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It was mid-morning when Joe arrived at Lime Street Station, its curved roof and glass façade overlooking Armageddon Plaza from the west. He had missed the early morning commute and was too early for the lunchtime rush, yet once he stepped through the stone arches at the entrance he was almost immediately confronted with a wall of people.
There was space to move. Several different queues edged out of the various coffee shops and mini-supermarkets inside the station, and pigeons wandered freely around the seating area to pick off the morsels of food dropped by various hungry commuters. But there was a large cluster of people in the centre of the open space, their necks craned up waiting for the boards telling them which platform their train would be on, at which point they would step forward into the appropriate shuffling line.
You couldn’t see the platforms or the trains, because they were blocked by a nine foot high steel barricade which ran the length of the station. At the gaps for people heading onto and off the various platforms, there were full body scanners and armed City Watch officers. They wore plastic-visored riot helmets and black flak jackets over white shirts and combat trousers, with a pistol holstered at one hip and a Taser at the other. They always had their batons drawn, just in case.
Joe rifled through his pockets to be sure he had his passport; a plastic card with his picture, a nine digit number and a barcode on. Having confirmed that he had it with him, he went and bought a bottle of coke and a chocolate bar for twice what it would cost elsewhere in the city before checking what platform he was on and joining the queue.
The slow shuffle brought him to the front in just under ten minutes, at which point a bored and irritable looking City Watch officer scanned first his passport and then the QR ticket code on his phone, before waving him through.
Joe noted in passing that the rear carriage was a block of grey with blacked-out windows completely at odds with the sleek, dark red train it was attached to. Then a faster shuffle took him onto the train, where the crowd quickly thinned out as people moved to different carriages and he was able to get a seat easily enough. He picked a table, for the leg room, and got his phone out to occupy him while he waited for the train to get moving. Before it did a woman probably the same age as his older sister and a male demon with red, scaly skin, both wearing business suits and carrying laptops, also sat at the table.
Just before they set off, a tannoy announcement declared that, “Coach N is out of bounds and passengers are asked not to approach it or try and enter it.” This piqued Joe’s curiosity for a moment, until a text off Serena asked him if he was on his way yet.
The next time he looked up from his phone, the train was several miles out of the station and just crossing a gap in the wire fence and concrete wall that marked the perimeter of the city. He carried on staring out the window for a while, watching the dead and empty buildings pass by.
Half an hour later, having passed both into and out of Warrington through a similar border wall, the train stopped at a station called Glazebrook. This wasn’t a designated stop on this route, but the tannoy assured passengers that, “The train has not broken down, and the service will resume shortly once Coach N is decoupled.” Joe stared out of the window and was confronted only with a silent, empty station, one which looked no different to any of the others that had been abandoned for eighteen years.
“Why are they leaving a coach here?” The young woman asked the demon at Joe’s table, and he tried not to look like he was listening in.
“The Anti-Social Resettlement Act.” The demon said with little interest, as if that explained it.
Apparently it did, as the woman responded only with, “Hmm.”
Joe caught the sound of shouting and confrontation in the distance beyond the station. Apparently it wasn’t loud enough for anyone else in the train to hear it yet as he didn’t see anybody else react. His eyes searched across the station again, with curiosity.
Then there was another shout, which this time everybody heard. A woman, screaming in defiance. A second later, she appeared, having leaped a low wall and sprinted onto the platform. She was dressed normally enough, in jeans and a t-shirt, though it looked as if she had been wearing the clothes for a fair while.
A soldier chased after her. Then a second soldier appeared. Then two more civilians, both male. Then another soldier. Then, with several seconds delay, a small mob of people pursued by another five or so soldiers. All of them were shouting. Everyone on the train was now staring out of the window at the chase as it came closer.
The first woman Joe had seen running reached the window. She locked eyes with Joe for maybe a second, enough time for him to realise that they were blue and brimming with tears. She couldn’t have been much older than in her mid-twenties. Her hand touched the glass, and Joe found himself putting his over it.
Then the soldier reached her. He barrelled straight into her, slamming her head against the window so that blood exploded from her nose. She cried out before being tackled to the ground. Just behind, others were being tackled and the platform was now the scene of a full-on brawl between soldiers and civilians.
“Go! Go!” A soldier cried at someone on the train, before drawing his gun and firing it in the air. The screams in response, including several from within the train, coincided with it setting off again.
All Joe could do was stare in shock until they left the scene behind. Then he had to turn from the window so that he wasn’t just staring at the woman’s blood.
