“Never again shall I sire!”
GM: A cavalcade of monsters gathers about the stocks and gallows. Caroline has been here before, even if she hasn’t been here.
Moonlight glints off metal spokes as the executioner turns and tugs on the old wagon wheel, making sure it is firmly anchored axle-down into the earth below. He takes the criminal by the arm and straps him, spread-eagle, to the wooden wheel. He dangles on the platform a few feet above ground.
The executioner picks up a rusted iron bar and delivers a crushing blow to the condemned’s hand—then to his foot, his ankle, his forearm. The executioner methodically breaks each one of the prisoner’s bones. No one would mistake his howls for a human sound, even without the fangs protruding from his slavering mouth. The crowd watches attentively.
When the executioner is done, he hoists the wheel upright. The condemned’s mangled body droops from the restraints, while blood pools from his ears and nose. His maddened cries go on, and on, and on. The executioner finally ends the tedium with a blade drawn across his throat, and the ’man’s’ body ages decades into a withered mummy.
Caroline: If she were truly here, Caroline would grit her teeth against the ghastly sight. She recognizes the wheel, this execution method, though she’d never put the time into visualizing how it was actually performed. The idea of it was brutal enough. The execution of it is…. far worse.
If she were truly here, she would hold one balled hand before her mouth, and try to ignore the unmistakable smell of vitae in the air. The effect it has on her in the face of this barbarism—the wholly biological reaction to the sight and smell of that most intoxicating substance.
GM: The smell of spilled vitae reaches Caroline as if from a great distance, and for once she does not feel the stirring of any Beast in her breast. It is well she does not. A line of prisoners awaits their own grim judgment. Some are shackled. Others have had their hands lopped off. A few do not even stand, but have had wooden stakes driven through their breasts. Some have expressions of rage, but far more, simple resignation. All know they are damned.
Each of their crimes is read aloud. Some are executed in the same brutal manner as the first man. Others, instead, have stakes pounded through their chests and nooses fastened around their necks. It is an honorless death. An ignoble death. It is a death fit for common criminals. Yet none sputter and choke as their sharp drops come to sudden stops. They merely hang, motionless and insensate. The crowd watches each ‘hanging’ with rapt eyes. Some hungering. A few even pitying.
Finally, but one prisoner is left.
Caroline: Caroline doesn’t know what this is… but she can imagine.
GM: He wears the same shackles and is dressed in the same torn and threadbare clothing. He kneels, like the others, but holds his head high. His dark-haired and tan-complexioned features are Spanish, well-bred, and etched with the haughtiness of aristocracy that endures in all places and eras. Two fangs protrude from his mouth.
The steady tread of a figure’s wellington boots approaches his side. The condemned vampire flinches, but does not avert his gaze.
The figure who looks down upon him is tall, broad of shoulder, and garbed in a midnight-black archaic military dress uniform: collared tunic, breeches, gorget, and epaulettes. Medals gleam over the sash across his chest, while a basket-hilted sword hangs from his hip. A gold signet ring set with a ruby adorns his finger. The blood-red gem seems to pulse and glisten as he walks, hungrily devouring nearby light.
His features are crisp, Mediterranean, and utterly still, like a marble statue by one of the old masters brought to life. His slick black hair appears wet, and his mustache is trimmed into a uniformly straight vandyke. His gaze carries the weight of centuries and civilizations swept aside by time’s inexorable march. The eyes dominate the face: cold, fanatical, implacable. Those who stare too long feel dizzy, their mouths warm with the taste of blood. The eyes are primal and inhuman and they are strong. They burn with the fury of heaven and the fire of hell.
And they are wroth. They are wroth.
Caroline: Caroline stares at him for only the second time in her existence—at least that she can remember. It is, however, not the first time she’s seen him in his rage. It’s every bit as intimidating tonight—or whenever this is—as it was when she saw it unleashed on Smith and his entire line.
GM: Few can meet that dread gaze, lest it consume them. Most do not try.
The condemned vampire’s presumption costs him much. He snaps his face away as if struck. A single strangled word escapes his cracked and broken lips. There is a rawness to it, a simultaneously mournful and furious agony that Caroline knows only too well:
Vidal does not once look at him as he utters to the crowd:
“Es muy difícil, hijos míos, prescribirte el castigo.
de la quema,
de la sundeath.
Tú eres mi hijo: solo entre el resto de la existencia, eres mi único compañero.
