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Masquerade

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The humid night air amplified the nauseating smell of rotting garbage. Humidity always made everything worse in her opinion. She could count on one hand the times she actually enjoyed a humid night. The noise from traffic was muted against the dancing shadows in the air. They swirled around the soles of her boots, nipping like an over eager puppy. The young woman glanced at her watch, the flashing neon pink contrasting brightly in the dark alley. She noted the time: 11:34pm. Six more minutes and she was giving up. Midnight was a cursed hour in this city, even for people in her profession. Standing around and doing nothing was the worst thing she could possibly think of on a muggy weekday night. The throbbing bass from a nearby club seemed to fade away as the shadows pressed in. Fear slithered down her back, tightening into a slippery knot in her belly. Something was watching her, its hot, hungry gaze fell over her body leaving chilled skin in its wake.

“Game on then.” She murmured as she stepped out from the flickering light of the street lamp. Her clothing rustled as she picked a steady pace, the shadows trailing behind in her wake. The alleyway was abandoned and beckoned for her like a siren’s song. The synthetic platinum blonde hair flowed behind her as she stepped into the alleyway, and was assaulted with the vile stench of rotting garbage and packed, damp dirt as soon as she stepped in. The shadows closed in, muting even the outside lights from the buildings. Her hands were jammed into the pockets of her jeans, her shoulders hunched against the feel of that predatory gaze on her. No matter how many times she did this, it never failed to send that same old terror spiraling through her. A reminder of the one night she’d almost died, four short years ago. She never spoke of that night to anyone, not even her brother knew. The owner of that stare had taken the bait and followed her in.

The shadows curled and twisted around her, she could feel the tendrils licking at her skin. The ravenous shadows wanted to consume her, Aurelia could feel the hunger in those midnight tendrils clawing at her. Fuck. It’s a Lasombra. That complicated things a bit. The ability to manipulate the very shadows around it made a Lasombra hard to catch, usually not until their fangs were almost in the neck. The canniest of her kind usually did their best to stay out of Lasombra’s way, but she’d been given information that this one wasn’t that old. A few decades at most. Her ability to manipulate shadows hadn’t had time to fully mature yet, that happened at around one hundred years. The young woman’s lips curled in a smile full of anticipation. She’d always relished a challenge. The shadows flowed over her legs, tangible now, caressing her as a lover would. Nausea churned in her stomach as she felt the blatant bloodlust brushing against her body.

A movement in the corner of her eye caught her attention. The barest hint of pale flesh against the midnight shadows. Quick as lightning Aurelia turned and used the momentum to drive the stake into the chest of the vampire that materialized behind her from the shadows. Surprise filled its black eyes as it met her rage-filled turquoise ones. Understanding quickly replaced it as the stake did its job. Unlike popular myths, a stake wouldn’t kill a vampire it would merely paralyze them. There were only two solid ways of killing a vampire: beheading it or sunlight. Burning the body also had a way of killing a vampire, but burning one alive was tricky business. Vampires could succumb to sunlight or to what they referred to as the Beast, but for humans? The choices were beheading the vampire or burning. The stake came in handy with both of those decisions.

Hunter.” The venom flowed from the creature’s mouth as it slid down to its knees. The word was thrown at the young woman like yesterday’s bathwater. A sly grin appeared on her face as Aurelia grabbed the machete strapped to her thigh.

“Bingo. See you in hell.” She used as much force as she needed to slice the head off the body. She’d been trained as a Hunter since she was a child, and her father made sure to teach her how much force it required to take off a vampire’s head. The part that came after the decapitation was her least favorite. She drew the pliers out of her pocket and twirled them in her hand for effect. This was required if she wanted to get paid from the organization. No fangs meant no money. Joker was a stickler about that.

“You do that well enough.” The honeyed words jerked her to her feet as she spun to see who the voice belonged to. The machete glinted dangerously in the streetlight, the blade stained crimson from the vampire’s blood. Shadows fell away to reveal a young man, he looked hardly older than her, only ten feet away. Alarm snaked down her spine as she knew what he was. He was a vampire, and at that brilliant manipulation of shadows, a Lasombra. Aurelia pegged him at least two hundred years old. She brought up her machete defensively as the pliers dropped to the ground, her free hand gripped the pistol strapped to her back. “At ease Ryder. Your brother told me about you.”

“Jesus fuck!” Aurelia snarled as she dropped her hand from the gun, putting her machete away at the same time and scooped up the pliers again. “You’re the vampire my brother made that deal with then? He told me about it.” What the fuck is Archer thinking? Aurelia grumbled as she opened the mouth of the deceased vampire. This was a rather nasty task and she could never keep the wince from her face. She pried the fangs out with a sickening crunch, the sound echoing in the alleyway. Her turquoise eyes looked up to see the other vampire, Reyes, avert his gaze. She snorted at his response and stood to put the fangs away.

