Campaign of the Month: August 2014
The Concord of Ashes
Waking a Demigod
They descended the long stone stairs into the depths. At the head of the group, lighting the way with torches, were six of the Scholai Guard, lightly armoured warriors who moved with an easy grace. Bringing up the rear were six men-at-arms of the Magnus Orthodox Lasombra, burly, grim-looking men with the empty eyes of the perpetually Dominated.
Petronius strode down the stairs at the centre of the group flanked on one side by Maude and Sarah the Chaste, and on the other by Iulia and the hulking figure of Agmundir. Petronius’s apprehension, an apprehension shared by Maude, was writ clearly on his face. The Quaesitor, a centuries-old elder, invariably carried himself with poised equanimity, so his visible disquiet was a testament to the severity of the city’s circumstances.
Maude glanced over at Iulia. She had a look of calm resolve fixed on her face, but Maude knew her friend well enough to sense the anxiety seething beneath. Earlier, Maude had insisted that there was no need for Iulia to endanger herself by being present at Michael’s awakening. She had expected Iulia, ever the pragmatist, to agree. But to Maude’s surprise – and delight – Iulia had stated quite vehemently that regardless of the risk she would stand by Maude in this last desperate gambit to keep the hopes of the city alive.
They finally reached the bottom of the long stairs, and continued along a short tunnel that opened into a large antechamber illuminated by flickering torches in sconces around the walls. At the end of the chamber were a half dozen steps leading up to a pair of large bronze double doors. As the Cainites crossed the chamber, the Lasombra men-at-arms and Scholai Guard fanned out to form a semi-circular formation at the base of the steps with Agmundir at their head. The Cainites walked past them, ascended the steps, and paused for a moment before the bronze doors. With a gentle push from Petronius, the great doors swung inwards, admitting them to the sanctuary of the Archangel.
Although not the first time she had seen Michael’s sanctuary, Maude was once again awestruck by its grandeur. The cavernous room was a perfect subterranean replica of the Hagia Sophia itself, hundreds of feet above. The space was illuminated by candelabras set into recesses and great circular chandeliers hanging from above, both cleverly placed to illuminate the many stained-glass mosaics set into the walls. The flickering firelight was reflected from these mosaics and danced around the walls as shards of azure, amber and crimson.
But all the intoxicating beauty of the dancing lights faded into insignificance beside the dazzling radiance emanating from the top of the open sarcophagus set on a raised platform at the far end of the room, like a glorious, profane altar.
As the bronze doors slowly swung shut, Maude glanced over at Sarah. The Lasombra looked noticeably pained and was conspicuously fidgeting, as though wrestling with an uncomfortable secret. Even given the gravity of the situation, this seemed quite out of character – the Lasombra was renowned for her poise. Perhaps it was affected? If so, it seemed to do the trick: Petronius turned to regard her with a cool stare.
“Is there something you wish to share with us, Sister?” he said drolly.
“My apologies, Archontas. It’s just …” She paused as if uncertain how to continue. Sarah’s reticence seemed outwardly convincing, but to Maude it somehow rang hollow. By all accounts, Sarah was not a woman to speak rashly or without careful deliberation.
“It’s just that I haven’t informed my sire about what we are to attempt,” Sarah continued. “He knows about Sister Maude’s courageous offer, but not that we are about to put that offer into action.”
The nun’s eyes were meekly downcast as Petronius peered at her with a sceptical gaze.
“Your failure to inform Magnus is a matter between him and yourself,” the Quaesitor said. “We must make the attempt to wake Father now, even if Magnus isn’t aware of it.”
“Yes, of course, Archontas,” Sarah replied. "In truth, I have obeyed the letter of my sire’s instruction on this matter. You see, he only asked me to ‘inform him of any further change in the Archangel’s condition’. "
Maude was initially bemused by Sarah’s admission. Why was she telling them this? Petronius, however, immediately identified the true purpose behind her words.
“Any further change?” he said in a dangerous tone. “What do you mean further change?”
Sarah glanced up at Petronius. Her face briefly betrayed a moment of frankness quite at odds with her facade of humility, before she hung her head meekly once more.
“My apologies, Archontas,” she said quietly. “Shortly after the throne last changed hands, the Patriarch stirred briefly.”
Petronius stared at Sarah in outraged disbelief. “What did Father do?” he hissed. “And why was I not informed?”
