"This power... I offer to the king who wields the Crimson Stone!"
Leon braced himself, prepared to fight again if necessary, as many times as necessary. Out of a red glow and white mist this "king" of Death materialised, and Leon staggered back a step in shock. "Mathias?"
"Excellent. I was not too late." Mathias stood straight and strong, as though he had never been ill.
Vampire Killer stirred at Leon's hip, and he knew his friend for a vampire. It was... beyond understanding. "What is the meaning of this? That stone... can it truly be the Crimson Stone?"
Touching the red stone at his breast with one hand, Mathias smiled faintly. "You learned of it from Rinaldo, then? Yes, this is the very stone Walter sought."
"But... why? Why abandon humanity?" Leon did not question the 'how,' remembering all at once that the spell that made Vampire Killer had come from a book created by the Cronqvist family.
"I knew that I could trust you to defeat Walter, but with the Ebony Stone he could have returned again and again. With the Crimson Stone I could stop him once and for all. And gain power, Leon, the power to defy that villain, God!"
There was a fervor in Mathias's eyes that Leon would have called madness in any other man. "God, a villain? Mathias, I don't understand!"
"After all that we did in God's name, the battles we fought for Him, He stole those who mattered most from us! Innocent lives snuffed out too soon, at God's whim! If limited life is God's decree, then I shall defy it!"
"Mathias..." Leon's blood ran cold at the rage in Mathias's voice, rage against the God they had served so long. He could hardly stand to hear it. And yet, the pain of losing Sara pierced him again, the wound still fresh. Elisabetha had died of illness; the hatred Leon had felt for Walter, who had taken Sara from him, Mathias could direct at no one but God. "I do understand. But..."
"Then join me! I will give you eternity, too. With this strength, neither of us has to lose anyone to God's caprice again, Leon. Think of it!" Mathias stretched out his hand, offering Leon the very curse Sara had died to fight, the very curse Leon had vowed to protect others from. How could he accept?
How could he refuse? Leave Mathias alone for eternity? And that light in his eyes, it could only grow, become a fire that would consume him with no one by his side to temper it. Leon put a hand to Vampire Killer's handle. "I am sorry, Sara." He felt the whip's rage, hot even through his gauntlet, and Leon knew he was failing her again.
He took Mathias's hand.
They traveled east, away from the forest of Eternal Night and the memories it held, away from everything they'd known. Leon, still human, struggled at first with sleeping through the day and riding through the night. But if Mathias could slow his pace for Leon, could ride a perfectly mundane horse instead of turn into a bat and fly, then Leon could learn to love the night.
Where and how Mathias fed, Leon didn't know. Didn't want to know, for all that he'd have the same need eventually. But no angry mob appeared behind them, so Leon told himself they weren't leaving a trail of dead bodies in their wake. Surely the world would be awash with vampires by now, if every bite led to the curse taking a victim? How much blood did a vampire need? A man could bleed a great deal and recover from it. No, surely Mathias was not killing innocents.
Sara still burned with anger at Leon's hip. Eventually, Mathias broached the topic. "You cannot keep the whip, Leon. She will be as deadly to you as to any other vampire."
Leon did know that. Better than Mathias, more intimately. But he could not abandon her, not even in this form. Especially not in this form. "I can't leave her. She has suffered more than anyone, in this. I thought, maybe, with your alchemy, you could find a way to free her soul, someday. To give her the rest she deserves." The whip stilled for a moment, as if digesting this thought, and then the anger returned as strong as ever.
"I... that might be possible." Mathias seemed reluctant, never quite looking directly at Vampire Killer. "The spell to bind a soul to a weapon has never been reversed, but in time I might be able to develop a counter spell. If she is willing. I cannot force a soul to move on."
They would have time, more time than Leon could really grasp right now. Maybe Sara would be ready, by the time Mathias figured out the spell. "All I ask is that you try."
Mathias said nothing further about Vampire Killer, though he continued to give her a wide berth, standing always at Leon's left side where he could not brush her accidentally.
More than just that one topic hung between them as the nights turned into weeks and Mathias showed no signs of ending their journey. He'd told Leon that they were leaving the lands of the Catholic Church, and that he would make Leon into a vampire only when they had found a safe place to settle. Finally, they stopped in a territory Mathias said was only nominally ruled by the most recent claimants to the area, but in fact answered only to the local voivode. Leon hadn't paid attention to the dizzying explanation of the local political situation--strategy was Mathias's job, not his, and it was easy to slip back into that partnership.
The voivode's castle was soon their castle--and Leon had qualms about that, though he couldn't deny the relief he felt at having great stone walls between them and the world.
