Mathias felt himself slip back into his bitter flesh where he lay stretched on his bed --- alone. The servants would stay away until he rang the bell, as he had ordered them hours earlier before setting out for the evening’s astral travel to watch Leon’s progress. Using the secret arts to move light as air, consciousness and intelligence not bound by the body, it was hardly pleasant to leave that freedom behind and return to this place of painful illness and more painful memory.
How many nights had he lain on this bed with Elizabetha beside him and foolishly wished for more than her smile of calm felicity, her warm, gentle touch? How many nights had he lain on bedrolls in camp or in far-away fortresses during the Crusade, dreaming of the day he would return in righteous glory and Elizabetha, dazzled at his achievement and delighted in their reunion, would at last shower back over him the same passion he felt for her? How many of those nights had it taken to forget such adolescent fancy and long only for the smile and the warmth that he had always known?
To return after that hard lesson and find her not waiting with a smile but rotting in a casket, to be thrown into this bed alone like a prisoner into a dungeon, it had been more than his human frame could support. Now, his limbs ached with weakness, his stomach was a sullen snarl, and his head closed a constricting band of fog around his outreaching mind --- but tonight, he savored the sensations defiantly. This would be the last time; tonight he would make his final gamble.
He forced his eyes open and turned his face to the far wall, noting just where the shadow of the window leading cut a cross into the moonlight, over which figure on the hanging tapestry. Yes, it was almost time. Soon now, Walter would think it safe to emerge from his forest and appear.
Walter, that pitiful fool. His pretensions to strength only revealed his weakness. That forest of endless night he called his kingdom was also his prison, and Mathias rattled his sickly body with a chuckle at the thought of the vampire looking out nervously between the trees until the sun disappeared and he could slink out in safety to visit this sickbed with his show of haughty ennui. Since Leon entered the forest, he had come every night to lord over Mathias things he already knew --- knew more about than Walter did, having witnessed them in his astral body under the vampire’s very nose.
Did he know that the whip was complete now? Surely not. He could hardly have known when he himself offered up the final piece of it, and even Mathias had not counted on Leon to use the gift.
But then, it was the same Leon Belmont he had fought alongside in the Holy Land; that gentle, foolishly honest demeanor concealed a ruthlessness Mathias knew better than anyone. And, he recalled bitterly, it was the same Leon Belmont who had exhorted him to put aside his grief and move on, had pointed him to the deathbed letter in which Elizabetha begged him to have their marriage annuled --- to erase their love before God! --- so that another woman could give him children and the Church would bless them. True to his own counsel when hypocrisy would have been better, Leon had accepted such a horrible wish from Sara without looking beyond it to curse the God who abandoned her to that desperation, who repaid their service in His holy war with tragedy. Maybe he would stay true to his own counsel and put aside his grief and move on; maybe he would forget her that easily...
For now, however, Leon was certainly suffering. Walter was having all the enjoyment he could out of Sara --- and there was one more precious tie left with which he could torment his chosen prey. Mathias had assiduously played the part of the pious invalid ever since the day he “deliriously” rode astray into Walter’s forest, through every affectedly naive or righteous hint he had fed him. When he had finally sent Death to entice Walter with the promise of the Crimson Stone --- “Prove your strength against Belmont so that I can acknowledge you; deliver me and the Stone from servitude to that weak human,” --- it had been all too easy to make the vampire his puppet without breaking his own guise as a helpless pawn, a plaything that Walter would be unable to resist...
Walter was a mere trifle. The gamble was whether he could come through the Taint. He smiled wryly. “The Taint” --- what a quaint, jealous thing to call it, the bridge that could carry a human to the world beyond God’s reach. The hint of it he had already felt from the Crimson Stone --- a cool timelessness wrapped around a heart of unfettered fire --- was too alluring to wait for it to soak into him slowly from the Stone when Walter would give it to him so easily. For Mathias, it was no “taint,” but the path to freedom and vengeance, if he could only make the journey himself and not fall away or be snatched away, leaving the path open for a demon to take his place.
