path of the raging man-snake to buy herself time. Blood spurted in crimson gouts as Amon-Kep tore the ghoul limb from limb; Vanity found herself backed into a corner by the dark-clad Lilis-Kheperah, who smiled a slow, vicious smile, then flicked her tongue--a foot and a half long, forked and dangerous--at the other woman's face.

"Prepare yourself," the priestess whispered again, almost lovingly. Behind her, Amon-Kep was smashing the armless torso of the still-screaming Radun against the bedposts; the bed was coming apart, and Zoey's bonds snapped along with the frame. Panting and wild-eyed, the young singer scrambled back up against the headboard, pulling Alex with him, watching in shock as the nightmarish creature distended its fanged jaws and bit off the shrieking ghoul's head. There was a horribly audible gulp, and Amon-Kep flung the mangled corpse aside before taking a step forward, toward Zoey. His jaws, dripping slime and blood, gaped eagerly.

The crash of the door had gotten his attention. The words and sounds of the newcomers had startled him. The bed falling apart around him had scared him. But rolling across the quaking bed, suddenly free and finding himself face to face with something as awful as the snake-man thing was enough to damned near make Zoey piss himself. Not even conscious of the fact that he'd grabbed his friend and had retreated as far back as was physically possible, his fear-frozen mind kept wanting to discount what he was seeing as something that was a bad effect from whatever drug he'd been given. But the gulp, as well as the tickling sensation of flecks of blood dotting his sensitive skin, the stench of hot blood, fetid breath and slime and the nightmarish sense of realism kept Zoey from slipping into the comfort of dismissing it as one very bad hallucination. As the snake-man monster prepared to strike, the young musician could feel the roar of his blood in his ears, terror making his heart slam hard in his chest--and the sullen coals of power in his belly flare to dull life.

"Stand!" thundered another voice from the doorway. The sense of a presence so powerful that it froze the blood of all those in the room washed over them, held them immobile in their tableaux--the Ecstasy priestess Lilis-Kheperah menacing the Serpent of the Light, the Typhonist Amon-Kep threatening the now-redheaded singer and his naturally red-haired friend.

Elisabeth stepped into the room, her eyes ablaze. She pointed her left forefinger at Amon-Kep, then raised her right hand. The scarab ring sparkled on her fist, drawing the gaze irresistibly. Softly, her voice carrying easily in the room, she chanted in the ancient language of Egypt--reciting the words that were etched within the ring, the warning against awakening the dread Bane Mummy. With every few words, she strode slowly into the chamber.

When she had finished speaking, she stood ten feet into the room, between Amon-Kep and the door. "You will let these two men go," she said, her voice low and unemotional. "My servants wait outside for them. If you try to fight me, I will first destroy this treasure--" she held her fist high again-- "before destroying you as well. You will go screaming into the Underworld knowing that you are responsible for the loss of something so valuable to the Children of Set. You know I will do it, Amon-Kep, Lilis-Kheperah."

"Let the mortals go!" Lilis-Kheperah snarled at her scarcely-human companion. "She will do it! She is the Dark Lady, Angel of Mists--she will do it!"

Amon-Kep growled--a chilling sound--but settled back onto his thick tail, slowly closing his jaws.

"Zoey," Lis said softly. "Take your friend and get out of here. Victor and Grant are waiting in the hall. They'll get the two of you outside and back to the estate. Go!"

Lis's words seemingly unfroze Zoey from the effects of whatever she had done to draw everyone's attention to herself. It took nearly all of the young singer's will to not just throw himself at his dark angel's feet and weep in sheer, blessed relief, but knowing that she'd ordered him to get the hell out helped. Kneeling down long enough to grab the nearly unconscious bassist in his embrace, Zoey planted his feet and darted from the room.

Just as Lis had said, her other retainers were there in the hall, waiting. As the musician came to a halt, Victor gave Zoey a long looking over that made the younger man blush in abject shame. Not even meeting the other ghouls' gazes, he remained silent as Grant took Alex's inert form from him.

"Come on. Let's get out of this mess before the whole place comes down." Victor's terse voice was the only thing that broke the odd, uncomfortable silence.

