Chapter V.
"Rogues"


"HOLY WATER"
 

    A brisk wind had picked up by mid-afternoon, bringing with it to downtown Vienna the light, warm rain characteristic of central Europe.  The lazy tempest glided across the metropolitan city, shedding drops of water onto the busy streets like tears falling from heaven.  Men and women, young and old hustled through the macabre roadways and alleys of the ancient city, returning to their hallowed homes from a long day's work, scarcely stopping to ponder how many thousands had shuffled there before them through the centuries.  Others pranced about in the warm showers, arms outreached and faces turned to the sky as if caught up in some age-old divine rapture, standing apart from the crowds and feeding upon the life-giving rain.  Perhaps they knew, or realized, the breadth of the tapestry upon which they danced.  This city had been a hinge of modern history in more ways than were written about by scholarly professors in murky libraries.  Those who danced in the streets rubbed shoulders with the ghosts of ages long past and forgotten.

     Nabob watched, barely feeling the rain as it slowly permeated his dark brown overcoat.  He watched both the throngs of faceless by-passers, most of them as drenched as he, and the frolicking loiterers, who were by far the most cheerfully victimized of all by the rain, with equal interest.  Most of the bystanders were business people in long, drab trench coats that had long ago been banned in most American High Schools, mulling over their distinctly ordinary lives as they made the daily return voyage from office to residence.  Those who stopped to take in the rain and the moment were, he could see, mostly young, probably college students from one of the numerous archaic universities nearby that had just let classes out.  The Slayer himself remained off to the side, away from the bustle of humanity, partially concealed by the shadows of an alleyway in his observations.  He was far from conspicuous, blending in well even in his segregation, but that hadn't kept him from going entirely unnoticed.

     "First showers we've had since early spring," the man who had come up beside him said in slurred German that suggested a fondness for the bottle. "Something for the farmers to celebrate, but those damned kids are going to catch a death of cold out there."  The look on his face as he watched some of the young teenage girls dancing about in tight, water-soaked clothing suggested that he had more on his mind than their well-being.

     Nabob looked him over.  He was a short, elderly man with a scruffy beard that hadn't been washed or combed in a while, wearing tattered clothes that had seen the inside of a charitable thrift store more than that of a normal place to live.  Fairly inoffensive, aside from a vague odour that was being unsuccessfully hidden by an administration of cheap, watery cologne.

     "The same will probably go for you if you don't find a dry place to sleep tonight, my friend," Nabob replied in fluent German - with a slight southern Rhine accent, just for flair.  Chimneysweeps had a supernatural affinity for information gathering, and as such, had an almost supernatural affinity for linguistics.

     The old man scoffed and patted his chest. "This body was made for poor weather.  I've slept out in more rainstorms than you've got years to your name, boy, and most of them fiercer than this little gale.  I reckon I can get through this one too, need be."

     Nabob had to turn away to hide his amusement.  So many years to him, and still he thinks that he's invincible.  Then it suddenly occurred to the Chimneysweep that much the same thing could be said about him as well.  Suddenly the thought didn't seem quite as funny.

     His companion moved on in search of more interesting conversation, disappearing into the crowd and leaving Nabob at the mouth of the secluded alley once more.  For some reason, the Slayer was both relieved and disappointed, but he quickly dispelled the thought from his mind.  Here he was, gazing out at the exact same scene that the amulet had shown to him in that frighteningly surreal vision.  Nabob had been here before, and remembered everything about it, from the gentle explosions of raindrops on the cobbled street to the drenched collegiate students in the distance.  It felt like he was standing at the grave of a past life, looking back in recollection rather than living the moment.  It felt like holy ground.

     He closed his eyes and allowed the world to swirl around him.  He wasn't sure why he had come here, aside from the fact that a piece of jewelry had told him to do so.  A smile tugged at his mouth.  This part of his European trip certainly wouldn't be making it back into the official report he placed on Van's desk.

     Almost precisely on cue, the amulet, hanging dormant around his neck beneath his shirt, suddenly flared back to life, and he could feel its warmth pressing against him.  His eyes shot open…

     …Just in time to see a woman brush past him, swept by in the sea of humanity that moved across the street in front of him.  His eyes followed her, fighting to disbelieve.  Her dark hair and complexion betrayed her almost instantly, however, and his eyes could not deny what he saw now, nor his precise memory what he had seen before.

     It was the same woman from the vision.

     His stomach churned with realization, and his head began to spin and threatened to slip away into vertigo as he watched her move past him unawares, unconsciously swaying her hips in a primal, arousing rhythm as she went.  Her pants, sleek black with a luminous metallic quality, made that display particularly enjoyable.  Or at least it would have, had Nabob taken more than token notice of it due to the shock.  An equally-slick leather jacket, now streaked and gleaning with moisture, adorned her back, just as he remembered.

     She quickly disappeared into the crowd, headed east, away from the city center proper.  It took an instant for him to react, and in that instant the amulet flared against him once again, and he could feel its arcane energies surging against him.  The bejeweled gold amulet gave him the equivalent of a mental nudge, and he moved into the flow of humanity almost before he could recall giving his feet the order to do so.  Although she had a few seconds' lead on him now, he easily caught up and began to pace her, slipping into his espionage and surveillance mode like a comfortable second skin.

