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Isaac didn't believe in the myth of happiness. However, for a time he had been content - as content as he could ever be. Serving his new Master had made him feel honoured, respected and seen for the person he was. Dracula valued him above the entirety of the human race, those cruel, mindless creatures that Isaac had long denounced.

When Dracula came into his isolated house in the middle of the desert and reaffirmed their friendship with words of remembrance, the arcane master thought that he was chosen by a higher power.

To be remembered by a being so immensely wise, perfect and powerful as the Prince of Darkness was the greatest honour possible. It was beyond anything Isaac could have imagined for himself, let alone hoped for. And for a while, it seemed that that honour was the very reason for Isaac’s existence. The pain and trials that his life had served him had been but a preparation for his great purpose. They were meant to teach him how corrupted the human race had become and to make him the perfect general for Dracula's war against humankind.

But then, not long after Isaac had taken his place as Dracula’s Forgemaster and General, the vampire returned to the castle with another human in toll.

Dracula had once told him that he was unique and Isaac had taken great pride in that.

However, at present he was being told that he was to become a part of a set. But with all the respect that Isaac had for his Master’s wisdom, he couldn’t quite perceive himself as a pair with any other human, least of all a man such as Hector.

Isaac had learned the harshest lessons about human evil at the hands of his slavers and all of them had been European men. So despite Hector’s colouring not quite fitting the stereotype, since the newcomer’s features betrayed that he was from the region of the Aegean Sea, Isaac braced himself for receiving looks of disdain. He had traveled enough to know that even in areas where different cultures met, such as the islands from where Hector came from, racism still ran rampant. Thus he fully expected Dracula’s new servant to look at him the same way that all lighter-skinned people did - as if Isaac were an animal, an object - a thing that only existed to be used.

But Hector proved to be more complicated than the majority of the white race that Isaac had met. His blue eyes didn’t waver and his expression remained aloof when he was introduced to his fellow Forgemaster. For all the reaction Hector gave to Isaac’s dark skin, his shaved head and the geometric tattoos, he might have been blind.

“Pleased to meet you,” was Hector's curt greeting, accompanied with a toss of ashen hair when he nodded.

Isaac suspected that the man was toying with him, but he let no hesitation show as he returned the nod. With the corner of his eyes he looked for Dracula’s reaction and was glad to see the satisfaction on his Master’s face.

“And I you,” he responded politely, certain that this was what Dracula required of him.

“I would be glad if you two can learn to work together,” Dracula addressed them together, confirming Isaac’s assumptions for his Master’s wishes. “Hector is an alchemist and a necromancer. He could use your knowledge of the arcane arts for developing tools that could help him practice his craft with more efficiency.”

“An arcane focus, to be precise,” Hector piped in, and it annoyed Isaac to hear this lesser being all but interrupt the Prince of Darkness. “Dracula told me that you have created one for yourself.”

Isaac’s fingers itched to grip the hilt of his ceremonial dagger, his most prized possession and the pinnacle of his art. It came as no surprise that Hector desired what was his. But if Dracula willed it...

“If that is my Lord’s desire, I shall help you craft such a tool for yourself,” Isaac answered smoothly, bowing to Dracula without sparing a glance to his new ‘colleague’. Hector sickened him already.

...

After Hector had been sent away to be shown around the castle by a servant, Dracula invited Isaac to his study.

The tall vampire collapsed into the chair before the hearth. Some thoughtful servant had lit the fire in anticipation for their Lord's return.

Isaac waited for his Master to speak. As of late, Dracula seemed worn down - as if the coming war and the enormity of the task of wiping out the mortal race pressed down on him with the weight of the world. But they were not there to discuss his Master’s sorrows. Isaac doubted that he'd ever be made privy to his Master’s true mind. And that was fair - Isaac didn’t think he deserved the honour. No one deserved the entirety of Dracula’s mind and soul. But it pained Isaac that solitude was the price Dracula had to pay for his utter perfection.

“Something troubles you,” it was a statement rather than a question. There was little wonder in that - Dracula understood him better than he could understand himself.

“You didn't tell me that our new associate would be human,” Isaac ventured.

In private there was little use for formalities and titles - Dracula was his friend and he knew the dept of Isaac's soul.

“I didn’t know if he would agree to come into my service, and so I saw no need to trouble you in advance,” Dracula disclosed patiently. Isaac valued every word his Master said, especially when it was intended for his ears only. Every explanation given was a precious gift - one that so few deserved.

“Hector is unlike any human you’ve met,” Dracula continued. “I think you will find a lot in common with him, if you deem to get to know him.”

“Get to know him…” Isaac repeated thoughtfully. “And that is your wish as well?”

“Yes. I think it will be useful if my two Forgemasters are well acquainted with each other’s strengths and weaknesses,” Dracula answered, his eyes aglow with the flames of the fireplace. Isaac couldn’t help but admire the inhuman beauty of their red color. “I entrust this task to you, Isaac, for I fear Hector lacks even the most basic skills to approach you.”

That knowledge caught Isaac by surprise. He had assumed that Hector would be the better adjusted between the two of them.

“I shall make the first step then,” he vowed, eager to please his Master.

“You should know that Hector has spent the majority of his life surrounded by books and animals,” Dracula cautioned. “And he despises humans just as much as you do.”

"I shall remember that," Isaac bowed before taking the hint and dismissing himself.

He left his Master's study and set out to find the only other human in the castle. He didn’t trust Hector and was certain that they would never become anything other than reluctant compatriots. Dracula wanted them to collaborate and serve him better and Isaac was certain that he could accommodate such a modest request. It also meant that if Hector was planning any treachery, Isaac was going to be close to spot and unroot it before it became a problem.

Hector’s newly appointed quarters were on the opposite side of Dracula’s castle to Isaac’s own. The possible implications of it didn’t escape the arcanist as he walked into the empty, echoing vaults.

Hector’s lean figure was crouched by some wooden crates that presumably held his baggage. He appeared engrossed in unpacking his tools and books, getting settled into the new place.

Isaac let his boot squeak on the polished stone of the floor, giving a warning of his otherwise soundless approach. Hector’s grey locks shook when he startled. His expression, however, was the same unconcerned mask when he finally turned to appraise Isaac with his cold eyes.

Isaac endured the guarded scrutiny, waiting for Hector to utter a greeting. The new Forgemaster acknowledge him simply with a low hum and a nod before he turned back to unpacking his items.

“I have come to ask how you are getting settled,” Isaac offered coolly. He trusted that his tone implied that he wasn’t there to help.

Hector ignored the remark, standing up and dusting his simple, peasant’s attire. He turned to look squarely at Isaac. He certainly wasn’t the typical white man - his eyes were a cold, lifeless blue; his skin was darker than most of the population of Wallachia as if he was of poor descent, his ancestors probably forced to work under the hot southern sun... But his hair was his strangest attribute - it had the greyest colour that Isaac had ever seen, as if Hector was already an old man, despite his youthful appearance.

“You dislike me,” Hector said with a note of conclusiveness and then he turned back to his work. “Don’t bother trying to pretend otherwise. I am used to people disliking me.”

Isaac lifted an eyebrow at that straight-forward remark.

“I despise all humans, not just you,” Isaac answered honestly. Dracula wanted Hector to get to know him, so it was best to start sharing some information.

“Then we have something in common,” Hector answered without looking back at him.

Isaac smiled slightly at that.

“So you despise humans, because they tend to dislike you,” he prodded.

“Amongst other things,” Hector shrugged, but his tone was loaded and Isaac found that he could relate. Humans had done more to Isaac than simply given him the displeasure of their dislike after all.

The silence stretched as Isaac stood watching the newcomer with enduring suspicion and arms crossed over his chest.

A rustle nearby disturbed the stillness. Isaac traced the sound with his cautious eyes. Hector stood up and followed it to a crate, which he opened.

A small black shape jumped out of the previously sealed crate and for a moment Isaac was appalled by the idea of storing a living animal inside a wooden box... that is, until he realised that the animal wasn’t alive at all.

The corpse of what must have been a puppy jumped around Hector's feet, wagging the remains of its tail in excitement. Hector cooed to the dead creature and petted its head before picking it up and nuzzling it to his face.

Isaac kept his expression neutral as he observed Hector play with the resurrected puppy. There was a genuine smile on the other man's previously dispassionate face. The undead puppy licked at its owner enthusiastically.

“Dracula said you like animals,” Isaac noted.

“Animals are pure,” Hector said, setting down the puppy with care. “Unlike humans they don’t lie, manipulate of hurt others out of malice.”

Isaac watched Hector with newfound appraisal. It seemed that he had misjudged and Dracula had been right - Hector was unlike any other human he had ever met. Isaac made a mental note that he should never had doubted his Master’s judgement.

“Tell me of yourself,” he prompted and Hector peered at him curiously before that expression too drowned in the sea of his nonchalance.

“I am a necromancer, same as yourself,” was all the answer Isaac got.

“And beyond that?”

“There is nothing else,” Hector shrugged. Then he hesitated and continued with a little less certainty. “Are you asking me about my talents and achievements, or do you want to know my personal history?”

“A bit of both,” Isaac suggested.

“I was the son of an alchemist. I observed him in secret, read his books and learned how to resurrect dead creatures when I was a child. My parents thought I was unnatural and hated me for it.”

Hector reached into a pouch in his belt and retrieved two arcane coins.

“I stole these from my father. He never knew how to use them anyway.”

Hector approached him, offering a good view of the symbols inscribed on the matte metal surfaces.

Isaac didn’t expect Hector to actually give him his treasures, but the other necromancer did just that, handing the coins over.

Their fingers brushed during the brief exchange and Isaac was surprised that there was no twitch of disgust on Hector’s face. He had come to expect it from light-skinned men, who avoided his touch as if it would taint them somehow. But Hector’s face revealed no emotion as he stood almost uncomfortably close and waited for Isaac to examine the coins.

The Forgemaster filed away that interesting revelation for later inspection and looked at the coins in his hands. They were truly ancient, inscribed in symbols of Adamic. With the right archaic focus, they could become more powerful than even Isaac’s ceremonial dagger for the creation of Innocent Devils.

“I could use these to create an archaic focus for you,” Isaac observed.

“It will be enough if you provide me with your research,” Hector objected. “I prefer to make my own tools.”

Isaac turned the coins in his hand. He could feel them buzzing with energy, but it was different to the one that ran through his ceremonial dagger. He doubted he could attune to it enough to ever unlock the use of them like Hector had done. When he was a child no less... That realisation struck Isaac with a mixture of awe and jealousy. He brushed those unbecoming emotions aside and returned the coins to their owner.

“Dracula has asked me to assist you in whatever way I can, and I shall do so,” he stated firmly.

“Very well then,” Hector relented too easily. He turned back to his baggage and Isaac was just about to leave him for the time being when he was addressed: “What about yourself?”

“What about myself?” Isaac couldn't quite hide his suspicion.

“I should like to know you too,” Hector explained matter-of-factly, looking over his shoulder to meet Isaac’s dark eyes.

“I was born a slave and as a boy I was purchased by a renegade magician,” Isaac answered without inflection. He didn’t relish his life-story, but he wasn’t ashamed of it either. He had learned to accept what had happened - see it as a necessary evil - a path that took him to Dracula and his true purpose. “I was his man-servant, and his apprentice in anything but rights and title. Of course, I was never meant to be anything but his well-educated, trained dog.”

Hector’s eyes widened just a little, but he said nothing and Isaac continued.

“He was cruel to me and eventually I killed him and escaped. However, I was hunted. Some sought to make me their servant, while others valued the parts of me as rare alchemy ingredients.”

“I am aware,” Hector nodded. “I’ve read my father’s grimoire."

“And what do you see me as? Are you going to wait for the right moment to skin me and make powder out of my liver?” Isaac challenged.

“No,” Hector shook his head, his ashen hair flying around his face like the feathers of a preening bird. “You are my colleague and I would much prefer you alive. Besides, my mind doesn't turn to alchemy as much as necromancy.”

“That’s a relief to hear,” Isaac answered sardonically.

“I trust you won’t hurt my pets either?” Hector nodded to the little corpse puppy scratching its remaining ear.

Isaac had almost forgotten about the unnatural creature.

“Certainly not,” he answered truthfully. “What amuses you is your own business and I don’t intend to get involved in any way.”

“It’s more than amusement to me,” Hector insisted. “I want to help them.”

He gestured to the puppy.

“Cezar used to be someone's pet. Until his owner decided to beat him to death. I wanted to give him a better life.”

Once again Isaac was surprised by the other man. That outburst of emotion over a dead animal...

“Noted,” was all he said.

Hector knelt down by Cezar, stroking the puppy's deformed head. One of the eyes was missing, while the other glowed with blue light.

“I shall leave you now,” Isaac said, turning on his heel. He had a lot to assess and it was time for a retreat. Besides, there was Devil Forging to be done. The war wasn't going to pause just because Dracula wanted him to make a friend.

“Thank you,” he heard said behind him. It was quiet, but Isaac’s hearing was keen and he caught the next words as well, “for understanding…”

Chapter Text

Building an arcane focus for Hector was considerably less tedious than Isaac had expected. Soon after the other Forgemaster was settled in the Castle he visited Isaac’s quarters and they laboured together to create a tool suitable for Hector’s talents and preferences. It appeared that the alchemist's coins worked on the principle of generating a spark, and with Hector’s help, Isaac forged a massive steel hammer and a gigantic stone slab to serve as metal and flint. The coins were encrusted into the hammer, and every time Hector stuck the slab, sparks of magic flew, giving power to his necromancy.

Isaac had expected to hate every minute of being in another human’s presence, but when they worked together Hector was mostly quiet, concentrated and practical. Once or twice he said awkward things that implied wanting to get to know Isaac, but the latter found that it was easy to brush those instances aside with a short dismissal or a narrowed glare. And with the amount of labour they got done together quickly, Isaac found that often he didn’t mind if Hector sneaked in quiet questions about his life, as long as they weren’t too personal. He even indulged him a couple to times. So once their common project was complete, Isaac found himself almost missing the helpful pair of extra hands.

But for all his talents, the other necromancer had more than a few eccentricities. Like a cat Hector had the repulsive habit of venturing into the woods on his own and bringing back dead things. Isaac didn’t exactly spy on Hector, but it did make getting to know him easier than struggling to make conversation. So, Isaac kept tabs on the other man and learnt from a distance as much as he could.

Some of the other inhabitants of the castle were making rumbling noises against the growing collection of undead pets in Hector’s quarters, but Dracula was firm in his decision that his Forgemasters could have whatever they liked and that no one was to harass them.

And despite the sickeningly sweet smell of rot that whiffed from Hector’s clothing, Isaac knew that everyone was aware of how fearsomely effective the other Forgemaster was in his craft. With his new tools Hector created dozens of new species of Innocent Devils, each new creature more powerful and horrifying than the one before. It wasn’t long before Isaac begun to realise that Hector was his better and a bitter sense of rivalry began eating away at his calm demeanour every time he looked at the other necromancer.

Worst of all, Dracula seemed to favour Hector more and more. Isaac could see the way his Master coddled the other man, lowering his tone to praising notes and offering validation for Hector’s every achievement. Isaac wasn’t blind to the way Hector soaked it all up, standing just a little straighter and working just a little harder, after every kind word. But despite knowing what his Master was doing, Isaac couldn't help but feel jealous.

...

“You lied to him earlier,” Isaac addressed the vampire after Hector had been dismissed and the echo of his footsteps had died down the corridor.

Dracula sat with his chin propped up on his hand, looking at the fireplace in the study with the kind of listless expression that Isaac had grown used to seeing from him over the past few months. It worried him that his Master was not taking pleasure in their armies’ victories, nor did he seem interested in anything beyond the war. The vampire looked exhausted, and Isaac had a nagging suspicion that his Master had not fed in a very long time.

“And what do you think of that, Isaac,” Dracula answered tiredly.

“I think that he’s not ready for the truth,” Isaac supposed. “Perhaps he would never be ready.”

“Perhaps,” Dracula answered softly.

He was very tired, Isaac could see that, and he wasn’t certain if he should push the topic of his own insecurities regarding his place as Dracula’s closest associate. Instead the Forgemaster saved his worries for his Lord’s well-being.

“How are the two of you getting on,” Dracula asked, surprising Isaac with the choice of topic.

“I find him… acceptable,” Isaac said honestly. He didn’t know what else to say about his fellow Forgemaster. Hector was certainly odd, but who was Isaac to judge? Hector served their Master well. That was all that concerned Isaac in the end. Or so he told himself.

“You seem to disapprove of him.”

There was no use hiding things from his Master - Dracula could read him like an open book.

“Tell me why that is.”

Isaac chose his next words carefully.

“Perhaps I’m not entirely sure of his motivations beyond serving you, my Lord,” the arcanist divulged. “He seems to hold on to his misguided idea of a merciful cull of humanity’s numbers. I am not certain how he’d react when he finds out the truth.”

“You are the only one who knows the truth, Isaac,” Dracula said and his General felt aglow with the validation. He almost smiled. “Despite that, I would like you to be friends. It will be just the two of you left when this is over.”

“I don’t need human companionship,” Isaac proclaimed.

Dracula didn’t deign that with an answer.

The barbed whip played its slow, rhythmic tune as it whooshed through the air. With every slap against his bare back Isaac found peace.

To say that he was used to the pain would be a lie. No one could grow used to their skin being flayed off again and again every night. But that was just the point. Isaac didn’t want to become immune to the whip’s bite - he needed it to remind him of all the things he was prone to forgetting.

Living in Dracula’s secluded castle, away from the mass of uneducated bigots that sought to hurt anything that they didn’t understand, had made the need for his sessions even greater. The comforts that his Master had afforded him were a double-edged sword. His strength had grown as a result of the regular meals, the time to practice his craft and his fighting skills, and the restful sleep. However, the comfortable bed, the lack of persecution and the quiet atmosphere had also served to soften him. With such luxuries it was easy to forgive and to forget all the pains that humanity had inflicted upon him. He needed to remember…

Swoosh - slap, swoosh - slap… the whip sang and the pain was grounding, almost hypnotising. Isaac was so deep in his trance that he nearly missed Hector’s presence.

Swoosh… and he caught the whip, winding it safely around his free hand without missing a beat. He looked up from his seat on the ledge, meeting Hector's impassive blue eyes.

Godbrand had called his practice sick. Others had used unkinder words to describe what he called self-discipline. Isaac waited to hear what Hector’s verdict would be.

“Are you finished,” his fellow Forgemaster asked and Isaac raised an eyebrow in silent question.

Was that all? Did Hector truly remain unfazed by the barbed whip and the blood running down Isaac’s spine?

“No,” he answered, rising to his feet and hanging the whip on its stand. “But it can wait. Why are you here, Hector?”

“No particular purpose in mind. Wanted to see what you get up to in your free time. Now I know.”

That was probably the most Hector had ever spoken to him in one breath. Isaac didn’t care what Hector thought of him. He didn’t care…

“And what do you think of it?”

“Honestly, I don’t understand you,” Hector shrugged. “Why do this to yourself? Did others not hurt you enough?”

“What if I enjoy it?” Isaac smiled darkly. He relished the way it made Hector squirm with discomfort.

“Oh.”

It was amusing to see the other necromancer knocked off balance by such a small remark. Isaac felt tempted to play with him a little more.

“If this is not an urgent matter, do you mind if I continue,” he asked casually and walked over to pick up the whip once again. Hector’s wide-eyed expression was… a little too satisfying.

Isaac managed not to smirk as he knelt down on the floor and resumed his earlier activities. The pain was sobering - it had that effect. It reminded him of the corruption that ran within him. It reminded him that he shouldn’t have been enjoying teasing Hector so much. Isaac certainly shouldn’t have been growing aroused while Hector watched him self flagellate.

He hit himself just a little harder for that. The renewed pain was making him sweat. He deserved its punishment.

“I will leave you to it…” he heard Hector say, but his voice seemed to be coming from far away. The haze of red clouded Isaac’s mind and for that he only hit himself harder.

He was alone again, but he felt that on that day he needed punishment more than usual. What had gone through his mind earlier… Yes, his flesh was weak. His body needed purifying. He should never had indulged in playing games with Hector. It served no purpose. The only thing that mattered was Dracula’s purpose. The only thing…

Later Isaac was too raw for sleep. He had continued the ritual for as long as he could bear to hold the whip and his body ached from it. He concentrated on his work, bringing night creatures to life, serving his Master’s purpose.

Hector never returned for whatever it was that he had wanted. Isaac reminded himself that he didn’t care either way.

Chapter Text

While the sun was up almost all the inhabitants of the Castle slept, but the Devil Forgemasters labored.

No matter how many new corpses were transformed into Innocent Devils, Isaac and Hector’s work was never done.

There were human uprisings - after the initial success of Dracula’s forces, the shock had begun to wear off and as resilient as any parasite, mankind had begun to adapt and retaliate. Lots of night creatures never returned and that meant that the Forgemasters had to work harder to compensate.

Isaac found peace in the constant exertion. His muscles ached, but with the work he grew stronger, leaner. It also took his mind off irrelevant thoughts and desires and let him focus on his purpose.

Despite the labor, after sunset both Forgemasters were expected to attend and advice Dracula on the war strategy. Isaac had never lead a war before, but all his Master truly needed from him was insight into the human mind.

Dracula converged with his two human generals, asking them to predict the minds of their own species, find weaknesses, exploit advantages... Had Isaac ever doubted Hector’s sympathies, he did so no more - his fellow necromancer came up with ever more practical and effective ways to ambush settlements and block supply roads, ensuring the deaths of thousands.

Hector’s plans had only one flaw and that was that he wanted the killing done quickly, with no needless suffering. He should have known that their Master didn’t care about the manner in which it was done. Isaac despised how Hector was getting away with his impertinence. Dracula was showing him favoritism by giving him leave to speak his thoughts, and Hector kept questioning their Lord’s methods.

Isaac suspected that the reason why Hector was allowed to get away with it was that he was the better Forgemaster. And although Isaac could understand and accept that he was bested at skill, it stung like nothing else to be failing his Master in comparison to the other human. But for what Isaac couldn’t give in necromancy he was going to make up with loyalty.

...

Naturally, they were both mistrusted by the vampire community. The more their power as Dracula’s advisors grew, the more the other generals despised them. Some of them had traveled from very far away to join the Prince of Darkness on his quest to end humanity, and they were furious to see two humans placed above them on the power ladder.

Their disdain didn’t bother Isaac. He brushed it off with the ease of habit. After all, he had spent the majority of his life being treated as inferior. And also, the court’s assessment was a fair one in this case - he was human, an impure and corrupt creature - they were vampires. They really were his betters, but Dracula was their better and therefore they had to accept his judgement. For that reason only, Isaac stood his ground against any jeers and remarks flung at him.

He wondered how Hector was taking the treatment. By the stony look of indifference on his fellow Forgemaster’s face, it seemed that Hector was completely unconcerned by being ostracized by everyone around him. Isaac couldn’t help but admit that it was an admirable trait, one that he wished he had learned sooner in life.

Dracula dismissed them together from his study. Their Master seemed even more weary than usual, after having to shout at his vampiric subjects when they had once again refused to accept the human generals’ leadership. Isaac took it as a personal failure of his, and vowed in his mind to make certain that he was respected - even if it only mattered, so that he could afford Dracula some peace.

Hector walked close behind him, their paths converging for a long corridor walk before they would each take to their separate wings.

“Isaac.”

Isaac slowed down and stopped.

“Yes,” he drawled in warning, as he turned to face Hector.

Perhaps it was unnecessary to attempt to intimidate the other Forgemaster - Hector had proven himself not the cowardly type. Still, Isaac needed something to hide his own surprise at being addressed so privately.

“I wonder why you disagreed with me earlier,” Hector begun. “Surely an orderly attack on Wallachia is necessary. There is little use of this chaos. We are not winning the war - we are… winging it.”

That again.

“Dracula does not wish for order,” Isaac informed him. Irritation rose within his chest. When was Hector going to learn that they were not supposed to question their Lord!? They simply had to obey!

“He doesn’t know what he wishes - he’s tired, and -”

And Dracula had shown so much favouritism to this ungrateful creature. It was an injustice, one that made Isaac’s blood seethe in his veins.

“Enough! If you have any frustrations, you should voice them in his presence,” Isaac’s tone was full of warning.

“I am simply concerned that he fails to realise just how much opposition we are facing here,” Hector ran a hand through his hair. After his months-long stay in the Castle, his hair had become healthy and clean, locks looking more like spun silver than like spiderwebs.

Hector had come a long way from the village necromancer stinking of rot. Standing as tall and as strong as Isaac, wearing the sleek uniform of a general, identical to Isaac’s own, Hector looked… like he was being well looked after.

“The other generals will never take us seriously if we don’t present a plan of attack soon,” Hector continued and his voice betrayed agitation. Isaac couldn’t help but notice that Hector used the pronoun “us” as if they were something other than two very different entities.

It almost gave him pause for what he intended to say.

“Maybe others would take you more seriously if you stop playing with your little pets,” Isaac told him in a patronising tone that aimed to hurt.

“I thought we won’t ridicule each other over our hobbies,” Hector snapped, rising to the bait just like Isaac had known he would. “What of you - everyone knows you enjoy pain!”

“And what of it,” Isaac challenged, heat flaring in his face despite having expected that coming. Anger made him see red and he advanced on his rival with every weapon he had in his arsenal.

“I’m not sure I understand you, Hector,” he began, approaching slowly until they were standing close. “Why are you so transfixed with what I do with myself? Are you curious about it from some philosophical point of view, or do you want to know about my sexual preferences?”

Hector lowered his eyes. Isaac could have left it at that - the argument was won - Hector wasn’t about to answer.

However, something dark and twisted rejoiced in the other man’s submission and Isaac couldn’t stop himself from taking another menacing step forward.

“I will tell you about it if you so wish to know,” he stressed, a small smile tugging at his lips. Hector kept avoiding his eyes and it only served to excite him.

“Pain and pleasure are opposites. So how could one enjoy pain,” Isaac breathed. “Maybe pain has been my teacher and for that I am grateful for the lessons it has taught me. Maybe without pain I wouldn’t have realised the harshest truths about the world. As for the rest...”

Isaac’s heart picked up despite himself, and he licked his lips as he leaned closer to murmur directly into Hector’s ear.

“Yes, pain arouses me,” he divulged darkly. “I like how it feels when the whip strikes me, when the pain makes everything fade away. It’s oblivion and release. Do you know what I’m talking about?”

Hector put his hand on Isaac’s chest, but Isaac resisted the pressure, relishing the harsh feeling of Hector’s palm digging into his pectoral muscle.

“But more than receiving it, I like giving it,” Isaac whispered into the other necromancer’s ear. “The feeling of power. Of control. My, my… How could I not enjoy that?”

Isaac felt Hector tremble and grinned wickedly. It appeared that he had completely destroyed his rival - Hector was horrified, unable to move...

The fingers on his chest dug into Isaac’s clavicle. It took a moment for Isaac to realise that he wasn’t being pushed away - quite the opposite - Hector was grasping at him, pulling him closer.

Shock and confusion washed over Isaac. He stepped away as if burned, but managed to school his expression to a neutral mask. Hector’s hand was still gripping his tunic.

“Careful where your hands wonder, Forgemaster,” Isaac shot Hector his coldest glare, bringing up his armour and his shields against the other man’s blue eyes. Roughly he grabbed the other necromancer’s wrist and shoved him away.

“I want nothing from you,” Isaac spat and turned on his heel, storming down the corridor and away from the strange confrontation.

It wasn’t a retreat - he merely had places to be and no time to waste with useless, childish games. He certainly wasn’t running away.