...Like Armster. He hadn’t been so unlike Leon once, but, faced with the Taint, had refused or failed to cross over and become only a mask for a fiend from Hell, hardly more than a wild animal kept chained for Walter’s amusement. Drawing him off into the Stone had been a rehearsal, but also a mercy.
It would not be like that for Mathias. It must not be.
The One who took Elizabetha will not have me.
His face hardened with the determination --- and he could use that; it would be a good face to show Walter and let him think he was the cause of it.
A familiar presence passed over him, a hint of crimson in the dark shadows around the ceiling of the room.
Death spoke. “He comes. I have told him I won’t save you.”
“Good,” Mathias answered. “Now go, beyond his ability to sense you.” The crimson shadow was shifting away even before the words had passed his lips. Death was so very capable, so loyal and intelligent. He might not have wasted so many years mustering mere humans if he’d known...
With everything ready, he lay back and let the sickness play over him. Yes, he had ruined this body in his grief, but he had no regrets; there was a savage satisfaction in having made a wreck of the vessel God had given him, and he would make it his own soon enough. Until then, it covered the seeming of weakness that had served him so well with an unassailable mantle of truth, and he now relaxed into its folds.
Their weight and cloaking fog were enough that he was already being pulled under into a fitful sleep when a fluttering shadow in the moonlight tugged at him. Still he waited for the hard cold of Walter’s fingers around his chin to force himself up.
“Good evening, my dear host,” Walter announced in his sonorous drawl. His eyes glowed rims of red out of the tumbling moon-silvered mane of his hair, ensconced in that luxuriant collar.
His absurd Oriental armor undercut the effect ridiculously, but Mathias drew on the prosaic fact of nausea for a look of pain and disgust. All he had to do was let Walter fall into his hands and resist the urge to laugh. “Leon hasn’t gotten to you yet,” he growled.
“Oh, he did,” Walter grinned, flashing his fangs in the moonlight. “But I let him go. He’s been far too entertaining to dispose of so quickly. In fact, I couldn’t help giving him a token of my esteem.”
Mathias tried to struggle away from him; that should feed his sense of satisfaction. “You... What did you do??”
“I gave him a great gift, of a kind that only I could give. If he had accepted, he and that girl could have enjoyed an eternity together, but I saw him and Rinaldo making a grave as I came here. You appreciate it, don’t you --- what a blessing he threw away?”
“Damn you!” Mathias spat into Walter’s smile, harnessing the web of genuine rage he had touched. “Sara... You think your power is so great, but you cannot keep her soul from Heaven,” he declared. And it was true; it had taken Leon to do that.
“Take comfort where you can,” the vampire shrugged. “It seems you were right. The ‘devil’s work’ of completing that whip is not for your friend.”
The aching fog in Mathias’s head slowed his smile at Walter’s ignorance, allowing him to master it quickly and turn it to a riposte. “And you think the whip is all you have to fear?”
“Yes, yes, of course, you’ve told me that he will find some other way...” He gave a dismissive wave of his hand --- that show of strength, proof of weakness... “Tell me, have you thought of one yet?”
“I’m not so helpless myself.”
“Oh, that rather impressive servant of yours!” Walter pressed his hands together and paced a turn around the room, cape sweeping. “He and I have spoken. Very... Mutually agreeable.”
Mathias intentionally widened his eyes.
Walter took the bait and glowered down at him haughtily. “These things choose their masters. Did you really think that a creature like you” --- he swept the sickbed with a gesture --- “could command one for long?”
“Don’t underestimate the hold I have over him.”
“I see...” The vampire suddenly closed in low over the bed, hemming him in against the wall, pinning him eye to eye so close that he felt the cold of Walter’s words. “Then where is he now?”
Mathias steeled himself for the test of such close examination and glared back into those red eyes. “You’ll soon find out,” he said quietly.
“Not soon enough for you. If I’m going to continue my little game with Belmont, I will have to have a next move, and I’m afraid that means that our little game is finished.”
Mathias drew in his breath. The crucial piece was falling into place, just as planned.
“As much as I would enjoy listening to your pretended courage all night, time is short, if you’re to be ready.” Walter pressed in yet closer.
