~ a short story
Luc sank his teeth into the past.
Luc spectated memories, observed the flow of spacetime and the passage of those sanguine rushes of past lives within. From a silent seat, the warrior bore witness to the river of his heart’s progression, the swells of love’s embrace and the ebbing tides of entropy atop peaks of ageless Time. His time. An everlasting duration awaited. Beyond physicality, beyond imagining. But sooner, Luc returned to the breath, shaking away infinity.
Atop his tower, the warrior-philosopher meditated as the day receded. This would be his final night before returning to the road.
Sitting in the chasms of mind, he could freely relive his own moments of triumph and of sorrow, in calculating and despairing detail. His mind raced alongside dusk’s turn to eventide falling through the towers of his keep and along the stone crevices of his seat here high among the cloudform. Rising hearts and falling blades resided in the reminiscence; most of his best memories were full of blood. This troubled him from time to time. Until he evoked the duty of his profession.
No, it was my vocation. One nearing its ending…
He pulled himself from the chaos of his reverie and back to reality. Luc opened his eyes wide to view the space of his keep. Its spaces resembled a prison; just him, the stone, a small working desk. He found himself drawn to the Sun’s light finding its way onto the simple stone flooring where he sat in repose. A peaceless one, ever restless in his work. He waited a breath, staring at the reddening of his space, until the time came for the light to warm his very own presence. Upon it reaching him, he stood with speed and turned back to the cold shadows, back to his work.
Luc looked upon the scene of his desk before him. Tomes, parchment, maps, sketches, theories, knowledge. Pathways to justice. Intel he’d gathered for his latest venture. Last?
Perhaps, one of true finality. Intent to use the fading light, he sat down behind the compilation, placing his feet firmly on the floor in preparation. He steepled his fingers and considered the implications of his crucial next moves. The words of a recent meeting spawned themselves into his mind.
Amidst the contemplations, on instinct, the Slayer reached out to grip his glass at the end of the desk, bring it to his lips. Red wine.
The old man spoke with resolve:
“Luc, you know I would never come to you with this unless-“
“You were sure. Yeah,” Luc sighed and stared resolutely at Olivar. White stubble crowned the edges of his bald scalp. Wearing a beard trimmed for more than counsel, Luc had to admit to himself that the old man had changed. Age touched his features more desperately now, as though aeons had passed since he’d seen him last. But the old man still carried that fire in his eyes. Luc found, today, that he couldn’t quite match it.
“I’ve always trusted you Olivar, no reason to change now,” Luc continued. He looked away, to the emptiness of the inn around them. Dawn peaked through the windows at the east entrance, starting to emblazon their conversation with a brightening aura. Olivar was practically a father to him. Even more than that. A mentor and a paragon. A friend.
“We’ve been through hell, you and I,” Luc breathed and closed his eyes, helplessly reminiscing on past conversations they had held, past battles they had fought, past judgments they had cast about in their dark world, one of their own choosing. And one now hopefully turning a corner. It did so, Luc sincerely believed, due in no small part to their own painstaking efforts. And sacrifices.
“We’re both marks for justice, Luc. Its hunt and its execution,” Olivar stated.
Luc smirked at that sentiment. Their time was waning, but not yet at its end. Mentor always held higher hopes, even from the beginning, Luc reminded himself. In a reversal of everything he knew from history, from story – he was the cynic while his elder was the idealist.
“It’s just…” Luc averted his eyes from the old man, unable to finish the thought. Olivar stared at him hard, struggling to interject as his student meandered through his thoughts. This meeting alone had already said much, their reunion. Give him time, walk him through, Olivar’s eyes said.
“I know, son… It’s been a long journey. But this is it. I am certain. A rarity, even for me,” Olivar chuckled. Luc shot some air from his nose, but held on to his doubts, his dawning melancholia. “To be here now, at the end of their line, the end of this darkness. Unfathomable, a dream,” Olivar rasped, trying his best to articulate his aspirations upon the subject. He reached out to Luc across the table, placing his hand over his fidgeting fingers. Some kind of meaning carried in the motion, something neither of them could name. They missed each other; they missed working together, these conversations. The realization came slowly and incompletely. But it was there.
Leaning back, removing his hands from the table, Luc responded, “It is too good to be true. Another false lead. Or worse, a trap.”
Olivar hooted a laugh. “Every single one was a trap, son. We deal in traps. That’s why we have to be the best.”
Luc rolled his eyes. The old man misunderstood him. By trap he meant ‘certain death.’ And for as long as they’d worked, they’d been lucky enough to avoid that.
“We have to practice good judgment, old man. It doesn’t matter if we are excited. If this may be the last…”
“His Source was recovered in three entirely separate broods, all tracing back to the same locale. They admitted it to our … my agents … it is no coincidence. They all lead to this Castle, the chances of -“
“It’s not the location Olivar. It’s the… last. The last one,” Luc explained simply. “It cannot be.”
Olivar simply nodded, sighing himself. There it is. Sooner you come to terms with it, the better, Olivar thought. Our life’s work is before us, son, ready to consummated.
“Are you not up to it?” Olivar asked with a light tone, edging him toward an outburst.
To his surprise, Luc did not respond, just kept staring out the window, to the dawn.
“It’s true. We haven’t identified a Master in some time, let alone dealt with one,” Olivar brought his hands back together, steepling his fingers in familiar contemplation. “We’ve toiled with the last bastions of Consanguinity… blasted church spread like wildfire throughout the Marches. We’ve hunted the kindred, throughout. The outsiders, too. Hounded broodmothers, meddled with ghasts, hawked the last of the spectres. It’s been good work. Enough for the late stages. But…” Olivar looked up to Luc. The young warrior was still away, in mind and in eye.
“We knew this day would come. Eventually. We have to embrace it. The responsibility.”
Olivar continued when Luc gave him nothing.
“Undoubtedly, you are the most prolific slayer in modern history,” Olivar said. Emotionless yet convicted, he spoke into Luc’s chest. “You have earned a rest from this brutality, son. A retirement, if you asked me. But now we come to this, what we have worked so hard for. What we have lost so many for.” Olivar paused. Both of them gave a moment to the dead.
“And we both know you are the only one that can end it. You deserve it. They deserve your blade!” Olivar proclaimed confidently.
There was an interminable silence between the two men.
“… It cannot be,” Luc breathed coolly, returning to his refrain. He looked down at his own hands, flexing his fingers without conviction, gritting his teeth until they pained him.
Olivar stared at him for a spell, scrutinizing his apprentice that had long since surpassed him. He slowly nodded. “I understand, son. It’s difficult. To comprehend, to get to the bottom of. I never suspected you’d tire of it. When you devote yourself to something, it becomes your identity, the action becomes a part of you. And this part of you, well, doesn’t want it to end because then it cannot itself go on existing. I don’t doubt your commitment to the righteous path. This loss even amidst triumph… this type of feeling is entirely logical now. I simply ask you to follow your heart, let it flow you towards this destiny.”
Olivar ended his speech with his right elbow on the center of the table, his hand up and outstretched before him. He grinned and his silver eyes met Luc’s own.
“And son, what lies within your heart mirrors my own. Let me help you this one last time. Let us end this dark chapter.”
Olivar’s countenance was sincere with hope. His hand awaited.
Luc closed his eyes, turned back, half-smiled. With gusto, he swung his right hand to clasp Olivar’s embrace, their silver, meta-infused eyes meeting one last time.
“Let’s get started old man.”
He looked down at the sketch in his hands one more time. It outlined the general exterior of the Castle. Some of its interiority had been sketched, too, from the memories of mad travelers and turned broodmates. But, as always, painfully incomplete. Nothing new… Luc mumbled.
He kept on the road, the crisp wind from the surrounding forest spurred his steps onward.
Going in blind, Luc understood it would be treacherous. There were any number of ways for a person to die in a place like this. And there was no telling how much it had changed since its new occupation. Years of royal usage past now roiled in with the darkened passages of blood feasts and unfathomed plots unconsummated. The cruelty and arrogance of tyrannical rulership was replaced with an only slightly different kind. But there was no doubt, a part of him dreaded what awaited within the shadows of this damned fortress.
The armor on his shoulders, though weighted with strips of silver to spell the leather, gifted him an odd peace. Many months since he’d donned it, since he’d drawn the silver longsword clanging by his side for any but the dummies in his tower. To be out here again, in the wilderness of a hunt, was a dream. Luc grinned to himself, mind light with imaginings.
His role as hunter was a stark reversal of their species’ respective evolutionary fates. The odds would always be stacked against him. Thus, preparation was everything. When darkness fell, it became their world. You were the invader; life was the outsider. A career of effectiveness, a warrior of countless battles, years of training before that under the harshest conditions – these were the only tools he could parry and riposte with in the fight against this lightless realm, death’s latest hearth. He hoped it to be its final.
Luc looked up at the paintings on the walls of his mind. Scores of historical texts and first-hand accounts libraried the shelves he had memorized. His body, charged with muscle memories from the ancients of some of these books, went back to his armory, to blade techs and dodge rolls from out of the crucible of his practice circle. Each aspect was integral. An experiential singularity of mind and body in tandem. The meditations were for this: envisioning victory, practicing at it, on the boring parts of the journey.
If he wanted to keep his Source, the blood flowing in his own frame, Luc would need to spectate every single memory, every bit of knowledge, every lesson and failure. Victory hinged on him witnessing and reliving every battle, every defeat, every loss, every drop of blood, every moment of his own life’s history.
Olivar would never allow this, he would rage against the decision and speak of dire consequence, of mania and of conscientiousness. To do it on the road is madness! Needlessly dangerous. Sacrilegious. Luc could hear the old man. But he wasn’t here and Luc no longer needed his counsel.
Before God, he intended to master himself. Luc would leave nothing to chance. His body remembered more of the Truth, it was his mind which required the anamnesis.
As Luc’s body walked the road to his destination, to the Castle which housed his life’s nightmarish finale, his mind entered the Void.
Luc awoke to a long forgotten but familiar feeling. He used to suffer from bouts of it, this feeling, in his childhood. It even creeped into his adolescence before being relinquished with the help of some guidance at the hands of OIivar, in those earliest days. Feels like an eternity ago.
But now, here on the road, parts of him back in his keep, others parts far away in realms of memory and fantasy, he touched the ground but couldn’t stand. His body kept its pace on the road while his mind screamed with immobilizing revelation. He was a man with mind spread through the whole expanse, of time and space, of heart and soul…
Along a windswept road in the heart of a burgeoning valley, Luc stumbled through.
After hours amidst his own meditative reality, it all returned with impact. It only lasted what felt like a moment, but the memory burned and bored into his consciousness. It hurt worse than any blood letted within his reveries from decades of mortal contest. It was a fleeting perception of injustice within his own mind. An unconscionable invasion of self. He could sense an outsider, a shadow on the wall of his mind which scrutinized and judged, with heinous perspective, from an unassailable yet nearing place. It was something outside of reach and infinitely damnable to his psyche. He saw it standing, watching, understanding. Every single moment from his life he had viewed and learned from, with clarion intention, was now its own to wield.
