Lord Nihilex stared at the wall opposing his throne. Its blackness seethed and drank the wind through the passageways. Its thirst was eternal; such was the nature of the Abyssal Realm – desperate for substance, all consuming; so desperate that it churned creatures from nothingness to act on its accord.
The void was known by all. Those with young imaginations often stared into it when the light left them. What monstrous conjurings they projected onto that canvas took form at the portal gates, the shape of which he could never predict. So far, however, all had failed to serve their purpose.
Both he and the Abyss stared without eyes, daring the other to blink. How deep did the darkness run inside the shadow conqueror’s chest? Deeper, he thought, than the farthest corners of the realm. He growled, casting his thoughts further, until…
His goblet clunked against the stone, staining it with drink. Feareus and Vultera stumbled to retrieve the cup, bickering over which of them would hold it and fill it.
“What a pathetic display,” Lord Nihilex sneered.
“Have a care for the way you speak to your children,” said Fantom.
Both the harpy and dragon snapped at their half-sibling. The nerve of him! To speak with such disregard in the court of his betters, even if it was in their defense.
“Father does not chastise us without reason,” the bird woman screeched. “You would do well to remember your place!”
She nursed the chalice like a newborn, and waited as her brother poured. Vultera served the drink to her father, who’d heard it all before; it was the same pithy argument they’d engaged in for centuries.
“Fantom,” the conqueror droned. “To what do I owe this unannounced visit?”
“Am I not free to visit my mother’s court when the desire takes me?”
Lord Nihilex didn’t so much as yawn at him. “You seek to test my patience,” he said, “but I don’t care to acknowledge you. Begone, before you bore me further.”
“Perhaps your mood would change if I served Fang Force on a platter,” Fantom said.
“Can you do such a thing?”
Fantom grinned under his half-mask. “Speak it, and it will be done.”
Lord Nihilex waved him off. “Bluster,” he declared. “You’ve faced them before and proved lacking. What makes you think you’re worthy of a second chance?”
A voice like gravel scraped the air, and all who heard it stopped to listen. Wiseman bowed to the throne on legs like twigs.
“My Lord. Something approaches from the Abyssal Realm.”
The far wall which churned with no shape or form. Then, from nothing came something; a long, rounded something with a stone gray shell and pincers for hands. The creature strode across the floor, and on legs with feet like boulders stood to attention.
It was another general, summoned from the nightmares of children. Lord Nihilex lifted his head from his palm and forced the barest of interest.
“What is your name?”
The creature jiggled with delight. “Curs’tac, the uncrushable!” he announced. “Scourge of the savage lands! Destroyer of the Temples of Helbrandt! More feared than-”
“Yes, yes, yes. You’re here to annihilate Fang Force, are you not?”
Curs’tac startled, and turned to Fantom, who in turn merely offered a shrug. Where was the fiery warlord of legends past? Perhaps, he thought, the battle for the living world was more bleak than it appeared.
“Y-yes,” the creature stammered.
Lord Nihilex shooed him away. “Then go and be done with it. Your name will live in infamy; there’ll be accolades waiting upon your return, et cetera, et cetera. For now, just leave me be.”
As he registered the expressions around Curs’tac realized the situation. That, he decided, would soon change. When he returned triumphantly there would be accolades! The monster scuttled out of the cave, eager for battle.
There were some who thought that Drake, like Cassius, was stone faced; but if one were to ask Lindsay she would say otherwise. She would say that while Cassius wore a blank expression and emoting wasn’t typical, Drake wore a constant grimace, and that his moods were as varied as an upturned rainbow. For example, there was the way that his lower lip protruded and brow tensed when he was thinking, versus tight lips when he disapproved of something. There was also the way he frowned deeper when enjoying himself, but didn’t want others to know.
He stormed up the stairs that morning with ‘want-something-but-unsure-where-to-search’ painted across his face; a look that became increasingly common the longer they shared space. The vampire, dressed in jeans, t-shirt and ankle boots, combed high and low for the desired object. He pulled himself onto one of the support beams and perched like a bird in the hope that he could spot the thing from above.
Lindsay, sat at the dining table and eating a PB&J, watched as the innocuous drama unfolded between two stoic, often silent, vampires. Below Drake’s vantage was Cassius, who only moments before was absorbed in Anton Chekov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’, but was then peering over his book. Where others might have seen neutrality, Lindsay sensed frustration bubbling over into an otherwise polite query.
“Looking for something?”
Drake clucked his tongue. “I can’t find my jacket,” he said. It was the third time in as many weeks that he’d misplaced it, and always needed help to find.
If ever there was a call to action, that was it. Cassius set his book down and marked his place with a discarded envelope. He scanned the air with his nostrils, taking hard sniffs.
“There,” he said. “Behind the china hutch.”
Drake fished the garment from under the cabinet. His frown shifted from ‘lost’ to ‘impressed-but-playing-it-cool’.
