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
This is my third Nikos story, after Collisions in Time and Burning Bright. 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. Had I managed to follow all of his advice, this would probably be a better story. All remaining mistakes are mine.
Feedback makes me happy, constructive criticism helps me to become better!
It was on a winter's night, like winter nights in this coastal city come, not bright with snow and frosty stars, burning with cold, but wet and dark under an overcast sky that drowned the city in its own orange light, muffled all sounds but the raging of the wind and the sound the curtains of rain made as they pattered down on streets populated only by the desperate and the lost, that Alys the Gray stood at my door.
I had noticed a movement at my front door and wondered who might be visiting me in the small hours of morning, in the middle of the week and the middle of winter. I had waited in my office for the ring of the doorbell, for a knock on the door, for the strange figure to leave. But she did not leave and she did not knock while I stood motionless, waiting for something to happen. Finally I walked the five steps to the door, calling myself a coward for hesitating to open the door to a presence I could not read. But open it I did and was relieved for a moment when there was only a small woman on the outside, wearing a long black raincoat, the black hair with the white strands uncovered and drenched with rain. She lifted her head to look at me and I recognized her: Alys the Gray, whose name is spoken only in whispers, the most feared magician on the West Coast.
"May I enter?" she asked, and when I stepped back silently she did not move but gave me that blank look that I remembered only to well from our last meeting, telling me it was my turn to do something. "Enter freely and unafraid," I said, "And be my guest for the remainder of the night."
Only then did she cross the threshold and stepped into the cold neon light of my foyer, dripping on the linoleum floor. I helped her out of her coat and gave her a towel to dry her hair. When she had done so and her composure was less reminiscent of a street urchin she turned to me. "Greetings to you, Nikos Laskaris of the Tzimisce," she said.
No mortal alive should have known my true name, and the immortals who do you can count on the fingers of one hand. But Alys knew. Of course she knew. I bowed. "And greetings to you, Alys Morgaine. Please come into my office. May I offer you refreshments?"
"You reduce me to being human," she said. "A cup of tea would be nice."
I busied myself, boiling water, finding the tea bags on the small fridge I keep in my office for visitors, sorting through the mugs to find the least chipped while I tried to overcome my shock at having Alys Morgaine sitting in my office.
Alys Morgaine. Some people say that she owns this city, but that is not true. She would not want it. All she owns are the city's dark places, where secrets eat the hearts of their keepers, where scorned and twisted love breeds violence, where despair festers unseen until it explodes into something that makes the headlines. Half of those poor sods who jump off Golden Gate bridge unstopped by nets or bright colors have seen Alys before, whispering, making deals they had a long time to rue. I sought her out but once and I have no one but myself to blame for the consequences.
Rumor says she is one of the Kindred, but that is a delusion. She is very much alive, one of the few True Mages left, but I found it a lot wiser to regard her as one of the goddesses of old, or a wicked fairy queen who grants your wishes so that you may know your own folly. 'Instant Karma' one of my clients called her, trying to laugh, but it is not instant with her, it is creeping and slow like death, stealing away what used to be yours. He was right on another account, though: It is not malice that she is handing out, nor cruelty. It is karma -- justice for forgotten sins, and falseness lived with for too long -- that come around when she is close. The legend runs that a kid looking for his puppy ran into her and asked where his puppy was; she charged him a nickel, answered his question and he found his puppy safe and sound and nothing bad came of it. The fact that this little tale merits telling shows what can be expected from deals with Alys -- but still deals are made every night and prices are paid.
Even as she sat there, sipping her tea, I could feel an air of power and darkness about her, nearly visible despite the electric light. Not fire and lightning, but more like a sated reptile, heavy and cold and ready to strike with the unstoppable power of a landslide or a flood.
"Mistress Morgaine," I said -- it does not pay to be impolite to one of the Powers, and in fact it was a relieve from the Brujah brashness I choose to wear as a mask, to remember my manners for a while -- "what brings you to me?"
She sat the mug down. "I have come to propose a deal," she said.
"I am not interested." It was the sensible thing to say. It also was a lie, and that was not sensible. Lies, spoken to Alys, have a way of coming back to choke you. And I was interested. Six hundred years old and curious as a cat.
"It is not about you," she said. "It is about me." Her words, like the white clouds of her breath, stood in the cold air of my office. Since I do not feel cold, I turn on the heating only when I expect visitors. I had not expected anyone that night.
