The pair stood on the roof of a derelict office building. Above them was the smoggy Denver sky, intruded upon by the downtown skyline. The presence of two people on the roof was incongrous, but unnoticed by the occasional drivers-by; the neighborhood discouraged food traffic. Their expressions were somber and had a person been close enough, the smell of cordite and sweat would have been almost nauseating. The shorter of the two was a young man, Travis, no more than twenty-five, clad in black jeans and tee shirt, who breathed and moved carefully as he walked back and forth across the roof. The second person, Aimee, was a tall woman in her mid thirties wearing a casual business suit. She stood absolutely still as she gazed into the middle distance, her arms folded tightly across her body. They both projected an aura of both menace and vulnerability as discernable and yet intangible as the early spring wind around them.

Aimée regarded the ruins of the chantry, and looked back at Travis, who had ceased moving and stood now by her side. It was too late to accuse, or claim guilt, far too late. From the outside, and to the mundane senses, the converted warehouse that they both gazed upon seemed undamaged, but to Aiméeís eyes, it was a husk. It took nearly three years to build this chantry, and ten minutes to tear it down, Aimee sighed mentally.

She had gotten Travisí frantic phone call only twenty minutes ago. She had been out running now-meaningless errands. Social services had stopped by, he had told her, apparently investigating reports of runaways staying within the chantry. Travis knew they werenít social services, but had found out too late to prevent their arrival.

Aimée shook her head, trying to keep sorrow and regret at bay. When she had arrived, they were already gone, and most of the chantry with them. Paradox spirits, seemingly hundreds of them, lurked nearby. Even now, with the node drained and destroyed, and no more magic being used, the spirits still lingered, perhaps hoping that the last two Awakened beings in the area might amuse them. Travis and Aimée knew better than that.

"What are you going to do?" Travis asked Aimée. He had been hurt during the conflict, but they both knew heíd be alright.

Aimée sighed. "What else can I do? Iíve got to find Anna, and the rest of them if I can."

Travis looked at her. "Aimée-" he began

"I donít want to hear it!" she snapped. "I know itís probably futile. I know itís almost certainly too late for them, but I have to try." Aimée swallowed her fear. "Sheís all I have left, Travis. I raised her. I canít let them take her."

Travis shook his head. "If itís any consolation, I know Thor and Brian got away, they headed into the Umbra. Tina disappeared into the horizon realm and pulled it closed behind her. I assume she took Thomasina with her."

Aimée shrugged. "Thatís something. Hell, if they were the only ones missing, I could at least count on them to look after themselves. But they got the kids. Core, Cass, Johnny and the rest."

"And Anna." Travis added unnecessarily.

"And Anna." They were silent for a long moment. They were sitting on the roof of the empty office building across the street from what used to be their home. Travisí usually black clothes and own unobtrusiveness caused him to almost disappear against the tarpapered wall he leaned against. Aimee almost wished she could disappear - a little harder when a person is six feet tall and likes to wear lighter colors.

"How did they find us?" Aimée asked finally. "I thought the Verdads had taken care of feigning the adoptions."

"I donít know." Travis sighed. "If Iíd known of a weakness, I would have countered it."

Aimée nodded. "Youíre right, Travis. Iím sorry, I didnít mean to sound like Iím blaming you."

"Of course not." he said wryly. "Iím doing a good enough job of that, myself."

"So what are you going to do?" Aimée asked.

Travis shrugged. "I have a bit of cash, some stuff I can pawn, and a few friends. I think I can make it to Delhi on that. Eventually."

Aimée nodded. "You should be safe there. Well, unless thereís another war."

"Bite your tongue." Travis smiled. "Well, I want to take my time getting there. No point in guaranteeing the Techies following me."

"Yeah." There was no question of Travis accompanying Aimée on her search. They both knew when the other wanted to work alone. Travis stood up, wincing slightly. "So I guess this is so long." he said quietly.

"Hardly that."Aimée almost smiled. "Call it au revoir."

Travis pulled a face. "Youíre being pretentious again."

"It's a coping mechanism."Aimée sighed.

"Is that what it is this time?"Aimée gave him a long look, smiling faintly. "When shall I look for you again? Should I look for you?" He asked bluntly.

Aimée frowned and looked back at the empty warehouse. "Yes, but not for a while. Give me...give me a year." she decided. "A nice round number. Things will be sorted out by then, for good or bad."

Travis nodded. "Okay. A year from today." he held out his hand.

Aimée unchained a delicate silver chain that hung around her neck and placed it in Travisí hand. "Here." she said. "Itíll make finding me easier. Iíve had it for a while." It was her sixteenth birthday present from her mentor.

Travis didnít say anything, but placed it in his pocket. He made as if to remove a signet ring from his left hand, but stopped when Aimée shook her head. "No, you might need it for money." she warned him. "Iíve got a few more reliable cash connections than you do, and, besides, you know Iím pretty good at Ďguessingí where people are."

Travis smiled. "Yeah..." he held out his hand again and Aimée shook it. "In a year."

Aimée frowned. "Just donít hock the necklace. Iíll be wanting that back." She smiled. "Weíll find each other." She assured him.

She stood up and walked towards the fire escape on one side of the building. "Be careful." she warned him, and, with a wave, jumped down out of his view.

 

The Cadaver Club was an appropriate place to be meeting a vampire, Aimée decided. The pleasantly run down Victorian building in downtown Denver was a literary club, founded over a century ago by a morbid gentleman of substantial wealth. It had originally been intended as a gentlemanís club catering to those with a legal interest in death; authors, detectives and amateur criminologists had been amongst the clientele. Later, it was "discovered" by the vampires of the city and quickly assimilated. The larger part of the club still catered to policemen, writers and fans of the unpleasant, but there was a private area, "The Crypt", for special members, and selected guests.

The decor might not have changed in the past century. Wingback chairs, shelves stuffed with comfortable books, gloominess punctuated by pools of light and hushed conversation dominated. Aimée assumed that the Toreador of Denver had indulged in too many films and cosy Victorian novels. But she wasnít there for the decor. She was waiting for Julian Ascari, the Prince of Denver.

Julian entered the room on the first chime of eleven pm. As usual, he was wearing a finely cut, slightly old fashioned suit, that complimented his somewhat old fashioned Italian features. If it wasnít for his lack of metabolism, Aimée might have considered him attractive, but they were bound by something more tangible and lasting than passing fancy.

Accompanying Julian came the usual four or five lethal bodyguards. Aimée had heard Julian declare that he was quite secure in his position. She wondered how an insecure prince would cope. She noticed that his presence must have been a surprise to some of the few Kindred in the room, as they hurriedly moved aside, or bent their heads towards each other to exchange their own imagined reasons for his presence. None of them knew of the relationship between him and Aimée. At least, Aimée hoped that was so.

Julian moved with a grace that only several centuries of existence could give a being, and sat down in the vacant chair opposite Aimée. He waited until his bodyguards had settled themselves in what was apparently their usual position and waited for her to open the conversation.

"My chantry was destroyed earlier today." she told him without preamble. Neither of them had time for social delicacy.

Julian seemed surprised, a first for their seven yearís acquaintance. "Iím sorry to hear that." he said simply.

"Whatever." Aimée replied brusquely. "Iíll have time for sympathy later. Some of my cabal have gone missing and I want to find them."

Julian nodded slowly. "Of course, whatever influence I have-"

"Your areas of influence, if they arenít already infiltrated by the Technocracy, probably wonít be of much use to me, sorry. Iíll use my own ways of finding them." She informed him. "But what I do need is money. I canít use credit cards, Iíll get wasted within hours."

