The War of Princes, which began with two Kingdoms of the Night clashing with fang, claw and steel and the deaths of thousands had, in the last ninety years ground into a bitterly cold war of treachery and recriminations.
Lord Jürgen, the Sword-Bearer, Lord-General of the Black Cross and childe of High-Lord Hardestadt has been recalled to Bohemia and has not been seen nor heard from in nearly fifty years. Rumors abound about his fate but while those closest to him swear that he hasn’t met final death few believe them.
Vladimir Rustovitch, the onetime Voivode of Voivodes has fled back to his home deep within the Carpathians, hounded at every turn by the Methuselah Noriz and his brood. For the first time in nearly five centuries the Voivode fears that his Long Night may be coming to a close.
The other Kingdoms of the Night, those who had once come to the aid of the Black Cross against their hated foe now turn their back on the High-Lord in favor of their own agendas, putting the bloody shadow of Transylvania behind them.
The last century has not been kind to those who remained. The troubles began in 1241, in the form of a wave of Mongol Barbarians flooding through the Birkau Pass. Though they took the fortress that stood guard with ease, they soon found out why it had been abandoned after a band of soldiers was found dead within the fortress’ tower; their bodies mutilated until they were almost unrecognizable.
They soon learned that the legend of the woman in white who was said to haunt the abandoned structure was more than simple superstition. They would take their tales with them when they left again less than a year later. When they came again a generation later they once again took the pass, but left the tower alone.
For those loyal to the Black Cross the year of 1262 turned out to be ruinous as the newly awakened Count of Timisoara declared his allegiance to the Obertus Tzimisce and their master, Symeon of Constantinople. His desertion left his allies at a loss, though his friends were less surprised. Timisoara was not a great city, however due to its master’s machinations it was a powerful nexus for trade between northern and southern Europe.
Even as the new century dawned tough, it brought new troubles with it. In 1307 King Phillip of France calls for the arrest of the Knights Templar on charges of Heresy and Infernalism. While most vampires in Transylvania couldn’t care less about the fall of some far off Brotherhood of Heretics, those loyal to the Black Cross knew that some among those burnt were members of the Black Cross, mortal no doubt, or ghouls perhaps, but they knew of the secret rights, they knew the secret oaths. And they knew names.
Old Names, Powerful Names.
Though stories spread that some Templars escaped (supposed numbers range from 8 to 33) the final Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, was executed by immolation in March of 1314 and in the end the Black Cross was made complicit.
On top of all that has transpired is the horrific Transylvanian weather, which has only grown worse in the last century, killing crops and livestock and destroying entire communities. Rumors abound of the old gods being offended by the coming of Christendom or of the Almighty lending his wrath as a warning to the Damned.
February 17, 1314, 9:44pm
Burghausen Castle District
The Domain of Hardestadt
High-Lord of the Black Cross
Sanchez sat in the Tavern amidst the rabble-rousers and the malcontents of the Burghausen as he worked. He’d barely touched his ale, as was his wont, as he studied the plans for the changes he was planning on making to the complex. He’d been the chief architect for the last period of construction as a favor to Lord Hardestadt, some fifty odd years prior and the High-Lord had asked for him to follow up his previous work to install a few more retreats for any Cainites who might take their rest here.
When Sanchez was finished the castle would be able to safely hold nearly one hundred vampires safely, with each being afforded a secure haven to protect them from both the sun and from any who might attempt to cut their Long Night short.
For the life of him he could not imagine why that many vampires would ever convene in one place at one time; especially one that did not possess a sustainable source of blood capable of sustaining that many of their accursed breed.
“How’d the day go?” – Sanchez asked his day foreman.
“It went how you would suppose, Master, the reconstruction of the eastern wall is going well, it should be finished in a week or so.” – Sigismund.
Sigismund was a talented mason in his own right. Sanchez had found him working in Berlin twenty years prior and granted him the little drink shortly after. Maybe one day he would earn his Embrace.
Sanchez hoped he wouldn’t.
The Architect looked up at his foreman to ask about something specific when he realized that the Ghoul was no longer paying him any attention. His eyes were locked on something standing behind him, something tall, something that frightened him to his core. He opened up his senses to get a better sense of his environment but he couldn’t sense anything.
Sanchez pictured himself standing next to the table, his hands up and balled into fists, his head bent low to make himself a smaller target, ready to fight whatever was waiting for him. In an instant his thought became reality. He didn’t feel himself move, nor could he remember standing. His thoughts and actions had long ago had become so intertwined that they simply were.
And that is how he found himself standing, ready to fight, as he looked upon the stony and misshapen face of the master Mason.
Sigismund stepped back again, a soft whimper escaping his throat.
Zelios turned his stony gaze toward the mortal.
“Go home and get your rest you’ll need it in the morning. When next we meet you’ll not fear me for I shall not look this way. Though I am tall and of rough feature, I will be in all other ways unremarkable, which is just how you’ll remember me.” – Zelios
The ghoul fled their company immediately.
“Master Zelios.” – Sanchez whispered in shock even as he bowed before his mentor.
“Master Sanchez, it has been far too long.” – The incredibly tall vampire said, nodding in return.
He wasn’t wrong, though Zelios had been by early in Sanchez’s career, asking questions about this or that project and even granting the Spaniard access to his own artisans when he’d been granted his own domain in Sebeș, he hadn’t seen the Nosferatu in nearly half a century.
“I’m sorry about Sigismund, he’s new to all of this and I had not told him of you.” – Sanchez
“Think nothing of it.” – Zelios said, his features becoming muted and forgetful as they spoke.
Zelios sat down at the table beside his protégé and no one else made a fuss the rest of the night, as onlookers simply saw the architect working with Sigismund or some other assistant over a cup of ale he would once again forget to drink.After some talk about the castle that Sanchez was renovating and the City Infrastructure that he was building Zelios finally came to the reason of his visit.
“My studies into the more arcane aspects of our craft had led me to the darkest parts of Africa and eventually into the realm of the Followers of Set where I learned so much more than I had thought possible.” – Zelios
“This has something to do with Kupala, doesn’t it.” – Sanchez was beginning to worry about the elder vampire’s sanity.
“Don’t give me that, Sanchez, I always knew that my work was more than pretty piles of brick and stone. That there was some pattern that I didn’t understand in the placement of our castles. Those that I built in Alba Iulia and Sighisoara, those built by you in Brasov and Birkau pass. They are a part of a greater design; a web of geomantic power, as my sojourn to the land of serpents has taught me. Each of these fortresses set upon nexuses of Dragon Lines, flowing rivers of power that flow from the earth itself.”
Sanchez raised an eyebrow.
“Hear me out you Latin cur; I’ve learned certain arcane secrets, runes and hieroglyphs that will allow me to bind those currents into a web of power capable of binding the Old God in its grave.” – Zelios’ certainty gave Sanchez pause.
“I’ve always felt that our work brought Order to chaos.” – Sanchez, half serious hoping to get his Mentor to relax.
“I need your help and your permission to fulfill my plans, Master Sanchez. I know of your obligations to Hardestadt and I ask that you travel only as far as Sighisoara to imprint the fortress there and then come back to Alba Iulia to mark St. Michael’s Cathedral. It is there where we shall meet. I will travel farther east to Birkau and then South again into Brasov, while searching for the final pylons in the barrier’s design.” – Zelios
“There are others?” – Sanchez
“There are. I know that there is one in the mountains near Alba Iulia but I do not know anything of the location of the last fortress; that is the other reason I want to go south to Brasov.” – Zelios.
Sanchez sighed dramatically.
“Show me the runes.”
Zelios etched a series of runes into the table with his thumbnail.
“What’s wrong?” – Zelios, upon seeing his friend’s furrowed brow.
“I know that script.” – Sanchez.
“Can you read it?”
“No, but I have a friend who can, she is an accomplished Noddist.” – Sanchez
“Ugh, I will never understand you Westerners and your ‘Noddism’.” – Zelios admonished, his flinty voice as close to humor as Sanchez ever heard it.
“And what if you’re wrong? What if binding this… god or demon or whatever…simply makes things worse? What if the runes are applied wrong? What happens then?” – Sanchez, rubbing the wooden table with his thumb to smudge out the etched runes.
“That’s why I’ve come to you, Master Sanchez, of all my pupils you are the best. You do not make mistakes.” – Zelios, manically.
Sanchez laughed at the Nosferatu’s words. If only he never made mistakes.
“You don’t seem to understand me, Sanchez, if my calculations are correct, by this time next year, there will be no Siebenburgen, or Transylvania for that matter. These storms are worsening for a reason. Kupala is just turning in his slumber, but without the old rights he will soon be awake and should he rise he will wipe all of us from the face of the Land Beyond.” – Zelios, nearly shouting.
“And if I’m wrong?” – Sanchez, grimly
“Then nothing will happen. The storms will get better or worse as is their wont and won’t bother you with this again.” – Zelios
“Okay, you had better explain it to me again if you want to make sure nothing goes wrong.” – Sanchez
Zelios reached into his cloak and revealed a rolled map of Transylvania, far more detailed than anything the Toreador had ever seen before.
“You made this.”
“Yes, I’ve had a lot of time to perfect it over the decades.” – Zelios offhandedly and completely oblivious to his own artistry.
“You were found by the wrong Clan, old man.”
“Some would say the same of you.”
Sanchez studied the map. Each of the four castles that Zelios had mentioned were marked but so to was an empty space in the Bihor mountain range and another a day’s ride from Timisoara.
“What is this here?” – Sanchez, pointing to the marker in the Mountains beyond Alba Iulia
“I’m not sure, I only know that something is there.” – Zelios
“My ally, Teresa Balgrad, she has been at war with a Tzimisce Lord called Vintila. Do you know him?” – Sanchez
Zelios thought for a moment before shaking his head.
“His attacks used to come at a pretty swift interval, maybe once a year or so, until about six years ago. Teresa has never been able to find his fortress, the legions he sends all fight to the death and attempt retreat. Either way, as territorial as he is I cannot believe he’d allow anyone else to build a Castle within his “Terra”. I’m almost positive that this is his, here.
“And this; it is not far from the Domain of Count Kyrillos, no? Do you know this place?” – Zelios, brimming with enthusiasm.
Sanchez thought long and hard, but finally he shook his head.
“I’ve never seen a castle, fortress or any other large structure east of Timisoara, this here, this is the road that leads to Birkau, and all this land here is now under the protection and control of the Obertus, and has been for two generations, that’s more than enough time for a Fortress to have been built without my knowing it.” – Sanchez
“Our only hope is that once the other markings are in place we’ll be able to follow the flow to the final Pylon.” – Zelios
March 24, 1314, 8:57pm
The Domain of Lady Teresa
Black Queen of Alba Iulia
The Black Queen stood in her library leafing through the ancient tome that Vendramino had sent her by way of his vizier, Abdul-Malik, whom had been to visit the Levant to bring news to the old Cappadocian about his Childe Ignacio’s activity in Sighisoara, which was still technically his domain.
The book was called ‘Vivlio Tis Gis’ the Book of the Land, which spoke of Transylvania and its old gods. It seemed that Vendramino received word of Sanchez and his quest to rid them of this dreadful weather and this dusty old tome made mention to the Old God, Kupala, and Vendramino thought they might find it to be an interesting read.
The book itself was oddly heavy, its pages were chord-bound vellum, the cover hardened leather. It was written in Greek, which made it difficult but she was managing. Huge portions of the codex had become worn and a few passages seemed to have been vandalized to make them unreadable.
She couldn’t fathom why he felt she would want this. It was probably something one of his ghosts told him.
Currently Ibrahim was refreshing himself with a chalice of chilled Vitae that had been seasoned by feeding its…volunteer…nothing but food infused with honey-wine and cinnamon. It was a favorite vintage of Teresa’s and took a fortnight to…age.
She’d procured it especially for this occasion, three strong youths of unsurpassed beauty had been selected by her Seneschal, Erzibet, just for this occasion and she was the first to drink it, to ensure its perfection.
