Vampire: The Eternal Struggle Logo

"The Camera Eye"


Kevin Andrew Murphy
Excerpted from Chapter II of House of Secrets
James A. Moore & Kevin Andrew Murphy

Copyright 1995 White Wolf, Mini White Wolf Logo All Rights Reserved

Night and Hollywood. The neon sparked and sizzled, granting the boulevard new life in the fading twilight, a panoply of rainbowed witchfire, and Ilse stepped out of the shadows of the Egyptian.

Not a moment too soon. With a directorial flourish, the floodlights came on, one by one, banishing the shadows and illuminating the lotus columns, making the grime and chipped tiles vanish in the glory that was Hollywood. A bit of flash and dazzle, a stage magician's trick, but that was all that was needed. It worked, and as far as Ilse was concerened, that was the test of true magic.

She placed the iron key back on the chain around her neck, a key that fit no lock in the mortal world, as the charm required, and slipped it back inside her turtleneck to where it rested safely and comfortably between her breasts. Ilse paused to adjust the neck strap so that the camera outside the sweater did not press too hard, then reached into the bottom left pocket of her vest and got out her cigarettes. Wicked habit. She'd sworn she'd give it up the day she died. Well that was a vow she'd broken.

Broken it for a good seventy years, almost to the day, but it wasn't as if it were the only broken promise on her conscience. Flash and flare. She saw the glow of the lighter through closed eyelids. A dead girl's trick. Suck and puff. She let the warm smoke curl lazily over her tongue. The fire was less frightening when you played with it blind, and much more dangerous. The thrill of danger, but safe in her hands. That had always been part of the allure. In death as in life, the more things changed the more they stayed the same.

She thought about swearing to give up the habit upon her final death, but then, she'd caught glimpses of wraiths in her camera eye, and some of them were smoking yet. Better not to tempt Fate, and everyone knew what the gods thought of oathbreakers anyway.

It was somewhat less than what humans thought of the Kindred, come to think, and she took a drag, letting the smoke nestle inside her lungs and warm her dead flesh. Silly habit. But it helped to take the edge off the Hunger, and while it was becoming no longer sociably acceptable to smoke, drinking blood had never been sociably acceptable.

People were already queued up for tickets to whatever the latest film was, and Ilse smiled as she saw their auras, as pretty and varied as the lights of the boulevard. She took another puff and stepped back, raising her camera. "Smile!" A flash and the image was captured. It might prove useful, and it was always pleasant to practice her Art.

The ancients believed that the third eye had the power to see things beyond the ordinary, and with lens, lid and iris, what else could the camera be considered? The Path of Imagery, and the associated thaumaturgic rites she'd developed, made it so that the myths were true, or at least possible, and the art of magic and the art of photography merged, like the doubled image of a stereoscopic card.

Spirit photography, the art of capturing that which lay beyond the pale, fleeting images that vanished so quickly that even the most sensitive could scarcely catch a glimpse before they were snatched way. Even the heightened senses of the Damned could hardly hope to match a camera's arcane arrangement of lenses and crystal, especially when it was infused with the power of vampiric thaumaturgy, and even more so when an artifact like the Monocle of Clarity was attached to the end.

The new Pentex was a joy to use, much better than the bulky apparatus she'd started with in the Silent Era--even before her fall into darkness--and it was good to return to the canyons and hills; she'd been away far too long. Hollywood magic on a Hollywood night for a Hollywood vampire. Nothing escaped Ilse's notice, not once she got to the dark room. Slivers of souls caught in the camera eye . . . and every soul had its price.

Ilse wandered out onto the boulevard, skirting streetwalkers and dodging punks, capturing the occasional image. Puff, flash, a stage magician's trick, it helped to take off the edge. She made her way down the Walk of Fame and wondered: When you walked among the stars above, were there pushers and pimps, tourists and runaways, Scientologists selling their religion, which they swore wasn't a religion? Celestial bag-ladies and galactic addicts? As a parallel for the Heavens, the boulevard left something to be desired.

Someone had played 'He loves me, he loves me not' with a copy of Dianetics, and the pages were scattered like breadcrumbs down the Walk. Ilse made her way along till she came to Larry Edmund's, door open to let in the night air, brightly lit and clean as a fresh script. She dropped her cigarette with the dozen or so littering the ground outside, crushed it with a twist of her foot, and stepped inside.

The screenwriting store catered to all types, professionals and has-beens, aspiring writers and wannabes, college students and housewives. And vampires, at least tonight. In the far corner, where he said he'd be, was Smudge. He'd probably had a real name once, but all that was left was a sullen look, a leather jacket, and a smear of blood at the right corner of his mouth. It was always there.

Like the stain on his soul, a black smudge over the red of hurt and anger. Ilse touched the pocket, making sure it still contained the photographs, then slipped down the aisle to where he sat on a footstool, paging through a book.

"Hello, Smudge."