The castle servants all fled, and Leon could neither blame them nor regret it. Mathias was--he would soon be--a vampire, a creature of legend and fear, and finding people who could be trusted not to stake them in their sleep would be difficult. So Leon worked at closing up most of the unused rooms in the castle, covering furniture to keep the dust off, until the day when those rooms might be needed again.
One room he set aside for Vampire Killer--for Sara--and if Mathias thought it strange that he had all but enshrined the whip that could kill them both, he didn't say it.
When he was done, when there was nothing left to keep him busy and distracted, Leon sat on the ramparts and watched the dawn, trying to brand the sight into his memory.
Mathias came to him the next night. "Are you ready?"
This time, it was Leon who held out his hand. "Ready as I can be. I'll follow your lead, like always."
It was with a lover's care that Mathias held him, and Leon wondered for a moment if this was how Mathias had held his wife. Then sharp fangs were at his throat and that, that was Leon's alone.
The pain was less than Leon had expected, only a sharp pinch and a moment of aching soreness, and then a warmth spread through his veins and washed the pain away. No room left for thought, he was all languorous pleasure. He'd wrapped his arms around Mathias, at some point, trying to pull him closer, but soon the strength went out of him and his arms dropped back to the bed limply.
Some small, distant part of Leon's mind screamed at him in alarm as his heartbeat slowed, stuttered, almost stopped. The rest of him cared only that Mathias pulled his lips away from Leon's throat, then, with one last lick and a barely-felt kiss. Leon tried to speak, to protest, but Mathias pressed fingers to his lips, "Shh. Almost there."
Leon watched, his vision dimming at the edges, as Mathias bit into his own wrist and the smell of copper and life filled the air. He held his wrist to Leon's lips, catching Leon's gaze with his, and commanded, "Drink."
Whether out of habit or compulsion, Leon obeyed. The blood tasted as blood always did, at first--metallic and unpleasant--but after a few swallows some quality in it changed, or something in Leon changed, and he drank more eagerly. The lazy warmth in his veins turned to fire, and Leon soon found he had the strength to cling to Mathias's arm; he tried, and failed, to keep Mathias from pulling the source of that sweet blood away, and his teeth clashed on empty air.
The fire in his blood grew painful now, and Leon's grip on Mathias's arm raised bruises. "Mathias..."
Again, Mathias shushed him. "I know, it hurts. It will be well, in the end." Pulling his arm free without any effort at all, Mathias pushed Leon back against the bed. "Sleep through the worst of it, Leon. When you wake, you will have life eternal."
The pain grew and Leon would have thought it impossible to sleep through it, but Mathias's voice wrapped around him and dragged him down into a quiet, painless darkness.
Leon's first few nights as a vampire were dominated by hunger, and he remembered little else of them. Mathias brought village girls to him, that he knew, and cut them with a blade so that their blood ran into a glass. The blood never tasted as good as Mathias's had, but it was still better than any wine Leon had ever drank.
The girls were sent on their way again with no memory of what they did at the vampire's castle, and no great harm done. So Mathias said, and Leon never considered that he might lie.
After a few nights of this, Leon began to be able to think again. He began to explore his new strength, though he had little patience for the more esoteric skills Mathias relished in. His body responded with a speed he'd never known before, and solid stone crumbled in his hands as easily as a loose clump of dirt. That was more than enough, for him--with a sword in his hand he would be unstoppable.
The whip remained in its shrine, and Leon did not go to see her. He knew it was cowardice, not to face her with what he'd become, but still he stayed away.
Some weeks later, Leon turned a corner in the castle halls and all but ran into a chattering skeleton. His sword was in his hand before he noticed that the skeleton wielded a broom, not a weapon, and he barely stopped his stroke before it took off the thing's head. "What in...?"
"Leon, put that away."
Turning to look at Mathias, Leon reluctantly sheathed his sword. "What have you done, Mathias?"
"We needed servants. Humans can't be trusted."
Hearing humans referred to like something other, like something they'd never been, was jarring. Leon didn't know what part of this to address first, so he just gesture vaguely at the skeleton and shot Mathias an incredulous look.
"They're loyal to the one who summons them."
"And anyone else I designate. They'll obey you as well, of course." Mathias seemed entirely too easy with all of this, with no trace of uncertainty in his voice or bearing.
"How long have you been planning this?" Leon had many more questions, but that was the one he settled on first.
Mathias arched a brow at him, as if Leon was the one who'd gone mad. "Leon, this was the only logical solution."
It might be hypocritical of Leon to be uneasy with monsters, given that he was one, but more than that he was uneasy with the fact that Mathias had not seen fit to tell him in advance. It wasn't so long ago that he'd fought for his life, and Sara's, against precisely such creatures.
