Desert Fugue: First Stanza

So many paths of promise,
Indecision poisons my mind,
If only I had seen the signs, so blind,
Yet I must journey on, on and on . . .
. . . Here I am,
At the crossing of life I stand,
On my own,
Looking down the road,
Hear my cry, answer me,
Still I'm searching yet the truth is unknown,
Though the night is cold, I walk the road alone.

--Symphony X, "Awakenings"

Zoey was . . . dead.

Alex shook his head, his mind just not able to come to grips with the stunning news delivered to him by the vampire who had seemed to have fully ensnared the vital man the bassist had considered his best friend. Yet that eerie voice in his head had sounded so . . . absolute. No way to argue that she could have been mistaken. No way to rage against her, the world, that it just couldn’t be possible. No way to scream to the heavens that it was unfair for his friend to die just going to get a goddamn soda.

It didn’t help much either, sitting here in front of the touch-screen monitor and watching the display continue to show that all was well with the reactivated perimeter defenses. On that glass could be found remnants of his friend, fingerprints smudged there with the oil from his still-living body. "Damn you, Zoey!" the Gaelic-blooded American suddenly raged, pounding a fist against the table in impotent fury. "Why the fuck did you turn off the defenses and go past the walls? What the fuck did you think you were doing?" His fist slammed in counterpoint to his passion, the dull thudding emphasizing his harshly voiced words.

Once the dull pain registered, Alex stopped his useless hammering. Hand still clenched in a fist, he collapsed against the table, eyes burning with tears that refused to be shed. He squeezed his bright azure eyes closed, and groaned at the image of Zoey -- alive and whole -- that came unbidden to his mind.

Nothing would ever be the same. No more late night jam sessions, no more horrid puns and jokes, no more complaints about Tony’s nasty habits screwing things up or Rick’s lack of a spine to stand up to staying out of trouble Tony brought their way. Gone would be the soul of their music, the money that saw them through lean times, the leader that gave them a focus to be more than just some amateur garage band. The spontaneous paper-wad fights would never erupt again when a session got too intense with frustration.

The one man he considered as close as a brother would never be there again.

God, it hurt. And the emptiness was unbearable. Nothing would ever fill that hole.

He didn’t realize that Grant was there until the chauffeur’s voice broke through Alex’s miserable thoughts. "I know it’s cold comfort, but we all feel your loss. At least you’re okay."

That forced a ragged, bitter laugh from the Ravensblood member as he pulled himself upright. Shaking the tousseled mop of his dark-autumn hair from his bright blue gaze, Alex stared up at what would now be Lis’s next-youngest ghoul. "Fat lot of good it does," the bassist snarled.

Grant understood the rage in the younger man’s eyes. He too felt the same fury, knowing as he did the effect the golden-haired musician’s death was having on the dark lady who was the most important thing in his extended life. That their fallen family member may not have acted wholly on his own impulse was all that kept the British-born ghoul from cursing Zoey’s memory.

"More good than you think. Lis isn’t mourning both of you." Before the other man could voice the next thing on his mind, Grant swiftly continued, "What exactly happened, Alex? Just relate what you witnessed."

Sighing in frustration, the redheaded musician emphatically gestured toward the computer that oversaw the mansion’s defenses, The bassist then repeated what he’d told everyone over the headsets during all the commotion, especially the feeling of oddness once he’d discovered what his friend had done.

The former footman gravely nodded. The pieces of the puzzle were falling into place and forming an ugly picture. "If it makes you feel any better, your friend wasn’t acting on his own," he explained, hoping that saying the words would soothe the anger in them both.

"What do you mean?" Alex asked. That pronouncement wasn’t expected.

"There’s a lot you need to learn, quickly, if you’re staying with this family. One is that there’s more vampires -- Kindred -- out there than just Lis. And they can be every bit as bloody-minded as she is. The other’s that there’s a lot of things a Kindred can do.

"Someone tried to use the purge as an excuse to steal from Lis. The ungrateful bitch -- may she rot -- used a Kindred power to call your friend to her side. Lis didn’t think the bitch had the balls to pull a stunt like this; otherwise she’d have warned you about what sort of tricks could be used to lure you out. I swear, Alex, she would have. She’s got an interest in keeping all of us safe."

For a long moment, silence filled the command center while the bassist stared up at the other ghoul. Somehow Alex knew that Grant was speaking the absolute truth. Had the danger been anticipated, the two left at the estate would have been better prepared. In the back of his mind, the fiery-maned musician knew that Lis was paying a high price for her oversight.

"And since it wasn’t expected, Zoey didn’t have a chance to fight the effect?"

"Right. He’d have thought the feeling was any number of things, explained it in any way that made sense to him," Grant confirmed.

The younger ghoul let out the breath he was holding in a rush that deflated the anger. It helped some, knowing that his best friend didn't have much of a choice in the matter. "Where . . . is he?"

"Lis took him back to the house. Don’t worry. The one who did this has paid -- is paying right now, I’d wager." That knowledge made the chauffeur mentally grin in malicious satisfaction. Equally satisfying was knowing that this newest addition to the family was safe, unharmed save for the pain caused by the loss they all had suffered this night. From what Grant could observe, Alex had done exactly as he had been told, performing admirably.

"Think I could see him?"

"You really want to?"

Alex pondered the question for a moment. Should he not bother and just keep with him that last memory of his friend, vital and alive as he had tapped away on the touch-screen controls? Or should the bassist make his stubborn mind wrap around the idea by viewing the irrefutable evidence? Deep down, however, he already knew the answer. "Yes, I really do. It’s just not going to be real until I see . . ."

"Come on then," Grant said, turning and heading back down the stairs to the ground-level floor.

The walk was somber, neither ghoul breaking the silence as they made their way into the mansion from the back door. Everything seemed to hold a dark pall of quietude to Alex’s grief-numbed senses; nothing seemed as bright, vibrant or real as it had earlier that day when the sun still shone down on a world once thought as relatively safe. The ornate mansion seemed more a mausoleum as the pair made their way through the richly-appointed structure, their footsteps muffled into near silence as they made their way to the top story of the elegant dwelling.

Grant opened the single, humble door at the end of the hall without uttering a word. After looking inside, the British-born ghoul stepped to one side. At the same moment, Alex heard that eerie voice once more within his head, words not born of his own thoughts.

Come share with me my grief, if only for a little while.

The Ravensblood member absently nodded, taking a step into the room beyond. What greeted him was a sight beyond anything he imagined. A medieval chapel, resplendent in every detail, lay on the other side of the plain wooden door. The walls were stone, reaching upward as if to touch the very glory of heaven, delicate ribbing of buttresses making an intricate tracery of the gabled ceiling. Dominating the eastern wall was a stained-glass window, the jewel-bright tones darkened with the backdrop of the night sky; the surface of the glass glimmered and reflected the dancing firelight of the votive candles and the red-covered light of the Divine Presence illuminating the altar.

On the wall below the window was the exquisite crucifix that looked to be as old as the rest of the chapel. To Alex’s wondering gaze, it seemed as if Christ stared down at him with compassion and understanding of all the sorrow and pain the young musician had ever faced. Here was a Savior that knew of the fragile existence of God’s earthly children and took on the burden of it all to save them from the worst of it. The compassion and love carved into that sacred image held the promise that belief would be all that would be needed to ensure that when the Judgment came, all with faith would be escorted to Heaven. Swallowing in reverential awe, Alex lowered his azure gaze from the Son of Man nailed to the Cross.

Lis remained motionless, gracefully perched on the padded cushion of a pre-dieu that fit perfectly in with the medieval chapel. From his vantage point, all Alex could truly see of the vampire was the wealth of her long, chocolate-brown hair cascading down to pool atop her slender calves. She seemed deep in prayer -- or perhaps it was merely contemplation, for she was surely aware of her newest ghoul standing a respectful distance behind her.

