Prologue

The night was cold and moonless. A lone figure moved through the dense trees without sound, illuminated by a slight lavender glow. Circling him were five enchanted blades. The tips flicked this way and that, wary for any danger that approached their master. But the darkness was calm and undisturbed by the living.

Joachim Armster floated gracefully past dead logs and through dense underbrush without making a noise. He paused for a moment, removing the black glove from his left hand. He stooped down, brushing his fingers scant inches above the forest floor. His thin lips curled upward in a smile of satisfaction. The ground was tainted. He could feel a hundred years' worth of blood soaked into this soil. The aura of anger, fear, and sorrow created a miasma that only one of the undead could truly appreciate.

At last, his search would come to an end. Here, in this forest of eternal night, a vampire reigned. He replaced his glove, smiling to himself at how easy this little adventure had been.

The trees eventually gave way to a stone walkway. It wasn't neat and tidy, but looked as if it had been blasted right out of the bedrock. Rough stone walls of about chest height lined the walkway. They led up to a moat filled with brackish water. On the other bank, a drawbridge was pulled up against the side of the biggest castle Joachim had ever seen.

Before he could ponder the best way to go about sneaking in, the drawbridge started to creak. In seconds, it lowered with a huge crash as it settled into place. Joachim's red eyes narrowed for a moment, suspecting some sort of attack. Nothing happened.

I guess this is an invitation, he thought. I wonder what sort of vampire lives here? Well, he'd find out soon enough. It would be rude to keep his host waiting.

He passed beneath the portcullis without batting an eye, even though the heavy, spiked iron gate could crush him at any moment. He didn't relish the idea of being skewered, but he liked the idea of showing fear in front of an enemy even less. Besides, what sense would there be in allowing him in if only to kill him two seconds later?

The castle had appeared abandoned from the outside, but once in the courtyard, Joachim was greeted by a myriad of braziers, candles, and torches that all echoed the purple glow that surrounded his body. Necromantic magic.

Stylish, Joachim laughed to himself. This vampire is no fool, then. He would do best to be on his guard.

No sooner had he thought this, when a powerful presence washed over him. A flurry of bats swooped down from all corners of the room. They coalesced into a solid, imposing figure. The man was dressed in red and black armor that reminded Joachim of a gargoyle he had once seen. Hair the color of fire cascaded down to the man's broad shoulders. His expression was one of amusement, and his red eyes glittered with malice.

In a voice like distant thunder, the lord of the castle spoke. "Well, well. What brings you to my humble castle, little vampire?"

Joachim hadn't liked the tone his "host" was using, but still he executed his most elegant of bows. "Forgive me for intruding upon your solitude. The night is long, and I was weary from my travels. I thought, perhaps, I could impose upon your kindness for a place to rest until my strength has recovered?"

The flame-haired vampire raised his eyebrows in mock astonishment. "Yet you enter my home with drawn weapons." He pointed at the swords that bobbed behind Joachim's back like faithful servants ready to do his bidding at a moment's notice. "How do I know that you don't mean to kill me and take over my castle as your own?"

Joachim smiled and pushed strands of long, white hair behind his left ear. This would be a challenge. "Ah, you saw through my little charade. I knew you weren't likely to be a fool."

"Then why risk your life like one?" The castle's lord placed his hands upon the banister of the curved stairway that led to the main entrance of the keep. "What is your name?"

"Joachim Armster, former baron." He said this with a bit of defiance. Let the other vampire sneer at his youth if he wanted, but surely he would think twice about laughing at a title.

The armored vampire paced a little, stroking the cracked marble under his gloved fingers. "I thought you spoke like a noble. You certainly dress like one." He took in Joachim's silks and satins with even more amusement, if that was possible. "Yet, why would a noble be looking to usurp a castle? Could it be that you're...homeless? Another displaced noble, having lost his fortune ages ago?" He paused and gave a deep laugh. "Maybe if you beg me, I'll let you be my watch dog."

