“There’s no such thing as lasting forever, Elliot. Even if you’re immortal. All there is, is tonight.”
Thursday night, 18 October 2007, AM
GM: Mid-way through the pair’s journey, Codi forces Emil to wear a hood over his head so he can’t see. The sewer rat clearly thinks it’s hilarious to watch Emil stumble around blindly as he shouts directions. He shoves and pushes the ghoul forward, frequently hard enough to make Emil trip and scrape his hands trying to catch himself. Codi laughs and laughs before shoving Emil forward with another bellow to, “MOVE!”
“You’re so fucking useless! Ha ha ha!”
Emil: Just gotta keep the eyes on the prize.
As he’s being pushed around, he fantasizes about what Carter will say when he tells him about the info this oaf laid out for Emil practically on a silver platter.
He follows orders as best as he can manage.
GM: There’s another harsh shove that sends Emil stumbling forward as he half-trips.
“I’m gonna find your mom and shove you back up her cunt after I kill you!”
Emil: He’s the kind of sick stupid motherfucker who would try to keep that word, but forget about the shoving part once the killing was over with. For the moment, Emil knows it’s just words, empty. But Codi might just change his mind.
Emil cowers as he stumbles along. He just keeps going. Too scared to talk beyond ’yessir’s and ’nosir’s, that’s the image he wants to portray.
GM: There’s another push that sends Emil crashing face-first into a wall.
“Then I’m gonna fuck her! Say it, maggot! Say it’d be an honor if I fucked your whore mother!”
Emil: Bargain brand bullying.
He’s been forced to say worse to similar things with his head pressed against a wall. A few bad apples in the force growing up made this a near regular situation.
Mom told him how to handle it, like you’re being robbed, give them exactly what they want, life is far more important.
“It’d be an honor if you fucked my whore mother, sir,” he says, bracing against the hard wall.
GM: “MOVE, idiot!” Codi yells, shoving him forward again.
“Ha! Ha ha ha! You’re so fucking pathetic!”
“I could rip your balls off and you wouldn’t be any different!”
Emil: The trick is to not show any intimation of challenging them. He says what he commands, steps to his beat, and plays into his charade. He lacks any luxury of acting otherwise.
GM: “MOVE IT, dipshit! FASTER!”
It goes on for a while. Codi finally pulls off the hood and painfully kicks Emil onto his face against a bare concrete floor. Books on monolithic steel shelves stretch for as high and far as he can see. This place looks bigger than a downtown city library and Tulane’s library put together. Some of the books look like recent academic publications, with modern type fonts, while others are ancient-looking, half-crumbled things with protective plastic covers. Pompeii-style murals, visible only to “Kindred” eyes, line the walls not covered by books in a giant historical tapestry. Although many of the depicted subjects resemble deformed monsters, many of them hold dignified, even stately miens: one figure with blockish, green-hued skin like a rock is dressed in Orthodox vestments with a halo behind his head and an exactingly rendered city built upon his back. Another nearby mural shows a bear-sized crone with enormous iron claws and fangs flying through the air in a mortar she steers with a pestle, with dragon-like creatures roaring behind her. There are many further murals Emil can’t make out from his current position. It is truly a thing of beauty.
Emil: When the hood comes off, Emil is left awestruck at the contents of the room. There is so much to learn here, so much he could gain. The murals leave him awestruck, but to a lesser extent to the simply massive collection of data. He imagines pouring through them, feeding their contents into a computer and compressing the treasures they hold into compact bricks of knowledge. Solid state and hard disk drives terabytes a piece, each another priceless addition to the ever-growing tower.
GM: Codi delivers another anvil-like kick to Emil’s flank.
“GET UP, maggot! Get up or I’ll break your hands!”
Emil: He snaps out of the reverie. He stands up swiftly at the monster’s command.
He might ask any other person acquainted with this place about the room, but Codi is an idiot, and very likely hasn’t read a book in all of his death.
GM: “SLAVE!” the Nosferatu roars.
The coke glasses-wearing man Emil saw earlier swiftly appears. The haphazard cuts over his grimy face don’t look like they’ve healed, and he’s clad in the same stinking, ill-fitting rags. Only his hands, Emil notes, are immaculately clean.
“Y-yes, Codi, sir?”
He jabs a finger at Emil, then plants a palm behind the ghoul’s heads and sends him sprawling face-first to the ground. Again.
“This renfield is USELESS. So are you. So you can both be useless together.”
He laughs at his own joke.
“If I don’t like what you’ve done by the time I’m back, I’m gonna rip up some more books.”
Emil: Out of all the terrible things Codi has spouted out of his dumb mouth, that offends Emil the most. But he doesn’t show it on his face.
GM: “No!” the man begs, clasping his hands. “Codi, sir, Nicodemus doesn-!”
Codi punches him in the gut, knocking him flat off his feet. He hits the floor in a moaning heap.
“I didn’t ask what you think, BITCH!”
Without a further word, the Nosferatu stalks away. His large form soon vanishes amidst the shelves.
Emil: Once he’s out of view, Emil moves to help the other slave off the floor. He gives him both arms to hold onto. He’s had a tendency in the past of getting pulled down when he offered only one.
GM: The man flinches at Emil’s touch, gives a mumbled, “It’s okay,” and clambers to his feet.
“So, uh. Shoe shining lessons?”
Emil: No touching then, poor guy.
“Actually, cybersecurity lessons,” he says, smiling. “That’s what we landed on on the way over.”
-..- -. …. / …. . / ... -.-. -. -—-/ …. . /—.. -. ….-/ ..-. -.-. -. .-/ .- -. . .. . / .. ... / .——..- / .—. .-. . ..-. . .-. / … …. -. … …. .. . .. -. -.
(“Though he forgot, he might forget again if you prefer shoeshining.”)
He taps out in Morse as he speaks.
- …. .-
. -. / .——..-
GM: The man blinks.
“But they don’t let me use phones or computers. Except the library’s. And it can’t connect to the internet, because they don’t want to be hacked.”
Then he taps out,
(“You’re welcome. He forgot??”)
Emil: Emil shrugs as he taps out a response,
(“I don’t know how, but he remembered I was coming though forgot why.”)
“Well, that’s a sensible decision, but perhaps a blinding one: there is almost always a way to hack a system. Protections like blocking internet use are put in place to dissuade hackers from trying. Now, it could be pretty safe, but always good to check. Do you know if Codi has a phone or a computer?”
(“He said you weren’t his renfield. Whose are you?”)
GM: “Uh. Not really, sorry. I don’t really ever leave the warren. And the Nosferatu have lots of rules about phone and internet use. But there are other computers here that connect to Shre…”
He trails off, then taps out,
(“Nobody’s. I’m not a renfield. Whose are you?”)
Emil: …ecknet. The internet private to Kindred, finishes the man’s thoughts as they drift into the actual renfield’s head.
How curious, Emil thinks. What must they hide on it. He gives him a knowing smile as he trails off.
“That’s perfectly fine. If you show me to the computers, I can show you what you can do to make sure things stay safe. You’ll have something to show to Codi by the time we’re done, I promise. Alternatively, I could teach you how to shoeshine.”
. -.. .. .-/ .- . -.. / -.. --… … ... . .-. .——. … / .——..- / . . --.—/—…. . -/. .. .. --.. .—..- … / . . . .—. … /—…. . / .-.. .. … .. .- .-. .-/ .. / .—. .-. . … ..—-. ..—.., he taps out.
(“Landry and Cobbler’s. You know them? Nicodemus keeps the library I presume?”)
GM: “Oh. Well, I… guess we could do either.”
.-. … .-.-.- /——-/ … -—-…. .-.-.- / … ..—/—…. .. … / .. --. … . .—-.—/—.- . . / … . . … . ..-.- / .. .——.—/ . -—-/ … ..- .-. . / .. ..-. / .——..- .——. .-. . / … ..- .—. .—. -… . .. /——/ …. .- …- . / .- .. .. . … … / …. . .-. . .-.-.-
(“Yes. To both. But this doesn’t make sense. I’m not sure if you’re supposed to have access here.”)
Emil: “I have far more to teach with cybersecurity over shoe shining, so that’s my vote.”
-. .—… . -..-/ … ..—/ ..- / . . --.—/ .. --.. .. / … .—. .-. /—…. .- . / .. / -.. -—-..—/ .. ..-. / .. / .. -—. .——.—/ .. --/ .—…. .—-/ …. . / … .- .-… / .. .——.—/ .. . . -..
(“Maybe, but u know Codi better than I do, if I don’t do what he says I’m dead.”)
“But it’s really up to you. Either lesson would be enjoyable I’d bet, in this beautiful a setting,” Emil offers, taking the moment in.
He hasn’t stopped tapping though.
.. / .——-..- .-..
.. -.-/ .. --/ .- . -.—-…. .. . -. /——-/ .—. ..—-/ .——..- / .. . / …. . .-.—… / .—.- .-/ ..—/ …- . .-. .-/ .. .- .-. . ..-. ..- .-.. / …. ..—-.- . … / -. . . -.. /——/ … ..- .—. .—. -.-.—/ . .- .. …. / -—…. . .-.
(“I wouldn’t do anything to put you in harms way. I’m very careful. Humans need to support each other.”)
GM: .. .——.—/
. -—-/ .- / …. ..—-.- . ..-.-
(“I’m not a human.”)
“Uh. Maybe shoe shining is best. Since that’s something I can show Codi. I don’t think he really cares about computer stuff.”
Emil: Well that’s… odd. He couldn’t be a Kindred, they wouldn’t treat him like that, as a slave.
He plucks another thought from the man’s mind and realizes the curious truth.
But he is a vampire, though a lesser vampire than the others. Carter spoke about those Kindred past the 13th generation whose power is far weaker than their forbearers’.
Looking at the monster, Emil knows he’s stronger than him. Better than him. But he’s just tasted a few drops of Carter’s blood. This vampire is at the peak of his potency. For him, it never gets any better than this. While Emil may eventually receive the Embrace, he’s condemned to this pathetic existence for eternity.
(“They don’t treat you any better despite that though, right? We’re just slaves to them.”)
“Shoe shining works,” Emil says, letting his duffel bag fall off his shoulder as he unpacks the freshly purchased tools.
