The Concord of Ashes

Session 47 - part two

FROM: Lotario Acuto
TO: Vashtai

SUBJECT
Investigation into the Tremere of Kronstadt

TIMING
March, Year of Our Lord 1203
Immediately after the conclusion of the investigation into the murder of Eudokia

BACKGROUND
The coterie known as the Concord of Ashes assisted in the uncovering of the murderer of Eudokia of Greece and Kronstadt. During the investigation it was discovered that a ‘Tremere Chantry’ or stronghold of the warlock vampires, was located in Kronstadt, hidden in the secretive Stone Mason’s Guild.

PERSONS OF INTEREST
- Knez Veceslav of Tihuta Pass, a Shaper diplomat, Concord member
- Prince Yulia of Weissenberg, a Shadow diplomat and scholar, Concord member, Concord member
- Maude, a Crone of the Clan of Death
- Lucien of Rome, an ancient Gangrel sire to former coterie member and elder of Kronstadt
- Erzebet, a Shaper warrior neonate entrusted to the care of the Concord, and ‘apprenticed’ to Lucien
- Eridanus, Regent (leader) of the Tremere Chantry in Kronstadt
- Hesin Trada (aka ‘Hette’), a noble-woman warlock Tremere from Venice and rival to Maude
- Benjamin, a Tremere warlock specialising in transporting personnel and goods
- Lotario Acuto, Michaelite investigator

REPORT
Upon learning of the presence of the Tremere Chantry, the coterie was visibly shaken, as was I. That the Tremere could have a presence entrenched in the town for so long spoke measure for their competence and raised serious questions about their links to town and regional politics. To what extent had the previous princes fallen foul of warlock politics? What alliances had the warlocks made with the other supernatural denizens of the area?

(For example Benjamin mentioned, under questioning, he was not preyed upon by the local werewolves when he travelled about. Was this due to some pact?)

Veceslav raised the possibility of an immediate assault on the Tremere Chantry before they knew we were aware of their existence. I suspect his anger at the Tremere – a matter of clan politics – stirred his blood to violence. And I admit his argument carried weight. Who knew what they were capable of when aroused, when prepared? Even given my steadfast desire to avoid physical conflict of a deadly nature, fear lent a certain amount of fire to my limbs and inclined towards bravo-ism.

Yet, it was the very unknown nature of the warlocks that caused us to stay our hands. Lucien phrased the argument best by stating,

“I have not existence for a millennium by taking foolish chances battling the unknown.”

Yulia backed the Roman’s counsel. It seems she has a reputation among her colleagues for common sense, and so an immediate assault was removed from the options. Still, action was required. The question of Benjamin was a concern.

The Tremere transporter argued against his own destruction. I sided with him on this. Veceslav, of course, argued for destruction as an object lesson to the Tremere. I countered by saying that negotiation would net him more information, more scope to move up or down in his reactions, increasing hostility or decreasing it as the situation saw fit. The Knez relented.

Another argument against any attack would be the necessary risk to the Silence of the Blood; a matter that given the Church politics of the region – and particular of Kronstadt – was too high a risk to contemplate. No, a direct immediate assault carried too much risk. Any attempt to remove the Chantry would involve mortal politics, and hence time.

Oddly, Erzebet said nothing. While she is usually quiet of tongue, she also did not know the politics at play here. The intractable war between her clan and the Tremere was an unknown thing to her. A neonate indeed!

Maude was silent, pondering the magic at play. I learned later she was weaving webs in her mind, planning out how she could use her magic against the Tremere to scout and spy. I remain unaware of the specifics, but she seems to be trusted by the coterie to perform near miracles of obfuscation and information gathering.

The decision was made to send Benjamin to Prince Nova Arpad. As, nominally the leading prince of the Seibenburgen, it was for her to decide matters of policy. As this matter would have possible ramifications upon the spheres of mortal politics, it was felt best if Prince Arpad was consulted.

I noted with some interest that Prince Yulia, while acknowledging Prince Arpad’s preeminent position, did not speak of her as a superior. Neither did Knez Veceslav. The Concord of Ashes is its own political power, and walks in alliances, not feudalist subservience.

Animal messengers were dispatched immediately to Prince Nova Arpad, via Weissenberg. Prince Yulia has a capability with this, as does Lucien. Should I return for any length of time, there would be a need to replicate their networks, and possibly even learn their abilities of Animalism.

Even with the enhanced animal messenger network, it would not be until another night before Prince Nova Arpad replied. The rest of the night was set to hunting for the others, and for me, the establishment of my network. Two weeks had set me up well, but further work needed to be done to move into the vacancies created by Eudokia’s passing – such as coming to an arrangement with the innkeeper of the Angry Axeman and ensuring his supply of blood after I depart.

(I hope you understand, Vashtai, that I do this out of practicality, not a disrespectful desire to step into Eudokia’s still-warm haven.)

The question of the Tremere, Benjamin, was dealt with rather artfully by Veceslav. No messy staking or violence. The knez quietly, almost sensually, removed Benjamin’s shirt, baring the Tremere’s chest. He then touched his chest and moved the ribs of the Tremere away from his heart. The Tremere was horrified. I admit I was entranced by the subtle beauty of what I saw. When the heart lay exposed, protected only by a thin layer of skin, Veceslav smiled sadistically into the Tremere’s eyes and tapped, almost gently, a wooden stake into the Tremere’s heart. The whole experience was brutal, chilling, and beautiful to behold.

Maude, in the meantime, performed her scouting mission. She informed us all in a council held before dawn, that she had ‘turned into a spirit’ and ‘glided through the walls of the Guild’. She encountered what she referred to as a “ward”, a magical barrier of some kind that burned her as she passed through it. An alarm was sounded as she passed through the walls. She remained unseen by the mortals present, but her unease grew when she saw a “stone dog” prowling the hallways of the guild. Maude turned and left the building before being spotted. Maude had been burned by the “wards”, and retired to mend her hurts.

(I believe she was using the hospice at Kronstadt as her haven. Her apprentice, a mortal, runs this for her. Maude has several such hospices spread across the Seibenburgen; in Weissenberg, Kronstadt and Mediasch. She welcomes all, providing healing services for all comers, and charging the wealthy while curing the poor for no or little cost.)

The following night a note was sent to the Stone Mason’s Guild, asking for an audience between the Concord of Ashes and the Tremere present at the Chantry. A note soon came in reply, confirming the appointment and setting a time.

Word had come from Prince Arpad, that she would accept the responsibility of dealing with the Tremere, and take Benjamin into custody. The Tremere transporter was sent to her, unceremoniously, but with some sense of irony, in a brandy barrel.

Knez Veceslav, Prince Yulia, and myself attended. Prince Yulia’s bodyguard, Agmundir, accompanied his mistress. My argument that Maude remain behind to prevent antagonising her rival was agreed upon by the others. We went well dressed, myself disguised as a wealthy Italian merchant. Our only arms were Prince Yulia’s dagger and Agmundir’s war-axes. We came in peace.

The Stone Mason’s Guild was quiet on our approach. As we came to the door, the stone gargoyle above our heads moved, and looked down upon us. I could have sworn it was grinning.

The door was opened by Eridanus, a grey-bearded bald-headed Cainite. Behind him stood Hesin Trada, a pretty thing with a sneer on her lip.

“Greetings,” the grey-beard spoke. “You wish to parley?”
“Indeed we do, Master Warlock, Mistress Warlock,” I answered. “May we come inside?”
“Yes,” said the grey-beard. “Come into our lair.”
He smirked at his words, and escorted us into a meeting room.
He and she waited for us to be seated at a large table. Some mortal with the demeanour of apprentices yet bearing the subtle marks of the supernatural about them, hovered nearby. I believe they were mortal capable of wielding or using magic of some kind.
Upon seating, I made the introductions.
“Knez Veceslav of Tihuta, Prince Julia of Weissenberg, her bodyguard, and I am Lotario, a Michaelite.”
“I am Eridanus, Regent of this Chantry,” he replied. “This is Hesin Trada, my second.”

With the introductions done, and polite diplomacy established, the conversation moved on. All contributed. The essential points of the conversation were as follows:
- The Tremere stated they have been in Kronstadt for (at least) 50 years.
- The Tremere stated they wish to live quietly, pursuing their studies and staying out of politics other than what is necessary for their own safety (such as subverting the Stone Mason’s Guild, presumably).
- There Tremere stated that they have stayed hidden and out of politics ever since they arrived.
- Now that the existence of the Tremere is known to Prince Nova Arpad, then Eridanus would inform his superiors in “Cay-or-is” to seek further information.
- Eridanus did not seem pleased that the coterie now knew so much, but he seemed sanguine enough to learn to cope.
- Eridanus repeatedly expressed his intent to check back with superiors before making any policy decisions. His mission was simply to establish the Chantry and keep it as a firm base of operations in this, the closest large population centre to Cay-or-is.
- Eridanus was gratified to here that the coterie had no prima facie desire to see civil war brought into the Siebenbergen and hence would not immediately inform the Shapers as the location of the Tremere in Kronstadt.
- Eridanus acknowledged that any change of state, such as an expansion of Tremere influence or presence in Kronstadt, would result immediately in informing the wider Siebenburgen, and hence the Shapers, of the location and presence of the Warlocks. War would swiftly follow. All agreed this was not desired.
- Prince Yulia, when asked, acknowledge Prince Nova Arpad was the titular head of the Seven Cities. She portrayed a certain amount of distaste at the concept.
- The conclusion reached was “we know you’re here, and we are watching you” versus “we are peace loving scholars who wish only to pursue our studies”.

With the messages delivered and the intent of both parties established, leavings were taken. The Tremere are prepared to deal, but will not yield their efforts and simply move on. Presumably, every there knew everyone was lying to at least some degree.

Hesin Trada did ask after Maude. She was informed that the coterie felt it best not to bring her so to avoid any unpleasantness and risk distracting the discussion. Regent Eridanus thanked the coterie for this foresight.

As the coterie left, I looked back and observed the auras of the gargoyles on the roof. While the one above the door was sculpted identically to the others, only it had a pale aura. I observed only that gargoyle moving, but when it was still it was indistinguishable from the others. I would surmise that the gargoyle is some kind of creature animated by the Blood, a kind of vampire in the same way the Tremere are vampires, hence its pale aura. More than this I do not know.

I did not see the presence of the moving “stone dog” Maude spoke of. I would surmise it is another stone-vampire like the gargoyle on the roof.

If these stone-vampires require blood in the same way as other vampires, then the presence of these two (at least, there may be more), in addition to the two Tremere at the Chantry, would be placing a strain on the health of the residents of the Stone Mason’s Guild. I have mentioned this to Maude and asked her to, via her hospice, monitor the health of those associated with the Stone Mason’s Guild. I have also advised the agents I left in the town to assist with gathering this information as they catalogue the political allegiances of the Guilds of Kronstadt.

It should be noted that animals stayed away from the Stone Mason’s Guild. Maude mentioned that ‘warding against animals’ was very simple magic to do. It is worth passing this information on to our agents; if there is a part of the city that animals (especially rats or bats) will not go, then this could indicate some sort of supernatural presence. As I do not have the power to manipulate animals, I am constrained in how I investigate this further.

Within the Stone Mason’s Guild there were several mortals. Some were ghouls, but not many. More common were what I assume were mages, mortals with magical powers and abilities. Given the magical powers of the Tremere, I wonder at the link – which came first and what is the exact nature of the power dynamic? Regardless of the intricacies, the presence of mortal mages inside a Chantry is significant, for their presence would add considerable defensive might versus any frontal assault.

I had no opportunity to observe the magical abilities of the Tremere. I do note that Benjamin considered Hesin Trada his superior in magic, and she was the second to the Regent. All spoke of their “superiors”, those to whom they answered. Benjamin equated the concept with “elders”. Considering Benjamin could shoot fire from his hands, the fact that the others are more powerful than him suggests that direct confrontation should be avoided.

CONCLUSION
- The Tremere have established a stronghold, a Chantry, in Kronstadt. It has been located there for at least 50 years.
- This Chantry is protected by magical defences, mortal politics, mortal mages, and stone-vampires, as well as the two Tremere currently lodging there.
- The Tremere share close links with mortal magicians.
- The Tremere use a strict hierarchy system. The similarity of this to Guilds makes Guilds more susceptible to their influence, particularly Guilds known to be secretive or having secretive rites. Presumably cults and mystery religions or monastic orders would hold similar vulnerabilities.
- The Tremere come and go by day, using standard smuggling means common to Cainites.
- The Tremere are aware of their tenuous political position in the Seibenburgen and wish to avoid direct violence. This would indicate there are possibilities for deal-making.
- The coterie known as the Concord of Ashes is anti-Tremere, but this hostility is based on personal loyalty to Knez Veceslav, not wide-spread idealism.
- To Concord of Ashes pays lip-service respect to others, but is aligned primarily with its own members, and the elders they represent.

NEXT
With the matter of the Tremere dealt with, at least for now, the coterie prepared to return to the Crusade. This was done to return-and-report to Prince Garry of Zara, and to honour the mission of Prince Bernhard, to assist in harm minimisation of the Crusade’s passage through Byzantine lands.
I expressed my desire to go with them on this, feeling that to keep tabs on the Crusade would be beneficial to yourself, to the Great City, and to all Michaelites.

