The Death(s) of Baba Yaga

[ART: ALL ALONG THE TOP OR BOTTOM MARGINS OF THIS SECTION, I’D LIKE TEXT AS THOUGH SCRAWLED OUT IN CHARCOAL; DARK AND KIND OF MESSY. IDEALLY IT WOULD CONTINUE ALL THROUGH THE SECTION, ENDING ON THE LAST PAGE. HERE’S THE TEXT:

Listen well to these words, Children of Absimiliard. You are the first among the unseen. The shadows of the mind part and change for you. Call on these shadows. Call on the strength of the hunter. Call on the beasts, the great serpents. When the storm breaks, then the first of 13 falls, then shall the true Jyhad begin. The first to die shall be the Nosferatu. I call the hunt! I sound the cry for blood! Let the first be the one who fled, who used the land and called on the One Below to escape! Drink deep of her heart’s blood, and crush her body.

[BELOW TEXT FOLLOWS IN BECKETT'S DIARY SCRIPT]

The Calleva Arms, Silchester, British Isles

Ah, Russia. If a flat-out weirder place in Kindred history exists, I can’t think of it. Contained for decades behind a “Shadow Curtain” (it sounds better in Russian), Mother Russia was suddenly blown open to outside influences when a mythological figure supposedly died in a remote mountain crevasse. Or in St. Petersburg. Or somewhere completely different.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We all know the Bolsheviks toppled the Tsar and killed off the royal family, except maybe for Anastasia (put a pin in that, we’ll come back to it), in the early part of the 20th century. That’s all mortal history; you want to know that, Cesare tells me there's an online encyclopedia that's quite useful. For our purposes, though, another revolution was going on, and it actually started before the mortal one, for a change.

From what I’ve gathered, the Kindred Revolution (which doesn’t have a catchy name like Red October or Bloody Sunday, sorry) began in 1900. The Brujah took issue with the Ventrue, Tzimisce (Old Clan, for the record), and the Toreador and their pompous, quasi-feudal method of running things, as Brujah are wont to do. The ruling Clans figured they had nothing to fear from the lower ranks, as the ruling Clans are wont to do. But the Brujah slipped their ideals into the mortals’ revolutionary calling, or maybe they took their cues from the emerging Communist principles that Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky were tossing around. Who can say, really?

In any case, the Brujah, in addition to their usual strategy of “pound on it until it stops moving,” employed a much cleverer strategy of “steal the grave dirt from the really old Tzimisce and watch them get weaker for a few months, then pound on them ‘til they stop moving.” I’m not entirely sure if they used similar methods of getting around the Ventrue and Toreador bigwigs, but in any event, before the Tsar’s blood had cooled on the floor of Ipatiev House, the vampires who called the shots in Russia’s largest cities were dust, ash, or dusty ash.

[MARGIN NOTES IN ANATOLE’S HANDWRITING]

As a point of interest, the Brujah did, in fact, play on the feeding preferences of the Ventrue in some places. I don’t remember what city it was — Omsk? — where women with green eyes just vanished in the space of a couple of nights. It’s still rare as hell to find anyone with green eyes in Omsk.

[ANATOLE MARGIN NOTES END]

From there, the Brujah formed a Council. They had long, long documents detailing rules and procedures, and lengthy treatises about how they were different from the dictatorial rule of Princes. And, in fairness, they were. I’ve seen rule by committee before, but it tends to be a kind of “I’m the Prince and all of you are my Primogen, and let’s make a half-assed stab at checks and balances but really we’ll all just scratch each other’s backs as necessary” kind of thing. The Council, though, had a truly immense country to govern, and Stalin invading other countries and adding them to the USSR like some immense red amoeba wasn’t helping matters any. So the Council expanded — it had to! — and in a lot of cases it would kill off older, established Princes, install younger and more passionate vampires as “local governors” (basically Princes, but don’t use that word), and move along.

St. Petersburg was kind of an exception, and I was pretty unclear as to what happened there, which is one reason I made that city the first stop on my whirlwind tour into crazyland when I started looking into what happened to Baba Yaga.

The Little Grandmother

Baba Yaga commands a weird reverence in Russia. Some of the old fables paint her as this kindly, grandmother-like figure, but mostly she’s a witch who flies around in a giant mortar-and-pestle and lives in a house with chicken legs. To mortals she is a bedtime story, appearing on packages of sweets, in commercials, and on all kinds of toys. Kindred from Russia, on the other hand, tend to get really tight-lipped when I bring her up, except Brujah, who typically either stomp away or skip straight to red rage.

Before we go any further, though, it’s important to know who and what Baba Yaga was, absolutely and conclusively. Ready?

I have no earthly idea. Well, that’s not entirely true. I’m fairly certain she was a vampire, and if she was a vampire, she was probably Nosferatu, and if she was a Nosferatu, she was probably a direct childe of Absimiliard. To further confound matters, Anatole claims she was several vampires! The mysteries continue.

