You stare at the ruins of a castle whose name you do not know.
Toussaint is known for its unique monsters and you’ve been drilled on the dangers of panthers, kikimores, and the list goes on and on. Donned in a dark cloak, and wielding a torch in one hand, you leave behind the borrowed mount and hesitatingly wander towards the unknown fortress. You do not know the path that took you here, and yet here you are.
No visible entrance. You survey the surroundings, toeing the strip of hills between the cracked castle and the uninviting forests. Though you are unfamiliar with the immediate area, a distant howl reminds you of famous unsanctified grounds where barghests and specters are likely to haunt.
Inevitably, you find yourself back at the beginning-- gazing up at a castle that you had dreamt and seen in its prime as a formidable fortress. Something about the history of this place, from the dregs of your dreams, invites you to investigate further. You know nothing of the place.
So how in the world did you find it?
The night is young, and the torch already feels heavy. Just as you decide to scout again for an entrance you might have missed--
Without warning, a large, gloved hand slips into yours.
Your heart skips a beat.
The scream sticks somewhere in your throat, your entire frame trembling and frozen at the sight of the vampire, who slowly sets a finger against his lips in a command for silence. The other hand that interlaces with yours is unrelenting; his fingers are soft, albeit worn, but there’s immeasurable strength in his touch.
Fear fades and recognition reigns: you see the thick, dark hair and the aquiline nose; and the infinite wariness in his cold blue eyes that reflect like a cat’s in the darkness. There, on his black coat, hangs the glittering gold moth pin with wings of quartz and emerald.
“You shouldn’t be here,” says Dettlaff van der Eretein.
“Dettlaff,” you wheeze, taking a deep breath to calm your jumpy nerves. He again makes the sign for silence. You lower your voice. “Why are you here?”
“It’s a question I should ask you.” He releases your hand. “Keep your voice down. Refrain from drawing attention to yourself.”
“Scurvers. Ghouls. Bandits with neither fear nor reason.” The vampire rakes his eyes over the towering, crumbling ruins. Something like disdain curls his lip. “Tesham Mutna attracts all sorts of vile company.”
Tesham Mutna. So that was the name of this ruined, soiled piece of history.
“And it begs to ask, what are you doing here?”
“I wanted to explore.” The excuse sounds small and pathetic, and both of you know it.
Dettlaff sighs. “The truth, if you please.”
If you could tear your eyes away from Dettlaff’s shrewd gaze, maybe you’d be able to come up with a better bluff, or just delay your visit to the ruins on another night. You anticipate the telltale sensations of mesmerization, but he does not extract the truth from you. He simply waits.
“I dreamt about a castle like this, except it were whole and complete again,” you say quietly. “I dreamt of an underground prison for humans and vampires alike. They were imprisoned for vastly different reasons.”
“Punishment… and convenience.” You tighten your grip on the torch. “I saw blood running in rivulets, and it fills the grooves in the ground. But it is out of reach for a vampire who cannot stand the stench, or the thirst.”
Dettlaff crosses his arms. “A dream, perhaps inspired by one of the many texts in Regis’s home?” At mention of the other vampire, you suddenly know the hazy scent that hangs around Dettlaff. Wormwood, basil, sage, and anise.
“No. But you smell like Regis. Is he--”
“He’s fine. His ravens saw you heading to the ruins, and Regis had misgivings about your safety.” Dettlaff cants his gaze to the side. “It was a well-founded fear. Besides, Tesham Mutna is sealed away from unwanted visitors. Without at drop of higher vampire blood in your veins, it is impossible to open the fortress.”
He misses the hopeful glint in your eyes, and he instead gestures to the tower.
“Tesham Mutna stands here. What else is there to confirm?” Dettlaff seizes your hesitation. “Come,” he says, sighing again. “This is no place for dreamers.”
“I’ve read most of Regis’s books,” you say as you saddle the borrowed mule. “None of them describe what I’ve seen in my dreams, not the meteorite cage or the carvings on the wall.” The mount peers calmly at Dettlaff, and with a nudge, begins to plod back to the necropolis. The vampire keeps in pace, managing the path strewn with branches with ease.
