"Though it came to be known by its present name some ninety years ago, when it was bought by the noble and illustrious Fairfax family, the castle was built more than fifty years previous than that. And, if this book is to be believed, it has a long tradition of strange and unexplained events. It was commissioned by the reclusive alchemist Leo Head after his potion of youth made him a fortune. Leo swore never to make the potion again and retired to the grand halls of the castle. It was rumored that he was working on a new, even more fantastic potion, but Leo was never seen in public again. When the authorities entered the castle seeking an annual tithe, they found only the corpse of an unidentified old woman.
After the strange disappearance of the alchemist Leo Head, the next owner of the castle was a ruthless man known only as the Count. These were fretful years for Bowerstone. People went missing never to be found again, and there was talk of torture and unholy rituals being conducted in the castle."
Excerpts from, "The Secret of Castle Fairfax, Parts I & II"
It was a truly gloomy night over the city of Bowerstone. Dark storm clouds had begun to accumulate over Albion's largest city until the stars could no longer be seen. Even the pure white light of the moon was obscured. No one was outdoors that didn't need to be. Not even the stray dogs and tomcats that prowled the alleyways of Old Town could be found. A feeling of dread had come to grip the city.
Deep in the darkest depths beneath Lionhead Castle, a similar feeling of dread and misery enveloped Alphonse. He could not see the storm building outside, nor the darkness that shrouded the city. If he could, he likely would have observed how the darkness over Bowerstone was so much alike the darkness that had come to characterize his every waking moment.
One year had passed since Alphonse last saw the world beyond the walls of his dungeon cell. He had been a prisoner for so long that he had stopped counting the days. Here the concepts of day, night, and time held no meaning. The cell was small, cold, cramped, and dank. The entire dungeon reeked with the smells of hard-packed earth, moss, and a sickeningly pervasive combination of sweat, unwashed body, urine, feces, and the decay of death. The meager amount of light down here came from the torches that were ensconced on the walls outside of each cell.
Although he was the lone occupant of his cell, Alphonse knew that he wasn't the only one languishing in the darkness. At times he could hear the coughs, sobs, and mournful groans of the other prisoners. He didn't know who they were, but he had seen them being dragged into the dungeon, and then watched as they were unceremoniously shoved or tossed into their cells. At one point Alphonse had glimpsed a pair of young women that were obviously harlots, a middle-aged nobleman dressed in finery, several traders with their characteristic long twirled mustaches, a monk dressed in dark robes, and an alchemist.
Of course, another alchemist. Alphonse thought bitterly to himself.
He couldn't be certain why the others had been imprisoned, but he supposed that the nobleman was one of the Count's political opponents, and the traders had likely attempted to cheat the Count by pilfering Old Kingdom artifacts that had turned out to be counterfeit. The monk in the dark robes, on the other hand, was something of a mystery. Alphonse had no idea why the Count would imprison him, but he was certain that whatever the reason may be it didn't bode well for the prisoner. Alphonse pitied the two harlots, because he knew what grisly fates awaited them. There was little doubt in his mind as to why the alchemist had been imprisoned. He was here for the same reason that Alphonse was: The Count, and his obsession with immortality.
Decades earlier Leo Head had discovered the long-lost formula for the special potions that the Archons of the Old Kingdom had used to extend their lifespans from mere decades to centuries. The potion of youth had not only made Leo famous, but it had also made him fabulously wealthy. The people of Bowerstone had rejoiced when the renowned alchemist took up residence in their city. Within a few years however, Leo realized that even his snug and well-appointed home of Miracle Manor was insufficient for his needs. Thus he announced his plans to commission a grand castle that would be built upon the high hill that overlooked the city.
The new castle would not only serve as Leo Head's personal residence, but also as the new headquarters for Lionhead Alchemy Incorporated. Lionhead Castle as it came to be known, would house the most modern alchemical laboratory for Leo's experiments, a vast library to store all the knowledge and research he accumulated over his long career, a grand hall from which he could demonstrate his latest discoveries to the public regardless of the season, and a great tower from which the reclusive alchemist could continue to brainstorm new projects in quiet solitude.