Most Russian fairy tales work like this: One thing nested inside another thing is nested inside another thing. I have no idea what the fascination for things in other things is, but it permeates the culture right down to the monsters.

From what I've gathered from the few Kindred willing to broach the subject, too many of which were less than sober, one version of the story goes like this:

Baba Yaga took over Russia after the Brujah took it over from the entrenched Kindred, but when I say she took it over, I don’t mean she “ruled” it or “controlled” it like other Kindred tend to mean. She didn’t tell vampires who they could and couldn’t feed on; she didn’t give permission for blood hunts and the like. I mean, she ruled Russia in the most overtly supernatural, Masquerade-breaking manner you could think of. She commanded six factions — armies — that managed various parts of her bizarre empire. Some of the “soldiers” in those armies were vampires. Some were Lupines, and some were spirits (not ghosts — although, hell, why not). She had an army composed entirely of wizards. And that’s not even the weirdest one. The weirdest was the Army of Despair, and that one was made up of dragons.

No, I don’t have pictures.

[MARGIN NOTES IN ANATOLE’S HANDWRITING]

They don’t photograph anyway. And I think they’re all dead now. Or they will be. It’s hard to know.

[ANATOLE MARGIN NOTES END]

If the stories are to be believed, Baba Yaga had supernatural power at her disposal like nothing the world had seen before, and nothing seen since. She was supposedly massive, with iron claws, iron fangs, and a countenance that would put many Nosferatu to shame. I’m not being sarcastic, so that should give some sense of the gravity.

The Shadow Curtain    

I don’t have an exact date for when the Shadow Curtain fell. Most of the people I’ve interviewed about it say it coincided with the Iron Curtain, but that sounds like poetic license to me. What I do know is the Shadow Curtain was a metaphysical roach motel. Anyone with any supernatural ability whatsoever (and that includes ghouls and ghost servants, so suck it, Ambrogino) could enter the Curtain, but not leave, or else.

The logical next question is “or else what?” and I don’t really have a good answer, because I was never stupid or unlucky enough to get stuck behind the Curtain. I’m reliably informed Kindred all over the world sent emissaries or assassins into Russia, and got nothing back but panicked letters. Whatever the Shadow Curtain was, whatever powered it, it worked. Some messages seemed to indicate Lupines, others spoke of mystical barriers or even plain bureaucracy: the victims being snared by good old Soviet red tape until something caught up with them. Over time, the reputation of Russia spread. It was a prison for Kindred, or a trap. Getting sent to Russia was a fate worse than Detroit — it was uncertainty. I can’t guess how many Kindred who just wanted the truth came to Russia and were subsumed. Hell, I had to be talked out of it once or twice.

Dirty secret that some Princes and other higher-ups don’t want you to know: Russia was also a trap for a long time. Got a rival messing with your interests? Buy a few properties in Omsk and lure him there to investigate. Got a childe who isn’t all you’d hoped? Send him to Moscow on an errand. Whatever the Shadow Curtain meant to Baba Yaga and the Russian Kindred, to those of us smart enough to stay on the other side, it was a useful and terrifying tool.

But it’s gone now. Don’t worry. I’m sure none of those Kindred sent to die there are still around. If they are, I’m sure they’re not bitter or anything.

[ABOVE TEXT IN BECKETT'S SCRIPT ENDS]

[ARTIFACT LETTER FRAGMENT, STARTING MID-SENTENCE]

am frantic. I cannot leave. I cannot leave this wretched, cold, bloodless country. Everything is pale and dead, and yes, I am aware of what and who I am. I have no wish to have such a mirror held up to me by the very land around me.

But I cannot leave, Lucita. I grow ill whenever I try. I come to the borders and try to cross, only to feel impossibly, viscerally sick. I heave, I retch, but nothing comes, and yet I cannot walk. Once I tried driving, planning simply to accelerate enough to get across the border and then run. As I approached, though, my whole body began sweating blood, the car stalled, and my nerve failed me, leading me to turn back. Twice I have come close to violating the Masquerade just to see if a Justicar would come to punish me. Many more times than that, I’ve written to friends in nearby countries. No one answers.

Lucita, I have secured passage on a ship. I will not set down the name or berth here, for frankly I dare not hope it will work. But I am desperate. If I make it out, we can discuss this letter together.

Yours,

Selene

[MARGIN NOTES IN LUCITA’S HANDWRITING]

I had a friend who wound up on the wrong ship and disembarked in St. Petersburg in 1950 or so. She wrote me this letter, which didn’t reach me until decades later (it went to a dead drop that I’d completely forgotten about until I got back to Venice one summer).

[LUCITA MARGIN NOTES END]

[MARGIN NOTES IN ANATOLE’S HANDWRITING]

Selene was lucky. She died quickly. The Little Grandmother had no particular interest in her.