She licked her lips at the thought of it.
“What do you find so fascinating that you would not greet a beloved friend who appeared at your door.” – a familiar voice came from the door to her library.
Teresa looked up and smiled.
“Sanchez, I’m so glad you could make it, the others should be along very soon.” – Teresa, happily.
“Well, yes, when you told me of your pending arrival I decided to call other members of our little conspiracy. Your ‘childe’, Sherazhina should arrive shortly. Vendramino was caught up in very important business in Venice but he sent your Moor friend.” – Teresa
“And Kyrillos?” – Sanchez asked hopefully
Teresa shook her head, she had come to believe that their odd friend may be lost to them.
“Did you get word to Erasmus?” – Sanchez
“No, Sanchez, it has been nearly forty years since he last stirred. His childe Josephus has taken Praxis of Brasov. Though he watches over our friend diligently he does not believe that there is any hope of another awakening.” – Teresa, sadly
“Why not.” – Sanchez
“When last he woke, Erasmus believed himself to be the Patriarch completely. He had no memory of the Black Cross or what transpired in Constantinople all those years ago at all.” – Teresa
“And you do.” – Sanchez
“Mostly, I remember those nights better than when I was living to be sure.” – Teresa, annoyed at her Spanish friend’s inability to take the news with dignity.
After a moment of awkwardness Teresa decided to fill the void.
“I planned on us all going out together to watch you place the runes on St. Michael’s Cathedral.” – Teresa
“I’ve already done it.” – Sanchez
Teresa’s eyes darkened as she felt her Shadow stir.
“I figured I would be in and out, I had no idea you were going to throw a shindig.” – Sanchez, apologetically.
“It’s nothing.” – Teresa, graciously.
“I did however bring you a stone carving of the finished sigil, you could use it as a paperweight or a doorstop if you’d like.” – Sanchez, reaching under his tunic
He produced a disk of white alabaster as big as her hand; it had been polished and seemed to glow, even in the relatively low light of her home.
Embossed upon the stone were a series of sigils.
“Protection.” – Teresa, nonplussed
“What?” – Sanchez
“I mean, its stylized but yes, that’s what it says.” – Teresa, gently running her fingers over the stone
“That’s it? Nothing else?” – Sanchez
“Well, there are a few additional details, almost like coordinates on a map, but yes, that’s all it says.”
She continued to study the embossment. It had always amazed her how perfect and precise his work was. How such a coarse and crude man could make something so delicate, and beautiful.
“Thank you for this, Sanchez, it means the world, how did you craft it without leaving tool marks?” – Teresa asked as she studied it’s perfectly smooth face.
“I didn’t use any.”
March 24, 1314, 10:19pm
The Domain of Lady Teresa
Black Queen of Alba Iulia
They’d been laughing and telling stories of their respective adventures for over an hour when Teresa realized that Sanchez was studying her.
“So, Dona Teresa, when are we going to find out what’s in that book you’ve been keeping so close?” – Sanchez, the blood had given him a new vitality.
The assembled beamed, though some of their good cheer was due to the semi-fermented Vitae they now drank, she knew that their curiosity must have been piqued by its presence at her side.
She sat it down heavily on the table before her.
“This is the Book of the Land.” – She announced with some fan-fare.
Sanchez and Sherazhina both ooo’d and ahh’d as she opened it. Teresa continued, making a point to ignore them:
“When Vendramino received word that Sanchez and Master Zelios believed that they could bind the Demon Kupala it sparked a memory for the Necromancer. He’d read that name before, in the Libraries of Acre. With Abdul-Malik’s help he made sure that we would have a chance to see it for ourselves.” – Teresa, turning to a page that had been marked by a ribbon of dusty black silk and began to read:
“…Svarog, Byelobog and chief among them, the demon-god Kupala, whose offspring infuse the very soil with madness. His dark heart ripped asunder, the demon is said to rest beneath the Carpathians, haunting the lands and spreading his corruption to all who touch upon his dread demesne. It is whispered that a demon sleeps, gaining strength to rise in terrible wrath when at last he awakens. His burning malice is seen in the creation of a legendary blood red bloom known as the sacred fire flower of Kupala. With it, sorcerers may bind or loose demons.
“The cult dedicated to this abhorrent spirit gifts the demon with sacrifices, slaying babes for their pure and innocent blood, which the demon consumes. Thus fortified Kupala’s corruption spreads ever farther, trailing lunacy in its wake. The quaking of the earth, the foul rains and lightning that destroy crops and homes, great windstorms that tear the fields and forests asunder, all these speak with the demon’s voice, May God grant that we discov…” – Teresa stopped, whatever had been written there had been destroyed.
“You’re telling us that this hellish weather is being caused by a cult trying to wake up a hell-god?” – Sherazhina
“This foulness does not happen in the holy-land.” – Ibrahim, half joking.
“Yes, but unfortunately you’re not there right now, we’re here in the black heart of Transylvania.” – Sherazhina shot back
“What’s wrong, lovely?” – Sanchez asked his muse
“I remember a cousin called Boris, he grew up faster than Dragomir and I, My aunt Maris was ashamed. She treated Boris awfully for a long time and then, one day, just before he turned three, Boris went away. A party was thrown in his honor, his father looked sick throughout the festivities but my mother and father were so happy. I remember so clearly that they had gushed for years afterwards about how that had been the very best Kupala’s Day; that Boris had brought us good fortune.” – Sherazhina.
“They were cultists?” – Ibrahim
Sherazhina didn’t respond. Sanchez patted the girl’s hand, quietly comforting her.
“I have been enacting a plan to stop this, but you may not like it.” – Sanchez“Why wouldn’t they like it? I thought that your little ritual was all but done.” – Teresa
“What plan?” – Ibrahim asked
“Not quite, we have placed three of the six sigils needed to bind the Demon, and Zelios has gone south to place the last, but there are two more.” – Sanchez hesitantly.
“Well, where are they? Let’s get it over with.” – Sherazhina adamantly.
Sanchez pulled a rolled up copy of Zelios’ map from his satchel but before he could unfurl it there came a knocking at the door.
It was Teresa’s valet.
“Milady, I am sorry to interrupt your summit but there’s this man here who demands an audience–” – the valet was not allowed to finish his sentence before he found himself being thrown as the door flew open behind him.
The man now standing in the doorway was massively tall and well-muscled, his face half hidden behind a red nest of a beard. His eyes seemed to be nothing less than blue flames flashing out from beneath his mop of hair. His clothes were archaic, a burlap tunic and a pair of cross-gartered leggings underneath a poorly fitted and corroded roman breastplate. In his left hand he carried a spear, driving its long blunted spear-head into the floor.
Though their beasts did not stir, there was no doubt that this man was a vampire with his sharp little fangs and skin so white that it seemed to reflect the candle-light around them.
“I know you.” – Teresa declared, though she couldn’t quite place him.
“That son of a whore was the one who sent the mob after us.” – Sanchez, his own fangs sliding into place as his fury came to the fore.
Sanchez was, in less than an instant, standing before the giant madman.
“HEAR ME!” – The vampire roared into the Spaniard’s face.
The Spaniard found himself incapable of doing anything else.
“Though I long ago warned you, thou hast done nothing to quell the demon’s awakening! The first of the signs has seen fulfillment and yet you wait! Will you remain idle while the land’s heart is ripped from its bleeding chest?! Do you not see that eternal night is almost upon us?! He stirs, and with him, the Ancient ones groan upon their ancient Beds, their hunger shrieking for our life’s blood! The loss of a holy land, the breaking of a holy order and the downfall of a mighty Magus! The sign has come, the fist of those that lead to ever-blackness and death eternal! You stand within the whirlwind! Seven more remain; what cannot be stopped must be Transformed! On you rests our redemption or destruction! Do not fail me again!” – The Mad vampire bellowed, thrusting the blunted tip of his spear into the floor as he spoke, pointing at each Cainite he saw in turn.
Before any of them could react to his ravings though the vampire’s eyes rolled back into his head and he collapsed, writhing upon the floor as bloody foam bubbled from his mouth. His spasms and contortions were enough to break a mortal spine and they could hear the telltale popping as his own broke and reformed over and over again.
Though he would later admit to having no idea why he would do so, Sanchez rushed to the vampire’s aid, trying to hold his thrashing body down. The vampire was powerful though and the Toreador could feel the vampire trying to tear his own arm off. Luckily Teresa appeared at his side as well. Her own strength had long ago outstripped his own and now she was forcing the unimaginably powerful man to the floor.
After his spine snapped one last time the vampire collapsed against the floor and lay still. He seemed almost peaceful as he lie there, his eyes closed.
When he opened them again they were ready for the worst, what they got was something else. The eyes that had before burned like blue fire were now clear and all too human.
They stepped back and allowed the vampire to sit up.
“Where am I?” – the vampire, his maniacal voice gone, replaced by a deep timbre, not unlike Sanchez’s own.
“Welcome back.” – Teresa
“Milady, If I may be so bold: Who are you?”
“I am Teresa Balgrad, the Black Queen of Alba Iulia, and you are in my home. You came here with dire news which you were unwavering in your demand to share, as my servant can attest once he wakes up.” – Teresa
“We are not in Hungary?”
Teresa shook her head.
“I am so ashamed.” – the vampire stood with surprising grace before helping her to her feet.
“I am Octavio, I hail from Aquincum, which is now called Obuda.” – Octavio
“You were roman?” – Ibrahim
“I was yes, many lifetimes ago.” – Octavio.
As she listened to his strangely familiar accent it dawned on Teresa that this man’s native tongue was Old Latin.
“What’s the last thing you remember?” – Sanchez asked.
“I was in Obuda and I was praying?” – Octavio
“Do you remember the date?” – Sanchez asked
“only that it was the Year of Our Lord 1314 and that Easter had just past.” – Octovio
“And what do you know of Kupala?” – Teresa interjected
The old vampire was taken aback.
“I have been fighting him since the time out of mind… I am bound to him and it is my duty to put his evil to rest.” – Octavio
“What do you mean you are ‘bound to him’?” – Sanchez, nervously.
“It is my curse to see his mind. I see visions of his coming, my sire was the Demon’s high priest but could not take the visions any longer and so he forced them upon me along with my embrace.”
“We are, as it happens, working toward a similar goal. However, we are not sure if we can trust you; though perhaps if you shared your visions with us…” – Teresa
“I know them better than my own name: And there shall come to pass the loss of a holy land, the breaking of the Holy Order and the downfall of a mighty magus.” – surely you must see that when Christendom lost the Holy Land in 1291 and then the French King murdered the Templars that the prophesy is being fulfilled even now.” – Octavio, obviously grateful to speak about the subject with someone that did not find him mad.
“But what about the magus?” – Teresa asked
“I admit that I don’t know who that might be, but for the other two keys to be in place, the Magus cannot be far behind.” – Octavio said, matter-of-factly.
“The passing of years and the fires of the righteous shall bring upon us a parting of kin, one of from the other. The children shall revile their parents, slaying them in their beds, and brother shall smite brother.”
Neither Teresa nor Sherazhina could not help but feel his eyes upon their skin though neither could be sure why.
“These are but the first two of eight. Eight signs that foretell the coming of Kupala. For eight Centuries I have foreseen these signs, and others but now for the first time they are becoming clear. The Holy order fell but seven years ago, sixteen years before that the holy land was barred to Christendom, it must be that the Mighty Magus shall fall soon.” – Octavio.
The assembled Cainites looked to one another with shame. They all suspected that Octavio did not know that the first of the signs had come and gone nearly a full century prior with the fall of Acre.
“I have inconvenienced all of you so much, and it appears that I am so far from home I must make haste if I am to make any headway in my journey by daybreak.” – Octavio said, bowing deeply to Teresa.
“I would be honored to have you stay here until you are rested.” – Teresa
“I thank you, Milady, but I must leave soon if I am to return to Obuda in time for the solstice.” – Octavio, kissing the Black Queens hand.
