Requiem for an Angel

Came the last night of sadness,
And it was clear she couldn't go on,
Then the door was open and the wind appeared,
The candles blew then disappeared,
The curtains flew then he appeared,
Saying, "Don't be afraid,
Come on baby," and she had no fear,
And she ran to him, then they started to fly,
They looked backward and said goodbye,
She had become like they are, she had taken his hand,
She had become like they are,
Come on baby, don't fear the reaper.
--Blue Oyster Cult, "The Reaper" 

It was dusk. The coming night would bring not only the awakening of his lovely dark angel but also the uncertainty of the conflict ahead as well as questions as to the fate of his best friend. Standing on the balcony of the gorgeous, flower-enveloped mansion, Zoey stared off into the fiery orange globe of the sun hanging there just above the horizon. A playful breeze tossed back his still copper-colored hair, the silken strands loose and slightly damp from his second shower that day. From its hilltop location, the Toreador’s estate had a wonderful view of the Pacific Ocean, the surrounding city awash in the ruddy light.

Soon, he’d find out what Lis had in mind for Alex. He was of mixed feelings about that, the person who he had used to be at silent war with the man he’d become. Part of him wanted his best friend to be kept out of everything and another part desired him in the know so that they wouldn’t lose their mutual closeness. Regardless, his overwhelming emotion was protectiveness; above everything else, Zoey longed to see Alex safe.

Soon also would be the purge of the Sabbat from the city. The sun slipped lower, halfway down now behind the dancing ocean waves that reflected back the red-orange light. No matter his part, the risk was there, the danger real. Although he was certain he’d end up being a grease spot on the wall somewhere were he to get into a direct fight -- and his desire for self-preservation continued to run strong -- Zoey also rather liked the idea of the Sabbat being uprooted like a stubborn weed. So far, all his bad experiences with vampires could be attributed to that particular sect. Knowing that Lis would strike back at them for what they had done made a faint smile come to his handsome face.

The fiery orb slipped away, the last flash of ruddy light leaving Zoey’s emerald eyes dazzled with its brilliance. As he stood there on the balcony, seeing the sun dip completely below the horizon, he couldn’t help but think of the lyrics to a particular song.

Could this be the final setting sun?

She had been aware for several minutes before the sun sank away beyond the ocean, but though her mind was active, her body still lay unresponsive in deathlike repose. She knew the precise moment that sunset occurred; a quickening ran through her, the immortal clay of her body seeming suddenly lighter as vitae burned beneath her skin.

Lis sat up, her hair falling in a cloak of heavy silk against her back. Her mind flashed out, a sense of her presence touching those that she scanned -- a slight prickle along the spine, a near-hint of her perfume -- that her ghouls had learned to recognize over the centuries.

Victor, in one of the outbuildings, was stripping, cleaning, and reassembling a heavy assault rifle. He barely paused at all, his nimble fingers slipping the parts into place with military precision, but he knew she was awake.

Claude was in the kitchen, putting together a light supper for the others who would be "working" tonight and a slightly more substantial meal for Alex; his hands hesitated only a moment as he acknowledged the brush of his mistress’s awareness.

Grant was in the gymnasium that occupied part of the ground floor of one wing of the mansion, working out on the heavy bag; as usual, he jumped a bit more than the others at the touch of Lis’s mind. His big right fist grazed the canvas instead of meeting it squarely, his balance went off, and he fell ignomiously face-first into the bag.

Alex was lying in bed, watching TV. The touch of her mind startled him much more than Grant, and he pulled the covers up, his gaze flicking suddenly to the window. She sensed his sudden apprehension and knew its cause; Zoey had revealed the truth of her existence to his friend, and he had just realized that the sun had set.

Her golden angel was out on the balcony; she sensed him shiver at the as-yet-unfamiliar sensation of her awareness brushing his mind. He seemed troubled; she touched the fringes of his thoughts. Something about visiting his apartment, finding a candle that he had not left there . . . and finding that his hairbrush and comb had been thoroughly cleaned out.

That troubled her slightly. Hair was a potent link to its original owner and could be used in a variety of magical rites. She made a mental note to contact Marshall and have words with him; she recognized that candle from Zoey’s memory. One of the things she should discuss with her Tremere acquaintance was the importance of not leaving such obvious clues lying around. Unless he actually wanted her knowing that he was the one who’d slipped into the musicians' apartment.

Lis arose from her bed, heading into her bathroom for a hot shower before dressing; once again, she chose the Kevlar-lined bodysuit, steel torso armor, leather duster, and heavy boots that she had worn into the Black Sphinx. One more item was added, this time; she knelt beside her bed and reached beneath, sliding out a long, narrow wooden case and lifting its lid back on old, handmade hinges.

Within, on a bed of old cloth -- once white, long since turned the color of worn ivory by age -- lay a scabbard of worn leather, looped by a tooled leather baldric. The hilt was rather plain -- a chain-wrapped grip meant for use in two hands, with simple cross-guards. With slow reverence, Lis drew the bastard sword -- smaller than most of its type -- from its sheath; the blade alone was a giveaway of its age. No display piece would have such sharp edges, and a modern, wheel-ground edge would be too fine, too thin for hand-forged metal that was, all told, softer than the machine-produced steel of the current era.

When she moved the sheath, Lis exposed the brilliant scarlet of the Maltese cross on the white fabric. Slipping the sword into its scabbard again, she bent her head to kiss the emblem, whispering a short prayer of thanks to the long-dead man whose body she had taken it from as a token of remembrance. The Crusades had been glory for some, nightmare for others, death for too many.

The scabbard was held loosely in one hand as she left her bedroom, headed downstairs. Already, her ghouls were gathered around the kitchen table -- including Alex. Her three older servants nodded and smiled in greeting; Zoey looked up from his plate and smiled brightly at her. The Gaelic-blooded bassist seemed dumbfounded, staring at her; true, he had only seen her briefly at the nightclub where she first met Zoey, and the last time he’d seen her had been while under the influence of Vanity’s drugs. Her rather warlike gear must have been startling, though not quite as startling as the fact that most women her size did not carry swords almost as large as they were when coming down to the dinner table.

"All right, gentlemen," she said crisply, setting the metal-capped end of the age-worn leather sheath on the floor next to her boot and resting her forearm on the quillions. "A quick outline of the evening before I go out back to check the arsenal. Grant, you are with me, in the first van. Victor, you will have the second van and a few of our allies. Claude, you will accompany the Primogen. Stay with Dr. Marshall if the necessity to separate from the others arises. Zoisite, you will be our radio controller and central switchboard. The equipment’s already been set up as needed, and Grant can show you how it’s operated. Alex, you will remain here and assist Zoisite if he requires the help, but other than that, your primary instructions are to recuperate from the Serpents’ tender mercies. Any questions?"

"Where exactly is the radio anyway?" Zoey asked. Though his emerald eyes betrayed some surprise at seeing her wielding a sword -- it was only the second time, after all -- and some ill apprehension -- the memories of the one vampire’s Final Death was quite fresh in his mind -- his graceful form remained relaxed on the surface. Only Lis’s supernatural senses could tell how much of a lie that tranquility was.

"It’s in a station out back, in one of the outbuildings. Grant will take you there after dinner," Lis replied.

Auburn-dyed hair, already a shade or two lighter to the Toreador's sharp senses, glimmered in the light of the kitchen as Zoey nodded in affirmation. "Got it, Lis." Considering the fact that both the torture chamber and the arsenal were "out back" as well, it was probably a good bet that the building was well-built and secure. Besides, from what Zoey knew, the fight was being taken to the Sabbat nests; here on the Autarkis's estate, it should be rather safe compared to the rest of the city.

Bright azure eyes continued to just stare at her; the redheaded bassist was quite obviously having a hard time reconciling what he knew about her to her appearance. The fact that she was armed only added to Alex’s sense of unease, tossing confusion in there as well. Figuring that silence was the better part of valor at the moment, he faintly nodded in acknowledgment of her order. Zoey’s right, flashed through his mind. She does sort of think of us as property.

Lis looked directly at her newest ghoul for a moment, then laughed faintly. "No, not property, little one. Not exactly. What you all are is valuable to me, as allies and those who can do what I am not able to do."

"Not -- " Alex squeaked, stiffening at her reply as the implication of what just happened sank in. "You read my mind," he accused, his normally pleasant voice -- one suited perfectly to harmonizing with her beloved golden angel’s crystalline tenor, Lis idly noted -- holding a note of fright and anger both.

"It is not hard to overhear when one is shouting, mentally speaking. I apologize if I have alarmed you, or made you uncomfortable within my house . . . but it has long been habit to be receptive to the thoughts of those around me. Right now, Claude is thinking he may have put too much spice in the oil for the salad dressing, Grant has an itch on the back of his leg that he thinks he got from a tick, Victor is calculating how much ammunition he needs to load into the vans, and Zoisite is considering how safe the two of you will be here, compared to the rest of the city." Lis raised a brow slightly.

