Only those with an inflated sense of daring took to the mountains over Crescent Valley. The trees shooting from the slopes promised a thousand bloody ends to those who fell, long before they ever hit the bottom. For two vampires, however, the danger of gravity was an annoyance at best.
They moved from ledge to ledge with inhuman deftness, stopping only to scan for anything out of the ordinary. Cassius sniffed the air, searching for a trail only a wolf was attuned to. For miles they roamed, and would continue to do so well after the sun had set.
“Anything?” Luther asked.
The blazer clad guardian lifted his nose in hope of a sign. In spite of his stoicism and resolve the undercurrent of dread ran deep. Though only a few short hours had passed it was time enough for the worst to unfold. The Fantom of present was without question equal in cruelty to the monster of memory.
“We’re getting closer,” Cassius told him, though it was a half-truth. No sign of Lindsay appeared in the ground they’d already covered, eliminating a handful of possibilities. That they provided no solid leads was a fact he kept to himself.
With great strides the pair scaled the slope of the mountain with no mind for conventional peril.
“I get the feeling we’re on a wild goose chase,” Luther groaned.
“That’s because you’re a pessimist,” Cassius said.
The mop-haired vampire scoffed. “Better to think ill of the world and be pleasantly surprised than to live in a constant state of disappointment.”
“In that case I look forward to surprising you.”
Higher they climbed, until the pair stood upon the highest precipice. From their vantage they could admire how much Crescent Valley had grown, how high the buildings reached, and how far the adjoined suburbs spread. The new world held no shortage of wonder, and did not want for places to lose oneself.
Cassius poked his nose out to the wind, praying in spite of himself that they brought something of their Master’s location. His frown turned so sharply that it broke the vampire’s traditional expression. There was to be no hiding his frustration.
“You have no idea where she is, do you?” Luther railed.
“I know where she isn’t,” he replied. “That’s a start.”
“How long do you intend to waste with this ‘hit and miss’ plan of yours?”
The wolf snarled. “If you have another, I am only happy to hear it!”
But Luther didn’t have a plan; neither of them did, really. With all of his frustration coursing through his body, compressed into adrenaline, the yellow guardian lashed out at a nearby tree, delivering a heavy blow to the trunk. Moved by his inhuman strength, the mighty pine came free of its roots and tumbled toward the valley, crashing unceremoniously between its ilk.
Cassius stilled himself, and waited for his brother in arms to do the same. “Are you done?”
The impetuous vampire inhaled sharply. “Things would be different if the Great Vampire King were still with us,” he huffed. “Don’t misunderstand. I adore our new Ma- Lindsay, and am forever loyal to her, but she doesn’t know how to survive as our old Master did.”
Luther crouched at the ledge, and only saw the worst below. “I wish we’d never met her,” he said. “We’d all be better off.”
“No,” Cassius said.
The sullen vampire turned to him. “What do you mean ‘no’?”
“I mean that the old Master is gone, and we cannot change that,” Cassius told him, “and in his place we need a Red Fang. More than that we need Lindsay.”
“Because,” Cassius said, “it is the only way we’ll survive Lord Nihilex, let alone each other.” He offered a hand to lift his companion to his feet. “We make a great team, Luther, but only when we have a leader to unite us. That leader is Lindsay, and she’s more capable than either of us give her credit.”
The flannel clad guardian studied the hand, and smiled as he turned it up.
“And what, pray tell, do you find so amusing?” Cassius asked.
“Nothing,” Luther said. “Only that you did manage to surprise me, after all.”
Cassius smirked in spite of himself. “I only hope it’s the least of today’s achievements.”
That they could both agree on. With renewed fervour the pair returned to their search. As much as they would appreciate such an occurrence, the Master was not going to find herself.
Whether during the night or day – whatever distinction that had on the unlit halls – Lord Nihilex could be found by the bedside of his beloved, Queen Lacuna. Clutching her talons between his claws called him back to a halcyon age, when the early hominids feared the lightning and likened it to the anger of gods. How simple it was to turn them against one another, so that as Lord and Queen the two might feed on their despair. However those times had passed, and as she slept Queen Lacuna did not return affection when Lord Nihilex squeezed her hand.
“Soon, my love,” the conqueror said. “Soon the conditions will be right for your return, and together we’ll plunge this world into the darkness that nurtured it.”
With his other hand he stroked her through the veil and ran a sharp nail along her cheek. “Do you dream, my love? Do you dream of destruction and chaos? Do you see me at your side as their meticulously crafted societies burn to cinders? That is my desire, and always you’re the one with whom I share it.”
Lord Nihilex could have continued for hours, and often did, though on this occasion was drawn from his ruminations by the sound of whispers. In these halls silence was easily broken, and woe betide any who interrupted his sessions with Queen Lacuna. Even his own children were not safe, and were raised to respect the coming together of their parents in absolute terms.
