I locked myself in the bathroom upon reaching the hotel. I half-expected Joel or Seb to come check up on me but after five minutes of silence from the other side of the door I found myself disappointed. There would be no heartfelt moment, no warm comforting embrace. From either of them.
I had grabbed my bag on the way in, and after turning the water on in the shower, I pulled Lila’s pendant out from its hiding spot inside a pair of cotton candy pink socks. The color had reminded me of her. I held the purple stone in my hand and squeezed it tightly, trying to feel something other than the cold oval against my skin, even if I didn’t know what exactly.
I glanced in the mirror but the only thing staring back at me was my own reflection, my face bone-white and freckled with dirt and blood.
I slipped the necklace over my head and climbed into the shower. Too exhausted to stand, I sat in the bottom of the tub and let the water spray against my legs. I watched in absent fascination as tiny droplets of water beaded on the smooth surface of the stone pendant. And still there was nothing.
Nothing remotely supernatural to suggest that this necklace and the horrific mutation embedded in the vampire’s chest were connected in any way other than mere coincidence. But I couldn’t shake the heavy feeling of foreboding sitting low in my chest. Something was wrong.
I wiped the stone clean with my thumb. Maybe I should tell Seb. Maybe I should just throw it away. But I couldn’t; it was the only thing I had left of Lila’s. Even with all the trouble it had brought me, I couldn’t bear to get rid of the damn thing.
I decided after half an hour or so that I’d wasted enough time and that I was presentable even if I didn’t feel clean.
There was food sitting out for me when I walked back out into the room. Seb and Joel had already dug into their own and I briefly contemplated joining them before sitting on the bed with a sigh and turning on the TV. I didn’t have much of an appetite. I feigned interest in channel surfing for a bit but eventually my mind just drifted off and I tuned out everything.
After a few episodes of whatever drivel was playing on the TV, Seb’s phone started ringing. He ignored it at first, but after two full minutes of incessant vibration, Joel gave him a look. Seb picked it up with a roll of his eyes.
“Hello?” he said, clearly irritable. He scratched at the gauze on his neck as he spoke. “No. No, I don’t have any say in that. Not my department, and you know it. Like I said, no. I’d be lucky to even get a look at it myself, let alone released. Look man, I’m sorry, but I can’t help you. Yeah. Yeah, I’ll be there. Of course.”
He hung up and flung the phone overhand across the room. I watched in disbelief as it hit the opposite wall and dropped onto the ground with a muffled clunk.
“It’s shatterproof,” he said, seeing my wide-eyed expression. So was mine, but I still wouldn’t throw it at the fucking wall.
“Bad news?” I guessed.
“Not the unexpected kind,” he replied. He stretched his arms above his head and sighed. “Ricky wants Angel’s body for the funeral, but NIMA won’t turn it over. Not that they could do open casket anyway, but they could have buried him, at least.”
“Vampires have funerals?” I asked. A dead vampire in a coffin seemed like it would be in bad taste, but what did I know?
I looked to Joel, wondering what he thought about all this, but when I turned my head I saw that his ears were fully covered by bulky headphones. He was probably listening to a podcast or something and pretending we hadn’t just dealt with a vampire and rescued a bunch of vampire kids. Typical.
“They have wakes too,” Seb said. “Ricky wants me to go tonight as a show of solidarity for the nest, since there isn’t fuck-all I can do for them anymore.” He squinted at me. “You wanna come?”
I gaped at him. “You want me to come to the wake? The vampire’s wake?”
“Sure,” he replied casually. “Unless you’re still on your period, in which case—”
I turned bright red. “I’m not, just FYI, but that’s not what I mean. I really don’t think it would be appropriate.”
I stared back at him like he was an idiot. “Because I shot their friend in the head?” I pointed out, feeling bile rise up in the back of my throat as the words came out.
Seb looked down and cleared his own throat. “Well, they don’t know that.”
