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Joe and his friends were sat on a very old bus, with frayed seat covers, graffiti on the back of the seats and a weird lingering smell that he couldn’t identify. A little after nine o’clock, the sky was only just beginning to darken, and the bus was now full. There was a buzz of noise and excitement.
Halfway through the day, Carroll had received a text message with a postcode and a time. He had then texted the rest of them and they had met in Nikki’s house a little before half seven.
Nikki’s mum was out, as usual. Probably already half cut even at that time. The bin bag at the kitchen door, full for the most part of empty bottles, was the clearest indicator of that. The rest of the house was immaculate, though, with the floors mopped and the shelves dusted. Nikki often said it was the only pastime her mum engaged in that didn’t involve drinking.
She hadn’t remembered to fill up the food bowls though. When the lads arrived, Nikki was just pouring out kibbles while her two grey tomcats stalked behind her. The scene was made surreal by the loud bass thrumming through the speakers around the house, and the black dress she was wearing, ankle-length with a split thigh. She still had to do her make-up and her hair was still tied back in a tight ponytail, but already the lads had to stop themselves staring.
“Wow, Nik.” Greeney spluttered. “You are a girl after all!”
Nikki put a finger under his chin and firmly forced his head up so his eyes were on her face. “Like you’ve ever seen a girl in real life.” She said.
The rest of them laughed and hooted, driving Greeney to cross his arms and sulk. He got over it as she offered them bottles of beer out of the fridge as a way to warm up for the night ahead.
All of them were dressed in shirts and trousers, and swimming in too much aftershave. Joe was the exception. His dad had seen through his excuse that he was going to a house party pretty quickly, but rather than insisting he couldn’t go out had simply said, “Just don’t dress like a schoolboy trying to look older.” So he had picked smart shoes, a clean pair of jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt.
“You look nice, Joe.” Nikki said.
“Thanks.” He said. “You too.” But his eyes weren’t on her. Instead, he shot a look at Li and said, “Told you.”
“Whatever, lad. You’re under dressed, and it’s like you’re not even wearing aftershave at all.” Li said, backed up by the nodding and grins of Greeney and Carroll.
“Yeah, right. As if birds will go for that.”
As the other lads mocked Joe, he shook his head and turned his attention to his drink.
Once they had finished their drinks they called a taxi. They reached the post code a little after the allotted time of half past eight, where after a cursory examination a man sat in the car outside of the house they had reached gave them another post code and insisted that they walk there. But it had only taken them ten minutes to reach the dark, empty car park and the bus on which they now sat.
A man stood up at the front of the bus. He was black, the shirt he wore close fitting enough to reveal a lean, muscular figure, with shoulder-length black hair that shone with hints of purple. He clapped his hands together and all of the myriad conversations stopped.
“Before we head off, some rules.” He said. “We’re not going on a straight route to the crossing. GPS won’t work in here, so don’t bother trying to trace where we’re going. Once we arrive, you get straight out and over the wall. No milling about. When you’re at the club, no trouble or you’re booted and barred; we’ve got zero tolerance for any nonsense. Clear?”
His response was confused looks, some nods, and one or two muttered affirmatives.
“Alright then. Enjoy the night, and see you at Requiem!”
In the cheering that followed, very few people noticed him get off the bus before it set off. Joe did, but found it hard to care as the excitement of the night ahead overtook him.
“You’re far too excited about this. Still.” Charlotte said.
“Sorry.” Emily said with a shrug. “It’s not often you find out that your girlfriend is a superhero.”
They were in Emily’s bedroom, on their third or fourth vodka and coke. Unlike Joe and his friends, they had no plans to leave before at least ten o’clock, though because Emily’s parents were in they couldn’t play the music too loud. Her dad had knocked on the door once already to tell her to keep it down, making a point of referring to it as ‘devil’s music.’
“Come on dad,” Emily had retorted. “You saw the apocalypse. How many of hell’s army were listening to heavy metal or wearing band t-shirts?”
Her dad had only rolled his eyes and sighed wearily, putting an argument replayed many times over to rest with a plea to “just keep it down, please” before heading back downstairs.
“I swear, it’s getting worse, Charl.” She had said once he had gone. “It’s worst when they’ve got their friends from the Tribby over. I have to pretend I don’t exist.”
The subject had quickly moved back to Charlotte’s revelations earlier in the day, however. Charlotte felt like she should have been irritated at the almost incessant questioning. But she had made one hell of a confession to Emily, and in the main she felt relief that the reaction had been fascination and curiosity rather than revulsion or fear.
