“Only in fire can steel be forged.”
Friday night, March 18 2016, PM
GM: In the aftermath of Caroline’s return from Cairo, and her audience at the LaLaurie House with Antoine Savoy, a number of events take place:
Anthony Brodowski sends notice to Caroline that he has sold her debt to Sheriff Donovan.
Rocco is also calling in his debt from Caroline to purchase the debt he pledged her, leaving the slate clean between them.
Yellow Sidra notifies Caroline that she has sold the Ventrue’s boon to Rocco Agnello.
The Hussar meets Caroline at the Giani Building in the company of Autumn and Widney, both of whom are visibly straining under the weight of two body bags. The Hussar orders Autumn to unzip the first, dumping out the decapitated and badly maimed corpse of Nerea Ericson. The prince’s herald haughtily informs Caroline that it is her prerogative to dispose of “your elders’ squandered gift” and explain what has become of Ericson to her family and work associates. The scarred ghoul is faintly smiling. The wounds on Ericon’s body still smell fresh and look as if they came from a sword. The Hussar clearly enjoyed killing the Olympian.
Widney is ordered to dump out Gerald Bishop’s corpse in similar fashion. Explaining what has become of the firm’s second deceased partner is likewise Caroline’s responsibility.
After the prince’s ghoul has left, Widney blandly suggests changing the law firm’s name to one without any of the individual partners’ names on it.
To save on overhead costs.
Caroline: Ericson died badly. Caroline had considered disposing of her, but not like this. Not this butchery.
Caroline meets the ancient ghoul’s eyes as he gloats.
She knows who to lay the murder on, and it isn’t the scarred ghoul. No, that was Donovan, who so eagerly removed two of her weapons from her arsenal when she might have needed them most.
That doesn’t mean the death leaves her unmoved.
She can practically read the signs of the fight, the way the elder ghoul picked apart the barely ghoul. For all her skill, too slow and to soft to defeat him. She can almost imagine the terror in Ericson as her blade slid off iron-like flesh.
Her eyes harden.
“Let me know if you ever want a real bout,” she challenges.
GM: “We have had one, Eiren Malveax-Devillers, if you failed to recall,” the ghoul answers haughtily as he turns to depart.
Caroline: “You bested me,” Caroline does not deny.
“But I was thinking one in which I was awake, facing you, and armed.”
She runs her tongue across her fangs. “There are no mortal swordsmen that can take me further, and few immortal. But I would do honor to his name.” She doesn’t need to explain who. “You are one of the few.”
GM: Caroline’s entreaty seems to give the hoary ghoul some measure of pause, when he realizes she does not desire a rematch for its own sake.
Doubtless, many neonates have assumed they could best a “mere” ghoul. But she well recalls how Kelford and Fontaine compared to Kindred opponents.
“Prepare yourself to suffer, Eiren Malveaux-Devillers. Skill only improves with pain and blood.”
Caroline: “I’m not afraid of pain or suffering,” Caroline answers squarely.
GM: “We shall see, Eiren.” The hole in the ghoul’s jaw shows too many teeth amidst the burned and blackened leathery skin. “You may take me to a suitable sparring room.”
Caroline: She looks into that maimed face without hesitation.
Perhaps once, a lifetime ago, his horrific visage would have made her turn from him. Might have scared her, or disgusted her. But she’s seen many things since then, and his face is hardly the worst.
“Notify Mr. Ferris these have arrived. He is expecting them,” she tells the two ghouls.
And he is. They knew it was coming. In some ways, it’s more convenient that they were delivered together, died together. Helpful too that they knew the bodies would be in poor condition. Two members of the firm dying in a single horrible accident is much more plausible than their deaths sequentially. Two members driving together to an event, break failure, a horrific crash.
The Ericsons’ car is already ready, rigged to go up in flames and consume the evidence of the damage to the bodies in a gruesome combination of inferno and twisted metal. These nights, for Caroline, bodies are more easily explained than disappearances.
