Author: Meltha

Rating: R for violence and implied sexuality

Feedback: Yes, thank you.

Spoilers: Angel season two's "Darla"

Distribution: and the Bunny Warren. If you're interested, please let me know.

Summary: This is the seventh section in "The Quartet." Returning to England as a vampire, the tables have turned for the girl who was once Sarah.

Disclaimer: All characters are owned by Mutant Enemy (Joss Whedon), a wonderfully creative company whose characters I have borrowed for a completely profit-free flight of fancy. Kindly do not sue me, please, as I am terrified of you. Thank you.

The Alto: Virginia

1610: London, England

By the time the boat had docked in London, Sarah could read and write better than many noblemen. The Master noted with delight that she took to book learning extremely well. She had already learned several sections of his library by heart, and she was eagerly beginning to devour foreign languages, beginning with Latin. Denied the opportunity in her life to ever study anything besides her own plans for survival, she relished the ability to learn things simply for the joy of learning them.

"But, my dear," the Master urged her on the final night of their journey, "it is wise to remember that many of these things were produced by the human filth. While they may amuse, they are not the true base of our existence. But you are still very young. My Court will teach you all you need to know to thrive in your new life."

"And your Court is in London itself, Master?" she asked curiously.

"Not in. Below," he said, smiling at the memory. "I had some of the lower members of our order carve it out of the earth itself. We found a small natural cave in the process deep underneath London, and we enlarged upon it to meet our needs."

Sarah was slightly taken aback by this information. While she had willingly lived in a cave in the wilds of the New World, she had never considered that she might very well never sleep above the earth again. It reminded her unpleasantly of her first waking in her shallow grave, surrounded by the suffocating earth. Apparently, she was destined to spend her eternity buried, so to speak.

"Do not fret so," the Master said as he saw the disappointment in her face. "You will see that you will take pleasure in the Court in time. But I do believe we need to settle one last thing before we end our wanderings. I cannot abide calling you Sarah any longer, childe. The name cloys on my tongue. It feels…" he groped for a word, "well, it simply feels wrong. Tell me, do you have any leanings in the matter?"

She cocked her head for a moment, her eyes half-closed. "I have named myself before, more than once. Somehow it seems wrong to do so again."

"Just as it seems wrong to call you by the name of a lowly human servant when you are one no longer," he said, tipping his head and considering, his long, sharp fingernails tapping his chin in concentration. "I believe that until I settle upon a permanent replacement, I shall call you Virginia after the place I found you."

"Virginia?" she said, barely stifling a laugh. "That is rather ironic."

He gave her a stern look. "Childe, though you may be schooled well in the ways of human flesh, you are indeed little more than a virgin in the ways of our kind. For now, Virginia will suit you well enough."

"As you wish, Master," she said. "The name is strange to me yet, but I will adapt."

"I am sure you will," the Master said smoothly. "You always have, Virginia."

When early morning came, the gangplank was lowered, and two robed passengers moved quickly through the throng of humanity in the gray light of pre-dawn. The unpleasant burning sensation was not as strong as it had been when they embarked, but the sun was much lower in the sky now than it was when they had left the New World. London's scent hit Virginia almost immediately, far stronger than the smells she remembered from the last time she had set foot on her native land. Of course, as her senses had become far sharper, everything was amplified, and unfortunately the perfume that was London in the 1600s smelled strongly of manure, rot, and filth.

"Keep your sleeve across your face," the Master said quietly. "It will both hide you and provide a barrier from London's welcoming air. You will grow used to it in time."

Virginia nodded and did as he said, by necessity of preserving her disguise remaining mute. Her stomach lurched a bit still, but since breathing was no longer a necessity she was able to control herself. As soon as they were clear of the docks, the Master swiftly led her through London, taking her past stockyards and markets, tenements and pubs, until at last he came to a quiet little row of shops. There was a light bustle in the air as the shopkeepers readied their wares for the early morning crowds, and though the air was still a dim gray color since the sky was overcast, Virginia could sense the oncoming dawn as her blood sang in growing panic.

The Master propelled her to a small alleyway between a baker's and a draper's, entirely unimposing and easily overlooked by passersby. The alley dead-ended in a high stone wall, and she was now very confused indeed.

"Have we taken a wrong turning, Master?" she asked tentatively.

"No," he said, bending and lifting a heavy stone a few paces wide from the rough flooring of the alley. Beneath it appeared an opening into the ground, black as ink and exhaling dampness into the early morning air. "Go on. In with you."

Virginia blinked, then hesitantly stepped up to the hole and dropped through it as gracefully as she could, landing in a crouch perhaps twenty feet below on rough, wet earth. She stepped out of the way and watched the Master jump nimbly through the opening, replacing the stone as he did so and plunging the passage into total darkness.

The welcome relief of darkness after being separated from the killing sunlight by only the thick wool robes was akin to soaking her toes in a cool stream on a hot day, but the inability to see was extremely disorienting. She could sense the Master close beside her, and that saved her from a moment of pure panic. It shocked her to realize she had come to depend upon him, that she trusted him. She had never trusted a living soul, not completely, and it occurred to her in a flash of humor that she still hadn't.

The tunnel floor went smoothly downwards, and after a quarter of a mile or so the dirt floor was replaced by stone. Eventually, they came to a sharp right turn, the first one they had encountered, and Virginia was stunned to realize that this new section was lit with torches placed in brackets at regular intervals. They smoked quite badly, and the air was full of an oily scent, but the light was most welcome. The Master, however, looked a bit troubled for a moment and paused as though waiting for something that did not come. He shrugged amiably enough, though, and patted Virginia's shoulder.

"It shant be long now, childe," the Master said, and she turned to see him looking about him with an air of nostalgia. "We shall be home in a few minutes' time, and we can rest at last."

Virginia took a breath out of habit, steadying herself, suddenly nervous afresh about what that "home" would be like. She also realized she had a twinge of fear that the Master, who would now be surrounded by dozens, if not hundreds, of their kind, might find her far less important than when they were the only two vampires to be found in several thousand miles. It frightened her to realize that he held that kind of power over her, the power to make her jealous. It had been one of the chief tools of her trade, and she knew the incredible sway it could hold over its captors, but she had never before been on this side of the mastery. A slave herself to everything and everyone else, the one thing that had always been her slave was jealousy and those under its thrall.

She was pondering the import of her discovery when her concentration was shattered. From above them, someone had dropped hard to the floor before the Master, growling savagely. Virginia saw from the face that it was another vampire, fangs descended and face a map of bulging deformities, a male dressed in ragged blue jerkin and hose, and he seemed very large.

And suddenly he found himself thrust against a wall, a hand clawing at his throat, a stunned expression on his face.

Clapping filled the corridor, and Virginia turned to look at the Master, who appeared absolutely delighted, though she kept a strong hold on the strange vampire's throat. She wasn't sure who was more surprised, herself or the one squirming in her grip.

"Excellent!" the Master cried, shaking his head in satisfaction. "Virginia, my dear, your instincts are superb! Most wonderful!"

"I thank you," she said, drawing her attention back to the vampire when she felt blood wetting her fingers. "What would you have me do with this one?"

"Tell me," the Master said, suddenly very close to the stranger's face, "who are you and what are you doing here?"

"My name is Gunther," the man said in a strong accent, his voice shaking, "childe of Johannes. I am guarding the southernmost entrance to the Court."

"Johannes, yes, I do remember him. Tell me, do you know who I am, Gunther?" the red-eyed demon asked almost idly.

"You… you are the Master," he said rather timidly.

"I am your death," he said in a suddenly fiercer tone, and in a movement too swift for Virginia to follow, he had removed a wooden stake from the folds of his robes and plunged it into Gunther's chest. The body dissolved beneath her fingertips, for a moment showing the skeleton beneath, a look of terror etched on the features of the skull, and as the dust fell to the earth, there was a muffled rushing sound as though the lid had been taken off a tightly sealed, ancient vessel.

Virginia must have looked horrified, for the Master gently reached out to touch her shoulder, and she fought not to recoil from him. They had killed humans, of course, but one of their own kind was another matter entirely somehow.

"You must understand, Virginia," he said, speaking in a kind voice completely at odds with his previous actions, "this vampire, though one of our kin, had committed two crimes. Do you know what they were?"

"He attacked you?" Virginia asked.

"That I could have forgiven if he did not know who I was," the Master said solemnly as he continued down the corridor, leading Virginia with a touch to her elbow, "but he did know. I am not difficult to recognize, wouldn't you say, my childe? Mine is hardly a common face."

"Yes, Master," she said. "So he attacked because of who you are?"

"Perhaps to test his mettle or to see if the stories were true," he said. "And, in truth, since he was not yet made when I left, I could perhaps even forgive his curiosity under the right circumstances. But his second crime was very serious as well. Do you know it?"

"Nay," she said.

"He was to be guarding this corridor for the previous quarter of a mile, and we arrived utterly unchallenged. He had not been paying attention to his post, and for that reason put all those within in peril. I will not permit laziness or stupidity to threaten my little ones, even if it means killing one of our kind," he said, gently blowing dust from his fingertips. "Though it is a pity. Johannes shall be highly upset, I should imagine."

Virginia turned around once to stare at the small pile of dust on the floor. That was what she could become if she were not careful, she told herself. The Master seemed to read her thoughts, and chuckled softly.

"I would not worry so," the Master said. "You impressed me greatly with that display. Quick thoughts, agile movements, and a vicious determination to win. All charming characteristics, and I was quite moved that you specifically protected me as well as yourself. I am glad we have had all this time to become acquainted with one another. You were an excellent choice of mine."

