"Wake up. Wake up. WAKE UP!"
"What? What?!" I awoke upside down with a throbbing headache. I was suspended by my ankles on a chain from the ceiling. Rose was beside me. Despite all the laws of physics, her cloak remained over her, not hanging down over her face. "Where are we?"
"My guess is that psycho Blackdawn. She'll do anything for attention."
Blackdawn. The chaos wight. The psychopath who wanted to make herself one with Gaia at our last encounter.
"How'd we get here?"
Hmmph. That's the way The Game worked. They picked a situation and plunged us head-first into the thick of it.
I looked around, appalled at the squalor of Blackdawn's dungeon. She was such a classy gal, and it was unlike her to keep a dungeon looking like this.
"Looks like her place has seen better days. Any plans for breaking out?"
Rose chuckled, flexed her ankles, shattering the manacles, and spun silently to the floor, landing already poised for action in a low crouch.
"You make that look so easy."
"You'd be disappointed if I didn't."
I had to work a little harder at my manacles--I didn't want to take a shortcut and transform, since Rose had a tendency to alternately mock or hunt me relentlessly when I became a bat. But in seconds, I too was free.
"Do we know her plan?"
"Do we know where this base is?"
"Do we know anything about what's going on?"
"I would have told you, Vlad."
"Right then. Let's go."
The dungeon's filthy floor may at one time have been polished marble, but now a thin layer of sweat and sediment-cemented dust formed an impenetrable skin of unpleasantness. Enormous marble or limestone pillars were also coated in spiderwebs and dust. A darkened red sun burned through the one window, behind ash clouds of prodigious size.
"How long have we been here?"
"If the rust on this clasp on my cloak is any indication, a few thousand years."
"Hanging upside down like that?"
"You know it."
I sidled along the wall to the stairwell and peered cautiously up it, checking for guards, as Rose charged up it heedlessly. "Rose, what are you doing?"
"What are you doing?"
"We need to make sure there're no guards up there!"
"Are you kidding? If there were, I'd have felt them long before you woke up. Besides, if there are any, what do you recommend, just staying here? We need to stop that crazy woman before she beats me to the punch and conquers the world."
Rose always amazed me with how well her fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach worked. I gestured to the stairs. "Apre vous, mon dragon."
"Yeah, yeah, whatever."
We ran up the stairs, barely heeding the three suits of armor at the top. Just to be sure, I knocked one down the steps with a resounding, cascading crash. Seeing it fall apart, no one inside, comforted me. We stepped into the hallway--now this was more like the Blackdawn I knew.
The floor was marble, so polished I could see...No I couldn't...so polished that Rose could see her face in it. Titanic marble columns held a vaulted, mural-covered ceiling a few hundred feet over our heads. Rose smiled at the enormity of the hall. "Just enough space."
I tried to dissuade her, but was too late. A burst of flame erupted from the cowl of her cloak as the cape turned into a pair of massive, blood-red wings. Her body grew at a staggering rate, skin turning to scales before my eyes. In a few moments, she was a full-sized dragon. "Now where's that little squirt?" she asked, her head oscillating on a long, muscled neck. I sprinted to the end of the hall, looking down both forks.
"Still no guards. I'm a little worried. It's more like Blackdawn to hedge her bets a little."
"I know what you mean. Pity...my stomach's a little rumbly. I need to put someone in it." Her voice had gained a booming quality, which echoed deafeningly off the marble walls, but it still retained that odd melody that it always had. I had at one point entertained notions of marrying the dragon, but then I imagined what the children would be like. Can you picture a dragon needing to drain a few hundred gallons of blood a day? We don't have that many peasant villages where we live.
As I was distracted by the mists of time, I heard a peculiar metal clattering.
"What's that?" boomed Rose.
"That's the sound, I believe," I replied, chills dancing up and down my spine like cold-footed spiders, "of a suit of armor falling up the stairs."
I looked back to the door through which we'd come. Sure enough, as if by some unholy perversion of gravity, the armor I'd knocked down rattled up the stairs and across the marble floor, and lay there shaking for a few moments before reassembling.
"Enchanted armor? That's hardly even a challenge."
The other two suits joined it. As we watched, the two suits flanking the central one cast off the particulate metal that cloaked them, showing their transparent forms filled with the fabric of night. They slowly were re-covered by a gold sheen, and a single cold, blue eye appeared in the visor of each. Crimson capes fell to their feet from their shoulders, and spearlike staves appeared in their hands.
"No," I croaked, "Not him..."
The central suit was still rattling. From inside it, massive dents and scars were pounded through to the surface. The armor was warped, twisted, contorted as it grew and pounded into a larger, more imposing form--eight feet if it was an inch, with a barrel-chest four feet wide at the shoulder. A daunting poleaxe materialized in its gauntlets.
"The Executioner?" Rose whispered, for once actually surprised by a turn of events. "It couldn't be...not here, not that way...and didn't we kill him?"
The massive, gold-armored shade hefted his axe and roared. His two magician assistants floated forward, their feet barely brushing the ground. "We...have returned," the two said in unison. "The Executioner thirsts for death, and Our Mistress has promised us a tide of blood and death in exchange for aiding her."
"How did she bring you back? We banished you to the netherworld." I still had a hard time accepting this.
"Our lust for suffering was strong enough to resurrect us. Still, we merely floated in Limbo. It was Our Mistress who was able to restore our physical forms."
I shot a serious glance in Rose's direction as she transformed back into something resembling her human form--still bearing her tail, horns and wings, her scales becoming plate armor. When we'd fought the Executioner before, she found it impractical to battle him in dragon form. Her flame was to him at worst an annoyance, and the difference in size made things difficult. A vicious-looking broadsword lengthened from the fang-looking knife in her hand. Its blade as black as the night, it cooled the air around it with the sort of chill you'd expect between blasts of dragonfire.
I took her cue and drew my own blade, a Renaissance-style musketeer saber. It wasn't until then I realized what I was wearing was hardly apropos for battle--a barely industrial-age suit with cravat. Still, couldn't be helped.
"You do realize what this means, don't you?" Rose growled.
I nodded. "The hole they made in the netherworld, combined with Blackdawn's interference, means soon the world will be filled with other freed spirits--varying in power, but all as nutty as she is. And if she could restore the Executioner and his flunkies to their original power--"
"That's where you're wrong," the flunkies interrupted in unison. "We have been empowered by Our Mistress beyond our former state. Bow before the Executioner, and he will make the end quick."
I smiled grimly as I entered a battle stance. "Ready, Rose?"
The dragoness' lips parted in a feral grin, fangs bared. "I was hatched ready."