"That would follow." Julian agreed. "How much do you need?"

"You donít understand." Aimée shook her head. "I wonít take a loan. Thatíll get in my way, distract me. Iím asking if you need any work done. Any unruly neonates that need to be taken care of."

Julian regarded the ceiling for a moment. "I see." He looked back at her. "Plus you think you might not live long enough to pay me back." he added.

"Damn mind readers." Aimée sighed, even though she knew that guess hadnít taken any special effort. "Thatís part of it, too." she admitted.

Julian drummed his pale fingers on the arm of his chair and beckoned the closest bodyguard over. He whispered momentarily in his ear and dismissed the guard back to his post.

"I have someone." Julian told her after another momentís thought. "It should be fairly easy for you. I have something that belongs to her." The Prince had learned quite a lot about Aimée's abilities over the years.

Aimée nodded. "Thatíll be helpful. Any day help?"

"I doubt it. She canít afford any, unless sheís been stealing even more than I thought." he told her.

"I see." They were both silent for a few moments.

"How much do you want for this?" Julian asked her.

Aimée shrugged. "Iíve never actually killed for money before. What were you thinking of offering me?"

Julian took a blank card out of his pocket and wrote a number down on it with a slender silver pen that came from the same pocket, like this was something he did every night. He passed the card to her. "Howís that?" he asked. "In used bills, of course."

Aimée glanced briefly at the card. It was a more than adequate sum. "Deal." she nodded. "Any, ah, deadline?"

She winced at the inadvertent pun but Julian apparently ignored it. "As soon as possible. The woman has become rather bothersome."

Aimée nodded again. "Thatís fine. If you need me, leave a message with Charlie down in the sewers. I donít want to use phones or written messages if I can avoid it."

Julian raised an eyebrow. "You consider the Nosferatu more reliable than..." he paused. "Of course." he capitulated. "Might I offer you the hospitality of one of my properties for the evening? You know youíre safe there."

Aimée shook her head, genuinely disappointed. "Iím sorry, Julian, but normal rules arenít applying anymore. Itís best that you donít know where I am."

"If you think thatís best, then I believe you. Can you remain here for an hour or two? Iíll get that information you need."

Aimée nodded. "Sure, if the Technocracy has already found this place, well, itís too late already."

"Such fatalism." Julian murmured.

Aimée sighed. "Iím more fatalistic than most, Iíll grant you. Just get me that information and Iíll get to work."

 

The cold Denver wind was barely alleviated by the weak March sunshine. Aimée strolled briskly through the crowd at the downtown produce market. Restauranteurs, dilettantes and unusually fussy consumers crowded the stalls, picking over the freshest vegetables. Aimée barely noticed them.

The killing would have been routine, if it hadnít been for one variant. Aimée wasnít used to taking money for such work, and she wasnít sure she liked it. Killing had always been a part of her duty, her responsibility as a Mage, but even then it was a last resort. Of course, there were the few times Aimée had encountered beings that even she had to admit were better off dead, Nephandi, the Technocracy and the like, but still, this new facet bothered her.

The work was unremarkable. Sleeping vampires were quite easy to surprise, and, once staked, very easy to kill. Aimée didnít particularly care what her victim had done, just that she must have crossed a fairly serious line to vex the almost unvexable Julian. Aimée almost wondered what it was, but quickly changed that line of thought. This time, it wasnít her place to justify it.

She couldnít help remembering one of the last conversations she and Tina had. Tina had asked Aimée what she would do if she had realized it was time for Tina to move on. Aimée had been surprised at her own pang of unease by that question, but had hastily reassured Tina that she was confident that wasnít for a while yet, and if that duty fell upon her, she would do her best to make it as quick and painless as possible.

That memory lingered, juxtaposed with the realization that she had no idea whether Tina was still alive. Aimée tried to console herself with the probability that Tina had not yet fulfilled her ultimate function for this cycle. Werecats were rare enough, she hoped, to prevent them dying useless deaths, or being taken by the Technocracy. If things were otherwise, Aimée hoped that Tina had managed to find a quick way out.

Aimée continued walking through the city. She had moved out of the market now, and was threading her way through the financial district, which was waking up to the morning commute. Aimée wrapped herself a little tighter in her trenchcoat and blended in with the few hurried, harried, business workers, matching their stride and distracted expression.

Eventually, she came to an anonymous, glass sheathed office building, a modest seven stories. She pushed her way into the lobby and tried not to sigh audibly as she stepped into the warmth. Moments like that made her feel pathetically weak.

A short hike up the stairs - she wasnít prepared to trust even elevators - brought her to an office on the fourth floor. The glass door was nondescript with "Ascari and Associates" etched on the front. She pushed her way into the small lobby and stood in front of a receptionistís barely cluttered desk. She ignored the indignant glare of two people who were seated, obviously cooling their heels and spoke to the slightly perturbed receptionist.

"My nameís Johnson. Ascari should have left something for me." she said quietly.

The receptionist, middle aged, female, but only outwardly so, and efficient and discreet to the point of soullessness, consulted her computer, as if she had assassins barging in every day demanding payment.

"Yes, you have an appointment with Mr. Townsend. Second door on the left." she replied, equally quiet.

An appointment? Aimée shrugged. However Julian wanted to play it. She headed for the indicated door. She knew of Townsend, Julianís daytime man, and believed she could trust him.

Aimée entered without knocking, firmly closed the door behind her and leaned on it, arms folded.

Townsend, a white man in late middle age, and showing it in a paunchy way, looked up, unsurprised. "Miss Johnson?" Aimée nodded.

Townsend made an oddly fussy clucking noise with his tongue against his teeth. "Ah, already. I take it things went well?"

Aimée reached into her pocket removed a small piece of flesh and casually tossed in onto his desk from across the room. It landed with a barely audible squish on Townsendís antique, and unnecessary, blotter. "Thatís her right eye." Aimée told him. "I figured both would be redundant. Have one of your people check it later, if you want, but I canít guarantee that it isnít going to turn to ash. Isnít that what you guys do?"

Townsend frowned. "Not being one of Ďthose guysí" he replied fastidiously. "I wouldnít be able to tell you, but, Iíve been assured that youíre trustworthy and that grisly little token," he indicated the eyeball, now quietly oozing aqueous humor onto the blotter. "Wasnít necessary."

Aimée shrugged. "It seemed appropriate. Can I have my money now?"

"Of course." Townsend removed a brown envelope from his desk and laid in on the corner closest to her. Aimée approached and took it carefully, as if fearing some trap, which she did. "All used bills." he assured her as she opened it to take a look.

"Good." Aimée was satisfied. Julian had given her far more than the job was worth, and they both knew why. She was pleased. This amount would keep her going for several weeks, she hoped. Aimée nodded once or twice, to break an awkward moment. "Thanks, then. Tell Julian he knows how to reach me. Iíll be in touch sometime."

Without waiting for Townsendís few empty words, she strode out of the office, and down back onto the Denver streets.

 

The tricky part, Aimée decided, is getting clues. She was sitting at a cheap desk in a cheap hotel room in one of Denverís cheaper neighborhoods. The fat, spandex clad woman at the desk had made some remark about receiving a cut from hourly rental, which Aimée stopped with a look that a Get of Fenris, had taught her.

She committed nothing to writing, but trusted her own memory. With a bit of luck, if she was captured, she could destroy herself before things got out of hand. Of course, what did she know that They didnít know, already? If they had taken the younger chantry members with the intent of co-opting them, as she feared they had, they would know plenty if not now, then very soon.

A silverfish crawled along the edge of the desk and Aimée repressed a shudder. Almighty Gaia and her creation be damned, Aimée thought, I hate those things. She resisted the urge to squash it. What was the point? She had better things to do.