Isaac needed extra self-discipline that night. He couldn’t lie to himself that he had lost control. He had wanted to horrify Hector and send him away running. However, things had not gone as planned. It was his own fault for letting excitement and lust dictate his words and actions. Such crass emotions were unfit for him and needed to be eradicated.

Whoosh - slap, whoosh - slap…

The familiar tune lulled him under its spell.

The red haze of pain was upon him and within it he could forget his mind. Nothing existed when he entered this state, and he could remember…

He remembered his first master - the cruel, ignorant pig that Isaac had thought he loved. In the deep haze of his trance, Isaac felt no disgust - no judgement - just acceptance for what had happened. This was his place for learning, for discipline, for self-perfection.

Whoosh - slap, whoosh …

He remembered how his master had punished him with the same kind of cruel whip. The kind of whip that could take a life. He remembered the cruel words and the tears that had ran over a boy’s face. There was no such thing as love. No such thing…

He remembered being hunted. He remembered himself running through the desert, his teeth and knuckles bloodied by the mercenaries that he had to fight to escape. He had bit off a man’s ear and taken out his eyes with his bare hands. He recalled those shrieking screams. His bloodied smile had chased the remaining of them away. It was good to be feared. It was important to be strong. Not to rely on anyone.

Even the jackals had avoided his isolated house. All creatures knew that there was only death in his presence. And that’s why Death incarnate had come to find him. Dracula, the Prince of Darkness, had come to take Isaac to the one place he belonged. And Isaac needed to strive to live up to the trust bestowed upon him. He would never let Dracula down. He was going to be there when no one else was. It wasn’t love - it was something purer than that.

Whoosh - slap, whoosh - slap the whip went but it was no longer in his hand.

Hector was behind him. He held the whip and Isaac was half-naked, holding his breath in apprehension. He felt helpless, young and so afraid. He considered asking for mercy but when Hector drew his hand back to strike, he knew it would be pointless to beg.

The first blow came. Hard. It knocked the breath out of Isaac’s chest. Then Hector struck again.

Isaac burned. Fear and humiliation were consuming him like flames.

Suddenly he remembered that he wasn’t small, he wasn’t young. He was a warrior and… he was sickened to once again be whipped by a white man, once again be made lesser. It angered him, it made him wish to hurt...

Suddenly he was on his feet, wrestling the whip out of Hector’s hands. He punched the other man’s face sending him down to the floor. Hector struggles to get up but only made it to all fours before Isaac struck him.

And then it was Isaac holding the whip and Hector screaming in pain. Isaac didn’t hold back anything - he hit him hard. Harder… Harder still...

Isaac jolted awake. Exhaustion had knocked him out and he had fallen asleep in a pool of his own blood, the whip was still in his own hand. His body ached but the pain made his arousal even more pointed - his cock was hard, straining against his trousers, desperate for touch.

“No,” Isaac shook his head in denial, “no, no, no, no!”

He looked at the bloodied whip and his flayed back pulsated as if in protest to what he was considering. But he couldn’t allow such weakness. He readjusted his grip and swung the whip again.

This time the pain made him scream. For the first time in a while tears ran down his hollow cheeks.

...

Chapter Text

On the next day at noon Isaac was awoken by someone knocking on his door. There was only one person that could seek him out when the sun was up.

Despite the crippling pain, the rawness of the flaying wounds had knocked him out, and he had slept for a couple of hours, upper body stripped and lying on his front to avoid injuring himself further. Dracula’s halls were perpetually cold, but he awoke in a sweat. Fever, Isaac concluded clinically, without any emotion.

The knocking repeated itself louder. Isaac couldn’t even imagine what Hector wanted from him at that hour, but he pushed himself up from his bed, ignoring the aches and shivers that shook his body. He considered putting a night robe over himself, but he needed to be back to working condition in a few hours and he couldn’t afford to aggravate the wound further.

He moved slowly and by the time he arrived at the door, he expected his visitor to be gone. However, Hector was still there, offering an awkward apology for the day before - for having misstepped, for having misunderstood - asking if they could remain friends.

Isaac tried to focus, but his eardrums thumped and his mind was hazy. He kept himself straight, wondering why Hector had really come. They were not friends, never had been. What kind of ulterior motive was behind these actions...

“Are you well,” Hector asked, peering around Isaac’s shoulder to glimpse the state of his back.

Isaac sighed deeply, too tired to fight.

“Your apology is accepted. If you’re finished -”

“I could help you,” Hector offered, gesturing to Isaac’s back. “I have some knowledge of medicine. You can’t bandage that yourself and if nothing is done, it will inflame.”

Isaac knew that Hector was right. He had been careless the previous night. He wished he could blame it on Hector for having provoked him, but he knew that he was the source of his own misfortune. Yet, as much as he deserved to die for his failings, Isaac had to live in order to serve his Master. And there was no one else in the entire castle that he could trust to help him, except for Dracula. But even if Isaac was willing to humiliate himself and trouble his Master with his own problems (which he wasn’t - he’d have rather died), by the time when Dracula was awake, it was probably going to be too late.

Isaac gave Hector a nod and stepped away from the door, letting the other Forgemaster inside his chambers.

“There is disinfectant in the cabinet over there,” he murmured, too tired to give proper direction. Hector was intelligent enough, he could figure it out.
Isaac went back to his bed and laid down on his front. He was too tired to care about how exposed his body was left and the things Hector could do to him…

He might have lost consciousness for a few minutes, because the next time he became aware, Hector’s weight was dipping the mattress beside him as his rival sat there, tending to his wounds with care. A cool slab of cloth dabbed on the gashes around his spine, laced with disinfectant that stung and burned. Isaac hissed and Hector leaned down to blow on the burn, his breath cooling the spot.

It was awfully intimate, but the sensation eased his pain. Isaac sighed as he once again relaxed.

“You can’t tell me you enjoy doing this to yourself,” Hector commented and Isaac turned his face into the pillow.

“If you want to help me, don’t speak.”

Thankfully Hector didn’t say anything else. If he had pressed the topic, Isaac might have had to kick him out. It was really not the time to discuss what Isaac liked and didn’t like doing to his body. And the last thing he wanted was to answer the question why he had done it after their confrontation the previous night.

Hector worked on him for a while, and with his face buried in the pillow, Isaac nearly drifted off. He didn’t feel safe, but he was resigned to let Hector do what he wanted to him.

“That’s all that I can do for now, ” Hector’s voice brought him back to bleary reality. “You should probably get some rest today.”

“No, I cannot,” Isaac struggled to push himself up to a sitting position. His breath stammered to a stop when Hector’s arms came around his torso, helping him up.

Isaac bit his lip and looked away for a moment, schooling his expression to a neutral mask. He couldn’t reveal his alarm. He was weak and his last defence was pretending that he was not completely at the other man’s mercy.

“There is a vial in the apothecary over there,” he nodded to the cabinet where he kept his herbs and potions. “It’s almost black in color and there are a few of them…”

Hector was already on his feet, fetching the distillate. He found it with no further instruction. Son of an alchemist, Isaac remembered. As the apprentice of a magician, Isaac knew all too well that little boys had to be good at fetching the right potions, or they risked their master’s ire…

“Is this it,” Hector handed him the vial.

“Yes,” Isaac uncorked it and drank the concoction. The taste made him grimace, and his throat burned, but this was the only thing that could put him back on his feet before the night came.

“What’s in it?”

“You don’t want to know,” Isaac groaned once he had swallowed the entire thing.

“Actually I do, but I understand if you want to keep your secrets,” Hector shrugged. “So, I take it that we’re even now?”

“That we are,” Isaac nodded. He had wondered what Hector would want in exchange for his help. It was fortunate that his fellow Forgemaster still felt the need to offer recompense for the previous night.

“I’m glad. You know, we Forgemasters should stick together,” Hector offered, sitting down on the bed beside Isaac.

Isaac’s upper body was still exposed, bandaged, but vulnerable, and he tensed at the closeness. Hector peered at him between his ashen locks and smiled a little.

“I’m not sure I get your meaning,” Isaac ventured carefully.

“I mean that we’re the only humans here, and let’s face it, most of the other Generals see two delicious bags of blood when they look at us. It’s only Dracula’s will that keeps them from tearing our throats open.”

“And your point?”

“We should stick up for each other. I’ll watch your back and you watch mine.”

“Hmm.” Isaac considered Hector’s words for a moment. Was it some attempt at manipulation? That the whole act - the apology, the offered aid, the words of friendship? Was Hector playing some game?

“Do you not trust Dracula to protect you?” he asked casually, aiming to reveal Hector’s true motivations.

“Of course I trust him,” Hector answered. “I wouldn’t be here, if I didn’t believe that he could keep me safe. However…”

Hector hesitated, and Isaac nodded to encourage him to continue.

“The pressure from the others is starting to wear me down. I know that what you said about my pets might be true, but…”

“I apologise for what I said,” Isaac offered with honesty. Attacking Hector’s love for animals had been a kick below the belt and an unworthy move to make. Isaac felt ashamed of having allowed himself to resort to it. “And you are right - we shouldn’t turn on each other. It serves no purpose than perpetuating chaos.”

Hector’s smile lit up his face, making him look young and sweet. Isaac almost wondered what that man was doing in Dracula’s court, but quickly enough he remembered exactly what Hector was...

“Apology accepted,” Hector said and his hand went in the direction of Isaac’s hand, which lay folded on his thigh. His fellow Forgemaster looked at him as if asking for permission.

Still a little suspicious Isaac decided to play along and opened his hand in welcome. Hector clasped their hands together and gave him a little squeeze.

They sat like that for a few moments.

“If we’re done holding hands like schoolboys…” Isaac sighed.

“If I didn’t know better, I’d think that you’re making a joke,” Hector let him go with a small smile.

He got up and surveyed over Isaac one more time.

“Will you be alright?”

Isaac nodded and watched Hector depart. He sat like that for a long time, feeling the strong anti-inflammatory medication taking effect and banishing his pain and fever in waves.

His brain was still a little muddled, but his mind was clear enough to wonder what had just happened.

...

After that day Isaac began observing Hector from the corner of his eye, watching for reflections in the castle’s mirror-like marble columns, polished brass urns and stained glass windows. The other human’s eyes often glanced at his back when Hector thought that Isaac wasn’t looking. But as soon as Isaac turned his way, Hector’s gaze was always somewhere else.

If it hadn’t been for Hector’s penchant for touching him, Isaac might have mistaken that behaviour for murder-scheming. And in light of recent events, he realised what he had been dismissing for a long time.

He could recall too many moments when Hector had acted inexplicably strange towards him. At the time he had dismissed it as Hector’s social ineptitude, but the more he thought, the more a different picture began to emerge.

Like one of their early conversations when Hector had asked about his tattoos:

“Did it hurt to get them?”

“No,” Isaac answered curtly, not caring for idle conversation with the other human.

“Do they mean something?”

“Yes.”

“Do you have them anywhere else on your body?”

That had made Isaac lift an eyebrow.

But that was far from the only time Hector had been far too interested in Isaac’s private person. During their work on forging Hector’s hammer, the other necromancer realised that he could get Isaac to talk, as long as he asked questions about his travels to the far-off corners of the world.

Isaac never discussed personal details, but he often found himself swayed to share information about the regions he visited during his many years on the road. Foreign lands and customs fascinated him, and Hector made a willing audience for his various observations and insights.

Since his colleague came from an island, most of what he knew of the world was based on old books and maps that his father had possessed. Reading between the lines of the little information Hector provided of himself, Isaac also knew that most of the old alchemist's things had burned down in the house fire that killed Hector’s parents before his fellow arcanist had managed to examine and read all of it.

And of course, despite Hector’s sweet face and quiet disposition, Isaac was fairly certain that he had been the one to start that fire, possibly after a particularly cruel beating or unjust punishment. Isaac could relate well enough. That too made him willing to share some of his knowledge with the demure young man.

But Hector didn’t always ask the right questions. Some of the things he said made Isaac fantasise about murdering him. One such occasion arose when Hector interrogated him about his dark skin - did it have any special abilities, did it protect from the sun, or the sand...

“Are you certain you aren’t considering me for alchemical ingredients,” Isaac growled between his teeth.

“No, never,” Hector answered earnestly, and Isaac believed him, because he already knew that Hector was too naive to be capable of deceit. “It just looks so smooth. May I touch you?”

That’s when Isaac had became aware that with his sleeves rolled up for work, his forearms were exposed.

“Do I look like an animal for you to fondle?” He sneered, watching Hector deflate.

Regardless, Hector often reached for him - placing a hand on Isaac’s shoulder or touching the sleeve of his uniform to gain his attention. Before Isaac had simply dismissed it, thinking that it was just how Hector was. At present, considering everything together, and the fact that he had never seen Hector touch anyone else, Isaac finally arrived at a wholly different conclusion.

He didn’t know how to feel about it. He couldn’t even think about it without strong emotions shaking him - something between disgust and trepidation, perhaps? An uneasy sort of excitement with a little tinge of... lust perhaps? Hector was a beautiful creature - Isaac wasn’t blind to it. Still, Hector was a fool if he was falling prey to such emotions.

It was safest to ignore him. Perhaps the situation could be twisted to better serve their Lord?

Isaac decided to bide his time. He wasn’t going to be caught off-guard again.
...

Chapter Text

Godbrand was nothing but a thorn in Isaac’s side. The worthless, audacious Viking lord was good for nothing but leering at anything that walked on two legs ( sometimes four) and being the loudest and most unreasonable voice of protest against Dracula’s plans.

“I don’t care what you say,” Godbrand complained to his face during one of the war room’s debates (if they could even be called that anymore). “You can eat pig-meat, the rest of them can drink pig-blood, but I can’t drink pig-blood! And I’m telling you, there simply won’t be anything but pig-blood if He keeps up the killing of humans!”

The Forgemaster kept his expression neutral, only his narrowed eyes betrayed how disgusted he was with Godbrand’s insubordination.

“First of all, it’s called pork,” he begun, trying to control his anger, “And second, if our Master tells you that he will take care of you, you accept that and you do not question!”

As Godbrand begun his tirrage of how he didn’t care about semantics, Isaac’s eyes momentarily darted to the side where he could hear voices raised above the rest of the commotion. It appeared that Hector was shouting at three vampires at the same time. His opponents were baring their teeth and hissing at him, but Hector didn’t seem intimidated.

Isaac wondered if the time for bloodshed had finally arrived. With Dracula’s listlessness and mental abcense it was only a matter of time before the discord between his human and vampiric generals reached a breaking point.

Turning back to his own opponent, Isaac noted the way Godbrand’s eyes had fallen to his neckline.

“Eyes up here while I’m talking to you!”

“And what about when you’re not talking to me,” the Viking vampire wiggled his eyebrows suggestively.

Isaac suppressed a sigh in exasperation. It was pointless to argue with such a dull creature, so he stormed past Godbrand and approached the foot of Dracula’s throne.

His Lord was there, but his empty gaze revealed to all that his mind was was somewhere else entirely. Those who didn’t know him might have assumed that he had become lost in his anger and regret. If Isaac had to make a guess, he would have said that in his quiet moments Dracula retreated to a past of happiness and love. Isaac hated to tear him from his memories, but if their Lord didn’t wake up soon, his court would turn on itself and destroy his war from within.

Before Isaac could reach him the reinforced gates of the throne room opened and through them walked a female vampire. Later Isaac learned that her name was Carmilla and that she was the last to honor Dracula’s war summon. Carmilla was exceedingly tall and beautiful, and despite her delicacy she exudes an air of strength and authority. Every instinct in Isaac’s body screamed that she was dangerous.

Carmilla challenged Dracula in front of the whole assembly with words that implicated him for harbouring sympathies for humans. She placed doubt on his leadership by accusing him of having a conflict of interest in his own war.

Dracula stormed out of the room, commanding her to follow him and with a sly smile that she didn’t bother to hide, Carmilla followed. Not even a minute into knowing her, Isaac already wanted to murder her.

Once Dracula was gone, the stunned silence of the war room exploded into arguments. Everyone was shouting over the rest and more than a few hungry, lustful glares were turned to the only two human generals.

Isaac knew when to retreat in order to fight his battles another day. Hector evidently didn’t.

Hector attempted to reason with the growing discontent, and was quickly pushed into a corner by several hungry-looking vampires. Someone dared to pin Hector bodily against a column and the rest of them crowded around the ashen-haired man, lips drawn back from ravenous fangs.

“Out of my way!” Isaac barged through the vampires with enough authority to give them pause. “Dracula has summoned us, Hector.”

Hector shouldered his way out of the trap he’d become caught in to reach Isaac.

“Let’s not keep him waiting,” Isaac added and turned his back, confidently leading the way out of the buzzing swarm of hungry vampires, which the war room had become after Carmilla’s sudden appearance.

They escaped unharassed, but only once they had made it halfway to Dracula’s quarters did Isaac slow down his brisk pace. The vampires’ senses were supernaturally sharp and they were still within ear-shot if anyone who was listening. So, instead of speaking, Isaac clasped Hector’s elbow and pointed him in the direction of the staircase without a spoken word.

Hector nodded in understanding and headed back to his work quarters. Once he had disappeared in the direction of his own wing, Isaac followed the corridor to Dracula’s office alone. He needed to speak to his Master.

By the time Isaac arrived Dracula had dismissed Carmilla. The ancient vampire looked tired and Isaac’s resolve to tell him what was going on in the courtroom began to waver. He didn’t want to trouble his Master even more.

“This Carmilla may be dangerous,” he settled for in the end.

“Carmilla will fall in line, as will everybody else who dares to oppose me,” Dracula responded and Isaac smiled minutely.

There was the Master that he had sworn to serve. It warmed his heart to hear Dracula sound a little like his old self again.

“Is there anything else,” his Lord asked, tired of the audience already. It made Isaac a little sad - they had used to meet and discuss matters for hours. Dracula was Isaac’s only true friend and the arcanist missed their talks. However, he couldn’t allow himself to be selfish. Dracula came first.

“No. Nothing else,” Isaac assured him. He hesitated and then added something that had been on his mind for a while, “Although, I cannot help but… worry. I can see that you may need sustenance.”

Dracula’s entire body seemed to bristle. Isaac knew that he was incurring his Master’s wrath by pointing out weaknesses, but even if it cost him, he chose to continue.

“If there is anything I can do -” he said, “I could go out to find someone that is to your preference…”

“No!” Dracula denied firmly. “You will do no such thing. You will stick to your work, Isaac, and the war that I’ve entrusted you with. Understand?”

Isaac bit his lips, but submitted.

“Yes, my Lord.”

Later that night Isaac ate his solitary dinner. With the constant engine fire going under his work chambers, he was glad for the chill of his living quaters. He lit no fire, barely used any of the electric lamps that Dracula had invented to keep away the perpetual dark of his castle.

His meal was well prepared and he could appreciate it’s simple comfort. None of Dracula’s servants were human, however they had learned to cook a range of nutritious meals for Lisa Tepes, and now continued to do the same for the Devil Forgemasters. There were dining rooms and kitchens in the castle, remnants of times long gone, but fully preserved. However, Isaac preferred eating his meal in his own room, alone and seated on a bench by a small table that he had pushed against a corner.

He ate in silence, his mind working through the events of the day. Then someone chose to disturb him, and of course, it was Hector again.

“I wanted to thank you for earlier,” he explained once Isaac invited him inside.

“There is no need to thank me,” Isaac pointed out. “I won’t allow anyone to attack you in our Master’s absence. You are instrumental to the war.”

Hector looked around and noticed the abandoned dinner.

“If it’s not a good time, I can leave you alone,” he said.

“It’s alright,” Isaac remembered his manners - it was incredibly impolite to turn a guest away while one ate. “Have you eaten yet?”

“No, not yet,” Hector admitted, eyeing the still warm dish of moussaka.

“Join me then,” Isaac invited and Hector thanked him, following to the table where they sat next to each other.

There was no second set of utensils for his visitor, but Hector didn’t seem to mind. He took off the glove from his right hand and looked at Isaac.

“Do you mind,” he asked.

Isaac pushed the dish between them and put aside his fork.

“Not at all,” he said. In many places he had traveled it was normal to eat with one’s right hand. From what he knew, Rhodes carried the same tradition and it was what Hector was used to.

They began eating and Hector half smiled.

“Moussaka reminds me of Rhodes,” he noted. “Did you know that it’s a Greek dish?”

“I didn’t know,” Isaac admitted. “How does it compare to the one you had at home?”

“It’s better,” Hector assured. “Much better. But I can only compare it to my mother’s horrible cooking, because it’s all I ever had... Well, I don’t know if it really was horrible, but it certainly was disgusting when eaten cold.”

“Cold,” Isaac wondered aloud.

“She didn’t want me at the table when they ate, so I ate the leftovers,” Hector answered matter-of-factly.

Isaac could relate to that - as a slave, he had often eaten whatever was left of his master’s food.

“Didn’t you ever learn to make your own food,” he inquired.

 

“No, I was never shown how to cook,” Hector recalled. “In Rhodes only the women learn, because it’s a women’s job.”

“What did you eat when you were on your own then,” Isaac countered.

“Whatever I could find,” Hector laughed, and when Isaac narrowed his eyes, he added: “I didn’t resurrect everything that I ever found dead, you know.”

Laughter escaped Isaac’s chest before he could suppress it. He coughed and covered his lips to hide a stubborn smile that demanded its presence to be known.

“Did I just hear you laugh?” Hector looked at him incredulously.

“I choked on some food,” Isaac claimed, still too amused by the image of Hector unapologetically eating corpses while living in isolation on some island.

“I thought that with our line of work you’d be way past corpse-humour by now,” Hector attempted to tease him.

“I simply didn’t expect you to have a sense of humour,” Isaac assured him. “You caught me off-guard.”

“If you laugh every time I make a joke, I’ll try to come up with more,” Hector offered.

“Please don’t,” Isaac raised his hands in mock surrender and they both laughed, before something cold gripped Isaac’s heart and squeezed.

Hector reached for more food and slid a little closer to Isaac. He ate with a small smile on his face. In contrast, Isaac fought down a wave of nausea rising from his stomach and tightening his throat.

What the fuck was happening? What was he doing?!

The shock and horror hit him so hard that he nearly barked at Hector to leave at once, but he contained the storm behind his eyes and relaxed his face and his body that had become suddenly very tense.

“I must admit,” Hector continued, eyes on the still steaming meal between them, “when I left Rhodes I didn’t expect this.”

“You’re going to have to be more specific,” Isaac answered and if Hector noticed the sudden ice in his tone, he didn’t show it in the least.

“I didn’t expect that Dracula’s castle would be like this, I didn’t expect the chaos of war… but most of all,” Hector glanced briefly at him before he looked away again, “I didn’t expect you.”

“I thought he told you about me before you got here,” Isaac asked quietly, keeping any emotion from slipping into his tone. He had become too… careless and weak. He couldn’t let Hector soften him up like that, catch him off-guard...

“He did, but I didn’t expect you to be like this.”

“African?”

“I knew about that,” Hector brushed some grey hair from his tanned face. “It’s just - all my life I’ve been shunned… I never thought I’d be able to make a friend.”

Isaac considered those words. He still wasn’t certain that they were friends, nor did he think that friendship was what Hector truly wanted.

“I expected you to be different too,” he allowed.

“What did you think I’d be like,” Hector asked.

“A dirty bastard,” Isaac answered honestly and it made Hector chuckle.

“You’re the first one to say that I’m not,” he stated, sliding even closer to Isaac until their shoulders were nearly touching. He didn’t seem to notice the way Isaac glared at the marginal space between them.

“What about you,” Hector picked up the previous topic, “What did you eat when you were on your own?”

“I cooked,” Isaac answered neutrally, “Nothing elaborate when out in the desert, but I always knew how to prepare a few simple meals.”

When Hector looked surprised, Isaac reminded him with distaste:

“It’s a slave’s job to know how to cook.”

“Oh. Yes.” Hector nodded awkwardly.

They finished their food in silence. Hector thanked Isaac again and pulled the glove over his right hand. Isaac waited for Hector to excuse himself, but the other necromancer remained there, sitting in silence and way too near to him.

“Is there anything else you need,” Isaac prompted when his patience finally ran out.

“I wanted to ask you something,” Hector admitted, avoiding his eyes.

“Go ahead,” Isaac invited pleasantly enough, even as his internal defences solidified into place just behind his calm demeanor.

“You mentioned once that there is no love in the world,” Hector begun, the hands he had laid on the table in front of him squeezing into fists. “But you love Dracula, don’t you.”

Isaac had expected many things, but not that.

“What do you know of love, Hector,” he challenged quietly.

“Not much, I admit.”

“And what do you know of loyalty?”

“A little, I suppose.”

“A little?” Isaac glared at him in warning.

“A lot,” Hector amended. “I am loyal to Dracula. What I meant is that it’s new to me. I have always been alone.”

Isaac took a deep breath and exhaled through the nose.

“Then I will try to explain this to you. There are different kinds of love,” Isaac began, “For example, romantic love is not the same as platonic love, or parental love.”

“So, which love don’t you believe in,” Hector inquired, sounding confused.

“I don’t believe that this rotten world can host any kind of love,” Isaac stressed. “There cannot be love without taint, not as long as humanity exists. It’s mankind that taints even the purest emotions.”

“I feel like you’re contradicting yourself…”

“Think of your own parents,” Isaac insisted with cold passion. “Parental love - isn’t it supposed to be the purest kind? What other creature shuns its own young and feeds it scraps?”

“I can think of a few, but you’re right - no other animal does so out of malice,” Hector reasoned. “It’s just their nature - the way instinct tells them to be. And their young thrive from it.”

Isaac nodded. That wasn’t the answer he had expected, but it was good enough.

“And romantic love - I don’t suppose you know much about that either?”

“No, not really.” Hector admitted.

“So often tainted with jealousy, obsession, hate -” Isaac grit his teeth with disdain. “It can be used to manipulate and bring one to utter destruction. Do I need to continue?”

“Point taken,” Hector assured, “Humans are incapable of pure love.”

“Precisely. And that is why, they all need to die,” Isaac fumed.

“Not all of them,” Hector disagreed matter-of-factly, “But a good number of them for sure. So that they could stop harassing every other species and would leave us alone.”

“Your desires are so simple,” Isaac sighed, bringing his thoughts back to the present. “I envy you for that.”

“What do you desire?” Hector asked.

Death. Destruction. Peace. Love…

“Too much,” Isaac whispered, suddenly feeling old, and very tired. He had fought his entire life - fought against a world that was full of wrongs. A world that despised him.

Hector reached for him and his hand begun running soothing circles over Isaac’s shoulder and arm. It helped to feel the touch of another, if only a little. But it also reminded him of his own taint, the dark impulses that made him human, and the weakness, which he needed to purge from himself.

“Are you going to scratch me behind the ear now,” he glared at Hector in warning.

“Don’t think I don’t want to,” Hector confessed, and his hand slid up Isaac’s shoulder, over his neck. There it was caught in Isaac’s vice-like grip.

“I’ll kill you if you so much as touch my ears,” he growled and squeezed Hector’s hand hard before letting him go.

“Forgive me,” Hector apologised and he sounded sincere. “I really don’t know how to touch someone who’s not my pet. Perhaps you can help me? What’s the appropriate way to touch a human?”

“Depends on what you’re trying to achieve,” Isaac told him, feeling ice crawl up his spine. He had had enough of Hector’s silliness for one day. It was enough to have him waste his time and confuse him, it was a totally different thing to basically mistake him for one of his dogs.

“What if I’m not trying to achieve anything?”

“Then don’t touch me,” Isaac stressed.

“And if I simply feel like touching you,” Hector insisted childishly. “Is there any way I can make this alright?”

Hector’s innocence could be either infuriating or entertaining, depending on what one chose to do with it. And Isaac was done being kind.

“Then you have to ask yourself this question-” Isaac turned in his seat to face Hector fully. “Are you trying to get me to have sex with you?”