“I intended to tell you immediately,” said Sarah contritely, “but my sire declared that the Quaesitor need not be bothered with such trifles. His order was quite clear. And I regret to say it’s not the first time he’s given that same order.”
Petronius stared at her incredulously, his porcelain features frozen in a mask of outrage and anger.
“So you knew of this! Magnus knew of this! Father has stirred – more than once you say – and each time you both kept this from the Arbiter of the Michaelites himself?!” Petronius was shouting now, looming over Sarah, staring down at the top of her downturned head, his fists clenched.
Sarah looked up and met Petronius’s gaze.
“If the Quaesitor is displeased with my eight centuries of loyal service, then he is free to take it up with my sire.” Sarah’s facade of meekness was gone. She stared at Petronius coolly.
Petronius glowered furiously at the Lasombra, and looked ready to shout a retort, when Maude interrupted him.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Petronius!” she barked. “Sarah was clearly placed in an impossible situation by Magnus. She either had to disobey her own sire or keep a secret from you. The fact that she’s telling you now when she needn’t have is something of a concession, don’t you think? In fact, her refusal to inform Magnus about tonight’s attempt is, I think, a commendable show of solidarity.”
Petronius turned his gaze on Maude. He had never displayed anger towards her in any of their previous exchanges, which had all been cordial and even warm. But now, for the first time, she felt the great weight of the centuries-old elder’s displeasure boring into her. It was all she could do to retain her composure in the face of his overwhelming gravitas and Presence.
“Sister,” he said in a dangerously even tone, “Your service to the city is appreciated. But know your place.”
Maude pursed her lips with displeasure and shook her head slightly in exasperation, but said nothing more.
Petronius turned back to Sarah. His jaw was still set angrily, but his fury seemed diminished.
“Who else knew of this?” he demanded.
“Only Malachite, Archontas,” she said. “The Patriarch summoned Malachite to take counsel with him.”
“And what did my sire tell him?”
“I do not know, Archontas. The Patriarch spoke only to Malachite’s mind. But the Nosferatu did say, ‘No, Father. Please. You cannot send me from your side. I am needed! The Dream!’ After a few minutes, in which I presume the Patriarch gave him further instruction, Malachite then said, ‘Very well. As you command.’ He then left looking quite defeated. It was then Magnus told me to keep this to myself. My most humble apologies, Quaesitor.”
Petronius’s anger had subsided. He gazed at the ceiling for a few moments. When he spoke next he sounded merely bitter.
“Well, it seems that despite Father’s orders, Malachite hasn’t gone anywhere,” he muttered half to himself.
Actually, he has, thought Maude. But she quickly decided now was not the time to trouble Petronius with the details of Malachite’s deception.
Petronius turned once more to Sarah, his voice businesslike. “You can tell your sire that I will not forget this slight. If the city should somehow survive whatever’s to come, things will be different between us.” Sarah nodded in response.
Petronius started walking towards Michael’s sarcophagus. The rest followed, their footsteps echoing hollowly in the cavernous space.
“So, Maude,” Petronius said as they neared the Archangel and his intoxicating radiance. “What exactly does this ritual involve?”
It had been over an hour, and the ritual was still not complete. Maude had made it clear to the others that it might take quite some time. This was for several reasons. Firstly, she had been advised not to touch Michael’s torpid form, which made a few key sequences in the ritual somewhat problematic. Secondly, given the seriousness of the situation and the god-like nature of the recipient, Maude was conducting the ritual with a care and caution beyond even her usual exactitude.
But the most significant cause of the delay was Michael’s supposedly divine aura. It was just so distracting! Despite all her doubts, despite all her scepticism, Maude was continuously fighting the urge to stare raptly at the Methuselah and declare her undying devotion to him. It was equal parts absurd and maddening.
What a pernicious thing the aura was! Centuries had passed since Michael’s words and deeds were worthy of the adoration accorded him. His influence should have faded, yet because of his aura his adherents’ devotion remained, disproportionate and undeserved. Maude was not unmoved by the idea of the Dream – in fact, in many ways she found it compelling. But Michael’s hubris was primarily to blame for its decline. It seemed clear that he couldn’t conceive of the Dream without him at the centre. He failed to make plans for what should occur if he were killed or incapacitated, and thus his legacy was doomed to failure.
Maude did her best to shut out the distraction, and returned her concentration to the task at hand. Over the years she had been able to reduce many of her rituals’ external complexity. She had gradually discovered ways to methodically substitute some of the accoutrements of the ritual magic of Mortis – the chanting, incense, powered herbs, chalk symbols, bone dust, animal skulls and so on – with tailored series of precise and complex mental mnemonics, with these thought-sequences variously composed of words, images and emotions.