In fact, no other words passed between them until they were all out of the club and in the relative safety of the limousine. That's when Victor looked at Lis's youngest ghoul and faintly smiled. "Like the hair, Zoey. Going to make it a permanent change?"

Emerald eyes wide, the guitarist just stared at him, not sure how to answer that.

"Don't tease him, Victor," Grant chided mildly from the driver's seat.

"I'm not teasing," the older ghoul replied with great dignity, still turned half around with his elbow on the back of his seat in order to look into the limo's rear compartment. Alex lay on the backseat, still unconscious; Zoey was sitting in the jump seat behind Grant. Victor pointed at a duffel bag that was occupying the other jump seat. "There's blankets and some extra clothes in there. I don't know if any of the clothes will fit you or your friend, and the windows are tinted, but I recommend at least pulling out the blankets. Unless you're a closet nudist, of course."

Zoey turned slightly red and rummaged in the canvas bag. There were two blankets--more like twin-size quilts, in truth--and the musician carefully draped one over Alex before going back into the bag to find some clothes. He wound up with a pair of worn gray sweatpants that fit him quite comfortably, and a hooded sweatshirt to match. The back of the sweatshirt was stenciled with Notre Dame College's "Fighting Irish" logo.

Of course, as the now-redheaded musician dug around in the duffel bag to see what was in there, he had to wonder how they had known something like this would be needed. Or were they in the habit of carrying around blankets and clothing, just in case? Maybe it was that same sense that had let Lis know that he was in trouble and had gotten in over his head. Zoey rather guessed it was just "one of those things".

"This fits," he reported to the much older ghoul. He had to wonder where they'd come from; Victor was too tall, Grant had a stockier build, and Claude might have been too slender to donate the garments. "Uh . . . whose clothes are these, anyway?"

Victor looked over the seat again. "Oh. They belong to Lis. Her favorite sweatsuit, actually."

Zoey blinked. Odd. I would never have guessed that she'd have something like this around, let alone wear it. Even so, the sweats were comfortable, and they were hers. Just knowing that he was covered up with something that she owned made him feel better about his situation. Just being covered up, actually, helped immensely. Though not bashful at all, or overly modest--he was quite aware that he wasn't hard on the eyes to begin with--being stripped of his clothing and tied to the bed had heightened the fact that he wasn't in control at all. At least now he felt more like a person and less an animated piece of meat.

Zoey's emerald eyes wandered over to look at his friend. Alex was out of it still--in fact, he'd hardly moved or reacted at all the whole time Zoey and the other ghouls had made their way through the invaded club. To the now-redheaded musician's amazement, everyone had cleared out of their way, as if they were known to be untouchable. More of Lis's doing, somehow. It just had to be.

The bassist looked exhausted, his handsome face appearing careworn, even in unconsciousness. At least he seemed to be all in one piece. That was at least a start. As he sat there in the very comfortably upholstered jump seat behind Grant and looked over at his friend, Zoey couldn't help but wonder what Alex would remember of this, or how it would effect him. Or what Lis would have to do about it.

Thinking about that turned Zoey's own thoughts to that one night in the cemetery. Though the memories were numbed, hazy, feeling like they happened a lifetime ago, they were still there, haunting him. Shuddering and crossing his arms over his chest--practically hugging himself, in fact--the young ghoul bowed his head and closed his eyes. The shame, anguish and grief wrapping around himself like a mantle, the guitarist remained that way, withdrawn into his own little world, the entire time it took to ride home to Lis's mansion.

"Give us the ring," Lilis-Kheperah demanded, taking a half-step away from the cringing Serpent and holding out her hand imperiously. "It is the property of the Children of Set!"

"That ring," Vanity whispered, staring past the priestess. "That ring belongs to the boy we took . . ."

"So you freely confess to poaching one of my proteges, hmm?" Lis responded coolly to the Serpent, ignoring the Setite. "All four of those mortals belong exclusively to me. If it were not for your foolishness in attacking them, I might have been inclined to intervene on your behalf. As it is, I shall permit Lilis-Kheperah and Amon-Kep to chastise you appropriately."

The insult to the arrogant Setites was obvious.

"Permit? Permit!" Lilis-Kheperah half-shrieked.

