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The queue crept forward far too slow for Joe, now anxious to get inside as fast as he could and find the woman with the silver hair. He kept stepping out of the queue to glance towards the door, where the hubbub was over and the bouncers had resumed letting people in. Every time they moved forward he felt a surge of excitement, while with every pause he wanted to lash out at something. The wait was unbearable.
“She can’t have been that good looking.” Nikki said, red-cheeked and visibly angry with Joe’s impatience. “What’s got into you?”
“He’s in love,” Carroll said, drawing out the last word.
Greeney and Li laughed.
Joe didn’t notice, his attention still on the painstaking crawl forward and trying to speed it up with nothing more than his will. Though if he had heard, he wouldn’t have been able to back up his objections to what Carroll was saying. None of them knew that he was a dhampir, or for that matter even knew that there was such a thing as a dhampir. Explaining why he was so struck by what he had seen would involve explaining a lot more besides, which he wasn’t ready to get into in the queue for a night club.
Intellectually, he had always known that there had to be others out there besides himself, Charlotte and Katie. After all a whole gang of them had, under the instruction of a vampire called Laurent, tried to kidnap Charlotte when she was a baby. His younger sister was named for the woman who sacrificed her life to kill the vampire and save not only Charlotte but the whole of the camp they had besieged.
Even so, that gang had been an anomaly. As a rule, vampires viewed dhampirs as a threat to them and had killed any they had come across for centuries. Laurent had secretly bred them in order to give himself a powerful army, but he and his co-conspirators were eighteen years dead. That meant that the breeding programme was gone too, and even if the revelation that vampires were real had given rise to a whole sub-culture of ‘fang-bangers,’ it would have been all over the news if they were popping out vampire babies. Instead, most ended up missing or dead and in either case little more than a statistic.
Yet even so, here was another dhampir, hiding in plain sight. Were that not the case, Joe might have stared a little bit because she was attractive, then rated his chances of being able to find and pull her once they got in as minimal. That would have been the end of it. Instead, he had to find –
A hard punch in the arm pulled him back to the present. He looked to his right and saw Nikki frowning at him.
“Get your ticket up, you knob. We’re almost at the front.”
It was true. As Joe pulled out his digital stub up on his phone, he saw what was causing the delay. As they reached the front, each group had to pause in front of body scanners that were cleverly disguised in the doorway but fairly obvious if you knew what you were looking for. While they were scanned, the bouncers would scan the tickets with their phones and then take a little too long to examine them.
Joe was almost certain that, alongside checking for any concealed weapons or other suspicious devices, the scanners were checking the body heat of their subjects to confirm that they were humans or lower demons and not something more dangerous. The phones were probably showing the bouncers not only the tickets but also a confirmation that the facial recognition software in the CCTV cameras at the door hadn’t flagged up anything suspicious.
Greeney had a hefty share of conspiracy theories, mostly based on YouTube videos of dubious origin, about how the use of this technology by nightclubs was actually helping the government profile everyone in the country. But funnily enough he never took any of the ‘countermeasures’ these videos suggested when he wanted to go in for a drink.
Once they were inside, the light levels dropped and the noise rose exponentially. The warehouse had been gutted to create one large, open space overlooked by steel balconies. Both the main floor and the balconies were filled with revellers, strobe and spot lights flashing everywhere so that it would be almost impossible to find anybody unless you knew where about they were. Luckily, beyond the great mass of bodies, it was easy enough to identify the important landmarks; the bar on the far left of the room, the DJ booth and stage on the far right, and the toilets on the back wall.
“You getting the drinks, then?” Li asked Joe, thrusting money at him to make it clear what answer he expected.
“They don’t ID here.” Joe pointed out.
Li shrugged. “Still…”
That settled the matter, and in a few moments he had money, a drinks order to get and energetic pointing to suggest roughly were he’d find his friends once he’d gotten the round in. Still, at least he could now head over to the bar in search of the silver-haired woman.
There was a wall of people surrounding the bar, just as many loitering in the way as were bustling to try and catch the attention of one of the four staff currently serving. Joe shoved his way through, stopping only once he caught sight of the woman, and moving again once he had located the cluster of people she was currently serving. She had just taken an order and turned to get it when Joe finally got to the bar, grimacing as he rested his elbows and managed to find a wet patch.