Claude muttered something under his breath, Grant looked faintly embarrassed, and Victor smiled serenely above a forkful of salad.

The guitarist sat up a bit, emerald eyes narrowing just slightly at Lis’s words. Looking sidelong at Victor, Zoey shook his head, chuckling softly. "Figures he’s the only one thinking of anything practical out of all of us."

"Long practice," the centuries-old American responded.

"Yeah, well . . . Try giving me a break, all right?" Alex muttered, ducking his head down and suddenly getting very interested in what remained of his dinner. "All of this is so unreal. I feel like I’m slowly going insane."

The eldest ghoul then looked seriously at Alex. "It’s what all of us went through. The surreality wears off sooner or later."

The Gaelic-blooded musician only sighed, pushing around what remained on his dinner plate. To the Toreador’s senses, the young man was an emotional storm; though he’d actually accepted the reality of what was going on, he was having a hard time dealing with that knowledge, especially with the playing the Serpent of the Light had done with him. Alex’s good looks had kept her attention on him during that entire time, attention that was every bit as harassing and detrimental as what some women experienced in their lives. Somehow, the knowledge that his very blood had been something used to sustain the Serpent made the entire episode even more distasteful.

Zoey gave his friend a look of utter sympathy, then flicked his gaze back to Lis. Though silent, his expression was as clear as if he had spoken; he expected her to try to help Alex come to grips with reality as he now knew it. Too bad they didn’t really have time to handle it immediately. "Hopefully I’ll have a chance to practice as much as you have, Victor," he said, turning his gaze back to the oldest of the quintet of ghouls.

Lis read Alex’s upset and Zoey’s desire for her to help the young man almost at the same time, and nodded subtly. She touched Alex’s shoulder gently, her voice quiet. "The shame is not yours; you had no way to defend yourself. I can make it easier for you, if you so desire."

Victor grinned a bit. "You probably will."

The bassist flinched at her touch, leaning away from her just slightly, though it was probably a credit to him that he didn’t make a sound or jerk himself completely away. There was a flash of memory of Vanity doing something -- to Lis’s experienced eye, the spoiled brat Sabbat childe had been impulsive, overly sensual and petulant but not actually cruel in her treatment of the redheaded youth -- but to Alex’s relatively innocent mind, what he’d been subjected to was hard to contemplate. Male humans always have had their pride and a sense of strength and power; that Alex had been manipulated so by something that looked like a sexy female to his inexperienced eye was something that undermined his sense of self-worth.

The loathing and shame were something very similar to what the incident in the cemetery had made Zoisite feel, though the other musician probably had more of a right to believe himself utterly violated. Still, that didn’t make Alex’s pain any less.

Zoey nodded, giving the other an answering smile. His friend’s sudden movement catching his attention, his expression became a pained one as he realized that Alex must be struggling with all sorts of inner demons. "Trust her. She really can help, you know."

Still not shrugging off her hand from his shoulder, the bassist looked up at his friend, bright azure eyes peering out from under gorgeous aurburn bangs. "Like what’s she going to do to me?" he faintly whispered, his expression something like a deer caught in headlights. True, he’d been treated very well so far, but she was a vampire . . .

Lis’s answer was not audible to the others, only to Alex. For good reason; she spoke within his mind. The same thing I did for -- not to, truly -- Zoisite when he suffered a horrible trauma, both of the body and the mind. I do not wish to speak of the details, but suffice to say that his first encounter with the darker impulses of the Kindred was far more violent and brutal than yours.

What? I don’t -- Alex shook his head, but she could tell that his "don’t" wasn’t a refusal of what she offered but rather confusion at what she meant about the other musician. The auburn-haired bassist couldn’t help himself; he jerked his head up and stared at Zoey, blinking in astonishment. Almost blurting out the words "What do you mean, ‘trauma’?", the younger musician stopped himself with a soft gasp. That the gorgeous but deadly woman had spoken directly only to him through what had to be telepathy gave him some clue that this was a private matter that was up to the formerly blond guitarist to discuss. At least his friend seemed to have recovered; there didn’t seem to be anything wrong or different with him as far as Alex could tell.

Zoey watched the two of them, curiosity getting the better of him. Alex seemed caught between fright and astonishment as he stared up at the dark-haired angel of the night, though after a long pause, the light in those brilliant blue eyes seemed to change to an almost hopeful one. Leaning forward slightly, he whispered again, "I swear, Alex . . . You can trust her."

The bassist slowly nodded, still staring up at the Kindred. All right . . . he’d consent to her doing whatever it was she had done before. Trusting his best friend, Alex closed his eyes, sitting there and anxiously waiting for whatever would come next.

Lis chuckled softly. "I’ll need you to look at me first." She set the sword off to one side, dropping into an easy crouch on the floor next to her newest ghoul’s chair, her elbows on her knees; that way, the young man didn’t have to look up to meet her steady gaze.

"Oh?" It was the only sound he made as his azure gaze followed her down to where she crouched next to him. He swallowed hard, doing his best to not give in to the nervousness that gnawed at him and to continue to meet the unnerving gaze of her almost impossibly gorgeous green eyes.

Zoey leaned back in his chair, watching with rather obvious interest. After all, last time he hadn’t been an outside observer to this.

Lis’s gaze caught Alex’s, drawing him in; there was a strange, drifting sensation, a feeling of absolute serenity and calm. He could somehow sense it as she began to sift through his recollection of the time spent in Vanity’s possession; those memories grew strangely hazy, distant . . . unimportant. He still knew those things had happened, but the emotional impact faded away; it was as if it had all taken place years ago, and to someone else.

First puzzlement, then astonishment, glowed within the azure pools of the reheaded man’s gaze as Lis worked her subtle magic. When she was done, what remained was a mild sort of bemusement.

Nothing of what happened in those dark, cramped quarters of the holding pen or the dimly illuminated and oversensual chambers of Mistress Vanity meant anything at all now. Details were fuzzy, not easily grasped -- and a part of him idly made note of the fact that it all seemed a bit better than how he had first recalled. Life went on, and what Alex needed to do now was focus on the here and now. Hesitantly smiling, he straightened up just a bit; subconsciously, the bassist was comfortable in knowing that what had happened hadn’t somehow ruined him. For the first time since pulling him out of the Serpents’ den, Lis could again see the quiet, studious but cheerful and confident young human she had observed behind the well-crafted electric bass guitar up on the stage of that smoke-filled tavern. "Wow . . ."

Zoey chuckled slightly, amused by his best friend’s reaction. Lis smiled as she lightly scanned the boy’s mind. His subconscious had already polished up the foggy memories into something more tolerable; it was a small, harmless self-delusion that humans often needed to retain their sanity and sense of worth. Reassuringly, she touched Alex’s hand as she released his mind. "There. Do you see? I could have excised those memories entirely, but I dislike such things. If it were meant for us to change the past, it would be possible. I trust I have eased your pain, at least?"

The Gaelic-blooded youth curtly nodded in agreement, silently answering her second question, then said, "Meant for you?" A single auburn brow lifted up in curiosity and just a hint of challenge. Considering his heritage -- and his words of only a short while before -- whatever her dear golden angel had told this one about his status as a ghoul seemed to rub Alex just slightly the wrong way.

The formerly blond guitarist smiled, overtly relieved at the other musician’s reply. Turning his attention to what remained on his plate, Zoey decided to concentrate on finishing up the excellent meal. There would be time enough to get Alex and himself situated for the evening’s event.

"Meant for anyone, in truth." She rose fluidly from the crouch, drawing the sword back to her side, one hand stroking the leather scabbard. "Any other questions before I put things in motion?"

Alex glanced over at his friend for a moment before turning his crystalline gaze back over to the feminine vampire. "Just what exactly is going on tonight? You look like you’re dressed for bear, and Zoey’s wondering about safety . . . ?"

"We’re going to be purging the city of a particularly noxious sect of vampires. Vanity was a member of said sect, actually. It’s been in the works for a while now, and this is the night when we’re going to finish the job. I don’t want you or Zoey out in the middle of it."

"Fair enough," Alex replied, nodding slightly. "I know when I’m in way over my head. I’ll just find something interesting on TV to watch."

"Just how safe is this place, though?" Zoey asked, turning his emerald gaze -- as bright and vibrant as green grass -- to the gloriously beautiful angel of the night. Even geared up as she was for a fight, she seemed more stunning than anyone he had ever known before. "Granted, I’m willing to bet that the fight’s going to be mostly away from here, but what if it does come to your doorstep while you and the others are out there?"

"The wall ought to keep most of the rabble out -- especially once the breaker’s tripped and several thousand volts starts flowing through the razor-wire coils along the inside of the top edge. Not to mention the automatic gun turrets."