Amon-Kep added his own objections by letting out a hideous roaring-hissing sound and arching forward, opening his long jaws and baring his intimidating fangs, spreading his cobra-like hood in threat display.

Lis wasn't fazed. "Yes, I said 'permit'. The ring is mine, the mortals are mine--you may do as you like with the Serpent."

"Give us that ring!" the priestess screamed, taking a lunging step toward the Toreador. Judging her reaction to be a subtle command, Amon-Kep roared again and sprang forward.

Lis didn't move until the monstrous creature was almost on top of her. Then she turned with fluid precision and rammed her left hand into Amon-Kep's gaping maw, her shoulder almost banging into the blunted snout even as her gloved fist impacted the tissues of the soft palate. The monster gagged as she changed her angle, driving down into its throat. Reflexively, the Setite clamped its jaws shut, but the daggerlike primary fangs--with their dosage of supernaturally powerful venom--only bracketed the Toreador's arm. The smaller teeth bit down, bruising the flesh before punching through the Kevlar weave to draw blood.

He's going to try to bite off my arm, Lis thought unemotionally. The idea didn't bother her too much; methodically, she gripped the Setite's tongue just at the root, her fingers clenching like vice grips. Amon-Kep's lidless yellow eyes somehow conveyed a startled widening just before Lis set off an impressive Thaumaturgical effect--clothing her entire hand, clamped around his tongue, in flames.

Amon-Kep emitted a high-pitched shriek, his jaws immediately opening; Lis tensed her shoulder and jerked back, her strength finishing the job that the fire had started. The Setite's twenty-inch forked tongue dangled from her hand like a grisly trophy as she withdrew her arm from his mouth.

Lilis-Kheperah stumbled to a halt, then shrieked as Lis turned and lashed her across the face with the repulsive organ, its barbed points tearing her cheek. The priestess clutched her wounded face, stepping back with a snarl.

Vanity had the bad judgment, at that point, to giggle maliciously.

As Lis left the room--still carrying the tongue as if she'd forgotten she held it--she hummed under her breath, trying to find some kind of matching harmony in the pattern of the Serpent's screams. While it could have been entertaining to watch the vengeful Setites extracting their satisfaction from Vanity's carcass--they were, inevitably, going to make her pay for quite a bit more than her own fair share, thanks to Lis's actions--the Toreador elder had other things on her mind.

Such as finding out what in all hell her newest ghoul might have been thinking--if he was, in fact, thinking--when he left the estate that morning.

The clock in the music room showed that it was only eight-thirty, though it felt like a lot more time had passed since Zoey had braved the Serpents' den. Alex had been put in one of the guest rooms; Claude, who had revealed that in addition to his culinary skills, he was also a certified doctor, had announced that the young man was suffering from exhaustion, assorted contusions, blood loss, and the effects of whatever narcotic had been administered. The dark-haired ghoul had been optimistic, though, remarking that Alex would recover with no lingering physical effects.

He had to see to it that Alex was taken care of first. Fixating on that helped ease the emotional chaos within himself, gave Zoey something else to think about. Even after Claude had reassured him that the younger musician would physically be all right given rest and time, Zoey hovered at Alex's bedside, double- and triple-checking that the room was in good shape, that there was an ample supply of clothing for when he woke up, that Alex was positioned comfortably in the roomy bed and adquately tucked in under the smooth cotton sheets and fluffy quilt. Even after the others had left to return to their duties and chores, Zoey sat at Alex's bedside, just looking at his best friend as the bassist slipped from unconsciousness to exhausted sleep without stirring. At some point as he had done that, the slender musician had raised the hood of the worn, comfortable sweatshirt and covered his head with it, as if to hide from the world the dark, autumn-fire shade he'd dyed his normally golden-blond hair.

It wasn't until he heard Lis's soft voice in his mind, telling him that she'd like to see him down in the music room, that Zoey moved from his silent vigil. The music room, he mused as he gracefully stood. Seems appropriate. Time to face the music, Zoisite . . . With one last look at the unmoving redhead in the bed, the young ghoul finally left his friend and went to see what the Kindred that owned him body and soul had to say about all this.