He shrugged but looked too uncomfortable to pass it off as nonchalant. I didn’t miss the sideways glance he gave Joel before he continued in a low tone. “As far as everyone but you and me are concerned, Muri is the one who did the deed. It’s part of her job description, after all.”
“But she knows she didn’t do it,” I pointed out.
“It’s what she’ll put on the paperwork,” he replied. “I’ll make sure of it.”
I blinked at him in disbelief. “But why?”
He smiled tightly. “Is it too hard to believe that I’m trying to look out for you?”
Actually, it wasn’t. Even between all the arguments and snide remarks, I could see something in Seb, a protective instinct. It had grown clearer to me over the last few days that the reason he didn’t want me involved in NIMA is because he was scared. Scared for me, or scared of what I might become, I wasn’t sure. But his fear was understandable. After what had just transpired back in that empty house—well, I was scared too.
“You did what you had to do,” Seb continued, oblivious to my sudden realization. “So are you in?”
“Um, sure,” I replied hesitantly. “I guess so.” My stomach churned at the thought of coming face to face with the family of the vampire I killed, but the flipside of guilt was obligation. I owed it to Angel to pay my respects.
“Cool,” he said. “Change into something dark.” He stood up and sorted through his own belongings for a minute before tossing a crisp black jacket into my lap.
The object hurtling through the air a few feet from his face finally caught Joel’s attention.
“What the hell are you two doing?” he asked, sliding his headphones down around his neck.
“Going to a wake,” I told him.
Joel frowned in confusion. “For who? The vamp?”
I stared at him. “You have a problem with that?” He sounded annoyed, but maybe I was misreading things.
“No,” he said, making a face at me. “I just—Vampires have wakes?”
“And funerals,” Seb informed him. “If you’d been paying attention instead of listening to that romance audiobook, you’d know that.”
I’d never seen my brother turn a brighter shade of scarlet in my life. He was even redder than I’d been when Seb had asked if I was still on my period. I stared at Joel in open-mouthed disbelief.
“You listen to romance novels?” I asked.
“No!” Joel protested.
Seb chuckled and tapped his ear. “The Wandering Spark by Maxine Duke. I have very good hearing.”
Joel looked mortified and didn’t respond.
“Did Muri recommend that to you?” Seb continued. “I’m pretty sure she’s read that one at least ten times.”
The color left Joel’s face. “Maybe?” he squeaked.
“Okay…then,” I said, unsettled by the revelation that Joel and Muri had apparently started a fucking book club and that my brother’s supposed podcast addiction was just a cover for his love of pulpy harlequins. “Wow, that’s just. Wow.” I started to get up so I could change, and then asked, “Hey, do you want to come?” I felt instantly bad that asking Joel to accompany me was almost an afterthought.
Joel grimaced. “To a memorial service for a monster he just killed?” He pointed straight at Seb, who didn’t bother to correct him. I realized that Joel didn’t know the significance of the second gunshot, which had destroyed the crystal embedded in the vampire’s chest, and must have thought that Seb was finishing the creature off. I could have told him the truth but found that I didn’t want him to know what had really happened inside the house. I didn’t want anyone to know. “Hell no,” he said.
I was surprised by his adamancy and a little miffed. “Fine. Enjoy your erotica.” I turned my back on Joel, who had already started to put his headphones back on like our conversation hadn’t even taken place. “Just give me a second,” I told Seb before heading back into the bathroom to change.
I didn’t exactly have a full wardrobe of mourning clothes, so some black jeans and a navy v-neck had to suffice. After pairing it with the blazer Seb had loaned me, I figured I didn’t look half-bad.
When I walked back out, I was greeted with the sight of my brother still hunched over his laptop, listening to his romance novel without a care in the world. I was tempted to confront him then and there, demand to know why he was so unwilling to face this new reality of ours, but I could see Seb in the corner of my eye waiting at the door.
I took a step toward Seb and then made a split-second decision, one I hoped I wouldn’t regret. “Hang on,” I told him, digging through the pockets of my discarded jeans.
Seb stared at me curiously as I clasped the pendant around my neck. “That’s new,” he said, regarding the stone with naked interest. “Where did you get it?”