At last, Alex forced himself to turn his attention to the sight he’d been subconsciously attempting to avoid. His friend’s familiar form was laid out on top of a bier set between the marble altar and where Lis knelt. The discarded shell was still, arranged in that seemingly universal position of being prone, hands resting on the unmoving chest. A satin pillow was under Zoey’s head, his hair unbound and spilling around his face and shoulders in a wavy cascade. The red dye seemed to Alex to make a mockery out of the true golden color Zoey should have had. In that moment, the bassist knew he’d always remember his best friend with the gorgeous blond hair that had been one of Zoey’s best assets.

The dead guitarist was nude, though a length of emerald-hued satin cloth preserved the body’s dignity. Though Zoey seemed to be untouched, his limbs straight, the well-muscled form unbruised, the flesh was an ugly shade of pale bluish-gray that drove home the finality of Alex’s loss. Mind numb from the crushing reality of it all, the autumn-maned musician choked out a strangled sob. He staggered past Lis’s kneeling form and dropped heavily to his own knees at the corner near Zoey’s head. Curled up in agony, forehead resting against the side of the bier, the young mortal finally let the tears fall. His ragged sobbing echoed in the centuries-old chapel.

The moment seemed an eternity for Alex as he gave voice to the overwhelming sense of emptiness and loss. At long last, however, he cried himself out -- remembered that grown men didn’t bawl like babies -- and slowly straightened. He wiped his bright blue eyes, sniffling, his gaze falling first on the discarded flesh that had been his best friend and then lifting up to settle on the compassionate visage of the Savior.

He would go on. It would be what Zoey would want. Alex could almost hear his friend’s voice: Hey, quit the sniffling. I’m not worth all the energy you’re wasting. You and the guys have the talent to make something of yourselves, even without me. Just go do it . . .

The chapel remained as still as death. The moment the butterfly-light touch landed on his shoulder, the young redhead flinched; though no sound had warned him, he had felt Lis’s presence in the back of his mind. He just hadn’t realized she’d approached him until he turned with a gasp and found himself staring up at her perfect beauty.

Another timeless moment passed as azure eyes gazed up at emerald ones. To Alex, whatever emotions the dark lady had were inscrutable; her gorgeous face gave no hint to the thoughts playing out in her inhuman mind. What was certain was the gesture between them: her hand was there on his shoulder in comfort, the touch of a kindred being linked by the same tragic loss. In that moment, Alex realized that this mysterious being had cared for his friend as strongly as any of her existence could. And she cared for him as well.

Then she was gone, sweeping silently out of the medieval chapel. Dawn approaches. Alex, stand watch here until nine in the morning. Victor, relieve him. Claude, you have the watch in the chapel from after lunch to three. Grant, you will be here after Claude. And Alex, you will be here again to await my awakening.

The Ravensblood bassist let his gaze fall once more on the dusky-gray corpse lying in state. Wiping at his eyes again -- they itched from the crying -- Alex rose to his feet and backed up to one of the small wooden pews flanking the doorway. He absently took a seat, breathing in the faint scent of the sandalwood oil with which the surface of the carved benches were protected. So here he would remain, keeping watch over what remained of the man closest to him in life.

Alex wondered if he’d ever really known the real Zoisite at all. After all, this entire thing about vampires, ghouls, purges and the like seemed like an entirely different life. So too did Zoey’s original world of money, privilege and private schools. If the middle-class scion of Old World nobility had not had true musical talent and a rebellious streak, Zoey and Alex would have forever traveled in completely different circles.

As the faintest light of the rising sun began to glow through the jeweled tones of the stained glass window, a smile came to Alex’s face, his mind turning over all the happy times he and Zoisite had shared.

I am Nebmaatre . . . Zoisite Santiago de la Vega . . . My name means "The lord of Balance is Ra" . . . I was named for a gemstone my mother admired, and the patron saint of Spain . . .

Sunlight streamed through the colored glass of the window, bringing to full life the exquisite beauty of the vitreous work of art. On a background of deep red, emerald green and cobalt blue, a pearlescent white fleur-de-lis gazed down on the chapel, golden rays formed of pieces shaded from palest yellow to deepest amber emerging from the Lily of France to touch the frame of the window. The technicolor sunlight touched all within the centuries-old sanctuary, including the two still forms there, like the benevolent touch of a heavenly saint.

While one figure was caught in a sleep eternal, the other was in the embrace of a much more temporary unconsciousness. Though he had valiantly attempted to remain awake, the lack of sleep the night before coupled with his grief and the aftereffects of a few nights in the tender, merciful care of the Serpents of the Light had combined to take their toll on Alex. Swearing to only stretch out his complaining muscles and rest his tired eyes, the young redheaded ghoul had shifted his position on the wooden pew. Lying down, he had closed his eyes, promising himself that once he’d rested for only a moment, he’d return to keeping vigil over his friend’s body.

That moment turned out to be far longer than the Gaelic-blooded musician had planned.

A rainbow of colors dyed Zoey’s dead flesh hues far more interesting than the mottled pale gray it was. The life-giving rays of the sun warmed the now cold body while emerald eyes once closed by a gore-streaked vampire’s hand opened on their own to greet the rays of the daytime star. The eyes that stared up into the glowing stained glass were as clouded over as any dead man’s, the light of life long gone.

Behold, the Pharaoh of Pharaohs. The great god Ra sails the daytime Nile, his golden light bringing life and strength to one and all. Praise be to you, Ra. Let your light fill me on the journey ahead.

Nebmaatre could feel the divine energy empower him, Ra’s gift to all who followed the path of Balance. That energy would be needed for the task ahead.

It had been hard to wait, knowing as he did of the ultimate time limit. Still, seventy days was a long time, even in this world that seemed -- from what little he could learn from the now comatose modern soul -- caught up in a frantic pace of life that left Nebmaatre stunned. What with the isfret soldiers interrupting the one attempting to contaminate this mortal vessel -- the Egyptian soul shuddered at the very thought of that -- and then being ripped apart by another of their kind, it had only made sense to remain quiet.

Playing ‘possum . . .

The words came from the far reaches of the dual soul, the dead modern mortal giving Nebmaatre the unfamiliar term for the concept he had envisioned. The ancient spirit filed the information away even as he exerted his will over the dead clay he inhabited.

The movement was far from graceful. With the life force cut off from the body and the previous owner indisposed due to recovering from the psychic trauma of dying, being joined to another soul and then plunging back through the Shroud into the physical, Nebmaatre found his control over the dead nerves and muscles not quite as perfect as he had hoped. Still, he could sense that as he grew used to coaxing the body to react to his will, his control would be enhanced. For now he would have to settle for the jerky animation.

At least the man still here was asleep. Leave it to his powers as a watcher of tombs to stack circumstances in his favor. Nebmaatre knew that his journey would be able to start with no witnesses, and no isfret-born predators on his trail. As the isfret-laden being had carried the dead mortal’s body, he had been able to sense something about her, and the care with which she had tended to the body had made him wonder what exactly motivated her to treat the dead mortal with what seemed to be utter respect. He had been under the impression that kinder emotions were beyond the comprehension of those caught in the curse of Chaos.

Zoey’s body pulled itself upright and then swung to the side. Feet dangling down, hands gripping the edge of the bier, Nebmaatre took a moment to glance about the unfamiliar place while enjoying the faint warmth of the color-stained sun on the dead flesh’s back. The glazed-over eyes settled on the living youth’s sleeping form. That one had seemed deeply moved by the perceived loss of the modern mortal.

Alex . . . best friend . . . like a brother . . . sorry . . .