The first thing that struck him was the sound of the piano. As always, music caught his attention and held it, the notes striking harmonic chords within his very being. He didn't recognize the tune, but Zoey took some comfort in the fact that Lis was playing something light and soothing. Perhaps that was a good sign.

Lis herself was the second thing that caught his attention as he entered the room. As always, the guitarist was enchanted with her appearance, her poise, her queenly demeanor. So perfect, and he was so lucky to have captured her attention. He just hoped that he hadn't somehow angered her enough to have her send him away forever. Taking a seat, he waited--and listened to her masterful playing.

While he perched on an elegant little chair--its carved mahogany frame set off by the needlepointed back and seat cushions--Zoey felt like he was awaiting a scolding from a teacher. He was still wearing the gray sweatsuit, having felt somehow more comfortable in it than he would feel if he changed clothes. It was almost like a talisman, as if wearing something of his regnant's would avert her anger . . .

Lis didn't seem to feel the tension, or perhaps she was simply ignoring it. Sitting at the piano, the torn bodysuit and other gear exchanged for a comfortable, simple dress of deep blue cotton with a row of tiny pearl buttons running up along the front of the bodice, she coaxed a light, soothing melody from the ivory keys.

Without breaking her rhythm or opening her eyes, she finally spoke. "What did you think you were doing, Zoey?"

He closed his emerald eyes and swallowed hard, doing his best to not just jump up, throw himself at her feet and beg Lis for forgiveness. Her question hanging over him like a sharp sword, it was a few notes later that his subdued, melodic tenor sounded in reply. "I only wanted to look around and see if I could pick up a clue or two. I never intended to do more than that."

The Toreador continued playing, not speaking a word.

The notes hung in the air, weighing down the atmosphere despite their soothing quality. Zoey folded his graceful, elegant hands together on his sweatpants-clad lap, a small curl of fear settling in the pit of his stomach. Still getting no reply other than the music, he added, "I screwed up. I admit it. I'm sorry."

Lis played on, her fascinating eyes remaining closed, the rhythm of the melody continuing on unabated.

And into that silence of the conversation, his worry and fear of her being upset enough to reject him spurring him on, Zoey blurted out the whole story. How he felt useless and frustrated. How--when he'd found out that the Black Sphinx was where his bandmates had been--he'd decided to see what sort of place it was like and whether he could find something out about Alex by using his natural charm to get people to answer his questions. His decision to pretend to be someone other than who he was and go in. His overlooking the question of ID. His ego in performing and how that oversight had given himself away to at least four people.

"I swear, Lis, on everything I hold sacred, that I was going to get the hell out of there when I realized that the deejay knew who I was, but that's when I heard Alex yelling at me to get out. I . . . I couldn't just leave him, and he sounded so close. It wasn't until I got back there that I realized I'd just gotten in over my head."

Still, only the piano sounded in the room as the redheaded musician paused.

Zoey winced, unsure how the dark angel at the instrument was taking the story so far. Closing his large, emerald eyes, he once more ended up virtually hugging himself as he slowly narrated the rest of the story--being hauled by the ghouls before Mistress Vanity, then given some sort of drug and held in the room with the others until Vanity had decided to play with her new toy. Face burning with shame, his thoughts on what he remembered happening as well as the faded memories of the cemetery--they seemed to be dark echoes of his narrative, whispering to him how unclean and unfit to be with decent company he truly was--he haltingly described to Lis Mistress Vanity's idea of "playing" was. Then he shuddered and told her about the interruption of the Setites, trailing off into silence from there. After all, they both knew what had happened after that.

And as he sat there and listened to the music, dread and shame and fear all sitting there like a lead weight within him, his mind focused on a realization. "Lis, my car's still there at the Black Sphinx. Someone could trace my presence there from it."

Lis's eyes remained closed; without the sensory input of sight, her hearing sharpened, as did her sense of touch. The ivory keys felt smooth, yet she could detect the texture easily, although a mortal probably could not have done the same. The music, too, changed to her perceptions--clearer, deeper, each note lingering in the air. If she chose, she could enhance her hearing so that she could even hear the hammers hitting the strings--a sound normally swallowed up in the rest of each note.