(“I’m glad I came. Probably gets pretty lonely down here. On the bright side, what better place to be than surrounded by books. You have any favorites?”)
He taps out, giving a comforting smile.
GM: The man doesn’t even bother to verbally reply as he rapidly taps out,
.-. … ..—/—…. . /—…. .-. . . /—..- … . .—. . .-. … .-.-.- /—.-. . .- … ..- .-. . / .. … .-.. .- . -.. ..-.- / .-.. . /——-.-.—. / .. . .-.—…. ..- .-. .-.-.- /—…. . / .-.. -.-. .. / --..-. /—…. . / .-. .. . -. … .-.-.- / .. / .. --..- … ... . /—.- .———.-. . .. / .. -. /-. .. .. . … .- .-.. / .-.. ..—. .-. .—-..- .-. . / .- . -.. / …. .. …——.-. .-/ .—…. . . / .. / .-.- … / .- .-.. .. …- . .-.-.- /—…. . .-/ …. .- …- . / .- . / . ..—..- .- .-.. / … . .. --. .. / . -.. ..-.. --. / .. -.—. .-/ -..-. / .-.. . /——-.-.—. / …. . .-. . -..-/ .—-.—-. . .—. / .. . / .——.-. .. . .—-. … / .——….- --. -.. / -.-. / .——….. ..———-. / .—. .-. .. .-.. . -. -..-/ .. / …. .- …- . . .—-.—/ … . . -. / . … ... . /——-/ …- . .-. .. ..-. .-/ .—…. .. .. …. -..-/—.- .. . / -… -.-/ .- . / . ..—..- .- .-.. / -. ..—. . -… . .. -. -…. …—-.—.-.. . / … .. .-. . .—/ .—. .-. . … … ..—/ .- . -.. /-…. .—-/ … . .-. . .-.. .-/ . …- . . / -… . -. .. . … /——/ .. -…- . .-. / . …- . .-. .—-…. .. . -. /—…. . .-/ …. .- …- . .-.-.- / .——..- / .. -..- .-.. .. / … .-. . . -.. / -.-. .- .-. … / .. . /-…. .. … / .—. .-.. .- .. . .-.-.-
(“_Yes! The Three Musketeers. Treasure Island. Le Morte d’Arthur. The Lord of the Rings. I double majored in medieval literature and history when I was alive. They have an actual second edition copy of Le Morte here, Wynkyn de Worde’s 1498 or 1529 printing, I haven’t been able to verify which, made by an actual Gutenberg-style screw press! And that barely even begins to cover everything they have. You could spend years in this place.")
Emil: Emil’s smile can’t help but stretch at the dead man’s passion. In the speedy patter of the man’s fingers lies a tempting vivaciousness, it threatens to convince Emil that he’s human, as the pathetic nature of his first encounter with him did, though now it’s a proof of exuberance over frailty. That same signal of life is mirrored on Emil’s own face, as he hastily taps out his own response.
(“That is ridiculously cool! This is really a collector’s heaven. You know, after Hurricane Katrina I spent half of my time doing restoration and archival work in my uni’s library. There’s so much to appreciate about the way books age, and in restoration you have to preserve the different portions of the binding as much as you have to the actual pages. That’s insane that that copy of Le Morte is still around here. I can only imagine the feel of the binding itself, so delicate and yet so important.”)
He starts to unpack the materials from his bag as he quotes in code,
(“Then Sir Arthur looked on the sword, and liked it passing well. Whether liketh you better, said Merlin, the sword or the scabbard? Me liketh better the sword, said Arthur. Ye are more unwise, said Merlin, for the scabbard is worth ten of the swords, for whiles ye have the scabbard upon you, ye shall never lose no blood, be ye never so sore wounded; therefore keep well the scabbard always with you”)
Emil always did fancy himself something of an actor, or perhaps it’s that he felt the spirit of a good story is something felt strongest when acted out with your own limbs.
And so as he taps out the words, the young man pulls the longest of his brushes out from the stone grey bag and holds it strong and straight as his very own Excalibur. His fingers gesticulate about the protective rubber and plastic scabbard covering the brush’s hairs, tapping out Merlin’s wise lesson onto its surface.
(“It’s a lesson from through the ages. The intrinsic power of objects like blades, brushes, or books can only truly be wielded by an owner who knows how properly to store it.”)
GM: Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap, goes the glasses-wearing man.
(“Yes, and not even just store. There’s some really interesting symbolism around the scabbard! Merlin tells him it’s worth ten Excaliburs, but Arthur’s preference and obsession remains focused on the sword while ignoring the importance of the scabbard. Celtic tradition holds that the land on the material plane is a reflection of the state of the kingship on the inner spiritual plane. So as a result, Arthur becomes a better warrior than a ruler of his kingdom—he’s more fixated with a tool of war than a tool of immortality. He’s also unable to partake in a full relationship with Guinevere, which further removes him from the feminine elemental nature of water, reflecting an imbalance within his realm.”)
(“Water’s important because the sword also arises from under the water, symbolizing the unconscious, which gives it power over Arthur. So the indiscriminate unconscious use of the sword brings disaster. The unconscious contains primal energy, which must be consciously controlled and used in the service of the kingdom, control that Arthur doesn’t possess. The scabbard brings in the aspect of consciousness in how the sword is wielded. In fact, Arthur screws up by giving the undervalued scabbard to his half-sister, Morgan Le Fay, who represents the negative feminine aspect of deceit working behind the scenes in a destructive manner. The devaluation of the positive feminine aspect of intuitive and circular insight are devaluation of the scabbard. Gareth Knight thought that the whole of the Arthurian narrative is based upon principles of polarity working, which are rarely understood, hence the ignorance of the scabbard as it relates to the sword as a complementary opposite.”)
Emil: Emil’s face is plastered with a grin he can’t wipe, he just keeps tapping as he halfheartedly calls attention to the tools of the shoe-shining trade.
“So here we have all the tools we need to get started, you ready?”
(“That’s a really cool interpretation! I think there’s also another hidden layer to this relationship between the scabbard, Excalibur, and Arthur in how we look at the sword Arthur pulls out of the churchyard stone when he demonstrates that he’s the rightful king. Curiously, Malory calls this sword Excalibur as well. This Excalibur is not taken from water but from a churchyard stone from a steel anvil. So before Arthur claims the kingship, the sword representing the right to rule is stuck in the biggest scabbard of all, the eternal Earth. And furthering this symbol of stability the sword is struck through a steel anvil, a symbol of the stability of the civilization, and given it appeared in the church grounds, it represented that the stable heart of the people was laid in the church. Arthur destroys this stability by not holding the kingdom together after he accepted the lynchpin responsibilities of the sword. Eventually, the sword representing the united people and the connection of the kingship to the church actually breaks, and what do we see? Arthur gets a new sword, almost ironically also called Excalibur, from the unstable fluid water from the hands of a woman who arguably is of the Fae, representing Arthur’s straying from the church.”)
GM: “Oh. Yes. I guess we should, shouldn’t we?”
Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap.
(“I hadn’t considered it from that angle. A lot of the theories I’ve read posit the Excalibur from the lake as superior, because of the connection to the otherworld and land itself, that’s its own topic to go into, but also how it ties into pre-Christian Celtic myths. You can find the same Arthurian narrative in stories of young sacrificial gods such as Oengus, Merlin Emrys, and Segda Saerlabraid. The young gods, who serve in a sacrificial role, all follow the story cycle of a mysterious conception, fosterage, and pre-destined fate. ")
(“The sacred king isn’t human or divine, but connected and sanctioned by the elements through his relationship with the goddess of the land, aka the Lady of the Lake, aka the Celtic concept of sovereignty. Their sacred union is a key feature of Celtic kingship. The sacred king doesn’t only have a sacred obligation to the land, but also to magically empowering objects which he needs to guard and revere. The symbolism of the Hallows of the Land is its own topic too, but one of their defining features is that they’re given as gifts by the goddess of sovereignty, the Lady again, to hold in trust for the entire kingdom.”)
(“With the sword and the stone, Arthur isn’t bequeathed his sword. He just takes it. And only a sword, representing a tool of war, not the scabbard that confers immortality.”)
(“But then again, depending on your audience, the sword from stone myth might be the ‘better’ myth. It emphasizes ties to the church, Arthur’s personal might, and the divine exceptionalism of kings. Arthur does what no lesser man can do, and it’s easy to interpret as being by the grace of God. Monarchs and the Catholic Church would both be more interested in promoting that myth. The myth around the sword received from the Lady of the Lake, on the other hand, emphasizes a king’s duty and responsibility to his people, as well as continuity with Britain’s pre-Christian past. I’d be curious if you saw that version promoted more after the Magna Carta.”)
Emil: “All right,” Emil says, unfolding a pair of plastic stools, sitting down on one before the oh-so human vampire. He asks, “Why don’t you put your boot up there. I’ll show you a step, then you repeat it on me. Does that work with you?”
He continues to tap tap tap into the plastic stool.
(“Just as in any work of fiction, there are a thousand ways to read the story. I think that monarchs and Catholic’s usage of La Morte as a story exemplifying that divine exceptionalism of kings is the same level of tone deafness that you find in American politicians playing Born in the USA during campaign rallies. Malory termed himself a knight prisoner, and he spent his life passed from prison to prison without ever seeing a trial. He was living during a time of great instability and fragmenting of the central power in Britain, and the Arthur he wrote was a king facing similar levels of instability. Arthur reaches his peak success in battle early in the book, a success he never quite reaches again. The book follows a narrative of slow collapse of the Round Table, Arthur’s marriage, the Grail quest, with Arthur dying at the end. As a prisoner, Malory wrote from a perspective closer to ours as slaves than Arthur’s as a king.”)
Emil retrieves a broad tin from the duffel bag and twists the top off. He then takes out a stiff-haired brush and moves it along the off-white surface of the tin’s contents.
(“What’s your name by the way?”)
The glasses-wearing man puts his foot up. The boot is in terrible condition. It’s covered in so much grime and so many stains that Emil can’t begin to guess what color it originally was. The toe is coming apart from the midsole, which makes it possible to glimpse part of the man’s actual toe. One of the laces is shorter than the other, leaving the man unable to fully tie the boot. The sole is uneven in places as though worn down. The moldering shoe looks ready to fall apart under Emil’s ministration.
