Walking through the streets of Lansing wasn’t that bad. Because of the smog, Wayne had been forced to drive at extremely slow speeds. As long as he kept up a brisk pace, walking would likely end up being faster in the end anyway.
There were a few drawbacks. Wayne considered himself far from the most athletic of people. Power walking the remaining mile or two to Sarah’s house wasn’t a huge issue, but he was starting to feel the strain in his legs. He had dropped his time dilation down several notches as well, which forced him to keep an even closer watch on his surroundings–doubly so without the protective shell of a car around him. Leaving his mental acceleration on would have made the walk take an agonizingly long time from his perspective.
At least he no longer had the rumble of the Impala’s engine drawing the attention of every vampire in the city.
After a mile and a half, he had yet to see another group of vampires. Something Wayne was immensely thankful for.
Part of that could simply be the time. Dawn shouldn’t be far off. While the thick smoke over the city would protect any vampires caught outdoors from the harmful rays of the sun, there was still a natural inclination to locate a safe area to enter a brief period of torpor. That still left ghouls and thralls wandering around, but they were a non-issue. Wayne had already torched a handful of the zombie-like slaves.
Wayne doubted he would be seeing many thralls out and about. Most vampires in the city would be sleeping until roughly an hour before sunset and their thralls would be watching over their slumber.
Sunset was long after when Wayne hoped to be gone from this place.
How exactly he was going to get out, Wayne still had no idea. Perhaps he could find a radio to call up Hicks and get him to open the gate. Then again, if Wayne were Hicks, he would have called up his superiors already to ask about the mysterious man who spoke of vampires and tossed fire around. Everyone in the upper echelon would deny his existence–those orders had been forged after all.
Maybe Hicks would get orders to detain and interrogate Wayne instead of outright killing him.
Eh, best find another way out. Sarah could just use earth magic to tunnel out, but Wayne wasn’t all that excited about being trapped underground for who knew how long–Sarah wasn’t the best at earth magic. Though, at least they wouldn’t be hounded by vampires while underground.
“So, since I’m really a vampire, that was real magic you were using?”
“Yes,” Wayne grunted, rolling his eyes. There might be one vampire underground.
He smiled behind his mask at the thought of a vampire six feet under.
“That’s so cool. Can you teach me? Please? Please?”
“Aren’t you feeling sleepy? Any instinct to go nap the day away?”
“Nope!” Serena–the name she had picked after Wayne commented that Patty was a silly name for a vampire–hopped in front of Wayne. She spun around with a smile and clasped her hands behind her back, walking backwards. “I’ve been feeling so good. I used to have an ache in my back, but it’s completely gone.”
“Good for you,” Wayne said, wishing the aches in his legs were gone.
He still didn’t know what to do with the girl. She would definitely be finding herself left behind if they had to find a way past the military. Wayne might wind up interrogated, but he had a feeling that any vampires with him would be taken apart for study.
Even if they got through the military with her in tow, the Elysium Order would find out. Being hunted for the rest of his life didn’t sound like much fun.
On the slim chance that they gave the Order the slip, what then? Let her loose in some unsuspecting town? Keep her like some kind of vampire pet? Neither choice was very appealing to Wayne.
There were no good solutions. The smart choice, obviously, was to end her. It would have been so easy back when she had attacked him. Looking at her stupid grin as she walked backwards made that option all but impossible now.
“You never answered me?”
Wayne gave the girl a questioning hum.
“Can you teach me magic or not?”
Wayne paused, considering it a bit further than his gut reaction. Elves, goblins, and a whole slew of other races could learn thaumaturgy. It wasn’t like fae magic that was restricted to fairies. So, why not vampires?
“Maybe,” Wayne said, changing his answer. “Never seen a vampire use thaumaturgy before. But I’m not teaching it to you.”
“Whaat?” she said, drawing out the word. “Why not?”
“No time. It isn’t something you learn in a day or two. Besides, the only thing I’d be good at teaching is pyrokinesis. In case you haven’t noticed, fire doesn’t mesh well with vampires.”
Serena pouted with the strangest set of puppy dog eyes he had ever seen. The endless storm in the back of her eyes ruined the effect. “But you said that Blacksky vampires are the masters of magic.”