Zoey's voice was similarly altered. His soft, mellow tenor brushed against her eardrums, a sensation almost like velvet would feel against her cheek. Even without reading his body language, his expression--and oh, if he only knew how much he gave away without realizing it!--she could pluck his emotions from the air as easily as she could assimilate each note that fell from the piano's strings.

It took her a long moment to realize what he had actually said, rather than savoring the tones. Her own voice was unhurried, untroubled, as she responded. "Someone could, yes. But for what reason? Mortal police may wish to garner a statement from you to aid their investigations. Kindred who know of our association will assume that I dispatched you to reconnoiter for me. Those who don't know of our association will learn quickly enough, and will be far more likely to back off rather than risk my anger by pursuing you for whatever reasons."

She slipped from one melody to another, her hands moving over the keys with liquid precision. Her voice softened to a murmur. "I remember Amadeus, so young, yet so brilliant . . ."

Zoey sounded startled. "Amadeus? . . . You don't mean . . ."

"Of course." She smiled, opening her eyes at last to gaze at him. "You know how old I am, and that I favor my homeland in many things. How could one like Mozart escape my notice?"

"It's easy to forget how old you are," he admitted softly.

"Especially since you would like to forget, hmm?" There was no condemnation in her voice, but he paled and looked away.

She finished the piece and rose from the bench, closing the cover gently over the keys before stepping away from the piano and walking over to him. Reaching out, she pushed the hood back, then stroked her hand lightly over the shimmering auburn hair.

"I can see why they would have taken you," she murmured, looking down at him. "You are beautiful no matter what coloring you choose--although I admit that I prefer your real appearance." She took his hand, pulling him gently to his feet. "I hope that it washes out soon. An angel should be crowned in golden light, after all."

"Lis, I'm sorry that I screwed up so bad," Zoey said again, not meeting her gaze until she put a hand beneath his chin, tilting his face to her a little. He was telling the truth; he was sorry for the mistakes he'd made, but he was not sorry for setting out to rescue his friend.

She couldn't help but smile. "My brave little lion. Such loyalty to a friend is something that should be cherished." Her cool lips brushed across his, a light, teasing touch. "Believe me, I do cherish it, and hope that I deserve the same loyalty. Claude tells me that your friend will be all right, that he simply needs to rest, and that the drugs the Setites gave you will have no lasting effects--provided they are purged from your system quickly enough."

He followed a bit reluctantly as she led him toward the door. "Purged how, exactly?"

"Victor is waiting with a bit of saline and an intravenous line," she answered sweetly. "I'm sure that doesn't sound very pleasant, but perhaps you'll feel better knowing that Claude is cooking dinner--a bit heavy on the liquids. French onion soup, green salad . . . that sort of thing. So. A light saline appetizer first, then some more tangible nourishment to follow . . ."

If nothing else, it was a great relief to know that she wasn't angry, wasn't about to shove him away from her presence or banish him from the dark light of her nighttime sun. Emerald eyes momentarily fluttered shut at the sensual touch of her lips, his heart leaping at the gift of it. When he opened them again, the Kindred could see that even if she may not yet have that same loyalty from her little lion, there was certainly love and adoration both there for her.

"It's a good thing you're bribing me with something to eat," Zoey muttered as he walked out of the music room in the wake of the Toreador Elder. He detested needles, to be honest, and the thought of anyone sticking him again, especially with something like an IV, wasn't something he was looking forward to enduring. "Just what exactly did they give me?"

"Suffice it to say that it wasn't anything pleasant," Lis replied, her movements almost eerily graceful as she lead the way through her richly-decorated mansion toward the spacious kitchen. Her tone hinted at a stubborn forcefulness for Zoey to not pursue the line of inquiry. "And that the saline solution will take care of it."

"All right . . ." Casting about for something else to keep his mind occupied, he sighed and asked the main thing that was on his mind, now that he was reassured that he'd not be cast out of his dark angel's presence. "What about Alex?"

