It started with a rumble. Was she hearing things? Lindsay stopped, fresh from saying goodbye to another tour group, and listened. The tiles rattled a second time, and for a while all was quiet. She might have thought it a monster, but the bell tower always rang when evil reared its head. This, she decided, was something else.
The young woman followed the sound between beats. It was coming from inside the castle. She entered the staircase leading to the basement and followed it to the end. The ground rumbled again, louder this time. She was getting close.
Rarely did she have a need to enter the basement. While tour goers believed there were dungeons or catacombs, in truth there was only a storage area for props and cleaning supplies. Lindsay brushed an effigy of the Great Vampire King to one side – a relic from Halloweens past – and came to the source of the noise.
The vampire dripped with sweat, and let the weights in his arms drop to the floor. It struck with a boom, the likes of which shook the walls. Luther brushed the soggy blond strands from his face.
“Looks like you caught me,” he said.
“What’s going on here?” Lindsay asked, as though the room didn’t speak for itself.
The space was laid with mats and all manner of gym equipment; benches, a lat machine, rowing simulator, and dumbbells of every size. Most impressive was the solid titanium barbell resting at Luther’s feet. Each side was laden with six weights with ‘20 kg’ embossed on them.
“No way did you lift this much! That’s like…” Lindsay counted on her fingers, but quickly ran out.
“Nearly five hundred and thirty pounds,” he said.
The numbers sounded right, but the reality of one person lifting that weight didn’t quite click. No wonder the earth shook. As Fang Force they’d beaten monsters with less heft.
“This is what you do with your free time?” Lindsay asked.
Luther blushed, and ran a towel over his well-developed physique. He may have been larger than the others, but Lindsay always figured it to be his natural proportions. However, the sleeveless shirt barely concealing the slabs of meat on his chest told a much different story.
“It’s how I stay prepared,” he said. “Cassius runs, Vincent climbs, Drake claws trees, and I lift weights.”
She smiled, suddenly fascinated. “I thought your strength came from the beetle familiar.”
“It does, but this helps. Besides, it’s a good way to blow off steam.”
Lindsay leaned down and gripped the barbell, calling upon everything she remembered from high school gym class. Even after slipping off her heels and lifting – with her knees, not her back – she failed to move the incredible weight.
“Maybe you’d like to start with something smaller,” Luther said.
Lindsay jumped with new energy. Finally, something new to explore!
Nearly a week had passed since the Abyssal Court met with it’s ruler. The throne sat empty while Lord Nihilex sequestered himself in the chamber of his Queen.
There he sat, night and day, his fingers intertwined with her talons, pining for her essence to return. Yet, no matter how much he willed for her to wake, Lacuna’s aura waxed in a steady flow, never committing to one state. She was between realms, and would be for some time.
Perhaps, Lord Nihilex thought, Fantom had a point. He would never say as much in the open – the insubordinate little troll did not deserve such acknowledgement – but the reality could not be avoided. So long as he was bogged down by sentiment, his Queen would be confined to bed.
Pulling himself away from her side was like tearing away flesh, but sacrifices had to be made.
He burst through the chamber doors and marched into the throne room, turning every head. The virtue of his presence prompted the court to attend him. Lord Nihilex had little patience for stragglers.
“Wiseman,” he commanded, drawing the attention of the ancient sage. “You are to deliver me a new general from the Abyssal Realm. Someone competent.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
The spindly old man attended his crystal ball. With sharp-jointed fingers he poured over the conduit, and in a tongue older than language called upon the powers of the void. A darkness deeper than the blackest black yawned from the absent wall that served as an entry point between dimensions.
Something emerged from the other side; a hunched, gray something with large eyes and a needle protruding from its face. It carried the lace wings of an insect over its diminutive shoulders, and a throbbing sac at the base of its spine. On thin sticks that passed for legs the monster scuttled to the centre of the room. He knelt before the throne.
“I am Qimos, the drinker of life,” he said. “I serve at your pleasure, Lord Nihilex.”
“Qimos,” the shadow conqueror mused. Though this new general was far from imposing, there were surely other qualities for which Wiseman had selected him. “You can bring an end to Fang Force?” he pressed.
The monster lowered his head. “My actions will speak to my worthiness, Lord. I will stake my life on it.”
A jigsaw of a smile broke upon Lord Nihilex’s lips. “You take pride in your work more than yourself. Good! This court has heard enough boasts. The presumptuousness of aspiring generals allowed them to become complacent.”
“Yes, my Lord,” Qimos agreed.
Lord Nihilex waved him away. There was much to be done.