But Mathias had always been in charge of the plans, and Leon only the strong arm that executed them. Mathias must have gotten caught up in the puzzle of how the thing could be done, and not paused to ask whether it should be done. Leon rubbed his forehead tiredly, though he doubted vampires could really get headaches. Maybe it was a phantom of Mathias-induced headaches past. "Just try to keep me better informed of your plans. I could have taken its head off."
Expression softening, Mathias said, "You needn't go armed within the castle, you know. I've set protections all around. Nothing will enter that I have not invited."
Leon knew Mathias was right, in that, but though this castle was much more prosaic in its design, still something about the long stone corridors reminded him too forcefully of Walter's castle, and he felt better with a weapon at his side. "I just need time, I think."
"That, we have."
When Leon finally visited Vampire Killer, he was no longer sure just how much time had passed. The nights had begun to all seem the same, and Leon had lost track.
Her anger filled the room like smoke, and when he tried to touch even her handle his skin blistered and blackened in seconds. "I'm sorry. I couldn't leave him alone, Sara. But he's trying to find a way to free your soul. We owe you that, and more."
His words fell on deaf ears, though he knew Vampire Killer could understand him to some extent. She just didn't want to listen. Faced with her unrelenting anger and knowing himself the cause, Leon fled.
Time continued to pass in a blur, and it began to dawn on Leon just what "eternity" meant; it couldn't have been more than a few months since they'd established themselves in the castle, but already Leon was feeling as though they'd been there forever. There was no real estate to run--Mathias asked for no tithe from the villagers but a bit of blood now and then--and no need to hunt for food. Mathias had had the forethought to bring a supply of gold when they'd fled France but, truthfully, there was little anyone would have refused him even if they hadn't had the money to pay. Their needs were met, simply put.
Mathias had thrown himself into his alchemy, free now to study it to his heart's content, disappearing into his workshop for days at a time, but Leon... Leon was bored. Even in injury or sickness he'd never gone more than a few weeks without some sort of purpose to give his days shape. As idyllic as "living in peace" sounded, it was maddeningly dull in practice. He could almost understand what had driven Walter to such cruelty, if he'd lived like this for centuries.
Bored human nobles turned to drink and wenching, but descending into lazy debauchery held no appeal for Leon. He tried it, once, just to see if it would relieve the boredom, but wine did nothing for him now and wenching never had.
Shortly before Leon went so far mad that he ran screaming into the night, something brushed against the edge of the castle wards. Mathias had connected them to Leon soon after remembering to tell Leon they were there, but thus far it had only ever been the villagers poaching a deer from the forest now and then, and neither he nor Mathias cared about that as long as they kept it within reason.
This intrusion was no villager. The wards hummed a different note entirely, one Leon had never felt before, and whatever was setting them off came just inside their borders and stopped, neither leaving nor coming further in.
If he wasn't too absorbed in his work, Mathias would have felt the intruder as well, but he didn't appear and so Leon decided to investigate on his own. Jumped at the chance to investigate, if he was being honest with himself.
Just inside the borders of their territory, a succubus knelt in the middle of the road. Her hair was different, but the shape of those wings, the feel of her, was something Leon would never mistake.
Leon stopped a few paces away and drew his sword, planting it point down in the dirt like a barrier. The succubus hadn't made a move yet, but the only other one of her kind he'd ever met had been no friend, so he remained on guard. "What business do you have here, Succubus?"
She looked up, her gaze never rising above his chin, though her shoulders and back were tense, defiant. Submission did not come easy to her. "I beg sanctuary."
"Sanctuary?" Leon hadn't known what to expect, exactly, but it certainly hadn't been that.
"The rumours say that the Crimson Stone has appeared, and its Master lives here. I want... I beg for his protection, from the humans."
Again, that divide between human and monster, and Leon on the side of it he'd always believed to be the wrong one. "Which humans?"
"From the hunters that destroyed my clan. I'm the only one left. Even the children..." Her voice broke, and Leon didn't think it was an act.
Monsters had children. He'd never thought about it before, never imagined a monster family. Could he have killed children, even succubus children, when he was a Knight? No, never. A child was a child, human or not. What kind of people could do it?
"The humans in our village are quiet, and have done no harm. Leave them in peace and you will have your sanctuary." Leon had no qualms about making that call himself, without consulting Mathias. A brief brush of approval in the back of his mind told him Mathias was paying attention after all, and he felt the wards adjust to accept the succubus. She felt it, too, looking up in surprise. She'd come begging, and yet had expected to be refused. What exactly did those rumours say?
The succubus had been only the beginning. Years turned into decades and the rumours spread further, grew wilder; more monsters began to appear on their doorstep looking for a place to be safe. Some stayed only a short while, recovering from injuries until they could strike out on their own again, but more came and made the castle their home. A few even became something like friends, and Leon's nights began to fill with conversation and activity again.