"What do you want?" I asked.
In that calm, neutral tone which makes the unbelievable merely surreal she said. "I need to become a vampire."
Contrary to what I said before about not feeling the cold I felt my blood freeze now. Not that I was unacquainted with that kind of request. There never seems to be a shortage of deluded mortals who are bored with life, afraid of death, enamored of power or blinded by the dark glamour of the Vampyre and seek to become one of the damned. But not Alys. She, of all mortals, had to know better. And then I remembered a rumor I had heard recently and discarded: That Alys had requested an audience with the Prince and left after ten minutes, her business obviously unfulfilled. If she had asked for this kind of immortality from Thomas, I thought, he must have kicked her out -- politely, of course -- before she even had finished talking. Thomas holds on to his humanity with teeth and claws, he would not have had any patience at all with someone ready to squander her mortality. So Thomas kicked her out and she had come to me -- who also happens to be the most powerful Vampire in the city.
It still did not explain why.
"If anyone else had said this to me," I said, "I would have killed them fast. Because I would not grant a bastard eternal life, and I will not damn a good person's soul. But you are neither reckless nor stupid. Why do you want to become one of the Damned?"
I could have sworn I saw her shudder as I said so, a minuscule movement that she repressed in the blink of an eye.
"For personal reasons," she said. "I can offer discretion and whatever is in my power to give."
I guess it was then that I first understood that she was afraid. And, looking back, I suddenly knew that she had been afraid for a long time. "Oh no," I said. "Thomas already sent you away, and while I do not share his sentiments I have a few of my own. Why do you want to become one of the Undead, knowing full well what it entails?"
"You flatter my scholarship," she said. "Before we continue, I need to address the obvious issue of discretion. I need you to swear by the name of Lilith, the Demon Queen, that nothing said between us in this night will ever be repeated to others."
I had to compliment her scholarship. My track record in keeping promises is good, but in truth promises are meant to be broken when need arises. But making me swear by the name of the Dark Mother . . . I might even feel bound to that promise. And I had the nagging suspicion that Alys would find a way to hold me to my word. "I swear by the name of Lilith," I said, knowing that I made a stupid mistake but seeing no way to avoid it. That is what Alys does to you.
"I am hunted," she said, "by something that wants more than my life. I cannot let myself be caught. But it will not hunt one of the undead."
It was the truth, although twisted beyond recognition. I shook my head. "Not good enough. If you are hunted, run. If you cannot run, fight. If you cannot win, you can find refuge in death. Do your people not believe in reincarnation?"
"We do," she said. "We know. But I cannot allow myself to carry this into my next life."
"Are we talking Karmic debts here?" I asked.
"No," she said. "We are talking about Hell."
A silence rose, broken only by the rain lashing down on the shutters, while I tried to wrap my mind around the reality of her words. Of course I believed in hell. I had done so when I was alive, it was what you did, what you were taught. About heaven, about hell and about Judgment Day and how the meek shall inherit the earth. I had been a devout Christian back then, well and truly believing in Mother Church and Our Savior, but I had believed myself bound for hell even then, because there were things worth more to me than my immortal soul. Home. Family. Knowledge. I would have gladly chosen damnation to save my city. But damnation chose me and the tide of time swept away what had been mine while I endured. And now I wondered, despite my earlier words to Alys: did I still believe in hell? I have seen and fought demons, but never had I seen an angel, and while I still paid lip service to the existence of hell, I had long since stopped believing in Heaven. Did that not make hell obsolete? I wondered.
"Hell." I said, and after a moment: "I presume you are not speaking metaphorically here."
"You presume correctly."
There were all kinds of stupid cracks that Marco would have made. Something about demons batting down the door, or about her being a bad girl. But I was not Marco. Alys's proximity reminded me not to believe my own lies.
"And do you not deserve it?" I asked.
Something flashed in her eyes. "Who are you to judge the state of my soul?"
"You know my name," I said. "And I do not judge. But you do. It is you who has chosen Justice as her middle name."
"Not justice," she said. "Truth. Justice is born of truth. And I will not lie and say that I do not deserve hell, and I will not lie and say that I do. But I do not want to go."
I nodded: a good enough reason, that. "Why does hell hunt you?" I asked.
