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Wer edel ist, den suchet die Gefahr, Und er suchet sie: so müssen sie sich treffen.

Chapter Text

‘For Sarah…’

This thought was the only thing ringing through Alfred’s mind when he was chasing the Professor and Chagal through the chilly woods of the Southern Carpathians. The newly turned vampire had agreed, of course only when faced with the threat of a stake through the heart, to take the two vampire hunters to the castle dominating the surrounding area.

At the prospect of finally being able to test his countless theories and possibly even obtaining proof of the existence of vampires, the old man had practically leapt off his chair and chased the innkeeper out of the door, ordering him to immediately make haste to the residence of the local lord. Alfred could barely blink and scramble together all the scattered vampire hunting supplies left behind by Professor Abronsius before he already heard him calling out for his adept from the outside: “Komm, Junge! No dilly-dallying now, we have work to do!” Completely taken by surprise by the sudden development of the situation, the young student staggered, looking around if there was anything he had missed when he had hastily thrown the Professor’s gear into his satchel just a few seconds ago.

His gaze fixated on a sharpened piece of wood on the floor, lying just next to the table where they had discovered the body earlier. “The stake!” Alfred cried, clearly startled at the prospect of almost having forgotten their seemingly most effective weapon and having to face their undead foes without it. Hence, he quickly stumbled back to the stick and picked it up before hurrying out the door, after Professor Abronsius and their involuntary guide who were already well ahead.

With the wooden stake safely tucked into his jacket pocket and his mentor’s bag in hand, he ran through the snowy, arboreal landscape, desperately trying to keep up with his two companions.

‘For Sarah…’

He clutched Sarah’s sponge, still placed in the inside pocket of his jacket. Sarah… they would find her, and Alfred would bring her to safety, even if it was the last thing he would ever do. Like a hero in an old fairy-tale, he’d rescue the damsel in distress. And everything would be fine in the end. He’d only have to believe it.

After getting slapped in the face by half-frozen fir tree branches and blasts of icy rain for what seemed like an eternity, Alfred was prompted to suddenly stop, barely able to avoid crashing into the Professor and Chagal, who had come to an abrupt halt just in front of him. Wondering what could have curbed his teacher’s normally untameable drive, he looked at them bewilderedly. “Professor, what…” The student started, but as soon as he looked up, the reason of his amazement became painfully obvious. Above the little overpass they had reached soared a gargantuan structure, regally overlooking a wooded valley. It was nestled so tightly in its surroundings, seeming almost like the castle had been hewn straight out of the same stone it now sat atop of. Alfred’s gaze was completely fixated on the dark, but at the same time strangely alluring construction. The partly crossed, partly pointed arch-windows indicated a gothic origin, but even from the outward view, the student could undoubtedly see that this was no medieval fortress. No, the structure in front of them was a regal residence. That much was clear, even with the castle looking in parts decrepit. Somehow, this only added to the venerable atmosphere that it exuded. It surely had to be the home of a most esteemed nobleman.

“Marvellous! Simply marvellous!” The Professor’s exclamation tore Alfred from his almost hypnotized gaze when he clapped his hands together in excitement. “By god, Chagal! You have truly kept your word and lead us to your master’s domain!” The scholar continued, still practically gleaming with a child-like glee at the sight of the castle. With a ghastly wide grin, the former inn proprietor mockingly bowed before feigning offence. “Why, of course I did, I would never lie to you.” Despite this asseveration, Alfred was still somewhat surprised that Chagal had in fact readily shown them the right way. Menace and threat could be a deceiving protection, he had always thought. Even more so when faced with a ruthless vampire, he sheepishly added in thought.

“But with that, gentlemen, I think I fulfilled my end of our bargain and will be on my way now.” Alfred looked at Chagal, a puzzled expression on his face. “Y-you mean… you mean you won’t enter the castle with us?” The smile faded from the vampire’s eyes, but he managed to keep it up with his mouth, never breaking his glance at the student and his Professor. “Ah, you see… this was never part of our agreement. And I don’t think I would be quite welcome among all the noblemen and you gentle sirs inside.” He bowed again before slowly backing away, now almost seeming in a hurry to get away. “So, I’ll be on my merry way then, if you please.” Looking at Abronsius for approval, he quickly hurried away when he realized that the scholar was already fixated on the structure in front of them again, seemingly not wanting to take the chance of giving him the possibility to object to this. Alfred, on the other hand, was struck by fear at the sudden realization that they had now reached their destination.

The confrontation he had dreaded, no, even pushed from his mind all this time during their travels, was now almost upon them and seemed inevitable. Even after agreeing to assist Professor Abronsius on his excursion to Romania, Alfred hadn’t been sure if he even believed his theories on vampirism. Part of him hadn’t even wanted to think of it, instead opting to diligently cater to his mentor’s every whim to get his mind off things and just hoping that their journey would, much like the Professor’s other research into the topic, remain fruitless.

But, after having come face to face with the vampire in Chagal’s inn, and now standing in front of the gates of his supposed castle, repressing the thought wasn’t an option anymore. He looked at the sky. Almost complete darkness. No stars in sight, only dimmed light from a moon obstructed by clouds and a thick layer of ominous fog. Alfred gulped. Why hadn’t they waited for daylight to return to continue their pursuit? Like this, they seemed virtually at the mercy of the undead. Looking up at the tall battlement, he almost felt… watched by some looming presence. Why had he followed the Professor on this hare-brained chase? Why hadn’t he thought of saving his own skin, just this once, instead of carrying the can for one of his mentor’s frenzied outbursts again?

‘For Sarah…!’ He almost chastisingly reminded himself. Oh, Sarah… Just why had she run off without him? Why had she run off at all, even after Alfred as good as confessed his feelings to her?! It had to be vampire’s spell! His Sarah was surely under some unholy influence that had compelled her to follow the vampire and offer herself to him. Why else would she so openly reject him? It just didn’t make sense. But he would rescue her. Yes, he and the Professor would defeat the evil, so that sweet Sarah could return to her mother and then, maybe then she would…

“Junge! What are you waiting for?” Abronsius’ shrill command, once again, tore Alfred away from his inner monologue. He promptly looked at the Professor in confusion, unsure of what exactly he was supposed to be doing, even after some moments of pondering. “Professor, what are you…” Was the only thing the timid student managed to stutter before being interrupted again. “But isn’t it obvious?” Abronsius gestured wildly in the direction of the castle’s portcullis, almost menacingly looming over the two academics with all its sharp edges and spikes. When the look of confusion on Alfred’s face only intensified, the Professor practically screamed: “Well, what do you think, Alfred? You’ll climb under there to let me in from the other side! How else are we supposed to enter the castle?” Even though this seemed like a less than logical conclusion from the situation they were in, Alfred knew better than to answer back and, while being egged on impatiently by the Professor, prepared to squeeze through the gap under the portcullis.

However, when he slumped down to his knees in front of the gate, getting ready to climb through the grid, the student suddenly heard the chain of the entry portal move and found himself looking at the very suddenly rising gate. Before Alfred could react, he was cowering in front of a pair of polished, extremely expensive looking boots. Despite feeling a paralyzing fear set in, he brought himself to look up at the figure in front of him. It was definitely the man he had seen in front of Sarah at Chagal’s inn. Clad in an extravagant black velvet cloak, he looked down at the boy cowering at his feet, his right brow furrowed and a small sneer at his daunting lips. Alfred quickly staggered back onto his feet and almost sprinted behind the Professor, who seemed almost as phased as his young student at first, but quickly managed to compose himself again.