(“Well, the War of Roses wasn’t really as long as 32 years, most of that time was peaceful. But you’re right. It was the heyday of so-called ‘bastard feudalism’ and you can see how Malory would enjoy writing about a king who embodied the old chivalric ideals. But at the same time, with so many flawed kings on the throne or losing their thrones, you can see how that would color his writing too. All stories are products of their times.”)
Emil’s question seems to briefly throw his tapping off.
(“Elliot Glasswell. What’s yours?”)
Emil: Elliot, he recognizes that name. Chen had mentioned something about an Elliot who attended Rice. Really sad story. Bright student just up and quit right before graduation about eight years back. There was a professor there who was really bummed out about it, but Emil doesn’t recall the name. He’ll have to ask later.
(“Emil. Emil Jonas.”)
Emil looks concernedly at the dilapidated boot, but after a few moments of tutting and delicately surveying its form, he looks up to Elliot with a Cheshire smile, “Don’t worry. We’ll have your shoe looking fresh off the shelf by the time we’re done with it… or at least fresh off the discount rack.”
The hobbyist shoeshine starts his work by untying, removing the man’s laces, and placing them in a small plastic bag. Digging into his duffel bag, he retrieves a spray bottle and spritzes its contents over the laces, before zipping the bag shut and shaking it vigorously, causing the liquid to foam up as bubbles occlude the view of the laces.
“Now, any shoeshine job starts by removing the laces and pulling out the tongue. We’re gonna let those laces sit in that cleaning solution until we’re done. In case you were curious, it’s made of soap for dirt removal, isopropyl alcohol for germ-killing, and a light perfume.”
GM: “Uh… actually, I don’t know if this is a good idea…” Elliot says cautiously. “Maybe we should do your shoes.”
“If you’re going back to the surface anyway.”
Emil: “Of course,” he says, his smile still present though diminished.
Tap tap tap.
(“I could waterproof them for you, lasts six month and isn’t visible to the naked eye. I also got another pair of laces in the bag, you think he would notice if you could actually tie your shoe? Could also sew a black patch under the hole. More comfortable, but it’ll still have the look of that tear.”)
GM: Tap. Tap.
(“Well… okay. If they can’t tell.”)
Emil: Of course they won’t. Emil didn’t spend all that time twisting his spine against the hard coils sticking out of the local shoeshine’s street chairs letting his mind run empty. Sure, it was a break from the schoolwork, a little bit of a luxury, but Emil has suffered too many gaps in his memory to let his mind run blank for even a moment.
And so all he could do was pay attention.
Those shoeshines all had their specialties. Hippolyte Broussard was more bark than bite when it came to the actual shining, but that’s no shame when you know how many people that bark of his drew. First he’d tear them down, remove that casing of dirt and dry polish they’ve been walking in for too long. It’s quick and harsh like the cheap saddle soap he uses. It’s not hard to get a city full of guilty Catholics to hop into your professional confessional when you tell them their soles are on the line. After all, cleanliness is next to godliness and time is money. In a city like New Orleans, no soul is fully clean, and most are far from it. It’s a simple calculus, five bucks for a mirror shine is cheaper penance than thirty Hail Marys.
And by the end of it, he’d have you feeling just about ready to step up the staircase to heaven and take your spot sitting comfy right next to the throne of God Himself. The way he’d butter you up, you’d think you deserve that spot too. That wax polish he would so delicately apply to shoes could fill in all imperfection, and those flaws it couldn’t he would shine into a mirror so perfect that the only thing to judge looking at the flaw is your own sorry reflection.
Emil: But for Elliot, for the work that matters tonight, there’s no preamble nor exalting conclusion, no mirror shine to look forward to nor any cutting down or buttering up. The dirt has to stay on this time, for both of their sakes. He can only hope Elliot’s a good person; his soles won’t show that purity, so his soul will have to do.
The tin of soap he was circling with the round brush sits unused on the floor, it’ll have to wait for his boots. He’ll have to make this quick if he’s to teach Elliot a proper lesson.
Using a ruler as a metric, Emil measures the perforation in the seam of the midsole and cuts out a thin strip of scrap leather covered on one side with a soft black cloth to match. A quick movement of a knife cuts the inner seam leaving two exposed threads to stitch into. He matches the thread as best as he can with the nylon selections he brought along before threading it onto a hook and getting to work. When he’s finished stitching, the hole still appears to remain in the splayed outer seam, but instead of his toe being open to the elements, it is covered in a protective inner layer.
It’s a light scrub with the rough bristles of a brick shaped brush to loosen the years old polish, but he stops before the caked dirt comes off in any notable quantity. The goal isn’t to remove but to perforate the layers, so that when he next applies the neutral wax to the leather it holds. His fingers nimbly dance around the shoe, massaging different quantities of the soft material depending on the fragility of the region. The layers pile on and on, but without buffing nor dye to the polish, the shoe looks as dull and dirty as it did when Emil started.
The last step begins when Emil rolls a fresh pair of laces in the dirt of the ground until they resemble the ones he started to wash. He breaks the aglets, frays the ends and cuts one end almost as short as the original, but just long enough to tie if Elliot wished.
With one last motion, Emil ties the job off with a knot.
GM: “Huh. Wow. That’s a really good job,” Elliot says aloud, his bespectacled eyes attentively following Emil’s work every step of the way. The illumination in the library is terrible: which is to say, there’s almost none to speak of. Emil can’t help but note how well he seems to be seeing in the dark. This would be a hard job if he hadn’t been able to.
Emil: That truth reminds him of the blood he received from his kindred spirit. Each gift is a blessing, a sign that he steps ever closer to the way of the Kenites who guarded Moses and his nation. First came the capacity to listen to the words of others left unsaid. Then the empowerment of his gut instinct. Now the veil of shadow is lifted from his sight.
“Simple steps, practiced incessantly in my free time. We’ll have you try them as well, and more, to get my boots looking better than brand new. And after that, Codi’s as well.”
He tap tap taps away, smiling softly.
(“I’d like to be your friend, Elliot. We can support each other. Learn from each other. The only impediment is my inability to come here. Is there any way we could impress on Nicodemus the value of allowing me access here?”)
GM: “Yeah, o-okay. We will.”
Elliot looks a little nervous at the mention of Codi’s boots, but he doesn’t look at all certain what to ‘say’ to Emil after the more experienced shoe-shiner taps out his message in morse. He looks simultaneously apprehensive, hopeful, and then glum before he slowly taps back,
(“Oh, well… that’d only be if your domitor said so, probably talked to him… and the Nosferatu can be really paranoid…”)
Emil: “All right,” he says, pressing his palms into his legs as he rises. “Your turn in the hot seat.”
Emil thinks for a moment before tapping his response.
(“You know Nicodemus closely I presume. Is there anything in particular my domitor could pitch to him that could override his paranoia?”)
GM: Elliot regards Emil’s foot.
“Uh, where should I start…?”
(“If it helped him, maybe? He cares a lot about knowledge. Or helped his clan or covenant. Those things and being Jewish are all he seems to really care about.”)
Emil: The words ‘clan’ and ‘covenant’ make him pause, but at the word ‘Jewish,’ Emil stops in his tracks as his eyes prick sharp with curiosity.
“…first things first you’ll want to remove the shoe laces and like I was telling you earlier, shake them in a plastic bag together with the cleaning solution I described,” he says with a new certainty to his tone.
As he’s retrieving an open box of Ziplocs and a spray bottle from the duffel bag, he pulls a secondary zipper open just enough to reveal the plain cloth kippah inside to Elliot.
“Make sure to shake it well,” he says, smiling. But more than smiling; tapping.
(So he styles himself a modern Naqdimon ben Gurion, then. That’s a Talmudic deep cut. Looks like he and I share very
-very-similar interests. And I might just have something he’d be interested in.)
GM: Elliot gets the bag out, removes Emil’s shoelaces, and zips them in. He gives the bag a good shake.
(“Well… be careful. He is isn’t like the Nicodemus from the Bible. Or the Talmud.”)
Emil: That has Emil’s face falling somewhat, but he doesn’t stop the instructions.
“Now you’ll want to clean the boots themselves. First pull the tongues of the shoes outwards, like so,” he says, shimmying one out of its place. “You want to clean as much of the surface as possible.”
“Now watch closely,” he says, retrieving the tin full of the pasty white substance and running a circular brush overtop it in small cycles.
“This is saddle soap, good for cleaning any leather you can find. That motion gets the stiff brushhairs as covered in the stuff as can be. When you have enough, you take the brush and perform the same motions on the shoe.”
“Alternate until the shoe’s covered. Then you take this rag and rub it off. Again, circles. Rinse and repeat a good few times until the shoe’s free of any dirt.”
He taps quickly before handing the tools to the slave, his brow furrowed in disquiet.
(What sort of Nicodemus is he then? What covenant does he ascribe to beyond God’s?)
GM: Elliot pulls out the other tongue, takes the brush, and runs it across the surface of the soap tin in clockwise motions. Once the brush is good and white, he does the same with it across the shoe’s surface.
“Is there, ah, a reason circular motions across the shoe are better than back and forth motions?” he asks.
(“Just… be careful. You’re a renfield, and a lot of Kindred can be the same way towards them as Codi.”)
Emil: “There sure is. The brush is circular as well, so circular motions make for the greatest contact surface of bristle to leather. And circular motions tend to mean more focused application, and less streaking.”
Emil can read between the lines. Elliot’s too scared of his master to speak direct ill of him, even through coded communication. And he definitely has no qualms with Elliot suffering, given he lets Codi abuse him freely.
But he wants to get back here again, to see the library. At the very least to have a friend he can talk to about these impossible realities. There has to be a way.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
(“I’m a very careful person, Elliot. What if I gave him a gift through my domitor? Something worthy of the library?”)
GM: “Okay. That makes sense.”
Elliot keeps brushing.
(“Well, he’d like that. A lot. He’s in charge of the library. Just… expect him to be more grateful to your domitor, probably, than you.”)
Emil: “That’s very good,” Emil approves, holding out a clean rag. “Now you’ll want to rub all of that soap and loosened dirt onto this. Make sure you focus on the ridges and crevices especially closely.”
(“Grateful enough to let me visit you down here and study if my domitor requested it in return? Would it help my case if I could demonstrate a deep understanding of Jewish law and mysticism?”)