Virginia found herself smiling in spite of the lingering nausea from the shock of seeing her first dusting.

"Will we be challenged again, Master?" she asked.

"I should think in about thirty paces or so, yes," the Master said. "This time, do leave him or her to me, though."

In less than a minute, a second vampire, this one a female wearing what must have once been a white dress, came from the ceiling once more. This one, however, showed no signs of aggression, but instead landed in a crouching bow, her forehead brushing the floor.

"Hail, Master!" she said loudly. "Your coming home is most welcome!"

"Simonetta," he said with a hearty laugh, putting a hand under her chin and guiding her to stand, "it has been a great long time, but I am glad my eyes behold you again."

Simonetta, who turned out to be surprisingly tall, smiled. Virginia took a quick stock of the other vampire's features. Her mouth was a bit wider than was commonly thought beautiful, and her nose matched its width. Her hair, which reached the middle of her back, was a very ordinary shade of brown and rather bushy, and she seemed incredibly dirty into the bargain. She was thin, though, and she had a grace Virginia was beginning to associate with vampires in general.

"Ah, yes, Simonetta," the Master said, "I should like you to meet Virginia. She became part of our family in the New World, one of the first to swell our ranks on that shore."

"Good day to you, Virginia, childe of the Master," Simonetta said in a manner that seemed a trifle too formal.

"And to you, Simonetta…" she broke off, fairly sure she was supposed to supply the name of the vampire's sire but being clueless as to what that was.

"She is the childe of Bertram," the Master said, patting Simonetta's cheek fondly. "He brought her back from Italy with him nigh on two hundred years ago. Your English is almost without any trace of an accent now. Excellent work."

Simonetta grinned readily, and Virginia looked at her with some astonishment. She had known that vampires did not age as humans do, but this woman looked to be perhaps five and twenty at most when in reality she was eight times that. It struck Virginia suddenly just how young she was in this Court.

"Come, come, we're on to the main chamber. Walk with us, girl," the Master said, tucking an arm around Simonetta's shoulders on one side and Virginia's on the other. "Now, do tell me, what has passed since I was away?"

Virginia saw a frown mar Simonetta's expression, and there was a brief pause. She knew perfectly well that none of this was a good sign.

"I am sorry to say it, Master, but we have had some losses," she said. "My own sire was killed not ten years ago, as well as Miranda and Gregory and some dozen other new ones."

"What?" the Master said, his jaw dropping open in anger. "How is this possible?"

"Slayer," Simonetta said, the word spat out like a filthy curse. "There was one called in London. She gave us a good deal of trouble for six months or so."

"When the cat is away, the mice do play," the Master said, shaking his head. "I am only sorry I was not here to kill her myself. Who had the privilege?"

"Indeed," Simonetta said, "twas Albert, but he died giving her a mortal wound."

"I left Albert, who was my right hand, in charge of my little ones when I left," the Master said to Virginia. "He did well, though obviously not too well if he lost some, including himself."

"Aye, gratitude and blame in equal measures," Simonetta said.

"Who ascended after Albert's demise?"

"Deidre," Simonetta replied. "She has ruled well these last few years."

"Tis well. Now, has aught else happened?" the Master asked.

"A few new fledges have been made," Simonetta said. "They will be presented to you, of course, as soon as you are ready after your long trip. The inner chambers have been added to, and we have kept to the schedule of sacrifices and chants that you prescribed ere you left. All has been done as you wished."

"Very good. Simonetta, why not run along ahead to let the others know of our arrival? I'm a bit weary with guards dropping from the sky like ripe apples. Convene the others in the main chamber, and let them know I shall meet them there."

"With pleasure, Master," she said, curtsied, and ran with a burst of preternatural speed ahead of them down the corridor.

Virginia watched as the retreating back of Simonetta disappeared into the distance, the spoiled white of her dress sometimes flashing briefly into visibility under the faint light of distant torches. The silence, as well as the knowledge that no one would be interrupting them again, made her all the more aware that she was walking into the unknown. Her tensions increased with each step she took at the Master's side. She disliked the feeling. It made her recall with entirely too much clarity that she had once been helpless, her fate held by the whim of others. Never since her last breath had she ever felt that oppressive sense of not having complete control.

"Speak, childe," the Master said, abruptly breaking the silence.

Virginia looked at him sideways as they continued to walk. His gaze was directed at her, piercingly so.

"I can feel the tension pouring off of you in waves greater than the ones that knocked against our ship on the way here," he said, his unblinking eyes riveted to her face. "If you are concerned, then say so. I may be able to lay your fears to rest."

"Not fears, precisely," she said.

"Good," the Master said. "You never have any reason to fear as long as I am with you, little one. Provided, of course, you do not provoke me. But there is little chance of that, I think."

"The Court… I do not know what will be expected of me, what it will be like," Virginia admitted. "It makes me…"

"Wary?" he finished. "That is good as well. It means you have caution."

"But there are rules, are there not?" she asked.

"Of course," he said casually. "You will be taught them by one I will choose for you."

"And the others of our kind? What is life like among them?"

The Master stopped their progression, turning her to face him fully. "In every place you were in life, what was life like?"

"A battle," she said promptly. "A struggle, the strongest and cleverest lording it over those beneath them in stature. A series of back-stabbings and back-handings."

"And you were on the receiving end of much of that."

"Not always," she said. "I learned the rules of that game and could play it well enough to live, and quite well."

"You will learn the rules of the game here, as well, and swiftly," the Master said. "You will do well, my Virginia. Dive into the blackest water, and you shall find you rise with greater strength than you dream possible."

He turned and began to walk towards their destination with longer strides, and after a moment of collecting herself, Virginia followed after him, her shorter legs matching his steps in determination, her face set. Whatever the hell was at the end of this hall, it was damn well going to learn her name.

She could hear it before seeing anything. There was a soft murmuring of voices, chanting she thought, though she couldn't make out the words. A patch of light ahead seemed to be framed in a rough doorway perhaps five paces wide, and growing rapidly closer with each step. The words of the chant were clear now, but completely unintelligible to her. It was not English, nor did it appear to be Latin.

"Ah, a welcome sound!" the Master called loudly enough to be overheard in the chamber beyond the door.

The chanting continued, and the Master strode slightly ahead of Virginia, reaching the door first, his form silhouetted against the reddish, flickering light within. Silence filled the air immediately, and then, with one accord, a great number of voices were raised in a cry of "Hail Master and hide stars, death is home once more!"

Virginia saw the Master nod his head in greeting in return, then he turned back to her and extended his white, cold hand to her. She grasped it, and prepared herself for whatever might be about to come. He ushered her carefully through the doorway and spoke.

"Members of the Order of Aurelius, I present to you my newest childe, Virginia, brought into our darkened life on the shores of the New World."

There was only a moment's pause before they responded with "Welcome, Virginia, childe of the Master," but it was enough to tell her that Simonetta had informed them of the Master's arrival, but not her own. Virginia gazed with great determination around the room, drinking in every detail as quickly as her new senses permitted. A short flight of steps went down before her feet, and the chamber itself was a circle lit by several braziers standing along the walls and a black metal chandelier filled with blazing tapers. It was perhaps twice as large as their boat had been, and to her quick-seeing eyes, nearly three hundred vampires stood easily within the room. Their faces were fixed in their demon visages, and taking her cue, she immediately allowed the change to come over her features.

As always, her vision became even more acute, and she could pick out the smallest details of the other vampires. There were male and female, and though it was difficult to say for certain with their faces in this form, she would guess most were turned between the ages of seventeen and forty. Like Simonetta's, their clothing was generally ragged and dirty. Their faces wore widely ranging expressions, some of curiosity or even approval, others of worry or confusion. She sniffed the air tentatively, and was greeted by an intensified odor of underground damp, as well as a musty scent that permeated the room and which she thought might be the result of the decaying clothing. But there was something else, something strange ringing in her ears.

"Master," she said softly, "I hear heartbeats, five of them."

"Indeed," he said approvingly. "You are correct. My Court, bring forth your tempting gift. I have had nothing but rats for long weeks."

Immediately, five humans, bound and gagged, were dragged forth by a contingent of vampires, and the first one, a girl of about twenty with reddish hair and almost unbelievably smooth, creamy skin, was presented to the Master. He put a finger under her chin, examining her closely.

"Very pretty," he said, then moved with lightning speed to her bared throat and bit viciously, draining her in great gulps of hunger.

The same fate awaited the next three: a handsome man in fashionable clothing, another girl of around the same age as the first but with dark hair, and then a boy in his late teens with wide, clear brown eyes. It was obvious each of them had been chosen for exceptional beauty.

The last one was brought forward, another man, this one broad and tall, and pressed upon the Master, but he shook his head.

"Is there something wrong?" asked one of the two vampires holding the human, concern and fear written on his features.

"No, nothing whatsoever," the Master said, "but I should like Virginia to take this one."

The victim's eyes bulged for a moment at the tiny figure in front of him, then she distinctly saw him glare at her in a calculating manner that clearly stated he knew he would win against her in a fight. Virginia tilted her head in what was obviously a coquettish gesture, and while the man didn't seem to find her face particularly appealing in its current demonic state, his eyes seemed to be gazing a few hands' breath lower than her face at any rate, and there he didn't seem displeased at all. Men: they were so predictable.

"Virginia? What is it?"

"I should like them to release him," she said in a honeyed voice.

"You heard her," the Master said to the two vampires. "Remove your hands from him."

