The air inside the house was hot and stale. I felt as if I was entering a crypt. From what little I could see with the light from my phone, the floor plan seemed to be a mirror image of the coven’s house. I headed down the hallway to my right toward the back of the house, assuming I would find the stairs leading down to the basement at the end.
I wondered how Joel was coping with this, considering his claustrophobia. Probably not great if my own mental state was any indication.
My feet kicked up dust with every step. When I allowed myself to cough, I nearly jumped out of my skin at the sound echoing throughout the empty house. By the time I reached the end of the hallway I could barely see anything at all. The light from my phone illuminated every mote of dust hanging in the air like they were drops of rain in a downpour.
My next step sent me careening down the stairs. I managed somehow to grab onto the railing but watched in dismay as my phone skipped down the last few steps and landed with a loud clatter at the bottom. I swayed dangerously while staring down into the blackness and considered trying to climb back up. I could always ask Seb or Muri to go in and help me search.
But I didn’t want to be the scared little girl who needed someone to hold her hand. And I had promised Jon—promised him—that I would find his brother.
Each step of my descent was excruciating. I had to feel around for every stair with my foot before I could put my weight down, making the whole process take about five times longer than it should have. My stomach did a backflip when I reached the bottom without realizing and put my foot down expecting air but connecting with cement instead. I bent over double to catch my breath.
That’s when I heard it.
There was something rustling in the darkness.
“Hello?” I whispered, not really sure what kind of response I was expecting. It was at best a rat and at worst, well. I didn’t even want to think about it.
I crouched down slowly and ran my fingers over the floor, searching desperately for my phone. Finally my fingers collided with something solid and I picked up the phone, now in several pieces. I’d dropped my phone enough over the last year of owning it to know that it wasn’t irreversibly broken, but my fingers were still shaking as I blindly groped for the battery cover.
I crammed the battery back in and waited for the phone to turn back on. When I shone the light into the darkness, I let out a short, shrill scream.
There were three bodies lying on the basement floor in a nest of dusty blankets and ragged sleeping bags. I thought I might throw up.
Then one of the bodies suddenly sat up and I realized they weren’t dead after all.
A little boy rubbed at his eyes, blinking as if pained by the light shining directly into his face. I lowered it and took a step closer to him.
“Who are you?” he asked in a small voice.
“I’m here to help you,” I said quietly.
I tried not to openly grimace as the light illuminated black smears of dried blood at his throat. I shuddered to think that these kids were just living refreshments for this vampire. Seb’s whole vegan philosophy was starting to feel a tad more relatable now. I glanced over at the other two children, still curled up in their sleeping bags. They seemed to be alive as well, but in a similar state.
“I’m going to get you guys out of here,” I told him, “so you can go home.”
“The Bag Man said we can’t go home,” said one of the children as they both popped upright in response to the noise, the speaker a young girl who looked like all the color had been leached out of her skin.
“He came in a bad dream,” she informed me matter-of-factly. “And he carried us away in his bag because we were naughty.”
“Like Santa,” the youngest boy chimed in, and the last child, a boy who looked barely old enough to be out of elementary school, shushed him.
“How long have you been down here?” I asked them. I wanted to ask where the other children were, all the others whose siblings had drawn pictures of the vampire who had taken them, but I was afraid of the answer.
“A few days…I think,” the older boy replied. “We were alone in the other house and he didn’t bring us anything to drink for days and days…. And then he came back for us and brought us here instead. Then he brought Caleb to us.”
“Caleb?” I looked at the younger boy, huddled up in the corner. “Your name is Caleb? Do you have a brother named Jon?”
Caleb stared up at me vacantly with bloodshot eyes. “Jon?” I could see now the resemblance underneath the layers of blood and dirt.
“Your brother is very worried about you,” I told him. “Your family is waiting for you to come home.”
Caleb fervently shook his head. “We can’t go back. We can’t go home.”
“Of course you can,” I told him, hoping I sounded more confident than I actually felt. “The Bag Man was the naughty one, for taking you away from your mom and dad. I can help you but you need to trust me, okay?”