He leans in.
(“Cause I could totally do that.”)
GM: Elliot takes the rag and repeats the clockwise motions across Emil’s shoe, lingering on the aforementioned areas.
(“Maybe? I guess it’d depend on the book and how you make your pitch and… what mood he’s in. But that’d probably help. He likes Jewish mysticism.”)
When Emil moves closer, Elliot drops the rag and flinches away. There’s a brief awkward pause before he picks it back up and resumes cleaning the shoe.
(“He’s a scholar. Which I guess you might’ve already guessed,”) the other slave taps out.
Emil: “Oh,” he says reflexively. “Don’t worry, you’ve got this,” he says, sitting back up.
(“Sorry. Didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”)
GM: “Th-thanks.” Elliot switches to Emil’s other shoe.
Emil: Tap tap tap.
(“You’re quick on the pickup here, we won’t give Codi a chance to be anything but satisfied. The trick I think is to surprise him with a grand finale. He’s always gonna talk shit about your first pass, so don’t make it too spectacular. You just explain that the good part is just about to come. That’s when you hit the shoe with a speedy mirror shine. Blows everyone away how quick it comes on with the right technique.”)
“Exactly like that. You see how the cracks are more visible now? There, on the toe, a mild gouge revealed itself. That’s normal, you want to ensure the client of that. You’ll be rejuvenating those spots in the next steps.”
(“That’s the show and dance I did last night, and I didn’t even give him a mirror shine, just a regular one. You’ll have the proper tools with you.”)
GM: Elliot performs the same clockwise cleaning with the rag.
(“Thanks. That makes sense.”)
The taps come slower.
(“I guess you’re right he wouldn’t like the first pass, no matter what.”)
Emil: “All right, that’s looking good. Why don’t you start off the prepping process before you start shining.” Emil retrieves a smaller red and black can labelled with an unintelligible cursive font.
Elliot can’t share anything. He knows that. Elliot gets scared when he brings up Codi. He knows that. Elliot a bright student is reduced to cleaning a brute’s shoes because of how much they scare him. He sees the fresh scars plain on Elliot’s face. But Emil has more questions, and he needs answers.
So he asks another dangerous question.
Oh so nonchalantly.
Don’t worry about it, Elliot.
It’ll all be okay.
(“By the way, what were you doing at TMC last night with Codi?”)
And just like that, he returns to his instructions.
“This is leather cream. You’ll want to apply this fairly often, about once a month to make sure the leather in your boots stays hydrated. That’ll help prevent any further cracking. For now, this will work to rehydrate the cracks of the shoe in a spot treatment.”
He demonstrates by taking a thinner rag, tying it taut over his finger, rubbing it slowly over the darker substance before rubbing it into the gouge.
GM: Elliot opens the can, but stops at Emil’s question. He gives a half-glum, half-apologetic look.
(“Sorry, I… shouldn’t talk about that… you know how it is…”)
After a moment,
(“But I could tell you about the mosaics, when we’re done here, they’re all really interesting…”)
Emil: Emil can feel the empty air stirring in the subterranean palace. It licks past his uncovered skin and raises the hairs on the back of his neck.
It laughs softly as it brushes its cheek against his, and whispers something unmentionable through cupped hands into Emil’s ear.
’Don’t stop pushing. He’ll break soon.’
And just like that, it’s gone. The breeze dies. His throat’s dry. There’s someone watching them, of course there is. But no one here knows how hard he’s capable of pushing. No one knows what he did to his mother. The voice is just in his head, and he’s not sure if that’s any more comforting than the alternative.
“J-just tie this taut around your finger and try it out,” Emil starts again after an inordinately long pause. He holds out the thin black cloth, freshly stained with a dab of shoe cream.
(“I’d really like that actually. They were the first thing that caught my eyes when the hood came off.”)
GM: Elliot looks at Emil when he falls silent, but doesn’t speak up. Only a few seconds later, the other slave quickly averts his gaze and continues cleaning Emil’s shoe.
When the ghoul speaks again, Elliot just as quickly does so and ties the cloth around his finger.
“Is there a particular part of the shoe I should most concentrate on…?”
(“You’ll love them, the craftsmanship is exquisite. They’re all hand-made and created entirely from memory, without any visual reference.”)
Emil: “Leather cream is good to apply all over the shoe, and like I said it’s a good idea to apply it every month or so, but you should focus on the problem areas first, i.e. cracks, gouges, and creases.”
(“That’s nuts. And the figures are so vivid. What’s the source material?”)
GM: “Oh. That’s right. You’d said, the problem areas. Sorry.” Elliot sets to work on the cracks.
(“It’s a bit of a story. Well, each one is its own story. I should really explain when we’re done here, so you can look at them up close as I narrate.”)
Emil: “All right, now you’ll want to get a lighter layer on the entire shoe. This is quick work but if you get used to doing it, it can really improve the lifespan of your shoes. Another benefit of this moisturizing is that it temporarily softens the leather. Take a shoe that’s bent out of shape or has been crushed and apply this cream and it’ll be very malleable. What you do then is store a shoe tree inside it overnight.”
Digging through his bag a moment, he retrieves peculiar device. It’s made of sections of stiff cedar carved to fill and fit different parts of the shoe. The sections are connected with an adjustable metal skeleton. “In fact, I brought one here to show you. The cedar helps pull out any moisture absorbed by the inner portions of the shoe. After a night of being tightly filled by the tree, the shoe returns to form.”
GM: “Huh. I thought moisturizing was just something people did to their skin.”
It doesn’t sound like Elliot ever did it.
Emil: “Well, sure, but any skin needs moisture to keep from cracking. Even if it was formerly in the possession of an animal,” he responds.
Elliot ain’t alone. Most people don’t treat their varied skins right either.
GM: “Well, I guess that makes sense.” A pause. “Uh, are you going to remove your shoe, so I can…?”
Emil: Smiling, he responds. “Oh no, that’s something you’d do when you’re done with your shoes for the night. Shoe trees need more time to do their magic than a normal shining session lasts. For now, the next step is to take a pair of wide brushes to work in that cream. Use the length of the brush to get near total coverage of each shoe with each stroke.”
He retrieves a pair for him to use as he returns the tree back to its place.
GM: “Is there a reason you want simultaneous coverage, vs. still getting the same total area with a smaller brush?”
Elliot still does so and scrubs along Emil’s cream-lathered shoes. His swift motions don’t make him feel at all new to cleaning with a brush, at least.
Emil: “Couple reasons,” Emil says, looking down towards Elliot working. “Unlike soap, cream actually affects the color of the leather for a non-negligible amount of time. Since it had to be applied in small regions by hand, the amount of cream on the shoe ends up differing by a large enough margin to be noticeably different in color should the cream be worked in exactly where it was applied. The large brushes, when moved in long, swift strokes, effectively even out the layers of cream and therefore prevent any unsightly color splotches.”
“It also makes the work go by quicker. With the soap, we were worried about streaking, but since the cream is thicker and the leather readily absorbs it, that is less of an issue.”
“In any case, we’ll finish off the cream application by wrapping a clothe taut around the shoe with both hands and then, acting as a pulling, use belt friction to buff any streaked remnants away and leave the surface of the shoe prepped for shining.”
GM: “Ah, that makes a lot of sense.” A pause. “You said you were a computer person, can I ask where you leaned this?”
Elliot does as directed, wrapping the rag taut around Emil’s shoe with both hands, then buffing off the leftover cream.
Emil: “Well that’s a bit of a story, but I’ll share,” he offers, nodding approvingly at Elliott’s work. “I used to work as a teaching assistant during my stint at university. The pay was pretty slim, especially so after you took out tuition. But everyone needs to splurge somehow, gotta have luxury or at least some more affordable simulacrum of it. For me, that was my Sunday morning shoeshine. Everytime I got up from those chairs I felt like a million bucks. With how talkative those shoe shines were, it wasn’t long before I started picking up the craft myself. Now, I got a whole notebook full of techniques, and regardless of the rest of my outfit, my shoes always look perfect,” he boasts.
GM: “Oh, that’s neat. Probably the best part of your outfit you could have looking good, honestly,” Elliot says as he buffs Emil’s other shoe. “I read an article once that your shoes are the first part of you which a lot of people judge. Supposedly you can judge 90 percent of someone’s personal characteristics just by looking at their shoes. Age, gender, and income are probably obvious, but even things like political affiliation, emotional state, relative introversion or extroversion, agreeableness, and other personality traits.”
Emil: “And that, my friend, is why we like to do a mirror shine. When they look at your shoes for a read, they’ll be staring at their own faces. There is, typically, no quality of the other more esteemed than likeness to one’s self,” Emil responds.
GM: “That makes a lot of sense, actually,” Elliot says as he finishes with the rag. “So what’s next, the shining?”
Emil: “Right on the money. So far we’ve cleaned the shoe, conditioned and moisturized the leather, and filled out some of the minuscule cracks with cream. That sets up a prime canvas for shining. Now, the name of the game for mirror shines is specular reflection. That means we want all light that hits within a local neighborhood of a point on the leather to reflect mostly in the same direction. Normally, leather looks matte. That’s because the reflections are diffuse, meaning points close to each other on the leather reflect light in varying directions. This is caused by minuscule roughness in the leather.”
“You might wonder what roughness I’m referring to,” he says, presenting Elliot with a view of the skin on the back of his spindle-fingered hand, “but if you look closely at skin, you’ll see that its separated into a matrix of overlapping scale-like clumps of skin cells. Leather preparation causes those to shrink somewhat, but on the scale of light rays, the roughness is not negligible. The question is, how do we handle that roughness?”
GM: Elliot listens attentively.
“Can we at least make the roughness more consistent in its pattern and direction?” he asks.
Emil: “With a fine enough tool, sure. But the level of precision you’d need to get a smooth top layer is prohibitive. Instead, consider a dilapidated road, strewn with cracks, and pocked with gravel filled potholes. How would you turn that rough road into a perfectly smooth one?”
GM: “Well, like you say, the level of precision you’d need to get a perfectly smooth road can be prohibitive. If you can’t re-pave the entire road, you’d probably make do with filling in the potholes and using crack filler for the rest.”
“Is filling in the shoe’s cracks essentially what the buffing wax does?”