Thanks to his enormous wealth and his status as a national celebrity, construction of Lionhead Castle was completed within only a few short years. Time passed and Lionhead Alchemy Incorporated continued to astound the public with their latest discoveries and creations, until one fateful day when Leo announced that henceforth he would cease production of the potion of youth. He retired to the grand halls of Lionhead Castle and was never seen in public again.
After Leo Head's mysterious disappearance, the castle came into the possession of a wealthy nobleman that was known only as the Count. Aside from the fact that he was a fabulously wealthy, handsome, charming, and politically astute young man with the finest of tastes, very little was known about him. Who was he? Where did he come from? How had he acquired his great wealth? Questions of this sort dominated the gossip-mongers among Bowerstone's nobility for months. Rumors of the Count's activities and exploits soon followed, and it wasn't long before he had become the rage of Bowerstone.
Alphonse remembered the day he was brought to Lionhead Castle.
He had been employed by a small apothecary in the city's Old Town district called "Right as Rain" when one day a pair of burly-looking men came into the shop looking for him. At first, Alphonse assumed they were town guards coming to collect the annual tithe, but as he stepped out of the shop's back room he was surprised to find that the men weren't town guards at all. They were dressed in black uniforms that were similar to the ones worn by town guards, but they also wore purple half cloaks that were richly embroidered with cloth of gold, and the sigil of a spiraling black dragon with a golden crown. Alphonse recognized them as a pair of the Count's private guards. After confirming who he was, the bodyguards informed him that they had been sent by the Count to bring him back to their master.
Alphonse could still recall the awe and wonder he felt as he ascended the stairs to the massive double doors at the castle's entrance. The guard to his right stepped forward and knocked on the door three times. Within moments the doors parted open, revealing a pair of menservants dressed in exquisite finery, and a butler that towered over them all.
Alphonse felt a shiver run down his spine as he gazed up into the butler's eyes. Standing no less than seven feet tall, the butler was a thin, cadaverous man with sweptback white hair, a long clean-shaven face lined with age, hollow cheeks, a broad chin, thin lips which were compressed into a frown, and a pair of the hardest and cruelest eyes that Alphonse had ever seen.
The butler's eyes made him nervous. He wilted under the butler's gaze, lowering his head between his shoulders in a manner reminiscent of a turtle hiding inside its shell.
"Greetings, Master Alphonse," The butler greeted him with a courtly bow. "And welcome to Lionhead Castle."
"You know my name?" he asked.
"Of course," the butler answered. "Among my many duties to his Lordship, I am responsible for ensuring that all guests are suitably received."
"Oh." Alphonse acknowledged. "So what do I call you?"
"You may call me Talbot, young master."
"Nice to meet you, Talbot," Alphonse said as he removed his hat and stretched out his hand in greeting. Talbot eyed the outstretched hand before him but made no attempt to grasp it.
"If you would follow me please."
From there Alphonse was quickly ushered inside. A manservant took his coat and hat, and Talbot and the two guards escorted him around the ring-shaped courtyard towards another pair of double doors. Another pair of menservants opened them as they approached. They stepped through and into the castle's grand hall.
Alphonse sucked in his breath and marveled at the vast expanse of the grand hall as he was led towards a spiraling staircase in the castle's southern wing. Servants bustled all around him, hurrying to complete the preparations for the evening's festivities. The Count would be hosting a ball for the city's wealthiest and most influential citizens. It was a custom he had instituted shortly after his acquisition of Lionhead Castle.
Great purple and gold banners gently fluttered from the ceiling and draped the columns of the long enclosed bridge connecting to the castle's tower. Glancing to his left and right, Alphonse saw that the uniforms of the guards lining the corridor were slightly different from the ones worn by the guards that had been sent to fetch him. In addition to the standard all-black tunic and trousers, they also sported black enameled steel cuirasses, gauntlets, greaves, purple half capes embroidered with cloth of gold, and dark masks that covered everything but the eyes.
The masks reminded Alphonse of public executioners, but it was their eyes that truly unsettled him. Their eyes were so cold and pale that it seemed as if all the life and color had been drained away from them. They stood rigidly at attention in a posture that was painful to see, silently watching Alphonse with unblinking eyes as he was led down the corridor.
As the group reached the double doors to the tower's study, Alphonse felt an icy chill come over him.
