Chapter 1: The First Trial

Joachim came back to himself with the urge to vomit. He looked around at the crumbling stone edifices, the stained glass windows, and curled his lip with a feral hiss. This place reeked of God.

That vision was only a taste of what awaited me here, he thought. His swords sensed his agitation and fluttered around, hacking at random in the air. Easy, he soothed. I know you hate this place as much as I do. The swords returned to him, behaving almost as if they were feeling guilty for their actions.

Traversing this place would be a chore. He could feel subtle waves of righteous anger streaming in his direction from all corners of the room. He felt battered and bruised, and he hadn't been there more than a few minutes. Though the holy reliefs had been defaced, the statues of the saints mutilated, and there wasn't a cross in sight, Joachim still flinched like a scared animal as he surveyed the ruin of a chapel.

If this is what it feels like to be in a defiled House of God, I'd hate to ever find myself in a real one.

Standing around wasn't going to make things any easier. It would be best if he got on with the task at hand and left this place as soon as possible.

As he moved from room to room, Joachim couldn't help but notice the decay that pervaded most of the chapel. Nothing was left untouched by the ravages of time. Wooden pews were smashed apart and stained with marks of exposure to water. Looking up confirmed cracks in the ceiling where rain must have seeped in. Cobwebs as big as his head decorated the rafters and corners of the room. Not for the first time since his arrival was Joachim glad that he was levitating; the thought of getting his boots dirty with all the dust lying around appalled him. He may have been undead, but he prided himself on being a well-dressed, and above all, clean vampire.

Amid the dust lay scattered bones. He wondered if they belonged to former parishioners or if they were just more victims of the castle's master. Taking the sword floating by his left arm by the hilt, he used it to nudge the arm of a dirty corpse. The metal gave a dull tap as it connected with bare bone.

He had heard once that some vampires used skeletons as expendable sentries when it came to guarding a castle. For one thing, they were mindless and followed any command issued them. Unlike zombies, who only had food on their rotting minds, a skeleton was animated by stronger magic and could follow even moderately complex fighting styles that they knew in life. Second, they were a little more durable than zombies, consisting of nearly petrified bone as opposed to paltry flesh. Besides that, they smelled ten times better.

These bones appeared to be lifeless. He poked them a few more times for good measure, but they didn't stir beyond that. The fellow, whoever he was, was quite dead.

"How disappointing," Joachim said, releasing the sword. It fluttered back to its earlier position and stayed there. "Am I to find nothing more than bones and dust?" He snorted and brushed off his immaculate clothing. "I believe Master Bernhard's 'dangerous castle' is highly overrated. I should have known the man would bluff." He backed up and performed a jump, crushing the skull of the corpse with the metal heel of his right boot.

He passed through several more rooms, and was just about to give up hope of finding anything living, be it mortal or undead, when something unexpected happened. The room he had just entered appeared, at first glance, like all the other ones he had come through. Bones and dust seemed to be the trend in this place. All at once metal bars shot up behind him, blocking the way he had just come from.

Joachim spun about and frowned. "What the devil...?" He motioned for two of his swords to attack. They clanged off the red metal of the bars without leaving so much as a scratch. Calling back his minions, he looked to the other door across the way. It looked harmless enough, an inviting exit to this now blocked-off room.

He didn't trust it.

I think I'm beginning to understand. No monsters, no sentries, no oddities at all...until now. But still, he would do best to test out his theory.

At his approach, the same sort of metal bars slid into place, locking the exit and effectively trapping him in the room. A magical energy began to form with no visible collection point.

He moved to the center of the room. He hovered there, a picture of calm and patience, trying to follow what his sword instructor had told him so long ago. He drew in a deep breath and found his center, focusing on that to quell his inner excitement. This was what he had been waiting for!

His assumption had been correct. He had allowed the lack of obstacles to lull him into a false sense of boredom. Because of that, he had stumbled into this trap. It wasn't a particularly clever trick, but then, he hadn't been very clever to allow himself to fall for it.

The magical energy grew, drawing together the bones littered about. One by one they formed into full skeletons. Their eyes were lit by glowing red dots of light, and in their hands they held longbows. Each bow was knocked with an arrow bathed in blue witch-fire.

Even though Joachim fell into a battle stance, with his swords nearly in a frenzy for blood, his action was premature. Behind him, he heard an ominous clank of metal. A glance over his shoulder confirmed his fear. An animated suit of heavy armor was marching towards him, a massive spiked ball and chain being swung over its head. He was caught in between a rock and a hard place, it seemed.

