The Vampire Queen

 By Stuart Thaman

 

             “Find my daughter, Captain,” King Arias growled over a mug of frothy stout. The young man in front of him nodded sharply before departing, his armored boots ringing against the stone floor. Behind him, the Queen wept over her breakfast. She had not eaten in days, and her face was gaunt with hunger.

            “She must be in the city,” Arias whispered to his wife. He wrapped her in a warm embrace, stifling his own tears as he spoke. “The gates have been closed since she…” he didn’t want to say it aloud, but there was no other way to describe what had happened, “was kidnapped,” he finished with a heavy sigh.

            The Queen nodded gently against his breast, but she did not respond.

 *****

             Maxus, Captain of Estria’s famed King’s Shield, practically flew from the keep. He descended a long set of stone steps two at a time, only offering the men at the bottom a curt salute as he ran across the wooden drawbridge toward the barracks a quarter mile away. Every room was eerily empty inside the massive headquarters.

             Maxus moved through the halls to a chamber near the back where a heavy desk sat with his name carved into its front, a stark reminder of how hard he had worked and how much he stood to lose. As he had expected, a freshly penned report sat on a wooden tray before his high-backed chair. “Nine-tenths of the King’s Guard is actively deployed,” he read aloud as he paced. “Seven knights have reported illness from spending so much time in the sewers, and another four have still not returned from their last foray into the catacombs.” He tossed the report back onto his desk and shook his head.

             “Sir?” a stocky man with short, blonde hair said as he poked his head into Maxus’ office. 

“Come in, Merren, please,” Maxus bade him, pointing to an empty chair. 

“I’m sorry sir,” Merren began fearfully, “I looked for your steward, but did not find him. I do not mean to barge in. I-” 

“It is quite alright,” Maxus said, cutting him off. “My steward, along with the rest of the staff, is assisting the search effort currently.” He leaned back in his own chair, trying to appear calm and in control, but he knew his face told a different story. 

“Yes sir,” Merren replied with a nod. Though he was an officer in the city guard and in charge of controlling Estria’s walls, he feared Maxus and the power the King’s Shield held. “There might be a new development,” he said hesitantly. 

“Come out with it!” Maxus yelled, his mind jumping to conclusions faster than he could comprehend. He surged forward in his chair, knocking over an inkwell in his haste. 

Merren visibly shrank, his fingernails digging into the arms of his chair. “One of my men saw a stooped figure enter the sewer on the south side of the city, near the docks,” he blurted out all at once. 

“Why was I not informed the moment it occurred?” Maxus bellowed, standing and fetching his sword belt from a peg on the wall. 

“You were asleep-” 

“Then wake me,” Maxus spat with finality. He buckled his sword belt firmly around his waist and lifted a small shield emblazoned with Estria’s crest from a wooden rack. “Take me to the exact location,” he commanded the younger man with a snarl. 

Merren practically jumped to his feet to scurry out the door. 

The air above the docks reeked of salt and old fish. The smell didn’t bother Maxus much, but the relative lack of noise coming from the harbor shook him to his core. It had been two weeks since a boat had entered or departed from Estria’s piers. When the princess went missing, King Arias closed the port and all of the city gates, strangling Estria’s once-booming trade in an instant. Without food coming into the city, Maxus wondered how long the lockdown would last. 

With a shake of his head, Maxus threw grim thoughts of inevitable starvation from his mind and followed Merren down a steep set of stairs to the water’s edge. 

“It was this tunnel, I’m sure of it,” Merren said, pointing to a wide opening framed by barnacles a few feet above the lapping water. “There are lanterns in the harbor master’s office,” he was quick to add. 

With a stern nod, Maxus commanded him to retrieve a lantern. When the man returned, the two captains descended over the rocky bank to the sewer and drew their swords. “Smugglers use these tunnels,” Maxus remarked. “Perhaps someone is using them to get the princess out.”

             Merren nodded in agreement. He opened the front of his lantern fully to allow the meager candlelight to cascade through the passageway. “The sewers have been continuously built and expanded for hundreds of years as Estria grew. They go on for miles.” 

“Let’s hope we find something soon, then,” Maxus replied. They walked slowly through the first tunnel, carefully testing their footing in the ankle-deep water, and mindful not to make too much noise. After a hundred or more yards, the sewer branched into six different pathways, each one fanning out under a different section of the city. 

“This one,” Merren said after a moment of investigation. He pointed his lantern down a narrow tunnel, dimly illuminating the low, slime-covered ceiling. 

“How do you know?” Maxus asked. He didn’t like the idea of needing to stoop his head to progress, but he didn’t see much of a choice. 

“Look,” Merren said, pointing with his sword. “Grooves in the muck. Someone was here recently and left tracks.” 

“Lead on,” Maxus told him. He trusted the man, as everyone in the city did, but Maxus still couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being led into an obvious trap. Still, the subtle tracks left in the sewer sludge were enough evidence to at least investigate further. 