However, for her ritual that woke vampires in torpor (entitled I told you so) she hadn’t engaged in this process of simplification. This was because it was usually performed in front of an anxious audience, and she had come to realise that people were reassured by the visible trappings of magic. In some way, the chanting and symbols and arcane components lent credibility to the process far more than simply sitting in a meditative state – even though, ironically, the ability to dispense with the trappings was actually an indication of her mastery.
So, she now walked repeatedly around Michael’s sarcophagus, chanting in a long-forgotten language and slowly swinging a thurible containing smouldering incense that left a trail of fragrant smoke in her wake. Near the stairs leading up to the sarcophagus’s dais, Petronius paced restlessly backwards and forwards, making no effort to hide his anxiety. Sarah and Iulia stood on the dais nearby, gazing at the Archangel, a luminous angelic figure of molten glass, his face serene.
When that segment of the ritual was completed, Maude crouched down and started carefully scribing symbols in chalk on the dais’s surface. She glanced up at Sarah as she worked.
“Sarah, my dear,” she called out to her. “I have a personal question for you. And since my efforts here may be rewarded by a brutal death at the hands of the Patriarch, it would reassure me to know that I won’t go to my grave with my curiosity unsatisfied.”
Sarah snapped out of her reverie and looked down at Maude scribbling on the ground.
“I was just wondering, my dear,” Maude continued without waiting for a response. “Why did you choose the moniker ‘Sarah the Chaste’?”
Sarah looked at her blankly for a moment, before quietly saying, “My title was bequeathed to me centuries ago.”
“Sarah the Chaste, Sarah the Chaste,” Maude hummed to herself as she continued to work. “You know, my dear, in my mortal years I was chaste … on occasion. You see, I was also chased on occasion, usually by lecherous priests. But inevitably they’d sober up and get a clear look at my face, and that’d be the end of that.” Maude gave a theatrical sigh of regret.
She was hoping to inject a measure of bonhomie into proceedings. It would probably make no difference in the end, but she reasoned it would surely be better to have Michael wake in an atmosphere of friendship and humour, rather than trepidation. Besides, if she was about to die it may as well be making quips on her own terms.
“In any case,” she continued, " ‘Sarah the Chaste’ just seems – I don’t know – beneath you somehow. For instance, did you know that in some East Slavonic regional dialects ‘chaste’ gets translated literally as ‘un-fucked’? I think we can both agree that you’re worthy of a more dignified title than that. You say the title was bequeathed to you. Who did the bequeathing? Did you get a say in it? It’s just I find myself considering all sorts of far more fitting options. ‘Sarah the Capable’ is a little dull, but how about ‘Sarah the Spectacularly Capable’? Or ‘Sarah the Benignly Manipulative’? Oh, I know! ‘Sarah the Intriguingly Inscrutable’!"
Maude craned her neck so that she could see Petronius around the side of the sarcophagus.
“Petronius!” she called out. “You’ll like this one: ‘Sarah the Stoic and Steadfast Sufferer of Her Sire’s Insufferable Stupidity’!”
Petronius stared back at her urbanely, one eyebrow raised. “No doubt that was their second choice. Maude, shouldn’t you be concentrating on the ritual?”
“It’s fine,” Maude replied breezily. “I’ve reached the easy bit.”
She looked over at the two Lasombra women. Iulia was smiling at her now, shaking her head in a kind of fond disbelief. To Maude’s surprise, Sarah was smiling at her, too.
“Sister Maude,” Sarah said, “I think it a great pity that we haven’t had the opportunity to spend more time in each other’s company.”
Before Maude could reply, Petronius called out from below. “Conversely, Sister Maude, I feel that the time you and I have spent together has been quite sufficient.” Maude poked her head around the side of the sarcophagus again to see him smiling drolly up at her.
Cackling loudly, she called back, “Why Petronius, my friend, I do believe you are starting to sound like my esteemed sire.”
“Clearly a man of great wisdom and impeccable judgement,” he replied.
“Bah!” Maude exclaimed in mock disdain, but was otherwise content to let Petronius have the last word.
She returned to her work, smiling, savouring the moment, the gravity of the situation and Michael’s aura both forgotten, if only for a second.