After overcoming it, Luc stood with resolve. He’d stopped in the road. Twilight captured another day of travel. He turned his head with effort, looked to the nearing break of dawn. His other self, back in the palace of his mind, walked slowly over to the lone skylighted aperture in the highest tower of his keep. Gazing at the prominence of the rays peaking through the mountains and the cloudform, he considered the trek before him. The finality of it energizes me. The last of them will fall.
Smiling in new solace, Luc was ready. He walked eager and upright, hand swinging easily on the crucifix hilt of his sheathed sword.
Fresh strides swept along the well-worn path. Luc proceeded to his destination with a vigor now awoken from a long dormancy. He was hunting but it was impossible not to reminisce. Despite its used appearance, Luc knew he was likely the first living soul to take this route in centuries. In a former era, it represented the mobility of progress. This road was The Road. A bastion for commerce in the last dynasties of Korneiman & Loris. After Three Wars, the Golden Age fell away to become a lost kingdom. He was headed now to the remnants, to the Castle where God had deemed Man strong, and then wrong, over two twin eras of war and persecution and transformation.
Clear blue skies fell over the hills. Rolling forests marked the gold road as a separation. The path of stones and wildflowers brushed against his boots. Midday chirps from birdlings sang his journey into a realization that one thousand nights in his keep could not touch. Luc clapped his hands together.
In the heartland of the sinewy locus of the darkest power, this place was one with as much history as any in the world. Formerly, in stark contrast to the conflict and chaos of future events, it was out of this castle that the ordered hands of benevolence formerly reached to the Outland communities, to the least of the world, to bring them up and to save those they could. Reading about King Xavier as a boy, Luc truly learned to believe in Man. Growing up, those stories guided him. And now, he was crossing the thresholds of this road, leading from out a dream, into nightmare. And back again? he asked, himself, Olivar, all of his fallen fellows…
The realm of blood sprawled to where no Man ever ventured.
Some scripture returned to mind then. I venture here now, to expel the blood.
It was a bittersweet feeling, yet another melding of memory and reality for him. He quickened the pace and calmly palmed his longsword as biting winds and colder tidings coursed into the seams of his armor. Clouds gathered to spar with the blue. The resulting chill was unnaturally predatory.
Despite a world of experience, Luc had a hard time imagining the machinations of the abominations lurking in the surrounding woodlands. He was on foot because no horse could carry itself through this place. Luc was growing tired but not exhausted. The bulk of his armor was well-carried. Back in shape for this, the Slayer found his third wind, out of necessity.
He wore his signature silver masterwork, hand-crafted and runed by the great Pangon Pavex himself. The plates provided heavy silver aegis but were magically lightened and spaced for maximum maneuverability. Luc carried his favored longsword, Feint, a red dagger and small crossbow. This mission called for it. Despite his armory, Olivar had long ago trained him to be “fully armed” carrying just himself into danger. The blades weren’t his only weapons. Out of practice for a while now, it was yet true that the endurance, the muscle memory of this training, never ever left him.
The fading suns’ glow on the horizon provided his final reminder of the day’s providence. Might it be my final sunset, Luc mused cynically, to amuse himself. In his profession, thoughts of his own mortality were unavoidable. He believed part of what made him so effective in all these years, outside of his insatiable competitiveness driving him to greater and greater feats, was his sincere fear. He held fear of his own life course in the highest regard, in bearing witness to horror and atrocity at the hands of unnameable monstrosities, it wracked him to consider the effects on his psyche. The fear of his own inevitably violent death drove him to find ways to survive ordeals that would fell lesser men. Without his fear, complacency and likely an untimely end, would have landed upon him years ago.
In the earliest days, before he truly cared for his own wellbeing or respected the audacity of an opponent’s courage, he had felled 22 men and 1 spectre on the killing fields of Ulduin.
He led the vanguard at Ywenvec’s Pass. Smashed through the walls of Brigand’s Keep in the bloodiest siege in recorded history.
He dueled Wawrick Wrendelmar to the death at the formerly impossible precipice of Mount Gorgun.
In The Court of Muusid, he had tricked a Hate-Lord into granting him a final ‘harmless’ request, and with it he had forged a device that could kill with one well-placed flick, allowing him to narrowly escape.
He led the coup to overthrow the secret council of hagmothers waging their shadow war in Caelafon.
He was the one responsible for quietly assassinating “The King Of Madness”; he had never told anyone, not even Olivar. And no one had ever been able to find that arrow’s bow.
He was there when the blood flowed into The Temple Horax, a coincidence. Wrong place at the wrong time. It was there he witnessed the birth of his world’s coming fate.
From there, They descended upon the world with no favor to one land over the other. Rebirthed from ancient Time, they swept through humanity in a roil of blood and madness, feeding and spreading and damning all of Mankind into an eternally defensive posture for the coming Age.
Luc lost his baby sister in his first encounter with one. He lost his town to the Source not long after he returned from a war he no longer believed in. The brood murdered and assumed his enclave; he only lived from the sleights of a nuanced cowardice. In those days, he was always escaping, running away from certain death.
After the traumas and tribulations shook the civilized world into newfound awareness, he and Olivar sacrificed much to learn about them. Exiled and borne in a savage, deprived wilderness, they became self-made Slayers. They forged alliances, brokered peaces in the name of ‘greater good’ among Nere settlements and Outlanders and the Shining Forces of the North to combat their spreading darkness. The human world only took their existential threat seriously after the masses of blood were already flowing. Many of their followers paid the ultimate price to further the cause; Luc and Olivar felt every loss.
Until he didn’t anymore, because he had to forget to go on.
Luc breathed in deep the air from the road, becoming colder every step he came closer to the Castle.
Luc liked to believe only his innate ability, his intelligence, his willpower had granted him this history, still breathing and reflecting. But he knew the truth likely lay somewhere between extreme luck and something like a benevolent hand of God reaching down and directing his blade’s course, time and time again. He gave no thanks to such a being.
The truth was he discovered the method for killing them; he invented the art of the hunt. Olivar and he were the very first Slayers. And then, decades on, he had killed the last Broodmother, his very own sister, violently taken so many years before, at the Tower of Consanct, in the twilight of the final battle of the Blood War.
Alpha and omega, first and last. At the beginning and the end, a Slayer.
And now, Luc would be the hand to rid the world of the last of these soulless blood demons. His commitment to this path encompassed the whole of his life. More often than he would admit, Luc’s deliberations fell to his motivation. Why do I strive so ardently for the extinction of an entire species, however monstrous they are, by my hand? Are they any more monstrous than we are? Who can be the arbiter of which of us deserve to live? The answer was never clear; he did not believe it to be his question.
Olivar made the distinction simply: We fight for ourselves. He made other commentary, too: They live in the night, we live in the day. Which do you think deserves to live, son: Life. Or death?
He put the thoughts away.
Luc halted his strides. He gazed at the Sun’s falling path behind the structure. Colder winds cut him. The rays were soon engulfed by the black crenellations. ‘Sunset at the Castle’, he titled the vision before him. These walls and towers, stones and bones – these were the tendrils making up the final bastion of singular evil. The fortress backdropped against the dusk of Luc’s journey and the dawn of his last hunt.
A castle, seemingly afloat in an ocean of air, affixed itself to standing rocks, mini streams of mountainside which surrounded and wove between the levels of the ancient, manmade structure. Altogether, it rose amid a gorge. A stone bridge extended out before him. The end of the road met it and led on. This mix of nature and construction, untraveled and untested, was full of something more than the unlife that presided here. At the edges of the surrounding cliff side, the dark woodland spectators to the central obscenity – the trees – fell off into the abyss. They stretched, vertically growing and hanging off the gorge’s interiority, prickling into the canyon’s moat of open wind. Luc respected the will of life in a place like this. A place of its opposite.
Here he was. The edge of the forest, the edge of the road, the edge of peace.
The slayer surveyed the scene minutely, taking in the geography and the nature of this place. It would become the site for the awakening of a new destiny for him, for Mankind. We are coming out of the shadow now, father… The dark reflection of the fortress’ material welled into his silver eyes and he lost himself for a moment in the awe of the architecture. The moon beckoned itself into view behind the sharp fingers of the castle’s skyward reach. Bright and glowering, the moon further revealed the world.
Behind him, forms appeared. Luc slowly turned, drawing Feint from its scabbard.
On the road to his back, wolves encroached. Four dires, large and on the defensive. Grey coats of fur shimmered in the wind from the tight treepaths in their wake. One led the way with steel determination, the other three just behind and bearing teeth. Luc closed his eyes with a silent curse, he sincerely wished to avoid any violence on creatures such as this. Just outside the castle walls, might they be enthralled?
He opened his eyes wide from the sound and instinct of a death-charge. The wolf leapt with chomping maw. Like a flash, Luc drew his longsword to murder for the first time in years. It cleanly severed the wolf upon collision. Its grey bulk collapsed on either side of him. Sword extended now behind him, soaked in wolf’s blood, Luc had his left hand grip the sheath to balance him. With a certain degree of regret, he stood unharmed, unwavering. The silver blade’s touch burned the fur behind him. He listened to its sizzle and watched the three other beasts still circling.
They growled unblinking. Luc spun the blade on the axis of his capable hands and widened his stance, inviting them to the fray. Barking and stepping back and forth, just before their charge, a larger form emerged from within the dark of the trees. A great white direwolf, the alpha. Almost doubly sized, with scars covering its hardened body, she stepped directly into the space between Luc and the pack.
Pacing, she stared directly into him. Only a single eye. The other eye is hollow, a gaping silver scar crossed over its path. The other wolves no longer mill behind, and instead sit in silence. The beast’s face is stoic. No teeth, no predatory intention emanated from its gaze, only movement. Luc measured its dance. He noted a limit to its respect. She approached but could not pass an invisible line. Incapable or simply not wishing to, the alpha paced at the edge of its path, not looking upon him but past him.
Might their attack just be a warning? They’d be tracking me along the road for some time, and they emerge only when they’d confirmed my intention to cross the bridge, enter the castle… They too mark the structure as a threat to their land.
Luc kept his sword drawn but lowered it to the earth. The trio of lesser wolves dissipated back into the wilds. The white wolf remained, perched with features focused upon him. Wind whipping through its fur Luc sensed an ancient, tremendous willpower. On a hunch, Luc stepped back with a small bow and flung his sword deftly back into its sheath. Detecting her newly appraised wish, Luc turned his back on the beast and started across the bridgeway toward the castle.
As he crossed the stone passage, the open air on either side beckoning a cold fall into abyss, Luc looked back frequently. There on the road, the white wolf stayed, watching him. She watched him reach the prime threshold, as the sun’s light fully faded from the world. And then, with swift motions, she retreated her grand form back into the forest.
