Time has little meaning for immortals such as Fantom. The air was musty and thick with the smell of rot. Where he sat was no doubt the resting place of countless before him, not that it bothered him. He would wait until doomsday for Queen Lacuna’s return.
He stilled upon hearing footsteps. There was no mistaking Lord Nihilex’s gait. The shadow conqueror rattled his talons across the bars of his step-son’s cell.
“Curs’tac has been destroyed,” Lord Nihilex said.
The prince hummed. “He was lucky to survive as long as he did.”
Lord Nihilex threw his weight against the cell where stalactites and stalagmites had were closed like interlocking teeth. “Luck or not, he had an advantage; one which you jeopardised with your… your arrogant posturing!”
“My point still stands,” Fantom said. “Your affection for our Queen, deserved though it is, has made you dull. You have the power to raze worlds, ‘my Lord’, but will not lift a finger to claim them.”
Were anyone else present they might have feared for Fantom. Who among them was so bold to speak to one of the great Abyssal rulers in such a way?
Lord Nihilex snapped. “Insolent whelp!”
With a wave of his hand the teeth-like rocks opened. A foul wind blew through the cavern. Tendrils of power snaked through the air, promising pain beyond pain. It was nothing Fantom had not endured before.
The prince chuckled. “You’re like a child throwing a tantrum,” he said. “Go on. Torture me. Do it as many times as you like. It won’t change the fact that-”
His words were muted by the inhuman crackle that cast him into shadows beyond dark. It coursed through his every fiber, exploding them from the inside, wrenching the very fabric of his being.
The prince fell to the mossy ground and writhed. No amount of familiarity could lessen the experience, or so one would think. To look on the mask of Fantom one might have mistaken his expression for boredom; perhaps to provoke his torturer.
“Give me that look as much as you like,” Lord Nihilex spat. “So long as you quiet that tongue of yours!”
For hours he tore at the prince. This time he swore to break Fantom, once and for all.
With a hard-won victory came a well-earned rest. A pity that Lindsay and company couldn’t do so in comfort. With the cooling of adrenaline came the full sensation of cuts and bruises. What was agony before reduced the once proud guardians to whining kittens for whom even the smallest movement was a challenge.
Of course, they’d earned the right to be helpless, and Cassius was more than willing to tend to them. He moved across the belfry, lifting feet and placing them on cushions, bandaging arms and delivering pillows.
Lindsay pouted. “Why don’t we have a TV in here?”
Vincent groaned. “Who needs TV when there are books?”
“Nothing against books,” Lindsay said, “but TV can be more engaging.”
“Books are quieter,” Vincent said.
“Less grating,” Luther added.
“And don’t bombard you with commercials,” Drake concluded.
Linsday sulked into a pillow, and thought aloud, “I could just say we need a TV, and you’d all have to listen.”
Luther, Vincent and Drake grunted in reply.
Cassius returned with another pillow for Lindsay’s neck. “It looks like you’ve been outvoted, ‘Master’.”
She blinked at him, almost forgetting her injuries. “Did you just make a joke? Guys, he just made a joke!”
Luther smirked. “They come but once a century,” he said.
“Mark this day in the calendar,” Vincent added.
Cassius said nothing; he didn’t have to, though one surmised he was laughing on the inside.
A call came from the bottom of the stairs. “Hello!” It was the curator, inching up as quickly as his hips would allow. That he returned with another cooking pot did not make his journey any easier.
Cassius locked eyes with the metal container. “What,” he asked in horror, “is that?”
The old man set the pot on a table. “It’s an old family recipe,” he said. “My babushka’s beef goulash. Just the trick when you’re feeling run down!”
Mr. Nowack lifted the lid. The rich aroma of tomatoes, peppers and paprika filled the room, and the nostrils of a vampire with the sensitivity of a wolf.
Cassius sprinted for the stairs, much to the confusion of the curator. It was the meatball incident all over again.
“I guess he doesn’t like goulash,” Mr. Nowack muttered.
The others laughed and shook their heads. A small crisis they could handle; even laugh at.
Drake groaned as he stood. “I’ll put the tea on,” he said.
Fantom, or what remained of him, struck the ground in a heap. The impact was a comparative slap to the cheek to what he’d endured. Though not alive in any technical sense, his corporeal form was held by threads, teetering on the precipice of oblivion.
His half-mask rattled across the floor, just out of reach. The rest of him smoked from the new orifices torn through his body. When last Lord Nihilex had punished him the prince was immobile for weeks. Even with supernatural healing, it would be some time before he was fit to serve again.
Somewhere far beneath the wounds, Fantom dreamed of a time that was; when Queen Lacuna was not confined to a bed in her chamber. Together they peered over a castle balcony on high, over all that was the Abyssal Realm.
“Do you see that?” the memory asked.
The boy cast his vision to the null. “There’s nothing there,” he said.
“This is your birthright, my son,” Queen Lacuna said. “We were born into oblivion and rule over the absence of anything. We are void, the antithesis of all that exists, coupled with the curse of awareness. Don’t you think that’s cruel?”
At the time Fantom thought nothing of it, for it was all he’d known.
“Out there are whole universes of… of things,” Queen Lacuna explained. “Things that you can hold, and see, and touch! Outside this realm are beings with substance in excess. They have substance, and we have none. Why? They didn’t earn it!”
With or without knowledge outside the void, he recognized it for the injustice it was. “All things belong to you, Mother,” he said, “both within the Abyssal Realm and beyond!”
“You understand,” she hissed, and combed her talons through the strings of his hair.
In the present, a hand pried Fantom from the stone. He rolled out of numbness and into agony. Only when the haze passed did he realize where he was.
“Save your strength,” instructed an ancient voice.
The prince met with a bowl and drank down the bitter contents, inhaling it as a human would oxygen. Relief washed through his chest. In the dark he started to weep; tears of exhaustion ran down the void where cheeks might have sat, until none remained.
“How?” he asked. “How am I still here?”
“Because our Queen wills it,” the ancient voice said. “Lord Nihilex cannot destroy you and avoid her wrath.”
Fantom smiled. The thought nourished him.
Hands as old as dust guided him to his feet. Despite spindly limbs, Wiseman was strong enough to lift someone twice his size. After all, the weak did not live for eons.
“The time is nearly at hand,” the mage said.
He needn’t elaborate. The actions of the sage spoke loud enough. What would Lord Nihilex make of this collusion?
Fantom limped from the dungeons and into the cavern, he dragged his feet under the weight of inevitability.
“In my Queen’s name,” he said. A reckoning was at hand.
End of Episode 5