The vampires looked at one another, then did as they had been ordered. Immediately, the man sprang free, intent on making his escape, but Virginia pounced on him like a cat as he tried to bolt up the steps, bringing him crashing to the ground beneath her. Shock was etched on his face. He attempted rolling her over, but her much smaller arms and legs bound his struggling body to the floor. She lifted a hand to his cheek, almost gently, and stroked a finger over his gag before slashing her nails into his cheek and drawing blood. She put one dripping finger to her mouth and suckled it sensually, meeting his eyes.

"Oh, you are a sweet one," she almost purred, then lowered her mouth to his neck, her fangs cleaving through his skin, and began to drink from him slowly, deliberately. She rubbed her body eagerly against his prone one, demanding everything in him. The man groaned into his gag, but she wasn't quite sure whether it was fear, pain, pleasure, or a mixture of all three. His life ebbed from him as slowly as a setting sun, and when Virginia lifted her mouth from his corpse, only the slightest of red stains could be seen clinging to her lips.

A quick glance at the crowd of fellow vampires proved that she had made her point. She was no weakling, and roughly half of those assembled looked as though they wanted her to give them exactly the same treatment she had given the human. That was mostly the male half, though a few of the females had similar expressions.

"I thank you for the gift, Master," she said demurely as she rose smoothly back to her feet.

The Master hid a smile at his over-achieving progeny's actions, then addressed the vampires who had brought the victims into the chamber. "Remove the carcasses to the Chasm before they begin to reek. Now, come before me, each of you, one by one, that I might see your faces again. Those who have sired in my absence, bring your new ones with you."

The Court immediately sprang to an order that seemed perfectly organized beforehand, and a woman vampire with light brown hair and dark eyes came forward first. Virginia noticed that she walked with a slight limp.

"Master," she said in a rolling accent, and curtsied low.

"Deidre," he said, and she rose. "I understand that you undertook rule after Albert perished at the hands of a Slayer?"

"Aye. It has been nigh on ten years since then. I am right glad that ye've returned, Master. Tis no light task this," she said, and Virginia was able to place her accent as Irish. Very few Irish came to London, and those who did were highly unwelcome. Virginia was startled to see that the woman was no half-mad savage as in the tales she'd heard, and something in the way Deidre stood told her that she was strong enough to lead the Order in the Master's absence and then some.

"You have done well," the Master said, breaking Virginia's train of thought, "and therefore, I will entrust you with a new task. You shall be Virginia's guide to our ways."

"I shall see to it right certain," she said, looking at Virginia appraisingly. With a bow, she disappeared and the next vampire came, and the next after that. A bevy of names came at Virginia, one after another. A variety of nationalities were represented, even to a vampire who was from India, his darker skin still rich enough in color to blend among mortals without a second thought. The Master made a point of carefully examining each new addition to the line since his departure. There were ten new vampires, though all of them had been turned before Virginia. An embarrassed pause occurred when Johannes stepped forward.

"Ah, yes," the Master said. "Gunther's sire."

"You have already met him, Master? I was about to make apologies for his absence," Johannes said, a momentary relief going over his broad features.

"Met him, and killed him," the Master said, a hint of a growl in his speech. "His guard-duty was sloppy and he attempted assassination on me."

Johannes's eyes increased in size so much that Virginia momentarily thought they might come straight out of their sockets. A thin sheen of perspiration was on his brow, and as Virginia had never had that happen to her even once since her turning, she knew he must be extremely frightened.

"I…"

The Master raised a hand to cut him off. "Gunther's actions were his own, and he has paid the price for them," he said. Johannes's expression relaxed for a moment. "And you are also responsible for your actions, which included turning a boy and then not instructing him properly in his duties to this Order and to myself," the Master finished in a deadly voice. "I am displeased. What do you intend to do about that, Johannes?"

The vampire looked around wildly, and Virginia knew that the next few moments were going to decide if this one lived or turned to dust as well. With a sudden burst of speed, Johannes ran to a large ax hanging on the wall, yanked it free, and then knelt before the Master once more and raised the ax in his left hand.

It happened so quickly that Virginia didn't have time to be sick. One moment the ax was raised. The next, Johannes's right arm lay on the floor in a pool of blood, and a loud shriek pierced the air. The Master regarded the self-mutilated vampire coolly, not even blinking.

"That will do to be going on with," he said. "Perhaps I will permit you to replace it with one of iron… in a few decades."

Johannes nodded, biting his lip forcefully, but managed a bow before quickly exiting.

"Night falls soon," the Master said loudly. "You have my leave to go and hunt, and good will to you all."

They bowed and curtsied as one, then left the Master and Virginia standing in the room alone with Deidre.

"Show Virginia to her new chamber," the Master said. "I'm weary from travel and wish to sleep. See that I am not disturbed unless hell itself comes to the door."

"Indeed, Master, and if that be the case, I'll throw the door wide and invite Old Scratch in for a game of cards," Deidre said with a smile.

The Master laughed loudly, then patted Virginia's shoulder, and with a whispered, "Well done, my dear," he left.

Deidre and Virginia surveyed each other in his wake. The moment was uncomfortable, and both women were carefully weighing one another, trying to decide exactly how to approach the situation the Master had chosen for them.

"Virginia, is it then?" Deidre finally said, breaking the silence.

Virginia nodded. "This time around."

Deidre raised an eyebrow at her, and in doing so, her face lost its demonic features and smoothed, revealing a human mask that looked roughly the same age as Virginia's, but, almost ironically, there was a fine smattering of freckles on the bridge of her nose. Deidre noticed Virginia's gaze, then smiled a bit.

"I assure ye, they aren't from stayin' too long in the sun, despite what me mam told me," Deidre said dryly.

Virginia let her face recede in response, a considering expression on her features. She hadn't spent any time with another female vampire, and for a woman who had trusted no men and few women, it would be far more comfortable to be taught the intricacies of her new life by another woman than one of the men. She suspected the Master had known that as well.

"Deidre," she said, "I believe I have several thousand questions to ask you."

"And I'll answer the first afore it leaves yer lips," Deidre said. "Yer chamber'll be this way."

She led Virginia back across the room, towards a small doorway that was next to the stairs leading down into the chamber itself. As Virginia followed, she heard a faint scrabbling behind her, and whirled around to see several other vampires had appeared from she knew not where and were scrubbing the entrance hall clean after the many footprints the gathering had left.

"They'd be minions," Deidre said, not even bothering to turn. "Pay them no heed unless you be needin' something."

Virginia turned back in time to see Deidre take a torch from a bracket on the wall and go left down a side hallway. After several more twists and turns, Virginia found herself outside a wooden door set into an alcove in the wall. Deidre pulled on the heavy iron handle and the door opened to reveal Virginia's new home.

It wasn't much to look at. It was a large square room, perhaps thirty paces wide, with a smooth gray stone floor and walls of the same color and texture. The ceiling, however, was coffered wood, painted black with small flowers of red, green, and blue worked into the carving. The workmanship wasn't of the highest quality, but it was still something to relieve the starkness of the architecture. A bed stood against one wall, plain and unadorned, and as yet without bedclothes. A small wooden chest of drawers was placed on the wall to the left of the bed. Two large wrought iron candelabra, each holding nine unlit candles, flanked the entrance. Aside from these things, the room was barren.

"Home," Deidre said, touching a taper to the torch and then using it to light the rest of the candles. Once finished, she returned the torch to a bracket in the outside hallway. "I'll see about getting ya a blanket and such afore…"

Deidre stopped mid-sentence as she realized that in the few seconds since she'd left the room, Virginia had thrown herself on the bed and fallen soundly asleep.

"Or perhaps I won't at that," Deidre finished to no one, closing the door on her way out.

Virginia slept soundly for almost two days. When she finally did open her eyes again, she stared at the ceiling, completely unable to understand where she was for a few moments and wondering why the ship wasn't rocking to and fro. When at last the pieces fell into place, she stretched luxuriously then got out of bed. The floor was cold to her feet. She would need to see about securing a rug. Sitting on her dresser was a new set of clothes: a simple dress of brown wool. She ripped off the clothes she had worn for so many months, the same ones she had been buried in she realized with a start, and slipped over her head the fresh fabric, enjoying the feel of something clean. It wasn't entirely to her taste, but that could be remedied easily enough.

She had just finished dressing when a knock sounded and Deidre opened the door. She eyed the dress critically.

"It fits well enough, in any case," she said.

"It does," Virginia said. "It's rather bland, though."

"We've little call for lace and ruffles here," Deidre said with a grunting laugh. Virginia frowned.

"Surely such things aren't forbidden?"

"Forbidden? Nah, not exactly so, though the Master encourages us to in no way stand out from the mortals when we hunt lest we draw too much attention."

Virginia could see the sense in this, but a furrow still creased her brow. "Is my education to begin today then?"

"Aye, but after ye break yer fast," she responded, then turned to the hall. "Bring in the boy!"

Two vampires, minions she supposed, brought in a human who was bound and gagged as those at the Master's welcoming had been. Virginia fed quickly, and the minions dragged the body out of the room at once, shutting the door quietly behind them.

"Excellent service," she commented dryly.

"Tis what they exist for," Deidre said. "Vampires fall into two kinds: the minions and the elite."

"Are they made so?" Virginia asked.

"Some are made so that they'll take up their place amongst the high ones, but it's possible for some of the minions to move up a bit, though it's most rare. They can do so through performing extraordinary services and the like for the Master. But it's never happened in my existence."