“An old friend,” I said.
I walked out of the hotel with my head high, the pendant standing out proudly against my darkly-colored clothes. If Seb sensed anything otherworldly about the necklace, he didn’t say so, but I was done hiding it regardless.
“So you’re just going to lie to them?” I asked Seb midway through the car ride. It had been virtually silent up till that point. Seb’s music was a nasally hum in the background, some acoustic folk music I could hardly stand to listen to even when it was turned down.
“Ricky’s nest. Your friends. You’re not going to tell them what really happened?”
“What good would that do?”
“They’d know the truth,” I pointed out.
Seb looked at me like he was disappointed. “The truth wouldn’t change anything.”
I didn’t have anything to say in response to that. Before long, we ended up behind a line of cars all pulling into the same parking lot. I tapped nervously at the seat belt buckle as we waited to find a space, trying desperately to keep my hands from creeping up to touch Lila’s pendant. By finally wearing it openly, I wanted to feel like I was in control of it…not the other way around.
“Stay close,” Seb said as we parked. He opened his door and then jogged around to the other side to get mine before I’d even managed to untangle myself from the seat belt. “Come on, let’s hurry,” he said before ushering me along with the rest of the crowd, all of whom were dressed considerably nicer than we were.
I hadn’t been to mass since I was a little kid but the big stone building ahead of us with its ornate stained glass windows and intricate spires was undeniably a Catholic church.
I nudged Seb as we walked up the steps. “Are vampires Catholic?” I asked quietly.
He chuckled. “These ones are.”
“So…the whole cross thing is just a myth, then?”
Seb laughed just a little bit louder and held open the door to let me inside.
I was surprised at just how many people were in attendance, especially considering it was almost midnight, and wondered how many of them weren’t even human. Did vampires only hang out with other vampires? Were werewolves allowed to attend? Were there other types of monsters hanging around too?
I scanned faces as we passed by but none stood out to me. It didn’t seem like the Vale Coven had made an appearance, at any rate.
“Ricky,” Seb said warmly as we approached the vampire I had met back at the nest, right before he’d thrown me out for uh, bleeding too openly, or whatever. Seb enveloped the other man, who was nearly half a foot taller than him, in a tight embrace. They stayed pressed together longer than was considered socially acceptable for two men, at least in my experience, and then drew apart. “How are the rest holding up?”
“Better now,” Ricky replied. “I think it helps to have some closure, you know? Before it was just…waiting.”
“Yeah,” Seb said, and his face grew more somber. “Look, man, I’m really sorry about how things turned out. You know I never wanted this.”
“It’s all right, man,” Ricky told him, rubbing at his jaw and blinking rapidly. It reminded me of Joel, and I knew he was trying to distract himself to keep from crying. “Someone should really keep those exterminators on a leash though, yeah? Maybe I wouldn’t have to go to so many funerals.” He seemed to notice me for the first time and extended a hand. I felt sick to my stomach as we shook. “I guess we got off on the wrong foot.”
“Yeah,” I said, forcing an approximation of a smile onto my face while my stomach twisted into knots. “Sorry.”
Ricky shrugged. “We both let nature get the best of us,” he joked. “Well, it was real good to see you both. Glad you could make it.”
Seb reached out to stop Ricky before he could turn away to greet the next set of well-wishers. ‘I wanted to ask you if you’d heard anything about the kids,” he said in a low tone.
Ricky’s friendly expression suddenly turned frigid. “Yeah, I heard they found nearly a dozen in some rundown place on Cotillo,” he replied, his jaw and neck tensing with every word.
“No,” Seb replied. “That’s not what I mean—”
“Look, we’ll have to talk later, okay?” Ricky said, grabbing Seb’s hand with his own and peeling it away from his coat. “I gotta get through this. Come see me after.”
“Fuck,” Seb muttered. He stared dully at the back of Ricky’s head before turning away. “All right, come on,” he said, and made a beeline through the crowd to the front of the church, where a small memorial had been set up. Candles, flowers, the works.
