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Thomas’s dead eyes followed the vampire as he ran, leaping from rooftop to rooftop through the dark and empty streets. He kept his distance, wary of revealing himself. He wasn’t here to fight with the Champion of Man, who moved in pursuit of very different prey.
On the ground, the Champion’s Guild allies moved slower, closing in from all directions in a well-practised flanking pattern. They carried short blades in holsters at their sides, concealed by their jackets, and kept a distance from one another that would have made them invisible amongst crowds. As it was, on these quiet, residential streets they looked slightly out of place, but their numbers were spread thinly enough that you couldn’t place why unless you were following them and studying their movements.
None of them paid Thomas any mind as he passed them. He didn’t draw a veil around himself, as Eliphas was known to, but he looked very ordinary. His slashed throat was healed. His blood-stained clothes were replaced with clean ones. All they saw was a young man wander past trying to get a cigarette lit.
He had no business with the Guild, but for a moment curiosity had got the better of him. So he had gone to a rooftop; not leaping, as the vampire Champion did, simply appearing where he wanted to be in the blink of an eye. He positioned himself so that he could see what he needed to and yet remain unseen.
The Guild’s target was a creature called a shuck. Two days earlier, police employed by Sure Shield had been called to a house where a domestic disturbance had been reported, and gone missing. When they hadn’t reported back, an armed unit was sent along to back up the officers investigating. They had found the house empty and had no trail to follow.
But the Guild had been made aware of strange sightings in the same area. Some had reported a black dog as large as the hell-hounds in the Battle of Stonehenge. Others had said it looked like a massive gorilla, like King Kong. This was slight over-exaggeration on both counts, as on all fours it was only a little larger than a wolf-hound, while upright it was just over eight feet tall. Its form was fluid, canine when walking on four legs but simian when on two, yet never quite matching either. Its eyes glowed a dark blue, and it had retractable fangs and claws.
Sightings centred on an old fire station which had been closed many years earlier. Screams had been reported from within, as well as howling and an eerie skittering which couldn’t be attributed to any known animal. This was where both the Champion and the Guild in their flanking pattern were now headed, as Thomas watched.
The Champion dropped from a nearby rooftop to land in front of a side door, which had been boarded up but now swung freely in the wind on damaged hinges. The Guild stopped further back, unseen from the doorway, waiting.
Shuck ate slowly, Thomas knew. Most of those it had taken would be alive, but they would not be comfortable. The creature effectively crucified its victims upside down and strung them up, to keep them both bound and helpless until it was ready to eat them. It would feed them small rodents or insects and splash them with water to keep them from dying prematurely. The kill was bloody and unpleasant too.
The shuck caught the scent of the vampire at its door and it roared a challenge to what it thought was a rival for its food supply. As the sound died down, the sound of crying – including a child – rose up. The shuck skittered and hit something to make a loud clang, and the cries trailed off into low sobs.
“Come out!” The Champion called. “Here, shucky shucky shucky!”
There was a moment of silence. Then a bang and a thud, and the door of the fire station flew at him at high velocity. It was moving with enough force to chip the brick wall behind it and leave a dent, but the Champion side-stepped it with ease. This provoked another angry howl, and then the shuck stepped into view.
For several moments, shuck and vampire stared each other down. Then the shuck sprang forward, four legs pounding the pavement and propelling it forward so that it gained speed rapidly. As it reached the Champion, it reared up. Front paws became hands, and one balled into a fist, swinging hard. He didn’t dodge this quickly enough, and it sent him flying several feet backwards, not quite hitting the wall.
As he recovered himself, the shuck stalked forward. Again it was on all fours, moving like a panther with a flat, alien face whose only features were glowing eyes and pointed fangs. It raised a front paw which grew and stretched into a fist the size of the Champion’s torso. Before it came slamming down, though, he rolled out of the way and leapt up to kick the creature in the face.
The creature reared and swatted at the Champion. He caught the limb, at that moment half way between being a leg and being an arm, and gripped it tight. While holding it, he kicked at the shuck’s torso and head.
Now, the Guild members moved in from both sides. They moved in a wide arc to come up behind the creature, their movements quick but as quiet as they could be. They drew out their blades and closed in.
The shuck saw movement to its right, however, and turned to see the Guild closing in. It reared and thrashed, desperately trying to throw off the Champion, while howling. He held on valiantly, but couldn’t keep his grip forever and was eventually flung to the ground. The shuck turned to face its attackers to the right.