The ritual was almost done. Despite the difficulties, it had all gone according to plan. Rousing a vampire from torpor with Mortis tended to be easier when the recipient was a devoted adherent of their Road. Whatever Michael’s state of mind, he still seemed to faithfully walk his Road.
“Iulia,” Maude called to her friend. “Can I have your assistance for a moment?”
Iulia nodded and walked over to join her beside Michael’s sarcophagus.
“The ritual is almost complete,” she said to her coterie-mate, now speaking in Romanian. “Did you notice anything I missed?”
Iulia looked at her with a raised eyebrow. “I did not,” she replied, “But the question is akin to me asking for your advice on the intricacies of the finer points of Antonian intrigue. What’s really on your mind?”
Maude sighed – a mortal habit that she still hadn’t shed after all her years of unlife. She stared at the achingly beautiful face of Michael for a long moment.
“So, it’s finally come to this,” Maude said quietly. “One last desperate gamble. And if it fails? Catastrophe. Could we have done more? Were there things we should have done differently?”
Iulia placed a reassuring hand on Maude’s shoulder.
“We have done what we could,” the Romanian woman said, “which was far more than most.”
“That will be scant comfort to the commonfolk as they’re butchered in the streets,” Maude said bitterly.
“Maude, you mustn’t take responsibility for evils of others. You’ll drive yourself to madness. We must do what we can, and then move on.”
Maude nodded with a sad smile. “I’m glad you’re here, my friend. If I’m to die, I can’t think of a more appropriate person with whom to spend my last moments. Just promise me you’ll stand well back from Michael when he wakes.”
The two friends shared a long embrace. Eventually Maude turned back to the sarcophagus.
“Well, let’s see this through then,” she said.
The final strands of the ritual were now in place. Maude stood over the torpid form of the Archangel with her eyes closed, hands outstretched above Michael’s body, her lips quickly mouthing silent incantations. In her mind, she was completing the last of the thought-sequences: a series of whisper-thin shrouds covering an alabaster likeness of Michael’s face. One by one, the shrouds were crumpling, folding, reducing into small dark shapes that coalesced into ravens, which immediately took flight.
And then there was only a single shroud left. As it, too, shrivelled and condensed, it exposed the serene countenance of the statue underneath. Now all Maude had to do was…
Suddenly, Michael’s mind touched hers. Memories and images poured into her in a flood, threatening to shatter her psyche. She tried to shield herself, to sever the connection, but her resistance was broken in an instant.
And she dreamed …
Petronius, Sarah and Iulia watched with trepidation as Maude completed the ritual. She had said it was going well: Michael’s reaction on waking might be unpredictable, but neither of them would come to any harm from the ritual magic itself.
Maude was seemingly in a trance, standing over Michael’s form with her hands outstretched above him, when something went wrong. The Cappadocian’s head abruptly snapped back. Her eyes flicked open, revealing pools of radiant molten glass. She stood like that, frozen, for the briefest of moments.
And then Michael woke.
One moment the Archangel was lying torpid, his countenance serene; the next he was standing with his hand around Maude’s throat, lifting her, her feet dangling two feet off the ground. It happened in an instant, his movement too swift for the eye to follow. His beautiful glass visage was curled in a rictus of confusion and anger, peering hard at Maude’s face. She was limp in his grasp, eyes closed, apparently now unconscious. His grip on her throat tightened with an audible crunching of cartilage and tissue.
Iulia gave an involuntary cry of distress and moved towards them.
“Don’t move!” Petronius hissed at her, freezing her in her tracks.
He held his hands out to the Methuselah in a gesture of supplication.
“Peace, Father,” Petronius said quietly and deliberately. “Peace. She is a friend. She has woken you at my request. Please, Father. Release her.”
For several agonising seconds, it seemed that Michael had not heard his childe’s entreaty. His grip on Maude’s neck loosened fractionally, but he remained otherwise unmoving. But then a beatific smile replaced the rage, and in another blur of movement he gently lowered her into his sarcophagus. He smiled down at her for a moment, and tenderly stroked her cheek – a loving God doting on one of his flock – before turning to face the others. He scrutinised each of them briefly in turn. Then he turned his gaze upwards, his face serene, and stood motionless for a time – a time that lengthened from seconds into minutes.
Eventually Petronius broke the silence. “Father?” he asked tentatively. “Can you hear me? The city is in need of you. The Dream is in need of you. Please, Father.”
Michael did not respond. He remained utterly still, an angelic statue of molten glass gazing at the heavens.