Hector blinked rapidly a couple of times, looking stupidly innocent. Sometimes Isaac couldn’t believe that the formidable Devil Forgemaster and the naive dolt were the same person.

“I… well. Well… um, I don’t know?” Hector’s eyes darted up and down Isaac’s body and he blushed deeply.

“Is that so,” Isaac smirked cruelty. “Do you want me to give you a hint?”

“Sure,” Hector ran his hands through his ashen hair nervously.

“Do you want to be tied up naked and whipped?” Isaac asked darkly. Hector looked shocked but Isaac continued, “I’ll also use the knife on you. I’ll peel off pieces of your skin and feed them to you before I’m done.”

Hector’s jaw dropped.

“Then I might fuck you,” Isaac added almost as an after thought. “If your screams of pain manage to arouse me.”

Hector’s blush bleached. He pulled back from Isaac, looking scandalised.

“Or I’ll leave you there. Beat you again in a few hours. See how I feel after that...”

“Uh, no. I don’t think I want that. No.”

“So there is your answer,” Isaac concluded and stood up from the table, walking to a desk covered in his notes.

“You really can’t feel anything even remotely close to love, can you?” Hector asked somewhere behind his back.

“I told you that already,” Isaac pointed out.

“I understand. Thank you for enlightening me.”

With his back still turned to Hector, Isaac didn’t see him leave. But once the door clicked shut, he allowed himself a long sigh.

It was done. He had chased Hector away, possibly for good.

Isaac told himself that he was happy about it. He had done the right thing and he hadn’t even hurt Hector’s pride. Their collaboration wasn’t at risk, because his rejection hadn’t been personal. It was just how Isaac was - incapable of any kind of love, but one born out of loyalty.

Dracula would have approved. Surely?

...

Chapter Text

The desert was a less than ideal place to start raising an army. Still Isaac had accumulated a band of a few dozen misshapen night creatures, created in a hurry in the inhospitable conditions under the scorching sun and the cold nights.

His burgeoning contingent of undead moved slowly, driven by Isaac’s singular focus on crossing the Sahara and making his way North-east towards the Sinai Peninsula and then north through Canaan towards the Balkan Peninsula and into Central Europe. Once there, Isaac wanted to pay a little visit to Carmilla and Hector. Once he had eliminated the traitors, Isaac planned to find and kill Adrian and the dhampir’s human associates.

However, Sahara kept posing obstacles and reducing his numbers. The people of the desert were a lot more fierce than the Wallacians. Word of his demons travelled and it was near the Siwa Oaesis that Isaac found himself ambushed and nearly defeated by a heavily armed, and fanatically fierce group of locals. They attacked at noon with their curved swords reflecting the midday sun and the cloudless blue zenith.

Before he knew it, Isaac was surrounded. During the day his creatures were easy pray and fell slaughtered around him as the Forgemaster fought desperately beside them. It brought Isaac no pleasure to kill, but his body knew that dance well and he fell into its rhythm easily. It was almost like a trance - stab, feign, duck, roll away, swing again… His mind split in two - one part dancing the dance, taking quick, harsh breaths, hearing almost nothing over the frantic beating of his heart. The other part drifted away from the fight, observing with almost cool detachment the scene below, as men fell under Isaac’s blade and night creature’s claws and teeth. That part took most of Isaac with it, and the arcanist marvelled at how much that day reminded him of the time before he met Dracula.

He missed his Master. He needed to survive so that he could avenge him. For that reason only, Isaac became whole again and fought like a devil himself.

In the end Isaac won, but not without a cost.

Once the last of his enemies lay slain and the rest had ran out of reach, Isaac gripped his aching side. His hand came away bloody. He looked down at his leg and the dagger that protruded from his thigh. By the Forgemaster’s reckoning, the major artheries had been missed, but that wound was still going to make travel very difficult.

The Oaesis remained close, but the former general knew better than to continue on his course towards it. No doubt the locals were going todefend it to the last, and he didn’t have enough devils left to attack them even by night.

And so he lead the small remnants of his army back into the whispering yellow sands. They needed a place to hide until Isaac recuperated. His army was down to less than a dozen night creatures again and neither of them looked strong enough to fight his way through the populated areas around the Nile river.

That day he pushed his servants to cover as much distance under the sun, despite their agonised cries and his own bleeding wounds. During the first night he tossed, senseless with fever despite the near freezing temperatures. A clever night creature scouted ahead and returned the next day with news. Isaac was coherent enough to touch his hand to his creation’s face face and read its mind. There was an abandoned stone city not far from where they were stranded. An abandoned city was hardly an inconspicuous hideout, but Isaac knew that if he didn’t find shelter, he wasn’t going to make it through another night.

He rode there on the back of a bulky night beast, only half-coherent, letting his creatures use their limited intelligence to get him to safety.

Three months later

The abandoned stone city turned out to be a perfect place. The houses, temples and tombs, which were cut straight into the sandstone and remained cool and shady during the days, allowed his army to grow in strength and numbers, despite the inhospitable desert conditions. During the cold, star-filled nights, his creatures hunted and Isaac slept. Every morning there were fresh corpses from the Oaesis and nearby nomadic settlements, which Isaac raised into new innocent devils. Soon the cavernous halls of the city were filled with them.

In the valley that curved below the city there had once been a body of water - a river or a lake. Now there was but a tiny stream where a few fruit-bearing trees grew - mainly dates. Desert animals gathered there to drink and every so often, Isaac ventured downhill to fill an ancient ceramic pot with water, gather fruit and hunt for meat. Hunting was no trouble - the animals that came to the stream had never seen a human before and had no idea of danger before it was too late.

One such day Isaac was coming back up the hill, choosing his way amongst boulders and favouring the long shadows they cast wherever possible. He had managed to catch an adult hyrax and he intended to cook it and savour it for dinner, but all thought of a nutritious meal fled his mind and he tossed the fresh kill to the side when he heard the sounds of struggle coming from the centre of his settlement.

Isaac ducked behind a half-crumbled column and slowly made his way around to see the source of the trouble.

There was a small horde of beasts that were demonic in form, but not of his own creation. They were fighting any of his creatures that dared to approach, but it didn’t seem like an attack - they were standing guard, defending someone.

Isaac narrowed his eyes. It didn’t take much imagination to guess who was paying a visit. After all, there was only one other necromancer powerful enough to raise such demons.

‘Stand down,’ he ordered his devils and his mind’s command stopped each demon from attaching further. Wearily Isaac approached the building, which Hector had chosen to take shelter from the heat. It was a three-storey, half-eroded mansion with empty dark windows gazing out like the missing teeth of an old skull. Isaac brushed the hilt of his dagger, hidden beneath his flowing dark blue kaftan. The devil forgemaster had long exchanged his tight-fitting uniform with flowing royal blue robes, looted from a merchant who’s caravan Isaac’s night creatures had chanced upon. His blade felt warm like fresh blood - filled with anticipation as he was. Finally, the time to settle a score had come.

Hector’s creatures let him pass with no trouble, just as Isaac had expected. Hector had always been sweet on him and Isaac doubted that the other Forgemaster would try to kill him before exchanging words. Isaac expected Hector to try to bargain with him. Perhaps Carmilla had sent Hector to recruit him? Isaac wanted to laugh at the thought.

All of Hector’s creatures were winged, giving Isaac a clue of how his rival had managed to surprise him. A beast so massive that it could have been a small dragon slept in the shade between two ancient ruins. Hector’s ride, without a doubt.

Hector’s forging skills had always exceeded his own, but such a creature showed that Hector had improved disproportionately in the time since they had last seen each other. Isaac struggled not to feel impressed and a little intimidated.

Inside the ancient building the perpetual shadow almost made the dry heat of the Sahara bearable. The shadows were so dark compared to the brightness outside, that Isaac’s eyes struggled to adjust, seeing nothing but black for long moments until he began discerning the insides of the ruined building.

A demon unlike any Isaac had ever seen stood by a stone slate. Hundreds of years ago it might have served as a bed or a sitting area, but the padding had long turned to dust and there was nothing left but eroded sandstone. The creature beside it towered with its over 9 feet of height, muscles stretching its strange, almost translucent skin, hinting at its enormous force. The demon’s eyes bulged forward, small and beady, like those of a deep-sea fish. It’s maw was full of needle-like teeth that protruded in a terrifying, but orderly fashion, sticking out from bluish lips. The monster’s head was crowned with curved horns, reminiscent to those of a ram. Its feet ended with hoofs like a goat, and its front paws sported long, curved claws.

Isaac didn’t need more than one brief look to assess that he wouldn’t be getting his revenge on Hector with that thing around. Nothing he had yet created could get through Hector’s bodyguard, and that was the role, which demon was evidently playing. Hector himself lay sprawled on the stone surface, his perpetually gloved right hand covering his stomach as he twitched in uneasy slumber.

As if woken by some mental connection to his beast, Hector awoke and pushed himself to unsteady elbows with evident difficulty. He blinked tired blue eyes, grimacing as he peered through the shadows until he spotted him.

“Isaac.”

“Hector.”

The ashen-haired man was favoring his left arm, and keeping his gloved hand pressed to his stomach. He was injured, but by whom, Isaac couldn’t be sure.

“You’re a hard man to find,” Hector said at last.

“You shouldn’t have bothered,” Isaac spoke with more bravado then he possessed in the presence of the monstrosity that guarded his enemy. “I was on my way to visit Carmilla and yourself.”

“About that,” Hector pushed himself to a sitting position and then stood, back leaning on the stone for support. Despite the power his demons exuded, Hector was a lot worse for wear than Isaac remembered him. His clothing was in a tattered state, his hair was unevenly cut and dirty, and his tanned skin was darkened by more than just filth. “You must think I was sent by her, but I wasn’t. I’m on my own.”

“Oh.” Isaac raised an eyebrow. There were too many things that weren’t the way he had assumed and it unnerved him to be surprised, so he kept his expression stony and waited for Hector to elaborate.

“I’ve come to offer you a deal,” Hector said and that extracted a bark of unpleasant laughter from Isaac and once he had begun, it was hard to stop.

With great difficulty, Isaac reigned himself soon enough. He looked at Hector in silence and could tell by the way his enemy’s eyes were wide and he stood frozen in place, that his desire to gut him was poorly disguised.

“I have something you want,” Hector tried again, nearly impressing Isaac with his idiotic courage.

“What on earth could that be?” Isaac smiled darkly. Watching understatement dawn on Hector’s face, the realisation of just how much Isaac wanted to hurt him, and the fear that followed it, was awfully amusing. Isaac could almost forget the monster that Hector had brought along to guard him. Perhaps, so did Hector.

“Dracula -” Hector’s speech was halting. “I could give you Dracula. Return him to you, that is. Resurrect him.”

For a moment Isaac’s heart nearly stopped. Could it be that easy?

“That is impossible!” Isaac shouted, once the initial shock and surprise had turned into anger.

“You’re wrong,” Hector sounded confident once again. “I can do it. But in return, you must do something for me.”

Something about the sudden intensity of Hector’s eyes made Isaac doubt everything he knew. Such a resurrection, so long after Dracula’s death… it couldn’t be possible. It shouldn’t be… But Hector was more talented than any necromancer Isaac had ever met, even himself. But no…

Isaac spun around, pacing the shadowy room with his back turned to his rival. He didn’t want Hector to see him waver. He needed to get himself back together. He couldn’t show how shaken he was.

“Say that I were to believe you,” Isaac said slowly, keeping any trembles from his voice. “What price do you expect me to pay?”

“I need your help to defeat Carmilla,” Hector spat the name with enough disgust to make Isaac believe him.

That had always been a part of the plan.

“I thought you were bosom friends with her,” Isaac prompted suspiciously.

“She used me,” Hector hesitated. He sounded like he had more to say, but when Isaac turned to look at him, Hector’s lips were pressed tightly together. Whatever else had happened, Isaac doubted he would hear of it.

“I hate her,” Hector added at last.

“That makes two of us,” Isaac divulged, taking a slow step forward. He took Hector’s appearance in once more, his attention clearly unnerving the other Forgemaster.

“She still has a large army of night creatures that is loyal to her,” Hector continued. “And many vampire lords have flocked under her banner. She won’t be easy to take down.”

Some of the injuries on Hector could have been attributed to a risky escape, Isaac decided. As for the rest - it was a little too dark to tell, especially with the clunky bit of armour around Hector’s neck, but there may have been something that looked like a yellowing bruise in the shape of a mouth above it. Isaac’s lips quirked into a smile before he banished it. The thought of Hector suffering for his treachery made him happier than he had been in a long time. What was that thing anyway? Some sort of vampiric chastity belt - Carmilla trying to prevent others from feeding from him? Unless it served a more sinister purpose…

“Is that why you need me,” Isaac asked, leaning casually against a wall. “You made an unbeatable army to serve her and now you don’t know how to defeat your own creatures?”

“Together we can build a stronger army than hers,” Hector said, “But also - I need you to lead it. She knows me too well. She can predict my every move…”

Hector’s voice wavered and he looked around, sounding oddly paranoid. As he did that, something clanked around his neck-piece and Isaac’s eyes were once again drawn to it. It looked dull and heavy. It wasn’t armour. It wasn’t a necklace, as he’d initially assumed either. Still, it wasn’t until he saw the bit of chain on its side that he realised that it was the remains of a collar.

Something twisted in Isaac’s gut at the sight. He had thought Hector a willing accomplice to Carmilla’s plans.

“Did she leash you before or after you betrayed Dracula?” The question surprised even Isaac when he uttered it. He didn’t care either way - his Master was dead and Hector had played a part. What had happened to him after that seemed only just. And yet.

“After.” Hector admitted.

“Well,” Isaac pushed himself away from the wall, turning his back on his rival once again and walking over to a ruined window. He gazed over the night creatures, his and Hectors, that had crowded by the entrance. “You reap what you sow.”

Hector’s answer was silence. Isaac wondered just how much his colleague had suffered. (Not enough.)

“I’m genuinely curious, do you expect mercy from our Master when you bring him back?” Isaac turned back to face Hector with arms crossed before his chest.

“No,” Hector’s eyes were lowered, refusing to meet Isaac’s.

“Then what is this?” Isaac demanded. “How am I supposed to believe that you won’t betray me again? Don’t tell me that you have suddenly realised your mistake and would take our Master’s judgement in a desperate attempt at redemption.”

“Nothing of the sort,” Hector shook his head. “But I’d prefer getting my heart torn out by Dracula then falling back into Carmilla’s clutches. And she won’t stop until she finds me. She caught up with me in Rhodes… I barely escaped that second time.”

Hector sucked in a sudden breath and Isaac was shocked to see tears in the other man’s eyes. He averted his gaze.

“And how exactly will you achieve this resurrection, if I may know,” he asked.

“I found some really useful literature in Carmilla’s archives. Forgotten knowledge, that even Dracula didn’t possess,” Hector explained, his voice sounding stable again. “Unfortunately a lot of the scrolls were poorly translated or very damaged. But -”

Isaac frowned deeply, but before he could voice his discontent, Hector continued:

“I found some reliable information about a secret underground section of the Library of Alexandria, that has somehow survived the fire that destroyed it in Antiquity.”

“You’re grasping at straws, Hector,” Isaac warned.

“Do you have much to lose? Help me get to Alexandria and let’s look for the entrance to the underground library together,” Hector proposed. “If we don’t find it, you can just kill me then. If we do find it - we both win, right?”

A portion of the fabled Library of Alexandria surviving was too tempting an idea to pass on,even when there was Hector’s murder to get to. Besides, staying together was going to allow Isaac time to plot how to get rid of the guardian demon that Hector had forged. So, even if Hector’s quest ended up a wild-goose chase, Isaac could still get a good chance to kill him.

“And you are convinced that there will be knowledge on how to resurrect a powerful vampire in that archive,” Isaac made a show of demanding, even though his mind was made.

“I already know most of what we will need,” Hector said. “I just want to be sure. We will only get one chance at this and the translation seemed rather poor. Pieces were missing…”

“What do we need then?” Isaac narrowed his eyes.

“A vessel for Dracula’s power to be transferred and his soul to find a new home,” Hector stated. “Someone with a blood tie to the victim, and a close approximation to his power would be ideal. Luckily, there is one that I’m certain you wouldn’t be opposed to kill for Dracula’s return, who closely fits the description and would provide the perfect vessel for Dracula’s soul.”

“Adrian,” Isaac realised.

Hector nodded.

“Good,” Isaac agreed, turning his back to Hector to hide his glee. “I think we might have a deal.”

“That’s… good,” Hector sounded vaguely happy. Perhaps he hadn’t expected Isaac to agree at all. That gave Isaac the idea to pursue his advantage.

“I have just one more requirement,” Isaac interjected, spinning back around to pin Hector with his gaze.

“What is it?”

“I want you to teach me how to make this -” he pointed to the 9 foot-tall demon who stood deceptively quiet in a dark corner of the room.

“Oh, that…” Hector ran a hand through his dirty hair. “It’s summoned, not made.”

At Isaac’s confused silence, Hector continued:

“From a different dimension. Sure, I can show you how to do that.”

“Is this more of the useful knowledge you discovered in Carmilla’s care?”

“Her archives, yes,” Hector confirmed.

“And you will teach it to me?” Isaac reaffirmed warily.

“Of course,” Hector smiled a little. “After all, you will help me kill that bitch. It would be useful to summon more than just one of those.”

“You’ve summoned only one?” Isaac squited suspiciously.

“I think each Forgemaster only gets one, yes.”

“Hmm.” Isaac certainly hoped that wasn’t the case.

“Now, if you don’t mind, I need to rest,” Hector weakly climbed back up on the stone bench. “I’d appreciate it, if you hold up your end of the bargain and don’t kill me while I sleep.”

“We made a deal, Hector. I’m not the backstabbing sort, you know that,” Isaac said.

Hector grimaced as if in pain.

“I suppose you will never let that go,” he asked.

“No,” Isaac admitted. “And if Dracula doesn’t tear your heart out and eat it, I might have to do it for him. But after our work together is finished.”

“That’s reassuring,” Hector sighed.

Isaac left Hector to rest in the building he had taken for himself. He briefly considered taking some water to his reluctant ally, just to insure his survival. A petty part of him wanted to deny that small assistance, but the greater part was moved by the smallest chance that Dracula could live again. It was a concept so wonderful that Isaac didn’t let himself dream about it just yet.

So he sent one of his more intelligent demons to bring Hector water. It wouldn’t do for the other Forgemaster to die before he could be useful.

Chapter Text

Despite Hector’s words of warning, Isaac hadn't expected an attack on his hideout on the very same night after his former colleague’s arrival. Carmilla's forces must have been hot on the other necromancer's trail, because they arrived soon after sundown, unleashing hell on the stone city and its denizens.

A large force of flying night creatures, lead by Carmilla’s very own lieutenant, brought a violent end to many of Isaac's demons. Isaac fought his way through the fray, witnessing his hard efforts of raising an army going to waste as his forces were decimated once again. The demons, which Hector had forged for Carmilla were truly formidable - intelligent and massive - those creatures were few, but their attacks were vicious and organised, hunting as one and ripping Isaac’s devils to shreds.

The night creatures, which Hector had brought along fought on Isaac’s side, helping to tip the scales in his favour, however Hector was nowhere to be seen, and neither was Carmilla’s lieutenant. Isaac hurried towards the villa, which the other Forgemaster had occupied since his arrival, guessing that he would find them there.

He wasn't wrong and by the time he reached Hector’s hideout it was nearly too late. The 9-foot-tall monstrosity, which Hector has summoned from another dimension to guard him, laid dead amidst the corpses of more than a dozen enemy demons. It had fought to the last, but a spear through the heart had finished it off - said spear now in the spare hand of the vampire general, who was holding Hector pinned to a wall by roughly pressing the side of his face into it.

Isaac fell to crouch behind a ruined archway, silent like a shadow. He held his dagger close to his chest and listened to the conversation, which was taking place in the other room.

“... might as well do it now, Laura,” Hector’s voice sounded tortured and hoarse as if he had just taken a beating. “I’m not going back there! I will bite my tongue and bleed out before I let you take me back to her!”

The lieutenant, whose name was Laura, laughed unpleasantly.

“Hector, please,” she spat, “If you had it in you, then you would have ended it already. I think we both know you’re too much of a coward to take your life. Either that, or you secretly enjoyed our Mistress’ treatment.”

Hector redoubled his efforts to get free, kicking and clawing ineffectively at the vampire, who was smaller than him in size and stature, but with her supernatural abilities, multiple times stronger.

“From what I’ve seen, I think it’s the latter,” Laura continued, ramming her knee into Hector’s groin and pressing with gleeful malice.

Isaac was curious to hear the rest of that conversation but he knew that he wouldn’t get a better chance for a sneak attack. Whatever Laura had against Hector was personal and between her laughing and Hector’s anguished screams, Isaac’s quiet footsteps went completely undetected.

Her joy was cut short when she saw the tip of Isaac’s dagger protruding from her chest. She made a surprised sort of noise just before the necromancer slashed up, cutting her open like a fish.

Released from Laura’s grip, Hector slumped against the wall, curling in on himself. The vampire fell on the dirty floor at Isaac’s feet, looking up at him with a strange, almost curious expression. Isaac knelt beside her, looking into her eyes as the last light faded from them.

She was exquisitely beautiful - long, sleek black hair and big, violet eyes… What a waste, Isaac though before he reached down and finished the job by beheading her. It was the only way to make sure that she wouldn’t return to hunt them down.

Next to him Hector was heaving harsh, uneven breaths. Isaac glanced up to see him pressing himself to the wall as if trying to disappear into it.

“She’s gone,” Isaac informed him, but it didn’t help sooth the other necromancer's panic.

With a frustrated sigh Isaac got up to his feet. Even though the danger was over, Hector’s terror was only intensifying. Naturally, this wasn’t the first time the ex-slave had seen such behaviour. Isaac had even experienced such terrors himself.  And there was little to be done - Hector had to snap out of that state on his own. The only thing that could help was a distraction.

Isaac went back outside to inspect the casualties of the battle. His and Hector's night creatures had won, but only barely, and the remaining demons were busy eating their fallen cousins. Just to be sure, Isaac rounded up all his devils, set look-outs and sent out patrols. His army couldn’t take another surprise attack.

The light of dawn was distant in the eastern horizon when Isaac's work was finally done. The arcanist passed by the route he had taken the day before, looking for the small corpse of the hyrax, which he had killed the day before. Luckily it was still there. The body was bloated and smelled rancid, but the wound on its neck was small, the product of his clean kill, and the rest was mostly intact. The animal's fur was short and brown. It blended well with the environment of the desert. Its tiny face had light spots around the muzzle and eye sockets, making it look almost cute, if it weren't for the long incisor teeth that made it look like a vampire marmot. Sadly, it lacked eyes - those had already been consumed by maggots and flies.

Still, the creature wasn’t such a far stretch from the tiny dog Hector had adored. It had to do.

...

Isaac had only resurrected animals as a form of exercise while studying his craft. It didn’t take much effort to get it done, when all he had to do was breathe new life into a preexisting body. Fortunately the flames of necromancy discharged with the flies, maggots and stinking bacteria, leaving behind something almost palatable. The hyrax was still bloated when it rose to its four paws and looked to Isaac for instructions. After a few hours passed the corpse bloat was going to clear off, and the animal was going to look almost like a living one, if not for the red spirit light, which glowed in its empty eye sockets.

Isaac commanded the animal to follow him and went back to Hector. The ashen-haired man was still where Isaac had left him a couple of hours past.

“Hector,” Isaac picked up the reanimated animal like an offering and approached.

Hector peered up at him reluctantly, but when he spotted the bloated fur-ball in Isaac's hands, he uncurled from his defensive position and reached forward. Isaac placed the animal on the floor and took a step back to observe.

Hector’s eyes were wide but his breathing was easy as he reached tentatively for the critter and the hyrax reached back towards Hector's opened hand.

Animals did love Hector, Isaac concluded with mild surprise. The hyrax climbed into Hector’s lap unprompted and allowed the necromancer to pet it.

“Did you do this… for me?” Hector asked, his earlier terror forgotten, just like Isaac had calculated.

“Don’t get the wrong idea,” Isaac crossed his arms in front of his chest and shifted away from the other man. “And get yourself together! This place is no longer safe. We need to move.”

With those words, Isaac left.

Later they met again when Isaac collected dates, and whatever small berries he could find, by the settlement's drying stream. Isaac heard the other necromancer’s footsteps as Hector approached, kicking up sand and slipping on loose rocks as Hector made his uncertain way down the steep slope.

Hector paused when he saw him there and the former colleagues appraised each other in hostile silence.

In the bright sunlight, Isaac could see that Hector’s hair was matted with dirt and dried blood. His face was littered with old bruises and a few fresh ones. The skin below his collar was purple and yellow from the abuse it had taken, and he wore the same uniform, which he had since their days in Dracula’s court; only now it was so tattered and discoloured by dirt and blood that Isaac could barely recognise it.

The expression on Hector’s face was completely unreadable - his eyes and mouth were set in neutral lines, but in his arms, pressed to his chest, he carried the bloated ball of fur and rot that was the hyrax, which Isaac had given him.

“May I join you?” Hector asked at last.

Isaac nodded and waited for Hector to approach and sit on a sun-scorched rock by the thin stream of fresh water. Then he continued to collect dates for their travel in a wicker basket.

Hector watched him work without a word. Isaac wondered what the other necromancer saw when he looked at him. Perhaps Hector looked at the rich blue and red dyes of Isaac's robes - collected from the bodies of merchants, which his night creatures had kidnapped and killed. Or perhaps, Hector was looking at the cruel way light bounced off the curved blade of Isaac’s dagger, forever tied around the arcanist's belt. Or maybe Hector watched him pick fruit - menial labour reserved for slaves and peasants - and wondered how a former general of Dracula could stoop so low. Hector knew of his past, of course, but he had never seen Isaac bend his back before. Perhaps he found it funny...

“Is there something you wanted,” Isaac asked irritably.

“I need to wash,” Hector explained quietly.

“Wash then, or do you plan to stare at me all day?”

Without a word, Hector lowered his gaze. He left his pet hyrax by the stream and removed his tattered coat and shirt, leaving them on the ground beside him. He knelt to scoop up water in his hands from the small stream.

Isaac ignored him completely, keeping his eyes on his task. It was by chance that he turned and glimpsed an ugly scar of Hector’s shoulder. It looked almost like a christian cross. He turned his eyes away, but curiosity made him glance again and Hector caught him looking.

“Who gave you that?” Isaac asked casually.

Hector stiffened at the remark and turned away, hiding the scar from view.

“Did you think that you’re the only one with scars,” he answered bleakly.

“Was it the church,” Isaac prompted, but the only answer he received was a shrug.

Curious, Isaac put down the basket and turned to observe Hector, who still knelt by the stream. He tried to hide the scar on his shoulder - a branding, Isaac was sure of it - and the thin slashes on his chest and upper arms - marks from swords and other bladed weapons. There was also a small round scar on Hector’s upper arm - the puckered kind that an arrow left. Hector’s palm was trying to hide it.

“People have tried to kill you,” Isaac prompted again.

Remaining silent Hector splashed water on his hair. Thin streaks of it poured down his neck and chest, leaving trails in the dirt and dried blood that covered his bruised skin.

“I didn’t realise that the church lets go of its victims so easily,” Isaac tried a tease and it almost worked.

“They didn’t let me go... It’s a very long story,” Hector answered drily.

“I feel like I’ve earned the right to be indulged a little,” Isaac nodded to the hyrax, which in that moment was busy sniffing Hector’s wounded side.

Tracing his gaze, the grey-haired necromancer snatched up the undead animal and clutched it to his chest. To Isaac’s utter disgust he kissed the hyrax’s dirty little head.