“Your brother and I have an agreement, yes.” Reyes told her as he watched the hunter put the fangs inside a silver metal box attached to a chain at her waist. Aurelia studied the Lasombra vampire carefully. He wasn’t bad looking as far as vampires went. Chiseled looks, those whiskey colored eyes, and that carefully tousled midnight hair. Aurelia had no doubt it was intentionally done. It added a roguish charm to his looks. Yet, it was his presence that drew her notice. He had a larger than life charisma that oozed like pus from an infected wound.

“Well, you have one with him. Not with me.” Aurelia nudged the body with the bottom of her boot to ensure it was dead. She never trusted vampires, they always had a sneaky ace up their sleeve. The blood oozed out of the neck wound, black and congealed. She narrowed her eyes at Reyes over the vampire’s body. “I won’t go after you so long as that deal is in place with Archer, but if you hurt him? There won’t be a single thing on this Earth that will stop me from slaughtering you.” Her eyes flashed icy fury before she felt him move. His hand curled over her throat, cutting off her air. The temper in his eyes darkened them to an amber color, and she could see her death written in their depths.

“Oh, will you?” Reyes growled at her as he lifted her to the tips of her toes. Arrogant human thought she could challenge him on his turf? He would leave her with bruises to remind her. A sharp burning pain in his side brought him out of his rage. Breath hissed from his lips as he looked down and saw the dagger digging into his skin. It sliced through his padded clothing easily, the tip disappearing into his body. The shiny metal reflected the street lamp’s light and he growled in frustration. Silver. It wasn’t as deadly to vampires as it was to werewolves, but it would cause agony while it was in his blood stream.

“Yeah.” Her voice was hoarse as he released her throat. Aurelia stumbled to catch her balance but she held the knife in front of her the entire time. Her entire body had been prepped for a long battle with this vampire. It seemed he’d been more interested in teaching her a lesson, but she’d taught him one in the end. Never underestimate a hunter. “I’ve no interest in taking you on. Like I said.” She coughed at the dryness in her throat. It felt as if she’d swallowed sandpaper, and she knew she’d have bruises later. Chakwas and Lexi would have her hide since bruises were hard to hide and heal.

The vampire melted back into the shadows and Aurelia groaned in pain as she felt his presence disappear. That meant nothing as he could be hiding in the shadows, masking his aura from her. Aurelia chose to ignore it, focusing on the corpse in front of her. The body had to be burnt, it was the only way to destroy the evidence. Hunters were just as keen to preserve what the vampires termed “Mask” as well. Aurelia didn’t need a mass panic, the government getting involved, and the military too. Unveiling usually brought sympathizers and those that would worship vampires. Chaos would reign supreme, but that was what one faction of vampires wanted. The Sabbat as they called themselves, wanted to rule over humanity with a bloodied iron fist. The humans were just cattle to them, and it was the Hunters stood in between the worlds. The Camarilla fed off the humans but they also knew that humans were necessary. Unless a Camarilla vampire went off the beaten path and became rogue, the Hunters normally left them alone by mutual agreement. Aurelia didn’t like it at all, but she didn’t question the Hunter’s laws. They tracked down vampires that had gone rogue or those that were attempting to break the mask of normalcy that Camarilla embraced. Hunters were not exactly on their top list of allies, but the Camarilla also saw their usefulness.

Aurelia snorted as she lit the match and tossed it onto the body. There had been no need to stick around and watch, and her boots crunched under the loose asphalt as she left the smell of burnt flesh behind her. Her watch beeped, alerting her to that time. Midnight. “Time to head back. He’s gonna be so pissed that he owes me twenty credits.” She giggled as she picked up the pace towards the bar. She pulled off the platinum wig, thankful it was no longer going to be driving her insane. Her long black braid fell away from her head, landing against her back with a soft thud. The wig had been necessary since there had been cameras around the business she was staking out. Aurelia grinned as she heard the raucous shouts from the results of a game that scrolled across the TV screen.

The bar wasn’t anything special as far as bars went. The outside was well maintained, painted in Alliance military colors, with the insignia of the Alliance Navy and Marines blazoned on the side of the building. The building’s sign was at least twenty years old, as it had belonged to Remly’s dad before he’d taken it over after getting out of the military. The music that pumped out of the open windows was some old rock ballad, which never failed to make her smile. He never wants to play new music. The bell over the door jangled as she walked in. Several of the patrons looked up in curiosity and Aurelia chuckled at the predictable behavior. Her blue-green eyes met Remly’s pale green ones as she waved at him. He nodded his blond head towards the kitchen door and she grinned as she strolled towards the back.

The décor was a mix and match of several different themes, but overall it had a military feel. Remly had all the different branches represented under his roof. The regulars got a kick out of seeing another hometown person showing up on the wall, and the tourists enjoyed seeing a slice of the local life. Remly Shepard made it his goal to make his patrons feel comfortable in the bar, and it had an uncanny ability to loosen tongues. That helped find information that their Hunter network would not otherwise get. Tourists were always willing to blab about some local legend they heard about or creepy, supernatural experience that happened to them.