“How long will he remain like this?” whispered Iulia, her eyes flicking between the Methuselah and her stricken friend.
“I cannot say,” replied Petronius. Sensing her thoughts, he placed a comforting arm on her shoulder. “Maude is in no further danger, as long as we keep a safe distance until Father returns to himself. If you have other concerns you should attend to them. She is as safe here as anywhere in the city.”
“I think I’ll wait a while,” said Iulia. “Perhaps the nature of Maude’s ritual, or the danger to the city, will speed his return to lucidity.”
“Perhaps,” said Petronius. He sounded not at all hopeful.
Iulia remained by Maude’s side for a time. The nun soon returned to consciousness of a sort, but her mind seemed broken. She sat in the sarcophagus, rocking backwards and forwards, eyes unfocussed, making pathetic gurgling, mewling sounds from the back of her ruined throat. She seemed oblivious to everything, even the demigod of luminescent glass standing motionless next to her.
After an hour, Maude’s condition hadn’t improved, and Iulia concluded that there was nothing to be done for her in the short term. Iulia reasoned that she must immediately return to her tasks and do what she could to ameliorate whatever horror was to come. That imperative was bigger than both of them, and it was undoubtedly what Maude herself would want her to do.
However, unable to tear herself away, Iulia remained for another hour, hope diminishing by the moment. Finally, holding back tears of blood, she bid a sad farewell to Petronius and Sarah, and swiftly left the subterranean Hagia Sophia without looking back.
Unaware of her friend’s departure, the wizened crone remained; a tiny crumpled figure, rocking slowly in the sarcophagus like a child in a crib, illuminated on one side by the Archangel’s light, the reflected lights from the mosaics playing across her face, her quiet whimpering swallowed by the vast space far beneath the earth.
Maude felt weightless, drifting. The clouds, the stars, the moon beckoned. She felt drawn towards them. Exultation swept through her at the sensation of flight. Not the lazy drifting of the insubstantial form that she had accomplished with her rituals, but true flight!
Below her, she became aware of the Queen of Cities, couched gloriously on the shores of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn. It looked beautiful. A vision. Her attention drawn by the inexorable pull of the heavens, she could not quite focus on the details of the great city, yet she was distantly aware of the power that she (he?) could do so if she so desired. Vaguely, there was awareness that the city was idealised rather than truth. Gone was the disrepair and decrepitude of centuries, the neglect and decay of inattentive rule, the destruction of the fires that had swept the city in the last year. Missing was the camp of the Fourth Crusade that had sprawled beyond the walls of Galata. A truth lay beyond her grasp, around the corner of her consciousness. Maude’s (I am Maude! Maude Khlesl!) logical mind struggled to see it, realise and enfold it within her ironclad will. Hold fast to it as she (he? She!) felt herself slipping away in a torrent of sensation. She scrabbled and railed, shouted her defiance. The waves of the Patriarch’s mind, his memory, his madness, his vision crashed against her psyche, bore her down and dragged her along.
I’m drowning, she thought with her last split moment of hopelorn lucidity. Then panic. Dislocation. Nothing.
Drifting again. The Earth lay below him; a great orb of brilliant blue and all the terrestrial shades of vitality and desolation. In the near distance, the moon glowed silver and glorious – full of the mystery that countless poets had worshipped. Clouds of silver and gold formed islands of relativity in the cascade of coruscating light and phantasmal images. The celestial spheres lay beyond, the stars glittering coolly in the firmament. The very air was light itself, the aether suffusing him with warmth and the grace of God. Joy enveloped him. He knew this place. It was his true home, far beyond the cares, the misery and the heartbreak of the failures of centuries.
Achingly beautiful music, notes impossibly delicate, indelibly serene, pierced the heart. His mind could not grasp their intricacy, and he longed to linger and dwell upon them. But he could not focus. The movement of the Divine slipped through the fields of his vision, urging him on, demanding that he continue. He could almost see them – his fellow angels – holding their arms out, ready to receive him.
Dear God, he prayed, can it be time at last? May I cast aside this cursed prison and return to your side? Is it time? I have dreamed of this day!
Silence greeted him.
Urgency beat in his heart. My God. Please. Why do you not answer me? Where have I failed? What is left undone? I am ready!
His vision blackened.
Glory denied. Peace refused.
He felt himself plummeting back to Earth.
A gyre of visions swept up to meet his fall.