Lucien asked the coterie to go to Zara, to carry on with Bernhard’s mission for Constantinople. Lucien stated he will pack up and travel east to investigate the possibilities of rescuing his childe from Koban.

I also expressed an interest in returning to Kronstadt, citing the reasons of desire for domain used earlier by Benjamin. These reasons were accepted and, should I return, my leadership in Kronstadt would be supported – provided I stood aside on the return of Bernhard.
Lucien insisted with no small amount of gravity that Bernhard’s family, the Dressler’s, was to remain untouched and free from my influence so that when his childe returned, they would be unharmed and uninfluenced.
With a return in mind, I sowed what seeds I needed to ensure upon a return my network will spread here without too much trouble.

We set out soon for Zara. I will write again from there, and do what I can to keep tabs on the Crusaders.

LA

View
Session 47 - part 1

FROM: Lotario Acuto
TO: Vashtai

SUBJECT

Investigation into the Death of Eudokia, part two

March, 1203

The investigation was concluded that night. I hope you will forgive my taste for theatrics, Mistress, by resorting to two letters. Perhaps by the end of this missive – for I shall delve into my reflections on the consequences of this investigation – you will have forgiven me.

The Tremere, Benjamin by name, was led away none too gently by Jerro. The Gangrel sheriff was rougher than was warranted given that guilt had not yet been established, but the twin factors of his rough nature and the high emotions running through the group at the death of Prince Bernhard meant that such aggression was overlooked.

The Tremere’s aura was a pale brown; he was bitter. His manner seemed to indicate feelings of regret. My instincts told me this was more to do with being caught. He was fearful, but not in fear of his life.

Back at Lucien’s manor-house the Tremere was secured in the basement; well, placed rather than secured as with so many hostile Cainites around him, the mage’s chances at escape were deemed negligent and the mage himself deemed clever enough not to try. (That being said, perhaps the coterie wanted the Tremere to try to escape, so they would have an excuse to act.)

I noticed Lucien’s basement, a root cellar with a dirt floor, held a stone sarcophagus. This sarcophagus showed signs of use as his sleeping bed; subtle clues and patterns nearby. Lukas held the composure of one who has been there previously and was comfortable; the Leper and the Roman obviously have an understanding. Jerro hovered near the Tremere, looming as threateningly as possible and occasionally boxing the mage’s ears. Erzebet, the neonate shaper, stayed by Knez Veceslav, her quick eyes watching everything at once.

The others turned to me to speak. Lucien stuck with his habit of letting others speak for him. Prince Yulia displayed a similar style. Knez Veceslav seemed content to merely watch, as did the Leper Monk, Lukas, who sunk into dark shadows and tried to be ignored. The Crone looked on, waiting for my lead, waiting to see what I would do to extract the information and confession we needed.

After ascertaining the others wished me to speak, I began my questioning. I took out my wax tablet and recorded in my short-hand scrawl the answers to my questions. I spoke calmly and evenly, pausing to clarify details when they were obscured by a turn of phrase or unfamiliar expression. While I scribbled notes, the others looked on silence, content to let me work. The Tremere was suspicious, but told his story as I coaxed him along.

He had arrived a few weeks previously, coming to Kronstadt with his clan-mate around 7th March. After being prompted, he informed us his clan-mate was called ‘Hesin Trada’. (This was the woman mage from Vienna known to the Crone; the two were rivals and after the Crone’s acerbic wit caused a fall from grace for the woman-mage, Maude was forced to leave the city.) The Tremere Benjamin said he disliked his noble-blooded traveling companion and despised her weakness and inability to look after herself. He had been instructed to escort her, having done that, they parted ways. But I get ahead of myself.

The two warlocks arrived in Kronstadt during the day. Benjamin archly told us the Tremere have ways of moving around during the day, using magic. (Later domination of his mind revealed that he had in fact arrived sealed in a brandy barrel.) They chose to haven at the Angry Axeman tavern. It had a brothel and they deemed this a good place for feeding. They met, acknowledged the presence of, but not speak to Eudokia.

I questioned the warlock strongly on this point. He denied speaking to ‘the Greek vampire’. He waited for her to come back following their brief nod-and-acknowledge-meeting that first night, but she never did.

The lady-warlock was deposited, presumably, at the Stone Mason’s Guild, the Tremere Chantry in the town. Benjamin claimed to know nothing of the Stone Mason’s Guild. It was Lucien who called the Tremere on this lie and urged him, with all the force of his mind, to tell the truth. Yet, any attempt at questioning on this led to a mind-wipe within Benjamin; the memories were lost from his mind as he tried to recall them. This, non-subtle, use of Cainite mind-powers revealed a powerful but unsubtle mind behind the obfuscation. It also confirmed the suspicions held by Lucien and myself. We would return to the matter of the Stone Mason’s Guild later.

Under questioning, no force required, Benjamin told us of the lady warlock, ‘Hesin Trada’. His comments have been largely spoken of earlier. He noted she was a formidable magician, but lacked other skills. She had been sent, escorted by him, from “Cay-or-ris”, the Tremere stronghold. This place lies not more than 100 miles – one week’s travel – to the south of Kronstadt, making this town the closest large population centre to this warlock stronghold!

Benjamin told us that, with his delivery job done, he had no further instructions. He stayed in Kronstadt because he saw an opportunity – a town with minimal vampire presence and an absent prince; he saw a haven going empty and an opportunity to move in.

(I must admit, I found myself not blaming him one iota for this way of thinking. Eudokia held a truly fortunate position here under the absentee prince. Considering our interests here, I began to think it might be worthwhile to place my network here and step into the gap created by Eudokia’s unfortunate passing and try to continue her mission. The proximity of the Tremere stronghold makes it even more important that her work is continued.)

Benjamin said he saw no need to present himself to the prince, indeed he saw none present in the town. The ghoul bartender at the tavern knew nothing of the matter. While Benjamin noted that the bartender was the possession of ‘the Greek’, when she did not return he made a new arrangement with him. The Tremere knew of the havens of all of the town’s vampires, and he noted their lack of communal activity, their lack of a ruling vampire. He did not see the Cainites of the town as an obstacle to his stake of domain.

I was beginning to have my doubts as to the guilt of this Tremere regarding Eudokia. The nature of the crime did not fit this mage. Still, the questioning needed to go on to confirm the complete picture. He gave his lineage, compelled by the simple truth that we would drag it from him if it was withheld. He was of the 9th generation, as we count such things, and his lineage is attached in a separate note for your files. While I did not explain to the others why I pursued this line of questioning, my rationale was two-fold; first he showed no emotional agitation regarding his generation, which made me suspect he had not committed the crime of amaranth; and second, considering the power of Eudokia’s blood, he did not seem to be physically strong or skilled enough to overpower her in the manner that her murderer did.

Something was not right. And as the conversation turn to generations, the Gangrel sheriff Jerro grew more and more agitated. He was ready to pop. His claws flexed in and out. His aura was an angry pale grey; he was prey to his darker natures of hate, regret, resentment and nervousness.

I began to see what had gone on here, and asked to speak to Lucien and Prince Yulia outside. The rest stayed below.

I discussed with these two the idea of using Prince Yulia’s mind powers, or Lucien’s age, to overcome the blocks placed in Benjamin’s mind. Prince Yulia agreed to try. I asked Lucien to remain.

I told the elder what I had seen in Jerro’s aura. I let the question slide, unspoken, into my tone. The Roman came quickly to the dark place I had. He asked my guidance as to how to get Jerro’s to reveal the issue; he suggested Yulia. I counselled patience, seeking leave to continue the questioning and force the Gangrel to reveal his crime himself. Lucien agreed, and – when I asked – assured me he could contain the sheriff.

I was briefly troubled by the thought that Jerro was now more powerful than before, having taken Eudokia’s soul, but drew comfort in the undeniable fact that even if the millennia-old Roman Gangrel could not overpower the younger one, an entire room for Cainites would do the job.

Down in the root cellar, Knez Veceslav had sought to calm Jerro. The Gangrel had seized on his chance for a way out and sought Veceslav’s leave to be excused. The foolish Shaper granted the request, not suspicious in the slightest – or not concerned. Fortunately, as Jerro was leaving, he passed Lucien and me. The guiding hand of the Roman forced the neonate back downstairs.

Perhaps I am not as subtle in my old age. Perhaps the mood was different in the room. But as I ‘began again at the beginning’ with my questions, the others shifted in their stances, all uneasy at the sudden tension in the room.

It was only another minute before Jerro snapped.

“Enough!” He yelled and, claws out, launched himself at the Tremere.

“Maude,” I spoke, having heard of her power to freeze combatants with a magical gesture. To help distract the Gangrel I aimed a side-kick at him; he nimbly dodged aside – something of a confirmation of his skill at hand-fighting.

However, his skill proved useless, for the Crone’s magic held him in place.

And then the Tremere, rolling aside from a blow that never came, uttered magic words, gestured with his hands and twin jets of fire flashed forward to set the Gangrel alight!

I backed away, fearful of the fire. The others present put out the flames with blankets and water. The Tremere sensibly desisted from any further attacks. Jerro was staked swiftly by Lucien, and placed unceremoniously on a wooden stool.

The Tremere was moved upstairs; his hands bound together by the Shaper’s powers. Knez Veceslav took pleasure in displaying his power over the warlock. I questioned the Tremere further; the results of which confirmed little further and so have rolled into the narrative above.

The Tremere did vehemently protest his innocence of any crime worthy of death. He admitted to failing to present himself to any vampire of authority, but felt he had committed no other crime. Cutting to the chase, Prince Yulia probed his mind for information about Eudokia; he knew nothing and was not responsible for her passing.

Retuning downstairs, I noted the sadness in Lukas’ voice as he left Jerro and went outside;

“What a waste,” was all he said, though I know not if this related to Jerro or Eudokia.

Lucien moved to remove the stake, sending his will into the mind of the younger Gangrel.

“When I remove this stake you will be calm and accept with equanimity your punishment.”

The Roman paused, and behind him I furrowed my brow for I disapproved of using mind-powers to rob someone of their chance to defend themselves. Before I could comment, Lucien corrected himself.

“Forget that. You will be calm, and answer what questions we have.”

The stake was ripped out roughly. Jerro recovered and looked about him. Knez Veceslav had sculpted the Gangrel’s hands so they were bound and, if he popped his claws, he would injure himself. The Gangrel offered no violence. He laughed.

“Yeah, I did it. No point not admitting it now. I did it, and I’m glad. The bitch deserved it. I’d do it again.”

With this tirade over, I began my questioning.

Jerro had fallen in lust with the pretty Greek vampire. He protected her, staying in town while the prince roamed the borders of the domain. The more he watched over Eudokia, the more he grew obsessed by her. He protected her women when the “Johns” beat them. He protected her – a tragically unnecessary gesture. He watched her closely and more closely. He wanted her physically, wanting to possess her sexually as she let other men do. She denied him, and he grew more obsessed at this denial, this dismissal.

And he saw her communicate with her network.

He confirmed his suspicions, watching her communicate with her coterie on three occasions. He drew the conclusion she was spying against Prince Bernhard. His obsession and rejection turned to bitterness and anger. He followed her and took her soul.

“Now she lives inside me forever,” he said. “She wouldn’t share herself with me, so now I have her forever.”

None of us, hearing this, had any compassion for this sad killer, this monster to be put down. We left the room to deliberate.

The discussion was short; only one penalty would be appropriate. Lucien, as the eldest present, would deliver it in the absence of Prince Bernhard.

“Absence”, not “death”; Lucien refused to accept that his childe was gone forever. I saw anger in the ancient’s eyes. There would be a reckoning with Koban over Lucien’s childe.

(A thought occurred as I dwelled on Jerro’s murder, and another raises itself with me now as I report this to you, Vashtai. Jerro was new under the blood; less than ten years I believe. Much of that had been spent with Prince Bernhard, as his second. Bernhard, known for his competence at the physical arts, had taught Jerro how to fight, how to best use his gifts of blood and self. That this rank neonate was able to so overwhelming destroy Eudokia despite her power speaks wonders for Prince Bernhard’s instruction.

(And this prince was known not just to be a fighter, but to be a thinker as well, at least in terms of waging war. He fought and thought in his sire’s campaign to destroy their ancient progenitor. He excelled in what they call irregular warfare, where the small or odd combats the large and powerful in unorthodox ways. And he took risks, risks which seem to have always panned out, up until his death in the snows fighting this Fiend war-master.

(But did he die? The evidence of Maude would indicate the Gangrel lives as a captive of the Fiend Koban, no doubt to be enslaved and tortured. Odds on, Koban will make him a servant, and use the Gangrel knight against his former allies.

(Is this not what happened to Lucien upon his Embrace? Before Lucien broke the Blood Bond and, eventually, slew his maker and tormentor? And would not that story be as familiar as moonlight to Bernhard? As familiar as his sire’s powers, cunning and love, love that would not let a childe remain as a slave and would send Lucien into conflict with Koban?

