Fantom hobbled through the passages, a shell of his former self. What a fool he’d been. Had he not been so prideful, he’d have known to assuage his step-father’s anger. Instead he provoked the beast, and in doing so accepted a wealth of pain that left him debilitated. Such was the cost of his hubris, to which he could blame nobody else.
It would be some time before he healed enough to face Fang Force again on equal terms; if, by that time, there was still a Fang Force to battle.
He limped into an antechamber, where laid across a pair of long beds were the two vampires staring at an hourglass. The grains sifted through the funnel at a snail’s pace. Neither paid any mind to the stranger as he entered the room.
“You should have ended them when you had the chance,” Fantom said.
Though his hands appeared human, the claws at the end of Drake’s fingers were anything but. He scratched at one of the pillows, pulling apart the threads and snapping them, while digging the fluff from its insides.
“It’s a matter of principle,” he said. “You wouldn’t understand.”
“Don’t think me so simple,” Fantom replied. “They are your kin. You gave them the chance to renounce the Master that wronged you, though you know they won’t. You felt you owed it to them. That was a mistake. That sentiment will cost you.”
Vincent pried himself from the horizontal bed and sighed. “Had we wished for a lecture we would have asked for it. We are not your servants, and as such have no need for your input.”
The monster chuckled, much to the chagrin of his vampire cohorts.
“Something funny?” Drake snarled.
Fantom limped back to the hall. “Only your delusion,” he said. “All who occupy these halls serve at the pleasure of Lord Nihilex, whether they know it or not.”
“We bow to no-one, man or monster,” Vincent told him.
“For now, but rest assured that it’s but a means to an end. Allowing another to eliminate Fang Force is the path of least resistance; the greatest reward at the least cost. When you’ve accomplished your mission you will worship on your knees, by force if necessary.”
The words were more than Drake could stand. In a beat he was on his feet, claws at the interloper’s throat. How easy it would be to carve him up on the spot.
“Is that a threat?” he seethed.
Fantom remained still. His tone did not waver. “Not on my part,” he said. “It’s simply the way of things. Lord Nihilex’s nature demands it. After all that time in the Abyssal Realm, I’m surprised you forgot something so basic.”
What an uneasy thought, and one that rang true. Drake and Vincent locked eyes and quickly came to an understanding; whatever came to pass, Fang Force were not the end of their woes.
Drake released Fantom and set him on his way. The sands of the hourglass continued to fall, and so the two watched, seemingly unaware of another set of ears tuned to them in the dark.
It was typical for the shadow conqueror to remain at the bedside of his bride; so much that he became oblivious to the goings on outside her chamber. Not that it concerned him, for so absolute was he that anyone would think twice before acting against him. Fantom was evidence of that, and would wear the reminders for a good time to come.
He pored over his wife and kissed each of her talons. How long had it been since they last tore into an enemy? Too long, even for their immortal kind. Her sleep seemed as endless as she was; a crime against the universe that tested Lord Nihilex each day. The sooner his minions stirred chaos enough for her to wake, the sooner he could breathe a sigh of relief.
“My love,” he whispered. “I don’t know if you can hear me, but you deserve to know as it happens; the destruction of Fang Force is at hand. Their own kind have turned against them, as have their precious familiars!”
She said nothing, but it did little to quell her husband’s jubilance.
“‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ A human said that. I suppose even an ape can find words of wisdom, given enough time. And what glorious times these are, my queen! What a miserable world awaits you on the other side of dreaming!”
Lord Nihilex lifted his head on the whining of the chamber door. Were it anyone but his two children daring to enter he would have been incensed, but they too deserved a place at their mother’s side. However, it was not for her that they’d come.
Vultera dropped to one knee, and her gargantuan brother followed. “Father, we bring troubling news.”
“Can it wait until I am done with your mother? We wouldn’t want to worry her.”
“No, Father. This is urgent,” she said. “Feareus and I were moving through the halls, minding our own business-”
“You were skulking,” he corrected, “but go on.”
“When we came upon Fantom engaging with our vampire… guests.” It was then that the harpy regaled the story, sparing no detail of the encounter, citing every word verbatim.
“They are a willful pair,” the shadow conqueror said. “I suppose I should have expected this; but for that disgrace of a step-son to poison the well…”
Feareus grunted in a bestial manner. “What shall we do, Father?”
Prying himself from his place by the bed, Lord Nihilex approached his children and laid a hand on both their crowns. He hummed, as though weighing them with a burden. “Your job is to follow our vampire allies, and to make sure they defeat the rest of Fang Force.”
Both stammered, unsure of what to do with this new responsibility.
“But why us?” Vultera screeched.
The shadow conqueror grinned. “Because of all my subjects you, my children, are the ones I trust the most. That is both your blessing, and your curse. Now, leave me.”
