The d'Aquila

Two lifetimes ago, the d'Aquila were just another family of Norman noblemen, opportunistically carving out a fief from the conquered lands of England. Now, they're a house divided against itself, fighting their own kin at the behest of Cainites and Mages.

The roots of their corruption lie in the last decades of the tenth century. Helisende d'Aquila was an unwanted third daughter of one of the family's cadet branches, sent to a nunnery both because her father couldn't afford a dowry for her, and because she was too willful and ill-tempered, filled with insanely radical notions of a woman's right to receive an education and chart her own destiny.

Helisende proved to be too independent-minded for the nunnery, as well She did receive the education that she'd longed for within its walls, but she found the other aspects of convent existence unbelievably confining and restrictive. Eventually, she fled into the night after one beating too many, and disappeared into the surrounding forests. The nuns assumed - without a great deal of grief, or effort expended to find her - that she'd been ambushed by outlaws or eaten by wild beasts.

In reality, the fear and isolation she'd faced following her spur-of-the-moment decision to run away proved the catalyst that unlocked Helisende's native magical talents. She found shelter with an aging priestess of the Old Faith on her third night of wandering through the woods, and proved a highly adept pupil to the old woman, but she was, at her core, a Norman noblewoman, and an ambitious one. She wasn't content with merely hiding in the woods and ministering secretly to a rag-tag band of unwashed Saxon peasants. She wanted wealth, and power, and the respect of her Norman peers.

Using her family connections, she started to build a cult following, made up of the jaded and disaffected younger sons and daughters of the Norman nobility. She scored a coup when Prince William Rufus, the King's second son, heir to the throne of England, became one of her celebrants. She started to entertain ambitions of becoming the power behind the throne at Court. Quite deliberately, she used her magic to become pregnant by William. She knew that he was naturally sterile, so she needn't worry about a legitimate son laying claim to his affections, and a royal bastard or two could prove very useful tools for her ambitions. A second son, and then a third, followed the first. William was delighted.

The first blow to Helisende's hopes came when another of her congregants, a daughter of the old Anglo-Saxon nobility named Selethryth, also conceived a child by Rufus. Selethryth, unlike Helisende, was a lady of the Royal Court, not a renegade disowned by her family and living in anonymity, and her child, unlike Helisende's, could be openly acknowledged by William at Court. The brat was a rival to Helisende's own brood for William's affections, and thus a potential obstacle to her political ambitions. Helisende was furious, but she couldn't quite bring herself to harm Selethryth or her unborn child. Besides, Selethryth's protestations of innocence rang true. Helisende knew that Selethryth's magic wasn't powerful enough to overcome Rufus' infertility, and neither of them could understand how the pregnancy could have come about. When she examined Selethryth, Helisende sensed enormous power at work, far greater than her own and certainly far greater than Selethryth's, but neither of the woman could explain it. The truth, although neither of them knew it, was that Selethryth was a descendant of the Ritual of the Sundered Soul, the spell that had rendered the Mage Pryderi immortal.

Years passed. The Methuselah Mithras began to scheme against the Triumvirate, the trio of Norman Cainites who had come to dominate the English night in the wake of the Conquest. Pryderi interfered with the Methuselah's schemes wherever and whenever he could. It was while he was lurking on the outskirts of the Royal Court, looking for Mithras' agents, that he sensed his connection with Selethryth's son, the then eight-year-old Ranulf. With Ranulf as a starting point, it didn't take him long to track down Helisende's coven.

Pryderi saw the group - a cabal of wealthy, aristocratic nobles loyal to the Old Faith - as the perfect tool against Mithras. Helisende, unable to match either his power or his charisma, was more or less pushed aside as Pryderi took over leadership of her cult and started to direct them against the Methuselah. Mithras began to retaliate, disinheriting, discrediting or killing several of Helisende's pagan congregants. Helisende rapidly realized that she was in danger of being squashed like a bug between the two ancient titans, and started searching desperately for a way to escape.

It took her another five years to find one. Ironically, it was the Christian Church that she'd abandoned which offered her a kind of salvation, Pope Urban II's call to Crusade attracted many landless knights and younger sons, eager to carve out fiefs for themselves in the Holy Land. Helisende was drawn to the idea for much the same reason. Her two elder sons both took the Cross at her urging; the youngest boy, then fifteen, traveled with his mother in the wake of the Crusading army.

