For once in his unnatural life, Lord Nihilex was in a bright mood; as bright as a cave-dwelling void being was capable, anyhow. On squat legs he bounded the steps leading to the throne and pumped his fists high.
“Red Fang has fallen!” he decreed. “Without leadership, Fang Force is sure to crumble!”
The freaklings crashed into each other, agitated and excited, and echoed with a high, squeaking groan that in some reality passed for cheering.
Among the throng was Qimos, the bipedal mosquito and hero of the hour. Somewhere under the depressed needle hanging over his face was a smile. Minute as his mouth was it stretched to its limits, and if seen would have shone with sickly blue cheeks.
“You’ve done us proud, Qimos,” Lord Nihilex continued. “Of all the generals under my rule you have been the most effective; more effective, even, than my pitiful excuse for a step-son – Fantom!”
Qimos hesitated, unsure of what to make of the comparison. Best not to question it, he thought; best to fall before his master and give him the reverence he deserved.
He kneeled. “Failure was never an option, my Lord. I exist only to serve you.”
“And,” Lord Nihilex said, “our lady who sits on the one seat above my own; the true ruler of the Abyssal Realm, and soon the human world – Queen Lacuna!”
Her name churned among the freaklings, sending them colliding into each other in feverish, almost rabid celebration. Their pitch rang higher still, twisting in the ears of all.
With a gesture Lord Nihilex called for silence.
Qimos placed a hand over his black substitute for a heart. “Of course, my Lord. The only one greater than yourself is our Queen. On her return there shall be two that I obey.”
The room was silent as Lord Nihilex descended from the throne. He sauntered by the still prostrated general, and beckoned him to stand.
“You know,” Lord Nihilex said in a hush, “once Fang Force is defeated there will be feasts in your name. Songs will be written about you. Our armies will chant your name for a thousand years! ‘All hail Qimos! Drinker of life, and vilest of us all!’”
He gurgled with a deep throaty laugh, and Qimos did the same. They laughed without bounds, like lunatics tasting freedom. Victory was near, and they were drunk on the scent.
Lord Nihilex yanked the general by the nose, and all laughter stopped. Not even the freaklings dared make a peep.
“But if you fail,” the shadow conqueror rasped, “the consequences will be so harsh that you turn to nightmares for comfort. Do you understand?”
Quimos nodded, and honked a nasal reply. “Yes, my Lord! I return victorious, or not at all!”
With that said, he let the monster free and set about his business.
Quimos stroked his needle until feeling returned. Through the pain he remembered the most important lesson; to not celebrate a victory yet to be won.
Two figures fumbled their way through the corridors beneath the throne room.
One was a woman with two faces – of a woman and a bird, one on top of the other; her deep blue feathers were of such a shade that few could distinguish them from the dark.
The other was large and muscular, covered in protruding scales like orange desert boulders.
Vultera and Feareus were of the most prestigious bloodline of all the Abyssal Realm, and were the twin children of its most powerful rulers – Queen Lacunae and Lord Nihilex; though many mightn’t know it to look at them. They did not carry the world destroying power of their heritage, nor did they command respect beyond what was afforded by their position.
Despite these shortcomings, the two were not utterly absolved of parental expectation. Though subject to the rare to non-existent mercy of Lord Nihilex, it was expected that they complete all tasks set to them.
Such as gathering information on one Fantom.
They stood before the prince’s chambers; an ornate wooden door gilded with jewels and silver. To humans it would have been a sign of status, but to Fantom was a boast of those he’d defeated. The two approached, then stopped.
“Well?” Vultera asked.
Feareus swayed his heavy head. “Well what?”
“Aren’t you going to knock?”
The behemoth frowned. “I don’t know what to say to him. You’re the one who’s good with words. You knock.”
They needn’t have knocked at all, as just then the lock clicked and the door swung open. There, leaning against the frame, was their half-faced half-brother wearing a robe and a very dour expression.
Vultera and Feareus were speechless. Fantom was not.
“Can I help you?” he asked, devoid of any kind of enthusiasm.
They lingered for an uncomfortable while before Vultera opened her beak. “We just wanted to see how you were going,” she squawked.
“Yeah, it’s been a while,” Feareus said.
He regarded the pair, and with an incandescent eye from behind the darkness searched them for deception. His other eye, concealed behind the mask, had its own sinister business to attend.
“I suppose next you’ll want to sit down for a glass of rotten apple juice,” he hummed.
Vultera flapped her wings. “Sounds great!”
“Yeah! Great!” her brother echoed.
Fantom glowering forced them back against the rock. Black candles burning cold and emitting no light flicked behind his silhouette, casting him in an aura much darker than their fathers’.
