Of Rats and Crystals (Part 4)
Some said that Oskelez was a city without law and order. That wasn’t true. The laws of Humankind, Elvenkind, and Dwarvenkind were all based on the fears and priorities of their people, and they shared more similarities than differences. But the laws, rules, and regulations that governed within the obsidian walls of Oskelez were not crafted by any of the world’s mortal races.
Demons walked the boulevards and gardens in their true forms. The dead were raised by dark magic and enslaved alongside the living. But there were rules, even if most mortal minds couldn’t understand the reasoning behind them.
How long Oskelez had existed was a mystery to all but its Founders, and the few beings who remembered them spoke of them in hushed tones. But by their will were the laws of the city written in the surface of its obsidian outer walls and basalt-paved streets, in a language that only demons were able to speak aloud, and even then only on nights when there was no moon in the sky.
The Gods of Light and Justice, on those occasions when they allowed themselves to descend from the Divine Realm to the world, spoke of it to their followers by warning them to stay away. For thousands and thousands of years, Holy Kingdoms would rise and fall in the lands surrounding it, with armies of warrior-priests and devout paladins.
The foolish and prideful thought it was their destiny to smite Os-Kelez into oblivion for the glory of the Divines. The wise and the patient and the humble knew that their task was to watch, and to wait, and when necessary to contain.
Veronika didn’t know any of this. Being born and raised in the city, she accepted it as normal and knew little of the outside world other than that they hated and feared Oskelez. By her reckoning, “vampire” was just a stage in life, like “childhood” or “puberty”, that came after “adulthood” and meant you had to drink the blood of the living. Not becoming a vampire was viewed in much the same way as children or teenagers not surviving to adulthood. Some children survived to adulthood, some didn’t. Some adults made it to vampirehood, some didn’t.
Every time she met the latest incarnation of Plague-Emperor Skitterclaw, she humored him for a little while. Then killed him. At her first encounter, it was simply because she knew she had a better chance of survival with the Pest-Hunters than as a solitary orphan child.
Her reasons as a vampire were equally practical. She preferred blood from healthy victims. A devastating plague meant there would be less to feed from, and their blood would be filthy to say nothing of the taste.
She didn’t really believe he was truly the God-King of all rats and destined to bring plague and death to thousands. But why take the risk?
“Skitterclaw, I grow weary of this,” called Vordrack over the wailing. “The Howlers have gathered, and the acid is ready. It’s time to begin.”
“Begin what?” Veronika hissed in Skitterclaw’s ear.
Skitterclaw hissed back. “We release the catch that drops open the bottom of the cage. Not being very bright, the Howlers follow the frightened subject as they fall into the liquid. Vordrack has a spell that condenses spirits into crystals that he has all sorts of uses for, but the spirits have to be submerged in acid for it to work.”
Veronika surmised that the victims’ skeletal remains were just a handy byproduct. Necromancers had many uses for those, too. Still, as a grand-master alchemist, she couldn’t help but feel some professional curiosity. She’d love to compare notes with Vordrack about crystallizing ethereal spirits, if only she didn’t suspect he’d enslave her at the first opportunity.
“What role do you play in all this?” Veronika asked Skitterclaw. “Why does he need you?”
“Well, he says it’s because I’m small and light enough to run along the chains that hold the cage up so I can go whisper things to the one in the cage to optimize their fear. But I suspect it’s really for the prestige of working with I, Skitterclaw, God-King of…”
Veronika interrupted, sick and tired of hearing his full title. “You mean you’re just here to taunt whoever’s about to be dropped into acid?”
“Oh, Vordrack’s got this whole theory about how there’s seven different flavors of fear that the howlers can taste, and it results in different crystals. You’ve not exactly reacted according to script, so he’s probably not going to get the ones he’s after today.”
“No,” she said, glaring at him. “But he’ll get something!”
She squeezed her hand tighter, driving her claws into his flesh and drawing blood until he let out a shriek. Then she stuck her hand between the bars of the cage and dropped him.