A great city of stone, perched on a hill of white limestone overlooking a plain of pale green and dun. The slave catches his reflection in a pool of water. He is beautiful, he knows; alien to the others with his honey blonde hair, his blue eyes and his height. They wonder about him, the other Eblaites. They speculate as to what he is, for he is not like them. And yet, he does not know who he is, or where he comes from, only that he was taken from some place cold. Some place very far away. And his place was to serve the Goddess Ishtar. To serve as scribe to her ruminations, as muse to her works, as sustenance to her godhead.
Ishtar. Dark eyes, inhuman but kind. Beauty, awful beauty, beyond description. Rapture. She caresses you as a mortal man for the last time.
“Mi-ka-il, you will be my instrument. Be as the sun giving light and warmth to those who are denied it. You will be their inspiration. Their god. You will be Kura personified. This is my gift to you.” The goddess reveals her sharp teeth. Exquisite pain, burning pleasure.
You are immortal. The goddess left you a mortal lifetime ago. You are god now, adored and worshipped by thousands. And yet you care for only one. Your Ma-ri. Skin of golden brown, eyes of molten caramel, her hair a cascade of soft delight. She inspires you as you inspire them. You love her, even though she is barely a woman and full of only promise. How exactly did the goddess make you like her? You know what she did, but you can’t remember how. How can you make Ma-ri like you? You cannot bear to risk the life of your love so. Why did Ishtar not impart to you the full secrets of the godhead?
You open your breast, and will the blood to seep forth. “Ma-ri, we will be together forever. Drink of my godhead. It will sustain you. It will keep you young and make you strong until I can make you Barama, my wife in truth. One night, you will be a goddess…”
The girl looks at you, her eyes full of adoration and hope. “Yes, Kura. My beloved Mi-ka-il. Forever…” She bends and drinks.
You awaken, tearing free of your gilded sarcophagus. Towering flames. The conquering armies of the East. Ebla burns. You stand on a far hilltop, a witness to foregone destruction. She is not here. The priests lay prostrate before you, fearful of the wrath of their god. Sorrow wells and drowns your heart.
“Ma-ri, where is she?” You scream at them. A demon in your breast rises with your bloody bile, for you know she is no more.
“Great Kura, the Akkadians…” your high priest, Kur-lim, exclaims in mounting desperation, “they breached the walls before noon. There was no time! We thought it best-” he finished lamely, seeing his death written in your eyes. For the first time in your existence, you meet your Beast.
Your heart broken, you wander. A hundred cities. Thousands of years. Wherever you go, people gather and worship you. They cannot help themselves. You cannot help yourself. You cannot resist their adoration. After an age, you no longer remember Ma-ri’s face, but you are forever hollow without her love. The prayers and love of the faithful many fill that void, but it is not enough.
They call you Beshter now.
The Ancient sits before you, nodding encouragingly as you tell him of your woes. Long have you sought him. His power, akin to that of Ishtar, dwarfs your own, but he wears it gently. His wisdom is legend. You cannot focus on his features, but his three eyes shine with kindness, amusement and understanding.
“Beshter, we nourish the Demon because we are the Demon. If we forget that, it fights us. Yet, we are also men, and that too must be nourished. The tension between Demon and Man must be in balance always. You are a god to these people, but you say you feel nothing, and the Demon grows ever stronger. Tell me, have you ever answered the prayers of your flock? Have you ever balanced the base hungers of your demon with the satisfaction of a lightened soul? So you see, it is in service to others that we truly serve ourselves. Give the world something back, Beshter, and your soul will take flight…”
Your lovers support you. Antonius, a force of nature given will and purpose. Strength and majesty personified. The Dracon, the very spirit of change. His perspective keeps you grounded. You are the Triumverate. The Eternal Senate quails before your power.
You are become Michael. The synchronicity amuses you, even as the majesty of the One God energises and inspires you. Finally, you see. You are no god, but you can do His work. All your centuries of existence, you have never escaped the Beast, nor balanced it as you hoped. Saulot’s advice was folly from the start. Salvation then, is the key. The God who cursed Caine can forgive you his sin.
You will build a paradise. Show them bliss and inspire them to goodness. Good works will please God, and his favour will follow. The Children of Caine can escape damnation by bringing heaven to Earth!
But not here. Rome is lost.
Byzantium. Constantinople. Queen of Cities.
The Dracon fled.
Loneliness. Regret. Madness.
Laughter. Whispers. Taunts? Your conscience?
“Michael the Archangel…”
“You are the Archangel Michael.”