“I’m not a superhero.” Charlotte said. “I can’t fly or shoot lasers from my eyes or run fast enough to break the sound barrier. None of that.”
“You’re stronger, faster and more agile than an ordinary person, even without training, and you use those powers to help people and fight evil. Sorry babe, but all that means you are a superhero.”
Charlotte shook her head, even as she felt a grin spreading across her face. “The novelty will wear off.” She insisted.
It took a lot more alcohol to move the conversation away from Charlotte’s abilities. By the time they called a cab to take them into town, they were beyond tipsy and cackling wildly to each other even though nothing was particularly funny. Charlotte was vaguely aware of Emily’s mum giving them a disapproving look through the curtains as they left.
“They’ll be talking about how the alcohol is leading me astray now,” Emily said in the taxi, her laughs becoming more bitter. “Like it’s self aware, one of Satan’s minions or something, and I’ve got no agency whatsoever. Then tomorrow they’ll be praying for my soul.”
“At least they don’t force you to act like they do, or punish you for not believing.”
“No. ‘We all have to choose our own path through the Tribulation’.” She quoted. “‘And God will deal with those who go astray, not man’. But honestly the judging and oh-so-earnest worry is bad enough.”
The Tribulation Prayer House was on their route into town. Known to non-believers as the Tribby, it was a modest building painted plainly so that only its name and the crucifix next to it on the sign gave it away as a religious place. They passed it just in time for Emily to glower at it and mutter “arseholes” with a resentment no doubt amplified by the alcohol in her system.
This anger, as well as any talk of Charlotte being a dhampir and the Sentinel, was gone by the time they left the taxi and made their way to the bar. That was where their friends from school found them, ready for the night’s celebrations.
The bus took an unnecessarily long, twisting route. Once, it crossed paths with an Eyeball, but as soon as the thing got too close its circuits started sparking and it flew in looping circles. The glitch ended once the bus was out of proximity, and it resumed its route as though nothing happened. Clearly, this was a regular occurrence as the driver seemed unperturbed and no additional drones came to check out the route, as would normally be the case if their programming determined something to be suspicious.
Eventually, the bus took its final turn to end up on a long street of abandoned, boarded up houses that backed onto the perimeter fence. Only a fraction of the street lights here worked, while the hum of the bus’s engine and the low, nervous chatter of its passengers’ conversation were an intrusion on the oppressive silence of the street.
All of the doors on the street were nailed shut with steel boards, though at least one of those boards had been tampered with to mask a functional door. As instructed, they filed quickly off the bus and across to what looked like just another derelict house. But as the front of the queue reached it, the door swung open and a man ushered them inside. His features were hidden under a baseball cap and hood, but nobody stopped to examine him too closely.
The interior of the house was completely bare, wooden floorboards creaking loudly as they headed through. Walls had been knocked through and every last bit of furniture and decoration ripped out, so that even were it not almost pitch black there would have been nothing to see between the front door and the back.
The back garden was a mess of overgrown grass and weeds. A thin path had been cut through it, so that the club goers could cross in single file to a metal ladder over both the back fence and the much higher chain-link fence the marked the boundaries of the city. At the top, the barbed wire had been cut and pulled apart to make a gap so that those crossing could avoid cutting themselves when moving to the second ladder on the other side.
The procession bottlenecked here, everybody taking the ladder slowly and carefully, conscious of what could happen if they were careless. However, once they were on the other side they had no time to wait for the rest of their group as another hooded man ushered them on with haste.
There was a broad, tarmacked strip of ground between the wire fence and a concrete one, also topped with barbed wire. Armed with pistols and swords, to deal with both human and non-human trespassers, the City Watch staged regular patrols along here. But it had always been rumoured that the Watch shared its patrol itinerary for the right price, and had a working relationship with establishments like Requiem.
No patrols were in sight as the club goers were herded along the strip to another ladder on the second wall. This one wasn’t directly across from the first but several hundred yards along. Again, it led up to a gap in the barbed wire, but this time there were metal steps on the other side rather than another ladder.
Now they were outside of Liverpool, and of the jurisdiction of any city authority. The darkness here was heavier than it had been in the abandoned street they had come from. Not one single street light was visible in any direction, and all of the buildings lay open and empty. Nobody had boarded them up, or conversely looted them, they had simply stopped using them and fled. The creep of weeds through the pavement and of trees and grass on the green verges indicated the passage of time. As did rust on any metallic fittings and a stale, pungent odour that Joe couldn’t identify.
Not taking any time to stop and consider their surroundings, their guide on this side of the wall lit a flare and set off. He offered no instructions, but the intent was clear enough – everybody would follow him or be left behind and lost. After all, there were a number of possible directions to go in, all in pitch darkness, so he was their only choice.