March 25, 1314, 1:07am
The Domain of Lady Teresa
Black Queen of Alba Iulia
Sanchez watched Octavio from the top of Teresa’s roof as the giant soldier ‘communed with the rocks and the trees’ in the town square, he was nursing a goblet of chilled blood-wine, rolling the cup between flattened hands as he perched upon a weathervane to get a better view of their guest.
“What’s he doing?” – Teresa, slipping out of the shadows.
“He’s still communing, milady. He’s been at it for some time.” – Sanchez, ponderously.
“Hmm, well I’ve gotten him to agree to staying for at least a few nights. I don’t think he’s hunted since he left Budapest.” – Teresa
As cold as she could be, the moments of motherly concern always surprised.
“As powerful as he must be, I’d watch my reserves if I were you.” – Sanchez, he realized suddenly that they had been speaking Spanish the whole time.
“Don’t worry, I prepared for your coming, I’m sure I can handle him.” – Teresa smirked
“He’s listening to us you know.” – Sanchez, quietly
“There’s no way.” – Teresa, approaching the edge to look at the distant figure.
She could barely see him at this distance.
“He’s more powerful than any three of us, Teresa, and is almost definitely a cousin to our traitorous friend.” – Sanchez, his voice thick with more than the blood he was drinking.
“Don’t say that, he didn’t abandon us, just the Cross. What happened to the man who once spat in the face of his sire?” – Teresa
“He went to war.” – Sanchez, turning back to their subject
They grew unbearably quiet as only vampires could.
“You were about to show us something when he arrived. What was it?” – Teresa
Sanchez turned and smiled.
“Let me show you.”
March 25, 1314, 1:27am
The Domain of Lady Teresa
Black Queen of Alba Iulia
This was the first time anyone else had ever stepped foot in Teresa’s study. There was no light there, nor was there any to be lit, any window through which a ray of sunlight could slip. This was where she spent her days, surrounded by her most precious possessions, safe from the sun. It was where she went to explore her inner darkness and the abyss from which it had been drawn.
“Are you sure he cannot hear us here?” – Teresa asked.
“There is no way to be sure of anything when dealing with a being that remembers Rome, but yes, I believe we’re safe here.
Sanchez unfurled the map he’d kept in his tunic.
“What are we looking at?” – Ibrahim asked, his voice almost reverent as he poured over its detail.
“Transylvania, as drawn by my Master, Zelios.” – Sanchez said, brimming with pride.
“How did he achieve such detail with the cities. I can see the boutique where I make my haven in Sighisoara.” – Ibrahim.
Teresa, too, was astonished by the level of detail but obviously lacked the powers of perception to properly appreciate its work.
She cleared her throat as Sanchez’s eyes glassed over.
“Sorry, yes, as you can see, each of these Castles, each designed, at least in part, by Master Zelios, acts as a point in a web. Our Tower in Birkau, Bran Castle in Brasov, the Castrum Sex in Sighisoara, St. Michaels Cathedral here in Alba Iulia…” – Sanchez, rhythmically.
He drew a line with his finger from point to point as he spoke until he reached a point past Alba Iulia, deep within the Bihor mountain range.
“What is this?” – Teresa, her voice shaking.
“There is a citadel there, hidden amongst the cliffs and spires.” – Sanchez, his voice, wistfully rhythmic, affirming that he was once again losing himself to the map.
“Where is it? Where is that castle. Do you know?” – Teresa’s voice was growing manic.
She grabbed his arm, pulling him from his reverie.
“No, no I don’t, Zelios hasn’t been able to pinpoint its location. We only know that it exists around near here.” – Sanchez, pointing to the mark.
Teresa studied that mark for what seemed like eternity.
“I need to know, Sanchez, I need to know where that bastard sleeps.” – Teresa.
“Who?” – Ibrahim
“That’s my grandfather’s Castle.” – Sherazhina
“Where is it?” – Teresa demanded as she took Sanchez by the shoulder, her eyes had grown into black pools as she struggled against the Darkness.
Everyone turned to Sherazhina
“I know where to find Vintila’s castle.”
March 27, 1314, 10:54pm
The Domain of Lady Teresa
Black Queen of Alba Iulia
Sherazhina looked at the wagons that had been pulled out in front of Teresa’s manse. Each had been designed with additional fortifications against the light of the sun and the last one, which belonged to her and contained a heavily reinforced compartment filled with twice her own weight of living soil from her home in the Birkau Pass.
She thought it funny that she often worried more about the contents than about any of her other possessions as she slipped into the covered wagon and opened the well hidden compartment. She ran her fingers lovingly over the earth within.
It was a habit she’d developed over the course of the last century: whenever she needed comforting she turned, always, to the Earth. As her fingers dug into the dirt she felt the vital warmth play across her head skin, sending a comforting wave through her bones. She closed her eyes and smelled the snowy mountains of the Calimani Mountains; she felt the chilled wind in her hair and, in her mind’s eye, saw the stars that shown larger and brighter than anywhere else in the world.
“Is she still angry with you?” – Ibrahim’s voice pulled her from her revelry.
The hatch slammed shut.
“I beg your pardon?”
“The Black Queen, is she still angry?” – Ibrahim
“I don’t know. I haven’t been inside in two nights.” – Sherazhina, honestly.
“Why have you never told her before? She’s been at war with that monster for more than a century.” – Ibrahim
“I never traveled to my grandfather’s lair and the last time I saw a map to it I was still a child walking under the sun. The only way I recognized it now was because of the detail, in which the map was made, besides, I do not know a safe passage there it, simply its location on the map.” – Sherazhina
“What do you think of your lover’s master?” – Ibrahim, changing tack.
Zelios had arrived the night before in mysterious fashion. She’d met him numerous times over the decades and had a good rapport with the elder Leper, though his bouts of mania could be overwhelming at times.
“I am happy to see him again, though I am less happy to learn that he was anywhere near Birkau Castle.” – Sherazhina, protectively
The Childe of Haqim only nodded sagely.
March 27, 1314, 10:56pm
The Domain of Lady Teresa
Black Queen of Alba Iulia
Zelios paced back and forth within the library, studying the Book of the Land carefully, his eyes less than an inch from the page’s surface.
“Fascinating.” – he said to no one in particular
Sanchez was growing dizzy watching him.
“How’d you do it, Master Zelios?” – Sanchez, apropos of nothing
Zelios’ head lolled as his eyes darted toward his apprentice.
“Please be specific, Master Sanchez.” – Zelios, not happy that he was interrupted.
“You traveled from Bavaria, to Birkau Castle, to Bran Castle and back here in such a short amount of time. How can this be?” – Sanchez
The Nosferatu smiled a cold smile.
“I must be honest with you, Sanchez, I became distracted and then found my way here much by accident.”
Sanchez looked long at his mentor before nodding. Though he was sure it was a lie he was going to take Zelios at his word. If the Master-Builder wanted him to know, he would know.
Zelios went back to his reading but stopped after a moment. His shoulders slumped.
“I worry about you, my young friend. When I sent you on this errand I had not thought through the ramifications of my actions. I was reminded of our Host’s dealings with the Master in the Mountains only after I’d made some progress on my own journey.” – Zelios, quietly.
“I don’t think you have to worry about our demise, Zelios, we can take care of ourselves. Vintila is only one man.” – Sanchez, confidently.
The other shook his head sadly.
“Do you know why I do what I do, Sanchez? Why I while away the Long Night designing and perfecting fortresses all over civilization. Why I study the Occult underpinning of their designs? Why I sent you out on this errand?” – Zelios
“It is passion. It’s all either of us truly have.” – Sanchez
Zelios smiled sadly. It was true.
“But I have other reasons, too. This brand will bind the blight on this terrible land, not just for you and your cherished ‘Black Cross’ but for everyone. I do not want any part of this bloody War of Princes that you have all thrown yourselves into.” – Zelios
Zelios’ eyes darted to the door as it opened, ending his train of thought.
It was one of Teresa’s servants.
“Masters’, madam has asked for your presence in her receiving room as couriers have just arrived from the east.”
March 27, 1314, 11:01pm
The Domain of Lady Teresa
Black Queen of Alba Iulia
Teresa watched the boys suspiciously. They had arrived only moments before on horseback wearing tabards of deep blue and marked with a stylized kappa, the seal of Count Kyrillos of Timisoara.
They were dead, that was obvious, and embraced at a very young age, neither showing any sign of having grown their first beards. More notably though was that they were identical twins, each marked by pale freckled skin and dark eyes and longish hair the color of rust.
Their sticklike bodies spoke of malnourishment and their manner spoke of poor breeding.
She would never understand what the Count’s obsession with identical twins was.
The only difference between the two was a subtle one. The boy to the left had a winning smile plastered over his thin face, while the dour one to the right, though quiet had a twinkle in his eyes that spoke volumes toward his character.
“Milady Queen Teresa Balgrad, I am Iózsef, Childe of Count Kyrillos and Herald of Timisoara and in the name of my sire I ask permission that my brother and I may make temporary haven within your domain.” – the smiling one said, bowing at the waist until his nose nearly touched the ground.
“I would know the name of your companion first, child.” – Teresa
“This, madam, is my brother, Iakov, Childe of the Count and Herald to his glory.” – Iózsef
Iakov bowed at the neck.
“And what brings you so far west, childer?” – Teresa
“We come with glad tidings from Count Kyrillos, madam, and would present you with this letter from him. We will await your response, Milady.” – Iózsef.
Iakov slipped a smallish cylinder of leather, capped in gold, the insignia of Kyrillos imbedded into the leather case. He fell to one knee, presenting the cylinder dramatically by raising his hands as if in supplication.
Teresa took the sealed cylinder and opened it, turning it over to remove its contents.
Inside was a single piece of tightly rolled parchment, it was held in shape by a single small band of jewel encrusted gold.
It was a golden dragon curled upon itself, its eyes glittering emeralds.
Teresa quietly slipped a ring from her left thumb. She lifted one ring and let it slide into the other, creating a single ring, two dragons coiled around one another.
Teresa read the words written on the scrolled letter, her dread growing with every word and when she finished she could do nothing but close her eyes, she felt a single drop of blood fall down her cheek.
“What is it Teresa?” – Sanchez, concerned.
“We must leave for Timisoara at once.”
She held out the letter to Sanchez.
“Greetings to you all,
You will remember this token, which you agreed to honor. I now request that you aid me as I once assisted you. It is my fervent hope that the duty I ask of you shall not prove too onerous.
It has been made known to me that an old acquaintance of mine, by the name of Goratrix, travels to Transylvania. He has been summoned to the Tremere chantry known as Ceoris, a fortress that rests among the Transylvanian Alps. He is alone in this hostile land, where so many of my own Clanmates would wish to do him ill.
Thus, I make my request of you. Go to Timisoara, to the crypt beneath the Chapel of the Holy Sepulcher, where my own agents shall make certain he awaits your coming. Though clever, they lack a Cainite’s powers and stamina. Guard him through these dangerous lands and escort him to the chantry. He knows the way to Ceoris and has been commanded to appear there. I would not like to see him fall before my Tzimisce kin: that would be far too lenient a punishment for one such as he. No, with your help, he shall not escape attending upon his Usurper brethren.
It is my Great hope that you understand me clearly. I offer you my thanks. Should you accept, your debt to me is paid.
Sanchez crumpled the paper.
“This is wonderful news!” – Zelios
Sanchez looked at his old mentor skeptically.
“Ceoris, of course! Don’t you see? It’s the last pylon! The final point that I could not suss out. Oh, this is magnificent! The Usurpers use extraordinary powerful magic to hide their fortress, it must be powerful enough even to bend the Dragon Lines and hide their convergences. It is so obvious to me now!” – Zelios.
“I’m glad you think it’s obvious.” – Sanchez
“You should agree.” – Zelios demanded
“Why, in God’s name, would we do that?” – Teresa
“You can carve the runes into Ceoris! We can finish my web and bind the black heart of Kupala and end this infernal weather!” – Zelios shot back.