"Grant already saw to purging his system of what drugs remained while I was speaking with you in the music room," she reassured him, easily picking his concern out of the very air surrounding him. Feeling that he wished to ask her more and having an educated guess as to what was on his mind, Lis added, "I will see to assessing what he remembers of the encounter and blunting it, but only after he's recovered more strength." She also wanted to assess the bassist's status on her own, without her newest retainer hovering nearby like a mother hen. The Serpent of the Light may have ghouled him, or not. Either way, it was something the Toreador wished to deal with without Zoey in attendance.

The redheaded guitarist nodded, accepting her answer. Even if he had an objection, there really wasn't much he could do about it anyway, though he did have the freedom to protest. However, her reply kept that from being an ongoing topic of conversation. As the two of them entered the kitchen, Zoey wryly smiled as he saw Victor standing there next to a silver pole supporting a couple of bags of normal saline solution from its hooked crossbars. The plastic tubing remained loosely looped over one of the crossbars, everything ready to go.

Sighing, the slender musician dropped down into the sturdy, wooden chair indicated by the older ghoul for Zoey to take. Reaching up, he slipped the hooded sweatshirt up and over; the sleeves would have been too bulky to stay up on their own, and if he was going to be stuck, he'd be damned if Victor was going to skewer him a few times because Lis's clothing was going to get in the way. Dropping the Notre Dame sweatshirt to the immaculately clean linoleum floor, his torso and arms now bare, Zoey held out his left arm in resignation.

Victor circled around to stand on that side of him, his gaze clinically looking over the pattern of bluish veins present there under the fair skin of the underside of Zoey's elbow. Feeling the other man rub an alcohol pad over his skin, the guitarist sighed and turned his emerald gaze to the watching Kindred. Needing something to take his mind off getting stuck, Zoey tilted his head slightly in his characteristic, unconscious gesture of curiosity. "What exactly is the status of the upcoming purge? Will what happen tonight have any bearing at all on it?"

"Some. I've already sent a message to Marshall. We aren't going to war with the Setites, but the Serpents of the Light are members of the Sabbat. He's going to contact the Setites discreetly and ask if they have any information which might help us in the purge. Depending on their moods, they may give the information freely, or charge for it." Lis rolled her eyes. "Knowing them, they'll request payment, but Marshall knows how to deal with them."

"Ow," Zoey answered as Victor set the IV shunt in place. The Toreador couldn't help but smile a little at the almost childlike expression on the young musician's perfect face, and she bent to kiss his cheek.

"While you're enjoying your intravenous cocktail along with your meal, I'll go up and see how your friend is doing." She ran her fingers through his silky hair, frowning slightly, watching the light play off the strands dyed dark autumn-red. "How long will your hair stay like this, hmm?"

The formerly-blond ghoul blushed faintly at the reminder of his cosmetic subterfuge. "About ten or twelve washings, so about two weeks."

"Not if you wash your hair twice a day," Lis replied in a way that indicated he would, in fact, be washing his hair twice a day.

"Yes, Lis," he mumbled, sinking down a bit in the chair as she turned and strolled out of the room. For some reason, just knowing that she'd like the red to be gone as fast as possible made the guitarist feel even more guilty at what he had attempted to do. Closing his eyes as the Kindred's elegant form disappeared from sight, Zoey could feel the heat in his face grow warmer, matching the throbbing in his arm from the shunt piercing both vein and skin.

Alex was still sleeping, the room lit only by a small, dim lamp with a frosted-glass globe. Grant nodded and rose from his chair as she entered the room; he recognized the dismissing glance from the Toreador, and he closed the door quietly behind himself on the way out.

Lis looked down at Zoey's friend with a measuring gaze. He was a handsome boy, though without the guitarist's angelic beauty; the rich red hair that sheeted across the pillow was obviously natural, a deep autumn color that was the darkest of the true reds human hair could achieve. Easy to see why the Serpents--or the true Setites--would want him, even for that alone.

One of Alex's hands lay atop the covers, the fingers relaxed and slightly curled and just as elegant in form as those of his friend; she lifted that hand very carefully to her mouth, the bassist unresponsive to the movement. The tip of one fang pierced his skin like a simple medical finger-stick, winning forth a single crimson pearl as well as a faint sound of protest from the recovering mortal; she flicked her tongue over it, closing the wound and tasting the blood.