Except that she didnít. She was stuck. She had no clues, except that Travis had told her than two women and a man had come to the chantry, posing as social services, and several more pulled up in a police wagon a minute later.

That almost certainly made this a matter of The New World Order. That made Aimée quite nervous. The Technocracy in general made Aimée nervous, but the New World Order... Aimée sighed. She was glad she had followed her instinct to pay cash, move frequently and stay away from establishments that might have cameras.

Aimée had one advantage in that she didnít exist to the U.S. government, and hadnít since her nineteenth birthday. She had run away from home a few days later, not to avoid domestic abuse (although Aimée sometimes wondered on the fact that her normal-at-the-time childhood would qualify as abusive now) but to join her mentor. She had loved her foster family, after a fashion, but her tutelage had reached a point where she couldnít stay home. A missing persons report had been filed and that had been the end of her. Aimée had been all over America and Europe since then, and fervently hoped that she hadnít left a significant paper trial behind her. Besides, if the NWO was after her, surely they would have made their move before now.

Aimée stretched, feeling vertebra pop in protest of the uncomfortable chair, and lay down on the bed, staring at the ceiling.

I canít exactly walk in to the local government offices and say "Hi, there! I think you guys took my friends." Well, I could, but it wouldnít be very smart. At best theyíll think Iím a lunatic, and at worst, well, theyíll know Iím a Mage. Bad, either way, very bad.

Aimée yawned, she was very tired. She had spent the day walking through the city, scouting locations for no-tell hotels where she could stay from day today, and trying to spot any observers. Aimée sighed and allowed herself to drift off to sleep. Maybe her subconscious would have some suggestions.

She and Jamie were in the park, the one in Northampton that they liked so much. She was carrying the picnic basket and they sat beneath their favorite tree, an aged oak. Jamie spread out the blanket and Aimée began looking inside the basket.

Something was wrong. The food wasnít there. She couldnít help noticing how beautiful the sky was as she took the incongruous items from the hamper. Dice, a heavy book full of pictures of the human body, a length of frayed twine, a gun. Aimée kept looking, desperate now, and Jamie shook his head and began to fade away, a smile of regret on his face.

Aimée reached for him, but her hands were covered with blood. She couldnít wipe them clean, no matter how hard she tried, and Jamie still faded away.

Just before she awoke, Aimée heard him say "Twenty five years. Iím still waiting."

Aimée sat up in her grimy bed, eyes wide and her face drawn. She hadnít had that dream in a long time, over a year. The ending was different, though. Usually her dead fiancee just faded away, her bloody hands passing through him.

Aimée swallowed her grief. Twenty five years was indeed a long time, and she was sometimes hard pressed to keep going, in light of such poor results. And now she had lost, Anna, his sister.

"No." Aimée whispered. "I havenít lost her yet. Iím going to find her." she told herself. Aimée looked through the dusty blinds, and saw the signs of early morning in the east. She realized that she could give up on the notion of going back to sleep. She sighed again, and wondered how many spiders would be in the shower.

 

What am I doing? Aimée asked herself. She was standing in the FBI offices for Denver with a silenced Glock 17 pushed into the back of a terrified third class agent. Over his shoulder, she regarded Timothy Matlock, the director for the area. Unsurprisingly, he seemed unperturbed by the sudden entrance of Aimée and one of his agents as hostage. I thought I decided that this was stupid. She realized that this thought was belated.

Matlock was waiting for her to break the silence. Aimée regarded him from a magickal perspective, and she was relieved to see her two weeks of observation had paid off. Matlock was an Awakened being, and Aimée was willing to bet her life that he was part of the New World Order.

Timothy Matlock was in his late fifties, nearing retirement and didnít particularly care. The Order would let him work as long as they needed him. The intrusion of some reckless Tradition Mage was a momentary distraction, only. He regarded her coldly

She let the silence stretch, trying to think of the right words. She believed that she only had a few minutes before Matlock would decided that the loss of an agent was worth the cost of killing her.

The direct approach, maybe that would work. "Okay, I know what you are, you probably know what I am, right?" Matlock, still unconcerned, nodded. "Do me a favor and reassure your man here." Aimée nodded at the hostage. "That he is fine unless you piss me off."

Matlock gave her an expressionless stare and said nothing.

"Okay, heís worth nothing to you." Aimee realized. "I tried to grab an Awakened one, but you donít keep them in the outer office. Itíll still be hard to explain to his co-workers how he got his guts splattered all over your desk." Matlock remained silent and bland faced. "Jesus." Aimée swore, "what does it take to get a reaction from you?" Matlock shrugged. Aimée became acutely aware of the clock ticking.

"Fine. Iím still not letting go of him. Your people raided my chantry last month. In Colorado Springs. I want whoeverís still alive back."

Matlock shook his head, allowing a sad smile to cross his face. "I canít help you." he told her softly. "Theyíre happy, now." Matlock had assessed Aiméeís chance of survival as slim, and saw no harm in telling the truth.

Aimée took a deep breath. "Even Anna?" She demanded. "Anna Adams? She would have been no use to you, sheís not Awakened. Hell, sheís a writer." Aimée stopped herself with effort. "What happened to her?"

Matlock frowned for a moment, his wrinkles deepening. "We didnít take anyone by that name. There was some confusion during the, ah, extraction."

Aiméeís eyes widened and she ignored a sinking feeling. There were spirits at the chantry that she hadnít recognized. "What do you mean, confusion?"

Matlock shrugged. "Precisely what I meant. Confusion. The presence of an unwanted party. Perhaps they took her."

"They? Who the hell are They?" Aimée demanded.

Matlock only shrugged again. "Not one of us. One of you, maybe."

"Like hell. We donít work that way." Aimée didnít waste time doubting his veracity. The New World Order didnít have Anna, and it was too late to save the rest. Well, not without help, Aimée decided. Aimée resisted the urge to shout useless questions, now she had to focus on getting out alive. She believed that she could get fairly far with her current hostage, but Timothy would be better.

"Itís rather obvious that youíre considering me a more bankable hostage." Timothy told her. "I donít recommend that. Frankly, you stand an equal chance with him as me. No-one out there know what I am, anyway."

"And nor will this guy when youíre done, right?" Matlock inclined his head, neither a denial nor affirmation. "That figures." Aimée tightened her grip on the anonymous agentís arm. "Okay, guy, weíre moving out of here."

"Even if you make it out of here, youíre not going to get away." Matlock told her coldly.

"Iíve made it this far, you prick." Aimée replied. She moved back to the doorway, maneuvering to put her hostage between the doorway and herself. "I think Iíll make it further than you expect."

Matlock laughed out loud. "Overconfidence was the death of your chantry." he told her. "Itíll be yours, too."

Aiméeís temper snapped. In one quick movement, she moved her gun from the her hostageís back and shot Matlock in the chest. She was sure heíd survive. No doubt he would Ďhappení to be wearing a bulletproof vest The silenced shot would be inaudible outside the office. Her Glock returned to its place against the agentís back. "Okay, letís just amble on out." she whispered in his ear. "Youíll be fine. Youíre not an asshole like your boss, right?"

The agent nodded hastily. "Of course not." Aimée agreed, opening the door and moving to her hostageís side. She hoped they could fool anyone else in the building that they were just walking side by side, having a very intense discussion. "You wonít remember any of this, anyway." she sighed. The agent gave her a puzzled sideways glance, but Aimée didnít bother to elucidate.