Burdened with this task, both Vultera and Feareus exited the chamber. Only a scant few hours remained before Vincent and Drake moved against their former brethren, but what use would two spoiled children be in the battle ahead?
A new day dawned and the sun crawled through the sky until the deciding hour was upon them.
Mr. Nowack hemmed and hawed for as long as one man could before being escorted to the parking lot. After all, he was the curator of the castle, and the first he’d heard of an ‘emergency fumigation’ was that morning.
“Bugs are part of the charm,” he argued.
“Until they eat the wooden supports; then they’re a liability,” Lindsay said.
It was with great irritation that he stepped away from the post, but relented when Lindsay reminded him how much Mrs. Nowack would enjoy a day together. Truthfully, as much as he loved the old castle, he struggled to keep up in his role, and any excuse to rest would do.
At last they were alone. The gates leading from the main road were chained shut, leaving Lindsay and the others to await the inevitable.
Cassius and Luther stood to either side of her, and couldn’t bear to face the other. One held to hope, and the other to cruel necessity. Lindsay could have ended the conflict with a word, and felt the power itching on her tongue, but it couldn’t be that way; not if she respected her allies as equals, like she said.
They stood at the threshold of the castle between the asphalt and the trees. From the clock tower above the bell tolled. Then the forest shook with great steps moving in time with the ringing. Trees groaned and snapped, and landed with the full force of their weight. Lindsay steeled herself, and cast her eyes on the forms moving nearer to the castle.
Four metal beasts cut through the trees, each in the likeness of Fang Force’s sigils. The first was in the form of a blue wolf with steely legs stemming to the tops of trees. What followed was a yellow and tank-like beetle, scuttling across the forest floor and cutting through obstacles with its pincers. Next was a pink spider, moving over the sundered forest with eight spindly, multi-jointed legs. Lastly was the green mountain lion, whose claws made short work of nature’s slowly-erected barrier. Each stood the height of a small building, and glared at their prey with eyes glowing.
Then from the sky, a shrill screech pierced their ears, followed by a flash of bright red. The familiar beat its wings, whipping a wind so strong that it upturned anything not fixed to the earth. Lindsay and her cohorts held fast against the great bat, daring to stand in defiance to its superior power.
To think that the Great Vampire King had this kind of strength on his side. Lindsay’s jaw fell open in awe. For something like this to exist was beyond her wildest imagination.
For once she was lost for words.
The familiars stopped short of the castle – Red Bat perching on the shoulders of the Blue Wolf – and bore down on their former hosts. Any question that they were alive boiled away under the rage burning in their eyes. Though they lived to serve, their power was without doubt greater than any who commanded them.
Silence fell over the inevitable battlefield. A part of Lindsay screamed for her to run; that would be the smart choice. It was her sense of duty that kept her at bay.
“What do we do now?” she asked.
“Now,” Vincent cried, “you get out of our way!”
So fixated were they on the great, mechanical beasts that they failed to notice the two opposing vampires on the ground; and they were not alone. Vincent stood with his nose upturned, as Drake slouched with hands buried in his pockets. To one side crouched a woman made up of claws and feathers, and opposite her a mountain of a reptile covered in plates and scales.
Cassius snarled. “Vultera and Feareus…”
“Who?” Lindsay asked.
“Children of Lord Nihilex and Queen Lacuna,” he explained. “Fantom is the barely tolerated step-son, while these two are the full-blood offspring, spoiled by their father’s favor.”
The behemoth pounded the earth in a display of dominance.
“Why don’t you just kill them now?” Vultera sighed.
“You’re only here as a formality,” Drake said. “Once this is over, so is our alliance.”
The words alone filled the vampires with disgust, and for Luther to hear them from the mouth of his kin wrenched his heart in two. It was something out of a nightmare; a world turned upside down, where good was evil. His fists balled white. How had it come to this?
“You would side with Lord Nihilex knowing that he would plunge this world into darkness?” Luther cried.
Vincent lifted his chin. “What happens to this planet is no concern of ours.”
“That’s a lie!”
Both Drake and Vincent turned their heads. He deserved some final words, after all.
“I know you have the love of humanity in your hearts,” Luther said. “Maybe it’s buried under your hatred for the old Master, but that was why we chose to serve him! Not for the sake of the Great Vampire King, but for the sake of people! Think of all the innocents who’ll suffer!”
The opposing vampires paused in grim contemplation. They were long lived, perhaps too long lived, to allow sentiment to get the better of them, and yet…
“No more talking!” Feareus bellowed. “Destroy Fang Force!”
Drake sneered. “Don’t tell us what to do!”
With a wave of Vincent’s arm the familiars rose to life; screeching, howling, clicking, hissing and snarling at a volume that split the air. That was but a sample of their strength under which Lindsay and her companions faltered.
To be continued…