I could see even less when I opened my eyes than when they’d been closed. The last thing I remembered was Hazel and that drink, and then this: waking up in total darkness.
I wobbled precariously as I sat up, bracing my hands on the coarse fabric I’d been lying on. Thick carpet, or a rug, I guessed. I was surprised to find that despite my inability to see, I could still move around; I hadn’t been restrained in any way.
I knew I hadn’t gotten wasted and blacked out of my own accord, which meant that I was here (wherever ‘here’ was) because someone had brought me here. And the biggest suspect right now was the seemingly young and innocent Hazel, who I had foolishly allowed to buy me a drink. I had all the luck.
I slowly climbed to my feet and held out my hands as I shuffled forward, feeling almost like I was on the deck of a ship as I tried not to trip in the blackness. I only took a couple steps before feeling my fingers brush up against a wall. I used it as a source of stability, shimmying alongside until my hands ran over something that felt like a light switch. I pressed it and the room gradually grew brighter until I could see that I was standing in a sitting room of some kind, with a sectional and TV, and that I wasn’t alone. Joel, Muri, and Seb were all passed out on the large rug that covered most of the floor.
The three of them were lying side by side in a line, and I assumed that before I’d regained consciousness I had been next to Seb on the end.
I rushed over to Joel first and tried to shake him awake. He was dead to the world, and for a second I panicked and thought he might actually be dead-dead, but then he suddenly groaned and scrunched up his eyes like a kid who didn’t want to wake up for school.
“Joel!” I hissed. “Joel, get up!”
He cracked one eye open and stared blearily up at me. “What’s goin’ on?” he asked, the words slurring together. I suspected he might actually still be drunk.
“Wake the others up,” I told him. I gave him an extra shake for good measure. “I’m gonna try to find a way out of here.”
A quick scan of the room informed me that there were no windows at all, and only two doors. I tried the one closest to where we had been lying on the rug, and found a small bathroom on the other side. Seb and Muri were finally beginning to stir as I crossed the room to try the other door, only to find that it was locked. I sighed and leaned my forehead against it, taking a deep breath before turning to face the others.
Seb had an imprint of the rug on his left cheek, and Muri looked half-asleep still. I felt a slight twinge as I looked at her mussed hair, rosy cheeks, but quashed the feeling before it could distract me from the situation at hand.
“Do any of you remember how we got here?” I asked, taking charge because none of the others looked in any condition to do so. I walked over to the couch and took a seat. When all three of them shook their heads, I sighed again and replied, “Yeah, me either. Whatever was in those drinks that girl gave us….”
“What girl?” Muri asked, her voice raspier than usual.
“There was a girl who came over and bought us drinks,” I said. “Hazel. The last thing I remember was drinking it, and then I woke up here.”
Muri frowned. “I didn’t drink anything,” she said. She stood upright and then teetered. I pretended not to notice, but Seb barked out a laugh. Muri glared down at him, cheeks flushed.
“Why would someone roofie us in the first place?” Joel asked, using one hand to brace himself against the TV. “Especially him,” he added, nodding toward Seb, whose face darkened in an instant.
“What the fuck does that mean?” Seb demanded, but before Joel had a chance to reply, the locked door suddenly opened and Hazel walked through.
“Hi,” she chirped, eyes widening as she smiled. “I’m Hazel. And you’re Sebastien and Muriel, right? The other two I don’t know.” Her smile could best be described as smarmy. Gone was the demure girl who had shyly introduced herself to me at the bar. I hated her replacement already.
“Nice to meet you,” Muri snapped back. “Mind telling us where the hell we are?”
“The basement,” Hazel replied easily, “at the Vale house. You were here before, talking to our Matron.”
Seb tipped his head up toward the ceiling with an exasperated sigh. “Great,” he said heavily. “So it was the witches.”
“What, you want a medal?” Muri fumed.
“I’ll settle for the satisfaction of an ‘I told you so’,” Seb returned. “So what’s the gig?” he asked Hazel. “Vampire mind-control? Killer pet got loose?”
Her smile soured slightly. “Not exactly.”