From the impressions accompanying the other spirit’s words, Nebmaatre understood the depth of the friendship the redheaded youth and the now dead man had shared. Balance willing, perhaps one day something could be done to make up for the sorrow now felt. Even so, the eternal life that awaited the dual soul in Egypt would profoundly change who Zoisite had once been. It may not be feasible for Alex to ever know that his friend once again walked upon the earth, alive and well.

The ancient Egyptian willed the body he commanded to slip off the bier and head for the door. Forgotten, the length of emerald satin fell to the floor; the cloth brushed against the bare, dead flesh and the distant touch reminded Nebmaatre of how vulnerable the body was. That certainly wouldn’t do, especially for a dutiful ka such as himself. Considering the flare of emotion that came from that part of them that was Zoisite, the very thought of wandering about from this place to Egypt in the nude evoked a strongly negative reaction. They would need clothes then, both for maintaining Zoisite’s dignity and to alleviate Nebmaatre’s own need to protect the body in his care.

Another flash of insight filled the ancient spirit’s thoughts, garnered from the modern section of the dual soul. The obviously dead body lurched forward with jerking, unsteady steps; the door to the chapel banged open unintentionally loud as Nebmaatre misjudged the amount of will needed to have the unliving hand pull on the handle. Praying that Alex would remain asleep, the old entity continued on his short journey to what had been Zoisite’s room.

The somnolent musician merely stirred in his uneasy slumber. Alex rolled over, nearly falling off the wooden seat. As it was, his left arm fell to brush knuckles against the chapel’s floor. His cheek against the pew, the wood resonated his deep breathing into a sound that slightly echoed through the medieval sanctuary.

Nebmaatre slowly perfected translating his will into movement of the corpse. As Zoey’s body made its way through the quiet corridors of the opulent mansion, the jerking, shuffling gait became slightly more graceful with each step. As it was, it took a lot of concentration to make the body react just so. It would be another number of hours before such control would become almost second nature to the ka animating the dead flesh. Even then, it wouldn’t be until the Rasurrection that Zoey’s body would move with the agility that was his natural due. There was only so much this quasi-life could accomplish.

The others in the care of the isfret-born predator were probably busy with whatever chores they would have after such a busy night, or sleeping as their mistress was. Either way, it suited Nebmaatre perfectly. None happened upon him as he steered the body into Zoey’s room and shut the door behind him.

The ghost occupying the remains knew what he wanted. Something made of sturdy material that would help protect the flesh from the environment during the upcoming journey. Each injury the body sustained from this point on would cost Nebmaatre just that much more in will to keep the remains as intact as possible.

The first drawer opened by the body ended up thumping to the floor as the ancient spirit misjudged the amount of will needed to accomplish his task. Nebmaatre muttered to himself while he rifled through his modern partner’s clothing and procured a pair of sturdy denim pants. He swiftly discovered two things: the lifeless nerves held some memory of the habitual motions of such things as dressing itself, and it was far easier to balance on one foot when one didn’t have a leg thrust through the unfamiliar-to-the-Egyptian piece of clothing. Nebmaatre muttered a few more curses in his long dead language as the body hopped around inelegantly; in his attempt to pull the pants on the rest of the way, lacking the luxury of a sense of balance, the dead flesh ended up slamming its bare ass against the solid maple dresser. Various knickknacks trembled with crystalline sounds, some falling over and clattering across the piece of furniture’s surface, as the dresser hit the wall with a solid-sounding thump.

Victory was swiftly his, however. As the numb fingers fastened the pants around the body’s waist, the spirit controlling the corpse listened for any signs of discovery. He heard none and turned his attention to finding covering for the torso.

The next drawer remained in the dresser, the ka having judged better the strength of will needed. Pulling out a thick, long-sleeved sweater, Nebmaatre let the body go through the familiar motions of putting the shirt on. He left the drawer hanging open as he wondered about coverings for the body’s feet.

Closet . . . boots . . . and leather jacket . . .

Images accompanied the distant words from the nearly somnolent mortal soul, guiding the ancient partner. The red-haired body lurched unsteadily forward, crossing the space. This door opened relatively quietly. Eerily pale hands drug the golden Western-style boots from the closet. A few more ungainly hops around accompanied Nebmaatre’s forcing the body to slip into Zoisite’s boots. That chore accomplished, the last thing to be donned was the leather coat. The ka did so by making the body shrug into the garment. Praise be to Ausar that that was accomplished. Neither Nebmaatre nor Zoisite thought that their shared form was quite so vulnerable now.

The wooden panel of the closet slammed shut under the force of the push given to it by the animated corpse. The boots made an odd staggering, shuffling noise against the bedroom’s floor as the Egyptian spirit turned his attention in earnest to the task ahead. The Nile -- the unfamiliar name was apparently what Zoisite’s people called the river that was the source of life -- was a very long distance away if Nebmaatre’s impression from his modern partner was correct.

The ancient soul just fervently hoped that he would get used to commanding a dead khat swiftly. He mentally flinched as his light touch on the doorknob to his modern half’s room translated into the sturdy door slamming shut with a sound that seemed to echo down the mansion’s corridor. Trusting in his ka power to manipulate probability in his favor, Nebmaatre willed the body to shuffle through the opulent domicile.

I was born the eldest of seven . . . the only child . . . Father was as his grandfathers before him, a holy scribe in service to the gods . . . a computer programmer well paid for his experience and knowledge . . . Mother was a priestess dedicated to the great goddess Auset with a drop of the royal blood . . . a teacher of history so fascinated with medieval Spain that she married an American descended from Spanish dukes, taking on all the trappings of that culture though her maiden name was Smith . . .

Victor opened the chapel door, the strip of black material that he carried in his free hand flapping a bit with his movements. He wore a white button-down shirt with charcoal-gray slacks and a black band about his right bicep, stark against the light sleeve. The radiance coming through the window dazzled him, as always; the shards of jewel-colored light painted his shirt and lit up the room.

The first thing that they illuminated -- or rather didn’t illuminate -- was Zoey’s body.

The centuries-old American stared for a long moment as his brain sorted out what he was seeing, or failing to see, which was the corpse that should have been lying on the bier. The satin drape was heaped casually on the floor, but the shape it should have covered was conspicuous by its absence. Indeed, as Victor looked around the chapel, it became increasingly obvious that there was a definite deficiency in the dead-body department.

There was also a very unpleasant deficiency in the number of live bodies, as well. Victor hurried forward, and relaxed only marginally when he saw Alex lying on the pew. The eldest ghoul tensed up again immediately anyway, because if Expected Dead Body now equaled Zero, but Expected Live Body had been converted to Unexpected Dead Body, things had only gotten a lot more complicated.

The somnolent redhead was jerked awake by Victor almost grabbing him by the throat in a hasty attempt to check for a pulse while shouting, "Alex! Alex, talk to me! Are you all right? What happened?"

"Wstfg?" the bassist replied, the best he could groggily manage given that Victor’s neck-groping was cutting off sixty percent of the musician’s airway.

"What happened?" Victor repeated insistently.

"Grrrrk," Alex explained, flailing at the other’s big hand until the older man realized why the redhead wasn’t being very articulate.

Victor swiftly released the newest family member. "Sorry. What happened? Where is Zoey’s body?"

The Ravensblood performer rubbed his neck, then automatically pointed in the direction where his best friend laid in state. "I guess I fell asleep. Zoey’s right over . . . there?" He finished on a somewhat higher octave as he looked over and realized that the jewel-toned sunlight illuminated a bier completely vacant of its previous occupant. "Wstfg?" he choked out, more from astonishment than asphyxiation this time. "Did you guys take him to be . . . uh . . . embalmed or something?"

"Would I be yelling ‘where is Zoey’s body’ if we’d taken it to be embalmed?" Victor asked with iron patience.