He scanned the throne room. On one side Wiseman attended his crystal ball; on another was a band of freaklings waiting on orders; and lastly were his children, tittering over something inane. But something was missing.
Vultera jumped, throwing a plume of black feathers in alarm. “I’ve-I’ve not seen hide nor hair of him for days,” she said.
Feareus loomed behind her and flicked his tongue. “He could be sleeping off his injuries,” he supposed. “You really got him good the last time, Father. That little twerp couldn’t stand for days!”
There may have been humor in the prince’s suffering, but Vultera and Feareus were the only ones to laugh. They halted under their father’s merciless gaze, and remembered the last time they spoke as freely.
“Find my ingrate of a step-son,” Lord Nihilex commanded, “and report his activities to me.”
The two monsters, children of the court themselves, stumbled over one another to reach the nearest passage. Were they not offspring of Lord Nihilex himself they might not have been so tolerated.
Once more the thought crossed the ruler’s mind – that Fantom was correct, at least in one regard. He needed to be more active, if for no other reason than he could only trust himself to do the job right.
A pair of two kilogram dumbbells – less than nine pounds – sounded easy at first. Lindsay could carry double that in her backpack and walk for miles, like it was nothing. Yet laying on her back and lifting them over her head proved more a challenge. Muscles ached under her shoulders each time she drew her arms together. Her brow dripped with sweat, matting her fringe in wet strands.
Luther grinned. “Aren’t you glad you didn’t go with the five kilogram weights?”
A pained expression wracked her features. “I thought I was in better shape than this,” she groaned. The first ten lifts were awkward, but the second ten were torture.
She was just about to start a third set when Luther took the weights from her and set them on the rack. “You don’t want to push too hard,” he said. “It’s all about pacing yourself. Once you hit your limit, ease back and unwind. Over time you’ll find the limit goes farther and farther.”
“Is that how it worked for you?” Lindsay asked.
Luther shrugged. “There was a time I could barely lift a cow, you know.”
The young woman boggled at the mental image. “You know most people can’t lift cows, right? Not even vampires.” At least as far as she knew.
“My point is that I got stronger, but it took work, discipline, and patience,” he explained. “There’s a time to push, and a time to relax. The hard part is knowing which is which.”
It wasn’t exactly new knowledge. As Lindsay sat up she heard the voice of everyone from her Mom to her teachers telling her to slow down; that ‘sucking the marrow of life’ didn’t mean ‘choking on the bone’. But she couldn’t help herself. There was just so much to do!
Even then she thought about throwing herself back into the weights, just to show she could. By that time, however, her work blouse was drenched, and the last thing she needed was another stain to scrub out.
Oh, the joys of adult life.
Just then the bells of the clock tower rang out, clear even from in the basement. Evil had returned to Crescent Valley.
Lindsay sprinted for the stairs with Luther in tow.
Day or night, Oldtown Junction was a hub of activity littered with markets and stalls, located a short distance from the city’s arts centre. Adults and children marched across the main pavilion, hovering to admire the knick-knacks, and sample street foods.
Yet when Lindsay and Luther sprinted across the street there was nobody in sight. The pair tensed. No bystanders was usually a bad sign.
In their place stood countless statues littered, like three dimensional snapshots caught mid-motion. Lindsay didn’t stop to inspect them. Somewhere there was a monster lurking, and she had to stop it.
She ignored the statues. They were just obstacles. An art display that the bad guys could use to their advantage. Though no matter how long she searched there was no trace.
“Don’t tell me we were called away for nothing,” she groaned.
Luther beckoned her toward one of the figures. How had she not noticed before? Every one depicted an otherwise mundane pedestrian painted with an expression of terror. The heroes steeled their collective nerves.
“That is seriously creepy,” she said.
“Do you notice anything else?”
She and her companion followed the circle of statues, whose radius ended not far from where they stood. Realization snapped like ice in Lindsay’s chest.
“They’re all running away from the same spot,” she said.
Her fists tightened. Hairs stood on end as if waiting for a shift in the breeze. Danger carried on the air so thick she could taste it.
Just then was the sound of crying. Lindsay ran toward it. On the other side of the pavilion was a boy – maybe six or seven years old, wearing an Armadillo Rabbit t-shirt – clinging to the statue of a woman about to trip over her dress.
“Hey, what’s the matter?” she asked in her most child friendly tone. Her heart ached for him, but she had to be strong.
The boy sobbed so heavily that he couldn’t speak. Then again, he didn’t have to.
Lindsay gestured to the statue. “Is this your Mom?”
Her fears were realized when the child nodded.
“All these people,” she gasped.
Of all the powers Fang Force possessed, this was a problem they couldn’t set right.
To be continued…