Teresa turned to respond but found herself speechless.
“He has a point, Teresa.” – Sanchez
“I promise you that I shall go to the Fiend’s lair and place the runes. We can beat the demon and no one has to die, isn’t that wonderful.” – The Architect
Teresa seemed like she was going to be sick.
“Yes, Master Zelios, just perfect.”
March 28, 1314, 12:20am
The Chapel of the Holy Sepulcher
The Domain of Kyrillos Dimities
Count of Timisoara
It took more than a week to reach the city. The weather had wracked the caravan throughout the journey, lightning struck a driver on the second night, a gale-force wind threw under a wagon, both required blood to survive and one would never walk again without a limp.
They took them to the Kicking Pig, a Tavern that catered to the Damned and where their men could rest without question. Simon, the owner of the establishment, was a ghoul bound to Kyrillos and Sanchez knew him well.
Now though, they stood in front of a church. In a city with no fewer than three great churches this one was smaller and older than the others, most likely tracing its way back to the third or fourth crusade and was built very close to the city’s eastern gate.
“I’m not going in there.” – Sanchez
“Don’t be a child. This is not hallowed ground” – Ibrahim
“You have not been with us long enough to remember my… experiences within houses of God, Ibrahim, nothing good has ever come from it.” – Sanchez, suddenly wishing that Sherazhina had come along.
“Calm yourself, Sanchez, this is the sanctuary that Kyrillos had built when he took the city. Do you see the Greek letter carved into the base of the Holy mother there?” – Teresa
Sanchez nodded, he recognized the stylized kappa that their odd friend used as a mark.
“I’ll be damned.” – Sanchez
“True.” – Ibrahim jested.
“No, there.” – Sanchez pointed to the shadows at the corner of the chapel.
There, trying not to draw attention to themselves stood a small group of armed soldiers dressed in tabards marked with the Ouroboros, the mark of the Obertus Tzimisce.
“It looks like this is the place after all.” – Sanchez scoffed.
The coterie slipped in the church, one of the guards, a captain by the looks of him, nodding as they passed. Once inside the chapel they found that it was completely dark and barren of any signs of life. The gate that led into the Crypts beneath the church had been left ajar a dim light flickered from deep within.
They slid into the crypt to what appeared to be a single chamber with the muted light being cast by an unseen source upon its back wall. Having seen this configuration of rooms before they followed the walls around until the small alcove hidden in the earthen wall where the torch was ensconced; that alcove led to a short corridor which led to a second chamber. This one made of stone and guarded by an iron gate that had been swung wide.
The stone chamber was nearly as dark as the one before, as it was also illuminated only by the torch behind them. Almost hidden within the shadows of the chamber stood two men, each with skin as dark as the shadows themselves.
Their clothes were distinctly Arabic in style, with sweeping black robes and sashes of indigo and gray that held curved blades that inexplicably caught the torchlight and gleamed with wicked lethalness. One was small and youthful, carrying himself with an effeminate grace and was marked by his lack of facial hair. The other was of smaller stature but seemed to somehow take up more space; his large black beard hid his mouth completely while his eyes gleamed with wicked intelligence.
They stood there silently for a moment without saying a word.
Ibrahim recognized the bearded man instantly: his name was Fariq and he’d been his minder in Transylvania since his arrival.
Abdul bowed to his handler.
“There’s no need for such formality you Saracen cur!” – Kyrillos’ voice seemed to echo in the small chamber.
Abdul looked up to see the two Saracens step aside to reveal Kyrillos standing behind them, a smile splitting his bearded face.
“It’s been too long, Count Kyrillos.” – Teresa lied.
“Yes it has, Lady Teresa. This is Fariq an old ally from Buda-Pest and his clan-mate Husayn.” – Kyrillos
The name flashed in the Lasombra’s mind.
“We have met, have we not, Husayn? In Serdica I believe, though it has been more than a century since I was last graced by your presence.” – Teresa
The Assamite’s eyes narrowed almost imperceptivity.
“Yes, I do believe you’re right. You are the childe of the Lord of the Sea of Shadows, yes?” – Husayn’s soft voice almost cooed.
Teresa curtsied. He was as polite as ever, and she wanted to divest him of his face for it.
“Indeed I am.”
“Enough of this, Teresa, you need not play nice with the heathens, they are hired men not honored guests, how have you been?” – Kyrillos laughed before slipping unbearably close to the Lasombra.
“Have you heard from Lucita?” – Kyrillos whispered conspiratorially, his face the very embodiment of concern.
“Not in many years. The last word I received from her was that she was worried for Anatole, whom, I’m sure you’ve heard, has become a bit of a diablerist. That was at the very turn of the century.” – Teresa, unsure of why she was whispering.
“Yes, we’d heard such rumors ourselves, it is why we asked you. I am sure that Lucita is safe with the Holy man. We have been told by our daughter, Ulrike, that Gauthier and his small brood follow the French nomad with something akin to religious fervor. They call him a prophet. We can ask after her if you’d like, it is rare that Gauthier spends too much time away from Brasov and we are still in contact with Josephus, of course, our Childe rarely speaks to us anymore, he sees our defection from the Black Cross as tantamount to Blasphemy.” – Kyrillos hissed.
“I would like that very much.” – Teresa.
The Malkavian stepped away from her again and was once again gregarious and confident.
“What brings you here, Fariq?” – Ibrahim asked quietly.
“One could ask you the same question, Ibrahim.” – Husayn interjected.
Fariq gestured for Husayn to be quiet.
“Our Ally and I were hired by Lord Vykos to make certain the Usurper, Goratrix, would not be capable of employing his sorceries against your allies or escape before your arrival, though I must agree with our Clanmate in saying that your presence was unexpected.” – Fariq
“Interesting, so then, if you have secured the prisoner, why was our presence requested?” – Ibrahim asked ignoring his mentor’s curiosity.
“Our contract simply called for his capture and detainment. This cohort in which you find yourself attached is to present it to the Tremere fortress.” – Fariq
“It seems strange that a contract would be stipulated so awkwardly.” – Ibrahim
“We were offered the full contract when we were hired but we agreed in our unwillingness to enter even the shadow of Ceoris.” – Fariq, bluntly.
“And my friends owed him a favor.” – Ibrahim, putting it together.
“And it would behoove you to join them, should you be thinking of staying behind. If we were to find the Usurper stronghold it would be a victory for our clan.” – Fariq
“If there is anyone who needs refreshment the Kicking Pig’s proprietor is aware of our needs and can easily procure you with Vitae should you need it.” – Kyrillos, though he spoke to all those assembled his eyes only momentarily left Sanchez.
No one moved, though Sanchez sneered at his seditious friend.
The younger looking one stepped forward.
“If you are rested Fariq and I shall conduct you to the room in which your charge awaits you.” – Husayn
The Assamite led the vampires into the next chamber where a wooden coffin lay on the stone sarcophagus; its lid had been nailed shut.
“Regretfully, I must release him as I have been commanded to do so in my contract. I hope that his need for blood will occupy him long enough for you to explain why you are here. It would be most regrettable should he injure you before you can learn your mission.” – Husayn.
As he spoke Fariq appeared holding a woman by the arm. She was docile and compliant but her face was streaked with tears.
With a heave, Husayn tore the lid from the coffin. Inside was a large man with pale skin, his hair, cut short, was a reddish shade of blond. His nose was hooked and his thin mouth was twisted into a sneer even as it lay passive.
His pale blue eyes, half closed and unmoving, seemed to bore into whoever was in his line of sight with a hatred that was almost palpable.
His dress was that of a French nobleman, his hands and robes practically encrusted with jewels. The fine fabrics were marred by the bloody stains that had welled up around the stake that had been driven through his heart. Each of them felt their beasts clawing to get away from the staked monster lying before them.
“Here are those who guarantee your safe passage through the lands ahead. Our contract is now satisfied. Go in peace, Goratrix bani Tremere.” – Husayn, leaning in close to whisper into the vampire’s ear.
When he stood, Fariq tore the stake from the other vampire’s chest and thrust the girl into the coffin with him. Powerful hands entwined the mortal and held her close as the frenzied elder fed. By the time the woman was dead both Assamite elders had vanished.
The conspiracy decided to give the elder usurper some privacy as he drained the poor girl dry. Only a few minutes passed before he stepped into the room.
“So, you’re the ones that are going to escort me to Ceoris?” – Goratrix, with a wry half-smile.
April 8, 1314, 11:38pm
The Transylvanian Wilds
The Realm of the Obertus
It had been nearly a fortnight since they’d left the domain of Kyrillos, while they did take a few wagons they had decided to take the back roads and forest trails instead of taking the more traveled highways through the Transylvanian forests and while they’d taken to conserving their vitae they soon realized that without the Count they would not have survived so long.
It seemed that Kyrillos had a knack, not only for navigating the forest, a trait he shared with Sanchez and Ibrahim, but also for finding blood. It was animal blood to be sure, but they had not gone completely hungry on the journey.
The other positive result to traveling the less well known byways was that they had been able to dodge more than one Tzimisce ambush, again mostly because of the strange insights that came from Kyrillos.
When they drew near a small village called Alceditz they were all weary but not starved of blood. They were, however, exhausted by the Tremere Elder.
Goratrix had spent the entirety of their trip trying desperately to turn them away from their mission, to set him free, or help him break the pull he felt drawing him to Ceoris. As they approached Alceditz he became desperate and his confident demeanor completely collapsed.
“You know that if you bring me to the fortress none of you will ever see your homes again!” – Goratrix blurted as the villages’ wooden walls appeared on the horizon.
Sanchez hung his head, he’d been experimentally trying to hide himself from the others, mentally picturing himself as being ‘apart’ from them, as Master Zelios had suggested when Goratrix began to blather on, wrecking his concentration.
“No man, woman or child, living or dead, who is not of Tremere’s blood or at least loyal to him unto death, has ever seen the fortress and survived!” – Goratrix
“I’m sure that that is true, Lord Goratrix.” – Teresa, as if speaking to a mewling child.
Sanchez was listening, though. It only made sense that that was why Vykos had been so adamant that they should go, forsaking the debt they owed him for a simple escort for a man who seemed incapable of going anywhere else only made sense if the Fiend thought that they might be destroyed.
“How was I to know that the King would demand that the Templars would be destroyed? That wasn’t my fault, I was simply trying to cement my influence of the Court in Paris, to wrest a little control from Salianna and her Ventrue whore, Geoffrey. How was I to know that he would destroy an entire holy order?” – The Tremere pleaded
“What have you to fear in going back then, Goratrix? You’ll receive a slap on the wrist, lose your domain, perhaps have to begin from scratch? Your Long Night isn’t going to come to an end.” – Kyrillos, sympathetically.
“If you have any sympathy for me you must help me to free myself from the Usurper’s grasp! I am not willfully returning to them, it is their magic that calls me back!”
“I’ll not stop you should you attempt to run.” – Ibrahim
“I cannot run you damned Saracen, I have been hexed into returning.” – Goratrix, his fangs flashing as he turned to face Ibrahim
“I’m sorry Goratrix, but as we have explained, we are bound to escort you back to your kin. It is out of our hands.” – Kyrillos.
“While I am not bound by this oath that they made, my hands are tied lest I can find some way to profit from releasing you.” – Ibrahim, candidly
Sanchez rolled his eyes and smirked.
“I will pay anything if you can help me to break this spell. I shall even unlock, for you, the secrets of Tremere Art of Thaumaturgy.” – Goratrix
“Wouldn’t your brethren amongst the House destroy us for learning those arts?” – Kyrillos, plainly. The Usurper was no longer amusing him.
“Only if they found out, and I don’t plan to see them again, so how would they find out?”
“They would know, sooner or later, they would find out.” – Kyrillos.
By his body language it was clear that, at least for him the conversation was over.
“This has been a fantastic trip.” – Teresa to the Malkavian.