Alex blinked, not expecting that answer. Then again, he had to admit that he really didn’t know what sort of a reply to anticipate in the first place.

"It’s a wonder your neighbors let you get away with that," Zoey drolly responded. "Must’ve taken one hell of a permit for that sort of zoning."

"Given that I own the surrounding thirty acres of land? The neighbors can go stuff themselves." She smiled angelically.

"Es verdad . . ." the guitarist softly muttered, suddenly finding his plate much more interesting than anything else. Any other questions he had were only those sorts he expected someone to have before a deadly serious encounter as this. For himself, he truly wasn’t worried, but the merest thought of Lis being hurt by something faster and nastier than her made his Toreador-warmed blood chill in his veins.

Alex merely nodded, his attention focused on the three other men sitting there around the cozy kitchen table. Simple observation alone revealed that they regarded one another as something akin to a family, one that revolved around the perfect form of the vampiress -- one that seemed to now include his best friend. Oddly enough, the bassist felt a twinge of disappointment at that. He and Zoey had one of those really rare relationships, where two complete strangers ended up sharing just about everything, had few if any secrets and were something between bosom buddies and brothers. Before Rick and Tony, and now before Lis and these other three, there was Alex and Zoey. The redheaded bassist couldn’t help but wonder if he was seeing the end of that after so many years. That was something of a sobering thought.

Lis lifted up her sword, tucking it under her elbow as she strode out the back door, toward the building that served as the armory. Three doors, one hallway, and a flight of stairs later, she stepped into the long central room of her arsenal -- brightly lit, quiet but for the soft whirr of ventilation fans, the air tinged with the sharp smell of gunpowder and metal. A long table stretched down the middle of the room, and the walls were lined with cabinets, lockers, and workbenches.

The moment the sleek form of the Toreador disappeared from the room, the ghouls all glanced at one another. "Grant, take the boys out back and show them the setup," Victor said, rising to his feet.

"Wait a moment," Alex began as he stared at the older man, startled. He was under the impression that he’d be hanging out in the house.

"Just come with me, okay?" Zoey asked as he too stood, absently flipping back his well-groomed queue. "I’d rather have your company than not."

While the chauffeur and Claude hastily worked at straightening up the chamber from dinner, the younger redhead gave his best friend a long look. Only moments ago, Alex was feeling a twinge of jealousy at perhaps losing that almost fraternal closeness. Though still feeling like he’d landed in the middle of something out of a nightmare, the bassist realized he’d be more comfortable hanging out with the familiar guitarist instead of sitting around in a very unfamiliar and overwhelming mansion. "Sure thing, bro’," Alex replied with a nod and a smile.

Zoey returned his grin. He’d almost lost this very dear person for eternity, and his beloved dark angel had seen to his friend’s preservation. The guitarist remained still uncertain about many things -- including both his relationship in this little family and what Alex’s future relationship would be -- but there was one thing he was sure about. The other Ravensblood member would be welcome company as Zoey monitored the events as they happened within the city.

"Now that that’s settled, let’s get going," the marshal said. "Lis isn’t going to wait forever, you know."

"I’m going. I’m going," Grant responded, tossing Victor a cheeky salute. Waving to the Toreador’s youngest acquisitions to follow, the handsome driver walked off.

The place was as sumptuous as a palace. That was the one detail that overwhelmed Alex as the trio of them stepped quickly to the back. The grounds were park-like, surrounded by spectacular flowerbeds, babbling brooks, playful fountains, immaculate topiaries and spectacular archways covered in lush foliage. It reminded the youthful bassist of photographs of the more famous French royal residences. The sweet scent of flowers perfumed the cool night air.

"All right," Grant said briskly, unlocking the door with a key attached to a ring that chimed and rattled with its burden. "Not much down here on the first floor." He pointed out an emergency generator and a spiderweb of thick cables that ran up the back wall before leading the way up the stairs to the right of the door. "This is where the goodies are." He slapped a couple of switches on the wall; a bank of brilliant halogen lights came on overhead.

It looked like Mission Impossible Central, three walls playing host to banks of equipment and consoles. Among the dizzying array could be glimpsed a radar display panel, a number of computer screens, and several headsets hooked up to various output jacks.

"We’ve got access to a lot of stuff here. Mostly, you just need to watch this set -- Lis already rigged it up to concentrate on the job tonight." Grant tapped the back of a comfortable-looking swivel chair before gesturing at the monitor, headset, and the equipment set up around the workspace. "Not very hard to use." He pointed at a blocky, ungraceful-looking device that was wired into the console. "This gadget here is a police-band scanner, and its brothers tap into a couple of other restricted lines. The computer’s been set up to transcribe as best it can and flag keywords in case you miss ‘em over the audio. We’re going to be monitoring the local heat, the DEA, and a few others during tonight’s party. The cover for the action is a major drug crackdown all over the city -- that’s been arranged already, thanks to the Kindred connections." He paused to flash the two young men a quick grin. "One of the places they’ll be hitting is the Black Sphinx. Isn’t that tragic?"

", a real tragedy," Zoey chuckled as he put a hand on the comfortable-looking chair and flicked his emerald gaze over the display.

Alex scanned over the electronics, feeling even more bewildered by everything. "So what’s Zoey got to do, exactly?"

Grant picked up the slimline black headset and juggled it briefly between his hands. "Just monitor the radio traffic and keep us updated on developments. We want to keep the normal cops as clueless as possible -- they’re on the job to keep the Sabbat ghouls and lesser vampires busy. If they’re having too much trouble, we arrange for a bail-out . . . if they’re moving too close to the real action, we arrange for their diversion. This headset’s already tuned to our team’s band . . . press the switch on the box if you need to talk."

With a graceful flop -- only Zoey could do that, Alex wryly thought, though the bassist had a feeling that the unearthly brunette would outclass the guitarist in that -- the Ravensblood leader parked his slender form in the chair. "Sounds simple enough. I assume someone on your side’s going to let me know where you guys are at?" Vibrant green eyes searched the equipment. "Got a global postioning satellite map or something? That would help in determining if the cops are getting too close to the real party."

The younger redheaded musician glanced back at Grant. "I suppose I’m backup here for Zoey in case he’s got to leave the post?"

"That’s right, Alex." Grant gave a quick grin. "Good question, Zoey." Crossing the room, he did something complicated to a console near the slick panel of black glass that covered most of the wall that didn’t have banks of equipment on it. The glass glowed faintly, then seemed to blaze to life in a map that showed the entire city area in shining green traceries, sharp and clear even in the brightness of the room. "Satellite map that’s got a link to the GPS chips in our headsets. The computers can keep tabs on most of the squad cars and show ‘em up here. Step over this way, Zoey . . . I can give you the basics on inputting position data if the system slips."

"All right." He had to admit, it was a damned slick operation. Rising to his feet, Zoey walked over to where the older ghoul led him.

The other bandmember trailed along, his love of electronics starting to overcome his feeling of disorientation. One hell of a setup, and damned impressive. Alex mentally whistled as he gave the intriguing map a lingering look before turning his attention back to Grant.

"So this is going to show you and all the cops? Anyone else going to show in this thing?" Zoey asked.

"Not a lot. Even satellites have their limits. This system does need an electronic signal to maintain a targeting lock." He kept the instructions as simple and jargon-free as possible; after a few minutes, Zoey had the basics on how to do the job.

"The blue points are us . . . the law enforcement folks will show up as yellow points." Grant indicated a spot on the map where a cluster of little blue dots lay. "We’re in the estate now, obviously."

"Obviously." The formerly-blond guitarist chuckled at that, once more taking the seat he’d be commanding. Glancing at Alex in a silent question, he was glad to see his friend nod in reply.

The bassist had paid attention to the instructions and would be able to enter data as well, if needed.

"I think I’ve got it, Grant," Zoey responded as he picked up the lightweight headphones. "I suppose it’s time to rumble . . ." No, I won’t think about what might happen if Lis gets caught by something meaner and nastier than she is. She’ll be okay. She’s survived this long . . .

The table was laid for the feast of battle to come: assault rifles, heavy pistols, shotguns, crossbows. Boxes of ammunition were stacked at one end, ranging from ordinary shells and bullets to white phosphorus and Dragonsbreath rounds for the shotguns and incendiary loads for the smaller weapons. The crossbow loads were tipped with fine metal points, but the shafts were solid oakwood. The other weapons would slow or destroy, but the bows would immobilize their targets if aimed well.

Lis was not interested in immobilization. She was bent on eradication.

