EXCERPT FROM A LETTER TO DURGA SYN FROM SISTER MAUDE KHLESL
(PART 1 OF 4)
Early January 1203
… we left Zara with our semi-willing captive, Erzebet, in tow, to begin the long journey to her home in Toth. Also accompanying us was her ghoul, Emeric (the one Bernhard had tried to disembowel post-surrender in our earlier fracas). I was surprised that the knight, Martin, who had witnessed Bernhard’s barbaric tantrum, agreed to release Emeric into our care. I think some kind of wager or deal was struck between the two involving knightly virtues, chest thumping and the mutual waving of their manhoods.
Erzebet herself has been very tight-lipped about both her sire, Bodor – who she also refers to as her father – and about her family situation in Toth. She is a very disagreeable type: petulant, contemptuous and completely lacking in compassion. Also, despite her mastery of Animalism and passable intellect, she seems to be very ignorant of both Cainite culture and the wider world in general. This seems incongruous since her sire/father, is apparently a master of Auspex, which implies he is an elder of many years – a Tzimisce elder of which no one, including Veceslav, has ever heard.
A few days into our travels, as we crossed the Dinaric Alps, we encountered a squad of Crusaders butchering a group of Zaran rebels. We recognised the leader of the squad to be none other than Louis of Blois himself. Without any regard for the legitimacy of the rebels’ grievances, Bernhard saw a chance to curry favour with an influential mortal ruler, and charged into the fray. He succeeded in murdering one of the rebels before the Gods of Justice saw fit to direct his charge over a nearby cliff. (The irony here is that for many years I’ve been making the entirely reasonable suggestion that he jump off a cliff as the ultimate way of putting himself to his beloved hazards.) He survived, regrettably, by taking the bat form mid-plunge.
When the melee ended, our group was thanked by Louis who was clearly one of those bluff, hearty, manly types without a shred of self-doubt or empathy – the sort who regards most kinds of murder as sport. Veceslav wasted a few hours charming the lummox, while I did my best to save the lives of the few grievously wounded rebels who still lived. With Godwine’s help I was then able to fake their deaths (saving them from a hanging) and procure them some of the food stored at their camp to give them a fighting chance as they recovered over the coming weeks.
Our journey to Belgrade was mostly uneventful after that, though there was one incident at a village where some Crusaders-turned-bandits attempted to intimidate us into paying them an exorbitant amount of silver to pass. Bernhard, perhaps still smarting from the ignominy of his graceless cliff dive, was keen to bolster his fragile sense of self-worth by massacring them all. However, a heavenly ray of light suddenly appeared to confirm my holy credentials (I understand that the Ravnos use this kind of trick all the time) and the bandits thought it best to let us pass.
After two and a half weeks on the road, we finally entered Belgrade, the capital of Prince Andras. The city appears to be in a constant state of rebuilding since the turmoil between Andras and Emeric over the last ten years. We made our way to the haven of the city’s “caretaker”, a fellow Cappadocian called Cadmus, who we had dealt with when we were last in the city years ago on our way to the Tihuta Pass. He was able to set up a meeting for us with Belgrade’s Prince, Joszef Erdei, childe of Prince Rikard of Budapest. From him we learned that Prince Andras (who is supported by Rikard in his struggles against Prince Emeric) had driven off the Bulgars in the region, much to the displeasure of their Tzimisce masters, and that the Brujah warlord, Dominic, has still not returned since his disappearance in 1198, seemingly abandoning what remains of his rebel forces who linger in hidden holdouts around Timisoara. I find this particularly disappointing, since Dominic’s regime seemed to have achieved a functional version of the Promethean ideal, albeit on a relatively small scale.
We spent the rest of our time in Belgrade in separate endeavours: Veceslav visited the obnoxious weapon-crafter, Fugen the Twisted; Bernhard performed some scouting duties in bat form for Prince Joszef; while I spent some time swapping occult knowledge with Cadmus. Cadmus proved to be a congenial host, though many in our group were disturbed by his macabre haven. I was more disturbed by his casual admission that he occasionally murdered mortals as part of his experiments. However, I know this to be practically required behaviour for those on the Road of Bones, so I managed to keep my disapproval to myself. Further, he is an expert in the Corpse in the Monster branch of Mortis, which I hope to master myself one day, so I did my best to leave a good impression, while reminding myself that there are far worse vampires than him in the world.
From Belgrade we continued our journey through the wintry landscape. A shortcut suggested by Erzebet took us past an Obertus monastery unfamiliar to Veceslav, and since the deep snow was making progress almost impossible we decided to request shelter therein. This decision was to result in the strangest series of events I’ve experienced in my unlife.