“If I knew you gave me Muse just so you could blackmail me with her, I wouldn’t have accepted her so easily,” Hector scolded him.

“Muse?” Isaac arched a brow.

Hector narrowed his eyes and hugged the hyrax even closer to his damp chest.

Killing the hyrax was too simple. Any bully could have threatened that much. But Isaac had better plans on how to use Hector’s weakness for animals.

“You think so little of me, if you believe I’d hurt a helpless creature to get to you,” Isaac answered and predictably, Hector’s eyes widened in response.

“Don’t take it personally,” Hector retracted, his voice sounding rough, and his arms still holding the now struggling animal in his grasp. Its long nails left scratches on his light brown skin, decorating it with drops of crimson, which involuntarily piqued Isaac’s interest.

“My pets have always paid the price when someone got displeased with me,” Hector explained. He bit his lip and glanced away.

Isaac debated with himself for a moment, calculating his course of action. Hector wanted a friend, and he loved his animals dearly. Manipulating him was easy, and it would make it more likely that Isaac achieved his goals if he had Hector’s loyalty, instead of planning to betray him at any convenient moment.

“Do you want a friendly piece of advice, Hector,” he asked.

Hector’s surprise was quite evident, but he nodded quickly enough.

“Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve,” Isaac cautioned him, nodding to the clawing hyrax in Hector’s arms. Realisation dawned on the other man’s face and he released the animal, which chittered frustratedly as it ran off. “It’s no wonder that your pets get hurt when you exhibit your weakness for them in front of all your enemies.”

“I didn’t think Carmilla was my enemy,” Hector admitted, gaze lowered.

“Your enemies won’t announce themselves to you,” Isaac divulged quietly, watching his former colleague's reactions closely.

It wasn’t just Carmilla who could predict Hector’s every move. Anyone with enough time for observation could learn how to read the younger necromancer. Hector was so simple and predictable.

“You are also my enemy, aren’t you,” Hector asked and that was the break, which Isaac had been waiting for.

“Would I be telling you any of this if I was?”

“Maybe you seek to lull me into a fall sense of security,” Hector narrowed his eyes.

Suspicion was a new quality, but as with any newly learned trait, it could be turned around. After all, Hector wanted nothing more than things to be simple, so he would believe anything as long as he could delude himself.

“We made a deal,” Isaac assured him. “Fulfil your end and you have nothing to fear from me.”

“And after that?”

“It depends on you,” Isaac offered. “This is your chance to make things right. If you follow through on what you promised me, and you give yourself over to Dracula for his judgement, then I have no doubt that you and I will get along splendidly.”

And just when he thought he had Hector all figured out, the other Forgemaster threw him off completely with an uncharacteristic outburst of anger.

“Do you think I’m that stupid?!” Hector rose to his feet, body shaking with barely suppressed emotions. “What else are you going to offer me? Are you going to say that we will be best friends? Brothers? Lovers?”

Hector stormed over the stream and kicked the basket, in which Isaac had been collecting fruits, breaking it. Dates rolled on the dusty ground.

“Do you think I’ve already forgotten what you told me when you saw me,” Hector pointed a finger at Isaac’s awestruck face. “You said you would gut me when this is all over! So don’t try to play with my head, Isaac, or I swear - I’m going to kill you!”

Isaac’s heart gave a hard throb of excitement and he felt his cheeks warm up with a flush. Good thing the sun was in Hector’s eyes and Isaac’s skin had turned even darker in the desert, so the other necromancer couldn’t notice.

Isaac sucked in a breath through his teeth, trying to right himself and to summon some anger over the wasted effort, even though all he felt was the thrill of excitement. What had happened to Hector? When had he become this new person? And damn it all, why did he suddenly look so attractive, standing there shirtless with little red cuts on his tanned chest, and his blue eyes flashing with such dark promises…

“How dare you,” Isaac begun, faking as much indignation as he could, “I am not collecting food again!”

“I’ll make the animals do it - you could have just asked,” Hector growled. “ Don’t change the topic!”

Isaac couldn’t help but be impressed. Hector had told him that he could make animals his minions, but the arcanist had always dismissed it as delusions of a broken mind. If it was true, that made things even more interesting.

“You have every right to suspect me,” Isaac conceded. “I’m not denying that the first thing I wanted to do when I saw you was… not that civilised. But I had some time to think things through.”

Hector crossed his arms in front of his chest expectantly. Isaac couldn’t help but smirk a little at Hector’s newfound temper.

“Although I do wonder, how do you think you can threaten me? I’m the better fighter, you're wounded and your demon friend is dead,” Isaac jutted his chin.

Hector took a step back and touched his palms together, closing his eyes. Blue flames erupted around his body and Isaac jumped back in surprise, dagger already in his hand, as he prepared himself for defence.

With a flash Hector’s 9-foot-tall demon materialised beside him - whole and hale. It was the closest thing to magic that Isaac had ever seen.

“What the hell,” he uttered in disbelief.

Hector lowered his hands, his summoning completed. It was nothing like what Isaac had imagined - it was… beyond anything he knew. All humour drained from the older necromancer at Hector’s display of power, replaced with that odd throbbing in his chest.

“So you can summon him at will,” Isaac stated flatly.

“I’m not sure it’s a he,” Hector spared a glance at the demon beside him. Then with another gesture he dismissed the creature, which disappeared in much the same way it came.

Isaac didn’t know if he hated or adored Hector’s skills. He was jealous, and bitter that he had been outdone, but at the same time… Hector had never looked more attractive. A dark curl of lust twisted in Isaac’s gut, making him weak in a way he hadn’t allowed himself to be for a long time.

“You promised to teach me how to do this,” he reminded his rival.

“I will - once we reach the Library of Alexandria,” he was assured.

“I may have become your ally very reluctantly,” Isaac admitted, “and I still have a lot of reservations, but with this power, you and I could make this plan of your work.”

Hector nodded.

“I wouldn’t have come to you, if I wasn’t certain,” he said. “I knew how you felt about me. I knew that if I ever met you, I’d have had to fight against you.”

“It doesn’t have to be that way anymore,” Isaac reassured. “You can prove that you are worthy. And when we bring Dracula back, we can continue with his mission and purge this world. Together.”

Hector’s jaw tightened and his lips pressed together. It wasn’t the first time ever that Isaac’s eyes darted to his rival’s lips, but it certainly was the first time that he wondered what Hector’s mouth would feel like against his own. In the castle, Hector’s lips had looked soft and average, almost bland compared to all the exotic creatures that had lurked about. But out in the desert they were dry and broken from heat and dehydration. Isaac imagined the scrape of them, the taste of copper as they split open under the pressure of his own mouth...

“I don’t wish for any more death,” Hector uttered heavily. He didn’t seem to notice Isaac’s little lapse of attention. “Except for one.”

“Carmilla,” Isaac smirked in dark anticipation.

Hector turned around and began gathering his discarded shirt and coat. His skin was already dry from the heat, but he didn’t seem to be in any hurry to put on his tattered, tight-fitting clothing. Isaac observed the redness that was starting to show on Hector’s shoulders and back.

“You are burning,” he pointed out.

“I’m from Rhodes,” Hector shook his head. “I don’t get sunburned.”

“Out here you will,” Isaac warned.

Hector ignored him as he set up the path with his clothing draped over his head, but most of his skin uncovered. The hyrax darted out of its hideout and ran after him.

“If you need desert clothing, I have a few things to spare,” Isaac offered, and Hector paused to turn to look at him. He looked surprised by the offer.

“Why are you being so kind to me now?”

“Because I don’t want setbacks and if you get sunburn fever tonight, I might have to carry you, or something equally indignant,” Isaac assured him. "Come with me!"

...

They set out into the desert in the dead of night. Their small horde of nightmarish minions separated into two groups - one shuffling by land while the other taking off to the sky.

Dressed in flowing desert garments, Hector nodded to Isaac from his seat on the back of his large flying beast. Isaac nodded back in approval before his fellow necromancer spurred the flying creatures up into the cool air where their ghastly shapes disappeared into the moonless black.

Isaac rode a demon with the relative size of a chariot, with armoured skin that was as thick as a rhino’s. It's gait was slow, but long and it made good timing as he travelled through the ever-shifting sands of the Sahara desert.

They were weeks away from Alexandria, and they could only travel by night. The next time they saw each other, was going to be when they stopped for camp at sunrise, in a place of Hector’s choosing.

As Isaac's beast threaded along his other silent devils, the Forgemaster's eyes often glanced to the night sky. He couldn’t see Hector’s flying demons, but he could swear that he could feel the ghastly wind of their bat-like wings, circling just above his army.

It was odd to rejoin forces with the most unlikely human Isaac had ever met. It had been Dracula’s wish for them to be friends and it was ironic that the mission to save Dracula was what had brought them together.

Perhaps in some strange way, his Master’s desire was becoming true.

Chapter Text

Another dawn much like the ones before. They were stopped for the day, camped under the shades of a petrified forest. Their demons were safe from the creeping light under the ancient trees that stuck out of the sands like the bones of a flesh-bare corpse.

Before sunrise mornings in the Sahara were frigid and when the Forgemasters had fuel to burn, they did. With wood being rare, often it was the bodies of hapless travelers that they had raided along the way. Lit by Isaac’s red spirit flames, the flesh burned with no smoke or stench, but it gave little light and even less heat.

Sometimes Dracula’s former generals got to eat stolen supplies, but there were also times when they had nothing but dates, and no water left to drink.

It was one of those mornings and they met it with the worst of silences, sitting around a cold, empty spirit flame, uncertain of whether the next night would bring them closer to another merchant’s caravan, an oasis or...

The desert had gnawed whatever softness they had previously had on their slim frames. They were left with bodies that were wiry and gaunt, and with ill-tempers that were more vicious than ever.

Still, Isaac couldn’t stop feeling a sense of sick euphoria. His body hadn’t suffered such deprivation in a long time. The churn of his empty stomach and the ache in his dry throat caused little thrills of pleasure to shoot down his spine. The suffering was delicious - the sacrifices that they made felt fitting. All for their Master - for Dracula.

...

When Hector thought that Isaac wasn’t looking, he sent furtive glances his way, eyes glittering in the red campfire between them. Isaac could tell that Hector still wanted him. But he wasn’t the only one afflicted.

An idea had taken root in Isaac’s head and it didn’t leave him alone. Like a parasite the thought had wormed its way into his mind and he thought of it almost constantly as they traveled, separated by land and air as they were.

It was a desire so strong, and so putrid, it made Isaac’s mind twist on itself. He recognised his own weakness, he was disgusted with himself for it, but he had been in the desert for too long. And Dracula was gone. There was no guarantee that their quest was going to succeed, and the growing emptiness in Isaac’s chest made his darkness scream the loudest in moments of such hopeless despair.

And Hector had changed so much - Isaac almost wanted to congratulate Carmilla for what she had done. Even as exhausted and road-weary as he was, Hector had never looked more attractive. There was a cold hardness in his blue eyes, power at his fingertips, and a burning hate fuelling his desire for revenge. When Isaac saw it, it made his empty stomach flutter with a hunger of a different sort.

On the dark nights as he rode his massive war-demon, Isaac looked to the blackness of the sky, and thought about what he wanted to do. He imagined Hector’s anger turned on him. He imagined them fighting with their demons, then upon coming equal, fighting with their hands and blades. And that’s when Isaac would win, because the other Forgemaster didn’t have much skill, only fury and brute force to answer Isaac’s attacks, and it wouldn’t be enough.

Isaac imagined overpowering Hector and pushing him to the ground. He imagined how the sand would feel as they rolled on it, Hector’s desperate attempts to turn the fight around or dislodge him. Unfortunately for him, he wouldn’t stand a chance.

From there the fantasy took different turns, but there was a common theme - Hector beneath him, at his mercy. And Isaac’s delightful lack of the sentiment.

In his fantasies, Isaac made Hector scream. He listened to his cries disappear into the vast emptiness of the desert, unheard by anyone. In his fantasies, Isaac spilled Hector’s blood, with his blade, with his fists and with his cock. And in those fantasies, Hector submitted to him completely.

But in his mind, Isaac never killed Hector. It was lust that motivated him, not revenge.

He doubted that the real Hector would ever agree to submit to him in such a way. Isaac supposed that it would be far easier to accidentally kill one another than to make Hector see the appeal of his way - what Isaac could actually give him: the ultimate release from power, from responsibility, from free will. There was absolute freedom in utter capitulation.

Hector was too scarred from his recent experience of slavery to appreciate it. And Isaac was too marked by his whole childhood to ever agree to switch places. Even if those fantasies… no, there were no such fantasies. Isaac wouldn’t admit to ever having such desires.

And to try to explain and negotiate with Hector, a deal for their mutual satisfaction would have killed the excitement of the act. So Isaac waited - waited for those feelings to go away. For surely they would, once they were out of the desert, where all the senses starved and the mind went haywire.

He remembered feeling something similar when he had traveled long distances alone with his first owner… How he had wanted to curl up to the bigger man and be given some semblance of comfort. He had learned the error of this way, he had learned that feelings lie. Isaac was no longer ashamed of those memories. Those mistakes were his greatest teachers.

...

In the twilight of an early morning, after a long night of traveling, Hector finally agreed to tell him about his scar.

“I thought you hated it when I talked too much,” Hector tried to evade.

“It all depends on the topic,” Isaac informed him.

“So you want to know about how I was abused?” There was accusation in Hector’s eyes, and Isaac found their scorn delightful.

He let a small smile tug up the corner of his mouth.

“Does that surprise you?”

“No,” Hector frowned. “But I’m not going to give you the satisfaction.”

“Strange. I thought you would like it if we commiserate together,” Isaac bated him light-heartedly.

Back in Dracula’s castle he might have shied away from such pointless conversations, but Isaac also wasn’t the same man as he had been before. And there was so little to do in the desert - it was either talking to Hector, sleeping or thinking about the dryness in his mouth.

“Perhaps,” came Hector’s surprised reply. “But it’s not another sad story that I’d like to hear. In return for letting you amuse yourself at my expense, I’d like to get something useful.”

Isaac raised an eyebrow in silent question.

“I want you to teach me your fighting skills,” Hector declared and Isaac made certain that his contempt for the idea would show on his face.

“Why would I agree to do that?”

“Because we might encounter multiple enemies and you may need me to watch your back.”

“I’m delighted by your concern, Hector, but I rather think that you have more selfish reasons in mind,” Isaac divulged. “Don’t you trust me?”

“Not one bit,” Hector shook his head.

“Good,” Isaac smiled. “You’re learning.”

Hector watched him warily while Isaac weighed his options. It wasn't likely that they would fight against each other soon, and even if they did, Isaac had decades of experience with the dagger, and decent skill with the sword and the spear. Hector would pose no real threat.

“Fine, I will teach you,” Isaac agreed. “But only after you’ve shown me your demon summoning.”

“Thank you,” Hector said very quietly.

“I’m not doing this for your gratitude,” Isaac reminded him.

Hector shivered and cleared his throat. The sun was peeking over the sand, painting the eastern sky crimson. The morning breeze that rose over the dunes was already stifling hot, so Isaac had no illusions that the shiver had anything to do with the weather.

“I… well… It happened when I was a boy,” Hector began his story haltingly. “It wasn’t long after my parents died in the fire.”

Isaac smiled indulgently. He loved how Hector always phrased that as if the fire had killed his parents on its own accord, without Hector being involved. It was kind of delightful to find such broken little parts of Hector’s mind, fragments that denied the evident truth that he had murdered his own parents.

“I had to get off the island,” Hector continued, his voice losing volume as he spoke until it was barely a whisper. “I was hated there - everyone blamed me for what happened. I was… well, they… you know.”

“I don’t know if I do,” Isaac prompted. Hector didn’t get to leave the juicy bits out.

“They threw rocks and things at me, chased me away - that sort of thing,” Hector blurted out with distaste.

“Ah. That. Yes, I do know.”

Hector didn’t ask him how Isaac knew, but Isaac could recall plenty of times when ignorant European village folk had spurned him from their lands in much the same way. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, and to endure it as a child - there was little wonder recalling the memory cost Hector so much.

“So I sneaked into a boat, then another one… From one island to the next - from port to port… I finally got off on the continent and I started to walk. I walked for a long time. Slept in the woods.”

Hector raised his shoulders with a shrug.

“But even in those new places, no matter where I went, people called me “witch child” and “devil spawn” and they spurned me and tried to kill my pets.”

“Go on,” Isaac prompted when it seemed like Hector wouldn’t continue.

“Finally the matter of my existence was brought to the church and I was captured. The priests branded me with a heated silver cross to determine if I was a demon or not,” Hector tapped his shoulder, “I survived the branding and it was decided that I wasn’t a devil but an ordinary child.”

Isaac hummed.

“What a revelation,” he commented.

“Indeed,” Hector smiled back with bitterness. “I told them that I was orphaned and since I was still quite young, they took me in to serve as a church boy.”

“You never mentioned any of this before,” Isaac tilted his head to the side to look at his companion more closely.

“It’s not something I like to recall,” Hector admitted.

“So did they managed to turn you into a good Christian,” Isaac teased, despite the answer being right in front of his eyes.

“They certainly tried,” Hector sighed. “I studied my verses and did extra chores to keep busy. Anything to avoid the head Priest’s office, where the boys who forgot their verses or answered questions wrongly had to go. And I wasn’t so naïve to be ignorant of what was going on in there.”

“But you got in trouble eventually,” Isaac made a guess.

“Yes. And I had to go to the Priest’s office,” Hector admitted curtly. “Then I learned that churches burn even better than houses.”

Isaac watched as Hector sprang to his feet and walked a short distance away to stare at the brightness of the rising sun. The breeze lifted his black kaftan, swirling it around his tall, sinewy frame, silhouetted against the red sky, making it look like the horizon was on fire.

“So you burned down the church too,” Isaac rose as well, approaching his only human associate. “Along with the other church boys and all the priests?”

“Yes, I burned the church with everything and everyone in it,” Hector turned slightly to look at Isaac over his shoulder.

“Oh, Hector,” Isaac smiled lazily, patting a friendly hand on the other Forgemaster’s back. “And we all thought you were so innocent.”

Hector hung his head low.

Hector was his equal, a piece that fit perfectly in the set that they made. Isaac could finally see and appreciate Dracula’s brilliance and foresight in putting them together. His Master must have known from the beginning that the two of them were the only humans fit to carry out his dark will, but he’d allowed Isaac come to this conclusion on his own terms - in the only way that Isaac could accept it as the truth.

...

On one of the days while he slept, Isaac had a dream, one that he was certain he had many times before, but had forgotten.

In his dream he and Hector were kneeling before their Master, naked and tightly bonded with a thin red rope. The red cord dug into their flesh painfully, tied around their submissive bodies many times over, holding them immobile as they knelt before Dracula like pagan worshipers before their idol.

Hector’s head was bowed, but Isaac kept his face lifted, admiring the powerful features of the Prince of Darkness. Dracula - the genius, the visionary, the powerful. Isaac had missed him so much. Tears were streaking down his brown cheeks as he gazed upon the magnificent being that had saved him, not just his body, but arguably, his soul.

Even in dreams moments of rapture couldn’t last forever. Soon Isaac’s time for admiration was over, violently swiped away by the parabola that his Master’s hand drew into the air. It snatched Hector by the throat, lifting him up to the tall vampire’s mouth. Isaac watched Hector’s struggling, listened to the quiet whimpering that escaped his closed mouth, gagged with the same red cord, which cut into the rest of his flesh as he struggled.

Isaac’s breath caught in his chest with fascination when Dracula’s lips peeled back with a snarl, revealing rolls of wickedly sharp teeth. His Master was merciless when he tore Hector’s throat open. Blood and gore sprayed from the wound and somehow Hector was still struggling, even as Dracula stuck his tongue into the bleeding wound, drinking Hector’s life away.

The light turned red, soaked by Hector’s blood. Fear, excitement and lust made Isaac shake, his heart beating as if he’d ran a marathon.

With an odd feeling of deja-vu Isaac knew what would happen next - as soon as his Master drained Hector, it was going to be his turn.

The fine hairs on the necromancer’s arms and chest stood up, his fear electric. Yes, Dracula’s red eyes turned on him… Yes, it wouldn’t be long -

The howling of night creatures awoke Isaac to the slowly setting sun. He pushed himself up on tired elbows, looking around their small shelter - the remains of a structure of unknown origin and purpose, its skeleton still sticking out from the dunes that were threatening to bury it completely.

The necromancer shook the sand from his garments, but he couldn’t quite shake the dream (nightmare?) from his thoughts. He knew that he wouldn’t let the memory of it slip away as if had before. It had not been a pleasant dream, but for all its viciousness, it had left him feeling keen and bereft. His treacherous body responded in the dirty way it always did - with arousal, and Isaac felt unworthy for feeling that way after a dream about his Master. Dracula had been his Mentor, his only friend. It was wrong to use his memory in that way.

There was only one cure for his disease.

Isaac glanced to Hector, who was still asleep a few meters away, under a half-crumbled wall. The other necromancer’s eyelids were fluttering, lost in his own dreams, with the undead hyrax curled against his chest. The creature’s eyeballs were missing, replaced with lidless red lights that stared into the twilight.

Content that he wouldn’t have an audience, Isaac took out his barbed whip, stripped out of his top layer and shirt and walked a little away from the camp, alone under the darkening desert sky. When he had put enough distance so that the noises of leather hitting flesh couldn’t reach Hector’s ears, Isaac knelt on the sand and begun his cleansing routine.

When he didn’t do it often, the whipping had more effect. The shock of the flesh-tearing pain was harder to bear than usual and soon after he’d begun, Isaac’s breathing rattled unsteadily, his body shook and he sweated profusely. Isaac was unable to suppress the groans of agony as blood poured down his spine, soaking the fabric at the small of his back.

“What do you think you’re doing?!”

Hector’s voice surprised him so much that Isaac nearly dropped the whip as he jumped to his feet, falling into a pose for defence. His breathing was too fast - he struggled to control it - his body was weakened from the trying months in the desert and he struggled to hold his ground. Hector was standing a short distance away, disapproval evident on his features and in the combative stance that he had assumed - legs spread wide, shoulders squared - ready for a confrontation.

“Are you crazy,” Hector shouted, “You haven’t had water for 2 nights in a row and now you spill your own blood… You will die, Isaac!”

“Careful, Hector, I might start to think that you care,” Isaac muttered.

Hector had no right to barge in, and criticise him about what he did with his body, as if Isaac had no control over himself. As if Hector had power over him. As if he thought he owned him.

A shiver of something stole up Isaac’s back, but he couldn’t tell if it was disgust, humiliation or another bolt of sick desire. Hector confused him in the most infuriating way, and if he kept annoying Isaac like that, then he was going to give Hector a little preview of those fighting skills that the other Forgemaster had so wanted to see.

Luckily for both of them, Hector didn’t respond. He pressed his lips together as he appraised Isaac’s shaky stance and the blood on the sand.

Without a word, Hector approached him and hooked his arm under Isaac’s armpit, half-carrying him back towards their camp. Isaac tried to resist, but his vision filled with stars and black spots, and knowing when to surrender, he followed his colleague’s lead without a word.

Hector dumped him near their previous morning’s campsite and summoned a bolt of blue fire to offer whatever tiny warmth it had to give.

“Will you tell me why you do this to yourself,” Hector knelt beside him. Isaac could feel his blue eyes boring into him, even as he avoided the other Forgemaster’s gaze.

“I told you before,” Isaac croaked. His throat was sore from dehydration. If they didn’t locate water it was only going to get worse because of his blood loss. Hector had been right to admonish him… His session had left him compromised.

“I don’t believe your reasons anymore,” Hector demanded. “This doesn’t look like pleasure to me.”

Isaac turned away, so that he could no longer see the other man. The blue flame shone in the corner of his vision, illuminating the wounds on his back for Hector to see.

“I want to help you,” the admission was uttered so quietly that Isaac nearly missed it.

Hector waited for a response, but Isaac had none to give. They ended up silent for a long time. Night descended fully and countless stars illuminated the inky sky. Isaac sighed and looked up. He wondered if he’d ever get tired of looking at that dark abyss.

“We can’t travel tonight,” Hector declared finally. He stood up and paced around the fire. “If you get a fever we have no way of treating it out here.”

“I hate to disappoint you, but I’ve survived worse,” Isaac answered quietly. “You won’t be getting rid of me just yet.”

Hector ignored the remark.

“You are staying here while I go search for…,” he hesitated, “... water.”

“Just say it, Hector,” Isaac insisted quietly. “You’re going to kill people and steal their supplies.”

Hector was silent and Isaac grew even more irritated with his associate. Why couldn’t Hector just admit what he was?! Isaac was in too much pain and too tired to find the other Forgemaster’s guilt amusing anymore.

“You’re going to murder, just like you murdered your parents,” Isaac stressed, recklessly, the agony in his back making him throw caution away, just so he could escape his own confusion, at least for a moment.

“I didn’t kill my parents,” Hector hissed.

“Who did then?” Isaac turned to look at him.

“The animals did it,” Hector said and hysteria bubbled up in Isaac’s chest, making him laugh until some of his cuts stung as they reopened again.

“They did it to save me,” Hector kept insisting. “I didn’t start that fire, Isaac!”

“Well,” Isaac coughed as his laughter abated. “That’s too bad, Hector. That just proves that you are weak, and always have been. If you let those people abuse you and never even got retribution for it - well, that’s pathetic to say the least.”

Hector’s hands balled into fists by his sides and sharp thrills, burned like electricity through Isaac’s already dazed system. Perhaps if he goaded the other man just a little more, he could get him to… to… do something they would both regret.

Or should regret. Because Isaac wanted it quite badly, and he felt sick to the core because of it, but he wanted Hector to act out, take advantage of his weakness and lash out…

“I’m going now,” Hector informed him, leaving Isaac there by the dwindling blue flame. “Don’t go anywhere until I return.”

As if Isaac had any remaining energy to move. Once Hector was off with his flying beast, Isaac sagged into the sand, hoping that it would swallow him whole. He truly hated himself.

Chapter Text

Isaac had never been afraid of heights, however seated behind Hector on a flying demon was a new and surprisingly unpleasant experience.

Despite being high in the air, the ride was far from smooth. The beast flapped its bat-like wings and jostled its riders so much that Isaac felt as if they were riding on a carriage over a particularly bumpy road, instead of gliding through air.

Isaac gritted his teeth every time Hector veered the large beast to the side or stirred it down to dive close to the sand dunes. The acceleration tickled his bones, sending electric little sparks through his stomach making him feel dizzy and nauseous.

The world below tilted dangerously and Isaac struggled not to fall off the flying demon’s back. There was no saddle and no reigns to clutch, so Isaac had to hold on to Hector’s sides and squeeze the creature’s scaly spine between his thighs to stay astride.

“Are you afraid,” Hector glanced back to him with a small smile, “Don’t worry - I’ve done this plenty of times before.”

One of Hector’s hands let go of the creature’s mane and petted Isaac’s thigh reassuringly.

Had they not been high in the air, Isaac could have been intrigued by the contact. It had been an obscenely long time since anyone had touched him in that way. However, in that moment all that concerned the Forgemaster was that he couldn’t trust Hector with his life and well-being.

“I think you should let me stir the beast,” Isaac said for the third time that night.

“And what’s the point? It obeys me,” Hector disagreed, removing his hand from Isaac’s leg with a final squeeze.

He guided the flying demon into a swooping curve of a turn, adjusting their direction. Isaac’s insides turned and he tightened his legs around the creature’s spine. His heart raced with alarm when he found very little purchase on its scaly skin.

“If I fall, I will personally deliver you to Carmilla,” Isaac said.

“That’s new,” Hector commented nonchalantly, “Did you run out of your more sadistic death-threats?”

Isaac bit his lips to hide a smile that was totally out of place.