(I wonder, Vashtai, if this all isn’t some grand plan of the Saxon Gangrel, some way to bring his sire into battle against Koban? Logic would brand such a plan as madness, that it risked almost certain Final Death or worse. Yet what was it his coterie-mates said of him, that he “put himself to the hazard”? That he was losing his humanity piece by piece? I wonder if this was not some mad plan of Prince Bernhard to risk everything in the hope for victory and redemption?

(Or is it just Fate, or luck, and I have given the Saxon Gangrel too much credit? Time will tell.)

Regardless of such wondering, it was Lucien who executed the murderer.

“Tell my Prince I was loyal,” were the murderer’s last words.

Lucien’s claw tore his throat out.

As the blow fell, I looked away for I am not comfortable with blood. I left the room, as did the others. Knez Veceslav stayed. He collected the Gangrel’s blood for reasons I do not know.

As best as I can tell, Vashtai, the murder of Eudokia was a crime of passion carried out by a savage-hearted peasant.

Eudokia’s murderer had been revealed and justice meted out. This will not restore your friend and agent to you, but I hope the knowledge of what has happened has helped you.

The fact of Eudokia’s activities is revealed, but its nature remains hidden. Perhaps the others will ask further; perhaps not. I believe the coterie will dismiss Eudokia’s correspondence as an idle curiousity. Lucien will move on, bent on vengeance or rescue of his childe. (Oh, he’ll file the information away, but considering my presence here he will most likely simply ask you directly.)

The presence of the Tremere will hold the coterie’s attention, as will the need to return to the Crusade. For now, I believe the organisation’s network will remain in the shadows, ready to be rebuilt as required.

Your humble servant,

LA

View
Session 46
Investigation into the Death of Eudokia, part one

FROM: Lotario Acuto
TO: Vashtai

SUBJECT
Investigation into the Death of Eudokia, part one

March, 1203

The silence that greeted me when I first came to the gates of Kronstadt, a fortified Saxon town in the Siebenburgen, lingered like the smell of wet dog for the first two weeks of my investigation here. I have travelled all over the Mediterranean world, from the Arabic states of the Atlas Mountains, to the far shores of the Black Sea; and yet few places clam the title of ‘city’ with such a hushed tone as does Kronstadt.

I had known that its Cainite ruler, a Saxon Gangrel knight called ‘Bernhard Billung’ ruled with a distant and light touch – “involved ad unable to be involved” was how Eudokia had put it in her correspondence. Perhaps it was this distant touch that kept the town so quiet after dark. Its regular Cainite inhabitants kept, according to Eudokia, their own company.

Lukas the Monk stuck mainly to his domain, a leper colony outside of the town’s gates. Eudokia kept to the inns and taverns, a generously gifted domain by Prince Bernhard. Jerro, the right hand of the prince, came and went as the mood took him, but kept a remarkably low profile and sought more the company of mortals and his distracted master. And Prince Bernhard himself seemed to spend most of his time absent the city – the Richard the Lionheart style of ruling. And then, of course, there was Lucien the Roman, an ancient Gangrel and friend of my own master, Petronius; here to safeguard the claim of his childe Prince Bernhard in the young Gangrel’s absence. I had met Lucien previously, and would enjoy seeing him again. It was a pity it was under such difficult circumstances.

Eudokia was dead.

Someone had murdered her. The network was in shambles as a result, and a friend was gone. You, Vashtai, wanted the murdered found. As did Petronius. As did I. And I, throwing aside false modesty, was the best there was at finding out this sort of thing.

Well, maybe not the best there was, but I was best available, which would have to do.

I spent two weeks in the Saxon town, and was unable to find the murders. I had my suspicions as to what had gone on, but I wanted to stay ‘hands off’ until the prince of the town returned. Lucien was sure he’d support any move I made, but I had studied Prince Bernhard’s coterie; they were renowned both for cutting to the heart of matters and for being very powerful in their own right. My best guess was that their own unique skills would be needed to solve this mystery without tipping off the murderers.

(Plural? Yes. Only may have done the deed – I could not be certain – but what I was certain about was that more than one hand had been involved in Eudokia’s death. With the support of Lucien, confrontation may avoid any further Final Deaths, particularly mine, but I wished to apply overwhelming force to my suspects, both to prevent flight and defeat resistance. And for that, it was best to use the prince’s coterie.)

When the coterie came, they first went to Lukas’ leper colony, calling for Lucien. The message was simple, flown by carrier pigeon.

“Bernhard’s coterie has arrived here. Bernhard is dead. Lukas.”

Have you ever seen a thousand year old vampire get angry? It was subtle, like the slight tremors in the ground that proceed an earthquake. Tension flew into the air. I froze solid, afraid to move lest I set flame to the inferno of his rage.

I would not say the moment passed. It was merely contained.

“I must go. Wait here.”

And Lucien changed to a bat form and flew off to hear the story with his own ears.

By the Gods of All, the prince of Kronstadt was dead? How? He had, so the stories went, survived fire and sunlight and sword for a hundred years, cheating death time and time again. Perhaps his luck finally deserted him?

I considered if the two deaths were related. It was possible, at least providing for a political angle, but unlikely. Prince Bernhard and his coterie had been involved in a Trial by War, one of the primitive but bloody status ritual held by the Fiends of the area, on behalf of a nearby ally. By his own sire’s account, Prince Bernhard was a master of war and should have come through without problem, but war can be a tricky thing. I found it best to avoid such unpleasantness if possible to do so.

Soon enough I had my chance to meet the famed coterie when they returned, guided by Lucien, to the Roma’s manor in the town proper. They were easy to recognise.

The beddable-looking Romanian noblewoman was Yulia, Prince of Weissenberg. I greeted her first as was proper given her station. I had heard she was a pragmatic prince, given to gifted insights of politics, and possessing of a deep interest in the occult. Her mountainous bodyguard, Agmundir the Cunning, hovered in the background and didn’t seem to like the look of me.

Maude, the Cappadocian crone masquerading as a nun, looked everywhere around the room and then peered into my face, taking my measure. She leant on a walking staff and affected the demeanour of a curmudgeonly old matron. She stunk of death and ‘old lady’ and had an irritating voice.

The Romanian nobleman, Veceslav, was the default leader of the coterie. He looked average and not at all impressive. Then he spoke. His voice held a rich deep resonance, and even though he just bid me good evening, I believed him and immediately took a liking to him; he wanted me to have a GOOD evening, to be well, and happy, and prosperous! I shook myself out of the spell and reminded myself that behind that voice was a deadly Shaper, one who had won a trial by war through single combat.

And what did this coterie see when they looked at me? Nothing special, I assure you. I was dressed simply in dark brown, and could have passed for a wandering friar for I bore no weapons and, with my slight build, was obviously no warrior. My Italian features are more handsome than most, but not overly so. I smile readily and do not fidget. My brown hair is to my shoulders and worn out. I wear no jewellery, but often keep – as I did at this meeting – a wax board and stylus handy to take notes.

Talk centred uneasily around the death of their coterie mate, Prince Bernhard, after I offered my condolences. It seems he fell in a single combat between himself and the opposing warmaster, far from the others, and was now a possession of the vile Fiend, Koban. Lucien made mention of taking vengeance, but not in hurrying to do so. I suppose one does not exist for millennia without exercising some degree of caution.

It was Maude who first broke the uncomfortable talk of Bernhard’s death. She asked to know what I had learned. She was quite strident about it too.

“So dearie, what have you learned?”

I told her a little of it – that Eudokia was slain by a surprise attack. That the encounter was brief; she was held and drained by being bitten at the throat. That prior to the attack she felt safe and full, having hunted earlier in the evening.

“Really, all that in only two weeks. My you have been busy.”

The sarcasm was watered down only by the derision.

The coterie, with me in tow, went to Eudokia’s house; the site of the murder. Her family was interviewed – a task made easier with the calming voice of Veceslav and the mind-control powers of Prince Yulia. In essence, they knew nothing. I knew this, but wanted to observe the coterie at work. I was pleased to see that they were competent.

At my suggestion we next investigated the Angry Axeman Inn, a low class establishment that used its back rooms for whores. It was in Eudokia’s domain, but was the natural choice for any visiting Cainite for easy feeding.

The coterie dispersed through the room, guided by Jerro the Gangrel who blended in as if he knew half the room and probably did. There was a clue here I was hoping the coterie would find, one I needed their skills to decipher.

They missed it at first. A glare at Maude to get her to look in the right direction soon uncovered the ghost in the corner. I could see the ghost, outlined by its shimmering aura. Talking to it is a trick beyond me, but not beyond someone from the Clan of Death.

The crone had been viewing the scene from the cloak of her mind powers, but they were not so strong as to be beyond my sight. It seems though; such powers also work on ghosts. She exited the room, coming back on Veceslav’s arm and made her way towards where the ghost lurked.

Doing an impersonation of a mad woman, a routine no doubt at least mostly based on reality, Maude spoke to the ghost. I could follow her conversation, not his. By repeating some of what the ghost said, she was able to relay most of the conversation.

The ghost had a story. Doesn’t everyone. More importantly, as had been my guess, the ghost had been here a while. And yes, being supernatural it could spot a vampire from a mortal. And yes, it had seen Eudokia when she had last been here – as well as many times before that. And yes, there had been another vampire – two other vampires – here on that night. Eudokia had seen the two others, and they her.

Excellent. I do so like it when my theories work out.

The ghost described the two vampires. Maude knew them, or knew one of them – a Tremere called ‘Hette’, and a rival from years before. The male with her was Tremere as well, likely some kind of bodyguard.

That was an interesting twist, to have the likely murderers known to the investigators. Of such twists and turns come my pleasures in investigation!

I knew only a little of these Usurpers; enough to know they had mind-powers.

I spoke with Heinrich the barman, a vassal ghoul of Eudokia. It had been three weeks since she had last fed her. He would be keen for some blood, and Eudokia would have taught him how to recognise a Cainite. The conversation was awkward. I stumbled over ambiguous words and presented myself as a rank neonate.

He never clicked I was anything other than some idiot wanting a throw with a girl out back.

This means he was not himself. His mind had been altered and he had been fed blood since Eudokia was here. And that meant the Cainite who had been in town, the most likely suspects in Eudokia’s murder, were still here. I had feared as much.

Jerro was dispatched to inform Lucien. I wanted to keep the biggest baddest vampire around fully up-to-date in case we needed rescuing, and so he could report to Petronius if I could not.

Veceslav and Prince Yulia convinced Heinrich to come out back with them and proceeded to pluck the secrets of his mind about the new vampires in town.

I went around the back to investigate the stables. A ghouled horse was there. The saddle was of the finest leather. It had been placed there tonight. The owner, the male vampire, was inside.

Prince Yulia and Veceslav had pulled that information from the mind of Heinrich as well; when he came, he often stayed for hours, so we had time. They also learned that the male regularly came back to the inn, to feed and to ensure the compliance of Heinrich. His partner, the woman Hette, was at the Stonemason’s Guild, the sight of the new and previously unknown Tremere Chantry.

We reformed at Lucien’s manor to plan. He had suspected the existence of a Chantry. I had suspected something, but did not know what. Neither of us had spoken to the other on the matter. He and I really need to work on our trust issues!

Lucien called the banners, bringing in Lukas. We would all march on the inn. I voiced my reluctance for physical confrontation with a vampire. Lucien suggested I hide behind the skirts of Maude. I swallowed my rebuttal; I was planning on hiding behind the skirts of everyone!

We returned to the inn. Lucien suggested Heinrich call closing time and then go have a sleep. It was done. We then split into two groups – through the front and around the back. We converged on the room in which the Tremere male was feeding. Lucien kicked the door in. the Tremere stood there with a glowing sword in his hand, and fear in his eyes. Lucien hissed and glared at the Tremere and the Tremere froze, incapable of movement, trapped by the ancient’s mind powers.

“Surrender, and you may live,” growled the ancient Roman.

The Tremere stood paralysed.

Jerro removed the glowing sword from the Tremere, not gently with his claws. The sword, even gripped by the handle, burned the young Gangrel so he dropped it to the floor.

The Tremere, finally able to move, albeit weakly, held his hands up in surrender.

“Wise choice,” Lucien huffed and led the suspect away.

*

View
Session 45: Trial by War with Koban of Vrancea
Session Forty-Five

EXCERPT FROM A LETTER TO DURGA SYN FROM SISTER MAUDE KHLESL

(PART 4 OF 4)

[CONTINUED FROM PREVIOUS SESSION SUMMARY]

The following day, as we slept, there were three assaults, including one in which one of the vozhd was driven off by hot sand poured from the battlements. George was to tell us later that they had merely been tests of the castle’s defensive strength.

We awoke to the sounds of more battle, and were immediately needed to help shore up the defences on the walls. I was able to drive the attackers from one stretch of the battlements with an application of fear-based Mortis, but the attack claimed the lives of 20 of the defenders, though the enemy casualties were far greater.

Following the battle, staring around at the mangled corpses, defender and enemy alike, I was almost overwhelmed by the scale of the suffering that had been unleashed. And not just the physical agony of the wounded and dying, but the lingering suffering that I knew would result from the deprivation and hardship of families forever bereft of their husbands and fathers. But those sorts of thoughts had to be put aside. I hardened my heart and turned my thoughts solely to how to make myself effective.