“Vampiric magic,” Wayne grunted. “Us mere mortals can’t use it.” Though, he considered, thralls can.
Wayne shook his head. I’ll incinerate myself before I become a thrall.
“I’ll admit,” Wayne continued. “Never met one of your kind before. Only read about you in books.”
“So,” she prompted when Wayne failed to continue, “what did the books say?”
Wayne sighed, not entirely certain that he should be telling her much. Sure, she was an ally at the moment. If she decided to side with other vampires, it could be dangerous to give her too much knowledge.
Of course, being only a day old, she likely wouldn’t be able to put much magic to practical use.
“You know the stories. Turn into mist, or water, or dirt–”
“Why would I ever want to turn to dirt?”
Wayne shrugged. “I’m no vampire. Don’t ask me.”
“I guess mist might be cool. What else?”
“Mental control of animals and…” humans, “other things. Invisibility, illusions, a whole bunch of nonsense with mirrors and other reflective surfaces, you can turn milk chocolatey.” Wayne sighed, rubbing his forehead. “Arcane beams out of your eyes and large-scale illusions are some of your strain’s specialties.
“Really, what can’t you do is the bigger question.”
“Arcane beams? What is that, like, lasers?”
“Like I said, I just read it in books. You’d have to…” Wayne trailed off with a growing frown.
The girl was staring at him. Intently.
Wayne’s book-free arm shot out, gripping her over her mouth. He yanked her head off to one side.
“Ow, ow, ouch!”
“If you’re going to try shooting lasers out of your eyes, don’t look at me. Not if you want to keep living. Or unliving. Whatever.”
Wayne released her face and started walking again, leaving her rubbing her cheeks.
“You wouldn’t be able to anyway. Vampires grow in power the longer they’re alive. You’re a day old.”
“Aww,” she whined as she skipped forwards to his side, “so I can’t do anything then?”
She started pouting in the corner of his eye, but was otherwise silent.
Overall, she didn’t appear all that upset. Her temperament since drinking his blood had been jovial for the most part. Considering how upset she was immediately prior to her feeding, Wayne had to wonder if it wasn’t some vampire thing. Feeding on fresh blood released the vampire equivalent of dopamine or something similar.
Perhaps she was merely showing off a happy face as a means of coping with her lost humanity.
Or maybe she was always like that.
Wayne didn’t know and frankly, did not care. He wasn’t about to pry and inadvertently bring up poor memories. She hadn’t once mentioned her sister since he donated a portion of his blood and Wayne intended to keep it that way.
Without parking lots taking up space, the homes in the residential areas were a lot closer to the sidewalk. At the same time, they were spaced much further apart than the more commercial buildings. Walking around the neighborhood had a disturbing peace to it.
It was like taking a stroll on a foggy morning.
Except, there was no sign of life. No home had lights. No people walked around apart from the two of them. There weren’t any signs of cats or dogs. No barking or mewling. No birds tweeting. It was as if Nature herself had decided to leave town.
In that silence and in that smog, as they meandered through the town, a high-pitched whine shook the very air.
Literally. The air vibrated alongside the sound.
Wayne snapped his neck towards Serena so fast that he suffered a bit of whiplash. Jovial countenance gone, her face was dead set in a serious expression.
“Did you feel that?” she asked.
“It wasn’t you?”
“I don’t scream like that,” she said, aghast.
“Scream?” Wayne blinked. “That whining sound?”
One of her hands gripped the opposite elbow, rubbing it lightly. “It was a kid. In trouble, I’d reckon.” After giving a light shudder, she pointed off in the direction they had already been walking. “That way. And I,” she sniffed before dropping her voice to a murmur, “smell blood too.”
Wayne didn’t bother to point out that Serena was a kid as well. “Come on, let’s look into it. Stay behind me.”
“I’m a vampire, I can help too.”
Wayne ignored her, turning his brisk walk into a light run. He scanned every bush, every roof, and every window that he could see for any kind of movement.
It didn’t take long to find the source of the disturbance. A small, single floor home had its doorway kicked in. The tell-tale illuminated circles of a flashlight danced around through the windows.