Caleb looked to the other boy for guidance and I realized that he was probably the one running the show here, at least when the vampire was gone. I crawled over to him and asked his name.
“Jeremy,” he replied.
“Can you tell me what happened to the other children, Jeremy?”
He gazed back at me in surprise. “Why?”
“Aren’t you worried about them?” I asked, confused by the question.
“No,” he said simply. “They’re sleeping. In our old house.”
My stomach sank. Dead, then. Out of the dozen children who had been kidnapped, only three had survived?
“Jeremy, I need your help to get your friends out of here,” I started to say, only to be cut off by a horrifying shriek from the girl, who had started to rock back and forth on top of her pile of blankets. “What’s wrong?” I asked, inching over to her so I could figure out what had happened.
“Hungry,” she cried, holding her stomach. “So hungry.”
“We’ll get some food once we get out of here,” I reassured her. “I just have to call my friends and let them know you’re here, okay?”
I probably should have done that the second I’d found the children, but I’d gotten so caught up with discovering that Caleb was alive and that I had a chance to make good on my promise that it had slipped my mind completely. Now I just wanted to get these kids (and myself) out of this disgusting basement as quickly as possible.
“Hungry,” she repeated over and over, continuing to rock while hunched over like she was in agonizing pain.
I reached out a hand to stroke her hair, to offer some kind of comfort, but before I even had a chance to touch her the girl’s hand had formed an ice-cold vise around my wrist.
“You smell good,” she said, crawling toward me. I tried to pull away but couldn’t break her grip.
She dragged herself into my lap and nuzzled her face against my stomach like a cat. I pulled away as much I could manage and shone my phone directly down on the girl to find that her teeth were bared in a child’s attempt at a snarl, and that instead of rounded human canines she had razor sharp fangs.
I yelped loudly and there was an answering thud from upstairs.
The girl immediately let go of me and dove into her sleeping bag. I was tempted to ask what was wrong but I didn’t want to get caught in the little girl’s superhuman grasp again.
“Wait here,” I told the other kids. “I’m going to go find my friends, and then I’ll come back for you, okay?” I told myself I was doing this to keep them safe but in reality I didn’t want to be alone with a bunch of vampires, even if they were still just kids.
The two boys nodded in agreement, but the girl didn’t re-emerge from her makeshift nest.
I headed over to the stairs, casting a couple paranoid glances over my shoulder to make sure the children hadn’t followed me. When I reached the bottom of the staircase I shined my light upward, trying to see if I could find what had made the noise I’d heard. My best guess was that it was Seb or one of the others coming to look for me but I didn’t hear anything now.
I dialed Seb’s number and put it on speaker before climbing back up the stairs. I winced as each ring echoed throughout the corridor like something out of a horror movie.
I kept my phone focused on the floor, watching every step as I slowly ascended and sliding my hand up the railing. As I got to the top of the stairs, I felt my fingers brush against something unexpectedly cold and I inhaled sharply in alarm. The phone was knocked out of my hand before I could react.
Plunged into total darkness once more, I could just make out a faint green glow as I struggled to free myself from the waxy hands encircling my arms. My phone was somewhere on the floor, vibrating loudly, but now the vampire had its hands around my neck. I could barely get a breath in, let alone fight back. A kaleidoscope of colors danced in my vision. The green glow was gone, and so was I.
When I came to my face was mashed against the cement floor. I could see an electric lantern knocked over on the ground, switched on and bathing the hallway leading to the foyer in stark white light.
It was enough for me to make out Muri lying on the ground a few feet away from me, her forehead gushing blood from a deep cut along her hairline.
Seb was behind her, pinned to a ground by a creature that barely even resembled a human. The light had revealed it for what it really was: a monster.
The vampire snapped at his throat with slavering jaws, reminding me more of the wolf that had attacked me at the preserve than a person. Seb narrowly rolled out of the way, brutally kicking at the creature and stretching his arms out toward Muri, desperately reaching for something I couldn’t see.
I sat up on my elbows, still a little dazed, and looked over to find that Muri’s pistol was lying on the ground a few inches from her prone body. I dove for it without even thinking and even when the gun was finally in my hand, I still didn’t have a plan for how to use it.