“Hasn’t it though, perhaps I shall take up horseback riding.” – Kyrillos responded.
April 9, 1314, 12:06am
The village gates
The men who had accompanied the conspiracy on the journey were near apoplectic by the time they’d reached the village gates. They had weathered the storms and the company of the damned poorly, having to camp out in the mud amidst the worst storms any of them could remember in their (for some, unnaturally long) lives. They’d lost another horse during the day when a lightning-struck tree fell upon it, crushing its hindquarters.
When they reached the inn (marked by the sign of a golden stag) they did not ask their masters that they should stop, but simply trudged in and paid for whatever shelter they could find.
When the Conspiracy joined them, though, they found that the inn was full. In fact it was too full. The place was filled with nearly two dozen ruggedly dressed young men. Even if this village had been on a regularly traveled thoroughfare they would only expect to see a small handful of men and women, almost all of which would have been drunken locals.
Sanchez nudged Ibrahim as Kyrillos nodded to him. They had all noticed it, a swatch of cloth here, a patch there and a tattoo over in the corner. Each of these men bore the mark of the black cross.
These men were Templars.
The Order of the Black Cross had been disbanded nearly two generations ago when Jürgen had been relieved of Magdeburg, though if rumors were true, Lucretia had stayed behind. But the Templars had survived, at least they had until their destruction a year before.
That made these men survivors and refugees. That made these men dangerous.
And they were watching the Conspiracy, too, since the moment that they’d entered the men had been surreptitiously been keeping an eye on the pale newcomers.
“Innkeeper, I would pay for a round of drinks for everyone in this room!” – Goratrix, cheerfully.
There are a modest number of shouts of thanks or good cheer, with a number of men coming to the bar with their cups to be filled.
Kyrillos fought past them.
“Keep, I would like a room.” – Kyrillos.
“I am sorry sir, but the inn is full, the good men you see before you have purchased almost all of them.” – The barkeep.
Ibrahim slid up next to their charge.
“If I were to escape, now would be the time, usurper.” – Ibrahim whispered.
“Watch.” – Goratrix whispered back, hushing the Assamite, he was studying the crowd.
The tension in the room was tangible and Kyrillos was fascinated as he watched the flickering colors of the knights’ auras.
Sanchez went to the bar and picked up as many flagons as he could, passing the ale out to the dower little mob.
Kyrillos had already taken a seat next to a grizzled old man who didn’t seem to belong with the rest of them.
“I’ll tell you this, friend, I’ve just come in from a hunt and there ain’t nothing out there. The entire forest has gone quiet the last week. Something ill comes this way I tell you, there ain’t nothing out there but deer carcasses and bugs.” – the old man said before taking one last pull from his now empty cup.
Sanchez sat down with a largish group of knights, setting down the ale he’d brought with him, passing them out until each of the men had one, seemingly keeping two for himself.
“Why so glum gentleman, you have your youth, your health, what more could you want?” – Sanchez laughed and held up one of his cups.
The knights shrugged and lifted their own in turn, a few even smiled begrudgingly, infected as they were by the Spaniard’s exuberance.
“This is no time for merriment brothers.” – said a man who did not raise his cup.
He was older than the others, his skin dark with sun, his thick dark hair dusted with gray.
“Yes, brother Kalas.” – the men mumbled.
“Why is that…Kalas? I say, it’s always time for merriment, the only question is ‘to what measure?’.” – Sanchez laughed.
A few of the knights chuckled quietly, in spite of themselves, but they quickly quieted down and all of the men turned back to their dire looks and sullen mutterings.
After a few minutes one of the knights stood up and walked back to his room and then another came and took his place. Sanchez wandered the crowded room and over and over he saw the same thing. A knight would stand abruptly and walk back towards his room and a moment later he would be replaced by another.
Sanchez smiled and began to watch in earnest.
April 9, 1314, 12:52am
The Sign of the Golden Stag
“If you will give me a moment of your time, Lady Teresa.” – Goratrix, his face split by a smile that, had she been alive, would have given him a fair chance of sharing her bed.
She was neither alive, nor was she particularly patient at the moment.
“What can I do for you, Lord Goratrix?” – Teresa, sternly
“Not here, I would speak to you in private. There is a room, the second one to the left. The man sleeping there is asleep and drunk. He will not awaken should we use his room as a meeting place.” – Goratrix suggested conspiratorially.
“Fine.” – Teresa said, following after him into the room.
When they reached the room Goratrix opened it easily, its lock had evidently never been latched. Sure enough there lay an old man with a swollen belly sleeping loudly upon the small bed.
The foppish Goratrix stood over the old drunk, his mouth quirked almost comically to the left in a caricature of a judgmental Parent.
“Hungry.” – Goratrix, flashing that smile again.
“No. What did you have to say that required privacy?” – Teresa, tersely.
“It can wait, I am hungry.” – Goratrix.
He bent down as he spoke, folding almost in half at the waste to do so. His hand never left his side as his lips curled back to reveal his long and ferociously sharp fangs. His mouth opened almost too wide as he inhaled sharply.
Teresa stepped back as she watched a cloud of red mist rise from the old man, staining his clothes as it wafted upward.
The cloud collected over the old man until he paled and then seemed to deflate ever so slightly. The cloud looked like nothing less than a bloody thunderhead over the old man’s corpse before it condensed further and then flowed upward in a stream of blood into the warlock’s mouth.
The vampire dabbed at his chin with a bit of bedding and then turned his gaze not upon Teresa but on the corner behind her.
“You can come out now, Assamite, You are fooling no one but your beautiful friend, here.” – Goratrix gloated.“I don’t believe that I was fooling her either, Usurper, she signaled for me to follow.” – Ibrahim.
“yes, yes, you’re both very clever. Can we move on now?” – Goratrix held his hands up pleadingly before him, as if he were about to grab his own face.
Teresa and Ibrahim shared a quick glance and then nodded.
“I know what those Damned Templars have. Or at least I think I do, which is to say that I do. You, my shadow and beautiful friend, seem like an enterprising young vampire and I would like to give you a chance to help me achieve the power necessary to release me from my Bond and, Trust me, honey, it is worth all of your lives, and possibly my own to attain it.” – Goratrix
Teresa’s eyes narrowed as he spoke. She was deciding if she could kill him fast enough to keep his magic to bare against her.
“Surely, one so worldly as yourself have heard of the Tales of the fabulous treasure of the Knights Templar! It disappeared from their stronghold when their order was recently…annihilated…in France, (of which I only played the smallest of part in). You see some of the knights escaped into the night and I bet your Saracen’s black little soul that these are they! If we can get our hands on this treasure we will gain the greatest treasure ever seen in this world…You don’t look convinced… what would it mean to you to be immortal but be able to see the sun with your own eyes again? How would you like the power to command nations and lay waste to your enemies with but the wave of your supple hand? Help me, I beg you, and you will never regret it! Or I could be wrong and they will only have a few thousand libra with which we may enrich ourselves.” – Goratrix
“I’m in.” – Ibrahim, honestly.
“What would you get out of this deal?” – Teresa asked incredulously.
“You mean beyond my cut of any wealth and the power to break my Master’s bond and cripple my many enemies? Nothing, what can I say, I am the embodiment of Charity.” – Goratrix.
Teresa had to admit that the ancient man-child made a good offer.
Goratrix clapped his hands together, happily.
“Excellent, now, would either of your allies be willing to assist us in our little caper?” – Goratrix, rubbing his hands together.
There came an abrupt knock at the door and Goratrix’s smile grew wider.
“I do believe that Master Sanchez is in.”
April 9, 1314, 2:24am
The Sign of the Golden Stag
Goratrix’s plan was simple and to the point. Sanchez would work his way into the minds of the next shift of knights, leading them in one more drink while Teresa knocked on the door of the guarded room. When a knight opened the door she would mesmerize him and command him to let her in, where she would carefully make both guards forget that the treasure had ever been there. Whilst this was happening Ibrahim would slip in unnoticed and abscond with the Treasure itself, with which he would then slip out of the Inn unnoticed and hide it.
When all was said and done no one would even know that anyone had left the building.
It was a brilliant plan.
Unfortunately for them the knights were not the most reasonable of marks.
When it was discovered that the chest had vanished the Knights went into action. Not only did they lock down the Sign of the Golden Stag but also the houses and building that surrounded them, going so far as to roust a number of people from their beds.
Goratrix and Teresa had been prepared for this and when the knights stormed the room they were discovered in bed and thrown out into the common room with the rest, their room torn apart in searching for the chest.
Now they all stood in the common room while Brother Kalas and his knights ransacked every house, store, wagon and room.
“Nobody is leaving until we find it!” – Kalas, to the assembled people.
The assembled mortals looked bewildered and most of them were still half asleep.
I KNOW WHAT YOU DID! – Kyrillos roared inside Sanchez’s head.
Hearing another voice in his head startled the Toreador, who glanced around the room until he saw Kyrillos glaring angrily at him.
WHAT HAVE YOU DONE? – Kyrillos’ mind invaded his mind again, but this time Teresa reacted as well.
Four knights returned from ransacking the carriages. One of them was holding a case.
“What is that, Brother Vigo?” – Kalas.
“We found it in one of the wagons and could not open it.” – the Italian responded.
“That is my, sir knight, it is simply a case that holds some toys that I have been designing for a friend.” – Sanchez, nervously
“Open it.” – Kalas
“It is only trinkets, Sir, nothing to worry yourself over, some stone working that is all.” – Sanchez, bashfully.
“Open it now or we will kill you. I do not have patience for someone so unserious as yourself.” – Kalas, drawing his sword.
Sanchez looked nervously toward Teresa and then unlocked the chest, which sprang open instantly.
Inside were six beautifully crafted stone ships. Each a completely different design and marked by the flags of a different nation. Though each had been crafted from a single piece of stone they were meticulously shaped as if by hand, with details that should have been impossible, such as rippling flags and the grain of the wood used to build the boat.
Kalas held one of the ships and inspected it carefully.
“You worked this, mason?” – Kalas
“I did. Each one takes years of disciplined work.” – Sanchez
“They are beautiful.” – Kalas said, gently placing it back in the box.
“Was there anything else on the wagon?” – Kalas
“No, sir.” – Vigo confirmed
“Make sure that this crate is put back onto it than, and be careful with it.” – Kalas, carefully closing the lid.
“You have a God-given talent, mason.” – Kalas to Sanchez
“Thank you, sir.” – Sanchez.
April 9, 1314, 4:56am
The Sign of the Golden Stag
Things remained tense for the next two and a half hours before Kalas declared the search over, at least locally, the men had found a pair of horses and a wagon stolen two houses down and that, along with the missing man from the inn, it was believed that whoever absconded with the treasure had left the city. Kalas split his sixteen men into three forces, one would follow the road west and another east, with the third staying behind just in case.
The Conspiracy’s drivers and footmen were utterly exhausted by the time the Knights allowed them to sleep, but now there were rooms available and the men were given leave by Kyrillos to take the day and the next night to rest.
When Teresa and Goratrix returned to ‘their room’ they discovered Ibrahim waiting for them, sitting upon the crate.
“Do you want to see what is inside?” – Ibrahim asked.
“Absolutely.” – Sanchez said from the door way.
The chest was locked by five separate pad-locks, which none knew how to pick. However Teresa cut through the Gordian Knot by simply tearing the locks apart with her bare hands.
Goratrix smiled appreciatively at her strength and then opened the crate.
Inside was a smaller box carved form and sheathed in gold. Winged figures perched atop of it, facing one another, their wings stretched toward one another as if they were frozen while trying to take off.
“Oh, God!” – Teresa
“It is the Ark of the Testimony.” – Ibrahim, breathlessly.
“It’s the Ark of the Covenant.” – Sanchez, fell to his knees.
“We must open it.” – Goratrix.
“How are we going to open something that would kill holy men who dared to touch it?” – Sanchez
Goratrix lifted his arms with a flourish and intoned something in what sounded like archaic Latin. With a heavy rattling noise the Ark’s lid shook and then slowly lifted away.