She pulled off her duster to slip into a complicated-looking body harness studded with skeletal weapons holsters; the entire arrangement was done in sturdy webbing, adjusted by a number of buckles and quick-links. She resized the holsters to match the guns she was strapping on: a pair of match-grade Magnum Research .50s on her thighs, twin Desert Eagle .357s on her hips, a pair of Glock 9mm tucked under her arms, and a sawed-off break-action shotgun down the front of her right thigh. She strapped a pair of Sykes-Fairborne combat knives in drop sheaths to her wrists, and tucked another knife into the top of her left boot. Most people would be considerably encumbered by the load of weaponry; Lis, if anything, grew more impossibly graceful as the weight made her shift her gait slightly.

Claude. Before you leave to join the Primogen, be sure that Zoey and Alex are outfitted with weapons they can handle if worse comes to worst and they wind up having to fight.

As you wish, Lis.

She strode around the side of the house and entered the huge garage via the back doorway; the van, despite what one might expect, was not black. It was a nondescript dark gray instead, with the lumbering construction of a delivery vehicle; when she turned the ignition, though, the vehicle growled with the subtle thunder of a high-performance engine. The back of the van was compact, but impressive -- a miniature weapons workshop, with all the accoutrements required to reload ammunition and repair firearms in the field. A rack near the doors held a choice selection of shotguns and sidearms, along with a sophisticated sniper rifle.

Grant came into the garage a few minutes later, swinging up into the driver’s seat. He glanced at Lis, who nodded solemnly; the end of the great sword’s scabbard rested on the floorboards between her feet, and one of her hands was draped over the crossguard, slender fingers stroking the cool metal.

Without a word, the former British coachman put the truck in gear and pulled out into the night.

"There they go." Zoey pointed to the azure dots that were obviously in motion on the high-tech GPS map.

"Anything on the radio yet?" asked the other musician. Alex leaned against the back of the chair, elbows arranged along the top edge.

"No. Not yet," the formerly-blond man answered as he gave the lightweight headphones a minimal tweak. "There’s still coordination going on." He leaned forward and tapped out a quick command on the keyboard. In response, a flurry of amber dots appeared on the map; the new markers were still clustered about distinct locales among the city. Zoey turned his attention to the microphone. Years of live performance training served him well; he instinctively modulated his voice to maximize his pronunciation's clarity as he hit the button to talk. "Everyone hear me okay?"

"Loud and clear," responded Grant’s jovial voice in the musician’s headset.

"You’re coming in fine," Victor replied.

"Oui," answered Claude. "And Zoey? I’ve got something for you and Alex."

"Oh?" Wonder what he’s got?

"How’s the police situation looking at the moment?" Victor asked.

"Still preparing. They seem to be at their precincts and what-not. The map shows them in various clusters."

The sound of footsteps on the stairs caught Alex’s attention. The bassist turned, startled, then relaxed with a smile when he saw that the newcomer was only the cook. Then the smile faltered when his gaze fell upon the objects Claude was holding.

"Zoey, this one is for you. It isn’t likely to be tailored to your balance and reach, but it’s a fair all-around weapon." Claude leaned a swept-hilted rapier against the edge of the console, the metal tip of the leather scabbard clicking faintly on the floor. He unslung a black duffle bag from one shoulder and a lethal-looking crossbow from the other. "Alex, this is for you. Eight-shot crossbow, just pump the slide to load and cock it, reloads in this bag. Goes along well with your primary weapon here." He held out a pair of pump-action 12-gauge shotguns, the overhead light sinking into the matte-black finish of the barrels. "Aim for the center of mass. It won’t kill most vampires, but it certainly will put most ghouls down and stands a fair chance of severely wounding even Kindred. Once they’re full of buckshot, the crossbow works well as a stake-thrower. Aim for the heart, or the head as a secondary target. Zoey, you take one as well -- anything that slows down an enemy, or keeps him from getting to you at all, is an advantage best used. Any questions?"

The redheaded bassist blinked at the lethal hardware. "So I’m supposed to blast first with the shotgun, then stake the target with the crossbow bolt?"

"Yes, and yes, Alex. Slow them down and finish them off. It’s a workable strategy."

Zoey reached out and gave the hilt of the rapier a light caress. He knew enough to be able to adapt to a weapon unfamiliar to him. "How much of a kick should we expect from the guns?"

Claude nodded at the youthful guitarist. "A fair amount. Not enough to knock you down, but I wouldn’t try firing on the run if avoidable."

"I’ll keep that in mind," the Ravensblood leader responded as he flicked his gaze once more to the impressive electronic display.

"Claude . . . ? How good do you think our chances are of us actually having to need to use any of this?" Alex queried.

"Minimal. The chance of anything getting onto the grounds and all the way to this building is about that of a snowball in hell, especially once I turn the guard animals loose."

"The guard animals?" Both musicians spoke that in unison, their surprise causing them to burst out the question in voices that naturally harmonized through long years of practice. Zoey and Alex stared at one another, then turned their gaze back to the congenial cook.

"I’m almost afraid to ask, Claude . . ." Zoey’s voice trailed off in an attempt to elicit more information from the older ghoul.

"Then don’t," was the blunt response. "They’ve been given your scents . . . you won’t even see them unless things go very wrong. I need to get moving and join up with the Primogen. Anything else?"

While Alex merely shook his head in acceptance of what little he did understand of what was going on, Zoey narrowed green eyes at the culinary medic’s abrupt tone. Pushing back the flash of his Latino temper, the guitarist made certain to keep his attention on the electronic map. "No."

"I suspect Lis will introduce you to her pets when there’s time or a need for it . . . we don’t have the luxury now, though." The slender Frenchman resettled the earpiece he wore as he headed out the door.

Lis touched her earpiece briefly, listened to Zoey’s words, heard Claude’s acknowledgment before the Frenchman switched his attention to informing the Ventrue Primogen of the wayward squad cars headed for more danger than they were prepared to handle. Even as she listened, the gorgeous Toreador dropped the clip out of the .50, tossed it to Victor, and slapped a fresh clip into the heavy pistol. The onrushing Sabbat member faltered considerably when she brought the muzzle of the gun right up into his gaping mouth; she smiled fleetingly at him before blowing the top of his head off in a gory rain of blood and gluey pinkish-grey matter. This had a markedly demoralizing effect on the four Kindred who’d been racing after their leader toward their intended prey; they clustered together briefly, anxiously.

They were further demoralized when Victor lobbed a small cylinder into the middle of their tight little group. The white phosphorus grenade went off with a searing flare and an impressive overall effect; Lis sidestepped a blazing, shrieking, running Sabbat member and absently blew its head off its neck with the .50 as it passed. "Mon Dieu, Victor, you like those toys far too much." She opted to finish off the other three vampires as well -- nothing good could be served by letting them run about and set things afire.

"Of course, ma’am," he said cheerfully, tossing the pin aside. "If I didn’t like them, I wouldn’t use them."

The purge had been underway for an hour; already most of the Sabbat in the city were destroyed or fled, and mostly it was the former. The Camarilla Kindred were difficult to escape once their anger was roused and organized.

Lis eyed the two-story building of weathered gray stone that rose before them, windows boarded over, a red-lettered sign reading CONDEMNED tacked over the doors. The steeple was canted slightly to one side, the roof battered by the elements; nevertheless, anger rose dark and hot in her throat as she sensed the Sabbat inside. The Nosferatu information had been reliable. "A church . . . they violate a church with their presence."

"It’s probably been deconsecrated, Lis."

"Does that make any difference?"

The centuries-old American considered the question for a moment. "No, not really. Let’s have at them." He took careful aim with his own handgun and picked off a straggler vampire who’d been trying to run around the corner of the building.

Lis flipped him the heavy pistol, reached over her shoulder, and drew the great sword one-handed. She leveled it at the doors as she set one foot on the bottom step of the shallow staircase leading up to the front of the old, dilapidated church.

"EGO DEI!" she roared, the Templars’ battle cry rising out of her throat in open defiance. The words alone served as a focus to blast the doors open, a casual exercise of Thaumaturgical power; the shards of wood hurtled dangerously into the great open space within the building. None of them were as dangerous as the dark-haired Toreador who stormed up the stairs and into the nave in their wake; in a single glimpse, she knew she faced the true elite of the Sabbat forces in the city.

And she laughed.

Across the city, the purge continued unabated. Meth labs, crackhouses, an actual opium den . . . the human law enforcement agents had their hands full. Every one of those drug targets was controlled by the Sabbat; in virtually every case, at least a few of their ghouls or actual young vampires were on site, surprised and taken into custody . . . though the ghouls and Kindred who wound up in the hands of the police would not live past midnight. There were Camarilla ghouls, childer, and mortal pawns working among the police and DEA forces this night as well -- and they had their instructions.

With Elisabeth’s slender French ghoul among them, the Primogen formed the brain of the many-armed beast that sought out the Sabbat and crushed each cell of that foul body. They did not roam the streets; instead, they sat in a large, well-appointed room in a house provided by the Ventrue primogen. Each had access to at least two telephones, and a police-band scanner crackled near the middle of the room. Claude paced quietly, listening to Zoey’s reports and updating the elder Kindred constantly.