“You’re not putting this young thing to work are you Shepard? She’s got to fix my car in the morning.” One of the older men at the bar protested as Aurelia walked past. She paused and turned towards him with an affectionate smile. Roger was a former Marine who had served with Remly’s dad, and always made a point to drop in especially on game days. Aurelia stepped up close to the older man and placed a kiss on his cheek.

“Thanks for looking out for me Roger, but I’m just here to pick up my brother and head home.” Roger chuckled as his cronies whistled at him. His cheeks turned a delightful shade of pink as she stepped back and sailed through the door.

“Quit trying to seduce my patrons damn it.” Remly called out playfully as she passed him and she grinned at him before the door shut behind her. Aurelia waved to Trevor, the chef, and headed towards the pantry. The false back slid open for her as she punched in the passcode. The door was timed to slid back after five seconds, and she stepped through before it activated. The stairway was cramped and cobwebs caught at her hair. Vampires she could handle, but spiders? No. Aurelia brushed at her hair as she made it down to the basement. The sounds of arguing and cheering greeted her as she stopped in front of the wooden door. Her hand propped up on her hip as she stepped into the bedlam.

“Bullshit you beat my high score Vega!” Jeff “Joker” Moreau yelled as he sat on the couch with the controller in his hand. He shook his fist at the former Marine. James sat back with his hands propped behind his head with a cocky grin on his face. His shirt pulled tight against his chest. The smug grin only irritated Joker further, the bounty tracker was about to yell again when Aurelia cleared her throat behind him.

“Pay up Moreau. I made it back before one.” She told him with a grin. Joker glanced over his shoulder and snorted at her.

“You have the goods?” She held up the box and sneered playfully at him.
“Next time let me know if I’m tracking a Lasombra will you? I hate the way those shadows feel!” Aurelia grumbled as Joker got up and headed over to the bounty board. He tapped a few keys on the terminal and a name was struck off. James grinned as he watched Joker deposit the fangs in the larger box that was sent to headquarters every week.

“That vampire give you some trouble Legs?” Aurelia gave James an indignant sniff as she turned her head at his shit eating grin. James had a nickname for everyone it seemed, and she had no idea how hers came to be Legs. She would die before telling anyone the nickname sent her heart fluttering. He seemed to behave when the higher ups were in the room, but when it was just the regular hunters? Vega tended to let loose.

“So says the man who doesn’t track vampires. And no, this vampire was barely thirty years old if a day.” She pushed his head lightly as she walked by him on her way to the counter. He laughed in response and picked up the controller again.

“My brother made it back yet?” Aurelia leaned against the counter as Joker transferred the credits to her account. He tilted his hat back to scratch at his forehead. He looked over at her with a wry glance.

“You know Archer. He won’t be satisfied unless he has the perfect shot.” Ryder sighed as she knew he was right. Her brother was stubborn and too damn patient for his own good.

“Right.” Aurelia rubbed at the soreness in her neck as she saw Chakwas leave the office. Their eyes met, Karin’s dipped down for an instant and recognized the bruising, and she pointed to the office. Aurelia groaned and trudged over to the medical office, feeling like a kid heading to the principal’s office.

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Across town clouds rolled across the moon, obliterating any light it provided. A young man breathed in as he trained his scope on a single park bench. The Mantis sniper fit snugly into his shoulder, a birthday gift from his twin. The night was in the ‘witching hour’ as his sister called it, though he was thankful there were no mages around this part of town. Well, if there are then I’m glad they’re not causing trouble. One thing he didn’t want to contend with was a mage by himself. Archer rolled his shoulders as the stiffness from staying in one position set in. This werewolf, Garou, better show itself so he could get home. He’d never hear the end of it from his sister if he took longer than she did in bagging his quarry.

A movement in the corner of his crosshairs snapped him from his thoughts. The hulking, loping form appeared in his crosshairs, drawn by the smell of the bait on the park bench. The jagged claws ripped at the blood-soaked bundle of fabric. A bone-chilling howl filled the park as the creature discovered the trap, its head whipped around to search the area. Archer clucked his tongue in mild annoyance and the creature zeroed in on his location. “Impressive hearing. Too bad it won’t help you.” His finger pulled and the silver bullet found its way between the Garou’s eyes. The body twitched before it collapsed to the ground, the canine form already shifting back to humanoid.

Archer sighed as he slung his Mantis over his shoulder and headed to the park to clean up the mess. Most authority figures were ignorant of the danger that lurked in the shadows and underneath the light of a full moon. The ones in true power knew full well what skulked in the night as their strings were pulled by those same creatures. The vampires were the puppet masters, especially those who belonged to the Ventrue and Toreador clans. Hunters worked alongside the Camarilla vampires as they disliked breaking the Mask for fear of the witch hunts of the old days. Hunters may not like the vampires but the humans were a pragmatic bunch and realized the benefits to it. Archer himself wasn’t averse to working with the vampires, he just didn’t like their power structure. Only one vampire, the Prince, ruled the vampires and he or she had a council made up of the different clans to help make decisions. The Prince was the one who made the final decision no matter which clan objected to it.

