Nikki/Marco belongs to Tanja. The World of Darkness setting and mythology belong to White Wolf Game Studio, and I'm only borrowing it and mean no harm. The story's all mine!
© inge 1999
Author's Notes:
This is my second Nikos Story. The first, which takes place before this one, can be found here. There is no need to read them in order, unless you are not familiar with the World of Darkness: in that case, you might want to read the first story, because it has a cheat sheet which explains a little about the setting.
Many thanks to Aidan Bowes who proof-read this story. All remaining mistakes are mine.
Feedback makes me happy, constructive criticism helps me to become better!

Burning Bright

The girl looked barely eighteen although her driver's license proclaimed her to be twenty-two. Rosy-cheeked, despite a certain paleness to her skin, acquired by shunning the sun. Her short, spiky hair was a dark copper red, the witches' color, her eyes a blazing green. She shone with youth, health and beauty, although judging by her ragged black leather-and-lace outfit, her stark make-up and her numerous piercings she would most likely have resented those attributes.

"Can it be done?" she asked impatiently. A little insecure.

I looked at the designs she had laid out, sheets of paper spread on my table. They were the work of an artist, a visionary. Wild and powerful, disturbing and beautiful in a twisted way I would not have expected a young mortal to understand. "Did you design those yourself?"

"Yes," she lied.

"I can do it," I said.

"How much?"

"How much are you willing to pay?"

She thought for a while, then named a sum quite a bit less than my usual fee. Quite a bit more than she seemed able to afford.

I briefly considered haggling but decided it was not worth the bother. Who would I try to cheat? I wanted to do those designs on her.

"Done," I said. "Come back...," I pretended to use my calendar, "...Monday evening. Although you might want to reconsider. This will hurt like hell."

"That doesn't matter," she said and left.

I wondered why she had lied.

In this time and city I am commonly known as Marco Gracia, a tattoo artist. I am also known as mostly harmless. Two of these three bits of common knowledge are false, but it is in my best interest not to correct them.

None but those who have made it their business to know these things know that I am not human, and that suits me well. Because humans, with their unlimited capacity for passion fascinate and entice me, and were they to see behind my mask, I would know only their fear and their pain, which, like their blood, is filling food, but unsatisfactory in the long run.

But deception, like skin, has many layers. Those in the know might tell you -- were they to spill their secrets to the likes of you -- that I am a Vampire, a younger member of Clan Brujah, known for passion and rudeness. Again, wrong on two counts, and that suits me well, too.

The weekend passed rather uneventfully except for another young girl, this one plump and starry-eyed and speaking with a midwestern accent, who wanted a baby-blue dragon tattooed on a part of her body where, judging by the way she carried herself, no-one was likely to ever see it. And while it was none of my business whether that girl would get laid I will not tattoo a baby-blue poppy-eyed dragon on anyone's butt. Sometimes I think I should change the name of my shop -- dragons have gotten a little too popular in recent years and people get the wrong ideas. On the other hand, the name is tradition, and in my age you are entitled to a certain traditionalistic vein.

I closed my shop after that and went to look over the designs with the intent to think about how to fit them to the body that was to carry them. Instead I found myself meditating on the strange geometry of the patterns. I had the unnerving feeling that I was missing something that should have been obvious. I consulted my books and thought about booting up the computer to do some internet research, but I needed a lead first -- this kind of research takes ages when you have only a hunch to go by. And while I might have ages, the birds were already starting to sing and sunrise was not far when I finally closed my books. If there was something about the designs I would find out soon enough, I guessed. That day I dreamed of bizarre, winding labyrinths crawling with creatures that misled the eyes, and I awoke on Monday evening bleary-eyed and with a weird feeling in my gut.

I prepared my shop, kicked out a bunch of frat boys who felt very daring and rebellious and made stupid jokes, and shared some gossip with one of my regulars, Joe Owl, who wanted a look at my new designs. Joe fancies himself kind of a shaman and briefly I wondered what he would say to the designs the girl had given me. But they were not mine to share. At 9 PM I wondered whether she had lost her nerve and would not show up at all, but only a few minutes later the chimes on the door rang softly.

The girl looked as if she had been through hell and back. She smelled of fear-sweat, blood and smoke from things the hippies never dreamt of.

"Are you OK?" I asked.

She nodded. "Can we start?"

"No need to hurry," I said. "The designs -- it will take weeks. Months maybe. And most of the time you will feel rotten. So sit down, have a coke." She took the offered can and slumped into a chair. I assessed her physical condition. A little high on adrenaline, but not intoxicated. And the blood I smelled on her was not hers. Tougher than she seemed, but there were scars that did not show on her skin, memories of pain that refused to fade with time. The fear was all hers.

"Are you afraid?" I asked.

"No," she said.

I am not Kate. I do not feed stray dogs and I do not take in urchins. While she sipped her coke, I explained the process to her. Contrary to what I had expected, it seemed to calm her down. I rarely have that effect on people.

Finally we were ready to begin. I sorted my tools, and while she undressed I watched her. I do that. Bodies fascinate me. Living flesh that changes without a will behind it -- it is hard to imagine, once you start thinking about it, but still you see it every day. Some of my clan become obsessed with it, trying to find out how it works in blood-flecked laboratories, sinking into madness under the guise of science. Not my style. I do not dissect the incomprehensible, I rather enjoy it. But putting my mark onto it, changing it to my will, I enjoy a lot. Getting paid for it is an unexpected bonus in a time when people want to remake themselves, re-invent themselves, reject what blind coincidence has given them. I respect the rebellion inherent in that.

She was too thin, bones protruding from her hips, her belly sunken, you could count her ribs. I do not care for the current anorexic ideas of beauty. They are fine for men, but women were meant to have curves. Although I try to keep my aesthetics up to fashion, some things, like anorexia and karaoke, I just do not get.

She laid down on her stomach and I started cleaning her pale skin and then drawing the patterns on her back. She did not talk. Most of my clients do. They talk about baseball or music or about parties that are considered cool because they need to show off or to hide their embarrassment or because they need something to take their minds off the pain. I like silence better. When I started to use the needle to outline the designs she relaxed into the pain as if it were expected and welcome.

I worked half the night with two breaks where she drank more coke and I busied myself with some task or the other. At 3 am I was finished with the outlines on her back. I put a bandage on it and gave her the usual talk about being careful with it.

"When are we going to continue?" she asked.

"Three days," I said and then, as she obviously wanted to argue: "Two -- if you tell me why you want it done so fast."

"To get it over with," she said.

And that was the truth.