“Bless the night that brings me the joy to lead some visitors here.” The tall man in front of them began, dramatically swinging open his coat and thereby revealing a lavish black suit adorned with brocade and golden buttons. Alfred was sure he’d never be able to afford anything as fine as these garments, even though the Professor paid him a small sum for his occupation as assistant since he had begun to officially work for him last year.

“Meine Herren, I like having guests, so don’t be shy.” He continued, barely able to mask his amusement at the two other men’s apparent terror. However, to Alfred, it clearly seemed as if he were trying to truly ease their suspicions and be inviting towards his prospective guests. He had never seen a man as graceful and, at the same time, as intimidating as the nobleman in front of them. His lavish, yet dignified attire was a clear indicator to the student that they were dealing with the lord of the castle. “I am Count von Krolock. This castle belongs to me!” The man continued, opening his arms, as if to signify an invitation. However, neither Alfred nor Abronsius managed to tear their eyes away from his imposing figure, both fearful and fascinated by the Count. An eternity of silence seemed to pass before he laughed deeply, perhaps again at the two academics’ sheer paralyzing fear. This made both of them jump in terror, seemingly amusing von Krolock even more.

The Professor was the first one to regain his composure once again. “Ah, no offense, you Excellency. We came here by accident, truly… and just wanted to take a quick peek at your gorgeous estate!” He blurted out, ostensibly embarrassed by his lack of manners before, but still deeply daunted by the tall man practically towering over him. Adjusting his glasses while looking at the castle once more, Abronsius continued, to bridge the awkward silence left by the end of his last sentence: “Late 13th century, if I’m not mistaken?”

This compliment seemed to greatly please the Count, who began to slowly close the gap between them with a confident stride. “Ah, I see, a learned man. With whom do I have the pleasure of making acquaintance?” He asked, seeming truly interested now. Yet, something still seemed amiss about his attitude to Alfred. Despite having shown them nothing but kindness so far, the gentleman in front of them seemed… dangerous, almost predatory. Still, the young student couldn’t tear his eyes off him as he strode towards the two of them.

The Professor didn’t seem to share this sentiment of menace, or at least he didn’t show it in the slightest. Ostensibly very delighted at the Count’s praise of his education, he eagerly pulled out one of his finely lettered business cards from his pocket and handed it to the other man with a grand gesture. “Professor Abronsius, from Königsberg, your Excellency.” Count von Krolock picked up the little piece of paper and seemed to study it intently. After a couple of seconds of looking up and down the Professor and his visiting card, he then replied with an inquiring look and one eyebrow cocked: “THE Professor Abronsius?”

While Alfred seemed at least a little taken aback at the Count recognizing his mentor, as he was commonly overlooked even at his alma mater in Königsberg, the man himself was now near ecstatic. “You’ve heard of me?!” He exclaimed excitedly, his former consideration for proper etiquette now seemingly forgotten. Von Krolock now smiled again, seeming pleased at how easily the Professor responded to his flattery. “Why, of course. I read your book, ‘Die Fledermaus’ (The bat). Ingenious! I was captivated!” Abronsius now looked like he had to physically restrain himself from hugging the man in front of him out of sheer gratitude.

“I’m so glad to hear that! At home, I’m usually ignored! At least when it comes to the topic discussed in the book you’ve read. And even though my conclusions are nothing short of logical! Logic, logic… who actually appreciates logic?” He added the last two sentiments in a much more muted, meek tone. Count von Krolock seemed to wave this aside and smiled almost warmly at the older man, moving even closer to his side. “Ach was, you have to come sign your book for me, and stay for a long, long time.”

When he was now in the immediate proximity of the enigmatic nobleman, the hairs on Alfred’s neck practically rose straight up. Something inside of him screamed to warn the Professor, to just take his shoulders and shake him to remind him: ‘Herr Professor, he’s the vampire! He’s dangerous, we have to flee!’ But surely, Abronsius had the situation under control? He was an experienced vampire hunter, after all. And if all this was part of his bigger plan, his mentor would be furious with Alfred for daring to interfere with his research, even if it was out of fear for both their lives. Nevertheless, the boy reached out to his Professor, tugging at his sleeve, desperately trying to convey his dark foreboding to him, but was only met with deaf ears and a disapproving look. The Professor hastily accepted von Krolock’s invitation to stay at his castle, much to his young adept’s dismay.

When Alfred averted his eyes, clearly embarrassed by the implicit scolding he had just received, his gaze met directly with that of the Count. Had he been fearful from his presence just a moment ago, looking into his eyes now seemed to strangely calm him, reassure him that there was nothing to fear. Von Krolock smiled mysteriously once more and now completely focused his attention on Alfred, looking him over attentively. “And who is this young lad? Surely, your student?” His uneasy feeling about the Count’s presence was now almost gone, but he still wasn’t very comfortable with suddenly being the centre of attention. After stuttering and not really managing to answer properly for a few seconds, Professor Abronsius promptly talked over his pupil: “Ah, yes, Alfred. He assists me.”

Alfred still wondered whether it was very smart to divulge so much sensitive information to someone whom they essentially suspected of trying to murder them. “Good boy, Alfred. Kudos to you.” Von Krolock’s words of praise caught the student off guard. He hadn’t expected to be included in the Count’s barrage of compliments. Not used to being complimented this explicitly, Alfred instantly blushed.

Still completely fixated on his tall, slender frame, he wondered that someone so splendid and kind surely couldn’t be something as evil as a vampire. And anyhow, the Count hadn’t even acted like he would be a threat to them… After all, if he had wanted to harm either of them, he would have already done so, right…? Maybe it would really be best to visit his castle for a couple of weeks. What could possibly happen? Maybe the Count would compliment him again. Alfred thought that he actually wouldn’t mind that, even rather enjoy it… When he caught himself with that thought, the young student was a little startled. He had rarely ever thought of anyone like this before, let alone another man… There surely was someone who had once provoked the same giddy feeling in his stomach, but standing in front of von Krolock now, he couldn’t for the life of him remember who that might have been.

The Count seemed to realize that Alfred was practically staring at him, still with a deep red hue on his cheeks. He smiled mysteriously once more before stepping to the side. “This is my son, Herbert. He’s delighted to meet you, I’m sure. Soon, you two are sure to be… good friends.”

Chapter Text

The Count seemed to realize that Alfred was practically staring at him, still with a deep red hue on his cheeks. He smiled mysteriously once more before stepping to the side. “This is my son, Herbert. He’s delighted to meet you, I’m sure. Soon, you two are sure to be… good friends.”

Before Alfred could ponder over why von Krolock had emphasized the last two words so much, a figure stepped forward from behind him, almost as tall as the man himself and dressed in a similar, floor length cloak. However, while the Count may have seemed dark, brooding and secretive, his apparent son was none of those things. When he delightedly threw his arms in the air at the sight of Alfred, his exquisite lavender cloak was swept open, exposing an even more adorned lilac coat underneath. It was practically gleaming with expensive, silky fabrics, metallic threads and polished silver embellishments. This all seemed almost perfectly coordinated with the white, silvery pants the man donned. Alfred couldn’t help but notice that the whole ensemble was very form-fitting but suited the man very much.