[ANATOLE MARGIN NOTES END]

[ARTIFACT LETTER ENDS]

[BELOW TEXT FOLLOWS IN BECKETT'S DIARY SCRIPT]

Last thing to know about Baba Yaga: She’s dead. But what killed her? That question is where the rabbit hole really begins, and I’ve sifted through the insanity, outright lies, spin, and obvious fabrications to come up with the best theories I could. I was left with three theories with some evidentiary support. Does the truth lie somewhere in between? Probably. Are we ever likely to know the truth? For the love of Caine, I hope not.

Before I went to Russia, I figured I should find someone who knew the terrain and had been there for a while. I finally hooked up with a Nosferatu named Angus. He said he was born in Scotland, but really, it’s hard to know — he spoke flawless Russian and a few other languages, too. Anyway, Angus got stuck behind the Shadow Curtain for about 20 years, but never quite managed to get under Baba Yaga’s thumb. He spent a lot of time dodging her influence, but got out when the Curtain fell. I met him when he was looking for his sire in Greece, and agreed that after we did a little digging in Russia I’d help him out.

It…didn’t work out the way he’d have liked. I dedicate this research to the memory of Angus.

[MARGIN NOTES IN LUCITA’S HANDWRITING]

You do know he was Okulos’ childe, right?

[LUCITA MARGIN NOTES END]

 [ABOVE TEXT IN BECKETT'S SCRIPT ENDS]

[BELOW TEXT FOLLOWS IN BECKETT'S HANDWRITING, BUT WRITTEN AS AN ESSAY RATHER THAN IN HIS JOURNAL]

On the One Claw: St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg is situated far enough north that, for several weeks in the summer, the sun doesn’t set. This phenomenon is called the “white nights,” and naturally it involves festivals and parties and all kinds of fun stuff the Blessed of Caine don’t get to experience. As such, the White Nights all but require that local Kindred have a childe, a ghoul, or a friend far enough south they can escape the cities for a month. That also means the death rates of southern Russian cities go up, but since the fall of the Shadow Curtain, it’s improved. Anyway, I’ve been to St. Petersburg a few times over the years, and once was during the period when the Brujah Council ran the country.

I mentioned before that, for the most part, the Council would kill off the existing Princes of larger cities and then replace them with young ideologues. In the case of St. Petersburg, the Prince of the city was a Ventrue named Anya Dyomin. When she became Prince, St. Petersburg had just been founded, and her sire (whose name I don’t know) sent her there to keep her out of the way, but also to give her something to do for a few centuries. And then wham, St. Petersburg becomes this kind of “gateway to the West,” and it’s an important city, but by the time the elders in the rest of Russia figure this out, Anya’s too entrenched to oust and she’s got her own childe, and anyway it would be too awkward to admit “oh we just put you there to shut you up,” so sure, she stays Prince. I’m sure they had a coronation or something, and I’m equally sure her sire gave her a “this is what I wanted all along” kind of speech. Sires do that kind of thing, I’m told.

Her childe was a kind of spineless little thing called Nikolai, who, with apologies to my friend Victoria, would probably have been better off being Embraced as a Toreador. I mean, not to say that Ventrue can’t appreciate beauty, but Nikolai Miloradov was the kind of vampire who would see an old piece of architecture, squeal “Look! Stairs!” and then spend the next half hour telling you about the building and its history. He was young and beautiful when Anya Embraced him, and he told me that she “gave him immortality” because he loved the city and wanted to see it develop over the years.

That all sounds very fucking romantic, but you have to remember that when the Brujah came to town in 1920-something, they killed off Anya but left Nikolai in charge. More to the point, they left him to run things pretty much as Anya always did — he’s the Prince, here are the Primogen, etc. Why?

Because the Brujah knew St. Petersburg was an easy point of ingress for other Kindred. They wanted the Camarilla from Europe to have Nikolai — this old world, somewhat foppish vampire — as their first point of contact. He was old enough to be an elder (St. Petersburg was founded in 1703, and Nikolai was Embraced less than a decade later), but he’d never really been away from the city and he had limited contact with other vampires. This is important because a) the Brujah knew which side of the bread was buttered; they figured anyone coming in from Europe would see Nikolai and figure, “oh, this is fine” and not worry about trying to take the rest of Russia and b) Baba Yaga did the same damn thing when she took over, she just didn’t kill the existing Prince first.

Anyway, Nikolai might be smarter than us all, because he’s still Prince of St. Petersburg. I met with him after I got word the Shadow Curtain was down and Russia was starting to open up again. I’d also heard his city was the safest — a lot of Baba Yaga’s minions were still nominally in charge, but then Lupines were picking off any Kindred they could find, too, so the whole country was a war zone.