He grabbed his pliers and went to work on the Garou as his thoughts wandered about the vampires. In their city, which was a big one by Earth standards, there were two Camarilla groups in power. The Initiative and the Council. They comprised the bulk of the power in the entire city, even the Mayor was in their pocket. Though Archer didn’t know which one pulled the strings this term, last term it had been the Council. The Initiative was headed by a twit of a Ventrue that Archer never cared much for. The Council was headed by three princes, by agreement, to represent the interests of the Camarilla vampires. Though Archer wondered if they brushed off the Sabbat and anarchist movements by the vampires that chafed at their restrictions too easily. The Sabbat group that opposed the Council was termed Omega by the Hunters. They left them alone for the most part, the Tremere vampire that ran it was an asari named Aria T’Loak. No one was ready to face down that woman, the stories he heard were terrifying. Aria was a powerful biotic and Tremere vampire. The Outcasts were the Sabbat group that butted heads with the Initiative. It was run by a Brujah vampire called Sloane.

Archer pried the fangs out with a sickeningly crunch and pocketed them in the silver box hanging at his waist. He thought of what he knew about the vampires on both sides. The one who approached him for an alliance hadn’t been a part of either group. An independent vampire, though his clan usually sided with the Sabbat, had approached him with the unusual proposition. Reyes had explained that his group, the Collective, preferred the Mask remain in place but despised how the Initiative distributed its power. The agreement had taken months for Archer to agree to it. Reyes had provided useful information to capture known and wanted vampires and the occasional werewolf.

The corpse would burn itself out as he tossed the match down on the gasoline soaked body. He looked at his watch and noted the time. 0130. Shit! I have a meeting at 9 in the morning. The young man rushed towards the bar and threw up a hand towards Remly after cloaking his weapon. The older man returned the greeting absently as he leaned his elbow on the counter and chuckled low at something the woman in front of him had said. Archer lifted one eyebrow but shook his head. No one could capture an audience like Remly Shepard. The man had a certain charisma to him that Archer would never be able to grasp. The chef tossed Archer a wrapped sandwich and mumbled something about needing to put some meat on his skinny ass. Archer laughed and headed down to the Hunter headquarters. He heard the yelling from the staircase and heard his sister’s voice mingling with the others.

“Beat that score Vega!” Archer walked into the common room and saw Vega and his sister playing some video game on the screen. “You’ll never beat me with that pathetic combo. Need me to show you how to do it?” The teasing note in his sister’s voice didn’t escape Archer, neither did the faint flush on Vega’s face. His sky-blue eyes narrowed in suspicion at the two but he had other business to take care of.

“Hey there Ryder. Got that werewolf then?” Joker pushed up his hat as he waited for Archer to make his way over to the counter. The bounty tracker put the fangs up and transferred the credits to Archer’s account. “Your sister beat you by about an hour though.” Archer cursed and turned to send his sister a withering glare.

He saw his sister leaning over Vega and showing him some of the combos he needed for the game. He propped an elbow on the table and sighed. “I have to get going. Got an early meeting.”

“Such a sad, pathetic existence. Having to be one of those mindless corporate drones.”

“Yeah, yeah. This mindless drone makes sure you enjoy those commercials with the sexy bikini clad women.”

“Then I bow to you, oh great drone.” Joker flashed Archer a grin as the younger man laughed it off. Joker never failed to give him hell for his career but Archer was satisfied with it. Archer straightened and popped his back.

“Hey, Aurelia. You done playing that mind-numbing game? I need to get home.” Archer told her and she scowled at him over her shoulder. He grinned in return and scratched his stomach absently as his twin joined him by the counter. His dark shirt rose just a bit as he finished stretching.

“Fine.” Aurelia grumbled. She told Joker she was going to beat his high score next time she got a chance to play that game. James gave her a small salute and told her he’d see her at work the next day. Aurelia sighed as she followed Archer out to his car. The twins climbed in and headed back to the house they shared with their Dad. Out of necessity than anything else. It was the only place they could fortify against surprise ambushes. An apartment didn’t even let you put up cameras unless the landlord was okay with it.

The twins never noticed the pair of cool assessing eyes that peered at them from the shadows. Things were about to get interesting after all.

Chapter Text

Marlowe Shepard was a patient woman when it came to teaching middle schoolers to wonders of history, but not when it came to waiting for the damn vampire to make an appearance. The Brujah vampire was on the radar of the Hunters and Camarilla lately because of the bloody rampage it was on. Several raves in the area had reported injuries resembling bites and one murder. The victim had been drained of all blood, but the body disappeared from the morgue before dawn. Marlowe had taken the job since the timing was perfect. She was already in that section of the city, the one under Council control, and told Joker she’d look into it while she was there.