"Holy hell," he swore softly. And he meant it.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Walter Bernhard sat in his throne room in total darkness. He had dispelled the lights in order to better see the stars. This place was as close to heaven as he would ever know, but that suited him just fine. It only proved to him that God was nonexistent, otherwise, why would He allow such an abomination of life so close to His precious kingdom among the clouds?

The vampire lord stretched his long legs and settled more comfortably into his throne. I wonder if that boy is having a hard time of things?

He had sealed off the other teleporters on purpose to force his "guest" to visit the anti-chapel first. Walter had long ago given up the belief that holy relics could hurt him, and as such, was not terribly affected by the place. After all, belief is what gives a certain thing meaning. He would not allow something as mundane as a Bible to turn his stomach.

Is this man, Joachim, strong enough to cast off the mortal superstitions that so lessen our power? Garlic, holy water, a crucifix... These are but myths spread around by frightened mortals to give them a sense of empowerment. As mortals, we believed in God and the Devil, giving power to names that we couldn't understand even if we tried.

Well, he hadn't. He had never believed in God. And when that corrupt and sin-tainted priest bit my throat, I knew then that I was right. The Devil does exist, in me and all of our kind. But where is this so-called God that I am to fight against? Does He tremble behind His pearl strewn gates, too afraid to show Himself to me? Or will He be born of woman again, a mortal, sent to purge the world of its evil by dying on yet another cross?

Walter laughed at the notion. No human could ever hope to defeat him, divine powers or not. Just as this puny, fledgling vampire wouldn't defeat him. Even if he made it past the chapel, he wouldn't make it to this throne room. It was a pity, really, because he had seen such potential in Joachim. But there was too much arrogance covering up a doubtful soul. His type never lasted as long as they might have, had they been more self confident.

He had to wonder how long it had been since the younger vampire had been turned. It couldn't have been more than three decades.

Is it really my castle he's after? Walter asked himself, and he found that he wasn't so sure of the answer to that. Certainly, his home was the envy of every vampire he met. Here, one could live in relative safety, without fear of being staked by some errant hunter looking to make a quick coin by saving the local maidens. Still, he had a feeling that Joachim's motives were not as petty as that. There were far easier places to conquer, and he looked as if he had faced down other vampires before. So, what other reason was there?

Smiling, Walter broke off his musing and returned to looking at the stars. Maybe he'd ask Joachim sometime, if the fledgling lived long enough.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

There wasn't any time to think of a strategy. All he could do was dodge.

Joachim kept moving. He ignored the soft "twang" of the bow strings and the following clatter of arrows as they struck the stone floor hot on his heels. An arrow wound he could recover from. The reason why he was running around like a scared rabbit was because of the dreaded "whoosh, whoosh, crash" that threatened to smash his body through one or more walls.

An arrow glanced his left leg, followed by one on his upper right arm. He levitated to a halt unintentionally, but it was a good thing he had as the spiked ball he'd been avoiding smashed into the wall directly in front of him. A little bit further, and he would have been nothing more than an ugly wet stain on the shattered rocks.

Think, fool! He clutched his wounded arm with his good hand and moved out of the bowmen's' range for the moment. Think of a plan, or die.

Even as his undead flesh began to heal itself, Joachim's mind was racing. Though the walking armor was the real threat, it was slow moving. The skeletons were a nuisance, but like the fly that bites the horse's back, the irritation could take up his attention at a critical moment and cost him his life. Even his swords couldn't deflect every arrow that came his way.

But he was out of time. The Heavy Armor, as he was starting to call it, had finally sensed where he was and was heading in his direction again. The archers waited patiently for him to make his move, their bony faces locked in malicious grins. They knew as well as he did that they were only there to slow him down.

Joachim moved to the left, his swords flaring at a mental command. If he could just stay behind the Heavy Armor, he'd be all right. For the moment, anyway.

The skeletons knocked their arrows and aimed as he came into their firing range, letting loose a more concentrated volley. This time the arrows rained down at him, filling the dark sky above him with witch-fire blue.

Joachim saw his chance. He dashed forward, his swords flying. Before the archers could reload their weapons, he was upon them. There were six of the cadaverous creations, but he made short work of two of them on the first pass. His enchanted blades slashed through ribs, hacked off arms, and split their grinning skulls in two in a shower of bone chips. The destroyed skeletons fell to pieces where they stood, returning to inanimate corpses.