“Do you want some suggestions,” Hector winked at him, clearly not fooled by the straight face.

“If you get your head out of your ass, you might notice that we are getting close,” Isaac responded dryly.

Behind the last sand dunes the darkness of the Mediteranian Sea spread over the horizon before them. On the coast, the antique city of Alexandria glistened in thousands of torchlights that illuminated its many streets, markets and ports. Isaac’s keen eyesight could even make out large ships swaying lethargically on the gentle waves, like ghosts against the pitch black of the endless salty water.

“It’s… bigger than I thought,” Hector commented, leaning forward and forcing Isaac to lean against his back. “Have you ever seen a bigger city before?”

The night creature pitched down to fly lower over the city enshrouded by night. Isaac wrapped his arms around Hector’s narrow waist to keep from falling off.

“I have,” Isaac said close to Hector’s ear. “There are bigger cities in the far East, and in the West.”

“I can’t believe there could be anything bigger than this,” Hector’s awe was audible and Isaac allowed himself a secret smile.

“I will show you on a map, next time we get the chance,” he promised.

They veered lower, flying quietly over the flat rooftops of densely packed multi-story houses, palm trees and maze-like alleys. They were close enough to see the well-armed guards, who patrolled the markets and larger streets, torches in hand and long curved skiminars glittering on their belts.

Isaac spotted also women veiled in silks, glimpsing out from shuttered windows, cats chasing rats around merchant’s carriages laden with fruits, and urchins sleeping curled up in front of richly painted shop front doors. Like every big city, Alexandria was a place of paradoxes.

“That must be it,” Hector pointed to a spot where the newer buildings surrounded a clearing where the remains of an ancient complex could be made out in the darkness. No torches were lit in that area, leaving it pitch dark amids the city’s many lights.

“Yes,” Isaac agreed, recognising the place from his earlier travels. “The ruins of the old library and the university that stood beside it.”

“Look for a well,” Hector reminded him, stirring the flying demon into a circle around the site. “The secret passage to the underground Library should be at the bottom of a well, leading to a tunnel entrance.”

“We won’t see it in the dark,” Isaac cautioned. “Can you get us lower?”

Hector nodded and flew them down to circle low over the ruins.

“I see it,” Isaac said, spotting the well in a barely lit derelict square, surrounded by crumbled columns.

Unfortunately they were spotted in return.

Isaac didn’t see where it started but shouts of alarm in the local language awoke the sleeping denizens and almost immediately the guards were lighting beacons, illuminating the night and the ugly night beast, which they rode.

The creature screeched in protest to the bright light, and soon the whole city below was echoing with the local word for “dragon”.

“They will shoot us down,” Isaac urged, “Get us out of here, Hector!”

The other forgemaster didn’t need to be told twice and just as the first arrows started to fly in the air around them, Hector pulled the beast’s mane back, tilting its head up 90 degrees and flying up towards the heavens.

Isaac clung desperately to Hector’s waist and dug his knees and heels into the demon’s scaly skin as they skyrocketed up in a vertical angle. Isaac felt gravity pulling him back, and the winds pushing him down, as if working in tandem to dislodge him and send him to his crashing death. He squeezed his eyes and teeth shut and held on tighter.

Finally they were high enough to be out of range of the beacons and the arrows, soaring over the thin haze that passed for clouds in that dry region. Hector leveled the demon and slowed it down, so that they could all catch a breath.

Isaac willed his heartbeat to calm down. It was slow to obey.

“Do you think they will expect us to return,” Hector asked a little breathlessly.

“Undoubtedly,” Isaac said. “We would have to find a different way into the city.”

“Like what?”

Isaac thought about it for a few moments.

“I might have an idea,” he smiled.

Back at their desert camp Isaac helped Hector choose from the finery they had amassed and kept for trading purposes. It was inevitable that they would need coin at some point in their journey. Hector commended Isaac for the foresight while they went over their new plan.

“So I will be the rich foreign merchant and you will be my local guide,” Hector repeated. “But, why do you want to play my servant? We could both be rich merchants.”

Isaac sighed in exasperation.

“It would make no sense. We only have enough camels and goods for a small caravan. It’s better if only one of us is a merchant.”

“You don’t have to be the servant,” Hector offered seriously. “I could play that role.”

Isaac couldn’t decide whether to be annoyed or touched by that.

“I am reconciled with my past,” he settled for in the end. “Now, if you still feel the need to rub it in my face-”

“I meant no such thing -“

“Then you must think I’m made of glass,” Isaac challenged and Hector actually laughed at that.

“If you were glass, then you’d be the broken one that cuts deep into the flesh of your enemies.”

Isaac raised an eyebrow.

“Well, Hector,” he muttered, grateful that in the dim light the other man couldn’t see his confusion. “I didn’t know that you were the poetic kind.”

Hector lowered his head and rubbed his neck self-consciously.

“Me neither,” he admitted. “Forgive me. That sounded stupid.”

“Damn right,” Isaac agreed, feeling a little stupid as well for getting flustered about it.

Isaac found a pair of long silver earrings with large turquoise stones in the pile of treasures. He had liked them from the moment he first laid eyes on them, but not for himself - their color had reminded him of Hector.

Isaac brought them out into the flickering red light of the campfire to examine them.

“The reason why you get to be the merchant is that you don’t speak Arabic and that even if you did you’d probably say something poetic and get us killed,” Isaac continued their previous argument. “I’d feel better if I handle the guards and you just ride all lofty and stupid on a camel’s back. Like a real merchant.”

“Have I done something to offend you lately,” Hector asked casually as he searched for suitable shoes.

“I’ve lost count of all the things you do that offend me,” Isaac answered offhandedly. “Anyway, come here!”

Hector approached a little wearily, eyeing the large earrings in Isaac’s hands.

“Are these for me? I don’t have ear piercings.”

Isaac tried to banish some of the anticipation from his voice, but couldn’t get rid of his wolfish smile.

“Not to worry,” he assured. “I will fix that in no time.”

“I’m not sure I want you to,” Hector backed away slowly. “I bet you will enjoy hurting me.”

“It’s just a tiny hole, Hector,” Isaac scolded. “Don’t be such a coward!”

“I’d rather do it myself then,” Hector objected.

“You won’t do it right,” Isaac was adamant. “Come here, I promise it won’t hurt!”

They set out on camelback on the next evening, shortly after sunset. Isaac’s jaw was smarting and his lower lip bled every time he disturbed it with his tongue. Hector’s knuckles had done that and Isaac couldn’t help the little thrill of pleasure every time the wound reopened and he tasted his own blood.

Their little spat had been glorious. Isaac hadn’t really known how much he’d needed to feel something other than the nothingness of the desert. And Hector’s ears were newly pierced, weighed down by the silver earrings that complimented his grey hair and tanned complexion so well.

The other forgemaster’s face was unblemished - if he had bruises they were probably on his arms, which Isaac had twisted behind his back to hold him down.

With the rich gold-lined silks of his blue caftan, the red velvet boots that peaked under his long flowing robes, and the chaperon tied over his hair, Hector looked his part. Well, he wasn’t fat enough to be a merchant, but riding on a camel and bundled up as he was, it was hard to notice that fact.

Isaac supposed that his bruised face helped him look the part of the harried local hired-hand as well.

When they got close to the city’s gates Isaac dismounted and took the reigns of Hector’s camel. Four human-sized night creatures escorted their small caravan, which consisted of three camels loaded with stolen items, wrapped up to look like merchant’s goods for sale. The demons were dressed like guards, in flowing black robes that covered every part of them, including their faces, with only small slits through which their blue eyes glistened. Hector’s job was to command those demons and make sure that they kept their heads and eyes down and appeared normal.

Taking demons along was a gamble, but going without bodyguards was an even bigger one. Necromancers were not safe anywhere, especially not in cities. Forgemasters… well. They were an extremely rare kind and depending on who was asking, they were to be either killed on sight or taken captive for nefarious purposes.

The city guards who stopped them at the gates were easily bought. It was not customary to let strangers through the gates after sunset, but Isaac knew how to butter them up. He had been in that role more times than he cared to think about - forced to play sweet and subservient to dull bastards.

None of them thought to even look at the so-called merchant and his escort any closer after Isaac gave them gifts of jewels.

Once inside the city walls Isaac breathed a quiet sigh of relief. He fell into step with Hector’s camel, pretending to be a guide, while speaking in Latin - a language they both knew well, but many locals didn’t.

“How did it go?” Hector asked.

“So far so good,” Isaac admitted. “Keep your eyes and ears sharp - we are in danger until we leave the city walls.”

They followed the main market road to a big square where the very last merchants were packing their wares and leaving. From there they continued on back alleys, trusting the darkness and isolation to protect them from prying eyes as they made their way in the ruined Library’s general direction.

“This city has a bit of everything,” Hector commented, looking at an illustrated sign that hung over a run-down shop, reading ‘Alchemist’.

Isaac kept leading Hector’s camel in silence. He spoke little and barely listened as his fellow Forgemaster pointed out the wonders that he had glimpsed so far.

“Did you see the glass shop we passed earlier? It had bottles and vials in more colors than I knew existed! And the lamps... did you see how beautiful they were when the shop owner lit them?”

“You should keep your eyes on our surroundings,” Isaac cautioned quietly. “We are passing a poor area - we might get attacked by some opportunistic mugger.”

“Our guards will take care of it,” Hector dismissed his concerns. “But really, did you see the apothecary? Or the swords that the blacksmith was removing from the display? I would rather like one. Do you think we can stop by on our way back to...”

Isaac let out a long-suffering sigh.

They were in a narrow little street, crowded by cheap-looking structures and trash. There were almost no torches to light up the poor areas. The scarce light came only from the stars above, which were clear in the night sky.

Isaac was looking up at them when he saw a strange flash of green light. At first he thought it was his imagination, but then the flash repeated itself.

“Isaac,” Hector sounded perplexed, “Why is your face glowing?”

“My face?! What are you talking about?”

“There was light around your face,” Hector gestured to his own to demonstrate, “It started from your tattoos…”

Dread squeezed Isaac’s chest. He knew what that light meant.

“An identification spell,” he uttered. “We must get out of here now! We’re in danger!”

He broke into a jog, pulling Hector’s camel along with him. The night creatures followed, long black robes billowing behind them like shadows in the night.

“Danger,” Hector hissed. “But who could be looking for you?”

He got his answer soon enough when a blast of magic blocked off the narrow passageway, causing the camel to stumble and throw Hector down heavily.

Isaac cursed, pulling his colleague's stunned body away from the stomping animal a moment before it was too late.

Hector was cursing too, which meant that he was alright, so Isaac left him slumped by a wall and pulled his dagger out, reading himself for a fight.

Nearby their demons were waging a losing struggle, killed by bolts or powerful green magic. It didn’t take more than a few seconds for them to be reduced to piles of carnage. Isaac ducked for cover behind a pile of trash and chanced a look at their attacker.

Atop a two-story building, a woman stood overlooking the alley. She held a staff that marked her as nothing other than a witch, with a green crystal at its crown, glowing the same pale green hue that Isaac had seen before. Her skin was dark, making it difficult to see her features in the twilight. Beside her legs a slim black cat with fluorescent green eyes curved its tail upwards and let out a menacing hiss.

“Brother, stop,” the witch called in his direction, making Isaac look over his shoulder to see if there was another attacker behind him.

But there was no one there in the darkness, save his shadow.

“Isaac, please! It’s me,” the witch urged again, making something cold squeeze Isaac’s chest. Her voice, her accent - they were familiar.

“I’ve come to rescue you,” she continued. “I’m your sister Julia!”

“I don’t have a sister,” Isaac shouted back, trying to shake the strange feeling he felt in his chest. He didn’t know what it was, so he pushed it away, his mind racing instead for an escape route.

Their guardians were dead, but they could still lose the witch in the small streets if they made a dash for it. If Hector wasn’t hurt...

“Yes you do!” The witch used her magic to fill the air around her with small balls of light. In their pale green glow, Isaac saw a vision that he had only seen in memories - a beautiful face, marked by the same tribal tattoos that ran across his own, and curls of thick, black hair that framed her features like a halo.

This was almost the face of his mother. But not quite. This was...

“Julia,” the name rolled unbidden from his tongue.

“Yes,” relief washed over the witch’s features. “Yes. Yes, it’s me. I finally found you, Isaac… and...”

Her eyes darted away and Isaac traced them back to the spot where Hector was pushing himself to his feet, using the support of the wall. In his rich merchant’s attire the other necromancer could easily have been mistaken for a slave owner. Suddenly, what would happen next became perfectly clear to Isaac.

“Julia, don’t,” he shouted just as the witch lifted her staff, green glow filling her eyes as she summoned her magic to cast a spell.

“I will avenge your suffering, brother,” she roared, and it was too late to reason with her - she aimed the killing energy blast straight at Hector’s chest.

...

Later Isaac couldn’t recall what happened except for the flash of light and the surprise, rather than fear, which he saw written on Hector’s face as he pushed him out of the blast’s way. And for the life of him, Isaac couldn’t recall what had possessed him to try to save Hector, of all people, at his own expense. It must have been a moment of true madness.

Currently Isaac was blinking unconsciousness away as he lied on his front on a gore-soaked bed in a stranger’s house.

Above him he could hear Hector and the witch, who claimed to be his sister, arguing as some form of magic healed the wounds on his back.

“You still don’t trust me?! After everything I just did? Do you know that these healing sprites cost more than their weight in gold,” Julia sounded frustrated.

Isaac caught a glimpse in his peripheral vision of a small glowing creature fluttering its tiny wings as it circled around his back. It appeared to be the source of the magic that healed him. Isaac had never known that such creatures existed.

“All the more reason not to trust you. In my experience women don’t do kind things simply out of the goodness of their hearts,” Hector spat. “You’re after something, and I’m not telling you anything until I find out what it is!”

“Women, huh? Well, now I can add “misogynist” to the long list of insults I can call you, slavedriver!”

“I am his friend not his… urgh,” Hector actually growled, sounding uncharacteristically close to losing his temper. “You are reeling me up on purpose, so that you can get what you want!”

“Oh please. I can guess well enough on my own where you are going. The ruined Library, it’s obvious,” Julia yawned. “What I’m actually curious about is what are you hoping to find there?”

“Nothing! And we were not going there,” Hector insisted.

“You are a terrible liar,” Julia laughed playfully. “But if there was nothing there, then why is a whole legion of vampires camping there for the last month or so… I just wonder.”

Hector was silent and Isaac took it as his cue to make his wakefulness known. He twisted around to face them, feeling a numbness dulling his senses and slowing his movements. The thin, bloodstained sheet that covered him slid down to his waist. Isaac could feel new skin stinging as it came into contact with the room’s stuffy air.

“Isaac,” Hector gasped.

Both of them leaned over his injured body, their differences temporarily forgotten.

“Don’t get up,” Julia warned. “Your back is barely patched together. You must rest.”

Ignoring the warnings Isaac propped himself on one arm and turned further to look back at his surroundings. The room was windowless, illuminated by thin streaks of sunlight that came from somewhere further into the building. Colorful curtains and rugs adored the otherwise stark features of its box-like shape. Somewhere outside the noise of a busy street could be overheard.

“Where am I?”

“The Sultan’s private villa,” the witch quipped cheerfully, making Hector frown. “My house, obviously.”

“Downstairs it’s a sweets shop,” Hector added. “She masquerades as a baker!”

“Is that accusation I hear in your voice? I am a baker. A damned good one too,” Julia winked and Hector crossed his arms over his chest, looking away indignantly.

Isaac took this opportunity to study each of them.

Hector had removed his rich over-layers and jewelry, remaining in nondescript black robes, much like what Isaac had been wearing the night before. His sleeves were rolled up and his arms were stained with blood.

The witch looked different in the daylight. She looked younger than she could be, wearing vibrant green and bronze silks, and a modest amount of makeup. Now that he could see her clearly, Isaac couldn’t deny that there was a strong similarity in their features.

“You said a legion of vampires guards the ruins of the Library,” he addressed her groggily.

“They are after you, aren’t they,” she guessed.

Isaac nodded and Julia tapped Hector’s elbow.

“See, it’s not so hard. I’m on your side.”

Hector shrunk away from her touch as if it burned him and Julia turned a slightly hurt look to Isaac.

“Don’t mind him,” Isaac told her. “He’s been beaten by too many women to ever calm down around you.”

“You didn’t have to tell her that,” Hector’s angry blushing was somewhat cute, but Isaac resolved to ignore it.

“Do you mind leaving us alone,” he asked.

When Hector looked at Julia expectantly Isaac cleared his achingly dry throat.

“I meant you, Hector. Not her,” he amended, choking a little.

“What!? But she could be dangerous! How do you even know that she’s who she says she is - you never mentioned having a sister before,” Hector protested.

“It’s the mark of our clan,” Julia smiled, tracing a long-nailed finger over the pattern above her eye. “These tattoos belong only to members of our immediate family. Isaac knows this.”

“That’s what she used to identify me,” Isaac confirmed. “She is my sister, that much I am certain.”

“She wanted to know where we are going,” Hector warned him. “I don’t trust her.”

“I must speak to her alone now, Hector,” Isaac stressed impatiently. “Leave us!”

Reluctantly his once rival and apparently now self-appointed protector left the room. A meaw sounded somewhere further into the house, and the black cat sprinted through the corridor, following the grey-haired necromancer.

“Nima seems to be quite taken with your friend,” Julia commented, eyes following the cat. “Although I can’t imagine why. He’s a filthy, misogynistic asshole.”

“Hector is a simple man and you were teasing him on purpose,” Isaac pointed out tiredly. “I’d caution you against playing with him too much - he turns violent suddenly and without warning.”

“Really,” Julia’s eyes widened with interest. It confirmed a suspicion that had been forming in Isaac’s mind since the moment he’d woken and heard them arguing. “And what was that you said about him and women?”

“I suppose I could tell you his life story if you have the time,” he offered theatrically.

“I’m all ears.”

“Or perhaps I could just skip to the part where I tell you ‘he’s mine, so stay away from him’,” Isaac warned with narrowed eyes.

“Oh, alright then, big brother, please relax,” Julia laughed. “I didn’t realise it was like that between you. You could do better though-”

“Don’t twist my words,” Isaac growled. “Hector owes me and until he does what he agreed to do, I want you to stay away from him.”

“Really? Is that all this is about? You nearly died trying to save him last night. It’s the only reason I didn’t kill him right away.”

“It’s solely professional,” Isaac claimed. “After we are done with our business you can have him. Unless someone else beats you to it. He has a few claims on his life already.”

Julia was looking at him with a mixture of awe and pity.

“Are you sure, Isaac,” she asked. “If you care about him I’d understand.”

“I don’t care about him,” Isaac stated firmly.

Julia sighed and turned her eyes to a little table on which there was a bowl of bloodied water and rags that smelled strongly of herbs.

She opened her painted mouth as if she was about to say something else when a sharp pain in Isaac’s back caused him to jump in alarm.

Julia cursed in a language he didn’t understand and snatched something from his back. Isaac felt a small piece of his flesh tear off with it and couldn’t stop his surprised yell.

Somewhere further into the house he could hear Hector running up a staircase towards them.

Julia had something small and glowing in her long-nailed hand. Tiny fluttering wings flapped helplessly in her grasp as she examined it for a second before she begun smashing the creature on the table top with the flat of her palm.

A crunching noise accompanied the banging and Isaac winced in disgust. Hector appeared at the door.

“What’s going on?”

“Just something you should know about these sprites,” Julia answered casually. The light in her hand was flickering and went completely off after her final slap against the board.

Hector approached guardedly and Isaac raised himself to a sitting position to see better when Julia removed her palm from the creature she had just killed. On the table an insectoid little shape fluttered in death-twitches. It had small fluorescent panels on its armour, which were flickering their final flashes. It’s small head and body were strangely humanoid in their position and proportion, but the face was ugly, full of teeth and with eyes like a dragonfly.

“These fairies, as you called them,” Julia said to Hector, “are ugly little bastards once you finally see what they are.”

Isaac looked back over his exposed flesh, seeing at least two more of those creatures flying around his wounds, glowing with their seemingly harmless light and healing him with magic.

“They can patch up the worst wounds quicker than any magic I know, but you shouldn’t keep them around for too long,” the witch continued. “If they taste blood they lose their minds and become vicious. It drives them into a sort of feeding frenzy. It can be quite dangerous if there are more of them around.”

“Oh,” Hector sounded quite sorry, but not for Isaac. The grey-haired man picked up the small body of the insect-like healing sprite. “You didn’t have to be so cruel. It’s just doing what’s in its nature to do.”

“It just bit off a piece of my flesh,” Isaac pointed out.

“And you screamed as if you were being stabbed,” Hector accused, cradling the tiny body to his chest. “You scared the shit out of me!”

“I would burn this thing, not resurrect it, if I were you,” Julia cautioned as Hector slowly walked out of the room with the dead “fairy”.

“Don’t bother,” Isaac told her. “Just tell me how to kill those things most effectively.”

“With fire,” Julia said warily. They waited in silence for Hector’s footsteps to fade into the house, but Nima’s insistent meowing had Julia raise her eyebrows. The witch closed her eyes for a long moment and when she opened them again, they were green and slitted, the same as her cat’s.

Isaac stared in disbelief. He had heard of such spells but he had never seen a witch powerful enough to do them.

“Aw, isn’t that precious,” Julia laughed. Her eyes moved, but she wasn’t looking at what was in front of her - she was seeing through the eyes of her familiar. “Your friend is making such a cute face at Nima. Awww.”

Isaac narrowed his eyes in irritation.

“Oh, he picked her up on his lap and is kissing her head. Damn, I didn’t think he could be that sweet,” Julia continued.

“If you’re done playing on Hector’s lap, there is something we need to talk about,” Isaac tore her away from her entertainment.

“Don’t be so upset, brother,” the witch laughed, “You said he was free game. I just want to check if he’a got anything worthwhile there.”

Isaac felt himself flush with anger and annoyance.

“I don’t suppose you’d know, right,” she kept teasing.

“Julia,” Isaac interrupted her, “Why were you looking for me?”

Her mirth quickly dissipated at that question and her eyes reverted back to her natural dark brown.

“What do you mean, why,” she asked. “Weren’t you looking for me too?”

When Isaac didn’t answer her face contorted with anguish.

“I knew you were sold, and all this time I imagined that when I eventually find you, you’d be someone’s slave,” Julia said. “I prepared myself for the reality of you being broken or even dead. But I never imagined that I would find you roaming free, having completely forgotten me. Did you really forget who I was? How could you?!”

“I don’t recall any memory of you,” Isaac answered truthfully. “The only reason I believe that we are related is our tattoos. Mother told me what they mean.”

“So you remember mother? But you don’t remember me!? Or Father? Our tribe? The village?”

“I was born in captivity,” Isaac closed his eyes and turned his face into his hands. He didn’t know what she was saying, but the words were like stabbing pain in his chest, and not the kind he enjoyed. There was a bone-deep misery in him at the mentions of a family and a home, which he couldn’t recall ever having.

“That’s not true! You and Mother were taken on the day that our village was raided.”

“I recall no such thing.”

“It’s what happened. Grandma and I were washing clothes at the spring. Not being in the village was what saved us. When we returned, it was too late to save anyone. I looked through the bodies of those who were killed. You and mother were missing. I promised myself that I would never stop looking for you. Just like you said to me when…”

Julia’s words were interrupted by a sob.

“You don’t remember that either, do you,” she asked sadly. “You don’t remember the day when you found me in the woods. You don’t remember anything!”

Isaac turned his head to look at her and the face he saw was so youthful, distorted by grief and tears that he could almost grasp at the memory of a little girl crying, lost in the woods. The memory slipped away as suddenly as it came.

“You said you would always find me,” Julia sighed, lost in memory. “My older brother said that to me...”

Julia’s brother was dead. He had died somewhere along the way and not even a memory of the boy he had been remained in Isaac’s broken mind.

Still, he wasn’t cruel enough to tell her that. It had been a very long time since he had faced such raw grief. He didn’t know what to do or say, so he just turned away.

As they sometimes did in moments of great distress, his hands ran over his shaved head. There his fingers caught on an old scar, one that predated his earliest memory.

“Perhaps this explains it,” he whispered. Julia stopped sobbing and looked at the thin ridge that had always been on the back of Isaac’s head.

“Oh,” she exclaimed quietly and Isaac allowed her to gingerly touch the scar with her small fingertips.

“Mother told me that I hit my head when I was younger,” Isaac admitted. “She must have thought it a kindness that I knew as little as possible about the past.”

“She had no way of knowing I lived,” Julia agreed, sounding calmer. “Perhaps it was kinder that you didn’t know what you’ve lost.”

They were silent for a long moment, each lost in their own thoughts.

“Thank you,” Julia said in the end, her voice calm and resolute. “For giving me an explanation. Perhaps now I can forgive you.”

“I don’t want your forgiveness, Julia,” Isaac admitted tiredly. “I want your assurance that you won’t stand in my way.”

“Stand in your way of what,” she frowned. “If you are planning to try to go through those vampires to get to the Library it’d be suicide. Forgemasters are nothing without their creations after all.”

“Did Hector tell you what we are?”

“He didn’t need to,” Julia said without inflection. “I saw your demons last night. Such ugly creatures. Truly, I’m not sure how I feel about my brother delving into such unclean arts.”

“And yours are better?”

“Good, honest magic,” Julia claimed. “But back to my point - you can’t go through those vampires without my aid.”

“And what reward do you want?” Isaac asked suspiciously.

“Whatever it is you’re after,” the witch crossed her slender arms across her chest. “What is it exactly that you are hoping to find there? The key to eternal life?”

Isaac couldn’t help but smirk at that presumption.

“That key has already been found. Vampires have it,” he laid back down on his front, tired from his wounds and their conversation.

“We are necromancers after all - we’d be out of business if life was eternal,” he added.

“Very funny,” Julia said. “But if you don’t tell me what you want from there I won’t help you.”

“Let’s just say that we are after more knowledge,” Isaac said.

“What knowledge exactly?”

“How to resurrect the undead.”

“What could possibly be both undead and in need of resurrection?”

“Does it matter? I gave you the truth,” Isaac pointed out.

The witch thought about it for a few moments. Isaac wondered if the news of Dracula’s war and his demise had reached that far south that she’d put two and two together. Evidently not.

“Fine, I will help you, on the condition that I come with you into the Library. I’m sure there will be some useful texts for me there too.”

“Deal,” Isaac agreed.

...

Despite the threat of being attacked by blood-frenzied healing sprites, Isaac was too tired to stay awake through the afternoon. He awoke from uneasy rest in the evening when the sunset painted the mud-colored walls a vibrant red, pitched in high contrast against the black shadows cast by various curtains and shutters.

Hector was sitting on the edge of his bed, playing with the sprite he had resurrected.

“Magnificent creatures,” Hector said once he realised that he was being watched. “Even dead they can still use their powers to heal. I’m keeping this one.”

“As long as it doesn’t attack me, do what you like,” Isaac groaned tiredly.

“Look,” Hector pulled on his clothes, exposing his shoulder to Isaac’s stunned gaze. “Notice something?”

Once Isaac got over his confusion he realised that it was the shoulder that had previously had an ugly cross-shaped scar. Now it was unblemished like the skin of a child.

“They heal even old wounds,” Hector clarified. “Once your back is fully healed you won’t have any of your old scars left.”

Isaac’s chest constricted in a strange feeling of loss.

“Who told you that I wanted those scars gone?”

“I thought you’d be happy,” Hector sighed. “Anyway, I’m sure you will make yourself new ones in no time.”

Isaac ground his teeth in irritation.

“How many times are we going to go over this?”

“Alright, forget I said anything,” Hector raised his hands in surrender. “I wanted to tell you something else as well.”