“Stupid teacher conferences. What new stupid rule do we have to deal with?” Marlowe scratched the back of her head as she made it back to her hotel room. Her khaki slacks, brown loafers, and black turtleneck were tossed aside as soon as she entered the room. Her teacher attire never ceased giving Joker ammunition to tease her. Marlowe slid into the well-cut jeans and soft grey t-shirt that she wore for hunting. Durable but comfortable. The grin curled on her lips as she went into the bathroom to grab a hair clip. Her burgundy hair hung just below her shoulders, but she had to keep it out of the way when hunting. No use giving the vampires any footholds in a fight, or in this case a hair hold. A quick twist and her hair was secured.

“So, where should I go to?” Marlowe pulled out her phone to scroll through some of the local raves. Joker had sent her the info about this Brujah and a possible new fledgling. One party looked promising. An abandoned warehouse? One of the city’s premiere DJ’s making an appearance? Oh yeah. This will be the payload if the vamp follows its routine. Marlowe got the address and headed downstairs after slipping into her shoes. The only luxury Marlowe gave herself, shoes. Aurelia had her car, Remly had the bar, and Archer had his sniper rifles. Marlowe treated herself to shoes. The Ivy Kirzhner ankle boots felt like heaven against her skin and she dashed out the front door of the hotel into the warm summer night. Her rental got her to the rave, despite having to park three blocks from the party. Every other streetlight was out on the street she was on, every instinct screamed at her to be on high alert. Weapons were checked and rechecked to ensure bypassing any security they would have, if they had any at all. Her strides ate up the sidewalk as she approached the dilapidated warehouse. The roof was partially missing, the brightly colored strobes bouncing off the night sky. The building had death trap written all over it, but Marlowe knew she had to go in.

The music reached her first, a deep throbbing bass that shook her chest. Shepard remembered when she’d loved this type of party, but she enjoyed a quiet night at home with wine now. She wondered if this made her old and shook off the maudlin thought as she stepped through the doors. She paid the fee and got the stamp for the party, she got a few looks from the more outrageously dressed individuals. Well shit. I guess I could’ve dressed less like 5th Avenue shopper and more like raver. Marlowe grumbled internally as she thought about this. The security detail was sadly lacking as she breezed right through it, the security guard barely spared her a glance. She wasn’t frisked at all, which she was thankful for since she was packing the machete and pistol under the worn leather jacket she’d pulled on before her mad dash out the door.

The screams were maddening, fueled by the adrenaline and drugs that were passed between the revelers. Shepard didn’t want to know what type of drug was being circulated, but it certainly provided a cheerful high. If the partygoers were anything to go by. The DJ wasn’t familiar to her so she was able to shift her attention away from the musician to the crowd. The scar on her right cheek tingled, sending chills through her body. Vampire. Shepard paused as her eyes scanned the crowd frantically, but it was a packed house. I really underestimated this. Oops. Marlowe grumbled to herself as she weaved through the writhing, densely packed bodies. She felt caged while in the wriggling mass, and a familiar panic bubbled up in her. Being trapped was one of her biggest fears, she had to find a way out of the crowd. The pungent smell of perfume, drugs, and body odor gagged her as she made it to the side of the room. Her hazel eyes, a golden green color, glanced back towards the dancing mob with loathing barely hidden. She’d only agreed to do the job because Joker assured her that it would be an easy in and out job. When I get back, I am going delete all his saves on that damn Xbox.

The chill shook her to her core, her body pivoted to find the owner of that unnerving stare. Marlowe looked up and saw the lone woman standing at the bar, an asari, and the acknowledging nod sent her way. Vampire. Asari? Fuck, that’s a Tremere. Marlowe disliked Tremere vampires. All of the damn clan could use biotics and it made fighting them a pain in the ass, even if she was a biotic too. A bolt of awareness seared Marlowe, leaving goosebumps in its wake. That was new. The hyper awareness was unusual and she wondered if the drug being passed around was Red Sand. She’d never felt like that for a vampire before, what the fuck was going on? The asari beckoned her closer, her purple skin shimmering beneath the brightly colored lights of the rave. The markings on her face stood out in contrast with the flickering colored lights. Apprehension flew through her body, but Marlowe reminded herself that Tremere vampires were part of the Camarilla. Most of them anyway, and they would do anything to keep the Mask in place. She eased her way to the bar and stood next to the asari.

“So, what brings a Hunter to my place?” Marlowe looked around, her lips quirked into a half smile.

