Perhaps it was inevitable, Fantom thought, that in a world without Queen Lacuna to divide them, his blade would inevitably find his step-father’s back. Abandon surged through his body. He raised the scimitar high, pausing to steady his hand – the final moment before changing his fate.
Steel landed with a wet squelch, buried in the flesh of the shadow conqueror. But alas, it was not the intended neck that met his blade.
Lord Nihilex pressed against the weapon wedged in his palm, and with the single eye pulsing turned to his betrayer. The tentacles of his beard flailed. He pried from his knees and seethed, otherwise unfazed by the wound.
“You don’t know how I’ve waited for this day,” Lord Nihilex said. “Always so single minded, so jealous. It was a mistake to think we could share a Queen, no matter how much we love her.”
Fantom pressed for all his fury. The blade ran only a few inches further down the despot’s hand before it stopped. He could drive the sword no further.
“You’re one to talk about jealousy,” he spat. “I was happy to serve, but you; you would regard yourself her equal!”
With a twist Lord Nihilex snapped the blade, and discarded it to the far side of the chamber. Never once did his eye wander from his half-faced step son. The furious pupil surged, threatening to swallow the boy.
Fantom edged away, and followed the wall in search of a position to defend. Once he might have cowered before his mother’s husband – and knowing the depths of the shadow conqueror’s power he considered it – but the decision he’d made was final. No matter what, he would resist until the end.
Thunderous tendrils of dark energy erupted from Lord Nihilex’s palms and drove into the prince’s flesh. Cold energy, the void manifest, spiraled through Fantom’s chest, tearing him apart from the inside. It wasn’t the first time he’d known the sting, but never had it driven so deep. This time there was no doubt; Lord Nihilex aimed to end him.
“Foolish boy. You might think I savour this, but I do not. Your mother will be disappointed.”
What wrathful thoughts Fantom nursed abandoned him for survival. With each second Lord Nihilex’s power consumed him, into the void, into oblivion. Few could withstand such punishment, and Fantom only a few minutes longer. He had to do something!
Though wracked in agony, Fantom found it in himself to launch himself across the chamber, through the veil and across his mother’s sleeping body. If anything would give Lord Nihilex pause, it was the risk of catching his Queen in the crossfire.
The lashing power stopped.
“You! You wicked… little-”
The prince ripped the veil from the hinges over the bed, and threw the material over his stepfather. With scant seconds to his advantage, he leaped for the chamber doors, threw them open, and sprinted down the black passageway.
With flight of feet and deftness of agility Fantom moved through the labyrinthine halls and finally into the throne room. It was there he stopped, between the regal stairs and the gaping abyss, and stole a last farewell to the only home he’d known on Earth.
There, also, were his half-siblings, simpering excuses for a family they were. Vultera and Feareus regarded him with typical disgust, unaware of what had just transpired. They too would have been incensed by Fantom’s defilement of their mother’s resting place.
His step-father’s clonking steps echoed in the near distance. “Stop him! Stop the traitor! He is to be eliminated!”
Both the bird woman and the lizard man blinked, torn between their father’s authority, and knowing that Fantom was more than a match for them both. Yet still they jumped, barricading the exit with their bodies, for all the good it would do.
With a blow to Feareus’ gut and a snap across Vultera’s beak, Fantom sent the two crashing to the stone floor. He shook his head at the pair.
“Do yourselves a favor, and don’t get up.”
It was physical weakness, not a mental one, that kept them on the ground. The trio shared scuffles in the past, but the first time Fantom attacked them with his true strength left them gasping and faint. What would their father think of such a display? They would soon know when they received punishment.
Fantom, the traitor, managed to flee.
Once his nerves settled, Fantom realized that, despite knowing what he was running from, he had nowhere to run to.
He knelt at the base of a tree and nursed his shredded insides; which fortunately were still held inside. The prince had endured much at Lord Nihilex’s violent whims, but he could rely upon Wiseman for a healing poultice.
Such luxury was no longer available. From then forth, the only one Fantom could rely upon was himself. Would that be enough?
The sun moved over the leafy canopy ever toward dusk. There was little time to linger. On night’s falling the void would swarm. Freaklings by the hundreds would scour the mountainside.
“Perhaps this is my last stand,” Fantom chuckled without humor.