    Nabob didn't know who this woman was, or in what way she was related either to the amulet or to his vision, but this was the first solid lead he'd acquired since the disappointing infiltration of Pondexter's hidden cabin.  And so far the amulet had done nothing to hurt or harm him - and had even leant him a hand in escaping from the catacombs - so he was willing to place a little trust in it now.  Besides, there was something distinctly familiar about that woman.  She certainly wasn't one of the Slayer operatives working out of Vienna or even Austria: Nabob was on a first-name basis with almost all of those.  Or at least had been.  An alarmingly unbalanced percentage of his Austrian comrades had been slain at the Battle of Mojave, leaving the entire region spread thin for want of Slayer manpower.  No, he didn't know her from there.  But whomever she was, he intended to find out.

     There's no way to lose a Chimneysweep if he's following you.  That was lore that went back for as long as there had been Chimneysweeps.  It wasn't so much a mystical rule as it was a solid fact.  Nabob pulled his overcoat collar up to better conceal his face, more on instinct than anything else.  The Slayers Chimneysweep were good at what they did…in fact, they were the best at what they did.  Tracking, searching, espionage, counter-espionage, and even simply disappearing into the shadows at the opportune moment…all were the natural dominion of the Chimneysweeps.

     And here, it seemed, was where it once more began to pay off.

**********

     The lonely streets of Vienna seemed even lonelier the further one went from the city core.  The buildings melted out of any semblance to modern architecture, and walking between them was much akin to stepping backwards in time.  Many of the buildings had been standing for a hundred years or more, and although some had been refurbished and redone to better stand the test of time, the majority gave the bleak impression of crumbling decay to any by-passers.

     Nabob had silently followed his quarry into this part of town, and continued to shadow her movements under the vigil of the giant leviathan monuments to the 19th Century.

    He followed her at a discreet distance, one eye on her and the other on their surroundings, to ensure that he did not lose track of exactly where he was.  There were fewer feelings that were worse than needing to make a hasty escape and suddenly realizing that you had no idea where you were.  As such, he planned in advance, while there was still time.  A part of his mind remained wary, already formulating ways to escape should he have unwittingly walked into an ambush.  That was a danger, of course.  The woman, her willowy form rather distracting as she swayed down the street, seemed to be either mistrustful or naturally observant, because she would occasionally glance over her shoulder, surveying those behind her as well as ahead of her.  Nabob was an expert stalker and, partly because of his natural Chimneysweep instincts, hadn’t actually been noticed while on the trail since he was a novice.  An instant before she glanced over her shoulder, Nabob could somehow tell that she was going to do just that, and accordingly pressed himself deeper into the shadows.  He didn’t think that she had spotted him - her gaze passed directly over him and never lingered - but he disliked taking unnecessary chances.  Better to over-plan for any given situation than to face short-handed any troubles that might arise.

     There was little difficulty, at least, in pacing her.  While her stride was quick and purposeful, she was evidently in no immense hurry to get wherever she was going.  Beneath the rain - which had not yet lifted from the city - Nabob could have stood to pick up the pace a little, soaked as he was.  What bothered him most was that he not only had no idea where he was going, but also that he had no idea why he was going there, or even whom he was following to make it so.  All that he was certain of was that there was some sort of connection, and that it was a connection he had to make.

     "Two worlds must be united, or both will come to folly."

     The cryptic words spoken during his strangely euphoric trip continued to ring sagely in his ears, taunting his mind and revealing precious little about its true meaning or purpose.  Even worse, Nabob was fully aware that he was allowing his actions to be dictated by a thousand-year old gold amulet and a divination that had more in common with a hallucinogenic trip gone horribly wrong than a holy vision.

     A full half an hour of cloak and dagger-style sneaking followed.  Afternoon faded into evening, and the dark storm clouds above Vienna ensured that evening bore a distinct similarity to nighttime.  The dim street lamps came on early, bathing the dwindling crowds of people in a shallow light that added to the picturesque scenery.  The teeming mass of people marching back to the homes had steadily declined as they moved away from the city core, and now that they were in this decrepit part of town, most of the by-standers and innocents that Nabob could see were punk-ass kids and street toughs.  Nobody hassled him, however, as the Chimneysweep successfully blended in so well with his surroundings that it was difficult to even notice his presence.  He would periodically slip his overcoat on and off, making him harder to steadily pick out and identify in the crowd.  It was a habit he'd picked up a while ago, and one that had never done him any real harm…aside from ensuring that he was soaked both inside and out.

     He emphatically hoped that he was too good for even the woman he was following to notice.

    The journey ended eventually, the woman finally crossing off of the cobbled street and skipping up the stone walkway steps towards the doorway of an age-worn house, one that had not seen the benefit of refurbishment.  As he watched, she shook her head, slick black hair cascading around her shoulders.  Then, she unceremoniously rapped on the door three times, and after a few moments was let inside, the door opening and streaming light out into the quasi-darkness.  Then she disappeared inside, the door closing securely behind her.

     Anticlimax thudded across Nabob's spirit like a dead raccoon's carcass behind dragged down the street behind a speeding car.  He groaned quietly and allowed himself to sink into the shadows beneath a dry outcropping across the street.

     "She was going home," he growled to himself, "she was going home just like everybody else.  Probably to a husband and kids.  This is the last time I trust myself over to some piece of shit mystical gem for an evening on the town…"

     Nabob was about to turn and stomp angrily back in the general direction of his car, with half a mind to hit the first pawn shop he came across, when out of the corner of his eye he saw the house’s door open once again.  The woman emerged, only this time mostly concealed beneath a plain black cloak.  It covered her face and obscured her features, but having just watched her walk for the past half-hour, Nabob could tell who it was.  Even more surprising was that as she left, the last lights in the house flickered off, and she was followed suit by three other similarly garbed individuals.  The door’s deadbolt was locked, and the quartet headed down the darkened street away from Nabob.

