Break You (Stake You #3) by Claire Farrell

I caught a cardboard box full of breakables before Maisy dropped it on her toes.

She lifted her shoulders in a sheepish shrug. “Sorry.”

I set the box down on the pavement. “Sit down for a minute.”
Break You (Stake You #3)
Break You (Stake You #3) by Claire Farrell
“We have to get this done.” She looked up and down the road with an exaggerated air of concern. “Leave this stuff for much longer, and it’ll be fleeced as soon as our backs are turned.” “It’s not that bad an area. Probably.” I searched her face for signs of weariness. Her curly hair had turned to frizz, and her already pale cheeks were a shade closer to milk, but she looked steady enough on her feet. “You weren’t supposed to be doing any of the heavy lifting anyway.” “Oh, for the love of chocolate, please stop mammying me. If I wasn’t okay, I’d be slouching on the sofa, letting you do all the work.” “Ha. If you did that, I’d know you were back to normal.” I picked up the box again. “Just don’t overdo it is all.” I jerked my chin toward Base’s car. “Get the light, fiddly crap. The last thing I need is for you to start passing out on me.” I left her there and headed inside, but I had to wait for a family to descend before I could start up the narrow staircase. Maisy soon followed me, making faces at the toddler in the pram who gazed at her wide-eyed before releasing an infectious giggle. The parents looked stressed, speaking rapidly under their breaths in a language I didn’t recognise. I wondered if they were arguing, but I couldn’t really complain if the worst things my new neighbours did was whisper-argue on the stairs. When the family had moved out of our way, Maisy nudged me and hissed, “My blood levels are back to normal.” I gave her a steady look. “Almost,” she added under her breath. I shifted the weight of the box and took on the staircase as Base was jogging down, annoyingly unaffected by the stairs or the weight of the boxes. My arms felt as though they might fall off, and I had a serious stitch in my side. Being out of work for a while had really made me notice how much heavy-lifting I had done in the pub. “Still slacking?” Base ruffled my hair as he passed. “And did you really have to pick the top floor, Dev?” “Beggars can’t be choosers or live in apartment buildings with lifts.” He came back to drop a kiss on my cheek. “I can always carry you.” “Don’t even think about it!” Laughing, he moved on. Maisy made a noise usually reserved for baby animals. “And don’t you start either,” I warned, continuing up the stairs. She laughed. “It really kills you how cute you are, doesn’t it?” Cute didn’t seem an appropriate word to use on a pair of vampire killers. We reached the top floor and pushed open the ill-fitting door with a dodgy lock. The same sigh came over me each and every time I stepped into my new home. It had taken a deposit and a month’s rent in advance to secure the tiny place, and it was all I could afford. The flat was cheap, and not very cheerful, but after my old house had been attacked by a pissy vampire, I had been desperate for a new start. Having a roof over my head that hadn’t been defiled by a supernatural creature had trumped comfort. Every wall in the flat had been badly painted in a sunny yellow shade that had a habit of bubbling and peeling, but at least the place was clean. I had been particular about seeking out anything that even remotely resembled rodent droppings, and so far, so good. It was a definite downsize, and another step closer to the “bad” side of town, but I’d run out of options. I rested the box on top of the others and stretched my arms. “Think she’ll like it?” That was a stupid question. My mother had hated every flat I had shown her pictures of. I’d been forced to make the decision alone, and I already knew she wouldn’t appreciate what I’d done in her absence. “Anything will look better than the mental institution she’s been stuck in.” I gave Maisy a sharp look. “Sorry, rehab,” she said dryly. But she hadn’t been entirely wrong. Plenty of people in rehab had serious psychological issues, and my mother had been moved farther and farther into the restricted wards that were in the psyche part of the building. I had persuaded my mother to act a little unhinged so she could stay in the safety of a hospital while I was being tormented by a vampire, of all things. Her performance hadn’t been as much of an act as I thought, and she had been given a choice: AA meetings and regular check-ins or rehab. She chosen AA, and it was there she had reverted to type. She found a man, and when he fell off the wagon, he had dragged her down with him, his willing victim. All of her hard work, all of her strength, gone in one fell swoop. We had lost our jobs, and without something to do, she had clung on to another loser. Her old habits hadn’t died at all, and I had been so blind to it that it had hit me harder than usual. When I thought of her now, I saw her raving and clutching at me, begging for a drink, for just one more sip. I hadn’t hesitated to sign the papers. She was more than I could deal with anymore. We both needed help, real help, not just me hovering around, watching her like a hawk. But whenever I visited her, the doubt lingered a little longer. I tried to keep what was happening in the outside world away from her, but her demeanour told me volumes. She knew what was happening, and she had lost hope. Maybe I had made the wrong choice. It was an argument I had in my head at least ten times a day. I realised I had been staring into space when Maisy nudged me. “She’s going to be okay,” she said, taking my hand and squeezing my fingers. “Everything will work out.” I wasn’t so sure anymore. My mother had given up, so I had to keep everything else going until she figured it out. “Of course,” I said cheerily. Maisy frowned. Her concern for everyone else was so obvious. That was what she had to hold on to when she got scared. She had been kidnapped and hurt by vampires, all because of me, but it was her love for others that pulled her through the trauma. I had a lot to learn from her. “Is Brian staying with you tonight?” I shrugged. I doubted it. When he was with me, he was all there, doing everything a boyfriend was supposed to do, being whatever I needed him to be. But he was never with me for long. He made excuses to leave, and he seemed to always be on the move. He barely slept; that was obvious from the bags under his eyes. He was keeping a secret, and I was waiting for him to tell me what it was. And if he decided to tell me he was planning on leaving me behind to join a group of vampire hunters on their travels around the world, then I wasn’t going to take it well. “He has to,” Maisy said. “Who wouldn’t want to christen the new place?” I laughed at the exaggerated winking. “Just do me a favour and find the teabags and the kettle.” It was probably the least strenuous thing she could do, and I was happy when she agreed. On the stairwell, Base got in my way. I cocked my head to the side, hiding my smirk. “What now?” He laid his box down and gathered me into his arms. “This move is going to be good for you.” I relaxed in his embrace. He was tall and broad and strong, and the cave woman in me said that was good, especially when vampires tried to kill me, but it was his soft brown eyes that I had fallen for. The fact he could make me smile at the drop of a hat coupled with his sense of responsibility toward his family made it a hopeless case. I, Devlin O’Mara, was thoroughly smitten with Brian Gilligan, and I was no longer ashamed to admit it. “You know,” he said, a lopsided smile lighting up his face. “You look kind of cute when you’re all messy and sweaty and dusty.” “And now I badly want to shower.” He held me closer, his large hand gently touching my neck. It said a lot that I didn’t jerk away from him. That was somewhere the vampires tended to aim for. I was about to make another smart remark when I realised how soft his eyes had gotten. The look he gave me reached all the way to the tips of my toes, and I forgot all about words and how to work them into sentences that made sense. Some of my hair had fallen down from my bun. He brushed it off my face and kissed me thoroughly. When he broke away, I was breathless. “Now get back to work!” I headed back down the stairs to fetch another box from the car, but this time I had a smile on my face. Within an hour, we were done. We had shoved all of the boxes in the tiny living room. The thought of unpacking wasn’t exactly pleasant, despite the fact there really wasn’t all that much stuff there. We had lost a lot when our house was trashed. We had to dump even more when it became apparent we would never have the space in a flat. Of course, when I said we, what I really meant was me. Mam hadn’t had much input into the new place. Or much of anything else, lately. A part of me was happy to have control of at least one part of my life. If I hadn’t moved, I would still be drifting, trying to figure out a way to adjust. Moving had filled my time so that I didn’t have to think about unpleasant things as often. “I’m starving,” Maisy said. “I told you we should have bought food.” “There’s not even a freezer,” I said. “I have enough food for tea and sandwiches.” “Enough of that,” Base said. “Tonight we eat like kings.” Maisy folded her arms and raised both eyebrows in question. Brian made a face and shrugged. “There’s a half decent chipper on the corner. What does everyone want?” Twenty minutes later, we were all eating greasy battered fish and salty chips in silence. The smell of our dinner lost out to someone else who had cooked pungent cabbage for some indiscernible reason. The stench filtered upward in an obnoxious manner. Maisy screwed up her nose, caught my eye, and burst into infectious giggles. “Jesus,” Base said. “What is that?” “Shut up!” I couldn’t hide my grin. “There’s nothing wrong with my palace.” Base threw the leftovers into a black refuse bag. “I’ll take this outside with me. No point having the smells converge on you.” “You’re leaving?” My heart skipped a beat. I thought for just one night, he would stay. “Yeah,” he said. “I have to head on. You’re staying, right, Maise?” She blinked a couple of times. “Uh, yeah, okay?” “Good. You both have my number if you need me.” He leaned over to give me a brief kiss on the lips. “Let me know how work goes tomorrow.” I gave a weak wave as he left. Maisy frowned. “Where’s he off to in such a hurry?” “Probably has to take care of his brothers.” But I knew he wasn’t. He was up to something though. “You don’t have to stay with me. Don’t worry.” “Nah. It’s close to curfew anyway. Or it will be by the time I feel like getting up off my arse again. I’m stuffed.” I switched on the television and looked for the evening news. I reached out for Maisy’s hand as a reporter began to rapidly speak about a bloodbath in the city. “Not again,” I whispered. “There have been no estimates given on the amount of deaths, but emergency services have urged people to be inside their homes well before curfew begins. This latest attack in a spate of crimes by rival gangs has—” “Turn this shit off.” Maisy leaned over to unplug the telly. “We don’t need to watch this tonight.” I ran my hands through my hair, trying to hide the trembling. Ever since the night we had seen a powerful vampire capable of things I had never dreamed of, there had been weekly attacks. The vampires had left our town alone, but a trail of destruction had followed them. The attacks had sent shockwaves through the country, and everyone assumed it was a crime wave driven by some new kind of drug. There were never any witnesses or survivors to these attacks, only terrible, bloody deaths. People were going missing in the capital city, and the entire county was on lock-down. The police were getting nowhere, and they hadn’t appeared to make any connections between these new crimes and the old kidnappings and murders that had happened in our town. “It’s never going to stop,” I said at last. “We know what’s happening, and we’re doing nothing about it, and people are dying.” “The hunters are doing something about it,” she said firmly. “That’s all you need to know.” I knew that much was true. The hunters had left when the vampires did, destined to follow in their path. But the path hadn’t taken them far enough away, for my liking. “And if the vampires come back here?” “Then we’ll do whatever it takes to protect ourselves.” She gave me a steady look. “But the hunters will get to them first. Now calm down. You’re not responsible for any of this.” But I was. I had pissed off a vampire, caused his death, even posted a video that showed Sully’s true face. And in return, his sire had come after everyone I cared about. Dealing with Emily had somehow triggered something even worse. The vampire who had come to save Emily from us—or just as likely make her his captive—had been a true monster. The likes of Emily and Sully weren’t even close to being on the same level. “How fucked up is it that I actually miss Sully right now?” I joked. Maisy snorted. “Extremely fucked up, and also a sign of the times.” “Do you think…” I shook my head. “Tell me.” “Do you think Base would want to go with the hunters? That he’s… interested in that way of life.” She hesitated. “I don’t know, Dev. I can’t tell you what he’ll do. But I know he has a lot to stick around for.” “Yeah, but he’ll be better able to protect his family if he’s hunting vampires. That’s the way he thinks. He gives himself up for everyone else.” “He’s still here though. The vampires are close by, and he’s still here.” I nodded and gave the boxes a weary look. “I suppose I should start unpacking or something.” “Hell, no. We should watch a film on my laptop. Forget about unpacking for a while.” I wasn’t looking forward to it, but it had to be done. “I’m at least making the bed. You relax for a bit though. You must be exhausted.” But she followed me into the tiny bedroom I had given myself. It was even smaller than Mam’s, which was saying something. A bathroom that barely contained a toilet, sink, and shower, and a living room with a kitchenette instead of a separate room completed our new home. Non-descript, poor, and maybe even hopeless to some people. To me, it was a fresh start and the knowledge that there were worse things in