Rather nervously, they both made it to Aiméeís car, parked on the Denver street, a citation flapping under the left wiper. "Damn." Aimée muttered. "I guess Iíll have to kill me a cop." she sighed. The agent made a noise, something like a stifled whimper. "Oh, get over it." she sighed, pushing the hostage away from her. "Youíre fine. Just go into that deli over there," she nodded to a sandwich shop across the street. "And get yourself some lunch. Iíve got to run." Aimée saw several determined people striding towards her.

Moving faster than she would have liked, Aimée got into her car and drove away. Losing her followers was more difficult than she anticipated. Both she and they knew the city well, and both were trying to utilize every advantage they had. Finally, after over two hours of driving and spell casting, Aimée believed she had lost them, but just to be sure, she drove to a junkyard.

The foreman was surprised that Aimée wanted to junk a car that was obviously still in good condition, but he was more than willing to let this slide when she pressed a hundred dollar bill into his hand. As she did so, she pulled his own car keys out of his pocket, and strolled out to the lot to find his own Toyota and drive it away.

That car took her as far as an extremely shady garage of her acquaintance, where she was able to leave that car and pick up an old, but mechanically reliable, Honda Civic with plates that had been pulled off another, no-doubt-also-sold-for-junk, car.

She drove around Denver and itís environs for another two hours, certain now that she wasnít being followed, but desperately wishing she knew more about Life magic. With that she could change her features and feel much more secure. Aimée sighed. Shoulda, woulda, coulda....Hindsight is twenty-twenty. I need to think forwards, not back.

 

Aimée didnít like it, but she knew it had to be done. Darkness had just fallen, and the sooner this was done, the better. With careful nonchalance, she strolled down the street towards the cordoned off chantry building. A single night-beat cop stood there, guarding against looters or the curious.

Aimée smiled broadly as she approached him. She could tell that he was nothing more than a Sleeper. "Cold night, huh?" she said conversationally.

The cop shrugged and smiled. "Yeah, well, at least winterís over."

"True enough." Aimée walked past him, threw two dice down on the ground and quickly turned to follow the policeman as he turned to look at the rattling bones. She brought the blackjack hidden in her right hand down on the back of his skull forcefully. "Sorry about that." she apologized to him as he crumpled.

She hauled the body into the doorway of the chantry, but didnít bother with his comfort, she knew she didnít have much time. She let herself into the chantry and ran up the main stairs, ignoring the mess left by the last visitors. The whole residence had been tossed, searched for items of any value to the Technocracy. Aimée knew there wasnít much to find. Hollow Ones didnít have much that they were interested in, and whatever the Technocracy coveted of the Virtual Adepts, they would have found fairly easily.

Aimée was heading for Annaís room, hoping that her abductors hadnít taken everything of hers. She slammed the door of Annaís room open, heedless of danger, and her eyes sought Annaís desk. The computer had been taken, as had her notes on the desk, but the contents of her waste basket had only been emptied onto the floor. Aimée scrabbled through the scraps and found a piece of paper with Annaís handwriting on it - a draft of one of her poems. Aimée moved quickly into the bathroom they shared in common and found Annaís hairbrush on the floor. Aimée pocketed that, and walked towards the rear of the chantry, heading for the fire escape.

Aimée paused momentarily at a picture that lay crumpled on the hallway floor. It was a group photo, from a party celebrating Travisí birthday. Brian, Thor, Tina, Anna, they were all there, grinning in various degrees of foolishness. Travis was covered in whipped cream and black paper streamers. Aimée sighed and picked up the photo. It wouldnít take much room in her pocket. It wouldnít slow her down.

Jumping down from the fire escape ladder, Aimée ran across the scrub land that was the backyard of the chantry and into the street. She paused at a manhole cover and looked over her shoulder. She hoped no-one was following her, but she couldnít be sure. With some effort, she lifted the sewer lid and dropped down into the sewers. She hoped Charlie the Nosferatu wouldnít mind.

She landed with a wet squelch, the recent rains still apparent down here. Aimée took a deep breath and regretted it. She looked up and down the dark tunnel carefully, allowing her eyes to adjust. She couldnít see any inexplicable life/matter/Prime patterns, but she knew this didnít mean that she wasnít being observed.

"Hey, Charlie, if you can hear me." she said out loud - but not too loud. Either he would hear her, or he wouldnít. "Iím just passing through on my way somewhere. I hope you donít mind. If Julianís got any news for me, you better catch up with me and let me know. I donít know when Iíll be down again."

Aimée took a moment to get her bearings, biting her finger until it bled and holding it up to feel an almost imperceptible breeze. So I have some odd rotes, she thought idly. Sue me, they work.

After a few moments, Aimée knew where she was and where she had to go. Keeping a firm hand on the tokens in her pocket she began to tramp through the tunnels.

An indeterminate time later, Aimée guessed no more than twenty minutes but in the dark tunnels, time had a way of moving oddly when one didnít pay attention, Charlie appeared beside her.

Charlie never bothered to hide his true appearance from her, and Aimée was determined not to give him the satisfaction of a reaction. His skin was greenish, and his nose was almost non-existent, giving an unnatural bagginess to his eyes. Even when he blinked, they were still open. His fangs and fingers were twisted, and his wispy hair infested with boils and fleas.

Aimée nodded a greeting to him, and slowed her pace somewhat, allowing Charlie to limp along with her. She suspected that Charlie could move as quickly as he might wish, but why should he give that away if it wasnít necessary?

"Heard the news." he wheezed. "Too bad." His sympathy was brusque, but Aimée believed it was genuine. Vampires and mages had a lot in common when it came to being a hunted minority.

"Well, Charlie, what else have you heard about?" She might as well see how far the story had traveled.

"I heard youíre looking for survivors." She nodded. "I also heard youíre wanted for murder." He added.

Aimée stopped tramping through the muck. "Youíre kidding. Matlock died?"

Charlie frowned, at least, Aimée assumed the mass of wrinkles within wrinkles was a frown. "Yep, that was the name. Youíre wanted for killing some Fibbie."

Aimée shook her head. "I donít believe the bastard didnít have some way of protecting himself. It must be fake, to make me vulnerable. More vulnerable." She admitted. Any more and a three year old with a ouija board could take me down...

Charlie shrugged. "Iím just telling you what I hear. Your pictureís in all the papers. Not a good likeness, but good enough. Big reward, too." he added slyly.

"Charlie, Iíll pay you twice what theyíre offering, if youíre thinking of turning me in."

Charlie laughed wheezily. "Money? Ha! Iíve got enough of that. Nah, youíre worth far more to me as a resource. Iím just letting you know."

Aimée sighed in relief. "Thanks Charlie. Do you know where Julian is tonight?" Charlie didnít reply for a long moment. "Ah, Charlie?" she repeated.

"You might not want to see him tonight." he warned her after a long momentís silence.

"Youíre kidding. Heís mad at me, too?"

Charlie sighed, an odd whistling sound. "It seems that killing the Fibbie upset a lot of things."

"Oh no!" Aimée wanted to kick something in frustration, but a broken toe was the last thing she needed. "And I was going to ask...Well, fuck that idea, then." she grumbled.

Charlie shrugged awkwardly. "He says that heís sorry, but he canít help you out for at least a couple of days. But he did say that he was going to cover for you as best he could." Charlie added. "Thatís good for something, ainít it?"

Aimée frowned. "Iím sorry, Charlie, but the Kindred arenít nearly as secure as they think they are. I think maybe you guys are the safest, just because the Technocracy donít have the guts to face you."

Charlie laughed at that. "Yeah, ugliness is good for a lot of things." He paused for a moment, thinking carefully. "Look, Aimée, you can hide out down here for a while, couple of days, maybe, if you need it." he suggested. "Weíve got some good bodyguards."

