Demon plane of Oblivion, City of Ash
Year 192 in the Rule of the Dead
“Do we go to our death—or worse?”
Malkom Slaine gazed over at his best friend, Prince Kallen the Just, wishing he had a better answer for him, anything to ease the apprehension in Kallen’s eyes.
As the vampire guards shoved them along, deeper into their stronghold, Malkom suspected death might be welcome before the night was out.
“The rumors are likely untrue,” he lied, putting up a renewed resistance as the dozen guards forced them down a flight of stone steps. But his bonds were mystical; Malkom was unable to teleport or break free.
At the base of the stairs lay a subterranean chamber with an ornate throne on a dais. Though the floor was of packed earth, the walls were hung with rich silks and tapestries. Rare crystal and glass adorned the room.
At once, Malkom began analyzing every inch of the area for an escape. Ahead, a pair of winded demon slaves stood beside a freshly dug grave. More guards lined the walls, with swords at the ready. In the back, a black-robed sorcerer worked at a vial-cluttered table.
Gods, let the rumors be untrue … those whispers of the Scârba—the abominations.
Kallen muttered, “Can you see a way out of this?”
Normally, Malkom could. Without fail, he figured his way out of seemingly impossible predicaments. “Not as of yet.”
The guards shoved Kallen and Malkom to their knees before the grave.
“Ronath will pay for this once I get free,” Kallen grated. Ronath the Armorer was a seasoned warrior, the strongest demon after Malkom. He’d once been Kallen’s favored commander. “The traitor will not see another night.”
’Twas Ronath who’d turned Malkom over to the vampires. Disastrous enough. But without Malkom’s unwavering defense, Kallen’s fortress had fallen just a week later. The Trothans’ beloved prince had been captured.
Blinded by his hatred for Malkom—a slave turned commander—Ronath had unwittingly doomed Kallen and all the Trothans.
Malkom had already planned his own revenge. As he was neither noble nor good like Kallen, his retribution would be far more vicious than the prince could ever envision.
Without warning, a vampire traced into the room, teleporting directly onto the throne. Clad in costly silk robes, the male was pallid, his skin untouched by Oblivion’s blistering sun. His eyes were wholly red, his visage twisted by madness.
When the vampires had conquered Oblivion and turned it into a colony, they’d dispatched the Viceroy, their most malicious leader, to act as ruler of the plane.
“Ah, my two new prisoners,” he said in Anglish.
Though Malkom and Kallen both were fluent in the language, they refused to speak anything other than their native Demonish—even as the use of that tongue was now punishable by death.
The vampire rubbed his narrow, clean-shaven chin. “At last, you have both been captured.”
Malkom and the prince were the leaders of the rebellion, and to break them would be to break the resistance. The vampire overlords had searched for them relentlessly.
When the Viceroy snapped his fingers, the two slaves exited the room, returning moments later with an unconscious demon boy. One of their own, handed over for a vampire’s refreshment. A leisurely repast.
Malkom started sweating. He strained even harder against his bonds but couldn’t get free before the vampire collected the boy in his arms, then bent over his neck.
At the sight, rage spiked within Malkom. Those sucking sounds…
He bared his fangs, overwhelmed with memories of his childhood as a blood slave. His only consolation was that this boy was unconscious, a luxury he himself had never been afforded. Nor had Malkom’s neck been taken, for that skin would have been readily seen—and he hadn’t been kept only for his blood.
“Steady, Malkom,” Kallen murmured in Demonish. “Keep your wits about you.”
How many times had Kallen said those exact words? The prince has long kept me sane.
The Viceroy dropped the boy from the dais to the ground like refuse, then dabbed at his lips with a crisp handkerchief. “I confess, you two fascinate me.” His red eyes burned with curiosity. “A friendship between a beloved royal and his brutal guard dog. The highest of the high, and …” He flicked his hand at Malkom.
No one had been more perplexed by their friendship than Malkom. Kallen was the crown prince of the Trothan Demonarchy, hundreds of years old, and filled with wisdom.
Malkom was the illiterate thirty-year-old son of a whore, raised as a vampire’s slave—and filled with rage.