"When you stand in his Lordship's presence you must show due deference at all times," Talbot instructed him in a firm tone, "You must kneel before his Lordship, and you will rise only after you have been permitted to do so. You will address him as 'My Lord', and speak only when spoken to. His Lordship's time is very precious, so when he asks you a question you must answer it immediately, directly, and honestly, with no dawdling or rambling of any kind."
"Yes, sir," Alphonse said, swallowing the lump in his throat.
Talbot eyed him for a moment, then straightened his posture, turned smartly on his heel, and nodded to the guards. The guards acknowledged him with a nod and opened the doors. Talbot stepped inside first, took up a position off to the side, and announced Alphonse's arrival.
"My Lord; the alchemist has arrived."
Alphonse was quickly ushered inside. Taking a quick glance around the room, the young alchemist was impressed with the study's furnishings. The circular room was flanked by two floors of tall bookshelves that were filled to the brim with numerous volumes of books, publications, and old tomes. To his left were three ornate tables that were covered with charts, papers, scrolls, books, feather quills, ink wells, glass flasks, and a complex array of magnification apparatuses. Glancing to his right, he saw there was another, much larger table that was similarly furnished. And standing behind that table were three young servant girls.
Alphonse did a double take as his brain caught up to just how lovely the servant girls were. Each was petite and slim-figured, and they all had shimmering blonde hair, large round eyes that were the most brilliant shade of blue Alphonse had ever seen, soft rosy cheeks, and luscious ruby red lips. The first servant girl had her hair pulled back into a large bun; the second into a long ponytail that extended to her small waist; and the third swept her long hair behind her left ear.
There was something odd about these women. He wasn't sure what it was, but Alphonse couldn't shake the feeling that, whatever it was, he was overlooking some crucial detail that should have been obvious. Alphonse felt heat rise to his cheeks as he suddenly realized that he was staring. He blinked once and gave the young ladies a quick bob of the head and grinned nervously. The servant girls, in turn, smiled softly and curtsied in unison.
Suddenly he got it.
They're all identical! Alphonse realized with a start. Identical triplets!
The wonders kept coming as Alphonse tore his gaze towards the massive stained glass window that took up a quarter of the study. A sense of awe and dread came over him as he gazed upon the image of a dark hooded figure rising from the flames beneath the light of a single star in the night sky, clutching a shimmering golden crown surrounded by mystic runes in his hands raised high above him. The figure sported a pair of dark raven-like wings, and the hood on the figure's head cast dark shadows that completely concealed the features of his face.
It was a most unnerving sight.
Standing before the stained glass window on a raised platform engraved with a strange double crescent symbol with four spikes was the Count. He was a tall man―though not as tall as Talbot―and very handsome with an angular face, high cheekbones, a thin aristocratic nose, ivory skin, and dark eyes. His long, silky black hair was fashioned into a stylish ponytail. A small, thin black mustache graced his upper lip, and his chin sported a small goatee that had been carefully fashioned into a sharp point.
Although he was dressed in black from head to foot―with the sole exception of his purple overcoat that was ornately embroidered in cloth of gold―the style and cut of his clothes were the pinnacle of upper-class fashion. In his hand was an ebony cane that was banded in gold and adorned with an ornate sculpture of a roaring dragon's head carved from a single piece of ivory. The Count also wore a medallion on a silver chain that was fitted with a single large blood-red gemstone that was roughly the size of a fist.
Talbot cleared his throat loudly. Alphonse quickly remembered the butler's instructions and went down to one knee before the Count. "My Lord."
A long moment passed, but at last, the Count spoke.
"You may rise."
Alphonse did so.
"So," the Count said, taking a step towards his guest and appraising him with a critical eye. "You are the alchemist?"
"Yes," Alphonse said, but then remembering Talbot's instructions hastily added, "Yes, my Lord. I'm an alchemist."
He put out his hand and gave the Count a friendly, if slightly nervous grin. "My name is Alphonse. It's a pleasure to meet you."
The Count stared openly at the offered hand, genuinely surprised by the sincere earnestness of his guest. Talbot's eyes flared with disapproval at the grievous breach of etiquette and protocol. The bodyguards placed their hands on the hilts of their swords and took a long step forward. The triplets gasped in disbelief.