At first completely distracted by his counterpart’s flashy outfit, Alfred only looked at his face when he was spoken to by Herbert directly. “Finally, somebody who may help rid me of my boredom!” He exclaimed excitedly, quickly approaching him. His satiny, light blonde hair reached down to under his chest and was tied in the back with a lilac ribbon. Alfred had never seen a man with hair this beautiful, let alone this long. He wondered if it was as soft to the touch as it looked.

There it was again, this strange, yet pleasant feeling in his stomach when he thought of the man in front of him in that way. Alfred hastily averted his eyes to avoid staring again and looked at Herbert’s face. He surely had the same pale complexion as his father, but softer features and… was that a hint of rouge on his cheeks? The Prussian student had never seen a man wearing makeup before, but, oh, it certainly looked very nice on the young count. Herbert was now meeting his gaze directly, smirking in the same indescribable way that his father did. His inviting blue eyes and smiling, soft lips almost had the same hypnotizing effect on him as the Count von Krolock’s before and Alfred couldn’t help but continue to stare at him in amazement.

“Oh, we’re going to have so much fun together, dear. You may call me Herbert.” He exclaimed excitedly, throwing his arm around the student’s shoulders and starting to lead him toward the grand portal of the castle. When the young man’s hands touched Alfred, he shuddered. His skin was ice-cold. The student could even feel it through the fabric of his jacket. Somewhat bewildered by this, he looked at Herbert, who didn’t seem to notice his disconcertment. “I can’t tell you how glad I am to finally have some visitors! It gets so dreadfully boring up here, all alone with no one to amuse myself with.” He exclaimed with what seemed to be exaggerated melancholy. “Truly, there’s just nothing to do. But I think we will be able to think of something to keep us entertained, won’t we?” The last sentence was accompanied with a suggestive wink and an expectant look in Alfred’s direction.

Again, this confused the young student. Not exactly what one would call ‘experienced’ in this realm, the risqué comment went completely over his head. Hence, he innocently answered: “Ah, I’m not sure I’ll be good conversation, your Excellency… I can be terribly boring.” But it wasn’t like he didn’t want to spend time with the young count. Just like with his father, there was just something about him that… fascinated Alfred. This feeling just intensified, now that he was so close to the other young man. Maybe Herbert would even compliment him, just like the Count von Krolock had done just now. Alfred would really have to make an effort to impress someone like his host, though. Surely, a nobleman like him, no less one so magnificent, was normally used to much more interesting people than himself, even if he had said that the Count rarely had visitors. “But I’ll try for sure! I hope I can repay your and your father’s generosity of letting the Professor and I stay at your home.”

Herbert let out a little chuckle at this, seemingly amused by Alfred’s complete innocence in response to his clearly suggestive comment. “Oh, aren’t you a darling little thing. You’re even better than I imagined. Trust me, you’re going to be anything but boring.” He answered, looking at the student intently. Something inside of him seemed to grow more and more restless, as his gaze became more and more intense the longer he was standing next to Alfred. It looked almost as if something inside of him was… hungry, starting to lose control. The young student didn’t appear to notice this, however, still mesmerized by his vis-à-vis. They had in the meantime reached the interior of the castle, coming into a lavish entry hall with a gigantic bronze door at the opposite side. Like the exterior of the residence, it was evidently masterfully crafted, adorned with beautiful and delicate reliefs. Would he normally be mesmerized by such pristine architecture, Alfred now only had eyes for another… piece of art.

Herbert was probably the handsomest person he had ever seen. Certainly, the prettiest man. As the thought went trough his head, the warm, unfamiliar feeling in his stomach returned. Somehow, Alfred still wasn’t sure if it was a pleasant feeling or not. Truly, he didn’t know at all how to react to the entire situation. He thought to step back to the Professor’s side, just to gain some sort of familiarity back, but Herbert’s grip was exceptionally strong, and he kept a firm grasp on his prospective guest, seemingly no intention of letting him go. Alfred felt an inner pang of guilt at being so uncomfortable with Herbert’s touch, the young count surely meant no harm and only wanted to make sure he didn’t get lost in this huge estate. And there he was, so ungrateful at this welcoming gesture. Accordingly, the student didn’t seem to register that Herbert’s grip on him wasn’t an expression of a purely altruistic gesture.

Lost and confused even more so than before, Alfred turned his head around to look for the Professor, almost as some sort of anchor to ease his confused mind. Even though his mentor didn’t seem to share his sentiment of forlornness, seeing him just a few steps behind walking at Count von Krolock’s side was virtually comforting in a way.

The latter, unlike Alfred himself, seemed to have noticed his son’s almost predatory gaze. He smoothly increased his speed, easily catching up with the two men in front of him. Gently, but decisively, he placed a hand on his shoulder. “Now, Herbert… I think your… youthful vigour is overwhelming our guest. Don’t you think it would be best if we left them to withdraw to their rooms for today? After all, it’s already terribly late and they surely must be tired.” Even though Herbert’s face warped into something reminiscent of a pout, the Count’s authoritative tone of voice did not tolerate any objection. Still seeming somewhat discontented, the younger nobleman nevertheless complied and let go off the object of his attention. “Shame. I was just beginning to get to know Alfred. But you’re of course right, Vater. After all, we’ll still have much time tomorrow to continue where we left off, won’t we, dear?” He responded after recomposing his delicately chiselled features and once again knowingly smiling at Alfred.

Still not knowing what exactly Herbert was alluding to, but somehow subconsciously sensing that it was sexual in nature, the student couldn’t help but blush again. The young count, ostensibly pleased with himself for getting that reaction out of his guest, then excused himself with a wink after wishing Alfred and the Professor a good night.

Alfred felt conflicted about Herbert leaving him: somewhat unhappy at not being in his presence anymore, not being able to smell the sweet aroma of his hair, but at the same time glad about not being the target of any more innuendos he didn’t understand. Still feeling a bit forlorn, he all but ran to the Professor’s side, even clutching the hem of his jacket in the heat of the moment. Abronsius, as opposed to his student, seemed perfectly satisfied with how the situation had turned out. Again, Alfred pondered whether this was all part of his elaborate plan and if he was as intimidated by their hosts as he was. Unfortunately, the Professor’s countenance made it impossible to for him to get any sort of discernible answer to his questions.

After Herbert was out of sight, the Count turned around towards the Professor again, still smiling welcomingly. “You must excuse him, Alfred. Herbert is… easily excitable. As you heard, we rarely get visitors up here in the mountains, much less academics as astute as yourself.” The student averted his gaze to avoid showing his once again flushed cheeks. “D-don’t worry about it, your Excellency. Really, Herbert wasn’t bothering me at all. I’m very grateful he’s so hospitable, much like yourself.” Von Krolock’s smile changed slightly while he was studying Alfred carefully, indicating his contentedness with his answer. “Well, thank you for your kind words then.” Now addressing Professor Abronsius instead of his student, he added: “But I believe I was still correct about what I said earlier. It would be best for you to withdraw to your rooms for the night, wouldn’t it? I wouldn’t want to keep you from a good night’s rest.”

