The Concord of Ashes
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.
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 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. As always, I wish you were with me now.
Perhaps my travels will bring me to Beirut. Until then, take care my old friend.
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 merely looked sheepish – it turns out he’d simply forgotten to use it.
Attendance: Dave (Maude, 3 xp), Greg (Bernhard, 3 xp), Ben (Veceslav, 2 xp)
Absent: Anthony (Alaric, 0xp)