If only there were some place to turn…
In the distance was Crescent Valley, home to countless humans, who, regardless of the damage inflicted upon them, stood proudly by their home. Strange though it seemed, such an act of defiance stirred Fantom. Was it amusement, or something else?
It was then that another thought came to him; one that stopped the prince in his tracks. “Hiding in plain sight,” he mused to nobody. From it birthed the hatchings of a plan; an impulsive, make-shift plan, but a plan all the same.
Fantom turned down the slope, and using the trees for balance lurched toward the human metropolis.
Vultera and Feareus prostrated before the throne, eyes cast to the ground. They winced, knowing the words that would lash from their father’s jowls; words which, before that day, were stifled by shame. They dared not look as feet descended the throne, heavy with contemplation and disgust.
“You once held such promise,” he said. “I remember the day of your un-birth, when the combined essence of your mother and myself collated into two tiny babes. You were immature then, and utterly without knowledge; but your power! Nobody could hold you for fear that their arms would be annihilated.
“I ask you, what happened to these children that a pair of spoiled, miserable weaklings should take their place!”
They said nothing. What could they say to spare themselves from torment? To speak would damn themselves further, no matter the intent. Best that they remain silent and endure.
Lord Nihilex stopped between his quivering offspring. He couldn’t stand to look at them.
“You are not fit to rule beneath me,” he sighed. “Our Queen will be so disappointed, losing all her children in a single day. I have much to answer for.”
Both siblings froze. What was he saying? They darted to their knees and pleaded. There had to be some other way!
The shadow conqueror took them by the scruffs of their necks and dragged them toward the far end of the room; to the wall that was not a wall, darker than the darkness, the mouth of the Abyssal Realm.
“Please, Father! Give us another chance!” Vultera squawked.
Feareus, despite his size, was helpless in Lord Nihilex’s grip. “We won’t fail you again,” he half-whined, half-bellowed.
“No,” the tyrant said. “You won’t.”
He lifted the pair, his own children, ready to cast them back to the nothing from whence they came. Had he any sentiment it did not show.
However, fate had other plans for Vultera and Feareus. Salvation came from a source least likely.
Few could stay Lord Nihilex’s hand. One of them was the ancient sage who served the throne, older than dust and with a voice dry as a desert breeze. He folded his boney hands and awaited acknowledgement.
Lord Nihilex huffed. “Speak, Wiseman.”
“I have an alternative,” the sage rasped. “One I’m sure you’ll find more palatable; as will our Queen.”
Vultera and Feareus dropped to the floor, whining in reverence to the conjurer, but for how much longer? Whatever it was beat howling into oblivion.
Wiseman turned from them, and in slow, methodical steps disappeared into a small room aside the throne. He returned with a stone goblet in each hand. A foul brew steamed with the sickly smells of mold and rot.
The siblings, still on their knees, reeled, but found their father’s hands backs on their necks. He held them so they were eye to eye with each cup.
“Drink,” Wiseman said.
Vultera sulked and shook her head. Feareus clasped his mouth shut.
“Do it,” their Father commanded, more convincingly than the old sage. After all, there was still oblivion.
Both clasped their chalice, and turned to the other for support. If nothing else, at least brother had his sister, and sister her brother. They opened their mouths, tilted their heads, and accepted the liquid the same way one would imbibe a swarm of hornets. The substance was thick and pungent, and caught in their throats too long to make swallowing simple.
Lord Nihilex’s hand wrenched their necks, daring either to sick it up. Neither did.
They clicked their tongues to clear the aftertaste, but nothing seemed to work. Was that what Wiseman intended; to leave a bad taste in their mouths? Both siblings remained on the floor.
“Is something meant to happen?” Feareus dared.
Something snapped sharpy in his chest, and burned. It happened again, and again!
Vultera squawked with the same pains wrenching through her body. She flew into a fit with feathers flying everywhere! The cracks were audible, and filled the throne room!
Wiseman watched with muted interest. Lord Nihilex, however, turned away.
“Let me know when the transformation is complete,” he said.
“Yes, my Lord.”
Screams of torment, born from bodies betraying themselves, filled the caverns and beyond. None so much as blinked at the sound, for it was the battle anthem of the Abyssal Realm and their conquest of Earth.
To be continued…