After maybe five minutes of walking, during which nobody talked, there was light in the distance. Just enough for the black to become a grey filled with shadows. Then sound; music, conversation and laughter, growing from a faint murmur until eventually it filled the air. Shortly after it did, they arrived.
The building might once have been a warehouse, Joe deduced. The walls surrounding it had been fortified since it had been co-opted for its new use, while what was once a loading bay was now illuminated by floodlights and filled with a queue of revellers. A neon sign above the loading doors, open but blocked with ropes and bouncers, declared that this was indeed Requiem. Lights of a variety of colours strobed inside, visible through the loading doors and the high windows.
Passing through into the loading bay, excitement gripped Joe and his friends. They hardly paid any attention to the guards, armed with machetes sheathed at their sides, who took their tickets and stamped their hands. Then they were inside, joining the main queue to get in, not an orderly line but a bustling throng.
“I can’t believe we’re really here.” Nikki said.
“I’ll give you this, Carroll.” Greeney said. “This was a belter idea.”
“Told you.” Carroll agreed.
They weren’t in yet, though, and now the queue appeared to crawl forward at an agonisingly slow pace. A couple of people would be let through, and then everybody else would press forward in anticipation. But that would lead to a delay of several minutes where nothing happened. Occasionally, someone would shuffle slightly, and this would be enough for everyone behind them to move forward. But it got them no closer to being inside and only pressed them closer together.
“What’s taking so long?” Greeney asked, impatience clear in his voice.
Joe shrugged. Something else had caught his attention, too close to the entrance beyond the general din of music and conversation for his friends to pick up since they lacked his extra-sensitive hearing. Someone was shouting, angry, and struggling. Others were chastising them and telling them to shut up. He shifted and stepped half out of the queue to get a better look at the doors.
One of the bouncers had stepped out of the doorway in order to hold back the front of the queue, who were all straining to see what was happening. The rest of them had stood to one side, a couple with their eyes on the queue and one watching the doors with a smirk on his face.
“Get off us!” The man being marched out of the club cried. He was tall, with close cropped hair hugging a dome shaped head, broad shoulders and thick arms. His head moved on a swivel, and when he caught sight of the smirking bouncer he yelled, “What you looking at?”
“Pack it in now, silly bollocks.”
The voice belonged to a woman. She had the man’s arms locked behind his back as she marched him outside, and as Joe caught sight of her his breath caught in his throat. He couldn’t take his eyes off her.
Her looks were only part of the reason, though even from afar she was undeniably one of the prettiest women Joe had ever set eyes on. Her hair was dyed a silver that shimmered as she moved and different strands caught the light. She had light brown skin, and was a little over five foot ten and slim, but with clearly defined curves even under the uniform that identified her as bar staff. He wasn’t the only man watching her as she faced off with the meat head, he noticed.
“I didn’t do anything! You can’t do this!” The meat head roared, now turning to face her so that he was looking down on her.
She didn’t flinch, and in fact stepped closer. “Well, I am doing it. Soz.”
“Who do you think you are? You should be flattered!”
“Flattered?” She poked him in the chest. “You’re about a century too late for that to wash, mate. You’re just lucky I didn’t boot you out the back door, into No Man’s.”
He took a step back, and Joe imagined him paling at that. “You wouldn’t…”
It was about then that Joe’s friends noticed that he wasn’t with them. Carroll tapped him on the shoulder and he jumped, making the rest of them laugh.
“What’s so fascinating?” Nikki asked, with an eyebrow raised.
“Oh. Err – a fight, by the front door.”
They shifted to get a better look, but not having Joe’s dhampir eyesight and hearing all they could make out was the shape of a tall man and a silver-haired woman, loud but indecipherable words passing between them.
“She looks alright though.” Greeney noted.
“Yeah,” Joe agreed, somewhat absently.
Nikki slapped Greeney on the shoulder. “I’m sure the last thing she needs is you staring at her, if she’s in the middle of a row with that guy.”
Greeney shrugged. “Not my type anyway.”
“I’m sure she’ll be gutted to hear that, lad.” Li said.
Joe joined in with the laughter, but it was automatic. He wasn’t paying attention to his friends. He only had eyes for her in that moment, and not just because he thought she was good looking.
When he looked at her, there was another sensation besides the physical attraction. A sense that he had only previously gotten from his two sisters, a diluted and warped version of the sensation he got from his dad. Joe had none of the training that his sister had in dealing with the supernatural, but even so there was no mistaking it.
This woman was like him. She was a dhampir.