"Might I ask how old you are?"

"I was turned some two-hundred odd years ago. I forget what year it is now."

"1610."

"Ah, then t'will be," she calculated a moment on her fingers, "207. And you?"

"A little over a year," she said, self-conscious of her youth.

"Time mends that fault soon enough," Deidre said. "Besides, yer rank here's already assured."

"It is?"

"Fer pity's sake, woman! Yer the Master's own blood, hand-chosen by himself! There are precious few who can claim that anymore. Just yerself, Marcello, who'd be in Hungary or thereabouts now, Petrova, who's abroad in Prussia, and Luke, who's still off in the New World. Ye outrank the lot of us here and then some."

Virginia blinked. She had assumed the Master had turned most of those who had been in the hall the previous night.

"But… there are so many of you," she said.

"What ya saw last night twasn't half our number," Deidre said, beginning to lead her back through the hallways along the same path as last night. "Those of the Master's blood, and many of them are dust now, made a great many vampires, and those have made others, and on down the line."

"So it's expected that I make more of our kind?" she asked.

"Nay, not expected, but there are rules about it," Deidre explained, stopping to speak to Virginia face to face. "For the first century of a vampire's new life, he or she may not turn a human unless they have their sire's permission to do so. After a century, they may do as they please, though if the childe is found wanting by the Master, he of course has the right to destroy it forthwith without a complaint or feeling of ill-use."

Virginia nodded her understanding. "And the difference betwixt minions and the elite? Does it happen at siring?"

"Minions are fed blood farther from the heart during the change," Deidre explained. "Wrist, leg, foot-- all of these places will make a minion. Remember where the Master gave ya his blood from?"

She strained her memory, but her thoughts in those last living moments were like the shattered images of a dream, swimming and spinning.

"No," she finally said. "I cannot recall."

"Tis common," Deidre said. "But the Master most likely fed you from his throat or breast. As I said, tis possible for a minion to become one like us, but it happens rarely. Most minions are a bit dim in the head to begin with, but they serve their purpose, like all others."

"But what difference does where the blood comes from make? Our hearts don't beat," Virginia said.

"Nay, not now, but they once did. Life's a powerful thing, and the heart was its seat when ya were mortal. Ye're mortal no longer, but that force is still there, as though yer heart were forever caught between beats. It's sleeping, aye, but not dead. Many things from life stay with us in unlife, whether we will it or no."

"Deidre," she said suddenly, "should we not have turned left to reach the main chamber at the last fork?"

"Aye, we should have," Deidre said, "if that was our destination, which it isna. Ye've a good sense of direction."

"Then where are we going?"

"The Chasm," she replied. "Much happens there."

"The Chasm?" she repeated.

"Ye'll see."

The way continued to slope downwards, and Virginia knew that they must be far, far below the ground now. The chill of the upper chambers left, and heat began to take its place. She wondered for a moment whether Deidre was leading her into hell itself and if the next person they encountered on the path would have cloven feet and a pitchfork, then laughed at herself.

Until she turned the next corner and the hallway ended abruptly in hell.

There were no devils running about, but the passage dumped them without ceremony into a measurelessly wide chamber with a vaulted cave-ceiling full of mammoth stalactites. This was not what held her eyes, though.

Deidre and Virginia stood on a small ledge perhaps ten paces wide that went about a mile along one wall. Before it lay a vast chasm so wide that the other side of the chamber was only dimly to be seen on the opposite side. Most startling of all, the cavern was not dark, nor was it lit by torches as all the other rooms were. A burning red light that could only be described as infernal glowed throughout it, painting the living stone walls the color of blood and mayhem, and this light seemed to be emanating from the chasm itself. A dull roar, not unlike that of a massive waterfall, filled the air. Virginia stared at the place, then back at Deidre.

"Rather overwhelmin', aye?" Deidre said, carefully putting her torch into one of a line of brackets near the doorway. "That'd be the chasm. Ye can take a couple steps nigher the edge, but I'd not advise going closer. The rock may crumble away beneath ya if ya do. That's how Martha perished twenty years ago."

Virginia was about to take a few steps when it suddenly occurred to her what a perfect scene this would be for a murder, namely her own. All Deidre would need to do is give her a swift push and she'd be rid of the Master's newest childe. After all, Deidre had led the group until recently, and she had said herself that Virginia outranked her. Perhaps it would make her the Master's favorite once again.

"I don't believe I will," she said, keeping her distance from the edge.

Deidre nodded. "No fool, are ya? I canna very well kill ya, though, Virginia. First, the Master would know twas me who'd done it, and I'd be prayin' fer an easy death and not gettin' it. That's another law, Virginia. We don't kill our own save if our skins depend on it or if the other has committed treachery. A sire may kill his or her childer if they offend 'em, but tis generally frowned upon and seen as a sign that they canna control their own young. Weakness, so tis."
"I see," Virginia said, and decided to risk at least a quick look, though if Deidre came a step nearer, she'd throw her into the pit herself.

Carefully, she stepped closer to the edge and looked down. Far below her, so far that it seemed impossible, a lake of liquid fire blazed upward, shots of flame and smoke and a powerful smell of brimstone nearly knocking her off her senses. The roaring she had heard was the sound of an underground river of lava, though she did not know that was what it was called. The sight was horrifying, but she couldn't tear herself away from it. It took her a long while to find her voice.

"What is this place?" she asked, looking back at Deidre.

"As I said, tis the Chasm," she said. "Tis here that the Master bids us to worship the old ones through sacrifices and chants."

"The old ones?"

"The ones who came afore us, long afore, afore the plague of humanity crept out o' the seas. So the Master has said. The old ones give a bit of their spirit to us, cleansing us of the dirt of humans and burning us pure, like unto themselves. We give thanks for it here," she said matter-of-factly.

"How?"

"At the full of the moon and again at the new, and at various and sundry feasts, we throw thirteen humans into the pit," she said. "There's words to go with it, and the Master says they're right important and all. Tisn't in English or any other language we know. He says tis from a time long past, one unsullied by the human tongue for many a year, and that's cleaned it."

Virginia took a moment to consider this.

"I've never exactly been religious," she said finally.

Deidre laughed loudly. "Odd way of puttin' it, dearie! It's simple enough to do, and really what's the harm in killin' a few humans?"

"It's not that," she said quickly. "It's… do you really believe something lives at the bottom of this place?"

Deidre tipped her head in consideration. "I've seen many strange things in my days. I'd not say nay to that so fast as others might who've seen less. On the other hand, I'll not say aye, neither."

Virginia raised an eyebrow. "Fair enough. If twill please the Master, I'll do so. Tis a small enough thing."

"Ya like him, eh?" she said, smirking. "To each their own, I suppose."

"Not in that way," she said with a matching smirk. "With my life, I've had my fill and more of men for a long time to come."

"That's another rule ya'd best know of," Deidre said, taking the torch out of the bracket again. "Tis generally considered impolite to ask vampires about their mortal lives. If they wish to tell ya of their own volition, tis fine, and fine for ya to do the same, but as yer not what ya were, whatever that was, tisn't to affect who ya be now. Understand?"

"Yes," Virginia said. "It's a rule I believe I shall like well."

By this time they had already begun returning through the corridors, leaving the red glow of the Chasm behind them. The light had left an impression on Virginia's eyes, though, and the corridor seemed to swim in a faint reddish shade, not unlike when she had been too long in the sun as a human and come into a dark room suddenly. The image had burned itself into her brain as well, a nightmare-like place where she was one of the demons, not one of the damned. Well, perhaps she was, but she would not be on the receiving end of the fire at any rate.

Virginia and Deidre occasionally passed other vampires in the winding halls, but they were few. Those that did usually offered a brief greeting, often paired with a silent assessment of Virginia. Most seemed warily accepting of her, and a few even went so far as to give her looks she recalled from her work.

"I see certain habits don't die with us," she said after one male had quite obviously been speaking to her décolletage rather than her face.

"That'd be George," Deidre said, shaking her head. "Randy one he is. But ye're right. Our kind takes all manner of pleasure as it suits us, and murder, lovely a pastime as it is, is not the only one we can lust after. Hast lain with one since yer turnin'?"

"Nay," she said.

"Ye'll find it changed," she said, pausing to trade the dimming torch for a new one at yet another juncture of paths. "Yer senses are heightened now, as ya know. Goes for all of it."

Virginia shrugged. "I've no real interest in it for now. The absence is more of a novelty then aught else."

Deidre laughed loudly, the sound echoing in the tight halls. "As ya will, to be sure. Still, I think ye'll grow weary of that soon enough. There's any number of us who'd tumble ya at yer slightest whim. They'll be several bonny lads and lasses in yer bed afore a year is up, I shouldn't wonder."

"Lasses?" Virginia asked.

"Aye. Ye'll find that such petty concerns as that are quite gone. Ye'll most likely keep whatever yer preference was in life, but ya won't be adverse to a little dallying on the opposite side from time to time," Deidre said, finally stopping outside a door.

Virginia frowned. In her whoring days, she'd done any number of unusual things for customers, particularly if extra money was involved… actually, only if extra money was involved, but she'd never particularly enjoyed it when they'd called for two women at a time and she'd been one. On the other hand, she realized, she'd never really particularly enjoyed any of it because none of it had ever been her own idea. There had been the occasional customer who at least had given pleasure to her as well as gotten it, but it was still a case of being owned.

She wondered briefly what it would be like to give or receive in a bed at her own will, with whom she chose, when she chose it. A smile curled her lips, and her eyes glittered wickedly. She didn't wish it just yet, but she could tell that Deidre's prophecy would most likely come true, though perhaps not within the year.

