The security guards were expecting us, apparently. They waved us in without question, without even searching us. I was almost disappointed.
The actual party was downstairs, underground. I could feel the wards parting around us as we went down into the belly of the beast, one after another. There were some impressively strong ones, easily as strong as anything on my house. I wouldn’t have liked to be the one assaulting this place with the defenses up. But at the moment they weren’t active, and we passed through without any trouble.
I could hear the music, as we started getting closer. It was dance music, fast-paced electronica with lots of synthesizers and a pounding bassline. It was loud, too; as we started getting closer to the party it got to be almost painfully loud, and I started wishing I’d brought earplugs.
The stairs ended at a heavy steel door with another pair of security thugs watching it. This pair looked a little more serious than those aboveground, openly carrying assault rifles and wearing body armor. One of them looked at us in a way that suggested he’d be glad for the excuse to do something and break up the monotony of his day, but they didn’t actually stop us. One of them opened the door and waved us inside, and we walked into the party like we owned the place.
We’d showed up exactly on time, but the party was already in full swing when we walked in. Not a surprise, exactly, but I hadn’t wanted to come to early. That was something that could easily be seen as rude.
The room was dim. That wasn’t a surprise; this wasn’t the sort of place that was brightly lit. I’d expected that. What I hadn’t expected was how it was dim. I was used to the people I dealt with being somewhat old-fashioned, and I’d sort of assumed that Lucius would be similar, since in my experience you didn’t get to be that powerful without being at least mildly ancient. Thus, I’d somewhat naively been expecting lanterns and candles, or magical light.
What I got instead was strobes and black lights. The result was a room that was barely bright enough for me to see, but the light was inconsistent. It was a good thing I didn’t have epilepsy, because the intense colors and flashing lights were already giving me a headache. The walls were mirrored, creating an illusion of space and making the lighting even crazier than it would have been otherwise. It didn’t help that they were set to a rhythm totally distinct to that of the music, and trying to reconcile the two was a constant irritation.
The second thing that caught me by surprise was how many humans there were. Almost half the people in the room seemed to be normal humans, dressed for a night of clubbing. Most of them seemed to be in their teens or early twenties, and they looked like locals, although a handful were Asian or European in appearance.
A lot of them were probably something else. I was guessing some of them were vampires, or one of the many, many other things that could look a human being. Some of them were probably mages. But most of them looked and smelled human, and I wasn’t all that easy to fool about that.
It wasn’t hard to figure out why a vampire would have so many humans at his party—especially not humans like this. They were young, attractive in one way or another, mostly dressed in either very little or a whole lot of the kind of clothing that looked more naked than nothing at all. More than anything, they looked vulnerable.
They were food. And a lot of them knew it, too. Not all—some looked blissfully ignorant of their role here. But at least half clearly weren’t so innocent. Roughly half of that group looked scared, while the other half looked like kids waiting while the adults finished their dinner so that they could have dessert.
The unsettling thing about it, though, was how normal it all looked. At a glance, you could have mistaken this for any slightly edgy but basically harmless party. It wasn’t until you looked closer that the wrongness became apparent. The figures moving through the crowd with the smooth grace of predators, eyeing people with a hunger more literal than what most people were accustomed to seeing in such a setting. The way that a sizable proportion of the humans here were tagged in one way or another, marked as property—wearing collars, or colored armbands, or in one case actually branded with a set of initials. The people lying in the shadows at the edge of the room, unconscious or dead. The way that the guards were letting people in, but nobody was really leaving.
I could easily picture some poor sap wandering in here, and not realizing until too late just what this place was. There was one born every minute, after all.
“Oh,” Aiko said, pausing just inside the door. “Fun. It’s been a while since I went to this sort of party.”
“I never have,” I said, looking around suspiciously. I had to shout to be heard over the music, and the lightshow was already getting a bit disorienting. I could smell smoke and various chemicals, and I was willing to bet that only a fraction were anything like legal.
“Of course you haven’t,” Aiko said, patting my arm. “It’s adorable how innocent you are. Hang on, I’m going to get us something.”
She skipped over to one of the humans who looked more at home here, and who was surrounded by a small crowd. A minute or so later, she came back with a pair of blank white pills and a paper cup of water, and handed one of the pills to me.
“What is this?” I asked, looking at it curiously.
“Special K,” she said happily.
I eyed her. “Aiko….”
“That dosage of ketamine won’t do a thing to someone with your metabolism,” she said, much more quietly and in a deadly serious tone. “But it will make you look like you belong here. As it is some of the wrong people are starting to pay attention to us, and believe me when I say that you do not want to attract that kind of attention.”