life. Terrible, impossible things that had never touched my new flat. That was its one redeeming feature. Maisy tucked the corner of the sheet under the mattress. “Have you heard from Tom?” “He checks in with one of us every now and then. Won’t tell us where he is or what he’s doing. I’m pretty sure he’s close to the action.” “You mean in the city?” I paused to smooth out the sheet. “Where else would he be? He was so angry last time. He was more pissed that the vampires got away, I think. And that combined with what happened in the pub… He just didn’t have a reason to stay home anymore.” “Have you told him about your mother?” “I told him she was going to AA meetings, that I was proud of her.” I hadn’t told him about her dying her hair or wearing bright lipstick, or that she had been coming home late from her AA meetings with the smell of cheap cologne all over her. I hadn’t wanted him to worry about me, not if he was following the vampires around. He needed to watch his own back constantly. He really didn’t need to worry about me. “Probably for the best.” She hesitated and took her glasses off to give them a wipe. “So you haven’t bought your tickets yet.” “Tickets?” I frowned. “Tickets for what?” She squeezed her eyes shut with a sigh. “You never listen. The Debs. I’m on the Debs committee, dummy. It’s coming up at the end of the month.” “Oh, that. Who cares?” “Obviously, me.” “It’s too late to buy tickets anyway. I got the same email as everyone else.” “I may have reserved some tickets for you.” “That’s sweet of you, but I’m just not in the whole drinking and dancing all night while wearing an uncomfortable dress and shoes kind of mood.” “We need to do something other than worry about mythical creatures hunting us down,” she said. “Yeah, but I never planned on going. Ever.” “It’s a big deal. It’s our big night. It’s the only chance we get for this.” “It’s not my thing.” “Please, think about it. It’s the night you celebrate finishing school. It’s the night you say goodbye to childhood. It’s the night—” “You need to go into politics. I’m serious, Maise. This isn’t something I can do right now. I’m struggling with money as it is, and I—” “Okay, I’m sorry. We don’t have to rent a limo even. We can… I don’t know. We can rent a dress for the night, or buy a cheap one online. I can give you a loan of a pair of shoes. We can do each other’s hair and makeup. I’ll invite Franco as my date, and we can all sit in a corner whispering about vampires all night if you really want to. But I’ve been looking forward to this since I was, like, twelve. I really want to go, and it won’t be the same without you.” “I’ll think about it,” I said. “But I probably won’t be able to get off work.” “Hey, thinking about it is good enough for me right now.” But I knew it wasn’t, and who I was I to take that night away from her? It really was a big deal, and maybe, if we were lucky, the threat of vampires looming over our heads would be gone by that night. Chapter Two There was no dedicated rehab centre nearby, and as addiction was considered to be some kind of mental deficiency, one large, well-kept building housed people with an assortment of issues. Drug addicts, self-harmers, people recovering from breakdowns… they were all lumped together. Mam shared a room with three other women who kept to themselves as far as I could tell. The building itself was old and had once been some kind of manor that was donated to the church after the family bloodline ran out or got too poor for the upkeep. The healthier residents helped maintain the grounds, while prisoners in jail got to waste their hours playing the latest consoles. It didn’t quite seem fair. I was early for visiting hours and had to sit in the relatively grim waiting area for the clock to tick by. The hour came and went, and the waiting room filled up. I made my way to the reception desk. “Can I see my mother now?” The receptionist plastered on a smile. “Not just yet.” “Something wrong?” That same smile froze on her face. “No visitors just yet for anyone. There’s been a little incident. When it gets cleaned up, everything will go back to normal.” I sat back down, a little shaken. The place unsettled me, especially when a “little incident” occurred. I dreaded to think what needed to be cleaned up. Finally, I was allowed to visit my mother. She sat by a window in a large common room, her eyes staring at nothing. Her roots were grey and greasy, and the fading chestnut ends hung lank around her shoulders. Her face was pale and wan, and I could see she had lost weight. She licked her dry, cracked lips, barely granting me with a nod in greeting. She looked so vulnerable and delicate, but her gaze was empty, devoid of emotion. I hardly recognised her sometimes. “Everything okay?” I asked as I took a seat across from her. The table between us was covered in jigsaw puzzle pieces. None of them were attached. “A girl hurt herself.” The monotone voice sent shivers racing down my spine. “Is she okay?” “Nobody here is okay.” “Mam.” “It’s true.” It struck me then how much older she looked. Rehab was supposed to be healing her, but she looked awful. “You could come home.” She ignored me. “I’m all moved in.” I waited in vain for her to ask questions or voluntarily tell me things about her day, but it was like conversing with an inanimate object. “Maisy and Brian helped. It didn’t take us long. Benefits of not having a lot of things to move. Maybe the minimalist life is for us,” I babbled. “I’m going to make your room look great by the time you get home. It’s not that bad, really. Just… smaller.” She nodded as though in time to a song I couldn’t hear. Why couldn’t she just snap out of this? “Do you want to see pictures again?” I asked, trying to get her excited about something. “No, thank you.” “I might go to the Debs.” She looked at me then, a spark of life in her gaze. “You can’t go to college, but you can go to a party?” “It’s not a… I told you already, Mam. Mark can’t afford to pay my way through college, and I need to get settled before I can even think about what to do next.” “He shouldn’t have made you promises he couldn’t keep.” “It wasn’t his fault. His pub was burned down.” I lowered my voice. “Which was partly my fault, by the way. And half his staff was either kidnapped, murdered, or suspected of being criminals. I can’t blame him for giving up on the pub and moving away. He wants to leave this mess behind.” “But you can’t,” she said bitterly. “And there are other ways to go to college. You don’t have to depend on some man.” I snorted derisively. “Are you kidding me? You’re telling me that?” “Don’t get nasty.” “How do you expect me to react? Are you going to help me pay the rent in here?” I squeezed my eyes shut, instantly regretful. “I’m sorry. I’m just tired and snappy. I shouldn’t take it out on you.” “I deserve it,” she said miserably, her face creasing with emotion for the first time. “I let you down again.” “Yeah, you did,” I said, leaning forward earnestly. “But you can make up for it. I need you. You don’t have to stay here, but you could just… smile at me, or even pretend you’re happy to see me.” “I can’t do that.” She looked away, her lips pressing together. “But I need you.” “No, you don’t. And maybe these little visits should stop, Devlin. It might be best for both of us to take a break from each other for a while.” She shut down after that. I couldn’t get a word out of her. She was driving me crazy. I couldn’t break through, couldn’t find her anymore. I was so close to just giving up on her completely. I just couldn’t figure out where I had gone wrong. Was she angry at me for bringing vampires and death into our lives? Did she resent me for convincing her to act unstable in the hospital? Or was it the fact I had been happy for her to go to rehab? If she would just tell me, then maybe I could fix it. But looking at the blank expression plastered on her face, I wasn’t going to get any answers from her. With tears in my eyes, I walked away from the shell of my mother. I had been okay when I took care of her. At least then, I knew exactly what she needed from me. And almost dying had shocked her into taking stock of her life. Except, so much more had happened than we had bargained for. She had been given too much to handle, too soon. I hadn’t been able to protect her enough. I knew that. Now she had given up in a different, far more terrifying way, and I couldn’t seem to get through to her. Just once, I wanted her to be the one to take care of me. I had nightmares every night; I never ever relaxed. I needed things, too. But I didn’t give up on life. I couldn’t afford to. I looked back at her. She was still staring at nothing. I just had to keep going for the both of us and be there waiting when she was ready to be herself again. *** A blast of humid air and foul sweat blasted me in the face as I stepped into the bar. The place was packed again. At this rate, I’d be starting my night shifts well before lunch. I had been a little aimless after the pub had burned down and Mam fell apart again. But before I had lost my mind completely, Franco, of all people, had shown up and told me he had gotten me a job. Once the shock was over, I had even managed to thank him. I was starting to figure out all of the ways we were alike. We might even be growing into good friends. The hate I used to preserve, just for him, was rapidly fading into a distant memory. Not that the job was as good as my last one. The bar was kind of dingy, and my heart sank as I pushed my way past the crowds. The bar was on the so-called wrong side of town and closed well before curfew, but that just sent customers into the pub earlier than ever before. Nothing like a bit of collective misery to boost booze revenue. Nine o’clock was the new midnight, and it took a great deal of effort to get home before eleven. Random acts of violence had instigated a county-wide curfew. Although the curfew aimed to control the situation, it just made people afraid. The tension caused panic that spiked into arguments that spilled out onto the streets. Mayhem had ensued too quickly. Everything had sort of fallen apart after Mark’s pub had burned down. I settled into work, into the familiar routine of rushing around, cleaning, serving, dealing with belligerence. Mark wouldn’t have let half the clientele within sniffing distance of his pub, but he couldn’t even get the insurance company to pay out after the fire. He had lost everything. All because of me. I had been almost relieved when he admitted he couldn’t handle the guilt after a high percentage of his female staff had been either kidnapped or murdered and was planning on making a fresh start elsewhere. I was pretty sure his family were safer this way. Somebody pinched my backside. I didn’t look around, just shoved my elbow into their ribs. There came a gasp, and the whisper of a derogatory name, and then a group of people laughed at the poor fool’s misfortune. I truly hated this shitty pub sometimes. “Need a hand?” Franco asked when I reached the bar, running his hand over his newly shaved head as he observed the customers with narrowed eyes. “Yeah, right.” He grinned at me, and I wondered if he remembered the time I had given him a resounding clatter across the face for slapping my arse with a bar towel. “Been to see your mam?” he asked. I nodded. “She’s doing… okay.” “She’ll get there,” he said reassuringly. “Besides, you probably already have your work cut out trying to get Maisy to relax.” I snorted. “Tell me about it. She went back to the dance studio to help run a class today. She can’t sit still anymore.” He grinned as he continued a conversation with me, completely free of the sleaze I used to associate with him. He had a wall up around him, and his overt male-sluttiness was a cover for the vulnerability underneath. Somebody had hurt him sometime, and he acted like a dickhead to cover it up. In the past, I hadn’t given him much of a chance. I hadn’t given anyone much of a chance. I had been so busy hiding behind my own walls back then that I hadn’t stopped to consider anyone else might be doing the same thing. I gave Franco a sideward glance, thinking how funny it was that we had hated each other once, but after fighting against vampires together, we had found a safe place between both of our disguises, one that didn’t talk about the real issues, but also didn’t focus on the outward impression we liked to give the general public, either. And somehow, most of the time, it worked. Recently, I had even begun to consider him a friend. A customer shouted at us to raise the volume on the television. Franco obliged. I glanced at the screen and groaned. More debating on the cause of our suddenly sky-rocketing crime rate. I couldn’t help listening as a news anchor spoke about the latest issue. People were going missing, and only some of them were winding up dead. That seemed more unsettling, somehow. “Any thoughts on the news reports?” I murmured as I poured out an order. Franco leaned across me to scoop up some ice. “You’re the expert.” “I don’t have a clue either way.” “I’m hoping we would know with some kind of certainty that the vampires are still around.” He glanced at me. “I mean, it would be obvious, right?” I didn’t agree, but I gave him a reassuring smile. “You’re probably right.” He looked relieved, and I was glad I hadn’t given him anything else to worry about. One of the customers at the counter was loudly declaring that the crime wave was due to an up and coming gang wiping out the competition. After all, weren’t the crimes all happening in areas that were well known for “that sort of thing?” I took one last look at the television. A block of flats infamous for drug dealing was being paraded on the screen. Maybe everyone else was right. The rest of the night passed by quickly enough. The bonus of working in a busy pub was having less time to fret about things you didn’t understand and couldn’t change. “Want me to walk you home?” Franco asked when the pub had closed. “Nah, get your bus. You’ll miss curfew.” And for whatever reason, I didn’t want him to see my flat. Devlin O’Mara had gone down in the world, according to a lot of people. “You sure?” “I’m getting a lift,” I lied. “Stay safe.” He waved and headed off with the others for the closest bus stop. I waited until he was out of sight then started