Para siempre nos encerraremos en la manera en que los padres están unidos a sus hijos y los hijos a sus padres.
Y sin embargo, voy a erradicar la mala semilla. Voy a eliminar lo peor de ti. Podaré mi árbol oscuro, como me enseñó mi padre, Adán.”
(“‘It is very hard, my children, to prescribe for you the punishment
of the sundeath.
You are my childer: alone among the rest of existence, you are my only companions.
Forever will we be locked in the way that fathers are bonded to their sons and sons to their fathers.
And yet, I will root out the bad seed. I will weed out the worst of you. I will prune my dark tree, in the manner that my father, Adam, taught me.’”)
Vidal lapses into silence, as it to allow the crowd time to fully consider and reflect upon his words. Finally, he speaks again:
“Nuestro Padre Oscuro fue dado demasiado al sentimiento.”
(“Our Dark Father was given overmuch to sentiment.”)
The executioner does not approach this final captive. It is Philip Maldonato, dressed in archaic garb of similar function to his prince, who guides Caroline’s brother-in-blood forward, takes his arm so that he may kneel with some grace, and finally lowers his head upon the chopping block.
Vidal draws his sword. The blade gleams against the moonlight, dented by obvious war and use, yet still sharp and hungry as any Cainite’s fang.
Caroline: It’s hard to watch. The death of her brother-in-blood. His murder by their sire. The fury and anger behind this oh-so public and certain death. She doesn’t know this man with his head upon the block, but she’s been in his position more than once already. She feels it.
She wants to look away, but she can’t. She doesn’t want this vision burned into her mind, but it feels oh so wrong to deny the memory of it. And there’s a reason she’s here.
GM: Vidal still faces the raptly attentive crowd as he pronounces:
“Saber que todos los miembros de la Arquidiócesis de Nueva Orleans están igualmente sujetos a sus leyes. Saber que todos los soberanos de los Vástagos y los Kines gobiernan por la gracia de Dios. Levantarse de la mano contra el príncipe es levantarse de la mano contra la rebelión contra Dios.”
(“Know that all within the Archdiocese of New Orleans are equally subject to its laws. Know that all sovereigns of Kindred and kine rule by the grace of God. To raise hand in rebellion against one’s prince is to raise hand in rebellion against God.”)
“Emmanuel Costa, por los delitos de traición, te condeno a muerte definitiva.”
(“Emmanuel Costa, for the crime of treason, I hereby sentence you to final death.”)
Vidal finally looks upon his childe—but only long enough for his sword to descend. The blade sheers through flesh, bone, and muscle. Costa’s head cleanly tumbles into the basket set below. Its stoically set expression perhaps attains some final measure of dignitas as body and head alike rapidly decay before Caroline’s eyes, as though they’ve been left outside to rot for weeks.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Caroline: Caroline knew the outcome before the prince spoke his first words. The seneschal had spoken to her of the execution of the prince’s childe at his own hand once, not that long ago. And yet, right up until the blade descended, a part of her had hoped for another outcome. Had hoped for anything but this. Hoped in vain.
This is the sire whose mercy she is to throw herself upon. Whom she is to hope will rescind her death sentence. Who must overlook her crimes and errors.
A chill runs through the dead woman. A vision from the past, or a portent of her future?
GM: As Caroline ponders that terrible question, the prince raises his still-wet, still-dripping sword. He turns his black gaze upon the crowd. His words ring out as hard and cold as steel against steel.
“Nada bueno ha venido de mi Sangre.”
(“No good has come of my Blood.”)
“Nunca más volveré a otorgar el Regalo Oscuro a otro.”
(“Never again shall I bestow the Dark Gift upon another.”)
“Esto lo juro, por mi Réquiem y honor como un niño de Ventrue: por Longinus el Profeta Oscuro: por la Virgen María, por Nuestro Señor Jesucristo, y por el Dios Todopoderoso:”
(“This I swear, by my Requiem and honor as a childe of Ventrue: by Longinus the Dark Prophet: by the Virgin Mary, by Our Lord Jesus Christ, and by Almighty God:”)
“¡Nunca más lo haré!”
(“Never again shall I sire!”)
Caroline: LIAR, Caroline screams at her sire, her very existence giving truth to the words.
GM: A slender finger traces the contours of an ivory chess board.
It slowly travels across the board’s time-worn pieces. There are no figural representations of humans or animals: merely finger-sized shards of bone carved into faceless circular pieces. A painter’s delicate hand has left faded red and cyan designs over their bodies. There are no blacks and whites in this game.