Those to the left still went unnoticed, however, until their blades cut into its flesh. The shuck screeched and turned, swiping at the attackers with its claws. But the wounds had weakened it, and now the opponents it had first spotted were behind it, charging. Once the two groups came together, its lashing out essentially became its death throes as its end was now inevitable. Especially since the Champion was once more on his feet and advancing towards it.
Thomas turned away, having lost interest. The death of a supernatural creature, even one as lowly as a shuck, held no interest for him. Especially when it was paid for with so little human blood. Humanity was too strong, too well organised, and nowhere near afraid enough; things had changed so much since the last time he had faced them.
That would have to change. But it wasn’t a task to be done lightly, or on an empty stomach.
A split second later he was stood at the start of the motorway, half a mile from the City Watch-guarded crossing point out of the city. Here, there was hardly any traffic at all, and a lone driver was just pulling off the road into an unmanned petrol station. Something whirred overhead, a great black eyeball with strange looking wings protruding from it. Thomas paid it no mind as it passed over him.
All that mattered was that his prey was in sight, and he was hungry. Once that was seen to he could deal with other issues. He grinned and sauntered in the direction of the man who would be his next meal.
On Monday morning, as usual, there was a long queue outside the Job Centre. They were officially Work Allocation Offices now, and had been for a decade, yet still everyone called them Job Centres or ‘Jobbies,’ and only occasionally ‘Allos.’ The building itself was mostly for the employment officers, working for a company called Pathway, to update records and make referrals; those after work had to wait outside. Somebody would come out and, depending on the work, either call out specific names or simply state the job on offer and how many places were going.
Joe, Carroll and Greeney sat at the bus stop across the street, watching the commotion as one man confronted another who had shoved him out of the way in order to claim a place at a factory job that came with five days of continuous employment. An Eyeball diverted from its normal route in order to monitor the disturbance, while the employment officer signalled for backup from the guards on the door.
“Yes, fight!” Declared Greeney. Then a thoughtful look crossed his face. “You know, I reckon this sort of stuff goes on all the time. You could probably dedicate a YouTube channel to it.”
“Yeah, but then you’d be just like the mainstream media, diverting attention from how we’re controlled by a One World Government of space lizards.” Carroll said, failing to keep a straight face for the entire time he was talking.
“Don’t knock it mate, there’s some real truth there.”
“Space lizards?” Joe said, with a laugh.
Greeney flushed. “No! But, I mean, about what’s going on behind the scenes that affects all our lives.”
“Space lizards.” Joe repeated, nodding sagely.
All three of them were carrying bags filled with alcohol as well as crisps and other snacks. Joe had bought it while the other two waited outside, as he was the only one who didn’t look his age. They were heading into town with the plan to sit in St John’s Gardens and drink as much of the day away as they could get away with. Nikki and Li were meeting them there.
Joe’s phone buzzed, and he took it out of his pocket to see that he had a text message that just said ‘Morning.’ As he replied to it, Carroll and Greeney shared a look and rolled their eyes. Joe caught them doing it, and when they saw the way he was looking at them they burst out laughing.
“What?” He demanded.
“Come on, Joe.” Carroll said. “You’ve seen this girl once. Got off with her a bit and now she’s got you wrapped around her finger.”
“I’m not wrapped around her finger!” Joe insisted. “I just get on with her, alright? It’s not just that she’s fit and all that. She’s sound and I really like her, okay?”
Over the road, security had broken up the fight. A third man had been given the factory job in their place and as a punishment, both were denied any work that day. The one who had done the pushing to try and get the factory job fell to his knees, crying. Others crowded around to comfort him. Seeing their looks, the guards and the employment officer retreated to the building.
“No, it’s cool that you like her and all that.” Greeney said. “It’s just, you know…bros before hoes.”
Joe shot him a look. “Don’t be a knob. I can’t believe you actually said that out loud.” He laughed. “Neither of you know the first thing about women. I mean, I don’t either, but at least I’m getting the chance to learn so I don’t have to blag it.”
That ended the conversation then, with all three of them sitting in sullen silence till the bus came which would take them to town.