I hadn’t exactly pegged Seb for the sentimental type, so I was surprised when he field into line behind an elderly woman shuffling up to the pulpit, where a group of people were already huddled around something I couldn’t yet see.
When it was our turn to approach, I found that the thing everyone had been making a fuss over was a bone-handled knife wrapped in burgundy silk handkerchief.
“What’s that for?” I started to ask, but Seb put up a finger to silence me.
His hands were shaking as he picked up the knife with his right. He cut clean into the palm of left hand and then quickly picked up the handkerchief, squeezing until blood dripped out from his closed fist and onto the pulpit. Under the dim lights I could just make out evidence of other dark stains soaked into the wood. No one around us reacted as if Seb had done anything out of the ordinary.
“What are you doing?” I asked quietly as he cleaned the remainder of the blood from the blade.
“Blood for blood,” he replied. “It’s something community does when there’s a violent death. Well, usually they just prick a finger, but I figure I have a lot to make up for lately.” He looked at me, paused, and then offered me the knife, handle first. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” he said.
I stared at my reflection in the blade for a moment, and then took the knife from his hand. If anyone here owed Angel their blood, it was me.
I couldn’t help the gasp that escaped as the blade bit into the tip of my finger. A drop of blood welled up on the surface of my skin, and then was extinguished as Seb quickly soaked it up with the silk handkerchief.
When it was done he placed the blade and handkerchief neatly back down onto the pulpit, and then took my uninjured hand in his and led me back down into the throngs of people below.
From there I could see all of the things people had displayed to remember Angel, a man I had only ever known as a monster. There were pictures of him as a child, with his family, and as an adult, the way he’d looked before he’d been turned into…well, into an actual monster.
Before, when the only thing I knew about him was the number of children he’d taken from their homes, I’d never thought that I could feel sorry for Angel. But I’d seen the twisted thing the crystal had turned him into just before I’d been forced to kill him to save my friends, and it was hard to imagine a worse fate for this bright young man that so many people had come to celebrate.
There was a faint buzzing from beside me that drew my attention, and I looked over to find Seb searching through his jacket pockets for his phone. I gave him a critical look. I’d had the common sense to put my phone on silent before we’d even arrived.
He glanced at the screen and sighed. “I have to take this,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”
I pushed up onto my toes to watch as he waded through the crowd and walked out of the church entirely. Then I turned back to face the memorial alone.
There was a picture of Angel a foot or so in front of me, a couple candles illuminating the photo with flickering light. He looked like he was a few years older than Joel. Still young. He looked happy in the picture and I found myself reaching out to touch the glass in the frame without even thinking about it.
I snapped my hand back as if electrocuted. Something—I’d felt something, an external warmth, almost a vibration, at my breast. When I looked down, Lila’s pendant was starting to glow faintly and I quickly covered the necklace with my hand.
Glancing around me, I could see heads starting to turn as various people throughout the crowd looked around with expressions ranging from confusion to suspicion.
I made a break for it. I darted past the groups of people, practically shoving my way through a particularly stubborn cluster of mourners that had formed in front of the doors, and I dared not even breathe until I’d made it outside.
The full moon was high in the sky, casting a soft silver light over the lone figure standing alone at the top of the front steps, one hand still holding his phone to his ear.
I approached slowly, ready to fabricate a reason for why I’d left, but when I reached Seb and saw his expression, I stopped dead.
“Yes,” he said. His eyes were a dark void. He didn’t react as if he’d noticed me stepping in front of him. “Yes, I understand. Yes, of course.” He hung up and stared blankly down at the phone in his hand.
“Who was that?” I asked cautiously.
“Naomi,” he replied after a long pause. “Muri didn’t make her flight and she’s not answering her phone. The GPS was disabled.”
“What does that mean?” I asked, panic starting to well up in the back of my throat.
Seb took a few slow breaths before answering. “She’s gone,” he said, finally meeting my eyes. “Muri’s missing.”