The Tremere Conclave was familiar and festive. Nights of freedom, won from the world itself. Foualliet, in his usual nonchalant manner, with all interested parties present, made his usual offer for Lindbergh to join House Presidium and gain the corresponding Blood Bond. Lindbergh gave his usual nonchalant refusal, then excused himself, and left the general post-council party. Freedom indeed - if bound by our own rules. Four young magi - among them two familiar faces, Anselm and Johannes - walked past the older magus, and the signs of respect they gave him reminded him of why he'd wished to have no company. Our own freedom.

Lindbergh turned into one of the less lighted corridors, where the merriment would not reach. Tonight he would use his freedom not to celebrate another two years of unlife, and not to meet with the few friends that he'd only got the chance to see at the all-Clan gathering. He would stay in silence, in meditation. He would not have come to the Conclave at all had there not been reports to give. It angered immensely those who wished him dead for their games: the fact that his name appeared, year after year, century after century, in the roster of those who would speak before the Clan. It used to make the magus happy. No longer. Now he was made happy only by peace, even though he would not have thought of it that way. The times when he could wish for peace had long passed.

He did not wish for it, then. And mayhap for this lack of desire, when he heard a hoarse voice come beyond a half-opened door, calling his name, he did not dare to simply walk past, pretending to not have heard.

Even such a simple breach of the rules was not easy for him any longer.

Lindbergh stopped and flung the door open. The man who slumped on the floor in a far corner would have curled into a ball - even the dim light of magical lamps hurt his eyes - but had no strength to.

"L-l-lindberrr... Ai.. Hel..."

A glass bottle lay broken on the floor next to him, and the sour smell of some unknown concoction filled the air.

Lindbergh looked around carefully and, noticing no danger, approached.

"Ethan. What happened?"

"N-n-n-nit..noth.. Well. Willl... Passss. Its-self. S-stay."

The magus lowered himself onto the floor by the alchemist, and Ethan fell heavily into his hands, back first, and stared into the ceiling with unseeing eyes. The alchemist's pupils were red and dilated, and his fangs had lengthened, as if from hunger. The reaction seemed natural to Lindbergh. If the concoction was poison of any kind, the vampiric body would spend blood to try and heal. So the magus held the alchemist firmly with one hand, both supporting and preventing a sudden attack in case the alchemist's Beast gained control, and picked up the shards of the glass with his free hand. It used to hold blood, of course. But what did the blood itself hold?

"Ethan? Anrie Ethan? What did you drink?"

Silence. Lindbergh then risked to give a wayward glance to the memories that should have remained, and strongly at that, on the broken glass.

The images were strong indeed.

...The ice of two dead hands on the yet-intact bottle. One in burns that would not heal without special aid even through blood. Another clad in a white silken glove with gold needlework - the official guise of House Rodolpho, the Diviners' House.

"Master Ethan." Really? Rodolpho himself? The velvet voice that spoke as if into a void even when it gave a name could belong to the first and last House Head only. "Are you truly certain that you want this insight? Our methods take a toll on the psyche."

"I am an alchemist, dear colleague, and all of the results of my Magisterium I test upon myself!" Anrie's voice - changed? Dried out, desperate? A mere few.. No, a few dozens years ago it was so different. Or was it not? "I think your potion could not make a thing worse. And may the immortal, eternally rising from the ashes phoenix be my witness, I have paid more than enough for it!"

And then Ethan's hope and despair mixed with Rodolpho's distant regret, and the diviner relinquished the bottle...

Anrie moaned and started shaking, and the magus was forced to return his mind to Vienna, to the Conclave, to one of its buildings with so many Tremere and so many decisions to make, to one room where a very old acquaintance was losing what remained of his senses.

"Anrie, can you hear me?" Lindbergh spoke, knowing that it was now important to just speak, to be guiding light and Ariadna's thread, to help his colleague pass out of the murky waters of vision. "Anrie Ethan, colleague, magus, alchemist of House Aurum..."

At the last, the alchemist arched his back and cried out, but soon fell limp again. Tears of blood flew in rivulets from his open eyes.

"Ethan!" Lindbergh raised his voice a half-tone. "Alchemist of House and Clan Tremere! What do you.."

"To the Devil! To God! To the Devil and all Angels!" Suddenly cried Ethan, and twisted to grope at Lindbergh's shoulders. Unseeing pupils rolled back and forth uncontrollably: the potion was working. "May the Devil take all alchemy! What am I.. What could I? What we are? I.. What are we!

"Anrie, what do you see?"

"SEE!" Always naturally high, now the alchemist's voice rose to a screech. "Lindbergh! You knew it at the very beginning, when we were young? Why did you not tell me then? Why did you not convince me? Why did you lie, you had known then, you had known!"