“Needs some redecorating.” The asari laughed next to her and something snaked down the hunter’s spine. That niggling sense of self-preservation that told her not to fuck with this vampire, but it was mixed with a languid heat that scared Marlowe more than a vampire in a frenzy. Those eyes, glowing faintly with biotic blue light, pinned Marlowe with their intensity. If she could drown in something it would be those eyes. Unfathomably deep and the holder of ancient knowledge. The human wondered just how old was the vampire in front of her. Her laugh floated over the earsplitting music, speeding up Marlowe’s heart. Shit, I must be hard up if I’m feeling like this for a vampire. She should’ve felt disgust, but this asari intrigued her like none other had. That aura of power that surrounded her was more potent than the mixed drinks being served, and it made her want to dive in to find out more. >br>
“Well, it is a recent acquisition. My predecessor was, how should I say it, an idiot. Ran the place into the ground and spent the profits on absurd oddities.” The asari waved her hand for another drink, it appeared almost magically in front of her. Nice service for the owner huh? Marlowe almost chuckled but bit it back since laughter wouldn’t be prudent in this situation.

“The old owner? That wouldn’t happen to be a Brujah vampire, would it?” The asari’s eyes slid over and locked in with hers.

“It would. It would indeed. I take it that’s what brought a Hunter to my club? The old owner?” Her aura changed and the room temperature dropped by a few degrees. Marlowe steeled her shoulders for a snap of temper, as her own biotics responded in kind. The asari jerked back her head at the jolt of power from the human.

“Well, well. A biotic then? I didn’t think those dumbasses would be smart enough to keep one as an asset.” The hairs on the back of her neck rose as the asari brushed her finger tips across Marlowe’s jacket, right where the pistol was. The stake was next to the pistol, and the unfamiliar shape brought the vampire’s brows together in confusion. “And what is this? No pistol or knife?” Marlowe shook her head.

“A girl’s got to have some secrets.” Oh my God! Am I flirting with a vampire? Remly’s going to kill me if he finds out. The smile toyed at Marlowe’s lips as her eyes held the asari’s.

“Hmm, all right then. What shall I call you Hunter? Give me that and I’ll let you walk out of here unscathed.” The Tremere took a sip of her drink and slammed it back onto the counter with a loud thunk. The hiss brought up every one of Marlowe’s instincts as she reflexively reached for her pistol. “You. Get over here now.” The bartender looked sick as he scurried over. Marlowe almost breathed a sigh of relief at the topic change, she’d hate to actually lie to the asari.

“Yes ma’am?” The man was radiating anxiety as he wrung his hands in front of him. His eyes darted around the room and met Marlowe’s for a brief second.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing? Putting holy water in my drink? Like I wouldn’t be able to taste the difference. He your partner?” The asari inclined her head towards the bartender. His eyes locked onto Marlowe’s and she sighed and shook her head.

“No. He’s just an idiot. Don’t kill him. Don’t make me have to kill you.” The asari’s dry laugh ricocheted off the back of the bar holding the top shelf alcohol.

“You? Kill me? That’s rich coming from cattle.” Her lips curled back in a snarl as the spat out the word. Shepard sucked in a breath at the word. Not Camarilla. Sabbat. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Dealing with Sabbat was a lot different than dealing with Camarilla.
“Yeah? You ever looked up how many people cows kill a year? Might surprise you.” The asari jerked her head towards the door. Her amusement at Marlowe’s response shining in those blue eyes, and the bartender was lucky. Very lucky.
“Your little witty friend just saved your ass. Blab about what you’ve seen or heard and you won’t need to worry about me. There are more powerful creatures around. Remember that.” The last words were barely a whisper in the man’s ear but his shaky nod was their answer before he bolted. Guilt flashed through Shepard’s mind but the man wanted to play with fire. Marlowe learned at a young age to not mess with the unknown, the scar on her right cheek burned from the memory. Her attention snapped to the present as the asari turned to face her, as she stood to her full height.

“There are only a few rules for this side of town Hunter. Maybe you’ve heard of them?” Her stomach sank as the implications hit her. She was in Omega territory. Shit, fuck, damn. When did it expand? Her thoughts must have been written on her face as the asari flashed her a predatory grin. Apprehension flashed through Marlowe, adrenaline flowed freely as her body prepped for a fight. That grin was never a good sign, especially on a Sabbat vampire.

“Silence? Too bad. The only rule you need to worry about is this: Don’t fuck with Aria.” Her fingers reached out and grasped Marlowe’s chin. Shepard’s fist clenched as the indigo light crackled around it like electricity as she prepped for a Throw.

“Aria. There’s trouble by the DJ.” The turian stepped from the darkness, it fell off him in waves. Lasombra! Marlowe’s nails bit into her palm as she readied for a long fight with at least two vampires. Aria dug her nails into Shepard’s skin slightly, just enough to draw blood, and released her just as suddenly as she grabbed her.

“You’re in luck tonight Hunter. I’ve no interest in playing with you right now. Go take a hike and report back to your precious headquarters that Aria’s taken over this part of town. Give those piss ants in the Council something to dicker over again.” She laughed as she headed off with the turian to deal with the nuisance. Marlowe rubbed her chin, her fingers blotting the blood. She took advantage of her good fortune and made her way out as fast as she could.