Deidre had opened the heavy wooden door in front of them, and Virginia saw through it a large room filled with books, far more than she had ever seen before. Several volumes were stacked on a great oaken table, and she recognized them as the ones from the Master's ship cabin. They were only a small fraction of the whole collection. Virginia didn't realize it, but the thousands of books lining the walls from floor to ceiling represented the single largest library in the world at the time.

"Ya read?" Deidre said, reminding her someone was there.

She nodded, still a bit dumbstruck over the size of the collection.

"Good," Deidre said, "because ya need to know by heart the words for the next ceremony at the Chasm."

She took a particularly battered, age-worn and stained book from a shelf and put it on a stand in the middle of the room, then drew up a chair nearby.

"Go on with ya then," she said, settling into the seat. "Read it aloud, and I'll be correctin' ya if need be."

Virginia pursed her lips a moment, then went to the stand and opened the book. While the letters were familiar to her now, they didn't form any words she knew. She quickly paged through the book, and it was all the same. Nothing looked familiar. Of course, she had known it would be in a foreign tongue, but the sounds were so odd to her ears that it was annoying.

"What part of this is mine to say?" she asked.

"All of it," Deidre replied. "The ceremonies last about five hours, and they're said as a chorus."

"I must memorize five hours worth of words I don't comprehend," she said, her mouth hanging open.

"We've all done it," she said, shrugging. "Begin at the beginning."

Virginia had no idea how many hours passed as she struggled through the book, Deidre correcting her when necessary, which was frequently. By the time the last page had been read, she felt inclined to burn the book as an excuse to never have to read it aloud again. Deidre looked as bored to tears as she was.

"Can not I just mumble as the others speak?" she finally said.

"Nay, ya canna," Deidre said. "The Master would be most angry with both of us."

Virginia sighed and closed the book more harshly than was necessary, hoping vainly that it might crumble into dust "accidentally."

"Tis enough for one day," Deidre said. "I've a mind to sleep. I'll be after seein' ya tomorrow eve."

Virginia sighed in relief and very gladly left the library behind her. Had she been a slight bit less dignified, she would have run down the hall with the gusto of a boy released from school after a particularly long day.

Over a week passed in this way. Virginia was able to learn the phrases fairly quickly, but then she needed to learn the pace and rhythm of the chanting, and by the time that was done she was nearly ready to pull her hair out. Deidre had kept her at it steadily, and Virginia hadn't breathed fresh air or hunted in so long that she was beginning to feel like a caged animal. Every evening when she awoke, another bound captive was brought in. She'd even tried untying one once in an effort to at least get a bit of fun through a jolly chase, but Deidre had scolded her, saying they had no time to waste. Each night, she came back to her chamber, frustrated from too much mental work and not enough physical movement. Finally, she simply couldn't take it any longer.

"Deidre," she said quite calmly after reciting the fiftieth page seven times, "if I do not get leave to walk about the city soon, I believe I am going to become as cracked as an old pot."

The other vampire snorted, shifting restlessly. "Eh, ye've toiled away for too long, and truth be told so have I. A night without work is warranted, I should believe, save, of course, for the sort that involves causing the screaming of various unlucky mortals. You must be extremely cautious that none sees ye as knows ye. Ye can…"

Virginia was gone from the room faster than wind.

"…go," she finished to the empty chamber.

By this time, Virginia no longer cared about such trivial matters as decorum. Abandoning any pretense of civility, she sped through the maze of passages, shot up the steps of the main chamber so fast she was a brown and blonde blur, tore through the long corridor that eventually became earth, and stood beneath the stone that concealed the entrance, taking a moment to compose herself. It wouldn't do to hunt in a frenzy, she thought. This needed to be savored.

Cautiously, she climbed the small footholds that had been dug into the wall, then listened for any sign of humans in the alleyway. Hearing nothing but the pattering feet of a cat, she silently raised the stone, setting it to the side and getting to her feet gracefully. The stone was settled into place again with as little sound as possible.

Virginia stood still, relishing the feel of fresh air on her face. Breathing might not be necessary anymore, but stagnant, musty air around her was still uncomfortable and unpleasant. The harsh smells of the city surrounded her, not all of them agreeable, but at least different and stimulating. The sounds of the passing horses, few at this time of night which she knew instinctively to be around the witching hour, jangled in her ears, and the steady thrum of thousands of heartbeats filled the air like wonderful music. She stepped out of the alley, almost overwhelmed by the sheer joy of being above ground again.

It wasn't until that moment that she truly understood how little she cared for living in the Master's Court. There were plenty of her own kind, and she supposed that once her schooling was over she would have leisure to do as she wished, but the thought of returning to that underground pit was nauseating. Standing by one of the taverns that was still open and peering in the window, she saw the colors of the people's clothing dance in the candlelight, and it was then she suddenly realized that everything below ground seemed to be painted in shades of black and gray and brown, never vibrant green or golden yellow or bright red, save for the Chasm itself. She had a sudden desire to buy or steal a gown in every color of the rainbow, but she knew what the Master would say: it was not the garb of a hunter who moved unseen in the shadows.

Her first kill of the night was completely uneventful. A man stumbling home after too much to drink crossed her path, and she left him lying beside the roadway, apparently the victim of robbers who had slit his throat. The thrill of fresh blood, not merely a captive delivered to her but someone she had tracked and caught herself, enlivened her senses to a boiling point, and everything seemed five times clearer. Or perhaps that was the several pints of ale he'd had that were now floating through her system. In either case, she was feeling most merry.

She found herself walking down a street that was unknown to her, one lined with taverns and inns of a more respectable sort than those she had once been familiar with. Most were closed for the evening, locked tight as drums, but a very few still had their windows and doors thrown open to the cool night air, the sounds of laughter and music and the flicker of firelight gushing forth as rich and sweet as the blood from her latest kill. It had been over a year since she had heard proper music, and while the mandolin player she heard through the window was no masquerade ball orchestra as she had once been accustomed to, the notes sounded clear as bells.

It wasn't the constant work in the Court that was driving her to distraction, she realized. It was the confinement. If she was to live eternally, she wanted to live someplace she could be surrounded by the things she wanted most, not shut forever in a large tomb, rattling from one airless chamber to the next and counting days by the cycles of chants. It almost sounded like a nunnery.

She stared at her hands in the light from the window, noticing the grime that coated her skin. It was normal in the Court, after all. Water was a luxury, and while minions could be sent to fetch it, she'd had no time for of a bath. She'd had no time, no opportunity for any luxury at all. She hadn't been so filthy since she was a guttersnipe living wild on the streets, except then at least she'd been able to feel the sun and taste the air.

"And feel the bite of hunger in your belly, childe," she heard softly from behind her.

She whirled round and saw nothing for a moment, but then the cloaked figure of the Master resolved itself from the depth of the blackest shadows.

"I do not wish to be ungrateful, Master," she said, more than a little unnerved by his ability to read her thoughts.

He merely looked back at her from under the cowl of his robes, two glittering red eyes swimming in a sea of darkness. He said nothing, and the moment stretched between them, the candles in the pub going out at last and leaving the street lit only by moonlight.

"You are angry with me," she said finally.

A quiet chuckle broke the stillness. "Why should I be?"

"Because I have not abandoned humanity, as you say we should," she said, glancing back over her shoulder at the pub. "They're lower than us, and yet…"

"And yet it draws you, this world," he finished. "You miss it."

"I do," she admitted. "The more comfortable bits, at any rate."

He shook his head slightly, his eyes seeming to look far beyond her. "Youth. It has been a very long time since it has plagued me. Have your studies been fruitful with Deidre?"

"I am learning the chants for the Chasm," she said.

"Good. The next ceremony shall be three nights hence. I believe you shall enjoy it."

Virginia tried desperately not to have the thought form in her head that there was almost no chance of that, concerned the Master might read her thoughts once more. It was a disturbing power, and one she had never before realized he possessed.

"I use it seldom," he said as though in answer. "You need not worry. But that is well beside the point. I need no powers other than observation to see you are not happy in the Court."

"No, Master," she admitted.

"Have you never wondered why so many of our Order are absent?" he asked. "You are not to be chained to London for the rest of your existence. You will be free to move at your pleasure, free to travel to all the places of the world, anywhere you wish. The Court will always be your home, childe, and you should stay there a good few years yet ere you roam the world if you are wise, for you have much to learn. But the world belongs to you more so than to these mortals since they stop here but briefly and you will remain for long centuries. In time, you may feel more inclined to live at the Court then you do now. Hot blood will cool somewhat, but for you, my Virginia, that may well be millennia from now. You belong to none but yourself and me, and after you have been well-schooled, I shall give you full freedom."

Virginia was dumbstruck. The Court still seemed a dark jail to her, but it was no longer a life sentence. When at last she was done there, she could do as she pleased, wherever she chose.

"That has eased you?" he asked.

"Aye," she said.

"I thought it might," he said, and his eyes glittered again. "Hast eaten well this eve?"

"Much better than for many days before," she said. "I have sorely missed the chase."

"After the ceremony of the new moon, your work will decrease, and then you will have time for such pleasures again. Perhaps even… visiting old friends? Family?" he said, and the glint of fangs flashed in the moonlight. She could easily imagine the cruel smile on his face.

"I believe so, Master," she said, smiling with the same evil cunning. "I do not wish to be rude."

"Never that, my childe," he said with a laugh, then he disappeared back into the shadows so quickly that she was left with a feeling of vertigo.