He looked up from beneath his fringe of thinning blond bangs, eyes wary, then carefully shut the book, holding his place with one thumb. Ilse took quick note of the title: The Battle of BRAZIL. "You got 'em?"

"Of course." Ilse smiled. "The question is, do you have what I want?"

"I checked out the Chinese girl, if that's what you mean."

"And the man?"

"Seen 'im. He's meetin' her again tonight." He paused and licked his lips, nervous, but not erasing his trademark smudge. "Can I have 'em?"

"Perhaps." She unbuttoned the pocket, but did not take the envelope out just yet. "Do I have your loyalty?"

"I got dreams too, you know." His voice was barely above a whisper, and the look in his pale blue eyes was that of a child. A hurt and frightened child, but one so badly scarred that he might just begin to strike back. "Nobody thinks much of me, but I got dreams too. I'm gonna be somebody, and ain't you or anyone else gonna stop me."

"Is that what you told Mickey Phoenix?" Ilse dropped her voice even lower, silent to all but the sharp ears of the dead. "Or Doug or Kirsten Berry? They're gone now; you're still here. Be thankful for that." She flipped open the envelope and fingered out the top two photographs. One showed a huge blond man, baring his fangs for all to see--along with a T-shirt that advertised: 'Fangs by Phoenix.' The second showed a couple with a crazed look in their eyes, the woman fat, the man cadaverously thin, both pale, with an inset shot on the man's tattoo, possibly the worst Grateful Dead tribute in the history of the art, for the singular reason that under the malformed red-and-blue lightning-bolt skull were the words: Greatful Dead.

Ilse fanned the pictures and handed them to Smudge. "As I said, they're dead, in soul as well as body. Truly and permanently so. You're still here."

"They were Sabbat," Smudge whispered. "They were gonna bury me in the ground and leave me for the worms to eat. They said so."

"Tell it to the Justicar," Ilse said. "I don't care. I don't care whether Mickey Phoenix was a fox-crazy Malkavian or a Ventrue with a twisted entrepreneurial sense. I don't care whether the Berrys were Toreadors into kitsch or Ravnos out to embarrass the clan. Do you understand? I don't care. You have commited a crime unthinkable even among the Damned, what the Elders call the Amaranth, the Immortal Flower, and the younger generations know as Diablerie, the Devil's Kiss. Call it what you will, it is forbidden among our kind, no matter who or what you are, no matter how vile or deserving the victim. It is forbidden. By all but the Sabbat, and you know what value they put on life. You can hide here in the Free States for a time, but the Anarch Barons don't take any more kindly to Diabolists than do the Princes of the Camarilla. And until you decide you want to enjoy one last sunrise, Smudge, I own you. Body and soul."

Ilse pulled out the last picture and handed it to Smudge. It was a closeup of him, a good likeness in good lighting, over which were the pale reds and golds which made up his aura, like ghost flames, beautiful, but tarnished by a large dark smudge.

"The stain isn't on the camera eye," Ilse said. "It's on you, Smudge. It's on your soul. And you and I both know what it means."

"I ain't nothin'," Smudge said, his voice small, pleading. "I ain't anyone at all. If I vanished tomorrow, no one would care. No one would know."

"That's exactly why I do care, Smudge. You're the perfect agent. And besides," She took a moment to ruffle his hair, "remember what you said: You're going to be someone, someday."

There was a faint smile across his face, a shy puppy's grin and a need to be needed and loved, and it stuck into Ilse's gut like a sickled knifeblade. She closed her eyes for a moment. This was crueler than hunting, crueler by far, and she didn't have the taste for it.

But taste had nothing to do with it, only survival and orders. She had her orders, and it was time she carried them out for the good of the clan.

She opened her eyes and winced again, but inward this time, for she saw the look in Smudge's eyes and it spoke of love, love for any attention at all, no matter how cruel or inhuman. Smudge had been ignored, and no matter what vile or wicked thing she did now, she was paying attention to him, and for that Smudge was grateful.

Slowly and carefully then, so as not to frighten the young Caitiff, Ilse moved her hand to her vest's penholder and withdrew one of her finest magical implements, Aaron's Feeding Razor. The artifact had been crafted in the seventeenth century, but the silver was still preternaturally bright, and with a gentle thumb on the catch, the blade revealed itself, shining and blemish- free. She raised it to catch the light, tilting it from side to side, then lowered it down, carefully, and nicked herself once on the ring finger, the left one that led to the heart's blood, allowing a drop of her vitae to seep into the well of her nail, notching the end of it with the razor.

She licked the drop of blood from the straight razor's tip then, and folded the magical implement and slipped it back into place. Hunched over so that none but Smudge could see, Ilse then reached into her pocket and took out her compact and a square of vellum cut from the skin of a black lamb, and the young vampire watched, fascinated.