The last remnants of the drugs had a slightly sugary, cloying flavor; they were fading well from his system, rinsed out by the cleaner, somehow "neutral" taste of the solution Grant had run through him. Her expression darkened as a bitter tang came to her attention--a taste that her mind translated as something akin to coffee grounds. Setite blood.

Lis had been doing this kind of thing for so long that it didn't require conscious thought any more. Putting her own hand to her mouth, she sank one fang into the pad of her thumb, then slipped the digit gently between Alex's lips. He didn't wake--thanks in part to his exhaustion and the lingering effects of the narcotics given to him--and the Kindred elder watched coolly as his throat worked in a few tiny swallows; he shuddered very slightly as the vitae took hold of him, filling his veins with subtle heat.

She pulled her hand back and closed the wound, watching as Alex shifted in the bed, rolling onto his side and half-curling up around the thrilling fire in his belly, that red hair of his shimmering faintly in the illumination of the guest room as he moved. There was no moral struggle in her mind; she simply had done what needed to be done. Though the vampire who had first ghouled him was surely dead by now, it would be safer by far to keep her hand on him until this was over and done with, even without completing the Bond.

Grant was waiting in the hallway. He surely knew what she had done, but he did not judge her; it simply wasn't his place to do so. Indeed, if he had been inclined to render judgment, he would have decided in her favor anyway, and not from his own Bound loyalty. The chauffer simply knew how her mind worked, and having been taken into her confidence and taught what he knew of the Kindred, this was the safest thing for the young bassist.

Lis started for her suite, then hesitated. Instead of entering her luxurious domain, she climbed the stairs to the next floor and went to the door at the end of the hall.

This small room was startling, compared to the rest of the house. Its walls were stone blocks, well-fitted; a marble-topped altar stood at the far side, beneath a great window of stained glass. Not modern work--this was a piece that was hundreds of years old, just like the bronze and oak crucifix that hung on the wall under it. The entire room, in fact, had been brought across from Europe and reassembled meticulously at her command. The crucifix was unique for its kind; the figure of the Christ was not contorted in agony, nor did the form convey sorrow. Instead, a gentle benediction seemed to radiate from it, an acknowledgment that here, here was the love and forgiveness of God, in the body of His Son, the sacrificial lamb.

A single kneeler stood before the altar; Lis went to it, kneeling down and folding her hands before her. Zoey might be surprised to find that she prayed, but it made eminent sense to her. She knew there must be a God who had laid the curse of vampiric immortality upon Caine; therefore, there must be a God who might even hear the prayers of one such as she, a descendant of Caine via the strange communion of the Embrace.

Kneeling there, she remembered the Maid of Orleans, remembered the young girl, filled with the fire of her convictions, speaking the Word of God. She had not known that her audience contained members of the Damned; she had never known that her words touched them all in different ways. Some went into the sun the next morning, surrendering their immortality in search of God's grace; some were shaken into evil, determined to prove themselves monsters; some rediscovered their own belief. Lis was one of the latter.

She had known what the answer would be when she offered immortality to the girl on the night before her execution, but her soul would not rest without making the offer, without holding out that one chance to evade the cruel fate at the stake. Jeanne d'Arc had refused . . . without condemnation, without pronouncing some curse upon the Kindred who had appeared from nowhere to extend the hope of survival.

She would give that survival, that immortality, to Zoisite--if he desired it.

A cold smile settled on Prince Byron's face as she paused in her pacing, looking over to her companion. "So everything's about ready?"

"Yes, your Highness." Marshall settled his hands atop his cane. "The nests are marked, the hidden agents found. The primogen are quite pleased. We're quite certain we've found most, if not all, the infiltrators."

"Good," Byron purred, jewelry-adorned fingers fluffing her silvery-sheened blonde hair. "The Sabbat's been far too brazen, thinking that they can do whatever they want in this city. Well, we'll show them all, won't we?"

"Of course," Marshall answered soothingly. "One has to hand it to Elisabeth Maurier. Despite her . . . abrasive manner at times, she knows how to organize."

That reminder made the prince's icy blue eyes narrow in anger and hatred both. "That . . . that . . . bitch! How dare she waltz into my Elysium and start ordering everyone around? I'm the prince of this city, not her!"