It’ll even have a hefty payday for Caroline—or at least the firm. She’d buried enough ghouls that a ‘dead peasant’ policy was one of the first things she took out on each of the firm’s founders—not uncommon for partners, CEOs, and CFOs. With the death of both, it’ll more than offset the cost of their deaths to the firm by more than an order of magnitude. And with the accidental death riders they had on them there will be… a great deal of firm assets available in the nights to come. To say nothing of enough to help ensure Ericson’s children are looked after, that their future is assured.
It’ll get better over the next year when the suit against the company that recently serviced Ericson’s vehicle is settled. Caroline is confident they’ll find negligence was to blame for the accident, and that payday for both the firm and the family will take the sting—if not the pain—out of the loss. Waste not, want not.
She’ll pay final respects to the two ghouls later, in private. She got them killed, after all.
She turns back to the Hussar. “The clubhouse should suffice.”
The Ventrue has had neither time, nor opportunity to set up a dedicated room towards this purpose, but she can quickly clear away tables and chairs, and there is plenty of space and high ceilings available. And weapons.
Caroline leads the ancient ghoul to the elevator, then the roof.
GM: It helps to be expecting one’s employees to die. Especially in a white collar field where employees aren’t actually expected to die.
Widney, though perhaps mildly disturbed at the two being disposable enough to plan around their premature deaths, approved from a financial standpoint.
Autumn thought it was genius to sue the auto maintenance company. As much from the Masquerade standpoint as the financial standpoint.
“Filing a lawsuit against someone else isn’t really what anyone expects an, ah, ‘involved party’ in the deaths to do.”
Caroline: Caroline had wryly commented to that, “You might be surprised, my dear.”
She’d learned the trick from someone, after all.
GM: Autumn and Widney see to the bodies as the Hussar follows Caroline upstairs. He regards the improvised sparring room disapprovingly, then selects one of the longer available swords, having not worn his own into the haven.
Then he attacks.
The ghoul does not hold back. He attacks Caroline with the non-blunted weapon as though they are upon a battlefield. He gives no pointers or instruction: Caroline is left simply to defend herself against his onslaught. She learns the way she always has: brutal, firsthand experience.
At first, the Ventrue seems to have the upper hand: she easily dances past the Hussar’s blows and even gets past his guard to land in hits. But the ancient ghoul’s skin is like iron, and he seems to have accounted for this fact in his fighting style. As he takes Caroline’s measure, he adjusts to all offense, trusting in the Blood to keep him hale, with frequent feints to slip past her hummingbird-like defense. It soon becomes apparent that the ghoul’s centuries of practice make him Caroline’s significant better in skill and technique, and his answering blows are brutally strong. His eyebrows raise, though, at how many Caroline deflects or simply blurs past… she has grown since their last encounter.
After her experience in Cairo, Caroline finds much to appreciate about her undead body that she once took for granted. She doesn’t slow. She doesn’t tire. Her dead muscles don’t ache and her dead lungs don’t gasp for air. She could keep this up forever. In fact, she reflects, that’s probably the best way to deal with a living duelist who’s her better in skill: just prolong the fight for as long as possible, until they’re exhausted enough to beat.
The only problem is the Hussar doesn’t seem to get tired either. One might almost think the hoary Ventrue ghoul a vampire himself: he neither pants nor sweats nor slows as the match wears on. He does not adjust his mode of attack to attempt to quickly end the duel, despite his foe’s deathless stamina. He simply rains down brutal blow after brutal blow, seemingly confident that he will eventually land a hit which finishes Caroline.
Caroline: His confidence is not misplaced.
She’s inhumanly fast and doesn’t tire, but she’s always one mistake away from disaster. She dances, parries, slides, even runs up and off of walls in a blur of undead flesh, but for all the elegance of her technique it’s much like fighting a freight train.
It doesn’t stop her.
These are the fights she will have her entire Requiem: against tougher, stronger, older opponents. These are the fights she has to find ways to win. And for all the violence of the Hussar, she knows this is the time to figure it out. He might maim her, might hurt her indiscriminately, but unlike her foes, she has every confidence he does not aim to destroy her.
Better to suffer here.
She’s certain too that whatever she might aim, killing him is not within her power tonight. Not like this, with weapons of this low caliber. There’s a release them to it—fighting without holding back, without fear, pushed to her limits.