Merren led his superior through tunnel after tunnel for what felt like hours. The deeper they moved, the worse the stench of the place became. Finally, after Maxus had long since sheathed his sword to cover his mouth with a glove, the two officers rounded a corner and the tracks stopped abruptly. In the side of the tunnel, a small wooden door rested on shiny silver hinges. 

“This is new,” Maxus said, running a finger along the door’s surface. “It isn’t covered in grime.” 

Merren closed the door of his lantern almost entirely, allowing only a small line of light to illuminate their steps. “Should we get the rest of the King’s Shield?” he asked, his voice tinted with the slightest hint of fear. 

“It would take too long,” Maxus answered. The man placed his palm against the side of the door, gingerly testing it with a fraction of his body weight. Surprisingly, the door was not locked. It swung silently inward, revealing a freshly cut set of wooden stairs descending into darkness. 

The two men crept down the staircase as silently as they could. Merren kept the lantern low, only flashing the light ahead every few seconds to confirm his footing. At the bottom, another door presented itself, although it was made of forged iron and looked as old as the city itself. In its center, a rectangular metal flap covered what Merren supposed was a peephole. 

Maxus lifted his sword to the flap and pushed, lifting the metal ever so slightly to peer through. The scene on the other side took his breath away. Faster and louder than he intended, he pulled his sword away, letting the metal flap fall back into place. 

“Ratlings,” he whispered. “An entire den of them.” 

Merren shook his head. “They must’ve captured the princess!” he softly urged. 

“Go back,” Maxus commanded the guardsman. “Tell the king what we’ve found. Get the city guard, the King’s Shield, everyone you can, and bring them here. Whether they have the princess or not, they must be exterminated.” 

Merren hesitated, and Maxus waited for the man to betray him. If it was a trap, there was little time left to spring it. “What are you going to do?” Merren asked after a brief moment. 

“I’ll stay watch,” Maxus replied, never taking his eyes from Merren’s weapon. 

Hastily, Merren saluted his superior and ascended the wooden steps behind them. Maxus let a sigh of relief escape his lips, but he waited several minutes until he turned back to face the door.

             More gently than before, he poked his sword through the hole to peer into the ratling den and take stock of his enemies. The humanoids, if they could be called such, were shorter than a grown man by a foot or more, and had ugly, misshapen rat heads complete with whiskers and long teeth. Maxus counted thirty of the filthy creatures before he stopped. 

The ratling den, light by torches on the walls, was no more than sixty feet in any direction. To the right and left, closed doors lined the underground lair, and Maxus had no way of knowing how many hundreds of ratlings might be beyond each portal. In the center of the main chamber, the ratlings Maxus could see were mostly sitting at tables. Some of them ate, others gambled with dice or bones, and a score of them attended to weapons and armor stored on wooden racks in one corner. 

As Maxus watched, one of the doors set against the far wall opened, and a humanoid figure covered by a red lace cape and hood sauntered into the chamber. At once, the room went silent, and most of the ratlings bowed. 

Maxus stifled a yell when the figure removed her hood. “No!” he couldn’t stop himself from gasping. He let the metal flap fall shut and backed away from the door. “Princess Lina…” he muttered. His mind reeled and refused to accept the reality of what he had just seen. 

Was she their leader? A ratling leader? Maxus moved back to the door and pushed the flap open once more, but his confusion had made him careless. His sword clanged against the metal, echoing through the silent room and drawing the attention of every single ratling in the den. 

Before he could think of a plan, several ratlings brandishing weapons came for him, wrenching the door open with their grimy claws. Maxus let his sword fall to the ground as he was dragged by his shoulders into the den. 

“What do we have here?” Lina cooed. She took a few steps forward and her smile flashed with recognition. “Captain Maxus?” she laughed, her deep red hair fluttering around her cheeks. “My father’s bodyguard – a most welcome surprise!” 

Maxus didn’t know what to say. His mouth opened and moved, but no sound came forth. “Rescue…” he finally muttered. One of the ratlings shoved him in the back, forcing him to his knees. 

Princess Lina bellowed with laughter. “You came to rescue me?” she howled. Her cape brushed against Maxus’ side as she circled him, her finger toying with a lock of his hair. She leaned over his shoulder to whisper in his ear. “Don’t worry,” she told him. “I’ll let my father keep Estria. We have other plans. Grander plans.” 

Maxus scoffed. “Let him keep the city? You think a few ratlings could topple Estria?” As her captive, he knew he shouldn’t condescend or provoke her, but she was clearly delusional. “Come to your senses, Princess,” he continued. “Let me take you home.” 

Lina brushed her cheek against his. A curl of her hair fell in front of Maxus’ face. “You have no idea what I’ve become,” she whispered, her voice sultry and dripping with seduction. 

Maxus was so entranced he didn’t notice when her razor-sharp teeth bite into his neck. He collapsed to the ground in her arms, hitting the stone floor with a gentle thud as the woman fed on his blood. 

“I’m not my father’s princess any longer,” she told him, blood running down the sides of her mouth. “I’m a vampire queen!”