"Not the giant mice, I hope." Aimée was referring to the two white mice that she had given Charlie as a Christmas present, who had since grown large on his blood.

Charlie laughed again. "Naw, not the mice. But these things are loyal."

"What are they, precisely?" Aimée asked more to make conversation than out of any real curiousity.

"Not sure." Charlie shrugged. "Jeff found Ďem one day and brought Ďem home. Looks like something flushed from Dr. Frankensteinís lab."

Aimée sighed. "It might be. You know, you shouldnít adopt weird creatures, they could be sent by the Progenitors."

"Pro-what? Aimée, Iím just kidding. Theyíre dogs. Theyíre huge. Theyíre scary looking, but theyíre still just dogs."

Aimée relaxed. "Alright." She thought for a few minutes as they trudged through the smelly sludge. "Oh, what the hell, my options are too limited." She sighed. "Whatís the price for a nightís board?"

"Tell me about yourself." Charlie answered quickly. "I know youíve been telling our precious Prince about your kind, but he ainít sharing that information."

Aimée shrugged. She could tell him what any acolyte knew, and be fairly secure. If nothing else, the Nosferatu were fairly tight with a secret, and this they wouldnít let go to just any buyer. "Deal." she agreed. "You lead the way and Iíll start talking."

Charlie stopped in front of a partially slime covered grating in the wall. "Deal." he told her, yanking at the grate. "Through here, ladies first..."

 

Aimée stood in a place of light, almost blindingly bright. She could see no walls or ceiling, but could feel the floor beneath her feet. Aimée looked around, and waited. She was sure that she was waiting for someone.

An indefinite amount of time passed. Aimée grew bored of staring at the white light, and began to walk. Her feet felt vague, and she thought maybe she was on some invisible treadmill, or a giant hamster wheel. For just a moment, the texture of the light changed. A ripple passed by and through her. Aimée felt a presence, but did not welcome it nor did she feel welcomed by it.

She found Jamie finally. He was waiting for her. So was Anna. They did not seem glad to see her, indeed, they didnít even notice her. Their features seemed overexposed, bleached and almost disappearing into the light around them.

"Jamie, itís me." she tried to tell him. Her voice sounded weak, sapped by her long journey. He did not respond to her, didnít even look at her. Aimée turned to Anna. "Anna, this is your brother." she felt the need to introduce them, even if this was unnecessary."Anna, Iíve been trying to find you."

"They canít hear you." a voice whispered. She turned around, looking for the source, and saw nothing.

"What?"

"They canít hear you." the assured, sibilant voice repeated. "How can they? You donít speak their language anymore, Euthanatos."

Aimée turned back to the pair, reaching out for Jamieís and Annaís hands. Her own hands were covered in blood from a hundred tiny cuts. Some calmer part of Aiméeís mind wondered why they didnít hurt. She couldnít reach them. If she stepped towards them, they moved away, imperceptibly, but still out of reach.

"Theyíve got to." Aimée pleaded. "Iíve been looking so long. I just want to be with them again." She wondered if the voice was still there.

She sensed mockery around her. "Be with them? You canít be with them, either of them. Youíve all changed. You have nothing in common with them, magus."

"Thatís not true!" Aiméeís shout died, a flat sound in a flat land.

"Not any more, magus, not any more. You kill magus, youíve killed, youíve killed them."

"No!" Aimée was turning around and around, wanting to confront the voice that was not part of her.

"Oh no? You donít think the brakes on his car failed by accident? That was your fault, they wanted to get you."

"Itís not my fault! It was an accident!" The memory of her fianceeís death was like the twist of a knife.

"An accident , enlightened one? No, they wanted to hurt you. How better than to kill your heart?"

"Itís not my fault!" Aimée insisted. She had stopped searching for the invisible ones, she had a sense of many about her now. She stood in front of the unseeing pair and shouted at the air around her."It wasnít his fault. It was an accident!"

"Accident? We both know thereís no such thing."

There was a moment of calmness. Aimée stared desperately at Jamie and Anna, willing them to hear her.

"You adopted her, didnít you?" the voices asked. "You had the chance to give her to a more responsible party. How good a mother can a killer be?"

"Stop it!"

"But you had to be selfish, and cling on to the last reminder of a man long dead. If you hadnít adopted her, she wouldnít have been taken, Euthanatos. Admit that, at least admit that."

Aimée shook her head violently. "No. Thatís not so! My saving her didnít condemn her."

"Are you sure, magus? Really sure that you saved her?" the voices chided. "No, of course you arenít. And you never will be. You can never know what might have been. Poor little death dealer. Youíve caused so much suffering. Some of it isnít even your own."

Aimée wanted to scream, but she knew defeat lay that way. Why was she competing with these voices? To what end? "Iíll find Anna." she told the light. "Damn it, I may not have Jamie, but Iíll find her."

"But magus, youíve changed, sheís changed, weíve all changed. Even if you find her, she wonít recognize you. Just like Jamie wouldnít."

"Sheís not dead!" Aimée insisted. "I know sheís alive!"

"Of course she is, magus." the voices crooned. "Of course she is, but people can change, even in life. Perhaps youíve forgotten that, Euthanatos, that people can change and go on living."

Aimée clamped her bloody hands over her ears, but the voices continued. "We shall meet in a place where there is no darkness." the voices chuckled. "That we will, Aimée..." they laughed.

 

Aimée awoke with a start of fear. She was in a makeshift bunk in a fairly dry and warm part of the Nosferatu catacombs. Until last night, she had no idea how extensive their underground holdings were. Now she had some idea and she was impressed.

She looked around, looking for familiar details as she tried to calm down and remember the details of her nightmare. It was no use, the events of the dream had faded the moment she awoke, leaving her only with a pounding heart and a memory of loss and guilt.

Aimée regarded her watch and listened to the occasional drip of water, noticing in passing how it fell every two and a half seconds. It was seven am, time to get up. The only things moving down here now would be the indeed giant guard dogs that Charlie had introduced her to and a ghouled sewer worker or two, if that. Even their presence was discouraged.

Aimée let her thoughts wander as she stared at the glistening brick wall. She could understand the appeal this underground labyrinth held for the Nosferatu. He had led her for several miles through the tunnels, and Aimée knew she had seen only a glimpse of their dwellings. She could almost feel safe here, hidden far beneath the city, but hiding wasnít going to find Anna.

Unexpectedly a scrap of her dream returned to her. "Sheís changed.... people can change and go on living." Aimée suppressed a shudder. The tone of that speaker had not been friendly, whoever they were. She tried to puzzle out the significance of the dream, now returning in bits and pieces.

That wasnít my Avatar, she knew. When she had met her ultimate self in the past, it usually took the form of an albino raven. Besides, my Avatar has a sense of humor, albeit a little odd, and that dream was not funny. I think Iíve encountered something external, something new. My own subconscious did not create that...thing? Things? Oh gods, what have I run into now?

Aimée took the hairbrush from her pocket. First I have to find Anna, then weíll she if sheís changed. Aimée stood, stretched and began to find her way back to the surface.

 

Aimée had established herself in another roach bait motel room. She didnít want to wear out her welcome with Charlie, and she thought that her style of spell casting might not agree with vampires, sleeping or otherwise.

She took some time getting ready. The trip out to a local bookstore had made her strangely uneasy. The bright morning sun had evoked a feeling of foreboding, and she constantly looked over her shoulder for anyone following her. So far, she was safe, although seeing a police sketch of her face on the front of the morning paper was rather upsetting. The reward being offered for information leading to her arrest was indeed substantial.