The Castle loomed; the gated threshold presented as a grand entrance. Walls and ramparts spread, checkered uniformly by crenellations and towers. This was a structure built to resist a siege, to stand for aeons, to be unassailable and eternal. Among the fingered towers, pointed like needles or claws, a singular one rose above them all. From there, the King, Emperor, Master could oversee his domain, all its glories and all its threats. From there, one could sight the vanguard, or cast down a traitor with cloak and dagger at your back.
The castle walls and crenels were seemingly unmarred by time. Thousands of years carried inside of these stones. This was a place untouched, or undamaged, by war. Luc did not know the details of its time in this world, but nevertheless understood the truth of its inhabitants:
A home is only ever as strong as its protectors.
Luc paused to focus on the tower’s peak. He watched for any gleam, any crimson glare that may be shooting out from it.
Nothing sourced there.
Luc approached the gate’s threshold, feeling his age for the first time on the journey. The total darkness of night beckoning, some of his confidence diminished. His mortality weighed on him.
To his surprise, there was no door of wood and steel. Just darkness. The threshold was shrouded in it, but seemingly open. Likely an illusion and only to human eyes. He’d only see what lay within after he passed through. Luc summoned his courage and reviewed the knowns of his mission one last time:
The last of their monstrous kind resided within this Castle; gender unknown; likely a Master, potentially a Broodmother; it was traced here from ghasts carrying the final known Source blood.
Olivar and his agent killed the ghasts, burned them and sanctified their brooding grounds. And so… this was it. Within, the final carrier of their great and terrible disease perhaps plotted further reaches into the realm, to spread itself back among humanity, to create a partner and begin the cycles over again. A fresh Age of Blood.
That was precisely what Luc was here to prevent.
Breath held in tense preparation for dodging and death-dealing, Luc walked through the dark shroud of the castle. To Luc, this felt like a dream. For what felt like much longer than it was, the Slayer lurched through the impenetrably dark shroud, one leg after another, hand white-knuckling his sword hilt. At last, slowed and near blind, he stepped through the entrance hall and a dimly lit clearing. Small, still-burning candles revealed ancient furnishings, tables and chairs, webbed and broken. Above, a the skeleton of a chandelier shadowed the grey carpet on the stone floor. Four passages beckoned from this main, along with a grand stairwell up.
Dead ahead, at the base of the wide stairs, two halls led to rows of chambers. Moonlight streamed through their open doors and into the hall. Silence and the musk of age and earth filled Luc’s senses. A constant foreboding, expected but hazardous nonetheless, captured his psyche then. Blinking away the feelings, Luc stepped into the center of the castle’s main array with hand on hilt of sword and crossbow.
Might have only a moment to respond to an ambush… If He was here, in the entrance and not up in the tower. Nothing was impossible with them. From here on, Luc could not afford to lose focus for even a moment.
Cognizant of his body and weapons, he stalked his way carefully. The passage to his left was a closed double door, with milky glass panes revealing a library or study within. Candles burning inside showed shelves and a desk. To his right was an open air pathway, an extended balcony for a garden that had died long ago. Luc crouched and ran his fingers against the walls and floor. Layers of dust fell upon an unmarked floor. Untouched for long, but not aeons. There were inhabitants here.
Luc circled back to the base of the stairs, intending to inspect the carpet draped over them for stains or prints. There, he saw the the stairs split along their center. The throne lay at their base. Somehow, some way, he hadn’t seen it before. Might the dark being playing tricks on me? Illusions were common in their keeps. No… I should’ve… Luc walked up to it, eyes drawn to the seat of ancient power, now empty. Directly above it was stamped the Sigil of Xavier. A crossing of two swords, facing down, with a rose intertwining them. A holy symbol, from the old King’s reign centuries before the Age of Blood. Before tyranny sourced from monsters and threatened Man with extinction.
Luc’s fingers found the edge of the throne’s arm. He ran them across delicately. Truly, this place had stood the test of time. Lesser men and further dynasties, all of them pale to Xavier’s run. A paragon, Luc thought. Olivar always tried to temper his admirations for the old King of myth.
He wasn’t half the man the tales tell; and even so, he was a King – a holder of absolute power. ‘Good’ or not, he was one that the ideal of democracy intended to slay. His position marked him and his kin for a perpetual tyranny. Xavier is a man to understand, not a man to emulate…
Luc scoffed. Making the sign of the cross over his heart, he whispered a quick prayer to King Xavier and kept on his track. His hand left an imprint on the gold pommel of the chair, some dust blowing away. He stepped up the first of the stairs behind the throne. A sound sourced from the balcony, a fall and a crash, of stone upon stone. Luc drew Feint and walked toward the disturbance with senses flaring and body primed for mortal combat.
Under the stone interior of the castle, the open air of the balcony revealed a courtyard garden, now just pots shorn of their plants. Luc moved with caution, sword up and gleaming in the moonlight, crossbow out and aiming. He stared over the arrays of stone, silently considering the former beauty of the garden in its heyday long past. A walkway where the King could forget his duties for a spell and walk into the Sun’s embrace. Such sentiments were gone from this place for a thousand thousand years. And yet, here it is still and I walk along it… Where Xavier walked.
Dead grass gnarled around his boots, weeds split the stone and grew into grasping vines. The cold night air fell in from the absent ceiling. The balcony spread to a broken edge over the gorge; the moon, half-covered by fast moving clouds, revealed a silhouette at that chipped precipice. Luc approached it.
Wind filtered down and sifted through his cloak and armor. The chill straightened Luc and sped him toward the figure. A humanoid, it stood on the edge of the courtyard’s landing, back to him. It faced the drop off into the abyss, only a step between it and the end of the castle’s ground. Unmoving, Luc watched it. Her. Long, white hair flowed off a naked back. Grey skin, pitted with wounds. The smell of rot carried itself through the air. Two steps away.
This is not Him…
The woman turned back to him. Two white orbs glowed with featureless menace.
But she can still see through those eyes!
The ghast rushed the Slayer with murder on its mind. Luc stepped forward too, flourishing Feint with the intent to put down the thrall as quickly as possible. She raised her hands to attack; her torso was shredded and falling apart, skin and hair and hollowed out bones collapsed onto the stone at their feet. Dropping his crossbow to do the work, Luc flashed Feint right to left with both hands gripping. Both arms, along with half the creature’s head, fell away, cleanly severed by the silver sword. In the same motion, as it began to fell toward him, Luc kicked his left leg into her emptying gut, forcefully launching the thrall off the balcony and into the abyss.
“Where you belong,” Luc spat. The arms and half-head were already dust, sizzling in the night air. He kicked the debris through the pillar guards and into the dark, too.
Well, He knows I am here now… So much for the element of surprise.
Olivar’s voice chimed into mind, then, deprecatingly: You never once surprised one of them.
After a breath at the balcony’s edge, a glare into the cold abyss below, Luc turned back around. Instantly, he cursed the failure of his instincts. Behind him stood more than a dozen pairs of glaring whites belonging to rotting frames of hungry, hateful, mindless flesh. In the same glimpse, Luc’s eyes widened, his breathing became short, his knuckles whitened around the crucifix. A mix of panic and thrill charged into his blood. The regiment of thralls charged with shrill, otherworldly screams.
Luc focused his moves efficiently, leg and sword back with pent up strength for the vanguard wave. The edge of his boot heel touched down upon air, unbalancing him for a moment, gravity inviting him into the long dark fall. With a grunting battle cry, Luc sprung himself forward like a pendulum, sword swinging around to meet his foe. He cut it down, shoulder to hip, his full leverage spent in the endeavor; its velocity launched its shredded remains around him and into the canyon shade. Just behind it, another leapt, airborne with longer fangs and claws that already touched his shoulder plates. Another screaming cut came from below, where his previous slash ended. From the ribs to center skull, Feint cut through the thrall like butter. Luc used his off-hand to shove its suddenly inert meat into the abyss at his back while a third biter crouched into view.
Tossing Feint into his off-hand, Luc raised his left gauntlet up to fire holy-soaked bolts into the bastard’s face. A small projectile launcher was stitched into the lining of each gauntlet; his aim was better with his left. Each bolt exploded in small fiery fury upon the unholy creature. It shrieked in pain but not for long. As its head fell apart, its retreat momentarily blocking the second wave of creatures, Luc used the reprieve to wade into melee with the next three just behind it.
If He is watching, I might as well put on a show for him!
Luc spun Feint into slashing rotations, cutting arms and legs in the same journeys. He moved past two more kills and to a third, cutting a small man’s hands off before they could so much as palm his shining armor. The next cut took its head while Luc grabbed its wisps of hair and held the fast-dissolving skull in hand. He threw it into the face of the next, where it exploded into dust and viscera. Luc shoved Feint into its heart in the confusion. Or at least, the place where its heart usd to be.
Luc found himself grinning, at the edge of a hysterical laugh, while six more flesh-eating abominations circled him and started to move in.
“I forgot how much fun this was!” the Slayer screamed into the night air.
Twirling Feint with his capable, muscle-memoried fingers, Luc drew his dagger from the back of his belt. Diving into a whirlwind of violence, he heard his voice echo through the canyon walls as the ghasts were cut into oblivion with his holy sword in right and crimson dagger stenching of Source in left. Scents of burning flesh and rotten ash filled the garden courtyard. Slashing broad strokes across the upper bodies, he worked the dagger to defend the back ends and weak sides of his maneuvers. One, two, three were taken apart by the silver gleam in the night before any meat hit the blackened roots on the ground. Four more pairs of claws fell in place of their fallen mates.
Have to be half through… Luc hoped. In the chaos, of glowing eyes and reaching arms, he could not be sure.
Luc jumped up and away from them, not enough time to present his blades as defense. The smile fell from his face as he pranced over the stone holdings, formerly housing orchids or maybe roses. He swung Feint down to bat away hands and cut at skulls. No kills, not enough force, the angle all wrong. A final step upon the stone enclosure that kept him above the din of the thralls, shattered. And he fell. The thralls descended upon him with more eager shrieks and scratching claws than before. Fearlessly, they let one arm be severed for the sake of the other clutching some Slayer flesh, between the plates, through the leather.
Luc grunted as his cloak was shredded. He kicked with abandon to free himself. On his arms, legs, torso, dozens of small wounds opened at the edge of the ghast’s nails and teeth. He felt the blood began to flow. In the chaos, as he tried to get up from their pile on, Luc looked through the furious motion, beyond his own frantic hands’ working to cut away the horrible flesh, to the full moon above. Freed from all clouds, its glory reflected off his unblinking eyes. He kept his gaze there as his body moved automatically, defending itself, cutting and killing his foes in a flow of survival. Soon the stars about the moon came into being for him; those constellations, as Olivar imagined them, as they built them together, transcended anything his dreams ever offered…
This scene, this transient beauty, was soon interrupted by a dessicated demonic face with sharpened teeth and soulless eyes bent on nothing more than feasting carnage. Its flesh laying on his, its body burning away upon the mithral, aegis glyphs cutting through its undeath, its insane mission went unceasing in pursuit of what layer under that armor. Until Luc reversed the grip on his dagger and weaved it through the pieces of body, dead or falling away, to shove it under the jaw of the creature. The Slayer screamed right back into its face, more than matching its ferocity.
