-- "Night sky and the city start blending in silence and shadow.
The bright lights and crowds never tempt me; they miss the point.
Can you tell me how I feel?
How would you know?" --
Sunshine Blind, "Cold From Fever"
The Ventrue delegates were seated around the table chattering amongst themselves when Celchu entered and sealed the door.
"Report." He declined to sit at the head of the table and began to pace around the room. The others stared at him, unsettled by his restlessness.
A handsome man whose ebony skin had a dull pallor spoke first. His voice was tinged with the lilt of a West African aristocrat-- Emehís sire was the Prince of Monrovia, the capital of Liberia.
"Though we in lower Africa have not been touched as closely as Europe and the Americas-- likely Merando thinks us beneath his notice-- we too have had strange reports. Maurauding bands of Malkavians are killing Kindred of all clans. Except we Ventrue," he acknowledged the others at the table. "Lately weíve heard of village uprisings, always prompted by the murder of a child."
Emeh paused, then continued vehemently. "No one under our Prince would do such a thing, not even our insane. We know how delicate the balance of our lives is, how easily one poorly hidden body can upset that balance."
Celchu stopped behind the dark man and laid a hand on his shoulder. "No one doubts this," he said comfortingly. "You live under one of the most civilized Princes in the world."
The blond Prince calculated his frown to just the right mix of consternation and anger. "Is this the plight of all our people?" He looked around the table at the delegates sent from Princes around the world, and at one Prince himself-- Santiago, deposed ruler of Caracas, Venezuela. The killings in that city gave the anarchist clans the excuse to run Santiago out of the country. He made his way to New York and acknowledged Celchuís superiority, hoping for help.
Solemnly, they all nodded. Celchu finally sat, leaning relaxed against the back of his chair. "And are we all in agreement as to the source of this distress?"
"Merando!" A huge fist pounded the oak table. Nureyev, an Elder from St Petersburg, stood, his eyes betraying the anger he barely controlled. "That bastard must be stopped! Heíll bring us all down!"
"Sit, Nureyev." Celchuís voice was soft but firm. "There are no hysterics here."
The older man glared at him with flaming eyes, then gave in to the young Princeís authority.
"He is correct," Santiago murmured. "I believe we all remember Merandoís last escapade. From 1782-84 our people lived in terror. Though we Ventrue were in no danger--he wanted us alive-- he took great pleasure in eliminating the other clans."
Emeh sighed. "It seems he is doing so again. But why, after all this time, *why*?"
"I donít understand what he hopes to accomplish," a young woman remarked. The only female present, she was the delegate from Sydney. Celchu couldnít recall her name and didnít bother trying. She continued, "Even if we did not have a responsibility to lesser clans, we do need them in order to rule. We cannot be Pharoahs without our Egyptians."
"True." Celchu smiled at her, then let a slight frown of dismay crease his forehead. "And even here, in my great city, these atrocities have occured. Just last night we discovered the remains of one of my Kindred in a subterranean lightshaft. We cannot, of course, determine who he or she was, but with him lay a gold circlet."
"And on the walls?" Nureyev demanded.
"Here lies the body of a Prince," Celchu confirmed.
Santiagoís eyes grew wide. "He is threatening you, Celchu. He used to call it ĎThe Royal Treatmentí-- heíd kill some lesser Kindred as a warning to that personís Prince, and leave the body in that exact manner."
All eyes turned to Celchu, some pitying, some wondering. The object of their attention looked at each of them in turn, then nodded as though making a monumentous decision.
"Those of you who remember the Dark Times-- Merandoís last rampage-- may know that he sired a young Ventrue to follow him, be his aide, his right hand, and to take over if Merando ever stepped down. That Ventrue was me."
Some were already aware; others gaped and stared, seeing Celchu now less as a jumped-up, and more as the proper heir to a throne. He knew they were calculating his generation and discovering that he was far stronger than they previously believed. He was, after all, of the fifth generation; most of them were of the ninth or tenth, twice as removed from the original power as he. There was not one person present who was stronger than he.
"I rejected him, obviously," Clechuís voice broke the silence. "And fled here to New York, where Livingstone," the group silently honored the former Prince, "took me in, taught me all he knew. In a sense, he was my true sire, he made me what I am. When he stepped down, I succeeded him." He waited for them to digest his tale.
"Merando hates me for my betrayal, as I despise his blithe coldness. And I know him perhaps better than anyone save himself. For these reasons, I would like nothing more than to see him fall." He stood, spread his hands. "Tell your Princes that if they will stand behind me, I will defeat Merando and end this terror."
"And set yourself up as Prince of Rome?" Nureyev sounded suspicious. "To be our Pope, as it were?"
Celchu smiled innocently. "Iím sure there are others much better suited to that than myself. I prefer to stay in my own little town, caring for my own people." His voice deepened and his face slipped into menacing lines.