“I know the cage you speak of,” Dettlaff says. “And the carvings?”
You draw your coat closer together and shiver. “I see three hands: one grabs a serpent, one with blood on the fingers and the palm, and one that bleeds from holding a blade.”
“The tribes. Tdet, Gharasham, and Ammunrun. And you’re sure--”
“I often dream of places and things I do not know.”
Dettlaff looks thoughtful. “Like an oneiromancer.”
You shake your head. “Oneiromancers are mages who divine answers from their dreams. They are meant to interpret their visions. With Tesham Mutna, I saw it when it was whole and complete. Centuries ago. It bears no connection to my other dreams.”
“What does our Regis think?”
“He calls them dreams, and nothing more.”
A break in the trees lets the half-moon light fall upon the path. You glance over to Dettlaff, and sure enough, his eyes are shining. He strikes no shadow. Part of you wonder if humans were truly oblivious to a vampire’s telltale traits: their animal eyes, missing shadows, and their frightfully sharp teeth.
“Regis means well,” you finally say, rubbing the reins between your fingers, “It only seems unfortunate that I want to seek out my dreams in the waking world. I’m sorry that my adventures drew you away from your evening.”
You flick your eyes away just as he turns to look at you. You miss the small smile that touches Dettlaff’s lips, then disappears just as quickly. He clears his throat. “If I had not left to find you, Regis surely would have tried, even as weak as he is.”
“Wouldn’t be able to make him stay in bed?”
“I wouldn’t want to watch him crawl all the way to the ruins.” A few ravens swoop overhead, shrieking loudly. The mule pricks his ears up at the cacophony of noise and you pat him reassuringly on the neck. “And,” Dettlaff drawls, “those would be his faithful acolytes. Regis will now be able to sleep soundly.”
“Again, I apologize. You must have better things to do.”
“It would have been a rather maudlin evening, I’m afraid.”
It takes the two of you the next hour to return to the necropolis. In the meantime, you remark about Regis’s recovery to which Dettlaff acknowledges grimly. The bond between the vampires goes beyond human understanding. That is why he may call you a friend, but it would be an entirely different meaning for Regis.
Needless to say, Dettlaff is also fiercely protective of him.
Then the higher vampire wants to hear about your strange, meaningless dreams.
And when you tell him that they are strange and meaningless, he insists anyways.
“I once dreamt of a hound with no eyes. It had a body that leaked yellow lightning, and it left no footprints on hallowed ground.” Dettlaff listens to your dreams about the barghest, the golden dragon with three black birds, and the man with one-eye; then he hears about a black mare and her skeleton rider, a singing music box, and of course-- Tesham Mutna.
Dettlaff offers the occasional comment. But he listens, and time passes quickly with conversation til you finally reach the necropolis. You spy the thin, silver-haired vampire waiting in the crypt doorway. A heavy blanket drapes around Regis’s shoulders. You dismount and head over to Regis with Dettlaff, who still diligently matches your stride.
“Ooh,” Regis murmurs, his voice weak and raspy, “don’t look so innocent. If I’d known that you wanted to go to that place of torture--”
“You wouldn’t have let me go alone?”
He raises a shaky hand to dispel your rebuttals. “Was this another one of your dreams?”
“Well, you may assume that everything you dream is real, regardless of whether or not you have ever experienced it. The hypothesis has been tested tried and true, and I hope, your curiosity sated.” Regis looks at the other vampire, and the tension slips out of his gaunt frame. “Thank you, my friend.”
“It was easy. Now you should go and rest.” Dettlaff firmly pushes him back inside of the crypt. Then he glances over his shoulder. “And you,” he says suspiciously, “do you intend to return to the fortress for whatever reason?”
He sees the truthful answer in your face.
Two weeks later, Dettlaff catches you in the exact same spot in front of the ruins, and wearing the same wilted expression as you look for an entrance that does not exist. His approach was audible with the unhurried crunch of leaves on the ground. You’d whirled around to see the dark-haired vampire walk up the hill, his hands tucked in his coat.