“Disgraceful.” The demon shook his head before returning his attention to his laptop.
“Savage beasts,” the woman opposite Joe agreed.
Joe got up and moved seats, so that he wouldn’t be sitting next to them anymore. He was still replaying the incident over in his head and wired with adrenaline when the train crossed the perimeter into Manchester. By the time he reached Victoria Station, he felt slightly dizzy and shaky as the adrenaline ebbed.
The path from the train to the checkpoint wasn’t so much a shuffling queue as an overwhelming crush that moved imperceptibly, glacially slow. Feeling far warmer and sweatier than he was comfortable with, Joe endured this unhappily. Finally, he got to the front where the Manchester Perimeter Force played the same role as the Liverpool City Watch. His passport and ticket were scanned hastily and he wasn’t waved but shoved through the scanner. On the other side, the crush became a tide and he was propelled out into the open air.
It was there he saw Serena, and in an instant he felt so much lighter. The dizziness was forced to the back of his mind and the muggy discomfort was forgotten. She beamed, and pulled him into a tight hug and then a passionate kiss.
“I’m so glad you don’t only look like that through beer goggles.” She said, with a laugh. “Not that I’m shallow or anything.”
“No, of course not.” He agreed with a grin.
She took his hand as they headed away from the station in the direction of her house. “Did you see them drop off the exiles, then?” She asked. “I heard your train was the one carrying the extra carriage.”
“Err, yeah. There was an extra carriage which got dropped off. I didn’t see what happened to it. But…”
She must have read the expression on his face. “Are you okay? What did you see?”
He told her. She listened thoughtfully as he described the scene, her own frown deepening. As he finished, he said, “What was it all about, though? I didn’t think there were people out there – I thought the whole point was that there were areas they just couldn’t reclaim.”
“Nah. I mean, that’s the story. But I’ve been working outside the checkpoints at Requiem for two years now and I’ve never seen a shrieker in that whole time. Tayla, the owner of the place, says she hasn’t seen one for over a decade.”
“My mate Greeney’s well into conspiracy theories. I never really listen, though, so I couldn’t tell you if he’s ever said anything about this.”
“It’s not a conspiracy theory. I mean, there are conspiracy theories about it – that the government caged all the shriekers and is using them as a weapon, or they’re giving over the area as a crossing point for inter-dimensional aliens, that’s one of my favourites. But there are definitely no shriekers. There are businesses like Requiem, and others which are more unsavoury. There’s more vampires than you’ll find inside the cities, and probably other things as well. But the hordes of undead which supposedly mean we need to stay behind the checkpoints and walls, no.”
“So why are people being left there?”
“For anti-social behaviour. I think it has something to do with reducing the prison population but I’m not sure. Anyway,” she rubbed his arm, “Forget about all that. We’re here to have fun.”
He put his arm around her and she leaned into him. Joe did his best to shove what he had seen from his mind and focus on being here, seeing Serena. But he did make a mental note to ask his dad about this when he got a chance. His dad would probably know.
Serena’s house was a three storey Edwardian residence, part of an abandoned terrace one street over from the perimeter. Because she was a squatter, the front door remained locked from the inside and the only way in was by leaping up to the first floor window and climbing in through the open top part of the window. Unless of course there was somebody already in, which there was.
It was the tall man with the black hair and beard that Joe had seen at Requiem. Up close, he was incredibly imposing, his face set into a glower which looked as though it would become a growl at any moment. He nodded soberly to Serena, no real warmth in the gesture, then turned his gaze on Joe.
“Alastair,” Serena said, “this is Joe. You remember? Joe, this is Alastair, my big bro.”
Joe looked between them, but even beyond her being brown and him a pallid white, he couldn’t see any familial resemblance.
Guessing his thoughts, Serena said, “Our family tree is … complicated,” with a shrug. “Come in and meet everyone else.”
Alastair stepped aside, gesturing for Joe and Serena to go ahead of him. Joe glanced nervously at the big man again, then followed Serena in and through to the living room. Inside, the building was spacious, with wide rooms and high ceilings. The place had clearly once been luxuriously decorated, as was evident in everything from the ornate bannister on the stairs to the shell of a chandelier in the hall. But the wallpaper was peeling, the ceiling stained brown from what may have been more than a century of cigarette smoke, and the carpets threadbare.
In the living room, two scratched and stained leather couches filled with odd cushions formed a V shape in front of a television, a couple of games consoles, and a scattered pile of games and DVDs. Three men and two women, all somewhere between seventeen and twenty one in age, were sprawled on the couch. They were passing around bags of snacks and watching one of the men play Armageddon Veteran: Pest Control, a first person shooter set in the Middle East during the War of Armageddon.