With all the activity underway, it wasn’t very surprising that the apparently sulking Prince Byron managed to slip away unobserved, taking two of her retainers with her. She was definitely out of the limelight as it was; Antoine Marcheau had organized Clan Toreador for their part in tonight’s play, leaving Byron with essentially nothing to do.

Except cause trouble.

The Prince stole glances out the window as her sleek Town Car pulled away from the elegant little house. Settling back in the cushions, she huffed indignantly, arranging her short mink coat over her silver satin dress. "The nerve of them all! Acting as though I’m not even there, as though I’m not even important . . . this is all that Autarkis bitch’s fault! She came into my city and acted as though she owned it! I’m the Prince, I deserve so much better . . ."

The long-suffering retainers in the front seat had heard similar rants from their petulant, childish mistress before; they knew enough to keep their opinions to themselves and just make commiserating noises at appropriate pauses in the outburst. The drive might have seemed endless to the two ghouls, but after years of dealing with Celeste Byron, they’d learned to tune her out after a while. She liked listening to herself talk, and didn’t much care if anyone responded when she got into full voice.

The estate that belonged to Elisabeth Maurier was on a big piece of property, but the landscape was gentle enough to drive the rugged, well-sprung luxury vehicle a fair distance. The house and its immediate grounds were surrounded by a formidable-looking wall; Byron peered out the car window and scowled. "It figures that she has something like that. Well . . . it won’t make much difference."

One of the ghouls hastily jumped out of the car to open Byron’s door; she stepped out, brushing her dress smooth and glaring at the uncut grass that bent under her delicate silver pumps. "Ugh. How utterly . . . rustic. You’d think she could at least afford a lawn service . . ."

The Prince muttered more in this line of conversation as she stalked toward the gate, stopping about twenty feet away from it. Closing her eyes, she focused her thoughts on images of the stunning blond man.

Come to me, she commanded silently, bending her will to the task of drawing him out from behind the wall and into her hands. Come to me, Zoisite de la Vega . . .

"They’re done raiding that crystal meth lab along the river," intoned Zoey, his eyes fastened to the swarm of amber dots on the GPS map. "They’re going to send a force with the arrestees back to the precinct house and get down to securing the scene for evidence."

Alex too stared at the dance of blue and yellow markers. For the past hour and a half or so, he’d watched in fascination as the patterns of light shifted throughout the electronic representation of the city he thought he knew so well. In all quarters, the authorities were raiding a combination of every profitable chemical vice of which the bassist was aware. From cocaine to heroin, untaxed booze to Ecstacy, the shooting galleries, crash pads, drug dens hidden among the ordinary were stormed and taken over in a swift, well-orchestrated push. Sound permeated the command center from a speaker next to the natural redhead; the official communications between dispatch and their law enforcement squads were audible as each team out there kept their headquarters apprised of their respective situations.

At the moment, the entire city was awash in a chaotic maelstrom of police activity. A few of the scenes were already busted and secured, but a large number of the clustered yellow dots showed that while some areas were surrounded and had yet to be breached, others were in pursuit of the people responsible.

"The Black Sphinx has also been locked down tight. There’s a couple of places where they’re being met with enough resistance that they’re rolling the SWAT teams there," the Ravensblood leader continued while leaning forward to better stare at the map. "Looks like an eastern light commercial zone and a southern manufacturing zone to which the SWATs are going to roll. All the other teams are continuing to secure their respective objectives, so they’re remaining in their current locations."

Alex shifted, then let loose with a huge yawn. Truth be told, it was rather boring listening to the chatter of the police band and Zoey’s words while the map showed the locations of the players of the unfolding drama being tracked. He was still recovering after all and with his dear friend unable to really carry on any sort of conversation, it was easy for the younger musician to begin nodding off.

The trio of Lis’s ghouls responded with quick acknowledgments of Zoey’s words. Smiling, the slender artist leaned back in the comfortable chair and turned his attention to the mortal dispatchers. Emerald-bright eyes kept watch on the glowing electronic map. Though he was certainly settled in for a longer stay, the fomerly-blond musician wished he’d had the foresight to bring a soda or something along to drink. All the talking was beginning to make his throat dry.

In fact, now that he thought about it, it wouldn’t take much at all to have Alex take over for a moment and pop over to the house and get a soda. The idea grew into something of an obsession the longer he thought about it. Not only could I get a drink, but I could go check on the back gate of the grounds . . . Sí, it wouldn’t take long at all . . . Alex could handle it . . .

He reached up and slipped the headset off. Standing up, he leaned over and gave his somewhat somnolent friend an attention-getting push. "Alex! Wake up! I need you to take over for a moment."

"Huh?" the bassist responded, his head jerking up as he attempted to regain his bearings.

"You need to take over," Zoey repeated.

That was a surprise. The younger man gave his friend a searching look. "So where are you going?"

"Back to the house. I really need to get something to drink. Too much talking."

That made sense. They all drank quite a bit of liquid during their performances for that very same reason. "Sure. Bring me back something?" Alex asked while he stood, slipped past the other musician and dropped down into the still-warm seat.

"Of course," Zoey replied with a chuckle. Turning, his verdant gaze settled upon one of the computer monitors arranged along the wall. A quick inspection showed that it was one of the units controlling the automatic perimeter defenses of the mansion’s estate. That such a machine was located here came as no surprise to the guitarist. After all, the entire room up here seemed to be some sort of command center for the estate’s owner.

The longer he looked at the computer, the stronger came the impulse to go check out the back gate. He couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something out there he needed to check out, and those defenses may not be able to differentiate him from a foe like Lis’s "pets" would be able to do. Just turn these off for a moment, slip down to the back, take a quick look to make sure everything’s okay, run to the house and get a soda for Alex and me . . . The idea certainly seemed simple enough. Zoey gave in to the steadily increasing impulse; he stepped up to the computer and swiftly poked his way around the intuitive, user-friendly, touch-screen program that ran the mansion’s defenses. There. Now I won’t get accidentally fried while I make sure everything’s fine out back.

Alex picked the headset up and slipped it on. He shifted in the seat and looked over at Zoey while adjusting the fit of the band. Noting his best friend rapidly touching a monitor screen and seeing the computer shifting its display in response, the Ravensblood bassist frowned. "I thought you were going out to get some drinks?"

"I am," Zoey responded without glancing back at the other man. Satisfied that he could safely approach the back gate, the slender guitarist headed down the stairs.

Something didn’t seem right. Alex ripped the headset off and set the lightweight contraption down on the surface before him. Getting up, he made his way over to the computer his friend had messed with on the way out. The bassist bent down, read the words glowing on the monitor’s display . . . and suddenly felt a freezing chill crawl down his spine.


The Gaelic-blooded man sucked in a breath. What the hell . . . ? Alex turned and faced the stairs, calling out, "Zoey?"

No reply came. The only sounds that broke the control room’s silence were the various normal operating sounds of the machinery and the continual reports from the mortal authority’s dispatchers as they detailed the movements of their numerous squads.

Scrambling over to the top of the stairs, the redheaded bassist shouted out his friend’s name yet again. All that responded was the sound of the downstairs door shutting firmly in place. "Oh shit, now what?" Alex muttered while whirling back to stare at the GPS map and the headset resting on the workspace in front of the swiveling chair. His mind seized on a single thought: something damned odd was going on, and Lis and her other ghouls needed to be informed of the development. He swiftly crossed the space and practically fell into the comfortable seat, his hands grabbing up the electronic contraption. "Everyone, listen up!" he spoke the moment his mouth was near the button-sized microphone. "Something weird’s happening. Zoey went out to the mansion to get something to drink, but he’s also shut off the perimeter defenses. I really don’t have a good feeling about this . . ."

The night was bitter cold. Unseen, the breeze swirled among the grounds, making the plants rustle almost forlornly while it tossed the young ghoul’s dyed-red locks not caught back by his characteristic ponytail around his handsome face. The wind seemed to howl mournfully; it was almost as if it carried with it the sounds of Undead meeting their ultimate demise. The need to go to the postern entry of the estate continued to drive Zoey forward. The cold made him shiver, however, and the darkness brought to mind what he knew lurked in the shadows beyond the clueless mortal world of the light. A frown flickered across his visage. He’d not bothered to grab anything that Claude had left behind. Dios, Lis will chew me out for sure . . .

The slender musician paused and glanced about. Noting that he was next to a pine tree meticulously trimmed into a large bonsai sculpture, Zoey stepped up to the trunk and lifted a hand. Graceful fingers traced along the rough bark of a long branch; to his discriminating eye, the limb looked to be a good match for a slim rapier. He tightened his grip around the living wood. Forgive me, beloved angel de noche, for damaging the landscaping . . .

