“Abashed the devil stood and felt how awful goodness is and saw Virtue in her shape how lovely: and pined his loss”― John Milton, Paradise Lost
The Vlad who woke up after being suspended in a terrifying blankness felt both gratitude and confusion. Confusion because he groped around blindly for the thread of a thought that would lead him back into his undead life. Gratitude after he found that thread and pulled on it, climbing painful inch by painful inch back to the surface.
He shifted slightly, and then bit down to silence a groan at the feeling of his bones grinding together. He kept his eyes closed, assessing his surroundings. Light conversation filtered in and his brain scrambled to make sense of the voices.
He heard Caleb, which put him somewhat at ease.
Vlad didn’t move.
“I think we can dispense with the code word don’t you? You don’t listen to me about anything else, especially not running off into the night after some random sim you barely know, so following this rule seems arbitrary.”
“Alice?” Vlad hissed, sitting up, frantically scanning the room. He knew he was in the hotel, could recognize the room by scent even before he opened his eyes. But he had no idea how he had ended up back in his bed or what had become of Alice “Not madame” Martin.
Caleb stood nonchalantly at the foot of the bed while a witch in hooded sweatshirt eyed Vlad warily. Vlad, who felt as if he were being held together by a thin film of tendons stretched beyond capacity, held Caleb’s gaze and tried to assert some level of his old control.
He was a king wasn’t he? Even if he felt like a dead one.
“Alice.” he repeated, making it a statement rather than a question.
“Would you like to talk about the war you nearly started with Contessa Arcadia? Or the vampires you slaughtered? Maybe the reports of a demon stalking the streets of San Myshuno last night?” Caleb asked, his tone deceptively bored.
War? Contessa? Vlad had torn through her territory, that was true. And it was, perhaps, a bit…imprudent. But it hadn’t felt imprudent at the time. It felt…necessary. And yet, he couldn’t explain the creature he had faced or why Alice Martin had warranted freeing the darkness he kept swirling inside him.
Was it all for nothing?
No, Caleb wouldn’t be so calm if Alice were dead. He liked mortals. Enjoyed sims, even. He’d…he’d…
Vlad struggled to bring his mind back to the present. “Alice,” he rasped, his voice hoarse. “I was following her and—”
“Alice is fine,” Caleb sighed. He turned to the witch, “Thank you, your payment will be deposited by noon tomorrow.”
Payment? Noon? Alice was…fine? Vlad stood, giving the witch a dangerous look which he was in no position to follow up on. He was so thirsty he could barely think. His legs were shaking from the pain radiating down his spine.
What was going on?
He growled anyway, determined not to show an ounce of weakness. “There will be nothing but explanations until I give you leave, witch.”
His back. The creature had broken his back. That was where the pain was coming from.
Caleb folded his arms, “Really? That’s the first thing you want to say? After what we went through to get you—”
The witch silenced Caleb with a swish of her hand. “That creature would have snatched your soul and drug it down to the seventh underworld if we didn’t free you. It took an unbelievable outlay of magic and it cost you in the high six figures, so you’re welcome. And for the record, your reputation precedes you so no, we can’t undo your curse.”
Vlad stared at her like she had grown three heads. Soul? That was definitely a thing he didn’t have anymore.
“And what do you know of creatures from the Underworld?”
The witch gave him a pitying look, turned on her heel and left.
Vlad took a moment to collect himself, resisting the urge to chase after her and demand answers. Caleb would have already questioned her and avoided disaster with Contessa through whatever means it took to clean up the mess.
That feeling of gratitude returned and Vlad, unused to such a thing, almost surprised by it, decided to acquiesce.
When Caleb opened his mouth to add another quip, Vlad held up his hand. “I will save you your tirade, Caleb. You were right to call the witch and, I suspect, about anything else you had to do to make amends with Contessa and keep this under wraps.”
