--The flood of blood is rushing over
The dead are on their way to nowhere--
Paralysed Age; "Bloodsucker 2000"
The shadows shifted, moving from pillar to post as if the sun were passing rapidly overhead. Wes darted out of the passageway and moved swiftly through the dim corridors of the palazzo, taking note of the Kindred who lurked there; their alertness, their strength, tasting their age. He looked down the great staircase to the hall below, the torches burning bright in the circular room, illuminating the many doorways along the rounded walls.
Which to take? He vaulted over the railing and landed silently on the stone floor of the hall, pulling the shadows off the floor to cover himself. Perhaps a dozen Kindred of various flavors milled in the room in a kind of controlled panic, tense and waiting and looking to each other as if expecting the enemy to come blasting through the front door.
The enemy is here, you fang-faced fops. We're here, and you'll never know what hit you.
Four hours to daylight. Tori settled herself in the window and stared at Merando's piazza, willing something, anything, to happen. The building was too still, as if its inhabitants were holding their collective breath, waiting for what would come.
Something was wrong. She knew it in her bones. What she'd been sent to do, it didn't make sense. A Prince would take great delight in killing a traitor himself and making sure that all knew the consquences of betrayal. He wouldn't have it done in secret. And how treacherous could this Toreador be, if he was leading the forces into the piazza?
Someone was lying.
Every corridor stank of dead air, the still, unmoving atmosphere of a rats' nest in the walls. Wes moved slowly around the room, noting that each passageway led to a series of steps heading further into the bowels of the city. Wes hung back just inside an opening in the north wall, watching the pattern of movement, seing which door attracted the most powerful, or servile, Kindred.
A female approached swiftly and started down the steps at Wes' side. The shadows reached for her, took her by the throat. Red flared up in Wes' head as his hands clenched and spasmed.
A drop of blood clung to the corner of his mouth. Slowly, delicately, he licked it away.
No one heard the body fall.
No one knew when the darkness came for them.
He watched a male Ventrue walk across the floor, saw the turning heads and heard the whispers of the gathered as the man disappeared down a corridor on the western side of the hall. The Malkavian drew the shadows with him as he moved smoothly towards that door. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw movement. A woman turned toward him, looked straight at him.
She wore a dark suit and the silvery symbols of a Warlock. Her eyes glittered in the dim light as she smiled.
The shout had barely begun to echo before Wedge broke away from the others and pushed into the palazzo itself. He took no notice of his companions, nor of the Kindred that stood, very briefly, in his way.
A handful of bodies lay incapacitated or dead in the great round hall. He spun around, trying to decide which of the doorways to take. Hobbie pushed past him and headed toward the western wall, flying down the steps into the darkness below.
A woman, a female Tremere, barred the way. In her hand she held a ball of fire, its light glinting off the silver amulets she wore. Hobbie huddled at the base of the steps, hiding his face. The Gangrel hung back, the fire dancing in his mind as an inferno, burning them all and the city together. The woman smiled, a slow spread of lips, and the flames pulsed in her palm.
"Do you dare, Outlander? The Toreador will not come near me, and your lurker has fallen." The fire grew, dripping like water from her fingertips. She casually flicked a droplet toward Wedge, laughing when he flinched away. He couldn't stop her; he couldn't even approach her. Hobbie lay on the floor, shielding his eyes as if the small fire were blinding him; he was no good against this magic.
A quiet chuckle behind him-- Wedge turned-- Celchu came down the steps smiling.
"Enoying yourself?" the woman asked, weaving the fire between her fingers.
"I can think of things I'd rather be doing," he replied, stepping between the Warlock and his fellows. "I'll get to them as soon as I take care of you."
"Try it, golden boy." Flames leapt out of him, and the Prince ducked to the side. His eyes narrowed as he focused on the woman's face.
"Stand aside," he said forcefully.
She swayed, then stopped, then glared. "You're afraid. I can read your aura."
Celchu straightened. "Move aside and let us pass."
Her eyes lost focus as her feet shuffled slowly, unwilling. A fine tremor ran along her body as she fought his power, as the flames trembled in her palm and hung from her fingertips and began to melt her skin as she lost control.
Footsteps pounded across the marble hall as the Tremere screamed in agony. The Prince grabbed Hobbie's arm and hauled him upright, shoving him back toward the noise. "Keep them busy-- I'll find Merando."