Wayne pressed himself against one side the door. He almost jumped out of his shoes as Serena pressed up against him. She had followed so silently that he had been certain that she had remained behind.
Serena had the audacity to let out a short giggle.
Narrowing his eyes behind his mask, he pressed one finger over his lips in the universal gesture for silence. At her nod, he leaned around the entryway, peeking into the front living room.
There was a short and rotund man standing over a fireplace that had its covering grate thrown to one side. “Master will be so pleased we found another one.”
“And this one,” a female standing at his side said, “looks so tasty.” Her tongue darted out of her mouth, licking her lips. She was notably missing any sign of elongated canines. Merely a deviant thrall.
“Go away,” squealed a third voice.
As before, the air rumbled. Here it was far more violent than before. It was unmistakably a sign of magic, though likely performed without a focus. The slight rumbling of the air didn’t use nearly enough magic to do anything of any use.
Neither of the thralls seemed very concerned with the possibility of a mage around, likely because of the impotence of said mage’s attacks. They glanced at one another with mocking looks.
“You already killed the hag,” the male said. “If Master finds out you’ve been toying with his food…”
The woman moved fast, though not so fast as to make Wayne reconsider her thraldom. Her arm wrapped around the man’s neck. “Master won’t find out,” she said, pulling her arm tighter. “Will he?”
Gasping for breath, the man kept smacking his hand into the woman’s arm.
“Thralls,” he hissed towards Serena while they were making a good amount of noise.
Serena had moved to look in through the front windows. “I can take them,” she said.
Before Wayne could object, she vanished. For a moment, he thought she had teleported. Feeling her brush past him threw that idea out the window. His eyebrows crept up his forehead. Invisibility?
He didn’t have time to consider the implications. Inside, the woman had released the other thrall.
“Now that we understand each other,” she said, turning back to the fireplace. “Come out, little girl. I won’t hurt you, I just want to play a little.”
“Play with this!” Serena reentered the visible spectrum of light just behind the thrall. Before either could react, she jumped up on the female’s back. Her legs wrapped around the waist while her arms kept the woman’s arms from interfering, much the same way she had initially attacked Wayne.
Unfortunately for the thrall, she lacked the fireball in her hand to keep the short vampire from biting down.
The thrall back-stepped and tipped over the side of a chair, all with Serena’s teeth plunged deep within her neck.
Panic on his face, the male thrall lifted up a gun.
Wayne moved to act. He threw out a shield immediately in front of the gun, catching the bullet before it left the barrel. With no place for the gas to expand to, the barrel split in two, sending shrapnel into the man’s hand.
He sank to his knees, cradling his hand as he cried out in pain.
Wayne strode across the room in three large steps, barely paying attention to the broken-necked corpse of a woman lying on the couch. He kicked the thrall upside the head, knocking him out cold on the floor.
“Serena,” he said, “are you alright?”
The child-like vampire was still beneath the female thrall, teeth sunk deep inside the withering woman’s neck. Their fall had torn open her neck, spraying blood around the room.
Serena appeared to be reveling in it. She gave a thumbs up without removing her mouth from the thrall’s neck.
Going to have to burn it later, he grumbled to himself. Couldn’t have ghouls wandering around, even if they were subject to the whims of his current ally.
He turned his attention to the brown-haired woman lying on the couch. There was no hope for her. Her neck had been quite thoroughly snapped along with several knife injuries on her person.
Wayne gave the thrall at his feet an extra kick before turning to the fireplace. Kneeling down, Wayne found a soot-covered girl with hair matching the older woman on the couch. It was hard to tell what the rest of her looked like; ash obscured most of her features. All save for her deep green eyes.
“Go away,” she said, pressing herself against the back wall of the fireplace.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” Wayne said, wincing as soon as the words were out of his mouth. Those were the same words that the thrall had said in a far less convincing tone of voice.
He reached up to his mask and lifted it off his head. The air wasn’t quite as bad inside, but he still felt an uncontrollable cough bubbling up in the back of his throat.
Pushing the feeling down, he gave the girl a small smile. “See,” he said, “regular teeth. I’m not a vampire and I’m not one of their minions.”