Outremer indeed offered Helisende new opportunities for wealth and power, but also new dangers. There were already established groups of Mages in the region, many of them inclined to a religious perspective, and they took a dim view of Helisende's attempts to sway good, pious Muslims to bloody-handed European paganism. They might have killed her and her sons, had Helisende not found new allies to protect them.

The Followers of the Prophecies of Acre were an Egyptian magical Fellowship, a decayed remnant of the once-mighty priesthood of Egypt's old gods. A clandestine cult operating secretly under the noses of both native Muslims and invading Christians, they sought perhaps the greatest treasure of Egypt's magical past - the Spell of Life, the ritual of immortality bequeathed to her cultists by the goddess Isis, and later stolen by the god Set. They had become convinced - by what means, Helisende never found out - that Set's final prophecies to his childer, the enigmatic Prophecies of Set, held the key to recreating the spell, and that the sole complete copy of the Prophecies lay somewhere in the city of Acre.

That presented the Followers with a problem. Acre was completely surrounded by a potent and inexplicable aura of True Faith. Cainites were unable to even approach the city, spontaneously erupting in flames if they got too close. The effect on the Followers wasn't quite so pronounced, but they were unable to enter Acre without suffering excruciating pain, and their magic was completely useless inside the city's walls. To search for the Prophecies, they needed mortal agents - and with Acre now in Christian hands, the ideal place to find those agents was among the Crusaders. In 1108, Helisende effectively sold her family to the Followers in exchange for their protection. In fact, the Followers weren't powerful enough to "protect" the d'Aquila directly, but their extensive local knowledge told Helisende who to avoid antagonizing and which areas were claimed by rival Mages. The alliance saved the d'Aquila family, although it couldn't protect Guillaume, her first-born son, who vanished mysteriously just after it was formed.

Unfortunately for them, the Followers underestimated Helisende. By 1131, she'd learned enough about them, and from them, to cease the charade of being an indentured subordinate. In a fast, bloody coup, she killed the most powerful of the Followers, and forced the others to accept her as the new leader of their cult. She continued, however, with the search for the Prophecies; the immortality rite was too tempting a prize to pass up.

Helisende hadn't considered that other interested parties might be pursuing the Prophecies, and it came as a shock to her when she realized that her family and its holdings were being infiltrated by a clan of Cainites who claimed descent from the dark god Set. That, however, was as nothing to the shock she received when she discovered that her missing son, Guillaume, had been Embraced into the clan and was now leading the Setites' efforts to seize control of the family.

The low-level battle for influence lasted almost a century, distracting both sides from the quest for the Prophecies and eventually, attracting the attention of the Knights Templar. Horrified to find a Christian Crusading family in the service of "demons", they secretly collaborated with the Muslim leaders to extirpate the line from the |Holy Land. Helisende, still a healthy matron in late middle age thanks to her magic, began plans to relocate the family to England. By now, she calculated, Mithras would have won his feud with Pryderi, and the d'Aquila could one again start afresh, this time buoyed by the wealth that they'd acquired in Outremer. Helisende had learned a bitter lesson when she'd fled England with little more than the clothes on her back. She'd been careful to keep the d'Aquila's interests diversified, establishing a family presence in numerous trading enterprises as well as land, and always ensuring that a good portion of their assets were in portable form, mostly gold and gems.

In 1204, the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople, the Queen of Cities, putting most of its Cainite population to flight. Most of Constantinople's Setites numbered among the refugees. Unlike their parent clan, these "Decadents" were walkers on the Road of Sin, self-indulgent hedonists who rejected the concept of a higher religious calling. The main branch of the clan despised and hated them as apostates, but the Decadents were as skilled as their counterparts at worming their way into mortal institutions, and they managed to infiltrate a number of Outremer's Venetian and Genoese merchant concerns before the main branch of the clan was able to rally against them. In doing so, however, they inadvertently stumbled into the middle of the ongoing feud between the original d'Aquila clan and its Setite offshoot, each of which was also involved with the Italian merchants. The Decadents adapted swiftly the the situation, suborning and corrupting members of both d'Aquila branches. The family's internal struggle rapidly became three-sided. The Decadents, the weakest of the three factions, found themselves at a distinct disadvantage, and approached the Mages with an offer of alliance against their fellow Setites. Each side knew it was using the other; neither had any illusion that the arrangement would last, and both intended to betray the other at the earliest opportunity. But the agreement did allow them, after a fashion, to concentrate their attention on a common enemy.