the brisk walk home. I wasn’t too far from the pub, but the eerie silence bugged me. I listened out for footsteps, but I was alone in the world, it seemed. A pair of motorcycles turned a corner in the distance, and that was the only movement I saw. But a prickle on the back of my neck made me think I might not be alone. I gripped the wooden stake in my pocket with one hand, my keys with the other, and hoped that if anyone was watching me, it was a human monster rather than a supernatural one. I hadn’t stopped working out when Tom left. In fact, I had signed up for a number of self-defence and martial arts classes in an attempt to keep myself on my toes. And I was good at it. I wasn’t afraid to hit or be hit, and that meant I could throw myself all the way into the lessons. And I enjoyed it. It made me feel strong. But I wasn’t reckless, so I upped my speed. I was about to turn onto the street next to mine when a young man walked toward me. I watched him carefully, my hands gripping my weapons. The man had a dazed look about him, and he walked with a strange gait. In the darkness, I assumed he was high or something. But as he passed me by, he brushed against my hand, and his touch was ice-cold. I looked at my hand in horror. Blood. Wet and dark and all too familiar. All of my instincts screamed vampire. I made a sharp turn, my stake already in place to strike. The vampire had been poised to attack me from behind; I ducked and skidded into a tackle as he moved. His leg crumpled, and his knee landed on my shin. I was too high on adrenaline to even care about the pain. I used the vampire’s weight to keep pushing him over, struggling to avoid being trapped beneath him. Taken by surprise, he slowed to balance himself. After jumping to my feet, I shoved his back, and already unstable, he fell flat on his face. I knelt on his spine and braced the stake’s pointed tip against his back, ready to find his heart. “Why are you here?” I demanded. “To eat, Hunter. What do you think?” “I’m not a hunter, arsehole. You attacked me, and I won.” He shoved himself up, trying to knock me off his back, but his movement just helped drive that stake through his back. He gasped once, but he barely slowed down. I pulled the stake free; finding the heart wasn’t as easy as it looked, and honestly, after investigating further, I knew how lucky we had been in the past. But it could be done. It just took the right angle and a fair bit of determination. But he wasn’t going to make it easy. Enraged after his initial surprise, he spun and struck out at me. I dodged, but his hand connected with my shoulder, making me stagger to the side. His mouth widened, thinking he was home free, but I wasn’t about to make anything easy for him either. I struck out at his nose, managing to somehow scrap my palm against his fang as I connected. His nose cracked, and he made a spluttering sound, but I was already driving the stake into his chest. He wrapped his hands around my neck and squeezed. Ignoring the black spots, I pushed the stake further in, and finally, I connected with his heart. He made a choking sound, his hands loosened, and his body started to dissolve into a mass of liquefied organs. Disgusted, I stepped away and shook off the stake. I had to shake myself off, too. I wasn’t a hunter, wasn’t comfortable with killing, even if it was just the true death of a being that was technically already dead. And then it dawned on me that the vampire hadn’t a clue who I was. He had been out, as he said, looking to feed. A coincidence? That just begged the bigger question. What the hell was a random vampire doing wandering around the street, openly attacking people? Anyone could have seen us. He had been literally walking around with blood on his hands, for heavens’ sake. I couldn’t make sense of it. Ever since the night the vampires had fled, closely followed by the hunters, there hadn’t been a death in my town. The trouble was all in the city centre or beyond, and nothing vampire-like had actually been confirmed about the crime wave. And suddenly a vampire was running around my town, acting as though killing people in public was perfectly normal. I took a shaky breath, another few steps, and ended up sitting on the side of the road in an attempt to curb the dizzy spell that had attacked me. My neck felt raw, my hand stung, and my shin would have an eye-watering bruise in the morning. But I had done it again, and this time without thinking. My instincts had just warned me something was amiss and took it from there. I laughed. I had won an actual fight alone. And that’s when the final realisation hit me. The vampire I had just killed had been weaker than Janelle, the only vampire I had ever actually managed to gain a physical advantage over. So what did that mean? That he was new? As in, brand new? A car sped around the corner, raced past me, shrieked to a stop, and then reversed. And it was a car I recognised. I frowned as Callum Mitchell, suspended garda, and Brian Gilligan, in-oh-so-much-trouble boyfriend, looked out at me from the front seats of Callum’s car. “Get in,” Callum commanded. “Quickly,” Base said, opening his door to come to me. “The vampires are back.” I wearily held up my bloodied stake. “Um, yeah, you’re a little late to the party.” Chapter Three I glared at both men with narrowed eyes. “Wait a freaking second here. What the hell are you two doing joy-riding around the streets after curfew?” I folded my arms across my chest. “Together.” “Just get in the car,” Callum snapped. Base rolled his eyes and came over to usher me into the backseat. “Is this what you’ve been hiding?” I demanded as Callum got us moving again. “A bromance?” “We’ve been keeping watch,” Callum said before Base could get a word in. “Making sure.” My heart raced. “Making sure of what?” “Making sure the hunters had really gone,” Callum said. “And that the vampires hadn’t come back,” Base added. “You’ve been doing this every night?” I asked incredulously. “Every night since the vampires ran?” Base shrugged. “Pretty much.” “We’ve been listening in to my police scanner.” Callum caught my eye in the rear-view mirror. “And we came looking for you.” “But you weren’t home yet,” Base said, and I caught a note of panic in his voice. “So we drove in the direction I thought you would walk.” “Okay, but why were you looking for me?” Callum swallowed audibly. “A girl was attacked tonight.” “Is she dead?” “In hospital. Touch and go.” “He had blood on him,” I said, partly to myself. “Who?” Base asked. “The vampire. He bumped into me, and he was cold, but I already had that… feeling, you know? He was off. I turned around, and he was already going in for the kill. I just got there first.” “So he was after you?” Callum asked. “That’s the thing. I don’t think he was. He called me a hunter, acted like he didn’t actually know me. He was just… hunting, I suppose. Looking for something else to snack on, apparently. But he didn’t try to hide it. There was no sneakiness, no cleverness, no luring me into a dark lane. He didn’t even make an attempt at hypnotising me.” “There’s nobody around,” Callum said. “He probably didn’t see a risk. Opportunistic.” “If Dev was to be his second meal, then how much do they need to feed?” Base asked, unable to keep the disgust out of his tone. “Maybe they just don’t turn down easy pickings,” Callum said. “No offence, Dev. Obviously, he made a mistake picking on you.” I rubbed my cheeks. Something was unsettling in my gut, making my stomach turn. “He wasn’t strong.” “He was a vampire, right?” Worry tinged Callum’s words. “No, I staked a normal man for no reason,” I said sarcastically. “Of course he was a vampire. What I meant was that he was closer to Janelle than that scary fire-starting sire of Emily’s.” “What does that mean?” Base asked. “I don’t know. Maybe that he was new, too.” “That’s the last thing we need,” Base said. “Maybe he was sent this way to distract us.” “But the hunters aren’t here, right?” “Not yet.” Callum pulled in outside my new place. “We’ll keep watching.” “Oh, no.” I pointed at Base. “We need to talk.” Base’s cheeks flushed. “We’re not done talking about it then?” I snorted. “We haven’t even started talking about this yet.” He blew out a sigh. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Callum.” He glanced at me. “Let’s go. Keep an eye out for movement. Just in case.” We got out of the car, both of us warily looking in all directions in case something was out there. The night was warm and quiet, and I felt comfortable as I opened the front door of my building. Callum drove off as soon as we closed the door behind us. I didn’t say a word until we were safely inside my tiny flat. Base switched the lights on. “I’ll put the kettle on.” “We don’t need the kettle on.” He ran his hands through his hair. “I know you’re pissed, but—” “You’ve been lying to me!” “I never lied. I just didn’t talk about it.” I shoved his chest. “Screw you. It’s the same thing. How could you leave me out of this?” “Leave you out? That’s what you’re mad about? That you’re not the centre of attention?” “How dare you act as though—” “Cut the crap, Devlin,” he said, colour rising in his cheeks. “You know exactly why we didn’t tell you, why I didn’t bring you in on this.” “Because you don’t trust me? Because you think I’m weak?” “No!” he bellowed. “Then why hide it?” “Because you wouldn’t approve. Or worse, you’d come along, too. After everything that happened…” He shook his head. “You weren’t ready for that. Not to jump straight back in again.” “Ready?” I scoffed. “Nobody’s ready for vampires.” He held my gaze. “I’m talking about the other stuff. Mark’s bar, your guilt, how you felt when you killed Janelle… Mel’s death.” “I’m not—” “I know you,” he said softly. “You’ve decided to take on the guilt over Maisy getting hurt, and Mel’s death, and all of the girls who suffered. That’s who you are, and that’s fine, but between all of that, moving, getting a new job, dealing with your mam… it’s too much for one person. So I didn’t add this one more thing to the list for you to worry about.” “Maybe I needed something else to worry about,” I said, letting him see how I was truly feeling. “Maybe I needed an escape from the rest of it.” “We could all use an escape,” he said. “But I just wanted to give you a break from the vampire crap and deal with your own life. You haven’t slept for two months, Devlin. I can see it in your eyes.” “Maybe if you had been around more, I would have.” I didn’t mean to sound so accusing, but I was hurt in ways I wasn’t sure even I understood. And behind every sentence he spoke, I heard him telling me that I wasn’t good enough, that he really did want the hunter’s life. “So what’s the point in you even being here now? Why don’t you just go? Run off and have your little adventures without me.” Even I was appalled by the bitterness in my words, but I didn’t know how to pull it back, how to stem the wave of needy emotion that kept forcing the wrong words shoot out of my mouth. He pulled back. “Do you want me to leave?” “This isn’t about me.” I poked his chest. “This is about you, having second thoughts!” He looked utterly baffled, which just bothered me more. “Second thoughts about what?” “Us! You’re using hanging around with Callum as an excuse! I mean, you don’t even like the man, but his company is preferable to mine?” “It’s not about preferable!” he bellowed. “I don’t want vampires to fucking exist, Devlin! I don’t want to have to be the person who knows this, but I am, and I care about people, so I watch out for them. And in case you hadn’t quite noticed, that includes you.” “Like I’m a child? Like I can’t look out for myself? Tell me the real reason, Brian. Tell me why you’ve been avoiding me and hunting like one of those weirdoes!” “One, I haven’t been avoiding you. Two, I haven’t been hunting either. We’re just trying to be prepared for the worst, and I didn’t tell you because you needed a break from this shit! You’ve gone through a ton of crap, and you need time to—” “You don’t get to tell me what I need, Brian! I’m just as good as any of the rest of you. I’m not less than you because I’m a woman!” “Jesus!” He held up his hands as though he didn’t know whether to shake me or not. “It’s not about being a woman. But maybe you’re right. Maybe it is about me!” “Oh, yeah, here we go,” I said sarcastically. He lowered his voice, obviously seething. “Has it ever occurred to you that maybe I’m sick of seeing you get hurt because of this? That maybe it hurts me when I see the stress you’re under?” I barely heard him. “I’m not a possession, Brian! Who gave you the right to take that choice away from me?” “I gave me the right because I fucking love you, and I can’t stand seeing you worry!” he shouted angrily, beside himself with temper. His cheeks had flushed with colour, and he couldn’t stay still. “Oh, goddammit, Devlin.” We stepped back from each other as though stung. The air was electric with the words he had just said. “What?” I whispered. “Now look what you made me do,” he said. “Made you do?” He held up his hands. “I didn’t mean it that way. Just let me talk before you make me nervous and I say something stupider!” I made a sound of disgust. “That’d be tough, Brian.” “If you’re not going to shut the hell up and let me speak, then I might as well leave. Tell me now if that’s what you want because I don’t want to argue anymore.” I knew he was serious, and I didn’t want him to leave. Even arguing with him was more fun than being without him. I swallowed my pride. It got stuck in my throat, but I managed it nonetheless. “I want you to stay,” I said firmly. “Good, because I don’t want to leave.” His eyes shone with the same ferocity as before, but his eyes had warmed. “I’m not trying to control you or leave you out of anything. But I literally cannot stand the thought of you getting hurt. The idea that you’re at risk again makes me feel like I want to puke.” He pressed his hand against his heart. “It’s this constant dread I have, and it’s getting worse.” “Brian…” “Just let me explain how I’m feeling, okay? I thought the worst thing I had ever seen was that night in Sully’s house. He wanted to kill you, and I can’t even explain how that made me feel. I had nightmares that I was too late, that… My point is that what I felt then was nothing compared to what I’m feeling now. A