Caleb tried to cover the look of surprise that came over his face but he was not quite fast enough. “Y-Yes. And Alice is fine. She’s been in and out of the hotel all week and is headed to auditions as we speak…”
“Week? I’ve been out for a week?” Vlad cried.
He tried to gather his wits. Alice was safe, auditions were today. He needed to be there to see Alice—Jimena, he corrected himself. He needed to be there to see Jimena.
William strolled into the room, “Aye, sleeping beauty finally wakes?”
“Call a car,” Vlad insisted as he pushed past William and lurched towards the closet. “We’re going to those auditions.”
“Vladislaus, there are a few things you might want to know…“ William called after him.
Admittance into the Underworld requires submitting an abstract for review by an independent panel of demons. Those who try to take a shortcut through the Grim Reaper will find themselves permanently barred. The God of Death is not fucking around about this. – The Book of the Dead, Revised Edition
Alice wiped her palms on her jeans in the dressing room. The SimCity Studio was smaller than she expected. The sims who made the final round of auditions had only been given one large dressing room to get ready in. Mostly, it was chaos with everyone running around trying to put together their outfits together and fix their hair.
She had seen the bespectacled sim from the other night polishing his glasses with an intense fury that made everyone take a step back. Maybe his name was Dylan? Alice couldn’t remember.
She waited until she was the only one left in the dressing room to start getting ready. It meant she had a lot less time than everyone else but if her plan was going to work, she really needed the element of surprise.
Contessa was true to her word. Reynaldo helped Alice with anything she wanted. She and Ben practiced recipes and baking every night from the time the restaurant closed until the first shift started wandering in at 8:30 in the morning. It was an ego-destroying process to be sure.
Alice was a terrible baker.
Reynaldo called her “an unformed thing” which was fair, given the number of eggs Alice went through in a single cookie recipe.
After baking with Reynaldo, she’d take the subway back to the hotel, collapse in her bed and sleep for a few hours before waking up to practice magic with Ben and study more cookbooks.
They managed to find an old abandoned greenhouse in the back of a park where she used her power to create harvestable plants for fresh ingredients.
On the plus side, she hadn’t passed out again. On the minus side, the effects of her powers were still…er…unpredictable.
Another count for the minus side? It left her drained.
Eventually she did get better. The first time she added an egg to a recipe without dropping it or getting eggshells in the batter, she nearly cried. She finally got the hang of it!
Well, mostly got the hang of it.
Contessa insisted that Reynaldo help Alice with a few techniques that advanced pastry chefs used. She still needed a lot more practice so she was saving those moves for later in the competition. Hopefully, in her free time between shooting episodes she could work through Baking Volume 3.
All in all, she couldn’t keep the smile off her face when Reynaldo tasted her sugar cookies and declared her ready.
And she did feel ready! Exhausted, but ready.
She hadn’t seen Vlad even once during the whole week, which, if she was being honest, was a little disappointing. And confusing. Somehow, her fantasy always started with her striking him with a bolt of lightning (turns out, that was a thing she could actually do!)…
…and ended with them kissing, his hands roaming her whole body in a way that made her cheeks warm.
Ben cut into her musing. “Ah, yes, I’ve heard them speak of this during the rose ceremony. It’s a thin line between love and hate.”
Alice rolled her eyes, “I don’t hate him. I don’t even know him. Besides, I don’t need anyone. I mean, maybe I’ll get a quick hookup in Windenburg, end my dry spell. Then after that: poof! Normal Alice. That’s when I’ll worry about love and all that other stuff.”
“What about friends?” Ben asked.
Alice quirked an eyebrow, “You’re my friend. The only one I need. We’re fine! And then, when I win this contest and you get your own body, I’ll go out and find some other sims.”
“Alice…” Ben started.
“What?” Alice snapped, unable to not sound annoyed.
Ben sighed. “…Nothing.”
“You are being so moody. Come on, don’t we have a baking contest to win?”