“How did you even get us here?” Muri demanded. “Cause like I said, I didn’t drink whatever magic potion you dosed the rest of them with.”
“Oh, there wasn’t anything in your drinks,” Hazel replied nonchalantly. “I just needed to get close enough to each of you to grab one of your hairs for the spell.”
“Which was?” Seb asked.
“Influence,” she said. “You were real close with the mind-control theory. To anyone at the bar, it just looked like the four of you walked out of there under your own power. Plus me, of course. The tricky part was getting you into the house without my sisters realizing.”
Joel looked like he wanted to scrub himself clean after her explanation, but as far as witchcraft went, it didn’t seem like the worst thing she could have done to us.
“Okay, then what do you want?” Seb demanded.
“To help you,” Hazel said, skipping closer to us. Well, to Seb specifically, who had finally picked himself up off the floor and was facing her with his arms crossed over his chest, clearly not charmed by her antics. She clasped her hands together in front of her, like she was confessing something to him. “If you want to determine my honesty, I fully consent.”
Muri made a face, and Seb looked extremely uncomfortable. “Flattered,” he said tightly, “but I think I’ll just take your word for it.”
Hazel looked slightly miffed by the rejection, but continued, saying, “Well at any rate, you were right to investigate our coven. I know what happened to the vampire.”
“Enlighten us,” Muri said irritably.
Hazel spared her a single glance before turning her full attention back to Seb. She’d seemed genuinely interested in me back at the bar but now it was like I didn’t exist.
“A woman came to us,” she explained. “She brought us a crystal, a pendant actually—” I felt my insides growing colder with every word, “—made of moldavite, and asked the coven to imbue it with spells of growth and transformation. The Matron refused initially; we don’t like to get involved in dealings with outsiders as a rule, but this woman was willing to trade spell ingredients that would otherwise be very difficult to acquire, so the Matron made an exception.”
“And this woman,” Seb began, “dark skin, long hair…?”
“Yes,” Hazel replied eagerly. “I only saw her the first time, but yes, that’s what she looked like.”
Seb gave Muri a pointed look, but she ignored it. “What does this pendant have to do with the vampire?” she asked.
“The Matron didn’t explain the details to us,” Hazel confessed. “A lot of the younger girls weren’t told at all about the transaction. But when the woman came back, a little more than a week ago, some of my sisters and I decided to eavesdrop on their meeting. They mentioned a vampire that had escaped their control, and the woman was threatening to involve NIMA if the Matron refused to help her contain the problem.”
She flicked her wrist and a section of the wall at the far end of the room vanished, revealing another door. Joel and I both jumped, startled by the sudden transformation. Muri and Seb barely spared it a second glance.
“Our panic room,” she explained. “After we found the vampire, we were keeping him in there with strict orders not to open the door or to even come down here until the issue was resolved, but something happened and he slipped the wards.”
“So that’s why the hunting grounds changed,” Seb surmised. “Can you help us find him again?”
“Maybe,” she replied. “The reason we haven’t been able to locate the vamp again is because we don’t have a way to get DNA for a tracking spell.”
I guess it made sense that if they had been doing all of this behind Ricky’s back, it wouldn’t be easy to infiltrate the nest to get what they needed for the spell. Maybe that’s why the place had been trashed when we’d gotten there.
“Can you track one of his victims instead?” Seb asked. “If we find out where he’s holed up, we can call in for backup and get the drop on him.”
Hazel considered it. “Yeah, that should be fine. But how are you going to get something from one of the kids?” she asked.
“Don’t worry about it,” Seb replied. “It’ll be a piece of cake.” He gestured toward the door behind her. “Mind letting us out now?”
“Of course. But first—” She muttered a few words and then stepped closer to Seb, placing one hand on the top of his head, the other over his chest. He shuddered, and then I gasped as he suddenly melted away into nothing.
“What did you just do?” I asked, horrified and fascinated all at once.
Hazel just smiled and came over to me next. “Sebastien, if you’d please take her hand,” she said, before placing her own hands on me the same way she’d done to Seb.
