Brelynn scrubbed her skin raw, but no matter how hot the water was, she couldn’t wash away the spell her master forced her to cast.
Mara hugged her. “It hurts so much because your soul is still clean. It’s when the pain stops you have to worry.”
Brelynn scrubbed her skin raw, but no matter how hot the water was, she couldn’t wash away the spell her master forced her to cast.
Mara hugged her. “It hurts so much because your soul is still clean. It’s when the pain stops you have to worry.”
Andromeda kicked the dirt and crossed her arms over her thin chest.
It wasn’t fair.
She was bored and lonely. A dog would fix both.
Of course her grandmother didn’t want her to have one. She never wanted Andromeda to have anything nice. Laverra was still mad Andromeda had survived being born and angrier yet Andromeda’s father protected his daughter.
Andromeda glanced back at the upper windows of the gothic manor house looming behind her. It blocked out the faint trickle of sunlight that escaped the overcast sky and shrouded the grounds in gloom. The wards around the compound protected Andromeda from the outside evil, but they did nothing to protect her from what was inside.
She’d seen only six summers, but she already knew one day soon she’d have to protect herself.
Another reason for her to have a dog.
Her grandmother would be resting now, preferring to sleep during the day when her magic was weakest.
Andromeda snorted. Magic didn’t care if it was day or night, but her grandmother’s magic was fading. Laverra had deviated too far from Uzakiel’s path, and Rashalee had snared her in a web of lies, greed, and envy. The old woman would soon need a powerful blood sacrifice to appease Uzakiel.
She’d go after Andromeda’s father.
Andromeda wouldn’t let that happen, nor would her dog once she got one. Her father was the only one ever kind to her even if his studies absorbed so much of his time that he didn’t notice her most days.
She kicked the dirt again.
One of the human guards spotted her and hurried away, pretending he hadn’t noticed her.
Andromeda was used to it. She’d always been an ugly child with her too-big blue eyes and golden ringlets. But her father loved her, and people were nice to her because they didn’t want to anger Lord Wrakar.
One day, they’d be nice to her because they didn’t want to anger her.
The thought cheered her as she skipped down to the crypts. Dysentery had killed two human servants earlier in the week, and her father’s apprentices had laid out the bodies in the prepatory chambers with the flesh-eating beetles. Her father had no work for zombies at the moment, and after another week or so, one of her father’s apprentices would raise them for kitchen duties.
Fresh skeletons made the best house staff, and the apprentices needed the practice.
Andromeda liked the skeleton staff better than the human one. The skeletons never called her ugly, her father awful, or her dead mother stupid. And they always did what she told them.
Her grandmother wished Andromeda would be as well-behaved as the skeletons. Laverra could keep wishing.
Sitting on the edge of the mausoleum, Andromeda swung her legs. The crypts were quiet, like they always were. Like the manor house was. And the courtyards. And the workrooms.
She blew a golden curl from her eyes. Sometimes, she wished people would laugh. Smile. Even yelling would be better than the constant silence.
She wanted a dog. Needed it.
The crypts were situated in the most ancient parts of the family compound, and their family was one of the oldest in Oskelez. Andromeda wondered how old the bones moldering in the crypt were.
A smile teased over her lips as she thought of a way to ease her boredom.
Magic filled her, and she sunk it into the ground. It filtered over the bones of servants, then past the dust of her ancestors. Their presence intensified her own magic, and she giggled as a surge of power washed through her.
Harnessing it, Andromeda pushed the magic deeper. Burial sites from long forgotten wars lay further beneath the crypt. Deeper yet were the bones of peasants from a failed uprising.
Sweat beaded on Andromeda’s brow as she gathered the power of the dead to her, bolstering her magic and delving deeper.
Past the bones of noble knights and valiant priests who served gods she didn’t know. Deeper yet to the dust of slaves who’d built Oskelez and the bones of their masters.
What is the seven hells were these creatures?
Things of nightmare. Things of…
Wait. Were those the bones of a dog?