The long finger comes to rest upon one of the tallest, most ornately-painted figures.
The other side of the board is empty. It is bereft of pieces. There were ones there, earlier. Two bishops. A knight. Many pawns. All removed with struggle and sacrifice, but nothing his side could not endure. Their position in the game is now unassailable.
The finger’s owner peers into the darkness, and seeing nothing worries him more than seeing anything at all.
GM: A new board is set up. This one is not so favorable as the first. There are pieces on the opposing side, but they are few in number, and have hardly any pawns.
The finger’s owner frowns and castles his rooks.
GM: The game has been reset. His king is in check, and for all the superiority of their pieces, they now play on the defensive. They had expected this, and how complicated the second king on their side would make the game. This stage of it will pass. They had even expected the bold new knight emerging from the new ranks of enemy pawns.
But they had not expected to lose their rooks.
GM: The game has been reset once more, as they expected. The king that proved such a burden is gone. The enemy’s pawns are gone. The knight’s threat has been contained.
But the game is no longer the same. Everything’s place is different. And new pieces stand amidst the enemy squares.
He moves his side’s new rook, and it topples the pawn-surrounded knight. Its threat is ended for good.
His hand carefully traces their side’s second queen, then freezes.
GM: Time marches on, and the board shifts and grows. There are not two sides to it. There are three, and there may be even more, each with its own pieces. None are wholly uniform in color, save the black pawn. It presence worries him more than he would ever say.
The game is fundamentally different now. These rival sides seriously beset his king. He cannot say this too shall pass.
He traces his finger across their knights and bishops. In those pieces lie their hope. His hand traces his bishops, then finally sets upon the knight. It jumps across the board, scattering rival pieces as it goes. He watches with bated breath, for the memory of breathing has not left him. He watches, and the knight topples over. The black pawn is now a knight. He follows its path with growing apprehension.
The old rules are gone.
GM: The board looks very bad now. His pieces remain dominant, but there are many sides now, with their own pieces, all carved out in the shadow of three great players. Pieces advance to and fro in dizzying move and counter-move. Sometimes his side wins and sometimes they lose. The rival sides possess true kings. The black knight has grown, and takes up an entire two squares.
His gaze rests upon the bishops, for in them lie his hopes.
GM: Augusto Vidal broods from a throne-liked chair, surveying the drowned and shattered wreckage of what was once his city. A sword rests upon the conference table, or what is left of one. Viscous black blood has reduced it to little more than slag on a hilt.
An equally grim- and weathered-looking man trades words with him. His icy eyes are dark and hooded.
“Es hätte kein größeres Opfer verlangt werden können. Es hätte kein größeres Opfer gebracht werden können.”
Caroline does not speak his crisp-sounding German. But she understands.
(“No greater sacrifice could have been asked. No greater sacrifice could have been made.”)
Caroline: She studies the stranger, the sword, and her sire’s countenance. This is not the appearance of a man that has found victory.
GM: “Wir danken Ihnen für Ihre Worte, Ihre Exzellenz und Ihre Taten,” Maldonato replies to the stranger in flawless German.
(“We thank you for your words, Your Excellency—and your aid.”)
“Das bevorstehende Konklave ist bereits vielversprechend,” he continues.
(“The imminent conclave already shows great promise.”)
“Politik ist nutzlose Ablenkungen,” the stranger replies sourly.
(“Politics are a useless diversion.”)
“Es fehlt Ihnen nicht an Gesellschaft in diesem Gefühl,” Maldonato answers.
(“You do not lack for company in that sentiment.”)
Vidal does not speak. He waits for the stranger to depart, and for Maldonato to remain.
He will allow no one else hear him scream.
GM: The finger’s owner rests upon a water-drenched board. It has been swept almost entirely clean of pieces and is even more empty than during the game’s lost opening moves. The pieces will return in time. It will be less than an eyeblink before they do, to those who have played for as long as him.
But he is not certain he will like this new order.
The rooks are gone. The bishops are gone. The knight is gone. The first queen is gone. All of the remaining pieces are flawed and dented, influenced by other hands, or still but pawns. It is with no little trepidation that he observes the black knight now takes up an entire three squares. The storm has been very good to the black knight.
And another, new piece. A queen. It is familiar…
His finger hovers above the board, and finally settles upon a handful of pawns. He slowly begins to nudge them forth.