The thrill on the edge success threatening to tear his facade apart, Mathias belatedly thought to push himself back further, pressing trapped against the stone, eyes averted and squeezed shut. The final crossing was just before him; that determination swelled back up, and he seized it. “I won’t---!” I won’t fall away; I won’t let Him have me!
Walter pinned him, seized control of his weak body as easily as if it were a blade of grass, ran fingers into his hair and grasped, pulling his head back. Mathias’s pulse quickened, his breath came fast with anticipation, and he felt the rough transit of one last dry swallow down his arched throat.
“Now, there’s no need for that,” Walter whispered into his ear with an audible smirk. “You know that I can’t keep your soul from Heaven.”
It pierced the tension so unexpectedly that Mathias lost control of himself. He laughed in Walter’s hands, and the idea that the vampire had scored a point on him by sheer ignorant accident only kept him laughing until he gasped at the cold sting of the fangs sinking in.
The bite darted ice into his blood and for a few moments brought his mind into cold, sharp clarity. Not even laughter had derailed his plan; Walter must have taken it for tragic desperation. In abstract detachment, he observed as the sensations of his body --- the pain in his stomach, the ache in his muscles, the cold pressure of Walter’s hold --- lost their ties to him and began to spiral away. He had known it would be this way; Walter had only given Sara a bite, and this time he would have to go further, would drain Mathias to death so that he would make the transformation quickly and confront Leon as a complete vampire.
It was all happening so perfectly. His goal closed in before him, and now, in this lucid chill, the tension of risk fell away and he was ready for it, reached forward to embrace it. He was within its timeless shroud already; there was nothing between him and the fire except empty distance...
He didn’t realize that he was still feeling Walter’s fangs until they released, freeing him from the last tether to plunge across the void, into the fire.
Mathias didn’t look back. From far away, Walter’s voice followed him down, trivial as the buzzing of an insect.
“When you wake, you will come.”
Indeed he would come. That had been part of the plan from the start.
Mathias came to himself with a sensation unlike any time he had woken before, a geometrically smooth ascent into a new and total clarity. Like looking into water whose rippling had stilled, he hadn’t imagined how much sharper the world would look when he gazed at it poised and still, with no more weariness or pain, no more need for beating heart or breath.
However, he was too prudent a strategist to declare victory so soon.
Death was there, waiting; Mathias could now see deep into that crimson presence in the shadows.
“Tell me,” he commanded. “Am I the soul that began this journey?”
The shadow spilled down in sanguine threads that spun themselves into Death’s aspect, the skeleton in cloak and jewels. Knowing light burned in the eye sockets of his skull as they lowered in a nod. “You are, as you have always been, my Lord.”
With a gleam in the moonlight, a drop like a tear of blood, the skeleton hands raised the Crimson Stone on its chain.
Mathias smiled. His revenge had begun at last. He rose, turned, and lifted his hair aside. As Death fastened the Stone around his neck, he flexed his fingers and admired his own hand, no longer a provisional contraption of bone and sinew-string, now animated by that cold inner fire.
...But it was burning low, the mere glow of embers, not the freely raging blaze he had felt promised. It brightened as the Stone settled upon his chest, but not enough. The fire needed fuel, and even if he hadn’t known long since, he would have felt what that meant.
Death wrapped his fur-collared mantle around his shoulders. “The Stone will need a stronger soul before it will sustain you.”
“Yes, of course,” part of the plan from the start. Mathias’s revenge had only just begun, and he had not seized eternal life only to spend it a slave to some vulgar appetite or a prisoner to the fleeting dark of night. A greater power than that was his for the taking; he would soon find out just how bored of immortality Walter truly was.
But why wait? The moment had come to show his hand; why reveal something less than what he could easily have? Just beside the bed the cord was still hanging, to ring the bell for the servants. There was time enough, and Death would know his mind without a word having to be spoken, but as his fingers came to rest on the bell pull, feeling every one of its twisted silken threads, he paused.
Shall I send them all after Elizabetha? he wondered.
A solemnity of divergence in the question settled over him, but gently as a feather, as an echo from somewhere far away.
...Or will any follow me?