Of Rats and Crystals (Part 3)
Over the past several months, Veronika had been scouring the subterranean shops and nighttime street vendors of Oskelez. She was nearing a breakthrough in her alchemical research, but she needed some exotic ingredients. Rare poisonous mushrooms that only grew on top of the graves of murderers, and a supply of volcanic minerals rich in fossilized demon bones.
One of her regular suppliers had claimed to have a connection that could arrange for a shipment of what she needed. The price they were asking was high, but given what they were supplying, Veronika agreed it was fair. But she refused to pay until she received the goods.
She’d been on her way to meet them and make the transaction when, well, all she remembered was a bright purple light, and a humming sound. Next thing she knew, she woke up in the cage.
There was no way to be sure how much time had passed since her capture as there were no windows, but as a vampire, she was grateful for that. She estimated that she’d been taken two or three nights ago based on how strong her blood-hunger was getting. Whoever her captor or captors were, they weren’t allowing her to feed.
A handful of ghostly white, vaguely humanoid shapes came through the walls, howling and wailing and hovering in the air around the iron cage. They were fixated on the rat, but recoiled whenever they got too close to the iron.
Howler spirits? She’d never seen one in person before, but she’d read about them.
But they could hardly be considered true demons. For one thing, they weren’t smart enough. They fed on fear the way mosquitoes fed on blood and were about as intelligent. Whomever and whatever her captors were, on the other hand, were at least crafty enough to build a cage and suspend it over a pit of acid.
Maybe they keep the Howlers as pets? That seemed to Veronika like something a true demon might do. Then they’ll want a steady source of fear to keep their Howlers fed.
She thought about the arrangement: the source of fear was kept in a cage, and suspending it over acid amplified the captive’s fear. But only if they identify it as acid, from the smell. Any novice alchemist would recognize it as sulfuric acid. But would a non-alchemist know? They might guess it was just filthy liquid. Is fear of drowning that common? Perhaps if a heavy iron cage prevented you from swimming to the surface, it would be.
But then the cage itself is made of pure iron, to repel them when they swarmed around the source of fear. Why would that be?
“Skitterclaw!” A deep voice echoed off the stone walls, raised to be louder than all the howling that was still going on. “What’s taking you so long? Return to me, now!”
Veronika looked up. Ten or twelve feet above where the cage was suspended there was a balcony of sorts. But her view of it was partly blocked by the heavy iron chains the cage was hanging from. But there was someone standing there in the unmistakable black robes and bonework accessories of a Necromancer.
Now Veronika was afraid.
As the living-dead, vampires were vulnerable to necromantic magic. And certain necromancers were known to exploit this fact in rather perverse ways.
Although it was impossible for a vampire to disobey a command from the Master vampire of their Blood-Circle, they still retained the free will to agree or disagree with such commands, and a Master vampire that ruled a Circle for their own benefit, rather than considering the needs and well-being of their Circle, would eventually have their orders creatively interpreted in ways that would bring about their downfall.
But a necromancer could, given sufficient time, take a vampire’s mind away little by little until they were mentally no more than an obedient zombie.
Veronika began brainstorming ways to rapidly commit suicide that would kill her before the necromancer finished a complete sentence. But no. Without access to sunlight, nothing she could do to herself would kill her that fast.
Her only hope was to conceal the fact that she was a vampire. A desperate plan, to say the least.
“Skitterclaw?” The necromancer had a deep bass voice. “Why are you still in the cage?”
“May I answer him without you dropping me?” The self-proclaimed God-King of all rats whispered to Veronika from her clawed hand. He was close enough that she could hear him over the howling.
“That depends on how you answer,” she said. “If you betray me, do you think you can do it thoroughly enough to ensure I don’t survive?”
“Because if you do betray me, and I survive…” Then I’ll be a mindless plaything, she thought with horror. But she hoped that the way she trailed-off implied a threat of vengeance.
The howler spirits were centered on Veronika now, instead of Scitterclaw. She didn’t care. Spiritual mosquitoes lapping up small amounts of her fear were the least of her worries.
“I, Plague-Emperor Skitterclaw,” the rat called up to the balcony, “God-King of all rats and faithful servant of the goddess of pestilence, am not yet finished. I shall return to your side when I am good and ready. I shall not be rushed.”
For a few moments, there was no reply. Just more howling from the swarm of spirits around the cage.
“What do you mean, you’re not done?” The necromancer sounded incredulous. “The Howlers are here.”
Veronika held up a finger to get Skitterclaw’s attention.
“Who is that?” She whispered, holding him close to her face she he could hear her over the racket of the spirits.
“That’s Necromancer Lord Vordrack,” said Skitterclaw. “I persuaded him to help me spread plague and disease in the name of the goddess by pointing out that he’d have a plentiful supply of dead to raise.”
Veronika guessed Vordrack had been the one doing the persuading, and the rat had twisted the truth in his mind to support his delusions.
“You’re his familiar, aren’t you?” She asked.
“Only until I have no further use for him,” said Skitterclaw.