[END BECKETT ESSAY]

[BELOW TEXT PRESENTED AS TRANSCRIPT OF A RECORDED CONVERSATION]

[Recording begins]

Beckett: Thank you for taking the time to meet with me, Prince Nikolai.

Nikolai: The pleasure is mine, sir. What did you wish to ask me about?

Beckett: Well, I understand that for many years, you…answered to higher powers.

Nikolai: You are being polite. I was not given to understand that was typical of you.

Beckett: It’s not.

Nikolai: Well, then. I shall save us some time. When I became Prince, I did so by capitulating to the revolutionary scum who slaughtered my sire, my grandsire, and my great-grandsire, in addition to who knows how many of my Clanmates across Russia. When I did so, when I signed their abominable treaty, the words echoing in my head were the last words my beloved sire spoke to me: “Outlive them.”

Beckett: She quoted the Book of Nod?

Nikolai: “To rid yourself of an enemy, outlive him.” Yes. So I did. There was no hope for Anya; to them, she was a symbol of the old ways, the things they wished to extinguish. Or perhaps they felt by killing her, they could more easily control me.

Beckett: What then?

Nikolai: I did as they asked. I ran St. Petersburg in much the same way Anya and I always did, keeping up appearances to visitors. Sometimes the Brujah would send dissidents and enemies to the city during the White Nights, because it was a simple way to get rid of them with fewer Kindred around. Beyond that, though, very little was asked of me.

Beckett: Until Baba Yaga.

[pause]

Nikolai: Yes.

Beckett: And what did she ask?

[lengthy silence]

Beckett: If this is too difficult —

Nikolai: If anything, it may be difficult for you. Baba Yaga did not “ask” anything. Baba Yaga never appeared before me in person, and yet, on the first night of each month I would wake in the evening with her blood on my lips. I followed her commands, but I never heard her voice. I spent most of my time on my ship or on Vasilevksy Island. I didn’t know I was doing her bidding, not until after the Curtain fell.

Beckett: And what happened when it fell?

Nikolai: Baba Yaga died in June, during the White Nights. Many of her servants — including Viktor, General of the Army of the Night, interred themselves here, near the water. Something dug them up and burned them in the sun. Baba Yaga was killed some months later.

[MARGIN NOTES IN LUCITA’S HANDWRITING]

 “General of the Army of the Night?” I assume this sounds better in Russian.

[LUCITA MARGIN NOTES END]

Beckett: Where?

Nikolai: Beneath the city.

[Recording ends]  

[END TRANSCRIPT]

[ANGUS JOURNAL - DIRTIER PAGES, SPIDERY HANDWRITING]

Warsaw Station closed, as a train station, many years ago. It’s a museum now. Getting into the tunnels wasn’t hard, but when I was down there, I found the remains of Baba Yaga.

I found a door, obviously disused, and ripped it open. Guards came, so I took care of them, and then went below. Normal-looking tunnels, old, unused train tracks, and then a section of the floor that the rats told me was weak.

Kicked it in, and fell maybe three or four metres. Whole room tasted of salt. I looked around and realized that all the rats had fled — never a good sign.

Walked down the corridor, and the salt taste got stronger. The tunnel ended — cave in?

Against that wall, I found…salt. Huge salt crystals, and inside them, bones. In the middle of it all, the skeletal remains of a vampire — based on the fangs on the skull. I’m not sure what happened or where the salt came from, but I took the skull and left.

[END ANGUS JOURNAL]

[BELOW TEXT FOLLOWS IN BECKETT'S HANDWRITING, BUT WRITTEN AS AN ESSAY RATHER THAN IN HIS JOURNAL]

I examined the skull Angus found, called in a few favors. It’s from an old woman. Does that mean it’s from Baba Yaga? I got my hands on police reports from the White Nights some years back, and, indeed, found evidence of a “mass grave with no bodies” near the waterfront. Might that be the slaughter of the “Army of the Night” Nikolai mentioned?

If that’s the case, then it would make some degree of sense that Baba Yaga died along with them, or shortly thereafter. Doesn’t explain the salt, but salt is widely regarded, the world over, as a curative and preventative measure against magic (like, say, from witches). On the other hand, salt doesn’t play into Baba Yaga’s legend at all — though it does figure in to another, kind of similar story about a “Salt Queen” from Poland called the Gutka. Similar legend? Baba Yaga making side trips to Poland? Unrelated vampire — or, worse, related vampire? Who knows?

Kindred in St. Petersburg are pretty convinced the skull we found in the tunnels is Baba Yaga, and they do not want to hear otherwise. It did raise the question of how she died, though, and so I sent Angus on and kept asking around.

A few nights later, I found a letter waiting for me at a bar the local Kindred favored as a watering hole and hunting ground, inviting me to Mikhailovsky Castle. The invitation might as well have said “THIS IS A TRAP, YOU WILL BE FLAYED” on it, but it also included, at the bottom, a quote I couldn’t get out of my mind.