Caroline had told Cécilia that there was no one in the city that she could practice with—other Kindred would be a risk to each other and ghouls could not withstand her, but that wasn’t entirely true, was it?
There is at least one.
So she fights on, blade a blur of steel, knowing with certainty one thing about how this fight will end: it’s going to hurt.
But some part of her wants that, too. Wants the pain, wants the thrashing she’s no doubt going to receive from the Hussar before this is all done. Two ghouls lie dead, rotting in bags, downstairs because of her. Two ghouls that were her servants, that died because of her actions, because of her choices.
Knowing the outcome wouldn’t have changed her decisions. Se did what had to be done in the way that it had to be done. But that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t suffer for it. Doesn’t mean that she should be able to brush off their deaths to casually—like they weren’t people, just flesh constructs waiting to be reduced to their constituent parts.
Their deaths didn’t move her, though.
She won’t be kept up into the morning with visions of Ericson’s children, nor will she shed a tear for the lost brilliance of half a century in the legal profession that vanished with the light in Bishop’s eyes.
Instead here, tonight, she’ll pay another penance with Hussar. One with purpose. With value. But one in blood all the same.
GM: Penance she pays.
Caroline moves like the wind to avoid the Hussar’s strikes, but she can’t keep it up forever. They both know it. Finally, the dam brakes around the boy’s finger. The Hussar’s blade crashes down, gorily slicing into Caroline’s thigh. Then through. Blood sprays as the Beast howls its pain and Caroline crashes to the ground, for even she cannot run with one leg.
Or would. The play goes through her head in an instant. The Hussar knows her first play will be to grab the leg back, re-join it to her thigh, send vitae knitting together the separated bone. She’s fast enough, lithe enough, to still do it. If he doesn’t stop her and grab after the leg like a dog after a bone.
The Ventrue catches her fall one-handed and turns it into a cartwheel. Her other hand comes up, driving her sword at the Hussar’s gut (not “into”, his skin’s hard enough to deflect it), before her remaining foot comes up next. The kick smashes into his face. The Ventrue’s already dropped her sword—she’s more than fast enough to grab it back if this works—as her second hand comes down to complete the cartwheel, then her sole foot after it, then her hands again, then her foot again, and then she’s behind the Hussar before he can even tell. They’d give medals for this, executing cartwheels with one leg in a combat situation. She’s already dropped to the floor, remaining leg striking out like a serpent to sweep the Hussar’s legs out from under him. He hits the floor with a crash. Caroline rapidly logrolls across the ground to seize back her severed leg—
Only to find the ghoul’s hand still clutched around it, eyes never wavering from the prize.
His foot connects with her face, smashing in bone and cartilage. She flies into the wall with a crash. The Hussar soars after her, flying through the air like a great bird of prey. He lands atop her prone body, pinning her torso beneath his full weight, and at that point Caroline knows the fight is over. She jabs at his eyes with cobra-fast fingers, a last-ditch maneuver to distract him with pain, but the ancient ghoul stoically accepts it before methodically snapping each of her arms, hard enough to make splintered bone jut from pale flesh. He breaks her hands next, cradling each one between his palms and pressing them together until delicate bones snap. It’s only when he’s completely disabled her upper limbs with several more bone-shattering blows to the elbows and shoulders that he gets to work on her face. The ghoul’s mace-like fists smash down, again and again and again, all but caving in Caroline’s head and painting the floor red with vitae.
Against all odds, the Ventrue wrestles down her screaming and pain-maddened Beast. She will not repeat the mistakes of the past. She will not permit herself so easy an escape from her self-imposed penance. She will suffer as she has decreed she will suffer.
The Hussar wasn’t her only foe, in their last match.
This time, at least, she’s only lost to one of them.
Caroline: It’s utter agony, but more than agony. Agony, as she explained to her sister, is more easily ignored. Her shattered body can heal—she can put it back together in minutes. Maiming holds none of the fear that it did as one of the living. Injury is only pain. Pain she can manage. She has before.