Ears other than those of the young musician registered the shout emanating from the medieval chapel. Though the five senses of the body were dampened from the lack of connection between the mortal clay and the spirit in control, Nebmaatre still received enough from the khat to be aware of its surroundings. Driven by his need to begin the long journey, the ghostly scribe willed the body to shuffle forward. Boots scraping against plush carpeting, the shambling form continued down the hall. He would have to pass by the chapel’s open door. There was no other choice.

"Um, good point," Alex responded, cheeks flushing in slight embarrassment. It was unnerving being shouted at by the one in charge while his vampire mistress slept. "I don’t know what happened to Zoey, though. I just wanted to lie down for a little while, and I guess I drifted off."

"You didn’t hear anyone come in?"

"No . . ."

"Well, for the love of God, dead bodies don’t just get up and walk away by themselves!"

Had Victor taken that exact moment to turn and look through the wide-open doorway, he would have seen how ironic his choice of words had been. The body in question lurched past; the movement significantly more graceful than before but still nothing compared to what it was in life, Nebmaatre struggled down the hallway. Fortunately -- well, fortunately for the Egyptian scribe -- neither Victor nor Alex noticed him stumble on by. The ka’s power to tweak probability assisted by maintaining the two ghouls’ interest in their conversation.

"Are you sure that you’re all right?" the eldest of Lis’s retainers inquired, frowning at Alex. "No head trauma? No lingering narcotic effects?"

"I had a really long, bad night, the last few days haven’t been great either, and my best friend is dead. ‘All right’ isn’t the way I’d describe myself, no."

"Damnation." Victor whirled around and went out the chapel door, straight across the hall to an intercom panel. A glance to the left at just then would have revealed a form disappearing hastily into a room, but the marshal was too intent on his mission to turn his attention from the panel embedded in the wall. He punched it on with a thumb and spoke rapidly in French, alerting Claude and Grant to a possible security breach and letting them know that Zoey’s body had disappeared.

A single death-glazed eye peered down the hallway at the isfret-marked man. At the moment he’d heard the footsteps, the Egyptian spirit forced the body into an entryway and almost completely shut the door. Now he stared through the crack. The words spoken by the living human were different than the language Nebmaatre had been consistently hearing so far, but they were too rapid for him to definitively identify. Even so, the ancient scribe was sure he’d heard something like it before over his long centuries of tomb watching. Still, it would be best to sneak out without the isfret-minion’s servants finding him.

They wouldn’t hurt me . . .

The ka animating the body ignored the thought from his modern partner. Zoisite knew nothing about the dangers of those who cast aside the tenets of Balance. It would be best for them both if they just slipped away unseen. First he would have to wait for the servants to disperse.

Victor’s information and orders began a whirlwind of activity; the four ghouls began searching the house, excluding rooms locked by keys that only Lis kept. Lis’ own rooms were searched -- in a very quiet, careful manner -- by Victor himself; he certainly had good reason not to disturb his sleeping regnant. If she discovered that Zoey’s body had been somehow lost, the consequences would be dire -- to say the least.

Two hours slipped by, the morning sun ascending toward the zenith. With each passing minute the search became more frantic. The quartet of desperate men crossed and recrossed one another’s paths in search of a body, a clue to who had invaded the sanctity of Lis’s estate, or anything out of the ordinary. Though every odd shadow, every flash out of the corner of an eye, every out-of-place sound was tracked down and investigated, there was scant evidence pointing to what had happened to their fallen comrade or even why he was spirited away in the first place. The only discovery made had been the dead guitarist’s room in unexplained disarray. It had been that which had triggered Victor’s cautious investigation of Lis’s own room; Zoey’s bedroom shared a common wall with the windowless chamber where the Toreador slumbered.

For his part, Nebmaatre’s evasions reached an almost slapstick degree, though the practice greatly improved his control over the animated body. He spent a lot of time in closets and already-searched rooms, ducking around corners and wriggling behind furniture, as he made his way slowly downstairs, heading for the back of the house. From Zoey’s memory, he knew that he should be able to get across the rear grounds of the estate and escape through the gate that had been the site of the young musician’s downfall. The serendipity that aided him covered for a lot of the problems that arose.

Most of them, anyway.

A low growl caught his attention. Nebmaatre lurched to a stop and searched his immediate surroundings. Noting the sleek beasts stalking him, he offered a swift prayer to Bast. Should the goddess smile down on him, he would be able to reach the postern gate -- only a few tantalizing cubits away -- before the lion and other, less familiar, felines caused him trouble with fang and claw.

Claude stepped into the kitchen to throw together a light lunch for himself and his "brothers", but what truly occupied his thoughts was the unsuccessful search. All four of them, including the slightly confused and clueless Alex, were in a morose frame of mind. They all knew Lis would not be happy upon awakening and discovering the events of the day; the chef shuddered, the sense of disappointing his regnant cutting through him.

The slim Frenchman crossed the spotless linoleum floor. The kitchen was his harbor, his safe refuge. Making lunch would at least take his mind from his dark thoughts. He was ruminating upon the possible menu when a flash of movement at the back door caught his attention. Startled, he looked out the bay window and found himself staring into the glittering eyes of one of the slate-colored cougars. The feline was sitting politely on the doormat, tail twitching impatiently.

The cats had been carefully trained by Lis; if the pride caught something on the estate grounds, four of them would keep it busy while one came to the house to alert the occupants. Claude slapped the intercom and shouted for the others before hastily yanking on his shoes and opening the door. The cougar immediately stood and loped across the grass, heading for the perimeter wall.

Victor, Grant, and Alex caught up to the chef as he passed the first of the outbuildings; they all held a relatively common pace as they followed the big cat. Along the way, they detoured around a fair-sized, irregular heap of ash. A scattering of discolored pearls and a few scraps of blackened satin indicated that there lay all that remained of Prince Celeste Byron.

Had any of the quartet been able to interrogate their silent guide about the grim remains, the cougar could have related how their fascinating "new toy" had shrieked right up to the final moments. The felines had "played" with her until the bright rays of the morning sun had ended her screams, the cats’ game, and the Prince’s undead existence in a brief pyre.

The pride was arranged in a loose half-circle around something that was crouched warily against the wall. Still too distant to see clearly what had caught the animals’ attention, the four retainers could make out that it appeared to be humanoid and topped by dark, autumn-fire hair. Perhaps this was a break in the mystery? The ghouls increased the pace of their approach.

Movement caught Nebmaatre’s focus. So far the felines had been content to just keep the precious khat in his care pinned up against the unforgiving perimeter wall. He felt safe enough to lift the body’s head and look through dead eyes to locate the source of the movement. Raalizing that the isfret-minion’s servants were approaching, the Egyptian spirit quickly wondered what to do in response to this development.

The servants had shown care towards the body. Nebmaatre didn’t believe they would allow the lion and other unfamiliar but probably just as ferocious felines to mutilate the dead flesh in his keeping. After all, they had spent a lot of time and energy looking for the missing khat. Such action would indicate some level of caring.

He would lose a day. At this point in time, with sixty-nine sunsets still remaining in which to complete the hajj -- the "pilgrimage" to the holy sands of Khemet -- he could afford to be careful. Another opportunity to slip away from the isfret-minion would surely show itself in the near future. It would be in his best interests to bide his time and act when opportunity next arose. His course of action decided, Nebmaatre released the body from his will.

Devoid of the mystic strings empowering it, the lifeless clay that had once been Zoisite de la Vega collapsed to the ground like a suddenly discarded puppet. As one, the quartet of cats lifted their heads and took a nervous hop back as their once-mobile prey abruptly became an immovable object. They were already puzzled by someone expected to be "friend" suddenly being "maybe-friend"; now that the "maybe-friend" was suddenly "unmoving maybe-friend", it was downright odd to the pride. Wrrf-ing in surprise, the sleek tiger stretched out a massive paw and tentatively batted at the "maybe-friend" thrice in an attempt to get the thing to move again.

"Looks like they’ve got something," Grant said as the quartet came close to where the Toreador’s guardian animals stood.