I jumped when phantom fingers suddenly closed around mine. When I looked down, I could still see nothing despite the fact that I could clearly feel the pressure from Seb’s grip on my hand. Then I felt a startling coldness emanating from Hazel’s hands, like my whole body was being coated in that disgusting gel they use for ultrasounds. I watched as my own hand started to disappear as well.
“Grab the others as well,” Hazel told the blank space where Seb was standing. “Cloaking spells can be disorienting.”
I felt myself being tugged toward Joel and Muri. Muri’s right hand lifted suddenly as if it was tied to a string, and then closed around nothing like mine had. She quickly took my brother’s hand in her left and closed her eyes tightly as Hazel approached her.
Then it was Joel’s turn. “Isn’t there some other way we could do this?” he asked, nervously backing away as much as Muri would allow. I couldn’t see her hand anymore but the white imprints of her fingers digging into his skin were still clearly visible.
“It’s not going to hurt, if that’s what you’re worried about,” Hazel told him, sounding annoyed by his reticence.
Joel looked pained regardless as she put her hands on him, and then he vanished too, leaving Hazel standing seemingly alone in the basement, looking around satisfied at the seemingly nonexistent fruits of her labors.
“Can you still hear us?” I wondered aloud.
“Yes,” said Seb’s voice in my ear. “So shut up and keep quiet.”
“He’s right,” Hazel told me, looking at where my elbow should have been. “The illusion will keep you hidden until I lift it, but it’s not foolproof. You need to stay close and remain silent. If the other witches sense anything strange, it wouldn’t be hard for them to dispel the illusion.”
Without waiting for a reply, she turned and walked over to the door leading out of the basement, opening it and motioning for us to follow.
The first room we passed after emerging from the stairs was the kitchen. As we walked by I could see several girls who looked to be anywhere from sixteen to thirty standing around pouring popcorn and candy into brightly colored glass bowls. It gave the place more of a sorority vibe, rather than a coven of powerful magic users. I held my breath as we passed just in case, but none of the other witches so much as blinked an eye.
We encountered a slight hiccup as we approached the front door.
A blonde woman sitting in the living room adjacent to the foyer noticed Hazel making a beeline for the outside and waved the remote in her hand. “It’s movie night,” she said.
Hazel stopped dead in her tracks and I couldn’t help but crash into her back, nearly toppling her.
The blonde stared at Hazel suspiciously as she seemed to stumble over nothing. It must have looked like she’d literally tripped over her own feet. “Are you okay?” she asked. “Where are you going?”
Hazel smiled tightly. “Fine, yeah. I’ll be back a bit later. I have to pick something up from the apothecary.”
“Apothecary, right,” the other girl laughed, rolling her eyes. “Sure. Don’t have too much fun.”
Hazel had opened the door as the two were conversing, leaning casually against it so we had just enough room to slip past her and out into the night air. Finally she extricated herself from the encounter with her sister-witch and closed the front door with a sigh. Seeing her reach out to find us again, I lifted a hand to grab hers.
“Keep walking,” she murmured softly, squeezing my hand and then letting go. She must have thought I was Seb. I decided to let her live the fantasy.
We followed at a snail’s pace while she walked down the driveway and got into one of the cars parked alongside the curb. I was confused at first when she got in and started to drive off. Seb tugged at my hand when I stopped short.
“Come on,” he said, and led us up the block. She was idling on the corner with all the doors open so we could climb in.
Both myself and someone else—obviously I couldn’t tell who—tried to claim shotgun, and our skulls collided with a loud clack. I yelped and almost face-planted into the pavement.
“Sebastien in front,” Hazel called out after she’d figured out our dilemma. “Then Muriel in back, then the ginger, and then the tall one.”
The tall one. I scowled even though no one could see, more annoyed that Joel had earned that title instead of me than the realization that Hazel didn’t even remember my name.
I heard Muri sigh and felt myself being pulled into the backseat of the car. Once the doors were closed behind us, Hazel spun around in her seat and groped blindly at the air until she found each of our foreheads. One unexpectedly invasive tap later, we were all visible again and no worse for the wear.
“Let’s never do that again,” Joel grumbled, apparently still not impressed.
