To come up here again,
And devour me whole.
They’re screaming to the gods.
Screaming to the gods.
And I’ll be here holding on. ~ A Day Before Pisces, Faspitch
Manila Domestic Airport
Pasay City, Philippines
Ah, Manila. No matter how far I run, no matter where I go, I always come back to you.
This thought intruded into the mind of Desmond Kingsley, Jr., almost unbidden, as the Gulfstream touched down on the rain-slick ferrocrete of this private airstrip of the Domestic Airport. Ordinary people would have been worried about whether their plane could safely land after the sudden downpour that drenched the Metro an hour or so ago that came from out of nowhere, as if the very weather itself wanted to keep someone away from this Godforsaken place by making the airlanes crowded, the microclimate unpredictable and the landing strips slippery.
But Desmond is not one of the masa, the common, everyday citizens of the Philippines, damned to the vicissitudes of airlines on a budget with overworked and underpaid pilots flying airplanes one incident away from being the next feature in National Geographic’s “Air Crash Investigations.”
No, Desmond thought as he retreated further into the embrace of his Armani long coat, felt the smooth thrum of the Gulfstream’s engines as the elite pilot at the airplane’s controls expertly taxied it to its berth, he has long ago set aside the concerns of ordinary human beings.
As the Gulfstream smoothly came to a stop, Desmond could see a small group standing a bit of a ways from where a groundcrew was putting the ladder into place on the plane’s door. The first thought that comes to his mind was how few they were; in the old days – old? Wasn’t that just half a decade ago? – there would be a virtual gaggle down there to meet one of his rank. As it is, Desmond couldn’t even get past the fingers of one hand for the main welcome party and he highly doubted that all of those down there were… like him.
Desmond let out a soft sigh at that realization. That bad, eh? And, somehow, a small stab of guilt went through his blackened, unbeating heart. After all, he was well aware of what he did the minute all hell broke loose, hiding himself in the far provinces of the Philippines while his people reportedly perished in the dozens, if not hundreds. In fact, his last act before leaving the Metro behind was throwing his celfone out of the open doorway of the Philippine Air Force Huey that took him to Villamor Airbase and his waiting Gulfstream that whisked him far, far away from the madness that was engulfing the capital.
I have not been a good Childe, Desmond thought as he rose and an attendant took his hand-carried luggage. And why do I feel so much like the prodigal son returning? Only, it is not the kind, loving Sire waiting to take me back, no questions asked, with arms wide open, but my angry, possibly-vengeful brother who stands at the gate.
So why are you back, Desmond? Why did you leave your personal Haven and the ministrations of your dear Nephtali (the crazy girl took the first flight to Davao the minute she heard I was gone from the Metro) for the… insanity of Manila?
A tall man carrying an umbrella – it was still drizzling, after all – waited for Desmond immediately outside the Gulfstream’s door. “Greetings, Lord Desmond. Welcome back to Manila,” the man said, and Desmond saw that he was smiling.
He also saw the prominent canines sticking out of the Neonate’s pearly whites.
“Stop grinning like some monkey waiting to get a treat, Diego,” Desmond said, not breaking his stride and walking confidently down the stairs. Diego was forced to keep up, lest Desmond get raindrops on his Armani. “if a Ragabash or a Mage with a sniper rifle were around here, you’d be a messy little vampire in seconds.”
“I’m sorry, my lord,” Diego hurriedly murmured, obviously distressed. “I shall be more careful next time,” the Neonate added as he opened the door to the armored (in more ways than one) Lexus to let Desmond in.
“See that you do,” Desmond said as he slipped into the relative safety of the Lexus; relative, because the alliance between the Mages and the Garou had taught the Lupines the… efficacy of rocket-propelled grenades. “It would be such a waste to have this Armani thrown away after your brains get splattered over it; Giorgo himself gave this to me.”