     His hand strayed up to the amulet hanging around his neck and patted it affectionately. "Okay, you've earned your keep," he whispered to it mockingly. "For now.  But this had better start coming clear pretty damn fast if you want to stay off of the pawn scene."

     Whether the amulet's abruptly resumed throbbing hum was due to irritation on its part or simply to goad Nabob into following the cloaked bunch remained unsaid.

     The Slayer lurched forward once more, staying partially concealed in the darkness where the cobblestone street met the archaic buildings.  The four cloaked figures were moving at a much brisker pace than the woman alone had been, so he had to push himself a little harder to keep pace.  He hazarded a glance upwards.  The rain had ceased, even though the clouds continued to stew maliciously overhead.

    They led him off of the main roads, quickly skulking into the labyrinthine world of the secondary streets that criss-crossed Vienna.  Nabob’s breath caught in his throat.  The back alleys and corridors of this city had been built unevenly and sporadically over the course of the last few hundred years, creating a jumbled maze of haughty confusion.  Even with his precise memory, Nabob could scarcely begin to recall the hellish layout.  He was reasonably certain that dark, evil forces had committed themselves to corrupting the city layout centuries ago, which was actually a supportable theory given how many evil beings made their homes in the Austrian capital’s underbelly.  Nabob knew.  He had spent months hunting them down in there.
 

     And while he had no desire to plunge into that dark world once again, the alternative was losing his quarry.  He followed without hesitation.

     The rain had ceased, and was now replaced by a thin skirt of fog that hung low to the ground.  There were no streetlights back here, so the only light came from the occasional lit window and the last traces of the setting sun, bounced cheerfully off of the dark clouds overhead.  Nabob had to stay close so as not to lose them, closer than he otherwise would have been comfortable with, but he stayed pressed in the shadows so closely that even when one of the figures threw a glance behind them, he went unseen.  If nothing else, he mused to himself, this certainly beats the headlong charges that the Slayers -Redneck are so fond of.

     Evidently the woman and her companions had been back into the mess of back roads before, as they walked them with practiced ease, striding with decisive certainty.  It made following them discreetly all the more challenging, but for a talented Chimneysweep such as Nabob, no espionage-related feat was impossible.  That was a part of popular Slayer Chimneysweep lore, too.

     Then, without warning, they stopped.

     Nabob sank low into the shadows behind an aged garbage bin that looked - and smelt - as though it was a ritual burial ground for stray alley cats.  His eyes remained transfixed upon the four figures in the dim light as they drew closer together, whispering to one another in fragmented German that he couldn't quite make out…

     And without warning, there came an unholy howl from somewhere in the distance, echoing across the sloped rooftops like the banshee's wail.

     An instant later, the Rush set in, totally unexpected, despite the locale.  Nabob hunched over as pain splashed liberally across his groin.  No matter how many times the Rush set in, the sheer ferocity with which it came was always alarming.  It did, however, make the subsequent adrenaline burst and gradual fading of the pain seem all the more relieving.  From his jacket pocket he slipped his sunglasses, which he quickly placed over his eyes.  They might obscure his vision even more, but in the darkness they would help to hide the glowing blue light that emanated from his eyes while the Rush was in his system.  He could always take them off if need be, but for now he judged stealth to be the better option…

     It was only then that he looked up again, only to see the four cloaked figures whom he had been following also beginning to straighten again…

     …As though they too had been hunched over in pain.

     Slayers?  His mind reeled, suddenly clouding with disbelief.  How the hell could they be Slayers?  There was no supernatural link that allowed Slayers to identify one another or even pick each other out of a crowd, but Nabob - as with most Chimneysweeps - was keenly attuned to Slayer behavior patterns, and as such could almost always spot one, even a stranger, on the street.  These people whom he had just been following, though, exhibited none of the characteristic body language that a Slayer from any branch of the ASG would.  They acted strangely, yes, but he never would have placed them as a part of any of the organization, even the more obscure branches such as the Bakers or the Ditchdiggers.

     And yet they had just doubled over as though struck by the same strong Rush that had kicked in for him.

     Then, for the first time, he heard the woman's voice, shouted out into the darkness with challenging authority.

     "Cotbus!" she shouted in German, her voice strong and melodic, with a fleeting hint of an accent that Nabob could not place. "Cotbus, we know you're here!  Show yourself or it will be taken out of your hide!"

     The predatory roar was heard once more, coming again from an indeterminate direction.  However, this time it was accompanied by more, and out of the darkness there rose a blasphemous symphony of howls, cackles, and demonic hisses.  It came from the rooftops, and above them Nabob, still crouched and concealed in the darkness behind the garbage cans, could see shadowy figures moving about with a sadistic wildness.  He shuddered, despite the primal warmth of the Rush. Vampires.

     "Kali…" a voice sneered out of the darkness above all of the others.  It too was in German, albeit with a leering south Austrian accent that sounded like it had seen many years. "The stars conspire to bring us together once more."

     "Only so that we might cut your throat out, treacherous demon!" shouted another of the four beings - Slayers? - a burly, middle-aged man with a thunderous voice that seemed to carry all the way across the city.  He stepped forward, eager to carry out his threat.  The woman, though, stopped him, gently resting a hand on his muscular arm.  Her reassuring touch seemed to pacify him, at least for the moment.