The Professor, already having taken off his hat and jacket, nodded quickly and responded: “Pardon me, your Excellency, I forgot how late it already is! You must be tired.” Count von Krolock didn’t seem to have expected this type of answer, looking at Abronsius with a type of amused curiosity. Something in his eyes glistening menacingly, he still retorted fairly quickly. “I am somewhat of a… nocturnal creature myself. Entirely useless by day, I’m afraid.” This seemed to greatly startle Abronsius, which in turn just confused Alfred at first. Out of all that he, or his son for that matter, had said, this was probably by far the most harmless. So why would the Professor… Then it hit the young man.

How could he have forgotten?! In his enigmatic trance, he had completely let his guard down and left himself completely defenceless near this… this vampire! Now almost completely frozen by fear, he clung to his Professor’s coat even tighter. Subconsciously, the student grabbed his throat, as if to protect it or to check if von Krolock had already bitten and doomed him for all eternity. Professor Abronsius, this time at least, seemed equally phased. However, his reaction was not without a shred of academic curiosity as he clutched Alfred’s arm and looked at the Count in terror, still seeming to study him for any abnormalities.

Luckily, Alfred thought, von Krolock didn’t seem to register the sudden shift in atmosphere, or at least he didn’t show it to his two terrified guests. In reality, the Count was well aware of the double-entendre he had just enunciated, for he chose all his words with great care. But he wouldn’t confirm any of their suspicions outright, at least not yet. No, he’d let them dangle for a little longer yet, to keep himself entertained. How terrified Alfred seemed already, even clutching his neck! He really was dealing with professionals, it seemed. The Count really had to restrain himself from laughing at the sight. Additionally, he’d have to instruct his son again about how to deal with the boy, to keep him from meddling in his affairs with his latest… distraction. And besides, Herbert WAS right in saying that they rarely got any visitors, so there was no harm in playing with their food a little. Even though he’d never admit the latter to his son, or he’d never hear the end of it.

After calling for his manservant and advising him to show them to their accommodation for the night, the Count bid them a good night and left in the same direction as his son, soon disappearing into one of the seemingly thousands of corridors.

Alfred gulped, relaxing a little when von Krolock was gone. He then fixated his gaze on the Professor, unsure of what to do next. Should they run? Should they just follow the Count’s limping footman to their rooms? Both possibilities sounded equally dangerous, and thus equally disagreeable. While pondering their seemingly inevitable doom, the student didn’t even realize that Abronsius seemed to have already decided. He was already several steps ahead of Alfred, following their unlikely guide into the inner maze of the castle. “Professor, wait…” He shrieked, before hurrying after his mentor. The shrill sound of his excited voice seemed to have agitated von Krolock’s servant, as he had stopped to turn around and chastise Alfred with wild gestures.

“Oh, I’m very sorry! I didn’t mean to startle you! It was just… I was afraid of getting lost without the Professor!” He quickly exclaimed to calm the man in front of him down. However, judging from the continued frantic scolding, he didn’t comprehend Alfred. The student guessed that, unlike the master and his son, he didn’t speak German and only understood Romanian. Logically, the Professor seemed to come to the same conclusion, as he just resorted to trying to conciliate the man with calming hand gestures before turning to his pupil again. “It seems he doesn’t understand us. Even better, as that means he won’t be able to spy on us. That gives us more security to plan our next move.”

Now Alfred was the one who looked like he didn’t understand German. Was the Professor not fazed at all by their situation? When they were face to face with Count von Krolock and his son, he had seemed almost as tense as the student himself, at least during the last altercation. With his usual vigour having returned now, there was seemingly nothing left of his former fear, though. “Professor, you really want to stay here? Didn’t you feel it just now? It’s not safe! here I don’t know if we should…” Alfred began, but was, as was so often the case, promptly interrupted by Abronsius. “Junge, but of course we’re going to stay here! We’ve been invited into the very place we had been trying to enter. This is the perfect opportunity. I won’t speak of it in front of him, but you know what we have to do, so ready yourself! Tomorrow, we’ll conduct some field research, best get a good night’s rest.”

Alfred couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Even after facing off with real, actual vampires, the Professor still wasn’t deterred in his pursuit of science. In a way, it was admirable, really. Right now, though, it seemed completely mental to the poor youth. Not least because Abronsius’ persistence meant that he would have to stay in the castle as well. Now mentally preparing himself for what was almost sure to be a sleepless night in this hellhole of a gothic castle, Alfred almost didn’t notice when they eventually reached their destination. Von Krolock’s hunched servant gestured towards a cracked open door and motioned for the Professor to get inside. However, when Alfred attempted to follow him, he was blocked from entering.

“Hey, what the…” the student began, already fearing the worst. What was the meaning of this, why would they want to separate him and the Professor? Again, he tried to go after Abronsius, but was stopped by the Count’s servant. “No, I also want to go to bed. Please, just let me in the room!” He then tried to reason. Maybe a sensible argument would defuse the situation. However, that hope was quickly shattered when the man in front of him vehemently shook his head. Alfred now was near a mental breakdown. Why did every hope of this day turning out good have to go up in flames?

“But… where am I supposed to sleep? I have to go somewhere, no?” He continued, somehow still banking on the fact that he could talk his way into the room with Professor Abronsius, to at least some form of safety and comfort. Nevertheless, the manservant still shook his head and denied him entrance, even going as far as closing the door with ostentation. However, this time, he also raised his hand to point at the door on the opposite side of the corridor. “Oh, so I get my own room?” This time, Alfred was met with an approving nod. Egged on by the other man, the student then began to slowly make his way to the other room. While it wasn’t terribly far from the Professor’s chamber, as Alfred could even see his door from its position, he still felt somewhat uneasy from being separated from his mentor, seemingly as vulnerable as he could ever be, all alone in this maze of a castle.

Further complaining was of no use, though, as the Count’s servant diligently made sure that he moved into the proper room. When he was sure his master’s orders were fulfilled, he didn’t seem interested in wasting any more time with watching over Alfred, however, as he quickly started to waddle away in the same direction they had come from.

The student shuddered. What a dreadful man. And this wasn’t because of the deformities from which he very clearly suffered, no. Even though he wasn’t able to speak, Alfred could just sense that he was just entirely unpleasant, rude even. He’d even go as far as assuming that, were it not for von Krolock’s patronage as their host, meeting the other man would have been nothing less than dangerous.

But that also meant that he really didn’t want to risk making him angry by switching rooms last minutes, should he yet decide to return to check on his charges. Sighing woefully, he set down the Professor’s bag, which he had held onto since picking it up at the inn. Oh, how long ago that seemed now. Being under the von Krolocks’ influence, he had almost forgotten where they had come from. It had seemed so unimportant at the time, almost not worth remembering. But now that he thought about the inn, about Chagall and about their strenuous way up the mountain, it all came back to him, like a fog in his mind was lifted. Most importantly, he now suddenly remembered the very reason that had made him decide to embark on this preposterous quest in the first place.

“Sarah!” Alfred yelled in shock.

How could he have forgotten her?! His sweet, sweet Sarah… Of course she was the reason he would dare to face such dangers, he had to save her from evil’s clutches after all! He chastised himself mentally what felt like a thousand times. What on earth had compelled him to completely forget his beloved, the woman who needed him most in this moment? It must have been the same dark spell that had forced her to abandon her family, and even more importantly Alfred himself, and to betake herself into the proverbial belly of the beast. And Alfred had almost just done the same, just forgetting about her. How stupid he had been.