Her back was nearly healed when she returned on Wednesday. Mundane concerns had delayed my research on the patterns, the Prince had found some new troubles with Clan Brujah to fuss over and the locals had scheduled a rant to do some verbal Ventrue-bashing. A noisy bunch of anarchs dominated the scene, raving passionately about things they were utterly clueless about and mentioning in passing a few intriguing facts I filed away for later use.

She looked a lot more together on that day than she had been on Monday and we talked for a while about some designs in my shop that she liked -- mostly tribal and the spooky stuff, no roses and baby dragons and heavy metal kitsch for this one -- and about her piercings. One of those she had gotten at a party with nothing but ice and vodka to help.

"Why did you?" I asked.

"To prove I can," she said.

I worked on her legs and buttocks and she got silent and distant again to the humming of the needle.

She was limping slightly on her way out.

"Friday?" I asked.

She shook her head. "Not Friday."

"Saturday then? At eleven?" That would give me some time to see to my normal clientele.

"Eleven it is," she said.

It was a mild weekend, the Autumn air was silky and the people felt it. You could still smell the sun of the day on the night people who haunted the Castro, daring and far less desperate than they are in winter. I did some hunting on Friday, stealing anonymous blood that would not be missed in the heat of a dance floor. Later that night, Elektra came by. Elektra is a large-boned woman who got kicked out of Art School for 'indecency'. She works freelance, sometimes for me. You did not believe I come up with all those ideas on my own, did you?

She showed me some pictures of 'people passing by', as she called it. She has a strange eye for people, her sketches looked like something from an allegorical painting. "I'm thinking about a cycle on the seven deadly sins," she said. "Look at this guy," She pointed to a sketch, "Doesn't he just look like Stinginess?"

"It is Avarice," I said.

A good-natured dispute ensued while we looked through the pages, until one caught my eye. It showed a skinny girl with lost eyes, wearing jeans and a fishnet tanktop. Her upper body was covered in tattoos I knew only too well -- I had been thinking about them for the past week. And I knew the girl, too, but when she came to me her eyes were not that lost.

"Where did you see her?" I asked.

She looked at the picture and shrugged. "No idea. Somewhere in the SoMa District, I believe. And those tattoos -- she did not have them. I only thought she should."

"What do the patterns mean?" I asked.

"I've got no idea," she said. "You are the one obsessed with symbols. You tell me."

But I could not.

I took of her blood after that and paid her with pleasure. She knows of my 'blood fetish', though not of my nature, and in her world I am only slightly kinky.

Saturday the whole world seemed to have conspired to make my business prosper. I might have to refresh the protective spells on the house. They make me harder to find, with the side effect of keeping Marco in virtuous poverty and sparing me the kind of clientele whose heart is not in it. I closed at half past ten and cleaned the shop, waiting for the girl.

She arrived at the stroke of the bell, holding onto the door handle as if she did not dare to let go. Her face was even paler than usual and her cheeks flushed, her skin clammy with sweat and she was trembling.

"You're running a fever," I said. "Go home."

"It's nothing," she answered.

"I won't have you fainting on me," I said. "It's bad PR."

"It's nothing," she repeated and then, "It will pass."

Faulty logic here, but I did not point it out. Instead I looked her over, half expecting to find an infection, but the lines had set very well, the bruises only a pale yellow. "You see," she said, "I heal fast."

Normally, I would still have sent her home. Marco takes care of his customers. But the intensity of the girl fascinated me, her utter lack of concern for her own well-being made us accomplices in pain. Some people deserve to be driven to extremes.

I started filling out the outlines on her back. The swirls and whorls of the pattern were mesmerizing even to me and I hardly noticed the passing time, enthralled by color and form, by the smell of blood and sweat and by the labored sound of her breathing as she worked herself through the patterns of pain I was painting on her.

The first birds were singing when I finished. She was out cold. I closed the shutters tightly against the upcoming sun, got an orange juice from the fridge and waited for her to wake up. I did not have to wait long.

"Sorry," she said. "Didn't intend to do that."

"Could have fooled me." I handed her the juice. "Drink this."

Obediently she did.

"On Monday," I said, "you come in so I can check on you. Only check. Nothing more. Understood?"

She nodded. "Monday. Check. OK."

"Shall I call you a cab?"

She hesitated for a moment. Then: "Yes. Please."

A phone call and a few minutes later the cab honked in front of my door. She went and let in a gust of clean, blue morning air. There would be rain soon.

The answering machine was blinking angrily at me when I came to my library. Someone had called my 'home number'. I hate telephones -- they enable other people's voices to invade your personal space without permission, yet you cannot do without them if you do not wish to appear like a relic. I went through quite a lot of these machines. Wondering whether one of my contacts had news for me or if the kumpaņia was up to mischief again I hit the 'play' button.

A male voice I did not recognize said: "Mr. Garcia, you are currently working on a project which is diametrically opposed to the well-being of this town and a large portion of its inhabitants, yourself included. We assume that you are guided by sufficient wisdom or enlightened self-interest to refrain from completing this project."

I stared at the machine disbelievingly, then I started laughing out loud. What kind of idiot sent that kind of message to a Brujah? They may as well have sent an engraved invitation to continue! In fact, an engraved invitation might have a better chance of stopping me! I stopped laughing. So, what was the intention of that call? I pushed a few buttons on the telephone and looked at the number of the caller. Not one I knew. I hit the 'Call Back' button. If it had been a Vampire, he would likely be asleep by now. After two rings I got an answering machine. Same voice that called me. It did not give a name, only the number and the request to leave a message. I said, "You relics are so predictable. If you want something from me, show your face. Besides, didn't your mother tell you that it's impolite not to leave your name?"

I went to sleep then. The embrace of the earth was cool and friendly, but my dreams were not.

The unknown caller did not waste time. On Sunday evening, barely an hour after sunset, the bells on my door chimed and Eddie Reynolds entered, dressed impeccably in a gray suit and a tie, which was about as inconspicuous in this neighborhood as a chicken among rooks. I was working on a customer, some pretty standard true love token and made the guy wait. Eddie fancies himself an up-and-coming power in the city, when in fact he is nothing but the Prince's mouth piece and errand boy.

"I have to talk to you at once," he said.

"Go on," I said.

"In private."

"Then you'll have to wait. Some of us have work to do."

"I said 'at once'!"

"Oh, fuck you!" Tzimisce arrogance makes great Brujah attitude.

"Do not make me make you," he said.

"Have you practiced that sentence?" I turned and looked him straight in the eye. "Come on," I said softly. The humming needle drowned out my words for the mortal. "Make me. Use your magic powers on me and blow the masquerade to hell, why don't you?"

I turned away before his tiny brain could come up with an answer. The Ventrue are so enamored with their powers of mind control, you would expect them to start crying if they cannot use them. This guy started pacing as if trying to make me lose my cool. Well, better men have tried and failed.