“The Archangel Michael.”
“The Arch Angle, Michael.”
“The Archangel Michael.”
“You are the Archangel Michael. Of course you are. Do you think it coincidence? Of course you don’t. Who else among His creations is possessed of your majesty? We all know it to be true. So do you. Why do you not ascend to join your choirs? You belong at the left hand of the Lord, my lord…”
“The left! Sinister. Get it? He he ha hah!”
“So… what is left for you here now? Why don’t you go join him!”
A hiss of anger in your ear.
Even in your sleep, you feel yourself smile.
Gregorius always could make you laugh.
And Ma-ri is here…
She awoke. It was dark. Her thoughts were scattered, confused. She was in pain. Where was she? Who was she? An explosion of images scrambled her mind once more …
Maude awoke. It was utterly dark. Where was she? How did she get here? It was so hard to concentrate. There was an excruciating pain in her throat. She touched the area gingerly setting off sharp bolts of agony. She realised that her larynx had been crushed, pulverised. How? Whatever the cause, her Discipline of Fortitude had almost certainly prevented her head from being pincered off. It took all her focus and resolve to direct her vitae to mend the wound. As the cartilage knitted back into shape, the pain rapidly subsided. But with the relief came more overpoweringly chaotic images, flooding her consciousness …
Maude awoke. She was lying in pitch blackness. She amplified her vision with Auspex, but to no avail: the place was utterly devoid of light. Her memories were slowly returning to her, but they were garbled and hazy.
She sat up. Where was she? Centring herself, she rapidly performed a series of thought-sequences; a pale blue flame blossomed in her palm. She could now see that she was sitting in some kind of sarcophagus.
With that, the memories came flooding back: Petronius’s decision to risk waking Michael, the descent to Michael’s sanctuary, the ritual, her mind being inundated…
How long had passed?! A night? A week? She closed her eyes and focussed her attention on her blood thirst. Before the ritual, she had fed to satiation. Taking into account the vitae she expended healing her crushed throat, she gauged her level of blood thirst and estimated that between five and seven days had passed.
With that realisation, she scrambled unsteadily out of the sarcophagus. She had to know what was happening in the city above. Had the Crusaders attacked? If so, had Michael intervened?
Descending the dais’s steps, she crossed the vast empty space, her footsteps echoing dully, a tiny smudge of flickering, eldritch blue flame in an ocean of blackness. She reached the bronze doors, which glided opened with a light push despite their immense size and weight. She crossed the antechamber and began the long climb to the city above, her trepidation mounting with every step.
As she neared the end of the staircase, she suddenly realised that she had no idea how to operate the triggers that opened the secret door to the surface. Would this place be her tomb? But to her relief she discovered that they’d left the entrance slightly ajar. She dismissed her witch-flame, reached around the edge of the stone panel with her fingers, hauled it open with a grinding of stone, and stepped out into the night.
The nearby streets were deserted, but looking to the north, she could see a fiery orange haze above the rooves of the nearby buildings. With rising horror, she enhanced her hearing with her Auspex. The sound of distant battle was unmistakeable: screams, clashing weapons, the crackle of fire.
Despair crushed her heart in its grip. “No,” she whispered softly. “No, no, no.” She knew she now had to look into the Shadowlands; she had to see if all her efforts had been for naught; she had to see if the calamity she had striven so hard to prevent was occurring anyway. For a brief moment, she couldn’t bring herself to do it. What she feared she might see was too much to bear.
Finally, drawing on the power of her blood, she closed her eyes, and activated her Witness of Death power. When her eyelids flicked opened, her sockets had become black voids with a blue flame at their centre. Around her, the city’s buildings smeared and dissolved within her vision, like wet ink in the rain, to reform as weathered, grey, dilapidated versions of their former shapes, all of them nestled in a drear, colourless landscape of ruin and unending grey.
She looked around, realising that she was unsure what a Maelstrom looked like. Nearby a group of several spirits were restlessly milling around each other, keening plaintively while looking upward. She followed their gaze – and her worst fears were realised.
In the sky of the Shadowlands a great vortex was forming. Like a vast whirlpool of grey, it was inexorably drawing in the spirit-stuff of the realm. With her Auspex-enhanced vision, Maude could see that directly under the Maelstrom the debris of the Shadowlands was being slowly drawn up through the air into the vortex’s heart. She could see no spirits in its grip, but surely this was the precursor to a full-blown Maelstrom like the one that devastated Rome. Everything she had done had been for nothing.