Slicing with Feint to finally allow an opening, Luc rolled away with the thing’s head still attached to his blade. Its eyes more lifeless than before, against his better judgment, Luc stood up and used the dagger’s innate power to draw its animus into his own body. Though slight from this source, he felt some of his wounds begin to heal. The skull drifted into dust off his blade.
Three more thralls raised themselves from the pile of burning and dissolving bodies he left in his wake.
“Let’s end this already…” Luc whispered, wearied from the fight.
Keeping his footwork in mind, the warrior stepped between the two’s lurching attacks from the outsides and crouched down to deliver an uppercut slash to the central foe, from the groin to the top of its head. He dodged further to his right and shoved the dagger into the temple of one while slashing outward with Feint at the other. All three fell in a heap around him, his body misted in their unearthly ash. Luc shook himself, breathed out the cool air and let his eyes study the courtyard for any remainder.
When he saw none, the Slayer walked to the edge of balcony where the jagged stone fell into the deep dark. With one last look into it, then at the moon, Luc sheathed his weapons, retrieved his fallen crossbow, and walked back into the castle’s interiority.
Luc returned to the throne. The unexpected battle wearied him. But he was surprised at how it all came back to him after so long out of practice. The memory in his muscles, the dance of the blades spinning around his core, the inexorable will to survive. The juices flowed now. He looked up the stairwell. Dull red carpet draped over the steps curving up and away.
I am more than ready now.
Beginning the journey up, Luc touched the crucifix hilt again and pondered the significance of the encounter. That many thralls confirmed it: they were dealing with a Master. One of significant power. The peak tyrant, a demigod. He and Olivar’s most costly battles were always Masters; it was Masters that allowed for their collective threat to become extinctive. They built armies of thralls, created ghasts, attracted the favor of night creatures far and wide.
Where had these Men come from? Were they bodies from the crypts? Or was this Master ranging into the Outlands to gather his servants?
Mindlessness made their usefulness questionable. A possible answer was that they were leftovers, basement dwellers from the previous Master. And the being here now was a lesser descendant. Maybe. But Luc could not deny their attack featured some tactics, a higher understanding of battle and of how to swarm and slip their claws beneath his armor. Master’s had the ability to commune with their thralls, see through their eyes and direct their movements with precision.
Continue the work with the theory that it’s Master. He directed the thralls, he knows I am here.
Luc spiraled around the stairs, step by step. Sconces with candlelight peppered the passage. Soon, a groaning echoed. From above. Luc came to an opening. He stopped and waited. More weak groans surfaced from out of the darkness. He drew Feint; a dim but constant and piercing grey light emanated from it. He led the way into the side passage off the stairs with his blade.
A cramped hall led into a larger room. It was dark enough to hide away the next two steps away, so Luc walked cautiously, in a crouch, ready for a beast of the night to lurch out of at him. He emerged from the end of the confined hall into a larger space. Moonlight through stained glass emanated a vision of the room.
Rows of pews faced a pedestal and a wall with holy fixtures on it. Luc stepped into the passage between. The smell of blood permeated. Fetid air repressed his psyche. He felt a great weight upon his shoulders, the air was thick. He found himself having to use the strength of his body to keep his steps moving forward, toward the pedestal and the cross. The triumph from his previous fight, the progress he felt, it waned. He sidestepped around the pedestal, an omen book of sewn flesh opened upon it halfways.
I’ve felt this before…
Something was on the cross. Something inhuman. It was groaning weakly. It came into view the closer he stepped. For the first time, Luc noted the crimson aura. The stained glass was pure red, and the light filtering in was getting redder and redder. He shuts his eyes fast and reopened them, hoping to dispel any nasty illusions. The room was even redder. Every step he took toward the thing on the wall made his mind sicker and his body heavier. Bile raised in his throat. He spit it on the ground, keeping his eyes peeled all the time. With a trembling hand, Luc raised Feint to get a better look, directing the only good light in the room toward his quarry.
A body of spikes and cuts wriggled there on the crucifix. Humanoid, but off. Black eyes with snow white pupils stared up at him. The blasted creature frowned. No, it was smiling… For the first time, Luc realized the cross was upside down; the creature – this daemon – was affixed to it, arms and legs nailed to it and bleeding. Bleeding profusely, a steady stream fell from its two hands, another down its legs and off the cross in a cascading drip. Another groan, then a voice made of sludge, breath of sulfur blowing, spoke to him in spurts,
“Mortal. Fool. Food.”
Luc raised Feint with what little strength he felt he had. He intended to decapitate the daemon post-haste. An aura of dread and hopelessness buffeted him. His knees wobble and clanged together. Luc nearly toppled over, eyes in the back of his head. The clang of Feint hitting the stone made him wince.
The daemon cackled and coughed, thick red and black blood pouring from its mouth and nose. All the blood from it pooled onto the ground below the cross and drained into rivulets leading unto one grand gutter the length of the chapel’s space. Luc shook his head, tried to contemplate the significance of this setup. He reached down to pick up his fallen sword, and then found himself seated.
“You willingly… walked into Hell… hehehe…”
The daemon taunted him. Rage boiled inside him now. A daemon. Its presence went beyond evil. He and Olivar had only ever read about them. They were manifestations of sin. Not of our world, unlike the creatures they were tasked with slaying. Never quite in our world, either. They influenced it from outside. Through walls from alternate zones of experience, other dimensions and such. Luc never paid them much heed…
Something in his gut told Luc this was one on the cross laying upside down here before him.
Speaking to him. Bleeding into the gutters of this chapel. As he drew his eyes back to the thing, he was barfing onto the floor. The daemon laughed the louder, then seized itself in apparent pain.
With a long drawn “AAAAAAaaaaaa!”, the thing barfed a fresh gout of blood into the ground with maw wide, sharp translucent teeth revealed, many-rowed, some of them falling into the wave of crimson.
Luc tried to look away, to hum to drown out the sounds, to close his nostrils. None of it worked. The thing barked at him, anger in its tone now.
“My endless death … feeds Him. He is … stronger than any that have come before… As strong as you are weak right now…”
Its voice was like Death. Luc found himself sobbing uncontrollably, rocking in his seat amidst the blood and vomit splatter now pooling itself into a continuous river, down and away. He clutched for his sword hilt, for the crucifix, but found it continuously out of his reach.
“You… are the first mortal … to see me. Con… gratulations…”
Blood from its gums flapping spattered onto him. Luc searched his heart for the reason why he’d come here… For why he was in so much pain… For why he was talking to the Devil… Its eyes searched him up and down, devouring with a glance, drinking his essence away with every gratuitous blink.
Luc felt his stomach fill with pain, his head pounded, every bone in his body felt set to burst.
So this is how I die… came the thought, calmly, with acceptance…
Then it all went away. The pleasure from the seizure of the pain, the sudden clarity of his position, nearly made Luc faint.
The daemon’s voice again. Its eyes were pleading, fixed on his face. He lurched away a few paces.
“Free me! … And I can help!!” the daemon coaxed, his lips dripping red, its teeth now concealed. Luc saw its hands and feet, clawed and oversized, flutter at the ends of the cross.
“He trapped me… Brought me … into this world, in the flesh… to become his pig… Free me and we… can kill him together…”
Luc shook his head, only hearing every other word. Every ounce of training within his mind and body had him lunge toward his sword to retrieve it. He did so. A shock of pain rattled his body.
“You won’t need that… little one.” The daemon’s eyes flashed to the pedestal. The book, the color of flesh, its pages patched and sewn together. The sight of it reviled Luc.
“Close it… and I will be… FREE!”
Luc glanced to the wretched tome. He raised his body up, took a step toward it.
“Yesss…” the daemon hissed.
Luc reached out to the book. But then stopped. He tried speaking to the daemon himself, something that had only just dawned on him. Even now partially freed from its horrifying compulsions, he couldn’t conceive how much it was manipulating him.
“How did he get you?” Luc asked.
“A pact… Then, a spell,” the daemon returned.
“What was the pact?”
“To return… one from the dead. From my realm… hehe….”
“The pact brought you into our world. But he cast a spell on you, to put you under his control,” Luc surmised.
The daemon nodded. “Old magicks… Could not defend… And now… he eats me. Forever…”
Luc turned back to the book. But his eyes remained downcast, looking elsewhere.
“Hurry!” the daemon coaxed again. Luc felt his gut lurch with motivation.
“Did he get his wish?” Luc shouted, teeth gritted, fingers ready for animation.
“Oh yes… he got her back…” the daemon said.
With that, as fast as he possibly could, Luc rushed back toward the cross. He reached down to grasp the hilt of Feint. The scream of daemon shocked pain into his whole being. Much of it ended once he had his sword in hand. Expert senses intact, Luc swung the blade in a semi-circle and angled it against his shoulder, ready to plunge directly into the heart of the daemon. He started his advance as the devil kept his shriek long and constant.
“NOOOOO!” it screamed, resounding through the damned chapel. Luc halted, this time voluntarily.
“So you can be killed by mortal hands?” he whispered, its reaction gifting him the knowledge he desired. He glanced down to meet its eyes. They pierced with wickedness and hate and a willful fire of infinite animus. Luc clutched his sword hilt until his knuckles crackled in agony. Of his own painstaking volition, he stepped back away from the cross.
“Foolish … fuckin’… mortal… You… shall be… food.”
Luc turned his back on the daemon, sidestepped the pedestal with the tome still in place, and walked out of the chapel to raucous sounds of its cursing and bleeding. Every step he heaved his shoulders, wiped his mouth, cursed quietly to himself.
When Luc was back on the stairwell and out of the chapel, he wiped his eyes. Then, he kept on walking up.
Luc skipped the steps two at a time, energy returning to his form. Summoned and controlled a daemon… turned it into a blood bag. No more side passages in this stint of the ascent, Luc slowed at every open window along the spiraling tower. He wished to feel the flow of the wind from outside, to peek at the moon up in its loft. That devil seemed as much impressed at its plight as it was enraged… There was respect for its captor. From the east a storm was gathering; it kicked its clouds toward the castle. I wonder if it was mutual…
Finally near the peak, the stairs widened into a landing. An open room stretched into view, lit by glows from unseen sources. Luc tried to recall the view from outside, from the bridge at the edge of the wood. The towers, those fingers reaching up into the night… Were there jutting passages and rooms like this from on high, at this elevation? At the final open window, he tried to view his height, but the remainder of the castle’s bulk below could not be viewed in fullness. Murky reflections from the moon’s light combined with the bad angle made positioning himself in space impossible. More illusions, more misperceptions, more mind games!
Luc cast the frustrations away. All that mattered now was finding the Master. Slaying him. Ridding the world of this final evil…
Hand on the crucifix, the Slayer crouched and stepped in silence into the grand room of blue and red and yellow atmosphere. The place looked like one of Olivar’s labs. At its back was a great door, two small stairwells leading up to it. Tables with vials and glassware covered the central bulk. And in the corners lay vats, lit green and bubbling. Humanoids floated within them; Luc did not let his eye wander for long from them.