Joe wasn’t really angry at his friends, he reflected, though they were annoying him. He was just frustrated. He wanted somebody to share his amazement and fascination at finding another dhampir, and there seemed to be nobody who fit the bill. His parents, he was certain, wouldn’t understand. The story of the attempt to snatch Charlotte was the only context he could recall them ever mentioning other dhampirs besides him and his sisters, and he was sure that meant they wouldn’t be eager to meet any more. Charlotte – well, she was the one almost snatched. Plus, his big sister had always been more of an adversary than a confidant.
He glanced about at Carroll and Greeney.
Carroll might understand, since he was a demon. Unless he thought it was ‘political.’ Joe knew Carroll’s dad was involved in campaigning for demonic rights; marching, getting into fights with the Humans First street movement, and so on. But a few years back they had all been talking about it in school after a particularly big march in Bristol had turned into a riot, and opinion had been divided among the year sevens. Carroll had refused to get involved, saying ‘I don’t care about all my dad’s politics stuff,’ and they had avoided the subject ever since.
Greeney definitely wouldn’t understand. There was no point analysing that one. Li wasn’t as bad, but Joe didn’t think he would. Nikki might, but that put her in a minority
The bus turned up and they got on, going straight to the empty back seat. Joe sighed and tried to put it out of his mind, to enjoy the day ahead. But it was hard, and even if he didn’t broach the subject of her being a dhampir, he would still have to talk to his parents about Serena before Thursday.
The seventh floor down in The Hole was given over to a large mortuary with several labs leading off from it. At the moment, the main prize in the freezers there was the body of the shuck that the squad Myles had led the night before had taken down. However, with all of the requisite samples collected for analysis, the carcass was currently stored away and probably would remain so until it was confirmed that they knew everything they could from testing and it could be incinerated.
What Charlotte and Hazel were here to see was a lot smaller and, in many ways, a lot more grotesque. As they waited, the head pathologist Mark brought out seven trays covered by a cloth and laid them out on one of the steel autopsy tables in the centre of the room. Each tray was only a little bigger than the wooden lunch trays in the canteen on the first floor down.
Already, Charlotte could smell them despite the layer of cold that the freezer had cast over them. Blood and flesh. Human. She grimaced as each of the coverings was pulled back, but it didn’t make it easier to see them.
Each tray contained a small assortment of body parts, torn and chewed, barely recognisable for their original form. The centre tray, for example, contained one loose rib surrounded by sinew and flesh, with only the tiniest strip of skin across it. There was also an ankle joint, the flesh and fat around it chewed into a distorted lump of jutting red, pink and white bits. The eyeball and the scrap of blonde hair attached to a small amount of torn scalp rounded off this tray of grotesque. The other six trays were no easier to cast her eyes over.
Charlotte put a hand to her mouth and swallowed down the bile worrying at her throat. At her side, she noticed her mum didn’t seem fazed by the sight. Hazel put her arm around her daughter and offered a sympathetic look.
“Sadly,” she said, “You’ll get used to it with time.”
Charlotte didn’t reply, only nodded to Mark to indicate he should tell them what had happened. She only hoped he also got the hint to be quick about it.
“These are seven different victims.” He said. “Two female, five male. One of the men was a demon, though we’re not entirely sure which species. There may have been more, as each set of remains was found within a pool of congealed blood, and several other areas of blood have been reported as well that could possibly be victims. My team has taken samples in all case, though, and as soon as we know for certain we’ll let you know; as well as informing the police so that relatives can be notified, of course.” Though the latter point sounded like an afterthought.
“So what killed them?” She asked.
“From the bite marks, we think it was a human. Or at least, something that looked like one. Whatever it was, it appears to have eaten its victims, very possibly alive.”
Mark seemed far too excited by that prospect, and Charlotte had to stop herself from backing away from him. Whether he saw something in her reaction, or just realised what he was doing, he straightened himself out and cleared his throat.
“As to what matches that MO, that’s a question for the researchers.”
Once they were out of the lab and in the lift going up to the library on the second floor, Charlotte said, “Mark doesn’t get out much, does he?”
“What makes you say that?” Hazel asked.
“They’re all a little off in the lab. I wouldn’t worry about it.”
Because it was close to midday, this time the library had a fair few people in it. Most would be researchers, looking up specific creatures or phenomena for whichever squad they were attached to. They found Jess at the far end of a row filled with dusty volumes on spiritual magic and other realms that hadn’t been disturbed in a long time, searching.