If Sarah would ever forgive him for almost abandoning her in her hour of need? But he had no time to ponder about that now. He wouldn’t forget anymore, he would direct all his focus on finding a way to save her. Instinctively, only remembering it now, Alfred reached into his jacket pocket, wanting to clutch the sponge which Sarah had given him at the inn. After a couple of seconds of searching, however, his fingers couldn’t sense the familiar soft material. When he didn’t find the object of his desire even after taking off his jacket and rifling through all its pouches, panic began to set in. Did he lose it? No, impossible! He had been like hypnotized earlier, but surely, not even in that state, he could have been so careless as to lose an object as important as this. Frantically looking around the room and rummaging around in the Professor’s bag, Alfred was decently startled when he suddenly heard a dark, melodious voice calling out for him.

“Alfred, aren’t you missing something?” Almost falling onto the bed from the surprise, Alfred quickly turned around. He had expected von Krolock, or even his son, to stand in his room, but no one was there. Who had been calling out to him, then? Should he dare look outside of his door? No, this seemed like another mind trick to lure him to expose himself at his most vulnerable. But what if the owner of the mysterious voice had found Sarah’s sponge? Could he really risk losing it forever because of his cowardice? But if the caller didn’t have it… His curiosity ultimately overcame his lingering fear and the student slowly walked to the still cracked open door.

Chapter Text

“But you said I could have him! It’s not fair!” Herbert burst out impassionedly when his father entered the room. Count von Krolock, already having expected a sort of tantrum, waved his words aside calmingly and sat down into a big chair covered in deep purple velvet. His son, now lounging directly opposite of him on a matching canapé, huffed in annoyance while crossing his arms dramatically. “You promised it!” The older man sighed before preparing to answer. When did he start to spoil his son like this? Of course, he was nothing if not obedient when it really mattered, but when apparently refused one of his wishes…

Alas, the Count could never bring himself to deny Herbert anything, especially since he had decided to change him all those years ago. In a way, he supposed it was a sort of excuse for his selfishness, not wanting to spend eternity alone, without any family to share his fate alongside himself. Even back then, however, Herbert hadn’t seemed to bear any sort of grudge against his father for what he himself deemed a horribly selfish act. On the contrary, the young man seemed to almost fully embrace his new identity and completely embody vampirism in all of its aspects, in some respects maybe even more so than his father.

However, being a vampire also came with one thing which evidently troubled young Herbert greatly, namely not being able to stray far from the castle the two of them called home. Be it out of fear of being caught in the sunlight with no means of shelter, or because of the familiar pang of the vampiric territorial instinct that would manifest itself every time one would wander too far off, none of them would ever be able to truly leave their estate and its land behind for very long. To the Count himself, this was of little consequence. Even during his lifetime, he had never been one to grow restless easily, usually caught up in his duties as the region’s ruler. This had only increased when he had gathered his court of immortal servants to govern. His son, however, was a different story.

Cursed with the eternal spirit of a young adult, von Krolock could easily see that he longed for entertainment above all else, tragically trapped in this castle with no one but vampires who were much older than him. Yet, maybe ‘older’ was not exactly the right word to describe it. While Herbert, being changed only a few years after the Count himself, was technically much older in years than all of the other residents of the castle, he was not truly, at least not in spirit. This was because he had been bitten at the tender age of 20 years, essentially trapping him in this state of development eternally, not yet a real adult, but no longer a child. Thusly, von Krolock could hardly even fault him for jumping at every opportunity of what he deemed to be potentially interesting.

Nevertheless, this current situation was… especially delicate and required a little more finesse than he trusted Herbert to possess in these matters. Thusly, the Count had to restrain his eager son, at least for a bit, and deny him his fun for a little longer, even if that meant listening to his complaints.

In this instance, he was of course right, though. Von Krolock had indeed promised to let Herbert distract himself with the young visitor, even if it wasn’t a completely selfless gesture. After being disturbed by the pair in the Chagall inn, he had figured that these laughable self-proclaimed vampire hunters would still be more than a minor nuisance to his plans for tomorrow night, at least if left unchecked. While they surely would not be able to cause any real danger for the Count himself or anyone in his retinue, they could seriously disturb his ball with their meddling, and that, he would not risk. There had been far too many preparations, and consequently, the expectations were now far too great for the Count to allow a disappointment. Especially after the rather uneventful festivities of the last years, his subjects longed for a spectacle.

In recent years, the… guests of honour, one could also call them, had been nothing but paupers and farmers from the nearby villages, dirty and branded by hunger. While he was getting annoyed at this himself, it similarly did nothing to inspire loyalty in his followers. With insubordinate whispers growing ever louder in his castle, it was time to remind these lesser vampires why they were the subjects and why he ruled them. Consequently, no disturbance would be tolerated during tomorrow’s festivities.

Thusly, to debilitate the clearly more physically capable of the two, he had decided to set his son on the young student, should they indeed decide to follow Sarah to the castle and make nuisances of themselves, a prediction which had evidently come true. Since that bumbling pupil didn’t appear to be of much use on his own, he honestly wouldn’t need to worry at all about the doddery old man deeming himself an expert on the occult if the two of them were separated. With both himself and his son taken care of for tomorrow’s banquet, von Krolock had half a mind to just leave him to the rabble to feast on. He was a benevolent master, after all. Nevertheless, he’d now have to attempt to convince his son of his important role in the matter.

“You’re right, Herbert. And I intend to stick to my word. You may have your entertainment, but I won’t allow you to act precipitately.” The Count finally answered. This did, however, not seem to have the intended pacifying effect. Herbert still kept his arms crossed, not even looking at his father. “Hmph, I don’t know what you’re implying. I can handle one measly mortal, even if he claims to be an oh so scary vampire hunter.” The last sentence was accompanied by the mocking gesture of waving his hands woefully in front of his face.

“And besides, I know the game you’re playing. I’m not stupid, Papa. You only want them out of the way for your great display tomorrow, so that they don’t run away with your main attraction for the ball. But I’m not even mad at the fact you didn’t deem it necessary to inaugurate me into your great plans, just at you now not even letting me do as I please with Alfred! If I’m doing your dirty work, I think I should get something out of it, no?”

The Count, ostensibly surprised, could do nothing to suppress a grin, somewhat proud of his son. It seemed that he had, in fact, underestimated him. “Ah, excuse me for not informing you. I just didn’t think you were… interested in matters of such a political nature.” While beginning his apology, he stood up from his armchair and approached his son, who was still sitting in front of him. “But I was wrong. Clearly, you’re more than capable of sensing the importance of the situation.” Herbert, while he was still crossing his arms, at least looked at his father now, one eyebrow raised. “Are you trying to soft-soap me now? Hmph.” Preparing to get up and dramatically storm out of the room, he set his feet on the ground, moving them from their former position on the cushions of the canapé.

“Well, it won’t work. I’m still angry at you. And I’m going now.” Herbert practically spit out as he attempted to get up from his velvet seat. The Count moved quickly to the now empty space next to him and put his lanky hands on his son’s shoulders, thusly preventing him from moving from the divan. Not having expected this, the younger vampire looked at his father bewilderedly, already preparing to start protesting. However, he was pre-emptively shut up by von Krolock’s appeasing words. “Don’t act like a petulant child, Herbert. You’re better than this. Clearly, I was wrong in going over your head, but don’t hold it against me.”