Victor opened his mouth -- and left it hanging open while coming to an abrupt stop. The remaining ghouls pulled up short and stared as they realized that the crumpled figure against the perimeter wall was the missing body, red-dyed hair in wild disarray, clothing awkwardly fastened.

"Zoey!" Alex shouted first, taking a step forward. Too new to the very thought of his best friend’s death, the outburst was quite natural.

"What the hell is going on?" the former Ravolutionary War soldier quietly demanded. Noting the sleek, striped cat reaching a paw out to bat at the form on the ground again, Victor laid a hand on the tiger’s shoulder. The beast looked up at him with a plaintive expression that asked for some sort of explanation.

"I wish I knew," Claude responded as he walked up beside the lion; the big cat grumbled, apparently realizing that the pride wasn’t going to be allowed to play with this toy.

"Someone sure took a chance putting clothes on him," Grant said.

Alex frowned while he stared down at the still body. "Guess that explains what happened in his room, but . . ."

"None of us saw any signs of anyone wandering through the mansion," Victor replied, his voice getting progressively louder. Something damned strange was going on around here and he didn’t like it.

"And all the systems so far checked out. It’s quite a mystery," the French chef said, "why anyone would take Zoey from the chapel, dress him, and them dump him here in the backyard . . ."

"Well, the cats could have scared them off," the British chauffeur ventured.

"But . . . if that’s the case, then why did the cats let them get this far?" Alex asked, turning his bright azure gaze to stare at the others. "I mean, burdened down like that, don’t you think . . ."

"Yeah, of course. The pride should have cornered them nearer the house -- if they even got past the cats in the first place," Grant interjected.

"Then the question remains -- what the hell is going on?" Victor bellowed.

Claude waved his hands slightly. "Would you stop shouting, Vic? I think the best thing to do is get him back inside and wait until Lis wakes up. She’ll be able to sort this out, or at least figure out what happened."

The eldest ghoul sighed in exasperation and relief alike. At lease none of them would have to face telling Lis that somehow the body of their fallen friend had somehow gone missing. "All right. Claude, go finish making lunch. Grant, after you eat, I want you to go over all the security systems one more time. Let’s make sure we can tell Lis that we were thorough. Alex, help me get Zoey back inside. After that, you will eat and then you will get some sleep."

"But, Vic . . ." the bassist protested. He suddenly felt like some wayward child being scolded.

"No arguments. You obviously need the rest," Victor insisted. The tone of the older man’s voice conveyed his unspoken words: Because if you hadn’t been asleep, this wouldn’t have happened.

"Oh, all right," Alex grumbled while kneeling down to grab his friend’s still form by the shoulders. "And Vic?"


"What was that about bodies not walking around on their own?" The Ravensblood musician hid his smirk at the other man’s expression.

Everything was fine in the world at the moment -- or rather, as fine as it could be with the reminder of tragedy still there. Victor sat silently, motionless, his gaze fastened upon the body lying upon the bier. He had insisted on keeping watch in the medieval chapel after the day’s events. If anything more were to go wrong, he wanted to be directly responsible for the household’s response.

He’d eaten lunch in here; Claude had come to remove the dishes not long after Victor had finished. The marshal was certain that given the circumstances, Lis would not only understand but approve. From the moment he and Alex had laid the body out, it had never once left his sight. Living for over two centuries gave one a lot of practice in patience.

Despite its mysterious disappearance and reappearance, the form lying in the faint pool of jewel-hued light acted like every other body he’d ever witnessed -- which is to say that it behaved itself and stayed decently immobile, as a verifiable corpse ought to. Given the length of his existence, Victor had seen plenty of such objects before. But none had ever quite pulled what Zoey had somehow done -- and part of him continued to insist that there had been no signs of anyone unauthorized prowling about within the mansion.

The pragmatic ghoul shifted his gaze to the stained-glass window. The light seeping through it was dimmer. Sunset would come soon.

Deep within the mortal clay that had once housed his modern partner, Nebmaatre continued to bide his time. He had kept his will dormant from the moment he had seen the isfret-touched ones approach, certain that somehow serendipity would come to his rescue again. Alas, it would not be before the dark minion awakened; the ancient scribe could feel Ra’s solar barge beginning to sail through the gates of the Duat. The Egyptian reminded himself to exercise patience as he sank deeper into the stillness within; resting near the comatose soul of his modern part, he waited. If luck remained with him, the isfret-minion would not be able to sense him lurking here in the depths of the khat.

Some say that the undead do not dream, that the realm of shadow and illusion is closed to them; what use could such creatures have for fleeting visions of the impossible, the conjuries of the subconscious? Surely, if they were privy to such things, they would only be nightmares, the mind reliving dark and bloody glories.

She is standing in a room that seems to have no ceiling . . . vast pillars inlaid with bright gemstones rise up from a mosaic floor, braziers shedding golden light that is lost in the shadows above. The walls are incised and painted with ancient murals, but those patterns are hard to see -- there are people in front of the walls.

No . . . not people. These strange and awesome figures cannot be mere people . . . they wear the faces of animals. Not masks . . . their true faces.

These are old gods.

She stands before a raised dais. There is a girl there -- very young, dressed all in white linen, long dark hair weighted with tiny beads. She is holding a pair of scales in one hand, and a single white feather in the other, and she is waiting for something. Lis cannot quite see her face . . . she casts a light of her own that cloaks her features.

There is something in Lis’ hand. Perhaps she’s waiting for that.

She looks down.

She knows it for what it is, though it is not fresh and full and red. This shriveled, darkened thing in her palm is her heart.

Elisabeth’s heart does not beat . . . it is a lifeless knot of meat behind her breastbone. The seat of her soul is a dessicated, empty husk.

The horror of it shatters the dream like glass.

Lis woke without a gasp, without a sound, unless one’s hearing was sharp enough to detect the flutter of her eyelids snapping open. The shreds of the dream were already fading, leaving her with an uneasy sensation; one hand slipped across the covers to touch the slope of her breast, feel the hollowness beneath.

Her mind roamed out, touching the others in the house. Victor felt as stable as always, but something was disturbing his normally calm awareness; the same disquiet was present in Grant and Claude, while Alex -- even in the end stages of sleep -- was also tainted by it.

She rose from her lonely bed and went into the bathroom, the echoes of the marble walls adding to her somber mood. Touching the intercom, she paused a moment before speaking.

"Victor. Is everything ready?"

There was a rather long pause before his reply. "Yes, Lis. The casket was delivered about an hour ago, along with the chest of dry ice. Your plane’s had a security walkdown and maintenance, and is waiting on the airstrip. Flight plans have been filed here and in France. We need to talk, Lis. Something . . . weird happened while you were sleeping."

"So I gathered. Who is standing vigil?"

"Claude. He put together roast beef sandwiches for us before he went up to take his turn."

"Good. I will be down shortly."

Claude, sitting on the front pew in the chapel, hadn’t taken his eyes off Zoey’s body yet. Blinking was optional.

"I have seen the Romero ‘Living Dead’ trilogy one hundred and forty-eight times over the last eighteen months," he remarked to no one in particular. It had to be to no one, as only truly disturbed people talked to corpses. "However, I must admit -- to my shame -- that in the same time period, I have watched the ‘Evil Dead’ movies one hundred and fifty-four times, and ‘Lesbian Chainsaw Hookers From Beyond the Grave’ one hundred and sixty times." He coughed slightly. "It has good acting," he added defensively.

The centuries-old French chef had been making comments of this sort ever since he sat down. He felt it was important to let it be known, subtly of course, that he was an expert in dealing with zombies. After all, one does not watch truly classic zombie movies without picking up some tricks of the trade.

A shotgun blast to the head usually did the trick. Good power tools were also invaluable.