It’s more than the agony the Hussar inflicts in her body that drives her so close to frenzy, it’s humiliation. The knowledge that she’s been so totally dominated again. She prides herself as a skilled fighter, even among the Damned. She’s faced down more life and death fights than licks decades her senior. In life she was exceptional. And none of that mattered at all, even for a moment.
This weakness is something more. It’s humiliating. It’s disgraceful. The pain she can hide in is almost a mercy beside that.
It’s why she keeps fighting, right up until her broken body literally cannot resist. Because she can do no less. The screams that escape her blood filled broken face are not the screams of the the Beast, nor too are they streams of pain. They’re screams of anger, frustration. She didn’t expect to win, but she thought she was better than this.
But she wasn’t.
The Ventrue can almost hear her sire’s disappointed words echoing in her ears. They sound remarkably like her father’s.
Weak. Slow. Soft. Pathetic.
She doesn’t argue as she forces her broken and defeated body back into shape.
After all, she deserves it. All of it.
GM: The Hussar’s still-descending fists initially provide little chance to—until a second body abruptly collides into his, knocking the prince’s ghoul off Caroline.
“Enough,” says Kâmil.
The Hussar rises to his feet. Blood still wells from the thousand shallow cuts across his body, and deepest from where Caroline’s sword drove into his belly. He turns a baleful stare upon the other ghoul.
“My domitor has commanded that I safeguard Miss Malveaux-Devillers’ person,” Kâmil states calmly. “I cannot guarantee he will be available to revive her from torpor. In such a state, her safety is compromised.”
Caroline: She can’t immediately respond—not with her jaw shattered into a dozen pieces and both arms crippled.
Bone snaps gorily through flesh, accompanied with wet tearing sounds, as it re-knits itself into place. She props herself up on the first elbow, then her broken hands, wrestling down the searing pain.
She tries to spit shattered fragments of teeth, but there’s no force behind it. Instead the bloody stew of flesh, blood, and broken teeth runs down her chin. She raises her head to look at both ghouls through one blood-filled eye as the other messily splattered one slowly grows back around the shifting, reforming, orbital.
“Egh ahkshed for hish,” she grinds out, her jaw still in pieces.
GM: “So we observed, bayan,” acknowledges Kâmil. “Nevertheless, I fear that allowing the match to continue runs contrary to our domitor’s orders.”
Caroline: She wants to argue. They’re not done. She hasn’t suffered enough, hasn’t learned. But the Turk is right.
Her remaining functional eye, half shut by the swelling of pulped flesh around it, settles on the Hussar for a long moment.
Finally, she nods.
“He han henish this waiter. Ey’ll hind hime,” she promises.
GM: The Hussar sneers faintly at Kâmil, but says nothing further.
He turns to Caroline.
“I shall remain at your disposal, Miss Malveaux-Devillers, to complete your lesson in humility.”
Her sire’s herald turns to depart.
Caroline: “Ish hat hut he would haunt?” she demands of the ghoul that knows her sire like so few others.
“Ah um… ble hilde?” The heiress still can’t move her jaw and her face is a mass of bruises and hamburger meat, but there’s no longer bone showing, except on her chin where sledgehammer fists tore away the flesh.
There’s a genuine desperation to the question as she quivers, trying to force her still broken body into motion. If she were a kine she’d be unconscious and grateful for it. But she’s not just a kine, and not even just a Ventrue. She’s the childe of one of their ‘living’ mightiest scions, and tonight she feels deeply unworthy of that legacy.
GM: The Hussar’s lip curls again as he stares down at Caroline’s prone body.
“Before I entered his service, my sword belonged to Spain. I knew innumerable barbilampiños,” Caroline recognizes the disparaging-sounding word as meaning ‘beardless ones’, “in her army whose families obtained their commissions though royal favor. They believed their fathers’ wealth, and the games they played at Avila, meant they knew more of war than a blooded veteran of the Guerra del Asiento and Guerra de los siete años.”
The old ghoul’s eyes glint.
“I took pleasure in seeing them cut down like wheat upon the field of battle. The survivors learned to heed the mozos viejos,” Caroline recognizes that as ‘old boys’, “in their units and recant their pride.”