     "Strong words from one who has not been spoken to!" spat the hissing voice from above.  The harsh edge vanished almost instantly, however, as though on command. "Kali, my love, do explain to me the purpose of this reckless intrusion.  I thought that we had an understanding between us."

     “Perhaps you should have remembered that before you decided to cross us, Cotbus.”  Her voice was cool but strong, unyielding as iron. “An ‘understanding’ is worthless when three of our kin lie injured because of your treachery.”

     "The information you bought came with risks, my sweet," the vampire cooed. "You would be a fool had you thought otherwise, and I know you to be no fool.  Even for a mortal."

     "They were waiting for us at the ambush point."

     "Unfortunate, truly, but such misfortunes often occur during a war, for both sides.  And you are at war with Brosni the Gash, whether you admit it or not."

     Brosni the Gash.  There was a name, at last, that Nabob recognized.  How could he not?  Any Chimneysweep in the world with his wits about him was all too aware of the influence that the Gash's powerful vampire clan enjoyed in central Europe.  Nabob himself had seen first hand.

     "Aye," the woman replied darkly. "We are.  And in a war, people are forced to choose sides.  The problem is that you, Cotbus, have chosen poorly."

     Suddenly, a figure descended from the rooftop with a tremendous leap, landing with a cat's nimbleness if not its grace on the hard concrete ground in front of the four trespassers.  Without any sign of pain, the figure straightened sharply, jagged features giving Nabob the faint impression of a knife's blade.  As he moved closer, the hidden Chimneysweep could see him to be a man - no, a vampire, he had to remind himself - in what appeared to be his late forties or early fifties.  A vampire's looks were deceiving, however, as they never truly aged.  He could be fifty or fifty hundred.  Streaks of white shot through his mane of brown hair, and his face was clean-shaven and sharp, giving him a predatory look.  The scowl on his face showed off the piercing white nosferatu canines.

     "Dearest Kali, You imply that working with your side was a poor decision?" he hissed.

     "Quite the contrary.  It would have been the wisest choice you could have made."  Although her back was to Nabob and he could not see her face, he could tell that her gaze met the vampire's with unwavering resolve.  She was one to be admired. Provided that she lives, he reminded himself.  "Had you lived up to it.  It would seem, though, that even the best snakes make poor allies."

     "You try my patience.  You called upon my clan for information.  We supplied it."

     "Had it been that simple, we would not be having this conversation," the woman - Kali was her name, Nabob ventured absently - snapped. "But you couldn't be content with choosing a single ally."

     Cotbus' scowl deepened. "Speak plainly, my sweet, or else leave the important talk to those who know what to say."

Kali’s head turned over to her burly companion and gave a sharp nod.  The man grunted with unease and dug a hand into the bag he wore slung over his shoulder.  A second later, he emerged grasping something.  Although Nabob couldn’t see what it was, he could plainly see, even in the near-total darkness, Cotbus’ reaction: a combination of disgust and dismay.  The man flung the object to the ground distastefully, where it hit with a sickening thud and rolled out to between the vampire and the four whom Nabob had followed.  Only then did he get a good look at it.

     It was a severed head.  A severed vampire head.  Why it hadn't turned to ashes already was beyond Nabob's imagination.

     "You enjoy melodramatics in a rather unhealthy way," Cotbus sneered.

     "We killed this vampire and several others before we managed to escape from the trap you sent us into," the male growled. "It doesn't have the clan markings of Brosni the Gash."

     "The markings are from your clan," Kali finished angrily. "You betrayed us to the Gash.  You've been his whore from the very beginning, haven't you?  Feeding us half-truths to gain our trust so that you could send us off to our deaths with no one the wiser."

     "A pity it didn't work better," Cotbus remarked, staying noticeably cool despite the circumstances. "I do hope you won't take it personally, dear Kali.  Brosni can offer me much more than you are capable of.  Gold has its limits to one such as I, who watches the centuries pass in and out like days.  Power and influence…these things have lasting value, especially among my kind."  A dark smiled danced on his features, his thin mouth parting like a bloodless knife cut across his face.  "Likewise, I do hope that you won't take it personally that I cannot allow you to leave my dominion alive."

     Through the darkness plunged more shadowy shapes, descending from the rooftops at the beck of their master.  More vampires - Nabob could count ten in total - straightened on every side of the four trapped figures, closing off any path of escape.

     Still undetected behind the garbage bin, Nabob drew his Beretta and a freshly-sharpened oak stake scarcely before he gave conscious thought to doing so.  He didn't know whether these people were Slayers or not...no Slayers that he had ever known had willingly allied themselves with one vampire clan so as to annihilate another.  The ASG understood the code of Balance better than to do that.  However, if they weren't Slayers, they were as good as dead, and not even Nabob could help them.  Even if they were Slayers, they were still outnumbered more than two to one.  A battle plan was instantly mapped out in his mind.  Nobody had seen him yet.  If he went in hard and fast and brought down two of the vampires cutting off their escape route, at least one or two of them might be able to get away…


"THE ROCK"

     And then, without warning, the darkness was shattered like a tangible piece of glass.  Nabob was instantly thankful for the shades he had slipped on - they had been a detriment to seeing in the darkness, but when the sudden flare of light erupted over the scene, he wasn’t blinded.  Instead, he looked on with wide-eyed fascination.  Kali stood, her arms outstretched, sounding as though she were chanting something to himself.  As she did so, a brilliant globe of pulsing light, burning as brightly as the sun, rose from her arms, and held itself several feet in the air above the scene, illuminating everything.  Nabob pressed himself back further into the shadows, hoping that he hadn’t been spotted in the sudden light.