The sense of her nature as a dhampir was a lot stronger close up, although it faded into the background as quickly as it had come. It was still there, now as a subconscious recognition rather than as an assault on his senses.
She turned back to the bar with the drinks and, seeing Joe, froze. It was only for two seconds, during which she no doubt took in the fact that there was another dhampir standing there in front of her. Then she blinked, recomposed herself, and carried on serving her current customer.
Not having a job to do as she did, Joe was free to just stare. He tried to stop himself, forcing his eyes down, but kept finding them drifting back to her. Now it wasn’t just her nature. Her beauty was so much more apparent close up; her soft, unblemished skin, her bright, brown eyes, and the fullness of her lips, which curved so easily into a natural smile as she spoke to her customers. Her silver hair was tied back and the ponytail was unravelling with heat and time so that loose strands framed her face, and even that just seemed to suit her.
Joe swallowed and turned away, trying to steady himself and do something other than stare awkwardly like a child with an obvious crush. Which, at that moment, he supposed he was. Just as he glanced away across the bar, he felt a presence in front of him and there she was, wearing the smile that he had quickly learned made it difficult to think.
“What can I get you, love?” She asked, leaning towards him.
He paused, staring for several heartbeats before forcing the words out of his mouth to order the drinks. He had to say it twice, slower the second time, before she turned away to grab the bottles from the fridges behind her.
“That’ll be twenty three quid, ta.” She said as she placed the drinks in front of him.
“Uh. Thanks.” He replied, his brain fumbling as he grasped desperately for something more substantial to say, but nothing came and then the money changed hands. Belatedly, as she was turning away, he blurted out, “Take your own.”
She turned back to smile at him and offer an enthusiastic, “Cheers.” Then she put the money for the drinks in the till, a couple of pounds in her tip jar, and returned the rest as change.
Joe took it and put it in his pocket. But then all he could do was stand there, staring dumbly. She offered him another smile, but then her eyes drifted away and she approached the next customer.
Joe’s shoulders slumped and he let out a breath. He looked back at her one more time, but she wasn’t paying him any attention. Feeling incredibly small and stupid, he snatched up the drinks and forced his way back away from the bar in search of his friends.
He couldn’t wrap his head around it. She had clearly registered what he was, just as he had registered what she was. But then she had carried on as though nothing had happened. There was no latent curiosity, nothing. How could that be? Maybe he led a sheltered life and other dhampirs bumped into each other all the time, he thought. But that couldn’t be it. She had clearly been surprised. So what was it?
As he reached his friends and passed around their drinks, Greeney said, “Did you find that bird, lad?”
Joe nodded, deep lines of thought still etched into his forehead.
Greeney misread his expression and clapped a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. All of us get KB’d once in a while. Part of the game.”
Greeney’s bravado was enough to snap Joe back to the present and his friends. “Don’t make out like you’re some kind of player. You’ve got the knock back far more than the rest of us.”
Everyone was leaning within earshot, so they all heard that and laughed. Joe let himself relax too, pushing all thoughts of other dhampirs out of his mind for the moment. He was sixteen and out in a nightclub with his mates, drinking. It was time he had some fun.
With drinks in their hands, they made a space to dance in. ‘Dancing’ mostly equated to shuffling on the spot and moving their hands about, the motions awkward and self-conscious. That was except for Greeney, who apparently decided that the best method of chatting up women was to gyrate and grind while getting closer to them. Joe and the others were overcome with fits of laughter as the rejections he received ranged from simply turning away to a look of undisguised disgust and a shove that sent him skidding onto his backside.
Joe had finished his drink and abandoned the bottle on the floor when he felt a hand graze his hip. He turned to find himself facing the silver-haired woman and she put her other hand on his shoulder, leading him away from his friends.
He felt a stupid grin spreading across his face and his mind searched for something to say to her. But his thoughts were cut short when he felt a knife at his throat. He swallowed and looked down. It was a flick-knife, mostly covered by her hand so it just looked as though she was caressing him.
“What are you –”
“Why did Bekka send you?” She said, cutting him off.
“What? What are you on about? Who’s Bekka?” He could feel the panic rising now, outmatched only by his confusion.