Mathias's stints in the alchemy workshop became less frequent, as well, as he occupied himself more with the running of the castle. He still disappeared for days or even weeks, from time to time, but Leon could rely on his company more often than not.
Humans came, too--Knights looking to slay the monsters, or better yet the Master of the Castle himself. None of them got as far as Mathias, of course, and Leon settled back into the role of guardian with ease and no little relief. That he was defending those he would once have slain himself, against those who might once have been his allies, was an irony he did not think on too often.
"The village is not enough to sustain this many." Mathias had maps spread out over the table, all marked up like campaign maps.
Leon eyed the maps and cleared his throat uncomfortably. Mathias was talking about expanding their territory, about essentially waging war on humans. "Many of the monsters need only animal flesh. We could buy stock and have our own herds."
Shaking his head, Mathias pointed at something on the map that was largely meaningless to Leon. "The only land we have appropriate for pasture is already in use by the village. No, we need more. More space, more villages to draw from for those who feed on blood or lust or nightmares."
They were on the verge of bleeding the village dry, it was true. But Leon could not be comfortable with the idea of expanding their territory by force. Yet how else? They could hardly commandeer another voivode's peasants without setting off a confrontation anyway.
"We can't afford a full-scale war, this must be done carefully. Drawing too much attention from certain neighbours would be unwise." Mathias pointed again at the map, and this time Leon recognised the Kingdom of Hungary and the Bulgarian Empire. They had each of them controlled parts of this area, or claimed to, in recent years; some of those claims were more true than others.
"So, we expand in this direction, then." Leon traced a line on the map, and realised that at some point he'd bought into the idea. They had to expand. As long as they took only what they needed, were they any worse than the kingdoms and empires that surrounded them?
There was something almost soothing about being out on campaign again. The clashes were short and decisive, nothing like the drawn out conflicts of the Crusades, but there was enough in it that reminded Leon of his youth that he... he didn't enjoy it, precisely, killing humans, hurting people. But he enjoyed feeling in his element, feeling competent. Mathias wasn't at his side as he had been in the Holy Land, but that sense of him in the back of Leon's mind had grown stronger over the decades--Leon could feel him now even when he was far from the castle.
Coming home from a (mostly) successful foray, Leon was looking forward to a hot bath--hot water on demand was one alchemical trick Leon would admit was worth the weeks Mathias spent in the workshop--and then seeing Mathias in the flesh after a week of only having that feel of him to keep him company. Or both at the same time, that would be even better.
Absorbed in his thoughts, Leon let his feet take him down the halls he'd walked for decades. The path from the entrance to his chambers should have been the same as always, but somehow it instead brought Leon into a section of the castle he didn't recognise.
Turning in place, baffled beyond words, Leon tried to figure out where he was and came up completely blank. He was sure he'd never seen this hallway before. He'd seen no signs of new construction from the outside, but this was a new section of the castle. Somehow. "Mathias!"
Mathias materialised out of thin air and looked at him curiously. "What are you doing in this wing, Leon?"
"That's what I'd like to know! When did you add a whole wing? How did you add a whole wing?"
Just as Mathias opened his mouth to answer--possibly at length--Leon realised his mistake and held up a hand. "No, wait. I won't understand the alchemy, if alchemy it is. I just want to know how to find my rooms and get a nice, hot bath."
Finally actually paying attention to Leon's appearance, Mathias blinked and looked truly nonplussed for the first time in... Leon couldn't remember. A long time. "You're covered in mud. Your report said everything went well."
More acutely aware of the itch of drying mud with every passing minute, Leon sighed. "The campaign went well. The roads between here and there were terrible. Repairing them is first on the list of requests the townspeople had. Also second. And third."
"You could have flown back."
They'd had this discussion before. The skeletons that formed the bulk of their troops couldn't fly, so on campaign Leon didn't, either. "If I had, the supply wagon would still be belly deep in a sinkhole the size of a small lake."
"Let's get you to that bath, then." Mathias wrapped his arms around Leon, not seeming to mind the mud that flaked off Leon's clothes and onto his much finer ones. Leon took a deep breath, and then came the sickening lurch of the room twisting around them. When the world solidified again, they were in his chambers.
Leon leaned against Mathias, a little dizzy from the teleport. He never knew why it affected him this way but had no effect on Mathias. But the lure of being clean again was a force greater than any disorientation, and he pulled away from Mathias after only a moment. "Bath."
"The tub is big enough for two," Mathias reminded him. Most of the castle's tubs were not, but his and Mathias's were--there were some perks to being Lords of the Castle. It had been a while since they'd last taken advantage of that fact.
"So it is." Leon drew Mathias into the bathing room with him.
The hot water would warm him to the core and make him feel almost human again. Mathias would remind him why this was all worth it. All his worries and qualms could drift away on the steam, for a time.