In 1205, Helisende's spies finally discovered the location of the Prophecies of Set. Unfortunately, it was inside the Templars' fortress in Acre, heavily guarded and completely inaccessible without the use of magic - which refused to function inside the bounds of Acre's holy aura. She would, Helisende concluded grimly, simply have to do it the hard way. Her great-great grandson, Frédéric d’Aquila, was young, clever, resourceful, and a preternaturally skilled deceiver. He was also a completely normal human, with no trace of magical talent. Equipped with a new identity to disguise his d'Aquila lineage - which the Templars still viewed with the greatest suspicion - he could enter Acre, infiltrate the Templar Order, establish himself in a position of trust within it, and eventually, steal the book.

Helisende had chosen her agent poorly. Frédéric d’Aquila was secretly a member of Guillaume's Setite congregation. To maintain his cover, he did pass some of the information in the Prophecies to Helisende, once he was sufficiently trusted by the Templars to gain access to it, but nothing - he believed - of any critical importance.

In this, he was somewhat mistaken. Helisende learned enough from the fragmentary information that Frédéric drip-fed her to discover the tomb of a sleeping Setite elder and the treasure-trove of lore and artifacts which it contained. The greatest of these was the Apep blade, a tool created by a breakaway faction of the Cult of Isis during the Hitite period, and subsequently claimed by the Setites who had slaughtered them. The blade, based on a perversion of the true Spell of Life, could capture the soul of a willing sacrifice and insert it into the body of an unwilling one, creating an undead servitor who, while lacking the power of a Cainite, also lacked a Cainite's need to feed or vulnerability to the sun.

Frédéric was almost ready to steal the Prophecies when Acre's aura mysteriously vanished in 1217. Knowing that he had days at most before Helisende's agents - now able to use their magic freely inside the city - arrived to seize the book, he stole it and took it to Guillaume, who rewarded his faithful follower with the Embrace. Helisende was furious at the betrayal, but by the time she learned of it, Frédéric had disappeared.

Meanwhile, back in England, Helisende's faction of the family were quietly re-establishing themselves as aristocratic landowners. The leader of the effort, Jehanne d'Aquila, was another of Helisande's great-grandsons, and a fairly powerful Mage in his own right. His talents lay primarily with Winter magic, which, Helisende reasoned, would give him a necromantic edge in dealing with any of the Setite branch of the family who showed themselves in England. She suspected that it was only a matter of time before either the Serpent or Decadent factions, or both, made an appearance there.

She was correct. Guillaume's master, Seterpenre, childe of Set and Lord of Tinnis, was eager to strengthen the Setite presence in northern Europe, largely because the Crusades were initiated, garrisoned and provisioned there. The d'Aquila family, with its distinctively European appearance and Anglo-Norman origins, was the ideal tool to accomplish that. Moreover, its Mage contingent had attempted to steal knowledge that was Set's gift to his childer; they deserved to be punished for that blasphemy. Seterpenre sent Guillaume and his new childe, Frédéric, to England, with orders to establish a new Setite Temple in London, gain as much influence over the English aristocracy as possible, and convert or exterminate their blood kin.

Not all the d'Aquila embraced the supernatural world wholeheartedly. One of Jehanne's followers, Emeric d'Aquila, was a relatively pious and principled young man who wanted nothing more than to escape his entire accursed family - Mages, Serpents, and Decadents alike. Idealistic but no fool, he realized that he'd need the protection of a powerful patron to win free of his kin. The d'Aquila had come late to the War of Avalon, but they were forced to develop a reasonable knowledge of the significant players in order to survive. Emeric knew that the Tremere were in a precarious political position in London, yet powerful enough to protect him if he could make it worth their while. Knowledge of the d'Aquila - renegade Mages loosely allied with apostate Setites - would be a valuable offering for them to present to Mithras.

Almost inevitably, Emeric wasn't discreet enough. Jehanne intercepted some of his communications with Artos are referred the matter to Helisende, who, furious, ordered him to use the Apep Blade to kill Emeric and place the soul of a loyal servant inside his body. The fake Emeric would then be sent to meet Artos and hopefully, find out what he knew.

The plan failed not once, but twice. First an innocent merchant, and then - more disastrously for the d'Aquila - Ranulf Fitz Rufus, died through the agency of the Apep Blade, before Jehanne's agents finally murdered the right target. Then, in another stroke of ill-fortune, Fulke d'Aquila, the spy possessing Emeric's body, was captured by Eirik Haraldsson's coterie and taken to St Giles. Jehanne tried to retrieve him and failed, leaving the Prince's agents alerted to the d'Aquila's presence in London.