A smile lit Andromeda’s face as she ripped the magic from the ancient dead surrounding the dog and funneled it into the beast.
Sweat trickled down her cheek as the dead fought her, resisted her.
She balled her tiny fists and locked her jaw. She was a necromancer of clan Xyrenia.
The. Dead. Would. Obey!
She tore the magic from them and slammed it into the dog. Her dog.
The ground beneath the crypt shook, the dry earth cracking and tearing as a howl ripped through the silent afternoon and echoed off the magic wards.
Bone paws the size of caldrons punched through the ground, followed by two large heads and a massive body. The creature of nightmare stood taller than a man, and it tossed back both heads and howled.
Red pinpricks flickered in its eye sockets as it turned toward Andromeda.
She crossed her arms and waited.
The abomination studied her then lowered both of its heads to the ground at her feet.
Andromeda clapped her hands together in delight.
“I’ll name you Orthul, and we’re going to be the best of friends.”
She skipped back to the house, her new companion at her heels.
If you liked this story, you might like to check out a free copy of my debut novel, To Love a Prince.
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.
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.
You can get the first part of the story here.
Veronika had been born in the city of Oskelez over a century ago. Her parents were slaves, and she’d never known them. She’d been raised by the Pest-Hunters: skinny men and women who wore yellow rags and odd-shaped hats. Her earliest memories were of being made to crawl into small spaces to catch rats. Sometimes it was a warehouse. Sometimes it was a luxurious and terrifying residence. A few times, she was sent rat-catching inside some kind of complex machinery.
Sometimes the rats were being caught because they were pests. Other times it was because someone or something wanted them for food. Having known no other life, she didn’t think there was anything strange or tragic about her situation. She got good at catching rats and came to enjoy it, until the day one of the rats made her a deal. She’d been six years old at the time.
The talking rat offered to teach Veronika magic if she would spare him and bring him some chalk and candles. She didn’t trust the talking rat or think that giving it what it wanted was a good idea. She figured any sorcerer foolish enough to change themselves into a rat without a way to change back probably wasn’t a very good teacher.
But she was curious, and decided to do what the rat asked just to see what would happen. She guessed that either he’d turn himself into a human again and skip out on his promise to teach her magic (not that she cared to learn from him), or he’d make some mistake with the spell and burn the whole place down (she was very good at finding escape routes, having spent her whole life crawling through nooks and crannies).
When she returned after scavenging everything he’d asked for, the talking rat had introduced himself as Plague Emperor Skitterclaw, God-King of all rats and faithful servant to the Goddess of Pestilence. He warned her that he was preparing a ritual spell to bring death to the humans who had been hunting and killing his people, but as thanks for her aid, Veronika would be spared.
She agreed. But only so that the talking rat would let his guard down. She ran him through with her steel dagger as soon as his back was turned.
The Pest-Hunters weren’t kind, but they weren’t cruel either. And with them, she had a purpose. If the talking rat’s ritual-spell would really bring death to them all and leave Veronika on her own, she wouldn’t last a day in Oskelez.
In the century-and-a-half or so that followed, Veronika had grown into adulthood, survived by her wits, made dangerous enemies, bargained with dark powers to survive, become a vampire, and had mastered the practice of apothecarial alchemy.
Once or twice a decade throughout her eventful life and subsequent undead existence, Veronika would encounter a talking rat that claimed to be Plague Emperor Skitterclaw, God-King of all rats and faithful servant to the Goddess of Pestilence.
The other talking rats of Os-Kelez always advised her not to take them seriously.
Veronika ignored the talking rat and paced her cage, trying to focus her thoughts.
As a master-class alchemist, she could tell that her cage was iron, not steel. Easy to magnetize, prone to rust, and softer than steel. But not soft enough that she could bend the bars, even with supernatural vampire-strength. When designers opted for pure iron rather than charcoal-infused steel, the most common reason was that pure iron repelled ethereal undead. Not physical undead, like zombies or ghouls. But ghosts, wraiths, and other such spirits absolutely hated the stuff the same way shape-shifters hated silver.
