Though arguably without sentience, the flora of Crescent Valley’s botanical gardens cowered under Curs’tac’s unholy presence. No daffodil was safe, and the lilacs shivered; even the blades of grass curled before he’d the chance to squash them. Unlike the human park-goers they were unable to run, nor were they able to scream.
The monster cackled, savoring the terror in the air. Lord Nihilex may have been less than enthused by his arrival, humanity’s welcome more than made up for it. He snapped his pincers in delight, threatening to bisect all who stood in his way.
“This is too easy,” he laughed. “How did this pathetic dimension manage to resist us for so long?”
“You want a demonstration?”
They appeared as if from nowhere; five costumed heroes, each wearing the color of their sigil and garbed with a red cape over their shoulders. Falling behind the avatar of the bat was the wolf, beetle, spider and mountain lion; they were night’s defenders, and guardians of the innocent.
“Fang Force,” Curs’tac hissed. The monster lunged, and the group darted away from his snapping limb.
In a fluid motion the vampires struck; Blue and Green at the knees, Pink and Yellow to the chest, and Red with a boot to the face. The creature, however, didn’t so much as budge, and shrugged them off. So much for the demonstration, he thought. Next to him the heroes were nothing.
“Nice try, but my shell is thicker than your skulls!”
“Keep at it,” Pink Fang said. “He’ll crack eventually!”
“You’ll never get the chance!” Curs’tac roared. He threw his arm high, thus summoning a battalion of freaklings to his side. The shambling creatures formed a perimeter around the lawn, and converged.
Yellow fang grinned under his mask. “Freaklings have never stopped us before, right?”
He stopped when he noticed Blue Fang standing to one side, shaking his head and sniffing. Something was off; his stance was unbalanced, and he was distracted.
“Cass, are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Blue Fang grunted, and charged the freaklings.
In battles past he proved among the most formidable, repelling foes in a team and on his own; yet Cassius struggled to hold his balance, and stumbled from one enemy to the next. Blows that were once simple to evade crashed against his back, prompting him to lash out at the one to strike him. The freaklings went down easily, but he was more vulnerable than he’d ever been.
Yellow Fang lifted one of the grunts over his head and threw it with inhuman strength. The creature collided with its brethren, knocking down the freaklings to Blue Fang’s flank and back. Cassius lifted his head, only just aware of the danger he was in.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Luther pressed.
Blue Fang huffed, and shook his head like a dog trying to shake a bad taste. “I said I’m fine.”
Meanwhile, Curs’tac threw his pincers with glee. The lush garden landscape, perfect for a quiet brunch, was now a battlefield with monsters vying for conquest. When he was done there would be but ash and dirt; a vision of the world under Lord Nihilex.
Red Fang slashed through the freaklings. One fell and another took its place, but she didn’t relent. “Go for the leader!” she ordered. “When he falls, the rest will follow!”
“You’re welcome to try,” he said, and gestured for his underlings to clear a path.
Red Fang, Pink Fang and Green Fang charged head on. Keep hitting him until he cracks; it was as close to a plan as they had so far. They jumped, taking the enemy from above, below and in between. Lindsay’s heart beat like a jungle drum as she steeled herself, throwing everything into the attack.
Alas, their efforts were doomed to failure. They rolled off the monster’s hide like drops of rain, and with equal ceremony crashed on the grass. Curs’tac was right to laugh; their efforts were a joke, though less funny on their end.
“The great and mighty Fang Force,” he said. “Night’s defenders, you said? Guardians of the innocent? I’ve seen mall cops with more clout!”
It was while the creature gloated that Blue Fang circled behind, and hunched to strike…
With a deft motion swiped a limb at the would-be attacker. That split second dragged for eternity, along with the realisation of its impact. Blue Fang had made a terrible mistake, and would pay dearly for it.
Fate, however, had other plans.
What should have been the end of Blue Fang was interrupted when a body in green flew into his path. Curs’tac landed his pincer dead centre of the warriors chest, slicing through the armor. Just as suddenly it was over, with Green Fang sprawled across the ground.
Blue Fang snatched him up and held the other vampire in his arms. “What did you do that for? Drake! How could you do something so foolish!” His comrade was already growing cold.
“Look… who’s talking…” Green Fang coughed. His costume evaporated into smoke, revealing the boyish punk beneath. Blood stained his shirt, and pale though he was, the vampire traded his frown for a cocky smile. Why, of all times, did he choose to smile then?
Blue Fang pulled him closer. “You shouldn’t have protected me. I don’t need protecting!”
“You… going to get back at him… or what?” Drake teased.