Goratrix was the first to look into the holy vessel, though only by a single instant, the rest were there too, looking into the box.
Goratrix hung his head and stepped back dejectedly.
“It’s not real.”
It was true, this was not the Ark, but a simple chest worked to look like it. No faith infused its edifice and what was inside was surely not the tablets on which were carved the ten commandments.
What was there was two stacks of ivory tablets etched with cuneiform writing.
“Ah, hell.” – Sanchez, mystified.
“What are they?” – Ibrahim asked.
“Tablets inscribed in the tongue of Nod.” – Teresa, studying them.
“They are beyond worthless!” – Goratrix spat, he ran his fingers through his hair in exasperation.
“Do you have a way to read them?” – Ibrahim asked.
“Yes, there’s a key, but it is hidden far from here.” – Sanchez, frustrated by the entire situation.
“No, I learned the tongue decades ago. I use it for my own journals… it is less expressive but very hard to translate.” – Teresa, her eyes and fingers running over the tablet as she spoke.
“What does it say?” – Sanchez
“Its amazing, the letters are far better expressed here than in the golden tablets we saw before, some of the writer’s own ‘character’ has slipped in, but as far as I can tell its gibberish.” – Teresa.
“So you cannot translate it.” – Ibrahim, condescendingly.
“No I understand what the individual words and sentences mean, it just makes no sense. Like here, “Woe unto the fishmonger who boxes the Bear,” and here in the very next sentence “whosoever eats of the earth eats dirt.”.” – Teresa
“It’s a cypher.” – Sanchez, calmly.
Teresa looked up.
“That makes sense, but why?” – Teresa
“You can read this, Teresa? What does it say?” – Goratrix, suddenly bursting out of his fugue and into the conversation.
“It doesn’t say anything, at least not yet. It’s a cypher, it needs a key.” – Teresa, repeating herself was not helping her mood.
“You’re lying to me, damn you, TELL ME WHAT IT SAYS!” – Goratrix, grabbing the Lasombra and trying to force the information out of her, his eyes flicked with an eldritch light.
She felt his mind roll over hers as he commanded her, the way it seemed to choke her own thoughts with the ones he wanted her to have. It was similar enough to her own Voice that she knew what it was but it was still a new experience.
She didn’t like it.
She shrugged the elder off of herself and punched him in the face, his head rocked back hard enough to break a mortal’s neck and he landed hard on the floor a few feet away, scrambling into the corner of the room to try and escape her.
“Don’t you ever touch me.” – Teresa, her voice was cold, her Darkness had nearly taken control of her.
Goratrix stood, the left side of his face was sunken, the bones shattered and even piercing the skin in places. A large clot of blood seemed to be oozing out of his burst eye but even as they watched the clot slowed and then slithered back into place, the socket reforming around it as his discolored skin paled again.
By the time he was done straightening his clothes he was once again the handsome monster he’d always been, though there seemed to be a hungry cast to his eyes.
“I apologize, that was completely inappropriate, Lady Teresa.” – he voice was strained but clear, though his eyes flashed a lambent green as he kept his own inner beast in check.
They spoke for another few moments about how they would split the treasure. Teresa was adamant that all she wanted was the Ivory tablets and Goratrix, now contrite, vowed to forgo his share of the plunder, leaving it to the other two.
Just as they were beginning to decide how it would be divvied up a knock came at the door.
“There are men here who claim to represent House and Clan Tremere. They would like a word with us. Won’t you please bring the package with you?” – Kyrillos spoke through the door. He did not sound happy.
Goratrix took a step back, toward the window.
“I’m not ready, I need more time to fix this.” – he pleaded.
Teresa reached out to take his arm but found that she couldn’t, her hand refused to close on his arm, in fact she couldn’t even touch him.
Sanchez and Ibrahim both tried to trap him as well only to find that neither of them could seem to act against him either.
Goratrix smiled as it dawned on Teresa.
“When did you dominate our will? I was on guard all night.” – Teresa
“Ah but that’s just how I did it, milady, slowly and throughout the night I have been bending all of you to my will. Your mind is as powerful as your body, Lasombra, but compared to my will you’re nothing but a child.” – the Usurper gloated.
Goratrix turned to leave as the door opened, a young looking vampire with a scholarly manor stood there in riding leathers.
“Brother, wait.” – The bookish vampire called out.
“Goodbye, Etrius, thank you for coming to greet me, if you hadn’t I wouldn’t have been able to leave.” – Goratrix gloated as he turned to leap through the window.
A flash of black flame arose from the floor between him and the window causing him to step back abruptly. Standing before him was a man who looked no older than he, but carried with him a presence that nearly brought everyone, even Goratrix and Etrius, to their knees.
His hair was dark and straight and fell back away from his cold blue eyes. His skin was nearly bone white and almost had the appearance of stone. His sunken cheeks and aquiline nose gave him an air of royalty while his mouth, which must have been as capable of smiling as Goratrix’s own was twisted cruel.
The figure wore a deep green cloak that hid his slight form from view but he stood nearly eye to eye with Goratrix, who scuttled away from him faster than he had Teresa after she struck him.“Milord, I had thought you asleep!” – Goratrix panted.
The figure did not answer immediately, or even acknowledge the sniveling warlock’s presence. Instead he looked about the room in which he stood, craning his neck predatorily as he did so, as if he could see every angle, nook and cranny from the spot on which he seemed to float.
Finally his gaze passed over the Conspiracy. He seemed to look into all of their eyes at once. Though the glance was only a moment and his face was the very image of passive disinterest those pale cruel eyes were windows into a realm of rage and hatred, this being that stood before them sent their inner monsters scrambling in fear as it looked on them, this man who stood before them seemed to seethe with eldritch power that flowed off of him in invisible waves.
Finally the figure’s eyes alighted upon Goratrix who was still on the floor after scrambling away from him, Sanchez could barely make out the word that Goratrix whimpered under his breath:
The High-Usurper turned his gaze back to the Conspiracy, this time more intently. Sanchez could feel his blood burning, his skin seemed to be on the verge of splitting from the pressure growing within him.
Suddenly Ibrahim, whom Sanchez had completely forgotten was there against the wall, appeared and fled toward the doorway, ready to bowl over the one called Etrius and all the others assembled there.
He didn’t get far though, as his left leg shattered upon making contact with the floor, blood and fragmented bone sprayed everywhere as he fell to his knees. His already black skin darkened further, bubbling up as he screamed.
The Assamite attempted to lift his hands to crawl away only for the skin to tear away from his palm, leaving a trail of ichor and congealed blood from the floor to what was left of his hand. He crawled another two feet before he finally expired, his body congealing and bursting open before their eyes.
Kyrillos’ Madness tried to overtake him as he stood, eye to eye with the Grand Usurper but he kept it in check. Even as Ibrahim screamed and died he refused to allow the Madness to take hold of him and it was punishing him for it. Great wounds opened on the back of his arms and legs and head as the Madness that flowed through him like blood attempted to physically leave his body.
He told the blood to heel, forcing it back in line, but even that did not end his suffering. He could feel the Abomination standing before him tearing his mind apart, he could feel the thing’s spidery fingers sliding through his gray matter, shredding it to find his memories and thoughts and desires.
He felt blood dripping from his eyes and nose and ears as the thing did its work, he fell to his knees as he saw flashes of his childhood mash together with the smell of blood and carnage from the Battle of Toth. He saw his childer, Blain and Omar as they sailed the Mediterranean. And so many other memories and ideas getting torn asunder and discarded.
Teresa fell first, her body finally giving into the eldritch power of Tremere’s mind and simply fading into the shadows, leaving nothing but ash behind. Then Sanchez followed, almost immediately after. His body collapsing to the ground and shattering like porcelain upon stone.
A perverse sense of pride rushed through the old Malkavian as he realized that he would be the last of the Conspiracy to fall. It would be his last thought as his own body finally gave in and was torn apart by his own madness, the last thing that Kyrillos saw was his own body, his head having been disembodied and rolling on the floor, the pulped form convulsing as it tore itself apart.
The last thing he would ever hear was the familiar echo of a madman laughing in the distance.
April 9, 1314, 5:44am
The Sign of the Golden Stag
Lord Tremere looked back to Goratrix and Teresa found herself whole and on her feet where she had been standing before. She looked to the others to see that they too were alive and on their feet, a look of bewilderment stamped onto each of their faces.
Whatever just happened to her and her compatriots left nothing but a sense of the Antediluvian’s white hot contempt for them, as though he had shuffled though their entire existences, her wants and hopes and fears had been laid bare before him and he found her wanting.
“Follow.” – Tremere, his voice was low and husky, as if it had been a long time since he’d last spoke, but to Teresa’s horror it was the voice of a man.
Goratrix’s body lifted off the ground of its own accord, forcing him to watch his own body doing his master’s bidding in abject horror.
Tremere turned as if to go but stopped, glancing back as the one called Etrius before he left.
With that Tremere and Goratrix were no longer there, Teresa felt disorientated by the fact that they did not vanish so much as simply cease to be.
The young vampire stepped forward. His shoulders hunched beneath a dark gray hooded cloak, his dark hair curled naturally into ringlets. His eyes seemed to be a dark gray-blue that Teresa had never seen before.
“I hope you understand that I have been instructed by Lord Tremere, Founder and Grand Master of House and Clan Tremere to grant you anything you desire short of the secrets to our Thaumaturgical Arts. You may each make one request of us and it will be granted to the best of our ability.” – Etrius, his voice gentle if stilted.
No one spoke for a long time. It was as though they were all still reeling from whatever it was that Tremere had done to them, but it was Kyrillos that stepped forward first.
“We were here on a matter beyond that of bringing Goratrix home, Lord Etrius, for we find ourselves on a mission to bring an end to this Infernal weather, which we believe we have found a solution to. If you would please, place these runes upon the outer wall of Ceoris facing the Bihor mountains, I will consider your favor to me paid.”
Kyrillos held out a piece of parchment upon which the runes were drawn for Etrius to take.
For his part Etrius looked them over studiously, his eyebrow raised.
“I will have to check to insure that whatever this magic is will in no way affect our own binding charms and wards but if it is possible than it will be done.” – Etrius.
“I would like to have sure passage to Vintila Basarab’s fortress.” – Teresa.
Etrius nodded and looked to the others.
It was Sanchez’s turn.
“Can you help me lessen the Tzimisce Curse?” – Sanchez asked.
“I am sorry that is beyond our power, Master Sanchez.” – Etrius, though he did quirk an eyebrow at the request.
“Then I will simply ask that, should I ever be in need, that I may come to you.” – Sanchez.
Etrius nodded, looking to Ibrahim.
“I would ask for a like favor from your clan, Lord Etrius, but now the dawn approaches and we must find shelter.” – Ibrahim
With that he walked the Methuselah to his horse, discovering on the way that every mortal that had been present in the tavern was on the floor fast asleep.
As the hooded figure of Etrius passed through the city gate Ibrahim returned to the hidey-hole within his wagon, securing himself against the sun, and slipped into the day-sleep.
April 23, 1314, 9:37pm
The Castle on the Hill
The Domain of Kyrillos Dimities
Mad Count of Timisoara
The voyage home should have been swifter and more comfortable, without their ‘precious cargo’ they no longer had to worry about Tzimisce incursions and were able to take the main roads, their men resting each night in whatever town they’d reached while the Conspiracy fed sparingly upon the populous.
That was not the case.
The weather had turned worse in the nights since they had left Alceditz. They’d received word by way of a particularly intelligent raven that Etrius had agreed to apply the runes to the fortress’ defense but by the time they’d reached Timisoara the weather had become nearly insurmountable. More than once they became driven to ground by massive storm fronts that wouldn’t let up even by a forest fire caused by a bombardment of lightning strikes.