She considered. "I am theirs," she finally said. "I have been damned from the day of my birth for a reason I do not know, some past pact or sin. And I have fought against it every step of the way. Unable to choose good, I took truth for my master and pledged myself to fate. But truth fails me and I am losing the fight. Were I to die, hell would follow me around the wheel back into the world again, and next time I might not be so lucky to resist. But were I to die without returning to the wheel, I would be free."
"You would be trading one demon for another," I said. "For that is what vampirism means, apart from wearing cool clothes and living forever: the hunger gnawing at your soul, eating away your self, your sense of identity, until you are only a vessel for the hunger, worse than a rabid dog. No matter how much you cling to the trappings of your old life, however much you strife for being human, in the end you will be lost to the hunger. And you are not very human to begin with."
"Neither are you, Nikos Laskaris," she said.
She had a point. And advising Alys Morgaine on self control and dedication would be offending, and ridiculous to boot.
I leaned back, thinking. Did I really want to discourage her? Never before had I made a fledgling for the reasons I told her, but why did I suddenly feel the temptation not only to drain her blood but to hold her life in my hands and return it to her, to make her rise from the dead by the power of my blood? And a fitting queen of the night she would make. 'My, are we power-tripping here?' asked Thora in my mind. I shoved these images aside. "And there's one more thing," I said. I took a mirror out of the drawer, sat it on the table and started reshaping my face. She watched in silent fascination.
"I heard about that power," she said after a while. "But I have never seen it in action."
"So you know the legends ascribed to it?"
"I once heard someone rant that it was a form of demonic possession," she said. "I did not think too highly of that individual's judgment. Is it?"
"I have it on good authority that it might be," I said. "I believe, the latest name they gave it -- if they did not proclaim it harmless -- is 'a sentient disease'. I know that symptoms have developed on creatures partaking in my blood."
"A sentient disease," she said thoughtfully. "Spirits bound to form by the power of naming, of science. I can ward against spirits. "
Her wizard's arrogance, the belief that whatever needs to be done can be done by the right application of spells and rituals enraged me. "Do you think that it has not been tried, woman?"
Instead of reacting to the provocation she seemed to ponder the question. "Yes, I guess it has," she finally said. "Are you familiar with the results thereof?"
"I should be," I said. I had conducted most of the experiments involving the Spirit theory myself, while the most recent discoveries were the work of a scientific minded Sabbat Tzimisce in New Jersey.
The small hours of morning found us in a discussion on magic, science and cosmology the likes of which I had not had since the late 18th century, and I enjoyed it immensely. Alys proved to be a woman of great, if eclectic, learning, which came as a surprise to me, since I had always considered the magicians of this century leaning more towards superstition and insufficiently understood mythology than to diligent study and accurate thinking. In this modern age, many of the best minds turn to science, leaving magic to children and charlatans.
It was this discussion, more than anything else that caused me to reconsider my rejection of her request. A sharp mind and a penchant for learning are the best companions one can hope for through the dark centuries of our existence, and she possessed both.
And through all the hours until morning we never once spoke of hell or damnation, keeping to the safe ground of abstract concepts instead. Until finally the hum of the city changed with the coming of the working hours which did not care for the sunrise anymore, and she rose and said, "I greatly enjoyed our discussion and I, on my part, are hoping to continue it another night. But I have to leave now. I thank you for your hospitality."
"You are welcome," I said, "and welcome to another dispute in another night, too. And you succeeded in making me consider your request favorably. But would you allow two more questions, before the sun rises?"
"Of course," she said.
"What would happen to your magic were I to grant your request?" I asked. I had wondered for years on that. The Tremere have the tendency to choose their Neonates among the mystics and sorcerers, yet the Clan had produced no more than a handful magicians of Alys's renown, and that, especially given most younger Kindred's tendency to exaggerate their own competence, had always puzzled me.
"It will be lost," she said calmly. I expected her to add something, but she did not, and the words had the finality of an epitaph. And suddenly I had to think of Hajnalka, who had died twice before her sixteenth birthday, a shy and earnest apprentice to a hermetic order who had talked about magic as another girl might have talked about her beloved, whom I had seen calling a spell down on her enemies and dying inside when no magic had answered her call. I had seen it in her eyes and now I heard a faint echo of it in Alys' controlled voice.
"And what are you going to do if I refuse?" I asked my last question.
She did not hesitate. "I am going to find another of the undead, one with more vanity than sense, someone whose conscience can be bought. I will get them to change me. And, failing that or running out of time I would hand myself over to the council of wizards, knowing that they will destroy me in eternity. If I have the courage to follow through with this last course of action. I am not sure."