As he fell, the Howlers locked on to his scream and whooshed down to surround him.
Veronika wasn’t sure what happened next. Perhaps his familiar drowning in acid stunned him. Perhaps he was trying to rush the spirit-crystallization spell because the sudden timing of the howlers’ descent caught him off-guard. Perhaps both at once, to varying degrees. But whatever the reason, Vordrack fell to his knees on the balcony above, and the cage-bottom remained solidly closed.
At least for the moment.
Thinking fast, Veronika slipped out of her long black dress.
Shadowviper silk was stylish and comfortable, at least to vampires (no one living had ever managed to wear it). It was also more elastic than wool and almost as strong as chain-mail.
She tied the sleeves of the dress in a tight knot around a bar at the base of the cage, then took the hem of the gown and tied it around her waist. A brief search revealed the catch that released the hinged cage floor. She took a deep breath and thought a silent prayer.
Gods of darkness, pain, and suffering, we souls of mortal races and undead will one day have our revenge at the end of time by swarming your horrifying magnificence like millions of tiny locusts. Though you may swat at us and destroy thousands, you will die choking on us as we enter oblivion with the satisfaction of having finally destroyed you.
It was a common prayer in Os-Kelez, often said for good luck when one was about to attempt something risky. Its origins were lost to history.
Veronika kicked the catch.
She cursed and kicked it again. Still nothing.
“What’s that?” Vordrack called. “Who’s there?”
Veronika gave a panicked gasp. The necromancer was coming back to his senses. Then she yelped as the floor gave way beneath her .
“The fear crystals! Quickly, Skitterclaw! Drain the pit before they dissolve!”
Veronika was hanging several feet below the bottomless cage, naked except for her leather boots. Retracting her claws so as not to shred the very fabric that her unlife depended on, Veronika pulled herself up the shadowviper-silk rope until she gripped the bars of the cage, then swung herself up onto the top of the cage with her vampire reflexes.
The crystals must have been important. Vordrack lurched to his feet and scrambled toward a panel of small levers, ignoring Veronika. She didn’t think she could avoid his notice forever. Best to get his attention on her terms.
She untied the dress from around her waist. Once she was free, she dashed toward the balcony with supernatural speed and grace and along the web of chains the cage was suspended from. Vordrack flipped a rat-sized lever with his finger, then turned to look down into the pit just as Veronika leaped upwards at him. She caught his chin with the hob-nailed heel of her leather boot in a flying kick.
Veronika stood over the unconscious necromancer still in nothing but her boots and resisted the urge to sink her fangs into him and feed. As hungry as she was, she knew having a necromancer’s blood inside her was a bad idea.
Killing him would be easy, but making sure that a necromancer of his caliber stayed dead would not.
At least, it wouldn’t be if there weren’t a pit of acid handy.
After retrieving her shadowviper-silk dress, Veronika made sure Vordrack’s mortal remains were entirely dissolved. It took longer than she thought, especially his bones. But given the likelihood that Vordrack had made arrangements to return as a Lich, she knew dissolving his bones could not be overlooked.
On her way out after completing the morbid task, Veronika came across what she recognized as an alchemical laboratory, and her curiosity perked up. Grand-Master alchemists were very secretive. She’d likely never get another chance to examine a rival’s laboratory. Not to mention she’d missed her appointment to get the reagents she wanted for her own experiments. She was owed some recompense.
She suppressed the growing urgency of her blood-hunger and searched the laboratory. Her patience was rewarded. A handwritten leather-bound tome entitled The sublimation of ethereal spirit essences and their applications was on a workbench surrounded by several small piles of crystals. The drawers, shelves, and cabinets yielded plenty of other rare and expensive reagents as well, along with a selection of exotic and valuable books.
His tools and instruments were tempting, but she had no way of carrying them.
A window opened out to the moonless nighttime skyline of Oskelez. Veronika smiled. With her pockets full of condensed howler crystals, in all seven flavors of fear, she swooped into the night in search of prey.