The others didn’t acknowledge his gripe. Seb started to give Hazel directions to the house we’d visited, and since it was only a few blocks away we arrived in less than five minutes. When we pulled up, Seb gestured for me to climb out of the car.
I had to clamber over Joel, who immaturely refused to move out of the way to let me out. “What’s up?” I asked Seb breathlessly as I straightened my clothes.
“I’ll keep the parents distracted,” he said. “You and the witch go inside. Get whatever she needs, got it?”
“Why me?” I asked. I glanced over at Hazel, who was standing next to the driver’s side door playing with her hair and very pointedly pretending not to listen to our conversation.
“I don’t trust Muriel not to scare the living shit out of the kids,” Seb replied with a smile that didn’t quite meet his eyes.
“I can hear you,” Muri remarked from the backseat. Joel still hadn’t closed the car door.
I gave Seb one last questioning glance but acquiesced anyway, following Hazel around to the side gate while Seb walked up to the front door and rang the doorbell.
“It’s locked,” Hazel observed with a frown. She gave the gate a good shake anyway.
“I’ll give you a boost,” I told her, kneeling down and cupping my hands together. I regretted it immediately when she almost kicked me in the face as she clambered over.
Then it was my turn and that was a bit trickier even with the height advantage. I wasn’t the most coordinated human being when traversing a flat surface, let alone when hauling my too-long legs over a fence gate that was nearly as tall as me.
Eventually I managed to swing myself up and over, tumbling to the ground on the other side with only a few scrapes on my palms.
“What exactly are we looking for?” I asked as we crept toward the back of the house.
“The kid’s hairbrush if you can find it,” she said in a low tone. Apparently she didn’t have a whole lot of faith in my abilities. “I need to grab some things from the kitchen for the spell.”
The sliding glass door at the back of the house was thankfully unlocked and Hazel spared barely a second to glance inside before letting herself in. I slowly followed, my heart beating a violent staccato against the back of my throat. Once inside, I could hear the faint murmur of voices coming from ahead and to the right.
Hazel pointed at the hallway to our left and it took me a minute to figure out that she wanted me to go that way. I did so gladly, looking behind me just in time to see her disappear into what must have been the kitchen. At least my task was taking me away from the sounds of Seb attempting to distract the parents while we burgled their home.
There were names over each of the doors in the hallway, made from tinsel and wooden craft letters painted with glitter. I peeked into the first, labeled ‘Cynthia’, to find a little girl asleep in her bed. I continued to the next: ‘Jon’. It looked empty at first glance so I assumed this must be the room that belonged to the missing kid.
I’d barely taken one step inside before a tousled blonde head peeked out from underneath the pile of dinosaur-patterned blankets on the bed in the center of the room.
“You don’t look like a monster,” the child whispered.
“I’m not a monster,” I replied automatically. I was frozen, torn between trying to comfort the child and running the other direction before he started screaming for his parents. I decided to take my chances. “A monster took your brother?” I guessed, taking a step toward the bed.
The kid nodded, only his watery blue eyes visible over the duvet. “It’s coming back for me,” he said in a small voice.
“No,” I reassured him. “No, nothing’s going to get you, I promise. I’m going to help save your brother, okay? I won’t let the monster get you.”
He considered this for a moment, and then let the covers slip down a little lower, so I could see his face. “Are you sure?”
“Absolutely,” I told him, though really I didn’t know if I believed a word of it. “Is that your brother’s room across from yours?”
The kid nodded.
“Okay,” I told him. “I’m going to go get something special from his room that will help me find him. And I’m going to make sure he comes home.”
“I promise.” I smiled and tucked the blankets in around the kid’s shoulders. “Go back to sleep, okay? Your brother will be back before you know it.”
“Okay,” he said through a yawn, even just the suggestion of sleep already working its magic on him.
I said a silent prayer of relief and tip-toed backwards out of the room. I nearly screamed when I turned around and found myself face to face with Hazel.
“Did you get it?” she hissed.
I shook my head and pointed to the closed door next to us. ‘Caleb’, it said, the paint on these letters looking more faded than on the other kids’ names. “That’s the kid’s bedroom,” I told her.