She raised her eyebrows and offered a cynical look. “Yeah, okay. Why did she send you?”
“Nobody sent me! I swear! I have no idea who ‘Bekka’ is!”
She regarded him closely then, her eyes following his. She must have seen something in them that made her doubt her original assertion. “Where are you from?”
She rolled her eyes. “Is there another colony there?”
“A what? Honestly, I just came here for a night out with my mates. I live at home with my mum and dad and my sisters.”
“Your mum and dad?”
“Yeah…” Joe wondered if he’d said something wrong then.
“Of course!” She relaxed and pulled the blade away, her expression softening. “Sorry about that. I thought you were – I thought someone who I never want anything to do with again had sent you. You alright?”
“Yeah, I think. But how do you know I’m not … with this Bekka?” He put a hand to his throat, defensively. “I mean, I’m not. But what convinced you?”
“You live with your dad.” She said, matter-of-factly. “You’re his son, aren’t you? The Champion of Man?”
He realised then what had given him away. Dhampirs could only be conceived by a male vampire and female human, since a female vampire couldn’t carry a child to term. Joe’s dad was a vampire, but the only one with a human soul intact because he had never drank human blood. No other vampire could say the same, since they would have given in to the hunger and so given their body to the power that resurrected them. It was unlikely any of them would have a stable home and family life, even if they had fathered a dhampir.
Just as he realised that the woman had worked this out, he found himself wondering if that put him in any danger. But when he looked at her, now smiling much as she had at the bar, he found that he trusted her. So he nodded to confirm that she was right.
“Wow.” She said. “I mean, that must be so cool, having him as your dad.”
Joe shrugged. “It’s nothing special, to be honest.”
She laughed. “Yeah, okay. I’m Serena, by the way.”
“I’m Joe. So…are you still working?”
“I clocked off early.”
“Can I buy you a drink, then?”
“I’ll get you one.” She insisted. “My treat for nearly slitting your throat. I really am sorry about that, by the way.”
Joe went to say ‘it’s okay,’ but then stopped himself when he realised that it would be ridiculous. Instead, he just nodded. So Serena headed back to the bar and told him she would return momentarily.
Once she came back with the drinks, the rest of the night passed in a blur of alcohol and adrenaline. The drinks disappeared fast, and reappeared just as quickly. In between, they danced. Joe felt nowhere near as clumsy as he had earlier, though a small part of him realised that was probably due to the drink rather than any improvement in his form.
Regardless of this, Serena’s every touch sent a thrill through him, and when she ground her hips against his he felt himself grow hard. He flinched, but Serena offered him a wicked grin and pressed herself more firmly against him.
Shortly, they were kissing, her lips soft against his. His hands hovered for several moments, away from her body, until she grabbed them and forced one to her hip and the other to her side just below her breasts. He froze, for just a moment, but then her hands were on him and he lost himself in her again.
The end of the night took them by surprise, when the music stopped and the lights lifted. Joe had experienced nights out before where he had been all too aware of the time, as it crawled by and he had ended up going home early. This wasn’t one of those nights, and he instantly felt a regret that it was over.
Sensing how he was feeling, Serena took his hand and pulled him close to her.
“This was a good night.” She said.
“Yeah, it was.” He agreed, grinning like an idiot.
They headed outside with the crowd; a slow moving shuffle with the bouncers interceding to herd everybody out and make sure nobody loitered too much. Outside the door, the loading bay filled up fast, with everybody shoved together whilst they waited. Those who had left at different points earlier in the night were in small enough numbers to simply be directed back to where they had crossed the wall at the start of the night. But due to the volume leaving at the end, they would be ferried to several different crossing points that Requiem had set up so that one big crowd wasn’t spotted coming from the same place all at once.
As the buses started to form up, Serena grabbed Joe and kissed him again. “Don’t be a stranger, Joe.” She said with a wink.
“You’re not coming on the buses?”
“I’ve got my own ride.”
With one more kiss, she made her way back to the door. Just before she reached it, a man popped his head out. He was tall, at least six foot five, pale, with long black hair to his shoulders and a thick, black beard. With his pale skin, he looked like a vampire out of a cheap horror movie, but Joe recognised instantly that he was a dhampir.