"She had reason to do what she did. After all, you didn't know that your own childe had gone over to the Sabbat." The cutting edge of satisfaction in the Tremere's voice went unnoticed.

"Poor Chantal. So misguided, my poor childe. If only she would have talked to me." The prince paced in the elegantly-appointed room, looking caught between true sorrow and murderous rage. It was enough to make her companion's stomach turn, but he kept his thoughts far from the surface--just in case the stalking blonde was casually using her ability to pick up auras.

"I'll make her pay. 'Lady of Mists', indeed. Coming in here and taking over . . . mocking my authority . . ." Byron actually stamped her foot like a petulant child. "Oh, I despise her!"

"Authority that is not exercised may as well not exist," Marshall said calmly, leaning on his cane. "Respectfully, madame, your rule has been perhaps a little too understanding and light-handed of late. Your own generosity deceives you a trifle into ascribing similar motives to your subjects." Which was a small lie. The truth was that Byron had become too complacent and self-centered to run the city with a firm hand. Her primogen paid her lip service and gave her embellished reports to make her think she was being effective, and did as they pleased for the most part. While that was convenient for the primogen, to say the least, it also led to greater problems--such as the Sabbat incursion with which they were currently dealing. Marshall personally despised the spoiled brat, and she was fast reaching the end of her usefulness.

"Well, that's going to end," Byron answered snippily, tossing her head. "I'll show that bitch and the rest of the city who's in charge!"

"Wise words. You are, after all, the prince here, with the power and prestige of that position and the resources of the Domain at your disposal." Marshall liked paying out enough rope for Byron to hang herself with. She did such a nice job of it.

The ice-cream blonde looked him over for a long moment, her face set in a thoughtful, scheming expression. Then she slowly nodded. "You're absolutely right. I have the whole of my Domain at my disposal, and the rights of the princedom. She's just one Toreador, even if she's an elder, and one Kindred against an entire Domain . . ." A cruel little smile played across her pale-pink lips. "Let her put her neck on the line and lead this purge. After all, her power can only help us uproot this foul Sabbat weed that's intruded on my garden. And everyone knows that all sorts of things can happen during a purge like this, even tragic accidents and the like . . ."

A satisfied smirk remained on her face as she swept across the room and out the door. Marshall's own smirk didn't curl up the corners of his mouth until he was sure Byron was out of the room and gone about her business. Good. She would try to exact some revenge on Elisabeth Maurier, and thus bring about her own destruction. Now that a few new candidates for the throne had been selected, Byron was completely expendable.

She might be a bit distressed if she knew that Antoine Marcheau was one of the primary candidates, and was Bound to the Tremere besides. Marcheau didn't even suspect he was Bound, apparently; at Marshall's suggestion, he had readily dismissed the emotional attachment as just a sudden infatuation, as the Toreador primogen was wont to do. Of course, Marshall had been surprised to find the effeminate poet free to be Bound, but that was a welcome little development. Moreover, in conversation, Marshall had found that Marcheau was far more intelligent than he seemed, which would be a welcome change from Byron's vapid stupidity. He would be a far more effective Prince, and already predisposed to heed the advice of House and Clan Tremere.

Byron would no doubt botch up her revenge thoroughly, and be destroyed out of hand by the wickedly effective Elisabeth--provided that the prince didn't get slaughtered by a lucky Sabbat pack first. Marshall was still fond of Lis, and just a bit jealous of her newest retainer; still, he knew that Lis remained a terrifying figure simply because of how long she'd been able to hold onto her own humanity by associating with mortals. No one was entirely sure when she would lose that humanity and become as cannibalistic in craving the blood of Kindred as other elders.

The Tremere primogen made a mental note to keep an eye on Byron. After all, just as the prince had said, all sorts of tragedies could happen when the Camarilla moved en masse to rid the city of the Sabbat.

Second Stanza Chapter Four The Silverlands

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"The Silverlands", "The Obsidian Tower", "A Character's Chronicle: Zoey's Story", "Argent Stag, Silver Rose", "The Rose Garden" and the "Rose Realm" all © 1997 - by Dianna Silver. Some material also © 1998 - by Krissy Ryan.

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