"There is a shed out back full of high-quality power tools, manufactured by such fine companies as Skilcraft, Black and Decker, and Stihl," he added. Just to make sure he was getting the point across, of course.

"Claude," said a very familiar voice from the door. "I have two questions. One: Why are you providing discourse on the contents of the toolshed? Two: Why is Zoey’s body dressed like that?"

The Gallic ghoul twitched slightly. "Good evening, Lis. Both questions can be answered, albeit in reverse order, if you talk to Victor."

There was a long pause. The gorgeous Toreador was acquainted with this sort of behavior from the slender Frenchman; getting him to talk about whatever was going on would be a task only marginally less difficult than, say, stealing fire from the gods.

"Very well," she said finally as she walked slowly up to the altar, looking down at the still face. Frowning, she gently brushed Zoey’s bangs with her fingertips, smoothing the red-dyed locks back neatly. Besides the clothing, the body looked oddly . . . disarrayed somehow. Different.

Was it possible that . . . ? Her fingers moved to the small wounds on his throat, lingering for a moment. No -- the bite wounds would have healed by now if he’d been somehow Embraced, either by Byron or any of the Sabbat pack. They would not have remained, even if Zoey had remained in shock and given the appearance of true death.

She bent and touched her lips to his in a feather-light kiss -- an odd role reversal, a princess seeking to wake a sleeping prince . . . though nothing happened, of course. His lips were as cold as hers, though with the pliable texture of clay. When she raised her head, a warm red droplet shimmered on his cheek where it had fallen from her lashes; with the pad of her thumb, she wiped away the scarlet tear, cleaning it from his grey-tinged skin.

Claude remained respectfully silent, his eyes averted, as she turned from the altar and went to the door.

"He was at the back gate?" Lis repeated in disbelief, staring at Victor over the rim of her teacup.

The sensible marshal nodded. "Fully dressed, and apparently standing up before we arrived. The cats had cornered him, as I said." He cleared his throat. "Could a Giovanni have used some form of Necromancy to animate the body?"

"I suppose it’s possible, but unlikely. The normal rites which are used to motivate the dead require close contact between the subject and the caster, as well as other preparations. It’s rather difficult to wave a hand and cause the dead to walk."

"Other than that particular excitement . . . as I said, the casket was delivered today, and the jet’s ready when you want it. When did you want to leave?"

She glanced at the grandfather clock that stood near the door of the study. "Three hours from now, at least. I need to contact the Primogen and inform them of the sudden demise of the Prince and the Archbishop, as well as get any updates and attend to any other matters which require my attention."

"Who . . . well, who do you think will be the next Prince?"

"Probably Marcheau. Marshall won’t take the throne directly, I’m guessing. Clan Tremere prefers to keep its people in positions where they can move behind the scenes instead of standing onstage where everyone can see them."

"Will you let that happen?"

She turned her eyes on Victor and considered him for a moment. Sometimes Lis forgot just how aware her oldest ghoul really was; he saw and heard a lot more than most people suspected, and understood more than most ever would. And he certainly knew that his mistress was, bar none, the most powerful Kindred in the city -- Autarkis or not.

"Yes," she said, finally. "For now, at least, the Tremere are more interested in keeping the city stable and well-ordered. If that changes, my opinions may also change." She reached for her phone. "Let the others know that they need to be packed and ready within three hours."

Autumn-red hair slid over the pillow as Alex restlessly turned. It had taken quite a bit of time before the bassist had dropped off into slumber again; with the excitement of chasing down his dead friend’s missing body and Victor’s disapproval of Alex’s inability to remain awake on watch, the Ravensblood member had lain in bed for a long time before exhaustion finally reclaimed him.

Though still caught in Morpheus’s embrace, part of him acknowledged the touch of the vampire’s mind. He caught a fleeting glimpse of the stunningly gorgeous woman in his dreams, a dark shadow that glided over night-enshrouded, golden sands.

Starlight glimmers down, the pillars of the temple making deep shadows across the night-time desert. Alex walks among the ruins, hearing his uncle’s voice: "Mummification took a total of seventy days. One day to prepare the body, one day to wrap it up, and the rest was needed to dry it out."

Alex looks to the side, his eye caught by movement. Lis stands there, staring back at him, lines of red streaming from her eyes over her far too pale flesh. Then she leaves, turning and walking away. The young musician wonders about the sight.

"She’s crying. She doesn’t know." The voice is a familiar one -- one the bassist thought stilled forever.

"Know what?" Alex asks as he glances at the source of the sound.

Zoey’s nearby, leaning against one of the pillars of the ancient Egyptian temple. Arms crossed over his chest, one foot resting in front of the other, the blonde -- his hair is its usual golden hue, Alex notes -- appears as alive as ever. Over Zoey’s shoulder, Alex can see another man there, one with the red-brown skin, black hair and noble features so like all those wall paintings from ancient Egypt Uncle Bill had shown him.

"Of course, in this case, seventy days is the final time limit before the spirit’s control over the body fails and the flesh becomes corrupt, unable to contain the magic of the Great Rite," continues the voice of Alex’s archaeologist uncle. "The rite as practiced by the ancient Egyptians was to preserve a dead body for a future resurrection. The Great Rite is something different."

"About Nebmaatre and me," Zoey replies, gesturing casually to the man standing behind him.

"What about you?" The bassist frowns. Something important’s being missed.

"We need to get home," the guitarist answers. "And soon, before everything’s lost."

In the background, Uncle Bill drones on. "The body in this case is guaranteed to live again, provided the Judges of the Underworld agree. So the dessication isn’t needed, nor is the evisceration. Both of those steps were to dry out the dead body. No, in this case, the seventy days is needed to ensure that the body returns to Egypt for the Great Rite. Osiris’ divine power can only work the magic there."

"Home?" The word confuses Alex. A deep sense of surreality sweeps over the redheaded musician as he watches Zoey.

The guitarist reaches into his own chest and pulls something out. The object pulses, crimson and vital, as the man identified as Nebmaatre steps forward. In one hand the Egyptian holds a set of golden scales while in the other is grasped a pure white ostrich feather.

"Lis doesn’t know that if I’m judged ‘True of Voice’, I’ll live again. She thinks I’m gone forever," Zoey responds. The blonde holds up the object in his hand.

Alex gasps as he realizes he’s staring at a living, still-beating heart.

The sound echoed in the bedroom as the Gaelic-blooded man awoke with a start. Sitting up, his breathing rapid and his heart pounding, Alex took a moment to reorient himself. The shreds of the vivid dream remained, clinging to his consciousness.

"Seventy days?" he murmured to no one in particular, the words echoing in his mind. He frowned; he needed to go take a look at Zoey again. For some reason he just had a feeling it was important to see his dead friend once more.

"Alex? Are you awake?" Victor’s voice crackled over the intercom.

The slim musician tossed aside the comfortable covers. He climbed out of the bed and strode over to where the panel was embedded in the wall. Punching the button with a thumb, Alex groused, "I am now,"

"Good. Rise and shine, kid," the oldest ghoul replied. "We’re out of here in three hours. Grab the suitcase you’ll find in the closet and pack up anything you need for a three-day trip."

"Trip? We’re going somewhere?"

"That’s usually what the word means, yes," Victor replied. "Come down here, grab a couple of sandwiches for dinner, and I’ll explain what’s going on."

"All right. I’ll be right down," Alex said. Stepping away from the intercom, the bassist couldn’t help but wonder if everything was always so fast-paced and confusing around here. Did Zoey find living here as a part of this make-shift family as frantic as Alex thought it was?

Of course, the moment his mind turned to thoughts of his dead friend, the Gaelic-blooded man got the sense of needing to see Zoey one more time. The echoes of the dream clung to him as he got dressed and made himself presentable. He knew the guitarist would be back in the chapel; he’d helped Victor lay the body out in the bier in front of the altar. Unless, of course, Zoey decided to get up and walk away again, Alex wryly thought. The bassist, however, figured that if that had been the case, the mansion would be in an uproar by now. It would be a safe bet that his friend was exactly where Victor and Alex had placed him.