Did that mean something, Veronika wondered? Why would her captors keep her, a vampire, in such a cage?
She hissed a curse under her breath. The delusional talking rat who thought he was Plague Emperor Skitterclaw, God-King of all rats and faithful servant of some-goddess-or-other, was distracting her from her train of thought with his incessant chatter.
“Are you some manner of demon that feeds on annoyance, rather than fear? What is it? What do you want?”
The rat blinked at her. “Few have dared to take such a tone with Plague Emperor Skitterclaw and lived,” he said.
With lightning-quick movement, Veronika’s snatched the rat in her hand and extended her vampire-claws just enough to poke into his skin without penetrating and drawing blood. She held the little pest right in front of her angry, fang-bearing glare.
“Fewer still have been dropped into a pit of sulfuric acid and lived,” she snarled, “no matter what kind of God-King they think they are.”
“Oh! Err, yes, good point! Very true! And if I may take this moment to beg your forgiveness, oh revered and exalted goddess! Your humble and faithful servant am I, and I most fearfully prostrate myself before you for failing to recognize you in your present vessel of incarnation. How may I serve your will, oh goddess?”
Veronika shook her head. “I’m not going to pretend to be a pestilence goddess just to humor your delusions of grandeur! Just give me the peace and quiet I need to think of a way to escape.”
Just then, an ear-splitting howl echoed through the stone walls of the chamber. It was shortly joined by several other identical howls.
“So much for peace and quiet,” she said.
“Err, sorry about that, ma’am,” said the rat. “It’s just that I was rather terrified of being dropped into a pit of acid a second ago, and now they’ve sensed my fear and are coming to feed.”
Good, thought Veronika, let’s see just what these ‘fear demons’ are.
One of my husband’s New Year’s resolutions was to write a short story a month. He’s not a romance novel writer, but he did write the story taking place in the same world as all my novels do, so I had to share it.
“The thing about demons that feed on fear is they need their victims to be afraid,” said the rat. “If they went ahead and killed you, you wouldn’t be afraid of them anymore, see? That’s no good for them.”
“I see. And why are you telling me this?” Veronika pursed her lips as she paced the floor of the spiked iron cage, suspended by a web of chains, over a pit of sulfuric acid. The rat was unaware that Veronika was a vampire.
“Don’t you see?” The rat seemed quite concerned. “By not taking them seriously enough to fear them, they’ve got no reason to keep you alive!”
Veronika gave an exasperated sigh. “Oh no,” she said as sarcastically as she could, hoping the rat would pick up on it. “That means they’ll kill me. Eek. Whatever shall I do? Oh, wait. Now that I’m afraid, they’ll spare me. Whew. That’s a relief. Oh no. Now I’ve gone and realized I don’t need to be afraid. I’m doomed. And so on, and so on, ad nauseam. Maybe what they really feed on is the frustration of circular decision loops, and that’s why they claim to feed on fear.”
The rat blinked at her. “Sorry. You’ve lost me.”
Veronika sighed. You could enchant a rat to imbue it with the power of speech, she reflected, but that didn’t mean it was smart.
Veronika had read a number of things about demons and was jaded enough to figure that most of it was disinformation written and published by demons themselves. The same way she sometimes ran across vampire-hunters who tried to use garlic against her. That one never got old.
Of course, there were many different kinds of demons just like there were many different kinds of fish. One could say “fish are poisonous”. Was that True? Or False? Neither. It was too general. “Demons feed on fear” was a statement in the same category, Veronika figured. For all she knew a demon was lurking somewhere siphoning her fear into its gullet right now. Maybe that’s why she didn’t feel terrified ot being kept in a cage over a pit of acid.
Well, if that were true, it sure made it easier to keep calm while trying to think of a solution.
“Look, Mr. Talking Rat. What did you say your name was?”
The rat reared up on his hind legs. His face took on the most serious expression that was possible for a rat-face to have.
“I am Plague-Emperor Skitterclaw, God-King of all rats and faithful servant to the Goddess of Pestilence.”
Oh no, thought Veronika, not another one.