With my first major victory at the head of my new lieutenants secured, and the imminent threat of the Sarafan removed, I was free to concentrate far more of my time and energy on the construction of my home. After all, every Emperor needs a seat of power from which to issue his commands! Before long, with the addition of the new labourers, and my reluctant acquiescence to dirty my own hands, we reached a point where we felt we could safely rest within the Sanctuary walls during the daylight hours, and from that moment on, we were in residence.
On the second day of our stay, however, a small band of overconfident Sarafan attacked. I could only assume that they were a search party, sent out from another stronghold to ascertain why communications had not been forthcoming from the local barracks. I cannot say for certain: I did not bother to interrogate them. They had no doubt seen first hand the destruction my servants had wrought among their brethren - we had left the warrior priests' barracks looking like a slaughterhouse. Driven by a divine and ill-conceived need for vengeance, they tracked us down, broke down the temporary pine door in the unfinished outer wall, and thundered heedlessly towards our inner sanctum.
With not a thought for stealth, the four of them came tearing into the chamber we had excavated beneath the pillars, sullying the perfect darkness with their gaudy torchlight, insulting the silence with their ardent battle cries, but even during our hours of rest, they were no match for my new lieutenants. The daylight hours took far less of a toll on them than it had from even the oldest of my previous followers, and I allowed them to surge forwards and defend their new home, while I watched and evaluated from a distance, to praise or criticize their tactics later.
Raziel took down the first Sarafan to enter the building, roughly shouldering his way past his lesser brethren in his eagerness to spill blood. After a brief struggle that caused a great deal of unnecessary pain to the human knight, the mortal was beaten, and the eldest of my new kin suckled gleefully at his throat. Presently, he sank to the ground, still supporting the weakly struggling human, and laid his body across his knees. The knight, still conscious, though barely alive, lay with his chest hitching as the death throes approached, unable to muster up the strength to even flail an arm at his killer. Lost in introspection, Raziel raised a claw to his lips, drew it away to look at the blood, then glanced again at the man's face, his own handsome features contorted thoughtfully. He was the still for so long that I marched over and stood before him, barking an impatient demand at his immobile form.
"What ails you, soldier? Have you forgotten how to deal death?" A titter echoed through the room, and was quickly swallowed by someone not yet bold enough to be sure whether or not he would be punished for daring to ridicule my first-born. Raziel then asked me something completely unexpected. It was not the first time he had surprised me – nor would it be the last:
"Can he be brought back?"
Having assured myself that the other two knights had been suitably and painfully dispatched, I gave him my full attention. "Why, Raziel? Have you been afflicted with a sudden attack of pity?" His brothers took advantage of his rare moment of discomposure and laughed scornfully at him. It still makes me smile when I remember how he made them regret that, later. With the human - still clinging to life by the thinnest thread - grasped lightly in one arm, he rose to look me in the eye, and addressed me plainly.
"Your plans are ambitious, Lord Kain." I bristled instantly at the unspoken inference of 'over-ambitiousness', despite the respectful tone of his voice. Nonetheless, I allowed him to carry on. I would let him say his piece, then make an example of him. I rarely passed up the opportunity to reinforce my mastery of them, even then. His next words, however, stayed my hand.
"But you weaken yourself to create followers who do not live up to your standards. You said yourself that those you created from poor stock are useless." He indicated the shaking creature dangling from one arm with a tilt of his head. "This one is strong."
So that was his intent. He wished me to resurrect the man. "Give him to me," I ordered, already wishing that I had commanded otherwise. I was still suffering greatly from the quantity of blood I had expended in creating my human work-force, and more so from the recent battle - but even now I could not afford to show weakness, not for a second. I moved to take the convulsing body from him, but he snatched it out of my reach with a shake of his head.
"We need you at full strength if we are to succeed in the momentous tasks you have set us."
I sensed his companions' shock at the audacious nature of his statement, several of them drawing back from the confrontation they believed to be brewing. I retained my semblance of control by asking him in a rather condescending and sarcastic manner, "Then what do you suggest?"
He tensed, as though expecting a blow for his answer. "I wish to attempt it myself."