I finished my work in due time and saw the customer off with more of a fuss than usual. "You have to apologize my cousin," I said before he went. "He's a pain, but my family expects me to keep him out of trouble."

Eddie was virtually steaming when I finally hung the 'closed' sign into my door and sat down to face him, feet on the table. "So," I said, "what does his royal highness want from me?"

I wondered if he would frenzy in my office and in what state I would return him to his master if he did so. A parcel might be nice. I tried to remember what they had used in Chicago in the good old days of rum-running. But Eddie kept his temper with a visible effort and said in his most haughty tones: "As I tried to make clear to you on the phone earlier, your current project poses a severe danger to the security of this domain. We expect you to stop your work on the project immediately."

I could have pretended to have no idea what he was talking about and watched him squirm. But now I felt my temper rise that this whelp of a would-be blueblood tried to order me around.

"Go to hell," I said. "The girl's mine and the work's mine, whatever trip she's on doesn't involve our kind, so don't give me any shit unless you're ready to back it up, nancy boy. "

His grip on my desk was sure to leave dents in the surface. "So much passion for your work? You would have made a fine Toreador," he said maliciously.

"Ah, fuck you," I replied. "If Toreador are the only ones entitled to professional pride then it's little wonder that you Ventrue are such a bunch of sorry losers."

I stood up. "Now get out of my office. And if anything happens to that girl I'll trust you to know who was responsible and tell me before I do too much damage to your herd of pretty-boys or your fancy car."

He stalked off with the indignant air of a wet cat. In the door he turned and said: "You have been warned. We will hold you solely responsible for the consequences of your actions."

"Yeah, have fun while you're at it."

"Asshole," he muttered on his way out.

"Love you, too."

I should have tried to get information out of him. But the only way I would have liked to interrogate this prick was with a red-hot knife, and while temporarily amusing it would have brought down the Prince's ire on me. Not worth it. Besides, I had his phone number.

The girl returned on Monday. She was not feverish anymore and seemed more clean and composed even than my average customer. No smell of blood on her, no fear either, just rain and cigarette smoke. Whatever she was on, she had obviously taken a weekend off it. Her back was still tender, nothing that was not to be expected. There was no reason not to continue.

"Wednesday?" she asked.

I nodded. "By the way," I said, "I just got a strange phone call. Do you know of anybody who'd bother to ask me to stop working on you?"

I had attuned my senses on her, and saw the image flashing through her mind, that of a young man with startling blue eyes and a ready smile, dressed in black. Dark blood was ripping through the picture, the color of betrayal. And a name, 'Jareth'.

She shrugged. "I have no idea. You're not stopping, are you?"

"Like hell. Can't let you run around all sketchy."

Her smile was tight, but spoke of relief nonetheless. "See you, then."

After she had gone, I drew a picture of Jareth. It was not very accurate -- memories seldom are -- but it was a beginning. Then I booted the computer and worked some more on it, until it looked like a copy of a photograph. After that, I donned Brian's face and set of to the Vampire club. Melmoth greeted Brian cordially -- he would have been a gracious host to a Sabbat pack as long as they behaved -- and he was far above giving some poor little harebrained Caitiff hell for the sin of existing.

Brian is my only persona who is filthy rich and utterly without sense. He keeps a high-rise condo, mostly to impress girls he is trying to seduce. He is attractive and good in bed, but he talks endlessly about snowboarding and hip hop music, so most girls, after having had the pleasure once, avoid him like the plague afterwards. It is a perfect arrangement for all involved. And as far as other Kindred are concerned, killing him is not worth the bother.

Besides being rich, Brian is rather good in ferreting out information. A lot of people do not even bother lowering their voices when he walks by, and those who do -- well, it is still me behind that face.

Some Ventrue were sitting in the lounge, brandishing their cell phones and bragging about their financial success, while in another niche two Toreador pretended to be in love. Some days I look at the whole undead bunch and wish they had enough good sense to stay dead instead of depressing the hell out of me. Candice was sitting in a corner, intently studying some trade paperback on witchcraft. I flaunted towards her. "Hi babe! How's it going?"

She gave me 'the look', meaning, 'a lot better if you would just bugger of'. No such luck, babe. I sat down next to her. "Learned any new spells lately?" I asked. "Some fireballs perhaps?"

She gave an exasperated sigh and put her book away. She thinks that Brian is a complete jerk (she is right) but she just cannot bear to see someone so utterly clueless without at least trying to help. Will be the final death of her one day. "What do you want, Brian?"

"Oh, babe, you're too clever for me," I flashed her a grin Brian thought charming and she rolled her eyes. "You see, there's this cute redhead and she re-ally digs me, but her ex is one me-an piece of work, some kind of cultist, you know, and he's, like, sending her stuff like, a dead cat and stuff, I mean, ain't that gross? So I thought, babe, you know all those creepy guys, don't you, being Tremere and all, do you know anything about this one?" I showed her the picture of Jareth.

She could not hide her surprise. "Yeah, I know this guy -- but he isn't sending your girlfriend dead cats, that's for sure."

"Hey, how can you know? If she ditched him, he might just..."

"I know it because he's dead, OK? And he stayed dead."

"Oh, man. Maybe it's another guy?"

She looked at the picture again. "Yeah... might be. What did your girlfriend say her ex's name was?"

"Jason Something," I said. "Can't remember. What's your guy's name?"

"He's not 'my guy'," she said sharply, "Just another rotting corpse. Name was Jareth of the Black Oaks."

"What kind of name is that? He's another one of you D&D freaks, isn't he?"

"He was a lunatic. I believe his real name was Patterson or Peckinson or something like that."

"That is an uncool name," I said as if offering my condolences. "Besides, have I told you of this weird guy I met..."

While Candice atoned for whatever sins she had committed lately by listening to Brian's inane babble, being too polite to tell him to go and watch the sunrise, I carefully edited her memory so that she remembered Brian nattering about weird cultists that his latest flame had told him about, and that she had finally given him the advice to stay away from these guys. So she had done her good deed for the night, Brian swaggered away in the comfortable belief that he was irresistible, and I had a name at last.

I nearly ran into Eddie when I left. He brushed me aside and joined his Ventrue colleagues. I melted into a corner to eavesdrop. True to form Eddie was flexing his muscles, dropping hints about a certain Brujah who was going to be in deep shit for disobeying the Prince's orders. The others seemed duly impressed. I was not. The Brujah were already on the war path, and Thomas knew better than to bear down on some harmless Brujah individualist and risking a repetition of the LA riots -- not the Rodney King ones.