Joachim drew himself up, looking down his nose at the other vampire. "Nonsense. I intend to fight you, of course." At a mental command, his swords flared out behind him, circling, watchful. "Or have you grown soft from living alone?"

The other vampire laughed again. "Maybe I have. A decade ago, I would have killed you without a second thought. But solitude has made me want for company to entertain me. What say you, boy? Care for a little game?"

"Not really." Joachim prepared to strike.

"A wager, then. A test of strength."

The two vampires locked eyes. One pair was filled with suspicion, the other with lazy challenge. Joachim's swords slowed in their orbit around his body.

"I'm listening."

"You should see before you five pillars, each holding a colored crystal orb." The older vampire waved a hand below him to illustrate his point. "Each orb is a representation of a guardian in this castle. If you can find and defeat my servants, then I will face you in combat."

The swords surrounding Joachim spun about, their glinting points stabbing into the air in the other vampire's direction as he folded his arms over his chest. "And what, pray tell, is in it for you?"

His "host" spread his hands. "Entertainment, as I said before. It's been a while since I've had a guest. I'll enjoy watching you die a slow, suffering death. I know first hand how resilient vampires can be, so you should last longer than the others. Maybe, if you're still in one piece, I'll grace you with a demonstration of my powers."

"And what's to stop me from simply impaling you on my swords right here and now?" Joachim loosed them, and they raced like ravenous hounds towards their prey. "You're mine!"

"Not quite, I'm afraid." The older vampire raised his hands, and the swords clattered into an invisible barrier. They bashed themselves over and over, metal birds attempting to peck through a window that couldn't be seen. "Such enthusiasm. It must be nice to be so young." He gave the air a push, and the swords flew away from him, narrowly missing Joachim. They became embedded in the stone walls behind his "guest."

Joachim wasn't surprised that he had been defeated so easily. His enemy was a careful man, it seemed. "You're tough. I'm glad. I've grown tired of dealing with simpletons."

His "host" smiled viciously. "Now you're beginning to see my point of view."

"Very well. I'll play this game of yours, provided that you keep your word and fight me when I win."

"When you're done collecting your swords, head to your right through that door." The red-haired vampire pointed. "You can begin your journey from there. My castle is large, and quite dangerous. If you manage to defeat my minions, I shall be waiting for you in my throne room atop the highest tower."

"And to whom do I send my gratitude for such...hospitality?"

The redheaded vampire imitated Joachim, giving a mocking bow of his own. It was obvious that he scorned such courtly gestures. "I'm Walter Bernhard, master of this castle and all its inhabitants."

"Thank you. I'll remember that." With deliberate rudeness, Joachim turned and began dislodging his swords from the wall. It took some doing, as they were quite deeply embedded. By the time he had freed them all, Walter had vanished without a trace. He wasn't alarmed, nor outraged by the lack of courtesy his enemy was affording him. If Walter had wanted to, he could have struck while Joachim's back was turned. But he hadn't, which meant that he was serious about this little game of his.

Joachim floated closer to the crystal orbs, noting their colors under a layer of grime: bloody red, midnight blue, purple iris, moss green, and golden yellow. They looked as if they were designed to light up, but as of this moment, they were dark.

Next, he examined the door at the top of the stairs. A circular seal of magic had been place over it. He removed his gloves and tucked them into his belt before placing his slim, white hands against the barrier. He felt the tingle of magical energy prickle his undead flesh. Any attempts to break through would be useless. The seal was set to dissolve once the orbs had been lit.

Joachim looked to the door on his right. Walter had said his journey would begin through there. It looked as if he had no choice but to play along. He wasn't happy with such a roundabout way of doing things, as he was sure that such trials would only serve to show Walter his strengths and weaknesses before their actual confrontation.

I could always back out.

He shook such a ridiculous and cowardly thought from his mind. He couldn't afford to back out, not if he wanted to achieve his goal for being here, which was to challenge a powerful vampire. Maybe this time, things would go as planned.