Serena greeted the man with a hug, and he looked up and offered a scowl as he caught sight of Joe. Joe tensed at that, but Serena caught his line of sight and said something Joe couldn’t make out in order to reassure him. She turned back and winked at Joe before they disappeared back into Requiem.
Joe pushed through the crowds in search of his friends. He ended up walking in a wide circle and finding nobody who looked at all familiar. Resigned, he shuffled towards the bus on his own as the doors to the first vehicle opened and the push began.
People moved forward in a steady wave, interrupted only by the backward pulse that came when a bus was full and people had to be shoved back in order for it to close its doors and drive off. Then they would carry on shuffling forward again in order to get onto the next bus. Somewhere in that, Joe almost collided with Carroll, who in turn almost collapsed back into Nikki.
“Joe!” Carroll said, far too loud and slurring. “Where did you get to?”
Joe shrugged, but was aware of a wide grin growing on his face that he couldn’t stop.
“He’s pulled, lad.” Li declared, triumphantly, clapping him on the shoulder.
“There’s no justice in the world.” Greeney said, shaking his head.
“Nah, there’s just no grace or style in you, lad. That’s why you don’t pull.”
When Carroll asked him for details, his grin grew even wider, and he found himself blushing. He quickly took out his phone to double check that he had remembered to get her number.
Back inside the borders, there were enough Eyeballs moving around the city centre that you could always hear the whirr of at least one within a certain square mile radius. Nobody paid them any attention; they were as much a feature of a night out in the city as the din of music and raised voices that filled the streets, the obstacle course of drunken people you had to navigate to get anywhere, or the bouncers standing sentry in almost every doorway. Or, for that matter, the few police horses patrolling the area and police vans always parked just out of the way of the main flow of people. All of them were clad in green and black, ever since Sure Shield had won the bid for the night-life beat several months before.
Charlotte, Emily and their friends were all extremely unsteady on their feet at this point. They propped themselves up on the counter as they waited for their food, a couple of pizzas, burgers and a döner kebab. They were all laughing and talking at extremely high speed, a couple of the men on both sides of the counter joining in at different points in attempts to flirt with the women.
One man in particular, easily in his mid-forties and with a wedding ring on his finger, was staring intently at Emily’s cleavage in the low cut top she was wearing. He wasn’t so much talking to her as at her, a drunken ramble that Emily had long since given up trying to decipher but which appeared to be getting more lewd as he went on. She had shifted position several times, and each time he had followed her, moving slightly closer to her each time.
Seeing how uncomfortable the man was making Emily, Charlotte stepped in the way. She put her arm around her girlfriend and kissed her before slowly, pointedly, turning her head to face the man.
“This bloke bothering you, babe?” She said.
A smirk crossed Emily’s face. She shrugged. “A little.”
“Aw, no, come on,” the man said, his leering now divided between the two women. “I’m only being friendly. But if you two are…err…well, you know, three’s company.” He raised his eyebrows suggestively, though he was so drunk that he ended up looking wild-eyed.
“I know what you mean.” Charlotte said, running her tongue across her lips. “Tell your wife any time she wants to join us she’s more than welcome.”
Almost everyone in the takeaway laughed at that.
The man spluttered. “What…what about me?”
Charlotte shrugged. “Four’s a crowd.”
The man’s face turned almost purple. He opened his mouth to retort, then bit down and stormed out with gales of laughter calling after him.
From across the street, a man called Eliphas watched the drunkard storm away, muttering to himself. Eliphas was carrying an ornate cane and wearing a black cloak that dusted the floor over an old, well-worn suit and hobnailed boots. His face was round and heavy, with a bald head and a thick, long beard. Despite looking entirely out of place, nobody gave him a second glance due to the magical veil he had drawn around himself.
He considered following the drunkard, as alone and angry he would make suitable enough prey. But his senses, trained rather than natural, told him that one of the two women who had driven him away was a dhampir. She couldn’t see him due to the veil, and her connection with the man was tenuous enough, but caution was a long held habit, and with a few hours left still until the sun rose he had the luxury of being able to take his time. He moved on.