"Master Alphonse," Talbot began harshly, "It is not…"
The Count cut him off with an upraised hand.
"It is all right, Talbot," The Count chuckled. "We need not stand on decorum. Master Alphonse is our guest after all."
Talbot bowed his head in acquiescence, the guards relaxed, and the triplets sighed in relief. The Count gave his guest a cheerful grin and grasped the offered hand with a grip of steel. Alphonse winced at the Count's prodigious strength and the fact that his hand was as cold as ice.
"Thank you for coming, Master Alphonse," he said as he tightened his grip on the alchemist's hand. "And welcome to Lionhead Castle."
"It…" Alphonse grunted as he tried unsuccessfully to ignore the pain in his hand. "It's… a great… pleasure to…"
The Count's eyes bored into Alphonse's. To Alphonse it seemed as if everything in the room was being sucked into the Count's eyes, which now seemed to glow red. He wanted to look away; but he was spellbound, unable to move, unable to turn away from the Count's gaze. He felt completely naked and exposed, as if the Count was looking right into his very soul. Sweat peppered his forehead, his heart thudded loudly in his ears, and his teeth began to chatter.
Then quite suddenly, the Count released his grip. Alphonse took a shuddering breath, rubbed at his throbbing hand, and clenched his teeth hard to stop the chattering. He looked up into the Count's eyes, fully expecting them to still be glowing with that strange malevolent red color. They were not. Had the Count's red eyes just been his imagination?
"…to be here, my Lord." He finally managed. "So, what can I do for you?"
"I am in need of your services," the Count said, waving a hand elegantly toward the tables to his right. "Tell me, what do you make of these?"
Shaking the last bits of pain and discomfort from his hand, Alphonse turned to his left and quickly examined the books and papers that were scattered across the surface of each table. Most of the books pertained to scientific studies of the human body, treatises on the average lifespan of man, textbooks on alchemy that Alphonse was already familiar with, and a series of handwritten notes that Alphonse immediately recognized as alchemical formulas. Curiously, there was a book entitled "Living Forever: The Immortalists" lying off to the side that had at least a dozen bookmarks inside.
Light reading. Alphonse observed.
"It looks like you've been studying alchemy, my Lord," Alphonse said as he returned his focus to the papers.
"Indeed," the Count replied coolly. "And what do you make of this formula?"
Alphonse leaned over the table and carefully examined both the formula and the accompanying notes. "It looks like a variation of a healing potion," he said frowning, "Except that the formula is wrong."
The Count cocked an eyebrow. "Wrong you say? How so?"
Moving aside to afford a better view for the Count, Alphonse proceeded to point out the errors in the formula. He explained that, if the formula was followed as it was written, the resulting potion would disrupt the balance of bodily humors and cause a fatal upsurge of both black and yellow bile, burning the consumer from the inside out. Furthermore, he identified how the errors had been made in the first place, and how the formula could be corrected so that it would produce a true healing potion.
The Count listened attentively as Alphonse explained the details behind the science. When he was finished, the Count turned to the triplets and nodded. They acknowledged their master with a curtsey and quickly filed out of the room with two pairs of guards in tow.
"Impressive, Master Alphonse," the Count said approvingly, as he caressed his pointed goatee. "Quite impressive indeed. You clearly are a master of your craft."
"Thank you, my Lord." Alphonse beamed at the compliment.
The Count turned his back to the young alchemist and strolled towards the magnificent stained glass window.
"As it so happens, Master Alphonse, I am in need of an alchemist to aid me with a special project."
He stopped as he reached the center of the raised platform, rested his hands upon his cane, and gazed for a long moment at the dark hooded figure holding the crown high above its head.
"Tell me, what do you know of Leo Head?"
Alphonse recounted everything he knew about the renowned and reclusive alchemist, beginning with his invention of the potion of youth, his subsequent rise to fame and fortune, his commissioning of Lionhead Castle, the founding of Lionhead Alchemy Incorporated, and finally his mysterious disappearance.
"He just disappeared … like a puff of smoke." Alphonse concluded.
"Yes," the Count said without looking back, "The wily recluse left behind not a single trace of any sort that would indicate either his whereabouts or his ultimate fate. Before he disappeared, Leo Head announced to the world that he would never produce another potion of youth for as long as he lived. He gave no reasons, no explanations, and no apologies. He simply announced his retirement, and then locked himself behind the doors of this very castle."