Throughout the night, Koban harassed us with his Koldunic spirit powers, causing many of the defenders’ armour and weapons to warp and collapse into scrap. Perhaps more crucially, the ballista on the tower – one of our few weapons capable of hurting the vozhd – was similarly ruined.

A plan was then conceived to call a temporary truce so that we could parlay with Koban. The hope was that he would reveal his motives for besieging Toth, and that we could then find a way to convince him to call off the attack. I had reservations about whether he would honour such a truce if we left the safety of the castle walls, but Iulia and Veceslav seemed confident that he wouldn’t betray us in that way. Even amidst all the horror and mayhem, I was struck by the insanity of the Tzimisce code of honour, in which it was perfectly acceptable to arbitrarily brutalise and murder innocent people, but “dishonourable” to attack the leaders of an enemy force during a truce.

By signalling our intent with white flags, a group of us were permitted to approach the enemy encampment unmolested. From there we were escorted by Koban’s Huntmaster, Stanok (who Bernhard had almost killed previously), into the voivode’s tent of human flesh.

Koban epitomises the pinnacle of evil of which our kind are capable, and this was reflected in his form: seven feet of flesh-crafted horror; all bony ridges and multiple orifices doubling as eyes and mouths. Also present were his three other childe, Varg, Jimuz and Timur, his Warmaster, along with an assortment of monstrous war ghouls, including his vozhd throne crafted from still-living beasts of burden.

Standing as I was in the midst of hell-on-earth among creatures utterly antithetical to every belief I hold dear, I decided – wisely, I think – to say very little. In the discussion that followed, I simply sought occasional clarification. And so it was from Koban himself that the final pieces of the puzzle were put in place, and the whole of the story revealed.

Fifty years ago, Zubor, childe of Gesu, had attempted to set up an Obertus monastery in Koban’s lands. Unsurprisingly, Koban wasn’t very receptive to the Christian message of love and redemption. Zubor was forced to flee, and his flight took him through Toth. There Bodor briefly gave him hospitality and shelter, before Koban’s forces appeared in pursuit and Zubor had to flee once more. However, before he left, Zubor gave his host a “gift” in return for his hospitality: he Embraced Bodor without his consent.

This left Bodor ignorant of the necessities of the vampiric condition, and some unfortunate servants subsequently met their ends as a result of his frenzies. He informed his family of his curse, who rallied around him for the most part – all save the oldest sister, Remenyke, who finally fled Toth altogether when Bodor eventually offered the Embrace to the twins, Farkas and Erzebet.

After a couple of years, Bodor decided to fake his own death, leaving Devald to rule as the new Boyar, while he withdrew into an unlife devoted to uncovering the secrets of his vampiric existence. To further this effort, Killian travelled west to see if he could discover more about vampirism, and returned with another vampire, a Tremere called Lempi. She promised to tutor Bodor on the vampiric condition and on Cainite society, but instead attempted to take his place as ruler of Toth by instructing a blood bound Killian to murder his own father – a plan which backfired spectacularly when Bodor instead overpowered and imprisoned them both. Over the years, Lempi became the canvas on which he practiced his flesh-crafting; she currently served as his gruesome writing desk.

Meanwhile, Farkas, after his Embrace, also travelled west and fell in with the Obertus monks at the monastery in Zara where he was eventually to meet his end at the hands of the Crusaders. While there, Farkas made copies of many of the monastery’s texts and sent them back to his father. It was from these, and clearly aided by a natural aptitude, that Bodor was over the years able to achieve an astonishing level of mastery of both Auspex and Vicissitude without the benefit of any direct instruction.

As for Bodor’s sire, Zubor, he had been caught by Koban’s forces soon after Bodor’s Embrace, and was returned to Koban to face a grim fate. However, Zubor’s dying words were a curse on Koban, in which he declared that his blood would destroy him. Ever since, Koban had been obsessed with the nature of the curse – despite any evidence of its actual efficacy – interpreting it to mean that Zubor’s offspring would one day carry out their sire’s revenge. Regrettably, Bodor’s oldest daughter, Remenyke, recently fell into Koban’s clutches, and it was from her that he learned the tale of her father, Bodor, and that Zubor had made him his childe.

So, that was the whole tale in all its horrific, sordid, absurd detail. This Zubor had cursed Koban with his dying breath – a curse that was almost certainly nothing but empty words – and Koban, in his insanity, had believed it to have actual power. Naturally I then tried to point this out to him, but was shushed by Myca. I acquiesced, thinking I was somehow making matters worse. However, I was to learn later that Myca had identified Koban’s weakness – an astonishing gullibility on matters of the occult – and had seen an opportunity to take advantage of it himself.

So, Durga my friend, there I stood in the company of the utterly evil and insane, my mission originally to forestall the indiscriminate and ill-aimed vengeance of the hateful Bodor Toth, but now to defend his people from the depredations of the voivode, Koban, who was attacking for no good reason whatsoever … and despite the pointlessness and lunacy of every aspect of Koban’s endeavour, thinking I was powerless to convince him to change his mind. As the conversation turned to crazed pleasantries and offers of virgins’ blood for refreshment, I reflected on the fact that if I had the means to end Koban right then, even if it meant breaking the truce, even if it meant ruining the reputations of my coterie mates in Cainite society, even if it meant the end of my own unlife, it would be a price well worth paying. For even if I am to survive for centuries, I doubt I can achieve enough lasting good to offset the evil that Koban will inflict in a fraction of that time.

As we left Koban’s tent to make our way back to the castle, Erzebet suddenly grew distressed. Forty yards away sat one of the vozhd in its enclosure. Melded into its midsection was Erzebet’s oldest sister. It seemed that Remenyke had finally come home.

Back at the castle, the preparations for the final siege began. After considerable debate, Devald agreed to ghoul all the soldiers – with the identity stripped from the vitae, and with Iulia able to Dominate the soldiers into believing that they were drinking a “green, minty strength potion”, there was very little reason not to.

Throughout the night Koban continued to harass us with his Koldunism. A Kupala demon, similar to the ones we faced with the Malkavian cultists all those years ago, appeared in the compound, but it proved vulnerable to my Mortis and an uncharacteristically skilled display of swordsmanship by Veceslav.

Spirits also assailed the defenders psychically, saturating them with hysteria, despair and violent anger. It was all we could do just to keep the people from killing themselves or each other. Fortunately, Bodor was able to travel to the spirits’ realm with his Auspex power of astral projection and drive many away, but the effort depleted him sorely, and in the end the damage to morale had been done. I attempted to retaliate by sending the illusion of a great spirit eagle over the enemy encampment imploring them to throw down their weapons during any upcoming fighting, promising them a mercy that they wouldn’t receive if they returned to Koban in failure. As far as I could tell, it was completely ineffective.

There were no more assaults that night.

We awoke the following dusk to learn of further attacks during the day that had claimed more casualties on both sides. Alas, Lazlo was among them. I can’t claim to have been overly fond of the vain, smug hedonist, but his death was still something of a shock. He has served our coterie from the very beginning and, for all his shortcomings, was capable and trustworthy.

Also among the casualties, thankfully, was one of the vozhd, destroyed by the last reserves of hot sand. However, without more sand we realised that we had nothing in our arsenal reliably capable of bringing down the other vozhd. George suggested we hastily dig a spike-lined pit just behind the gate for when the vozhd inevitably smashed its way through. With a concerted effort, this was achieved just in time for the final assault.

As Koban’s forces gathered just out of arrow range, Devald gave a speech to the faltering, fearful defenders, a speech that was so rousing, so inspirational, that some of the non-combatants – women, the very old, and some barely out of childhood – picked up spears to join the ranks of the soldiers. In fact, I had subtly illuminated Devald in a “divine” light, and enhanced the atmosphere with auditory illusions that mimicked cheering. I was disquieted to see women and children taking up arms as a result, but reminded myself that the fight had to be won or all would perish.

It was at this critical moment that Myca decided to save his own skin rather than risk fighting in the battle. He left us a note saying he was going to attempt something with Koban. I quickly asked Bodor to scry Myca with his Auspex, and so was able to learn what was said between him and the insane voivode, and learn why Myca had shushed me in our earlier parlay under the truce.

With a silver tongue, Myca managed to convince Koban that Zubor’s curse would actually somehow destroy Koban from within, not through Zubor’s childe, and that only the Obertus could help him be rid of it. His reasoning and his assertions were utterly nonsensical and fatuous, his motives laughably transparent, and yet Koban believed him! It beggared belief that such a powerful Prince – especially a master of the occult – could be so utterly susceptible to such blatant prevarication. Durga, my friend, I have no doubt that you would find a way to make use of such a weakness but, alas, that kind of manipulation does not come easily to me. In any case, Koban told Myca that he intended to press the attack anyway, to which Myca responded with indifference – callous indeed, but I must concede there was probably nothing he could say to change Koban’s mind.

Shortly after this, the main assault began. The slaughter that followed dwarfed even what had occurred over the previous two days. The bodies piled up beneath the walls as the attackers swarmed up ladders, threatening to overwhelm the battlements. As you know, Durga my friend, under normal circumstances I am blessed – though it is sometimes a curse – with near perfect recall. However, my memory of the battle is curiously fragmented, as though remembering a nightmare.

Some of those fragments remain at the forefront of my memories, ghastly legacies of the battle’s horror: Veceslav, in Zulo shape, being beaten down by Jimuz, but then frenzying and tearing the Cuman’s head and spine from his body; Bodor, also in Zulo shape, ripping out Varg’s throat and hurling him from the battlements; Iulia and Agmundr facing off against more summoned Kupala demons; me swinging a man like a living club to knock invaders from the walls; Bernhard facing off against the Warmaster, Timur, who proves unbelievably resilient to his attacks, even though I am freezing his movements with my Mortis powers; Timur eventually being driven off the walls with Bernhard in pursuit; the last vozhd breaking through the gate and falling into the pit; the defenders mobbing it; Erzebet being all but eviscerated by one swipe of its enormous talons before Veceslav finally ends it with a desperate, frenzied attack. Butchery. Carnage. Endless death.

And then it was over. Koban was retreating with what remained of his forces. The few surviving Cumans inside the walls had thrown down their weapons and surrendered. The dead and dying lay in heaps. Contorted bodies. Ragged, torn flesh. Staring, sightless eyes. Every surface painted red with the slick of blood. Corpses twitching, reluctant to acknowledge that they’re dead. Screams. Moans. Weeping. All this I ignored. Instead I stared down at just one dead woman at my feet, quite unable to move or look away.

Her name had been Marta. I had been briefly introduced to her before the siege. She was an awkward woman. Most of the left side of her face was covered in a thick spongy birthmark, which most of the villagers believed to be some kind of curse or divine punishment or sign of innate wickedness. As a result, despite Angyalka’s best efforts, she was a spinster and a pariah. As is often the case with such victims of God’s capricious cruelty, she was meek and biddable and desperately eager to please.

And so, when Devald gave his impassioned speech, urging the defenders to harden their resolve and fight for their homes, a speech which I enhanced with cheap trickery in order to stir the defenders to fervour, Marta, desperate for approval, snatched up a spear, despite having little strength and even less skill, and stood with the defenders. I saw her struck down by one of the last remaining szlachta in the courtyard. While it fought one of the militiamen, Marta made a single inept thrust at the monster’s side, which glanced off its bony carapace, before it disembowelled her with a casual flick of its sword-arm.

And so, like all the dead around me, she had been slaughtered by vampires, as surely as if they had cut her down themselves. From Zubor’s dying curse to his violating Embrace of Bodor, from Bodor’s hateful and indiscriminate plans for murderous vengeance, from Koban’s insanity and sadism – from all of them sprang the death and suffering, which had soaked our endeavours from the moment we began this farce. And the one vampire amongst it all with an altruistic bent, the one trying to ameliorate the harm of her brethren? Even she did harm, tricking innocents into throwing themselves into harm’s way, toying with their emotions in the pursuit of her oh-so-noble goals, allowing their lives to be sacrificed so cheaply, for the mere cost of a single swing of an enemy blade. Hundreds dead, endless suffering, unremitting horror, unrelenting despair – all at our hands, and with nothing – nothing! – worthwhile to offset any of it.

Now, Durga, I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right: there should be no place in my heart for this kind of self-indulgent self-pity. I may even have an inflated view of my abilities – Devald’s speech was extremely stirring in its own right, and so Marta may have taken up her spear irrespective of my tricks.

But my point remains, and it is this: we vampires are a curse on the world. For every one like you and me, there are a hundred that kill and take without compunction. We are pissing on a forest fire, you and I, and we are deluding ourselves if we think our kind, as a whole, will ever abandon self-interest and savagery for compassion and reason. It’s simply not in our nature.

So, where do these thoughts lead me? Well, nowhere they haven’t wandered before. But if there’s one thing of which I’m now sure, it is this: if it were within my means to end the unlives of all vampires everywhere – myself; you, my friend; the gracious Lady Perlina; the beatific Prince Julia Antasia; the compassionate Prince Dionysus; my sire, Dietrich, whom I love for no good reason; my friend Elijah who I love with very good reason … all of them – then I would, with regret, but with no hesitation, destroy us all, and know that the world was a much, much better place because of it.