"Shh. Quiet," Lindbergh knew that if he wished to retain a hold on the alchemist, he would not be able to reach the spell component that would prevent Frenzy. But this was unlike the threshold of Frenzy. The alchemist's despair was so human that even the Beast seemed to hide from these feelings. "What had I known?"

Anrie bawled. This was the first time Lindbergh had seen such behavior in a Kindred over six hundred years old. "Th-that all I am doing... Is useless, senseless, false and untrue! How, how could I have been so blind? How could you, having perfectly good sight, not enlighten me? Why?"

"Why I did not tell you that all you do is senseless?"

"Yes!"

"But I do not know," Lindbergh said softly. "I do not know what you do, I have never taken much interest in alchemy..."

"Lies! It is what makes us ourselves, what we are? Yet what ARE we, Lindbergh! This you had known!"

"We?"

Anrie raised his head and let go of the magus, then slumped against the wall, and closed his eyes. The flow of tears ended as suddenly as it had begun, and the magus soon began speaking much more evenly.

"One can make gold of lead. That is true, yes?"

"And if not gold, then silver." Lindbergh smiled. "Your ritual saved my chantry, remember? The werewolves..."

"That is nothing." Anrie cut the magus off. "But gold can be made from lead, do you understand? A human can be made the perfect human being. And a vampire... Could be made into some other, better, higher creature. Is that so?"

"Anrie, I am not an alchemist."

"It is not so. Not so." Anrie's voice fell to a whisper. "Understand, Lindbergh... I wished to see our place in the Magisterium. I had done everything, gone through all the internal preparations - years of work - and I looked, and took this thrice, septem-cursed elixir from Rodolpho, and I saw... We... Lindbergh, the magisterium of gold has a place where it is very important to watch the black foam as strictly as possible."

"Black foam?"

"That is dirt. All of the dirt that ails the sick metal... It needs to be removed, always removed, for otherwise there will be no magisterium. Lindbergh?"

"Yes?"

"We are that foam."

The alchemist fell silent, having choked on his words, and raised his hands to his throat, as if wishing to either strangle himself or to push the unruly words out. Lindbergh carefully took his hands and lowered them, and they fell, strength lost.

"Tell me what foam means."

"We... Lindbergh, we are not even the material. We are the waste, something that needs to be removed from someone else's Great Work. We are a phase without which there will be no Philosopher's Stone, bu we... We will not see it, not ever. There will be a transmutation in the history of the world, should the Great Alchemist desire it. But not for us. We will be carefully removed with a wooden spoon and thrown away, useless, unnecessary, dirty. Having become vampires, we are now less than nothing. Why, why did we do it? Who visited this fate upon us? It is unfair, unjust? Why us?"

Lindbergh was silent. Words were less than nothing, as well. Ethan, too, kept his silence. Only after minutes had passed, he said bitterly, "I shall never see my dream."

"Who knows." Lindbergh replied evenly.

"I will never become..."

"Who knows."

"I... Lindbergh, you, you had known from the very beginning." Anrie opened his eyes, and now they held consciousness, and not the gush of a vision. "I now understand all that you have said about the magic of human mages, of the magic of the Tremere. This came together into one puzzle, a single trap. Why did you not refuse to participate in this blasphemy?"

"Back then?"

"W-well... Yes, back then?"

"I wanted revenge. I failed at exacting it."

"That's how it is, then... You wanted to kill us?"

"Not you all personally. With the notable exception of Louis."

"But so this filth would not exist?"

"Yes."

"And?"

Lindbergh was silent. And then he replied, "I know not, Ethan. Even now, I do not know. Something is happening, as you have said. A Magisterium. I want to see it, even if this is the price. It has already been exacted from me regardless."

"And even though you are mere useless filth yourself?"

The former mage shrugged. "Let it be so, then. I wish to burn in a great pyre."

Anrie shook his head sadly. "And I do not wish that. I wish to live, and for it to be life. And I do not know how I shall live on."

"Forgive me, Anrie. I cannot help you."

"I understand." The alchemist nodded sharply and got up, holding to the wall. "I know enough to understand that no one can help anyone in this. You have done enough for me. I an in your debt."

"No. I have repaid you the debt of my first nights." Lindbergh, too, got up. "Where are you staying for the day?"

"I will make it there on my own, Lindbergh, but thank you."

"Very well."

And the alchemist staggered out of the room. Yet he did not turn, and did not call for aid.

Lindbergh then collected the broken glass and went to his own resting place. Sunrise was approaching and his heart was heavy.