The vampire was on Seb again and despite the fact that I barely holding onto Muri’s gun with shaking hands, my whole body vibrating and buzzing and aching, I knew I had to do something. I wasn’t going to watch my friends die.
I dragged myself as much as I could toward where Seb and the vampire were still entangled and lifted a weak hand to club the creature with the weapon. It lifted one arm and batted me away, knocking me over onto my back.
I sat up again just in time to watch as the vampire sunk its teeth into the juncture between Seb’s neck and shoulder. I reacted. My hands moved of their own accord as I cocked back the hammer and lined up the shot.
I closed my eyes just as the vampire’s head exploded, showering Seb with blood and brain matter.
When I opened my eyes, Seb was crying, or at least, there were tears in his eyes. My ears were ringing and I couldn’t make heads or tails of what had just happened until the gun finally slipped from my hand and clattered loudly onto the ground.
I remained frozen to the spot as Seb rolled what was left of the vampire’s corpse off of him and crawled over to Muri. He pressed two fingers to her throat and after a long moment, closed his eyes.
“She’s alive,” he said and it took a minute before I realized he was talking to me. “Hey, Peaches, are you in there?”
“Yes,” I said. Then, “I don’t know.”
“Well, just try to stay with me long enough to get our asses out of here, okay? Did you find the kids?”
“The kids?” I looked up at him, tears starting to well up in my eyes even though I hadn’t yet processed why. “I mean, yeah. Some of them. But Seb—” I grabbed onto his shirt before he could walk away. “They’re not…they’re not human anymore.”
He looked pained but didn’t address my statement. “Let’s just get Muri out of her, okay? We’ll figure out what to do later.”
Muri was sheer deadweight and it took the full effort of both Seb and myself combined to even get her into a position where she was upright. I took her right arm, Seb took the left, and together we dragged her out of the house and into the front yard where Hazel and Joel were waiting.
Joel immediately rushed over to help when he saw Muri hanging unconscious between me and Seb. Hazel didn’t move and just continued to coolly observe us with her arms folded over her chest.
“I’ll be right back,” Seb said, passing off his share of Muri’s weight to Joel before darting back inside.
“What happened?” Joel asked, quickly checking Muri’s pupil dilation and pulse before looking back up at me.
“The vampire was there,” I started to explain. “He was keeping the kids in the basement.”
There was another gunshot from inside the house.
The sound seemed to shock Muri back into consciousness. She suddenly flung herself out from between Joel and me. She scanned the yard for a second, eyes darting to each of our faces in turn before she finally appeared to get her bearings.
“Where’s Seb?” she demanded, her head still bleeding sluggishly.
“Inside the house,” I replied, but before I could say anything else, she sprinted past us and barreled through the front door.
I followed at a fraction of her pace, worried she might collapse again, and stopped in my tracks when I found both Muri and Seb standing over the vampire’s corpse. Its skull was a bloody pulp, and the crystal embedded in the spider web of scar tissue covering its chest was nothing but splintered remains.
Muri was staring in abject horror at her gun, hanging loosely from Seb’s fingers as he stood over the body. “What are you…what did you do?”
“The right thing,” he replied, and tossed the weapon back to her.
She caught it easily, but I could tell that her hands were trembling as she shoved the gun back into the waistband of her jeans.
“I’ll go get the kids,” Seb said. He picked up the lantern and strolled casually to the back of the house.
Muri was still staring down at the dead body on the floor. I grabbed at her elbow, trying to tug her away as the light from the lantern quickly faded. I gripped her solidly and pulled, finally dragging her back out of the house.
Joel stared at us anxiously as we emerged.
“I don’t know,” I told him. “I don’t even know what happened.”
“The kids,” Muri said suddenly. “Seb said…did you find the children? Alive?”
“Sort of,” I replied. “There’s kind of a…problem.”
“What does that mean?” she demanded, but it was hard to look threatening when you looked like you might tip over if the wind blew the wrong way.
Before I could answer Seb walked back out of the house with the three vampire children following him like baby ducklings.