On the tables stacked tomes and parchment. Complex networks of interconnected glass. The stuff of alchemy. One of Olivar’s many arts. On paper were sketches of wolves, of elves, of winged creatures with fangs arching out of their maws. A mortar and pestle with uncrushed bones lay beside a mug with milk white liquid within. On the ceiling hung cages, bones of all kinds of creatures hung inside them, half complete skeletons, most missing their skulls. All about the room the stench of flesh and ash sourced; the familiar smells of death and undeath. Luc did not intend to linger long.
As he reached the midway point of the room, eyes on the steel door opposite him, the sounds of bubbling liquid came from each quadrant of the room. The vats were being drained; the bodies fell to their knees. They were alive! Semi-consciously, a trio of figures moved inside the glass. Monstrous each, Luc did not have the time to fully investigate their appearances before the fourth vat’s inhabitant emerged before him. A human man, middle-aged, balding and of only slight build, he coughed up blue liquid and staggered toward Luc.
The Slayer’s sword was out, ready to do its work upon him.
“Wait! Just wait…” the man breathed.
Luc lowered his sword a tad, while he clutched his dagger behind his back, ready to throw it into the eye of the man in a flash.
“Please don’t kill me,” the man stammered. His eyes flew towards the other vats. The creatures had begun to slam themselves against their glass cages. Luc heard the cracking. One of them had teeth the length of its own head, another was trying to unfurl leather wings from out of its back. The man took another step towards him, dropped a hand weakly on his shoulder.
“Please. My name is Zenfield. Chief scientist… for Him. You are here to … end him, yes? That is why you are here.”
Luc scowled at the man, dripping and nude, his lip quivering. He was here, working in His lab. He wanted to kill him before he spoke another word. But he didn’t, and nodded.
“Killing me wouldn’t do any good anyway. My work is done,” Zenfield said, relief washing over his face. “He’s melded his mind to mine. Whoever comes next will be able to pick up right where I left off. If he doesn’t do the work himself.”
“The Master… is a man of science?” Luc asked, betraying intrigue and fear in his tone.
The naked man smirked, a dread crossed his features. “No man…” Luc rolled his eyes.
Then came a frown from Zen, as if in pain. “I can… help you, Slayer,” he struggled to release the words from his mouth. His voice changed in the twinge, became deeper. He gripped one hand with the other. The slams from the vats became louder, more glass quaked. From the third one, Luc saw sparks of flame.
“You aren’t enthralled,” Luc stated, his eyes scanning for any immediate danger.
“No. Can’t do complex work without a mind.”
“Why did you choose to betray humanity?” Luc asked, sword drawn, pushing the man away, taking a step back. His eyes wheeled to the freaks trying to shatter their prisons.
“Why do you think? Promise of immortality. However, my mind… has changed. We have to stop him at all costs…”
“What changed your mind?” Luc asked. “What is he planning?”
Zenfield’s eyes were distant. He stared through his palm, whole body beginning to shake. “I’ve put power … into myself to oppose him. But I don’t know how much I can… aaargh… control it.” His eyes fell to the vats, crackling against the weight of the creatures within, part beast, part human. They were screaming. Inhuman, wild.
Luc flashed his sword to either side of him, frantic at the volume and apparent strength of the creatures. “What are they?!”
“Experiments. Waking up too soon…” Zenfield’s eyes began to glow.
“Doc, what do we do?”
Zenfield’s voice became a whisper. “He knows my mind. Through me, he’s set them free, sicked them on their own master… what a bastard…”
“How do I kill them?” Luc shouted. “What is he planning?!” he asked again. Zenfield was in no position to answer.
“But…” the naked man, now nearing collapse, coughed up some of his insides. No, Luc saw. Not blood. Bright green luminescence.
“We… DON’T have… TIME!” spoke and shouted Zenfield. His body began to grow, in spurts and only upon alternating limbs. His right arm tripled in size, along with half his face, turning green and grey and pulsing with inner energy. His left leg raised him from his seat, sprawled him out. A half-man, half-giant monstrosity emerged from within his small frame. Pounding the stone flooring, he let out a roar from his breaking jaw as the three vats shattered.
“SLAYER! HELP ME KILL MY BEAUTIFUL CREATIONS!” screamed the mutant Zenfield. Luc rolled away from his sweeping, oversized form as the the trio of “beautiful creations” rushed from their vats. The lab exploded into violent chaos.
From behind him, a man with an arching mane of fur upon the mainline of his back rushed on all fours and leapt at Zenfield. Still struggling with his transformation in-process, he managed only to raise his hyper-muscled forearm to block against the thrashing werewolf. Behind Zenfield flew a half-man, half-bat on a pair of gigantic leathery wings. A pair of ivory fangs drew back from inside of its unhinging jaw.
Luc had the angle on him. Finally accepting the chaotic parameters of his predicament, the Slayer threw Feint into his left hand, drew his crossbow with his right and fired an arrow into the bulk of the winged monstrosity. It stuck into an eye, the thing let out a shriek and slowed its momentum. Even so, its body collided with the back of Zenfield. Its claws latched onto him, and the fangs plunged into his collar. Zenfield roared a behemoth’s roar.
Luc loaded another shot. Behind him, he sensed the final figure. Heat enveloped him, buffeted the small tatters in his armor. He turned to see an orange glow sourcing from a man’s mouth. A skull without muscle or skin, with twin eyes of fire. A ball of the stuff ensorceled itself into place from its throat, set to cast itself toward the fray.
Luc fired the crossbow at its neck. The flames burned it away before it could hit the mark. Luc turned back to Zenfield to see him finally strike away the werewolf gnawing his arm. It slammed against the rear wall with a yelp and shuffled down to the ground.
“Get down, Doc!” was all he could think to say.
The bat pushed off from its hulking prey as Zen’s small arm tried meekly to swat it. Blood dripped from its massive fangs. The fireball came flying in. Luc put his hands up to protect against the explosion. A boom crashed the lab into an inferno of pieces. Swept off his feet, Luc rose to see the flames licking from a thousand different places.
“Zenfield!” he shouted. A smoke bulk lay in the center of the flames, unmoving. Luc took a step toward it. From out of the flames leapt the wolf-man. Enraged and energized, Luc dropped his bow and put both hands into Feint. In a trade of blows, the wolf’s claw scratched at Luc’s neck while he took its other arm off at the shoulder. Its screaming roar, half-man, half-wolf, silenced into a crumple beside him, blood pouring all over his boots.
Luc turned back to the flaming skull freak at the sound of another fireball being cooked up. On pure instinct, Luc mounted the crucifix hilt into his hand like a javelin and threw it at the sphere of fire summoning itself into being at the edges of the skull’s teeth. It flew straight and true, through the fire and through the back of the shining ivory dome. The fire turned to smoke as the freak fell.
Heaving his breaths through the smoke and fire surrounding him, Luc stumbled toward Zenfield’s burning body. The bat emerged again, flying with a hobbled bob above the flames, its fangs shining. From the back of his belt, Luc drew his dagger, flicked its point into his index and middle fingers, readying it for a throw. As the bat rushed and Luc reared back, a giant greenish palm stopped him. Zenfield’s big arm smashed it face down, into a bloody pulp, before it could get within a flap of the Slayer.
Luc rushed down to him, wading through the fires and shreds of wood and metal strewn about the destroyed laboratory.
“GET… OUT OF HERE,” Zenfield grumbled through the gore and the burns. His giant frame was charred, bleeding, bubbling. His human frame was blasted away, only chips of skeleton remained. There was nothing to say.
“Thank you,” Luc breathed, eyes welling at the sight of this strange man at death’s door.
“Go,” Zenfield said. “SLAY HIM. Save … your world…”
Luc watched the man fade from life amidst his burning and dead creations. He rushed through the fire to retrieve Feint, arms up and boots heating painfully. Through the steel door, another stairwell into darkness. The Slayer continued his trek up the tower, to his destiny.
This next ascent was made in full dark. No stone apertures to let in the wind and light. Luc held up Feint, its grey light providing sight to his steps, as he coughed out the last of the smoke in his chest. The confined stone space, along with his blood’s jump within his limbs, told him he was near the peak of the tower. Vertigo touched upon him and the Slayer fought it away with a steeled mind. Climbing mountains was a part of every Slayer’s training.
Ghasts, leftovers or not, under his command… A blood pig… but a daemon, unlimited in scope. A science op… polymerizing night beasts with Men, stable and strong, melding mind to the laborer to keep the secrets intact and control the work.
Luc was impressed with his Master.
Mine to know, mine to kill. For a brief moment, Luc wished Olivar was here with him.
The dark stones ended their spiral by surfacing into a small circular room. At the walls were mirrors with intricate bindings. Or windows. No… Luc realized. Portals. Each one carried a different sight within. Some fell into sights of day, others night. Others were made of fire and water, views from the sky on high or from within the caverns of the earth. Crimson carpeting led to each of the eight mirrors with their living visions beyond the glass. A trio of stone steps floated up to them.
More illusions? Luc stepped out, started to walk towards the one parting a pair of summer hills, cascaded with wild flowers among the greenery. The desire to be there was barely unconscious. Luc felt his body twitching with a desire to see the sun again, to touch the grass within that world through the portal. He stopped and surveyed them all. Every one had the same curves and structure, the same crimson border of wood, metal and glass roiling in fleur designs. Within them were the disparate places of the world: A cavernous pathway, lit by luminescent flora. A drifting, floating fortress. A mountain passage through desert. An isle amongst an archipelago in the center of the ocean. Earth, sky, fire, sea. The hills in day. The swamps at night. A sight into blackest darkness, the Void. And finally, the eighth mirror, and Luc’s destination – a mirror.
Just his reflection. This is the passage to Him, Luc intuited with confidence. He walked along the carpet one leg at a time, Feint drawn and waving his in his hands. He gave a forlorn look to the other portals, wondering if stepping into them transported a man there, half the world away. Or the entire castle… Might this be the reason we could not find Him for so long? The prospects of this technology, this power, elated Luc. Teleportation. And made him wary. He wanted to tell Olivar… That devil was right…
We are dealing with one to surpass them all. Of His kind, He is truly… Master.
Luc walked up the steps cautiously. Then, without hesitation, he jabbed Feint into the mirror. Ripples of energy sourced from its point, now shortened. Passed through.
With a prayer to Xavier and a thought to Ollie, Luc jumped into himself, through the mirror, sword leading the way.
The Slayer emerged in pitch darkness. Save for rectangular steps, the color of blood, extending in a steady ascent before him. Luc touched his chest, gripped his sword hilt tighter. But there was no light. Feint emitted nothing in the darkness. His breathing became unsteady. Luc could not see a hand away. He could not see anything save for the steps of blood. Looking up, they led nowhere in particular.
An abyssal intermediary passage. Part of the madness of portal technology. Luc rationalized, guessed. Then began his ascent, his psyche continuously blasting itself with the lack of sight of his own form. Only the darkness and the steps. I am in an astral plane… I am an astral body…? He took them while searching for his own legs and feet upon them. There was nothing. Only the sight of his position changed as he walked up them. Impossible. Nothing is impossible with them… he reminded himself, mirroring Olivar’s wise maxim.