"And Wes." Wedge crouched, ready to leap at the first guard who appeared. "She took him somewhere."
The Prince paused, then smiled. "I'll send him out."
He lay in the dark where she cast him. Nothing moved, no gossamer air touched his skin in the cool black of the tomb. She'd spit fire at him, pushing him deeper into the night where the enemy hid until he felt the air heavy on his flesh and the serpent coiling tightly inside him. His hands groped the cool stone floor, reaching for nothing that his brain could grasp. The ground twisted under him, bending around his mind, casting him out and back as he reached for the shadow of himself on the wall.
The dragon-woman was gone, and the dark was soft and cool. Something cold and hateful rose from the stones. It grinned in the dark.
He felt the creature before he saw it. A brush of air, a soundless sound-- then the mask that hid the Beast. Celchu looked into Wes' blue eyes, now dark with madness, and felt a moment of panic as he wondered who its first victim would be. Hades glanced at him, gave a soft, beautiful smile, and passed him by. From the corridor came the sounds of a battle growing much worse.
Celchu slowed his pace. The hallway was much the same as it had been, perhaps a bit more worn. It flashed in his mind as he walked along the corridor, hearing the echoes of his footsteps from centuries past. The distance closed swiftly; the years rushed on to him, and he pushed open a massive door.
The Prince sat on his throne, an ornate gilded seat on a dais. He looked up at Celchu's entrance, and smiled.
"Hello, my Sire," Celchu whispered. Merando rose and swept down the steps that led to his throne.
"My, my. Tycho, you've been a bad boy." Merando reached out, his hand brushing the dark streaks lacing the younger Ventrue's aura. The young Prince stepped back and Merando laughed, curling his hand into the wisps of black. "Livingstone, I presume?"
Celchu froze, eyes widening. "You can see it. How can you see it?"
"I gave up the power of sight to become immortal... but there are ways, my Childe, ways beyond the dreams of the darkest Sith... and I am more powerful now than I ever imagined." With a flick of his wrist, the Prince of Rome sent his errant childe flying backward, striking the wall with enough force to kill a human. His laugh slithered along Celchu's spine. "How long did you hide away? Not more than a year, I would imagine. A year of penance, to hide the mark of your sin."
The Tremere. The slave to magic that caught Wes lurking in the shadows-- they knew how to see the mark, even years later. "The bastard Warlock taught you, didn't she? She taught you all their nasty little secrets."
Merando's hand moved languidly through the air, lifting the blonde man. "How fared your city then, with Livingstone dead and you hidden away? Who ruled in your stead?"
The younger prince struggled, breaking his sire's grip. He fell to the floor, cursing, and forced himself upright. "I ruled, as I ruled for years. No one needed to know that he was gone, when he'd spent so many years tucked away in his haven." Pride gripped him, and he straightened. "I had the ruling of the city long before I drank his soul."
"Of course. You are strong, stronger than I dared to dream-- but I am stronger still. I can read your sins as they float about your head, and if you think to end me as easily as you did your other master, you are much mistaken."
"I would not have your blood to save my life. I would not carry you with me forever."
An invisible hand forced him to his knees. Gasping against the pain, he heard Merando's voice. "You have my blood, you sniveling coward. I gave you life once, and you will carry me until the night you die." The Sith stalked closer and bent over his Childe. "And that night, my young apprentice, is tonight."
A hand shot up and grabbed him by the throat. Celchu rose and carried the momentum into his arm, slamming the Roman prince into the stone floor. He rushed forward, but Merando was faster, planting his feet into Celchu's chest and sending him flying. The younger man scrambled to his feet and struck out at the dark blur that rushed toward him. His hand connected with nothing more substantial than air, and he fell beneath a mammoth blow.
He was strong, yes, he was stronger than this. He could heal anything-- he had the power. Merando's power, Livingstone's power. And his own. Never forget his own, and that was strongest of all. The young Prince struck out again, connecting with something too soft to be bone. A 'whuff' of air let him know where the blow landed, and he struck higher this time, into a jaw so hard that his knuckles ached. His legs were swept out from under him, and he grabbed at Merando's robes. They hit the floor together, grasping and grappling and tearing and Celchu felt a dullness at the back of his head before stars exploded in the front.
Stunned, he lay helpless against the stones. A hand gripped his wrist-- heat shot through him. The blood in his veins turned to fire; it boiled under his skin and he opened his mouth and began to scream.
Continued in Part Twenty-Two