I made it down to the Black Hole where a mediocre punk band played and some Brujah who were my best buddies when I was Marco foul-mouthed me for being Caitiff. I amused myself with coming up with new and inventive ways of killing that rabble, but my heart was not in it.

Outside it was still raining. It was long past midnight -- two hours till sunrise. I decided to take a walk to get the stale air and the pettiness of the Vampire Club out of my system. What a sorry species we are, Kate had once said in a bout of fury over a useless war between two elders that dragged down a family she had cared about. But still, I had said, eternal life is worth it.

I reached the esplanade just below Cliff House when the first light of morning filtered through the clouds and watched the world turning from black to the color of dove's feathers to pearl in the rain. Somewhere far in the West the sky was clear, there was a shining line of silver on the horizon where the sun reflected off the water and set the clouds alight. I stood and watched. Only as the clouds parted and the first rays of the sun burnt my skin I sank into the cool embrace of the wet sand, to sleep to the sound of the waves.

Of course I felt rotten the next day, but it seemed fair, paying for excess with a hangover. The rain had stopped and the night felt like satin. At home I changed back into my normal self and went out to hunt. I roamed through the clubs, flirted with a tourist, took his blood in an alley and let him walk away. Actually I wanted something spicier, but no one volunteered to be killed in a particular amusing way, so I went home to do some research.

Contrary to popular believe there is a lot of information not on the Internet, and the death of Jareth of the Black Oaks seemed to be one of those. I played a little with the name but did not come up with any useful references. Briefly I thought about getting Francesca to do the research, but that woman, while discreet, was curious and I was not willing to give secrets away without compensation. Besides there was no feeling of urgency to the whole affair. So I set it aside, although I knew from experience that if I felt urgency, it would most likely be too late to do anything about it.

On Wednesday she did not come. I was of half a mind to give Eddie hell, but I was unsure of my motives. Did I want to flay his skin from his bones because he had touched one of mine or did I care about the girl? I did not need some Ventrue telling me that I fell for a mortal -- Marco would never live that down, and for me it would have been an unforgivable offense against the way things were meant to be. To get my mind off it I started to work through some Chinese text on sorcery I had acquired a couple of decades ago, and finally I got so caught up in the intricate correspondences of spirits and material world that the bell from my shop, when it chimed around four in the morning, took minutes to register in my brain.

It was the girl and she looked like something the cat dragged in. Her eyes were swollen and it looked as if she had cried.

"Did I wake you?" she asked.

"I was reading," I said, switching back to English with an effort. "You are late."

She threw herself on a chair. "Dead right. Do you have coffee?"

"Instant only," I said.

"As long as it's hot and caffeine-laden I don't give a damn."

I boiled some water and spooned the instant coffee in. Nasty brew. Even the smell is disgusting, I do not dare to imagine what it tastes like. She clung to the chipped mug like a drunk to a lamppost.

"What happened?" I asked.

"Met some trouble on the way." She did not elaborate.

"Want to talk about it?" If there was trouble near my domain, I needed to know. Besides, I would have enjoyed an excuse to torment Eddie.

She shook her head. "Personal."

"Jareth?" I ventured.

The name did not alarm her as mention of the dead usually does. "Nah. Haven't seen him in... do you know him?"

"Heard you say his name. Wondered if it was your father, out for a lawsuit."

That made her smile. "Daddy in this cesspool of sin? He'd disintegrate from the horror of it all." She sipped on her coffee. "This is awful. Where are you from?"

"East." It was not a lie.

"Aren't we all?" Resolutely she downed the rest of the mug and made a face. "I needed that. Thank you. And sorry for the bother. Can I come tomorrow?"

Mentally I checked my calendar. "Eleven," I said.

"O.K." She was gone.

I spent the rest of the night at the computer, coming up with about three thousand references on 'Black Oaks' and none of Jareth.

Thursday she was composed and cool, no more 'personal trouble' on the way here. I had taken a walk earlier and kept my eyes open, but I encountered nothing worse than some crooks looking for tourists to rip off and a bum shouting obscenities at people passing by. In his mind it was the only rational thing to do. So much for rational thought.

I spent four hours working on her. She seemed far off in her mind. "Saturday?" she asked when she was leaving.

"Saturday," I agreed.

I started working through 'Black Oak' references. SCA groups. Role-playing clubs. A goth-metal band. Some kind of neo-druidic circle. A village in the middle of nowhere. Two or three second-rate horror novels. A night club that had been closed some years ago due to 'health hazards'. No Jareth Patterson or Peckinson or whatever.

The week passed without any noticeable event. The girl came twice, punctual and sober. I did not hear anything from Eddie, so I assumed that he had found someone else to annoy. When I took measure of her breasts, calculating how the two-dimensional design would fit itself to a three dimensional body, she took the looks without flinching, but later she asked, "The way you're watching me. What do you see in me?"

Absentmindedly I replied, "Canvas."

"Are you gay?" she asked later.

"Are you trying to seduce me?"

"No," she said.

"Pity." I did not answer her question, thinking about canvas instead. She wore the designs well, as if she had been singled out to wear them, and Elektra had seen it. And so had I. But who had sent this canvas to me? I wondered.

Another week and the tattoos took on form and color and life. I could not have stopped now if I had wanted to, the patterns called to me, wanted, needed to be finished. I hunted once and killed a man in a place lit by multicolored neon lights. One flashed dark red as he died, coloring the shed blood in the color of betrayal I had seen just recently. I returned home and in my dreams I saw swirls and whorls and wild, burning patterns, doors that opened into a labyrinth designed by a madman.

I awoke on midnight one Friday, autumn rain pattering against the windows. The wind had woken me, screaming. I stumbled down into my shop. Someone was at the door. Could not be the girl, it was Friday, she never came on Fridays, being away, doing blood things... my mind ran wild. Somebody at the door. I opened. It was Joe and he eyed me suspiciously, then worried.

"Hey man, you look like death warmed over. You okay?"

"Sure," I said. He came in. I did not remember to have invited him but even my anger at his trespassing was dark and slow like an undertow. I saw the blood draining from his face, heard his breathing become faster.

"Oh man," he said, carefully taking a step back, "You got some mighty bad mojo here, you know?"

Sure, I wanted to say, it is the lair of a monster, but I did not speak.

He walked around, sniffing the air like Kate does when she is in wolf mode. "There's something seriously wrong here...," he said thoughtfully. "You didn't happen to piss off any witches?"

"None that I know of," Marco's voice said without me having a say in it.

"Because," Joe continued, "whatever's in here, you won't banish it with some positive thinking. This is bad trouble." He turned to me and continued. "Worried about you, you know, with your shop being closed for three weeks and stuff..."

"Let us go outside," I said.