So, what does this mean for me in practical terms? Not much, particularly in the short term. I will continue my work to improve the lot of mortals. I will continue to ameliorate the harm done by the worst of our kind. But now my thoughts will be bent to a larger goal: is there a way to thin the numbers of our kind, particularly the worst of the murderous tyrannical Tzimisce here in the East? Could remorseless Christian zealots like the ones we encountered in Venice, or like the ones on the Crusade itself, somehow be made aware of the creatures of irredeemable evil that rule without challenge in Eastern Europe? Could we somehow set murderous fanatics against murderous vampires? Innocent lives would undoubtedly be lost in such a conflict, but tenfold, a hundredfold, a thousandfold more would be saved in the years that followed, years with curtailed vampiric oppression. Do we not owe future generations the possibility of a life free from the depredations of our kind?

The final toll of the battle was devastating. The majority of the trained guardsmen and militia were dead, along with the many non-combatants who, like Marta, had taken up arms at the end. The enemy dead numbered in the hundreds. Were many of them, too, just victims of circumstance? Would most of them have eschewed the conflict if the choice had been theirs? Gortav, Bernhard’s Pecheneg mercenary leader had also fallen, along with most of his comrades. However, surprisingly, Erzebet had survived the vozhd’s attack, though her injuries had driven her into torpor. I would be in no hurry to revive her, though, even though it was within my means, without first attempting to leverage some concessions from her odious father.

As order was restored and the most grievously injured attended to, it was discovered that Killian had fled the castle just before the final attack after somehow using Lempi to Embrace him, and then destroying her. Bodor was livid and declared Killian disowned. It now seems unlikely that the Tzimisce father and now-Tremere son will ever settle their differences, but in my view Bodor only has himself to blame.

Shortly after the battle had ended, Bernhard drank his fill of blood, and then set off into the blizzard in an attempt to track and bring down Koban’s fleeing Warmaster, Timur. His plan seemed unwise to me given that both he and I were unable to defeat the villain together. However, Timur’s reserves of blood would be very low, and besides, experience had shown me that Bernhard unfailingly disregarded any of my attempts to stop him putting himself “to the hazard”. Still, I felt uneasy – more so than usual – as I watched him lope off into the squall.

The next night Bernhard still hadn’t returned, so Bodor used his Auspex to scry his location. He discovered the unthinkable: Timur had somehow turned the tables and cut Bernhard down. As Bodor watched, Timur was making his way back to his master, dragging Bernhard’s ravaged body through the snow behind him. It was unclear whether Bernhard was slain or in torpor, so I adopted my spectral form and frantically set off through the blizzard in an attempt to catch them up. I had no sensible plan for besting Timur should Bernhard still be alive, but I hoped to at least ascertain whether he had gone to Final Death.

I was too late. Timur made it to Koban’s encampment before I could catch up with him. I watched from a distance as they impaled Bernhard’s body on a long pole, and hoisted it up as a kind of perverse banner. I stared in disbelief. Alive or dead, Bernhard was now lost to us.

We built a cairn at the spot he fell. Despite the mixed feelings I had about the man, I found myself grieving. It’s hard to describe succinctly how I feel about his passing, but it is perhaps best put like this: it was like losing a brother, one that I had little respect for and even at times despised, but who was my brother nonetheless. Also, for reasons that are unclear to me, I also sincerely believed – without any real evidence – that in the end he would somehow find a way to arrest his moral decline and to finally master his Beast. Even an old rationalist like I can be allowed her moments of groundless optimism, no?

And so our mission to end the Toth family’s attacks on Zara has been successful, though that objective now seems absurd given all that has transpired … and all that has been lost. Toth’s people have been decimated while the village itself was razed by Koban’s retreating forces. The settlement may never recover. Already many of the villagers are talking about leaving when the weather clears; since Koban may well return in the future, this is an entirely sensible course of action that should be encouraged, even if it means the end of Toth in the long run.

In return for me reviving Erzebet, Bodor has agreed to maintain correspondence with myself, Iulia and Veceslav, and to put his powers of Auspex at our disposal on a regular basis. In fact, he, Vykos and Veceslav seem to have become quite close in the weeks after the siege, spending much of their time in the tower stewing in a fug of smugly callous Tzimisce amorality. I find I much prefer the company of Angyalka and Devald.

Nevertheless, as agreed, I revived Erzebet from her torpor, and to my immense surprise – and relief – she not only rejected her father’s overtures of reconciliation, but declared that she wished to meet Lucien in the hope that he will agree to become her mentor. Perhaps she saw something in Bernhard that we all missed, something that has inspired her to perhaps turn away from the path of savagery? If so, it would bring a crumb of sorely needed hope to this whole wretched affair.

Alas, there seems no possibility of her father changing his tune. He will remain ensconced in his tower, an all-seeing parasite, leeching off his family and people. For now he seems to retain a shred of twisted devotion to his children and a distorted sense of loyalty to his people. But what will happen as the years roll on, as his mortal children die, as the decades turn to centuries, and as an endless procession of his descendants live and die, generation after generation, beneath his ageless gaze?

Why, it’s clear. Increasingly their mewling, ephemeral, animal lives will seem to him pointless and inconsequential, and as he grows in personal and political power his treatment of them will become increasingly callous and cruel. Given his reprehensible conduct after only fifty years of unlife, can there be any doubt that his great-great-great-great-grandchildren will, like everyone else, cower in fear of the ancient monster that lurks in the tower demanding their blood and offering nothing in return but death and despair?

As I said earlier, Durga my friend, we’re a curse on the world. You’re more capable than I – can’t you find a way to wipe us all out?

Take care, my friend.

Maude

P.S. When will we travel together again? I find myself in need of your guidance and perspective. Could you tell?

View
Session 44: Preparations for the Trial by War
Session Forty-Four

EXCERPT FROM A LETTER TO DURGA SYN FROM SISTER MAUDE KHLESL

(PART 3 OF 4)

[CONTINUED FROM PREVIOUS SESSION SUMMARY]

Following our relaxed and convivial dinner, I ventured to the village of Toth itself to make the acquaintance of Bodor’s daughter, Angyalka, who had married the local blacksmith. She was gracious and helpful, despite quickly recognising that I was a vampire. From her I learnt more about the Toth family and about the circumstances of Bodor’s Embrace. There were still many unanswered questions but, as it turned out, these would all be answered in the weeks to come (more on that later).

When I returned to the castle, it was in turmoil. A vampire assassin – some unfortunate wretch, recently Embraced, and “gifted” with a horrifically distended jaw – had been sent to ritually murder Devald. He failed, although he slew several of the castle guard in the attempt. Bernhard was quickly on the scene and, heavy-handed as always, killed the assassin rather than incapacitating him. On his corpse, we discovered a ritual blade and some papers outlining a Koldunic declaration of trial by war. By using Spirit’s Touch on the blade, Myca learnt the identity of the antagonist: Koban, voivode of Vrancea, childe of Noriz. For reasons still unclear to us, some insane Koldun Prince had declared war on Toth. In two weeks the settlement would face an onslaught from whatever horrific forces this Koban would bring to bear.

Realising Bodor was desperately in need of our assistance, I quickly obtained from him a promise to call off any further attacks in Zara in return for our aid in defending against the upcoming siege. (In truth, I would have willingly assisted in the defence regardless if only to ensure the safety of the mortal population, but nothing was to be gained by making Bodor aware of that.)

The following night we held a council of war. My first thought was to evacuate all the non-combatants to a neighbouring settlement. However, Bodor knew with his Auspex that there was a massive oncoming blizzard that would make travel fatal for all but the hardiest of mortals. This meant that during the siege the entire population of the village would instead have to be crammed into the castle’s walls, and that their fates rested entirely on us successfully withstanding the enemy’s assault. Having experienced firsthand a Tzimisce trial by war, I knew the sorts of horrors that would befall the people of Toth if the defences fell. Failing them could not be countenanced. This fight had to be won.

With that in mind, I bent my thoughts to practical matters. As we have learned, in any protracted fight it is the supply of blood that remains key. Distasteful and parasitic though it seemed, our best hope for victory was to methodically bleed the people of Toth over the next two weeks, turn the blood into vitae, and then use my ritual magic to strip it of its identity so that anyone could imbibe it – vampire, ghoul or even mortal – and not be hampered by a blood bond. It would be a massive undertaking and would be best achieved through benign duplicity, but it was a necessary evil if we were to save the villagers from enslavement, torture and murder. I put this to Angyalka in as clear and practical terms as possible, as she would be instrumental in gaining the villagers’ cooperation. While understandably discomforted by the plan, she saw the sense in it and agreed to help.

Other plans were made during the council, though I had little more to contribute. Bernhard would return to Kronstadt to fetch his Pecheneg mercenaries, though it would mean them travelling through the oncoming blizzard to get here, and they would also bring some weapons and supplies that Bernhard would procure. All men of fighting age would be trained and drilled in the two weeks leading to the attack. And plans were made to scout and harry the enemy forces as they neared Toth.

The two weeks leading up to the siege passed in a blur of wind and snow, frantic activity, and a simmering, pernicious dread. The people of Toth had been told that the “forces of hell” would soon be besieging them, but many were starting to ask uncomfortable questions about why Toth was being targeted at all. It was all Angyalka could do to keep their morale up and to deflect questions about the peculiarities of the Toth family.

With my improved Nigrimancy, I was able to summon George to our location in a way that enabled him to remain with us. I found his presence immensely reassuring. We put his experience and military genius to use immediately: Iulia and I would make “suggestions” that Veceslav and Bernhard knew to be George’s, and so the preparations proceeded with maximal efficiency.

George was also able to scout the advancing enemy. Compared to the paltry force of a few dozen defending the castle, our opposition seemed overwhelming: 350 men (mostly foot soldiers with a few light cavalry and archers), 40 szlachta, two of the horrific vozhd, four of Koban’s childe, and Koban himself. Also, worryingly, George was harassed by strange spirit assailants when he drew too close to the enemy’s encampments, which suggested that Koban could bring otherworldly forces to bear in the upcoming conflict.

After learning all this and fearing the worst, I discretely asked George for an honest appraisal of our chances of success. He replied that there were too many unknowns to make an accurate assessment. When I pressed him, he replied, “If it were genuinely hopeless, Maude, do you think I would counsel my wife – or you – to remain and face your doom?” Somehow, that brought me little comfort.

As Koban’s forces drew near, Bernhard and Erzebet set out into the blizzard with the intention of waging guerrilla strikes against them. Despite all his posturing and vainglory, this sort of thing is clearly what Bernhard does best. In the days leading up to the battle, they managed to kill sixty of the enemy troops. Sixty! It really was a staggering achievement, and would undoubtedly have a profound effect on the outcome of the siege. For all my tricks and medical knowledge and blood magic, I doubt my efforts will have nearly so much impact. But then I suppose it’s little surprise that I’m not at my best in the middle of an orgy of war and violence.

Buoyed by Bernhard’s success, we conceived of a plan to ambush and kill Koban’s master of Animalism. Unfortunately, our plan backfired when he lured us into an ambush of his own. Not willing to let the opportunity pass, Bernhard nonetheless pressed the attack and very nearly succeeded in bringing down our quarry, but we were eventually forced to flee. I was comparatively safe throughout the skirmish, as I had taken my spectral form, but I nevertheless got battered by spiritual assailants that Koban had no doubt summoned with his Koldunism.

Shortly before Koban’s forces arrived, Gortav and what remained of the hired mercenaries trudged into Toth castle. Six of the nineteen that originally set out had died en route, unable to endure the blizzard. Nevertheless, they brought with them some much needed food, as well as some crossbows and quarrels.

Finally, two weeks after the attempt on Devald’s life, we saw the firelight of the enemy forces as they occupied the empty buildings of Toth village. The true horror was about to begin.

[CONTINUED IN NEXT SESSION SUMMARY]

View
Session 43: Arrival in Toth
Session Forty-Three

EXCERPT FROM A LETTER TO DURGA SYN FROM SISTER MAUDE KHLESL

(PART 2 OF 4)

[CONTINUED FROM PREVIOUS SESSION SUMMARY]

Late February 1203

Finding ourselves inexplicably near Weissenburg after our weeks-long slumber, we made our way to Iulia’s house outside the town walls. Visiting our friend was Myca Vykos and his childe, Irene Dalasena. Vykos was in the region to call in the boons owed to him by our coterie to establish Obertus monasteries in and around the Siebenburgen.

We recounted our experiences at the Obertus monastery, and Vykos responded with anger and disgust. He felt that the depravity we witnessed was a heretical perversion of the Obertus ethos, and he placed the blame for it firmly on the shoulders of his grandsire Gesu and his insane search for the “divinity within”. However, Vykos’s views seemed to be personal rather than an indication of some schism within the Obertus order itself. Personally, I found the matter of minor concern. The involvement of the children at the monastery disturbs me profoundly, but despite that I find little reason to share Vykos’s outrage at the conduct of a group of seemingly-happy cultists, however depraved some of their practices may be.