The twins wondered, was this the power of Queen Lacuna projected through him?
“Return to our Lord, your father,” he said, “and tell him that my business is my own. Tell him that he need not fear me, the child of his queen, ‘less he aims to betray her ambition!”
Fantom returned to his chamber, slamming the door behind him. There was no warmth in those corridors, but the chill abated.
For that Vultera and Feareus were most thankful.
The worst part of turning into a statue – other than the impending doom – wasn’t the limited mobility, or was it the numbness that consumed inch by stony inch. For Lindsay, it was the weight. Easy enough at first, but as she turned she tired, until the task became unbearable.
“They’re so heavy,” she whined.
Her cheeks flushed, and a river of sweat poured down them. What enthusiasm she once had for exercise she abandoned the moment her limbs turned to proverbial dumbbells.
Time only made it worse. Her forearms and calves had hardened. It took all her effort to drag from one place to the next. Fortunately, she had friends offering to carry her limbs so she wouldn’t have to hunch over and crawl.
“Don’t push yourself,” Luther told her. “We’ve got you.”
“It’s just like being in the gym,” she laughed, bitterly. “Except this time I’ve got four spotters instead of one.” For that much she could be glad.
They set her down on a leather armchair with hands propped on the rests and feet raised onto the ottoman. Lindsay groaned with relief and sank into the cushions.
“Thank you,” she said. Tears of exhaustion pricked her eyes. This was too much.
The vampires moved between fawning and brooding. Luther folded his arms, while Cassius chewed on a hangnail; Vincent paced, and Drake skulked in the corner, unable to face a problem he couldn’t fix.
So I might be out of action for a while,” Lindsay said; ‘maybe forever’, she didn’t say. Her otherwise cheerful tone betrayed nothing. “One of you needs to step up and take my place for when Qimos strikes again.”
“Master,” Luther muttered.
“Lindsay,” she told him, and she would tell him again, as many times as it took for it to sink in. They were friends, not slaves!
“On some level you’ll always be our Master,” he said. “No matter how strong our friendship, you take the place of the Great Vampire King. We served him, and we serve you.”
What cruel fate it was that in a single lifetime, even an immortal one, that they could lose two masters. Luther tensed, harkening back to those dark days where he and Cassius occupied an empty castle, only to rest as let the centuries roll by.
“Speak for yourself,” Drake growled from the corner.
Vincent pursed. “Luther may not speak for us, Drake, but it is not our place to sell those feelings short. I’m sure the same applies to Cassius.”
The stoic vampire hummed. “Our loyalties lie in different places,” Cassius observed. “You, Lindsay, with your… unique form of leadership, are the only one capable of uniting Fang Force.”
The four men regarded one another with caution. Each had his own perspective, some of which were at odds. Could they survive each other without a leader?
Lindsay groaned. “Geez, guys. Way to bring down the mood.”
“We’re serious,” Vincent said.
“Yeah, too serious!” she said. “You’re all mourning, and I’m still here! Besides, Fang Force is more than me, or even the Great Vampire King. You don’t always have to get along, and besides, there’s a lot more uniting us than driving us apart.”
“Such as?” Drake asked.
“How about your love for this planet, and that you don’t want to see anyone else get hurt?”
The vampires paused, but couldn’t bring themselves to look at her.
“Cassius, Luther; you were ready to face Lord Nihilex before we even met,” she said. “Vincent, Drake; you may have joined the dark side, but turned back when you saw what Lord Nihilex had planned for the world. I’m glad you value my friendship so much. I know you’re scared to go on without me, but humanity needs a Fang Force. It needs you!”
The dark cloud continued to linger, but they’d all weathered the darkness before. One by one they turned to their leader, impeded though she may be. And so they cast off doubt and pledged their loyalties anew.
Luther put his hand forward. “Whatever happens, I’ll fight.”
“Me too,” Drake said, putting his on top.
Cassius did the same. “With a Master or without, I’ll defend this world.”
Vincent smiled, shrugged, and placed his hand on top. “Never let it be said that I’m not a team player.”
The young woman beamed with pride. No matter her condition, she could always count on her friends. If worse came to worse, they’d still carry on in her stead.
“That’s more like it!”
She lifted her stone hand to join the pact, or at least that was the idea. The moment she reached out her hand dropped, smashing on top of the others, breaking the vampire’s collective grip.
Lindsay’s hand smashed through the floorboard, pulling her arms taut as the other sat anchored on the armrest. She laughed, because what else could she do?
“Sorry,” she groaned. Becoming a statue was anything but convenient.
To be continued…