“What,” Isaac sighed in exasperation.

Hector was silent for a long while and Isaac prompted him: “Well?”

“I don’t know how to properly say this,” Hector admitted. “I suppose it’s just, thank you.”

“For what now?”

“For saving my life,” Hector looked at him and Isaac was reminded of the soft looks his colleague had given him back in the Castle. He hadn’t been treated to any of those in a long time. “That was by far the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me.”

Isaac didn’t know how to respond so he stayed silent. He still didn’t know what had possessed him to throw himself in the blast’s way to save Hector.

“I did it for the mission,” he said in the end.

“You didn’t really need me for the mission,” Hector disagreed. “Now that we are here and you know what you will find in the Library, I’m sure you can carry out the mission just as easily without me.”

Isaac knew that to be true.

“I didn’t think of that,” he lied.

“Lucky me,” Hector laughed and he leaned down over Isaac to kiss his cheek.

He pulled away in silence.

“I’m going to pretend that you didn’t just do that,” Isaac said through his tightly clenched teeth. He prayed that Hector couldn’t hear the frantic beating of his heart.

“I was counting on that,” Hector said, rising to his feet. The flying sprite followed him, but the necromancer waved a finger at it. “No, Diana, you stay here and take care of Isaac for me.”

“Diana?” Isaac made a show of rolling his eyes.

“Goddess of the hunt,” Hector smiled. “After that chunk she bit off you, I thought it was fitting.”

“She?”

“I don’t know. I suppose it is a she. It’s a fairy after all.”

Isaac sighed loudly.

“Don’t think I’ll forget that you use that mouth of yours to kiss dead things, Hector,” he said as dryly as he could.

“I thought we would be forgetting about that kiss,” Hector smirked.

“I want an apology for it. Then I might forget.”

“Well,” Hector lingered by the door, smiling, hesitating, “We will see… Maybe I will apologise. Maybe.”

“You’d better.”

“Sure,” Hector laughed. “We will see.”

With that he pretty much ran away. Isaac covered the back of his head with his hands. His face was burning with shame and a strange cocktail of other emotions that he couldn’t identify.

He tried to understand what he felt, but he couldn’t. It wasn’t hate, that much was certain. But he wanted the feeling gone. It was too much for him to bear. It was a hard thing to feel.

He buried his head in the mattress and tried not to breathe. He stayed like that for as long as he could. His lungs burned for oxygen when he finally allowed himself to take another breath.

The feeling had gone away.

Better, he thought.

...

Chapter Text

That night Isaac lied awake, trapped in thoughts that refused to give him peace. He wondered about the things he had learned the day before and couldn’t stop thinking about the brother, whom Julia had known.

What kind of a man that boy could have grown up to become, if only he had been given the chance? Had things been different, would he have become a farmer, a merchant or a medic? Would he have willingly traveled all his life or would he have stayed and made a home, had a family. Would he have had a wife, or would he have lusted for the embrace of another man, the unrelenting hardness of a male’s body and the hurt that large hands could so easily inflict?

Isaac truly didn’t know whom he had once been and what part of him remained, if any at all. And he doubted that the man he could have become would have looked kindly upon one, such as he.

The quiet shuffling of Hector’s bare feet on the packed mud floor of the corridor drew Isaac away from his depressing contemplations.

The other Forgemaster hesitated before the beaded curtain, which was the only separator between the corridor and the windowless room, in which Isaac was supposed to be asleep.

“What are you doing here,” Isaac hissed suspiciously, turning to lay on his side to keep the doorway and his colleague in his line of sight.

Hector pushed aside the curtain, careful not to make too much noise as the strings of beads and small bells clicked together. He entered the room quietly, finding his way in the scarce light with his unnaturally luminous blue eyes. It was strange, how dull Hector’s eyes looked when there was other light around, but how bright they became when all else was dark. Much like the man himself, Isaac supposed.

“I couldn’t sleep,” the other Forgemaster told Isaac quietly, walking over to the edge of his bed. “I’m used to sleeping during the day and being awake at night, so I just can’t seem to find any rest.”

The grey-haired man sat on the threadbare rug by Isaac’s bed and rested his chin on his elbows so that they were at eye level with each other.

“So,” Isaac raised an eyebrow in question.

“So, I came to see how you’re doing. I’m taking you can’t sleep either?”

Isaac nodded guardedly. It was true that he couldn’t sleep, even if he tried. However unlike Hector, he welcomed the respite of solitude. He wasn’t bored by being alone with his thoughts. He hadn’t taken Hector for an extrovert, but somehow his colleague always came to bother him in such quiet moments, full of idle talk and a persistent need for connection.

“It’s strange, isn’t it,” Hector smiled. “Being in a house. With a room and a bed.”

The sheet that covered Isaac’s newly healed skin was thin and rough, and the pillow under his head was small and stiff, but Hector had a point - those were the biggest luxuries that they had enjoyed in many months.

“What have you come here for, Hector,” Isaac asked him directly. “Don’t tell me you came here just to chat about our accommodations.”

Hector bit his lower lip uncertainty and looked away. Isaac’s eyes were involuntarily drawn to the movement before he forced them to look away before he was caught staring.

“You get injured too often,” Hector said. “I feel like seeing you hurt and nearly dying has become somewhat of a routine.”

“As the old saying goes, whatever doesn’t kill you,” Isaac dismissed with a sigh. “Is telling me this what you really came here for?”

“Well, I wanted to see if you have healed fully. May I look?”

To deny Hector’s request meant appearing defensive, so Isaac sat up and drew the sheet around his hips to cover his lap. Hector wasn’t quick enough to hide his glances when he looked down to Isaac’s stomach muscles bunching as he sat and shifted around to give Hector a view of his back. Even turned away Isaac could hear his colleague holding his breath, and could feel the heat of Hector’s gaze as it slid over his dark skin, taking in the healed patches, and lingering in places it had no business to look.

An unwelcome shiver of pleasure stole down Isaac’s spine and he trembled minutely. Shame replaced it quickly enough and he hoped that Hector had mistaken his quivering for something else.

“Are you satisfied,” Isaac asked irritably, wishing to cut the moment short before his body found another way to betray him.

“You appear to be healed,” Hector stated behind him and Isaac felt a soft touch on his newly healed skin. “Does it hurt?”

Another shiver caused Isaac’s shoulders to tighten and his body to tremble.

“No,” Isaac stressed. “But the new skin is sensitive.”

“Ah, I see,” Hector’s exhale tickled Isaac’s bare back and the arcanist realised that his colleague had drawn closer than he had realised.

“We should try to find the entrance to the Library tomorrow during the daytime hours,” Isaac hurried to change the topic, moving so that he could sit around to face Hector. “That way we can avoid Carmilla’s forces.”

“Julia warned me against doing that,” Hector disagreed, frowning a little and sitting back on his heels. “She knew that you would suggest it, and told me to tell you that most likely the vampires have people in the city guard. She said that they rarely do things without their human minions. And that we shouldn’t go anywhere without her, because she has a plan.”

“She told you all of that, did she?” Isaac couldn’t quite understand why the thought of his sister and Hector communicating when he wasn’t there bothered him so much.

“Yes,” Hector nodded. “Julia said that most likely we are wanted men and that we shouldn’t show our faces outside during daytime hours when we can get arrested.”

“And where is Julia now?”

“She went out a little before sundown,” Hector shrugged. “Hasn’t been back since. It’s been hours, I think.”

“She could be selling information about us to those same interested people she warned you about.”

“I trusted her, because I thought you trusted her!”

“Don’t be an idiot,” Isaac wanted to slap him, but held back his hand. Hector flinched at the aborted gesture. “I trust no one, and neither should you.”

“What do we do then?”

“Nothing,” Isaac sighed tiredly. “We will wait. And if she turns on us we will kill her too.”

Hector’s lips turned downwards and he stared at some spot on the floor for what felt like a long time.

“If she truly wanted to kill us, she had plenty of chances,” he pointed out quietly.

“Won’t be the first time someone kept me alive, just to sell me to the highest bidder”.

“She was kind to me earlier,” Hector said barely above a whisper.

“Really,” Isaac asked, hiding his growing agitation with fake nonchalance. He really didn’t like the idea of something going on behind his back with Hector and Julia, so he added slyly, “I’m surprised to hear that, given she seemed to dislike you.”

“Maybe it was because I was nice to her cat,” Hector sighed. “I don’t understand it either. Noone ever does kind things without a reason. But she did it anyway -“

Hector didn’t explain further - he just lifted his hair with both hands and Isaac was treated to the sight of his bare throat - still a little dark from bruising, but free of the collar of ownership, which Carmilla had put on it.

“Did she do that,” Isaac couldn’t help but be impressed on top of annoyed. Unlocking magic was a complicated science. Julia was a powerful witch, the kind of ally that could be useful. But she also seemed to be getting a firmer grip on Hector, which was something Isaac couldn’t tolerate.

“Yes, put her hands on it and - ” Hector cut himself off. He hesitated, as if searching for words, while getting increasingly flustered. “Well, she was just very kind about it. She even... well, she...”

Hector blushed and this time Isaac didn’t hold back and slapped him. The glare that elicited was positively murderous.

“You realise that she could have easily bewitched you,” Isaac scolded. “You should never let a witch perform any kind of magic while touching you! You are such a naive idiot, Hector.”

“Don’t you dare hit me again,” Hector warned, sitting back on his haunches, away from Isaac’s reach. “Or I will hit you back, even if you’re still unwell.”

“I’m trembling from fear,” Isaac couldn’t help but smirk. As unhealthy as it was, he loved and couldn’t resist provoking the other man. He wanted Hector’s fist, just as much as his hand ached to slap his colleague again. It was a dangerous and unnatural desire, but Isaac was getting tired of fighting it. He wanted to give in so much...

“Better save it for Carmilla,” Hector answered irritably and rubbed his hurt cheek. “She must have tracked me here. I bet she knew where I was going even before I escaped. She must have seen my research.”

“You should have warned me about that possibility earlier.”

“I didn’t think of it! You are probably right, I am an idiot,” Hector admitted with defeat. “I thought I had outwitted her, but it seems like I only escaped an ambush, because she didn’t count on me going to you first.”

“She caught on to that soon enough,” Isaac noted, remembering how swiftly the vampire’s attack had come upon his desert camp after Hector had arrived.

“But she underestimated you,” Hector half-smiled, still rubbing his cheek. “And Laura’s dead. I’m sure now Carmilla’s got it out for you just as much as she’s got it out for me.”

“Who was Laura to her?”

“Laura was her lover.”

“And you didn’t even think of telling me that?!” Isaac couldn’t believe that Hector had left out such an important bit of information. It seemed that he no longer had a choice about eliminating Carmilla and wondered if this was what Hector had intended.

“I didn’t want to dwell on it. I hated Laura almost as much as I hate Carmilla. I was just that glad she was gone.”

Isaac recalled the conversation he had overheard between Hector and the vampire general. It had seemed that the hate between them was both personal and mutual.

“She fed from you too,” Isaac guessed, recalling the knee Laura had jammed into Hector’s crotch and the way the other Forgemaster had trembled for hours after he was freed from her clutches.

“That was the least they did to me when they got into the mood,” Hector said bitterly. “I don’t think I ever thanked you for killing her. I should have. I appreciate it, Isaac.”

Isaac watched Hector’s profile curiously. It seemed like his colleague had taken Carmilla’s treatment very poorly. In a way, Isaac could sympathise. He had his own experiences to blame for that.

“It seems like you have a talent of incurring debt towards me,” Isaac pointed out with a small amount of humor, hoping to draw Hector’s mind away from memories. “However will you repay me?”

“I will resurrect Dracula for you,” Hector promised, meeting his eyes with determination.

“Hush! Even the walls have ears.”

“It’s dangerous, isn’t it,” Hector leaned forward, speaking barely above whispers. “People won’t be happy with what we want to do. Even your sister.”

“I have been thinking about recruiting her...”

“Will you?”

“I haven’t decided yet. If she refuses, I'd have to kill her.”

“Don’t ask her then,” Hector urged him.

“Why not,” Isaac raised an eyebrow.

“She has been good to us,” Hector insisted.

“You haven’t become taken with her, right,” Isaac frowned deeply, jealousy and anger brimming up quickly.

Hector didn’t answer that, at least not verbally. Instead, without warning he raised himself to his knees and pecked Isaac on the lips. Isaac blinked mutely in utter surprise and confusion.

“I understand that as a ‘no’,” Isaac ventured carefully, still disbelieving of the fact that Hector had actually kissed him.

“You are extremely perceptive,” Hector muttered, sitting back down and looking away. Even in the dark, Isaac could see him blushing furiously.

Isaac contemplated him for a few tense seconds. His mind warned him against watching Hector’s submissive stance too closely, but the allure of seeing the grey-haired man on his knees had already worked its charm. A dark hunger that had been denied for too long was quickly shutting down Isaac’s ability for higher thought, and disorienting arousal was taking its place, making Isaac speak before his mind had processed what he was saying:

“You said Julia’s not here,” Isaac swallowed past the lump in his throat with difficulty.

Hector nodded, glancing up at him through his lashes, shy but somehow hopeful.

“Are you bored,” Isaac uttered, before he could force himself to stop, shut up and kick Hector out of his room, as he should have done a while ago.

Hector seemed surprised by the question, but then he nodded very eagerly.

“Do you want to play a game with me?”

“What game,” Hector asked breathlessly. His posture betrayed suspicion and a lack of trust, but his eyes were dark with anticipation and Isaac already knew that Hector would agree to just about anything.

“Get in the bed and I’ll show you,” Isaac ordered, trying to mask his eagerness as he felt around the sheets for his dagger. The blade was right where he had left it. Hector didn’t see it in his hand as he readily got in Isaac’s bed to lie under the thin sheet next to the arcanist’s naked body.

As soon as Hector was in reach, Isaac pressed the blade’s edge to his throat. Hector sucked in a quick, panicked breath.

“What...” he hissed.

“The game goes as follows,” Isaac whispered in Hector’s ear. “If you say ‘stop’, I will. But you will lose the game.”

He turned the dagger flat against the column of Hector’s neck. The man’s pulse was jumping wildly just under Isaac’s fingers and the thrill of that was delicious. It had been so terribly long since he had been so intimately close to another person. Least of all someone as powerful and beautiful as Hector.

“How does that sound to you,” he added, pressing his chest flush against Hector’s back.

“Like you are mad,” Hector answered between heavy breaths, but he wasn’t struggling to get away.

Isaac smiled and turned the edge of the dagger towards Hector’s neck. The grey-haired man stopped breathing and arched his spine to avoid the metal’s bite but there was nowhere for him to go.

“Don’t move,” Isaac warned him, trembling almost as much as Hector as he trailed the blade lower, cutting through Hector’s clothes. Hector hissed as a small trail of blood formed on his chest and stomach. He groaned and kicked, making Isaac tighten his grip to immobilise him.

“You know you can end this right now,” Isaac reminded him, pressing the knife just a millimeter deeper, knowing that it would hurt like hell, even if it left no lasting damage.

Hector tried to say something but it was lost when he pushed his hips back, away from the knife and straight into Isaac’s ready cock.

Isaac wondered what Hector thought about that. Maybe his colleague thought he was sick for becoming so aroused by what he was doing, without getting touched even once. Well, Isaac knew that he was sick, so he didn’t care either way. It was Hector’s own fault for pursuing him against all sound judgement and allowing him to get that far.

“Do you like that,” Isaac asked quietly into Hector’s ear and circled the tip of the dagger around his navel.

Hector had no answer, except the rough shaking of his body and his ragged breathing. Isaac nuzzled his lips to the base of his neck, letting sweat-dampened grey hair tickle his nose, and inhaled his scent. It was far from the sweet, perfumed fragrance that most women possessed, but Isaac didn’t remember a time when he had liked women. Hector’s scent - salty, bitter and utterly masculine, was driving him insane. He turned the dagger’s flat side to Hector’s skin and slid his free hand under the band of his trousers.

He found Hector’s cock half-hard and stroked it experimentally. It grew quickly to a solid, heavy shape that filled his grasp, making Isaac’s heart flutter. Hector moaned when he was touched and rocked his hips into Isaac’s fist.

Isaac released his erection and gripped his hip to keep him still as his knife hand went lower, trailing its edge along Hector’s side. The dip between Hector’s hipbones was pronounced from months of deprivation and Isaac could clearly feel every muscle and every pulsating vein below Hector’s skin. He couldn’t resist lingering a little, feeling off the sharp hip bones and lean muscles between them.

Hector arched into the caress and Isaac met his eagerness by turning the blade and dipping it lower, leaving a shallow scratch that beaded with hot blood all the way to the base of his dick.

“St…,” Hector cut himself off. He struggled, writhing helplessly in Isaac’s arms. “Not there, don’t!”

The word sent a wave of white hot desire straight to Isaac’s groin.

“Don’t?” the Forgemaster prompted with sadistic glee.

Hector tried to capture the wrist that was holding the dagger, but Isaac acted faster, slipping the blade under Hector’s sack, making him freeze in place, afraid to even breathe.

“You can quit any time,” Isaac reminded him.

Holding Hector hostage like that, strung up tight in his grasp, trembling with lust and fear was intoxicating. Isaac’s free hand moved around his body freely, feeling the nubs of Hector’s spine, the tight muscles that strained at his lower back, the hard curve of his ass...

Isaac rocked his hips forward, hard against that tight ass, letting Hector know exactly what he planned to do to him.

“Oh,” a moan escaped his captive and Isaac bit his lower lip to prevent one of his own from coming out.

Isaac pressed the edge of the dagger a little harder against the base of Hector’s cock, loving the little sounds of shock and arousal that elicited. He could no longer keep his hips from moving.

“Take your pants off,” Isaac breathed, pulling the dagger away to rest in a silent warning against Hector’s stomach. The other man hurried to comply, wriggling out of his clothing.

“That’s enough,” Isaac told him once Hector had pushed his pants down to his mid thighs.

“On your belly,” Isaac murmured, pointing the dagger’s tip under Hector’s ribs. Hector held his breath, trying to avoid getting cut as Isaac rolled him on his front. He repositioned the blade below Hector’s neck.

“Can you st… remove the dagger now,” Hector’s voice was rough with lust. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“That’s not how the game goes,” Isaac whispered in his ear.

“So, you are planning to cut my throat while you fuck me? Is that your idea of fun?” Hector swallowed audibly. “Of course it is, why am I even asking…”

Isaac chuckled darkly.

“Maybe it is. You can give up, if you are so afraid.”

“What happens if I quit?”

“I’ll kick you out of my bed.”

“And if I don’t?”

“Isn’t it obvious,” Isaac whispered, using his grip on Hector’s hip to pull them closer.

He spread Hector’s buttocks enough so that his cock could slide in the cleft between them and rolled his hips forward to let Hector feel him.

Hector’s breaths turned ragged with desire and he stayed still, complaints finally silenced.

“There is no oil,” Isaac murmured between his own fast breaths. “Can you take it dry?”

Hector’s breath hitched and Isaac wondered what he’d do if he was refused.

“I don’t care,” Hector answered hotly. “Do it! Hurry up!”

That answer made pleasure shoot through Isaac’s belly and he moved to seal the deal, but unfortunately just then they were interrupted.

Loud sounds coming from the first floor startled them both. Isaac froze, looking up from Hector’s wiry back to the darkness on the corridor. Hector looked up as well. blue eyes straining to find the source of the noise, which echoed so intrusively in the previously silent house.

Isaac cursed under his breath when he heard the lock turn and the front door open, followed by the soft sounds of small feet.

“Fuck,” he cursed. Julia had returned.

“Don’t stop,” Hector hissed, elbowing him in the ribs.

Isaac bit his lips hard, fresh pain and arousal muddling his mind, but the sight of the beaded curtain that separates the room from the rest of the house, and the sound of the witch going about her business on the first floor, gave him pause.

Maybe Hector didn’t care, but Isaac wasn’t about to lose an advantage by parading his weakness for the other man in front of the witch.

“You said ‘stop’,” he reminded Hector and used his knee to push him off the edge of the bed.

“No, wait…” Hector toppled down hard on the floor, looking stunned and confused. He shook himself like a dog, clearing his head before he gave Isaac a furious glare.

“You know what, I’ve had it with you,” he hissed, quickly pulling himself together, righting his clothing and climbing to his feet.

“You nearly gut me and then this… I’m sick of your madness,” Hector continued a little more loudly, “You are completely insane!”

Pretending not to listen, Isaac smoothed down the sheets of the bed and took deep soothing breaths to calm himself. Downstairs they could hear Julia heading up the staircase that lead to the second floor.

“I hate you,” Hector finished his outburst and turned on his heels, nearly stepping on Julia’s cat, who entered the room a few moments before her owner got there.

Careless of how Hector nearly tripped on her, Nima stroked herself on Hector’s legs, purring loudly. Julia pushed through the beaded curtain, entering the room with an exasperated laugh.

“Nima, leave our guest alone!” The witch was dressed in long dark robes and a ridiculous wide-brimmed hat, which sat atop her puffy curls like some sort of a large bird in its nest.

“She wants to know who stepped on your tail,” Julia winked at Hector conspiratorially.

“I can understand your cat’s speech,” Hector growled irritably, but then he knelt and gave Nima a loving touch, which only seemed to encourage the cat’s affection-seeking behaviour. “I don’t want to talk right now,” he told the animal and got up, walking out of the room without a word for the humans in it.

Nima meowed at Julia and gracefully filed out of the room, following the grey-haired man.

Julia raised an eyebrow at Isaac.

“Did you fight?”

Isaac was sitting on the bed, strategically positioned and wrapped in the only sheet that he had. He was still and his breathing was even. The only thing that could betray his earlier activities was the sweat that still clung to his skin, although that could easily be explained by the heat.

“Nima told me that the room stinks of pheromones,” Julia winked to him twice as if for good measure. “Aren’t you a bit unwell to be messing around, brother?”

“Mind your own business,” Isaac snapped. “Speaking of which, where were you tonight?”

“Ah, I will tell you about it, but first I want to make something clear - your friend needs to choose. He can’t have both Laforeze siblings.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Nothing,” Julia said. “Only that I don’t blame Hector for having a crush on both of us at the same time. I mean, we are both beautiful - same mother and father, I suppose. But he can’t have two.”

Isaac couldn’t quite comprehend what was going on. Maybe he just didn’t have much experience talking to young women, so he didn’t know how to communicate with them. Or maybe his sister was just a rare breed of insane.

“A crush on you, seriously,” he managed at last. “Hector hates women.”

“Didn’t look like hate to me, more like a - please save me - kind of thing” Julia’s smile widened. “He looked so sad and desperate, I couldn’t help but give him a little kiss. Did he tell you about that?”

Isaac’s jaw dropped. He didn’t want to believe it, but he remembered Hector yapping about Julia earlier and it occurred to him that maybe that would have been a confession, had Isaac not slapped him before he could finish it.

“Before you try to kill him, you should know that I initiated it,” Julia added cheekily. “But he didn’t exactly try to run from it either.”

Julia was certainly not joining them on their mission, Isaac decided. He reigned in his emotions to a mask of neutrality.

“I don’t care what you think. He belongs to me,” Isaac told her with finality. “And we’re leaving tomorrow.”

“Not without me,” Julia waved a long-nailed finger at him. “We have a deal. Also, you will be dead without me.”

“What makes you think that we need your help so badly,” Isaac spat indignantly.

“Please,” Julia huffed and in that one word she manage to pack enough dirision to let Isaac know just how little she thought of the two Forgemasters’ combat and survival abilities. “You would be arrested on sight. The city guard is under someone’s control. I don’t know who bought them, but I bet it’s your vampire friends pulling the strings.”

“And what is your brilliant plan,” Isaac challenged.

“We will go during the noon prayer when all the guards will be too busy praying to stop us,” Julia announced brightly.

“That’s it?! You are betting our lives on the supposed piousness of the guards?”

“Of course not, dearest brother,” Julia reached into her dark robes, retrieving a little jar in which a lock of black hair and fresh red blood were sealed. “The noon shift will be pious, so pious that they won’t look up from their little prayer mats at all. But only because I got a little memento from their supervisor’s firstborn son. And he’s well aware of that.”

At Isaac’s stunned expression Julia winked playfully.

“Where did you think I went tonight, huh?”

Isaac wiped the impressed look off his face.

“Very well, Julia. We will try your plan.”

“As if you have a choice,” she smirked. “Now, are you well enough to do this? We could wait, you know.”

“We do this tomorrow,” Isaac said firmly. “We wasted enough time already.”

“I like the intensity, brother,” Julia smiled. “I’m sure Hector does as well, but I am still making a cute-ass breakfast tomorrow and I bet sweetness is going to win his heart better than… whatever it is that you’re going for.”

“Enough with this Hector nonsense,” Isaac growled. “Do what you want! I don’t care!”

“Yeah, yeah,” Julia waved her hand dismissively. “See you at breakfast. I’m baking sweets. To help with your sour mood.”

Isaac shook his head and buried his face in his hands with a sigh.

“How are we even related,” he muttered under his breath when he thought she had gone away.

“I heard that,” came Julia’s voice from somewhere in the house.

Chapter Text

True to her words, Julia treated them to a breakfast that was ostentatious to the Forgemasters, who had spent the last few months in an almost constant state of starvation. Isaac made an attempt to hide his greed for the various baked and fried sweets, but he could hardly slow down the rate at which he consumed the pastries, which Julia had left for them in the kitchen. Hector was even worse - he ate like an animal, half bent over his plate, gulping down half-chewed food.

“Well, I’m flattered,” Julia teased from where she slanted a hip against the doorframe. Her bakery shop was still open and she was wearing work-clothing that consisted of the local manner of long, loose robes and a veil to cover her hair.

Hector startled at her sudden appearance and choked on hastily chewed food. Isaac soundlessly sighed in mild embarrassment on his colleague's behalf.

“Don’t worry, there is more. In fact, you can have whatever I don’t sell today. Might help you put some meat on those bones,” Julia winked at Hector. “That goes for you too, brother.”

Isaac didn’t deign that with an answer.

“She’s right,” Hector muttered without looking at him. “Your bones jut out in places.”

Isaac had a thing or two to say about what Hector didn’t seem to mind jutting out when they were together the previous night, but he kept his mouth shut.

“I will keep the bakery open as usual,” Julia continued. “At noon we can leave and we’ll be just in time to pass by the city guards during prayer.”

“We will be ready,” Isaac assured her.

As if to counter that statement, from the other side of the table Hector groaned miserably.

“What’s wrong now,” Isaac glared at him.

“Nothing,” Hector hissed, wrapping his arms around his belly. He was trying to hide it, but he was obviously in pain.

Isaac lowered his face in his hands when Julia hurried to soothe his colleague with kind words and stomach-settling tea.

Isaac couldn’t deal with all the sappiness. He got up and left them alone in the kitchen. His stomach was revolting against the rich food as well, but he wasn’t about to mop around, hoping that someone would brew tea for him.

So he went upstairs and threw up in his chamber pot. He retched all the more when he thought of how well Julia treated Hector and how easily Hector allowed her to be good to him. He hated it all the more because he knew that he could never allow himself to be so vulnerable - not by giving kindness, nor by receiving it.

Something in him was broken beyond repair. It made him angry that others had that thing that he had lost. But it made him sad too.

Later they set out in the guise of locals with their heads and faces wrapped and bodies covered in unassuming dark robes. Julia cast a glamour on her face to appear as a man. It helped avoid attention as the three of them pushed through the crowded maze of streets that lead to the ruins of the ancient library.

For a ruined site with little significance in the present day affairs, there were an awful amount of guards patrolling. Isaac could only hope that his sister’s plan would work as they leaned their backs on a shanty building, minding their own business as they waited for the time to come.