She immediately stepped into a drug store to pick up some dark brown dye for her light brown hair, and a pair of scissors to cut it with. She considered trying to obtain a pair of colored contacts, but decided that she could get by with sunglasses for the meantime. Her supply of cash was beginning to run low, and she didnít want to bother Julian until the disorder over the killing of Matlock had subsided. If heís dead, she reminded herself. I still think thatís a scheme by the N.W.O. to mobilize the Sleepers against me. Thank the gods for Arcane, that police sketch wasnít so hot. And they didnít have my full name, just Amy.

She sighed and tried to focus her mind on the task at hand. On the bed lay a stack of maps. A map of the world was unfolded and spread across the mattress. Aimée held a bone dice in one hand and a new razor blade in the other. A ball of hair, retrieved from Annaís hairbrush rested in a cheap tin ashtray next to the world map. Aimée fixed her mind firmly on her intention, locating Anna, and cut her left pinkie finger with the razor blade. She squeezed blood from the slowly oozing wound and liberally smeared the die with it. Then she took two or three hairs from the frizzy ball and wrapped them around the die, the sticky blood adhering them to its surface.

Aimée rolled the die onto the world map and watched for where the bloody die made its first mark. To her surprise, the dice skipped a smear on the central United States and then rolled to a rest on the Pacific.

Aimée shrugged, it wouldnít be that strange if she was still in Colorado. Itís that or Ryíleh. I think Iíll stick with Colorado for now... Aimée had anticipated this and took a map of Colorado from the stack of western and Midwestern states and spread it out on top of the world map.

Aimée cast the rote several times more, finally unfolding a detailed book map for the last cast. Annaís location was within a fifty miles, in a suburb of Denver. This was so fortuitous as to make Aimée uneasy. Aimée knew that coincidences usually werenít, especially when Mages were concerned.

Aimée tried to think of how or why Anna would be in a middle class residential neighborhood. She couldnít remember her mentioning having friends out there, but that didnít mean anything. It could be a friendís place that she ran to, and how would have she been able to contact me? Itís not like Iíve been able to phone her up.

Aimée reluctantly realized that sheíd need another car. This was beyond walking distance, and a car was more reliable than a bus when it came to getaway opportunities. She wanted to drive through the neighborhood and check it out. If someone was holding Anna, Aimée wanted to find that out in advance. The direct approach isnít worth risking Annaís life, Aimée decided. She hoped that she could puzzle out how to hotwire the first unlocked vehicle she could find.

 

"A Settite Temple?" Aimée sank down onto a cement step within Charlieís domain. "I donít know if I can take much more of this." she sighed.

Aimée had managed to steal a car and drive out to the suburbs of Denver earlier that day. The house was a nondescript tract house, painted a fading green. The name on the mailbox, Donaldson, meant nothing to her. Otherwise, there were no cars in the driveway and no movement within the house.

What had worried her was when she had viewed the house from a magickal perspective. The house was sitting an intersection of ley lines, of minor significance, creating a weak, but noticeable node. The quintessence flowing through the site had something vaguely wrong about it. Usually, quintessence was sedate stuff, but that which moved through the Donaldson residence was spastic, restless, with an odd...Aimée tried to think of a word describing it. Flavor was the best she could devise. Aimée wasnít knowledgeable enough in the sphere of Prime to know what would create these conditions, but she could guess that it wasnít good. As she had driven back, she realized that the Donaldson node reminded her of the city zoo before the areaís Garou had liberated it. That certainly wasnít good, and now Charlie was telling her that he believed there was a Settite temple in that same neighborhood.

Aimée stared at her ugly acquaintance. "What would a bunch of them want with Anna?" she asked. "Donít answer that. I can guess." she added quickly.

She looked up to the vaulted brick ceiling, hoping for inspiration from any source. "I really donít want to go against a pack of vampires, or their cronies. Ghouls are tough." she tried not to feel overwhelmed.

Charlie looked at her. "Well, you should know." he told her.

Aimée jumped and glared at Charlie. "Oh shit, you know." she sighed. There wasnít any point in hiding it.

Charlie shrugged. "How could I not. Whoever youíve been getting blood from didnít tell you that ghouling shows on the aura?" Aimée shook her head. "Well, it does." Charlie told her redundantly. "But it gives a bit of an edge, too. Youíre tougher than regular mortals. Improves your chances against the snakes."

Aimée ran a hand through her hair. "Scant consolation. Besides, Iím not going there at night. Are you sure about this place?"

Charlie shrugged again. "Canít ever be sure." he told her. "Iím just telling you that one of my guys says thereís a bunch of Settites out there. Who you ghouled to?" he asked bluntly.

"Not telling." Aimée replied, equally blunt. "Sorry, Charlie, but that was part of the deal."

Charlie grinned, snaggle fangs showing. "I can guess. You spend most of your time in the city with three Kindred; me, Ascari and Fergusson. I know it ainít me, so that just leaves two, and those two are so close as to be the same guy, anyway."

"Oh, gee, Charlie, is this the great Nosferatu information network at work?" Aimée asked wryly. "Besides, it could be you. You wouldnít remember if I didnít want you to." she smiled. That is, if I could do that.

Charlie made a show of being impressed. "Whoa, donít piss off the mighty magi, huh? Nah, it still couldnít be me, my blood does to people what it did to Cerebrus back there."

Aimée tried not to look disgusted. Cerebrus was an aptly named canine. So thatís how it happened, Nosferatu blood. Learn something new every day. Aimée filed the thought away along with her other bits of vampire lore.

"So are you gonna go after them?" Charlie asked curiously.

Aimée rolled her eyes. "My white charger is at the veterinarianís. Sure, Iím going to go there. During the daytime." she stated emphatically. "So all Iíll have to worry about are some drugged out acolytes. Great." She gave Charlie a hard look. "Donít go telling them now, will you Charlie? Iíd be very pissed off if I get there and meet a legion of crack heads with Uzis."

Charlie tried to look innocent, quite a feat for a Nosferatu, then broke down and grinned again. "Nah," he assured her. "Youíre a better ally than a bunch of druggies. Besides, if a Kindred hangs out with them, Ascari gets real displeased. Heís gotta give Ďem Camarilla hospitality, but they donít tell him how much heís gotta give." Charlie said slyly. "So he probably wouldnít be too made if there were some casualties. Might even be pleased."

Aimée nodded. "If they get in my way, then Iíll destroy them." she said simply. "Julianís gratitude is incidental." she organized her thoughts for a few moments. "Okay, Iíll go in tomorrow. Know of any handy tunnels, Charlie?"

"Well, that informationís gonna cost ya..."

"Oh, give it up!"

 

Aimée stood before a public telephone outside a drug store in suburban Denver and tried to convince herself that she wasnít about to make a huge mistake. She failed to reassure herself, but picked up the phone and dialed anyway.

"Information. What city please?" A male smokerís voice, burred by static.

"Denver. I need the number of a residence. Donaldson. 579 Fairview Way." Aimée spoke quickly, as if that might save her from any Technocracy tracking devices.

"Hereís your number." the voice rasped. Seven digits followed. Aimée was so surprised she almost forgot to listen. She hadnít really expected a number.

Aimée hung up the phone and walked to another a mile away, next to a bus stop. She dialed the Donaldson number from there, not knowing what to expect or what to say, should anyone even answer.

The phone rang three times before it was picked up.

"Hello?" the answering voice was Annaís. Aimée almost dropped the phone.

"Anna?" she blurted, stunned

"Aimée!" Anna laughed. "You found me!" Aimée bowed her head and worked on keeping her public expression neutral. "I figured you would. Do you know where I am? Oh, of course you do." she corrected herself. "Come on over." Anna continued. "Weíre waiting for you." Anna laughed again.

