The penthouse overlooked the glittering streets below. I watched the people walking from storefront to storefront, taking advantage of the cool evening air. Expensive cars cruised past, likely blaring music in an attempt to impress any single females walking by—like a bunch of hairy fishermen running a large trawling net across the ocean floor to pick up some crabs.
Other cars cruised by shining with opulence and elitism, showing off the size of their bank accounts—or the weight of their monthly lease—as they struggled to compete with their uncaring neighbors in the never-ending contest played by most Americans.
I took a sip of my champagne, envying their ignorance. They had no idea that a horde of monsters in tuxedos and dresses was hosting a ritzy party high above their heads, discussing how best to slaughter the humans with impunity. That every single one of the attendees behind me was liable to rip their ignorant human throats out for the slightest offense.
Or just for fun.
And right now, I seemed to be the only one standing between the two parties—between the would-be Lords and their cattle. I grunted at the observation. Then I took another healthy sip of my champagne, hoping to absolve myself of the responsibility for at least a few more minutes. Like any good Catholic, I thought drinking was a sensible coping mechanism.
I sighed wistfully, realizing my glass was now empty. Before I could find some depressing symbolism in that, a waiter with a hint of Asian descent whisked by like a ninja to replace my glass and then slipped away so as not to disturb me too greatly. If he had been one heartbeat slower, I would have told him I preferred the champagne over the rosé he had given me. But I didn’t want to be that girl, so let it go, resigning myself to accept the unasked for new experience with the grace of a lady.
I gasped as the pink alcohol touched my tongue in an explosion of crisp, sweet strawberry. It was shockingly good, much better than the champagne had been. Bastard waiters, able to read into my alcoholic soul without even a word, broadening my horizons with their demon juice.
I shook my head in begrudging appreciation of the posh service. The monsters knew how to throw a party—that was undeniable. The gentle sounds of violins behind me and the smells of the savory food lining the catered tables—raw oysters, lobster bisque, and dozens of other expensive dishes meticulously parceled out into bite-sized samples so as not to stall conversation from the tuxedo and gown wearing crowd—was enough to make a girl momentarily forget about her problems.
I didn’t want to be here, but it was an unfortunate requirement of my recent self-inflicted punishment—a small job I had undertaken. Rather than turning back to the firing squad of socialites, I continued staring through the wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling window before me, envying those fishermen and crabs on the streets far below. That was where I belonged. In the trenches. The front lines—
“Against stupidity, the very Gods Themselves contend in vain,” a voice said from beside me.
I turned to see an exotic beauty studying me over the rim of her champagne flute. She wore a cute little black dress that hung below her knees and her black hair was done up in a perfectly tight bun. She lowered her glass, smirking playfully. Her big brown eyes flicked over the room in a swift assessment, indicating the guests huddled in groups of three or four drinking, talking, and likely making deals.
“Friedrich Schiller?” I asked, surprised to hear someone quote the abstract German poet.
She nodded, giving me an impressed once-over. I wasn’t that familiar with Schiller, but he was a favorite of my mentor, Roland Haviar. It was his favorite way to unwind after a stressful day of slaughtering monsters—seated in his favorite chair, reading Schiller by the fireplace at Abundant Angel Catholic Church. Well, it had been a favorite pastime.
Before he’d become a vampire and been relieved of Shepherd duty for his conflict of interest.
“It may have just begun, but I’m certain it will all be over soon,” the woman added with a playful grin.
“What will all be over soon?” I asked, masking my instinctive trepidation as idle curiosity. Because I was standing in a room full of monsters, thank you very much—none were card-carrying members in my ever so small circle of trust club. Thankfully, the woman’s playful tone appeared to be mocking but authentic, not setting off any rational reason to alert my mental alarm bells that she was really some sociopath casually informing me she had poisoned the buffet tables. But I remained hyper aware just in case. Because paranoia was a card-carrying member in my circle of trust. The bitch hardly ever lied to me.
And one never truly knew what one faced with these types of crowds. And I’d assumed wrong before. Been played by an innocent smile.
Fuck happy, smiling people. That was a good mantra. They were often lying about something.
“Materialism,” the woman replied with an easy shrug, showing off a delicate collarbone. I cocked my head at her answer and used the motion to quickly scan the room full of guests behind us. There was a lot of money represented here, but there was even more power. Magical power of several flavors.
Many of the guests had acquired other forms of power over the years, as well, hedging their bets—whether it was political, monetary, or a vast number of followers. And no one knew every single secret their fellows held up their sleeves. Like a game of poker, they were all bluffing, calling, raising bets, folding, and using social cues to feign ignorance, to mask their true machinations, or to find an advantage—a tell—to capitalize on.
Not a single one of them looked truly happy. Momentarily pleased, yes. But that was it. With all the power at their disposal, I still sensed a frantic desperation in their eyes, and a profound emptiness in their souls.
It was all so…trivial.
But I kept my face blank as I turned back to my new friend, the pretty scholar.
She was beautiful in a fashion, her black dress more professional than alluring. She wore delicate golden bands on her biceps that glittered with semi-precious stones. Her bronze skin seemed to glimmer in the light—likely some kind of lotion to subtly attract wandering eyes. Her face was long and narrow, and her harsh cheekbones stood out in the dim lighting, making it almost impossible not to stare. And her choice in makeup told me she had seen the dreaded smoky eye YouTube video.
“Materialism…” I repeated, neither confirming nor denying I agreed with her comment.
The woman jerked her chin out towards the street below us. “As above, so below,” she said demurely.
“As above, so below. As within, so without…” I quoted. It was one of the seven principles of Hermes, and had been adopted in the Catholic arena, like most clever quotes had over the centuries. Roland had often used the phrase in my weapons training as well as my meditations.
The woman nodded appreciatively, the flash of excitement in her eyes telling me that I was now officially adopted into her nerd-herd where we would change the world with cryptic quotes, one bored college kid at a time. Her plan was flawed, though, because my ability to recognize her quotes was just a coincidence.
She was playing me, knowing more about me than she let on, tossing out specific quotes she knew would be familiar to me—like laying out a trail of small candies to lead me to her gingerbread house of death in the nearby woods.
Paranoia made a girl feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
“As above, so below,” the woman repeated. “They just don’t know it. Everyone competes in this unspoken game to prove how much better they are than their colleagues. Of course, there are different levels to the game…” she said, glancing back at the room around us. “Some more beneficial than others. But no one openly talks about those things. They just dance back and forth, back and forth, side to side, all along for the ride. There should be more to life than this.”
I found myself nodding thoughtfully, wondering what flavor of power I was talking to. Some bored socialite looking for thrills? Or perhaps she was a powerful witch or shifter angling for a crumb of influence in Kansas City.
“You sound like a friend of Dorian Gray,” I told her, taking another sip of my delicious rosé.
She scoffed gently. “Hardly. Different circles.”
I watched her eyes for any sign of deceit, but all I saw was amusement. Dorian seemed to have good relations with the witches through the Hellfire Club parties he hosted, so if she was being honest right now, she likely wasn’t a witch. “I’m sure he would love to meet you. Would you like an introduction?”
“It isn’t necessary…but I wouldn’t turn it down,” she admitted with an interested grin.
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