"I thank you again," I said, "for your honesty."
She shrugged into her coat. "Good night, Nikos Laskaris." And she was gone, swallowed by the rain-soaked darkness of the awakening city.
The following evening it was still raining. I went out hunting and the wind tore at me with claws of winter. In the dance clubs the air was all used up, condensation running down the cold concrete walls, and wolf-grinning mortals prowled their territory. I got me a lamb, a young boy with a tattered jeans jacket, long, blond hair and sea-colored eyes, a surfer spat on the concrete beach of the city. He might have become beautiful once spring came, but it would never come to him again and he knew it. The man he was holding onto was one of the city's predators, a living and breathing one, but still fast in taking some kid's life, sucking it dry and spitting out what was left, all the time talking about love and trust and need. I asked the boy for a dance and bought him a drink, shooing his protector away with promises of money. I took him in the alley behind the club, not intending to kill him, but his life ran away like the rain water, his spirit eager to let go. I slit his throat after he died, leaving it to the rain to keep the masquerade and explain the lack of blood. As I walked away I could still taste the eagerness with which he had given himself to death, like someone giving in to gravity and falling. Another soul hungry for oblivion.
Usually I resent people who go without a fight, and I was half of a mind to hunt for better game -- the dead boy's boyfriend might have been a start. But I did not feel like it. The thought of mortals who value their life less than the average monster does always makes me feel hollow and superfluent.
My feet carried me north through the deserted streets, heading for the Vampire Club. Ready to drown my depression in loud music and loud-mouthed Brujah camaraderie. As I passed through the glass and steel canyons downtown I felt Alys's presence reflecting from the darkness between the shining surfaces.
The club was packed. No-one felt like hunting in this weather. Gossip was ripe again: as soon as I entered the club, Razor, an especially annoying member of the Brujah Clan, ambushed me with the news of the day or, at least, week.
Again I listened to the tale of the mortal woman who came to the Prince and demanded immortality -- in Razor's version it was some Goth chick with more mascara then sense, " . . . y'know I'd've lo-oved to bite her neck, but, well, Thomas, he went all apeshit again about bastard kids, promised he'd whack any lick who dares even think about it . . . not that that'd stop me, mind, but the chick's gone anyway and I'm not ready to become a family man now, y'know, but, well, I wonder, why not take what's on the offer and forget about changing her, I mean, who's gonna stop me?"
"Band any good today?" I asked, changing the topic before I got tempted to answer his question.
He shrugged, "Some of that weird artsy stuff again."
The band was deep gothic and lamented the vanity of all things in bastardized Latin with a noticeable southern drawl. The singer's voice was brilliant like crystal and sharp as a broken bottle. Some Toreador were hanging around in the doorway, being in the way of everyone and did a little lamenting of their own. " . . . she had to die in the bloom of youth to preserve her beauty in eternity . . . ," I heard one of them say wistfully when I elbowed my way through and interrupted his monologue. "Rabble," he muttered.
"Idiot," I growled.
What do people see in death, I wondered, what romance do they find there? Any fool can die, it is living that takes skill and dedication, even the pale half-life of the undead. And Alys: she did not want to die. She wanted to live, by any means necessary. Wanted life more than home or money or even magic. Believed she could save her soul by becoming a monster. As if any of us could be saved, I thought angrily, the dark music booming from the speakers, resonating in my mind as well as in my bones: as if we were not all bound for hell anyway, whatever hell we chose in our desire to be damned. When I was alive there was only one hell and it was defined by the absence of God. Now, hell is a booming business. It is these Latins, they came up with the idea of eternal torment and lakes of fire and all that stuff that makes little sense but good imagery.
The band announced the last song, and I was surprised how much time had passed. The dance floor was more crowded than usual. I recognized some faces from the Free States. The statutes of the Vampire Club allow them to visit, if they behave, Melmoth and Thomas had several heated debates over that topic and Melmoth, as usual, got what he wanted.
The last song was a cover version of some heavy metal piece with impossible instrumentals that only Toreador or Brujah can pull off and look good doing it. "Lost the love of the heaven above, chose the lust of the earth below," the lead singer sang with her supernatural clear voice.
When I walked home I felt better although I could not have said why. But I still had not decided what to do about Alys.