Kyrillos had, without question promised them lodging and hunting rights in his domain for as long as was needed to allow their men and horses to recuperate. His own home, which he called Dealul Cetatii, was more than large enough for them all to stay comfortably and stood only a mile from the city proper, which, even in this horrific weather, was only an hour’s ride by horseback.
When they finally arrived at the “Castle on the Hill” the downpour had become so great that it had turned the road into a river of mud. Kyrillos and the others had spent the last half an hour leading the horses and keeping them from slipping or losing their bearings.
As they walked up the wide staircase to the castle’s door they found a young boy waiting for them. He too was soaked to the bone, his unbearably thin legs knocking together in the cold. The skin of his arms and face was covered with patches of dry, cracked and flaky skin that was nearly raw in the cold humidity of the storm.
“Why are you on our doorstep, child?” – Kyrillos
“I come with a missive for Master Sanchez, sir.” – the boy chattered.
The mason stepped forward and took the waxed envelope which bore the seal of Zelios.
He opened it and began to read:
“Greetings unto you,
I hope that you have successfully concluded your business with Lord Myca of the Obertus. Though I know you all look forward to resting after such an arduous journey I have a boon to ask of you all.
You will have noticed that the weather has become even more dangerous and foul each day, the ground here in Alba Iulia quakes and I fear the mountains themselves will tumble down if they do not soon cease. This phenomenon is surely caused by the lashing of the old-god Kupala as we come ever closer to binding him. One castle yet remains, however, that of Vintila Basarab, though I said that I would be able to journey there myself to place the runes upon his castle I realize now that if we are to be successful we must act more quickly and thus I have left for the southern edge of Transylvania to mark the castle there.
Sherazhina was indeed able to pinpoint the actual location of the Fiend’s bastion and a missive came here in the name of Etrius bani Tremere that has been most helpful in charting a course through that dangerous mountain range.
I must ask you to do this in my stead. Please go to the Voivode and convince him to let you set our web, once I have placed my mark in Brasov I must away immediately to the lands of our western cousins and it may be many years before we see each other again.
You will know you’ve succeeded when the rains have stopped.
For the Good of Us all,
April 23, 1314, 8:37pm
The Castle on the Hill
The Domain of Kyrillos Dimities
Mad Count of Timisoara
“If we kill him we won’t have to do much convincing.” – Teresa once she had changed her clothes and joined the others in the study.
“The war has been cold so long, are we sure we want to fan the flames with the Tzimisce?” – Kyrillos
“After this long winter, I could do with some heat.”
They couldn’t help but laugh.
They were still discussing the pros and cons of destroying the Fiend when a knock came to the door.
“Lord Kyrillos, there is a woman at the door who claims to know you.” – Eloise
“Send her in at once.” – Sanchez
Kyrillos nodded, giving the ghoul permission to do so.
Sherazhina entered still wearing her riding cloak, her face hidden by its broad hood. When she revealed herself her demeanor was filled with nervous energy.
Sanchez went to her and they embraced.
“Will we be travelling to Vintila’s citadel?” – She asked anxiously.
Her eyes flashed red as they filled with blood tears.
“What is wrong, lovely?” – Sanchez
“I am worried…” – Sherazhina, cutting herself off.
“About what, Sherazhina, this is the monster you fled from and who has gone out of his way to torment you for over a century. Why are you so unwilling to destroy him?” – Sanchez
“I worry that if we destroy the monster that we will doom my brother as well!” – Sherazhina.
“Your brother?” – Kyrillos, butting into the conversation
“When I left, when I foreswore Vintila’s Embrace, my brother, Dragomir, took my place. My Grandfather would not have embraced him right away; in fact he would have waited until he had proven himself worthy of the blood of Tzimisce. Dragomir was such a delicate soul, always sickly and so very pale and so sensitive to the suffering of others, I worry that should we destroy Vintila that my brother would be destroyed in kind.” – Sherazhina
“You believe your brother to be a ghoul? After a century?” – Teresa
“On my honor, Sherazhina, I will not destroy Vintila until we know the fate of your brother.” – Sanchez, looking to Teresa beseechingly.
The Queen’s eyes darkened.
“Would you be adverse to your brother’s embrace, Sherazhina?” – Kyrillos, watching Teresa.
“I fear that at this point it is the only way to keep him from dying, though I beg of you, don’t let him be cursed with my Tzimisce blood.” – Sherazhina.
“Fine.” – Teresa, her voice seething.
“I will be happy to invite your brother into my family.” – Kyrillos
“Thank you but no, Kyrillos, I do not believe my brother could handle the burden you carry.” – Sherazhina.
“I’ll do it.” – Sanchez, dutifully.
Sherazhina leapt toward him, embracing him tightly.
May 8, 1314, 1:24am
The Bihor Mountains
The Domain of Vintila Basarab
Voivode of Tara Crișana
Teresa’s frustration mounted with each step. She had spent decades searching ever eastward for Vintila’s fortress only to learn that his lair lay far to the north. So far north that there were vast canyons between mountain peaks that were so deep that their bottom was shrouded in mist. Even here the winds whipped hard enough to throw the least vigilant of travelers to their doom.
Though the moon was hidden behind mountains of purplish black clouds they weren’t left wanting for light because lightning arched across the night sky constantly flashing red, green and purple, the thunder that followed was almost loud enough to crack the very mountains themselves.
Here, they were so high that ice and snow fell and they had long ago abandoned their horses and wagons to walk the slick and frozen paths.
When they came to the natural land bridge between two cliffs Sanchez couldn’t help but laugh nervously but they were able to cross without too much trouble.
On the other side though, the weather grew even worse. Lightning struck within feet of them and blew away pieces of the mountain pass. Hail assaulted them, hurled like frozen arrows from the clouds with such force that it knocked Kyrillos off of his feet and broke Sanchez’s shoulder.
Finally they saw in the distance, clinging to the cliff face like a great skeletal hand, rose the Castle of Teresa’s foe.
The Fortress was built directly out of the stone and seemed to be crafted from seven stone spires and wrapped around the mountain. Each tower had a few small windows that wound around it. The base of the structure was itself thirty feet tall and constructed of smooth gray stone that jutted out only slightly from the mountain side, which meant that much of the structure must have been built within the mountain itself. A long balcony began some ninety feet from the end of the mountain pass, jutting out a full twelve feet.
“Master Zelios had no part in the construction of this monstrosity.” – Sanchez as the approached the largest door he had ever seen.
The door was crafted from black petrified wood and was guarded by two massive and grotesque gargoyles.
The wind blowing through the canyon sounded more like an angry wail than anything natural.
“Do you see that?” – Sanchez
He pointed at a window near the top of the first spire.
“Somebody’s home.” – Kyrillos
Red lightning arced across the sky again and Sanchez saw within the clouds a vast antlered figure standing over the mountain range, its arms raised to strike them down. When the thunder came he could here within it the Demon’s voice speaking in a guttural tongue he did not know.
“Ku…pala.” – Sanchez whispered dreamily.
“What?” – Sherazhina.
The mason blinked.
“What?” – the Mason, defensively.
“I thought you said something.” – Sherazhina looked at him with worry in her eyes.
He shrugged back.
“Be on your guard, we are not alone.” – Kyrillos too watched the figure in the sky.
“How are we going to place the runes on a wall that hangs over a crevice?” – Teresa, angrily.
“It is stone, Teresa, I will have no problem.” – Sanchez boasted.
With one more nervous glance skyward the Toreador leapt over the void and alighted upon the wall like a cat leaping to the ground from a great height.
The Toreador skittered slowly across the castle wall on his hands and feet keeping one eye skyward as he inched his way over the ice and frozen stone.
Sanchez was a third of the way across the wall when suddenly he heard the banging of metal on metal, tiny vibrations pulsed through the wall.
“I am Kyrillos Dimities, Count of Timisoara and Vassal to Symeon of Byzantium, I have come to parley to the master of this castle!” – Kyrillos bellowed at the door.
“Goddamned Lunatic!” – Sanchez hissed as he crawled toward the balcony.
After some time the great door opened, a single candle lighting the crack in the door.
Sherazhina stepped forward pulling the hood of her traveling cloak away and revealed herself, her natural regality and poise practically illuminating her face.
Only Teresa noticed the girl’s fingers had dug so deep into her hands that they began to press out from the other side. The queen shivered in horror, she had never seen the Tzimisce’s power to manipulate flesh in action before.
“Who goes there?” – came a weak rasp from the other side of the door.
“I am Sherazhina of the Basarab, Granddaughter and chosen Childe of Vintila.” – Sherazhina, confidently.
The door opened farther revealing a small man whose white hair was cut in the style of a page. He had eyes the prettiest shade of blue that Teresa had ever seen, though the one to the left was slightly larger and offset on his face, the gray flesh around it warped like melted wax. The man’s mouth was cleft, leaving his flat gray teeth visible.
If his face was malformed his body was grotesque. Though he wore a cloak to hide the bulk of his deformities it was apparent that his neck was abnormally long and twisted at a strange angle, almost as if it was jointed, this ‘jointed’ look became more horrible when he moved his head as if bending it like an elbow. His shoulders sat too low on the body, so low that his free hand reached the ground, only after a moment did Teresa realize that it wasn’t a hand so much as a cloven foot of a pig. The other arm, the one holding the candle, reached higher than it should, even though its shoulder was twisted upward sharply, adding to the man’s hunched stance.
As he turned his body to get a better look at the visitors they caught glimpse of his great undulating belly which hung almost to the ground.
As the horror looked closely at Sherazhina his larger eye focused as a cat’s might.
Teresa took a step back so that Kyrillos stood between her and the pathetic creature that stood before them.
“I would have an audience with my grandfather.” – Sherazhina
The creature’s human eye widened.
“Please, please, come out of the rain. It has been so long since we have received visitors.” – The figure rasped.
Once they were all inside the creature laboriously closed the great door and turned back to them.
“I shall see to my master. Please make yourselves at comfortable, I shall return momentarily.”
May 8, 1314, 1:53am
Outside Castle Basarab
The Domain of Vintila Basarab
Voivode of Tara Crișana
Sanchez had reached the balcony some fifteen minutes before and had been hurriedly carving, first through the snow and ice and finally into the stone itself. It was slow going but he was getting it done, three of the five symbols had already been etched into the stone when the wind suddenly died.
“Shit.” – Sanchez, working faster.
Crimson ice cycles had formed on his eyebrows, his nose and the back of his hands.
The frozen rain had dropped his temperature to freezing by now and he’d been forced to warm his body with what little Vitae he had left.
He was still carving the ice away to start on the forth rune when he smelled ozone. He called to his beast and found himself clinging to the wall nearly twenty feet higher than the balcony before a bolt of Purple lightning arced out of the sky and struck the ruins. The light flowed through the stone, superheating it and then the thunder came.
In the cold of the mountain chasm the wall of wind and sound shattered the balcony and some of the wall besides.
Sanchez turned, braced his feet against the masonry, and got back to work.
May 8, 1314, 2:10am
The Domain of Vintila Basarab
Voivode of Tara Crișana
The creature disappeared for quite some time, long enough that they began to wonder aloud that they might have been abandoned, or were being set up.
Just when they were about give up and leave they heard the rasping voice again, from atop the staircase.
“The Master will see you now.”
They climbed the staircase, a massive winding thing with shallow stairs. Halfway up they realized what had taken the crippled creature so long.
“What is your name, friend?” – Kyrillos asked
“The master took my name from me lifetimes ago, sir.” – The creature said dismissively.
They finally reached the landing that the creature was looking for and they followed him down a long windowless corridor. The walls of the corridor were covered in what appeared to be a series of frescos in the classical style of Rome. The newest was nearly a quarter of a century old and depicted the monster they all knew as Vintila, clad in his living armor and mounted upon a hellhound the size of a horse, a sword in one hand and the severed and bloody head of a fallen foe in the other.
The foe was easily recognizable as Teresa.
“This should go well, I think.” – Teresa, flatly.
The farther they walked the older the frescos became and as a result the more human their subject appeared.