The door on his right led to a hallway. One side was filled with windows. It was hard to see anything outside with the lack of moonlight, and even his natural, vampiric senses weren't of much help. He wondered if the windows were enchanted, a means to keep strangers disoriented. There was also a door to his right, and one at the end of the hall.

He shrugged. Might as well take each door as it comes. Choosing the room to his right, he opened the door.

The room was cross-shaped, with pools of water on either side of a central walkway. At the end of the walkway was a statue, carved into the semblance of an angel holding a spear. A blob of shimmering liquid bobbed before it. The only other thing of note was that the room was abnormally cold, even to a vampire who didn't normally feel such things.

Joachim floated up and poked the blob with one finger. It felt like some sort of lukewarm jelly, which was odd, because by right it should have been like ice.

"Disgusting," he said, rubbing his fingers together, testing the consistency. "But magical." He sighed and put his whole right hand into it. It squished around his hand, and he grimaced. A circle of power appeared under his feet, and before he could jump away, a rush of images filled his head.

Somewhere, stained glass windows were illuminated by flickering purple candles. Ghostly church bells echoed around him. The power of God was diminished, yet a slight amount of holy power buffeted his senses in the presence of a mild headache.

A garden languished under the light of a red moon. Night-blooming flowers grew between vines that writhed up the walls and clung to cracks, waiting for their next victim. Decapitated statues of lithe women littered the area, a testimony to some woman's jealousy.

Deep in the bowels of the earth, forbidden experiments with alchemy were taking place. Creatures that should never have been given form lurked within every shadow. In this place, life and death were interchangeable.

From the center of the castle a bell chimed, and the curtain rose on a large wooden stage. Monsters danced and cavorted in revelry of their wickedness. It was a theater of the damned, where the actors were souls trapped in torment, forced to act out the moment of their deaths repeatedly, forever.

In a cavernous room below even the lab of mysteries, a dark waterfall tumbled endlessly into a chasm. The depths of this abyss is unknown. The grinding sound of mechanical blades is faint under the boom of rushing water.

Joachim lost control over his levitation ability and crumpled to the floor in distress. The information dump had ended, but his head felt full, overstuffed. He moaned, batting aside his swords as they crowded closer, uncertain of their master's state of mind.

"I'm all right!" he snapped, and the enchanted blades backed off. The vampire remained on his knees for many minutes, breathing in the cold, still air. He closed his eyes and image of a map appeared. "How kind of Walter to provide me with the layout of the castle grounds. I must thank him properly the next time I see him." Behind him, the blades whirled in excitement, sensing their master's anger and bloodlust.

Staggering to his feet, Joachim reinitiated his levitation spell. He rolled his slender shoulders and popped his neck, attempting to put himself back in order. Feeling a little better, he glared at the angel statue as if it had been the one to cause him such discomfort.

No one said this would be easy, he reminded himself as he exited.

The second door beckoned him down the hall. He pushed it open cautiously, lest another, more unpleasant surprise be waiting for him.

The room was large, with an ominous looking door at the back and a raised section to the left. Ignoring the door for the moment, the vampire floated up the stairs of the raised flooring. Painted on the ground was a large animal skull of some kind; it was a horse or a cow, he wasn't sure. The gaping eye sockets had been filled in with red paint. The mural stared upward at him as he walked across it.

The vampire smirked. "What are you looking at?" he asked. His swords swiped at the skull as if it were a foe, but sensing no danger, they settled into place against Joachim's back.

Five round platforms had been cut out of the floor. They had been arranged in an arc above the skull mural. After examination, he found that four of them would not be budged. The center platform began to glow with runes and markings of teleportation as he neared it. Any fool could tell that this was a sign. Walter was making this too easy for him.

Joachim hovered over the glowing runes and felt his body start to dissipate. As the room began to dissolve around him, he felt a pang of unease. There would be no turning back after this. For all he knew, this magical lift was taking him to his death.

That's a risk I'm willing to take, he told himself firmly. I need to get stronger. Then, everything went black.