“Guys?” Serena said, to the room.
She got no response, until one of the women leaned over and pressed the pause button. Only the group noticing Joe’s presence prevented this resulting in a fight.
“Guys, this is Joe.” Serena said. “He’s gonna be coming out with us tonight. Joe, this is Amy, Terri, Michael, Kris and Adam.”
“Hey.” Said Terri. She had a thin face with an eruption of short, black hair on the top of her head, her body buried in very baggy clothes. She looked at Serena and raised an eyebrow. “Wow, Ree, you weren’t exaggerating!”
“Exaggerating about what?” Joe asked.
Serena didn’t answer, only bit her lip and winked at him.
“About you being good-looking,” Adam said in answer as he stood up to shake Joe’s hand, “Although I can’t see it myself. You’re passable, but…” He shrugged. He was almost the same height as Joe, black, with a strong resemblance to Serena – though she didn’t have his chiselled jaw and the neat layer of designer stubble across it. He was currently shirtless, showing off a body that clearly took a lot of work, waxing as well as exercise.
“Err. Thanks?” Joe said.
The others sniggered, except for Alastair, who remained impassive. There was clearly a considerable age gap between him and the others, although Joe felt that wasn’t the whole of it.
“Ignore my twin.” Serena said. “I’m pretty sure he’d seduce himself if that was possible.”
“It is. Though I’ve never heard it call seduction before.” Terri offered.
More laughter. This time Adam rolled his eyes and walked out of the room.
Serena took a seat on the couch and Joe followed suit. Alastair nodded to them and walked back out of the room. Nobody seemed to view this as unusual.
“So you’re the Champion’s kid, then?” Michael asked. He was the one who had been playing the game; he must have worked out as much as Adam, but was brawny with it rather than pretty. He had a scruffy beard, a mess of blond hair on his head and a cauliflower ear. “What’s that like?”
Joe shrugged. “I dunno. It doesn’t really make much difference.” He said honestly, Myles’s being the Champion of Man having never had any discernible impact on how he was raised.
“It did make a difference.” Kris put in. “You knew your dad.”
Kris followed this statement with an intense stare that made him uncomfortable. He looked like a younger version of Michael, chubby rather than built, with less hair on his head and none at all on his chin. But his gaze made Joe uncomfortable, regretting his choice of words.
At least, until Michael put a hand on Kris’s head and shoved him over so that he tumbled off the couch.
“We knew our dads.” He said. “Kris just has a real issue with what it was we knew. I get what you mean though, you were raised just like anybody else whose dad wasn’t a vampire.”
Joe nodded, relieved he hadn’t said something out of turn.
“Not like we were raised though.” Kris insisted.
“Nobody was raised like we were. Has Ree told you?”
“Yeah, I went over my whole life story for him while we were dancing to really loud music and getting drunk.” Serena said, followed by a shake of her head.
“Oh, well I don’t want to steal your thunder.”
“No, please. You’re the one who seems to like talking about it so much.”
“It’s alright,” Joe interjected. “I don’t need to know about it if it’s, you know…” He trailed off, thinking calling it ‘a sore subject’ might seem like he was mocking but he was unable to come up with an alternative phrase.
“Don’t worry, Joe,” said Amy, who had so far stayed silent. “It’s not you. Whenever where we come from comes up Mike always wants to over-analyse it and Ree always tries to live in denial of it. It’s what they do.” Her hair was straw-coloured, tied back in a loose braid that fell to her navel and she had piercings in her nose, lower lip and left eyebrow. She had a boyish figure, with a flat chest and a soft belly exposed between the low-waisted shorts and crop top she was wearing. Joe would have been surprised if she was over sixteen.
“Sorry.” Serena said. “Didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”
Joe shrugged. “It’s alright.”
The silence that followed persisted for a minute or so, growing thicker as it did, until Amy un-paused the game and thrust the controller into Michael’s hands. Quickly, Kris took his place back on the couch and he and Amy carried on offering encouragement and suggestions while Michael took a machine gun to the giant, scorpion-tailed Locusts which had swarmed the earth after the fifth trumpet. Joe knew enough history to know that in real life the only outcome of such a contest, where the humans lacked truck-mounted sonic weapons and air strikes, was a horrible death.