Time passed. The winter dragged on. No snow -- never snow in this town -- only the wind and the freezing rain sneering at people's vain attempt to keep the cold and the damp out. The heating broke down and I closed my shop. At the ranch the nights would now be filled with moonlight and snow and the distant howling of wolves. I dreamt of galloping through those white nights, hunting wolves, hot blood on the snow, recollections of the old country. But I could not leave the city.
The shops started to fill with roses and pink hearts as February commenced. The wind stopped and fog rolled in from the sea. An earthquake shook the city and for days parts of the town were dark as electricity failed. A lunatic gunned down a dozen people in a crowded McDonald's Restaurant. Riots broke out in the Castro and then in the SoMa, and the fog became gray and laden with the smell of burning. The garbage men went on strike and the smell of rotting meat and vegetables mixed with the smoke. Then the city wolves went crazy and ran the streets, searching for someone to blame and rip apart. Razor went over the edge in the Vampire Club, screaming and slashing and painting the walls with the blood of any vampire who did not get out of his way fast enough. Melmoth was the one to bring him down and Thomas declared a blood hunt on Razor, but the hunters returned empty-handed. It was commonly assumed that Razor had made it to the Free States and there were rumors of war. The terribly maimed body of a young boy was found between the glass and steel towers downtown. When I drove to the Vampire Club I felt that the resonance of the City had changed, it bore an undertow of malice and chaos now, barely held in check.
On Valentine's Day I felt the bad karma break like a wave crashing on the shore. I turned on the television, looking for signs of the catastrophe, but there was nothing and that unnerved me more than riots on the street would have done.
At midnight, Alys knocked at my door. She was as calm as the eye of a storm. Power surrounded her like a buzz of flies, but she kept it silent for now. "It is fine," she said. "I won."
But it was not and she knew it as well as I did. "Come on in," I said.
She did so. "Did you think about it?" she asked.
Did I, I wondered. "You still want to go through with it?" I asked.
"I have to," she said.
I did not like her reasoning.
"May the furies chase it to the end of the world and into the abyss beyond," she cursed with her reasonable voice, not specifying 'it'. "There is a part of me that is hell-bent on using all my power in this city for mayhem and destruction. Soon my old reputation will be fit for a saint compared to what I have become. And I do not want to jump off Golden Gate bridge and I will not crawl before a council of wizards that are as clueless as they are arrogant and beg to be put out of my misery. But I cannot, I will not let this . . . thing, this curse on my birth, win. And I am ready to do whatever is necessary so that it will not. Do we have a deal?"
"Tomorrow," I said. "Bring your Spirit Wards."
"Anything else?" she asked.
"Cut your fingernails and your hair," I said. "You'll be stuck with both for a long time."
She left. A slight tremor deep in the earth made the mugs on the fridge rattle.
Unfortunately, the following night was the one Razor returned from the Free States, and he and his friendly gang of Anarchs tried to tear down the neighbourhood. It started as a brawl in a dance club, where a Gangrel who was loyal to the prince discovered Razor taking a snack and attacked on sight. Soon the rage that had accumulated over a winter of rain and bad karma erupted onto the streets. Police waded in and made things worse, so did loyal or bloodthirsty followers of the prince and misguided Brujah siding with one of their own. I, for once, acted like a decent citizen: closed my shutters, got my shotgun and watched the ruckus from a second floor window.
The fighting was four blocks away, the sky red and blue with the flashing of sirens, when I noticed a black limo approaching my house from the only direction where the streets were not blocked: downtown. I cursed the fates and the devil and whoever might be responsible for this choice piece of shit hitting the fan, and left the house in a hurry to get Alys inside before the battle turned our way.
I was halfway to the limo, when Razor and his band of frenzied Anarchs exploded from an alleyway and attacked the car like a pack of rabid hyenas. The car became roadkill in a matter of moments and the passengers got dragged out: a remarkably unimpressed Alys and a beefy bodyguard. I prepared to enter the fray, but Razor halted and stared at Alys, smirking through his canines. "Hi baby," he drawled. "Still looking for someone to bite your neck?" The bodyguard growled in the back of his throat.
"If I did," Alys said with a clear voice, "it would not be by the likes of you. Do your friends know what happened at the Southfield Cemetery seven nights past, Henry William Jacobsen?"
Razor went icy before she had finished and pulled the knife he had named himself after. "I'm gonna carve you up, bitch!" He slashed at her. The bodyguard's hairy hand intercepted him. I stepped out of the shadows.