With that, Desmond closed the door and the Lexus began to move, one other car in front and another behind, four motorcycle-riding policemen running escort. On the jumpseat, another Neonate gave Desmond a once-over before putting a celfone to his ear. “Package is secure, Lord Victor. Heading to the Tower now. ETA 45.”
There’s the reason why you’re back, Desmond. Because Victor demanded it. And after what you did to him, and because of what he might become very soon, do you dare say no to your own friend?
Oh, wait. He’s more than a friend now: he is my Primogen. My Lord.
I must never let myself forget that.
The lights of Metro Manila at night went by like fireflies on steroids outside Desmond’s window. Somewhere out there, a werewolf was howling at the Moon, even Luna’s silver luminescence was hidden by the clouds. Somewhere out there, a Mage poked at Reality, and one of them could even be responsible for this rain. Somewhere out there, Wraiths flitted about, trying to find pieces of themselves amidst the concrete of their graveyards and the gnarled branches of Balete trees so they can finally Transcend.
Somewhere out there, one of the Kindred was feeding, that sweet, crimson nectar renewing their strength, sustaining for a few more nights their unlife.
Unlife like his.
And somewhere out there, one of those four would be dying at the hands of a Hunter, brought low by that plain human’s extraordinary Faith. The way Desmond and his friends almost nearly experienced five years ago. The way hundreds of Vampires fell to the power of True Faith during The Breach.
Ah, yes. It’s good to be back, Manila. Nephtali was getting boring, anyway, what with her endless bleating. And Davao reminded me too much of my father.
Despite himself, Desmond begun to hum a familiar tune. Something about gaudily-colored public utility vehicles that flew and women whose beauty shone forth.
And why you always go back to Manila, asking it promises to never let you go.
The Institute for Advanced Consciousness Studies
Ateneo de Manila University
Quezon City, Philippines
The footfalls of his booted feet echoed in the silent halls. The young-looking man, his trenchcoat partly wet from walking in the soft drizzle, remembered the stories from his Sire about how the corridors of the Tremere’s primary Chantry here in the Philippines would be filled with activity, of Neonates running errands for their elders, and those selfsame – and, he thought, self-important – older members of the Clan clumped in small groups everywhere, discussing everything.
Now, it felt like a graveyard outside of All Souls’ Day, and about as silent, too.
If there was a joke in there, somewhere, Alexander Philip Mercado couldn’t find the humor in it. But then, even before his Embrace, Alexander had not been a familiar friend to laughter.
After climbing a set of stairs, cunningly designed to give utmost advantage to defenders while extremely hampering attackers, he stopped before a set of double doors, and one of the Gargoyles that flanked the entrance gave him an appraising look. After a short but uncomfortable while, the monster nodded and signaled to his companion to let Alexander through.
The young Tremere stepped into a room softly lit by a variety of lanterns. One glance told Alexander that, should the need arise, many of the light sources could be quickly taken down and, most likely, thrown at whatever invaded this sanctum. Books lined tall cases everywhere, and he silently admired how many of them were not only thick but covered in strong, ironbound leather. Not only did it keep the paper in the books safe, but Alexander would bet that they also made for excellent impromptu bucklers should the need arise.
And, standing there with her back purposely to the door as if in mockery of the threat such an ingress presented, looking out of the large window of her private study, was the woman whose every action conveyed such attention to detail, determination, and danger.
Sarah Palmer, Primogen of the Tremere of Metro Manila, didn’t even deign to acknowledge Alexander’s presence and continued to look at whatever it was outside her window that absorbed her attention, as if he absolutely presented no threat even if her back was turned to him.
Some have learned too late that little mistake, a voice whispered in the depths of Alexander’s mind.
Of course, even in these chaotic times, no one becomes the top Vampire of the Tremere in a domain unless he or she was powerful, enough to be so confident that nothing can harm them, even if their back was exposed.