Emil: “You’re on the right track, yes. But let me clarify, I was implying that it’s difficult to use a tool to shave down roughness using subtractive methods. What is feasible, however, is using additive methods. For a road, you could repave or whitetop it, meaning covering the broken asphalt with concrete. For a shoe, you first, as you say, fill in the cracks with a waxy polish, then you keep applying the material until it forms an even surface on top of the shoe. Since the wax is mixed with turpentine, the heat of pressing in into the shoe makes it flexible enough to be smoothed. Instead of smoothing the leather, we coat the leather and smooth the coating. That’ll give an initial shine that you see on newly purchased shoes. After that comes the mirror shine.”
GM: “That makes sense. I didn’t realize there were so many types of polishing.”
Emil: “Well, it’s like that with everything, isn’t it? Looks simple on the surface, but if you look close enough, there’s intricacy to spare.”
Emil’s eyes drift upwards, towards the complex murals hidden in this subterranean library.
“Under the surface, nothing is ever completely smooth.”
GM: The mosaic depicts a male creature of medium height and build. His head is lopsided, crushed in on the left side, and part of his jaw is missing, revealing dark and rotten-looking teeth on the right side. His nose is little more than a flattened blob, and his whole body is bent forward and twisted. His skin hangs loosely on his frame and has a peculiar yellow-gray coloration with splotches of brown on it. His hair, though, remains dark and wavy and his eyes are a translucent green. He’s garbed in a long cloak and hood that conceals as much of him as possible.
“That one is Prince Zvi, one of Nicodemus’ ancestors,” says Elliot. “His grandsire by… a lot of greats.”
“The story goes that he was the son of a rabbi and wanted to be one himself. But after his father died, he was forced to apprentice himself to a kosher butcher in Prague’s Jewish ghetto, so that he might support his aging mother.”
“But his love for learning never died, and he met with scholars at the university to receive lessons as often as he could, hoping to still become a rabbi himself someday. He grew up strong and tall, and handsome too. Mothers throughout the ghetto all thought he was an attractive marriage prospect for their daughters.”
“But one night when he was returning home from a lesson with one of his teachers, a gang of angry and drunken youths were rampaging through the ghetto, beating and killing any Jews they found on the streets.”
“He shouted for them to stop and tried to drive them off, but there were too many. They crushed in his head, smashed in his nose, tore off his jaw, broke his hands, and snapped his spine. Then the laughing gang turned elsewhere for sport and left him to die in alleyway.”
“Then he heard a voice, asking if he wanted revenge on the Christian youths. He managed a barely audible ‘no’ through broken teeth.”
“Then the voice asked, ‘Would you defend others from such?’ and all he could do was nod.”
“And so Josef Zvi was brought into Clan Nosferatu by Yehuda, childe of Tetya Zhanna, childe of Baba Yaga, childe of Absimilard.”
“He defended the Jews of Prague’s ghetto against Kindred and kine for generations. He would allow none to harm them.”
“The Ventrue prince of the city grew tired of this, and ordered Josef to open the ghetto to feeding by all of the city’s Kindred. Knowing this would condemn countless members of his people to death, Josef refused.”
“The prince sent his ghouls to kill the Nosferatu in his haven as he slept. But they arrived to find him gone, in the middle of the day!”
Emil: Emil can see the story play out in the shifting shadows which dance around the mosaic. The boy growing to a man, studying the holy books as he goes, and the injustice struck upon him by Christians.
Even now, looking upon the mere impression of his kin, he’s struck with a growing anger at what they stole from him. Not just his body in the day, but the wretched form he was remembered in. There’s no doubt in Emil’s mind about who did this: Catholics.
And yet he didn’t seek revenge, he only sought the defense of his people. Emil’s people. The true ideal of a Kenite.
“How?” Emil asks softly, his eyes still glued to the ceiling.
GM: “‘How’,” Elliot declares dramatically, “is that Josef had long known this day would come, and had prepared for it. Unknown to all, he had built a secret passageway between his haven and Prague Castle, where Prince Rudolf slept. As the sun rose above, Josef wearily crept into the prince’s bedchambers, armed with a wooden stake and butcher’s cleaver.”
“The Ventrue did not sleep alone, however, and was defended by many guards. Upon seeing the Nosferatu, they bellowed their deathless master’s name and fell upon him in droves.”
“Josef cut down each of them with his butcher’s cleaver, but not before the sounds of battle roused Prince Rudolf from his daytime slumber.”
Emil: Emil feels a great tension in his chest as the story reaches its climax. Outnumbered and exhausted by the sun and the guards. It would be a miracle to win. But he has to.
“And then?” he asks.
GM: Elliot holds his holds together and raises them high, as if drawing a sword.
“The furious prince took up his sword and did battle with the rabbi’s son. Their duel lasted from dawn to dusk and laid waste to much of the castle. The Ventrue was a nobleman’s son, and so had been trained since boyhood in the arts of war by the finest men-at-arms. Josef had only used his rusty cleaver to slaughter livestock, yet he fought like the Israelite heroes of old, knowing his people’s fate rested upon his shoulders—a medieval David against Goliath.”
“Yet, the cramped confines of the castle gave this David no room to fire his humble sling. For not only did Rudolf enjoy the privileges of a high birth, he was centuries older and even closer to Caine than Yehuda’s childe, for the Blood ran strong and pure in those olden nights.”
“Rudolf shattered the rusted butcher’s cleaver beneath his priceless sword, and then repeated the same mutilations the gang of youths had inflicted upon Josef. He smashed the Nosferatu’s head, shattered his nose, broke his hands, and snapped his spine. Finally, he hewed off Josef’s feet, so the lowly Nosferatu might forever grovel before the Kingship Clan for what remained of his unlife.”
“Prince Rudolf laughed and told Josef that he had sealed his people’s fate. They would pay for his audacity for generations. Jewish blood would flow through the ghetto like a river.”
Emil: Qáyin. I knew it!
And as Elliot continues to talk, he shakes his head, unbelieving.
“No…” he nearly spits out through a whisper.
GM: “He then told the Nosferatu to kiss his boots,” Elliot goes on, “and said that if he found Josef’s begging sufficiently amusing, he would perhaps grant him a faster, cleaner death. Perhaps.”
“Josef torturously dragged himself forward and planted his broken lips upon the Ventrue’s feet. He could see his humiliated visage reflected in countless prisms along the jewels lining the the prince’s glorious sword.”
Emil: He can’t help but imagine Codi’s face in the unportrayed Rudolf’s place. Can’t help but imagine himself or Elliot cut down that same way.
Ventrue. The word is like poison in his mouth. He lets it sit there.
GM: “Rudolf leaned forward, smirking, to give voice to some final taunt—and as he did, Josef seized the Ventrue’s weapon with a last, desperate burst of strength, and decapitated him with his own sword! The prince’s head sailed through the air, its expression frozen in shock and horror for a split second before it crumbled to ash!” Elliot leaps to his feet, swinging an invisible sword in his arms.
“Josef collapsed from his wounds and slept through what remained of the day.”
“When night fell, the city’s entire Kindred court had turned out to Prague Castle in attendance, anticipating the formal announcement of the new hunting grounds open in the Jewish ghetto.”
“Gasps sounded throughout the crowd as Josef Zvi emerged at the head of the former prince’s ghouls, the Ventrue’s priceless sword belted to his side.”
“Josef then announced to the stunned Kindred that as his first act as prince of their city, Prague’s Jewish quarter was now forbidden to all vampires in perpetuity—upon pain of the same fate he’d visited upon the last Kindred who sought to feed there.”
“And so began the 700-year reign of Prince Zvi.”
Emil: And far quicker than the bitter uncertainty grew in Emil’s gut, a swell of faith spreads through him, the twist is exhilarating, and it shows on his face, so full of life.
“Now that is a prince.”
GM: “Yeah,” Elliot says, sitting back down. “It’s a great underdog story. The sewer rats here all really like it, even the ones who aren’t Jewish.”
Emil: “ברוך השם.”
GM: “That’s Hebrew, isn’t it? I’m not Jewish myself, but I’ve heard Nicodemus speak it.”
Emil: “That it is. The universal language. The phrase I said literally means ‘bless God,’ but is used in the same way as ‘praise God.’ His hand is so clear in that story. What a blessing. And it ties so deeply into the legends surrounding the Jews of Prague.”
GM: “Yeah, I think there’s actually some other stories that tie him to the Golem of Prague.”
“But I don’t know those. I’ve just heard they exist.”
Emil: “It’s so interesting, because the Golem was made by another Yehuda to defend the Jews in just the same way. It’s one of the foremost stories about the power of studying practical Kabbalah.”
GM: “And his sire is even named as Yehuda, too. I’m not sure if they’re supposed to be the same figure or not though.”
“What’s so fascinating about Kindred history is that while it’s much more poorly documented, you could, if you went to Prague, potentially talk to witnesses who remember Josef personally.”
“He was supposed to have been destroyed during World War II by the Nazis.”
Emil: “To be able to talk to someone, even indirectly, who has seen seven centuries pass. I have no words. But it’s a real shame he didn’t survive to see the establishment of the Jewish state. He embodied the strength of those who would build it. The virtue of no longer going like sheep to slaughter.”
GM: “I think he died as part of the Czech resistance. So at least he died the way he lived. Well, unlived.”
Emil: “And seven hundred years of strength isn’t anything to sniff at either.”
Tearing his gaze away from the hero above, Emil continues, “Let’s finish these boots up quick before you tell me about the rest. Yeah?”
GM: “I think closer to eight hundred, actually, as he wasn’t totally new when he killed the prince. But yeah, let’s.”
Emil: Emil demonstrates to Elliot the few remaining steps in the shining process by his own hand on one of the boots, leaving the other for him to copy his teacher’s motions.
First comes a generous application of a dark polish. The substance, which as Emil explains, is mainly comprised of Carnauba wax, and yet, as he presents the open tin for Elliot to touch, feels significantly more malleable than he would expect a wax.
“The secret to that spreadability is the turpentine solvent I had mentioned. You’ll find that the texture is quite greasy, that’s caused by the lanolin, the purpose of which is to stop the turpentine from evaporating away before the polish is spread. Cheaper polishes use naphtha in place of turpentine. You can tell the difference, even if you can’t read the label, just by smelling. If it uses turpentine, it’ll smell like Vick’s VapoRub.”