ART: A PIECE OF PAPER WITH THE INVITATION; IDEALLY IN RUSSIAN, JUST SAYING SOMETHING LIKE “HOPE TO SEE YOU THERE, REGARDS, MARASH.” BUT THEN BELOW THAT, IN ENGLISH: “WHEN THE STORM BREAKS, WHEN THE FIRST OF 13 FALLS, THEN SHALL THE TRUE JYHAD BEGIN.”

“Then shall the true Jyhad begin.” I’d heard rumors, before, of a scroll, dating probably to the 11th century, passed on in a fever dream from a Nosferatu who immolated himself the next night.

Supposedly, the scroll elaborated on the words of the Nosferatu Clan founder to his childer, and one of the few stories I’d heard about that I had any kind of corroboration for was that it mentioned a “true Jyhad.” Trap or no, I figured I’d better give it a look.

I didn’t even get into the castle, though. I saw the guy I was waiting for, and he did not smell right. He didn’t smell dead, exactly, just weird, and when I started to approach him, I heard him whisper something under his breath. In Sumerian. It was an invocation, and the thing being invoked was “Bezariel.”

I did talk to the guy, though. He called himself “Mikhail,” but he looked up at the castle when he said it, like “ha ha I’m Saint Michael.” He kept trying to get me to go inside, but I’ve been around enough of us to know when I’m being hustled. He did finally admit that he’d seen the scroll, but that a group of us (meaning Kindred) had removed it from the city some years back. He said he’d made notes on it and I could see them inside, and as much as it pained me, I tore myself away. I left town the next night to meet up with Angus.

I’ve since done a little digging, and the name “Bezariel” comes up in a couple of very unsavory places. Best translation I’ve found? “The Blood Angel.”

 [END BECKETT ESSAY]

[BELOW TEXT FOLLOWS IN BECKETT'S HANDWRITING, BUT WRITTEN AS AN ESSAY RATHER THAN IN HIS JOURNAL]

Interlude: Sewer Rats of Russia

It’s not openly spoken of in the modern nights, but if you speak to the right Rabble the right way at the right time, you’ll hear that back in the days of the Council it was popular for Nosferatu in St. Petersburg to claim descent from the Hag. If genealogy is true, half of the warrens under the city are populated with those carrying her Blood. Like most of Russia, she had a fairly large presence in the minds of Russian Kindred, except a grand and terrible figure is notably more attractive to vampires. Whether or not she was one single vampire didn’t seem to matter — for a mortal, it would be like claiming descent from Charlemagne.

Absolutely no Nosferatu today will acknowledge descent from Baba Yaga, though to find out why, Angus and I had to hike into the woods right near Ufalej, a town of about 30,000 people in southeastern Russia. We didn’t even get the tip from a Nosferatu ourselves; a Ravnos who used to run in a coterie with a few Nosferatu told us about the graves. Two nights of travel by train in blacked-out cars took us to the town, and we had to wait another night to venture into the woods.

[END BECKETT ESSAY]

[ANGUS JOURNAL - DIRTIER PAGES, SPIDERY HANDWRITING - BRITISH ENGLISH IS DELIBERATE]

Lost track of Beckett after walking west from road about two kilometres. Found wolf spoor, but also evidence of human foot traffic. Beckett explained this meant Lupines, so disappeared. Kept walking, per plan. Found huge clearing in trees, probably 20 metres in diameter.

[END ANGUS JOURNAL]

It took us a while to find what the Brujah was talking about — a stone entrance to a long barrow, carved deep with claws far larger and sharper than mine. Even years later and exposed to the elements, the scratches on the thing carried with them the scent of iron. A few simple tests indicated that it was merely sealed, rather than Thaumaturgically trapped. It took both us a great deal of effort, but eventually the entrance yielded to brute force.

Like most long barrows of Russia, it was divided into chambers. Like most long barrows, it was a place for the dead rather than the living. Buried deep below the rich loam were dozens and dozens of mummified Kindred, paralyzed and torpid to the point of decay. Some looked mostly fresh, but several were but few scraps of decayed flesh, and one or two were ash-covered bones. Many showed disfigurements on their bones — nodules, severe arthritis, asymmetrical development. Either those Kindred had been Embraced with severe deformities, or they were Nosferatu to a body.

Yet none save the fully-decayed seemed to have met Final Death. Angus and I prodded as much as we dared, but we found neither stake nor wound to explain the torpor of all the vampires in the barrow. They didn’t respond to a few drops of blood spilled from my trusty flask. They didn’t respond to anything.

We left and re-sealed it several hours before dawn — neither of us wanted to spend the day there — but it raised many more questions than it answered. Clearly, at least some of the barrows Nosferatu claimed descent from Baba Yaga, but who purged them? Their kin, eager to distance themselves from a tyrant, or the Hag herself? And what magic kept them torpid?

