Excerpt from Dark Ages Clan Novel: Cappadocian [©2002 White Wolf Publishing]
September 1204, On the Road to Bahariya Oasis, Northern Egypt
The caravan trail was first laid down in the time of the pharaohs. Though dynasties—indeed, even entire civilizations—were forgotten in the centuries that followed, the route remained. Recent years had even seen traffic through the western desert grow as trade flourished under the reign of Salah al-Din. That great Muslim ruler had died ten years before, yet still the trade route endured.
As far as Markus Giovanni knew, the caravan trail would remain for another three millennia. Still young as vampires measured such things, he could only hope that he might prove as enduring.
Markus had ample time to ponder eternity, considering his accommodations along the journey. He couldn’t very well appear at the caravan’s nightly campfires without also providing a plausible reason he was never seen during the day. Instead, the vampire spent almost the entire journey inside the enclosed wagon that his mortal retainers, Falsinar and Beltramose, had procured.
Markus emerged only in the ebb of night to feed. He drank little blood from any single mortal, taking only a small amount from a handful of people. The piecemeal approach required more effort, but draining individuals of all their blood would create undesirable complications. The victims of his feeding slept fitfully and were fatigued the next day, but such things were not unusual in the harsh climate of the great western desert. Just as importantly, Markus kept himself at the peak of his strength.
A light rap sounded outside the wagon. Markus slid open the bolt without hesitation, his vampiric senses having already registered his retainers’ approaching footsteps.
“Good evening, Signore,” Beltramose said as he slipped his lean frame through the door. He and Falsinar took their rest within the wagon while their master went forth in the darkness. “There is little enough to report. This day has been much like every other for the past fortnight.”
“I do have news of some import,” Falsinar disagreed. “The dunes grow larger and it becomes impossible to keep the sand from finding the most uncomfortable places to lodge between clothing and skin.”
“A fair point,” Beltramose granted. “What say your captive spirits, Signore?”
Markus shook his head. “The ghosts are almost useless. Despite my interrogation, I can find no source for their fears other than that this land strikes them as exceedingly dangerous. Only Infantino may be coaxed from my side, and he returns with stories of strange figures and frightening creatures that populate the realm of the dead.”
“I must admit,” Falsinar said, “that knowing the restless dead fear this land does not improve my rest.”
“You need not worry. Whatever they fear can no more affect the physical realm than can the ghosts themselves. A few frights, perhaps; nothing more.”
The mortal servants appeared mollified and they readied themselves for sleep. Markus only wished he were as confident as he made himself out to be.
* * *
“Beltramose, if you please! I had just succumbed to the embrace of Morpheus.”
“Blame our master’s shades for my outburst. One of them just passed through me. The pest lingers even now like a chill wind!”
“Passing strange, my friend. I had not thought the ghosts willing to leave Master Giovanni’s side.”
“And yet I shiver uncontrollably. I am too tired for such games. I must find our master and demand he call off his pet.”
“He feeds among the camp. Perhaps it would be best to await his return, that you do not reveal—”
“Hssst! Silence, Falsinar. I see movement with sinister intent.”
“How can you tell such a thing in the dead of night?”
“The luck of the moment. Come; peer through the crack of the door. The spot a few yards to the right of that dune, you see? Where the caravan made its latrine when we stopped for the night.”
“I see nothing.”
“Yes, but a moment before, one of the caravan guards stood where you see nothing.”
“So he moved on.”
“Helped along by a form that rose up from the very sands and wielded a pair of wickedly curved blades. A chance reflection from one of the fires on the metal drew my eye at the perfect moment.”
“Lack of sleep and the pestering of ghosts has addled your perceptions, my friend.”
“Perhaps. Then again, perhaps our master ordered one of the shades to warn us of danger in the only way it—ahhh. Yes! No sooner did I speak the words than the chill has left me.”
“I do hope, good Beltramose, that this isn’t an elaborate prank meant to rob me of my precious sleep.”
“By all means return to bed, Falsinar. I take no responsibility if you wake up dead, however.”
“Hmm. Perhaps I might gird myself and help you take a further look. Merely to prove you agitate yourself for no reason, of course.”
“Of course. You are a saint, to endure my… uh, Falsinar?”
“What is it now?”
“Perhaps my nerves continue to play tricks, but I would swear that the creaking and the sand trickling down suggests there is someone on the roof of our cozy wagon.”
“How curious. Well, perhaps the two figures approaching even now mean to deal with our visitor above. Note their grim visages and drawn weapons.”
“Really? Do you think it possible?”
“Beltramose. We entered willingly into the service of an undead creature under God’s own curse, in the hope that we benefit from the scraps of wealth and power that our dark master might see fit to toss our way. Circumstance does not tend to favor ones such as we.”
* * *
Markus was glad he continued to force Infantino to check the perimeter each night. The ghost had returned with dire news of ambush. The exact number of attackers was unclear, but included at least two vampires. Being deep in the desert of Egypt, Markus had little doubt that they were the dangerous and territorial Followers of Set.