For this first application, covering the entire shoe is done with the very same type of circular applicator brush that was used to scrub on the saddle soap. Emil guides Elliot as the bright storyteller repeats his motions.
GM: Elliot does so. “That’s convenient to be able to tell an inferior product through smell alone.”
Emil: “Most shoeshines have both on hand. If you ever get the opportunity to get your shoes shined by someone on the street, you can make sure you aren’t getting swindled out of a better deal.”
Waiting a short time for it to dry, Emil then instructs Elliot to use the horse hair brush to take off any excess. “Just the same as before with the cream, we’ll use a brush with quick long strokes.” And after, buffing with a cloth all over.
“And with that, we’ve made a relatively smooth buffer of wax over the whole shoe. Next step is to start the bulling—that’s another word for mirror shining.”
Emil takes out a box of gloves and puts on a pair, “just so we don’t stain our hands,” as he explains. Using a pair of gloved fingers, Emil presses into the polish and then using quick circles over the toecap and the heel, applies several thin layers of polish.
“We wanna be conservative with the polish now. This is the critical moment that will decide how clear the mirror will come out. An excessive amount of polish will lead to a cloudier finish that will take longer to achieve than doing it properly.”
Overtop the toecap and heel there’s a dull but notable shine. The area is also notably darker than the surrounding leather. Emil blends the contrasting line by pressing into it with his thumb.
GM: Elliot slips on the latex gloves and does as instructed, applying the polish layers to the other shoe.
“I guess if some is good more isn’t always better.”
Emil: “Careful now, that might be construed as heresy in this state,” he kids.
The final step of the shining process is just as simple as the previous. Friction from pressing lightly in small circles with a cold, slightly damp cloth melts the top layer of polish just enough to increase the smoothness of the surface.
To begin, Emil retrieves a small container of ice in cold water, twists open the cap, and rests a singular cube on the ground, using the cap as a miniature bowl. To that he spritzes a small amount of rubbing alcohol, which he assures Elliot will evaporate. Finally, he takes a very smooth length of cloth, wraps it tightly around a pair of fingers and gets to work.
The process is rote to Emil. Touch the fingers to the ice cube, then very lightly touch the surface of the polish tin. Circular motions over the toe cap and the heel. He has Elliot match every step.
“You see how it’s getting foggier? Don’t worry about that, that’s a good sign. Means in just a little more work you’ll be able to see your own face in those toecaps.”
Soon enough, after an extra dab of polish here or water there when it gets too dry, the work is finished.
GM: Elliot faithfully watches and repeats those steps on Emil’s other shoe, buffing the surface to a similarly mirror-like sheen.
“Almost seems a shame to polish it here, when it could get dirty on the way up. Is too much polishing like this ever bad for a shoe?”
Emil: “Actually, one of the benefits of polishing is that it waterproofs the leather. My shoes will be much cleaner when I leave than they otherwise would be,” Emil responds, looking on proudly at his student’s success.
" If you get lazy and skip the preliminaries like cleaning the shoe first, you’ll eventually create a thick and brittle layer of wax that will leave the leather to desiccate. On the whole, though, no. If you polish your shoes appropriately and moisturize them even more regularly, they’ll be in good shape far longer than without."
“You did a great job with these.”
GM: “Oh, so the wax will essentially trap all the crud underneath it against the shoe. That makes sense.”
Elliot looks uncomfortable for a moment at Emil’s praise. He gives a nod in response, then says, “Thanks.”
Emil: “Well, if you cleaned it well the first time, there would be no crud underneath. The issue would be that not periodically removing the wax layer will starve the base surface of oxygen and stop you from moisturizing or conditioning the leather. As I said, that leads to desiccation,” he corrects calmly.
Emil seems satisfied enough with that brief response. “Now, what can you tell me about that one,” he says, pointing to another beautiful mosaics.
GM: “Right, I mean if you hadn’t cleaned it first. That would just trap the crud underneath the wax you put on, wouldn’t it?”
Emil: “It would, yes. It could also risk cracking the layers of wax above, which isn’t a good look neither.”
GM: “Okay. That’s what I’d thought. But, that one…”
Elliot’s gaze follows Emil’s finger to the next mosaic:
There’s more than one of the figure, too.
The detail work is meticulous, especially on the second one. The individual mosaic tiles aren’t perfectly even, and some are more pitted than others, but there must be thousands of them. He can’t guess how long it might have taken to put together.
“You might be able to guess who she is already,” says Elliot.
Emil: “She’d be hard to mistake. That’s Baba Yaga. You mentioned Baba Yaga in Prince Zvi’s lineage, but did you really mean the Baba Yaga?” Emil asks curiously.
GM: “That’s who the Nosferatu all seem to believe she is. The Little Grandmother. The Iron Hag. The real Mother Russia.”
“On dark nights, the iron-toothed hag would fly across the skies of Russia on her magic mortar, and under her shadow milk spoiled and babies were born dead, or so stories say.”
“She ruled Russia absolutely for countless millennia. All of the creatures of the night shuddered to see her hideous face and bowed before her might. In most cities, the other clans look down on the sewer rats, but in Russia they only dwelt there at her sufferance.”
“Even other vampires weren’t safe from her wrath. She would cook and eat them whole.”
Emil: Another myth made real in his mind. He has no doubt about it. And again the myth leads to the same end: the ever-present existence of Kenites.
The sheer power of being able to control the entirety of Russia, of being implanted forever in the cultural tableau, is unimaginable, but at the same time, so enticing. To stretch his gaze from coast to coast; to watch over it all.
At the mention of eating other vampires, Emil looks visibly shocked. That isn’t how it’s meant to be, Kenites consuming Kenites. If God made those servants for a purpose, surely it wasn’t for them to destroy each other. And eat each other whole.
He’s silent for a moment, taking in the portrayal, before pointing to the reptilian creatures trailing behind the hag in the mosaic. “Are those dragons?” he asks incredulously. Of course, it isn’t necessarily out of place to have dragons in art.
“I mean, were they real?” he asks hesitantly.
GM: “The Russians have legends about dragons. Zmei Gorynych, or just zmei. Enormous serpents with three, six, nine, or twelve heads. The twelve-headed one was supposed to be impossible to kill, even with all of its heads cut off. It bears some resemblance to the hydra of Greek myth, actually.”
“I don’t think they’re actually real, though. I haven’t heard the Nosferatu tell any stories about them outside of one Baba Yaga myth.”
“There are countless stories about her. But the way this one goes, long, long ago, when the earth was young, there was a powerful earth priestess to a forgotten deity named Baba Yaga. Her magic was linked to the land itself, and the land was Baba Yaga. She used her power to defeat and imprison Koschei the Deathless, devourer of men and gods, the unkillable giant before whom even the zmei quaked with dread. For years beyond count, Russia’s people lived in peace and harmony with the land.”
“But a taint entered Russia. It was a long time before this evil became known to the people, but it left death and sorrow wherever its shadow fell, and the land and its people cried out for their protector.”
“Baba Yaga went to confront this evil thing. Her hair tuned white and she aged twenty years when she looked upon it, for he was a man, or at least a thing in its shape, and he was truly hideous. A lesser soul than Baba yaga would have been struck dead to look upon his face. In his passing, trees died, grass withered, and the earth itself bled under his feet. Never before had Baba Yaga beheld such ugliness, and she could not allow it to reside in Russia. She hurled scorn at him, admonishing him for his foul looks and demanding that he depart her lands.”
“Mortals had yet again spurned Absimiliard, the father of the Nosferatu clan, for his tragic face. He swore that this earth priestess, this Baba Yaga, would regret her remarks. He slunk away from her, letting her believe she had driven him off.”
“The night of the next moon, he came for her. She put up a great fight, but even her mightiest magic could not slow the night-creature’s march towards her. She called up the spirits of trees and streams, and the land cried with every step the vampire took. Her hands shone like the sun, burning his dead flesh. The wind protected her, though the vampire ripped mountains from the bones of the earth to throw at her. The old one withered before her power, and his anguished form burned. He screamed his rage and still he did not let up, for she knew that if she released such a creature, she would die.”
“The old one only smiled. Then he was gone. He had vanished without a trace. Baba Yaga dared to hope it was her doing, that her magic had destroyed him. The very animals of the forest then turned against her. The same creatures that had helped her in the past now threw themselves against her. She turned to run, for she had never experienced such betrayal. She ran straight into the vampire’s arms and was locked in an iron embrace.”
“Without speaking a word, the old one told her of good and evil. He told her how he had searched the world for one worthy of his power and that he had finally found her. He told her of how she would serve him. Together they would rule Russia. He then gave her death and darkness, pain and new life.”
“Baba Yaga woke the next night with the old one standing above her. She tried to run, but with a single word, he stopped her in her tracks. She was his childe now to command. She knew her mind was not her own, and her body no longer coursed with life. She felt her ties to the land wither. The old one smiled and she recoiled in disgust.”
“She reached inside herself and began the summoning. In her mind, she could feel the land rebel against this, begging her not to do such a thing. Yet all she wanted was the destruction of this monster who had made her less than human.”
“The old one did not move. He was transfixed by her words as she called upon the darkness. The zmei answered her call, stirring in the depths of their slumber. One by one, they burst from the ground, their forms so huge and their heads so many as to blot out the night sky.”
“At Baba Yaga’s command, the dragons fell upon the old one, but his cunning far outmatched theirs. As powerful as they were, they were weak from their long sleep. The old one created figments of himself in their minds and sent them scattering to the far corners of Russia to find him.”
“Baba Yaga saw this and wept. She knew the vampire would make her his slave, a thrall to his desires. She could not bear to contemplate this. Once more she reached into the darkness, and this time, she brought forth all that she feared.”
“Koschei the Deathless, despoiler of Russia, unkillable giant, devourer of man and gods, burst the bonds of his prison Baba Yaga had laid long ago. Koschei stepped forward to battle the old one and Baba Yaga fled in fear. She ran from the maelstrom on the battlefield.”
“There are no witnesses to the battle, for all within a thousand miles was utterly laid waste. Epics recount glorious blows delivered by both sides and cunning deceits orchestrated by both contestants. No one knows for sure what happened. All that is known is that Absimiliard never came for his childe again. Baba Yaga knew the old one did not reside in Russian soil, for the land itself told her that.”