The Count glanced at Alphonse from the corner of his eye. "It did not take long for rumors to begin spreading that Leo had not truly retired, but was instead on the verge of a groundbreaking new discovery. One that would put even the potion of youth to shame. Of course … no one ever saw or heard from him again. Later, when the town guards forced their way inside, all they ever found was some old woman that had died long ago. No trace of Leo was ever found. Not then, and not after I came into possession of this estate."
The Count turned fully towards his guest. There was a slight smile on his face.
"He did; however, leave something else behind."
The Count snapped his fingers, and Talbot produced a small book, which he handed to Alphonse. The cover was made of old brown leather and engraved with the head of a roaring maned lion. It was the corporate logo of Lionhead Alchemy Incorporated. Alphonse ran his fingers reverently over the logo, then carefully opened the book and began to read. The Count waited with anticipation, and was rewarded by the sharp intake of breath from Alphonse. The young alchemist's eyes widened until they were as big as boiled eggs. He jerked his head up suddenly and looked excitedly at the Count, then at Talbot, and back again at the Count.
"Yes," the Count finished for him. "It is Leo Head's private journal."
"This is an incredible find!" Alphonse declared excitedly. But as he thumbed through the journal his forehead furrowed, his eyes narrowed, and a confused frown creased his face.
"But I don't…" Alphonse trailed off as he glanced up and saw the Count's knowing expression.
"You do not understand its contents?" The Count surmised. "To be frank, I do not understand it either. Which brings us to the crux of the problem. Leo Head said that he would never again produce another bottle of the potion of youth, then locked himself inside his castle and was never seen or heard from again. Tell me, my alchemical friend, what do you make of that? Why would the greatest alchemist since the Old Kingdom suddenly lock himself away?"
"I don't know, my Lord," Alphonse said.
There could be any number of reasons why Leo would choose to hide away from the world. It was widely known that, aside from being a genius, Leo Head was also an eccentric recluse. "I mean, I'm not Leo Head of course, but if I were him the only logical reason I can think of for locking myself inside a castle would be to make sure that no one would interfere with my work."
The Count gave him an approving smile. "My thoughts exactly, Master Alphonse. Now I ask you, 'What could possibly overshadow a potion that extends life and grants renewed youth and vigor?'"
The Count did not bother to wait for Alphonse's answer, but took an impulsive step forward, raised one of his hands, and clenched it into a fist.
Alphonse stood there in stunned disbelief. "Everlasting life?"
"Yes," the Count purred. "It is my firm belief that Leo Head finally succeeded where others before him had failed. Somehow, he finally unlocked the secret that the Archon and his alchemists have long kept to themselves: The elixir of immortality! And that secret lies within the pages of the very journal in your hand."
Alphonse looked at the journal with renewed reverence. Was it truly possible? Had Leo Head unlocked the secret to immortality?
His first thought was that it couldn't be. He remembered being told the stories of the Archon ruling the Old Kingdom for centuries, the legends surrounding the alchemists of that time period, and how they had unlocked the secret of eternal life. But those were just old stories and legends. Fables that were told to put children to sleep at night.
His second thought, coming hard on the heels of the first, was to wonder if it may be true after all. He did not doubt the existence of the Old Kingdom, the Archon, or the powers they once wielded. There were scores, if not hundreds of ruins and monuments scattered across Albion that gave silent testimony to the power, majesty, and wonders of the Old Kingdom. Heroes had existed as recently as 400 years ago, and they had wielded powers and abilities that many today would consider impossible.
"The problem," the Count said, breaking into Alphonse's thoughts, "As you have no doubt ascertained, is that Leo wrote his journal in code. I have brought in numerous scholars, linguists, mathematicians, and intellectuals to decipher it. I even sent for a pair of wizards from Samarkand to use spells to unlock the secrets hidden inside that journal. But alas, none so far has succeeded."
"And you wish for me to take a crack at it, my Lord?"
"Precisely," the Count confirmed. "But I must confess, you are not the first alchemist I have summoned to aid me with this project."