Alexander saw no chair in the room other than the one that, strategically, lay between Palmer and the large, sturdy-looking narra desk that was before him. Not even showing any outward reactions to this situation like annoyance, Alexander did what was expected of his station and knelt on one knee.
“Is it not… fascinating how our greatest fortress in these benighted islands is right in the middle of one of the most powerful institutions of the Church that tried to destroy us so many centuries ago?” Palmer said, her tone more whimsical than anything Alexander could guess at. “In fact, it is quite surprising how we manage to pull this off, considering many of the Jesuits are Mages themselves, if not members of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.”
“Perhaps they use it to observe us, do you not think so, Alexander?” Palmer asked, turning slowly to face the kneeling Vampire. “The way a scientist would watch the behavior of a couple of lab rats, all the while taking notes on what made them tick.”
“The assumption is not without merit, my Lady,” Alexander said, not even looking up. “The Jesuits have always valued information and knowledge above all, and our being in their midst must satisfy some perverse curiosity in them, for otherwise how can our Chantry have survived this long? It becomes a most curious achievement considering that the Father Provincial of the Order and Father President of the Ateneo are usually Mages.”
Palmer smirked, and let out a snort. “Yet, it did not take much knowledge to destroy over ninety percent of us. Oh, no, the Mages and Garou did not need much to know a flamethrower or an assault shotgun can kill us as easily, or even easier, than a fireball spell or a Daiklaive. An assault from the Sabbat, even in full, we can easily thwart; but a combination of all our enemies, especially after the Hunters severely weakened us? That was too much.”
“And they did not need much knowledge, either, to take out our dear, old Prince, do you not agree, Alexander?” Palmer asked. “He just sat there, broken in the end, as Sancho Castille, the lord of the Silver Fangs of the Philippines cut him to pieces. Right on top of his own throne.”
The younger Vampire only nodded his bowed head. The Tremere Primogen of Metro Manila sat down and bade Alexander rise. She regarded him a bit before speaking up again. “I am aware of what particular focus Leonard trained you in, but I am sure your Sire was not remiss in instructing you well enough on the politics of the Kindred? Leonard is one of our best, but he tends to forget things when he begins teaching his field of expertise.”
“Aye, my Lady. My sire made sure I was well versed in this matter.”
“Excellent, then. So you are aware that a vote for a Prince is coming soon,” Palmer said. “We are long bereft of leadership, after all. We managed to beat back the Sabbat and make them pay dearly for their temerity after the Hunters were exhausted, but if the Mages did not eventually come under pressure from the Technocracy, or the Garou got distracted by events in Mindanao, we would have been wiped off the face of this country five years ago.”
Ah. This is… interesting, Alexander thought.
“I know what you are thinking; Leonard was pretty clear to me about your hatred for the Castille, particularly the Philodox son of Sancho who stands to inherit the leadership of the Philippine Silver Fangs, and perhaps all the Garou of the Philippines,” Palmer said, her tone becoming stern. “He is not your concern for now, and I doubt you have the powers and abilities to best him in direct confrontation, especially after his exploits during the Breach. Aside from his Tribe, and their allies, you will have to go through his Pack, first. And his Mage twin and his Coven, if not every one of the Traditions on this country. You go and attack Patrick Isidore Castille now, you might start another Breach.”
Now there’s a thought, a voice said in Alexander’s mind, one that doesn’t sound so bad. He hurriedly summoned his Will to hush it.
“No, young Tremere, I have other plans for someone with your unique talents, and I will not see them wasted going after dogs.”
You have no idea about how much I want him dead, that I would not care what stood between him and me if it meant my blade piercing his heart and ending his misbegotten life, Alexander thought. But, yes, I shall play your game for now. Because, hate it as much as I do, you are right on that score about the gap in fighting ability between him and me.
“What is it my Lady wishes?”