vampire conjured fire out of nothing, threw furniture around without touching it, and even made another vampire do his bidding. If he decides he wants you dead, how am I supposed to stop him?” “It’s not up to you to protect me,” I said softly, aching to touch him. His smile was bitter. “See, I knew you’d say that. But that’s how I’m made, Dev. I want to be able to take care of the people I love because I don’t trust anyone else to care more. And I’m sorry if you see that as a fault, but when I look at you, I see so many possibilities. And if some monster is intent on destroying all of that then I need to be prepared. I need to be alert.” “But I can be prepared and alert with you.” “I know you can. I know it, and I still wanted to keep you away from that. I knew you’d jump in and risk yourself, and I couldn’t bring myself to watch it yet. Especially when you had so much going on. I wanted to make life a little easier for you for a while, and I can’t help…” He shook his head and gripped my shoulders as though he wanted to shake me. “I love you, and I wanted to say it at the right time, but it’s never the bloody right time. There’s always vampires and danger, and I can’t tell you I love you then because it would be like a heat of the moment thing.” He gave me a stern look. “And I know you, Dev. I know how you think. You wouldn’t believe me if I said it when we had just avoided death or something.” “So you say it during a row?” A tiny smile was working its way across my lips. My big strong boyfriend was a complete and utter overthinking emotional wreck. Just like me. “It’s all you understand sometimes!” He took a deep breath. “Look. I’m sorry you feel like I did something wrong, but I don’t regret what I’ve been doing. I wanted you to have a few weeks of peace. I wanted you to be able to deal with your mother and moving and just… getting on with things before you got dragged back in. I wanted to be the one to carry this weight for a while, and I did. It wasn’t like I was planning on hiding vampires from you for the rest of your life. I mean, we came straight to you when we realised what was happening out there tonight.” I folded my arms and waited. He laid his hands on my shoulders, closing the space between us. The colour remained in his cheeks, but his gaze was calm and steady. A prickle of anticipation ran across my skin. “Devlin,” he said. “I love you, and I wanted to say it first because… just because, but then you said it, and I couldn’t say it back because then it would be like I was just saying it because you said it.” I opened my mouth to speak, but he pressed his finger against my lips. “And then I couldn’t say it before we slept together because it would be like I was just saying it to get you into bed, and then I couldn’t say it after because it would sound like a bloody thank you. And then, then you were always in danger or nearly dying, and it was like, well, if I say it now, she’ll just think it’s because I assume we’re all going to die.” “Jesus Christ,” I whispered. “What is wrong with your brain?” His laugh was soft and warm, the anger and frustration completely slipping away from him as if physically uncoiling. “I don’t know. It’s you. You mess my head up. I can’t think straight. There’s all of this life and death shit going on, and all I can think is, fuck, I have to find the perfect moment to let her know I love her.” He pressed his lips against mine in a slow, tender kiss. “But if you didn’t already know, then you’re a bloody half-wit, O’Mara.” I wrapped my arms around his shoulders, eager to let him drive everything else out of my mind. I had told him I loved him ages ago, once, and immediately regretted it because he had seemed so horrified. It hadn’t occurred to me that I had simply beaten him to saying it first. At that thought, I thumped his shoulder and pulled away. “What are you, twelve? You’ve been freaking out because I said it first?” He held up his hands, his dimple dancing in his cheek. “I knew you wouldn’t believe me unless I said it first.” “This is ridiculous,” I said. “We’re old enough to vote and drink and have sex and kill vampires, but we’re both acting like children over the word love.” He held me against him and tickled my side in retaliation. And when I fought him off, he kissed my neck until I was breathless. My laughter faded, and he held me still, holding my gaze as his expression turned serious. “No matter what happens,” he said. “I do love you. And I don’t want you hunting vampires.” “Sorry,” I whispered. “You can’t tell me what to do.” “I know,” he said. “They’re back, Dev. The vampires and the hunters are back, and that means trouble for us. Even if they don’t come after us, we know the truth, and none of us can stand by and watch as innocent people get hurt. I know it, and you know it, but I just wanted a bit more time knowing you’re safe. You’re high maintenance. You don’t make it easy. You dissect everything, and the wheels in your head keep turning because you don’t trust anything. Not even me.” My face fell. “I’m sorry.” “It’s not something to be sorry for. I know you. I know why you think the way you do, and I’m okay with it. I do have patience, you know. And I get it more than you believe. You’ve had to change everything you think of the world just to let me in, and you’re the worth the time it’ll take to get you all the way there.” I looked away, embarrassed. “Stop it.” “You wanted the truth. Well, here it is. I love you, Devlin. For what you are and what you will be. I told you for the first time during an argument because I’m an absolute cretin, and I hope you don’t hold that against me.” I grinned. “Well, I did know that coming into this.” “Shut up.” He leaned down to kiss me. “I’m sorry, okay? I’m sorry that this is how we have to live. I’m sorry Liz isn’t there to help you through this, and I’m sorry you have to be strong enough for the both of you. I’m sorry the vampires are vengeful bastards, and I’m even sorrier that they’re coming back. But we’ll get through it. Like we have before. I know you’re strong. I just wanted to give you some time off from having to be strong about this.” “Stop making me feel guilty about getting mad.” I stretched to wrap my arms around his shoulders. “We have to tell everyone, make sure they’re all safe.” “I know, but how do we keep the people who don’t know the truth safe when anything we tell them will make us sound insane?” “We’ll find a way,” I said, determined. “Mam is probably safe where she is, and Mark and his family have left already. We need your family and Aoife’s gone.” “Aoife won’t listen to me. Not now. She knows there’s something we haven’t told her.” “I get that. I mean, look what we had to see before we really believed.” But I was too relived that we had cleared the air to truly worry. “I should text Maisy,” I said. He lifted me. I automatically wrapped my legs around him. “Tomorrow,” he murmured. “Tomorrow we deal with everything.” That was perfectly fine with me. Chapter Four I flicked through the stations, looking for the news. “A young woman remains in critical condition this morning after a violent attack last night in—” I switched it off in disgust. What the hell was going to happen next? I wasn’t ready. Not again, not for this. “Hey,” Base said, coming up behind me and dropping a kiss on my bare shoulder. “You’re up early.” I turned to hold on to him. He wrapped his arms around me in silence. I was so caught up in the idea of not needing anyone, in seeing it as a weakness of my mother’s, that I had forgotten that it was ok to draw comfort from other people. When I pulled away, Brian’s dark brown eyes were still full of concern. To avoid talking about the news, I said, “I texted Franco and Maisy, asking them to meet up. They both agreed.” “Okay, good. Where are we meeting?” “The cafe next to the dance studio. We can grab breakfast with them there.” He checked his watch. “Soon?” “An hour.” I hesitated. “Tom hasn’t gotten back to me.” “Tom can take care of himself. He just has his own stuff to deal with.” Tom had left when the hunters and vampires did, and communication had been sporadic at best ever since. I had been relying on him to be the adult in the situation. Now we were fending for ourselves. “I’ll call Callum,” Base said. “Him? Why?” “Are you mad at him now?” I screwed up my nose. “No, but he gets in the way with all of his rules.” I caught sight of Brian’s smirk and sighed. “Fine, I’m a little annoyed with him. He put up such a fuss about me tagging along with him, but he’s totally okay with you. I find it a little insulting.” He ran his hands up and down my back until I relaxed. “It’s different now. He’s suspended from work, and he has a lot of… personal stuff going on. This is all he has right now.” “What are you, best buds all of a sudden?” “You’re so jealous,” he teased, kissing my cheek. “Get dressed. We’ll go get breakfast and figure out what we’re going to do about these vampires.” I quickly got ready. On our way down the stairs, the sound of an argument behind one of the doors made both of us silent. I was pretty sure it was the couple with the cute toddler. I glanced at Base and wondered if we would ever even have the chance for something like that. I couldn’t imagine bringing a child into a world where vampires existed, and to my surprise, I felt a little sad about it. We walked to the cafe, holding hands. The weather had cooled over the last couple of weeks, but that wasn’t what was making me shiver. Base squeezed my fingers. I looked up at him. He looked exhausted, but calm. I needed to mimic that if I didn’t want to scare my friends shitless. “I texted Callum,” he said as we neared the cafe. “He’ll be here in a while.” “Great,” I said under my breath. “We need all the help we can get.” “I know.” That was why I had tried to contact Tom. We reached the cafe. Franco and Maisy were already inside, holding a table for us. Base and I ordered then sat across from them. The tables were close together, but the place was almost empty. “Morning,” Franco said when we sat. He looked tired, little lines I hadn’t noticed before creasing around his eyes. Nicotine stains marred the fingernails that hadn’t been bitten. Mostly, he looked vulnerable and tense, and I regretted causing him stress. His sleazy persona was a defence mechanism, and without it to cloud my judgement, some kind of protective instinct toward him had triggered within me. Maisy reached out and squeezed my hand. Maybe I didn’t look as calm as I thought. We did the small-talk thing until the food arrived. The place stank of grease, but the food was always impossibly tasty, and the portions ridiculously large. But when I looked down at my full plate of fluffy scrambled egg, I had no appetite. “So what’s up?” Maisy asked, seeing I wasn’t going to eat. “Vampire,” Base said, his mouth full of toast. Nothing ever spoiled his appetite. Maisy’s eyes widened, and Franco shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “What happened?” he asked. “He attacked a girl then bumped into Dev for seconds,” Brian said matter-of-factly. “I dealt with it,” I clarified. “I’m pretty sure he was new. They’re… easier.” I looked at Base, only realising something important. “He had a Dublin accent.” “That makes sense,” he said. “If he’s that new, he would have been… created or whatever they do, here.” Maisy looked ill. “I’m not sure what to say.” “Was this outside the pub?” Franco asked. “No, while I was walking home,” I explained, pushing eggs around my plate. “You told me you were getting a lift,” he said. “You could have been killed, Devlin.” “But I wasn’t,” I said, feeling the need to pout. “I’m not your responsibility, Franco.” “Do you think anyone’s going to think that if I could have kept you safe and let you go on alone to get eaten by a fucking vampire?” he snapped, seriously on edge. I was about to bite back when I saw the panic in his eyes. “I’m sorry,” I said after a heartbeat. “I wasn’t thinking. But if you had walked me home, you would have missed your bus, and it might have been you who bumped into something… bad. So we’re both screwed.” He gave me a grateful smile, his shoulders dropping. “Fucking vampires always wreck everything, eh?” I smiled back, trying to ease the tension. I was starting to learn that my perception of events could be kind of skewed, and me snapping back wasn’t going to help anything. Holy crap, was I maturing? Callum came in just then. He strode over, grabbed a chair, and sat next to us. “Hey,” he said. “Did I miss anything?” “Nope,” I said. “They heard my side of the story. Now why don’t you two tell them what you’ve been doing?” He frowned at me before catching the others up on what had been going on. Franco seemed surprised, but Maisy was resigned. Nobody had the kind of shitfit I had thrown in the face of the information, and I began to feel slightly embarrassed by my reaction. I tried not to smile as I remembered that it had helped clear the air between Brian and me, so not all bad. “So they’re back,” Franco was saying glumly. “Something’s here,” Callum said. “The hunters haven’t returned yet.” Yet. The word echoed as loud as if he had shouted. I pushed my plate away. “So what are we going to do about it?” “It looks like there was only one attack last night,” Callum said. “It could be a coincidence.” “Not bloody likely,” I muttered. “Besides, there were two attacks. I just won the second round.” “Jesus,” Franco said. “You were lucky, Devlin.” “I know. If I hadn’t known better, he would have jumped me before I even realised anything was wrong. We might know these young vampires are nothing compared to the big deals, but most people are walking around having no clue what’s going on. We need to do something about this.” “What we need to do is deal with it,” Maisy said. “Before the debs.” “Maisy.” I frowned. “This is kind of more important than the debs.” “The debs happens to be important to me,” she said, almost pouting. “And I’ve watched everyone give up their lives for these vampires. I’m not giving up this.” “I get that,” Base said in a softer voice than I had spoken in. “But we might not have a choice.” “We could leave,” Franco said, refusing to meet my eye. “It’s not our responsibility.” “Knowing about vampires makes it our responsibility.” Callum looked at me. “You can’t unknow this.” “Whatever we want to do,” Base