On recounting our vision, Vykos suggested that we consult with a Salubri called Achmet who resides in Constantinople who has made especial study of the meanings in dreams. I don’t think anything useful can come of it, but if we find ourselves in Constantinople I will seek this Achmet out (purely in deference to your inestimable wisdom, of course, Durga – again, never let it be said that I don’t do what I’m told).

Once we had told those assembled of the purpose of our mission, both Vykos and Iulia requested that they join us. Iulia wished to know more of this unknown Tzimisce ruler, Bodor Toth, as she felt it could be useful in her dealings with other nearby Shaper Princes. Whatever her reasons, I was delighted that Iulia would join us. Despite our differences, she brings a much-needed level-headedness to the coterie now that I have skilfully manoeuvred myself into a position of complete irrelevance with Bernhard and Veceslav.

For his part, Vykos wished to accompany us so that he could learn more about Erzebet’s brother, Farkas. It seemed the Zaran monastery in which he’d been killed was of the Obertus order, too, and Vykos wanted to know how a vampire with an unknown lineage had insinuated himself into their ranks, and what – if anything – he had learned.

I find his reasons for travelling with us a bit strange. He would be sending his childe, Irene, to investigate the Obertus monastery in which we’d had our vision – an entire monastery which he previously didn’t even know existed and whose residents engage in practices he finds abhorrent – while he personally travelled with us through terrible conditions and undoubted danger to learn more of just one monk (now dead) that resided in the more conventional monastery in Zara (since destroyed). It seemed a disproportionate investment of time to unearth facts of little importance that we could simply pass onto him on our return.

In any case, there is a coldness to Vykos I find discomforting. He is perfectly polite and should be an asset during our mission, but I get the feeling that under his veneer of civility he is completely lacking in warmth or compassion.

We left the next night. We would travel through Mediasch, while Vykos would travel through Marelle’s domain (being unwelcome in Nova Arpad’s court), meeting up in Kronstadt later.

The journey to Mediasch was uneventful. When we arrived, we presented ourselves to Prince Nova – the real one this time. She was predictably haughty and superior, but not entirely unreasonable about most matters not related to her feuds with Mitru and Marusca. In fact, she was eager for one of my clinics to be established in Mediasch, and even seemed willing to do it on my terms.

After discussion of the clinic, the four Siebenburgen rulers – Nova, Prince of Mediasch; Iulia, Prince of Weissenburg; Bernhard, Prince of Kronstadt; and Veceslav, Knez of Tihuta – prepared to discuss politics. In a rather transparent attempt to get rid of me, presumably to prevent me stifling the talks with my moralising, Bernhard suggested I take Erzebet hunting. In fact, I was more than happy to comply, since I knew the conversation would inevitably turn to Nova’s demands for cooperation in the blood hunts against Mitru and Marusca, which would be followed by obfuscations or outright lies by the others regarding their willingness to help her in this. So, I spent a lovely evening in the company of the charming and convivial Erzebet, procuring the services of whores, and trying to make sure she didn’t tear out their throats while feeding.

We arrived in Kronstadt two nights later. We convened at Lukas’s leper colony along with Kronstadt’s Cainite residents so that Bernhard could attend to any Princely business. However, I noticed that in his case Princely business doesn’t seem to involve actually ruling anyone, but perhaps this is for the best given his lack of wisdom, judgement, charisma, intellect, common sense, vision, tact, likeability, maturity, logic, reason, humility, perceptiveness, competence, self-awareness, insight, patience and grace.

Two nights later, we set out shortly after dusk for the last leg of our trip to Toth.

Early March 1203

After a journey through appalling winter conditions, we finally entered the narrow Borstral Pass and saw Toth up ahead. The village of Toth is home to about 650 people, while a mile away sits Toth castle, a two-storey affair built into the mountainside itself. At the castle we were welcomed by the major domo, Petre Carp, who after consulting with his master invited us to dine with them that evening. An emotional reunion between Erzebet and her father and siblings was conspicuously absent. In fact, I might have almost felt sorry for her if she wasn’t such a callous and mean-spirited little bitch.

At dinner we were introduced to the Boyar, Erzebet’s brother, Devalt, who seemed an ordinary mortal in his fifties, and their younger brother, Killian, also mortal, but seemingly a ghoul given that he appeared to be in his mid-twenties. Also present was their Moorish-appearing “advisor”, Magib, who was clearly a vampire. Over the course of the conversation it became clear that Magib was, in fact, Bodor Toth himself, having presumably flesh-crafted himself a new appearance long ago, perhaps to coincide with his “death”. We also learned of another sister, Angyalka, living with the common folk down in the village. If given a chance I will seek her out – she may be the sole voice of reason and compassion in the whole benighted family.

After some rather contrived and awkward small talk, the conversation eventually turned to the matter of Farkas’s death and the Toth family’s plans for revenge. I told them in no uncertain terms that their attempts at revenge were both morally repugnant and entirely ineffective given that it was the blameless people of Zara who suffered from Erzebet’s depredations, while the zealots who murdered Farkas remained unaffected. Devalt responded callously, claiming to be unconcerned about the welfare of foreigners in a foreign city, as long as his brother’s murderers were made to suffer. How refreshingly vampire-like.

After a further series of verbal volleys, the debate seemed to end in a stalemate. Devalt said that he would consider our words and inform us of his decision later.

[CONTINUED IN NEXT SESSION SUMMARY]

View
Session 42: Obertus Diversions
Session Forty-Two

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]

View
Session 41: Apprehending Erzebet
Session Forty-One

CODED LETTER TO ELIJAH OF ANTIOCH FROM SISTER MAUDE KHLESL

(PART 2 OF 2)

[CONTINUED FROM PREVIOUS SESSION SUMMARY]

After waking tonight, I learnt of an outbreak of dysentery at the Crusade hospital. Guilabert was awaiting my arrival, eager for my expertise. However, he had already done a commendable job of organising the appropriate quarantine and hygiene procedures. In truth, there was little for me to do except congratulate him. Not for the first time I find myself wondering why I’m not working alongside a coterie of vampires like Guilabert: rational, clever altruists with the sense to accept what I tell them.

I made my way into Zara and came upon an agitated crowd. It transpired that Erzebet, our Tzimisce villain, had flesh-crafted some barn animals into perverse hybrid forms. Her goal was clearly to continue to foment instability and hysteria. It was working. Some True Faith lunatics were soon on hand, fanning their own endearing brand of mania – these knights were, in fact, led by the very same rabble-rouser who instigated the Venetian riots back in September! As the knights argued with some local constables, a crowd was forming, seething with the pent up injustice of the hardships imposed by the occupation of their city – an injustice that the knights represented. It was a burning tinder keg waiting to erupt.

Fortunately, my restrained and competent coterie mates were present. Veceslav somehow accidentally disrobed a nearby woman, which drew the attention of one of the True Faith lunatics, who promptly recognised him as an “unholy demon”. In the ensuing commotion, swords were drawn, tempers flared, blood was spilled and the mob turned violent.

But then the most incredible thing happened: an angel appeared over the crowd pleading for calm. Curiously, instead of quoting scripture, she just resorted to stale platitudes, as though flustered by the situation. More curiously still, I found myself reminded of the host of heavenly saints that aided Bohemund on the First Crusade. In any case, it did the trick, and the crowd calmed somewhat, though one of the True Faith zealots cast aspersions on the authenticity of the vision. Ingrate! The vision had possibly just saved his life! (Why, oh why, do I keep saving the lives of True Faith maniacs with my “unholy powers”?)

The situation might have boringly defused with that, but fortunately Bernhard was on hand to start a conflagration that consumed an entire block of the city.

Really.

Afterwards, he casually expressed mild concern that his actions were excessive. I replied, “What’s done is done.” Now, Elijah, my dear friend, my indifference to his wanton destruction might seem a little out of character. To clarify, here’s my perspective.

Imagine a rabid dog were to jump through a window of someone’s home, bite all the occupants, smash all their possessions, piss in the corner, hump the grandmother’s leg, and generally behave in a maniacal and unpleasant manner. Would you sternly rebuke the dog? Would you try to make it see reason? Of course not. The dog is a simple-minded creature infected with a disease of the mind, quite incapable of rational thought, empathy, compassion or sound judgement. And so it is with Bernhard.

In any case, I think his intent was to destroy the corrupted animals to preserve the Silence of the Blood, but he failed in this, too, (of course) as the True Faith brigade managed to capture one and return it to their headquarters for examination.

After the extraordinary displays of ineptitude by my esteemed coterie mates, we returned to Prince Gari’s “palace” to plan our search for Erzebet. In the following hours, Bernhard used Animalism to locate some rats unwilling to deal with him – a sure sign that a hostile Animalism user was nearby – which narrowed down our search to one block of the city. Meanwhile, I was able to convince some local benign spirits (and a rather sadistic one) to further refine our search, until we were finally able to locate Erzebet’s hideout.

At this point, Bernhard and Veceslav returned to the Crusader camp. They were hoping to obtain some support for the upcoming assault on our quarry’s lair, and hence requested an audience with Sir Guy de Provence. However, they were firmly rebuffed by his aide, Petrus (a fellow Ravnos, by the way, who makes use of Chimerstry in quite innovative ways). It seemed Guy was apparently on the verge of a Beast-induced tantrum from all the problems caused by the earlier almost-riot. I find it very reassuring that the Cainite leader of the Crusade is hot-tempered and prone to rage. After all, cool heads and unflappable wisdom are so inappropriate in the leader of an effort dedicated to fanatical and unquestioning slaughter.

In any case, a pair of very capable Cainite knights, Arnaud and Martin, were put at our disposal, along with a number of mortal retainers who would cordon off the area around Erzebet’s lair. However, despite the fact that they requested the support in the first place, Veceslav and Bernhard suddenly decided that Arnaud and Martin were surplus to requirements, and tried to rid themselves of the pair. I suspect Bernhard didn’t want any of the upcoming “glory” to be further diluted. My view, however, was that the more capable Cainites were involved in the assault, the better. In the end, they off-handedly agreed to let the pair assault the back of the building while we assaulted the front. It was a good thing they did.

By this stage, Erzebet’s animal scouts had clearly warned her of the imminent attack, as my ghostly allies informed me that she and her mortal lackeys were preparing themselves for battle. Consequently, we hadn’t the time I would have liked to bolster ourselves with my catalogue of ritual magic. Nevertheless, as Arnaud and Martin circled around the back of the building, I attempted to make the best of a less-than-ideal situation by discussing a few last-minute tactical options with Veceslav and Bernhard (who had adopted his wolf form). However, after five interminable seconds of discussion, Bernhard’s patience was at an end. He charged at the building, smashing his way through a window, forcing me and Veceslav, unprepared, to hurriedly follow suit.

(I’m not sure whether to be comforted or alarmed by the fact that I felt no anger at Bernhard’s undisciplined and premature spurt of aggression. Please refer to my earlier comments regarding the rabid dog.)

Bernhard’s premature attack set the tone for the shambolic disgrace that followed. On smashing our way through the front door, I was set upon by three of Erzebet’s thugs. By this time, I had bolstered my agility and resilience to their maximal levels. Despite this, all three effortlessly struck me and all three effortlessly wounded me. Note that these weren’t highly skilled warriors; they were lowly thugs. It was certainly a lesson in humility for me.

To make matters worse, I then attempted one of my Mortis tricks, which backfired spectacularly. In the end, I resorted to conjuring up an illusion of a skeletal demon to menace a single combatant, which occupied him for all of ten seconds.

Meanwhile, Veceslav had taken on the Zulo shape. This trick of Vicissitude, apart from being impressive visually, is supposed to enhance the user’s strength and agility. You wouldn’t have known it watching Veceslav. He and a single mortal opponent began a lengthy duel of mutually ineffectual flailing: our foe was unable to pierce his Zulo carapace, while Veceslav seemed quite unable to land a blow at all. Some good did come of his transformation though: several of the thugs attempted to flee, and were promptly despatched by Arnaud and Martin, who were individually more efficacious than our entire coterie combined.

Erzebet then fled up the stairs with Bernhard and me in pursuit. In our sole moment of competence, we managed to execute our coterie’s signature trick: I froze Erzebet with the Rigor Mortis power the moment before Bernard attacked, leaving her defenceless for the split second it took him to ravage her with his jaws. Badly wounded, she promptly surrendered.

Meanwhile, downstairs, Veceslav in his Zulo shape and his single mortal opponent continued to flail ineffectually at each other. By this time, fatigue had started to set in, and their swings were becoming more laboured.

Upstairs, Bernhard – apparently not satisfied with his already staggering levels of idiocy and ill-judgement that night – attempted to disembowel one of our defenceless opponents who had already surrendered. Fortunately, his ineptitude is limitless, so in this he failed, too. However, he did succeed in shocking and offending Martin, who was horrified that a “knight” would attack a surrendered opponent. This led to a manly face-off that would have had my loins all aquiver if I was once again a young lusty maid with the brains and sense of a gnat.

(And once again, I felt an uncharacteristic lack of anger despite Bernhard’s attempt to murder a defenceless captive. Please refer to my earlier comments regarding the rabid dog.)

Meanwhile, downstairs, Veceslav in his Zulo shape and his single mortal opponent were now staggering with weariness, practically leaning on each other as they continued to strike limp, powerless blows.