He was not so naïve as to assume this was mere bad luck. Cairo had the veneer of civilization, of undead from many clans existing in a strained but nonetheless sustained harmony. The murderous Setites this night were proof that the gossamer umbrella of truce did not extend to the surrounding desert. He was their target; the rest of the caravan was an incidental sacrifice.
The serpents shall find fulfilling their task a challenge, Markus vowed, looking upon the creatures that shambled around him in a protective cordon. Lacking the time for anything beyond simple blood magic, he had slain four merchants, then dripped a portion of his vitae upon each to raise them in a twisted semblance of life. Though they would animate only a short while, these corpse servants would at least hinder any assault the Setites might make against him.
There was irony, true enough. The serpents had already slain the caravan sentries and the Lord only knew how many slumbering merchants. Were he a true master of the arts of death, Markus could have summoned up these fresh corpses from wherever they had fallen. Ancient members of his clan were said to bring forth legions of the dead in an instant, the things bursting from resting places long forgotten beneath the earth. Markus was no weakling, but he must content himself with those bodies he could touch directly with the power of his blood. It cost him little enough to create these servants, at least. He remained flushed with power. His might would be sufficient to—
A rush of air was the only warning of attack. Markus spun in time to see a cloaked figure chop with a heavy sword into the rearmost corpse. The attacker vanished an instant later as the reanimated servant fell to the hard-packed sand with an almost relieved groan.
“Stand fast!” Markus ordered the remaining corpses as he turned with blades drawn. He faced only the blackness of night—or so it seemed at first. The damnable Setites knew the secret art of obfuscation, of hiding their presence from sight. This attacker hoped to addle his mind into thinking no one was there until it was too late. But Markus’s awareness transcended the mortal realm and would not be tricked so easily.
Markus’s coustille struck his hidden foe and the Setite shuddered to visibility, revealing a glossy black reptilian guise. Slitted gold eyes glared from an alien visage. A wide, lipless mouth yawned open to display opposing pairs of long, needle-sharp teeth.
Markus pressed his advantage, commanding the corpses to advance. The Egyptian vampire responded with impressive swordplay to keep them at bay. Though undead, the Setite was still made of flesh and bone—and such things fell under the command of a Cappadocian vampire like Markus. He employed that control now. Drawing upon the power of his blood, he mouthed an old Venetian curse to focus the mind. The Setite succumbed to the rigidity of death. Though lasting but a moment, it gave the corpse servants enough of an opening to fall upon the serpent.
With his foe dispatched, Markus continued with his grisly retinue toward the wagon. Alert to the way the Followers of Set clouded the mind, he caught glimpses of other creatures striking terrified merchants from the darkness even as their mortal allies fought in more conventional fashion. Markus left them to their fate. The death of a few traders mattered little in the larger scheme, and their struggles would cover his retreat.
Rounding a half-fallen tent, Markus saw flames rising from his wagon. He shrank back on instinct, his vampire nature quailing at the sight of fire. As he paused, his preternatural senses caught the faltering shrieks of those trapped inside. Silhouetted before the pyre, two figures shared a grim laugh as they admired their handiwork.
The thought of trusted retainers meeting such a grim end shook Markus to action. Steeling himself against the terror of flame, he advanced. “You invite disaster upon yourselves, standing oblivious to your surroundings.”
The figures spun in surprise, the orange light revealing the visages of Falsinar and Beltramose. The men shared another brief start as they registered the corpse servants with their lord.
Falsinar somehow combined expressions of chagrin and extreme watchfulness as he began scanning around them. “We had only just found our way clear, Signore. Another moment and we would have begun looking for you.”
“And from your chortling just now, I take it you are responsible for destroying a perfectly serviceable wagon?”
“Not out of whimsy, I can assure you!” Beltramose protested.
“Certainly not. So how is it you gentlemen stand hale and whole, while others are consumed in yon pyre?”
“I must credit Beltramose with the inspiration, Signore,” Falsinar said. “We were surrounded—a creature atop the wagon and two of his minions at the door. Then Beltramose suggested the hatch we fashioned in the floor for your less conspicuous comings and goings.”
“We were only just through when… something grabbed my ankle in an iron grip,” Beltramose continued. “I struck a lucky blow with my knife, and the creature snatched its hand away.”
The men shared a grin, and Falsinar took up the tale again. “As chance would have it, the two outside rushed forward to aid their master. Beltramose spiked the trap door while I slipped ’round in time to shove the rearmost one inside with his fellows.”
“There were some moments of touch and go,” Beltramose admitted, “when we were not certain if the wagon might not catch fire before its new occupants released themselves.”
Markus could not help smiling along with his men, even though all their belongings were turning to cinders. “Inspired, gentlemen. While I am most gratified that you escaped certain death, I admit dismay that we have lost the Codex fragment.”
“Be dismayed no longer, Signore!” Falsinar presented a small pouch. “I thought it might be of some use to you still, and grabbed it during our hasty departure.”
“Resourceful as always. What would I do without you both?”
“Let us hope you never need to find out, Signore.”