Palmer looked long and steady at Alexander. Her gaze lingered on him for so long that the younger Vampire was worried about his Primogen finding out… something about Alexander. But the Tremere leader suddenly let out a small chuckle. “I feel the inferno within you wanting to lash out, but you control it well. Your Jesuit mentors, and your own Sire, taught you well, indeed.”
Alexander merely bowed his head. So you did not see. This is good. This is very good.
“In two hours, there will be a grand ball of all the remaining Kindred here in Manila, to be held at the Quezon Memorial Circle,” Palmer said, steepling her fingers before her. “Do not ask me why such a… tacky place was chosen to hold it in, but what is important is that rumors are rife that Victor Sisko, the Ventrue Primogen, will make a bid for the throne of Manila. This must not happen.”
I see. The game’s afoot, then.
“You will accompany me to the Ball as my Second. It is expected of my status and your being relatively unknown will only throw the others off-balance,” Palmer said. “That is partly why Leonard and I kept you in Singapore; you are our hidden ace, Alexander.”
“I will tell you more of what you need to do on the way to the Ball, for I have things suddenly needing attention.” The Primogen levitated a small black block of plastic and waved it towards Alexander, who promptly caught it. “This flash drive contains dossiers on the current situation of all the Clans here in Manila as well as the general condition of the city. Study it well. You will need the information in it later tonight.”
“Very well, My Lady. I shall see you in two hours then,” Alexander said, pocketing the flash drive. He bowed as if to leave but stopped upon seeing Palmer’s raised palm.
“Where will you be staying?” the Primogen asked.
“I have been left with substantial resources by my Sire, Lady Sarah, which includes an small abode in the Fort; Leonard’s way of making up for the… suddenness of his Embracing me, I suppose,” Alexander answered. Suddenness my ass. That crazy Jesuit kidnapped me, put me on a boat and sent me to fucking Singapore without even a by-your-leave. Giving me a cozy little place in the Fort and a substantial expense account plus other assets and properties is the least he could do. “I shall repair to there and return posthaste to the Chantry at the appointed time.”
“No, that won’t do,” Palmer said. “You have clearance to use one of the upper suites. Our servants have brought your personal effects to there, and clothes have been readied for your use later.”
I am to stay here at the Chantry? And I was hoping to visit my flat. Or maybe check on her; Leonard told me nothing of what happened to her during the Breach, save that she was “somewhere that the Castille can’t go to.” An annoyance, to be sure, but nothing to get angry over.
“As you wish, my Lady,” Alexander bowed.
“Do not think this is just because of some whim by your elders, or some sort of dominance contest,” Palmer said, standing and actually walking towards Alexander. She was a small woman and rather thin at that despite the fullness of her figure, but she stood ramrod straight and exuded an aura of danger that was so palpable you can almost taste it. “Do you have any idea how many of us Tremere are left in Manila, Alexander, excluding me and you?”
“I… admit to not have an idea, Lady Sarah.”
The Primogen held up a hand and slowly straightened one, two, three and then four fingers.
“Ah,” was the only response Alexander could say. Despite the doom and gloom he wore like a comfortable cloak, even his sorrow-clad heart felt despair at that revelation.
“And none of those four are nowhere near your power. Nowhere, Alexander. I know the kind of arrogance the Jesuits breed into you Ateneans and I have no wish to feed the ego it is rooted on, but there is no hiding it: you are our foremost weapon right now, and I do not wish to take chances that someone will seek to weaken the Tremere in Manila further by taking you out.”
“Of course, that only means the Clan expects much from you,” Palmer said, a strange, predatory light in her eyes as she smiled to Alexander. “Do not fail me. Do not fail the Clan.”
You have no idea how much I do not intend to fail, Alexander thought
Or how far I wish for my plans to succeed.
Alexander knelt again and kissed the hand of his Primogen. “I am your Sword, Lady Sarah, forged by Leonard Disanto, known as the Black Flame of the Tremere, to be the weapon of the Clan. Failure is not part of my training.”