The chapel was as impressive and hushed as before. The redheaded man felt some trepidation stepping into the sanctuary; there was a sense that he didn’t belong here though all were welcome in the Presence represented by the lighted candle near the altar. This was the vampire’s refuge, a place where perhaps she could recapture some otherwise lost shred of what she had once been. A quick glance showed Alex that the cook and his friend’s body were still present. "Hi, Claude," he greeted, his voice a hushed whisper.

"Feeling better, I hope?" the slender Frenchman queried. Claude shifted and gave the youngest ghoul a long look. The rest had certainly done the man some good; Alex seemed quite alert, his bright blue eyes clear and vibrant. Gone were the faint circles under his eyes that had remained from the slight abuse he’d suffered at the hands of the Serpent of the Light.

"Yeah, quite a bit. The best I can under the circumstances," the bassist replied while he made his way toward the bier.

"Glad to hear it," Claude responded.

Alex merely nodded. His gaze remained on his dead friend’s face as a chill ran down his spine.

The clouded eyes were open.

I could have sworn I saw Victor close them again . . . "Hey, Claude . . . ?"

The tone of the youngster’s voice immediately caught the cook’s entire attention. The slender ghoul sat up, instantly on full alert. "What is it, Alex?"

Before the bassist could reply, the body’s lips moved. The voice was raspy from disuse, the vocal cords reluctantly vibrating though they were as dead as the rest of the flesh. The words uttered were unfamiliar, sounds that made no sense at all to the thoroughly frightened musician.

"Oh shit!" Alex stumbled backwards. Abruptly ungraceful, the young man ended up falling on his rear onto the chapel’s floor. He felt hands on his shoulders; apparently Claude had dashed to his side as the bassist hit the ground.

The words came again from the dead lips. A jumble of odd sound, Alex blinked as some of the syllables sparked some notion of familiarity after all. He’d heard something like this before, a long, long time ago. But it certainly wasn’t either English or Spanish.

The isfret-minion would be returning soon. Nebmaatre knew that this revelation wouldn’t go uninvestigated, not if he understood the tie the servants had to the ghul. With Zoisite’s continuing struggle to come out of his psychic shock, the dual soul had undergone further unification. The ancient scribe had discovered more about the modern world and the motivations behind his modern half’s emotions. The vampire had, in the time Zoisite had known her, treated the man he had been with respect and something that could only be called love. She also had a large amount of what modern peoples used to barter with; the impression Nebmaatre had was that this "money" would make any journey far easier and faster than without it. And safer for the khat in his care.

Still, the ghul could be unpredictable. Though Zoisite was convinced that she would not harm them, Nebmaatre remained wary. Once the isfret-minion realized that they were an agent of Maat, an eternal individual dedicated to destroying her kind, she could turn on them and try to stop the process while they were so vulnerable. But the modern man’s trust in the vampire was as genuine as his love; the ancient Egyptian couldn’t deny the strength of either emotion -- nor could he deny how well Zoisite and himself merged. If that part of them that had more experience with her could believe she would bear them no ill will, then Nebmaatre was somewhat obligated to trust his other half.

If Zoisite was right, the trip to the Two Lands would be swifter and smoother than the ka could have imagined.

Alex was sitting on the floor, staring at the bier, his mouth working a little but no sound coming out. Claude stood over him, likewise staring, but Claude was French and the French were well-known for emotional demonstration.

The body spoke again in those raspy, unknown words. Alex sat there doing goldfish impressions, but Claude screamed like a little girl before running to the marble font near the wall, grabbing the silver aspergillum, and running back to fling holy water over the offended-looking talking corpse while shrieking, "The power of Christ compels thee! The power of Christ compels thee!"

This just can’t be happening. That was the one thing Alex could clearly think, though the nagging sensation wouldn’t leave him that he’d heard words like those before. The inflection was different, the nuances more alive somehow -- though dead lips spoke them. Bright azure eyes stared in horrified disbelief as the cook carried out his impromptu exorcism; the entire scene was surreal.

Lis was up and out of the study before Victor’s mouthful of Earl Grey had finished spraying across the desk. Both of them had sharp ears and had easily heard Claude’s initial scream -- the slender Frenchman had amazing lung power -- but Lis’s mental connection to her ghouls had confirmed that Claude truly felt he and Alex were in deep trouble.

The chapel door burst open, the wind of the Kindred elder's entry rolling through the room. She easily grabbed Alex with one arm, caught Claude with the other, and deposited both of them behind her; Victor was just coming through the door, a shotgun held at port arms, as the other ghouls hit the ground where the Toreador placed them.

Wind as warm as the desert heralded the sudden sense of isfret that filled the chapel. For good or ill, the ghul would know of his existence. Nebmaatre steeled himself for the confrontation, though the struggling spirit of Zoisite continued to assure him that this vampire was something different. "Zoisite deeply trusts you. I hope you won’t betray that trust," the ancient scribe said as the dark-haired woman leaned over the precious khat.

The Toreador stood over the body on the bier, staring down into the death-clouded eyes. The dead lips moved yet again, the rusty voice -- Zoey’s voice, but seeming so alien without its normal musical quality -- speaking again in those strange words.

Lis narrowed her eyes and replied, haltingly, in a language that seemed similar to the one that the body was speaking. Her Egyptian was of the modern sort; she could only understand perhaps one word in every five that the dead man said -- barely enough to recognize the language itself.

"You speak the words strangely," Nebmaatre commented, recognizing what the ghul said as the later forms of what had once been the language of the gods themselves.

A chill of wariness passed through her. What if the Serpents had done something to him? Placed some malevolent spirit within Zoey’s body, one that had only awakened when life had fled his mortal shell?

"What is your name?" she repeated in that foreign tongue. "Your name!"

Tell her, Zoisite insisted. Explain to her what’s happening. I know she’ll give us assistance.

I still have reservations. She may try to stop you when she learns what you will become . . . The Egyptian spirit turned its attention outward, back to the vampire glaring down at him. "I am Nebmaatre, once a royal scribe in the Great House," he responded in reply to the ghul. "Zoisite believes in you and your ability to assist, so I am going against my natural inclination to just slip away unseen and am allowing you to be aware of my existence." The voice emerging from the dead larynx held a faint tone of wariness, distrust. As a ka, protection of the body was more important than the protection of oneself. Ravealing himself to the vampire went against those protective instincts, though his other half was certain such a revelation would only further that protection.

Lis narrowed her eyes slightly, gazing down at the oddly animated body. "You mention Zoisite’s name. The rest of your words are strange to me, but I believe I grasp your meaning. Zoisite thinks I will help you? Zoisite is dead -- how can you speak so confidently of his thoughts? This body you speak from is his empty shell, scribe. How have you come to dwell within it?"

In the shelter of the Kindred’s shadow -- though Alex thought it odd to equate "vampire" with "safety" -- the graceful bassist picked up on a set of syllables from the body’s eerily familiar words. "The dream!" he said in wonder, a lightheaded sense of unreality washing over him. "That was the name of the Egyptian in my dream."

Seventy days to get home . . . The thought struck him again, almost a compulsion. Was there more to those odd images than some mere fanciful flight of Alex’s somnolent mind?

The redheaded bassist’s words caught her attention. "A dream, Alex? You recognize the name of this spirit?"

The musician kept his crystalline azure gaze focused on the form lying on the bier, his mind finally making a few connections when he realized that Lis was right. The body had spoken Zoisite’s name, though the pronunciation and cadence of the moniker had rendered the familiar syllables into something strange.