Alphonse blinked. "You've brought in other alchemists?" Alphonse immediately recognized the stupidity of the question. Of course, he would have brought other alchemists in on the project.
"Where are they? I haven't seen any other alchemists in the castle, my Lord."
At some unseen signal, the bodyguards in the corridor filed in and formed a protective screen around their master. Two in front, two in back, and two more which took up flanking positions to either side of Alphonse.
"Follow me. I will show you."
The Count led the party to the grand hall with Talbot taking up a position by the Count's side. Alphonse and his escort followed closely behind. The party entered the immense five-storied library with its magnificent domed ceiling and great oak tree growing directly from the floor in the center of the room. The Count stopped in front of one of the bookshelves and waited patiently as one of the bodyguards reached up and pulled on one of the books. There was a muffled click, and the bookshelf swung inward to reveal a hidden passage with a staircase that led downwards into a dark passageway.
More dead-eyed guards flanked the passage's walls. Alphonse shivered as he descended the stairs to the castle's lower levels. They entered what appeared to be a small storage area with several barrels that were so large that a fully grown man could stand inside them. They passed another corridor that led to a small dungeon of the kind often used by alchemists to house dangerous research specimens such as hobbes or balverines. Alphonse could smell the rank odor of unwashed bodies, sweat, and feces mixed together with the oppressively dank smell of moss and hard-packed earth. He tried peering down the passage and into the cells as he passed by, but the lighting was so poor that he could not be certain if there were any occupants present.
"This way, Master Alphonse," Talbot called out as he indicated the gate at the end of the passage. The guards opened the gate, ushered the party inside, and closed the gate behind them. They passed through a short corridor, which led into a small barracks section and reached another gate.
The gate was opened, and the party entered a large circular antechamber. The walls were inscribed with runes that were similar to the ones Alphonse had seen in some of the books and papers in the Count's study. The guards took up positions at regular intervals around the room's perimeter. There was a physician waiting for them in a waxed leather suit that covered him from head to foot. He also wore dark leather gloves and boots, and a bone-white porcelain mask with an enormous beak-like snout and goggles.
"Welcome, my Lord." The Doctor said in greeting. "If you would please."
Except for the red gemstone medallion around his neck, the Count promptly stripped off his clothing until he was naked from the waist up and handed them to Talbot. The Doctor pulled out a small wooden rod and used it to delicately probe the Count's upper torso.
Alphonse looked away in embarrassment at the sight and noticed for the first time that the triplets were here as well, standing behind the Count and the Doctor close to an ornately carved set of double doors with stained glass windows. A silly smile stretched across Alphonse's blushing face, a smile that immediately melted away as he glanced down and saw the three men on their knees before the triplets. The first two men were Samarkandians dressed in the sleeveless linen tunics, mantles, and turbans that were customary for their country. Alphonse didn't recognize them, but he certainly recognized the third man.
"Perkins?!" Alphonse gasped. "Is that really you?"
Perkins was a middle-aged, slightly balding man with a thick waist, glasses, and a dark mustache that was streaked with gray. He was a noteworthy alchemist that enjoyed a lucrative practice that catered exclusively to Bowerstone's wealthiest citizens.
"Ah," the Count said, "I see that you are already acquainted with Master Perkins."
"Well yes but… but…"
"But what?" the Count demanded.
"My Lord… what… er, what are you doing to him?"
"As I stated earlier, Master Alphonse," the Count explained, "You are not the first alchemist that I have sought to aid me with my special project. In fact, Master Perkins here is not the first either. He is just another link in a series of alchemists that I have employed at one time or another."
The Count turned his baleful gaze upon the middle-aged alchemist kneeling before him. "Unfortunately, none as yet has succeeded."
Perkins' clothes were torn, ragged, and dirty. His forehead was peppered with sweat, his eyes were wide with terror, and his cries for mercy were stifled by the gag in his mouth.
"Master Perkins here is a special case. Not only has he failed to accomplish the task that I have set before him, but he also went so far as to try to assassinate me."
Alphonse felt a drop of sweat trace a line down his back. "Assassinate you?"
He could hardly believe what he was hearing. Perkins was the last man that Alphonse would have ever thought capable of harming anyone, let alone attempting to assassinate someone as prestigious as the Count.