A momentary hesitation and then the hot coals of the Toreador vitae burst into full force. The pine branch snapped off with hardly any effort at all. With efficient movements, Zoey broke off the secondary branches and then shattered the end of the limb, forming it into a dull but deadly point to any Cainite that could be out there.

The dark fire remained within his veins as he returned to following the impulse that had claimed him. Lis surely wouldn’t be too upset at his desire to make sure all was safe on her estate, especially since he had seen to having something to protect himself along for any challenge. Of course, with all the action going on in the city proper, he truly doubted that there would be anything out at the gate once he got there. With only Alex and himself present, the fine mansion was his responsibility to safeguard. He held the makeshift wooden rapier out before him as he crossed the remaining distance. Though the coldness of the air made him shiver, he truly didn’t feel it since he was well-warmed by the vitae’s pleasant fire. He looked the back entry over once he arrived; it was much smaller than the main entrance -- as would be expected -- and only large enough to allow a single vehicle through at a time. Wrought iron ending in sinisterly-sharp points reached for the night-shrouded sky, echoing the same dark metal spikes embedded in the center of the formidable wall surrounding the estate. Just on the outside of the cold iron spikes was strung the nasty-looking razor wire that helped guard the grounds.

He had always wondered why Lis had chosen wrought iron, but her only reply to his question was to mysteriously smile at him in her all-knowing way. Unlike the main gate, the electronic lock here merely unlatched the ornate metal sculpture that served as a modern-day portcullis. Zoey pressed the button; the moment he heard the lock give way, he tugged the metal gate open. Hand tightening on his makeshift stake while his emerald gaze swept over the immediate area, the beautiful guitarist slipped past the open entry and then pulled the gate shut behind himself.

It wouldn’t do to let anything unseen slip onto the grounds, after all.

Patience. The foreseen convergence of events was taking shape.

If anything, thousands of years had taught the invisible observer how to be patient. That he was also one of those dedicated to the preservation of the sanctity of the House of Eternity helped. His kind knew how to watch and wait.

The howling winds of the continuing storms were far from this place among the shadows. One could almost say that this area was calm, peaceful. That tranquility was a lie, as many of them had discovered as their once-safe haven among the eternal sands was torn asunder by the fury of the great maelstrom. Those who had survived the scouring sands whipped into a shredding frenzy were as shattered as what remained of their glorious city.

A fragment of a dream. A splinter of a memory. That was all that remained.

But soon would be an opportunity to be whole, complete. In his great wisdom, their ruler had shielded what remained of them against the destructive storm and then set them all on a quest to complete themselves.

Maat was threatened. Isfret continued to grow and sought to swallow up all that was. Warriors dedicated to Balance were needed -- but they could only be effective if they were whole and among those that walked the physical earth. The drama of the growing war would be won or lost among the mortals that inhabited the lands of the living. The roots of the Grand Design were sunk deep in Matter.

He stood here on the edge of the Shadowlands, drawn by his natural sense to detect that which was dying and decaying. The Shroud between the realm of the Spirit and the land of the living obscured his vision like a pall of hazy smoke, through which he could catch glimpses of that which existed in the physical world. Death in all its forms brought things closer to this shadowed reflection; thus those who were in perfect health were only as faint silhouettes among the swirling grey, while individuals in the process of dying were sharp in image and easily seen.

This was the place. He could feel it with every fiber of his incomplete essence. On the other side of the Shroud dwelt one equally incomplete; he was drawn here to find a soul that would make him whole as a lodestone was drawn to that very rare metal known as iron. He peered through the swirling drab mists of the Shroud, his other senses on the alert for a sudden appearance of the violent storms that continued to savage the spirit realm. It would do no good to find the one he sought were the ghost storms to swallow the invisible watcher up and batter what remained of his soul. The Dja-Akh was a formidable danger throughout the dark lands.

A figure suddenly appeared within the greyness of the Shroud, standing out in clear detail in such a manner that the spirit observer’s full attention was immediately caught by the presence. The aura around the mortal was streaked in the characteristic darkness that marked all those about to meet the ultimate fate of all that was born upon the earth. Other than the death marks upon the mortal’s form, the light that radiated around the living entity was bright, healthy. This one would face tragedy; no long, lingering illness would steal this one away from life. Also felt by the waiting spirit were the deep flaws within the human’s spiritual being, defects which revealed that this one was an ill soul despite the mortal body’s health.

Now was the time to watch and wait. Soon . . . The time to act was approaching.

The spirit bided its time. Centuries of keeping watch had certainly taught him patience.

Blood spewed across the stained, worn wooden floor from the gaping wound; Lis whipped the sword around again as though it were a fencing foil and not a massive two-hander, intersecting the first gash at right angles and splitting the Bishop entirely in half at the waist. Victor was right behind her, a wicked hatchet finishing the job as it cleaved through the female Sabbat vampire’s neck; the head rolled across the floor, long hair spilling around it, eyes wide with shock.

The Toreador casually shook gore from the blade and continued her advance up along the church’s length. The Archbishop -- a tall, almost skeletally thin vampire draped heavily in black robes that mocked the priesthood -- still stood at the ruined altar, apparently unmoved by the violent deaths of his subordinates.

Alex’s voice over the earpieces made Victor slow down briefly; Lis didn’t break stride, her pace inexorable as she moved toward the altar.

Victor, back off and talk to Alex. Find out what’s happening. I have to finish this.

Blood spatters marked her trail as she moved; her black outfit glistened with it in places. Most of the blood belonged to the other Kindred; some of it was her own, born from lucky or skilled strikes. She was aware of her marshal backing toward the doors of the chapel, talking quietly and quickly over the mike in his headset.

"Now it’s you and I," she murmured almost pleasantly. "Are you going to die where you stand, or fight to keep your head?"

"I am not afraid of you, Angel of Mists," the Archbishop replied in a voice that sounded horribly wet and grating. There was a rasping sound as he reached into his robes and drew forth a gleaming steel longsword, its hilt crusted with gems. "Come and take my head, if you think you can."

"Belief is one thing. Faith is another. Fact is quite a separate entity altogether." Lis shifted her hold on the chain-wrapped grip, tensed her shoulders, and attacked in a flurry of blinding swift sword-strokes.

"Mistress, he has a weapon . . ."

The unexpected voice caught the young ghoul’s attention. He shifted to a ready stance with his improvised protection while he strained his eyesight to discover the sound’s source.

"I see that, fool. Shut up." Byron strode forward confidently as her chosen prey emerged from the gate, holding his rustic stake; she even raised her voice boldly. "Ah, there you are . . . I half thought you’d keep me waiting all night."

"Who -- Prince Byron?" Zoey sounded startled, and rightfully suspicious. The moment the ice-cream blonde came into view, he blinked. Two thoughts floated foremost in his mind: Were Lis and her other ghouls okay? And just how overdressed could one be for skulking around in the night outside a walled mansion? "What are you doing here? Is there a problem with the purge?" he asked, his voice taking on a note of confidence that hid his uncertainty.

"Of course there is. That dreadful Autarkis organized it. How dare she come into this city and act as if she owns it? Setting up a Sabbat purge without even asking my leave, even! The nerve of her! Well, this’ll teach her to interfere with me!"

The Ravensblood leader immediately recognized his danger. The spoiled brat of a Kindred had decided she was safe enough to play while the cat was away. Zoey raised the stake and backed toward the gate as she approached. His worst mistake was something that would have made sense and been quite safe in a fencing match with a normal opponent . . . but meeting a Kindred’s eyes was never entirely safe.

"Drop it!" Byron commanded, staring deep into the beautiful lad’s startled green eyes. She’d done some poking around in his background, had learned many things about the Adonis who would soon be all hers. That he had experience as a fencer was one of those things upon which she had been counting. A good trainer would instruct that one should watch the shoulders and hips for hints to where the next move would occur, and an occasional glance into the eyes would show one the determination of the foe one faced. That he was inexperienced as a ghoul was the other fact upon which she had been counting. More than likely he would not have trained himself to avoid the fascinating gaze of a Cainite just yet.

His hands shuddered open; the stripped-down branch fell with hardly a sound into the flowerbed that extended out a few feet from the wall. Gasping, he jerked back, reaching for the gate. Safety lay in the grounds he just left, but the Prince’s pale, pale eyes held him fast.

"Stay," she purred.

Zoey froze.

"That’s more like it." She handed her mink coat to one of her ghouls and strolled toward the boy, unhurried. "Now, this probably going to hurt just a bit, but really, I’m doing you such a favor."