The call for the noon prayer sounded from a nearby mosque, and just as Julia had intended, all the guards on duty knelt on their matts in reverent prayer, keeping their eyes down and giving them a perfect opportunity to sneak past.

“Impressive,” Isaac admitted and the younger Laforeze beamed a happy smile.

“Is this magic,” Hector whispered to Julia.

“No more than the tea I made you was magic,” the witch preened. Even looking like a man, her voice and manner remained very much her own. “Just my natural charm, with a dash of blackmail.”

“We shouldn’t waste this opportunity,” Isaac pushed off from the wall and lead the way.

The trio hurried through the rubble of ancient stones to the dry well, at the bottom of which a secret passage was meant to hide.

Even in the midday sun, Isaac couldn’t see the bottom. It seemed that it was so deep down that a permanent gloom had taken residence there.

“Did someone ask to see magic,” Julia’s false face grinned and she lifted the staff, which she had disguised as a walking stick.

A platform made of sand appeared before the Forgemasters’ stunned eyes.

Julia confidently jumped inside the well and stepped on the platform she had created. She dismissed her glamors and appeared once again like a lithe young woman.

“Hop on,” the witch called.

Isaac jumped in after his sister. Hector followed last, squeezing in the space that remained. Once all were aboard, the narrow platform slowly begun descending into the well.

After the previous night, Hector had been giving Isaac the cold shoulder all day. And despite the tight space they were in, he took painstaking measures not to even brush against Isaac. As if a touch would burn him... Isaac reminded himself that he didn’t care. He wasn’t offended, nor did he expect something else. It was all the same to him...

Not even 30 feet below ground and the darkness swallowed them like a physical thing. Hector shivered in the permanent shade.

“I hate the cold,” he uttered.

Isaac could see the outlines of his face in the low green glow of Julia’s staff. Everything beyond that point was pitch black.

“I think it’s a relief,” the witch said and Isaac hummed in agreement.

“You really must be related,” Hector sighed.

“Did you doubt that?”

“A little.”

“We look nearly identical, aside from the fact that I have hair and it makes me all the more beautiful, thank you very much.”

“You are both very beautiful,” came Hector’s hushed reply.

“What?! You can’t just say that! Not when we’re in the dark like this… I’m blushing, just so you know!!”

“I meant equally beautiful...” Hector sounded embarrassed.

“Keep it quiet, both of you! We don’t know what we may encounter yet.”

The momentary silence didn’t last long.

“Is it just me, or is it getting darker in here?”

“It is getting darker,” Hector whispered. “And colder. Something isn’t right about this place.”

A shiver ran down Isaac’s spine. The chill was getting worse and he no longer welcomed its reprieve from the heat. That, and something else…

“Yes, I can feel something too,” he breathed. “Be on your guard!”

“I don’t have a weapon,” Hector reminded him.

“And what do you call that monstrosity of yours? Summon your demon,” Isaac whispered back.

“What demon?”

When no one answered, Julia repeated her question. Isaac could just imagine Hector biting his lips and looking away.

“You will find out,” Isaac smiled darkly. “There are a lot of things you don’t know about sweet Hector.”

“Isaac…”

“You are Devil Forgemasters. I get it. Don’t think that it scares me, brother!”

Isaac just smirked. He really couldn’t wait to see Julia’s reaction when Hector called upon that demonic monstrosity. The thing was so utterly hideous - the very personification of evil.

But at the same time, thinking of Hector’s powers reassured Isaac. It was good to know that he wasn’t going into unknowable dangers alone. He had powerful allies by his side and it made him feel ready to face whatever awaited them underground.

...

After a long descend the platform finally reached the bottom and disintegrated into the ground. The crystal on top of Julia’s staff glowed brighter, illuminating an empty and claustrophobic cavern carved beneath the well. The walls were cracked sandstone, so dry that not even a memory remained of the water that had once filled the chamber.

Julia shook her puffy hair and reached her staff out, using it to illuminate one side of the cavern and then the other.

“What’s that stench,” she wrinkled her nose in disgust.

An underground breeze fluttered Isaac’s clothing, carrying a sudden chill that made the Forgemaster shiver. He caught a whiff of the unmistakable smell of rotting corpses.

“It’s the smell of old death,” Hector said.

“And of new one,” Isaac added.

“Old death, new death? Can you two be more cryptic? I’m not creeped out enough.”

“Corpses,” Hector clarified for Julia. “You have to forgive us, but with our line of work we’ve learned to recognise the smells.”

“Right,” the witch didn’t sound reassured.

“Something’s been killing people and dumping them here,” Isaac mused. “And I have a suspicion that it may be the vampires you mentioned before.”

“Let’s hope not,” Julia pointed to a darker patch in the wall. “Ah, there! A door.”

They approached carefully, stepping over fallen stones, broken pottery and unidentifiable bones.

“Looks like someone is already here,” Julia said, examining the door, which opened to a stone-paved tunnel that lead further underground.

“Carmilla,” Hector whispered balefully. “She must have found my research. The lock of this door was a puzzle. She clearly knew how to solve it.”

“Then it’s time to settle the score with her,” Isaac put a hand on Hector’s shoulder. The grey-haired man startled at the contact but didn’t reject it. “Are you ready to have your revenge, Hector?”

“I didn’t expect it to come so soon,” the other Forgemaster said. “But if she is indeed here, then yes. I am as ready as I’ll ever be.”

“Wonderful! So now we are on a revenge quest to murder some vampire lady,” Julia huffed. “Demons, corpses, revenge… I’m not sure this is what I signed up for.”

“Did you really think that this was going to be a simple library trip,” Isaac raised a teasing eyebrow.

Julia answered him with an unimpressed glare.

They followed the man-made corridor for some time. It was narrow, but surprisingly well preserved from ancient times. When they finally reached its end the stench of rot had intensified to a level that made Julia nauseous, and she didn’t have any qualms about complaining about it. However, even the witch fell silent when they entered a medium-sized underground chamber that may have once been a part of the library’s basement.

The air was cold, dry and stale, and the only light came from Julia’s staff. In its green glow they could discern rolls and rolls of bookshelves, broken furniture and archaic storage chests. Another door stood open at the end of the chamber, gaping into utter darkness beyond.

“I hate this place,” Julia whispered barely above her breath. In the eerie silence, even her quiet words echoed unnaturally.

No one dared to disturb the silence after that.

Isaac took the lead, walking further into the room, his hand ready to take out his dagger at the smallest sign of danger. The Library of Alexandria wasn’t what he had envisioned. What had once been a beacon of ancient culture and a place of enlightenment had since turned into a tomb. The Forgemaster swallowed past the vague sense of disappointment of what he had imagined, versus how things turned out to be.

They reached the next door and Isaac stepped beyond, followed by Hector. Julia crossed the doorway last, and with her staff the view of what lay ahead was revealed. The sight filled Isaac’s veins with ice.

Rolls and rolls of coffins could be seen disappearing into the darkness of the vast underground hall. The lids were closed, but it didn’t take a genius to guess what manner of monsters slept inside.

“Vampires,” Julia uttered under her breath. “This place is infested!”

“Hush,” Isaac mouthed. “They may be asleep, but they could wake. So deep underground it won’t matter that it’s daytime outside.”

“There are too many of them,” Julia whispered back. “We can’t take them all in a fight.”

“Then we have to hurry,” Isaac answered. “We have a few hours until sunset. We can still find what we came here for, and then we leave.”

“We can’t leave the way we came,” Julia shook her head. “The guard will change and we will get arrested by the next shift. Then we’d be as good as dead. We must find another way out.”

“What?!” Hector whirled around. “This was your plan?!”

“Then we find another way out,” Isaac grit his teeth, keeping his face neutral despite the growing hopelessness of their situation. “Or we kill every single vampire here.”

“We’d better risk the guards,” Hector muttered.

“I’d rather die here than be at the mercy of humans again,” Isaac hissed.

A wet noise caught their attention and Isaac turned to search the eerie gloom of the hall with his gaze. Somewhere just beyond the reach of their light two glowing dots had appeared to stare at them. Julia gasped and as if attracted by her fear, another dozen pairs of eyes blinked into existence.

“Those are night creatures,” Hector said quietly. “Some of mine.”

“Are we safe then,” Julia released a panicky breath.

“They are not under my control.”

“Reclaim them then,” Isaac urged, trying to sound more confident than he felt.

Cold sweat appeared at the back of Isaac’s neck with the realisation of how fucked they really were. If the creatures attacked the battle was going to wake the vampires. And even if all of the coffins were filled with low-class drones, the sheer number of them made the trio’s odds impossible. The only way to survive the confrontation was if Hector somehow regained control of the night creatures and made them fight on their side.

“I will try,” Hector whispered. “But with no arcane focus, without even my coins… I’ll need time.”

“We will give you time,” Isaac told him. He drew his dagger out as the creatures began approaching. “But be quick!”

“Alright then,” Julia raised her voice in challenge, mad with battle nerves and no longer caring about keeping it down. “You wanted to see some magic!”

Her eyes filled with green light and her witch staff burst into a blinding flash as she tossed a ball of energy towards the demons.

For a moment Isaac was able to see the entire hall, its tall vaulted ceiling, second-floor balconies and numerous isles of bookshelves. There were also dozens of coffins, lined up in the middle isle, broken down furniture in the corners and night creatures… A small legion of them, feasting on the remains of drained human victims piled into heaps of rotting flesh on the floor. Julia’s blast hit them and the magical explosion ripped demons and corpses to shreds, shook the ground and the very foundation of the Library.

Isaac could still see the image of the horror he had glimpsed, imprinted on the back of his retina when the blinding flash faded. But what he could hear in the darkness that followed was even worse - shrieks of startled vampires and the scraping of wood as sarcofagoses opened.

“Fuck,” he cursed and dodged an attack in the dark by mere instinct alone.

Julia’s staff illuminated the hall once again and Isaac saw the attacking vampires just in time. He threw himself into the battle, striking with swift, economical blows and felling his enemies without passion or joy.

He drew back to meet the next wave, careful to protect Hector, who was concentrating on regaining control over his creations.

“Hurry up,” Julia shouted desperately, and she used her magic to levitate out of the way of attacking demons. They followed her like hungry beasts, jumping after their prey and clawing at her robes. Her long skirt tore at the knees but the witch managed to escape, luring the bulk of the creatures after her.

Isaac glimpsed Hector in the corner of his peripheral vision. The Forgemaster’s body was sparking with the blue flames of his magic. That ghostly light illuminated nothing but itself and whatever Hector was doing wasn’t working fast enough. The vampires had just gotten their bearings and now they were attacking in earnest. Isaac could barely keep up with the sheer number of them.

“Hector,” he called desperately, knowing that if they failed, Dracula’s life would be lost forever. “You must do this! Now!”

The fight was hopeless. Isaac struggled to escape from being cornered or surrounded. He was too overwhelmed to protect Hector, and the other necromancer was all but opened for attacks if it wasn’t for Julia raining chaos from above and keeping their enemies occupied. Her magical blasts tore through demon and vampire flesh alike, but even with her abilities it was only a matter of time. They were outnumbered too greatly.

Isaac’s heart felt like it could burst. His lungs burned from exertion. He feigned and evaded, landing swift strikes wherever he could, until finally one of his legs gave out under the muscle strain and he fell.

In the split second when he hit the ground, all the Forgemaster could feel was surprise. It wasn’t supposed to end that way. That was not how he was meant to die… torn to shreds in a forgotten, dark and cursed place. ‘How else then’, he reasoned with cold detachment and softened his eyes as he waited for the final blow to give him his gruesome end.

That blow never came. The grizzly demon above him paused mid-attack and then turned on the vampire next to it. All the demons did.

As the crowd of enemies around Isaac dispersed, engaged in fighting with each other, the Forgemaster turned his head to the side to look at Hector. The silver-haired man looked serene, enveloped in his blue flames, with his locks flying about his face as if pushed by strong wind. Isaac had never witnessed the manifestation of Hector’s true power before and it gave him a strange sort of fluttering feeling in his gut.

When Hector opened his eyes, they scanned the room, as if searching for something. Isaac was surprised when those blue orbs stopped on him and the man ran across the distance to help him.

Too stunned to guard his pride, Isaac allowed Hector to pull him up and throw an arm over his shoulders.

“Are you hurt?”

“No. I’m fine.”

Hector dragged him away from the fighting as Isaac struggled to catch his breath. Julia and the night creatures made quick work of the remaining vampires. Luckily, those were only low-class warriors and were dispatched with some degree of ease.

The Forgemasters backed up to a wall and stopped to watch the fighting. Hector was yet to let him go and after the shock of what had just happened, Isaac felt reluctant to break away on his own.

“Strange,” he mused, trying to ignore the awkwardness of their almost hug. “That many foot soldiers and not even one elite.”

“Maybe luck is finally on our side,” Hector suggested, keeping his eyes on the dying out battle, rather than on the man beside him.

“There is no such thing as luck,” Isaac disagreed. “At least not for the likes of us.”

As if somewhere in heaven a cruel god heard that statement, in that moment a figure appeared at the other end of the hall, leading a small party of well-armed vampire generals behind her.

That tall, imposing profile was someone Isaac could never forget. That was even more true for Hector, whose knees gave out at the sight of his former Mistress’ white-blond hair and the click of her high-heels. Luckily Isaac was there to steady him as Carmilla walked into the room, followed by her entourage.

“If it isn’t Hector, my wayward pet,” Carmilla announced, her mocking voice echoing loudly in the hollow spaces between ancient columns and vaulted ceilings. The emphasis on the last word made the silver-haired man tremble.

“Hector, you’ve been a bad, very bad puppy. I will have to punish you for making me chase you halfway across the world,” Carmilla tilted her head to the side, glaring at them.

Hector covered his ears and shook convulsively. The sight made Isaac want to gut the vampiress even more.

“But I see that you have brought me another one of your kind,” Carmilla’s pale eyes turned to Isaac. “I suppose that deserves a boom. Perhaps, I will finally grant you the death you so desired, now that I can replace you with someone a little less pathetic!”

“You must be Carmilla,” Julia interrupted the cruel monologue. The witch’s torn skirt and big hair fluttered as she levitated towards the new group of enemies, staff and eyes aglow with green light. “From what I heard, the only one to die today would be you… And your friends, of course.”

“Leave her to me,” Isaac shouted, shaking with rage. “Carmilla will die by my hand!”

“Tch, tch, tch,” Carmilla clicked her tongue in mock disappointment. “You Forgemasters cannot hope to defeat me. Without an army of demons at your command, you are nothing but fragile bags of flesh and bone. Look at that one -“

She gestured to Hector, and Isaac didn’t have the heart to turn and see how his colleague was doing in the presence of his abuser.

“Utterly pathetic,” Carmilla called him. “A waste of space. Unfit to lick the dirt off my boots. And at its core, his ability is useless without raw materials. That long casting time - utterly useless! Certainly not good enough to defend him. And if you think,” her eyes glittered sadistically as she regarded Isaac, “that you’d do any better, then go ahead and try! Try to attack me with your little knife! But you won’t, will you? Because deep down inside you know that you are powerless against me, you insignificant worm!”

With a roar, Isaac threw himself forward and the few remaining night creatures followed his lead. Carmilla’s laughter echoed off the walls as her vampire elites defeated the demons with ease. Avoiding their attacks and making his way to their leader, Isaac was almost in reach of Carmilla when Julia’s magical blast made the ground shake, tore three vampire generals to pieces and knocked down a few more.

“Enough! There is no need for bloodshed,” Carmilla jumped high in the air, far out of Isaac’s reach, and landed on a second-story balcony. “I want to talk to you, sorceress!”

Up on the railing Carmilla was almost at eye-level with Julia, who levitated high above the floor.

“I don’t know you, but your beauty belies powers that are even more stunning than your pretty face,” Carmilla lowered her tones to seductive ones. “Forgive me if I’m being forward, but you take my breath away! Metaphorically speaking…”

“Don’t waste that metaphorical breath” Julia growled. “I don’t deal with monsters!”

“Really,” Carmilla tilted her head down to look in the Forgemaster’s direction. “Then you have no idea who you’re dealing with.”

Julia’s glanced down to her brother. Isaac pursed his lips but said nothing.

“In my court, humans with great power are held in high regard,” Carmilla continued, “I have rarely seen a witch who can fight like you do, and I also admit that with my concort gone, I have been craving for company.”

“I’m not interested,” the witch told her.

“But why stay with the losing side,” Carmilla sighed theatrically, “Someone with your talent has so much potential! Join me and gain more power! Join me for the knowledge I can teach you…”

“She has no knowledge to teach,” Hector interjected and his voice sounded surprisingly steady. “And she speaks nothing but lies about how she treats humans in her court! That collar you removed from my neck - it was her that put it there!”

“My, my… I didn’t know you could string so many words in a sentence, pet. I always thought you were rather lame,” Carmilla ridiculed him. “But don’t listen to that animal. I had every reason to leash him. If he could have his way, the world would be wiped clean of humans, and the same is true for the other Forgemaster.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Ha, they didn’t tell you what they came here to do, did they?!” The vampiress laughed. “Darling, I’m sure you’ve heard of the Demon Lord’s demise. Count Dracula Tepes died after his unsuccessful campaign to end humanity, which drenched Eastern Europe in blood.”

Julia’s eyes were on Isaac, wide and uncomprehending.

“These two were his servants, his bloodiest generals,” Camilla announced with glee. “And even now they seek a way to resurrect him and continue what they couldn’t do before - bring an end to the human race!”

Julia’s mouth fell open and she looked at her brother as if demanding an explanation. Isaac had none to give.

“So, you see, chaining Hector was the least I could do to save humanity and the world,” Carmilla said. “The same should be done to the other Forgemaster. So you see, we don’t need to fight. Join me, and help me get those rabid dogs back into their collars!”

“I… I can’t do that,” Julia answered.

“Why? Do you want to see Dracula's resurrection? Are you as insane as them? I thought that as a woman, you’d be more intelligent than that,” the seductress challenged.

“I agree with you about Dracula, but not about them.”

“You still think they are worth saving, even knowing their part in Dracula’s war,” Carmilla glared viciously. “Let me tell you about them! This one, the one you so kindly released from my collar, burned his own parents alive!”

Even from far below, Isaac saw the shock on Julia’s face.

“He then betrayed and left to die the only being to ever accept him and take him in - the infamous Count Dracula. Takes a demon to love a demon. But don’t expect loyalty or love from a snake - Hector doesn’t know the meaning of those words, he’ll turn whichever way suits him. He’s a traitor and a coward, who strikes from behind!”

“As for the other one,” Carmilla spat, turning her eyes to Isaac. “He’s nothing but a dog that has been kicked so many times that he’s learned to love it. In fact, he’s such a masochist, that he can’t go a night without mutilating his own flesh, taking sick pleasure from his misery.”

The way Carmilla so callously painted him in his ugliest hues in front of the only two people Isaac respected, made the Forgemaster physically sick. Thankfully Julia no longer looked to him for an explanation and with his back to Hector, he could not see his colleague's reaction to those cruel words.

“The love for pain is the only reason he carries on with his wretched existence. He’d crawl on his belly for his Master, even though Dracula never cared for him or even respected him. Dracula knew what he was - once a slave, always a slave. His place is below another man’s heel, on his hands and knees, bent under his betters. Dracula saw that and used him like a willing whore. Like less than nothing. And he loved him for it.”

The words hurt. They cut deep, straight into Isaac’s core, because a part of him believe them. But deep inside his soul a familiar transformation took place. Arguably the first ever transmutation Isaac ever learned - the art of turning misery into anger.

Isaac’s body shook with vitriol when he next met Carmilla’s eyes. However, Hector acted first. He let out an inhuman roar and instantly summoned the nine-foot tall demon:

“Go forth, Cain! Kill her!”

Isaac didn’t have time to wonder at the latest example of Hector’s absurd naming pattern, because the colossal being launched itself into an attack, nearly knocking him out of the way.

Carmilla seemed surprised, but found her bearing quickly, as did her remaining generals. The group of elite vampires dispersed, blinking out of existence in one place and materialising in another. Isaac met the first one with his dagger and stabbed him through the heart. With a shriek the vampire fell and its comrades hissed. They were not going to underestimate his skill ever again.

Somewhere in the air, Julia joined into the assault, taking the Forgemaster’s side and obliterating vampires with her energy blasts. Hector’s rage had turned the man feral, and he was wielding a broken chair leg, using it like a bat and a stake at the same time. He threw himself into the fight like someone possessed, attacking with little heed for his own defense.

Unsurprisingly, it was only a matter of time before someone got him - a vampire kicked Hector in the stomach, knocking the wind out of him.

“You forget your place, worm,” the vampire’s snarled, but his speech was cut short when Isaac surprised him from behind.

The amount of blood that comes out of a vampire’s cut throat never ceases to amaze, Isaac thought as he jumped to Hector’s side, protecting his flank while the other Forgemaster caught his breath.

They ended up fighting back to back, working together and pushing the vampire’s attacks back.

“That’s it! I gave you a chance,” Carmilla shouted and flew out at Julia’s back with her claws outstretched.

Isaac saw her and threw his dagger without thinking. The blade lodged itself deep into Carmilla’s chest and broke her lunge’s trajectory, giving Julia enough time to react.

The witch turned and aimed a blast of magic at Carmilla body. The vampiress dodged and it narrowly missed, but it left her arms and hair burned. She hit the ground heavily, yet far from defeated.

“I need backup! Generals, to me,” Carmilla shouted and the remains of her elite crowded around her, protecting her from Julia’s blasts and Cain’s attacks.

Defenseless without his weapon, Isaax broke a chair leg and ran after Hector to stake some vampires. Surrounded by enemies, the last of Carmilla’s generals quickly perished, and in a desperate attempt to regain the upper hand the vampiress jumped out of the protection of her warriors and went for Hector.

“This is how it ends, pet,” she snarled as her claws slashed at the grey-haired man viciously. “I won’t tolerate your insubordination any longer!”

Hector dodged the attacks with uncanny speed, but she was even faster. She disappeared and materialised right behind him, then punched Hector so hard that he flew back and rolled on the floor.

As preoccupied as she was with her revenge on Hector, Carmilla didn’t see Isaac charging towards her until he had plunged the sharp, splintery end of the chair leg right into the centre of her chest.

“Oh,” Carmilla’s grace finally faltered and she stumbled to the side, her hands around the stake that protruded from the front of her body. “But you missed the heart, darling!”

Carmilla’s bloodied smile was the most sinister thing Isaac had ever seen and he darted away from her shambling form. She pulled the wood out of her chest, blood pouring from the wound and from her sharp-toothed grin.

“Hey, brother! You dropped this!”

Isaac looked over his shoulder just in time to see Julia picking up his dagger and tossing it into the air. Isaac caught the familiar hilt with ease.

“Brother? Brother…” Carmilla laughed hysterically. “Well that explains it…”

Isaac didn’t wait for her to enjoy her newfound insight. With his dagger in hand he was lethal and the wounded vampire stood no chance. He threw the dagger aiming straight at the long column of her throat. It connected and choking on her own blood, Carmilla fell to her knees.

Isaac took the final steps slowly, walking around his defeated enemy and pulling her head back by the hair.

Hector was lying unconscious in a heap of his own limbs. It was a shame he wouldn’t get his moment of vendetta, but Isaac knew better than to give Carmilla a chance to recover.

“This is for my Master, the one who you said never loved me, nor respected me,” Isaac growled.

“Don’t bore me with speeches, do what you came here to do, Forgemaster,” Carmilla challenged between clipped breaths. “Or are you all bark and no...”

She never finished her sentence. Isaac raised her decapitated head in his hand and let her body fall down. He contemplated leaving her head next to Hector as a gift. The idea struck him as distasteful and he threw it on the pile of corpses instead, using his magic to set them alight with red flames.

All their enemies laid defeated.

“At least we have light,” Julia quipped.

Isaac turned to look at his sister. Her clothes were torn from fighting and she was covered in bruises and blood. The look in her dark eyes was judgemental until suddenly she cringed and bent over, starting to vomit uncontrollably.

Not really knowing what to do, Isaac walked to her and patted her back as she retched.

“I… I feel so sick,” Julia managed.

“It’s normal,” Isaac told her as gently as he could. “It was a hard fight. Your body doesn’t know what else to do. It happens to all of us.”

“Doesn’t happen to you.”

“Give it a few minutes,” Isaac attempted to smile.

“I’m fine,” Julia said, wiping her face with her sleeve. “Go check on Hector. I don’t see him breathing.”

Isaac’s chest squeezed with fear and he did just that. He knelt beside the man and gingerly turned him over onto his back.

“He’s alive,” Isaac sighed with relief. “And he’s coming to.”

Hector blinked and focused his blue eyes on Isaac.

“Did we win?”

“Yes,” Isaac said.

“Is she dead?”

“She is.”

“Good.” Hector closed his eyes.

Isaac watched his relieved expression for a moment and then remembered that they had more problems at hand.

“No time to rest just yet,” he said softly and nudged the grey-haired man until Hector understood and slowly climbed to his feet.

“So,” Julia begun, standing a good distance away from them and hugging her arms close to her chest. “Now is the time when you tell me that everything that bitch said was a lie. And that my brother was definitely not working for Count-fucking-Dracula to end all of humanity. Because if that’s the case, then I’m not sure how I’m supposed to react.”

In her eyes Isaac saw denial, but he knew that she already knew the truth. Still, she hadn’t attacked yet. And for the first time in a very long time, Isaac prayed to whatever God could hear him, that he wouldn’t have to confront his sister.

“She spoke the truth, however twisted,” Isaac responded. “I would tell you how it really was, if you care to listen.”

“Oh, now you are being forthcoming,” Julia laughed. Her staff was in her hands and its crystal was glowing. “So tell me then! Give me one reason not to kill my own brother. Please…”

The last bit came barely above a whisper and Isaac could see tears gleaming in her eyes. He could hardly believe that tears were gathering in his own too.

“Dracula wasn’t always the way he was at the end,” he began. “He saved my life on our first meeting. He was the first person to ever treat me with dignity. He was a genius, the brightest light that I have ever encountered. He was also generous. He invited me into his home. I refused. He wasn’t broken then. He didn’t need me.”

Those words were so hard to say, but then Hector appeared at his side and that silent gesture of support was all Isaac needed.

“But Dracula’s heart was cut right out of his chest. Ignorant clerics killed his wife, his one true love, and it sent him on a path of self-destructive revenge. When he came to me for help… how could I refuse him?”

“So you joined him on a quest to kill everybody? Every last mother and child,” Julia shook her head. “How could you, Isaac?!”

“He joined because every last mother and child spurned and rejected him,” Hector came to his aid. “They hated him and threw rocks at him wherever he went. This ability - to reanimate the dead… Is it such a curse? Why can’t we be left to practice it in peace?! They call it blasphemy and seek to punish men like us who wield it, even if we’re not doing anything wrong and we’re not hurting anybody. So how do you think he felt - how do you think I felt - when Dracula offered us a place to belong, a place where we were forgiven for existing.”

“So you sold your own race for forgiveness,” Julia shook her head in sad denial. “Not a very good argument. A little contrary, I might even say.”

“But also because you cannot deny that the human race doesn’t need a devil to be evil,” Isaac added in a harsher tone. “How can you judge Dracula when he didn’t start that war? He even gave the people a year to make peace with their God before he struck. He was generous even to those who wronged him!”

“You can’t seriously believe that everyone who died in Dracula’s war were guilty! There were innocent children, Isaac,” Julia shouted, “that got caught in your crossfire!”

“What are innocent children but a few years away from sinful adulthood,” Isaac whispered. “We too were children. How do you think the world treated us?”

“Like it treated me! But you don’t see me going out on a murderous rampage,” Julia shouted.

Silence reigned for a long moment. Julia was breathing loudly, and so was Hector. Isaac tried to steady his own heart and lungs.