"Yes. The formula you deciphered in my study? That was Master Perkins' handiwork. He assured me that he had finally cracked the code in Leo Head's journal and obtained the formula for the elixir of immortality. Considering his many failures, as well as the complete lack of progress that I have suffered from this incompetent wretch over the past year, I suspected treachery on his part. I therefore took the necessary precautions to ensure that this traitor's poison would have no effect on me. Nevertheless, a man of Master Perkins' skills cannot be replaced so easily, and so I sent my bodyguards out into the city to find me a man with the skills necessary to serve as his replacement."
The Count glared at Alphonse out of the corner of his eye.
"His permanent replacement."
It was at that moment that the triplet behind Perkins dug her small delicate fingers into the alchemist's left shoulder. The man tried to scream as her fingers pierced his skin with ease and bore deeply into the flesh near his collarbone, but all that came out was a muffled shriek. Dark blood gushed from the wound. The color drained from Perkins' face, and a pool of foul-smelling yellow liquid began to spread across the floor around his knees.
Alphonse glanced up in horror into the young woman's eyes, which had now gone from brilliant blue to completely black. She met Alphonse's terrified gaze and languidly licked her lips like a wild animal consuming its prey. Alphonse looked at the other servant girls and found that they too now sported totally black eyes.
"What in the…?!" Alphonse gasped.
Suddenly, the Doctor struck the servant girl across the face with the wooden rod. The girl whipped her face around and hissed. She clenched her jaw into a scowl, revealing rows of sharp needle-like teeth. Alphonse jerked away at the sight, but a pair of bodyguards grabbed his arms, pinned them behind his back, and held them firmly in place.
"Don't you dare look at me that way!" the Doctor roared through his mask, which gave his voice a metallic reverberation.
The servant girl reluctantly complied with his orders. She closed her mouth, blinked once to return her eyes back to their brilliant blue color, and gingerly touched the side of her face where the Doctor had struck her. Her sisters likewise blinked once. Their eyes too returned to their normal blue color. Blood continued to ooze from Perkins' wound, but at a much slower pace now that the girl had eased her grip. The alchemist's face twisted with pain and misery. His breathing came in ragged gasps, and he began to sob softly to himself.
Satisfied by the servant girl's compliance, the Doctor returned his attentions to the Count. It was then that Alphonse noticed the smell. There was a sickeningly sweet mix of the Count's heavy perfumes and the smell of rotten and decaying flesh. At first, Alphonse thought it came from the prisoners, or perhaps the dungeon, but then he noticed the black and green patches across the Count's chest and abdomen.
His body … it's … it's decaying! Alphonse realized with a start.
The Doctor cocked his head to the side as he examined one of the larger patches of decay on the Count's side. A small portion of the rib cage could be seen beneath the rotted flesh. The Doctor shook his head from side to side and began tapping the wooden rod against his open hand.
"The corruption has returned, my Lord," the Doctor's metallic voice reverberated. "And much more quickly since your last examination."
The Doctor turned towards the three prisoners and gazed down at them for a long moment.
"I recommend that you undergo treatment."
"Another treatment?" the Count said with incredulity. "So soon?"
"I am afraid so. The corruption has not only returned but is spreading faster than I had predicted. If we don't stave it off now.."
The Count cut him off with an upraised hand. "This is the third time this month! You assured me that your 'treatments' would be completely effective against the corruption!"
"Yes my Lord, I did say that. And thus far the treatments have been effective in extending the life of your body but…"
"But your treatments," the Count interrupted, "Are beginning to weaken."
There was a long silence.
"It is true, is it not?"
"Yes." The Doctor finally admitted. "Until we can find a cure for your … condition … we have no other choice. We've already exhausted all other options, my Lord."
The Count turned and looked significantly at Alphonse. "Not all options, Doctor. Not yet."
"Nevertheless, until the time comes when these other options bear fruit, I must insist that we proceed with the treatment, my Lord."
The Count sighed in exasperation but flicked his elegant hand in a gesture of approval. "Very well, if you insist. Proceed with the treatment."
The Doctor bowed. "As you command, my Lord."