It struck him that she likely wouldn’t know about vampires or their teeth. If she had seen a vampire’s teeth up close, she probably wouldn’t be alive anymore. Or she’d be a thrall.
“Like her?” Came the unexpected response. Her finger stretched out, pointing over Wayne’s shoulder.
Glancing over his shoulder, Wayne’s eyes went wide.
Serena stood just behind him, slightly leaning over his shoulder. Her entire front was soaked with blood, especially around her wide smile.
It took a great deal of will to keep from conjuring a fireball then and there. After suppressing his initial instinct to fight, Wayne decided that Serena’s smile was of an encouraging sort. Like she was trying to help coax the small girl out from her hiding place.
Blood put a small damper on that.
Wayne slid between the two girls, blocking their lines of sight. As he moved, he mouthed to the vampire, ‘wipe it off,’ with a gesture around his own face.
Rubbing her wrist across her mouth and glancing at the liquid covering it, Serena had the decency to look shocked. She started furiously rubbing away at her face and neck, but stopped as a thoughtful expression crossed her face. Leaning in, she whispered into Wayne’s ear. “Can I have him first?” Her finger pointing towards the male thrall lacked the discretion of her conspiratorial whisper.
Sighing, Wayne rubbed his forehead. “Do whatever you want. I’m not your mother,” Wayne hissed back. “But do it out of sight.”
Again, Serena put on a bright smile. She skipped over to the thrall and started dragging him through a nearby doorway.
Wayne turned back to the little girl only to jump back at how close she was.
What was with everyone being able to sneak up on him?
“She’s going to eat him?” she asked with a strange mix of horror and curiosity. Immediately after her question, the girl seemed to realize that she was half out of the fireplace. Without delay, she threw herself back against the wall.
A fresh cloud of soot exploded out from around her, sending both the girl and Wayne into a light fit of coughs.
“Look,” Wayne said, pulling a fresh mask out of his backpack. “It will help you breathe easier.”
“Mommy,” she said between coughs, “was keeping the smoke away. She hid me in here, but those people…”
Great, Wayne thought. The girl was starting to cry. Unlike Serena, this kid had working tear ducts. Why does it always have to be kids? Handling kids was not his strong suit.
Wayne backed up, standing once again. Glancing down at the woman lying with a broken neck on the couch, he had a sinking suspicion that she was the mother. Probably shoved her kid into the fireplace and was setting up the grate in front of her when she was ambushed from behind. Without the thralls’ flashlights, the kid might have been overlooked.
Circling around the couch, he frowned. According to the kid, she had been keeping the smoke away. A mage perhaps?
It would explain the shuddering of the air.
But she didn’t have any foci on her that Wayne could see. There was a wedding ring, but touching it revealed that it was perfectly normal.
Stepping over the gaunt corpse of the female thrall, a glint of light caught Wayne’s eye. He reached down underneath a chair. His fingers found the cool touch of metal. Pulling the partially hidden object out, he found a short silver dagger in his hand.
This was definitely a focus. A decent one too. He conjured an experimental fireball at the tip and extinguished it a moment later. It was well crafted despite being somewhat old. Probably an ancestral foci, handed down from a generation or two back. Unless it was extremely well cared for, it wasn’t old enough to come from much further than that.
Wayne had always found daggers to be odd choices for foci. They really didn’t offer much over a wand save for an edge and a price tag. Their users tended to be the violent sort.
Shrugging, Wayne moved back to the fireplace. He flipped the dagger over, offering it out hilt first. “Here,” he said, “I’m–”
The girl reached forward and yanked it out of his hand, just barely managing to avoid cutting him. “That’s mommy’s!”
“I’m sorry. Your mother…”
Wayne trailed off as the kid started wailing.
Movement at the corner of his vision caught his attention. Serena strolled out of the other room, shirt absolutely soaked. With water, this time. She must have found a water bottle or a working sink.
“The kid is still under there?”
Wayne nodded. “Please help. I can’t handle kids.”
“Move aside,” Serena said.
Wayne complied without hesitation. “Careful,” he said, “she has a knife.”