Alice got up and unzipped the garment bag holding her outfit. “It’s still not enough,” she said, shaking her head.
“Who else knows more about reality tv than you?” Ben asked, his tone challenging.
Alice folded her arms, “You,” she replied with grumpy sigh.
“It is the exact perfect amount,” he said. “Trust me.”
The car ride over was tense. Even after an infusion of plasma, Vlad’s body still felt broken. He insisted Caleb and William start from the beginning with their visit to campus rather than the details of how they found him. He was in no mood to relive his near destruction so soon.
As he nodded along, he realized he could never tell them that at times he felt like another Vlad. One that had walked the realms for millennia not centuries, and had memories, desires and goals that this Vladislaus, the one here and now, hardly recognized.
It made him a liability. It was a weakness, something that would test the loyalty of those closest to him. Loyalty he professed to care nothing about but in truth deeply valued.
And so, even as they talked about the complications presented by the Owl of Undoing—the alien threat, and the specter of some horrible creature controlled by the God of Death—Vlad held his tongue about his concerns and never mentioned how often he found himself on the cusp of a decision based on knowledge that was not his own.
Vlad had rattled them. And though William joked that of course he had gone off the deep end because he didn’t know the first thing about dating, his laugh was a brittle sound.
It did not ease the tension and Vlad tried very hard to stop thinking about the Owl and Alice with equal amounts of fervor.
In the studio, Vlad scanned the stage, his eyes searching even after he identified Jimena. He watched contestant after contestant, gauging their talent and tracking who might prove to be a tough competitor.
There was Deacon Sparacino, the bodybuilder from Sulani. Given his size, Vlad expected him to careen around the kitchen like a bull in a china shop. But much like William, he was a big man who moved with surprising grace.
Dylan Engle, the Ph.D student William was flirting with proved to be an incredibly competent baker. Vlad and Caleb shared a look of amusement when William stepped forward to get a closer look at the stage. Dylan spent so much time prepping his ingredients and preparing for his bake, it seemed like he would never finish on time.
But he did, and the quality was undeniable.
Vlad was less impressed by Giancarlo Sauer, the retired floral arranger from Del Sol Valley. He was spry, but he spent so much time hamming it up and winking at the camera, it was a wonder he got any baking done at all. Though it was not lost on Vlad that Giancarlo wound his way onto the show by flirting with the judge.
Bailee Lunsford, a homemaker and mother of four seemed like she would be the weakest of the bunch but she was a whirlwind of batter and electric mixers. Her wife was so excited that she ran up onstage and dipped Bailee for a kiss.
Even Vlad had to admit she was good, which was infuriating. The best he could hope for is that her relationship became a liability. Maybe she’d get homesick?
Jimena was up after Baillee and unlike the night at the mixer, she was dressed like the quintessential girl next door. Jeans, boots, a striped sweater….she was dressed like…like Alice. Vlad did a double take. He was trying very hard not to examine how unreasonable his feelings for Alice were but as he watched Jimena they came roaring to the surface.
he move was genius, of course. The producers clearly put them back to back because they wanted the contrast and Jimena was throwing Alice off her game by attempting to do Alice…well…better than Alice herself.
Vlad glanced around the room. Was Alice watching? How would she react? She probably didn’t have a plan and would be so flustered by Jimena’s audition that she’d leave again. Maybe he could just steal a moment with her to warn—
“And now, Alice Martin!” Rory shouted loudly with another one of his kick-ball-change moves.
Vlad looked back at the stage. He had missed Jimena’s entire audition. And it was too late to stop this train wreck. Jimena was taking her time vacating the set, planning to stand right next to Alice and upstage her.
Vlad muttered his frustration, glaring at the stage and almost flashing his fangs. He knew it was ridiculous. He wanted Jimena to win. He chose her because she’d be willing to do underhanded tricks like this. But in the moment it felt…felt…what was this feeling?