He was right. The battle didn’t stop because one of them was injured. Blue Fang placed his friend down in the grass. His eyes seared under his visor with the fury of a wolf turned feral. Curs’tac appeared to relish the opportunity, but that would soon change.
Blow after blow bounced off Curs’tac; punches, kicks, scratches, nothing had an effect. Blue Fang let loose with a passion in defiance of his otherwise cool nature, but in the face of an indestructible proved meaningless.
Blue Fang roared. “Bastard! You’ll never get away with this!”
The other fangs joined with equal effect. Nothing could crack the shell, nor could they match his brute strength. Their lineage and prestige meant nothing in these proving grounds where Curs’tac shrugged them off like leaves in the wind.
His mood shifted. “The time for games was over,” Curs’tac said. He thrust, tossing Fang Force across the grass and into the bushes. He snapped his pincers; they were thirsty for battle, for destruction. What better way to slake them than by ending a legend?
“I put one of you down with no effort,” he said. “Four more shouldn’t be a challenge.”
“That’s enough, Curs’tac,” said another.
By the gazebo was a creature whose face was shrouded in darkness, with one side concealed in a half mask. He stood with arms folded.
“What do you want?” Curs’tac said, snapping his pincers.
“Now is not the time of Fang Force’s destruction,” he said. “You’re to return with me. Then we’ll consult Lord Nihilex about future plans of attack.”
On his word the freaklings vanished into clouds of darkness, leaving heroes and monster alike dumbfounded. For what reason would a general call for retreat when victory was a foregone conclusion?
“I… I…” Curs’tac stomped like a child. “I have Fang Force at my mercy!”
“And with power like yours they will be again,” Fantom said, “but for now we return home. Come!”
Just as the freaklings, so did the pair vanish from the battlefield, leaving a bruised and humiliated Fang Force to like their wounds. They gathered around the Green Fang, who convulsed in their arms.
Blue Fang stepped away. His costume evaporated, leaving a man in place of a hero.
“This is my fault,” he said.
The atmosphere was rarely as grim in the home of the Great Vampire King. Not even Lindsay, for all of her enthusiasm, could find anything to smile about; not while one of their own was bed-ridden on the other side of a curtain.
Luther sat by her side as she fretted. She was the leader, and her role to put on a brave face. And yet she was also the youngest, the least experienced, and less accustomed to tragedy. With a reluctant smile she rested her head on Luther’s shoulder.
On the other side of the room, Cassius stared through the clock face. There he remained frozen, moving only to shoot heat from his nostrils. For once his expression was not one of ambiguities.
Lindsay moved to stand, but thought better of it. Even her own attempts at self-soothing fell short. Curs’tac would return, and when he did they would be one short.
After endless waiting, it was Cassius who broke the silence.
“It was the meatballs,” he said.
The other two started. “You mean Mr. Nowack’s surprise treat meatballs?” Lindsay asked.
Cassius nodded. “Too many spices,” he explained. “They got into my sinuses and threw me off balance.”
Lindsay blinked, then Luther took her arm.
“Cassius’s sense of smell is keener than the others,” he told her. “For him it is just as important, maybe more, than being able to see or hear.”
The vampire’s cheeks burned with shame. “Without my sense of smell I am not a useful ally.”
Before she could open her mouth the curtain leading to Drake’s bedside opened. Vincent emerged with Spike sat on his shoulder. He snapped the gloves from his hands. His frown said much.
“He’ll live,” Vincent said.
The little bat leapt from his shoulder, and circled around the room toward a new perch. “It’s going to take some time before he’s back on his feet,” Spike said. “The next time Lord Nihilex strikes there’ll only be the four of you to stand against him.”
“Three,” said Cassius.
Every eye turned to him, but none was more surprised than Lindsay. She jumped from her seat and ran to him. “Just because you don’t have your sense of smell-”
“It’s more than that,” he said. “Without smell, I’m more than just compromised. I’m useless.”
Lindsay shook her head. Of all of Fang Force, Cassius was the most loyal; the most reliable. The thought of charging into battle without him, even against freaklings…
“You can’t just sit this out,” she said. “We need you!”
“One of us has already been hurt by my shortcomings,” he said.
The vampire snarled, much to the shock of the others. “As a ‘friend’ it’s not your place to give me orders,” he snapped. “I’ve made my decision. Please respect it.”
He moved behind the curtain and away from the others. How deep his despair must have run to lash out in such a way.
Lindsay turned to what remained of Fang Force, and held tight to their hands.
“Three,” she said.
To be continued…