Serena put a hand under his t-shirt and caressed his stomach and chest, and for a moment his mind went blank. She kissed him, after several moments swinging her leg over him and mounting him. He could feel his heart hammering in his chest and the blood flowing to his abdomen as he quickly became hard.
Amy groaned and hit Serena in the arm. “Take your boy-toy upstairs if you’re gonna be doing…all that,” she said, gesturing with some disdain at their two bodies pressed together.
Serena now had a wicked grin on her face. “Shall we?” She asked him.
For a split second, Joe panicked. For all of the bravado he might have shared with his friends, he had never had sex before. He had kissed his fair share of girls, but he had never gone further than that; not through any choice of his, it had just never happened. Now he was conscious that Serena probably had, being older than him, and he was sure his shortcomings would be evident.
Still, he nodded before his fear could betray him, and let himself be dragged up off the couch and led out of the room to the stairs. Halfway up the stairs, she stopped and turned to face him, draping her arms over his shoulders.
“Joe, how old are you?”
“What?” The question took him by surprise.
The look on her face was sympathetic. “I know you’re under eighteen. Seeing your mates in Requiem was enough to confirm that. I’m just curious how old you are, that’s all.”
“Sixteen.” He said, bracing himself for a backlash.
Instead, she smiled. “That’s cool. I’m seventeen, by the way. And have you ever…?” The look she gave him then was enough to tell him what she was asking. He stopped himself from shaking his head, or from bluffing a yes, but he suspected that his hesitation was enough of an answer for her. “Don’t worry about it. It’s easy, and you strike me as a fast learner. Come on.”
Then they were going up the stairs again. From below, he heard a guffaw of laughter that he hoped had nothing to do with his and Serena’s conversation, which he knew it would have been really easy for the other dhampirs to eavesdrop on.
Still in the house, by nine o’clock the dhampirs weren’t exactly drunk but could definitely be described as having ‘had a few.’ Joe and Serena had needed to catch up, since the rest of them were already two bottles down by the time they came back downstairs. The only exception was Alastair, who was still away from them in another part of the house.
“He still thinks of himself as our protector,” Serena explained. “We’re not kids any more and are more than capable of looking after ourselves, but I think in his mind we’ll be little children pretty much forever.”
“How old is he?” Joe asked.
“Something like forty?” Serena posed it as a question to the others, though the answer she got back was a collective shrug. “I know he doesn’t look it, but once we reach maturity dhampirs age at half the rate of humans.”
“I’m sure he knows that.” Adam said. He was now wearing a shirt, though it was still open to show off his body, and the drink didn’t seem to have made him any less aloof.
“He’s not been raised by other dhampirs so he won’t.”
“No, I didn’t.” Joe agreed. “My mum and dad are learning about it largely from seeing me and my sisters grow up, and none of our friends even know that we’re…not…human.” He stumbled over the words, as despite his heritage he had always thought of himself as human just as Serena and her siblings thought of themselves as apart.
“You probably know everything else. The abilities and senses are pretty self-explanatory, unless you get anything extra from your dad being the Champion?”
“Nah. I don’t think it’s a hereditary thing. I mean the Champion before my dad is – was – my great-times-a-hundred uncle or something, but none of the others were related to each other in any way.”
“You’re related to Nuadhu Iarraindorn?” Amy asked, her interest piquing.
“You know who he is?” Joe said, surprised.
“Yeah! I suppose most humans wouldn’t unless they really looked for the info, but he’s kind of a legend. His powers…”
“Yeah, yeah.” Michael said with a wave of his hand. “You can fan-girl over the winged vampire some other time. When are we going out?”
Joe was relieved at the change of subject. He wasn’t sure how much other people were allowed to know about his uncle Nuadhu, like the fact that he was still alive and lived in Avetana with his aunt Anael and his cousin Piralael.
“It’ll be about half ten, I think. Gargoyle doesn’t open till ten, so we don’t wanna get there too early.” Serena answered. “Have I told you about Gargoyle?” When Joe shook his head, she went on. “It’s a demon bar. I think it existed long before the War, and it’s kept up the secrecy that it had before the world knew demons were real, so you don’t get many humans in there. It’s a bit rough, but it’s a laugh.”
“Never any good specimens in there, though.” Adam complained.
“And yet you always pull.”
“Of course.” He said, in a tone that said any other outcome would be absurd to contemplate.
“I think Adam turning down a shag would be a sign of another apocalypse.” Kris said.
“Oh, please. I have very particular standards.”
“No you don’t!” His siblings said in unison, before falling about laughing.
Once again, Adam responded by rolling his eyes.