Within the fleshy shell, the ka fell silent, waiting to see what now was to develop. His every instinct screamed at him to go dormant, beyond the isfret-minion’s mental touch. But equally loud was Zoisite’s own determination to explain to the ghul exactly what was going on.

"Right before I awoke," Alex haltingly said, mind focusing on what the eerily animated body had said. He continued on to give Lis a sketchy description of the images of his dream; even now, the details were slipping away. "Zoey called the man standing behind him ‘Nebmaatre’," he finished. "Said something about being judged ‘True of Voice’, he’d live again . . ."

Prompted by the modern part of himself and given an insight to a way to bridge the communication gap, Nebmaatre gave in to the compulsion thrust upon him by Zoisite. Haltingly speaking in words brought to the Black Land by a diminutive general with a complex for ruling the known world -- the tongue he recognized as having been spoken by the ghul’s servants -- the ancient scribe said, "The Weighing of the Heart. Maat will decide life and death . . ."

Lis blinked at the words, delivered in badly accented but still recognizable French. She gazed down at the pale body for a long moment, mulling over the peculiar revelations.

When the pieces fell into place, one could almost hear an audible snap. Lis started, an involuntary oath escaping her lips as she stared wide-eyed at Zoey’s reanimated corpse. The vulgarity was followed by more acceptable if less comprehensible words. "Raborn! But the Spell of Life is said to have lost its potency somehow . . ."

Victor, at least, seemed to understand something of what she was saying. "The most recent letter you received from that Caius Aurelius person, Lis?"

"Yes . . . one of the Cabiri, far older than I. He spoke of strange disturbances, odd rumors . . ."

"What does this mean?" Claude asked, attempting to regain his dignity. He hid the aspergillum behind his back.

"It’s hard to say what all of it means, Claude, but what is important is that we do as Zo -- as Nebmaatre asks. We take him to Egypt, not France. Victor?"

The eldest ghoul nodded. "I’ll change the flight plans accordingly, and contact the hotel in Cairo."

Lis looked again at the body. "We go to Cairo," she said in the Egyptian tongue, speaking carefully and hoping he could understand the modern words a bit better than the rough French he’d used. "I will give you what help you need, if you will explain more."

Alex glanced from person to person, that strange sense of foreboding clinging to him. Whatever the hell was going on, it seemed as if at least Lis and Victor had some idea; Claude seemed as clueless as the Ravensblood member felt -- and looked even more ridiculous trying to be nonchalant while hiding the evidence of his emotional outburst. Where the hell’s Grant? I’d think with all the commotion, he’d be crammed in here too. And just what has hold of Zoey’s body?

Cairo . . . ? The name confused Nebmaatre for a moment, though he knew from his modern partner the word was associated with an important city in Tawy -- the land the Arabic conquerors called "Al Khem". Then it clicked; it was the settlement of the desert warriors, now the center of Egyptian politics, having displaced the true capital Men-Nefer.

Memphis, Zoey whispered.

The scholars from across the Great Green, who came with the foreign son of Amon-Ra, always did mangle our tongue, the scribe complained. A sense of disquiet swept over the ancient spirit; he turned his focus to the semi-conscious musician. The ghul wishes some explanation, but speaking so understanding takes place is difficult. You fight to remain conscious and explain, therefore I will give you that chance. Ralax and open yourself to me. I shall give you enough energy and focus to make yourself heard, and I shall give you an explanation to pass along to those surrounding us. But you must promise to rest afterwards. You are still in spiritual shock from what has befallen you, and you must recover your strength.

I promise, the dead musician responded. Zoey could sense that something lay ahead of them both, a something that would take their combined energy and skills to challenge. He forced himself into calmness, performing the psychic equivalent of closing his eyes and taking a few slow, deep breaths. As he did so, an enervating sensation filled him, accompanied by a jumble of images.

Alex turned his gaze from the chapel’s door back to the form lying in state under the glory of the stained glass window. To his utter surprise, something shifted, a something subtle yet somehow obvious. His best friend was still dead -- yet now there was a sense that he was also still there.

Zoey’s voice spoke again, still holding that odd timbre from dead flesh making the sound that broke the uneasy, astonished stillness of the medieval chapel. The words now were in English, with hints of the guitarist’s melodic cadence. "The Serpent of Chaos wished to make the end of the millennium the Final Sunset. Great upheavals took place, all to shatter Ra’s solar barque once and for all along the Night-Time Nile. Not even the Dark Kingdom of Sand was safe . . .

"The Ghost Storm swept through Duat. It continues to rage on even now. Enough faith gathered together to keep the Final Sunset from happening, and the Ghost Storm awoke Osiris from His contemplation of Maat.

"The Storm destroyed Amentet, tore apart the souls there. Only the strongest pieces withstood the winds, and even they were in danger. Many were completely swept away. The survivors gathered around Osiris, but even His presence was not enough. The light of Osiris faded as the Storm battered Him and the shelter He gave. Osiris left, but when He did, the Storm calmed enough around the ruins of Amentet to allow what remained of the souls there to be led by Anubis to the Fields of Aru. In the presence of Maat Herself and the forty-two Judges of the Dead, the soul fragments found some peace.

"But they were fading. They could not continue on as mere shards of what they had been. Osiris reached out from His existence in the Web of Faith and gave a command: Seek out flawed mortals, newly dead, and offer to join them in a new life, a second chance . . ."

Lis gazed down at the body, her expression almost masklike, save for a slight widening of her eyes as she recognized the voice. It took an effort of will to stand where she was, listening to the words, rather than reacting to Zoey’s presence. When the quiet voice faded, she nodded slightly. "I believe I understand. A Maelstrom struck the Shadowlands and caused great disruptions . . . and now the ancient spirits that were housed within the Necropoli of Egypt need to find a way to survive, so they are binding themselves to mortals who are compatible in some way with the spirit who seeks them out." She did not turn around, simply raised her voice a tiny fraction. "Grant, put that down."

The former coachman, who’d reached the doorway in total silence, obeyed his mistress’ command; the heavy combat shotgun clanked dully as he leaned it against the back wall of the chapel.

Lis gently touched the hand that rested upon her fallen lover’s middle. "So, one of those wandering souls has found Zoey . . . and must go to Egypt to complete the rites which will bind old spirit and new together and reanimate the mortal clay. One more question, then . . . if the Weighing of the Heart goes well and the judgment is favorably made . . . who will be dominant? Will a stranger live in this perfect flesh, or will Zoisite de la Vega’s awareness be restored?"

The body’s other hand moved, slowly rising. Though the movement was hesitant, seemingly done with difficulty, there remained a sense of natural grace. The Toreador responded at last to her lost love’s presence; her long mane of luxurious, chocolate-brown hair slid forward, veiling them, as she bent down to kiss the palm of that hand. Were she still a living creature, she would have been holding her breath, heart pounding in anxiety, as she awaited the answer.

Dead fingertips brushed lightly against an equally dead cheek as the guitarist forced his body to touch Lis one more time. "I . . . Zoey . . . will live again . . . Nebmaatre only a part of me . . . A second chance for me to do more with my life." The hand lowered itself back down to rest against the musician’s abdomen as the voice faded. "Must rest . . . for the journey ahead . . . Nebmaatre’ll guide . . . Tu quiero, mi angel de la noche. Adios . . ." The final words were a whisper only Blood-sharpened senses could hear: I love you, my angel of the night. Good-bye . . .

Never once did the Toreador’s mask-like expression slip as she straightened up and Zoey’s presence faded entirely. She stared down at the body with her ghouls watching her while the ancient spirit fused to her lover’s soul took over control once more. The stillness of the medieval chapel was disturbed only by the words that issued from the dead mouth.

"Has Zoisite answered all, or do you have more questions?"

"I am . . . satisfied with the answers I have received. Come . . . we will make ready for the journey."

Fifth Song Second Stanza Story Index