Yet somehow he and Kallen had become comrades in arms, brothers by choice if not by blood. Kallen had said he’d recognized something in Malkom, an innate nobility. As if he’d known how badly Malkom wanted to be noble.
“Penniless, ignorant, and fatherless,” the Viceroy intoned. “The son of a demon whore who sold her body.” With a sneer, he added, “Until she could sell one of her offspring.”
Malkom could deny nothing.
“How easily you sprang to life, when you should have been no more than seeping waste in a back alley.”
“If Malkom is not noble in blood,” Kallen said, “then he is noble in deed.”
Kallen, still defending me.
The Viceroy seemed amused. “I can imagine none so lowly, yet you had the gall to resist us, knowing death awaited. Amazingly, you very nearly routed us from your world, demon.”
Malkom could scarcely comprehend this. Though he’d won numerous battles, he hadn’t imagined his foes were on the brink of surrender. Malkom had never known an Oblivion without the walking-dead vampires here.
Decades before his birth, they had arrived from an alien plane filled with myriad breeds of immortals and mortals, settling here for one reason.
When the vampires consumed Trothan blood, it made them more powerful than they’d ever been, made them heal from injuries more swiftly. Blood had eventually become the currency in Oblivion.
“So very nearly,” the Viceroy continued. “But in the end, breeding will tell.” The vampire traced to stand just beside them. “You can dress in your fine warrior clothing.” He reached down to rip Malkom’s rich cloak from him. “But you can only mask what you truly are. Under those manacles at your wrists, I bet I would find bite scars.”
Again Malkom voiced no denial. He normally wore silver cuffs to conceal those shaming marks.
The details of his past weren’t necessarily held secret. All the demons in Ash knew how Malkom had earned his bread as a boy, how he’d eaten from their trash once he’d grown too old for a vampire lord’s tastes.
But for this vampire to know as well…
“Does not matter how you appear, demon—you are still nothing.”
“Do not listen to him, Malkom,” Kallen said. “You are a good man. A stalwart leader.”
“Who was betrayed at the earliest opportunity?” the vampire said.
A gang led by the powerful and devious Ronath had tricked Malkom. Before he could trace or attack, he’d been caught in a metal net and stabbed through repeatedly.
“You rose up high for the briefest time. But I will break you down once more.”
Malkom craned his head up to face the Viceroy. “Break me down?”
“You submitted to a vampire master once. You will do so again.”
“Is that why we live still? For me, save yourself time and kill me now.” Nothing this vampire could do would be worse than what the slave master of Malkom’s childhood had done. Malkom gazed at the demon boy, unconscious in the dirt. Nothing.
“ ’Tis not so simple,” the Viceroy said. “It never is with our kind.” Had he signaled something to the sorcerer at the back of the chamber? “You’ve destroyed so many of my soldiers that I have decided to create more, starting with you two, the strongest of your kind. You shall be transformed, remade in my image.”
The rumors … ’Twas said that the overlords had developed a rite to transform Trothans into Scârba—demonic vampires who thirsted for the blood of their own. A demon and a vampire united, an abomination stronger than both.
The Viceroy drew his sword from a scabbard at his hip. “You will drink my blood, and it will open your veins to the ritual. Your deaths will be the catalyst.” He ran a finger over the edge of his sword, while in the shadows his sorcerer began to chant, fueling a sinister curse.
Power emanated from the sorcerer with every utterance, filling the room with forbidden black magics. Some unseen force seemed to wrap around Malkom’s body, digging in.
Even more guards closed in, heaving tight on Malkom’s and Kallen’s chains. One of the largest vampires jammed his knee into Kallen’s spine, forcing his head backward, while another wedged a bit between Kallen’s teeth.
“No, no!” Malkom roared, twisting violently.
The Viceroy sliced his own wrist. “ ’Tis a gift I’m giving you. The Thirst. I am going to make blood sing for you, make you dine on demon flesh every day for eternity.” He shoved the streaming gash to Kallen’s pried-open mouth. “You will become like us, and be loyal only to me. It begins now.”
“Do not drink it, Kallen!” Malkom bellowed, but they forced him to swallow it.
They set upon Malkom next, stabbing him until he was too weakened to resist. The Viceroy’s thick, vile blood was forced down his throat as well.