“Aria sends her regards Hunter.” The voice behind her startled Marlowe into reaching for her gun. “No need for that. Aria knows how you guys operate.” The turian tossed something at her. She caught it almost on instinct and glanced down at the tiny silver box. “That’s what you people keep them in yes?” Marlowe glanced back up but the turian was already gone, melted back into the shadows. She didn’t want to stick around in case the vampire changed her mind. The trip back to the hotel room was thankfully uneventful. Marlowe whipped out her cell phone and dialed in a number that was as familiar to her as her own.

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“Thanks for calling The Normandy. What can I do for you?” The smooth baritone drew a few stares from some of the female clientele as Remly Shepard answered the phone. They admired the way his knitted sweater, a gift from his grandmother, stretched across his broad chest. His brow furrowed as he listened to his cousin go off about Joker before he punched in a few numbers and transferred the call downstairs. Let Joker handle that one. I don’t envy him. Remly felt his lips tug into a smile as he thought of how much trouble the man would be in with Marlowe being that mad. He focused his attention on the draft beer in front of him and slid it in front of Roger. Roger grinned at the young man who looked startling like his father. The man had been coming to the bar since Remly’s dad first opened it close to forty years ago.

“Thanks Shepard. You always know how I like it.” Roger took a sip of the hometown brewery special and turned his eyes to the game. Aurelia popped in the door and they bantered back and forth with Roger before she headed downstairs. Roger turned back to the TV after the kitchen door swung back and Remly chuckled as he saw the flush on the old man’s cheeks. His pale green eyes took in the customers around the bar with pride. His father had offered him the bar when Remly had been discharged from the Marines. He missed the military because he’d loved being a Marine. The structure and discipline had been so integral to who he was as a person. He hated that he had to leave but there’d been no arguing with the doctors.

“Remly. I need a Long Island and a Blue Electric please.” The waitress set a small sandwich in front of Roger as she hurried back to the kitchen. Rhonda was a good waitress and struggling to save up for college. Her father had approached Remly for a job and Remly had agreed. He needed the extra help at night during the tourist season. The young woman was also helpful in sniffing out local gossip from the tourists and locals alike. He made the drinks easily and had them waiting when Rhonda stepped back through the kitchen door.

“Archer Ryder.” Rhonda sighed his name as she stood beside Remly as the other Ryder sibling came in through the door. Remly’s eyes shone with a mischievous light.

“Want me to call him over here?” The brunette turned to her boss with absolute shock on her face. It crumpled to irritation when she saw the look in his eyes.

“You can be a jerk you know that?” She sniffed and crossed her arms over her chest as Roger chuckled. They’d had this banter before.

“Don’t be giving Rhonda a hard time Remly.” Roger admonished and grinned at the two. The young woman flounced off to bus a table while Shepard chuckled at her departing back. No, he wouldn’t trade this for anything else in the world.

“So, did you hear about the graveyard?” The tourists at the end of the bar chatted amongst themselves and he picked up on the line of conversation.

“No. What’s going on there?” The blonde leaned in to hear her companion, giving the rest of the bar a nice look at her lower back tattoo. Pale green eyes narrowed at the sight, that was a werewolf clan symbol. The C with a curving line drawn through it with the two pairs of claw marks on the bottom was the sign for the Children of Gaia clan. Now what is a werewolf doing here in my bar? The Hunters were hardly a secret to the supernatural creatures in the town. The headquarters were kept hidden but most knew the gathering places. Children of Gaia… The peacekeepers if I’m not mistaken. And not likely to attack anyone in this bar. He polished a glass and kept a suspicious eye on the group. There was a silver knife on his hip, a shotgun strapped under the bar that had silver buckshot loaded, and a machete just under the top shelf alcohol. Shepard wasn’t worried about himself if it came down to a fight, but everyone else was in danger.

“They say there’s been ritualistic animal sacrifice! Someone found a body completely eviscerated there yesterday.” The group tittered as Rhonda went over to take their orders. The young woman was able to pull more out of the group as she went over to Remly to place their drink orders.

“So, local gossip?” Remly grinned at Rhonda’s scrunched up face. The waitress wasn’t in possession of the sturdiest stomach and the barest hint of anything messy would turn her stomach.

“Haha. Yeah. Let me put in the order in the kitchen and I’ll tell you what I know.”

“See if you can find out about her tattoo, will you?” Rhonda looked at him in surprise. She knew about Hunters thanks to her Dad being one, but he’d been adamant about her not joining their ranks. That was fine with Rhonda, she’d seen what Hunters had to do. She knew the bar operated as a base for some and that the Ryders and Shepards were all Hunters.

“Sure thing Shep.” Rhonda trotted off to the kitchen and headed back over to the table after giving the order to the chef. She pulled the information from the woman easily enough and it seemed so natural to chat with her. Something she’d learned from her Dad, how to blend in with just about anyone.