Visions from either side of the abyss around the lighted steps began to source into view. At first, Luc could not be sure his subconscious was not producing them from the tedium, to stave off the encroaching insanity. An army of candles, burning crimson like the steps floated there like bonfire spread wide. Underneath the pricks of light came the sight of a town. A city. No, a metropolis of steel and steeples, tightly packed structures, architected from a future his world had yet to see. The style of buildings resembled the castle. Tall and complex, sharp and strong. A grand sight, it gleamed gold under its sky of candlelit stars. Luc kept his walk, one leg raising after the other, while taking in the strange sights below him.
Or visions? Might Master be sapping my mind with chems in the air? A hypnosis? A psychosis?
Luc kept walking up the steps to nowhere in particular.
Might I already be dead…?
Something within compelled the Slayer to look up.
Above him, on a cavernous ceiling far above, were bats. Some flocked to and fro, while the majority hung. Resting. Or waiting. Only now did he recognize their chattering waves of sound. Their voices resounded altogether to produce the constant din of white noise he’d been hearing from the moment he’s stepped into the darkness. Rather than arriving at annoyance… Luc found the din comforting.
He kept walking up and up.
Luc slowly understood the truth of this city. It was built under the earth. Somewhere. Here. Closed off and within the earth, it was safe. Secure from the rays of God and from the searchings of Men. No sunlight.
His focused in on the ant silhouettes walking the streets, manning the towers, traveling between the interconnected bridges between the vast metropolis. The place was peopled! All of them were of a singular nature, Luc recognized. In sighting their movements among the courts and arenas and laboratories, he understood these denizens to be of one, singular brood. Fanged and crimson-eyed, they flew and transformed. They lived forever.
The evolution of Mankind.
Luc saw the city of the future; civilization as it was coming to be.
From his ascent up the steps, off the side, Luc started to fall. Into the infinite abyss below. His mind accepted it. He did not mind being down there…
But something in his heart, along with every instinct’s blaring force inside of his frame, struggled against the pull of gravity. The Slayer reversed grip on his sword and slammed it point down on the next red-glowing step before him. The action halted him. The booming sound of the sword cracking the step’s interior resounded in the abyss. The sight, or vision, of the city faded from view.
Gripping his crucifix with fervor, point crackling a web one the step below from the strength of his blow, Luc saw he was at the penultimate stair. An archway loomed over him. Beyond it, he heard the sound of a heartbeat. Two heartbeats together, their cadence nearly perfectly aligned.
Luc took the last two steps and emerged into a bedroom. Lavish decor and candelabras ablaze, an aura of warmth impregnated this fresh place. Home. He sensed his body again, saw it. Arms and legs armored for battle, silver aegis mail pieces shining and unmarred from his travels through the castle. He puffed his chest with a deep and steadying breath.
Calm down. Calm down, Slayer…
Luc turned back in a flash, from where he had entered the room. He stared into a mirror. His silver eyes were lost. He struggled to find them. But within the reflection, on the other side of the room, across from the king’s bed of crimson satin and silk sheets, he saw two coffins. They lay upright, vertical against the long wall of the bedroom.
Luc turned to them, sighting them for the first time outside of the mirror’s revelation. He could not be certain of whether they were there before, open to his initial sighting of the room. He rotated the crucifix in his hand, trying desperately to return trust to his senses.
The pair of heartbeats returned. The coffins were tall and barren, black and looming over him, a full head taller. Luc walked towards them, Feint gripped. To his side, beyond the bed and through a door. A grand hall opened up. Marble floors and pillars cast themselves into a room fit for celebration. For dancing.
Luc shook away the musings. His eyes returned to the coffin pair against the wall. The hearts beat from within, continuing their duet.
The strike of lightning drew his eyes away again, followed fast by a crash of thunder. The whole room shook. Beyond the marble dance hall was a grid of windows revealing the storm, and the range of mountains beyond it.
He was at the peak of the castle. The uppermost room. The outside world lay beyond that glass. The abyss of the gorge lay below those windows. He was back in the castle, back in reality. Back to the hunt.
The Slayer’s eyes returned to the coffins before him, both hands white-knuckling Feint’s crucifix.
And this, one of these… was his Master!
A third heartbeat entered the fray. Luc’s own. Nerves, muscles, and bones, the flows of the Slayer’s soul culminated into a singular cord of shimmering light. It shivered and nearly made him weep. Body quivering at the acknowledgement of his quarry before him, Luc could hardly keep quiet. At rest! It was too good to be true…
Luc focused, his eyes panning between the coffins for any differentiating markings between them. His mind worked at the reasons. One for him, one for his lover… recently returned to him by the daemon’s pact… But which is which? They were the same height, no distinguishing features or markings lay upon their lids or sides. Luc took the same, sword held aloft all the while, to make a full inspection.
But he already knows I am here? Doesn’t He? Why be at rest? At any rate, once I open one, they’ll awaken. One will alert the other. And … and I’ll have a fight on my hands…
One I can… cannot…
“Win!” Olivar’s yelling voice resounded in his mind.
Uncertainties looming, rattling his heart and mind, Luc shook his head. Just have to choose one. Get this going… over with.
Luc cast the left coffin lid wide, blade held up and pointed at the approximate heart-center of whatever lay inside. The remnants of his mission faded away upon witnessing the form inside.
Long white hair, pale face fading, returning to a skull. No fangs protruding from beneath shriveled lips. She wore a white wedding dress, faded and torn. Blood-soaked. Right in the center of her chest was a hole, where it all sourced from.
It was her, there could be no doubt in Luc’s mind. But human… His off-hand rose to touch her cheek. Then stopped.
“We were going to rule together, the exemplars for a new world. Queen and King.”
The voice came to his right. Rich and low, it resonated with an absorptive quality, as if the mouth producing the words were a vortex for all life. Luc could not abide the sound. The reverie from his shock of seeing his sister again slowly pulled back from consciousness as he looked over to his sister’s infector, this damned voice, a revenant of sin, the final Master.
From out of the other coffin, opened, emerged a figure.
The Slayer’s silver eyes met the Vampyr’s.
The demon was a full head taller. Skin the natural pale of the kind. Eyes crimson. Long black hair draped his shoulders. Twin fangs emerged from a grin that set chills into Luc’s person. The fiend’s black and red regalia fell over his massive torso, a robe of capes shuffled across the floor as the thing came toward the Slayer.
Eyes wide, drinking in the presence of the Master he’d hunted in the full flesh, Luc’s heart threatened to explode in his chest.
The black door of the coffin slammed shut and the Vampyr’s hand shot out to meet with Luc’s face.
Luc responded with Feint in a flash, up and intercepting the fiend’s lethal reach on its silver edge. The creature’s palm slapped the blade of light, claws soon enveloped, a singing sound with smoke wafted from the contact. Blood dripped down the sword. It took all Luc’s strength to hold the hand at bay. The Master’s face was locked in a casual grimace as he watched his hand burn and shred against the silver. In a conversational tone, he spoke,
“Is it not tragic?”
“You… You brought her back? I … I did it myself. Only dust…” Luc stammered, moving Feint back and forth, trying to free the sword to deliver a slash.
The Master’s countenance went from consternation to bloodlust, full jaws of fangs screeching, as he shoved down Luc’s sword and brought his other hand toward him to strike. Luc dodged and disengaged his blade. He fell into the coffin beside his sister. The crimson wildflowers she held dropped in the jostle. Chilled at the touch of her upon him, he staggered forward, sword back up toward his foe. He shot a glance again to Ana. Visions of his life beside his kid sister, an age ago, drifted up from the cellar of his mind.
The Master swept his immense cloak to his side, one giant clawed hand raised in a fury. He barked and choked out his words,
“Yes. I brought her back. My favorite child of the night. From days gone by. Gone from me too soon. And with the power of Hades, returned to me…”
The demon rushed forward, faster than Luc’s eyes could track.With half a hesitation in his arms, he plunged his sword forward, at the shifting mass of shadow rushing toward him, angling the point somewhere near the heart. And then, the shadow was behind him. Two chopping strikes, at his midsection, rattled the ribcage. Luc let out a gasp, then the thing was gripping his neck.
The Master, hands around the back of Luc’s neck, rushed them forward. Together, they went back toward the open coffin with the woman inside of it. Hands by her side, now she faced to her side, a pale profile.
“Look at her! She’s your blood. Not MINE! Not anymore! Never will she be anyone’s Source again!!”
The Master screamed; Luc felt his anger, and his tears as they fell upon the small of his neck. They were as cold as ice.
Luc used the moment to crouch down hard, losing the claws upon his neck as he shoved his sword back into the vamp’s gut. Even with the side of his neck shredded and bleeding, the cry of the monster’s pain gave Luc instant relief. Enraged, the Master back-handed him, sent him flying toward the other end of the room. Luc rolled across the bed, taking care to send his sword wide and away from him in the roll.
Luc rose with blade in hand just in time to find the Master gliding over his bed and slashing down another right toward him. He rose to parry with both hands. The sword cut in into the flesh between the index and middle; the weight of the blow nearly buckled his knees. With a grunt, the Master’s other claw came on fast, straight for his heart. Just holding on to the crucifix with one hand, Luc reached back to grasp his dagger from behind his back. Holding it tight to his core, he threw it in line with his sternum to intercept the destructive hand’s shove.
The Master roared and Luc was slammed against the wall, each hilt holding a palm at bay. The red dagger point protruded from the other side of the vamp’s left hand, blood streaming over its knuckles. Its right hand shoved down, Luc gritted his teeth through the strain of holding Feint high and away from his body. The Master’s long fingers, each housing a small knife of their own, began to reach beyond the dagger, curling toward the flesh of his chest. Sizzling from its contact with silver blade and aegis armor wafted into view. But the eyes of the Master did not abide the pain. He grinned and cackled into the Slayer’s face. Luc groaned with strain; he was not stronger than any vampyr.
“What… happened?” he asked the Master. Through short breaths, his eyes fell to the coffin in the room again, over the beast’s shoulder. “Why’s she in there? And not… out here helping you kill me?” Memories of Luc plunging Feint into his sister’s chest flew into mind. He resisted their qualia, the viscera, the pulse of her heart’s final beat upon his blade, her eyes full of terror, the disintegration into dust…
For a split, the Master’s strength faded. He let off the press of his claws upon Luc’s blades and toward his flesh. He snarled in answer,
“The devil tricked me. Brought her back. But back to Mankind, free from my Source…”
Luc pushed back, free himself from five superficial stab wounds that had formed upon his chest, through the armor.
“Why didn’t you just-” he started, keeping the conversation.
“She took her own life! She didn’t REMEMBER us!!” The Master screamed like an animal, then both arms pressed on full force, trying to kill him.