     He need not have worried, though.  The vampires screamed in agony as they shielded their eyes from the intense light above them.  They were creatures of the night, unused to such radiance, and were blinded for a few instances.  The fact that they were only screaming and not burning away into ash indicated that the globe was producing only illumination, however, and not the ultraviolet light that proved fatal to vampires.  All the same, though, it came as a complete shock to Nabob.  The globe continued to defy gravity, hovering in place several feet above Kali's head so as to illuminate the entire alleyway.

     Magic?  Nabob asked himself. There isn't any other explanation, but…Slayers using magic?  What the hell, why can't I ever pull a simple assignment?

     So enraptured was he that Nabob was totally oblivious to the golden amulet strung around his neck as it pulsed strongly against his chest.

     While his lackeys cringed at the light, Cotbus himself stood firm, flinching but not giving any ground.  After a few seconds, their eyes adapting to the burn, the rest of the vampires were likewise back up again, hissing at the corralled Slayers before them, now angrier than ever.

     "It is you who shall not be leaving here today, Cotbus," Kali warned. "Double-crossing the Rogues will cost you the very immortality that you so cherish!"

     Rogues?

     "It will take more than pyrotechnics to save your warm flesh this time, my sweet…" Cotbus leered, then pointed a jagged finger towards the four. "Kill them!"

     With a raucous, bloodthirsty shout, the vampires descended ravenously upon their prey, advancing with lightning speed.  Before Nabob could even think to react, Cotbus had sprang forward at Kali, fist reared back and ready to deliver a blow that could smash through a brick wall.  Her hands went up, crossed defensively, and started to glow even as she began to chant as fast as her tongue would permit.  For an instant the air between them shimmered, and whispers of flame hinted around the edges…

     It was an instant too late to stop the lunging vampire, however, and his fist connected soundly with Kali's face.  She let out a pained cry as she was literally flung backwards by the blow, landing on the wet ground with a resounding crash.  The strike would have instantly killed any normal human, of that Nabob was certain.  As he watched, though, she began to stir, and even looked up, eyes blazing with anger as blood dripped from her beautiful face.

     Only at that point did he see that her eyes, and the eyes of her three comrades, were glowing with a pale green light.

     They were Slayers.

     Cotbus lunged again, intent on finishing off the fallen woman.  He never quite made it, however.  A foot lashed seemingly out of nowhere, catching the vampire in the side of the head with a mighty force and sending him staggering backwards, off-balance.  The large man whom had been charged with carrying the head of the dead vampire grinned with malicious pleasure as he admired his handiwork at saving his leader.  Unfortunately, he didn't have much time to do so, as two more angry vampires crashed into him, taking the behemoth of the four Slayers off of his feet and sending him lurching to the ground in a scuffling, deadly grapple.

     “Torvan!” Kali shouted, and even from the ground she began to jerk her hands in precise motions, while the words to some long-forgotten language poured from her mouth.  Before the Chimneysweep’s startled eyes, a lancing beam of light sprang forth from her fingertips, striking one of the vampires grappling her comrade straight in the chest.  The undead creature loosed a howl, more in chagrin than pain, and stumbled backwards a few steps.  Before it could do anything else, though, its flesh began to literally melt away, bones buckling and dissolving into a fine powdered ash as it wailed.  In a handful of seconds, it was gone.  Its companion in combat, suddenly alone against the much larger Slayer, squealed in abrupt fear and tried to get away as well, but the man proved to be slightly faster.  Before it could get off of him, the blade of a silver punching dagger was sunk deep into the vampire’s heart.  It wailed a lamenting death cry as its nimble body burned away to ashes.  The victory was short-lived, however, as more vampires, hissing and muttering obscenities, moved to take him.

     The other two mysterious Slayers in the group were faced off against a quartet of vampires.  One of them - another fighter, by the looks of it - disappeared almost immediately under a flurry of fists and claws as he was sprung by two of them.  Nabob winced as blood splattered across the alley floor.

     His companion, however, despite being even frailer, seemed to take the battle in perfect stride, watching with polite interest as the two vampires intent on reducing him to a bloody pulp sprang to the attack.  He didn't so much as flinch.  At what seemed to be the last possible second, his hands swooped up in what seemed to be a defensive posturing.  Instantly a cascading wave of pure fire leapt out from his hands, quickly covering the space between the opponents.  The Slayer, his green-glowing eyes gleaming with satisfaction, did not seem so much as overly warm.  The vampires that had been rash enough to attack him, however, were another story entirely.  They were engulfed in the searing flames, instantly losing any thought of seizing the initiative as they reeled back, bodies aflame.

     Before the Mage-turned-Slayer could gloat, however, he was struck down.  More dark shapes descended from the rooftop, one of them landing directly on top of him in an unorthodox tackle.  The fight suddenly swung back into the precarious balance…

     Nabob figured that he wouldn't get another chance to act.

     The Slayer-Chimneysweep sprang out from behind the garbage bin with easy perfection, landing in a tumble and coming up not two feet away from the nearest vampire, who was still hissing with pleasure at the arrival of the reinforcements and doing little more than watching for the moment.  A second later he was watching from considerably closer, as Nabob put a Beretta round directly through his skull, splattering grey matter out the other side.  It wouldn't kill him, but a head wound was difficult for even the most ancient of vampires to quickly recover from.  Knocking him out of the fight would suffice for now.