The icy beauty wrapped her cold embrace around the warm flesh of her chosen mark, holding the youth’s magnificent form in what seemed to the frozen musician to be a mockery of a lover’s intimacy. Around her, the glorious night held all the dark promise of the unlife eternal she would give this mortal clay, the stars shining high above through the wind-tossed broken clouds. She would make no mistakes with this childe, the Prince promised herself. Chantal must have been jealous, knowing that she would soon have a sibling by vitae once her sire had seen the flower of mortality living in the confines of her Domain. This would be her greatest gift to Clan Toreador. She would be the one to induct him into their ranks, not that crass Autarkis bitch who flaunted the Traditions of Caine. His appearance and voice would be preserved for eternity by her dark gift. The Ventrue would have wanted him, descended from true nobility as he was. The Lasombra could have had an interest, given that same descent. None would have him but herself, Prince Celeste Byron.

He deserved surroundings as picturesque as he was. Nuzzling against the warm skin of his throat while she let descend her ivory fangs, the frozen blonde dragged the enthralled boy into the edge of the flowerbed that was the last vestige of civilization outside the mansion’s formidable walls. Nearby, the pair of ghouls stepped back in order to both keep on guard to protect their mistress and to give the prince some privacy in her creation of Chantal’s replacement.

She took her time biting into his throat, pulling the rich blood from the wounds in long lazy draughts. He tasted delicious . . . except for the fiery tang that surely must be Maurier’s vitae in him. That flavor made Byron growl faintly as she drained him steadily toward the point of death.

The sound came through Zoey’s haze of intense pleasure like a twisted version of the purrs of enjoyment he’d received from Lis. Though the bite had stung in much the same manner as Lis’s fangs did, the rapture of the Kiss didn’t fully drown his awareness. Part of him was still cognizant of his will being held ineffective -- and that part boiled in anger. He belonged to Lis; the one drinking so deeply should have been the dark angel that had done so much for him. While the Toreador Elder was putting her existence and that of her oldest ghouls on the line to keep Byron in control of "her" city, the traitorous Kindred was here stealing from the one that saw that the city would stay intact for the Camarilla.

But even Zoey’s righteous anger swiftly faded as that part of him not swamped in the ultimate bliss realized that the Kiss was going on . . . and on . . . and on. Had his body been able to respond to the fright from that corner of his mind, he surly would have turned his fiery strength against the one holding him close to her undead form. This was taking longer than he had ever remembered his beloved angel of the night doing.

Dios mio! Lis . . .

Helped by the faintest of pulses from his failing heart, Byron swallowed the last of the heavenly blood from the handsome youth. Attuned as she was to the auras of life and death, it was a simple matter to watch the light around him gutter out while she tenderly lowered her childe-to-be to the ground. Though Byron herself could not feel it, she knew from her own experience that the moment the musician’s light forever stilled would be sensed by the Toreador that had had the audacity to deny her claim to the boy; like fragile, shattering glass, the Blood Bond that surely existed between the dark-haired bitch and her ghoul would break once the mortal life had faded from his exsanguinated shell. "A moment longer, dear one," she murmured to the still body propped on her lap, her fingers gracefully stroking the youth’s dyed-red hair. "Then you will walk among the shadows as my eternal gift to my clan." With luck, the Autarkis would be neck-deep in vicious Sabbat and unable to pull away to try to prevent the second stage of the Embrace.

The fear faded away into a peaceful stillness beyond anything Zoey had ever experienced. All time seemed to be caught up in this here and now, a singularity where past, present and future converged. He was beyond emotions . . . save for a sorrow he could not understand.

One so talented, cut short in the prime before life had truly begun. A tragedy always.

The words seemed to be all around him, a sense of the past touching the present in this peaceful Now. Though he couldn’t seem to form any coherent thought himself, the old, old voice apparently had little trouble sensing what he could have said.

Zoisite de la Vega, I bring to you a choice. Unlike the other even now preparing to ensnare you, what I offer can be freely yours. You may deny my gift if you choose.

Images filled the musician’s awareness, a stark contrast as one was swiftly replaced by another. Laughter and life eternal, a soul filled with purpose and noble cause, the warmth of the sun giving a joyous power in an existence full of creativity and balance vied against a dark enslavement and endless unlife, sneaking about in the darkness as the sun became a feared enemy, promise and creativity forever frozen in an imposed stagnation, balance forever lost and sought in things that would only leave a continuing hunger.

The same flare of self-preservation that had asserted itself when Lis had offered her choices manifested itself once more. He wanted to live. Not even his feelings for the dark Toreador outshone that primal desire -- though it helped sway his choice, for he would continue to exist. He would not be taken away from the one he loved.

No sooner had he even became aware of his answer than an intense burning pain consumed him. He soundlessly screamed into that timeless peace as parts of his very essence were ripped away. Then -- wonder of wonders! -- the resulting hole was covered over with something strong, soothing the pain. Still caught in the mannerisms of the living, Zoey felt as if he were bent over and winded, his breath coming in ragged gasps as the agony faded into some half-forgotten memory. And with the soothing came something else. For the first time ever, he could see his choices as the poor ones they truly were.

Even his choice to be Lis’s ghoul was flawed. He had thrown away his independence in exchange for the approval of his own existence he continually sought from sources outside himself. It mattered not what happened to his physical form, so long as he got approval from those around him. None can love you as well as you can love yourself . . .

Yes. Osiris be praised, this one would be a good fit. The ancient spirit from the shattered city already felt more whole than he had from the moment he lost all but this splinter that remained in the howling winds of the Dja-Akh. Though the newly-dead soul had possessed a strong sense of self-preservation, it was formless, lacking focus. This one wanted to live, but knew not how, inadvertently abusing himself as he sought applause and approval from those around him. He lived only to emotionally sponge off others; that he was charming and appealing of visage were tools that merely kept him dependent and out of balance. He struggled over music, often ignoring food, drink and sleep, all to gain the applause of fans and groupies. He took on the troubles of his friends to the detriment of his own concerns in order to foster in them a need so that they would be forever grateful to him. And he even allowed himself to be polluted with isfret in order to gain the approval of one he found darkly fascinating and could further foster his dependence on others. And the wisdom of Osiris had seen fit to bring himself -- Nebmaatre -- here to one that isfret was attempting to claim. The ancient spirit was deeply pleased at the opportunity to preserve this soul from becoming another of the forces of the darkness that was an offense to Maat.

Nebmaatre settled into the comfortable hole he had torn from the soul of Zoisite de la Vega. Now would come the hard part, for once the dual soul plunged back across the Shroud, that part of him that was the modern mortal would be shocked into hibernation. Only the ancient Egyptian’s indomitable will would be able to complete the journey required. To life eternal . . . the loosely complete soul murmured as the piece from the past surged through the grey mists of the Shroud.

No! screamed Lis silently, her heart feeling as though it would shatter within her as the Blood Bond strained . . . and snapped. If that sensation were a true sound, it would have the tone of fragile crystal, echoing on and on in the sudden painful emptiness that filled her.

The ringing, awful vacancy was intruded upon by the scream of the Archbishop’s sword against hers, shaking her from the moment of frozen horror. She whipped the massive blade up and to one side, flinging the Sabbat leader’s guard wide and freeing one of her own hands; that hand directed a searing bolt of white-hot flame directly into the Kindred’s chest. He tumbled back across the floor, blown off his feet by the force of impact.

When he got up again, the hood had fallen back; the face was hideous, a dessicated, skullish mask adorned with swirling patterns. He hissed, baring a mouthful of jagged, stained teeth, eyes burning with a bestial scarlet fire as he lunged for her, sword sweeping in a great arc.

"Die, Elisabeth Maurier!" he snarled, flecks of bloody froth flying from his jaws as he hammered at her with wild, swift blows of his blade.

She couldn’t keep up. The empty anguish was too acute, slowing her, weakening her.

Zoisite de la Vega is dead . . .

Victor, Grant, and Claude registered it with varying levels of shock and horror. Alex -- the newest, youngest ghoul, Zoey’s best friend -- reacted with a surge of emotion that tore at her attention even more.

Grant, take the van . . . get back to the house. Alex, do not go outside! Reactivate the perimeter defenses and arm yourself. Be ready --

She did not have the chance to finish the mental communication. Her lack of attentiveness cost her.

White pain flared as the Archbishop’s sword-point carved a bloody gash half an inch deep down her cheek, trailing down her throat; the intricate dance of the battle kept the blade from sinking any deeper, until he got the footing to lunge forward. The weapon skated off one rib and plunged in deeply at the right side of her sternum, scraping again on bone before it burst dripping from her back. The crosshilt struck her breast hard enough to bruise, and the Sabbat leader screamed in glee as he twisted the sword cruelly within her. He was so close that the pink foam flying from his snarling mouth spattered her face as he bulldozed her backward with his momentum; the sword-point jarred agonizingly on the stone wall.

Emotion stopped, as though a switch had been thrown -- which, in a way, it had. Self-preservation was an instinct more powerful than any mortal sorrow for a Kindred, especially one like Lis.