One that was dated to the time of Teresa’s embrace showed a remarkably beautiful man with the familiar sneer and white hair of her foe, but he was dressed as a Magyar nobleman, all leather and fur, at his side were two children, a dark haired girl and a fair haired boy.
Further back still, next to the door of the chamber they were to enter, was the final fresco, depicting a regal Magyar prince, his skin paled but not inhumanly so, his hair a shock of blond, his left hand upon the neck of a black steed, a hound asleep at his feet. The look on the man’s face was not cruel but resolute, as if he carried a great burden upon his shoulders, the skies in this painting were the only that were not overcast, instead showing a sunset in the distance.
“When was this painted?” – Sherazhina
“Each of these frescos, save this one, was painted before the Master took to slumber. This one was commissioned by his Sire, Vladimir Rustovitch, upon the completion of this castle in 956, as the Christians count the years to commemorate his First Death.” – The creature wheezed professorially before opening a smaller door that led into the second tower.
“Your Master is in torpor?” – Teresa. It would have explained the sudden decrease in attacks.
“Oh no, not anymore.” – The Creature, bowing and motioning for them to enter.
Inside was what appeared to be a library, which seemed to have taken up one of the towers. Books lined each of the walls along with three staggeringly tall book shelves. Before that though, safely recessed into the mountain, stood a writing table and an ancient stone sarcophagus. Upon it was carved the familiar image of Vintila Basarab that seemed to have been hewn from the very mountain itself.
Sitting at the desk was a young man garbed in a familiar shade of red. His skin was as pale as snow and seemed to reflect too much of the meager candle light. His hair was a shade of blond so pale that it looked like spun sunlight, and curled slightly as it reached its terminus at his chin. When he looked up at his visitors his eyes were a brilliant shade of green, not unlike Sherazhina’s own.
“Dragomir!” – Sherazhina cried out as she rushes to her brother.
“I am sorry, you have caught me unaware?” – Dragomir, his voice high and detached.
The pale vampire held his sister at arm’s length and instantly the conspiracy was struck by the resemblance. The two looked nothing alike and yet somehow could be mistaken for nothing else but siblings.
“Have we met?”
“Dragomir, it’s me, Sherazhina!”
The boy’s eyes widened with recognition.
“Sherazhina! Is it really you?” – The boy came alive as he spoke.
They hugged each other tightly and then he stepped away from her suddenly.
“Where are my manners? Welcome to my home, I am unaccustomed to having visitors, I hope I have not offended you with my deplorable reception.” – Dragomir
“Dragomir, It’s me, Sheri, these are my friends.”
The boy furrowed his brow slightly.
“And what brings you to my castle?” – Dragomir, confused.
“We were under the impression that this was the castle of Vintila Basarab.” – Kyrillos, suspiciously
“Of course, of course, and yes this is the home of my Grandfather. It is our Castle, for I am his chosen heir.” – Dragomir, who looked longingly at his sister as he spoke.
“Is your Grandfather here?” – Teresa
“…Yes, he hasn’t left in some time.” – Dragomir, looking past them to the sarcophagus.
Teresa glanced back at the stone slab as well and smiled wickedly.
“He sleeps, then?” – Teresa, trying desperately to keep her composure.
“How long has he slept?” – Kyrillos
Dragomir’s shoulders slumped as if under the burden of his melancholy.
“Alas, you misunderstand me, my grandfather is no more, I am the master of Basarab Castle now.”
“How did this happen?” – Teresa, crushed that she would not kill the Fiend herself
“Yes, we must give our condolences to you, Dragomir.” – Kyrillos
“Yes, he truly was the best; I have not tasted his like since that night.” – Dragomir
Sherazhina stepped back as he looked at her with hungry eyes.
“Tonight’s Cainites have so little breeding. So little… Taste.” – Dragomir, his voice lower than before and they could now make out the telltale impressions of fangs against his upper lip.
The young vampire blinked twice and then smiled.
“But that is neither here nor there, how may I assist you this evening?” – His voice chipper.
“You killed grandfather?” – Sherazhina
The now manic vampire smiled at her.
“I know you must be devastated to hear of grandfather’s fate, his blood was pure, and so potent, but he was weak. Years of fighting the Black Queen from the White City took their toll and he was forced to sleep… Shall I show you?” – Dragomir, excitedly
Kyrillos couldn’t help but laugh.
“Yes let me show you how it happened, please, please, sit. Let me entertain my guests.” – Dragomir, motioning for his ghoul to bring chairs.
Teresa looked to Kyrillos with horror in her eyes and then to the ghoul who motioned for her to sit, his eyes beseeching her to relax and go with whatever the mad vampire asked.
Dragomir, for his part, swept over to the sarcophagus with all the flare of a showman and with a mighty heave pushed the lid aside to crash upon the stone floor.
“If you would assist me?” – Dragomir, to his servant.
The ghoul reached up with his massive left arm and hoisted himself up and into the sarcophagus.
“Please, as my guests you must judge the truth of the events that are about to unfold before you. I pray you be kind though, we so rarely have guests for which I may perform.” – Dragomir flamboyantly.
Dragomir sped toward the door and turned back toward the sarcophagus.
“Grandfather! Grandfather? It is the dinner hour and I grow hungry!” – Dragomir, his voice shrill.
The mad vampire crept dramatically toward the sarcophagus and pantomimed once again throwing open the lid before turning toward his audience as if imploring them to pay attention to the important part.
“Grandfather? I. Must. Feed!” Dragomir’s voice was urgent as he looked into the coffin.
Suddenly Dragomir shrieked as his fangs, two long barbed sickles, extended before he buried his face into the shoulder of his ghoul with enough force that they heard bones snap.
They watched, horrified, as he messily drained his servant of blood before unceremoniously dropping him, his barbed fangs tearing an even larger gash into his servant’s neck.
“Grandfather! Grandfather!” – Dragomir cried out before peeling out with a cackle that shook the walls before degenerating into a low weeping mumble.
With a sudden and inhuman roar the mad vampire leapt over the sarcophagus toward his audience.
Sherazhina knocked over her own chair while throwing herself back away from the monster that had once been her brother, great bloody tears stained her cheeks.
Kyrillos, too, was horrified by the performance but instead of trying to escape the seemingly frenzied Fiend stood up and bellowed.
“Enough, you must stop this, Dragomir!”
The blond vampire did indeed stop, his barbed fangs vanishing again into his mouth, as he stood up straight. He turned to the Malkavian.
“You did not like the performance? Was there no truth in it?” – Dragomir, his voice small, as if worried that he had performed poorly.
“I can honestly tell you, Dragomir, that it was the greatest and most horrifying performance I have ever witnessed.” – Kyrillos, patting the man-child on the shoulder.
Dragomir smiled wanly at the elder.
“How long ago did this occur?” – Teresa
“Not two years ago my grandfather sent out his hordes to destroy the Usurperous Black Queen of the White City, a city long lorded over by my grandfather. But he’d grown so weak from grafting his army that he fell asleep and would not wake come nightfall, nor did he rise the next night or any night thereafter for a fortnight.” – Dragomir
Kyrillos was drawn to the sound of chuckling, only to find Ibrahim sitting on the floor in the corner of the library his head in his hands trying desperately to staunch his laughter.
“I am so glad that you enjoy my performance, my black friend, you have made my night!” – Dragomir, his face brightening as he approached the still laughing Saracen.
After embracing Ibrahim in a great bear hug, Dragomir looked to the assembled Cainites.
“Now, why have you come here?” – Dragomir.
May 8, 1314, 2:32am
Outside Castle Basarab
The Domain of Dragomir Basarab
Voivode of Tara Crișana
The lightning had threatened him thrice since starting his work and thrice he’d been forced to start over. It hadn’t been all for not, however, because he’d deciphered a pattern in the strikes and realized that it took the demon time to focus his power enough to direct the eldritch lightning.
Even now he was carving into the stone like a madman, using up what blood he had to coax the beast into speeding his fingers along. Just as he felt the wind dye down he began the last figure belonging to the last rune.
He smelled the ozone and felt the static electricity in the air but didn’t stop, his senses fully exposed he could hear the buzz of the clouds parting, of the lightning bolt forming within them.
Just as the lightning began to arc toward him he finished the last etching and…
He felt the rush of warm air and saw the night sky brighten as the mountainous clouds seemed to dissolve into nothingness. He looked up to see stars like he’d never seen before, and a witch’s moon as bright as any full moon he’d ever seen.
“I’ll be damned, Zelios, I’ll be damned.” – Sanchez laughed.
Dragomir looked out the window as if distracted as the rain stopped. His manic eyes glossed over ever so slightly as he looked upon the moon and then, with a furrowed brow he looked back toward the conspiracy.
His eyes cleared as he looked from face to face and he seemed to stretch.
“Sherazhina? Sherazhina! My sister has returned to me!” – Dragomir, his voice no longer manic, but deep and rich.
He picked his sister up and spun around with her as if she were a child before crushing her to himself in a crushing bear hug.
He pushed her away again and looked at her as if for the first time.
“You were cursed too? But I had thought you escaped. It was the only reason I agreed to go along with it, so that he wouldn’t find you.” – Dragomir, his voice filled with concern.
He turned toward the sarcophagus.
“Servant, I have need of you! Go and fetch clean clothes for my sister and her friends, Grandmother’s dresses should do well enough for the ladies and be sure to make ready rooms for my guests! My apologies, I don’t know any of your names.” – Dragomir
Sherazhina immediately began introducing her friends as the deformed servant hurled himself out of the sarcophagus, and limped painfully from the room.
Teresa prepared for a fight that would not come.
“So the city of my birth is yours then.” – Dragomir, thoughtfully.Teresa nodded.
“If I may ask a boon from you, Queen Teresa, may I have permission to feed within your domain?” – Dragomir
Teresa thought for a moment before speaking.
“While I thank you for your courtesy I must decline, there has been too much blood shed between our lines. I do not believe my childer would forgive me for granting you that right.” – Teresa
“Of course, the animosity between our people may indeed be too great an obstacle to overcome, but please allow me at least to open communications, perhaps we can make a settlement, I have no loyalty to the Voivodate or their war on your lands. That died with my Sire.”
“I can accept that, Lord Dragomir, and perhaps one night soon we could put all this behind us and call each other allies.” – Teresa
“I have no doubt, for not only have you come to this place in peace but you have brought to me the one thing I have wanted the most these long years. You’ve brought to me my sister!” – Dragomir, gleefully
Kyrillos marveled at the change that had overcome the Tzimisce since the rain had stopped. Watching him interact with the others was like watching someone else entirely. The change was so dramatic in fact that it brought the Malkavian a deep sense of dread that he could not shake.
“Why did you come here, Lady Teresa?” – Dragomir
“We came to carve a series of runes into the castle wall in hopes of…” – Teresa didn’t finish her sentence, Dragomir was no longer listening.
For just a moment the thoughtful Tzimisce’s green eyes flashed bloody red and then he rushed to open the window, looking out below at the carving not so far below it.
He turned on Teresa
“We were attempting to end the constant and unending storm, Count Dragomir.” – Teresa
“Why would you do this? What right did you have?” – Dragomir, furiously
“It had to be done.” – Sanchez, appearing in the doorway.
“How so!” – Dragomir, his fangs showing again.
“It was the only way to stop the Demon Kupala from rising.” – Sanchez again, holding out his hand as a sign of good faith.
The red-eyed Tzimisce looked from Sanchez to his outstretched hand and then to Sherazhina’s pleading face.
Taking a deep breath the Fiend calmed himself, his irises returned to their emerald hue, his fangs and claws vanished again into his flesh.
He took Sanchez’s hand.
“Knowing that, I thank you… I’m sorry I don’t know your name.” – Dragomir, tightly.
“I am Sanchez, Master Mason.”
“I am Dragomir Basarab, Voivode of Tara Crișana; I welcome you, Master Sanchez, to my home, come freely and of your own will.”