Rain was falling. I concentrated on the damp sound of the city, on the pull of the earth. Three weeks. October. It was October and the day of the dead arriving, my work nearly finished, and I felt my mind free itself from the webs of a spell I had not seen coming. The knot of the last weeks unraveled and I had to laugh: the hunter, caught in the web spun off his own craft. Beware arrogance, bloodsucker. And you fancied yourself a koldun. Well, time to turn the tables. I noticed hunger cramping my veins and my unbeating heart. Three weeks. Someone was going to pay. First things first.

"Do you know anyone who goes by the name of Jareth of the Black Oaks?" I asked.

Joe seemed surprised. "But he's dead!"

"So everybody keeps telling me. Who was he while he was breathing?"

We had reached Mission Dolores Park. Smell of earth, whisper of autumn leaves in the rain.

"One severely fucked-up guy," Joe answered my questions. "Started out just another Goth, madly in love with decay. Then he meets this chick, and she's, like, an open door for everything from the Other Side. Never had the sense to stay away, got dragged down nearly all of the way. Then he gets a clue and he tries to run, but it's too late, they have his True Name, like, and they call him back from bloody Seattle for all I know and cut patterns in him till he's bled dry, a beacon for things that have no place on this earth anymore. Made the headlines some months ago."

"I am starting to get a clue here, too," I said grimly.

"Hoped so," Joe said. "Enough crazy shit in the world already."

I had melted into the night before he had finished.

No deaths tonight, me hunting till morning touched the earth, not killing, though. Finally my head got clear and I felt the anger, bright again as it should be. Those mortals dared to lay a spell on me. Dared to use me in their little game of black magic and occult power. I would find them and they would wish their demons got them first.

I stayed up the whole day, cleaning my house, renewing the ties of the resident spirits to myself, putting up elaborate protective spells of misdirection and confusion. Because, I had decided somewhere around noon, this game was worth being played through to the end. And the end could not be far.

The girl came the following night and I saw that my work was indeed nearly done, her whole body alive in burning patterns. An open door, indeed. I smiled and offered her juice which she turned down.

"What's your name?" I asked, injecting the last drops of midnight red under her skin.

"You've seen my driver's license," she said.

"Yes. I did."

I was cleaning my tools and she was sitting up shakily. "It's Jhamys," she said. "Are we finished?"

"We are," I said. And then, "Can I meet you again?" The bait, dangled before her nose, you want blood, don't you? Well here's some, one totally bewitched young guy.

She opened her mouth to say yes, but then some thought crossed her face, and her aura darkened with regret and sadness. "No," she said softly. "No, we can't. I'm sorry. Really, I'm..." she shrugged and looked away.

"It's O.K," I said lightly.

We exchanged money and friendly words and she left for good. I closed the shop and organized my thoughts. So she was not the one out for prey. Who was, then? And did she even know?

Jareth's death, I found out one hour later, staring at my computer screen, had indeed made the headlines. William Packinson, 23 years old, victim of a ritual killing. The patterns on his body matched those I had tattooed on Jhamys, who had not known about Jareth's death.

Jhamys. The name nearly rang a bell. I started a search on the name. There were amazingly few references, and most pointed to East India.

My memories of India are not too fond. I visited it twice, once in the 15th century and once in the 19th, and it never was kind to supernatural visitors. Magic worked in strange ways there. That first time, only Florian and his gypsy contacts brought us through -- not that Cathay was any better, we all lived like Gangrel back then, sniffing the air for trouble, hiding and running, keeping to the lonely places where even the demons were few. Still, it had been worth every night just to feel that strangeness and wonder. The sheer existence of lands so vast and mysterious is an incentive for me to go on: it tells me that there is always more to discover, I will not run out of world any time soon. I am a nomad in my own mind, having lost my home to history, so I have to be content with the world. The second time I stayed safe within the English sphere of influence and still gathered enough lore to keep me occupied for decades.

Jhamys was a word in some obscure Indian dialect. It meant 'chosen'.

Of course, the journals of my Indian travels were at the ranch. I called there and ordered Demetrios to send them. He promised they would arrive in twelve hours max. In the meantime I continued the search on the computer. A most useful tool, and as far as I am concerned the greatest invention of the last two or three centuries.

There are more Indian gods and demons than there are pebbles on California's shore. I restricted my search to the area where the dialect in question was spoken. They had recurring legends there in which some evil magician tried to call upon an anonymous demonic force of destruction to blackmail Rajas or kill princes. Usually the magician got stopped by some strong hero or clever princess before he concluded the ritual. In one case, though, he got eaten by the demon he summoned. Folk tales. I find them most annoying. Could these mortals not just write down what happened instead of forcing every relevant event into a fairy tale? I switched my search to archeology.

And there they were, the patterns. They adorned ruins and temples and watching stones. They wrapped themselves around painted heroes. With a tiny difference. They were mirrored. Even the lowest acolyte would understand the meaning of this. Not protection, but calling.

So. Somebody wanted to call an Indian demon. Great. Fucking brilliant. Will these mortals never learn? Demons are the easy way for people too lazy or stupid to learn magic properly. I have met a few in my time, remnants of nightmare, and they failed to impress me. Now if only I could find out the demon's name and the ritual associated, then I could... what?

I stared into the darkness. If I knew someone was going to summon a demon in, say, the Japanese Tea Garden tomorrow night, what would I do? I snorted. Go there and watch, of course. Stop it? Maybe. If it seemed worthy of my attention. If not, I could watch Thomas try to deal with it. He seemed to have known. He had sent Eddie.

Still, it would be wise to find the name of the demon before I played tourist. And I needed to know about the ritual, or I would miss the whole thing. I worked through my sources until midmorning, but experienced again the frustration research can bring and finally succumbed to the tiredness of daytime.

The following evening my journals had arrived. Although the accounts of my travels in the 1800s proved quite useful, it did not give me any clue as to where and when the ritual was to be conducted, and I was close to ripping my journals to shreds in frustration but that respect for the written word stayed my hand. Who would know? Jhamys.

I cursed myself for a fool and raided my dustbin in search of the Kleenex with her blood on it. It was dead and coagulated. Useless. But there were still the needles. I had started with a new set on her and never used them on anyone else. By the rules of sympathetic magic they should still remember her. And pain should provide a strong resonance. Basic hermetic stuff. I found a suitable spell in a grimoire I had liberated from the Tremere during the Thirty Year's war and kept out of Florian's hands for its general usefulness. (It was a while ago. He stopped going after ancient tomes around the dawn of the age of reason, claiming that ancient mysteries were becoming a joke and would vanish on their own. Not while I have a say in it, I growled. He just grinned, telling me, I guess, that the world was turning with or without us.) The spell required a chanting at moonrise and several alchemical ingredients of unknown usefulness, but modifying the spell would take more time than to get hold of mercury, lodestone, sea salt and a goat's horn. The next moonrise would be at 3:17 am the following night.