"Do you require assistance, my lady?"
Razor stared at me. "Marco, get lost. That's none of your business."
"If you are going to carve up a visitor on my turf, it is my business," I said amiably, "so why don't you get lost and I forget about this little scene?"
He looked stupid for a moment. His pack snarled. So did Alys's bodyguard. I did not really feel like taking on twelve Brujah and most-likely-Gangrel-blooded Caitiff practically on my doorstep. "Now would be a good moment to have a tall building fall on these goons," I suggested in Alys's general direction.
"You would not like the fallout," she said.
Razor finally found a few brain cells willing to come to a conclusion for him. "You want her for yourself!" he exclaimed and started to laugh. "That's funny. Marco the pussyfoot having a snack on the side? Tell you what -- you leave her to me and I let you go."
"Tell you what," I countered, "you piss off and I don't kill you." There are times when being low-profile is damn annoying. He did not believe me.
"Does your prince know what his favorite tame Brujah poseur is up to?" he asked maliciously.
"I'd love to see you try to tell him," I replied. "Word is, Melmoth wants your guts for garters for his next drag show."
He attacked. I was prepared to counter with a blow that would part his useless head from his body, but before he reached me, a shot rang out and Razor burst into flames. Alys stood there, a smoking semiauto in her hand. "Who is next?" she asked. I used the opportunity to obfuscate all of us out of the anarchs' perceptions. While they stared dumbstruck at the smoking boots of their leader and tried to remember what they were looking for here when the battle was four blocks down the street, I led our small party to my shop. The bodyguard had returned to his normal size. In front of my door Alys turned to him. "From here on I will go alone," she said. He turned and strode away without another word. I opened the door. "Milady . . . ," And Alys the Gray stepped inside my shop for the third and last time.
I bolted the door, made sure that the shutters were still safely closed and turned to Alys. "Draw your Spirit Wards then, if you believe in them. We are starting."
She hesitated. "Now?" she asked.
"Are you reconsidering?"
"Only the possibility of the ruckus outside crashing the party," she said.
"An unexpected bonus," I said. "After all, I have to take you hunting when we are done."
If the thought scared her, it did not show on her face. "Vampire lore claims that it is common for a Sire to present the Childe's friends or loved ones to her as her first meal after the turning," she said. "Or, lacking those, at least some innocent children or nice old ladies."
"A boorish and petty practice," I said, "Fit for small-time sadists and power-trippers. I take pride in being neither the one nor the other."
She nodded and drew a couple of candles and a small package of a grainy substance from her bag. "I am going to work magic now," she said. "I am well-prepared, but it is still possible that my curse will catch up with me while I am doing this. You will notice if it does. In this case, kill me as quickly as possible."
I acknowledged that with a nod and sat down behind my table to watch her work her magic. To an ignoramus who expected magic to be flashy fireworks and Hollywood special effects it would have seemed disappointing. She lit a few candles, muttered a few words and spread some of the grainy substance into the corners. It took less than a minute, but I felt the power build, held in check by her will, and felt the spirits of the house groan and moan from the disturbance in their midst. My cats stalked into the room, one looking at the scene with wide orange eyes, the other crying in tune with the spirits. The shutters rattled and the sound of sirens came closer. I watched her closely, through the guise of flesh. Cool colors, controlled: no passion would ever touch Alys. Bright magic flowing through her, fed by flickering darkness at the core of her soul, but tightly leashed in chains of will and knowledge and a life dedicated to truth.
"Done," Alys said finally. Her magic formed a barrier inside which sound was hollow, and the Beast in my soul reared in protest as I forced it through the wall. In Alys's eyes there was nothing but detached calm. Her blood did not call to me.
"Shall I bare my neck?" she asked, and I wondered if somewhere behind her eyes she was smiling at the absurdity of it. Another thing feeding and sex have in common: when you stop to think about it, it is plain ridiculous. Well, that is what instincts are for. Preserve the species. But as long as she did not fear, or want, or anything . . . any emotion at all . . . my instincts would not be triggered.
She had opened the top button of her shirt. Her neck was pale and long, the pulsing vein clearly visible. I forced my canines out through an act of will and went through the motions, licking and sucking the skin to bring the blood close to the surface. Then I bit her.