“Regis sends his regards,” Dettlaff sighs.
“Ah,” you say, and smile nervously. “Here to collect me again?”
Then, to your surprise, he merely steps forward and presses his palm against a large stone slab. The crimson glyph appears, and quickly fades as the hidden entrance grinds open and sends a cloud of dust over the two of you. Dettlaff studies the inviting dark. “I assume,” he says wearily, “that you intend to find the cage and the carvings which we spoke of?”
“All right. Then let us make haste and return as quickly as possible.”
He enters first, pausing only as the entrance descends into a narrow staircase. You nearly crash into the vampire as Dettlaff warns you to be careful. He slowly guides you down into the winding dark. Dettlaff’s black coat seems to bleed into the darkness, making him seem broader or taller than he really is.
With every scuffed pebble or ghastly draft, you tighten your grip on his arm. Now and then Dettlaff looks at you with the silent reassurance that you are not alone. You hold the torch high above your head, catching the stray cobweb here and there. The vampire adds no shadows to the ones that crawl on the crumbling walls.
“Do you think Regis will approve of this?”
“Do you care?”
“Then does the answer matter?”
You strain to see beyond what the torchlight offers. The stairs finally taper off, and you see small animal bones in every corner and groove of the tiled ground. The way ahead seems clear: an open door that leads, presumably, deeper into Tesham Mutna.
The descent never seems to stop. You see a few bookshelves and what could be writing desks, with abandoned journals and tomes. Dettlaff scans the title of one of the several books, then hurries you away. “Don’t touch anything,” he says to you. “I do not think you would enjoy the more intimate history of this place.”
“What? Tell me.”
His rasping words do not echo in the abandoned halls. Dettlaff talks about the first vampires of Toussaint and their sadistic preferences when it came to blood and humans. The higher vampires drank in droves, draining the land and its people. Here, in this fairytale-like land, was likely where rumors of a vampire’s incessant need for blood originated. Paired with the righteous hunt for such violent monsters by mages and witchers alike, it made for a perfect, enduring fantasy.
Even with the crusades, the terror did not cease until the vampires chose to punish the most cruel of all. “Did you know Khagmar?” you ask, eyes wide.
“As a Toussaint vampire, he was a part of the Gharasham tribe. Like myself and Regis. So yes, we knew him even if we did not associate with his sadism.” Dettlaff beckons you to shine a light on certain walls. “Now look here.”
The carvings of the three distinct tribes are drawn over and over again, in and out of the cells. While in your dreams, they’d been soaked and dripping in blood, they are now faint and aged as you drag your fingers across the uneven surface. You linger in front of the Gharasham symbol, the one with the bleeding hand and neither snake nor blade. You wonder why. Dettlaff admits that such symbolism is lost on him, and suggests that you ask Regis’s scholarly character instead.
“Regis hesitates to show you the cruelness of this place,” Dettlaff says quietly. “It is an integral part of our history as higher vampires. But he does not want you to think less of him.”
“I could never,” you reply without hesitation, and such promises your honesty.
“I didn’t know that you cared for my opinion,” you say, once more with complete candor.
Dettlaff chuckles. “You might be correct.” He moves along, leading you to the second part of your search. The notorious Khagmar had been sentenced to suffer, drowning in bloodlust. “Until madness,” Dettlaff adds, “or until he completely exhausted himself to the point when even drinking would not be enough to gratify a few hundred years of utter agony.”
The cage looks much smaller than you’d expected. Dettlaff watches as you pace around the circular room, examining the deep fissures on the ground, designed to trap and circulate blood for as long as Khagmar was incarcerated. For his own interest, the dark-haired vampire steps up to the cage and shake the bars. Testing their strength.
“Where is Khagmar now?” you ask.
“I do not know,” Dettlaff replies. “After his imprisonment, I ceased to be interested in his affairs. Khagmar became more like a legend to vampires and humans alike.” He sees you pace along the wall, a dozen strides from where he stands. “It baffles me to think that you would dream of such a violent place. Nonetheless, are you satisfied?”