“You’re sure it’s harmless?” I asked, similarly quietly.
“Under the circumstances, yes,” she said. “It takes a ridiculous amount of that stuff to get a werewolf dopey. Just don’t take any other pills. Some of the things here like their meals seriously fucked up, and you don’t know how to tell the difference between the safe stuff and things even you don’t want to touch.”
“Your skills never cease to amaze,” I muttered, swallowing the pill. I didn’t bother with the water.
“I do my best,” she said, swallowing her own.
“So what about you? Do I have to worry about you passing out?”
“Kitsune aren’t susceptible to ketamine,” she said. “That’s why I picked it. Now laugh and grab my hand. Try to look nervous. We’re playing you up as the nervous newbie going to his first party with an experienced friend.”
I did what she told me, though the laughter was a bit forced. That was probably not a bad thing, really. “Are you sure this is necessary?” I asked, under my breath. “Lucius guaranteed our safety, remember?”
“That was before I knew what kind of party this was,” she said, tugging me forward. “Standards are different here. You can get away with a lot before it starts falling under definitions of harm. Speaking of, though, we should go and find him. Come on.”
I followed along somewhat bemusedly as she pulled me through the crowd. We passed several vampires, a yuki-onna in her shroud of icy fog, two unnaturally perfect figures that smelled the same as the succubus who’d been with Lucius last time, and a rakshasa. None of them said or did anything to us, although a couple looked at us in disturbingly appraising ways as we passed.
On the way through, I heard some of the most bizarre and disturbing snatches of overheard conversation I’d ever encountered—a pretty impressive claim, really, all things considered. A few of the marked humans were discussing the relative technique of several different vampires in strangely matter-of-fact tones. One of them mentioned having never experienced a yuki-onna’s touch, and another raved about the peaceful feeling she’d had with one before when she was on the verge of losing consciousness from hypothermia.
The strange thing about it, though, was that I really wasn’t sure how much of their attitude was genuine. I was sure that they were encouraged to present themselves that way, but I got the impression that their enthusiasm wasn’t entirely a lie. And if not, how much of it was because the creatures here had trained them to feel that way, and how much was that they’d deliberately preyed on those who were already susceptible?
Either way, there was something profoundly disturbing about people who were being eaten alive piece by piece, and knew it, and willingly came back for more.
The bar was on the other side of the room, lit with a particularly intense blue-violet strobe. The bartender was a tall, bald human man with a prominently displayed violet cloth around his arm. I’d seen several other humans with that particular marker, now that I thought about it, and they hadn’t been being hassled by anyone. No wonder, if that indicated a house employee. They might just be humans in a crowd of far more dangerous things, but they were humans with Lucius’s favor. That was the kind of thing that you didn’t ignore lightly.
“I’m looking for the boss,” Aiko said, elbowing her way through the crowd around the bar and pulling me along in her wake. “He’s expecting us.”
“Don’t know what you’re talking about,” the bartender said, mixing another drink. It fumed, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to know why.
“Talking about Lucius,” Aiko said impatiently.
The effect of that name was pretty dramatic. The bartender practically dropped the drink he was mixing, and the vampire that had been about six seconds from getting my fist in his face found something else to be interested in.
“You aren’t one of the rabble, are you?” the bartender asked.
“Bingo,” Aiko said. “Now come on, time is money. Who do I need to talk to make things happen?”
“That would be me,” a rakshasa said, stepping up next to her. “I thought I recognized you, but I wasn’t sure. You hang around with the man that killed my brother. If I can’t get my revenge on him for that, you’ll do.”
He started to reach for her. I didn’t wait to see what he was going to do before I stepped up behind him. I grabbed his hair with one hand and shoved a knife into his back with the other—not enough to kill, or even really wound, just enough to make him really aware of my presence.
“I’m almost insulted,” I said. “I get that I look different when I’m not wearing the armor, but you could at least have noticed that she wasn’t alone.”
“Neither am I,” he said, sounding surprisingly happy for someone with a knife in his back.
“Yeah,” I said. “I know. If your friends decide to start something, I can finish it. Now listen, because I’m only going to say this once. The tip of this knife is about a quarter of an inch from your spine. It didn’t have to stop there. It doesn’t have to stop there. The only reason I haven’t already killed you is out of respect for our host. Speaking of, where should I go to chat with him?”
The bartender looked at me, then shrugged. “I’ll let him know you’re here,” he said.