said. “It’s what the vampires are planning that will be the deciding factor.” “If we leave, they could follow,” I said. “We’re all in this together, whether we like it or not.” “Last time people tried to help, they got arrested,” Franco said, glaring at Callum. “Tom helps people, and he gets done for it.” “He didn’t get done,” Callum snapped. “But even if he did, it would have been because the evidence was stacked against him.” “You mean they went for the easy target.” “It was a mess for everyone. Those investigating did the best they could with the information they had.” “And what about you?” Franco demanded. “You helping got you suspended. Still gonna defend the police?” “I am the police,” Callum said aggressively. “And don’t you forget it.” He rose to his feet and stormed out, slamming the door after him. I sat there, frozen with shock for a moment. That wasn’t like Callum. There had to be more to it. “I’m going to talk to him,” I said. “Wait here.” “He’ll be okay,” Base said. “I know.” I smiled. “But I have a bone to pick with him.” I left the warmth of the cafe and found Callum at the end of the street, leaning against the wall. He caught sight of me and groaned. “Don’t you start.” “What do you think you’re doing?” He turned away as if to leave. I pushed him back against the wall and got in his way, my arms crossed over my chest. “I’m not in the mood,” he said, scowling like a child. “I don’t care. What are you doing, Callum? What’s with the big policeman talk? Franco didn’t mean anything by it. He’s just scared.” I poked his chest. “And you know that. So what’s up with you?” “Vampires are trying to kill innocent people, and the only people who believe me are a pack of teenagers and an idiot sleazebag.” “And Tom. And my mother. And all of the hunters in the world. Besides, Franco’s not an idiot sleazebag; he just wants people to think he is.” “Well, he’s doing a great job.” He bowed his head and ran his hands across his face. “I’m sorry.” He deflated. “Tell Franco I didn’t mean it.” “Tell him yourself.” I kicked his shoe. “What’s up?” He shrugged. “We’re all on edge. There are vampires in town.” I stared at him. He refused to look at me, and there were new lines around his wide set eyes. “This isn’t just about the vampires though, is it?” “I just have… stuff going on.” “The suspension?” “That’s part of it.” “Do I really need to pull another tooth out?” I asked. He smiled. “I’m not really in a chatty mood.” “Callum, if the vampires attack, we’re all going to have to rely on each other for survival. And you’re distracted with some other shit. Spit it out, let us help, and then we can move on in time for whatever’s coming next.” “You think they’re going to attack?” I laughed, but there was no humour in it. “You say that when you’ve been watching out for them every night?” “They hurt my sister and got away with it. What did you expect me to do?” “How is she?” His face fell. “I wouldn’t know.” I must have looked confused because he shook his head. “It doesn’t matter.” I touched his arm. “What happened?” He shook his head, his face paling. “Nothing. It’s fine.” “Callum, is she okay? Did something… happen?” “It was me,” he said. “I messed up with her. She remembered things, and I drew her out, filled in the blanks. I don’t know what I was thinking. No, I do know. I was thinking like a policeman. I was thinking I needed clues and evidence, something. I still had to solve the case, and I pestered my own sister to do it. We were getting somewhere… until we weren’t. I should never have… I don’t know what I was thinking.” “I take it that it didn’t go well.” He huffed out a humourless laugh. “You could say that.” “I’m sorry.” “She freaked out, and then my stepmother freaked out, and then… Let’s just say I’m not allowed go back to my family home, the place I was raised. I can’t go back to work because they think I’ve lost my mind. The vampires have taken everything from me, and they’re still out there, doing whatever the hell they want.” He clenched his fists. “And me relying on all of you will get you all killed.” “If the vampires want us dead, it’s going to happen no matter what we do.” “We don’t have to antagonise them. Especially now they’ve left us alone.” “You know as well as I do that leaving us alone isn’t good enough.” I blew out a sigh and leaned against the wall next to him. “It’s weird how they just left. The vampires, I mean.” “Yeah. It makes me uncomfortable. All of this waiting and wondering what they’ll do next. The kind of power that creature had…” He gave me a sideward glance. “He wasn’t scared of us.” I shivered at the memory. “I know. I just can’t figure out what he’s doing. Why go to the city centre?” I turned to him. “I mean, this big crime wave that’s going on. Definitely vampires, right?” “I’ve heard some rumours from the few people who don’t think I’ve lost it. Suspicious marks, lack of blood remaining in bodies, the sheer number of missing people in a short period of time. It all points to what we know about vampires.” “Except vampires usually hide it,” I said. “Whether they use that weird hypnosis thing or just sneak around, they always cover their tracks. But this time, they’re flaunting it.” “But why?” he murmured, then he gave me a sharp glance. “They’re sending a message.” “Why not attack us here if they want to send us a message?” He let out a whoosh of air, his eyes suddenly bright with interest. “The message isn’t for us, Devlin. It’s for other vampires. They want to be seen, want to be heard. They want the world to see them. They don’t want to hide anymore.” The more I thought about it, the more I felt it to be truth. “That makes an eerie amount of sense. Will you come back inside and tell the others your theory?” He looked at me steadily until I grew uncomfortable. “Yes,” he said at last. “Let’s go back inside.” Inside the cafe, Callum’s new theory helped gloss over the argument. “So we know something, and we’re keeping quiet,” Maisy said. “And all of these people are being hurt because the vampires have decided not to keep quiet anymore.” “What can we do about that?” Franco asked. “Nobody’s going to believe us.” “We could make more videos,” I said. “At least then we’ll have the information out there. It’s up to everyone else to decide what they can believe.” “How are we going to get close enough to the action without getting killed?” Base asked. “By going after them,” I said. “We go into the city centre and track down the vampires before they can send out any more messages.” “Too risky,” Callum said. “And it’ll be harder to find vampires in the city then here in a halfway to deserted town.” “We have to do something,” I said. “People are already getting hurt. It’ll be much worse if the other vampires in the world think that this could be base camp for them. Think about it. We’re on an island. It’s a perfect place to start taking over. There could be millions of vampires around the world. They’d destroy us in a week.” “And there might only be a couple,” Base said. “But vampires have been here, too. Imagine if we sought out the vampires causing the problems, and in the meantime, everyone we cared about was killed by other vampires while we were away? What if that’s what they really want?” I stared glumly at my plate. He was right. We were stuck between so many hard places. It was a gift we could move at all. “We can handle a few young vampires here,” Callum said. “Let the hunters take care of the big ones.” “We kind of have to protect our own,” Maisy said. “The hunters haven’t come back here. Who else is going to do it?” My heart sank. She was right. We couldn’t leave, and we were on our own. Chapter Five It felt weird to go to work instead of doing something about the vampires. But if we left, who would protect our home town? It was possible we didn’t even have a chance ourselves. But the others were right. We had to at least try. Still, I found it hard to focus. Hazy sunlight drifted through the windows of the pub that afternoon. The place was more than half-full already. On some level, it was as though nothing had changed, but I couldn’t mistake the subtle accusing glances customers were sharing all afternoon. Mistrust and confusion stained the air, and it was only a matter of time before us humans turned on each other. I surreptitiously moved around the room, wiping down tables that were already clean to hear the gossip. The manager was sitting on a barstool, swiping his fingers across a tablet. If he didn’t give a shit, then why should I? And I was pretty sure the life and death situation of vampires was more important than beer. Plenty of people were whispering about the attacks that afternoon, and it didn’t take much to derive information from amongst the hyperbole. “They’re saying it’s a gangland crime,” one elderly woman said. She came in every afternoon to nurse a glass of orange juice and gossip with anyone who would give her the time of day. “But don’t those drug dealing gangs use guns these days? Why would they be stabbing people in the necks or whatever it is? It sounds fishy to me.” “Maybe the government are responsible,” her companion said. “The prisons are full. Maybe they’re sending out their own kind of justice.” “Would you stop?” She laughed behind her hand. “Imagine that.” I moved on to another table. A couple of people were spouting about how they were voting for a different party in the next election because the crime rates were obviously rocketing. Sighing, I kept moving. A group of young men were speaking loudly around their table, obviously hoping to be heard. “I’m telling you, I work with him,” one of them was saying, running his hand through his ginger hair. His cheeks were red, and his eyes bloodshot. “The manager came in and sent us home this morning. They just said he had been murdered, and that was it.” “I’m so sorry, man,” a second said. “Where you close?” “Not really, but like, I’d say hello to him and that. He’d always go out for drinks after work when there was anything on. He was younger than me. It’s just a bit close to home.” “Was he stabbed?” the second asked, barely even hesitating to go there. “I mean, that’s usually how it happens. Unless he got beaten up and knocked his head off the pavement or something.” “They didn’t say,” the redhead said impatiently. “Does it even matter?” A man with black hair pushed his glasses further up his nose. “I heard about it, too. One of my neighbours has a cousin who is a paramedic. He was talking to one of his colleagues who was called to the scene. They’re saying it must be a stabbing, but the paramedic reckons it looks like a bite.” “What, like a dog?” the second one asked. “Like that young one that time. Did they ever catch that dog?” “That wasn’t a dog,” the redhead said. “And this wasn’t a dog either. They called it a murder. My mate just got murdered around the corner, so stop talking about dogs and shit.” “I thought you weren’t close,” Glasses said, giving his friend a sly look. “I thought it was a girl who was attacked,” I blurted unthinkingly. The black-haired man looked at me, smiling as though he were about to burst if he didn’t share the latest gossip. “That was the first attack. This is the second one.” “Two attacks,” I muttered, half to myself. “And both of them with the same injuries,” he carried on, turning his back on me. “I asked my neighbour this morning, and he confirmed it.” The others mocked him over the validity of his claims, but my hands kept shaking. Two attacks. One after I had killed a vampire. Fuck. I ran over to the manager and told him I was taking my break. He barely grunted in answer, waving me on like he didn’t care. I called Base outside. “I heard there was another attack last night,” I said. “After I took out that vampire.” “Callum told me a little while ago. I was going to pick you up after work and tell you then. You’re not going to be able to concentrate now.” “Kind of impossible to work when there are vampires running around,” I said. “And it’s not him or Jack and the other hunters would be around by now. I mean, what if he’s making new vampires and sending them here just to screw with us. Unleashing them.” “Then we’ll just have to fight back,” he said firmly. I thought of Callum’s theory again and wanted to vomit. What if these new attacks were just to keep us busy until the big boys met up and came to town together? An unsettling feeling grew in the pit of my belly. What if, this time, we just didn’t have enough to fight back with? *** That night, Base picked me up after work. “Thanks,” I said, getting in next to him and slipping off my shoes with a relaxed sigh. “It’s been hellish today. Why is that pubs get busier increase after a crisis?” “People want to gather together when there’s an issue that affects the world around them.” He reached out and brushed a loose lock of hair over my ear. “You all right?” “Yeah. Only freaking out inwardly right now.” “It’ll be okay, Dev.” I gave him a steady look. “We’ve been saying that since Sully. Have we ever actually been right?” He took my hand and squeezed my fingers. He was warm and comforting, and that was exactly what I needed. “We’re just going to have to make sure that we’re not wrong.” “I’m not tired,” I said when he started the car. “You’re not meeting Callum tonight, are you?” He looked puzzled. “Only if you want me to.” “Good. Let’s go roam the streets looking for vampires to stake. It’ll be fun, if fun means almost dying.” “Always with the promises,” he teased. “And out after curfew? You wild child.” “Hey, somebody’s got to break the rules.” I looked out the window as we pulled away from the pub. And somebody had to protect the streets. “So far, both attacks happened after the pubs closed. Both victims got separated from their groups, and neither made it home.” I nodded. “So they’re targeting those who are out late and a little defenceless.” “Or drunk,” he said. “It must be a lot easier than breaking into a house, I suppose.” “Yeah, and if it’s after curfew, there’s less chance of them being spotted.” “Right, and as long as Jack and the others don’t roll up into town, we’ve a fair idea that the Big Bad isn’t back either.” “Think the hunters will even warn us?” “Nope. But Callum’s made sure that he gets a call from the hotel if they check in.” I frowned. “They would do that?” “He must have his ways.” “Let’s hope his ways stick then.” We