Serena knelt down, brushing a strand of brown hair back behind her ear. “Hey there,” she said. “I heard some of the conversation. Your mom, huh? I lost my mom too.”
Wayne winced. He was fairly certain that he had more tact than that, but Serena’s words got the other girl to slow down in her crying. That Serena’s face looked to be on the verge of tears only made Wayne feel disgusted with himself. Forcing a sixteen year old girl to discuss her own hardships didn’t sit right with him.
“I mean, I’m pretty sure. My house is right in the middle of the fire. Even if they made it away from there… Well, there are bad people in town.”
“You’re a vampire.” The kid’s voice came out as a definite accusation. “Mommy said vampires are monsters.”
Serena just smiled, gliding a finger over her elongated teeth. “I am. But I’m a good vampire. I just made it so that the people who hurt your mom can’t hurt anyone else.”
“You killed them.”
“I ate them. They made a tasty snack.”
From his position next to Serena, Wayne watched as the kid’s eyes turned wide as dinner plates. Wayne immediately let out a sigh. At this rate, the kid would stay in the fireplace out of fear. He didn’t have the time to fish her out. If a mage here could be taken out from behind, Sarah could be in just as much trouble.
“You don’t look fat enough to have eaten two people. Where did it all go?”
Serena opened her mouth. She paused, patting her belly with a glance towards Wayne.
Wayne just shrugged. “Don’t look at me. Bottomless stomachs weren’t covered in any books.”
“Well,” Serena said with a slight huff, “it is true. But, the point is that you can’t stay here. Your mother would have wanted you to get out of this city. She would have wanted you to live.”
Serena held out her hand. “And we can help you.”
“You’re going to eat me too.”
“If she tries,” Wayne said as a fireball blossomed on his hand, “I’ll incinerate her.” He let the fireball linger for just a moment before he crushed it in his hand.
“Y-yeah. See?” Serena’s smile twitched slightly, not quite managing to keep it sincere. “I don’t want to be incinerated.”
Wayne felt somewhat bad about scaring the poor vampire. But as long as she didn’t try anything, they’d get along just fine. A little reminder wasn’t a bad thing. Especially with her little disappearing trick.
He wasn’t entirely sure how she had managed that. Stress induced power incontinence was all that came to mind. A day-old vampire shouldn’t be able to do anything like that. Then again, several things were odd about Serena. Aside from not being tired despite the smog starting to get a little lighter, she had said that she hadn’t ingested any vampire flesh to become a vampire in the first place.
Now he was regretting allowing Serena to eat the other thrall. He might have been able to answer a few questions. Unlikely, but the possibility had been there.
The kid crawling out of the fireplace interrupted his musings. Wayne moved to position himself between the girl and her mother. She didn’t need to see that.
“Okay,” she said. Wiping a huge smudge of soot on her cheek–smearing it with tear-stains–the kid looked to Serena. “I’ll believe you. I–” She broke down into a fit of coughs.
Wayne tossed the fire mask at the kid. “Put that on. It will help.”
Following his own advice, Wayne replaced his own mask on his face.
Serena put her hands on her hips. “You never offered me one of those.”
“You don’t breathe.”
She frowned, but nodded.
“Let’s get out of here. We’re almost to Sarah’s house, then we can get out of this city.”
As they started moving out, Wayne dropped a spark behind. In ten minutes, the house would be nothing more than a smoldering pile of charcoal, taking the two potential ghouls along with it. There was a chance the ghouls would rise before his spark went off–Wayne wasn’t sure on the exact time it took to ghoulify–but he doubted it.
Besides, he couldn’t exactly stick around to ensure the job finished. He’d rather spare the kid the sight of her home burning down.
“What’s your name, kid?” He couldn’t keep calling her ‘kid’ after all.
“That’s a nice name. I’m–”
“What?” Serena said with a huff. “Zoe’s nice but not Patty?”
“I never said that,” Wayne grunted. “Just never heard of a vampire calling themselves Patty.”
She huffed again, but didn’t stay that way for long. Zoe let out a small, muffled giggle that forced Serena into a sad smile.
“Call me Serena.”
“Wayne,” was all he said.