Meanwhile, Lindsay didn’t know what was more puzzling; the suggestion of a jacket being somewhere so unlikely, or the fact it was actually there.
“How do you do that?” she asked Cassius, though she already knew the answer.
Anyone else might have missed the vampire’s ever so slight smirk before nodding at Drake. “You need to have that washed,” Cassius said.
The smell caught Lindsay as he passed. How did she miss it?
“Cassius’s got the sharpest nose of them all,” he told Lindsay. “Place an item anywhere in a room he’ll find it in a whiff, even blindfolded.”
If anything could crack Cassius’s deadpan exterior it was the antics of his teammates, especially when playing the same game for centuries. He relented, and did not protest when they came to cover his eyes. Were he honest, Cassius might have admitted a certain joy in proving his sensory prowess.
Lindsay clapped and bounced. “Are you ready?”
The vampire sat forward in his chair.
“Somewhere in this room we’ve placed a slice of cheddar cheese,” she said. “Identify its location, and you win ten points.”
“There are points?” Drake asked.
Cassius grunted. “It’s impossible to miss. I smelled it the moment you placed it down. Over there.” He pointed to the edge of the room, where a broken piece of cheese rested on a plate on a bedside table.
Drake’s frown and reached for a pencil and paper. Somebody had to keep score, after all.
“Next on the list…” Lindsay thought about it for a moment. “Tea bags.”
“You’ll have to be specific,” Cassius said. “There are several in this room, most of which belong to Luther.”
She looked around and noticed, as if for the first time, the barely concealed teacups positioned on surfaces around the belfry, all of which had a used bag inside of them. Lindsay contorted with disgust, but composed herself.
“Oolong tea,” she explained. “I bought it for Mr. Nowack for Christmas last year, but he never got around to drinking it.”
Both vampires gasped. “Who wouldn’t appreciate such an exotic gift?”
“Actually I bought it from an Asian grocer at a strip mall,” she explained, bashfully. “Secret Santa, even though it was just the two of us. Nobody spends more than ten dollars.”
Of all the words to come out of her mouth, Drake and Cassius understood half. Best to get on with the game, they decided.
“The oolong tea is sat under the sofa, near the split where the cushioning has come loose,” Cassius said.
Given her reaction one might have thought that Cassius had won the million dollar jackpot. Even under the blindfold he blinked, wondering how much excitement there was in an ability he found so mundane.
Lindsay settled, and knelt beside him. “Okay. Last challenge,” she said. “I plucked some peonies just for this. Now, where are they?”
Lifting his nose to the air, Cassius was ready to meet the challenge. However, no matter how much he sniffed he could not find it. There was something in the air drowning it out; something rich, warm and spicy. It drifted from the stairs and into the room, announcing the newcomers before they climbed the stairs.
“We’re home,” Vincent called.
Another set of footsteps scaled the entrance in a rush, carrying the origin of the smell in his hands. Cassius removed his blindfold to the image of Luther, grinning like a child, with hands cupped together and sauce smeared across his face. Heaven help him, there was sauce in his messy blond strands.
“You’ve got to try these,” Luther said, displaying the large ball of meat he was holding.
The curator followed a moment later carrying a large cooking pot, radiating with a smell that left Cassius reeling. For a less sensitive palette it might have been delicious, but his called for a taste more subtle.
Lindsay bounded toward the pot. “Mrs. Nowack’s meatballs!” she cried. “What’s the occasion!” The young woman held out her hands to receive the rare treat.
“The only occasion is that these boys haven’t tried them,” Mr. Nowack chuckled.
Vincent giggled, and delicately picked his meatball apart with one hand. “We should also leave one for Spike,” he remarked. “For good luck.”
The curator shrugged. A stuffed bat eating food? “She’s more than welcome, I suppose. Cassius! Would you like to try one of my wife’s Swedish meatballs? They’re one of a kind!”
On the one hand, it was rude to turn down such generosity; on the other, Cassius’s stomach twisted to escape the sensation, and threatened to summon other tastes to overwhelm the stench of spice.
He launched from his chair and sprinted down the stairs, holding his mouth all the while. Better that he run and endure the stares of his comrades – and his host – than spoil the moment with his sensitivity.
Vincent stood between Lindsay and Mr. Nowack. “Cassius has a… delicate constitution,” he explained.
“He doesn’t do spicy food,” Drake said, “or anything that’s really sweet.”
Luther frowned at the meatball. “It’s not that spicy,” he said, and dived for another gluttonous mouthful.
Then, as if waiting for the ideal moment, the clock tower rang. Great vibrations shook the room, priming Fang Force for actionThe unsuspecting curator fell from his feet and into a chair. The cooking pot fell in his lap without spilling a drop.
“Thank goodness,” he muttered, and sat up to laugh. However, by the time he did the others were already gone. To where he wasn’t to know.
To be continued…