He exited the bed chamber, and though she was not so simply woken Lord Nihilex took tender steps and closed the doors with care. It would not do for Queen Lacuna to hear him rage, justified as it was.
“Who dares speak out of turn while I attend your Queen!” It was not a question, but a threat; and one which he made a point to deliver on.
Then the culprits knew better than to run. Vultera and Feareus inched toward their father and shrank under his gaze. How many punishments they had endured at his hand neither could count, and did not relish the prospect of another.
“To what do I owe this interruption,” he seethed.
What punishment best suited his own mouthy children? Perhaps a week in chains, dangling over the abyss while the void vultures circled just out of reach. Then again red hot pokers were the classic choice for any parent needing to make a point.
Vultera fell to her knees and grovelled, as did her behemoth of a sibling, both bowing their heads to evade direct and furious judgement. Their father’s patience was short, and they had but one chance to explain themselves; or at the least redirect his anger.
“Father,” Vultera screeched. “It’s about Fantom-”
“Then I don’t want to hear about it,” Lord Nihilex spat.
Feareus prostrated as far as his gargantuan body would allow. “Father, please! He’s taken action against Fang Force, and he-”
“As is his prerogative,” he said. “Fantom has been tasked with the destruction of Fang Force. Any action he takes toward that end is-”
Vultera flapped her feathers and crowed at the top of her lungs. “He’s taken the Red Fang hostage and brought her into our home!”
Lord Nihilex said nothing. Of all the distractions to draw him from the Queen this was the most distressing. Perhaps his children needn’t be punished; perhaps it was Fantom who would suffer in their place. He stormed down the hall, past his grovelling children. There would be a reckoning.
Being an only child, Lindsay grew up spending an inordinate amount without others to occupy her attention. As a result she spent a great deal of time nurturing her curiosity, or devising games requiring only one player. This, in turn, allowed her to develop an important skill for all the times she was trapped in a cave by monsters; the ability to entertain herself.
“I spy with my little eye something beginning with… A.”
She turned to the skeletal sage, or what little she could make of his silhouette. He ignored her, just as he’d done for hours on end, while the shapeless words spilled from his lips in a single, endless breath.
“If you guessed ‘all-consuming darkness’ you were wrong,” Lindsay told him. “It’s actually the ‘all-consuming shadows’. Big difference.”
With Fantom away she was, for all intents and purposes, alone. Perhaps he thought she’d become bored in his absence, or tired without another person to talk to. Hardly. So long as she had her own thoughts there was always someone to listen. Heck, some of the best conversations she’d ever had were with herself.
“I’ve been in haunted houses scarier than this,” she said. “Not real haunted houses, mind; I mean the kind put together for grade schoolers on Halloween. Then again, I work in the castle of a literal vampire king. I’m probably biased.”
Her words were of some comfort. Pretending to be brave made her brave. She could ignore the hollowness of the cave reflected in her chest, which minute by minute was growing full with horror. Where once her imagination might have stoked her fears, the actualisation of monsters in the dark removed all doubt.
Maybe Fantom is right, she thought. It didn’t matter who her family was; she was in over her head. Fang Force might well be doomed if she couldn’t lift her game. She could have had a normal life if only…
Fantom’s voice echoed through the hall. Lindsay snapped to attention. “Please! My Lord! If you’ll only allow me the time to-”
“I’ve indulged you long enough, Fantom! Your mother would be just as disappointed!”
Lindsay pressed against the barrier and searched for another shape in the dark. Her eyes adjusted in time to catch a squat figure padded with armor. He had no face to speak of, save for his blackened shark teeth, but that may have been her imagination in the absence of light. Though no matter his appearance it was his voice that cut her like shattered glass.
The being halted at the barrier and snarled. His presence radiated foreboding; his stance a constant threat against those who crossed him. Fantom’s genuflection betrayed him as someone who’d lived to regret crossing that line.
“You,” the creature began, “are the current Red Fang?”
“Who are you supposed to be?” Lindsay retorted.
“She talks to me as an equal,” he said. “She is not even the equal of the Great Vampire King, and I vanquished him from this world!”
Lindsay froze. Her heels wound tight, ready to spring at the first opening.
“You mean my great… great-great-however-many-greats-it-is-grandfather…”
“That’s right,” Lord Nihilex seethed. “Allow me to recreate his final moments!”
Fantom reached for him. “My Lord, please!” He was too late.
A power blacker than black erupted from the conqueror’s fingertips and drove like knives into Lindsay’s chest. She fell to her knees, squealing, blinded by a level of agony nobody could describe. The surge weaved deeper into her body, wrenching her nerves, and started to pull. It was as though he were trying to suffocate her soul inside her body.
Lindsay writhed on the ground as her final hope seeped away. Where were Cassius and Luther when she needed them most? Far, too far away. They would never know her final words, just like their old Master.
To be continued…