The thousand cuts crisscrossing the Hussar’s skin continue to slowly fade away.
“No neonate may best me, whomever her sire. It is pride to believe months in the Blood may overcomes centuries receiving the Blood. Pride is sin. Pride is weakness. Weakness is unworthy of him.”
“Cuando llega el orgullo, sigue la deshonra, pero con la humildad viene la sabiduría.”
(“When pride comes, disgrace follows, but with humility comes wisdom.”)
Caroline: The muscles around her jaw writhe around the bone, bonding to it, and she’s finally able to spit out the blood and putrefying flesh floating within.
“Ser humilde es reconocer todo lo que Dios te ha dado sin falsa modestia,” she answers, finally able to speak again.
(“To be humble is to acknowledge all that God has given you without false modesty.”)
She continues, “All that we all flows from God, to deny it is to deny Him.”
She swaps back to Spanish, shaking her head. At least the pain brings clarity. “No pensé que podría derrotarte. Ni entonces ni esta noche. Pero quisiera que el sirviente más fiel de mi padre me conociera por lo que soy.”
(“I did not think I could defeat you. Not then and not tonight. But I would have my sire’s most faithful servant know me for who I am.”)
“Si no soy digno, será solo a través de otros que podría llegar a serlo.”
(“If I am not worthy, it will be only through others that I might become so.”)
A pause by the heiress sitting in a pool of her own blood.
“Me ayudarás de nuevo? Serás una de mis mozos viejos?”
(“Will you help me again? Will you be one of my ‘old boys’.”)
GM: The Hussar only stares silently for several moments. His dark and hooded eyes lack the soul-piercing intensity of her sire’s, but its echo is there. Like smoke after a fire.
Caroline cannot imagine he is pleased by her existence. To see another given the honor denied him after centuries of faithful service. The honor that Caroline well knows her sire swore he would never bestow upon another. The honor his servant believed would never be his, through no failing of his own.
He enjoyed this fight, she well knows. Just as he enjoyed killing her ghoul in prelude to it. Even beyond what enjoyment he surely already takes from putting other ‘barbilampiño’ neonates in their place.
She doubts any of them ask him for his help.
She could be the brat princess instead, if she wished. Flaunting the honor she has received, still and forever denied him. Disdaining the ‘help’ for his presumptions of superiority.
“I will help him,” the Hussar answers. “If that must be through you, Miss Malveaux-Devillers, so be it.”
“Como Dios quiere.”
(“As God wills it.”)
“Steel your pride and prepare to lose many further matches within the training room, if you would succeed upon the battlefield.”
Caroline: Part of her wants to tell him—to share that his master’s covenant was not broken, that he was not passed over. But that is not a secret for these halls or for this night. Perhaps someday he will know. Perhaps someday he will care.
For now it’s enough to have found an accord for him, and not only for what he might offer her.
The Hussar has been her sire’s servant for centuries. He might be the last truly loyal one. He is deserving of her respect.
She recalls, too, a reading from one of many Sunday services. […] It is impossible to gain humility without humiliations; for just as studying is the way to acquire knowledge, so it is by the way of humiliation that we attain to humility. As long as we only desire this virtue of humility, but are not willing to accept the means thereto, not even are we on the true road to acquiring it.
He humiliated her tonight. Savaged her. Beat her within an inch of torpor—and would have gone further without the actions of a third party. As it was, he left her in a pool of her own blood, one of her limbs out of reach, and the others broken ruins.
It was humbling. She knew he was stronger, tougher, and more skilled, that his victory in their first battle had not been a fluke. It was something else to know how thoroughly he might deconstruct her.
She had been arrogant. Certain that the gulf was, if present, within reach. After all, hadn’t she fought Kelford? Hadn’t she beaten other neonates into the dirt?
Only that long fall brought her back to reality. She is weak, and she cannot afford to be.
She meets his horrifically scarred visage with her own, one in which her second eye is still reforming in its socket, in which her face is a mass of purple bruises buried under a sea of blood.
“Solo en el fuego se puede forjar el acero.” she agrees.
(“Only in fire can steel be forged.”)