"We? Who -" Aimée began, but she was cut off by the definite click of disconnection.

Aimée walked back to her car jubilant, but hesitant. Who the hell are "We"? She wondered. It canít be this easy. But I have found her. Iíve got to see her.

Nonetheless, she couldnít shake off her anxiety.

 

The Donaldson home was the same as when she had last driven by, except the crab grass was longer. The faded wood siding was still ugly, and the neighborhood still teetered on the verge of the middle class. The sluggish flow of Quintessence through the small node was still imperceptibly odd.

This time, there was something feeding on the node, several somethings that almost convinced Aimée to keep driving. They were unrecognized but visually disturbing spirits. Small ones, to be sure, but still worrying. They changed shape frequently, almost in time with a heartbeat. One of them seemed to favor reptilian shapes. As Aimée parked her car, she watched it change from a three headed lizard to something snakelike with bulging eyes and several variants along the way. Another spirit was a collection of polygons that shifted restlessly, no edges ever fixed for more than a moment. A third was a collection of bright whirling colors, expanding and contracting rhythmically.

Aimée thought for a few long seconds, trying to remember where she had seen these spirits before. Mexico. She realized. Those are marauder spirits. Oh shit...

Dismayed, she realized that she would have much preferred facing Settites.

She took a deep breath. There was only one way to find out what was going on. She left her car and walked towards the outwardly innocuous house.

Anna opened the door as Aimée walked up the short front drive. She was wearing a new pair of jeans and a denim work shirt that Aimée recognized as coming from Annaís favorite store.

"Aimée!" Anna pulled her former guardian through the doorway and hugged her tightly. Aimée smiled and reciprocated as she looked over Annaís head at the rest of the house.

It was furnished minimally and slightly dusty. The light brown carpet was worn and woven with a convoluted pattern of a darker brown. The walls were plain white, and nail holes showed where pictures once hung.

Anna led Aimée into the living room, which matched the hallway and sat her down on a battered recliner. Anna sat on a stained cream colored sofa across from her.

"Iíd offer you something to drink, but Iím kind of low on groceries. I keep forgetting to go to the store. Iíve been living on fast food." Anna apologized.

Aimée stared at a spirit sitting on Annaís shoulder. "Oh, thatís alright." she said, distracted. "Iím just glad youíre alive." she admitted. "But what happened at the chantry?"

"Oh, it was pretty scary. But Fluff came by and showed me a way out of there." She stated simply.

"Fluff?" Aimée asked carefully. "Is that the bear shaped thing Iím seeing?"

The spirit indeed resembled nothing as much as a grinning teddy bear, all plush cuteness. Aimée was not inclined to automatically trust that thing, given the situation. She had seen some endearing Paradox spirits in her time.

"Yes, thatís him." Anna nodded. "And thatís Pix." Anna pointed at the polygonal spirit that had just drifted in through a wall. "Fluff has shown me how to see spirits. Isnít that great?" Anna sounded proud.

Aimée looked back from Pix to Fluff and finally to Anna. Anna was usually a fairly solemn individual who spent her time looking for le mot juste, not teddy bear spirits.

"And what exactly is Fluff?" Aimée asked. She wanted to hear Annaís own description.

"Fluffís just a nickname. I canít pronounce his real name." Anna explained. "But just after those social workers showed up - since when do they have guns? - and started rounding the kids up, Fluff popped out in front of me and told me he knew a way out of there. I was pretty scared, and had no idea what Fluff was, but I thought maybe it was one of those spirit things that Brian and you are always talking about. And he showed me a way out. I think we went through the Umbra, but Iím not sure, since Iíve never been there before." Anna paused. "And now I can do all kinds of things." she concluded.

For the second time in her life, Aimée felt everything within her mind come to a sudden stillness. It was her way of coping with imminent hysteria.

"Anna, weíre leaving." she said flatly. "Iíve got to -"

"Hey, you didnít even ask what I can do." Anna ignored Aiméeís outstretched hand. "Look." Anna snapped her fingers and the sofa upon which she sat became a rather nervous looking Clydesdale horse. The front wall of the house also turned inside out, so the green siding was now on the inside and the worn sheet rock faced the street. "See!" Anna declared. "Neat, huh?"

Aimée looked first at the horse and then at the wall. "Did you mean to do that?" Aimée pointed at the wall.

Anna frowned. "Well, no, but maybe Fluff did it? Did you, Fluff?"

Aimée watched the spirit whisper in Annaís ear and berated herself for not having spend more time studying spirits rather than entropy.

"Fluff says itís fine." Anna shrugged. "But what I meant to say is that Iím like you, now. Isnít that great?"

"Anna, you may be able to change reality in a new way, but Fluff is not your Avatar." Aimée said evenly.

"How do you know?" Anna scowled childishly. "I thought everyoneís Avatar is different. Just Ďcos mine isnít some really cool thing like an miniature blue dragon or something." Aimée resisted the impulse to sigh deeply. Anna hadnít been this childish even when she was a child.

"You know about Paradox, right, Anna?" she said evenly. "Like that time my eyes kept changing color? Fluff might be showing you how to do some interesting things, but youíre heading for some bad trouble with Paradox." Aimée glared at Fluff, who was still whispering in Annaís ear. "Maybe you have been Awakened," Aimée continued. "but you canít stay here. Itís not-"

"We told you she had changed, Euthanatos." Aimée turned around. The reptilian spirit that she had seen outside had come inside. It shifted through a variety of fantastical shapes as it spoke. Currently it resembled a large, eight legged, iguana. Itís voice was the same smug sibilant whisper from her dream. "She doesnít want to come back." It continued. "Why should she?"

"Thatís Ydiss." Anna explained. She looked down at the horse beneath her and sighed. "Itís a little big." she admitted. She snapped her fingers and transformed the horse into a horsehide sofa. The inverted wall remained.

"She doesnít want to return to the Sleepers. Sheís happy with us. Weíve been showing her our way of seeing things..." Ydiss slithered, snakelike now, up a wall.

Aimée shook her head. "No. Weíre leaving now."

Ydiss shook his feathery scaled head. "She stays, Mage, if she wants. You could stay with us? Why leave?"

Aimée glanced out of the front window. "Because the New World Order just pulled up outside." she said flatly.

A car had pulled up during their exchange, and Aimée saw two Men In Black and two other individuals, get out and head towards the house. One of the "plainclothes" stopped on the front walk and looked at the inverted wall. He smiled at this, which struck Aimée as rather out of character for what she knew about his kind. He and a MIB headed for the front door, while the other pair split off and headed for the back door.

Aimée took the silenced Glock from under her coat. "Anna, the Technocracy is here. Just come with me and weíll do whatever you want." There was a knock at the front door.

"I can do whatever I want right here, Aimée. I donít want to leave." Anna said coldly.

The front door crashed inward, echoed by a similar entrance from the back of the house.

"Silly Mage." Ydiss hissed. "Silly selfish girl who brings destruction on her happy loved ones. Just like last time, isnít it, Euthanatos?"

Aimée ignored the spirit, snapping a shot at a MIB entering the room. "The moon was rising, ruggedly west and furious..." she muttered frantically, activating a rote that would enable simultaneous thought and action, as well as forcing her emotions aside for the moment. Travis called it a survival trance. An indeterminate time passed...

Aimée awoke from the trance and wished she hadnít. Her right arm was bloody and useless from a bullet through her forearm. Her gun was on the floor, out of reach.

The two MIBs were on the floor, in different states of messy death and one of the two plainclothes men was writhing on the floor from a gut wound. The other, the one who had smiled at the Paradox effect, still stood. He was pointing a Baretta 9mm at Aimée almost casually and looking around the room.