On the Other Claw: End of the Line

I’m more enamored of the other theory of Baba Yaga’s end. It makes the least sense. But it’s also the one I believe is true.

Before we start: what’s missing from this theory is what killed Baba Yaga. This one’s more about where and when it happened, and it’s something I’ve (well, we, but Angus isn’t around anymore) pieced together. Let’s pick up where we left off — near Ufalej.

The town suffered an earthquake which roughly coincided with the Shadow Curtain falling. Correlation isn’t causation, but this isn’t a scientific inquiry and my name isn’t Netchurch, so I’m willing to see that as “not a coincidence.”

After our investigation of Ufalej, Angus and I decided to steer clear of the woods as much as possible. We headed instead into the mountains. Angus went up into the foothills, while I stayed around the base.

A week went by, then another, and then another. I figured Angus got lost or stuck or killed by werewolves, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to leave him. Blood wasn’t a problem. I was feeding off animals, but I realized that I didn’t have to feed especially often. The blood of the deer and rabbits that I summoned was sustaining me just like human blood. I don’t know why and I didn’t think to bring a rabbit back with me, but it tasted almost like ghoul blood. I didn’t see any other Kindred out there, though, and I was there more than a month. I must have killed two animals a night (even potent-blooded rabbits are still rabbits, they don’t hold much), and who in the world would waste that much of their blood making ghouls of all the rabbits in the woods at the food of the Urals?

I thought back to the Ravnos we met, who referred to the woods as being full of “[Baba Yaga’s] beasts.” At the time I assumed that meant vampires, because Granny sure did like to use vampires as servants and hunters. But what if they were literally beasts? A vampire as old and powerful as Baba Yaga could sure afford to feed her blood to a lot of animals, especially if we assume that, as a Nosferatu, she had some sway over animals already. So I started looking for weird wildlife. And…oh, boy. Here’s a picture of a footprint.

[ART: PICTURE OF A RABBIT PRINT, BUT GROSSLY DISTENDED AND WITH LONGER CLAWS ]

That’s a rabbit print. I didn’t find the beast it belonged to — that I would have saved — but I found prints like that all over the place. Deer prints with toes, bear prints with back-facing claws (also a lot of weird wolf prints, but I discounted those because they might just as easily have been Lupines).

Slight digression here: We know ghouls can be bred into ghoul families, thanks to the sterling work of our friends the Fiends. And here we have a forest area with no Kindred, but a thriving ghoul animal population. My theory? Baba Yaga had ghoul animals, they escaped when she died, and bred their condition into the local species.

That was my month on the mountain, though. Angus…well.

I’m piecing this together from evidence I found after I decided to follow his trail as best I could and see if I could discern what happened to him. I found his starting point easily enough; it led up into the foothills. After that, though, it was like…well, like tracking a Nosferatu over uneven ground a month after the fact. I gave it a couple of nights, and then said “screw it” and started just looking around.

I found evidence of a dried-up stream. The bed led to a rockslide; it looked like the source of the water had come from inside the mountain, and when the rockslide hit it buried it. Judging by the growth of vegetation around the area, I figured the rockslide hit about the same time as the quakes in Ufalej, surprise, surprise. But still no sign of Angus.

I tried to find an opening into the mountain, and that took me the better part of a week. I found a lot of holes, sure, but they were either too small or too unstable, and I wasn’t at all sure that I’d be able to get out again in the event of a cave in. I have no desire to get stuck in an ancient vampire’s mystical hideout, even a dead elder’s.

[MARGIN NOTES IN ANATOLE’S HANDWRITING]

At this point I feel compelled to point out that everything seems to happen in cycles.

[ANATOLE MARGIN NOTES END]

Finally, though, I found an aperture, but it wasn’t naturally occurring. The rocks had been positioned in such a way that someone roughly human-sized could get in, but the rocks were far too heavy for a person to have moved them. I figured either Angus had gone into the mountain and gotten lost (or dead), or I’d missed him and he’d already headed back to town. Either way, I decided to chance a cave in and go into the mountain a ways, just to see if I could find him.

The scrawl on the walls started around the first bend. “Listen well these words, children of Absimiliard.” And then it just continued, written in English — I transcribed it here as I was walking. I wandered through the tunnels, looking up at the writing, wondering who was screwing with me, but thinking, “well, Angus must have seen this, too.”

And then I reached the end, in more than one sense. I found the end of the tunnel, another rockslide, blocking a much larger entrance to a cavern in the mountain. I found the end of the scrawled words. And I found the end of Angus.

[SCRAWLED WORDS MENTIONED AT THE START SHOULD END ON THIS PAGE.]