Caleb gave him a strange look and burst out laughing. William smirked. “Eh, I think Alice is going to be just fine,” his lilting accent unconcerned.
“How do you know?” Vlad demanded, ignoring Caleb’s snickering.
“Just look at her.”
Alice swept onstage wearing a leather jacket and a short blue confection of a skirt that had him following the line of her thighs. Her hair was straight and braided back in a way that made her look like a warrior goddess. She wore a flower crown with two horns on her head and a small black skull necklace around her neck. She paused for a moment to adjust her combat boots.
She looked strange.
She looked wild.
She looked glorious.
Rory and Jimena reeled back in surprise, but Rory recovered faster. “Alice! Lovely look. Now, are you here today competing as a professional chef or a convenience store clerk?”
Alice winced, but it was so fast Vlad almost missed it. “Neither. Today I’m competing while doing my most important job…”
“Oh, and what’s that?” Rory asked, waggling his eyebrows and stepping close enough to Alice that Vlad was considering multiple ways of dismembering him.
Alice waited a beat and Vlad realized it was so that the cameras would have a chance to do a close-up of her. When it was all set she turned with a broad smile and finished her answer.
“Being a weirdo.”
She didn’t give Rory a chance to reply, she simply walked behind the counter and began to bake.
Unlike the other contestants, she didn’t put on catchy music or soothing tunes. Instead, she turned on a mix filled with haunting pipe organ melodies and blood-curdling screams. Vlad licked his lips. Was he turned on?
She paused while mixing ingredients to lick a bit of batter off the spoon.
Haunting music, the wailing of poltergeists, Alice stealing a taste of batter?
He was definitely turned on.
As he watched, everything else faded to the background. She was confident and chattering to herself, clearly having a great time. At one point, she stopped all of her baking, poured herself a glass of nectar, and read a book. It was mesmerizing.
She didn’t stand nervously by the oven while her cake was baking, instead, she walked over to the microphone and recited a poem that had been a standard of bards in his youth. Vlad nearly bit off his tongue. Olde simlish made the poem sound lyrical, but it was in fact, a bawdy raunchy collection of verses.
And Alice knew it too. As she finished the poem, he realized he would remember the look she gave for the rest of his immortal life—a half-wild, half-crooked smile, like she was daring him to go up there and take her…which he was 100% prepared to do and would be prepared to do until he could take at least three cold showers.
In the end, she placed a chocolate zombie cake in front of the judge and the whole studio erupted in applause. It was clear that she made it onto the show.
The rest of the audience shifted to the other end of the studio, crowding Rory and the judge for autographs but Vlad, Vlad waited for Alice. He had no plans for what to say, but that was fine. He’d grab her by the waist, look deep in her eyes and tell her how much she had impressed him, Jimena be damned.
He could figure the rest out later when she was kissing him and he was tearing off that skirt.
There was a small part of him that tried to remind him that this wasn’t the plan. And he was surprised when William joined the chorus calling for him to slow down.
“Vladislaus, I wouldn’t—“
But Vlad barreled forward. He was seducing Jimena, why not Alice too? Jimena was just a means to the Owl but his feelings for Alice were something he felt unmoored by. Lust? He’d investigate it.
Have his cake and eat it too, as the saying went.
He gave her a devilish grin. “Alice Not-Madame Martin, I am impressed—”
He never even got to finish his sentence. Alice gave him the finger with both hands, arched an eyebrow, and then turned and left the room.
William put a hand on his shoulder. “Tried to mention, but while you were out I saw dear Alice in the hallway. Her exact words were something along the lines of ‘you should go fuck yourself for all eternity.’ So there’s that.”
Five minutes later, William and Caleb were still laughing.
Skirt by Sims 4 Marigold
Crown of Horns by Nolan-Sims
Decorative Fake Audience by JomSims
Emotions 7 by SimmerBerlin
Alize Hotel Restaurant by otentikjuju