By this time, the other four had regrouped. They huddled close together, as if safety in numbers still applied to them.

Pathetic, the vampire sneered. But now they were on the other side of the room and the walking armor was between them, swinging his giant weapon as if it were a mere silk ribbon. That was fine. He would just dodge around it again-

Only he couldn't. In his attempt to attack the skeletons, he hadn't noticed that he had placed his back into a corner and there was no place he could move to that the ball and chain wouldn't reach him.

The swings of the Heavy Armor were getting wider. Joachim jumped into the air, avoiding having his head torn off his shoulders. But as he was coming down, the following swing caught him full in the side. He felt the cold, black metal rip through his clothing and enter his body. The next thing he knew, he was lifted off his feet as the spiked ball was swung overhead another time. In pain, he could do nothing as his clothing and skin held him in place. Then he was airborne as his side ripped open and the velocity of the swing sent him flying across the room. He slammed face first into the wall and bounced off onto his back in a puddle of his own blood.

He might have blacked out. He wasn't very sure. When he came back to himself, he choked on the pain in his side but rolled onto his feet in a crouch. His swords were keeping the archers at bay by deflecting their arrows, but the Heavy Armor was lumbering across the room, intent on finishing its prey.

Joachim staggered upright and wiped a hand across his nose and mouth. Blood smeared on his palm, and he growled when he saw it. His fangs sharpened, the throbbing in his jaws beating in time with the pain in his side. He was getting tired of this fight. One way or another, he was going to end it.

"Minions!" he shouted. His swords obediently flew back to his side, awaiting further orders. The vampire swept his eyes around the room, taking note of where his enemies were. The archers, having sensed their chance, had broken their huddle and rushed forward while he had been down. The slow Heavy Armor was still trying to catch up.

A single skeleton dared to move closer, firing an arrow that flew near enough to stir Joachim's hair but nothing more. The affront would not go unpunished.

As the three other archers grew bold by their companion's audacity and moved into position to attack, Joachim's hand shot forward. His swords obeyed and they flew into the midst of his bony enemies. In a flash, they were neatly decapitated. Their skulls smashed into pieces when they hit the ground. He knew that their blindness would disorient them only for a little while, since it was the magic controlling them that would let them know where he was.

He turned his attention to the shuffling suit of armor, gauging how close he could get without risking another hit. His body could heal minor damage in no time at all, but the wound in his side would take much longer. He couldn't afford another injury like that.

Edging in as close as he dared, he nodded. "Go to it." Two swords jabbed through the eye holes of the monster's helmet, one in its gut, and two in the back. The sound of metal grating against metal was painful to Joachim's sensitive hearing, but he could deal with it if his ploy worked. He left his swords where they were and carefully skirted around the Heavy Armor.

Both enemies were now blinded, and they shambled about, confused, as their magic attempted to seek him out. All he had to do was wait.

Soon enough, the skeletons felt the presence of his enchanted swords getting near to them. They spun about much faster than he would have liked and took aim. They fired and hit dead on with the Heavy Armor. The arrows pierced its torso, and it stumbled back. With Joachim's swords and now the arrows, it looked like a pin cushion. As he watched, the blue glow of the witch-fire began to spread along the metal armor. It appeared that whatever magic was controlling the armor was not compatible with the anti-fire.

Realizing that it was under attack, but not aware of whom it was fighting, the Heavy Armor gave one last swing of its weapon. It smashed through the skeletons, turning them into bone dust almost instantly. With agonizing slowness, the moving armor slumped to its knees, dropping the chain it held, before falling forward and dissolving into light. The magical auras of the room vanished, and the red bars blocking the doors retreated.

Joachim drew a deep breath, grimaced in pain, and then let out a shaky sigh. His swords returned, and hovered in front of him. "If you want praise..." he began in warning tones.

He paused, letting the fact that he was still alive wash over him. He gave a short, bitter laugh. He owed his life to these five blades.

"But it was my plan that got us out of that mess, so I'd say we're even." He waited, and the swords seemed to accept this. They backed up, and performed a flashy salute. He grunted and beckoned. "Minions, return." The blades shuddered and gathered around him in their usual, comforting circle. They seemed as docile as ever.

Joachim wasn't impressed. There was something about this castle that was affecting his control over the swords, allowing them more free will while suppressing his own. He didn't like that. One thing was for sure: he could no longer underestimate this place.