That answer, unprecedented and unexpected as it was, rocked me back on my heels. Although I know I should have expected that one of my childer would one day ask this of me, I was, at that time, unprepared. None of my peasant-kin would ever have dreamed of asking such a thing, not even Ivan, who was strong in both mind and body, and had lived almost five years – a record for one of my progeny. Now Raziel, himself a newborn of no more than three weeks, wished to make the attempt. My growing pride was almost instantly stifled by my as-yet-unabated paranoia. This was unforeseen – could it therefore be a ruse?
"You are aware of who and what he is, this warrior priest?" I asked carefully, my eyes narrowing as I tried to detect his true reaction. If Raziel had the slightest suspicion of what I had done to him and his brethren, he might be using this opportunity to try to trick a confession from me. I needed to tread carefully. I had not sought living recruits from amongst the Sarafan, for any number of reasons, not least of which was the fear it would evoke memories in my lieutenants that my rational mind knew could not be. Now Raziel had brought about a convergence of circumstances that made those fears real.
"Does it matter?" he asked. His eyes betrayed no ulterior motive, his face blandly neutral as always. He wore that mask of neutrality even in the thick of battle, and as yet I had not managed to see past it – but I would learn. "He will have no memory of his past when he reawakens," he continued, then pausing to spear me with a look that was an open challenge to me in the presence of his peers. "Unless of course you balk at the blasphemy, my Lord…"
Abruptly, the tension at last was shattered, and I fairly roared with laughter. I threw my head back and laughed until my chest shook with it. Here was I, fearing an uprising against the maniac who had deconsecrated martyred Sarafan flesh, when in reality, my ambitious and eager followers desired only to follow in my footsteps and do exactly the same themselves! They were truly the blood of my blood, these corrupted saints, and though the irony was not lost on me, I was exceedingly pleased to have the situation resolved in such a fitting way. Finally, wiping a bloody tear from my eye, I chuckled, "You may try,"
Then, as my gaze fell on the still-living Sarafan, I was stricken with the need to fulfill one final desire before I could give him to my son. As I looked at him batting feebly at Raziel's arm, and tugging weakly at his confining fingers, I was reminded of who he was and what he signified. Embodied in this dying mortal flesh was the essence of the faith of my enemy, the faith that caused his memory to live on despite his defeat and subsequent death at my hands.
"But first, give him to me."
Reluctantly, he handed over the knight, his face pinched, puckered and showing a are hint of emotion. He feared I would take the knight for myself, despite my assent. I knew then that he truly wanted this, with all his black heart; to be first to follow my example, the first to rise above his beginnings the first to prove himself ultimately worthy of my gift. And so I would allow him, but first, I had my own little vendetta with the hapless Sarafan knight. I seized the mortal by the chest-plate and pulled him close, so that he could see in garish detail the otherworldly strangeness of my vampiric features in all their unholy glory. I have always found that this little trick unnerves human enemies in the moments before death, sweetening the kill as they feel the cold of our unliving skin, scent the pall death that surrounds us, and are blinded by the glow of impious intentions in our eyes.
"Renounce the Sarafan Lord," I suggested, though I did not think for one moment that he would acquiesce. He did not disappoint.
"Never," came the gurgling response. He was apparently bleeding internally, his lungs likely filling quickly with liquid. I hoped it would not slur his speech overmuch, and again, he did not disappoint me. "Through our faith he lives on. Kill me, monster, and bring me every nearer to him, for he will welcome me."
I smiled then, for he had spoken the words I had so hoped he would utter. "Know the truth, mortal. The lord you followed was a demon, bent on dominating the land – he used you and your armies to subjugate your own people!" He turned his head from the truth of my words.
"Kill me, demon, I do not wish to hear more of your lies."
"I am not going to kill you," I assured him in a tone that intimated that I had far worse planned for him. "Do you see this, Sarafan?" I asked of him, indicating Raziel - who obliged with a suitably demonic grin. I leaned close and whispered his fate into his ear. "This is your future."