“But the land wept, for the great Baba Yaga was no longer Russia’s protector. Baba Yaga had unleashed evil upon the land and become everything she despised. Yet she decided the Motherland would not be rid of her so easily. The earth shunned her, but she could still command it. The animals fled from her, but she could call them back. Her magic was changed but was still mighty.”
“She sought out others, too, priests and priestesses of her forgotten deity, and made them like she was. Absimiliard never Embraced another childe, but Baba Yaga created many, and birthed the Nosferatu clan into the world. The land wept, for the great Baba Yaga was no longer Russia’s protector, but its tyrant.”
“So would she reign for millennia untold, until she sank into the mire of legend. Some say she sleeps beneath Russia’s soil even now, and sleeps uneasily, waiting to awaken and plunge the Motherland into a new age of darkness and terror. For Baba Yaga and Russia are one.”
Emil: Another story shared, greater in scope still than the last. From the very human lifespan of Arthur, to the centuries long reign of the Jewish prince, to a being whose age is counted in millennia, the exponential growth is staggering.
When Elliot describes the destructive effect of the Embrace on Baba Yaga’s power, a shiver crawls up Emil’s spine and forms a heavy lump in his throat. Is that why Carter didn’t make him his childe? That power within him, that sight beyond sight, those strange powers that have gotten him where he is. All his strengths might fall away with one bite, replaced by some darker reflections. But that isn’t right, Carter promised him so much more than he has now. Maybe that’s what happens when the corrupt sire, they spread their corruption. Yeah, that’s got to be it.
Or maybe it’s that the iron hag deserved it. Maybe God willed her to be corrupted. Perhaps she was served into the hands of Amalek instead of the guard of the Kenites.
Whichever it is, the wondering loosens the quiet grip of fear from Emil’s mind and leads to further questions. It is curious that the Kindred incorporate those mythological features into the story. Why speak of zmei and legendary giants in the story of a Kindred they know existed, one whom may be known to older, still active Kindred? Tradition is one possibility. The story’s always been told like this, since Baba Yaga first related the events. Though perhaps it is more likely that Baba Yaga didn’t relate this herself, in which case the younger Kindred who had forged it incorporated the Russian folktales they grew up on or intended it as an instrument of instilling fear first to Kindred residents disloyal to Baba Yaga and then to their childer as a whole when her person had sunk fully into the myth.
His last words on the subject break Emil’s train of thought, and he breaks his silence by asking, “She controlled Russia for millennia, and one day she just decided to drop it and fall asleep? If she sleeps so uneasily, why doesn’t she wake up?”
GM: “Isn’t that how it is with all myths?” Elliot asks with a hint of wryness. “Things are always grander, greater, mightier in the ancient past. Those stories don’t have a place in the modern world.”
“But you can’t say they’re gone for good, because that’s just depressing. King Arthur sleeps in Avalon. Barbarossa sleeps in the Kyffhäuser mountain. Sir Francis Drake will return if Drake’s Drum is beaten. The ‘king under the mountain’ who’ll return when his people need him most is a universal myth.”
“I think it’s similar here, with Baba Yaga. Only, well, her waking up wouldn’t be good news for anyone. She’d be the danger a king needs to save everyone from.”
“But Kindred myths tend to be a lot darker than human ones.”
Emil: “And figures of human myth don’t exist just a few steps up the family tree of your city’s underground librarian,” Emil adds.
GM: “Well, that’s immortality. Like we said with Zvi, he was around for about 800 years.”
There’s a flash of pain in Elliot’s eyes when Emil says ‘just a few steps up.’
“I’d guess that the stories about Baba Yaga drop off around the Christianization of Kievan Rus’ in the 9th and 10th centuries, anyway,” he goes on. “A pagan figure of myth wouldn’t have a place anymore in the developing medieval world.”
Emil: That flash of pain is met with a flash of guilt. Poor guy. Brought into the world just a few levels too low on the generational tree. That makes sense though. Nicodemus must be his sire.
On the bright side, seems like despite his weakness he didn’t inherit the wretched look of his ancestors. All he has to mark him are lacerations and a damaged scalp. Next to the likes of Codi, he’s a supermodel.
Silver linings? Though that leaves the question of why Nicodemus decided to make Elliot into this if he knew what would result? If he wanted a slave, couldn’t he have just taken one? Why condemn a rising star of a student to this mediocre eternity?
“But between Baba Yaga and Prince Zvi there’s another link. If she fell into sleep in the 10th century, they’d have to have been made at the latest around then, right? Or was it just the stories that stopped then, not her activities?”
GM: “I don’t know, sorry,” says Elliot. “All I have to go on are the stories. They don’t really have exact dates attached. ‘When the world was young’ covers a lot of time, and it’s probably meant figuratively rather than literally. The earth’s about 5 billion years old, after all, and I doubt any vampire is that old. Most Kindred myths are also told in the context of the Great Flood, which there isn’t any geological evidence for.”
“But there’s two other Kindred between Baba Yaga and Prince Zvi, so when you’re dealing with immortals that leaves a lot of room. Yehuda could’ve only been a year old when he Embraced Prince Zvi, or he could’ve been two thousand. Who knows.”
“I mean, just consider Prince Zvi himself. He could’ve Embraced childer all the way back in the 1100s, or as late as World War II.”
Emil: “The mind just isn’t built to fully straddle such a timeline. At best we pick out the events that matter to us and string them together, but that leaves these massive gaps whose size is left unknown. Even during the start of what we consider civilization, the unknown quantity of the past sat as grand and alluring to those people as it does to us. The Epic of Gilgamesh starts out with the words ‘In those days, in those distant days, in those nights, in those remote nights, in those years, in those distant years.’ No matter how far back you go, the past is always there, frozen in time. A tower spiraling up through the clouds, a new brick laid with each passing day.”
Emil thinks for a moment, before asking. “Why the Flood?”
GM: “True. We tell myths to make sense of the world, ultimately, and a span of years as long as ‘4 billion’ doesn’t really help there.”
“But I’m not sure either about the Flood, sorry. I just assume that’s the context, because some of the Nosferatu call Baba Yaga’s sire an Antediluvian and that’s what the term literally means in Latin. ‘Ante’ before, ‘diluvian’ flood.”
“It might also be figurative rather than literal. ‘Antediluvian’ can also just refer to something being very old.”
Emil: “Could be. But Cain was there before the flood,” Emil poses. “He had sons, too. And Enoch was his first,” he says confident in its truth.
I know. I spoke to him.
GM: “I thought Enoch was one of Seth’s descendants, Methuselah’s father and Noah’s ancestor?”
Emil: “He was Seth’s descendant, or was he? There are two Enochs listed in the geneology of Genesis, one the son of Cain and the other a descendant of Seth. Cain’s son had built the first city, and it was called Enoch. The descendant of Seth lived three hundred and sixty five years before ascending to the heavens by fire and becoming an angel. The tie between the two figures has been the source of significant scholarly debate.”
“Of course, the scholars couldn’t have come to the conclusion they were one and the same. How would they explain their coexistence multiple human generations apart? But what if they were one?”
“After all, Cain begat Enoch two verses after he was marked by God.”
GM: “Ah, I hadn’t known there were two. Biblical mythology isn’t as much my specialty. That’s a nice way though to explain the apparent redundancy within a Kindred context.”
“I’m not sure if I believe the Cainite myths though, to be honest. The scientific evidence all says humans evolved from apes. I think vampires might have just always been around, like any other predatory species.”
Emil: Cainites then. That makes sense with the ‘close to Caine’ remark.
“That’s an interesting thought, though to clarify, humans evolved alongside apes as did the rest of the primates that exist today. All primates share a common ancestor if you go back far enough, and I’d posit that isn’t so different from all vampires sharing a progenitor in Cain.”
“If you wanted to say that vampires have been around forever, that would imply they can come from other animals, not just humans. Given the inherent power and longevity of vampires, we would expect to still see vampirism in animals today. Do we?” Emil asks.
GM: “Sorry, I was speaking in the vernacular. But that isn’t totally the same. Natural selection works through organisms with the most advantageous traits surviving to pass them down to their offspring in the greatest numbers. Evolution happens concurrently, among many organisms, as opposed to them all descending from a singular common ancestor.”
“Vampire animals is a freaky thought, though. I haven’t seen any, but…”
He looks around the library.
“I haven’t really seen a lot, either…”
Emil: Emil wonders if there’s a way to help him out. For now, all he can do is be a good guest, but maybe.
“Perhaps that’s something of a silver lining. No risk of getting mauled by hitherto unknown vampiric cougars,” he tries.
But as he jokes, his fingers rap against his pant legs.
(“There anybody up topside you’ve been missing? Anybody you’re worried about? Any unfinished business?”)
GM: “Yeah, that’s true. I don’t think the Embrace would be good for them. Vampire humans are dangerous enough.”
Elliot’s face briefly flickers. Tap. Tap.
(“There’s my parents. I don’t know what they think happened to me. Nicodemus just says not to think about them anymore.”)
GM: (“He hasn’t let me make a call or send a letter or anything. They’re in Delaware, so it’s not like they could really look for me either…”)
Emil: “If the animal vampires were here before human ones, they probably went the way of Baba Yaga, falling asleep after too many millennia spent awake wandering the land”.
(“In a way, that’s better than the alternative. If they come looking for you, they either have to get turned into renfields or be hunted down.”)
He taps, shrugging sadly.
(“You don’t want to give them false hope either. But maybe there’s a way you can help them still. Not by message, but by action. Did you ever think what you’d want to do for your parents if you really made it in the world?”)
GM: “I could see that. It’s a disturbing thought they could still be out there, because they might also be some of those really nasty prehistoric animals.”
“Hell, maybe there’s vampire dinosaurs.”
(“What? Why would they have to get hunted down?”)
Emil: (“The Masquerade.”)
He tries out the word. It’s concise; only three syllables. Blanche would like that. People like that in their excuses. The more quippy they are the louder they ring as true.
And this one best be louder than a jet engine. It’s an excuse for splitting families, for millennia of deception, perhaps even for keeping Elliot and his weaknesses underground.