“So, it’s just a local superstition?” One of the men pouted as Rhonda relayed the bad news. She nodded sagely and grinned as Remly brought over the drinks.

“Sadly, yes. One of those old urban legends that gets updated every so often.” Remly explained as he set the drinks down in front of the group.

“Man. I was hoping I’d get a supernatural experience out of this vacation.” The groans had Remly biting back a chuckle as his employee went to get their food.

“Well, I didn’t say we didn’t have our attractions. Just that the one you mentioned was an urban legend. The church on the hill is reportedly haunted. At night, usually around midnight, you can see the shape of a beautiful woman with long black hair dressed all in white in the second story window.” Remly fought the smile at the group’s interest. He showed them the church on the map and left them to enjoy their food. He wondered idly how much he’d have to bribe Aurelia to play the part of spectral woman the next night.

“Remly.” The chef was a giant of a man. Trevor had served with Remly in two of his tours before they’d both gotten injured on that last one. Trevor followed Shepard and was happy enough in the kitchen, he enjoyed cooking. The serious tone shook Remly out of his jovial mood. The man followed Trevor back through the kitchen and to the alleyway. “I found him here. I called Chakwas to come up.” The figure was hooded and gripped their arm close to their chest in obvious pain.

“Thanks. Will you ask Rhonda to handle the bar? I had to step out.” Trevor nodded and went back inside to tell the waitress. Remly knelt next to the figure, his worn boots creaking softly. “Are you hurt anywhere else?” The creature nodded and Remly noted the way its legs bent. A Quarian? No, no suit. Turian? No, this person is too broad to be a turian. Then what the hell? He didn’t sense any menacing aura from the creature, whatever it was. A noise at the back of the alley snapped his head up and his eyes widened as he saw the hulking figure at the end. The person at his feet wheezed in alarm as it charged towards them. The creature was monstrous in appearance. Remly was reminded of a Nosferatu vampire but they weren’t known for going above ground like this. The skin was mottled grey and there were protrusions that looked like bone on the thing’s face.

“Get away!” The voice croaked hoarsely at Remly. Remly whipped out the silver knife from its sheath. He pivoted out of the creature’s way and slammed the knife into its back. The inhuman scream pierced the night, drawing curious looks from everyone on the street. It sent a shiver through their bodies and most hurried up to get out of the night air. Remly slammed his elbow into the creature’s back and grabbed the machete he kept at the back door for emergencies. A Hunter could never be over prepared. He brought it down with a snap while the thing was incapacitated and the creature’s head separated from its body.

“What are you?” The hood fell back to reveal alien features. Remly blinked in surprise to see sapphire blue eyes and the oddly shaped head. He’d never encountered this kind of alien before, and that was saying something. Remly could see the pain in the alien’s eyes and the apprehension there. Not that Remly blamed him, he did just see that vampire lose its head.

“I am angara. We are newcomers here.” His head nodded towards the creature, the black blood oozing from the neck. “Some of us traveled here in hopes we could escape the kett.” His hand waved towards the body on the ground.

“Let’s get you inside and then we’ll talk. There might be more.” Remly grumbled as he tossed the match on the creature’s body and watched it burn. There were questions that needed answering, but that would have to wait. “You can go downstairs. We have a doctor there and others who will help you out.” Remly explained as he helped the alien up. He stood eye to eye with the angara but Remly saw that this man was a good deal broader than he was.

“Thank you.” Remly shrugged it off. Trevor waved to them as they passed into the pantry. The angara looked around, shocked a seeing the false back slide open.

“Are we going down there?”

“Yeah. Best way to keep things safe from the vampires and werewolves.” Remly told him absentmindedly as they started down the steps. Chakwas was at the door when they stepped in.

“Shepard. Thank the heavens. What is going on? Trevor sent a message saying there was an injured person?” Chakwas broke off as she saw the alien appear behind Remly. “Oh. I see. Let me get Lexi in here. She knows more about alien biology than I do.” Chakwas called up Lexi and the asari popped her head in the room. Her eyes widened in surprise at seeing the giant pinkish alien next to Remly.

“Come over here. That wound needs to be cleaned.” Lexi told the angara as he brought his arm closer to his stomach. “It’s all right. We’re here to help you. You have nothing to fear here.” Her soft tone broke through the haze of pain and the alien allowed her to lead him away. He stopped and turned to look at Remly.

“My name is Jaal ama Darav. Once my arm is healed I will tell you everything.” Remly nodded in acknowledgment before he explained what happened to Joker. Liara popped out from her room and Kasumi was behind her.

“We’re on it Shep.” Kasumi told him with a grin. Liara nodded as the two women began researching. Remly laughed at how eager Kasumi sounded. No doubt the two were eager to see about any kind of information on this new discovery.

“Good. I’m headed back to the bar. Let me know if anything changes all right?” Joker gave him a mock salute as he headed back up the stairs. Things were going to get interesting all right.