At 5 in the morning I had a pocket full of obscure magic ingredients and still some time to kill. I decided to pay Eddie a visit.

Phone numbers can lead you to addresses, in case you did not know. Eddie's number led me to an expensive office building Downtown. I crouched down in a doorway like a bum trying to hide from the cold. A large rat with red eyes challenged me for the place but I growled and it fled, knowing a larger predator when it saw one. Eddie left the building at 6:15, got into a white BMW and drove off, only to get caught in the early rush hour traffic. I guessed it must have given him a warm feeling, being part of the great community of yuppies caught in the rush-hour traffic jam. I kept up with him easily. He drove to an expensive apartment building and disappeared into the underground car park. I obfuscated myself into the building and watched the elevator going up from car park to top floor. Of course. Only the best for our Ventrue friends. I went home.

I dreamt of the waning moon rising, thin as a fingernail. I watched it through some narrow, dirty skylight, from a darkened room, and as the first dull beams of moonlight made the darkness in the room come alive I knew that something was in here with me. I awoke covered in blood-sweat. You would think those dreams would stop with the centuries, but they never do.

I felt like killing something, but there was no time to do it properly, I had a date with the rising moon. Instead I drove over to Eddie's. It was raining slowly and steadily. I found a convenient streetlight and prepared myself to wait. It was around 7 PM when the BMW came out of the car park. I followed them openly and watched Eddie get nervous, trying to lose me. Finally the BMW stopped on some empty parking lot. Stupid, Eddie. If this mad, bad Brujah already knows where you live, what good is it to keep from him where you work, instead meeting him in a place without witnesses? I stopped my Harley about five yards from his car, daring him to come out into the rain and talk to me. He did, after spending three minutes hoping I would go away.

"Why are you following me?" were the first words he said.

I gave him my brightest smile. "Just wanted to make sure you don't get into trouble."

I could see his mind working. "How did you find me?" he asked.

"Looked you up in the phone book."

He remembered that he was an important person and found his annoyed face after some searching. "I do not have time for games. Tell me what you want and get lost."

"Oh, nothing important, really," I drawled. "Just wanted to tell you that the ritual is taking place soon. You'll have to hurry if you want a front row seat." Then I revved the engine and made an exit. I went as far as the next street corner, where I obfuscated and followed him unseen. He drove straight to a mansion in the Marina District -- running to his master. He stayed inside for two hours, then rushed out, obviously in a hurry and took off again, southward this time. I half expected him to head for my shop, but instead he stopped in front of Mission Dolores. It had stopped raining. Remnants of yellow police tape still littered the place. The insane ex-prince of the city had used this building as his private torture chamber for decades, before his successor ordered him killed on his own rack. The perfect spooky place resonating with years of pain and despair. Maybe I would not need the needle after all. A wind had risen and the clouds were breaking up, revealing dim stars. And the thin, waning crescent moon would rise in a few hours.

Eddie exited the car and disappeared in the darkened building. I parked my Harley and followed him silently.

As soon as I entered the property, the sounds of the city dimmed. The mission graveyard is one of the few left in the city, and the oldest, the Spaniards had buried the Indians here who they had killed with Christianity and hard work. Few of the ghosts even remembered their names, but some were still raging, shaking the bushes when a visitor passed and grinding stones like teeth, screaming in voices the day people could not hear. Younger ghosts joined in, those killed by an insane vampire only a few years ago, howling and accusing. The stench of old blood was heavy in the air. Eddie happily ignored that, proving once more that fools rush in where angels fear to tread. A light flickered in the broken windows, nearly hidden by mosses, vines and spider webs: Eddie had brought a flashlight. I watched the light moving for a few minutes before it disappeared.

The door had been broken down by the prince's men and left ajar by Eddie, I squeezed through without difficulties. Inside it was dark, but not too dark for the eyes of a nocturnal creature. The floor was swept clean of dust and debris. A wooden staircase led up to the first floor. I scanned the hall but did not find a living (or unliving) being apart from spiders and insects. Even the rats seemed to be in hiding. Large double doors at the far end of the hall led deeper into the building. Painted in blood on the doors I found runes and patterns.

Behind the doors, a narrow stone stairway went down into the cellar. On top of it had been a trapdoor which was open now. It was really dark here and I moved by instinct. The smell of blood grew stronger and newer scents added to the old ones. I remembered something Elektra had once told me about characters in horror movies (a genre she is extraordinarily fond of) that walk into the haunted house or climb up into the attic where The Thing hides when everyone knows that it is a Bad Idea to go there -- like Bluebeard's wife opening the forbidden door.

The stairs led down to a hallway with a strong oaken door at the end. I did not see Eddie's flashlight anymore and in retrospect that should have made me suspicious, but at that moment it did not. I walked through the door and it closed behind me with a 'thud' that bode bad news. And I found that I could not move anymore.

A light, the shine of a single torch, lit the room. The first thing I saw was Eddie in exactly the same predicament I was in and looking indignant. Then slowly the rest of the room registered in my brain. A tiled floor, swept clean except for splotches of candlewax. Plastered walls and ceiling gray with age, black soot marks where torches had burned. The smell of smoke, incense and blood clung to the room like memories. At the far end was a long table with a heavy stone top and black forged iron legs, the kind of table they use in butchers' shops. The patterns I had studied so recently were carved into the table. I would have laughed had I been able to move. I had managed to stumble into this situation like one of the blondes in Elektra's stories. Of course, had I gathered all my power I could most likely have broken free, but after all the trouble I went through to get here in the first place it would have been stupid to run away now.

The guy with the torch came closer. He was a middle-aged man with a shaven head, wearing an Indian ritual robe. He had hazel eyes and the skin tone of someone not on friendly terms with the sun.

When he came close to Eddie, Eddie hissed. The guy shrank back minutely, than eyed Eddie closely. He hardly spared a look for me.

"And who might you be?" He had a cultured upper-class tone, no bravado.

"You do not need to know that. Let me go." Eddie must have caught the guy's eyes and played his ace.

The guy did not seem impressed. "Please do not try this with me, Mr. Vampire. You are wasting your time." He stepped closer, the torch flaring. Eddie tried to balk. "I want to know who you are and who sent you."

"Mister." Eddie obviously gathered his cool. "I do not know who you are and what you are up to, but you are in big trouble if you do not let me go now."

"Oh, I do not think so." The other's voice sounded vaguely amused, then he turned to me and looked me up and down. "The tattooist. So you ran to your masters to report."