“What are you looking for?” Charlotte asked.
“It’s called Portents and Crossings,” Jess replied. “It’s supposed to detail the kind of entities which can move between realms, and whether they’re able to take over either living or dead bodies. It’s also supposed to be somewhere here.”
Charlotte scanned the shelves and spotted it further along. It was at a height just above her head, but when she pointed it out Jess said, “I’ll get it.” She wheeled forward, then used one hand to hoist herself to a standing position, her biceps visibly straining as her legs tried to drag her limply to the floor, and the other hand to grab the book.
“By the way,” she said once she was sitting again, no sign of being out of breath, “You know how it’s the twins’ birthday on Sunday? Well, soft lump that he is, Kit’s caved on getting them a bouncy castle so we’re having a barbecue rather than going for a meal.”
Hazel gave her a knowing look. “Kit caved?”
“It was definitely Kit who gave in?”
“Think what you like, but I was standing firm.” Jess said, though there was a twinkle of amusement in her eyes. She gestured the way out from the among the shelves and then, as they were walking, tapped Charlotte on the arm. In a hushed voice she told her, “Make sure you invite Emily. The twins love her.”
Charlotte felt heat rush to her cheeks at the knowing look her aunt gave her. But her mum had her back to them, walking ahead, and didn’t appear to have heard the exchange. Quickly, she nodded.
“Nothing I could find in our records that devours its victims whole has human or humanoid teeth.” Jess said once they were out from the shelves by the table at the front of the room, bringing the subject back to the body parts that had been found. “Hence this book. Given the short time lapse between the necromancy symbols and this thing feeding, I’m going with the theory that the man the necromancer killed is now the vessel for whatever left us the lunch-box sized remains in the mortuary.” She passed the book to Hazel.
“Why you giving that to me?”
“Because your daughter, Sentinel-to-be, is due a training session.” She winked at Charlotte. “But we can’t lose any time on this.”
“I’m not a researcher…”
“Neither am I. It’s one book, Haze. I’m not even asking you to cross-reference anything.”
Hazel frowned at Jess. Then her phone rang. “It’s Joe. Must be important if he’s calling me of his own volition…” She answered it and took a few paces back.
“You enjoy your power too much.” Charlotte told her aunt.
Jess shrugged. “It’s my job to keep you and your mum on your toes.” She was a Mentor, which meant that she was responsible for training, advising and guiding the Sentinel.
Charlotte’s hearing picked up her brother’s voice, low and tinny through the speaker of Hazel’s phone. “Err, mum, I need to ask you something.” He said, sounding very wary. “I’ve been asked to go out on Thursday…”
“Joe, you never ring me. I thought something awful had happened.” Hazel said. “Can this wait till I get home tonight?”
“No, it’s just that –”
“Come on, love, you’ve gone to town before so as long as you’re careful and with your mates and don’t stay out too late, you know I don’t mind.”
“Yeah, I know. But mum, it’s in Manchester.”
“Manchester?” Hazel looked up and saw that neither Charlotte nor Jess were disguising their attempts to eavesdrop. She moved the phone so the speaker was blocked by her shoulder. “He wants to go on a night out in Manchester.” She said. Then, returning the phone to her ear, “What’s in Manchester?”
“It’s just – can I go?” Joe’s voice pleaded.
“Mum! No, please, come on. Why not?”
“Why do you need to go out there?”
Charlotte glanced at Jess, who appeared to have just reached the same conclusion she had by the look in her eyes. ‘It’s a girl.’ She mouthed at her mum.
Hazel covered the phone again. “What?”
“It’s a girl.” She said aloud. “Joe must be seeing someone from Manchester.”
“But how would he…?” Hazel shook her head, then spoke into the phone again. “Alright, yes. Provisionally. We’ll talk about this tonight.”
“Thanks mum! Thanks a lot!” Joe said, clearly not having heard anything beyond ‘yes.’ “I love you.” He hung up.
Hazel laughed and shook her head. “That lad…”
“At least he’s not like you at that age.” Jess said.
“Well, there is that.” Hazel caught Charlotte’s meaningful look. “And no, that’s not a story you’ll be hearing any time soon.”
Charlotte shrugged, trying to mask her disappointment.
“Come on you,” Jess said to her while moving towards the door, “Let’s go get sweaty and hit things.”