His clothes were shredded and scattered, and his body, of course, was nothing but ash. Written on the wall was this:

[IN THE SAME HANDWRITING AS THE MARGIN-SCRAWL:]

Curse and damn you, Beckett, for bringing me here. Nowhere left to run. Nowhere to hide from the predator that lives in the shadows of the mind. We Nosferatu think we hide from sight? Our obfuscation is not that of the Malkavs or the Setites. Ours is hiding from the sight of mortals by becoming visible to nightmares.

Beckett, you bastard, if you find this, take this message to my Clan: They are coming. They are coming for us all.

Angus, childe of Okulos

Surrounding the shreds of clothes and the mounds of ash were 10 teeth, bigger than human but not quite as big as ours, made of iron. I picked one up, and felt it burn my flesh, and I remembered that mythology refers to Baba Yaga as having iron teeth. And then I got the hell out of there.

[ABOVE TEXT IN BECKETT'S SCRIPT ENDS]

 [END THE PROTO ENCYCLOPEDIA ENTRY]

[START: THE FOLLOWING YELLOW STATIONERY PAPER STUCK BETWEEN DIARY PAGES. BECKETT'S HANDWRITING AND SKETCHES. THESE ARE NOT YET ENCYCLOPEDIA ENTRIES, BUT MERELY BECKETT'S NOTES.]

Okulos

Nosferatu, Salisbury *1628 , Oxford #1665. Unknown sire.

Okulos was Embraced near the same location and year as myself. Indeed, it seems we share the same circumstances of Embrace, making me often wonder where I would be now if I had the Nosferatu sire, and he the Gangrel. Okulos witnessed the same mortal and Kindred politicking as I as a fledgling. Like myself, he was put off by the entire rigmarole. Further, discovering the Camarilla view of his thin blood and lack of sire, he became a determined autarkis.

As an antiquarian, Okulos is unsurpassed. If he spends long enough with an artifact, he finds all its secrets. Impressively, this gift does not come from any Kindred gift. He's spent every year under the night refining his skills. He claims to me he "eschews the supernatural in favor of mortal principles, as one night we'll find those gifts denied just as easily as they've been granted."

When we were younger, Okulos swooped in to deny me a prize more times than I can remember. It was one such event that led me to offer him partnership. Our philosophies didn't appear at odds, and both of us disliked the idea of reporting to anyone else, so we equitably agreed to work together.

Okulos embraces the technological age. He's fascinated by the internet as an information resource, and a way of exploring locations without the danger of actual proximity to potential curses, sleeping elders, and rival archeologists. For the latter part of the 20th century it was rare to see Okulos out in the field.

I pried Okulos away from the safety of his computer hive for the sake of a dangerous, yet valuable expedition. I accept responsibility for his becoming trapped within Kaymakli, and the tragic destruction of his childe. I did, however, endeavor to free him, and after four years he returned to my side. He now suffers from mental maladies a vampire could only acquire after being entombed in the largest mass grave of our kind. His temperament is more detached and acerbic now, his boldness taking a knock since Kaymakli. I'm confident it'll return. He still remains firmly apolitical, angering both Sabbat and Camarilla when they find him skulking on their territory.

Of late, Okulos has worked hard with Cesare on chronicling many of our findings so they're more accessible as a research resource. Anatole has sore misgivings about this, growing especially cold to Okulos since his freedom from Kaymakli. Anatole's mumbled to me about the risk of putting all my findings in one Okulos-shaped basket. I'm forced to respond that I owe Okulos my trust. After all, he waited for me in Kaymakli, and forgave me for the events leading to his becoming trapped there.

[ART NOTES: OKULOS IS DESCRIBED IN THE GEHENNA NOVEL AS "HIS GRANITE-GREY SKIN WAS PALER... AND CLUNG TO HIS BONES LIKE WET COTTON. HIS VARIOUS SCARS AND BLEMISHES WERE MORE PRONOUNCED, IN SOME CASES OPEN AND OOZING. SEVERAL OF HIS TWISTED AND UNEVEN TEETH WERE MISSING; THE OTHERS PROTRUDED DIRECTLY FROM BONE, FOR THE SKIN OF HIS GUMS HAD COMPLETELY ROTTED AWAY."]

[BEGIN BECKETT’S DIARY SCRIPT]

The Calleva Arms, Silchester, British Isles

Does my account of Russia seem disjointed? As if whole pieces were simply missing? It certainly does to me. The flow is off, and I cannot account for it in the safety of my temporary haven in Silchester.

Except that I can account for it, and that deeply worries me. I’ve felt the raw, ragged edges of a Ventrue’s words in my mind, the faint itch of a powerfully hidden Kindred before. When I remember what I can of my time in Russia, I am inevitably drawn back to memories of my time with Kemintiri or Menele, and it discomfits me greatly. Even if Baba Yaga’s true identity was, say, several elder Nosferatu taking advantage of a legend? They would still possess a terrifying facility to conceal their existences, and a demonstrable talent with certain Thaumaturgy Paths. If Baba Yaga did exist, the spider in the center of a truly massive web of power, an Antediluvian’s childe wielding magics ancient and horrible…? I saw the eyes of Lupines in the dark forests of Russia, and they were utterly and completely terrified of something. Covering tracks would be well within her power.