On instinct, Luc called upon the innate magicks within his red dagger, absorbed the life-taking Source from the stab wound in the Master’s hand. For a brief moment, he gained stamina and strength unlike he’d ever felt. The rest of his body kicked into motion. Luc slashed down with Feint, out of the grip of Master’s sizzling hand, while he simultaneously drew the dagger out of the other giant palm. He spun in close through those grasping arms, stabbing the dagger into the vamp’s neck while he slashed Feint upon his bicep, hoping to sever some tendons. The shriek and sudden lack of pressure from his foe gave him time to slip away.
Luc rolled away under the Master’s overflowing capes, around the bed, and emerged in a sprint from the room. He eyed Ana again as he rushed by, tears flowed freely from his eyes. Proud of you sis… God rest your soul.
Out on the dance floor, Luc ran, waving both his blades. Lightning flashed from outside. The rain slapped against the old glass there. The Master’s wailing rose and echoed from the bedroom. He emerged as a silhouette into the darkened chamber, only his crimson eyes could be dealt with.
Wider space. More room to maneuver. Fight of my life. Give me time to think of way… The thoughts passed through Luc’s mindspace. He set his feet, kept his body light and ready to run, to dodge, to slash with every ounce of his strength.
“Fight of my life. Fight of my life…” he repeated, under his breath. The mantra steadied it.
From across the room, Master whispered, but Luc heard it like he was in his ear.
“Your kind annihilated us like vermin. When we are the superior species. Your evolution ends with us, your omega predator!”
The demon blended with the shadows, shifting through them like a shark through the sea. It was upon him, claws descending to decapitate and maim with every blow. Luc dodged and ran; for every three claws, he could only respond with a single slash from sword or dagger.
Soon locked in another twin-armed standoff, Luc’s strength fast losing to the superior arms, the Master grinned down at him like a kid at an ant,
“Longest fight of my unlife… Perhaps you deserve your own ascension.”
Luc groaned, drew more source to speed his escape, and disengaged with a cut of Feint across the Master’s brow. He watched it heal in the span of lightning crackle from the window. Luc tried to catch his breath while the shadow chased him, crossing between hysterical laughter and seething animus.
Two more clashes and Luc was losing an angle on how to cut through his power. Feint to the chest. It was the only way. He hadn’t come close… So much energy used in defense.
“I am forced to respect you, Slayer. Your commitment. Your strength in spite of your weakness… It is your mortality that has driven your ambition. So much to do, so little… time!”
The Master emerged from the shadows again, both claws slamming upon his blades once more. But this time, that immense maw, the vortex to devour the ‘verse lurched at him. At the terrible sight of the vampyr’s jaws backgrounded by such eager and malevolent eyes, Luc’s mind returned to a time and place far away from the peak of the castle…
Childhood. In the wood. Wandered from his father on a hunt. Night turning to dawn. Early morning sunlight peering through the mountainside. An unfamiliar area. Barking, snapping jaws, a soft coo and hard howl. The wolves cornered something, soon to shred it. Luc ran towards the sound, through the brush fast, then slow. Curiosity and admiration for the creatures overruled any fear. He hid and watched them from behind, at their hunt. A man, their prey, his back against a tree. He held no weapons, wore nothing but bloodied rags. Eyes wild, form shivering, hard breathing. The manes rose as they stalked over him, finally theirs for the taking after a long run.
Fresh rays of sunlight from the morning reached down into the clearing, warming the twilight dew. The man began to holler, “C’mon!” coaxing the beasts on, arms up. They descended on him. His skin turned red, arms aflame as they waded the air to intercept. Four wolves came on biting to kill. The flaming man, against the tree, matched their growls with teeth bared. And he pushed back. Elbows like battering rams, hands like swords. The man’s crimson glowing eyes, bulging with pain and fear and rage, never blinked as he cast his body into frenzied violence. Luc tracked them in all the action. The fanged, burning man attacked faster than the wolves. Quickly, he tore them to pieces, even as his arms fell away, turning to ash. It finished the job with open maw, ripping and tearing at the fur and the flesh underneath it. At the consummation of their swift bout, like a madman, the daemon-man cackled into the sky, blood seeping from his beard and all over his naked, crackling body, just before he saw dawn head on through the canopy. And he fell into a grey haze, and silence fell over the clearing. Only Luc remained among the living.
Cautiously, without a breath passing through his small frame, Luc inspected the carnage. Pieces of wolf, ribbons of fur and meat, unrecognizable and inert, was scattered about the killing field. Blood on the trees and the bushes swirled with the morning’s ascension. Luc smiled to himself, standing there next to the silhouette of ash, the screaming, biting, clawing madness of the daemon-man still ringing in his mind. He reached down to pocket some of the ash.
Soon, he climbed the tree to spot his father. When Luc returned to his side and father asked him what he had seen on his side ranging through the night, Luc said nothing but trees and mockingbirds, the morning’s glory and the trail back to their hunt. ~
From out of the flashing confines of the unlocked memory, Luc returned to the present. To the malignant face of his tyrannical foe.
The Master vampyr smiled as he dove for Luc’s throat.
Both arms up but held down by his claws, Luc groaned and shoved both his blades inward, to slash the cheeks and neck of the beast. They scraped and sizzled his greying skin, but still the vampyr came on, maw widening and expanding. Luc’s back slammed against the wall as he flexed both forearms to fire the bolts from his gauntlets.
The Master howled as a half dozen silver knives stabbed into his face and nose and eyes. He retreated from their deadlock. Luc rolled away and then ran away. Regrouping, reinitializing his breath to slow his racing heart. He wheeled around the final pillar at the far end of the room. Multicolored reflections cast across him as the lightning filtered through the stained glass.
Think of something. Think of something… Think-
When Luc turned back to the shadows, one was upon him. Bursting out of the criss-crossing shade of the grand hall, snaking through pillars, the Master came on, an abyssal shape of impossible speed and strength. As it remanifested into the space before him, going from silhouette to armor, cloak, beard and fangs, Luc’s throat was nearly crushed outright. Its right hand gripped his neck the hilt of a sword. Total blackness edged in. Luc tightened his grips on his weapons and plunged his dagger into its forearm in a meek defense. Master did not flinch; right after, its grip weakened at the last.
“Let’s see how worthy of a Slayer you are!”
The Master declared the words to Luc as he felt his body being violently shaken, then shoved. He was flying. Fast and hard. His back and head crashed into the stained glass panels. They crackled and broke against his armor and his spine. Before he knew it, he was through and the rain was on him. He rotated in the wind and water and lightning. End over end. Luc held only Feint as he fell from the castle, through the night and heavy rain. The whole world spun by him, one rotation after another, a marbled vision of a blasted nightmare. Luc could not be sure if he was screaming aloud or in mind or both. Free fall. The storm smashed again through the night.
I am going to die now.
Luc flared his body out on instinct, trying to gain his bearings as he descended. He held his longsword out wide from his body, while summoning its grey glow, holding onto it for everything. Below him was the wide abyss of the gorge enlarging; it yawned open for him and only him. From the shattered window at the tower’s peak, becoming smaller every moment, Luc saw a glimpse of the Master. It stood, as if waiting, full height and long gaze. The remainder of the castle’s girth passed by him, story after story, without grace or orientation. The chiseled, euclidean stone gave way to the aberrant juts of rock and outcropping. The canyon maw loomed. Feint still in hand, body righted for a moment of clarity, Luc raised his free left arm to fire his bolted grapple for a last hope. The cord flew fast for the rocks at the base of the castle. It held and Luc’s fall became angled against the leverage. He was swinging now into a separate darkness. An opening in the stone.
Caverns beneath the castle. What glorious luck…
His left shoulder nearing its limit, swinging hard and soon releasing, Luc was flying again feet first into a cave. As soon as his legs connected with damp, uneven stone, against his better judgment, Luc was rolling to slow his lethal momentum. His head smashed against rock, then his spine. Both ankles twisted, his shoulder landed wrong. Breath held for a long moment in absorbing pain, Luc finally groaned.
Back on firm ground, instantly, Luc recalled Death with gasping draws upon the humid darkness. From below, and from the claws of the daemon. He finally released his blade, his fingers sore and busted from his death grip. The muffled storm sounds from the cavern face swelled again. Luc turned back, further into the cavern complex.
A winding passage into a bumpy network, grim glowing lichen, small holes of airflow, beckoned him.
Luc limped through the cavernous pathways for a long time. Every moment was pain. Fear. Both hands holding tight, Feint’s grey din leading the way, Luc searched for escape. A way out. A sign of progress. There was nothing by a labyrinthian spiral of rock and dark. His way in was an anomaly, a weathered hole.
Might this be destiny yet…
A steep drop off into the gorge. No way to climb down. Not in my shape.
The cave path below, while byzantine and naturally chaotic, was not purposeless to the castle’s inhabitants, present or former. Skulls littered the side pockets and holes and shelves. Humans, wolves, ghouls and ghasts. Men and children. Other vampyr. There was no order to them. They looked accumulated. Then, forgotten. Tossed into a memory chest the size of a cave. It made Luc sick.
He thought of what it had said, of “how worth of a Slayer” he might be. How many others from the Order had come here? To this castle. In any of its locations across the world… The implications of the bones being recent gathers, from this daemon king, chilled Luc to his core.
More chills arrived at the sound of a deep, echoing voice reverberating through the cavern complex.
“I am also a slayer.”
A whisper but piercing. Luc stopped in his tracks.
“A hunter,” it said, nearer. Or further. “A killer of Men and monsters.”
Luc began to move quietly, eyes around every corner. He focused all his senses, all his instincts, consciously as he could in his damaged, spent state upon divining the location of the wretch into the cramped darkness.
“I brought an end to twelve other Masters. Their whole clans converted or killed under the directive of my squadrons,” Master spit from the shadows. “Before they were tricked, trapped, hunted themselves, by ye, or some like ye. Each one likely a more prolific slayer than the best ye had to offer.”
Its voice fell across the stones like steam, floating away after every word. Or like water, flowing into unseen ravines, away from Luc’s prowling perceptions. He reviewed his claims in mind, thought of the unaccounted tribes he and Olivar’s forces had never touched in the past era. Annihilated by their own…?
“Why?” the vampyr cooed, closer now. “Wasted gifts. Diluting the Source. Half-measures and mercenaries, unmoored from the tradition. Without Masters, driven by greed or lust. We were being driven to extinction!” the Master screeched. Luc’s heart skipped a beat at the echoes from the bestial roar.
“Unworthy bastards. Undeath did not suit them any more than their soiled life did. Breeding with their own thralls. Gifting their Source to undeserving vermin. As they spread, they accelerated our kind’s Final Death…” the Master sneered the enunciation of the words, his rich voice became a seething cackle. “I could not suffer them to shadow the same night as. Not I! Never…”
Around the corner of the latest passage, a sieve of rainy breath wafted through him. Luc heard the Master speak now from source and not from echo.