We interrogated Erzebet, and she was forthcoming about her motives. Her brother, Farkas, had been one of the vampiric monks killed in the same monastery where Bernhard and Veceslav had looted the tome. Their sire, Bodor Toth, apparently a master of Auspex, had sensed his childe’s death and sworn revenge on the entire Crusade. Erzebet was his first instrument of vengeance and, in typical Tzimisce fashion, seemed completely unconcerned that her actions up to that point were causing enormous misery to the entirely blameless Zarans, and comparatively little to the Crusaders. Further, she sneered that more of her clan were heading to Zara to further enact Bodor’s revenge.

Meanwhile, downstairs, Veceslav in his Zulo shape and his single mortal opponent were now barely able to stand. They visibly leaned on each other as they continued their “attacks”, which were now little more than gentle slaps.

Once Erzebet and her information had been delivered to the Crusade leadership, it was decided that the best course of action would be to send diplomats to Bodor’s domain one hundred miles east of Kronstadt to convince him to renounce his plans of vengeance. Further, it was decided our coterie are the “diplomats” to do it. Yes, Elijah, my friend, you read that correctly.

Although I have mixed feelings about the endeavour, I think, on balance, it is worth attempting (just not by us). If Erzebet’s peers descend on Zara intent on carrying out the same sort of mischief, the consequences for the local Zarans would be catastrophic. Further, I don’t believe their depredations would actually end the Crusade, which I’m now convinced will, inevitably and unfortunately, reach the Holy Lands, albeit in an incompetent and organisationally dishevelled manner. But what I don’t understand is why choose our coterie for the task?

Already the unity of the Crusade is unravelling. Simon de Monfort, disgusted at the sack of Zara, left with his two thousand troops in tow, and has since pledged his allegiance to King Emeric of Hungary. Another thousand troops have left for Ancona and the Holy Land, no longer content to wait another four months because of supply issues that should never have occurred in the first place. And the mortal leadership of the Crusade are conspicuously absent, as they harangue the Pope about the “injustice” of their excommunication. Despite its inevitability, the Crusade is already at risk of arriving in the Holy Lands in a farcically ramshackle state, so preventing the Tzimisce attack is of the highest priority.

So, again, why send us? A violent and irrational savage; an insipid and vapid diplomat; a shrill and insufferable old nag. My protestations that we are ill-suited to the task have fallen on deaf ears. Apparently we have a reputation as a coterie that “gets results”. Well, the last thing I want is a reputation as the one that assisted the Crusade. But I can’t just allow the Zarans to bear the brunt of the Tzimisce attack … can I?

Well, Elijah my friend, I think I’ve satisfied your request for an account of my activities. When you receive this I will in all likelihood be back in Transylvania fruitlessly bringing my paltry powers of diplomacy to bear on a Tzimisce lord, who may well decide to reward my efforts by flesh-crafting my face to the rear end of a cow (after giving me my three days of hospitality, of course).

I hope you are well. Even after all these years I still think of you often, and try to moderate my self-righteous hubris by emulating your infuriatingly unflappable equanimity – always without success, I might add. And as always, I wish you were with me now.

Perhaps my travels will bring me to Beirut. Until then, take care my old friend.

Maude

P.S. Veceslav finally prevailed over his opponent after several more days of combat. (I have taken a little creative liberty in my depiction of Veceslav’s efforts, but I think you get the idea.) Incidentally, Veceslav’s dismal failures of competence didn’t end there. He has a Koldunic trick that allows him to harden his flesh during combat. I had assumed that he had intended to use that power in our assault on Erzebet’s hideout, but that Bernhard’s premature attack had denied him the time necessary to summon the effect. However, when I mentioned it to him tonight, he looked sheepish – it turns out he’d simply forgotten to use it.

View
Session 40: The Siege of Zara

CODED LETTER TO ELIJAH OF ANTIOCH FROM SISTER MAUDE KHLESL

PART 1 OF 2

Dear Elijah,

Greetings my roguish friend!

In your last letter you asked me to send you a diary of my activities, covering any period in which it was convenient to record in this way. You finished by insisting that the account might benefit from my “usual” snideness and sarcasm. I really have no idea what you’re implying, but I’ll do my best.

Early September 1202

Following our successful apprehension of the Aasimite assassin, we’ve spent the following weeks in Venice waiting for the Crusade to set sail. I have tentatively agreed to send reports to Narses about the events of the Crusade in return for him spreading my usual medical mumbo-jumbo throughout Venice, with any of his further requests for service being considered on a case-by-case basis. I think Bernhard and Veceslav reached similar deals with him. I have resolved not to get tangled in a web of prestation – or of any kind – with the sinister Prince, but this deal seems risk-free. Famous last words …

Bernhard has flown back to Kronstadt for a brief visit, which under normal circumstances would have significantly lowered the level of loin-thrusting idiocy in Venice. Unfortunately, the city is full of Crusaders, so it’s barely made a difference. Meanwhile, Veceslav has remained at the estate of his new Tzimisce merchant friend doing what he does best: nothing.

For my part, I’ve spent my time out on San Michele with all the other beautiful folk, but mostly with the warm and charming Troglydytia. I think she initially regarded me as a threat and a fool, but after weeks of winning her over with humour and companionship I’m pleased to report that she now sees me as a mildly useful irrelevance.

You’ll be interested to know that despite the inexplicable unease I get around the Giovanni, I held my nose and paid my respects at the Loggia. Curiously, I didn’t die screaming. I still don’t like them.

Late September 1202

Bernhard has returned from Kronstadt. The three of us were summoned before Guy de Provence, the Cainite leader of the Crusade, who was curious about our capabilities and how they could benefit the war effort. Veceslav did a wonderful job of stroking Guy’s sizeable ego simply by recognising the defunct knightly order to which he belonged. Not to be outdone, I queried Guy on how he planned to minimise the murder, rape and destruction that the Crusade would inflict on people of all faiths as it cut its inexorable path of wanton suffering across Europe and the Holy Lands. Curiously, he seemed to take needless exception to this, so I left him and Veceslav to their mutual and increasingly enthusiastic stroking.

It seems I will be working under Guilabert Avignon – a Salubri no less! – for the duration of the Crusade, alongside two fellow Cappadocians, Sister Farancina and Sir Russel. Guilabert seems like a kind and competent fellow. Most importantly, he’s had the sense to accept everything I’ve told him on matters medical.

Bernhard and Veceslav have hit it off with Rollo the Frank, who seems to be on Crusade to earn favours to assuage the ill-feeling he engendered with his prior history of diablerie. Note that his change of heart on the matter of soul-murder only came after he had drunk his way to the equivalent of about fifth generation. Given Bernhard’s history of almost-diablerie, a powerful, uncontrite diablerist is, of course, exactly the worst sort of person with whom he should be fraternising. However, Bernhard now unfailingly responds to my reason and sense with prideful and unsightly loin-thrusting, so I must accept that I can no longer be the person to help him – if, in fact, I ever was.

November 2012

We arrived at Zara to find it besieged by the vanguard of the fleet. What was the Crusade doing sacking a Christian city? We were to discover that it was part of a filthy deal brokered with the Venetians to bring Zara back under Venetian control in return for delayed payment for money owed on the ships. Although many seemed to find the deal abhorrent, it wasn’t enough to prevent the siege.

The initial attack was nothing but a premature lunge for loot by the Venetians led by Louis of Blois, which was instigated by the odious Carmine. However, without enough reinforcements they were forced to retreat. Thereafter a council of war was held, and Carmine and Salvatore di Varagine received a savage and relentless telling-off by Guy. As I was treating the horrific wounds of the first of this Crusade’s casualties, I found my heart reaching out to Narses’s flunkies and the hurt they must have felt from Guy’s stern rebuke. Indeed, as I amputated the ragged lump of flesh that was all that remained of a soldier’s hand, I reflected with anguish on how embarrassed and chastened his Cainite manipulators must feel!

Following Carmine’s premature spurt, the siege proper began. I have dealt with all manner of wounds in my time, but this is the first time I have worked in a war-time hospital, and I admit to at first being overwhelmed by the scale of the suffering. Worse, I know this is barely a taste of what is to come.

Bernhard and Veceslav had heard of a monastery in Zara dedicated to learning, so when the city’s walls finally fell on the thirteenth day of the siege, they ventured there allegedly to protect the tomes and treasures that lay within. Alas, it was already being attacked by True Faith-addled Crusaders who were butchering the monks – some of them vampires – that dwelt within. As the monastery burned, Bernhard rescued an ancient tome from the fire before they fled. Well, I say “rescued”, but that would imply that he plans to return the book to its rightful owners. Perhaps a more accurate term is “looted”, but you know me, Elijah – I’ve never been one to pedantically quibble over the nomenclature of petty larceny.

Following the siege, the decision has been made for much of the fleet to spend the winter at Zara. Unfortunately, this means months of martial law for the local people who have already had to endure a siege that was, frankly, criminal. Even I didn’t think the Crusade would be this shambolic, disgraceful, unjust and murderous so early on.

December 2012

Food shortages have led to foot riots, which the invaders have quelled with increasing brutality.

The Pope has excommunicated the Franks and the Venetians for the attack on Zara. I wonder how much war loot they will have to dangle under his nose before he reverses his decision? (Or rather before he reinterprets the unfailingly correct Word of God?)

The three of us have been summoned to deal with a developing crisis. There have been attacks on food stores throughout Zara, and Guy de Provence and Gari, the Prince of Zara, have asked us to resolve the situation. It seems we are developing a reputation as capable investigators. Certainly, I’ll admit it’s useful to have Bernhard and Veceslav present to smash the perpetrator once I’ve done all the actual investigative work.

In any case, Gari seems like a nice enough sort, and the exacerbation of the food shortage would be disastrous for all concerned, so I was quick to agree to help. Unfortunately, Bernhard started tastelessly scrounging for an offer of payment, which sullied the mood, while Veceslav, true to form, urbanely and charmingly said nothing of any consequence whatsoever.

We hurriedly began our investigations that night. It seemed the perpetrator had burned down a grain store outside the city, used Animalism to summon a swarm of rats to befoul the food stored in a warehouse, used Vicissitude to seal the throats of some local herd animals to make it appear the local wells were poisoned, and flesh-crafted the eggs of a local farmer to make them look demonic (which unfortunately led to a mob butchering him and his family). This seemed to suggest a Tzmisice culprit.

Seeing if they could gather any information from the ne’er-do-wells of the city, Bernhard and our new friend, Sir Aimery de Versey, disguised themselves as thuggish, poor-quality men-at-arms (the disguise wasn’t strictly necessary for Bernhard) and began asking questions in low places. Aimery’s efforts proved invaluable, as his use of the Dominate Discipline led me to the grave of a victim of the culprit. There, after a tasty cranial morsel, the identity of the culprit was revealed: a Magyar Tzimisce called Erzebet. Not bad for one night’s work.

Now we just have to find her. I hope Bernhard and Veceslav are ready to perform their smashing duties when we do.

[LETTER CONTINUED IN NEXT SESSION SUMMARY]

View
The Project Advances

Construction, Cultivation and the Hunt

  • The palisade has been built and is made with wood from local beech trees, giving it a white appearance. The palisade is built on a mound of dirt excavated from a ditch.
  • The sites for the mess, barracks and stables have been pegged out for construction.
  • The tower foundations have been cleared, and preparations are being made to begin construction of the scaffolding, as well as the supports and joists for the ground floor. This was done by simply clearing / digging out the foundations of the tower.
  • Now, in addition to the ‘secret room’ in the basement where the Cainites sleep, a side room and a main room have been made available for use. The side room contains a well which should have drinkable water, although it will need to be properly cleared and tested. Investigations have revealed that this well connects to the nearby waterfall. Further investigations are required to determine if this can be used as (a) an escape route, and (b) a way in.
  • Outside the palisade, a garden has been planted to provide food for those at the tower. It contains onions, radishes, and turnips (fast-growing) as well as lettuce, spinach, beans and beetroot (slower-growing). This garden is tended by Alaine and his wife Lyssa (two Saxons from Gunthar’s Herd). The two Saxons are constantly frustrated that the garden is ‘open season’ for the many animals that regularly come to the tower to speak with Gunthar, Veceslav and Jals. Fortunately, the many predatory animals summoned by the Cainites help reduce the number of vermin.
  • The garden will need to be further grown in order to provide a good food source. Grain seeds are to be sourced from Bistriz. The cache of Beltanz provided an amount of seed stock which will be able to be planted near the tower.
  • A number of the local workforce will be split off in shifts from construction work to tend these gardens.
  • Ratty III now lives with Alaine and Lyssa, as Gunthar did not believe his pet rat to be safe when Archimedes was around. Ratty III lives quite well, being warm, well-fed and cared for by the somewhat reluctant farmers.
  • The nearby forest consists of birch, beech and oak, with pines growing higher up. The birch is used for small straight items such as staves, spears, poles and arrows. The beech is the common construction timber used. Oak provides much of the tougher construction items.
  • The forest is inhabited by several animal types: boar, lynxes, foxes, bears, wolves, roe deer, goats and camoxi (a type of antelope). With the exception of the wolves, these animals are all hunted by people near the tower, but are hunted diversely so that no one species is overly harmed.
  • Rossos is the best hunter in the group. He is aided by Marius, Danislaus, Krasimir, Manfred (when available), and to a rather lesser extent by Francois and Mihor. Gunthar, Veceslav (and Laszlo) and Jals also hunt each night, as much to practice their skills and learn the area as to find food and blood.
________________________________________________________