     The crack of the handgun got the attention of just about everybody in the alleyway.  Nabob's reflexes were lightning fast even when not Rushed, though, and he managed to pivot and pump two more rounds into another nearby vampire before anybody else could react.  That one went down too, but the third vampire at whom he fired - one who had been trying to attack Kali - managed to spin out of the way to avoid the bullets.

     "More of them!" Cotbus howled, pointing at Nabob as though his finger was a spear with which he could impale the Slayer. "Kill him too!  Kill them all!"

     Nabob was already on the move, though, expertly flipping out of the way of two vampires who lunged to try and seize him.  As a Chimneysweep, it was unlikely that he would be able to bring down a vampire - or more than one vampire - with his Rush-enhanced strength.  Instead, he needed to rely upon dexterity and sheer acrobatic maneuverability.  It had always served him well in the past.

     It served him well now, too.  He landed about two feet in front of another startled vampire, then used his momentum to spring back into the air, executing a double flip straight over the undead creature's head and landing behind him.  Trusting partly to the Divinity and partly to good luck, he stabbed backwards with his stake.  As fortune would have it that day, he couldn't have connected any better.  The stake went straight through the vampire's heart, and stayed there.  As he released his grip on the splintery oak handle, Nabob could hear the creature's death wails echoing through the alleyway.  He didn't need to look.  He'd seen it often enough before.

     By now he had also succeeded in gaining the attention of his fellow Slayers.  The woman named Kali looked up at him with an incredulous stare.  He winked back at her.

     Then Nabob's world exploded as something hit him hard in the back of the head.  He fell forward, conscious of collapsing to his knees.  Pain roared across his skull like an overdue freight train, only with slightly more noise.  Powerful hands grabbed his neck, and he was acutely aware of somebody making a very concerted effort to snap his spine.

     Another blast of light filled his vision, only this one came from without, not within, him.  A vampire shrieked somewhere behind him, and suddenly the hands fell away from his neck.  A feeling of warmth passed over him for a brief moment, then passed, leaving him vaguely refreshed.  Looking up, he once more caught sight of Kali, this time standing over him, the air still rippling as a spell of positive energy faded.  He caught a flash of her knowing smile towards him, which for some reason refreshed him more than the energy had.  There was no time to dwell on it, though.  The fight continued to rage all around them, but his surprise entrance seemed to have turned the tables.

     "Cotbus!" roared the big fighter as he plunged his silver punching dagger into the chest of yet another lackey, taking him out of the fight permanently. "Cotubs you son of an undead whore!  Face me in battle!"

     Cotbus, for his part, was looking considerably less cocky than he had been when they first pounced to the attack.  More than half of his vampires had already been killed, and although one of the Slayers was now on the ground unmoving, there were still four more to deal with.  Apparently he was something of a pragmatist, for he suddenly realized that the fight wasn't going to be won at the moment, and bolted for the wall.  Defying the laws of physics was an annoying habit that many vampires had acquired, and as such it wasn't particularly surprising when he began to literally scale the sheer vertical wall upwards.  Seeing their leader take flight, the other vampires were quick to make themselves scarce, too.

     "NO!" the fighter shouted in anger as he watched Cotbus making his escape. "We can't let him get away!  Not like Gash!"  He tried to make a running leap for the vampire clan leader, but came short and slammed into the wall after missing his goal. "Kali!  Bring him down!"

     Kali was already on it, summoning bolts of force energy to hurl at the building's wall in the hopes of knocking him down.  One of them struck Cotbus, but it wasn't powerful enough to do more than stagger him slightly, and he continued to climb as a spider up the wall.

     Nabob, however, knew that defying physics was a part of the game for Chimneysweeps.  It was part of what made them so good at surveillance and espionage: they were known to be able to bend and twist steadfast rules to their liking while Rushed.  With a grunt and a running leap, Nabob too hit the wall and began to scale vertically, far faster than the vampire he chased.  Just before Cotbus could reach the top, Nabob reached him, grabbing onto one of the vampire lord's legs and delivering a fierce punch to the kidneys.  The added weight and the sudden burst of pain caught Cotbus off guard, and he lost his mystical ‘grip' on the wall, tumbling downwards with the Chimneysweep still clinging to him.  Nabob struggled against him in midair, and quickly came out on top of the startled vampire as they fell towards the concrete below.  He planted his knees into Cotbus' chest and delivered him a sweet, charming smile.

     "Howdy."

     They hit the ground with the force of a pile-driver, and with most of the force being applied directly to Cotbus' torso.  The vampire's bones snapped like a careless child's playthings, and he howled out in untold agony.  Quickly reaching for his bandoleer, Nabob pulled loose yet another stake, twirled it to the right position in his fingers, and brought it down savagely.  It punched through to Cotbus' heart without difficulty.  The vampire looked up at him incredulously, mouthing what appeared to be ‘who are you?' just before he never said anything again.

     Pulling himself up from the disintegrating ashes of the vampire leader, Nabob brushed himself off, and took a deep breath in the sudden silence of the Vienna back roads.  The light from the globe of daylight abruptly faded.  A few seconds later, the Rush faded too, as the vampires made themselves scarce, stumbling over one another to flee over the rooftops to safety.  The heart of their small clan had just been wiped out.  They weren't going to be back anytime soon.

     Then, almost forgetting himself, he turned to face his newfound fellow Slayers.