She fell to her knees. A rage bloomed within her, unlike anything she had ever felt. Her Beast, normally so quiescent, first snarled, then roared, and then screamed, finally given an outlet so rarely afforded it. Her face contorted in feral fury, her incisors extended, she screamed at the heavens.
“God! You bastard! Why, God? Why do this?” Her screeching was barely comprehensible. “You monster! You cruel, hateful, murderous, sadistic cunt! I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!” Screeching like a demented harpy, streams of blood flooding from her eyes, she raged. Eventually, with a final scream of frustration, she fell from her knees to lie on the cobbled ground, sobbing uncontrollably, giving in to her despair.
Her outburst had drawn the attention of the nearby spirits. She was dimly aware that one of them was drifting over to her now – a terribly burned young boy; probably one of the victims of the Great Fire. She was still sobbing when he spoke to her.
“Why are you crying?” asked the boy-spirit.
Maude look at him, bemused for a moment, her vision clouded by a film of blood. She sat up so that she was near eye level with the boy.
“You need to leave the city if you can,” she said to the spirit, trying to regain her composure. “Even if your Fetters make it difficult. Do you understand what I’m saying? You must tell the others, too.”
The boy turned to look up at the Maelstrom. His gaze remained fixed on it as he spoke.
“You believe you have failed,” he said quietly. “But you have achieved more than you realise. And your achievements have not gone unnoticed. You have more friends than you know.”
Maude looked at the boy with pity. He was obviously one of the lost spirits who didn’t understand that they were dead. Some of these poor souls would make cryptic, seemingly-wise remarks which, like those of many Malkavians, rarely contained insight that could be put to any practical use. In any case, she almost certainly wouldn’t be able to convince the boy to save himself.
Maude gave a bark of sad laughter. “Friends, you say?” she said mostly to herself. “Well, where are these friends? Why aren’t they helping? Why aren’t they consoling me in my abject defeat?”
The boy turned to look at her again.
“Some would counsel you to realign your hopes, set new goals, and in accepting this defeat, negate it,” he said. “But that is not your way. It is in your nature to fight tooth and claw against the injustices of the world even when all hope seems lost. And great changes – unexpected changes – can result from such efforts.”
Maude’s first instinct was to scoff at this philosophical twaddle. But over the last decade she had had considerable congress with the ghosts of the dead, and she realised that no child-spirit had ever spoken like this.
Her eyes were still caked in her blood-tears, as she peered hard at the boy.
“Who are you?” she said.
The boy smiled at her – a most unchildlike smile: serene, equanimous and compassionate.
“Do not despair, Maude of Vienna,” he whispered. “For that is not your way.”
“Who are you?” she demanded again. The film of sticky blood was still blurring her vision. She rubbed her eyes vigorously to clear it away, but when she opened them again the boy had vanished.
Maude rolled her eyes in exasperation. “Typical,” she snorted.
She rose to her feet and brushed herself off. She didn’t have time to ponder the mysterious boy or his meaningless platitudes, regardless of the fact that he somehow knew who she was. Perhaps he had just been a delusion; a lingering vestige of Michael’s madness.
Regardless, the boy had been right about one thing: despair would achieve nothing. The people of Constantinople deserved better than that from her. She paused to collect her thoughts.
She needed information. Where was Michael? Why was he not aiding the city? What was the status of the siege? If the Crusaders had breached the walls, was there any chance of them being forced out again? What were her allies doing to help? She needed to find them.
The best possible scenario was that she could locate Michael and convince him to use his powers to end the hostilities, thus dispelling the Maelstrom. Perhaps the fact they had touched minds would make him more biddable, but even then she knew the chances of success would be extremely unlikely if others had failed to convince him already.
The worst possible scenario was that the city was doomed, countless innocents would be slaughtered, and the city’s ghosts – including the influx of new ones created by the slaughter – would be consumed in the Maelstrom. If that was the case, she could still act. She would flit around the city like a demented angel, saving a life here or there wherever she could.
Steeling herself, suppressing her despair, Maude took a long look at the Maelstrom she had tried so hard to prevent.
It was time to find her friends.
A moment later, cloaked with the Discipline of Obfuscate, she was gone.
For the rest of the night, Maude’s blood-tears stained the cobblestones where she had lain. But then the light of dawn caressed the war-torn city. At first the red stain bubbled, then it smoked, and finally it burst into a short-lived flame, utterly consumed as though it had never been there at all.