The crowd parted around him as he passed down the street, though they didn’t notice their own movements or the person who was the cause of them. When he came close, the police horses whinnied and shied from him, but even as their riders tried to steady them they thought it a fleeting panic with no identifiable cause. Above, the electrics of the Eyeballs malfunctioned much like when they came too close to the bus Joe had taken to Requiem.
After a while, he found his target. Another man, this one a lot younger and far less drunk. He was alone, his night having been something of a damp squib. With long queues at all of the nearby taxi ranks already, he was walking out of the city centre in the hope of catching a cab on a quieter street. Unfortunately, he wasn’t the only one with that idea, and so he walked on past as other individuals or small groups beat him to the taxis coming back into town from other fares.
There was nothing special about this young man, but Eliphas had chosen him and so he followed him, until they were out on Vauxhall Road and there wasn’t another soul in sight. Then, the young man felt a cold wind whip at his back. He shuddered, and turned to look behind him.
The veil was gone now, but it didn’t matter as all he saw of Eliphas was a blur as he dragged a bronze-bladed dagger across his victim’s throat. Immediately, he put a gloved hand roughly over the wound so that the blood didn’t run and dragged him quickly into a side street. He lifted the man, now suffocating on his own blood, as if he weighed less than a house cat and thrust him against a wall at a dead end.
There, he sheathed the blade and propped the man up by the shoulders. This left the wound free to bleed out, and the last thing the young man saw was his own arterial blood spray across his killer’s face and clothes. Eliphas saw and felt the life leave his victim’s body, and so released the corpse to flop to the ground.
Whilst the blood was still wet and spilling out, Eliphas bent down and dipped his two forefingers in it. He worked quickly, daubing the three walls around him and the floor on the fourth side with bloody symbols; five-pointed stars called pentacles and letters in Enochian script. The position of the letters in relation to the pentacles, whether alongside, below or inside, was as important to the purpose of the ritual as the letters themselves. It was a very precise invocation, but one that Eliphas had performed many hundreds of times.
Once the symbols were drawn, Eliphas drew a circle in the young man’s blood around his carcass. He then stepped inside the circle, knelt, and put his hand to the man’s temple.
Extending his senses beyond his self, he sought out the dead man’s mind with his own. It was little more than a vestige, shrinking as the soul crossed from the mortal realm into Purgatory. But that was enough; Eliphas mentally grasped that fleeting echo of consciousness and held on, riding it to the other side.
The dead man’s name was Thomas, and at that moment he didn’t know that he was dead. He found himself lying on a road with a groggy head, as if coming to after passing out from a heavy night’s drinking. It took him several moments before he remembered that he had left the bar completely sober, having gotten fed up with his mates, and wandered off in search of a cab before…
He felt at his throat, but the skin there was smooth and unbroken. His clothes, too, had no bloodstains upon them and actually felt fresher than they ought to if he had just woken up from passing out. As did he. He scrambled to his feet easily enough, feeling no lingering fatigue or stiffness. Realising that, he decided to take a look around.
The road he was on was far wider than any road he had ever seen or heard of in his life. Maybe one of those American freeways might come close to it, but he wasn’t sure. Still, it looked impressive enough, one solid strip of heavy grey stone that carried on far beyond the horizon both ahead of and behind him.
Buildings followed the line of the road on both sides, again far out of sight in both directions. But there was no design or order to them that he could fathom. The buildings ranged from palatial mansions to wooden shacks, though they had not been put together like with like or arranged in order of size or luxury. They were simply there, and apparently inaccessible as all were fenced off and none had paths leading up to them from the road.
Thomas glanced upwards, and was greeted with a sky of purple, yellow, red and black, the colours fighting against one another in a vortex without end. But before he had time to contemplate what this might mean, or consider his bizarre surroundings, there was a deep thrum and a flash of light. Then there was somebody else standing next to him.
He recognised the man with the bald head, thick beard and strange clothes almost instantly, and recoiled in fear. But Eliphas waved a hand dismissively and paid him no mind. He didn’t have long here, and could already feel the air around him pulling at his soul. To Thomas he looked like a picture whose outline had been blurred, and he had to look down at himself to check he wasn’t subject to the same effect. That was enough to tell him he belonged here, wherever this was, and his killer didn’t.
But since Eliphas made no move to hurt him, Thomas plucked up the courage to ask a question of him. “Where am I? What is this place?” He said.