I’ve had Cesare make a few inquiries since returning from Russia, and they seem to be stymied through disconcertingly familiar means. It wouldn’t be the first time a Methuselah faked their Final Death to throw off the players in the Jyhad.

The Jyhad…I cannot say in these pages where I precisely decided the Jyhad was more than a fanciful tale concocted by neonates to explain why elders were so much smarter than they. I believed it to be nothing more than the many and varied machinations of powerful elders, stretching back to a handful of antecedents, but to deem this Jyhad would be to ascribe mythical movement to something that is ultimately somewhat mundane. To believe the Book of Nod and fragments of lore as anything more than allegory would be to acknowledge the eschatological bent within, and that simply would not do, not for the centuries of unlife under my belt.

I suspect I decided the Jyhad was real somewhere in Russia, but I very literally cannot remember where and when, and that drives me to bloody tears.

[END BECKETT’S DIARY SCRIPT]

To Grandmother’s House We Go

Following the death of Baba Yaga, the Shadow Curtain collapsed. Beckett is correct in stating that Baba Yaga had a vast network of supernatural agents — vampires, ghouls, and stranger things corrupted with her blood and magic — that suddenly found itself leaderless. Foreign Kindred were slow to enter Russia, though, since for decades doing so had been a one-way trip.

This means Russian Kindred (and vampires sent or tricked into Russia) have had time to consolidate power bases, make alliances and enmities, and otherwise get used to their freedom. Russia is a huge country, and it doesn’t behave the way the rest of the world does, from a supernatural standpoint. Baba Yaga’s shadow is still felt, and some beings don’t even know she is gone. They keep doing what they believe is her bidding.

Not everything is mystery and magic, though. The Anarchs are slowly beginning to realize without Baba Yaga in power, they could reestablish the Council, but without the chokehold of Stalinism or Clan Brujah. A small but growing group of Anarchs sees Russia as the potential fulfillment of all that they have worked for. If they could unite this immense country in the cause of freedom for the Kindred, then their comrades in arms the world over would have a model, a symbol, and a home base.

Story Hooks

Baba Yaga was thought to be a Fourth Generation Nosferatu who used magic and spiritual acumen to take over Russia. As Beckett mentions, she commanded armies of vampires, werewolves, mages, spirits, at least one demon, and horrible spirit-human hybrids called fomori.

For our purposes, the actual death of Baba Yaga isn’t terribly important. The aftermath of her death lends itself to a number of interesting plot hooks, regardless of whether or not your chronicle is set in Russia.

• The Curtain Falls: Baba Yaga’s Shadow Curtain kept a lot of Kindred isolated from the rest of the world for decades. Russia is a pretty big place to be “isolated,” of course, but even so, her death allowed vampires who hadn’t been able to escape the country the chance to get out. Native vampires probably wouldn’t leave anyway; Kindred are notoriously averse to travel. But what about dignitaries, emissaries, and the like stranded in Russia when the Curtain rose? Might they now be attempting to conclude business begun when the Soviet Union was young? Likewise, what about vampires sent here by their sires as a means of disposal? Now that they can leave, they might return to their native lands for a long-overdue dose of revenge.

• The True Jyhad: A pack of Sabbat Noddists, having somehow obtained the text of the Words of Absimiliard (the text running at the top of this section), have decided the Jyhad can truly begin if they take the initiative and start killing Nosferatu. They start with the antitribu of their city, but then branch out and start hunting down individual vampires and torching underground nests.

• The Blood Angel: Bezariel is a powerful demon, bound into a dagger and hidden behind a false wall in Mikhailovsky Castle. It commands a cult prone to human sacrifice, run by three lesser demons (including Marash). Bezariel would be quite happy to ally with the Baali, should they find them — it knows more about vampires than many demons do, because of its long association with Baba Yaga.

• The Cult of the Little Grandmother: Blood bonds die hard. Usually they fade with the death of the regnant, but Baba Yaga was anything but “usual.” A cult of vampires (and perhaps other creatures, depending on the Storyteller’s desires) is trying to find Baba Yaga. They can’t, but they might find a powerful Nosferatu pretending to be her, or some other opportunistic being happy to use zealots to her own ends.

• The Lupines: The influence of Baba Yaga gone, the Lupines go on the warpath. They dig ancient, torpid Kindred out of their tombs and burn them. They smash their way into Elysiums and slaughter all present. The ferocity and hatred with which they act is terrifying to Kindred, especially to those vampires who felt similarly oppressed by Baba Yaga. Can’t they make common cause, or at least a truce, with these monsters?