“Good,” she said, and flung open the door as if she wasn’t the slightest bit concerned about possibly being caught.
I stood just inside the doorway to the bedroom, my attention split between Hazel rummaging around in the en-suite bathroom with the light on and the darkened hallway that set my pulse racing every time I poked my head around the door. Finally I heard a triumphant noise and she emerged brandishing a hairbrush.
“We’re good to go,” she said. “Let’s get out of here.”
I certainly didn’t need to be told twice. We raced back out of the house the way we’d come in and I launched myself over the gate this time like it was a hurdle, barely registering the jarring sting as my feet connected with the pavement in just the wrong way.
“Got it?” Seb asked when we returned to the car.
Hazel nodded and got in on the passenger side. “You drive,” she told him. “Doesn’t matter where. This will tell us exactly where we need to go.”
I craned my head over her shoulder to watch as she poured half a bottle of vegetable oil into a plastic cereal bowl with cartoon characters painted on the sides. She plucked a few hairs from the brush and straightened them into a clump, tying it together with a single thread before placing it into the bowl.
Then she reached inside the glove compartment and rifled around for a moment before pulling out a small plastic bag full of indigo powder. She sprinkled some of it into the bowl and the golden color of the oil suddenly turned a bright crimson. The clump of hair spun around wildly as she murmured something unintelligible under her breath and then stopped, one edge of it nearly touching the rim of the bowl.
“That way,” she said, pointing in the same direction as the compass needle she’d constructed out of the boy’s hair. Maybe Joel was right to complain. Witchcraft was starting to seem pretty gross.
Seb made a sharp right at the next stop sign in accordance with her direction. They continued on in that fashion, Hazel adapting her navigation as the tracking spell guided us closer to the child the hair had once belonged to.
Before long we ended up in a section of the neighborhood that was clearly still in development. Most of the lots were just dirt except for one street where the houses had been mostly built but still lacked proper exteriors and had tarp over all the windows and doors.
“You think this is it?” Hazel asked, watching as the compass needle spun in circles while Seb drove up and down the street. She was practically vibrating in her seat and I didn’t understand why she was so keen on helping us find the vampire, but it made me kind of uneasy.
“Location seems right,” Seb replied. “Vampires need somewhere to hole up during the day and this seems pretty isolated. Is there still active construction in the area? I don’t see any equipment.”
Hazel shook her head. “No, they stopped a few weeks ago. All the houses in the neighborhood have basements—it’s a selling point, actually—but they found asbestos in the ground when they were digging foundations on the newer homes and now they’re waiting for more inspections before they can finish.”
Seb nodded. “Then like I said, location is right.”
He parked in front of one of the houses in the middle of the street and we all piled out of the car. I tried to stretch discreetly, my limbs cramped even just from being stuck in the backseat with Joel and Muri for a few minutes.
“It’s dark, so chances are Angel is out hunting,” Seb told us, but he kept his voice low, like he was still afraid of drawing too much attention. “Let’s all pick a house and sweep the place, see if we can find anything. Start in the basement, work your way up. Call me or Muri if you see anything unusual, okay?”
Joel and I nodded and glanced uneasily at each other. When I looked over at Muri, she was pulling a gun out from the back of her pants.
“Is that going to be necessary?” Hazel asked in alarm, noticing at the same time I did.
Muri didn’t bother to answer her and field-stripped her weapon in front of us all while Seb frowned at her.
“Bet you’re wishing you had your sword right about now,” I joked.
He didn’t laugh. “If I get to the point where that thought ever occurs to me,” he said slowly, “then I’ve failed in my job. Muri, please don’t shoot anything unless you absolutely have to.” It wasn’t exactly the response I was hoping for.
She shrugged. “Whatever. Let’s just get this over with.”
I took the house numbered 2441, with Muri to my left and Seb in the house to the right. Joel was next to Seb in 2461, and Hazel was bookending the street with house adjacent to my brother. We were close enough to each other that if someone screamed whoever was next to them would probably hear it. I really hoped it wouldn’t come to that.
I turned on the flashlight on my phone with shaking fingers, took a deep breath, and peeled back the tarp covering the front door. I walked into blackness.