He laughed, coughing up bright red frothy blood as his lungs haemorrhaged their last. I wondered that he expended so much effort on flowery conversation when his final moments were ticking away. Predictably, he had misconstrued.
"The knights of the Sarafan order would take their own lives before they'd allow you to make lackeys of them."
I smiled beatifically at him and idly gouged a claw beneath one of his fingernails – solely to keep his mind focused on the present and the true horror of his situation. "I didn't mean the Sarafan, my friend, I meant you. I am going to let my son turn you." From the corner of my eye, I believed I saw Raziel straighten proudly at my words, though I could not be sure of the reason for his pride.
"This is your future you see before you. Tonight your path changes forever, and you will serve me until I have no further use for you." I turned his head so that he could see my followers in their most inhuman of states, flagrantly tearing apart the bodies of his companions, gorging themselves on their blood, then hurling aside the torn remnants.
I waited until his retching had ceased, then forced him to hear my voice once more. "This is the reward your lord has set aside for you for all your years of faithful service - eternal damnation. Tell me, what kind of bastard would do that to his devoted followers?"
Obviously, the man had no answer for my rhetoric. I flung him towards Raziel's waiting grasp, and mocking laughter echoed through the Sanctuary as my first-born caught his stumbling body nimbly.
I brushed his blood from my hands. "I hope your sacrifice was worth it."
It was impressed upon me then that Raziel had not instantly fallen to his feed. I found him instead staring at me with a look of pure gratitude for the honour he had publicly been granted. Once again, he had thrown me with this unexpected attitude. At that moment, the mental barrier that had existed between us vanished, though whether he had done it intentionally, or whether I could finally see past it now I no longer had cause to be paranoid, I was never certain. Either way, I saw him then in a new light, and he was at last the man I would have seen had it not been for my desperate need to be in utter control. He had never been an enemy, nor a competitor for my title – he had been, in the manner of every good second-in-command, protecting his Lord, and second-guessing his orders when they seemed unwise.
More, I had overreached myself, I knew that. Raziel's calculating stares were well-founded. My orders and my decisions had been lacking in prudence, to the extent where I was endangering the very missions I was proposing, especially in that foolish (although ultimately successful – due largely to Raziel's better judgment calls) attack on the Sarafan barracks. It had not been a vital target, as much as I tried to convince myself otherwise, but every little victory against that hated Order went some way towards assuaging my wounded pride, made some measure of progress towards purging the chains of self-doubt the Sarafan Lord still held on my soul. Pride - ever has it been the most painful thorn in my side, the greatest obstacle in my path.
So it was then, and so it is now.
Raziel was the first to demonstrate that my new offspring had the requisite power to turn a human, partly through his own ambitiousness, and partly through his genuine concern for my continued over-exertions. My previous experiments had barely enough strength to sustain themselves, let alone create others – but in choosing the corpses of these holy knights, I had stumbled upon the solution to my problems. For though it is true that any mortal flesh can be made divine, not all humans make good vampires, and I understood at last that there had to be an impure element in the body to begin with. The truly pure never fully adjust to their new unlives, and so make for poor and short-lived soldiers: the flesh is unwilling. Not so with the Sarafan knights. These sainted purgers of the vampire creed, the very substance of their bodies tainted by the years of genocide, made the most wonderful, devoted followers; strong, heartless and entirely lacking in compunction, no matter what they were commanded to do. I have always been amused by the irony of it all: their cold-blooded zeal in life condemned them to an eternity as servitors of the enemy after death.
In the troubled years that followed, I learned to trust Raziel to second-guess my motives and consequent decisions, and I came to respect his ability to make a judgment call when mine was at fault through the vagaries of my own arrogance. By and by, I would come to trust the others as well, and to understand that in them, I had found a team that benefited from a multitude of individual strengths, while offering a naturally cohesive unit unrivalled in the history of War. From the time I realized we could act together as one entity, we became, in battle, a godlike creature, the avatar of the one who was indeed legion. When I led them into combat against my enemies, we functioned together as one, but were individually the heart, the limbs, the lifeblood of a greater being, where I was its mind, its directing force, and Raziel was its right hand.