"I have no masters," I said. "Quite contrary to you."

Eddie reacted to the sound of my voice and tried to turn around, to no avail. "Marco!" he growled. "What are you doing here?"

"So you are Marco." The guy stated the obvious.

"Marco Garcia, tattoo artist. At your service if you need any more spells spelled out on skin. Although the pay is lousy."

Baldy shook his head. "I am afraid we do not have use for your art any longer. But be assured that we will find another use for you."

"I'm just dying to find out."

"Oh, you will." Baldy made a dramatic gesture. Whatever had us trapped now shoved us against the nearest wall. I felt something cold and metallic poke into my side. A ringing sound stirred up memories of the less-than-pleasant kind. Some lackeys who had lurked in the background rushed forward but stopped dead some feet from us. I managed to catch a glimpse of Eddie. His teeth were out and he looked generally threatening.

"They are harmless," said Baldy to his lackeys. "My spell keeps them bound."

I would have liked to show them 'bound', but curiosity again got the better of me. The lackeys approached cautiously. They were young, no older than Jareth had been, and very nervous. When neither Eddie nor I moved they got more confident. They came close enough to bite. I smelled sweat and the kind of incense I had noticed on Jhamys every Saturday. Chains rattled and cold metal closed around my wrists. I hate this part.

"Do not think that you can break free." Baldy said proudly. "These chains are bespelled to withstand the strength of ten men."

"I'm impressed," I sneered. The lackeys jumped back to safety and I could move again. I put on a Brujah display of temper and found out that there was something about the chains. I decided to take them with me when I left. Eddie watched me wearily, thinking, I guess, that if a Brujah could not break these chains he need not risk his dignity trying.

Baldy waited out my tantrum in what he considered a safe distance.

"What are you doing here?" Eddie asked rationally.

Baldy thought for a moment. "We are going to summon a demon, of course. And when it appears, it will be hungry."

I stopped struggling. "Had I known that you're going for world domination, I'd have doubled the fee. No, skip that. Tripled it," I snarled.

Baldy did not dignify that with a response. Instead he turned and walked back to the far end of the room where his lackeys had already disappeared behind a narrow wooden door.

Eddie glared at me. "I could have gotten information out of him if you had not interfered!"

"Information? You didn't get it yet? This guy is a nutcase! Demons, indeed! Why not summon Elvis, while he's at it?" I decided I had done enough Brujah for the night. "How did you know they were here?"

"I have got my sources," Eddie growled.

"Will your sources perchance happen to come by and save us?" I asked. I did not need the Prince's security interrupting the show.

He muttered something unintelligible. I could imagine him, telling Thomas how he had it all under control, no, Sir, you do not need to trouble yourself with those pesky mortals, I will take care of it.

Eddie's thoughts seemed to follow the same tracks. He fell silent for a while to brood about our situation. I wondered what it looked like from his point of view. Honestly I have no idea if the Ventrue have any party line concerning black magic. Most likely it is just 'leave it to the Tremere and keep an eye on the warlocks'. Fools.

Time ticked away. There was coming and going in the back room. People came in, sneakers and biker's boots on the slated floor, smelling of rain and the kind of cheap thrills that end in blood. I could not make out individual voices. A sliver of moon shed its light through a dirty skylight, deepening the shadows. A man in a long, hooded robe came out of the backroom, carrying a torch. He lit four braziers before disappearing again. A thrumming like the sound of a beating heart began in the backroom. The braziers gave a dark red light, black tendrils of smoke reaching out from some kind of incense. It was a great show. If they did not manage to raise their demon, they would at least get points for style. Eddie rattled his chains, adding to the atmosphere. "This is all your fault!" he whined.

"Oh, sure. I do so admire your constructive mindset. Placing blame is always highest priority in a situation like this. You think you can stop those goons while we analyze the matter further?"

The goons walked procession-like into the room, chanting and drumming. I felt a power rising along the edges of my perception, like something from the outside looking in. My blood began to sing. These guys just might pull their crazy stunt off.

A gong chimed, and the last participant of the ritual came in.

She was wearing a hooded robe of the darkest red, which covered her whole body and hid her face, but I would have known her anywhere by the way she walked, by the way she smelled, by the sound of her breathing. Rage gripped me. I hate sacrificial lambs with a fury that can easily be mistaken for moral principle. 'I am no sheep,' Antonio had spat, over five hundred years ago, and I shared the sentiment.

But Jhamys threw back her hood and there was neither fear nor despair in her face nor a glassy-eyed drugged stare, but triumph and a fierce joy. Then she shrugged off the robe. She was wearing only the tattoos underneath, and for the first time I saw my work as a whole, swirling, spiraling inward, playing tricks on the eyes. Calling. It was beautiful. Brilliant. It fit her perfectly.

"Oh my God," Eddie breathed. "You did that?"

"Shut up," I said, "I want to hear this."

They were chanting a Hindi dialect now, inviting the demon to fill the vessel offered. The leader of the hooded ones (Baldy, I suspected), offered Jhamys a slender dagger with a long, wavy blade. She took it, held it high and looked around the room. Taking it all in. Seeing me.

I knew she recognized me by the widening of her eyes, and I thought she would say something. But she just smiled, the deep, scary smile of a lazy tiger, and without turning away she started to let the knife dance over her skin, following lines I had made, completing the pattern with living blood, calling out in a counterpoint to the chanting of the congregation. As the blood started to flow, the sense of presence grew. The shadows became alive around her, not hungering after blood, as demon lore falsely claims, but drawn by the very intensity of the emotion, by the sense of rapture emerging from the chosen victim. An open door. And it called to me, too, the waves of twisted emotion I could feel rolling off her, love and fear and pain and elation and a glimmer of transcendence washing over me. I could have gone for her then, taking what she was offering so freely, running down her chest, her legs, dropping on the floor in thick, viscous drops. It was not hunger that was rolling through me, making me tremble in the chains that magically held me, but desire so pure that it bordered on pain, and the sheer power of it held me back now because to satisfy it would put an end to the pain I was only beginning to explore.

The demon stirred in the shadows of the other side. The moon darkened. The chanting had become as feverish as Jhamy's movements as she lifted her hands high and screamed with an other-side voice, the final calling, and then brought both her hands down, plunging the dagger deep into her body.

Silence fell. The darkness in the room was complete but for a red light illuminating Jhamys who still stood as if she had forgotten to crumple on the floor like a decent corpse. And the presence flowed through the walls that separate reality from nightmare as soft and unstoppable as a flood. I felt it running over me, finding no hold in a soul which already belonged to a demon of a different kind. Centering in Jhamys, who lifted her head now and looked around with a regal bearing that never before had made its way though the street urchin exterior. The chanting began anew, worship and supplication now, but she took it in stride. And it was her, it still was, despite the demon's dark fire flowing around her. Because open doors do not get smashed by things walking in. But her eyes held the green fire of hell.