Then, a dull noise echoes through the abandoned castle, like a stone carelessly kicked aside.
Dettlaff and you instinctively look back at the only way in and out of the room, tense and alert. Someone, or something is here. The higher vampire reaches out-- and suddenly you’re next to him. He pulls you close, and shoves you into the meteorite cage. He does not close the cage; he just stands in lieu of the door.
Dettlaff looks at you with his unnatural eyes, scowls, and then swiftly smothers the torch flames with his bare hand as easily as pinching out a candle. The immediate darkness feels oppressive, endless and all-consuming. You feel his fingers dig in your arm and shoulder. “What is it?” you whisper, trying to keep the tremble out of your voice and body.
“It’s a scurver,” he murmurs after a moment. “It will pass.”
It is impossible to see anything, but you can hear the necrophage slink through the tunnels. The needles that protrude from the scurver’s body scrape and groan along the walls and low ceiling, accompanied with the sporadic, slimy snarl as it navigates blindly in the dark.
Something must have drawn it to the ruins entrance, down the staircase, and all the way to the dungeons-- you nervously recall reading one of the bestiaries in Regis’s library--
-- and while scurvers generally feast on rotting corpses, they do not hesitate to attack nearby humans should they catch the scent and then pursue. Scurvers are very aggressive --
There was no guarantee that the scurver would return to the surface. They might make noise during an escape in the darkness. The best solution? Facing off a scurver wouldn’t be a problem for a higher vampire. But it could release an even stronger scent of blood and attract attention ( as they usually travel and attack in small groups, you recall). Was there only one, like Dettlaff had said?
The hiss of scurver needles against the walls sounds much closer than before.
Dettlaff takes the torch from your slacking grip.
There’s a soft rustle as Dettlaff steps forward, nudging you back until the cold metal bars dig into your shoulder blades. Then the dark leather coat you’ve come to associate with Dettlaff-- the only coat you’ve ever seen him wear-- presses against your cheek, as the vampire carefully wraps his arms around you. One of his hands curl in your locks. Nothing so affectionate, but a gesture that seems to hide you, or at the very least, mask your scent.
His breath tickles your ear in a barely audible whisper.
Something heavy crashes nearby. It’s accompanied with the lethargic squeal of needles and the scurver’s wet snarl. You can hear that there are definitely more than one scurver, all of them relentlessly seeking fresh meat.
The leather jacket suddenly dissolves beneath you. If you weren’t familiar with higher vampires, you might have shrieked and let every necrophage in a league learn about your presence. Dettlaff simply ceases to exist, and you feel a wisp of fog brush against your cheek.
A scurver’s growls taper off into a choked, struggling gasp. And then, a horrid, ripping sound followed by a stifled silence. This happens a few more times and you shakily sink to the cage floor, drawing your coat tight. Eyes open or shut-- it’s just too fucking dark.
Higher vampires have near to none who are equal in terms of combat. So it will be a matter of time before Dettlaff returns.
You hear the first whisper of his return: a passing breeze, then the scrape of his clothes as Dettlaff returns to the room. “There were four of them,” comes his low voice, deeper than you remember. “We have no more business here. Let’s go.”
“I can’t see anything.”
“Do you have matches?”
It takes you two strikes with shaky fingers before you summon a flame. Dettlaff extends the torch and breathes the light to life, once more illuminating Tesham Munra’s deathbound walls. He takes your hand and helps you stand, gently but firmly pushing you towards the open door.
A putrid stench in the halls threatens your constitution, though Dettlaff, bearing the torch, ensures that you will not be able to see the way the necrophages had been shredded to pieces. However, you see his nails are dark and blood-stained. The scurvers had literally stood no chance against the higher vampire. You cover your nose and mouth with your sleeve. Wormwood, basil, sage, and anise.
“Are you… all right?”
You manage a smile. “Yes. It’s all I ever wanted. Exploring castle ruins, listening to horror stories, and a dash of danger like a proper quest.”