"Merando must be stopped."
The last of the delegates filed out, and Celchu shut the door behind them. As he turned back to the long boardroom table, he was startled by the sound of slow clapping.
Fonteyn stepped out of a dark alcove. "Brilliant, my Prince. Or shall I say ĎMy Pope?í"
"Save that for when I have Rome." Celchu sat on the table, his legs dangling. "That will be a nice bonus-- kill Merando and take his seat. Theyíll beg me to, of course; who better to rule than their saviour?"
Fonteun laughed politely. "If you have a moment to spare, I have something for you."
"Not Breiman again, Iíve had done with him for a while."
"No, I found this myself."
"A present for me?" Celchu stood and headed for the door. "And I didnít get you anything."
They walked through the vaults, Celchu jovial, Fonteyn smug. The vault where theyíd stood a week before was dark and silent, and the Prince paused.
"In there?" Fonteyn nodded and walked ahead, toward the large cage. Celchu thought he saw a shadow in the corner. His aide reached for the light, then paused.
"Keep your hands back."
"He bites, spits, hisses, and scratches. Heís a bad boy." The light came on, flooding the chamber.
A wet, shivering figure stood in the corner, wrapped in a blanket. He leaned against the bars, his back to the observors. Celchu could see that he was shorter than average, but broad and strong. He tuned a little, and his left hand came up to his shoulder to clutch at the blanket. The skin was covered with blazing red blisters.
"Why is he wet?" Celchu whispered.
"He jumped out of the boat when we brought him through the harbor channel."
A the sound of the voices, the figure turned, revealing rich brown hair that flowed to his shoulders. He peered at Celchuís face; their eyes met and the Prince felt a jolt of recognition at the intense blue orbs. He stepped closer.
The man spun away and gave a long, shuddering moan. Ignoring Foteynís warnings, Celchu circled the cage, trying to force the other man to look at him, but the other continued to turn away. Calling him by name only seemed to increase his panic.
Fonteyn laid a hand on the Princeís arm. "Itís no use. He doesnít seem to recall anything, not even his name, and he explodes if anyone talks to him."
"How many guards did he kill?" Celchu asked suddenly.
"Three." Fonteyn sounded surprised. "How did you know?"
"Itís what he was trained to do." Celchu reached out to the miserable man, then thought better of it and pulled away. Turning to his aide, he murmured, "Get him out of there. Take all necessary precautions, but get him somewhere comfortable. See to it that heís fed."
He looked Fonteyn in the eye. "He used to be a good man. Whatever he is now, he doesnít deserve this."
"It will be done."
Troubled, the Prince made his way to his apartments and threw himself onto his bed. Rubbing his hands over his face, he thought about the thing in the cage. Sithspit. Wes wasnít a killer. He wasnít a beast. He doesnít know me. He said he didnít know me...
The girl was safely stashed in an abandoned building and liberally dosed with wine. Tycho hated what he was doing, but he had no choice. Wes was clearly too weak to hunt, but he could be brought to her and taught to drink. Tycho would have taken the girl back to their room, but he didnít want Hobbie to see. Hopefully one of them could be kept out of this nightmare.
His mind reeled as he thought over the last few days. The attack on Wes, losing Wedge in that fight, being dragged off to the Palazzo. And Merando, filling his ears with tales of power and pleasure beyond his wildest imaginings.
And so it was. The power he was learning, the pleasure heíd understood immediately-- more acute than orgasm, more addictive than glitterstim, Tycho wondered how he ever lived without it. No wonder Wes had worn himself out in his hungry frenzy.
Tycho turned the corner and stared in horror. The door to their room was off its hinges. He rushed into the little space to see chairs overturned, the blankets ripped down and his friends gone. He ran out into the street, but saw no one who resembled Wes or Hobbie, no one looking suspicious, nothing.
He intended to turn back the way heíd come, when a sound came from the alley. Cautiously, he approached what appeared to be a bundle of cloth. Tycho swore and wished for a candle, then reached out to touch the pile. It was made of flesh and bone and it whimpered when he poked at it.
"Wes!?" The whimper came louder. "Oh, sith! Hang on, Iíll get you out of this."
Tycho removed the gag, and his first impulse was to shove it right back in. Wes screamed at the top of his lungs, shouting for Wedge, Hobbie, even Tycho, despite repeated assurances that Tycho was right beside him and everything would be alright.
Feet were pounding down the street, alarmed shouts filled the air. Tycho hauled Wes to his feet and hissed, "At ease, Lieutenant." Amazingly, the Rogue stopped struggling and looked at Tycho expectantly. "Enemy on our tails. Head north." He pushed Wes ahead of him, out the opposite end of the alley.