     When he saw their faces, though, riddled not with gratitude, but instead disbelief and distrust, he almost wished that he hadn't.

     "Well…" said the woman, Kali, in clear yet slow German as she stepped forward, eyes boring holes into Nabob's skull. "It would seem that we have a very unlikely ally."

    "They've killed Alpri, may the power above rot their foul bones!" growled Torvan, the chiseled, muscular fighter as he bent to his knees before the tattered body of his fallen comrade.  He turned his face away so that none of the others could see the tears that formed in his eyes.

     The alleyway in central Vienna was quiet now, save for the impatient scurrying of a few rats and the distant traffic of the Austrian capital city.  A few piles of immolated ash were slowly being scattered across the cement by the light breeze passing through the alley.  Many vampires had met their ends this day, but this was scarce comfort to those who had lost a comrade in the fighting.

     Or to those who felt as though they might not survive being one of the victors.

     "We will take him with us," replied Kali, her cold gaze not lifting from Nabob. "He died as one of the Bloodtouched should…in battle.  For that he will be honoured."

     The muscular man slowly stood, eyes ablaze with both remorse and hatred, and turned back to face the cornered Chimneysweep.  He thrust an angry finger at Nabob.  "And who is this one, who dares to intrude on our affairs?"

     "Nabob, ASG," he replied in fluent German. "And if you won't mind my saying so, if I hadn't intruded upon your affairs, more than one of you might be dead right now."

    "A Chimneysweep.  I thought as much," remarked the other magic-user, the one who had been particularly enjoying flinging magical fire about. "Like the rest of your kind, Nabob of the ASG, you seem to take some degree of personal pleasure in making matters more complicated."

     The first hint of a smile appeared on Kali's face.  Nabob ignored her comrade and stared at her, squinting his eyes slightly.  It was the first time that he had gotten a really good look at her.  Her long black hair, now tangled and wet, brushed her shoulders, and her face, with high cheekbones, slightly slanted eyes and dark complexion, gave the impression of being partially Asian.  She was indeed beautiful, in a beleaguered, detached manner.  He wondered whether that was because she had just emerged from battle or not.

     "Who are you people?" he asked uneasily.

     "Who we are doesn't matter," Kali said softly.

     "I think it rather does.  You're Slayers…I can tell that much.  But I'll be damned if I say that I've ever seen any Slayers like you before in the whole ASG."

     "That," the pyromaniac said jovially, "is because we are not a part of your hallowed Guild."

     Nabob's eyes widened. "What?  How could…"

     "Enough with the questions!" roared Torvan, stepping forward. "We must take flight quickly, lest the infidels return with reinforcements!  Mindwipe this Guild dog and let us be gone, Kali!"

     "Mindwipe?" Nabob didn't like the sound of that, but with two giant steps the larger man was on him, and after a brief, one-sided struggle, had the Chimneysweep's arms pinned securely behind him.  Gulping, he almost found himself wishing that the vampires would return.  If he had the Rush with him, he was certain that he could slip out of the hold.  As it was…

     Kali approached him, holding her hands out before her.  They were glowing, as with the beginnings of some arcane incantation. "I am sorry, friend.  You aided us even when you didn't have to, and it pains me to have to purge the mind of such a noble spirit."

     "Then don't!" he half-shouted, half-yelped, struggling as best he could against Torvan's iron grip.  The larger man, however, wasn't budging. "I can name a dozen reasons why it would be a really bad idea!"

     She ignored him, approaching with her glowing arms outstretched, a web of magical energy woven between her hands.  Slowly, it crept forward and engulfed the Chimneysweep's head, embracing his cranium in a wreath of light. "This will not hurt or harm you.  We need to maintain security, however, especially against the probing of the ASG.  I hope that you understand."

     "H-How could I…when you haven't explained anything…" he murmured, sleep beginning to tug at his eyes.  The halo of light increased in intensity around him, sapping him of strength both physically and mentally.  Kali continued to mumble a few words in some strange language that he could not identify, then waved her hands one final time.

     "Hush now," she repeated softly. "May Lethe's waters carry thee to…" she blinked once, twice, then gasped sharply. "Power above…!"

     Just as the spell of forgetfulness began to overwhelm Nabob, a violent burst of intense violet light washed over him, snapping him back to his senses instantly and bringing him back from the edge of oblivion.  He could feel the effects of the magical spell somehow being shed from his mind like beads of water against a steel plate, and from his chest he could feel the amulet begin to almost burn with intensity.  His eyes shooting open, he was just in time to see a beam of violet energy stream out from the medallion, straight through the fabric of his undershirt and overcoat, and knocking both of the startled magic-users in front of him to the ground.

     He laughed with relieved triumph as the mysterious Slayer named Torvan behind him, startled by the burst of light, let his grip on the Chimneysweep slip just enough.  Nabob's reflexes were honed almost to perfection, even without the Rush to aid him.  Tumbling from the man's heavy grasp, he hit the ground with his hands and used his momentum to spring backwards, catching Torvan in the jaw with a savage kick.  He crumpled in pain, a mortified groan bubbling from his throat.

     Nabob straightened himself once more, towering above the three mystified Slayers, and cautiously pulled the golden amulet out from beneath his shirt.  Holding it in his hand once more, he could literally feel its power.  The throbbing energy inside of the purple jewel was mesmerizing, and he noticed that the rune on the back was likewise glowing with utter magnificence.  As he stared down into the purple light, it seemed to speak to him once more.

       "Two worlds must be united, or both will come to folly..."