"Iím sorry." he told Aimée, his voice soft and amused. "But wasnít she yours?" he gestured at Annaís body on the floor.

Aimée stared at the bloody wreckage and began to shake uncontrollably. Anna was beyond saving. "She got in the way." she whispered, remembering. "I was trying to hit one of you and she just stepped..." Aimée took a deep breath and wiped the tears from her face. Sorrow struck her as rather useless, suddenly. Why should she cry? Anna wouldnít hear her.

Aimée regarded the Technocrat levelly. "Get it over with." she said dully. Some distant part of her was enraged that it should end like this.

"Why should I?" he smiled again. "I love human drama. This is wonderful."

"Fuck you." Aimée muttered. "Follow your damn orders."

He laughed at this. Aimée stared at him, too numb to be confused, or insulted. "Oh no, Aimée. I donít have any orders." He glanced at his still twitching partner on the floor and shot him twice. "I just left the New World Order." he told her simply, putting his gun away. "Frankly, I wasnít planning to tell them just yet, but this opportunity is just too good to resist. Besides," he added. "Iím not in the habit of giving people what they want."

Aimée felt something break within her and a soul-deep coldness spread over her. "Of course not." she agreed, suddenly relaxed.

"Precisely. Iím Jack. Weíll meet again." he told her.

"Yeah, right." Aimée still felt somewhat dazed. "Weíll do lunch." she suggested dryly.

Jack nodded. "Yes, lunch. Or something. You better get going. My former masters are bound to start wondering why I havenít reported in and I, for one, donít intend to be here when they come looking for answers."

Aimée stared at Jack. "I donít get it." she said. "What the hell are you?"

He shrugged. "A former Technocrat." he said facetiously. "Now Iím my own man. Run along, mage, before you get hurt." he glanced at her arm. "More." he added, voice suddenly flat.

Aimée sighed. She didnít understand any of this, but if this lunatic was willing to let her walk away, she wasnít going to waste the chance. Without a backward glance, she left the Donaldson home.

Aimée would not remember the next four days.

 

The summons had come via one of Charlieís clanmates. It, Aimée couldnít easily distinguish the messengerís gender, had found her at a run down bar in the tiny Latino quarter of Denver. Now, Aimée stood in an office at Julianís consultancy, waiting for him to find the right words.

She knew that she had lost some time, and was relieved that it was only four days, unlike the two weeks she had lost after Jamie had died. Aimée guessed that this conference had something to do with that missing time and the fact that she stank of cordite when she woke up in a doorway in downtown Denver.

Oddly, the two of them were alone, without even any bodyguards. Aimée assumed from this that something fairly serious had happened. That and the fact that Julian had chosen a formal setting for their meeting, with him placed behind an tastefully austere desk, and Aimée led in like a misbehaving ghoul. Which, technically speaking, I guess I am, Aimée admitted internally.

"Youíve caused some trouble." Julian said finally. His tone was distant, another departure from their usual meetings.

Aimée tried to feel concerned, but could only feel cold and empty. She shrugged. "Did I? Iím sorry. I donít really remember." she half apologized.

"I had assumed you werenít in your right mind." he replied. "In four days youíve managed to almost completely destroy the federal and local law enforcement within the metropolitan Denver area. To hear the FBI tell it, youíve slaughtered your way onto the top three spots of the ten most wanted list and some of those killed were my people." Julianís anger, though restrained, was obvious and, Aimée had to admit, almost impressive.

Aimée shrugged again. "Sorry." the feigned regret was obvious.

"You also, for some insane reason, shot two social workers, a building contractor and a telephone psychic." Julian continued.

Aimée almost smiled. "The contractor was a mistake." she admitted. "I thought he was someone else."

"The justicar of this city is giving me hell wanting to know how one person could do this, and elude my attempts to control it, within such a short time. I could hardly explain that a gun wielding magician had gone berserk."

"Would have given you a nice excuse to destroy all the Tremere." Aimée said flippantly.

The Ventrue glared at her. "Aimée, youíre no longer an asset to me. You have twenty four hours to get out of my city or-"

Aimée laughed. "Your city? Yours? Thatís rich, Julian. I hate to break this to you, but youíre only here on the sufferance of the Technocracy." This conclusion had come to her during the last few days, she realized.

"I hardly think -"

"What you want to think is irrelevant, you aged idiot. I could locate every vampire in this city given five minutes, a map and a knife. You donít think they havenít done so? You only do what you do because the Technocracy canít be bothered to do it themselves."

Julian scowled, keeping his anger in check. "If you are still within Denver after twenty four hours, there will be a substantial price on your head, in addition to the one put there by mortal authorities."

Aimée laughed again. "A bloodhunt, is it? Charming!" She stopped in mid-giggle. "Alright, Prince, maybe I will get out of town. Or maybe Iíll decide to stay and see how I stack up against your boot squad." she strolled to the door. "Just remember, theyíve got to sleep sometime." she added.

Julian didnít reply as he watched her leave.

Aimée grinned as she exited the dark office suite. And Iíll suppose Iíll have to keep that staked neonate, then. After all, Iím damned if Iím going to grow old, and I need something to tide me over until I hit the books...

She banged on the trunk lid of her stolen car. "Hey, Don!" she told the paralyzed being within the trunk. "Weíre going places!"

 

Six days later, Aimée sat on a not-too-clean bed in a tiny motel room in Colorado Springs, drinking unsweetened black tea and reading about herself in the paper. The FBI had apparently lost all leads, but were still circulating an innaccurate sketch in the hope of finding her.

Well, I suppose Jack didnít tell them about me. Aimée realized. I wonder how long it is before they put me on Americaís Most Wanted.

Aimée glanced out of the stained window of the small room, idly considering her options. She had to get someone to feed to her staked vampire that she had stashed in a self-storage locker. She didnít want her only source of Kindred blood dying of starvation, but she was still too close to Denver to risk snatching people at random off the street. She wasnít sure why she had stayed so close to Denver, even after Julianís threat of a hunt. Bravaura or not, Aimée knew that the Kindred could be very effective when they united on a common goal. But then again, it could be quite a challenge, she admitted.

A knock at the door broke the silence and Aimée glared at the door for a long moment, considering her options. The sun was up, so vampiric company was out of the question. Their henchmen, however...Aimée took her Glock from under her arm and levelled it at the door.

"Come on in." She called out lightly.

The door swang open and Aimée almost dropped her gun. Jack stood there, wearing the same suit and even the same amused half-smile that seemed to be his regular expression.

"Hello, Aimée. I told you weíd meet again." he said calmly.

"Close the door." She told him tightly. If he was going to kill her, heíd already had ample opportunity. Now she was curious.

Jack did so and sat down on her bed. "You were harder to find than I thought, but I knew Iíd track you down."

"Oh, great." Aimee muttered. "Another one of my admirers. Iím busy for lunch, tea and dinner. Go away."

"Doing what?"

"What the hell do you mean by that?"

"Precisely what I said. Doing what?"

Aimee sighed. "I donít know. I donít know what to do now."

"Whyís that, Aimee?"

"I feel like my lifeís been useless. Or, more to the point, I donít like the purpose that Iím apparently here to fulfill this time around. Iím not even sure what that is, my purpose I mean. Be miserable, spread misery, I guess."

"It could be worse?"

"What? How?" she sneered.

"You could be one of those sticky-sweet Choristers."

"Good point. Iíve been studying magic for decades and Iíve done nothing substantial. Nothing feels substantial anymore. Too much entropy."

"No, no. Not enough entropy..."

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