They made it to the old building without further incident, though Wes was weak and clearly in pain. Tycho put his arm around his comradeís shoulders and guided him along.
"They took Hobbie," Wes whispered desperately.
"Weíll find him," Tycho promised. He shoved the warped wooden door open and led Wes inside.
The girl was sitting on a crate, looking bored and annoyed. Her dark hair spilled over her half-covered bosom as she smiled fetchingly at the two men and held out the bottle of wine. Tycho took it from her and set it on the floor, then brushed her hair back from her face, forcing down the sick feeling in his stomach. He tried to rationalize-- she was a prostitute, nobody cared about her anyway, there were dozens of horrific ways for her to die and this was among the lesser ones-- and coupled with his memory of the feeding frenzy, he managed to push his conscience away.
Without preamble, he bent and bit her neck. She shrieked and struggled, but Tycho held on until he suceeded in creating an opening for his friend. As the girl cried and begged, Tycho thrust her at Wes, saying, "Drink." He turned away as Wes fed, trying to ignore the girlís dying cries.
The Alderaanian didnít notice when the sounds stopped, or when the silence became a palpable entity in the room. He was startled when a choking sob broke through the barriers of his mind. Turning, he saw Wes sitting on the floor, cradling the girl. The muscled pilot looked up at his friend, stricken.
Tycho nodded, uncertain how to proceed. He went to his friend, gripped the other manís forearms and pulled him up. The lifeless body dropped to the ground, and Wes jerked away at the hollow sound.
Wesí mouth worked, but no words came. Tycho had never seen his comrade appear so shocked or heartsick, and he felt a pang of disquiet. Why didnít I felt so guilty at my first kill?
"Look at me." He took Wesí baby face in his hands and forced the other man to look only at him, blue eyes locked with blue eyes.
"You had to. No choice, Wes. It kept you alive."
"I donít understand." The other manís voice cracked.
"When you were attacked, the creature that bit you--" Wes nodded. "It gave you some of its blood, didnít it? Youíve become like it..."
"No." The dark pilotís voice dropped to a whisper.
"... and like it, you need to drink blood to live." Wes tried to pull away, but Tycho held him. "Itís happened to me, too, Wes."
Wes shuddered, his eyes darting around the room. "What am I, Tycho? What does this mean? Whereís Wedge?"
"Heís gone, Wes." The dark man stared, disbelieving. "A group of Kindred attacked us near a gathering place. They..." Tychoís voice was rough. "I saw him there. He was already gone."
"No." Wes pressed the heel of his hand to his forehead, his fingers curling into claws.
Sensing the other manís growing panic, Tycho forced himself to slow down, step back, and adopt a conversational tone. "Let me take a look at that hand."
Wes obliged, and Tycho ran his finger over the scar, still so red and puckered that it appeared ready to start bubbling again.
"Iím sorry we didnít believe you, when you told us that the sun burnt you. You were right. Itís why we can only move at night."
The hand was pulled back with a force that almost knocked Tycho over. "Thatís impossible."
"I know. But the part of you that says so, itís getting smaller, isnít it? Youíve seen the truth of it. You feel the thirst..."
"I feel INSANE!" Wes bellowed. He started to turn, saw the girlís corpse, and jerked his head back so sharply that Tycho was certain heíd have whiplash. The muscular pilot clenched his fists, trembling with barely controlled rage. When he spoke, his voice quavered dangerously.
"Iím changing, Tych. I can feel it, like a disease, like the Krytos virus. Itís killing me from the inside out. Itís in my head..." His voice trembled. "Telling me to explode, telling me to attack; voices taking over my brain." This time he did look at the body, then started to back away, shaking his head and rubbing his temples with still-tense hands.
"I killed her."
"Youíve killed before."
"Because they were dangerous. Because they were attacking me, or a shipful of innocents. Not because I was fucking THIRSTY!"
He slammed his fist onto a table, shattering the brittle wood. Tycho scrambled backward as Wes advanced on him.
"You needed the blood," he tried to reason.
"I see, I want, I take? I donít do that, Tycho. I used her like she was nothing, and you say itís all good? I donít know you." He turned and stalked toward the door.
Tycho ran after him and grabbed his arm. "Wes, you canít just..." He felt the other manís forearm connect with his chin and fell sprawling on the floor.
"I DONíT KNOW YOU!" Wes shuddered violently, pale bloody tears flowing down his face. "And I donít know me, either." *
Tycho tossed uneasily on his bed. What could have changed Wes so drastically? Was it the Malkavian blood, or had something happened to him after he ran off? Did he feel betrayed by Tycho-- had that driven him mad?
Listen to yourself, Celchu. All this fuss over a Malkav, just because you have some sentimental attachment to the man he used to be. That thing isnít your friend; itís just a madman in Wesí body. Your only worry should be whether he can be used. Remember that.
On to Chapter Six