Monday night, 7 September 2015, AM
GM: Philip Maldonato wears a gray dishdasha. He’s in the ceramic-tiled garden where he passed judgment upon Caroline. He sits upon the same bench where they sat. He looks as if he could sit on that bench for a thousand years. He looks as if he has been sitting on that bench for a thousand years. Four different ivory chessboards sit upon antique wooden tables. This game is far too complex to be modeled by a single game.
Sorrow fills his eyes as he traces a long finger across one of the pawns. It stands directly in the path of a towering, blood-red queen. Its carved face resembles a demonic figure with ram’s horns and pupil-less eyes. The pawn looks small. Helpless. Several other pawns stand safely behind it. Only one other has advanced as many squares, but it’s been painted a cyan shade that no longer mirrors its neighbors’.
“My agent reports she has been taken to the lower-most circle,” Maldonato states aloud. “I have failed.”
His gaze lingers upon the fallen queen, knight, bishops, and discolored pawn.
“The evidence is now incontrovertible.”
Caroline: Caroline stares at the scene with building anticipation. Centuries have passed, she realizes. She’s watched year after year of the invisible battles fought among New Orleans’ Kindred. All fought for, all leading to the present. To this night. To her Embrace.
Her heart would pound in her chest if it hadn’t laid still since her death. Instead she feels she would be still as a statue, not even breathing.
GM: Maldonato looks towards the garden’s foursquare-patterned charbagh fountain. His silence is broken only by the water’s gentle flow and the chirping birds nested among the full-blooming fruit trees.
Caroline’s imagined stillness is oddly contrasted by the seneschal’s as he closes his eyes. His chest softly rises and falls as he breathes, in what can only be a conscious and deliberate action for a Cainite of his years. Jasmine, lilac, rose, and a dozen other fragrances hang heavy in the summer night’s warm air. At last he speaks.
“These are worthy circumstances to die.”
The weight of the world looks as though it bears down upon the ancient warrior’s shoulders as he rises from the bench and calls his sword to hand. The waiting of a thousand years has come to an end.
The shadowy presence observing the old Moor finally speaks. Its voice is deep as the grave. It echoes with power that chills Caroline to the marrow of her dead bones.
“We may only observe.”
Maldonato places a wax-sealed envelope upon the first chessboard.
“You will have my gratitude should this reach his hand.”
The seneschal winds his pocket watch, then intones a prayer in Arabic as he slashes the crescent-shaped scimitar through the air. Its path tears a rent in the fabric of reality, pitch black and fathomless. The rent leaches color wherever it touches and leaves behind achromatic gray. It reeks with a stench that is fouler than foul, yet sickly-sweet in a way that somehow makes Caroline’s dead loins race.
Maldonato’s gaze is as somber as a man watching his own funeral, but his stride does not slow as he steps into the rent. The darkness swallows him whole. The shadowy presence is left alone in the garden.
Caroline: Caroline grinds her teeth as the seneschal vanishes into the rift towards a battle unknown, fighting her own internal war. The more she sees the less she knows, the fewer certainties are true, and the greater the rising conflict.
She snaps her gaze to the shadowy figure. There’s more to this moment. There’s more here. She needs to know.
But not as much as she needs to know where the ancient Moor has gone.
GM: The bench sits empty. Perhaps Caroline imagined that it was anything otherwise.
But the Ventrue has little time to ponder such matters. The rift’s pitch-black depths seem to bleed into the surrounding realityscape like oil over water. Caroline knows, by some primal, id-driven instinct, beyond even her Beast’s urgings, that she should not follow. There is nothing in those forsaken depths but darkness and suffering. Evil, if she believes in that.
But against all instinct and common sense, it beckons to her.
Like that innocuous impulse one sometimes has to jump when staring down from a great height, some hidden recess of her mind breaks its silence to whisper—why not?
Why do people do anything that doesn’t make sense? Why do they do anything that’s wrong or stupid? It’s a quiet, subtle instinct so innocent in its query that it slides underneath sense and logic like water under a door’s crack. It doesn’t matter how thick the barrier is. There’s always a crack.
If that instinct could exist invisibly within her, what else lies hidden within her soul? Does she even know her own soul? Does she know who she truly is?
The rift promises those answers. It promises more. It promises truth.
Caroline could not turn back even if she wanted to.
But if she did, she might see how the darkness has already swallowed her too.
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