While talking, he intensely looked his son in the eye and tightened his grip on his shoulders. Herbert had now ceased his efforts to escape from his father’s side and begrudgingly accepted his fate. As much as he wanted to demonstrate his discontentment with his father’s antics to him, he also knew deep down that he would never do anything to hurt his son. At least not purposefully. In fact, keeping him out of his games of politics was most likely done with the exact opposite intent, namely, to protect him and spare him from dealing with his tedious subjects too much. And his father wasn’t wrong, Herbert wasn’t exactly interested in such dull things as politics, he’d describe himself more as an… aesthete, appreciating the finer things in life, like literature and the arts.

Nevertheless, Herbert understood that he planned to bite that girl he had lured to the castle tomorrow at the ball in front of all of them to establish dominance. Consequently, he also figured out why he wanted to throw those supposed vampire hunters off: to prevent them from disrupting the ball and abduct the girl. Still, the young man couldn’t understand how this entailed that he wasn’t allowed to… have some fun with Alfred on his own terms. There were very few distractions up here at the castle, and he was definitely tired of pursuing his usual diversions. As far as Herbert was aware, his father knew and even understood this. So why would he be so cruel as to restrain him from just biting Alfred immediately, especially if it only benefitted him?

“I know the temptation to bite the target of your affection immediately is… overpowering right now. Rest assured, I know how you feel. When the girl arrived here yesterday, I could barely restrain myself from…” Von Krolock’s grip tightened even more at that last sentence, his white knuckles now protruding from his pale hands. “… Ruining tomorrow’s festivities. Ripping into a mortal’s skin and just taking what you want from them is so easy… yet doing that would make you no different from the mob outside in that cemetery, lapping at every last drop of blood that they can pry from the peasants unlucky enough to happen upon them.” The expression in his eyes and the intonation of his voice grew full of more and more contempt the longer he talked, before suddenly turning affectionate once again as he started to speak of himself and Herbert.

“But you and I… we can bend those mortals to our will, make them give up their lifeblood to us out of their own volition. This is what separates us from those animals, only able to take what they want by force.” Herbert now looked at his father, unsure of what exactly he was trying to say. “Yes, yes, I know all of that. You keep reminding me, after all. But, still… why are you stopping me? Isn’t this what you wanted in the first place? No distractions at all during the ball tomorrow night, that practically anabiotic professor all on his own and defenceless.” Still being kept in his seat by his father, the younger man now slumped back, leaning on the backrest of the canapé they were both sitting on and crossing his arms. This whole intervention just didn’t make sense to Herbert, why couldn’t his father ever be content with his efforts?

Sensing his son’s dissatisfaction, Count von Krolock decided to strike a more empathetic tune. “I’m not saying you won’t be able to bite him at all. Just that you should wait until he gives up his blood to you willingly. Don’t lose your head and don’t ruin the indulgence prematurely. It will be that much more enjoyable in the end.” With his last words, he finally removed his grip from his son’s shoulders and stood up from his seat next to him.

Herbert now seemed a little more at ease, but still kept in his former rejecting position. “Hmph. I suppose you’re right. Maybe I should… tone down my efforts a little, at least as to not scare him off. He is so… bashful, it’s downright adorable.” He couldn’t suppress a small grin at the thought of Alfred’s bright red cheeks earlier when he had led him into the castle, and how hard the student had tried to mask heavily pounding heart. Of course, he had failed miserably at concealing both of those things and Herbert was delighted at how innocently Alfred reacted to his advances. In some ways, he was the exact opposite of the people Herbert usually interacted with and this only made Alfred all the more interesting to him.

All the while, this also meant that his father was most likely right about his approach being too direct. Someone so… inexperienced could probably easily be scared off, and this was the last thing either Herbert or the Count wanted. Consequently, the younger man begrudgingly admitted to himself that his father did indeed have a point. He looked at him somewhat apologetically, biting his lower lip and uncrossing his arms. “You’re right, I acted too brashly, but I will try a more toned-down approach from now on.”

Von Krolock’s facial expression now relaxed as well, forming into a relieved smile. It seemed like his son would in fact take his words to heart and go about his task in a more deliberate manner. “See, I knew you would see it my way. After all, I’m only looking out for you.” This last remark earned him a frown from his now standing son. “Don’t push it now, Papa. But I’m grateful for what you said, so thank you.” His father put his hand on Herbert’s shoulder again, now in a reassuring manner. “Still, maybe I can lend you a hand and… gently push him into your direction. We’ll see.” With this, he turned around and started walking in the direction of the heavy wooden door closing off the salon they were both reclining in. Before reaching his destination, the Count turned around once again, looking over his son.

“Just be ready for tomorrow night’s ball. I’m expecting you to be on your best behaviour, so be presentable.” Now Herbert seemed truly offended, his hands on his hips and ready to start protesting. To avoid any further discussion, von Krolock quickly continued talking. “Only teasing, of course. Not that I needed to ever worry about you looking presentable. I just meant to remind you again.” With a pointer to the enormous grandfather clock in the back end of the room, he added: “It’s getting late, so don’t idle too long now. I’ll see you tomorrow night, Herbert.”

Leaving behind his contemplative son, the Count now made way to his newly arrived guests’ lodgings. Like he had just remarked to Herbert, now was the time to make sure that that student was… sufficiently susceptible to anything that would be offered to him. Everyone, in the end, was slave to their innermost desires. It didn’t matter if they were self-proclaimed men of god or sinners, paupers or noblemen, men or women or everything in between, everyone had these dark, immoral longings which they craved to live out, in spite of society’s renunciation of them, or sometimes exactly because of it. Some people just needed some more… encouragement to bring them to the surface than others.

Von Krolock now reached into one of the pockets of his flowing cloak and retrieved from it what he had taken from the completely unsuspecting Alfred earlier. Trailing his long, slim fingers over the soft material, he wondered what the significance of this sponge was to the student. The Count had seen him clutching it even at the inn in the village, and now he had brought it on this fruitless endeavour to the castle. Clearly, this silly piece of foam meant something to Alfred if he decided to bring it everywhere. While he was pondering about the reason, von Krolock also noticed something quite peculiar. Bringing the object closer to his face, he suddenly became aware of the scent that it exuded. A melange of several different fragrances wafted from the small round object, and the Count finally knew why it was so dear to young Alfred. The blend of bellflower, cheap ale and lavender bathing soap smelled exactly like Sarah.

This development suddenly made the whole situation a lot more interesting to von Krolock. So that boy hadn’t just followed his Professor to the castle out of the goodness of his own heart. That imbecile seemed to truly think that he could rescue the girl and just run off with her, like the hero in some old folktale. The Count couldn’t help but sneer at this thought. Such naïveté. Suddenly, he could see why Herbert seemed so smitten with him. In his childlike innocence, Alfred was not unlike Sarah, actually. He had chosen her to invite to this year’s ball specifically because of this quality. The innocent were often easy to seduce, and even more easy to tempt with what they seemingly couldn’t have.

For Sarah, it was freedom, or at least the prospect of it. Of course all those promises about freeing her from a dull existence under her parents’ overbearing control had made her practically throw herself at him, just as predicted. Von Krolock’s control over the girl now seemed almost absolute, the only thing that could make her more dependent on him would be to make her drink his blood, to become a thrall, irrevocably tied to her sire. The Count chuckled again. Those vampire hunters still thought that she could be saved, but he would soon give them a live demonstration of his power over her. Just as the vampires in his court, the two of them would witness her not only willingly give up her blood to him, but also wilfully bind herself to him by drinking his blood. Only the most powerful vampires could exert such complete control over their victims, and he intended to prove himself as one again tomorrow night.