Muri’s eyes widened as the first of the children came into view, his red-ringed irises catching the moonlight as he stepped out onto the front walk. She marched over and yanked Seb away from them, pulling him in close so she could whisper in his ear.
“What the hell are those?” she hissed. I was far enough away that I could just barely hear her.
“Vampires,” he replied calmly. “And they can probably hear us, so there’s no point in trying to have this conversation until we can get them somewhere safe.”
“Safe?” she shot back. “They’re…they’re abominations! They shouldn’t even exist!”
Caleb cowered behind the other two children as Muri’s voice increased in volume.
“Sebastien’s right,” Hazel said, interrupting the fight before it could escalate. “We should get them out of here before someone shows up.”
“‘We’?” Muri retorted. “As in you and Seb?” She sounded incredulous, and when Hazel nodded she just started laughing, almost maniacally. “Oh wow, that’s fucking rich. No, you,” she said, jabbing her finger into Hazel’s chest, “are going to wait in the car with those…things while I call for backup.”
Hazel looked pissed but didn’t argue. She gathered up the kids and led them over to the car. They seemed quite taken with her, and were perfectly willing to go along with anything she suggested once she pulled out her phone and showed them how to play games on it.
After Hazel had gotten all the kids inside the car and closed the doors, Muri whirled on Seb again. “Vampire bites don’t turn people into vampires,” she said in a low voice, glancing down as she typed something out on her cell.
“Rare means it’s rare,” he pointed out. “Not impossible.”
“Three children turned?” she pointed out. “Any children turned? That’s a fucking nuclear.”
“There were probably a dozen failures if the lack of the other missing kids is any indication,” Seb argued. “The rules haven’t changed, Muri.”
“Oh, yeah, you’re right,” she snapped. “That really makes me feel a whole lot better. Thanks so much.”
“What about the crystal?” I asked. Muri and Seb looked over in unison, like they’d forgotten Joel and I were still standing there. “Couldn’t that have something to do with it?” I didn’t want to believe that because it had dire implications about my own possession of Lila’s pendant if it was true, but it didn’t feel like denial was an option anymore.
“Well,” Muri said, giving Seb a nasty look, “guess we’ll never know now, will we?”
Because the crystal in question was now in a million pieces and presumably useless to NIMA. Was Seb really trying to sabotage this investigation?
He didn’t respond and my heart sank.
Joel took a step forward then, putting an arm around my shoulders, but the gesture felt empty. Or maybe I was the problem this time. I felt suddenly numb, like I was somewhere in between existing and not.
After a moment, Muri put away her phone and looked to me and my brother. “You two go with Seb back to the hotel. Call a cab or something if you have to. A clean-up crew’s on their way and they want the scene cleared.”
“What about the kids?” Seb demanded
“I’m taking them back to headquarters ASAP,” she said, her steely gaze daring him to try and argue. “The witch too.”
Seb frowned. “Maybe I should go with—”
“You’re not doing shit,” Muri replied venomously. “You destroyed evidence. You intentionally tampered with a crime scene. That’s a new low, even for you. If you want to come with me back to HQ, you can do it in restraints.”
Seb looked like she’d slapped him across the face.
I didn’t know what to say, and Joel was equally out of his depth. We just watched as Muri stormed off, got into Hazel’s car, and drove away with the kids we’d set out to rescue. I wasn’t sure this really counted as saving them at all.
“What’s going to happen to those kids?” I asked Seb as we set off at a brisk walk down the street.
It was a minute before he answered. “I don’t know,” he said, sounding defeated. “Probably nothing good. Knowing NIMA, I doubt the families will even be notified that their children are alive. The best I can do is let Ricky know about the situation and let him apply to adopt them into the nest. He’s young but he could give them a decent home.”
“They can’t go back to their parents?”
“Not for a long time,” he said with a heavy sigh, “if ever. Come on, we gotta hurry. We don’t want to be hanging around when the cleaners get here.”
We continued walking, the three of us in a line, the full moon high above us as we trudged along the sidewalk on a dark suburban street. The vampire was dead but we hadn’t won.