     The mystical glow continued, illuminating the alleyway once more.  As the other Slayers stirred and began to rise, Nabob allowed the amulet to fall back around his neck, bringing his hands out in a battle-ready position.  As they rose this time, though, it was obvious that it was not to fight.

      "Power above, what is that thing?" the fiery magic-user asked, rubbing his sore head. "Kicks like a Greek mule!"

     Kali, however, stared in awed disbelief at the jeweled amulet as she rose.  Slowly, hesitantly, she stepped closer.  "It…it can't be…" She got to within a few feet of Nabob, who didn't move.  Gently reaching out an arm, she pressed a finger against the amulet.  Its light flickered as she did so, as though recognizing her touch.  Startled, her powerful brown eyes gazed up into Nabob's. "With…the Guild…?"

     "Still going to try to mindwipe me?" Nabob interrupted sardonically.

     Words couldn't quite form themselves in her mouth.

     With a distinctly angry groan, Torvan rose from behind Nabob.  Giving his head a shake, he spotted the Chimneysweep once more and advanced, fully intending to grind him into the pavement.  A sharp, reproachful look from Kali managed to stay him, however.

 "This slippery wretch doesn't deserve our mercy!" Torvan growled. "And what's that he has around his neck?"

     Kali shook her head, as though trying to convince herself that it wasn't actually there.  She must have been unsuccessful, though, because when she straightened herself she still looked just as mystified as she had before.  "It is!  How did you…how did the Guild get this?"

     Nabob shrugged noncommittally. "We have our ways."

     "It feels familiar…" murmured the other magic-user.

     "It should," Kali said decisively. "He's wearing the Amulet of Karvalle."

     Karvalle.  Nabob's mind reeled as the name brought back instant memories inside of him.  Karvalle had been one of the original, first-generation Slayers.  According to the texts, she had been a powerful sorceress, able to manipulate the metaphysical and the arcane beyond the imagination of any ordinary human being.  The last time he had heard that name was during the Great Holy War, when one of her protective spells, the Shield of Karvalle, was evoked with the combined willpower of hundreds of Slayers to protect the New Orleans Superdome from Sephroth's magic.  The memory of the Dome crash-landing atop the Obelisks of Light was still freshly scorched in his memory.  Many had died that day, even though the ploy - and the spell - had worked perfectly.

     And now he was wearing the amulet of one of the most powerful Slayers in existence.

     That explained the visions, anyway.

     "Amulet of…?" Torvan gasped, then bellowed in renewed fury. "Return it now to us, its true heirs, or face the consequences, usurper!"

     "If you want to try to come and take it from me, then it's all yours," the Chimneysweep growled defensively.

     The large fighter stepped forward to accept the challenge, but Kali moved in front of him to block his path. "No!  No more bloodshed tonight!"  Her heavy gaze swung back to Nabob. "The amulet that you wear is a sacred treasure to my people.  You must return it to us!"

     Nabob had to fight to keep from laughing in her face. "And precisely why should I do that?  You've all been so totally endearing…"

     "Because it does not belong in the foul hands of the Guild!" Torvan said. "Power above only knows what they'll use it towards!"

     I sense some animosity here, the Chimneysweep reflected needlessly.  He was not trusting by nature.  Nabob knew full well that he could scarcely trust himself, much less those whom he knew well, and not at all those to whom he was a complete stranger.  Ever since Rae's death, for which he hated himself bitterly, his instincts weaned him away from relying upon others.  He knew that if he made a dash for it right now that he could likely escape.  His muscles tensed, prepared to do precisely that.

     Then the twice-damned words from the amulet returned to him once more:

     The breach must be healed…
    The chasm must be crossed…

    Nabob sighed inwardly.  He didn't enjoy trusting a piece of metal hanging around his neck any more than he enjoyed trusting himself these days.  The amulet, however, had yet to lead him astray.  Perhaps it's time to cross my own personal chasm.

    When he spoke again, his voice was filled with vigor and determination. "I am not the Guild."

     He met the stares of all three of those in front of him.

     "I am a Slayer, just like you.  Whatever differences there may be between us, we're still bound by blood, and bound by a promise made a thousand years ago."  He took a deep breath. "Now, it's obvious that you people have problems with the ASG.  That's fine.  Maybe I do too.  But for the here and now, I think that we have a lot to discuss."  He looked around him at the decrepit alleyway. "And I don't think that it should be done here."

     Kali hesitated for a few seconds, and then sighed. "You speak the truth."

     Torvan reeled as though struck, glaring down at his companion. "What?  We cannot allow him to…!"

     "Yes, we can," she said quietly, stepping forward again towards Nabob, this time gently.  She bowed her head slightly. "You speak nobly, Nabob.  We have given you no reason to trust us, and yet you seem willing to."  Her slanted, Asiatic eyes narrowed even further. "Perhaps this is the omen that we have been waiting for so long."

     With a contemptuous snort, Torvan folded his arms and turned his back on them.

     "Kali, trusting the Guild has never gotten our people anywhere," the other magic-user whispered, just loud enough so that Nabob could hear him.

     "I know.  But he has honor in his heart, whether he knows it or not."  Her gaze met the Chimneysweep's. "I ask you, Nabob, to come with us.  I swear by my own blood that no harm will come to you."

     "Tell that to him!" Nabob exclaimed, pointing at Torvan.

     "I will."

     The breach must be healed…
    The chasm must be crossed…

     "All right," he said after a long moment of hesitation. "I'll go with you."

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