Half past ten came and went with them still talking and drinking. It was closer to half eleven by the time they finally got up to leave the house. Amy changed into jeans and a vest top in order to leave the house, though only after Terri had pointed out that she looked her age in her previous attire and even Gargoyle didn’t serve fifteen year olds. Alastair reappeared then and came with them, though he remained as stoic as ever and Joe was quick to notice that it looked like he had several knives sheathed under his clothes.
Serena called a taxi, but they left the house and walked several streets over to get it in front of a house on a populated street slightly further from the border. They took it to a quiet looking bar outside of the city centre, and from there again walked through several streets in order to reach their actual destination. It was a side-street that was almost completely dark, but for one doorway with two bouncers standing in front of it.
Both were demons, with grey leathery skin stretched over a frill of bone which protected their necks and two short horns on their brows. They had sharp beaks rather than mouths, and clawed knuckles on three-fingered hands.
“Hi Robbie.” Terri said, with a wink at the bouncer on the right. “Miss us?”
Robbie gave what might have been a grin, though Joe wasn’t sure, and said, “Course I did, love.” Before pushing the door open and stepping aside for them.
“You didn’t?” Amy asked as they descended the stairs.
Terri shrugged. “Only the once. It didn’t last long.”
The stairs led down into a wide but dimly lit space, with a bar at one end and a stage at the other. There was a band on the stage, playing covers of rock songs from half a century earlier by a band called the Foo Fighters. Several women and men were dancing in front of the stage, many more were just crowded around drinking, maybe having conversations that involved shouting directly into one another’s ears.
Nearly everybody inside was a demon, of more kinds than Joe had seen together in one place before. They ranged from those who were humanoid but for the colour or texture of their skin, and perhaps horns or claws, to something with dark green fur and a long tail which could stand upright and grasp things in its front paws as though they were hands, but clearly was built to move on all fours. There were humans, too, but only a handful.
Shortly, they all had beers in their hands except for Alastair and were lost in the throb of the crowd and the beat of the music. Joe did pause to wonder about Alastair, who seemed resigned to a night standing sentry whilst they got drunk and enjoyed themselves, but not for long. With Serena’s body writhing against his, a body he now knew intimately, and who knew how many beers in his system, it was hard to think about anything beyond the moment.
He wasn’t aware of how much time had passed when on his way back from the toilet, a demon bumped into him. He looked not too far from human, with dark brown skin, white hair tied back into a ponytail, and a matching goatee beard. What set him apart were the thorns sticking out of the corners of his eyes and the sides of his nose, as well as the short claws on the end of his fingers and the webbing between them.
“Sorry about that, chief.” The demon said.
“Err, don’t worry about it.” Joe said, before shifting to try and get past.
“So, are you having a good night?”
“I asked if you were having a good night. Not a difficult question.”
“Yeah, I guess so.” Joe shrugged, suddenly wary.
“Could be better though, yeah? I might be able to help you with that.” He pulled a small pouch out of his pocket and, from that, what looked like a tiny, dark red gel pack. He held it carefully between thumb and forefinger, squeezing it slightly to show that it contained liquid.
Joe hesitated, wanting to get back to Serena but also intrigued. “What’s that?”
“I call it ichor. It’ll blow your mind.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“Don’t look so worried, my friend. I’m offering you a free sample. A good night, on me.”
Serena came up next to him, put her hand on his arm, and glared at the demon. “He’s not interested.”
The demon’s smile didn’t falter. “Come on now, love. He’s his own man.”
“Don’t start. Peddle your wares to someone else.”
“Don’t you tell me where –”
“Is there a problem?” Alastair asked, appearing at their side.
The demon looked up at the dhampir towering over him. “Not at all. I was just chatting.” He stepped away from them, but before he turned away altogether he caught Joe’s eye and said, “I’ll be around if you change your mind.” Then he disappeared into the crowd.
“What was that all about?” Joe said, still none the wiser.
“He was dealing.” Serena said, simply.
“Dealing what, though? I’ve ran into dealers before and they’re not so…I dunno, it was more like he was trying to sell me double glazing or car insurance door to door.”
“I’ll be over here,” Alastair said with a gesture before walking away.
“It’s not like weed or anything like that.” Serena said. “But really, it’s best to just stay away from them. Don’t worry about it, we’re here to have a laugh, aren’t we?”
He nodded, and kissed her. The rest of the night was a haze of drink and dancing wherein the demon drug dealer was mostly forgotten. But once or twice Joe was sure that he saw him again, and each time he was certain that the demon was staring at him.