Virginia returned to the Court an hour or so before sunrise. As the heavy paving stone stuck into place over her head, sending the corridor below back into blackness, she sighed. Patience had never been her strong point, though she could wait if she had to. Still, there was a light now in the future. Travel had never really occurred to her before, at least not of her own free will. Mountains, forests, great cities, all of them could be hers. Granted, she wouldn't be visiting any deserts in the foreseeable future, but then she'd never particularly wanted to. Sand, sand, and more sand wasn't her idea of an interesting view from her window.

The next two days followed the same path as before with Deidre drilling her and Virginia wanting to scream from the tedium but succeeding in finishing her work. When at last the sun sank on the third day, Virginia awoke to the sounds of Deidre already in her chamber, tapping her foot impatiently.

"Well, up with ya!" she said loudly as Virginia tried to roll out of bed. "The ceremony begins in two hours, and ye'd best review a mite."

Virginia groaned and dressed quickly, Deidre throwing questions at her right and left that she blearily answered. Finally, Virginia donned a long black robe over her dress, one that she realized was very similar to the Master's own cloak, and stood facing the other woman.

"May I eat now?" she asked, rather pettishly.

"Nay," the woman said. "None are to eat until after all is done."

"But that's six hours from now!" she said, making a disgusted face.

"Six and a half, truth and all," Deidre replied. "But ye'll be busy enough so that ya shant notice, I expect. For blood's sake, Virginia, belt not yer robe so tight! Yer goin' to the Chasm, not tryin' to display yer figure!"

Virginia rolled her eyes but retied the belt so that it hung loosely. She knew that fashion here seemed to speak otherwise, but she hated black and always had. She'd be glad to strip off the robe at the end of the ceremony and see the comparative colorfulness of her brown dress again.

After what seemed a very long time, Deidre quizzing her all the while, the other woman put on her own robe and opened the chamber door. Others similarly clad were to be seen wandering about in the hallway. Virginia raised her eyebrows. They looked like a collection of Grim Reapers, and she supposed that to humans they were. Still, there was something oddly comic in the effect.

A few moments passed, then a blood-curdling scream echoed through the corridors, and Virginia nearly jumped out of her skin. The bits of chitchat that had floated through the air abruptly stopped, and the vampires formed orderly, straight lines, Deidre bustling Virginia into place ahead of her. Well, Virginia thought, what did I expect as signal? Church bells?

They walked silently along the same path Deidre had shown her to the Chasm, all silent. The human who had been used as a summons had apparently been killed or at least gagged as the noise had stopped as abruptly as it had begun. Virginia wondered briefly whether he had counted as one of the thirteen or not.

As it turned out, he hadn't. By the time Virginia and Deidre had reached the Chasm, all of the vampires currently at the Court were beginning to space themselves out evenly over the length of the thin ledge. A space had been left open at the Master's right, and Deidre silently shooed Virginia there, taking a spot a stone's throw away. Peppered through the group were thirteen vampires who each held one human prisoner. Those who hadn't yet passed out from the fear inherent in the place were looking about them wide-eyed with terror. Virginia shrugged nonchalantly and slipped into place, looking out over the empty space, watching the vapors from below drift before her, making the air shimmer with blood red.

Once all had found their places, the Master raised a black staff in his hand and cracked it loudly against the ground. This was the cue for the chanting to begin, and Virginia launched into the long ceremony with the rest, her lips almost moving themselves through the unknown words. The sound vibrated through the chamber, and it seemed as though the roiling fire below them bubbled more fiercely than before. At certain times during the proceeding, a human was thrown down into the flames below. Virginia kept count on her fingers and toes, marking off the victims as a sign that the interminable wait was coming to a close. At long last, only one remained, a woman who didn't even struggle any longer. When she was pushed over the edge and into the fiery air at last, the final words of the chant were spoken, and, to Virginia's complete surprise, a huge bubble of fire rose into the air in the middle of the Chasm, rising until it was on a level with the vampires though a good distance away, which was a good thing as it exploded suddenly into a million sparks of living fire, orange and yellow and red, ending the ceremony with a profoundly loud blast like a gigantic cannon.

That was a little startling, she thought, trying to return her eyes to their sockets.

She glanced around to see the others breaking their ranks, the air filling with the sounds of trivial chatter once more. Virginia shook her head to try to clear it of the ringing from the explosion, then glanced over at the Master.

"Does that always happen?" she asked.

"If all goes as it should, yes," he said. "Rather pretty, isn't it?"

Virginia had just watched the sun explode. Somehow, the word "pretty" really didn't seem to fit, but she still said, "Aye," though it sounded a little thin.

"Deidre," the Master called suddenly. "Come here."

Deidre walked quickly from her spot and stood before the Master, a nervous expression on her face.

"Aye, Master?" she said.

"Virginia did perfectly in her recitation. You are to be commended," he said with a smile.

The tension visibly drained from Deidre, and a smile of relief lit her features. "Thank ye, Master. She's right smart."

"Most certainly," he said, glancing back at Virginia. "Deidre, you have had leave to sire at will for over a century now, but know you now that any of your line will now fall under my exclusive protection, and I shall regard a blow levied at them by any of the others to be one at myself."

"Thank ye," she said again, curtsying low once more, a look of great pleasure on her face.

"Virginia, you need not spend so much time in schooling now," the Master said, turning to address his childe. "What do you think you shall do with your time?"

Virginia smiled up at him sweetly, then replied, "I shall take your advice, Master, and visit with those who knew the mortal who once lived in this skin, returning their kindness to her a dozenfold."

The Master laughed loudly, slapping her shoulder as they left the Chasm behind them. "My dear Virginia, you are a lovely, vicious creature! Be sure to tell me the tale of your visits when you return. But mind you have caution."

"Aye, Master," she said, curtseying as the others, then turning back to her chamber, breaking into a run halfway there at the thought of being able to take off the black robe and return to the air above.

That night passed without tremendous incident. The sun rose with the population of London very slightly diminished, but none of any great fame or position had died. Virginia had decided to wait until the following evening before calling on her former acquaintances. She wanted things arranged perfectly, and it would take her a small amount of time to decide what would please her best.

When the next night came, black as a vacant soul, a lithe figure could be seen walking through the shadows of Garden Street. It moved with a strange eagerness at a pace that seemed more in keeping with a hungry beast than a mortal woman, for woman it must be. A glint of gold reflected beneath the light of the moon, making her look as though she had a faint halo around her head.

Aside from these few details gathered from a neighbor who had been unable to sleep and was passing the time gazing out the window, there were no other hints at what could have caused the calamity that befell the Kentfield household. By mid-morning of the next day, all of London had heard of the horrors that had happened on the quiet street. The entire family had been slain, strange wounds found upon their necks. The children were found in their beds, as though sleeping, but the corpses of the master and mistress were discovered sitting at their dinner table, blood pouring from opened throats across it, and Katherine Kentfield's tongue, which had branded so many with her scathing gossip, was not to be found at all. The murderer was never discovered, but the unknown figure became known in legend as the dark angel, and many believed it was had been the spirit of the witch who had once lived nearby who had come back, claiming vengeance on those who had laughed at her death.

The Master had smiled adoringly at Virginia's story, patting her cheek fondly after she had finished telling it at his knee. Her grizzly memento of the kill remained in her chambers until it dried to dust and blew away entirely. Garden Street acquired a reputation for being cursed, and the once prosperous place grew desolate in the years that followed. The reputation was not unfounded: it remained a favorite feeding ground of Virginia's for centuries to come.

Garden Street, though, was not the only place visited with a strange series of killings, but it went far less noticed in the less respectable neighborhood of the leaping houses and taverns. As always remained the case, the rich didn't bother themselves about the poorer elements, although in this case some of the nobility were counted among the victims. However, as the place where they were found was far from respectable society, the circumstances became buried in the code of polite silence.

The sharp bite of true winter had crept into the air for the first time that November night, and the fire in the main chamber of Martin's leaping house was stoked a bit higher than usual. The customers were still browsing, the whores still working their wiles with varying degrees of success. The building wasn't quite so well kept as it had been a few years ago, and the buyers didn't look quite so prosperous. When Martin had lost his Venus, much of his business had moved to other places. He was a shrewd man, though, and he'd managed to find a few other beauties in the alleys of London. The current attraction was a pretty little wench he had named Helen, a last desperate effort to use the same mythology he'd used with Venus, calling her the "most beautiful of mortals." Unfortunately, whereas Venus had lived up to her billing, Helen wasn't in the same league. She was blonde, but of the dishwater variety, and her skin had a few pox marks in the candlelight. More than that, she didn't have the zest that Venus had possessed in large quantities, holding herself like a broken-down mare rather than a goddess.

Martin had made damn sure of that. Venus's inability to be crushed had let her get away from him, and he had turned more violent in the time that had passed, whipping the girls for no reason at all other than to keep them in the dirt. Despair sat on the house like a gigantic bird of ill omen, its wings drooping over the filthy windows and its opened beak forever hovering over the necks of its occupants, ready to snap them in two.

Human beings can become accustomed to anything, even the sense of ever-present doom, and so it was that when Virginia looked in the street side window that night, peeping between the edges of moulded curtains drawn to keep the buyers' privacy from those wandering down the street, the leaping house had fallen into a torpor of stagnation.

Martin sat in his customary chair by the fire, his greedy eyes weighing the size of the purses of the various men as always. He had grown grayer in the time since she had left, and the lines of his face were more bloated from drink. His eyes seemed to have sunken somehow, and by a trick of the firelight, his face resembled a skull.