She walked up to me, the dripping dagger still in her hand. I looked straight at her. "Hello Jhamys," I said.

She looked me up and down, greed lightening up her eyes the kind of which I had last seen in some stupid Sabbat neonate who believed a low-generation Tzimisce a suitable power drink. "Hello, dead meat," she growled. I felt the demon's power lapping at my skin, scorching it.

I acknowledged the truth with a nod. "So you did find out eventually."

"You never even touched me!" she said softly. The non sequitur full of lost hope.

"If you wanted salvation, you should have seen a priest, not me." I said coolly. Not regretting what had not happened. Wondering, maybe.

The demon's fire closed in and made her the center of the world.

"You can make it up to me," the demon said with Jhamy's voice.

A tempter, then. And despite my own knowledge of the ways of demons and about the fool's gold tempters offer, I still felt the longing to say 'yes' as if that longing existed apart from me, and while I thought about it the longing blossomed into need, as if the only thing of worth left in this world was her approval, and the blood we would be sharing. I filed that feeling away for later examination and started laughing. "Nice try. But I am not interested."

She grinned a red grin. "Never mind. I am going to destroy you anyway."

"You are welcome to try," I said. "Tell me, how are you going to go about destroying an old fiend? Praying seems a little... inappropriate. And red-hot irons are so passé." In a way, I was honestly curious. I had not faced down a demon in quite a long time. Another part of me just enjoyed the bravado. This Brujah persona had really rubbed off.

She lifted her hands, black-lacquered fingernails morphed into tiger's claws. Hellfire danced along the edges. "I do not know yet," she purred. "But I will find out."

It could not be worse than sunlight, I told myself, and I had dared that often. It could not be worse than the fires of the Inquisition, where twisted righteousness added to the sting.

I discovered that I had not been lying to myself exactly. But this had to stop. Dancing with demons I rather leave to guys even crazier than me.

I twisted away. "Jhamys," I said in as perfectly reasonable a voice as I could manage under the current circumstances. "Please. We are not alone. The children..."

Her laughter was like the ocean, but she took a step back to glance at her devotees, who were obviously enjoying the scene. I slipped out of the chains, which might have been bespelled to hold an angry Brujah, but not water, nor me. She turned back to me, surprised.

"Terribly sorry, love," I said, "But I am rather fond of this city and cannot allow another demon on the loose here. Try Philadelphia next time."

She shifted shape like one of the Lupines, becoming the thing the Rajahs in the tales must have seen as they were dying. "You foolish creature of dust and ashes!" she roared. "I will devour you and cast your soul howling into the darkness from whence it came, before I feast on this city you call your own!"

"No, you will not," I said. In the center of the shape it was still her, clad in the patterns I had wrought. I took a step forward into the swirling colors of blood and primal darkness, through the smell of old stones and rotting greenery and incense turned sour with time, and lifted my hand. "Because there is one thing you forget. I opened the door. And I can close it." With that, I brought my hand down and touched her skin, just above her heart, and wiped the tattoos away, leaving unmarked pale skin. I stroked down, across her belly, around the wound that was killing her, while I combed my other hand through her sweat-matted hair, turning it to white out of sheer spite.

I guess she would have fought had she ever had any idea that such a thing was possible. But she did not. She looked down at my hand and her eyes widened. "You cannot do that!" she stated.

"I can."

I took a step back and watched the form surrounding her collapsing back into itself, its power draining away through the cracks in the night. The demonic light left her eyes as she put her hands on her belly, covering the knife wound which was still seeping blood. "It hurts...," she whispered and crumpled to the floor.

"No!" Baldy cried and started chanting again, calling the entity back. He need not have bothered. The demon was not picky, if it could not get a door, a sacrifice would do. I felt the presence returning before any of the others did and remembered a word of advice from Florian: "When the black mass goes awry, stay away from the cult leader. Enraged demons always go for the pompous." So I turned myself into a thing of utter insignificance and watched as all hell broke loose. The demon ripped through the cultists like a war ghoul or the wrath of some ancient god. Baldy tried a banishing formula, but he lost his head halfway through the evocation. I rummaged through my pockets. A goat's horn. Some small change. A few leaves of sage, a pencil, my keys, a lodestone, a silver dollar, a package of sea salt. It would do.

The demon's frenzy had abated some by the time I had prepared myself, if only because there was not much left to kill . Now it hovered in the middle of the blood-splattered room, the vague shape of a painted human with a tiger's head and stripes of void on flaming orange, and it turned its green gaze on me.

"Prepare to die, mortal!" it roared.

"Wrong name." I sidestepped its fiery breath and threw the sea salt at it, and while it wavered, I carefully pronounced the syllables of its True Name. All that research had been good for something, after all. I continued, "By Kali, the Dark Mother, slayer of demons, eater of children, drinker of blood, I command thee to leave..." I went through all the epithets of the Indian aspect of the Dark Mother that I remembered, and repeated the name of the demon three times, to bring him to the attention of the Goddess. It was a gamble in more ways than one: If the Dark Mother really decided to pay some attention to us, she might well have thrown us and the surrounding countryside into oblivion. But the demon was obviously a lot more afraid than I was, and after the third invocation of the Goddess it disappeared.

Its absence brought the room back into focus. I stood in a charnel house. The scene of slaughter would have made a Sabbat war party proud -- those people have no standards. Only one person was still breathing, heavy, belabored breaths that spoke of a pain only death could end. I found Jhamys among the blood and gore, like a painting splashed with acid. Her eyes, burning bright, but utterly human, riveted on me when I touched her.

"I curse you," she whispered. "I curse you. I only wanted to be powerful. I curse you." Blood colored her lips.

"There is no need," I said softly and gently bowed down to fasten my lips to hers and drank the last of her blood from her lungs along with her breath. There was not much left in her, but I was not really hungry.

The first birds of morning were singing outside, and somewhere in the room a length of chain rattled. I looked up and saw Eddie, who still stood chained to the wall, eyeing with distaste his ruined suit. Then he looked at me.

"You are no Brujah," he said.

The demon must have spared him for his mind.

"You are right," I said. "I am not." I made no effort to avoid his gaze.

"Get me out of this!" he demanded, rattling his chains again.

I did not move.

Eddie got nervous. "You're Tremere, ain't you? I... I... if you don't want to, I won't tell anyone..."

I nodded and ripped his head of. One more corpse in this room would hardly made a difference. Then I set fire to the building.

The sound of sirens followed me as I went home.

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