“What happened in the past is of little consequence,” he offered finally. “I need to know what you intend to do now. Are you going to choose their side and try to kill us, Julia? Or will you let us go on our way?”

“I won’t kill you,” Julia said with a heavy sigh. “You are my brother, and you left yourself defenseless to save me. That alone means something. To me, at least.”

“Means what to you,” Isaac couldn’t help but ask.

“It means that you are not so far gone,” Julia said and a tear rolled down her cheek. “And I believe you may find your way out of this darkness. Because if you don’t, then somebody else will end you, somewhere… People like you don’t die of old age.”

“But also,” she continued between heartbroken sobs, “I don’t believe that there is any force in this world that could achieve what you set out to do. The way you speak about that man - that vampire, who so ensnared your hearts - I’m afraid what will happen to you when you fail to bring him back. Because I won’t be there to witness that fallout. In fact I won’t be there at all. I cannot be around you while you are like this, brother!”

“Wait, you have nowhere to go,” Hector tried to stop her. “You can’t escape alone.”

Julia looked at him bitterly.

“You might be right,” she admitted. “We will look for a way out together, but I will go no further with you.”

“That’s fair,” Isaac nodded, and hoped that no one heard the crushing sadness in his voice.

“Just remove that thing over there -“ Julia waved at Cain with distaste. “I can’t bear to look at it!”

Hector hurried to dismiss the demon.

“I don’t get it,” Julia turned her back to them and walked away, alone in the darkness of the now empty Library of Alexandria. “In a way Carmilla was right. I had no idea who you two are. I can’t believe that I ever… I just want to be alone.”

When she left the only light in the room came from the red flames that burned the corpses of demons, vampires and humans alike. Isaac’s magic left not stench, but it gave little heat or luminance. It’s bleak red color cast more shadows that light.

Isaac turned to look at Hector, who remained beside him. The grey-haired man hung his head low and his shoulders shook as he too began to cry. It got to Isaac - it straight out gutted him, because Hector’s misery, his curse, reflected Isaac’s own with horrible clarity.

Having never done so in his life, Isaac didn’t know how to comfort another human being. But he pulled Hector close anyway and guided his head to his shoulder. Hector gave only token resistance, before he leaned in and wetted Isaac’s shirt with his tears. Isaac held his head, caressing the silky locks as they stood awkwardly together, arms at their sides, trying not to make a sound.

There was a measure of comfort to be found in comforting another, Isaac decided. He breathed easier with Hector close to him and it brought him some small semblance of relief, even in the ugly, god-forsaken place that they had found themselves in. Maybe kindness wasn’t that bad after all.

Or you’re getting too desperate, said a cynical little voice at the back of his head.

Chapter Text

Holding Hector was the nearest thing to peace that Isaac had felt in a long time. The last time he had felt so content was soon after Dracula had welcomed him in Castlevania, and shown him to his newly assigned forge. Once left alone, Isaac had closed his eyes and breathed a deep sigh of relief. He had found a place to belong.

At present Isaac sighed deeply into Hector’s hair. It was an odd time and place to feel like he had rediscovered home. Around them, the corpses of their enemies were quickly consumed by magical flames and the devastation their combat had dealt in the Library’s undercroft had filled the stagnant air with dust and grit. At their feet torn pieces of paper and splintered blocks of wood crunched. Somewhere in the dark corridors, Isaac’s sister wept from disappointment, having finally seen his true colours.

But none of that mattered. Hector was his and in that simple truth, Isaac found peace.

At least until they were startled by a deep rumbling sound and the quaking of the very foundations of the ruins, as sand and mortar rained on their heads.

“Fuck,” Hector cursed next to Isaac’s ear and both men looked up. A massive crack was forming on the ceiling above them. It was so wide that it could easily be spotted even in the scarce red light of the fire.

They separated just in time to avoid falling boulders when the ceiling began to rupture.

“Hector, this way,” Isaac shouted and made a dash towards the corridor, in which Julia had disappeared. It led further into the ruins, away from the path from which they had entered.

As soon as they made it to safety, the way behind them was permanently sealed by a massive collapse.

With the final tumbling stones, the last of their fire was doused in sand and dirt, leaving the Forgemasters disoriented in the pitch-black darkness. The only sounds that could be heard were the low rumblings of shifting rocks, packing down further together under the earth’s weight, and the wheezing as they struggled to breathe in the dust clouds that rose after the cave-in.

“Fuck! That was our only way out,” Hector’s coughing sounded near to Isaac.

“Cover your face,” Isaac told him and he pulled his headscarf over his nose and mouth.

He heard the rustling of cloth and the crunching of sand under shoes as Hector got closer to him. A hand found Isaac’s shoulder and it’s warmth surprised the Forgemaster.

In the aftermath of their latest near-death experience, both of them shook with nerves. Isaac made an attempt to appear in control, despite getting blinded and disoriented in the dark.

“We aren’t leaving without that book, which you promised we’d find here,” he announced. “Resurrecting Dracula is still our main objective.”

“Even if we find that book, the passage through the well was our only way out,” Hector complained.

“Not necessarily. There might be a distance mirror or a portal of some sort,” Isaac disagreed. “I highly doubt all those vampires transported their coffins through the well.”

“Let’s hope you’re right. Our food will last us for a few days, but I am concerned that we won’t find water here. Actually-“

The sound of rummaging through the small satchel of provision, which Hector carried was followed by an uncorking noise. Then an unexpected bright spark of blue light nearly burned a spot in Isaac’s vision when a small, glowing creature flew out of a jar.

“Hi, Diana,” Hector greeted the undead fairy.

Back in Julia’s house, the fairy’s light had appeared dim. In the complete darkness of the collapsed Library, that same glow was sufficient to illuminate the Forgemasters and their surroundings enough for Isaac to regain some of his bearings.

“I need you to look for an exit,” Hector instructed the creature in slow, serious tones. The fairy did an excited little loop in the air before it began circling its owner and healing his scrapes and bruises with evident enthusiasm.

Isaac managed to suppress an eye roll.

“No, no! I don’t need you to heal me,” Hector chided the creature. “Go - find - an exit.”

“I don’t think it can understand complex commands,” Isaac cautioned him while pulling out his dagger. The sight of the fairy had provided him with an idea - if only he could use his magic to illuminate the blade as he did while he forged...

“Find water then,” Hector told the fairy. It made an approving sort of buzz and darted to fly around Isaac instead.

Hector actually giggled.

Isaac hummed in approval when his magic yielded results and red flames enveloped his dagger. Its light was scarce but it made a much better torch than nothing. Meanwhile, the fairy finished healing his minor grazes and scooted around its owner expectantly.

“Go find water,” Hector repeated to the confused creature.

“It’s just a healing-obsessed insect,” Isaac reminded him. “This isn’t going to work.”

“I just need the right approach,” the animal-loving necromancer disagreed. “Perhaps a visualisation would work.”

Isaac watched Hector close his eyes with a look of concentration. Surprisingly the fairy flew away, darting from side to side as it explored the corridors and halls further ahead. Isaac lifted an eyebrow.

“So it worked?”

“I hope so. At least it’s going somewhere instead of stressing you out,” Hector shrugged.

“If you think I’m afraid of an insect just because it bit me, then you still haven’t learned anything about me.”

“On the contrary,” Hector began walking down the worn-out stones of the corridor and Isaac followed him using the flaming dagger like a torch. “I know enough to worry that you might have liked it too much. That’s why I sent the fairy away before I got jealous.”

Isaac’s laughter came so suddenly that it caught him unprepared. Hector glanced over his shoulder smugly, but Isaac couldn’t bring himself to be genuinely annoyed.

“That was your worst joke so far,” he informed his colleague, trying and failing to suppress a smile. “Do us both a favour and deter yourself next time you think to say something so foolish.”

“Stupid jokes seem to work best on you,” Hector answered with fake nonchalance. “I think that reflects more on you than on me.”

“What… How dare you,” Isaac chuckled despite himself. Knowing when he was defeated, Isaac decided to change the topic. ”That collapse may continue, so we should hurry. For all we know, we’re on borrowed time.”

“Where do you think Julia went,” Hector asked quietly. “Do you think she’s searching for an exit?”

“Amongst other things, I’m sure she is, ” Isaac said. ”The way I see it, she’s probably our best bet for getting out of here.”

“I don’t think…” Hector hesitated as if searching for words. “She hates us, Isaac. I don’t think it’s wise to go near her again.”

“Maybe so, but you could soften her up,” Isaac reasoned.

“Why me?! You’re her brother, surely-“

“Stop playing innocent,” Isaac cut him off sharply. He stopped walking and sensing that he was no longer followed, Hector did so as well. “She told me about your kiss.”

Hector turned to face him with a mortified expression.

“I didn’t mean to…”

“Save it. I don’t care,” Isaac waved the dagger in his direction. “All I care about is that you talk to her when the need arises.”

Hector swallowed visibly.

“We need to go,” Isaac softened his tone just a bit. “We have a lot of ground to cover. Looking for this book will be like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

“I’d almost rather do that then try to speak with your sister after everything.”

“Need I remind you that I fulfilled my end of the bargain,” Isaac brushed past Hector as he took the lead. “Carmilla is dead.”

“Forgive me if I seemed ungrateful,” Hector followed after him. “I will do what I must, to the best of my ability.”

Isaac nodded in silent acceptance.

“Let’s see, there must be an indexing system of some sort,” Isaac pondered aloud as they continued down the corridor. He used his flaming dagger to illuminate the walls as he went until he spotted a stone slab written in Egyptian and Ancient Greek.

“Perfect,” he murmured. “These are languages both of us can read.”

Hector stopped beside him and closed his fist briefly before blue flames enveloped his hand. Isaac struggled not to feel jealous or impressed - his colleague's power had grown so much that he clearly didn’t need an arcane focus anymore.

“I can comprehend the Greek part, although the language has changed in over a thousand years,” Hector confirmed. “It says ‘forbidden section 12.”

“Yes, I understood as much,” Isaac nodded. “Looks like luck might be on our side after all - the knowledge we seek will surely be in one of these cellars.”

“I happen to know which one,” Hector beamed. “Follow me!”

...

Isaac followed Hector to section 2, which was surprisingly hard to find. The Library’s subterranean part was like a maze. Its layout made no sense and it wasn’t even all on the same floor. Hours had gone by and Isaac felt like they had become hopelessly lost by the time they located the right archive.

“I was starting to get claustrophobic,” Hector breathed a sigh of relief when they entered the tiny cellar room. It was one of the smaller and more primitive ones that they had discovered. Evidently, it was one of the first to be built, in the forgotten early days of the Library. Instead of bookshelves, the archives were stored in holes carved straight into the sandstone of the walls. And rather than books, information was stored in papyruses, clay slabs, woven tapestries and symbols carved into stones.

“How many ancient languages do you understand,” Hector asked as he picked up a Mesopotamian clay slab.

“Many,” Isaac said and he put the dagger down on a bench that might have served as a researcher’s desk in days long past. He took the slate from Hector’s hands. “Yes, I understand this, but it’s not what we’re looking for. Keep searching.”

“How did you come to learn such historical languages?”

“Raiding tombs and abandoned temples was something of a hobby for my first Master,” Isaac recalled with distaste. “He made me study ancient alphabets from a very young age, and later apprenticed me to various arcane linguists to learn as much as I could.”

“Must have been better than staying with him, from what you’ve told me,” Hector said while searching for something he could comprehend.

“Not necessarily. Some of them were decent enough. Others not so much,” Isaac recollected.

“Could they hurt another man’s … slave?”

“Only if they had permission.”

“Isaac, I think it may be here,” Hector interrupted his dark musings.

Isaac squatted on the floor beside his compatriot, who had discovered a leather-bound chest, hidden in an opening of the wall. The men had to work together to draw out the heavy box by the chain that wrapped around it. It came out on the rotten floorboards with a heavy scrape.

“Human skin,” Isaac uttered in awe. “You must be right. This must be it, but it requires a key.”

“There was no mention of a key… And I don’t see a keyhole.”

Isaac slid to his knees and sat on the floor as he examined the chest. Hector was right, there was no keyhole, only a colourless crystal that sat atop the interlocking metal chains, which held the chest closed.

“We’ve been going for hours. How about we take a break,” Hector proposed when it became apparent that there was no immediate solution to the problem.

He took off his satchel and offered Isaac a waterskin. Isaac drank a few sips of the precious liquid before he returned it to Hector.

“Will you tell me more about your past,” Hector asked conversationally as he unpacked their provisions.

“Why are you so interested,” Isaac frowned.

“I’m just amazed by how much you‘ve learned. You can’t be much older than me, but I feel like I know next to nothing about the world compared to you.”

Isaac struggled not to feel flattered.

“Are you trying to butter me up?”

“Depends,” Hector winked at him. “Not right now, but maybe later.”

“I can’t believe the things you say sometimes,” Isaac shook his head, praying that his blush couldn’t be seen in the dim light. His breath was suddenly too short and he struggled to control the sensations that were spreading through his stomach. Hector’s words had painted an image in his head and he couldn’t quite banish it...

“Eat something,” the silver-haired Forgemaster pushed their supplies towards him and Isaac noticed with distaste that it was all Julia’s bakery. He ate always. Outside it was probably sunset and they hadn’t eaten since breakfast.

“Will it kill you to tell me a story,” Hector prompted again.

“Alright, here is a story,” Isaac growled irritably. “I was sent to Rome to learn Persian from an associate of my first Master. It all went well until his wife took an interest in me and demanded that I bedded her. I refused, but in her bitterness she lied to her husband that I had raped her. I’m sure you want to hear what happened next...”

“No, I can imagine,” Hector raised his hands in surrender.

“Really? I thought you wanted to know more about me.”

“Tell me something that I wouldn’t be able to guess on my own.”

“Why don’t you start,” Isaac challenged. “A story for a story, as has been done since the dawn of time.”

Hector leaned away with a thoughtful frown.

“There is nothing,” he explained. “I don’t have many stories to tell. My life only began after I joined Dracula, and you know the rest.”

“Tell me something about that time then,” Isaac encouraged, interested despite himself, “something I wouldn’t know.”

A grimace crossed Hector’s face and he turned away as he thought.

“I don’t have much to… Well, I suppose I could tell you this: the first time when Dracula mentioned you-“

Isaac’s heart skipped from excitement to hear what his Master had said of him.

“- he spoke so highly of you, I thought that you might be like a son to him,” Hector recalled. “But when I asked him if that was true, he seemed immensely sad. I later understood that it was because of how Adrian broke his heart when he declared himself against him. But Dracula valued you and loved you as much as he could. So don’t ever think on what Carmilla said - she just wanted to weaken you with her poison.”

Isaac’s heart swelled and his eyes filled with unshed tears. He tried to steady himself before answering:

“I know.”

“So, does this count as something you already knew?”

“It does,” Isaac forced a small smile, despite his overwhelming urge to cry. His voice cracked a little when he prompted: “Tell me something else.”

“When I first saw you, I was intimidated,” Hector admitted.

“I knew that too,” Isaac lied, just so he could push Hector to say more.

“And I knew that you were only approaching me because Dracula commanded you to,” Hector continued a little guardedly. “He asked me to befriend you as well.”

“That doesn’t surprise me,” Isaac shrugged and picked up another pastry. As they spoke and ate his stamina was slowly returning. He blinked the tears away from his now dry eyes.

“I felt flattered by your attention anyway,” Hector confessed quietly. “After so long alone… You were… Well, I wanted to talk to you more, but I never knew what to say.”

Isaac had no response for that. It was as close to a love confession as he had ever received and it made him severely uncomfortable. He wondered if Hector expected to hear something similar in return.

“I think I finally scored a point,” Hector smiled a little sadly. “It’s your turn, Isaac.”

Still a little flustered, the Forgemaster struggled to find a secret to share. So he settled on a harmless one:

“I used to follow you when you went outside the Castle. I thought you were plotting something,” Isaac made his confession.

“Why?!”

“I didn’t trust you.”

“Then you also didn’t trust Dracula’s judgement,” Hector investigated carefully.

Isaac could guess what Hector was fishing for and he didn’t like the new direction that their conversation was turning. However, he decided to cut straight to the chase:

“Why did you betray us, Hector? What did Carmilla offer you that we hadn’t given you already?”

“She offered me life,” Hector stiffened defensively. “Dracula aimed to kill us all, did you realise?”

“Yes,” Isaac admitted and watched Hector’s jaw drop in shock.

“Did you want to die,” the silver-haired man asked.

“No, but I wanted to follow him to the bitter end,” Isaac responded. “I would die for Dracula even now.”

“Don’t you want to live?”

“Live where and with what?! There is nothing for us, Hector! Can’t you see? Dracula is all we ever had!”

“We have - ummm,” Hector hesitated. Isaac waited for him to finish that sentence but nothing came out of it.

“Perhaps after he returns he will have a new vision in mind,” Isaac attempted to reassure him. “But even if all he would want to do is kill us on sight, you should be content with that, because we would have fulfilled our purpose.”

Hector’s lips thinned and he worried them with his teeth.

“You don’t appear convinced,” Isaac inquired.

“I don’t want to die, Isaac,” Hector confessed.

“You have no other choice,” Isaac reminded him. “In this life, we’ve been nothing but persecuted and pushed away beyond the margins of society. Do you really want to spend the rest of your life locked away in a hovel, fearing the day when peasants would come with pitchforks to hang and burn you at the stake?”

Hector hung his head low.

“Think of all the evil in the world,” Isaac put his hand on Hector’s shoulder. “And think of it coming to an end once Dracula has wiped the world clean of all its violence.”

“Fighting fire with fire,” some of the tension drained from Hector’s shoulders under the small touch. “As if that ever worked…”

“It depends on the types of fire involved. You’ve studied alchemy, you know well enough that it can work,” Isaac tapped his shoulder in a friendly manner and removed his hand.

“Don’t… stop just yet,” Hector whispered without looking at him.

Isaac raised an eyebrow.

“This is not the time nor the place, Hector.”

“I just wanted to stay like that for a little while longer,” his friend sighed. “Oh well… Should we try to open this?”

“It’s about time,” Isaac agreed and they packed their scant supplies before focusing on the task at hand.

“This crystal seems to be the lock,” Hector carefully touched the transparent quartz. He pulled his hand away as if burned. “Ouch! It bit me.”

“A crystal bit you,” Isaac levelled him a look but couldn’t resist brushing his finger over the faceted stone as well.

“Ah,” he breathed. “It does bite. It feels… hungry. For our life-force, it seems.”

Hector frowned as he stared at the strange crystal.

“Not for life-force, no -,” he mused. “Get your dagger. Let’s try the opposite of life instead.”

Isaac didn’t know why it hadn’t occurred to him earlier. It made sense for whoever sealed that chest to make a lock that only a necromancer could open.

He brought the dagger close, focused a portion of his magic into it and touched the flaming metal to the lifeless-looking rock. At once the crystal filled with a strange and unholy black light. The chains slid off the now unlocked chest.

“I can’t believe that was it,” Hector gasped.

“Good thinking,” Isaac praised him sincerely before shifting to his knees and carefully lifting the leather-bound lid.

Inside the chest was a perfectly preserved papyrus scroll. Isaac’s hands trembled reverently as he pulled the relic from its resting place and gingerly unrolled it. It was written in a very ancient form of Greek, possibly dating back to the Minoan civilization.

Its contents detailed the resurrection of an ancient vampire, powered by necromancy and something called Dark Crystals.

Using cloth to protect his hands, Isaac picked up the glowing black crystal from before.

“This must be a dark crystal,” he said.

Hector nodded and kept reading.

“How convenient that they can only be mined in Wallacia,” Hector said, “unless I’m getting my geographical references wrong…”

“You’re not wrong,” Isaac shook his head as he examined the same text.

“So now all we need to do is to get out of here and find Castlevania. Unless you know where it teleported to…”

“I didn’t have a chance to look,” Isaac frowned, angry with himself for having never even considering it. At the time, he hadn’t even dreamt that Dracula might cast him out and force him to find his way back. He struggled to recall even a minor detail about the surroundings of the place, but there was nothing to go by.

“Wait,” he remembered suddenly. “We were immediately attacked by Alucard, Belmont and the Speaker Magician. They must have been the ones to draw the castle to themselves!”

“That means, Belmont estate,” Hector caught on. “The creatures I sent there to kill them never returned. Carmilla was right in her own way - we should have focused our attacks on those three! They must have found a way to manipulate the castle from afar.”

“It’s a good lead,” Isaac agreed. “Now, we should get out of here. Did you read the scroll? Committed it to memory?”

Hector nodded.

“Then it’s best if we leave it here,” Isaac said, putting the papyrus back into its box. “We’ve learned what we could, and this is the best place for it to be preserved through time.”

“You wish for this to be preserved for future generations,” Hector crooked an eyebrow. “Even though you want humanity to end?”

“We have no guarantee of success. If we fail, maybe someone else will follow in our footsteps,” Isaac told him. Then added a little self-consciously, “Also I care about preserving relics.”

That confession made Hector smile.

...

They spent hours searching for a way out with no sign of an exit, or the only other living inhabitant of the Library. While they climbed up half-crumbled staircases and explored halls, both preserved and collapsed, Isaac began wondering if Julia had discovered a way out on her own and left them to die. The idea didn’t seem too far fetched to him.

The closer they got to the surface, the more ash covered the floors and surfaces -the remnants of the great fire that had destroyed the Library in ancient times. Covering their faces against the particles that flew in the air, the two necromancers searched. Finally, they arrived at the remains of a grand staircase, which was now the site of a fire-charred collapse. The ash they were standing in was almost knee-deep.

“This must have been the entrance to the undercroft,” Isaac observed in the dim red light of his dagger. “We must be really close to the surface. If only we could find a way out…”

“The air is very stale and the ash looks like we’re the first ones to ever disturb it,” Hector answered hopelessly. “If there was an opening, however small, there would be a breeze, or animals and insects. There is nothing, Isaac. This place is sealed.”

’Then we’re in our own tomb,’ Isaac thought, turning the light this way and that, in order to illuminate the area. His eyes fell on the heaps of human bones that were scattered everywhere on the higher levels, but especially next to that collapsed staircase. It appeared to be the place of death for many of the people who had been trapped underground during the fire.

“Perhaps we could still get some help,” he reasoned, approaching a pile of skeletons. He concentrated his magic to call upon their long-deceased souls - not enough to resurrect them, but enough to ask questions.

Get away from the fire! We’re trapped here, trapped,” a disembodied voice shrieked as red light illuminated the eyeholes of a skull.

“State your name and rank,” Isaac said, pouring his power into the command. The soul had no choice but to answer him.

“Dimitrius, a philosopher from Athens! Please, please! Let me go! The fire - it’s burning my flesh! Oh it hurts how it hurts…”

Isaac steeled himself against the spirit’s pathetic cries.

“Tell me why you died here!”

I burned! No way out, no way…

Isaac released the soul and all went quiet. Hector’s silence behind him somehow felt judgemental.

“Next one, I guess,” Isaac gritted between his teeth. “Are you going to just stand there, or are you going to help me? Ask them about anything that can help us get out of here!”

“Fine,” Hector didn’t seem too thrilled but he did as he was told.

Some hours and many torturously slow interrogations later, Isaac finally came across what he was looking for.

Sargon, royal astrologer of his Highness,” a spirit wailed.

“Tell me how to get out,” Isaac asked impatiently.

The mirror - we need to get to the distance mirror… *cough* … the ash … *wheezing* … can’t breathe…

“Where is the mirror?”

I can’t breathe!”

“Listen to me, Sargon,” Isaac picked up the skull of the unfortunate astrologer, “I will carry you to the mirror. I will help you, but you must tell me which way to go!”

Thank you, friend! I don’t know who you are *cough, cough* but thank you! I will show you the way.”

Isaac glanced over his shoulder to Hector who was staring at him with disbelief. A small smile tugged at the Forgemaster’s lips as he followed the ghost’s directions, which lead back underground into the bowels of the Library.

The distance mirror was well hidden and thankfully fully preserved. Both men were awfully relieved when they saw it, sitting all inconspicuous and dark in a corner of a forgotten-looking cellar.

“Sargos,” Isaac addressed the spirit, “we have reached the mirror and now you can walk through it and be safe.”

“Thank you, friend! You saved my life. I wish you safe travels and farewell!”

Isaac dismissed the soul and carefully placed the now empty skull on a shelf.

“Wait, we can’t leave until we’re certain that Julia’s safely out,” Hector declared.

“She’s probably out already. And even if she’s not, do you think she would have stayed behind for us,” Isaac answered irritably. He was exhausted, shaken and on-edge after the terrible day they had endured. All he wanted was to be away from the cursed ruins and the desert, preferably back in Wallacia, where the climate was mild and wet and streams of freshwater were not a rarity. In fact, his thirst tortured him more than anything else. They drank the last of their water hours ago and the stale cold air chafed at his throat.

“Let’s camp here and rest for now,” Hector proposed. “I will call on Diana and ask her to find Julia. If the fairy hasn’t found her by the time we wake, we can leave.”

Isaac took in a deep breath to steady himself and found a place to put his dagger, in order to act as a makeshift torch.

While Hector concentrated on calling the fairy back, Isaac approached the mirror. He attempted to summon the image of Castlevania with his thought. His power flared but in his exhausted state it was insufficient. He prayed that he was going to do better after he rested.

Hector was still waiting for his tiny pet when Isaac gave up and found himself a corner to lie in for the night. He went down on the floor in a heap of limbs and loose clothing, not bothering to look for comfort and falling almost immediately into a death-like sleep.

His first thought when he was stirred awake was how strange it felt to trust someone so completely that he could sleep in their presence. His next thought was that he felt even worse than before he had fallen asleep. The aches in his body, the heaviness in his limbs and the biting cold in his extremities made him physically sick. The day before hadn’t been kind to him, and falling asleep for a short while hadn’t done much more than relax his body enough to make him feel just how much abuse he had endured.

It also felt strange that Hector was so very close to him and Isaac didn’t feel the desire to push him away. His hands and feet were frozen, his throat ached and his head spun from dehydration and tiredness. But in light of those sensations, Hector’s presence felt oddly comforting, and Isaac allowed the other Forgemaster to lie down next to him on the cold, hard floor.

“Your dagger went off when you fell asleep, so I made a fire,” Hector whispered.

With a start Isaac realised that his eyes had once again fallen closed, so he opened them to see a small campfire burning on pieces of broken furniture and books not too far from his feet. It was a real fire too, not a Forgemaster’s spirit flames, and it gave off real warmth and light. Isaac hadn’t realised that he had missed those things.

“Is it wise to start a fire in here? I think our friend will be upset,” Isaac answered groggily, nodding to the skull that had once belonged to Sargos.

“I don’t think he’ll mind,” Hector chuckled. “He’s in a better place now.”

“Anything is better than this,” Isaac answered, his mind drowsy and his tongue loose.

“Anything but where you and I will go when all is said and done,” Hector told him. “We deserve to go to the worst place.”

Isaac laughed quietly.

“I doubt they would want us even there.”

“But we’d fit right in,” Hector teased. “Delving in forbidden magics, consolidating with the spirits of the dead… Sometimes I wonder if everyone was right and we are devils ourselves.”

“Maybe we are,” Isaac sighed, too tired to stay awake and have a conversation.

“I sent Diana to look for your sister,” Hector continued. “If she’s still here, the fairy will lead her to us.”

“Umgh-hum,” Isaac hummed and rolled on his side to nuzzle his head under Hector’s chin. A human made a much better pillow than the floor, he sleepily decided.

“Oh,” Hector’s heartbeat was like a faraway drum, fast but still wooing him to rest. “That’s… nice.”

Isaac fell asleep to the pleasant sensations of fingers tracing the tattoo on his cheek and of his feet finally getting warmed by the fire.