Thursday, June 24, 2100 – 11:30 p.m.

"The first step towards vice is to shroud innocent actions in mystery, and whoever likes to conceal something sooner or later has reason to conceal it."Jean Jacques Rousseau

"It's a church," Carrie finally said, turning toward Blackwell and shrugging her shoulders. "I don't see anything special about it."

"Are you sure?" Blackwell asked. She watched her childe closely, hoping for the telltale glance down and to the right that meant Carrie thought she knew the answer, but was simply uncertain. It wasn't there. It was bad enough when Carrie lacked confidence, but failing to meet simple expectations was frustrating.

Decades earlier, Blackwell would never have imagined embracing a childe like Carrie – she had a model's height, approaching six feet, but by any other subjective measure she was plain. Average. Ordinary. Her long hair, hastily pulled back in a ponytail, was thick but an unimpressive, dull brown that matched her eyes; her sturdy frame, well suited for a life of manual labor, was the polar opposite of Blackwell's delicate features; and, worst of all (at least the way Blackwell would have viewed her childe when she was young, herself), Carrie walked like a truck driver. But while Carrie's smile, marred by two crooked teeth that could have been fixed with routine orthodontia before civilization fell, would never be described as beautiful, she had a devil may care grin that came out to play whenever things got rough.

That smile was on full display the first night Blackwell had seen her. Carrie had been working late in her father's garage, and three late-night visitors came in looking for money and a good time. When Blackwell arrived, drawn by the muffled screams and unmistakable sound of struggle, a bruised, disheveled Carrie was standing above three would-be rapists, holding a bloody wrench in one hand while the other brushed her hair out of her face, revealing an expression that Blackwell hadn't seen since she'd lost her companion so many years earlier.

In a perfect world, Carrie would be beautiful, brilliant, and in all ways exceptional. But in this world, Blackwell contented herself with the knowledge that, with all her mediocrity, Carrie was nothing less than a force of nature when things went to shit. Blackwell had given Carrie two weeks to heal the injuries from the fight, and then made her own late-night visit to the garage. She made a one-time-only offer, and Carrie accepted. Every night since then had been full of lessons, tests, and travel.

"It's a church," Carrie said again. She shrugged her shoulders, practically screaming, Go ahead, tell me what I overlooked this time.

"It's the largest Catholic church in the city," Blackwell explained. "So that makes it one of the places you need to check if you're planning to stay in the city for more than a few days."

"You said you didn't know if we're staying," Carrie replied, "that it depends on whether your friend grows a spine between now and sunrise."

"I didn't put it like that."

"No, I believe your exact words were, 'It all depends on whether Joey can figure out where he put his fucking balls,' " Carrie said. "I don't know the guy, so I was being diplomatic."

"Is that right?"

"I just met the guy," Carrie pointed out. "For all I know he never even had any fucking balls."

Blackwell grinned. "Trust me, he did. More balls than brains, actually. Which is kind of scary, because he's a pretty smart guy when he pulls his head out of his ass."

"Just to check, this guy is your friend, right?" Carrie asked. "Because you've had nicer things to say about people you were planning to kill."

Blackwell only grunted in response, and turned her attention back to the church. "Diversion's over – back to the lesson. I don't want to stay here longer than we have to. What can you tell me about the church?"

"It's St. Michael's, and it's the largest Catholic church in the city," Carrie replied. She grinned slightly, still clearly in the mood for banter. Blackwell's scowl immediately changed that. "I honestly don't know what I'm supposed to see," Carrie said.

"Fine," Blackwell said. At least she admits she doesn't know. I suppose that's something. "Look at the main doors."

"Okay. They're big and red."

"I wasn't finished yet," Blackwell growled. "The main doors are your reference point. Standing on the sidewalk with the doors in front of you, you turn right and walk down the block."

"Toward where we're standing," Carrie said.

"Right," Blackwell replied. "At the first cross-street, you turn left, walk exactly forty-nine feet – that's seven times seven, in case you're keeping track – and look at the curb."

Carrie's eyes followed her sire's directions, and she saw what looked like a dark smudge on the concrete, just a few inches above the street. "Is there something written there? Or drawn?"

"Binoculars," Blackwell instructed. Her own senses had grown so acute over the years that she was able to see the mark clearly under the streetlight.

"It's a circle," Carrie said, looking through the mini-binoculars Blackwell had her carry. "It looks maroon."

"It's orange, actually," Blackwell said. "But in the dark, the streetlight makes it look maroon from this distance. "It's a sign, and it's reasonably fresh."

"A sign for what?"

"El ejército del sol," Blackwell said.

"The army of the sun," Carrie muttered, using the English translation for the group that had originally formed in Argentina. "Holy shit… I didn't even think about that."

"And the last time you thought of them, you probably considered them the good guys," Blackwell said. "If you run into them now, they'll end you."

"I thought they were gone," Carrie said. "They used to have people come to our church when I was a kid. They explained what they did, the things they'd seen, and they asked us for donations. But that hasn't happened for years."

"They're still around," Blackwell told her childe. "As far as I know, most of the hunters' Orders are still around. El ejército was the biggest, but they were just the Catholics. The Orthodox, Baptists, Pentecostals, Jews, and Muslims all had large groups of hunters, too. As our numbers dwindled, and there were fewer trophies to inspire donations, all of the Orders shrank. They still exist, but the ordinary members – usually people who lost a family member and were simply in it for revenge or something – went back to their normal lives. Most of the people who are still left in the Orders now are the Faithful."

"Who are they?"

"They're the real deal," Blackwell explained. "The fire-and-brimstone true believers. Faith is magic, Carrie. I don't know if there's a god, or whether you believe in one, but the Faithful believe so completely that they can stand against us. Between one of them and a cybered hunter, I'll take the cybered guy any day of the week, and twice on Sunday."

Carrie nodded, but didn't add anything to the conversation.

"So if you're planning to stay in a city – especially one this size – check the churches, temples, and mosques before you get too comfortable," Blackwell said. "Look for the symbols that they use to communicate with each other – I'm sure there are plenty I don't know, but I'll teach you the ones that I do – and tread lightly when you know the Orders are around. Always be prepared for the unexpected. Just remember – no matter how well you prepare, you're always gonna be surprised by something. But if you prepare well enough, the surprises probably won't kill you. Understand?"

"Yeah," Carrie said, her voice barely more than a whisper. "I understand."

To be continued…