The Concord of Ashes
FROM: Lotario Acuto
Investigation into the Death of Eudokia, part one
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.
Attendance: Greg (Lotario, 3 xp), Ben (Veceslav, 2 xp), Dave (Maude 2 xp +1 pending)