--It's hard to believe that you are the same one
That once meant so much to our love so true
It's hard to know I've worshipped a false one
But I've paid my debt dear what about you --
The Stanley Brothers; "What About You"
The vampire screamed as Wedge lifted him high and slammed him against the marble floor. He lay there, stunned, as the melee went on around him. Most of Merando's forces had been sent out to the treacherous Tristana in Venice as well as to nearer cities with rebellious Princes, but the core of his guard remained. Yet even these seasoned fighters had little strength against the Rogues. Fueled by anger, by revenge, by madness, they fought ferociously against the Romans.
Hades left his opponent a crumpled mess on the ground and straightened, eyes darting around the hall. He heard the call; it echoed against the walls and crashed into him, a wave of sound. Another guard rushed him; he dispatched the Kindred easily, fangs ripping flesh as easily as a vibroblade. He felt the snake rippling through him, felt it guiding his hands to rip and tear and beat. But something was calling to him, something deeper and greater than the blood that stained his killing hands.
Beside him, the wolf lifted his head, tasted the air, and was gone.
He screamed in agony as the fire ate through his veins to his skin. Frantically he grasped at Merando's hands, trying to pry them away before the damage was too great.
A cry-- a growl-- the Prince forced his eyes open and saw Merando, bleeding from deep cuts in his face. Something moved in the shadows and Merando turned-- too slowly, his arm ripped and pulled until it hung useless in its socket. Wedge closed in, yelping as his neck was twisted in a killing blow-- if he were human.
Instead he rocked back, gathered his strength, and pushed a fist halfway through the Merando's midsection. Merando screamed and gripped Wedge's arm tightly, calling the flames into himself and pushing it outward--
The Gangrel broke away, cradling his arm. The stench of burnt flesh filled the chamber. Merando held his own arm over his stomach, the better to keep all his parts in place as the combatants circled each other.
"You've come running to his rescue?" Merando asked as Wedge straightened, the pain leaving his face. "You're stronger than I thought, my wolf."
"I'm not your wolf." Wedge bared his teeth. "And you know nothing of my strength."
Hobbie turned toward the doorway to Merando's audience chamber. Wedge and Tycho were down there, alone, down there facing whatever Merando had planned for them. The fallen lay at his feet, jeweled blood snaking across the smooth floor as the dead and dying ended their long journeys.
He felt the heavy stare and turned around. The creature with the pretty blue eyes gazed at him; not challenging, but wondering. At Hobbie's questioning look, he crossed the floor and looked down the narrow steps.
"The ghosts are there," he whispered. "They've come for me."
Hobbie shook his head and reached out to his friend. "No one's come for you, Wes--" he drew back at the fierce look in the other man's eyes.
"You don't know what we've done." The Malkavian shuddered. "He knows. That's why he's gone."
Something gripped the creature; pain flashed across its face and someone else looked out from its eyes.
"I know how this will end."
The pair broke apart and Wedge struggled to stem the blood gushing from his chest. "Laugh now, Merando--"
"Is this the part where you tell me I can't win?" The Prince of Rome smiled. "Unless you've got reinforcements better than the two you left upstairs, I'm afraid I have the upper hand."
Tycho pushed himself upright, gripping the wall for support. "If you knew we were coming, why didn't you stop us sooner?"
"And deny you the pleasure of facing me? After you worked so hard to bring this about?" Merando smiled and shook his head. "I must say, your planning was impeccable. I can't think of anyone else who could so coldly orchestrate those mass killings you blamed on me."
The Alderaanian looked stunned. Wedge put a hand on Tycho's chest, afraid his injured friend would attack the older Prince.
"Talk all you like, Merando," he growled. "In the end, you'll die."
"Surely you don't mean that you knew all this, my wolf? I would never have believed that you would be a part of his manipulations." The Ventrue gave him a chiding little frown. "And everything I have on you says that you're terribly honorable. So honorable that you can't even feed."
"I'll feed from you before the dawn," the Gangrel promised.
He rushed at the Prince, claws swinging into empty air as the Ventrue swept aside. Moving too fast to see, Merando slammed into him, taking him to the floor in a flurry of fangs and claws. They rolled across the floor, grappling with each other. Merando slammed his hand against Wedge's face, pushing back the snapping fangs. Wedge watched him try to center himself, try to call the fire, and slammed his head against the rough stone floor before the Ventrue could gather his strength. Merando shoved at him, knocking him back long enough to raise to his knees.
He was almost to his feet when claws cut through the air and scraped his throat. Wedge stared down at him with blank, cold eyes.
"You killed my friends," he said quietly, as ice trickled down the Ventrue's spine. "You killed us all."
"Kill me, and the monster still lives." He glanced at Celchu, painfully crossing the floor. "Your Prince is my Childe, my blood. Everything you accuse me of, he has also done."
Fury filled Wedge's veins. "There is no comparison. You've killed thousands; you've killed innocents." His claws dug deeper. "Now it's your turn to die."
Merando's focused on the angry brown eyes of the Gangrel. "I speak the truth, my wolf." His voice grew deeper, more insistent. "Ask your great friend who killed the innocents in Liberia? Who killed the children in your own land?"
"Kill him now, Wedge," Tycho rasped, "or I will."
He didn't believe Merando. He couldn't believe him, not after all that he'd done. The Prince would think nothing of accusing his own Childe to save himself.
"Tycho?" Wedge looked over, stared straight into the eyes of the man he'd trusted with his life too many times to count. They stared back, unflinching, and he knew.
"You killed Livingstone." His voice was heavy with rage. "You killed Lilian."
"I never touched Li--"
"Everything you blamed on your Sire, you did it all."
"I had to!" The shout burst from his throat. His hand clutched at Wedge's shoulder. "No one would move against him unless he started killing again."
Wedge fell to his knees, covering his eyes. Tycho's voice rose and fell in his ears, nonsensical words melting in the air as he struggled to comprehend. Merando crouched unmoving before him, so easy to strike out and end it-- but would it end-- could it end, with Tycho there, and so many gone, so many, and who to blame-- and Tycho right behind him, hand on his shoulder, trying to pull him up, trying to tell him, trying to--
Tycho's mouth opened in a silent scream, and he sank to the floor as Wedge's claws opened him from navel to neck.
Continued in Part Twenty-Three