We were made to feel welcome by their leader, Abbott Heroch, as we were shown around the monastery. To my surprise, the residents lived in more of a communal than clerical arrangement, with women and children all present and everyone clearly living as families. (It seems chastity is overrated.) I felt slightly uneasy about the people around me, as content and well-educated as they seemed, but put it down to a carryover from my mortal days as a (mostly) chaste nun. Indeed, as unconventional as their behaviour seemed, I could see nothing to criticise in terms of their overall wellbeing.
The weirdness only compounded when we were informed that they had a library that included some remarkable and sought-after texts. They even had a supposed fragment of the Book of Nod! The commentary included with this fragment was authored by the same Tzimisce monk, Mentios, childe of Gesu, who created the translation disc for the clay tablets that you yourself scried with Spirit’s Touch shortly after we met at the tower site in Tihuta Pass.
Durga, my dear friend, you have warned me that my scrutiny of the tablets has “marked” me in some way (along with my coterie mates), and counselled me to delve further into the mysteries of these tablets so that I can forearm myself with knowledge that may help me control my own destiny in the matter. You were very vague on specifics, and I still have no idea what you were talking about. It seems to me that the “mark” could be meaningless – despite how portentous it may feel – in which case further research is pointless. However, if some Antideluvian really has taken notice of us, then we will be completely powerless against his omniscience and infinitely subtle machinations. Or to put it another way, we will only uncover what he wants us to uncover, and if we stray from his script he can end us with a thought. Either way, I’d prefer to spend my time engaged in worthwhile endeavours with concretely beneficial outcomes rather than chasing the ghosts of insane demigods.
However, never let it be said that I am anything but a mild-mannered, biddable and obedient student. With your counsel in mind, I told Abbot Heroch about the tablets, and asked if he was aware of any tomes in the library that might shed light on their inane rantings. He was not, but he suggested that Bernhard, Veceslav and I submit ourselves to a ritual that would grant us visions that could help illuminate the matter. We agreed. The ritual was not exactly what we expected.
We were given a sedative and woke in cages suspended from the ceiling (along with the abbott). Then over the course of hours or days – it was hard to tell – monks bled us with spear thrusts until we were in a state of perpetual frenzy. My memories of this are somewhat hazy, but there are nonetheless images from the experience burned into my mind: the people of the monastery – men, women and children – writhing in orgies of our blood, many of them apparently willing recipients of bizarre and horrific flesh-crafted mutations.
And then we dreamed.
In the end, the dream was similar to the one experienced by Lady Perlina. We saw fragments of a vampire’s journey as he headed east. He appeared compassionate and charismatic. He seemed to be seeking some form of enlightenment – perhaps Golconda – but the final scene showed him raging and despairing over an endless sea of corpses. (This could be an allusion to Gehenna and the irredeemably corrupt nature of vampires, I suppose.)
We woke in a covered wagon several weeks later just outside Weissenburg. Erzebet and our ghouls were all present, and had been sedated the entire time remembering nothing of the intervening period. (I’d be most curious to know how they kept the mortals hydrated and nourished while they were unconscious!) Stupefied and confused, we made our way to Iulia’s haven outside the city walls.
So, what are we to make of our experience? Pragmatically, it was a potentially disastrous waste of a month. Bodor Toth’s revenge forces will probably have passed us during our slumber and even now may be wreaking havoc on Zara as Erzebet did. And what have we learned for this cost? Nothing that we didn’t know already, and – as always with anything prophetic – nothing that we can act on in any meaningful way. The whole experience was, in every possible sense, a complete waste of time.
However, despite this, for two selfish reasons, I don’t regret it. Firstly, I experienced for the first time complete abandonment to my Beast. It was most illuminating. Although my memories of its control aren’t completely coherent, I remember enough to more fully understand how it is both a part of me and yet separate at the same time. I won’t go on at length about this – scholars have written entire texts on the subject – but suffice to say that although I understand my Beast is dangerous and that the need for iron-clad control and eternal vigilance against its urgings will never abate, in the end I pity it. It cannot help what it is, yet it is trapped in the body of an insipid do-gooder, given no outlet for its endless rage … and nor will it ever have if I have my way.
My second selfish reason is that I experienced the sunlit world again. In the vision, we were invisible to our Antideluvian enlightenment-seeker, but still somehow present at each scene in our mortal bodies. I saw the bright daytime world again, and felt the sunlight on my skin. Again, I won’t prattle on about this, except to say that the desire to once again see the sun has haunted me for years, and the experience was correspondingly numinous.
In any case, Durga, my sometimes-fellow-crone, I remain utterly unconvinced that research into the tablets is useful, but out of deference to your infinitely greater wisdom and experience will continue to half-heartedly seek it out … provided further catatonic rituals aren’t involved.
[CONTINUED IN NEXT SESSION SUMMARY]