drove around the streets for an hour, going from pub to pub. We didn’t see anything unusual, but it was still early. A squad car flashed its lights at us at one stage, obviously a warning to get indoors because of curfew, and Base headed back to my place. “Stay?” I asked when he pulled up outside. He reached over and kissed me deeply. “Always.” *** We found out about the next murder while watching the news in the early hours of the morning. We were stretched out on the sofa, half-naked, and sharing a tub of ice-cream. “We missed it,” I said softly. “That could have happened even if we drove around all night,” he said reassuringly. “We can’t be responsible for everything that happens.” He got up to check his phone. Callum had been driving around, too, and he hadn’t spotted anything either. “We should co-ordinate this a little better.” He sat back down beside me. “Make sure we’re being as efficient as possible, given that we’ve only two cars.” “Maybe we shouldn’t be splitting up anyway,” I said. “If there’s a group of vampires, we won’t be able to help anyone if we’re outnumbered.” “You fought off one alone,” he said. “It could still be a coincidence.” “It’s not a coincidence,” I said. “And you know it.” “It’d be nice though. Are you in work later?” “Nope. All yours. So far the attacks have happened at night. Is there a point going around during the day?” “Where would we even start?” He rubbed the nape of my neck absent-mindedly. “We should make a list of places that would make a good… hunting ground, for want of a better term.” “That’s a good idea actually. I think we should start near the other attacks, see what the places looked like, if there are any common threads.” “And then we should nap because we’re going to be up late. Screw the curfew.” “Now who’s rebelling?” “It’s hard to sleep when you know what’s out there.” He pointed at his watch. “Which is why we’re awake at this time. Let’s figure out where we want to go, and then we should make sure we rest. Do you want to visit your mam or anything?” I shook my head guiltily. “I hate that place. She’s just totally given up on everything.” He kissed my forehead. “I’m so sorry, Dev. I know how hard it is for you.” “You’d think it’d be easier, not having to look after her, but I’d gotten used to having her around and actually doing things. It’s like my brain refuses to adjust.” “That’s understandable though. I’d be the same way, I’m sure.” “No, you wouldn’t. You’d just take care of everyone, the way you always do.” “Then why am I here with you instead of my family,” he said, and a note of something set me on edge. “You don’t have to be here if it makes you feel guilty,” I said. “And you don’t have to be with them all of the time, either. None of us have the right to depend on you all of the time.” As much as it killed me to say it. A part of me was just like my mother, ready to depend on him because it was so much easier than facing everything alone. But I didn’t want to be the one who fell apart when he left, and that meant learning to be capable in another way. I had always thought of myself as strong, but really, I had been burying everything that made me human. It had taken a vampire to show me that, and that lesson had been hard. When he sighed, I knew he really was feeling guilty. “It’s hard to balance everything,” he admitted. “Life, the future, you, family, and now these bloody vampires on top of it all. It’s hard enough even in an ordinary sense. I mean, I have to work, I have to figure out what I need to do for the next ten years if I ever want to have a decent life.” When he caught the look on my face, he held me close. “If I didn’t have you, I’d lose my mind, Dev. You never make me choose you over my family. You never even try.” “She giving you grief again?” His pained expression said it all. Base’s mother had been reliving her teenage years or something. When Brian’s father died, his mother had been lost without him. And according to Brian, she had clung on to the first man who came along. Brian’s youngest brother had been the result of that union, but as the boy’s real father wasn’t ever around for anything, Base was the one being the male figure in his younger brothers’ lives. His mother kept ditching everything to go look after the man who had managed to get her pregnant while incapable of actually acting like an adult, and Base was always the one picking up the slack. And his relationship with me had his mother constantly terrified. She was afraid of losing him, afraid of change, afraid of somebody else leaving her. She relied on him too much, and as much as it stressed Brian out, he wasn’t one to refuse. In fact, he did more than necessary to take care of his family. I sensed his discomfort sometimes. He didn’t sleep much. He was stressed most of the time. And that wasn’t fair. So I got a little mad on his behalf, and I tried my best not to make him feel the way she did. But we would always pull him in two different directions, and part of me wondered if she would be the one who got her way someday. “It’ll be okay,” he said. “The boys have been a little out of hand lately is all.” When it became clear that Brian didn’t want to talk anymore about his family problems, we went through our theories and ended up with a distant list of places to drive around. It might have been pointless, but at least we would be doing something. And if the police tried to send us home again, so be it. The curfew was getting old. Mostly, we held hands and pretended like the world wasn’t falling apart around us. Pretended we could control what happened next. But no amount of planning could protect us from vindictive vampires and a world that just couldn’t believe enough to protect itself. Chapter Six While I went to pick up something for dinner, Base got on the phone to Callum to co-ordinate our efforts for the night ahead. I was actually excited to get out and do something for a change. Maybe the second vampire had moved on, or perhaps we would scare it off somehow. Whatever happened, I couldn’t sit at home and do nothing. At least I could fool myself into thinking I could make a difference. “You nervous?” Base asked as we ate together. I made an effort to stop my knee from jumping up and down. “Nope.” “Liar.” He grinned. “Got your handbag ready?” “Full of wooden stakes, holy water, and silver. What did you take me for? An amateur?” He laughed then choked on his food. “We’re children playing in matters we don’t understand, remember?” “Ugh. Don’t remind me of the hunters. I wonder if they’re okay though.” “I’m sure they’re fine. They’re tough. Besides, they’re hunters for a reason, right? And if we managed to kill a vampire when we still weren’t even sure if the things existed…” I smiled happily. “That actually makes me feel a lot better. We didn’t have a clue what we were doing before. Now we do.” “Exactly.” He held out a hand. “Shall we go hunt?” I nodded and gripped his fingers. “Let’s do it.” But a few hours later, I was already yawning from boredom. We hadn’t seen anything odd apart from a couple of drunken arseholes peeing against a wall. “Oh, my God, I had forgotten how dull this can get.” “Boring means safe, Dev.” “I know. But can we at least take a break? I badly need some caffeine.” “I thought you cut yourself off from the energy drinks,” he teased. I shot him a glare. “Extenuating circumstances, dickhead.” “Ooh, stop flirting with me.” He blew me a kiss. “We’ll get a coffee and some snacks. But then we have to keep moving.” “Yes, boss.” He shot me an exasperated look. “Don’t be like that. I just know how the both of us are going to feel later.” “Well, if I don’t get some caffeine, the fatigue will probably outweigh any other emotions.” He tapped his chin and screwed up his mouth. “Hm. Maybe I should say no to the coffee then.” I lightly slapped his arm. “Arse.” He reached over to plant a kiss on my cheeks. “I love you, too.” Grinning, I shut up long enough for him to drive to the nearest cafe to get some fresh coffee. We both got out of the car to stretch our legs. “We’re closing,” the server announced when we walked in. “It’ll have to be to go.” “That’s great, thanks,” Brian said, giving her a winning smile. She returned it. “Watch out. You’ll be cutting it close to curfew.” “So will you then,” I said. She gestured toward the ceiling. “I live upstairs. I wouldn’t want to be walking on a night like this.” Within a few minutes, she had bundled us out of the cafe and turned the closed sign around behind us. With our coffee cups steaming in our hands, we strolled back to the car and leaned against the bonnet. “It’d be a lovely evening if it wasn’t for all of the vampires,” Base said. I took a sip of coffee. “Nothing like the threat of death to make you see the beauty in life.” “A philosopher,” he teased, nudging me. “A joker.” “Let’s get serious then. Back in the car. Real hunters drink their coffee on the go.” I snorted as I followed him into the car. We were definitely a pair of kids playing at being grownups on some occasions. We drove around with the windows down, straining to hear anything untoward happening in the streets of our town. “Do you ever think,” I began before freezing. “Did you hear that?” He frowned and leaned out of his window. I did the same, struggling to hear what had caught my attention. A scream, faint but distinctive, sounded from a few streets away. “There it is again,” I said. “On it.” Base revved the engine and moved in the direction the sound was coming from. Two streets away, we saw two figures circling a pair of young women. The women were holding hands and trying to back away from the pair with no success. “Vampires?” Base asked. “Not sure yet.” Past the group, I noticed three young men pile out of a doorway. “Uh-oh,” I said. “There are a lot of people getting involved.” One of the attackers gripped the nearest woman and pulled her closer to him. She released a hysterical sounding laugh that quickly turned into a shriek as his mouth moved to her neck. Her friend screamed and lunged forward, but the second vampire held her back. “Not taking any chances,” Base said, speeding up. The group of young men broke into a run to confront the pair, and that meant trouble. “We need to make an entrance,” I warned as one of the men shoved a vampire onto the road. “No bother,” Base said, and he ran the car straight for the vampire. The vampire turned and hissed at us, refusing to move. I braced myself, knowing that the car would probably end up with more damage than the vampire. We collided, and the car jerked backward. My chest hurt as my seatbelt pinned me to my seat. Women screamed, men shouted in concern, and the vampire remained on his feet. “What the fuck?” one of the men cried out as a vampire flashed its fangs. “Don’t look them in the eyes!” I said, jumping out of the car, stakes in each hand. Base followed suit, immediately attacking the vampire we had hit with the car. As they tackled each other, I moved to the vampire attempting to drain a girl. As soon as the men saw me move, they rushed to help, forgetting about what was impossible. I stabbed the vampire through the back with the stake, but he moved in time to fend me a couple of inches away from anything important. Swearing, I tried again, anything to get him to drop the woman, and this time, the vampire let her go to face me. I shouted at the men to get the girls out of there. I forgot about them and focused on the bloody-mouthed monster in front of me. He tackled me, but I easily broke free. He wasn’t as strong as the one Base was fighting, and a chill of unease swept over me. I avoided the vampire’s eyes, managed to keep out of the way of his strikes, and ducked and swung my leg around his ankles to knock him off his feet. It worked, and I made the most of the vampire’s confusion to straddle him. He looked momentarily shocked before looking over my shoulder and grinning. I followed his gaze in time to see one of the humans throw a punch at my head. I moved enough to curb some of the blow, but it was hard enough to unbalance me from the vampire who scrambled to his feet and raced away. “Brian, watch out!” I screamed as the second human tried to do a vampire’s bidding. Base and I were forced to defend ourselves against the humans as the vampires made their escape. It was a lot harder to fight something you were trying your best not to hurt. By the time Base had his human in a headlock, I was struggling to get unpinned from beneath my attacker. The men’s third friend ran out of the house, shouting at his friends. “What the hell are you doing?” he demanded. That distracted my attacker long enough for me to slam the side of his head. Dizzy, his grip loosened, and I managed to get back up on my feet. I kicked him in the stomach, winding him, then stepped back, holding up my hands. “It’s not their fault,” I said as the third man’s expression turned to horror. He was too busy watching Base send his friend into unconsciousness with a well-timed squeeze. “They were hypnotised.” “Hypnotised? What the fuck is happening?” the man demanded, his face turning purple. “I have two hysterical women in my house, one who’s bleeding from a bite to her neck, and now this. What even is this?” “Trouble,” I said wearily. “Just… go home. These two will be fine once we leave, and we have to track down those monsters before they feed on anyone else.” The man’s mouth opened and closed. “Er, sorry about your friends,” Base added as we returned to the car. He winced at the size of the dent. “I’m a dead man, Devlin.” “Well, let’s make sure you’re the only one.” I got in and slammed the door shut, beyond pissed. “We would have been fine if those two hadn’t stuck their oar in. I told them not to look the thing in the eye.” “Why would they even think to listen to that?” Base said rather sensibly as he drove away. “I pity that poor bastard. How is he going to explain this to his mates?” A giggle released some of my tension. “Let’s just go and finish the job.” He nodded. “Call Callum and warn him while you’re at it.” I dug my phone out of my bag and gave Callum a call. “Yo,” he said in answer. “So professional of you,” I said snarkily. “We just got into something with two vampires who were trying to eat a couple of women.” “What happened?” “A bunch of men tried to save the day and ended up being hypnotised. Turned the odds against