“In my domain, not even a worm can escape my notice. Like God Almighty, I decide who lives and who dies here. Here and everywhere! Ha!!” the Master sang with delight. “My castle’s home is the world. Yes, as you mortals waged your Blood War, I fought a blood war every other night. One cleansing guerilla war after another. Keeping one in ten to fill my special ranks. But alas…”
The Master’s voice faded. Luc sped his search, taking two steps for every prior one. He had his position marked and raced for it, Feint held high. All his pain was gone as his blood kicked through his arms.
A shadow fell behind his speeding steps. Luc turned swinging. There were the teeth and claws. Feint was batted aside as the Master shoved forward, red claw leading the way. His red dagger. It slipped in between his chest plate and pauldron, into shoulder, cutting tendon and muscle, scraping bone. Luc screamed in agony as he was lifted off the ground and slammed against the cavern wall.
The Master held him there. Luc struggled to bring Feint around. Blood poured from the wound; its tongue lapped up some of the stream from his fingers around the hilt.
“Let it flow friend,” it said, eyes rolling back in its head. Luc rose Feint up, but the claw slammed back against the rock with a sparking clang. “I can taste you much more clearly now.”
“You lost…” Luc said through gritted teeth. “Your kind the war. Playing god, the cleansing, it made you weaker…
The Master grinned, a brief glimmer of regret crossed those features. “Perhaps. But my chosen few had other plans. Incited revolution before our march to end our extinction. Tried to dethrone me. Take my castle for themselves. So I made other plans.”
“You vamps. Always got a plan. Always a damned one…” Luc coughed, blood dripping from his lips.
The Master’s eyes glared, narrowed harder as he shoved his own red dagger deeper into his arm. Luc stretched his neck to its limit in response to the immense pain. “Put ’em all down. Final Death after Final Death. My chosen companions… Do you know what that’s like, Slayer?”
“I do… I do,” Luc breathed. “…Marched thousands into death. Against you bloodsuckers… Meaningless deaths… Every one.”
The Master’s grin grew wider at that. Luc started to shimmy Feint out from underneath its palm.
“Unless… I can kill you!” Luc scraped Feint’s side against the stone and swung it around with his left, angling not for the body but for the hand. The wrist keeping his dagger in his own body, dripping blood from him, slowing him down.
Need to do this… before I lose too much.
As expected, the Master freed its hand from the grip rather than lose it. Luc fell from his raised pin on the stone. Unexpectedly, the vampyr caught his weak off-hand strike with Feint into his palm, sizzling it, but keeping the blade held. Luc jerked it once, unable to free it, while he retrieved his red, vampyric dagger from his own chest. Improvising out of desperation, Luc immediately shoved the dagger up and into the same wrist he aimed for originally with his longsword. At the final moment, the Master’s face turning from triumph to surprise, it released its hold once more, from Feint, to catch the dagger. The red point shoved through the palm. The Master’s fingers clamped down on Luc’s hand, breaking it, clawing into the bones there.
Screaming with pain and madness, Luc drew on the innate power of the red blade, drawing Source from out of the Master.
They both screamed.
For three long breaths, Luc sucked and sucked. He felt the bones reforged in his right hand; the gaping wound in his chest and shoulder started to mend in real-time. Then, Master regained his grip and threw him further into the cavern, dislodging the dagger’s place within its palm.
Luc rose from his backwards roll, knees ragged but ready to fight. The Master shed itself back into the cave’s abyss.
“Bastard! Fight me! Let us end this!!” raged Luc at the damp darkness. Only the steady drips of moisture within parried against the rain echoing outside. A silent darkness beckoned him, alone.
Olivar… I’ve been in the same darkness again and again, so many times.
Impatient, Luc rushed forward, blades waving before him in trembling hands, into the next clearing, an oval arena of stone. One the other end of it, from fixed shadows, came the shifting cloak sweeping the floor. The Master balanced its footwork, raised a claw, palm up, and flicked it up.
“Come, Slayer. Let us.”
Their final duel was not long, but vicious. Passionate. A savage trade of blows and slashes, bites and stabs. The Master gripped Luc’s lung through his splintering ribs; Luc shoved his dagger across the Master’s mouth to free himself, slicing his face open, absorbing more of his Source, healing his ribs around those fingers, soon to be broken again. The pain whelmed them each, teeth bared and willing to inflict more of it upon one another.
Luc was the aggressor, throwing his blades at the vampyr’s blocking arms, working them down with enough cuts to outrace the heals. Then, he twirling toward the body, the neck, the face and head. The Master defended beautifully, battering away strikes with one arm while delivering hands upon the Slayer, past his armor, through his muscles, shaking his bones. Blows that would fell a lesser man; Luc healed through them while he searched for an avenue to the Master’s heart.
Always protected, like his neck, the Master and Luc fell apart as they neared the bloody conclusion of their bout. A kick or a push away, to recuperate. To heal. To start the interlocking ultraviolence all over again. Luc worked his blades, small and large, in circles, seeking holes, small victories. A systematic approach, as Olivar advised against martial equals. After each exchange of silver upon skin, sickly smoke rose off the palms and backs of the Master’s hands. He fought with no weapon. And yet, it was the hardest fight of Luc’s career. Looking into the gaze of the vampyr across from him told the same story.
Losing blood, can only heal so much… Have to give everything… Trying for an ending.
They shared no words through their endgame melee.
At their last rush to meet and craft a grisly battle hymn, nail met runed silver in one continuous ring of strike and parry. Slash and block. Stab and catch, in hand or body. There was no more dodging. Two weary bodies at their limit, trying to kill out of a desire to rest as much as it was their fated path to take.
The crimson sprawl of his unlife flashing before his eyes, the Master thought of it all. The swaths of women he’d killed, bedded, transformed. The children sired and betrayed, devoured and exiled. Thousands of years, ages of travel and discovery, conquest and romance. Leading here, ending here, in the cavernous catacombs under the castle’s heart, in a strange land at the edge of a wood, surrounded by the abyss of an underworld that was set to be his next great adventure…
An ancient existence, directly descended from the Prime Source, the Primal Godhead, The First Fangs, of “The Blood That Seeped Sideways From The Soup,” Kane sang a blasting bray from his lips as he dove maw-first, toward the neck of the Slayer, looking to end it one way or another.
Luc, the Slayer – at the apotheosis of his life and this battle – saw only the silvered, gleaming eyes of Olivar, his mentor, friend, father. How they looked at him in death, Feint through his chest. Luc wondered at how much recognition there’d been in that moment, when he was still there at the end of their converse, stopped on the side of the road on the way back to the horses. He wondered how long that realization had hung there in his consciousness. Was that gleam a tear? Or just the midday sun. He wondered if Olivar was still there now, seeing his son slay him. For eternity.
Luc closed his eyes.
As the shadow of the Master’s bleeding bulk descended over him, Luc rose Feint to its chest, full strength in his right delivering that long silver stake to its final home.
The silver tip struck through first; the Master impaled itself as it came closer, seeking to latch onto the Slayer’s ripened neck for a final drink. The Master stopped short, jaws trembling, as the pair collided. The vampyr’s chest fell all the way to Feint’s hilt as Luc grinned unconsciously in triumph. A blank stare from the Master. Then, both of the daemon’s arms clapped onto Luc’s shoulders to steady itself, and the jaws fell onto Luc’s neck, feasting.
Missed the heart! Luc bellowed within at the realization. The pain of his neck’s instant ruin fell away.
Luc screamed back, already fading away as his lifeblood was eagerly imbibed by the vampyr.
The red dagger rose and shoved into the Master’s left eye. It did not bother to defend, too busy taking its divine reward.
Luc put every part of his will into the dagger’s power. He took Source right back from the Master. Consciousness resurfaced; so did pain. He doubled his efforts, calling upon the innate powers of the small red blade. Luc screamed as the vampyr continued to suck him. The Master’s claws dug into his arms, trying to pull them, rip them off. Bones quaked and Luc kept his grip strong. Crimson tears poured from the gash where Luc’s dagger lay, gulping down ancient Source from the ancient being.
In defiance of death, Luc drained while Master drank. A new singular battle of wills commenced. Back and forth, a nemesis contest of vampirism.
Olivar’s dagger, forged from the heart of his first kill, a Master named Vlad, sire of Ollie’s stolen family, his wife and child, sunk into the shriveling and reforming face of the final Master at the precipice of Final Death, a silver sword a hair’s breadth away from its blackened heart…
Kane’s abysmal jaws, satiating an infinite hunger for an aeon, enveloped around the last Slayer’s throat, a merciless vengeance against his kind’s unconscionable, genocidal hunt, nearing its completion now…
A pandemonium of pain flowed through each combatant’s disparate bodies.
Kane threw the last of his strength into his bite, trying to crush and tear, break the neck and cast the Slayer out of consciousness, at long last loosen his left-handed grip upon that damned vampire blade.
Luc inched his right hand, one gulp at a time, closer and closer through the roiling, shadowy flesh of the vampyr’s innards, seeking out the heart.
Every moment he did not find it, Olivar’s eyes were staring back.
Luc shut his mind from the world and the pain and his last hunt. Thunder boomed through the cavern, enclosing their dark embrace with a wretched resonance.
Soon, sanguine rushes of life flowed back to him. Luc witnessed the moments of everything. The pathways of his violent rush through land, the flows of his murderous progress within fortresses, under the earth, through the shadows. It all went by him. The people and the places. The near deaths; the slayings. He was in the wood again, the dead wolves and the ash. He was in the vanguard again, fighting side by side with friends he’d never see again. He was there in the final moment with Ana, her mouth singing curses of rage and regret, her eyes saying thank you. Olivar beside him, at every turn. Glaring. His only face a glare now…
Kane’s maw tightening, Luc spoke a prayer to Xavier and readied himself to depart the coil, to enter the dark forever.
He suddenly felt the warmth of all his life’s blood flowing down his body, underneath his armor and into his boots. It felt good. The feeling jolted his whole body. Both arms clenched, their hands still grasping those glorious weapons with dying conviction.
Feint shivered through the immortal bulk of the last Master, finally true.
And it was gone. The vampyr wrapping Luc like a serpent at its kill evaporated. Into dust of the finest ilk, of the starkest grey, the violent weight of the daemon disappeared and drifted down to coat the cavern floor.
Luc fell away, his hold upon Feint failing. He slammed his head against the stone as the silver sword’s grey light vanquished away from his hold.
Weak, alive for now. Luc’s whole form shivered. The pain numbed. The pumping flow from his neck fell away from his notice. His vision darkened.
Gently, he turned to his left, raised the dagger still in his left hand to his eyes. To give thanks. To say a prayer. To say good-bye.
Dust and blood dripped away, its reflective crimson surface laying underneath.
As the curtains closed, the final image Luc witnessed there, half-conscious, was that of his own eye. Open and blinking slow, only enough surface on the small blade to show the one, he glared at himself. No thoughts or flows, no thanks or prayers. It all fell away. Something deep inside him came to clarion awakening, to stark lucidity. At long last. In that dim trifling reflection, an augmenting vision allowing for its even sighting, Luc regarded his own newly crimson orb staring back in euphoria, with grinning, fanged mouth opening wide to let loose a terrible song. ~