“Purgatory. Or to give it its proper name, She’ol.” Eliphas answered while drawing out a brass flute, a very old and engraved with both Enochian letters and symbols of binding and entrapment from The Lesser Key of Solomon.
“Purgatory? What’s that – is it like heaven or hell?”
“Think of it as a way-station before you are sent to one or the other. Someone will be here to collect you in a moment.”
“Collect me? Who?” Thomas’s voice was thick with panic now, as he glanced around desperately hoping for a way off this road that he might have missed before. But there was none.
Ignoring the dead man, Eliphas concentrated on the spell that he would need to invoke when he blew on the flute. It was vital that the sequence in his head was perfect; unlike in fiction where magic was cast with puerile rhymes said around a cauldron or the use of gesticulation to fire bolts of energy from your hands, sorcery was a very precise mental art, its intent needing to be absolutely clear and without ambiguity before it was sent forth into the world.
A moment later, another flash and thrum signalled the arrival of his foe. It didn’t matter which of them it was, since the magic would work equally effectively in either case, but usually he would hope for the angel. It felt more appropriate to pit himself against Samael, given what he did. But on this occasion he was glad to see that the demon, Azrael, had come.
Clearly, despite his youth and the fear now overwhelming him, the young dead man had something very dark in his past for which his atonement would be eternal.
Azrael wasn’t entirely corporeal, nor entirely of shadow. Somewhere in between, his true form was shrouded by a robe which swept along the ground when he moved so that it looked as though he was floating and a cowl which entirely hid his face. Two large black wings, leathery like those of a bat, protruded from his back and in one clawed hand he held a scythe as tall as he stood, with a handle of human bone and a black blade.
Thomas paled and fell to the ground in terror.
Eliphas stood his ground. He raised the flute to his lips and blew. It was a single long, piercing note, infused with magic older than the earth. The sound held Azrael still, but on its own it would cease to have power as soon as it ended. So Eliphas held the note, expending great energy to do so, while fire encircled the demon on the road below his feet. Only once the circle was complete did Eliphas pull the flute away from his mouth to catch his breath.
Azrael hissed and bellowed, the sound like the crackling of living flame, and his anger was a heat on Eliphas’s skin. The prison would not hold forever. He had to act quickly.
“My apologies to you, Azrael.” He intoned, the words a long held formality for these trips. “You may have your quarry soon enough. But before you do so I would occupy his body with another.”
“What?” Thomas asked, still on the floor and held there by both fear and confusion.
Neither Eliphas nor Thomas received an answer.
Eliphas had not expected one, and could not delay with conversation as he had work to do before Azrael’s prison fell. The new spell was already in his mind, its intent overlaid with the realm he was calling out to and the subject of his magical plea. This time, he sent it out not through the flute but with his voice. There were no words, just a bellow which burned his throat and echoed across the sky. Even Thomas, entirely ignorant of magic, could feel the otherworldly energy contained in the shout.
Then there was something else there with Azrael, Eliphas and Thomas. It didn’t arrive with a flash of light and a thrum but simply appeared. It was nothing corporeal, only a shadow. One that Eliphas and Thomas alike could see out of the corner of their eyes but which became invisible when they tried to turn towards it.
Eliphas could feel the thing’s raw power and knew he had only moments, in the confusion following its summoning, before it became a threat to him. He commanded it, with force and haste, pointing to a house behind Thomas. It was ordinary, neither run down nor grand, but its owner now lay prone on the road, paralysed by fear, and if it remained empty it would soon collapse into dust for another building to take its place.
“Cross over into the mortal world. Now!” Eliphas urged. “There you will have your freedom!”
There was no response at all, save that a moment later the shadow thing was gone.
Back in the mortal world, a cluster of burning embers descended from the sky over Thomas’s body. Then his eyes opened and he sat up, now driven not by his human soul but by the thing Eliphas had summoned.
Eliphas still knelt prone at his side, but blinked and returned to life shortly after Thomas’s body sat up. Seeing his work complete, he grinned, stepping aside and watching as it stalked away.
Back in She’ol, Thomas was left alone with Azrael. Still he found himself unable to move, and when Azrael’s prison failed the demon with a touch condemned him to eternity in hell.