Just as Deidre had said, she needed no invitation to enter the place. It was a place of business, and even though Martin lived there, only his room would have a barrier around it. The rooms of the girls, on the other hand, would be free. They didn't live there; they owned nothing, not even a threshold. Silently, Virginia crept unseen to the kitchen. One woman, new since she had left, stood over the table, mincing onions for a stew. Virginia killed her so quickly she had never even been able to ask who the strange blonde woman was.

Still moving in perfect quiet, the sounds of drunken men in the main chamber filling the air, Virginia opened a window, then the back door, carrying a good-sized fire log outside with her from the kitchen woodpile. She closed the door after her and wedged the log firmly into place between the handle and the wall, effectively keeping it from being pulled open from the inside. She then crawled back through the window, landing in silence.

Virginia looked around the room, allowing the moment to reach her. This had been the scene of so much of her life. Being stripped for Martin's inspection and dressed up like a doll for the enjoyment of the men who came here, becoming a thing; finding Geoffrey had taken Jane and dashing her hopes for ever having a different life; the beatings, careful to bruise only in places the buyers wouldn't see in the main chamber, delivered for such things as pride or not bringing in enough money; the laying out of the corpses of her sister-whores on the kitchen table after their deaths from disease or ill-use before the short trip to the crossroads; enough pain had filled these walls that they should be bleeding.

And they would.

Virginia drew herself together, reminding herself that she was no longer what she had once been. There was only one master in this house now, and it was she. She retraced her steps, still going unnoticed by keeping to shadows with the ease of a predator, and returned to the main door, throwing the long wooden beam that Martin used as a lock into its slats, and then, with a resounding slam, driving a dagger deeply into the door, trapping the bolt in place.

The sound at last drew the attention of the others, as she had meant it to. The noises from the inner chamber halted, and she could hear Martin making stupid apologies to the men, saying that their servant was feeling ill, although they all knew no such person existed, and therefore he himself would have to mind the door this eve.

"Indeed, whoever it is, he must have great need of company to knock so loud, aye lads?" he said in a laugh, getting noisily to his feet.

Virginia headed him off swiftly, appearing at the entrance to the main chamber before he was halfway across the room. She stood silhouetted against the darkness, her plain brown dress doing very little to make her anything other than a goddess. Helen stared at her from her perch on one of the worn chairs, gaping.

"Venus," Martin whispered, almost awe-struck. "I knew ye'd be back."

"And indeed I am, Martin," she said, walking further into the room, looking from one face to another. Gwen was there still, her knife scar hidden beneath her dress's long sleeves except for the tip on the back of her hand, but beside her, there were no others she recognized. "What has become of Dinah?"

"She is upstairs already, entertainin' a lusty young lad," he said with a smile. "I'd speak with ye in the hall, girl."

"Truly?" she said, raising an eyebrow and running a finger through the filth on the mantelpiece, flicking it away in disgust. "Why not say what needs saying in the open?"

Martin snorted quietly, then seemed to think the idea had merit. It would show the others who was master in his house. He'd borne the indignity of two of his girls leaving him and making better lives on their own than with him, and the insults and jibes thrown at him had barely abated over the years. Now was his chance to get his own back.

"Fine then, baggage," he said, drawing himself up to his full height. "Tis better done in the open at any rate. Ye've returned after straying, thinkin' ye had even the smallest chance of survivin' after ye left my doors. Jane paid for that stupidity with her death, which is on yer head."

"I see," she said, looking at him steadily.

"And I'll not have ye back here save by my own rules, which ye must follow to the letter or else ye'll wish the streets were yer home again."

"What would these rules be?" she asked conversationally.

Martin's face bloomed in fury. She wasn't begging. She wasn't cowed. But he knew she wouldn't be back here unless she had no other choice, that she was so broken she had to return. Virginia saw the light dawn in his eyes, a cold light that said he believed he had called her bluff.

"Ye need not act high and mighty with us, goddess," he said, grinning maliciously. "I'll show ye pity, let ye back in the best home ye've ever had or will have, but at a cost."

She tipped her head politely, "Why, most kind of you, good sir, to have pity on the weak."

"More than ye deserve," he said, nodding at his own kindness. "But ye need to be shown yer place. Yer to obey, perfectly and without question."

"Obedience is a goodly virtue," she said, gazing back at him levelly.

"Tis well," he said, though his expression faltered a bit. Something didn't feel right. "Then I declare a festival this night!"

The men cried out in drunkenly happy voices, and Virginia stood in their midst, not moving, watching Martin.

"In celebration of our dear Venus returnin' home, and to show her hospitality to those who pay for her bread, I order her to lie with as many of ye as wish it, with no charge for this one night!"

The men blinked at this. Martin was not in the habit of generosity, and it took a moment for this thought to slip in completely, but when it did, the cheering shook the ceiling.

"Martin," she said quietly, but in a voice that seemed to pierce through the very walls, "ye're trying to teach me humility."

"Humility is precisely the lesson," he said, seeming satisfied. "Now, how do ye feel on that?"

Virginia smiled honey-sweet at him. "I believe I shall find my evening with all of ye most pleasant," she replied with a curtsy.

Martin raised his eyebrows in surprise. "Oh? Well, now, that's a good answer from ye, wench."

"Whom shall I take first?" she asked, her eyes sweeping over the room hungrily.

"Let's start with dear Sir Atherton," said Martin, gesturing towards a middle-aged man with a protruding belly who was practically salivating.

"Oh, do let's," she said pleasantly, smiling widely at the rather repulsive-looking figure. "I've a taste for him."

She offered the man her hand and led him up the stairs towards the rooms, which at this time were almost all unoccupied as yet. She ushered him into the nearest one, which had once belonged to Jane, and slammed the door behind her.

He never had the chance to scream.

Seconds later, the door opened again, and Virginia exited, looking refreshed. Sir Atherton, however, did not reappear.

"Martin," she called gaily down the stairs, her steps echoing lightly through the house, "Sir Atherton hath fallen full asleep! Send up to me one more able and less in his cups!"

Martin stared at her from below, her face at the top of the staircase smiling almost benignly at him, and Virginia saw a flash of some sort of suspicion in his eyes, but it was quickly locked away. She knew well enough what he was thinking, what he saw: nothing but a whore. Nothing but one he could control. She had to hide her hands behind her skirts to keep him from seeing them tremble with an entirely different sort of lust than the kind he pretended to inspire.

A young man was sent to her next, and he nearly spoiled the game by catching sight of Sir Atherton's neck hanging at in impossible angle and screaming in a high-pitched key. Virginia gripped him tightly by the throat, and the quick yank and pop of his spine breaking made the note die away on his lips. She smiled and gave the dead lips a soft bite, mockery of a kiss, then deposited him beside Sir Atherton on the bed.

The noise had brought an unforeseen consequence, though, in the form of a knock on the door.

"What has happened?" asked a familiar voice on the other side, and Virginia smiled in satisfaction.

"Why nothing at all, dear Dinah," she replied, knowing the sound of her voice would startle the other woman.

As she could have predicted, the door swung open with a vengeance, and Dinah, her face alight with a kind of savage fury, glared at her from the entrance.

"What in hell's name brings the likes of you back here?" she snarled, having no eyes but for the woman in front of her. "Hath Martin taken you back like the sniveling bit of dun you are? You've faded, goddess. Not so pretty as you once were."

"Indeed," she said, taking in Dinah's too-thin face, wasted from illness, her graying hair, and the lines that webbed her face. "And you are so well preserved."

"Shut your mouth, slut," she growled. "Get you gone. You're not wanted here."

"No?" Virginia said with a pout. "How sad."

"Sad but only right," she began, "when you are the most… worthless… thing… ever to… what hath happened to Sir Atherton?" she said, suddenly noticing the body.

"I killed him," she said simply. "That one too. He was much prettier, but you know that doesn't matter to a whore really."

"Killed?" she said, stunned. "But how could?"

"Dinah," Virginia interrupted her as she was suddenly far too close to her face, "I always found you a terrible bore."

As the other woman opened her mouth to scream, Virginia stuck her fist into it, taking a moment to smell the sweet scent of terror pouring from her before ripping her throat out.

"Tis a pity," she said with a sigh as she put her on the bed with the other three. "One can only kill her once. Still, a goodly mouthful she was."

"Is all to rights, Venus?" Martin called from the hall.

"Indeed so," she responded, mimicking the ragged breath that should be happening by now if she were doing as she was supposed to be. "This one is much more enthusiastic than the other is all."

His footfalls grew dimmer, and she laughed quietly. By the time the next came to her, she drank so deeply that he was dead with amazing speed. She knew that by now Martin must suspect something unless he was drunker than usual. With a shrug, she took the most recent victim and placed him softly beside the other three, then walked through the door and down the stairs, coming to the main chamber again.

"I am growing weary with these," she said to Martin, and the room became quiet. "There is no spice to them. It is thou I want, no other. Well, mayhaps a few others in addition, but thou most of all."

Martin's face screwed itself into a mask of uncomprehending stupidity for a moment, then pure shock lit his features.

"No," he said with an odd certainty. "No, you don't. I know ye and yer kind well enough. Ye do naught for naught, and ye hate me, as it should be."

"Ah, but Martin, I do want thee," Virginia said, coming closer to him. The other men in the room were oddly silent. All knew something was wrong with this picture. "Shall I strip for thee before these? I am naught but thy mule, thy horse, thy animal to do with as thou wilt, as thou toldest me oft when I lived here, is it not so? I am not to have thoughts or desires of mine own save if they agree with what thou wish, yes?"