Ilse used her used her nail as a crow quill, quickly sketching out the Sator Square, line by arcane line, each word five by five:

"For privacy." She sucked the drop of blood from the tip of her finger, allowing the nail to seal closed, then pried open the back of the compact and slid the square in behind the mirror. She squeezed it back together, then popped the catch and opened it properly, setting it on the top shelf of the corner bookcase, mirror exposed but charm hidden, as would be they to any who saw them.

Ilse glanced about to make certain that there was no one else in this corner of the shop, for the Mirror of Hathor would only hide them from those who had not seen its making. But there was no one down either aisle, so Ilse turned back to Smudge. "House Tremere requires the Kiss of Fealty. Where other times you would have to drink thrice of my blood--on three separate nights-- before the ancient power of the Bloodbond took hold and made you my slave, both heart and mind, by this Kiss you pass three nights in one and take the Bond now, becoming my Thrall as I become your Regnant." She took out her razor again and unfolded it with a sharp flick, then slashed her left wrist quickly, dark blood beading up along the line of the cut. She held it down before him. "I cannot force this upon you, Smudge, for it is a grave thing, and by charm and honor, it must be of your own free will. Do you accept?"

In answer, Smudge grabbed her wrist, kissing it, sucking it, his tongue probing the edges of the wound like a lover's kiss. Ilse felt the thrill run through her as he continued to suck, tongue thrusting into her, lips caressing the delicate sides of the wound, fangs tearing it wider, and she felt the blood drain out of her and the spell take hold.

She reached down, and with a swipe of the razor, scored Smudge once across the forehead, dark blood staining his brow, and she placed her hand over it, the wet warmth spreading across her palm and the handle of the blade. "Willingly given, willingly taken, with this blood I bind you to myself, and with this mark I mark you as vassal of Clan Tremere. I am your liege, Smudge, and my will is yours."

The adoration in his pale blue eyes spoke of more than mere bloodbond, or even the charmed power of the Kiss of Fealty, and Ilse felt the knife twist in her gut again as two blood red tears trickled from his eyes like some miraculous portrait of one of the Holy Innocents. He was hers to command but for the asking.

And she was weak from loss of blood, pale and shaking. A simple command, nothing more. "Kiss it better," Ilse said, and with great love and sensual passion, Smudge licked the wound, the sides of the cut sealing with the passage of his tongue, and Ilse felt another shiver run down her as he continued to lick the delicate skin of her wrist free from blood.

With a fluid motion she raised her hand, licking Smudge's blood from the razor and her palm in turn, the sweet taste of vitae sliding down her tongue with a savor like fine cognac, a drop of wormwood underneath, Smudge's sin and the blood and shadowed souls of the Sabbat he'd murdered a bitter spice that matched the mad auras of his victims from the pictures she'd taken. Yet theirs was the only Kindred blood Ilse tasted, aside from her own, the Caitiff's vitae free of Bond or allegiance to any others.

She folded the razor away then, sliding the implement back into place on her jacket, and reached down and took the miserable Kindred's chin between her thumb and forefinger, tilting his head up to face her. She paused a moment, watching the bloody tears trickle down his cheeks, then leaned down, kissing the mark on Smudge's forehead and allowing it to fade away all but for a pale silver line. "There," she said, smoothing away the saliva from his skin with a brush of her fingers, "all better now. Now wipe away your tears, Smudge, and listen to me."

Obediently, the young vampire brushed away his bloody tears with the back of his hand leaving two smudges across his cheeks, one darker than the other, and the knife twisted in Ilse's gut again as she realized that his trademark smudge came not from his victims but from his own tears. Tears of pain and grief, lust and longing.

She hated herself now more than ever, but what was done could not be undone, though she'd still do what little she could to salve her conscience: "You, Smudge, are now my vassal, and will serve me, and through me, Clan Tremere. But you are a wretched Caitiff no longer, for though you are not of our blood, our blood flows through you, and you are adopted into our House. Let no one speak to you of your base origins, for though they are lowly, you serve the greatest of the vampire clans, we who were made what we are not through God's curse but through our own desire and will. We will teach you the skills you need to survive." Ilse paused, letting it sink in. "Even magic, if you prove yourself worthy."

Carrot and stick, plums and lump sugar. It was the standard speech, as kindly put as she could make it, but its effect on Smudge was profound, and blood poured freely down his cheeks. Ilse searched her pockets for a tissue, finally letting him mop his face with her lens cloth.

"Thank you," Smudge said, and Ilse knew it was for more than the makeshift handkerchief.

"Don't thank me," she said. "Don't ever thank me, Smudge." She gathered up The Battle of BRAZIL from the floor where it had slipped from his fingers and set it back on the shelf, moving another book to hide the three bloody tears staining the cover.

She sat down then, leaning back against the bookcase, weak from the magic and the loss of blood. Smudge took her hand with great tenderness and Ilse looked away, not wanting to see the look in his eyes. "Well, Smudge," she said, "now that we're on more intimate terms, tell me a couple things: First off, where is the man I mentioned going to be meeting Jing Wei? And second, where in this town does a girl go now for a quick bite?"

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