This made it even more important to ensure that there would be no disturbances, and that in turn meant that Alfred would need to be incapacitated. While von Krolock, after his discussion with his son, was now confident in his abilities to handle this task, he would make sure Alfred was set on the right path. Just like Sarah, this meant tempting him with what he so desperately desired but couldn’t seem to ever obtain. Again trailing the pillowy material of the sponge with one of his long, clawed fingernails, the Count didn’t need to ponder for long about what that might be for the young student. The very goal of his quest would be his undoing, trapping him to forever be the slave of his desires. Von Krolock sneered again. Just like Sarah, Alfred would never get the release he most desired. The girl wanted freedom above all else, but instead would doom herself to never ending imprisonment in his castle. Similarly, Alfred desired Sarah, but in giving in to that longing, he would ensure she forever remained out of his grasp.

Now having arrived at the living quarters he had assigned to his guests, von Krolock noticed the door to Alfred’s room was left slightly opened, enabling the view of a distressed looking student, seemingly rifling through all of his belongings. So he had already registered the absence of his oh so precious sponge and seemed devastated by it. Perfect. Dangling the object of his desires from his lanky, long fingers, Count von Krolock slyly began to speak: “Alfred, aren’t you missing something?”

Chapter Text

“Alfred, aren’t you missing something?”

Hearing the strange, dark, yet somehow soothing voice still echoing through his head, Alfred slowly made his way towards the cracked open door of his room. Even before resting his hand on the doorknob, fearful doubts started lurking in his mind yet again. Could he just be going crazy? Had there even been a voice just now? Had von Krolock and this cursed place just found a way into his head? Was this just some underhanded ploy to lure him out of this room, to kill him or possibly even do something worse…? Could it already be too late to save Sarah if von Krolock was truly this powerful?

No, why was he suddenly thinking such nonsense? He’d never abandon Sarah, even if it meant dying in an attempt to pry her from evil’s clutches. Or was it nonsense…? Could someone as small and unimportant as himself really hope to thwart the Count and his sinister schemes?

Confused and agitated, still unsure how to feel about the oh so inviting voice from outside, his hand jerked back from the doorknob and the student stumbled back a few paces. Between these conflicting thoughts, one thing suddenly became painfully clear to poor Alfred as he paced through the lavishly decorated suite: He’d never find a second of peaceful, much needed sleep in this hellhole, even if he ignored the mysterious force which seemed to draw him outside the door. Once again, in a soothing tone, the voice repeated his name.

“Alfred… what you seek you will only find with me.”

Oh, if only the Professor was here. He’d know what to do, after all, he somehow always knew! At least, it seemed that way to the young student. Admittedly, many of Abronsius’ exploits might look hare-brained to the casual observer, at least on first glance. Giving up his studies of history, anthropology and biology to pursue vampires of all things, in the process losing almost all goodwill of the academic community he had so arduously accumulated over the years with his reputation as a polymath, getting into seemingly nonsensical arguments with Professor van Helsing over who had discovered what first, dragging his assistant out to some remote region in Romania for the infinitesimally small chance of actually proving his theories.

But all this didn’t deter Alfred, no. On the contrary, his mentor’s sheer unwavering enthusiasm and ability to overcome all the hardships his field of study entailed were what he admired in him. Unlike his peers at the University of Königsberg, the student could see Abronsius’ genius. It had been that way since the first lecture of his Alfred had attended two years ago, when he had just enrolled into the university. Shortly after, Abronsius had taken him on as his assistant. The old professor always seemed to know what to do next, even if Alfred couldn’t for the life of him foresee it. And it always seemed to work out, at least somewhat favourably for the both of them. Truly, the Professor was someone he’d always be able to depend on, to show him the right path. If only he could ask him now, maybe he’d somehow help…

As if a direct answer to his calming thoughts, the disembodied voice echoed in his head once again.

“Seize your youth, tread a new path. Follow your heart’s desires, don’t simply listen to what a professor has to say. Only then, you can fulfil your dreams.”

Even more startled than before, Alfred began to wonder if he was truly beginning to go mad. How could the origin of that voice know what he had been thinking about just now? Yet, its promises seemed so genuine and agreeable… Maybe the voice truly didn’t mean any harm and was simply trying to help him? Unable to resist the pleasant assurances for any longer, Alfred approached the door again, gingerly placing his hand on the knob. Still, something inside him prevented him from turning it, screaming to resist, to just turn around and bury his head in the pillows, in hopes of drowning out whatever was speaking to him. Placing his hands on his ears and violently shaking his head, the young student tried to forcibly rearrange his thoughts. Seemingly regaining some semblance of control, Alfred used this artificial moment of clarity to once again think about his situation. Should he really risk venturing out of the seeming safety of his room and go looking for Sarah’s sponge and the owner of the mysterious voice? What would Professor Abronsius do? Should he just go over to his room and seek strength in numbers? However, as if the echo from outside was somehow able to perceive this, too, it continued coaxing him.

“Those as young and astute as yourself don’t need a senile fool to command them. He’ll never understand what drives you. He doesn’t even know why you’re really here, no?”

This was enough to push the young student’s fragile mind over the edge. Not even realizing the door had been just slightly ajar the entire time, Alfred forcefully opened it, storming outside.

Not even knowing what he had expected to find in the looming hallway, he was still somewhat disappointed when he found himself all alone once again. His shoulders, still raised from the agitated burst through the door, now slowly drooped down as Alfred calmly began walking further away from his room. Had he only imagined the voice in the end? Seemingly not wanting to accept this disappointment, the student suddenly stopped, turning back towards the door to his room. He had wandered off for a considerable distance, but still hadn’t found the source of the mysterious, yet so alluring voice. Nothing in the dark hallway seemed to hide his secret partner of conversation. The only dimly lit passage made it difficult to make out any details, however. Pilasters of black marble, with delicately carved, lavish Corinthian capitals sat atop of them, lined the sides of the tall walkway. They were intercepted by equally dark wooden panelling and the occasional painting or portrait, giving the whole arrangement the look of a mysterious colonnade during a starless, sombre night.

Many of the images on the walls seemed to depict some sort of landscape domestic to Transylvania. Mountains nestled among wild forests or atop dangerously roaring rivers, small scraggly roads cutting through the very same mountains, and rural villages, made up of what seemed like almost unrecognizable little dots from the distance of the point of view. The portraits among them, however, seemed to exude a much drearier influence. When Alfred moved to closer inspect the likeness of an older woman in a rose-coloured ruffled dress and hat, he couldn’t help but feel like her dark eyes were following him along. Somewhat unsettled by this, the student decided to abandon his former course of action. With his uneasy feeling slowly creeping back up on him, Alfred now squinted back in the direction of his room for the night, intending to go back to what he perceived as relative safety for the remainder of the night. When his eyes darted back from left to right in the narrow hallway, dread began to set in. The door to his room was nowhere to be seen! Or at least, it seemed like it to Alfred. Had he really wandered this far off? How would he find his way back to the Professor? A million panicked questions whirring inside of his head at once, he took a few steps back from the portrait of the lady in pink.