(“Think about it. Your parents get a call from you after years of thinking you’re long gone or dead. They’re gonna have more questions than you have answers you’re allowed to give. But that won’t matter to them. When it’s your family, it doesn’t matter how difficult it is to get to the truth. You’ll search until it kills you. What happens when they get close to the truth, when they come to Houston? There’s only two options far as I’m concerned. Nicodemus finds them first or another Kindred does. If another does, then they manipulate you into acting against Nicodemus by threatening your parents’ lives. Should Nicodemus find them, he will either use them as pawns to further control you or, more likely, he’ll kill them to prevent anyone else from making them thorns in his side and to prevent them from asking enough questions to endanger the Masquerade.”)
“Maybe they do exist. Maybe that’s the source of monster stories like bigfoot or the yeti or werewolves or any of the litany of mythological creatures we hear stories about around in folktales.”
GM: “Huh. That’d make some sense. Yetis are ‘just’ chimps or gorillas that are also vampires.”
(“So why not just tell them the truth, and to stay in Delaware? They can keep it secret. It’s better than thinking I’m dead.”)
Emil: He’s been dead eight years, and no one explained this to him? Emil wonders, his brow furrowed into deep trenches of concern.
Tap tap tap.
(“No one can keep a secret forever, Elliot.”)
(“You think they’ll sit quietly knowing you’re alive and being enslaved in an underground building? They’re your parents, Elliot. And they won’t believe you if you tell them you’re not human anymore, they’ll just think your mind’s been broken from the torture.”)
Emil thinks back to how deep Rutledge’s tendrils had dug into the city’s power centers in just a couple years. All sources of authority, legal and not. Ears everywhere. Eyes everywhere. Hands everywhere.
(“Maybe they won’t come themselves, but they’ll get the authorities involved. And if the authorities get involved, then whatever Kindred live in Delaware also do. Kindred have fingers in every sector of society. The police too. Your parents wouldn’t know what hit them, and you’d be stuck here.”)
“And the Loch Ness Monster is just a plesiosaur, an immortal, bloodsucking plesiosaur.”
GM: “Still making sense to me. Werewolves are vampires wolves.”
(“So I could lie about where I am. Or just not tell them anything. It’s better than letting them just keep thinking I’m dead!”)
Emil: He’s stuck so deep in denial, damn.
“And Frankenstein’s Monster, he’s just Frankenstein’s childe.”
(“You’re gone from their lives without a word for who knows how many years. They very likely have come to some sort of peace by now with their version of the story. And then one day you pop up and say, ’I’m alive, I’m fine, but you can’t come see me. Ever.’ What do you think that would do to them?”)
GM: Tap. Tap.
(“That’s bad, sure, but isn’t it… still better, just knowing I’m out there?”)
Emil: (“They already know where you are Elliot, and it’s a better truth than any lie you could spin for them. You’re in here.”)
Emil taps, pressing his palm over his heart.
(“Deep. Where it counts.”)
GM: (“But I just disappeared! They didn’t get any closure or anything. They might even still think I’m alive.”)
Emil: (“How many years has it been?”)
He asks, but he already knows. It’s been eight.
GM: (“Well… what year is it?”)
GM: (“Oh. So eight years.”)
Emil: Emil looks into Elliot’s eyes. He responds slowly, solemnly.
(“Then they probably have resigned themselves to the idea that you’re dead. It’s what they would have been told. Statistically, if you’re gone that long, you don’t come back alive.”)
He lets that thought hang in the air for a moment, before continuing to tap.
(“But you’re right, they haven’t received closure yet. I can help you give them that.”)
He lets him fill in the gaps. Closure means telling the truth. Closure means that he’s dead to them. Closure means accepting that from here on out, he’s on his own. Even if he practically was before, now he’d be snipping the last hope of someone from before rescuing him. But it’s cruel not to give them that.
“And dragons are just old vampiric birds,” he says, continuing the charade. “I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be a dragon. Humans only get to see so much of our planet in their lives, usually just a few cities. But dragons, dragons are different. They can soar through the clouds and see half the world all at once. From above, you can see the world like it really is. One organism, both sleeping and waking. Winter, Summer, Spring, and Fall. A great inhaling and exhaling. The darkness on one half chasing the light on the other, which chases the darkness in turn.”
“All of this at once.”
“And they see how life is tied together, even in the dark, strung together in a great tapestry of twinkling lights.”
GM: "There’s a reason dragons capture our imagination to the extent they do. They straddle the line between mortals, gods, beasts, and forces of nature. They’re the ultimate predators, beyond even vampires.’
(“How’s that? What kind of closure?”)
Emil: Tap. Tap.
(“The closure in knowing that their son has passed on peacefully. It doesn’t have to be explicit, could just be orchestrating a series of coincidences, symbols, and signs for them to encounter that make them know you’re watching over them from above. You know your parents best, so you’d decide what would be most meaningful to them. I’d make sure they saw it. If you want to do more, we could fulfill a wish they’ve always held dear.”)
“Beyond vampires, except perhaps the most famous one. Dracula, the son of the Dragon.”
GM: “Oh, that’s true. It’s the most fearsome monster out there, so it makes sense he’d claim it as his symbol.”
(“What do you mean by signs? How would they… how would they know, for sure?”)
Elliot’s face looks glum as he taps the morse characters out.
Emil: “Well, perhaps it’s why he kept it even into the stories. He’s the son of the Dragon because his father was a Dragon. Vlad II Dracul, a member of the Order of the Dragon.”
(“An image flashing on the television, the text on a billboard, a song playing on the radio, the advertisements that show on their screens. Each image and text holding a small reminder of the memories you’ve shared together. Each on its own might only feel coincidental, like passing a bakery and remembering the fragrance of your grandma’s cookies. But if the little coincidences keep stacking up, each holding a different part of their memory of you… well, humans are pattern finders. When they see such a strong pattern, they’ll see it as it is. Your spirit taking form.”)
(“And once they’re sure it has to be your spirit, once they grow the courage to believe you’re there with them, in between and enmeshed with the memories they would find you, writing to them a message no one else notices. Your last ‘I love you’. Your ’I’m watching over you’. Your final ‘goodnight.’”)
GM: (“Okay… I guess that sounds good. For them to get that. Better than just eight years of… nothing.”)
But some final measure of hope and animacy seems to drain from Elliot’s face as he taps out the response. He doesn’t bother continuing the verbal charade.
Emil: (“It’ll be hard, just thinking about it is hard, I know. You’re allowed to feel how it makes you feel.”)
Emil fortifies the concern evident in the tightness of his jaw with enough hope for the two of them. The future floats in sheets over his eyes, shimmering in the reflective gleam of low-light.
(“But try to think about it like so: this is your chance to become their guardian angel. For the first time in eight years, Elliot, you can be the hero. You just need to pull the sword from the stone. Think about it.”)
GM: Elliot does seem to think about it.
That seems to make him look even glummer.
(“But I’m trapped here. Forever. I’m nobody’s hero.”)
(“Nicodemus goes crazy. He stabs my face all the time, with a pen knife. Codi hits me all the time. Makes me lick his boots. All of them. They’re… they’re horrible.”)
He gives a sniff and dabs at his eye.
(“They’re so… they’re so horrible.”)
Emil: Emil hands him one of the cloths from the bag.
GM: He hesitates for a moment, then rubs it against his face.
(“I don’t know why they hate me so much. Why they’re so horrible.”)
(“Nicodemus, he used, he used to be nice to me. I thought he was so… cool. So intelligent and well-read.”)
(“But that was before I knew he was a vampire.”)
(“He used to play a game with me, we’d pose obscure trivia questions and research the answers. We’d talk for hours about history and literature. But after he… turned me into a vampire… he just…”)
Emil: It won’t be like that with Carter, something in Emil’s mind insists.
(“Changed,”) he fills in.
GM: (“He screams at me, yells I’m stupid and ugly and worthless, makes me wear rags, doesn’t let me bathe, hits me, screams at me, cuts me up…”)
That does explain the smell.
(“I haven’t been outside in… in years, except for the experiments…”)
Emil: (“That’s awful, Elliot. That you have to endure that. Just terrible.”)
Emil’s expression contorts at the description, fighting to keep his composure beyond the anger.
An awful thought arises when he mentions the word experiment.
GM: Elliot is full-on crying. His shoulders shake as pinkish, coppery-smelling tears run down his face.
(“I don’t know why. I don’t know why they do this. I just want to take care of the library, I’d do it anyway, for free, they don’t have to do this, I don’t know why they do…”)
Emil: A few stray tears find their way down Emil’s face, but he’s wearing a supportive smile. It’s one of the few things he can do. He looks so desperately like he needs to be hugged, but he’s too hurt for that. Traumatized. He might have been helped by meditating, or breathing. But Emil saw how irregular his breathing was. Halfway between life and death. Asking him to breathe might just remind him that he’s different than the others. That won’t do.
So he taps.
(“I know you do, Elliot. You don’t deserve what they do to you. You’re a perfect caretaker of this library. You convinced me of that as soon as you started talking. When you tell a story, you’re vibrant, exuberant, and powerful. The fact that you can do that at all with how you’re treated goes to show: you’re incredibly resilient, Elliot.”)
(“Resilient like a true dragon. More than Codi. More than Nicodemus. More than any of them. The scars you bear on your skin are just your scales coming through. No matter how hard they try, they cannot break you.”)
Emil pulls up his shirt to reveal the still-fresh, still red scars across his stomach.
(“I’ve got scales too, Elliot. And I’m here for you. I will be here for you. Why? Because at heart, I know you’re not just some Elliot. At heart, you’re Elliot Dracul.”)
GM: Emil’s words of praise seem to bring something to Elliot’s face. It’s not a smile. It doesn’t look as if he’s smiled in some time, except when telling stories. But his tear-stained eyes seem to shine. Brim. Strain upwards like a dragon taking flight.
(“I… thanks. Thanks. I don’t feel like much of a dragon, ever, so… thanks.”)
(“It’s just… is this forever? I don’t know if I can… last forever.”)
Emil: (“There’s no such thing as lasting forever, Elliot. Even if you’re immortal. All there is, is tonight. You survive tonight, you’ve won a battle. And when you wake up, there’ll be a whole ’nother tonight waiting for you, and the last one will only exist in your memories.”)
(“It’s been two thousand and nine hundred or so battles down here and you’ve won them all. So hold onto this with all the faith you can muster: Eventually, your night will come. And when it does, I’ll be with you, soaring free into the night sky.”)