Her blood was as bright and red and hot as it should be, but it tasted like ashes to me. Usually, mortals feel overwhelming pleasure at the bite of a Vampire, which makes feeding a lot easier. Alys did not, obviously. I bit deeper, unnecessarily, and heard her inhale sharply, as if in pain. My stomach started to rebel. She should at least feel fear.
So I started hurting her. She took it stoically, crying out a few times, but seeming untouched. But I am good at what I do, and slowly her resolve was breaking, and the darkness in her soul coiled and turned like a great snake, knowing it would be free soon.
Which would leave me facing a powerful, evil and most likely extremely pissed-off Mage. I should have known better than to make deals with Alys.
But then, suddenly, something shifted in her mind and she reclaimed control with a fierce determination and a courage as cold and sharp as a newly-forged blade, and my instincts latched onto this, this cold passion, and without any conscious act on my part I found myself drinking her blood greedily. It was like breathing snow, like the cold sting of pure alcohol, and I could not get enough, I chewed halfway through her neck in my desire to drink every single drop. She died without a sound and I let her slump to the ground, already vaguely annoyed by my lack of control.
Something was leaving, something dark which made a sound like bats' wings. She lay on the floor like the proverbial broken doll. I had mangled her pretty badly, and the shop looked like an abattoir. I contemplated Alys's dead body. Mortals, so easily broken, even the most powerful of them. And now it was up to me to remake her and keep my deal. I bit my wrist and bent over her, letting the blood flow into her mouth. Maybe it would not work. Sometimes it does not.
It seemed a long time before she opened her eyes again, and another long second passed before she grabbed my wrist and began to drink deep. It was a strange, light-headed sensation like I remembered drunkenness to be. I let her have enough to quell the first hunger, then I withdrew my wrist. She tried to hold on only for a moment, then she let go and focused inward. I saw her hand rising to touch the mess I had made out of her neck. "You can heal it," I said. "Use the blood. Do it now." I forced the knowledge on her through the blood I had given her and watched the wounds heal.
"I am hungry," she declared when it was done.
"Then let us go hunting," I said, and we went out to where the riots continued.
She hunted as I expected her to, with a cool, detached passion, sizing up her victims, choosing the perfect moment for an attack and letting them drop as soon as they lost consciousness. No one would notice a few more slightly damaged rioters. When the police brought in tear gas and water cannons, we made ourselves scarce.
We returned to my lair shortly before sunrise. Alys looked into a mirror, looked disgusted and started cleaning herself with the precision of the cat that ate the canary. She was still in the process of doing so when the sun rose and she fell asleep where she stood. I left her lying in the bathroom. Waking up wet and cramped would teach her to remember the sunrise.
The next night was clear and silent, and the stars shone through the city's dome of light. The wind blew from the sea and brought the first breath of spring with it. The city was quiet. The prince began a spring cleaning in the ranks, ordering everyone who might have had anything to do with the riots perform elaborate rituals of contrition before him. There were rumors of a hitherto unknown female kindred of great power inciting the riots. The sheriff did double shifts in harassing everyone who had not kept their noses clean in the last fifty-odd years. I considered it a bad time to start changing my patterns of behavior, sassed back at everyone who wanted me to be humble and got roughed up by some of the prince's bully boys who all met with unexplained fatal accidents over the next year.
Alys laid low, became a peroxide blonde and changed her attire to something she called 'grunge'. She mastered the powers of Seeing and of commanding animals with verve, but more than once I noticed her attempting some task I could not fathom before a shade of loss and despair rippled through her aura, and I knew that she knew what she had lost. I taught her the basics of Blood Sorcery, and she managed to upset all the spirits in the house. She did not exhibit any symptoms of Vicissitude. On the spring solstice I told her to leave, and she did.
It is May now. The damage of the winter has been repaired. A homeless drunk has been convicted of the boy's murder. The city breathes differently now that Alys is gone, with her curse and her darkness and her desire for truth. More small crimes and treacheries go unpunished without her around to hand down karma. Thomas's hold on the city is stronger than ever, and some days I feel the dragon under the city stirring in its chains that seem to have become tighter, bringing the city closer to The Big One, its anticipated apocalypse. Alys sent me an e-mail requesting a box of earth, so on the first of May I went down to the beach and shoveled sand into a carrier bag, putting the bag into a box and sending it to Nowhere, Montana. She also asked me to keep my eyes open for a child bearing the mark of the beast. I understand that she is hunting for her soul. And only when she has found it and destroyed it will her quest be resolved and the justice she strove for all her life been done.