Upon his third step, Alfred hit something solid and rapidly spun around, now facing the tall frame of the Count von Krolock and standing directly in front of him. Quickly, the student backed off in the opposite direction, soon finding himself trapped in between the imposing man and the wall with the painting. Had he not consciously remarked the Count’s daunting height before, it was painfully apparent to him now. Towering over him, almost two heads taller than him, Alfred had never felt as small as right in this moment. While he was by no means of extraordinarily height himself, he reached above many of his fellow students, so being this much littler than von Krolock only intimidated him further.

In addition, while Alfred was nothing short of lanky and almost sickly thin, the Count’s cloak adorned a set of broad shoulders and muscular arms. Though not being extensively defined, it was obvious that the older man was much more strongly built than the young student. The latter could clearly see as much, even through his lavish attire that did its best to mask the exact bodily features of its wearer. Strangely, Alfred couldn’t seem to remember having seen any man looking even remotely similar who was also of the Count’s age.

On second thought, he wasn’t even sure of what his age was, exactly. Both his body and face seemed eerily young, almost like that of a man in his twenties, not much older than Alfred himself and barely grazed by old age. Yet, he could clearly see some wrinkles creasing in the corners of his eyes and mouth, as well as on his long, outstretched fingers. His long, black hair looked coarser than that of Herbert, but somehow not any less beautiful. While his son’s silky locks had shone to outdo even the most excessive silver threads of his finery, the Count’s dark tresses perfectly framed his pale face with an alluring contrast. Again a sign of his age, it had started to grey only the slightest bit at his temples, growing from there on out into the lengths. Just like when he had first seen him, the man was like an enigma to Alfred. He couldn’t even hope to make out something as trivial as his age, while the older man could seemingly read him like an open book. Still startled by the immediacy of his encounter, Alfred now clutched the wall behind him, as if in some feeble event to find a way out from the two obstacles he was trapped between.

He must have shown his terror quite ostensibly, as his vis-à-vis seemed fairly amused, extending his arms in a calming gesture as he once again closed in on him. “Alfred, no need to be so afraid of me. I won’t hurt you.” The melodious tone of his voice began to ring. The student desperately wanted to believe the much bigger man in front of him, but something about his tone of voice seemed off, almost mocking, so he averted his gaze shyly. “Y-your Excellency… I didn’t mean to offend… Truly, I…” He blurted out, again without meeting the Count’s eyes directly and his hands fidgeting nervously in front of his stomach. The hint of amusement now gone from his expression, the latter extended one of his bony hands towards Alfred’s head. First only cupping his face gently and trailing his cheekbone with the long, claw-like nail of his index finger, von Krolock then seized the younger man’s chin and forcefully turned his head to face his own. Now directly looking into Alfred’s eyes, he continued to speak.

“Now, now… what did I tell you? What you seek you will only find with me.” In the heat of the moment, it took Alfred a couple of seconds, but then it clicked. So it had been the Count behind that mysterious voice all along… Follow your heart’s desires, he had said. In some part of his consciousness, Alfred knew that this was all that he truly wanted, to abandon all semblance of morale and to just live out whatever he wished, whatever that might be.

But he simply couldn’t do that, could he? He had a life at home in Königsberg, a family that expected him to be on his best behaviour, a university that would tolerate nothing but the highest honours in his academic pursuits. And what would the Professor think of him, even now in this moment, meddling around with a creature of the night, not even attempting to fight back? Deep down, he had to admit to himself that the exchange with the Count made him excited, eliciting the same warm, giddy feeling from when he had talked to Herbert before. Had he been unsure before about whether it was a pleasant sensation, there was no doubt in his mind anymore now. Von Krolock’s intent, dark eyes fixated on him, his alluring lips sneering just the slightest bit, his cold but tender grasp on his chin, almost seeming to stroke him like the tender embrace of a lover… all that seemed so strangely pleasing in this moment.

What would people say if they knew he had such immoral thoughts, at the touch of another man no less? Alfred knew that he wasn’t supposed to give in to any sort physical temptation unless he was married, to a fine young woman, of adequate status and reputation of course. And even then, these feelings were something to keep behind closed doors, never to be even spoken about. Doubly so when they concerned another man. Even though he had never witnessed it first hand, Alfred had heard many stories of his fellow students growing perhaps a bit too close to one another and promptly being exmatriculated from the university when the rumours grew too loud to ignore. That is, if they were lucky. From his early childhood years, he remembered two older gentlemen, living just a few houses down from his family’s home. Each day when returning home from his grammar school, he’d see them sitting on their balcony, drinking afternoon tea together and greeting young Alfred when he walked past. They had both been bachelors despite their already advanced age, renting a flat in the large town house together. While not entirely uncommon or uncouth per se, rumours had started to form around them in the same way as they would around his classmates later. One day, when he made his way home from school, they were no longer sitting at their small table, playing cards or chess with their afternoon delight. Instead, the flat was advertised for rent again, explicitly calling for single bachelors or small families only. At the time, Alfred didn’t know what had happened to them and his parents wouldn’t tell him, only that the two were in jail where they belonged. As an adult, he could imagine what sort of fate they had met, even though he did not dare to think of it.

But in this moment, all these thoughts somehow seemed so far away, as if no judgment could ever reach him, not from the people in Königsberg, not even from the Professor. Entirely forlorn in the Count’s gaze, Alfred did nothing but stare back at him in awe. Even though he was now sure he enjoyed the vague feeling rising from his stomach into his red cheeks, he still didn’t know what to do with it. Seemingly sensing his insecurity still lingering, von Krolock continued reassuring him with the most honeyed words.

“I know what you’re feeling, what you’re thinking, Alfred. I can feel your longing for more. Trust me, so I can guide you to your innermost desires. To Sarah, and to more than you could ever imagine.”

With the last few words, he produced a small, round bundle from the inside of his cloak and placed it inside Alfred’s hands. Bewilderedly, the student turned his stare to look at what had just been given to him, von Krolock’s grip loosening to allow it. Instantly recognizing Sarah’s sponge, the object he had set out to retrieve, Alfred’s eyes quickly darted back up to von Krolock’s face.

“Who are you?” Was the only thing he managed to articulate, the simple sentence heavy with the weight of a thousand other questions. His inner conflict and confusion ever apparent, Alfred tried to avert his gaze out of fear of the answer. This managed to provoke a small chuckle from the older man, now tightening his hold on the young student once again. “An explorer of the further regions of experience, a demon to some, an angel to others. And I’m inviting you to taste my pleasures, for I have such sights to show you.”

Expertly avoiding any direct response that could frighten the younger man, von Krolock chose his words carefully, yet still answered what Alfred asked of him and reassuring him in the process. To his great satisfaction, the latter seemed to respond in the intended way, finally starting to relax in his touch, still fixated on his eyes.

“Now, that’s better.” Slowly moving his hands from Alfred’s chin to gently stroke his cheek again, the Count now leaned down to him and whispered in his ear, eliciting a quiet shiver. “The fulfilment of your desires is closer than ever before, if you only let me show you what it means to truly live. Revel in the feeling of giving yourself up and release the chains of your morality when it is offered to you.”

After uttering the last word, he quickly backed away from Alfred, leaving him almost starved for the touch that had been there previously. Before the student could compose himself and look at von Krolock again, he had vanished almost as quickly as he had appeared behind him.