Firelight from the hearth flickered over the forms in the rooms, touching them with lambent swirls of light and making the woman speaking, though slight of frame, appear strangely forbidding and even dangerous. Martin stared at her, wondering what plan lurked behind the pretty blue eyes that seemed to smile at him placidly, even benevolently, from her face. Something lurked beneath them, but he wasn't about to give up yet.

"Fine then," he said, deciding to take the only course of action he had ever seen fit with his whores: stubborn firmness. "Would the lot of you like to give eyes to a performance of our lovely Venus's?"

The other prostitutes looked from one to the other in confusion, even mild alarm, but the men seemed to come to the conclusion that old Martin had things well in hand, and if he said all was well, so it would be. Virginia, in the meantime, had deftly slid her dress from her body in a single movement, and before anyone could mark what she had begun to do, she stood entirely naked in the red-gold light of the fire. She was exquisitely beautiful, but an aura of the diabolical seemed to lick over her skin as she stood framed by the flames.

"Twas how thou wished me to be sold that first time, aye?" she said. "Stripped to the skin like a horse at market, forced to display myself for the pleasure of the men, but most of all, so that all would know what Martin owned, body and soul."

"Should have done it," he replied, eyes raking her hungrily. "Twould have brought e'en more gold, and twould perhaps have broken ye better."

"Perhaps," she said, "but Martin, dost know what the difference is twixt that and this?"

"None at all," he said firmly.

"Oh, but there is," she said, smiling more widely. "It was thou who would have had the control then, but now, it is I who hold destinies in my hand."

"Do ye now, baggage," he said, laughing. "And how is that so? I can not think how you could be less in power than you are now, stripped before an entire room of men as my trophy."

"Martin, dear Martin," Virginia replied, "A fool unto the end."

Her features began to ripple strangely in the light, and Martin could barely take in a breath as he watched a change come over her face first, leaving her lined almost as in old age, but in a way no mortal had ever been marked. The gargoyles that bordered the churches of London were the only other things he had ever seen that looked like they could be her kin. Veins of blue spread over the skin of her breasts and stomach, down her legs, and her coloring turned ashen.

"Dost thou not like thy goddess?" she asked through teeth so long they brushed her lips. "I am as thou made me. Am I not a pretty lass?"

The room remained in dead silence for less than a heartbeat, and then hell itself broke loose. Virginia gripped the throat of a pretty young wench close to her, and with one hand tore her head from her neck, letting the body topple to the ground. Men and prostitutes alike rushed for the doors, only to find them impassable, and screams lit the air like fire.

It was over soon, far sooner than Virginia had thought possible. Fifteen men, some she had drunk from and others she had torn asunder like a ravening lion, littered the corridors and chambers of the leaping house. The prostitutes she had killed as well, letting their bodies fall as they would and sparing no thought of pity that it was once she in their place, unless she thought it pity to end their existence. Martin, however, she had left alive until the last. He had barricaded himself in his small office with his gold, and the sounds of carnage drifted through the thin walls, making his puffy face grow as white as her own.

She had savored the flavor of his fear for a long minute outside the door before tearing it off its hinges and letting it fall with a resounding crash.

"Let's not bother with begging, shall we?" she said as she threw him from her. "Oh, well, perhaps a bit of begging would be sweet. How well can you beg, Martin? As well as girl who came to you on the eve of her sixteenth birthday, starved and frozen? Will it move me to pity, think you?"

"Please!" he screamed on his knees. "Mercy!"

"That is a pretty tune," she said, reaching out a hand to caress his hair as he shuddered on the ground before her, holding his head to her naked thigh for a moment in a gesture that seemed almost protective, "But I was never given mercy, so I have none to spare."

She wrenched him to his feet and sank her teeth savagely into his throat, drinking so quickly she nearly choked, forcing him to flood her until the screams died away and there was nothing left but an empty husk in her hands.

The leaping house had sixteen rooms. When morning dawned and the neighboring tavern owners and brothel runners discovered what had happened, Martin was found dead in all of them.

When Virginia had returned that morning and told this tale to the Master, he had smiled again, declaring her to be one of the most diverting amusements he had ever encountered in his long years, but scolding her for coming home naked as the wind.

All this, though, was but a prelude to what Virginia had yet to come. Dear Lady Worthshire was to be her next visit, and she had planned a most delightful evening for herself. After conferring with Deidre, it was decided that Lady Alice was to be one of the thirteen at the next gathering at the Abyss. On this night, she went to lay claim to the one who had, so far as she was concerned, begun this so long ago.

Virginia's arms and legs tingled with power as she strode down the well-remembered street. The scene was playing out on a loop over and over in her mind: the sweetness of her dear aunt's fear, the taste of blood, the expression her eyes would hold as she slipped into the fire of the abyss, knowing that the child she had wanted dead was now had the power to do whatever she pleased, even destroy her. Virginia smiled with a feeling of wild elation unparalleled even in her torment of Martin.

The only cause for concern was how she would be invited into the house itself. She had planned to perhaps bribe a servant, but when she reached the front door, she found it open. Blinking in astonishment, she noticed a small throng of people wandering about the main hall, the smell of food, but none of the noise and music of a festival. A horrible thought clung to her mind, but she refused to allow it to grow. Taking a deep breath, she put her toe across the threshold and found no barrier to stop her. Her heart fell to her feet.

Moving swiftly yet still blending with the humans, she went up the stairs she had known so well in childhood that she could walk them blindfolded, past the hated portrait of her uncle, up to the rooms that Lady Alice inhabited.

Her aunt lay there on the bed, eyes closed, a faint smell of decay already beginning to haunt the room. She knew that stench well enough, had been the cause of it countless times already.

Virginia clutched her hands at her sides, her jaw tight as drum. It wasn't possible. It simply wasn't possible after all that had happened, all that she had suffered, all the waiting and planning and savoring and dreaming of what was to come, that Lady Worthshire had managed to escape her in the only way possible. She was dead, sleeping peacefully, never to have her screams mingle with the vapors of fire in the pit, not to see her little slut of an Abby, her whore niece, drop her into the Chasm as lightly as pebble and watch her burn.

Virginia's hand traced the cold cheekbone. Her aunt had remained a handsome woman even as she aged, though her face was not so perfect as it had once been. Her hair was flecked with silver, but in the candlelight it made it appear to shine brighter. The flawlessly white hands of the corpse were quietly folded over her breast, the image of an angel of piety and kindness. Her portrait could have hung in church. Virginia knew she had no compulsion to breath, but she found herself on the edge of hyperventilating, and one of the mourners brought a chair.

"She died at dawn this day," the faceless man said. "Twas peaceful and swift, if that be comfort to thee. We bury the lady on the morrow."

She stared at the man, then quietly rose and walked away, past the chamber where she had caught pretty young Millicent rutting with the wrong man, down the stairs, and silently into the streets, leaving the house behind her forever. She wandered aimlessly, not hunting but drifting like a wraith, her walking slowly beginning to increase in speed until she was at a run, the buildings of London a blur to her vision, uncaring who saw her impossible abilities or what might befall her for it.

Virginia returned to Master's court so late that the light of dawn had begun to prickle her skin. She had raced back through the labyrinthine paths until she reached her own chambers, then slammed the door behind her, the hinges nearly breaking in protest. She began to pace frantically, almost as though she had gone out of her mind, then threw herself against the wall and began to pummel it fiercely, the stone staining red from her blood as her fists rained down on it faster and faster, like the galloping of hooves. She cared not at all for the pain, the biting, sharp agony of smashing bone and pulped muscle, and a cry sprang from her throat, unearthly as the wailing of wolves but filled with an anguish so horrifying it was like listening to the screams of the damned in hell.

The door burst open, and Deidre came in, pulling her away from the wall with difficulty and holding her down on the bed as Virginia continued to scream. Two minions appeared fearfully at the door, and Deidre yelled to them.

"Bring the Master!"

They disappeared at once, and she continued to try to control the flailing, bleeding, crazed demon beneath her hands. Faster than she would have thought possible, the Master entered the room, a look of consternation on his ancient face.

"What the hell?" he asked.

"I'd be after knowin' the same thing, Master," Deidre said in as polite a voice as she could manage while Virginia continued to claw frantically at the bedclothes.

"Leave us," he said in a perfectly even voice, and Deidre, not the least bit unhappy to have permission to get out, left in a blink.

Virginia continued tearing the mattress and herself to shreds as the Master walked steadily towards her, then sat on the floor beside the bed.

"You will calm yourself, childe," he said, again in a tone so still it sounded like the quiet before a snake would strike.

Virginia heard the command, and while her demon raged on, wanting to destroy, to maim, anything, anyone, herself, the room, the Master himself, she managed to open her eyes with a loud, gasping breath. Her shaking was as horrible as it had been, but she looked more human than animal.

With a strangled cry, she threw herself around his neck, sobbing uncontrollably, coiling her legs around him as though she would have liked to simply crawl inside him.

"Hush," he said softly, gently rocking the bleeding, weeping form in his arms like a human child. "Nothing could erase what was, not even that. Hush, sweet childe. Hush."

At mid-morning, the minion Deirdre had sent back to Virginia's chamber to find out the end of the scene looked in the doorway to see their Master still sitting on the floor with his childe on his lap, now wrapped in a tattered blanket, as he quietly sang of nightingales and darkened valleys and stroked her hair.