Our Pet Bandits

  • The Pecheneg mercenaries have a fair idea as to the true nature of the leading figures (Gunthar, Veceslav, Iulia, Alaric, Maude, and Jals), knowing them to be ‘night-monsters’. As they are not hunted, fed upon and get to work for the scariest people in the valley, they are happy enough.
  • Several silver coins from various regions taken from Beltanz’ horde were given to the Pechenegs as gifts. Originally, Gunthar gave them the jaw-bones of the hell-hounds, but the mercenaries did not like these.
  • Gunthar has developed a good working relationship with Gortav and is slowly learning the Pecheneg tongue. He is clearly the master of the Pechenegs mercenaries, and none in the coterie have gainsaid this.
  • Gunthar is gradually bringing Gortav up to speed on the fact that he is a ‘night-monster’ and as such, feeds on blood. (Little things like, when he brings the mercenaries their broth in the pre-dawn light, and gives his orders to Gortav, Gunthar drinks a mug of blood; subtle demonstrations of Cainite powers such as Enhanced Senses to see further, listen better, or smell a scent; failing to parry a blow in weapons practice, and having that blow fail to harm the Cainites; etc.) All the while, Gunthar maintains his friendly and competent demeanour as Gortav’s paymaster and leader.
____________________________________________________

Romance

  • Manfred is courting a lass named ‘Sophia’ from a village called Rothügel, at the very edge of Bistritz’ authority and on the road to the tower. She is the prettiest girl in the region, and Manfred has several competitors for her affection. He has mentioned that her father is a respected knight of Bistritz, and her suitors are many.
  • Even the young Burgrave, Radu II has expressed interest in her hand, but Sophia has secretly given Manfred a token of her affection. He is confident that with his pedigree and lands back in Franconia, he will eventually win her hand.
  • Manfred often spends much of the week in a room at the village so he can court the girl. Gunthar gifted Manfred with one of his three horses and wished him well, telling him to keep in touch.
  • Manfred returns to the tower site every couple of weeks, on the pretext that he is there looking at land to purchase, and that he is helping to build the tower as a favour for some associates in Buda-Pest.
    _____________________________________________________________

Niche Roles for the Mortals

  • The management of the tower site is being led by Andrew, Godwine and to a lesser extent, Benedict and Marius.
  • Andrew is the best administrator, and he is assisted by Marius (whom Iulia is grooming to be her assistant) and Sir Alaric’s squire, Benedict.

*Godwine acts as a book-keeper, as well as a lead negotiator with the locals. He is assisted by Sherazina regarding the management of the local Vlachs, who seem to be happy to have the Basarabi back in the area.

  • Peter’s skills as Veceslav’s secretary now extend to the whole enterprise and he is Godwine’s book-keeping assistant.
  • Marius, encouraged by Iulia, is learning at Andrew’s feet how to manage estates like this. (Iulia plans for Marius to be flesh-crafted to look like a part of her family. Her plan is to marry him off as away of increasing her rule-through-extended-family plan. Marius is okay with this, as is Veceslav.)
  • Francois skills with carpentry have proved useful in identifying appropriate sources of timber for construction.
  • As per usual, Agmundir is chief of the warriors in the palisade and he is very ably assisted by Mihor of Sisak, Francois, and Crasimir. Laszlo is far too busy protecting his master to take part, but is accorded similar respect to the others.
  • Rossos is in charge of the hunters.
  • Gortav leads the patrols.
___________________________________________________

Policing the Pass

  • Toll money is being collected. The Vlach villages to the south receive a small percentage, as agreed. The Pecheneg villages to the north are told not to abuse their toll privileges. Letzav listens, Naizuy apparently respects the powerful Cainites but continues to do as they always have.
  • 58p were collected over the two weeks since this practice began. This toll collection may be sufficient to cover the mercenary wages.
  • For caravans carrying tool/goods we need (e.g., food, weapons, construction materials), a portion of their wares would be sufficient in place of coin.
  • If a caravan has good information, then a reduced toll would be appropriate. Liars would, of course, be punished.
  • Gortav has been asked to talent scout capable Pechenegs from Letzav and Naizuy.
    ____________________________________________________

A Disagreement Regarding Methods

  • Iulia and Maude held a spirited and slightly acrimonious debate over rulership principles, specifically as applied to Transylvania.
  • Iulia argued that in this place, the people only understood fear, not love. To win their loyalty, they needed to fear their rulers, and the best way to do that was to make them fear for their souls.
  • Maude argued that such methods lead to damnation and despair, and would damage relations between mortals and Cainites far out of proportion to any gains.
  • Iulia said Maude was being naïve, and that she did not understand this land.
    Maude claimed that she understood only too well, and added that she would not support and would even oppose the methods Iulia is using.
  • Gunthar cut off the debate a that point, warning his companions that such arguments would lead to the breaking up of the coterie, and thus imperil all they had fought for.
  • Maude could not help but put in her final copper, saying that the ends never justified the means.
_________________________________________________

Treasure Hunt and the Hounds from Hell!

  • After Gunthar outlined the dire financial state of the endeavour, the coterie decided to go find Beltanz’ cave of loot. Gunthar, Veceslav, Maude and Jals; Rossos, Laszlo, Krasamir and Francois went, on horseback. A small amount of bottled blood was taken by the coterie to aid supplies. Jals guided the party to the mountains near where Beltans’s cave network.
  • The closest cave was wide enough to ride into. At the back of the cave and old wolf den provided better day-time shelter for Cainites, while the retainers slept in the front.
  • Gunthar Called the local animals, as is his usual practice. Archimedes came and reported that wolves were on nearby peaks to the east (where the sky-fire comes from), together with many crows. He said he was chased away by the crows, whom he found unpleasant.
  • After faffing about with a nearby cave further to the west, the start of an extensive complex, the coterie turned to the east to investigate the crows and wolves, thinking these might the same crows that Beltanz would use as messengers.
  • As the coterie approached they saw many crows, and storm clouds gathered over the peaks. A small one-person day-shelter was found along the way. This was dug out and used as a shelter for three Cainites, with Gunthar sleeping in the ground.
  • The next night saw the Cainites soon surrounded by the crows who answered Gunthar’s Call. With them came a large crow that bullied the others away. It was a spirit, although this was not immediately apparent. At first, Gunthar did not realise that the typical bird speech was somehow magically translated for everyone. The spirit spoke directly to all present, speaking in their own native tongue.
  • The spirit was offended by Gunthar’s offer of blood, calling him a taint and filth that did not belong. The Spirit Crow did make a deal, though, saying it would show the coterie the location of the cave-with-the-shiny-things-and-dogs in return for The-Blue-Shiny-Thing and the names of those present.
  • When asked by Maude why it wanted names, the crow replied “because I like to know things”. Names were given, Gunthar gave his birth name, figuring the Spirit Crow would know the truth anyway.
  • The Spirit Crow flew to the northwest, the other birds (incl other spirit crows) flew in another direction. The coterie followed the Spirit Crow and were led, after a 40 minute ride, to a series of switchbacks.
  • Here they proceeded single-file. They tried stealth, but the wind blew their scent up the mountain and the hell-hounds at the top attacked.
  • The combat was viscious, with the flesh-crafted ghoul dogs knocking people off the cliff.
  • Gunthar’s heavy armour was ruined in the fight. He collected the remains, and while it may be repaired, it will never function as well again. Gunthar took the jaws of the six hell-hounds (1 fled due to Maude’s magic) as trophies.
  • Veceslav displayed a knack for using his claws to good effect to climb the cliff at speed after he was knocked off.
  • Jals proved effective with his spear, even at range.
  • Maude was able to use her magic to frighten the hell-hounds; using the frightening aspect of the Shroud, concentrated on her face, to look scary. Maude’s freezing trick also proved very effective at giving the warriors a chance to kill the helpless beasts.
  • Laszlo proved to be exceptionally capable in the fight, displaying previously unknown skill with his sword, as well as impressive strength and stamina.
  • A burnt out cabin in ruins was at the top of the switchbacks, as was a creek and a cave smelling of rotting meat.
  • The cave contained over 100 people flesh-crafted into monstrosities, fortunately dead, and impaled on and fused to the stalactites of the cave. This was the hell-hounds’ food source. No corpse had been there longer than two years.
  • Horrified, the coterie left them there; all too shocked to bury the people. A nearby bear’s den was used as the daytime shelter to avoid sleeping in the cave.
  • The cave also contain Beltans’ treasure horde, which consists of:
    c. 600 pennies in varied silver and copper coins from Kievan Rus, Hungary and Novgorod (The coins will be kept for trade, with some going to the mercenaries as a bonus, and some being put aside for Maude to pay back her mentor’s loan.); 8x bolts of silk, 12x bolts of linen, 12x bolts of cotton (These can be sold for c. 2,400 pennies, which will go greatly towards meeting the costs for the tower.); Urns with flour, seeds, and wine (The flour will be kept to supplement food stocks. The seeds will be either sown near the tower, or given to the nearby villages to increase their own food resources. The wine will be kept for consuming on site during meals or occasions.); And a glowing blue moonstone.
  • According to Maude, the moonstone contains a fragment of the world’s soul, and such items are used by wizards to assist their magical workings
  • The glowing moonstone was returned to the Spirit Crow, which was waiting outside. The spirit accepted the stone and flew off without a word.
______________________________________________________

A Deadly Encounter

  • On the return to the Tower, Veceslav, Gunthar and Laszlo encountered a werewolf. It was wounded badly, but still hunting. It dropped onto and killed outright the camoxi Veceslav had been hunting.
  • The werewolf was black-furred and huge, 5’ high at the shoulder and 6’ long, almost twice the size of a regular wolf.
  • The werewolf heard the hunters move off, and turned to growl. Veceslav stepped out, his claws out and red yes on, and tried to force the creature to back off. The werewolf just got angrier.
  • Gunthar also stepped out, his bow drawn and an arrow nocked. The werewolf did not seem to care. It did some kind of magic trick and surrounded itself with a silver light.
  • When Gunthar shot it, the arrow glanced off the silver light. The werewolf howled a challenge, then grew, standing on two legs and turning into a larger version of itself, a version more capable of combat. At this, Laszlo screamed in fear and ran off. Later the bodyguard had no memory of the encounter, thinking it was a bear.
  • Meanwhile, Veceslav and Gunthar circled the werewolf, claws out. Veceslav tried again to talk the werewolf out of a fight, but even though the beast seemed to pause and consider Veceslav’s words, it still attacked the Cainite.
  • Gunthar, desperate, summoned a swarm of bats to fight the werewolf. Gunthar and Veceslav traded blow with the werewolf, but its silver-light armour and toughness warded most of the blows away.
  • In return, its powerful blows crippled Veceslav and hurt Gunthar. The swarm of bats slowed the werewolf, but did not damage it. Veceslav was able to escape in the bat distraction however.
    Gunthar fought the werewolf alone, inflicting more harm, but the werewolf was able to move super-fast, like it had Celerity. The Gangrel instead chose to attack its other leg, thus hampering its mobility further.
  • Unable to turn its blows or stop such an assault, Gunthar retreated, leaving the werewolf fighting its way out of the bat swarm. Gunthar picked up the crippled Veceslav, gathered in Laszlo, and returned (via a circuitous route) to the coterie camp.
  • Maude was deeply disgusted with the foolishness of the Tzimisce and the Gangrel, and wasted no time telling them so. In fact, she made a point of reiterating her disgust over the slow and painful journey back to the tower site. The fact that the werewolf didn’t seem to be a ravening, mindless beast was also of great interest to her.
__________________________________________________

Back at the Tower

  • Upon returning to the tower, Maude found George had come back. He said he escorted the souls to ‘a safe community’.
  • George can now speak across the shroud, albeit in a whisper and only for limited periods. He can alter the normal world more too, making it cold or moving small items.
    George said he would follow the werewolf and find out where it goes, once we have done our business with the clay tablets.
  • Lady Perlina was also waiting at the tower, and is willing to look at the tablets. It will take her some time to prepare, and she is eager to complete her induction into the discipline of Mortis in the meanwhile.
  • Perlina is aware of George, as Iulia seems to trust her and has seen fit to bring the Malkavian in her secret.
  • George says the tablets are extremely dangerous, and make the ‘air’ thick near them.
  • George also said he saw a mark of misfortune around Veceslav, which drew snorts of amusement from the gathered Cainites.

The date is 26th March 1198.
__________________________________________________________________________

Attendance: Gunthar ritter (Greg; xp3), Maude (Dave, xp3), Veceslav (Ben, xp2+1 pending), Absent: Sir Alaric (Anthony, xp0)

END OF SESSION
________________________________

View

I'm sorry, but we no longer support this web browser. Please upgrade your browser or install Chrome or Firefox to enjoy the full functionality of this site.