us. The vampires ran, leaving us to deal with the humans. We’re trying to find them again. So just be careful if you see anything. Don’t take on any vampires alone. They could have friends lying in wait.” “Where are you?” he asked. “Streets are quiet on my route. I might as well help.” I gave him directions and kept him on the phone until he caught up to us. Waving at him, I hung up the phone and looked at Base. “They could be anywhere by now.” “They must be still hungry. They didn’t get to feed properly if that girl was still able to walk.” “The one I fought wasn’t as strong as yours,” I said. “Think it was a newbie then?” “Maybe. Point is that they’re paired up. Makes it harder to deal with.” “And means they’ll probably leave more of a mess behind.” “So Callum might hear something on his radio. If there’s a problem somewhere, I mean.” “I’m just glad he’s tagging along. I wouldn’t have been able to hold off that vampire for long.” “But it had to know that, and yet it chose to run instead.” “Probably thought we were hunters or something. They don’t hunt alone, you know.” “So maybe we shouldn’t. If we’re in a larger group, we might be more intimidating.” I shrugged. “And we might get the job done more quickly.” “What are you thinking then?” “This car is massive. We should bring Franco and Callum along with us from now on.” “And Maisy,” he said. “No,” I said pleadingly. “Not Maisy.” “It’s her choice. Just as much as Franco and Callum get to make their choices. But for the record, I think that there’s something to be said for safety in numbers.” He glanced at me. “And if the Big Bad decides to pick off us all off then we’re probably better off together.” That got me thinking. And imagining horrible, horrible scenarios. After a while, Callum beeped at us and sped ahead, driving on the other side of the road to overtake us. “He must have heard something,” Base said, and he chased after Callum. We drove for a while before Callum pulled over. When he jumped out of his car, stake in hand, we followed suit. An elderly man opened his front door. “Are you the police?” Callum nodded. “Where’s the disturbance?” “There’s a small park around the corner. I saw him drag her in there from my bedroom window. I should have gone after them, but I… I thought it better to wait for help.” “You did the right thing,” Callum asked. “Now stay inside, and don’t look out the window. We don’t want anyone to know you were the one who told on them, right?” The old man nodded, visibly shaken. He went inside and locked his door. “That was mean,” Base snapped. “Who’s going to believe an old man when he says he saw a policeman and a couple of kids stake a criminal with a wooden stick?” Callum asked. “It’s best to keep him indoors tonight. Come on. I know the park. It’s where teenagers hang out after dark. We’re always getting calls about them making a nuisance of themselves. It could be the same story, or it could be something else, so be ready, okay?” I nodded and followed him. Base sighed and picked up the rear. It occurred to me that Callum spoke as though he were still in uniform, yet he was always first to twist the rules to his advantage. We hurried to the park. The streetlights were out at the entrance which resulted in a darker stretch of concrete surrounded by dancing shadows that kept making me think someone was close by. Goosebumps pricked my skin. I looked over my shoulder at Base. His lips were pressed together in a grimace as he glanced warily around us. Without interrupting his constant vigilance routine, he reached out and touched my hand as though to reassure me. Callum moved quickly through the park. The place was eerily soundless, as though there was no life at all. But up ahead, a hulking shape knelt over a prone body on the ground. Callum held up his hand then ran forward. Vampire! I raced after him, almost forgetting about Base in my rush of renewed adrenaline. The vampire didn’t bother looking up as we gained ground on him. “Hey!” Callum roared, racing ahead us. Inwardly swearing, I followed, despite Callum giving away the element of surprise like a noob. But he was in a rage, and I wondered if he saw his sister laying prone on the ground, if it meant a little too much to him to think clearly anymore. Base outran me and almost caught up to Callum as he reached the vampire. The vampire finally looked up impatiently. I didn’t recognise his face. Exactly how many vampires were roaming the streets tonight? The girl beneath him was moaning but barely moving, and the vampire dropped her to face us with a growl. He leaned over her defensively, protecting his meal, and disgust filled me. She was a person. Enraged myself, I rushed forward to tackle the vampire. He pushed my chest, and I went flying. This vampire wasn’t new. Callum threw a punch to distract the vampire from following my path, but the vampire barely noticed the strike. Base kicked the vampire’s knee, and the vampire jolted a little, but still, he ran for me. I scrambled backward, terrified by the creature’s speed and strength. I managed to roll out of the way before he leapt on top of me, but he pulled my hair to draw me back. I swung my arm behind me to stab him with the stake, but his grip tightened. I dropped to the ground, unbalancing the vampire and allowing Brian the space to tackle the monster. The pair of them grappled on the ground, and Base let himself be rolled on his back in order to give us a clear shot of the vampire. Callum pushed me back and took the hit himself, driving his stake into the vampire’s back, using two hands. Sweat rolled down his face as he grunted with exertion. The stake hit the right spot, seemingly with ease, and the vampire bellowed with fear and confusion. Thinking fast, I gripped his jacket and yanked him off Base before my boyfriend was completely destroyed with vampire guts or whatever the hell that mess was. The vampire disintegrated into a wet gloopy substance, howling for way too long. I helped Base to his feet and clung to him as we watched the vampire disappear into a stain on the ground. I wished it would feel satisfying to watch a monster die, but it just… didn’t. A soft moan behind us drew my attention. I had completely forgotten about the vampire’s victim. Petite and delicate looking, she had lost a lot of blood, and her face was snow-white. Her eyelids fluttered, and she already looked pretty dead. I moved to her side to tend to her, calling on knowledge I had worked hard to figure out in the last few months. I pressed against the wound and talked to her, trying to keep her with us. Her eyes opened occasionally, and I prayed we had gotten to her in time. Callum was already on the phone, calling for an ambulance. “You two need to get out of here,” he whispered in an urgent tone as he covered up the phone with his hand. “Before anyone else turns up. We get so many calls about this place that we’re often slow to show up here, but once they realise an ambulance has been called, the place will be flooded with gardaí. I can explain myself, but not you two as well. Now go.” “Fine,” Base said, grabbing my hand. “But let us know if she makes it.” Callum nodded, his expression grim as he took my place next to the girl. “I will. Now hurry. Those other vampires are still out there.” “We’ll look for them,” I said in a reassuring tone. Callum looked as though he was going to fall apart. I squeezed his shoulder. “We both know exactly how you feel.” He gazed up at me, a number of emotions in conflict in his expression. “Do you?” “We should go,” Base said, and we ran out of the park and to the car before the ambulance arrived. As we drove away, he glanced in the wing mirror and shook his head. “Callum seemed off. Think he’s going to be okay?” “He’s gotten very… intense. It’s tough to watch what looks like a person disintegrate like that. But it wasn’t one of the vampires we fought, Brian. How many are out there?” “One less now.” “Are you hurt?” I asked, trying to check him over as he drove. He brushed me off. “I’m fine. I hope that girl will be okay. She looked so young.” “I know. But I think we got there in time.” “You were great back there,” he remarked. “You looked as though you really knew what you were doing.” “I just hope I did the right thing,” I said. We spent the next few hours searching for the vampire gang who had fled, but there was no sign of any other drama that night. They had gotten away, and there was nothing we could do about it. The one bright light came from Callum in the early hours of the morning. The girl we had saved was going to make it. Chapter Seven Throughout my shift at work, I kept an eye on the news. The first attack we had interrupted apparently hadn’t been reported. And I wasn’t surprised, given how the group of men had reacted to hypnosis from a vampire. Of everything, that might have been the vampires’ biggest weapon. They could make us think that we wanted to sacrifice ourselves to them, that we were happy to die at their fangs. And just because Sully, the first vampire we had ever encountered, had admitted to me that it took a lot of energy to keep it up, especially on a large group of people, that didn’t mean that the older vampires weren’t capable of far more. The girl in the park was still in hospital, but at least she was alive. As far as we knew, nobody had died, but on the other hand, plenty of vampires had escaped. One kill wasn’t much of a payment for all of the attacks so far. It wasn’t about revenge though; it was about survival. If we made ourselves easy to kill, then we were screwed. Franco came in to get ready for his shift. I sidled up to him in the backroom. “I didn’t know you were in today.” He ran his hand across the back of his head. “I just got called in because somebody didn’t turn up. Why?” He gave me a suspicious look. “What do you want?” “Hurry on, you two,” the manager shouted through the open door. “I’ll tell you on the floor when I get the chance,” I said, and then I left him to it. We needed Franco’s help, but I knew he was scared. Franco was scared of a lot of things, including people knowing he was scared. I could probably manipulate him into doing what I wanted, but I was trying really hard not to be that person. We had an influx of customers, so we were run off our feet for a while, but when the crowd eased off, I managed to get a word in with Franco. “There were a couple of vampires running around last night,” I said under my breath. His eyes widened as he wiped down the counter. “Really? No deaths on the news though.” He frowned. “At least, not so far.” “I know, but things got dodgy. We ran into a pair of vampires attacking two girls. A couple of people tried to help, and they managed to get themselves hypnotised. The vampires got away while we were trying to fend the humans off. How fucked is that?” “Very. So you didn’t find the vampires after that?” “Nope. And we felt supremely outnumbered. So we sort of joined up with Callum after that, and he heard of an incident. We found yet another vampire attacking a girl, and we managed to kill him, but it was close for the girl.” “That’s the attack that’s been reported in the media.” His face fell. “You need more people with you, don’t you?” “Look,” I said, feeling guilty. “I’m not asking. I’m just letting you know what’s going on. There are more of them, and they’re not worried about publicity anymore. If this keeps escalating, there’ll be daytime attacks soon. They’re not so concerned about hiding themselves these days.” He wiped sweat from his brow. “Where the hell is Tom?” “Probably risking his life somewhere. You know Tom. He has to get in the middle of everything.” “This feels like everything to me.” I looked away. “I know. I’m sorry.” “So,” he said after a tense moment of silence. “When are we heading out?” “You don’t have to—” He bowed his head. “When are we heading out, Dev?” “Tonight, probably. I can’t sleep knowing what’s out there.” “Me either.” He bit his lower lip. “Kind of puts things into perspective though.” “What do you mean?” He held his head a little higher. “All of things that bothered me before mean so little now. I mean, they still bother me, but it’s like this swallows up everything else.” “Yeah, I know what you mean. It’s a lot easier to put a pin in things when you know you might die the next time you see a vampire.” He let out a rush of laughter. “You really know how to cheer people up, Devlin.” “It’s a talent,” I said, keeping a straight face. “So we’ll pick you up after your shift then?” He nodded. “Might as well. It’s not like I have anything better to do.” That was a relief. I hadn’t forced him into anything, and with four of us on the case, we had a much better chance of survival. I tried to forget about vampires for an hour, focusing instead on my job, but I had to admit that I had lost my love for the work. With Mark out of the business, I wasn’t sure I wanted to work in a pub any longer. Working for him had been a joy, and this experience wasn’t matching up. I wasn’t bitter about losing my chance to attend college. I couldn’t blame that on anyone. But my issue was really with the pointlessness of the work. At best, I was providing a service that people didn’t really need. It wasn’t like beer featured on the crappy food pyramid we had learned about in school. And at worst, I was helping some people turn into my mother. I made it easy for them to forget their responsibilities, and I helped them drown their sorrows. How was that worthwhile? Saving people from vampires was worthwhile. Saving them from themselves might be an impossible dream. But I remembered the rush I had felt when I discovered that girl was going to live. That power I had over life and death when I put pressure on her wound. Her blood on my hands hadn’t felt gross or unnatural. It had felt like something I was supposed to do. The pub was a means to earn cash in an attempt to pay back at least some of what we owed. Hunting vampires was a necessity if I wanted to live. But none of it had felt as satisfying as helping that girl hold on to life. Callum approached the bar, interrupting my thoughts. Confused, I made to ask him what was wrong, but he held up his hand. “Whiskey,” he said. “Straight. Double. I don’t care. Just… whiskey, please, Dev.” “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I said, thinking about the night ahead. “Are you sure