The guards opened the stained glass doors, which led into a massive circular chamber that was brightly lit by large torches ensconced in the walls and a dozen candelabras that were as tall as a man. From what Alphonse could see, a half-dozen iron spiked X-shaped frameworks stood at the center of a raised platform in the chamber's center. Massive chains connected the frameworks to the ceiling via a series of massive gears and pulleys. A series of tables similar to the ones that Alphonse had seen in the Count's study could also be found inside, each sporting a vast array of alchemical apparatuses and equipment. Some of the glass flasks and canisters were filled with liquids of many different colors, but most were filled with vast quantities of blood.
The Doctor was the first to enter the chamber, followed by a pair of guards, the triplets, their prisoners, and finally another set of guards. The Doctor unfastened the leather restraints on the frameworks, allowing the guards to shove the three prisoners onto them. Perkins offered no resistance as he was strapped down. The Samarkandians tried to resist, but the guards were much stronger, so it didn't take them long to subdue and strap them down. Satisfied that all was ready, the Count proceeded through the door, and without looking back signaled for the rest of the party to enter.
The guards forced Alphonse inside the chamber.
"Wait! Wh… wh… what are you going to do to them?" Alphonse stammered.
The Count stopped, turned, and stood face-to-face with the alchemist. The Count's eyes were glowing red.
"Consider what you are about to witness as a learning experience. Not only will you be honored by the privilege of witnessing the true extent of the power and glory I wield, but it will also demonstrate the price you will pay if you should either fail me; or worse yet, attempt to betray me."
A malevolent smile slowly spread across the Count's handsome face, and the chamber was filled with the sounds of maniacal laughter as Talbot slammed the gates shut.
Moments later, Perkins and the other prisoners began to scream.
Alphonse woke with a start, gasping for air as the memory of Perkins' screams startled him awake. He was covered with a fine sheen of cold sweat, and his entire body was trembling from the horror of what he had witnessed that fateful day. Sitting at the worn desk inside his cell, Alphonse rubbed at his eyes to drive away the fogginess of fatigue from his mind.
I must have dozed off.
He wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand and tried to calm himself.
It was just a dream. He said, trying to console himself. It was just a bad dream.
The blood-curdling sounds of women screaming told him otherwise. Feeling the all-too-familiar sense of dread and despair pressing in on him, Alphonse turned to see the iron bars of his prison cell, and the dead-eyed stare of the masked bodyguard that had been assigned to keep an eye on him at all hours of day and night. He was still in the dungeon of Lionhead Castle.
Getting to his feet, Alphonse approached the door to his cell. Mindful of the guard watching him, he was careful not to stir the guard's wrath by getting too close to his cell door, but still close enough for him to peer down the corridor and into the other cells. Just as he suspected, the cell that once housed the two harlots was empty. The cell containing the traders and the nobleman were also empty. All that remained were the other alchemists,and the monk in the dark robes.
Alphonse's shoulders slumped as he retreated into his cell. Having resigned himself to another sleepless night, he sat at his chair and resumed his work. Cradling his head in his palms, Alphonse leaned on his elbows and poured over the notes before him.
That was all that mattered now; the work. The work of decoding, deciphering, and completing the alchemical formula for the legendary elixir of immortality that the Count was convinced was locked away in Leo Head's journal. The journal did indeed contain Leo Head's research, and even included the formula for his much sought after potion of youth (which Alphonse had used as a bargaining chip to buy more time from the increasingly impatient Count). But insofar as he was able to discern among the complex series of coded notes, diagrams, and alchemical formulas in the journal, there was little to no mention of anything even remotely hinting at an elixir of immortality.
But there was something else.
The Count had been right about one thing: Leo Head hadn't locked himself away in his castle for no good reason. He had, indeed, been working on a new potion. He had been working on several in fact, but there was one in particular that caught Alphonse's eye. If his suspicions were correct, this particular potion would put Leo's potion of youth to shame, and would even eclipse the legendary elixir of immortality.
He was close to a breakthrough and he knew it. So very close.
What Alphonse needed was time; but time, and the Count's patience, were two commodities that he was beginning to run out of. If he could just hold out for a little while longer, he was sure that he would finally crack the code, and then he would finally be able to take back his freedom. Feeling a second wind come over him, Alphonse dived into the work. He was so immersed in the work that he was no longer disturbed by the screams coming from the corridor, and the chamber of horrors that lay beyond.