She grabbed the Archbishop’s forearm. Bone cracked and flesh pulped in her powerful grip, blood spurting between her fingers; the Sabbat screamed on quite a different note. Keeping hold of him so that he couldn’t pull the sword free or let go and move away, she started backing him toward the half-ruined altar with long, implacable strides, her face a perfect mask, her eyes burning with cold green fire.

The backs of the Archbishop’s legs hit the stone, feet scrabbling on the floor; she didn’t let the gaunt, spidery vampire get any purchase to climb up or move aside from the altar. Instead, she pressed forward still, trapping the Sabbat leader between her own unyielding body and the scarred marble.

She squeezed just a bit harder at just the right angle; there was a ghastly wet sound as she literally pinched the Kindred’s forearm in half, leaving a suddenly withering hand clutching the sword that still pierced her through. Gripping the truncated arm and ignoring the screams, she forced the Archbishop back and back, bending him over the altar. His free hand was striking at her wildly, doing no damage at all, serving primarily as an irritation.

Lis raised her eyes briefly. It was gone now, of course, but it seemed as if she could see the great cross above the altar, the figure of Christ upon it, solemn eyes gazing out at the world he had come to be sacrificed for, the cruel nails holding him to the rough wood . . .

"Insto Dei," she whispered, the words of the Templar oath coming to her lips unbidden. "Manufacti Dei. Cogniti Dei. Morte ego . . . te deum gloriam."

I give myself to God. The works of my hands, to God. The thoughts of my mind, to God. My death, to God . . . in all things I glorify God.

The great Crusader sword came down in a sudden blinding arc, striking off the Archbishop’s head with almost no resistance.

"Amen," Lis breathed as she stepped away from the altar. She watched without blinking as the headless body began to decay.

"Lis!" Victor shouted, coming back through the front doors, one hand pressed to his sternum as though the sword that still transfixed his regnant was plunged through his own chest. He stopped at the sight of her, then swiftly regained his wits. "What do you want me to do?" he asked, simply.

"Clean up here, Victor," she instructed him quietly, taking hold of the longsword and yanking it out of her with no more than a shudder and a wince. Tossing it aside, she extended her own weapon to her oldest ghoul. "I need to go. Now."

She disappeared in a blast of wind.

It’s time . . . just a few seconds more . . . Byron grinned and licked her lips, her hand still resting lightly against Zoey’s throat, feeling the last flickering, faltering beats of his heart. Once that stopped entirely, once the last spark of life was gone from the body, then she could give him the blood and raise him up again as a Kindred. In anticipation, she raised her wrist to her lips, fangs pressing the skin, ready to break the delicate surface and free the potent vitae.

One of her retainers let out a cry that was cut suddenly short by a dreadful, wet ripping sound; the other one whirled around and was slammed across the car hood, smashing through the windshield. A quick dark shadow followed him through the shattered glass, and an ominous sucking sound was audible despite his screams.

Byron lunged to her feet, Zoey’s limp body tumbling from her lap. One grinning, greasy-looking man was still holding her first retainer’s twisted-off head by the hair; another was dreamily pulling the arms off the decapitated body. As she watched, open-mouthed in shock, a bestial-looking vampire emerged from around the back end of the car; another followed him, and a third scrambled up over the roof of the vehicle. All of them were grinning in that particularly dreadful way -- a way that showed off fangs, and in some cases, an entire mouthful of sharpened teeth.

The shadow that had vanished into the wildly rocking car -- which was now still -- emerged, showing itself to be a very thin dark-haired girl no older than fifteen. Her face was smeared and dotted with blood.

"If it isn’t Prince Bitch herself," said the one who held the ghoul’s head. "Aren’t we lucky, guys? We came to fuck with the Autarkis, and instead we got the Prince. Let’s not waste the opportunity." He flung the head aside like someone discarding a basketball and started forward; the others followed his lead.

Byron cringed against the wall, her hands up before her in a defensive posture. "Get away from me!" she shrieked at the Sabbat pack that now surrounded her in a loose half-circle. Summoning up her Presence, she cloaked herself in an aura of indomitable power and command; the pack members hissed and fell back a few steps, but they did not flee or cower. Byron quailed slightly, suddenly less confident in her own ability to banish these "vermin".

"Yes, get away from her," said a deadly, low voice from behind the threatening pack. "Come to me and spill out your lives, just as your Archbishop already has. The infection of this city ends here. I am the blade and the cleansing flame."

Then Elisabeth was among them like a leopard among sheep, a blur of speed and lethal strength. She struck with economical motions, wasting no more time or effort than necessary; she made it look easy, slaying a half-dozen Sabbat in moments. The final Kindred was snared in her iron grasp, drawn close against her in almost a lover’s embrace as she drained him of every drop of vitae before crushing him like paper in her hands. She dropped the rapidly corroding body and turned toward the Prince, eyes glowing like radiant dark emeralds, her lips red as roses, a single droplet of blood trailing delicately down from the corner of her mouth.

"What have you done to Zoisite?" she asked, very quietly.

"It wasn’t me!" the blond Toreador answered swiftly, straightening up and smoothing her pale hair back from her face. "The Sabbat attacked him, and -- "

"Liar." Lis’s eyes widened, taking on a frightening, almost doll-like blankness, a look devoid of all emotion. "Have you forgotten that I’m a member of the same clan as yourself? Have you forgotten that your aura tells the truth, will ye, nil ye?"

The Prince paled.

"You killed Zoisite." The Angel of Mists began to walk forward -- slow, unhurried steps, the stride of a predator well-assured of its prey’s helplessness. "You thought you could steal my golden-haired angel from me. Liar, thief, foolish, vain creature -- you are not worthy to be Prince."

"Get away! Get away!"

"You are not worthy of the bloody immortality that comes down through the generations of Caine’s legacy. You have taken my angel’s life, and so your unlife belongs to me. I will take it, and make you nothing -- a reviled name, an object of contempt long after your ashes have scattered on the wind." Lis reached out, swifter than Byron’s eyes could follow, and caught the Prince by the hair. Whirling on one foot, she flung the younger Kindred up and over the edge of the wall.

Celeste Byron screamed; there was the crack of breaking bone as she hit the ground inside the wall. She managed to get up, one arm hanging limp, and turned around with some notion of running for it.

Five pairs of green-gold bestial eye-flares flickered at her from the darkness; the "pets" that had been mentioned in passing by Claude did not hesitate to attack.

Ignoring the screams and feral snarls that emanated from beyond the wall, Lis looked around for Zoisite. He lay half within the flower bed, sleek limbs carelessly sprawled; he was still warm to her touch, though his too-pale skin was tinged with grey, his face too still, slack and empty of all animation, his eyes open slightly, the rare emeralds dulled and clouded. The twin wounds in his throat seemed to stare at her, accusing and stark. The Autarkis gathered him against her, his body moving like a puppet’s with the strings cut; she stroked his eyelids shut, leaving bloody streaks on his skin from the gore on her fingers.

She knelt there for what seemed like a long time, cradling him in her arms, rocking him a little like a mother with a sleeping child. There was no grief, not yet . . . only that stark, hollow emptiness.

Victor and Grant emerged from the shadows of the trees, faces somber, each carrying a sawed-off shotgun in one hand. Victor glanced around briefly at the violently destroyed and decaying corpses of the Sabbat pack and Byron’s ghouls, then glanced at Grant and motioned toward the gate. The younger ghoul nodded once and went to the wall, detouring around the grieving Lis, to open the gate and cross the grounds to the communications building to check on Alex. He kept his eyes averted from the slowly-moving, loudly-screaming Byron, who was still trying desperately to get away; Lis’s pets were driving the crippled Kindred away from the gate while giving the Camarilla Prince no chance to call to power her own Toreador vitae.

Lis came through quietly, cradling the slender corpse of her golden angel in her arms, Victor walking a few steps behind her. He glanced at his mistress as her pets abandoned their current toy to come over and greet their owner, but Lis gave no indication that she wanted the animals to leave her be.

Most people would have almost expected to see ghoul dogs, hellhounds of some kind . . . huge muscular Rottweilers, perhaps, wearing spiked collars, eyes aglow with the eldritch flame of Kindred blood. Lis, however, preferred cats.

A nine-foot Bengal tiger jostled against a male lion who was nearly as big; a pair of dusky blue-gray cougars nudged and pushed at each other, trying to get closer to the Toreador. A heavy-muscled bobcat wandered up, trailing a long shred of silvery satin from its powerful jaws.

Lis didn’t push the animals away, nor did she give Victor the sign to get them clear of her; they didn’t get into her path, but escorted her in a tight little knot right up to the back door of the mansion. The bobcat dropped back about a hundred yards from the house to go back and play with the new toy; the other cats would no doubt join their stocky compatriot once Lis went inside.

Fourth Song Sixth Song Story Index

This page formatted and © by Dianna Silver

"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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