A flock of ravens greet you upon exiting the ruins. The vampire waves a disinterested hand at them, scattering them in different directions. Some to the mountains, some to the necropolis. Dettlaff again extinguishes the torch and then hands it back to you.
Dettlaff doesn’t miss the way your eyes linger on his nails, so he folds his arms and tucks them out of sight.
“Thank you, Dettlaff. Without your assistance, I could not have even entered the ruins.”
“Let us keep it that way.” He passes his hand over the stone slab and it seals again, glowing crimson for a brief moment. Once more, hiding away Tesham Mutna and its latest victims. “Good. Now let’s return to Regis before he grows too impatient.”
The regenerating vampire is still weak, and he anxiously awaits at the crypt once more. “Evening, Regis,” you say, settling his mule back on his favorite patch of grass. “Long time no see.”
Now that he sees that you are safe and sound, Regis shakes his head in exasperation. “Did I hear correctly?” he exclaims weakly, gesturing to one of the ravens on the crypt roof. “Scurvers? Merely scurvers? Why, that’s hardly a challenge with Dettlaff at your side. He might have fought a host of otherworldly, far more dangerous--”
“Regis,” you say soothingly, tugging him back inside. His hands are colder than Dettlaff’s. “The worse I suffered was the stench.”
“Yes, I can smell it on the both of you.” Regis grumbles. ”It’s foul. And prone to spread infection, so if you would please--”
“I know how to wash my clothes, thank you.” You smile warmly at him, and see the conviction on his face waver.
“Nevertheless, the matter of fact--”
Regis’s legs suddenly give way and Dettlaff catches him, throwing an arm around the silver-haired vampire. “Bedrest,” Dettlaff growls. The sound makes the hairs on your neck stand. “You cannot afford to waste your energy. I forbid you to even consider leaving the crypt before the season is over.”
“Dettlaff, I implore you-- Before he finishes, he doubles over by another bout of pain or weakness. Dettlaff none too kindly sets him on the bed. The vampires stare at each other, privy to a relationship and a bond that you cannot comprehend. Regis finally sighs, and closes his eyes.
“You should teach me how to do that,” you say to Dettlaff as he stands and heads over to you.
He cards a hand through his thick, dark hair. “It does not come without a price to pay. The name of a tribe, or the tortured reputation of a castle.”
“I think my tendency for trouble only prolongs his recovery. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have gone to the ruins.”
“Your dreams demanded it.”
“Do they justify the danger?”
Dettlaff regards you as the two of you ascend the crypt stairs, back to the outside. “I am not your judge,” he points out. “But to be honest, if you were hurt or killed, I believe that would harm Regis beyond what I could help him presently.”
You reluctantly nod in agreement. “Then I will refrain from such dangerous endeavors. Let them stay dreams.”
You did not think, haunted with a night of terror, that you would be able to sleep. But exhaustion overwhelms you once you’ve rinsed the last wafts of scurvers from your skin and clothes. Before you fall asleep, you are distracted with thoughts of Dettlaff. You wonder if his initial attempt to hide you would have prevailed. He did not seem the type to favor a non-aggressive approach. Perhaps it was for another’s sake-- yours, or Regis’s.
You dream, more often than not, of what you do not know.
Emiel Regis and Dettlaff van der Eretein stand silently at the edge of the Tesham Mutna ruins, the former who looks whole and steady on his two feet as he used to be. He dresses in a frock and clings to a satchel brimming with aromatic herbs. Dettlaff is, as usual, wearing his trademark coat and the glittering moth pin. He hides his thoughts, but you sense that he is forlorn, wistful.
They look out towards the north, towards the rest of Toussaint and a bright full moon, both of which are lost to the foggy night. And because they are vampires, and they are friends, Regis flashes his sharp teeth in a wide smile.
Dettlaff tentatively returns the gesture, though more subtly framed in the crow’s feet of his light blue eyes. His misery seems to abate, little by little. They have more than an eternity, and each other, to recover from their distant and recent pasts.
All is quiet, and all is good for the bloodbound vampires.
Let them stay dreams.