you—” “Devlin!” the manager snapped. “It’s not up to you to think for the customers.” He gave me a what the hell are you doing look as he shoved me out of the way to face Callum. “What can I get you, mate?” Callum’s gaze dragged from the manager back to me. I hoped he would understand my pleading look. He held my gaze for a couple of seconds before saying, “Let her choose for me.” The manager grunted and left us alone, but he kept an eye on me from the other end of the bar. “I’m worried about you,” I said under my breath. “Don’t,” Callum said gruffly. I studied his face for a moment. There was a hardness in his eyes that I had missed before. Dealing with vampires was turning him into a whole other person. But behind the new ruthless streak, there lay a fountain of pain. I gave him a brief nod then made him a cider shandy. At least he would feel like he was drowning his sorrows, but it would take him a hell of a lot longer to get drunk on a shandy than a few shots. “What’s up?” I asked, pushing the drink toward him. “You look like, well, shit, actually.” The corner of his mouth curled upward. He held on to the glass, but he didn’t take a sip. “I lost my job. It’s not official yet, but I’m done.” “What? Why?” “I’ve been caught in,” he held up his fingers to use air quotes, “too many suspicious situations.” “Is this because of last night?” I asked. “A little bit of everything. Me finding another crime scene wasn’t ever going to go down well, but today, I talked my way into the hospital to ask the victim some questions.” “Callum,” I said, trying to keep the impatience out of my voice. “I had to see her. She could have given us some clues to go on. Running the streets hoping to bump into a vampire isn’t efficient, Devlin. We need to find out where they’re hiding.” “They could be renting a house or hotel rooms or any one of a number of perfectly normal things,” I said. “The last ones weren’t,” he reminded me. “That’s because they were hiding a bunch of victims,” I countered. “Besides, Sully had a big house in a nice neighbourhood. They try to fit in, remember?” “Until now,” he said. “They aren’t even trying to hide what they are or what they’re up to.” “Then why are we the only ones who know?” I demanded. “Have you checked your video lately?” he asked, staring into his glass. “Lots of comments by people who are very suspicious.” “People the rest of the world will think are either paranoid or mental,” I said, giving the counter an aggressive scrub. “It doesn’t matter what a few comments online say. Nobody pays attention to that kind of shit anyway.” “I’m just saying.” He shrugged wearily. “We need a better way. We can’t just count on random encounters anymore. We have to do more.” His phone rang, and I wandered over to Franco to give him some privacy. “What’s up with him?” Franco asked, throwing Callum a wary side-eye. “He’s not doing so good. Apparently, he’s going to lose his job.” “I’m sure he’ll find some other way to boss people around.” “Don’t,” I said under my breath. “He’s really struggling with this. The vampires have ruined his life.” “They ruin everyone’s lives,” Franco snapped. “Look at you. Look at Mark. He doesn’t even know about vampires, and his whole business is gone. Everything’s turned to shit for him, and he has a family to support. Callum’s young enough to start over. Mark’s going to struggle. He deserves my sympathy, not that cocky shit.” “Funny,” I said. “I used to call you that.” He made a face at me. “He just bothers me. He has this attitude like he’s better than the rest of us. He makes us all out to be a pack of kids getting in his way, but you and Base were doing this well before he was.” “His family have turned on him,” I said. “He’s just like us, Franco. On his own.” He flashed me a look of shame and regret. “Don’t do that, Dev.” “We’re all dealing with stuff. It doesn’t make any of us better or worse. It just is. And we need to work as a team if we want to have any chance of dealing with the vampires.” “I don’t have any hope that we’re going to win,” he said in a low voice. “Do you?” I glanced over my shoulder. Callum was still on the phone. His blonde hair needed a cut, and ginger stubble had gathered on his cheeks and jaws. The vampires had changed his life, and I was sure he felt as though he had hit rock bottom already. He was still handsome, but he had aged in the last few months. Lines around his eyes made him appear tired, but there was a new determination there, and a freedom he didn’t have before. He was going to be okay. Base was steady and reliable no matter what happened. He was perfectly capable of sectioning off his life in order to deal with one thing at a time while never forgetting about the others. Maisy kept me reminded that life went on. Franco was still wearing his own version of the mask I had worn for so long. He was terrified of letting people in, but he had given us all a chance because he knew we were trying to do something good. And I was at the centre of it all, holding us all together. I might have been scared, but I was just as sure that I couldn’t let vampires win. My stubbornness would be my strength against them. “I have hope,” I said firmly. “I see all of us, and I see fighters and survivors. We’re going to make it through this, Franco. I don’t have any doubt.” He looked visibly impressed. Then his mask was back and he grinned. “You always were the oddball, Devlin O’Mara.” “That’s me,” I said. “Just follow the nutter, and we’ll all be fine, right?” He snorted derisively. “Whatever you say. Now go see what Mr. Ex-Policeman wants because he’s frantically waving you over.” “Come with me,” I pleaded. “He’s in a weird mood. I don’t want to handle him alone.” “The infamous O’Mara? Scared of dealing with a lone drunk? Has hell frozen over?” I thumped his arm and dragged him over with me. Callum was on the phone again, or still, and he held up his finger to stay us while he quickly finished his conversation. “And you’re sure,” he was saying. “Great. Thanks for getting back to me. Yeah, of course. Bye.” He hung up and took a deep breath. “What is it?” I asked. “Is something wrong?” He was still staring at his phone as if he couldn’t quite believe it. “Callum!” Franco said. “Put us out of our misery here.” Callum blinked a couple of times before looking our way. He leaned in closer. “The hunters are back in town,” he whispered. “I just got the call that they checked in this morning.” “So the big guns are in town,” Franco said. I couldn’t tell if he sounded relieved or scared. “This could be a good thing,” I said. “If the hunters are here, then they’ll know what to do.” “Devlin,” Callum said pityingly. “If the hunters are here, then the most dangerous vampire we’ve come across yet is here, too.” “Right,” I said. “But this time we can work together. They were never interested in the ones we dealt with. The so-called minor vampires. They’re all about number one, and if he’s here, then he’s our target, too. All of us can work together this time because we all have the same goals. And in exchange for us helping them, they can help us clear all of the vampires out of town.” “You sound confident that they’ll care about our needs,” Callum said. “Yeah,” Franco said in agreement. “What’s to stop them from leaving once their job is done?” “Because we’ll remind them that every new vampire running around is giving their sire strength. To weaken the sire, get rid of their offspring or whatever you want to call them.” “Then why weren’t they bothered enough to do that before?” Franco asked. “If that’s the best plan, then why aren’t the big, bad, scary hunters doing it already?” “Because they were hoping to use the offspring to lure the master,” Callum said slowly. “They wanted to pull him out of his hiding place. And maybe that’s exactly that we did.” “We probably pissed him off enough to get him out of hiding,” I said. “And while that’s technically bad, it always means that the hunters will be here, too. This could be all we need to figure this out.” I tried not to sound too excited. “Fine,” Callum said. “I’ll go and have a chat with them. As far as I know, they’re in the hotel right now.” “Great,” I said. “But wait for me.” He groaned. “I can’t wait until closing, Devlin. They’ll already be out hunting by then.” “They might not,” Franco said. “Besides,” I added. “I’m finished in about half an hour. I was on the early shift today. Franco’s in until closing. I was going to go out on the road with you and Base tonight and then collect Franco when he finished his shift here. But now we can get to the hunters first and organise the night with them.” I glanced at Franco. “We’ll still pick you up when we know more.” “What about Brian?” Callum asked. “Won’t he want to come?” “He’s going to be here to pick me up after work anyway,” I said excitedly. “So the three of us can go see the hunters. Jack will be up for helping us, I’m sure.” “It’s not really about helping anyway,” Franco said. “We’re all human, and we’re all in this together. We’ll be fighting together to help the human race. They won’t be saying no to that, right?” “Let’s hope,” Callum said. “Will my car be all right in the car park if I leave it there most of the night?” “Usually? No,” I said. “But this curfew thing seems to have really coolled down normal, everyday crime like car theft and shit. We’ve had way less people coming in here to call the police anyway.” Callum made a face. “Great. The vampires did what the gardaí couldn’t. And all it took was a few dead bodies as payment.” “Callum.” I folded my arms. “That’s not funny. You shouldn’t joke about this stuff.” “Can I joke about the crap hole my life has become, or is that off-limits, too?” I growled a little in anger. “If you think your life is a crap hole, then it must have been pretty freaking amazing before, Callum. Maybe think about the rest of the world before you start calling yours a crap hole. People have died, there’s a girl laying in a hospital bed right now, and all of us are alive and healthy.” “I just meant—” “We’ve all lost work over this, but the difference is that we’ve all come from nothing in the first place. Maybe be grateful for the things you’ve had before acting like a miserable git all the time.” I stormed off, but my regrets attacked even quicker than my sharp tongue. I had warned Franco to leave Callum alone, and then I had gone and jumped down his throat. When I went back to apologise a few minutes later, he held up his hands. “No, don’t,” he said. “You were right. I’m feeling sorry for myself. I know plenty of people are suffering, and I know I should be grateful, but I’m not that big a person right now, and I’m sorry that upset you.” “I’m just nervous about the hunters,” I said. “I should never have said what I did.” I held my hand out over the counter. “Friends?” He took my hand and shook it. “Definitely friends,” he said with a lopsided smile. Chapter Eight As soon as Base came to collect me, we caught him up on what was happening then set off in his car. I glanced at him. “Isn’t your mam giving you shit for taking the car all the time?” His face remained expressionless, always a bad sign. “Nope.” Uh-oh. “We can use my car,” Callum said. “More space in this one,” Base replied. “Maisy’s eager to join us.” I stared at him, my mouth dropping open with horror. “You told her?” “Of course I told her,” he said. “Didn’t you tell Franco?” “Yeah, but I didn’t ask him to come with us! He volunteered.” “Funny that.” His passing glance was stern. “I didn’t ask Maisy either. She just volunteered, too.” “Arse,” I spat. “Can we skip past the lover’s tiff?” Callum asked from the backseat, sounding bored. “This is depressing enough without you two adding to it.” “Sorry,” Base said with a grin. “This is what happens when your girlfriend is stubborn.” I almost choked on the hypocrisy. “Like you’re not stubborn.” “You get your own way ninety percent of the time, Dev.” “That’s a lie.” “Come on, you two,” Callum said. “Enough torture.” It was my turn to grin. “This is just us when we’re happy. Now that we get to pass on most of the responsibility to the hunters.” “You think they’re going to take over everything?” Callum asked. “Haven’t you met them?” Base said with a shake of his head. “They’re control freaks. Even worse than Dev.” He deftly avoided my playful slap on the arm. “They’ll take over, and we’ll get pissy and put up a fuss. Then we’ll all calm down and work together like grownups. It’s our thing.” “They might know how many vampires are in town,” I said. “Ooh, they might bring help. Extra hunters to deal with the situation.” “And people will stop dying,” Callum said in a dreamy voice. “Suddenly, I’m cheered up, too.” “See? And you thought whiskey would do it.” He cleared his throat. “Sorry about that.” “You’re a grownup. You’re allowed to drink whiskey. Just not in my bar.” “I’ll have to remember that.” Base raised a brow but didn’t comment. Still, it was nice to see Callum sounding less than absolutely miserable. The recent months had affected everyone negatively. “I’m not going to be able to do much at the weekend,” Base said out of the blue. I frowned, confused. “What do you mean?” “Aoife’s going to be around. We have some catching up to do.” “While the vampires are running around?” “You know Aoife.” His expression softened. “If I act like something’s up, she won’t leave us alone until she figure out what it is.” “Right.” I looked out the window, a little unsettled. I knew there was nothing between Aoife and Base; it wasn’t that. But we had serious things to deal with. “Hanging out” didn’t exactly measure up, as far as I was concerned. The atmosphere changed after that, and we all remained silent until we arrived at the hotel. We pulled in past the main hotel and onto the rented bungalows that the hunters liked to stay in. I glanced at a set of motorbikes outside one bungalow, wondering why they looked vaguely familiar. “The one on the end,” Callum said. “That’s their place.” “Cool.” Base pulled in neatly then cut the engine. “So we’re doing this.” “We don’t really have a choice,” Callum replied. “Agreed.” I got out of the car, slammed the door behind me, and headed to the front door. I knocked before the others had even caught up. Jack answered, looking momentarily surprised. Then he relaxed. Base and Callum reached my side. “We heard a rumour you were back in town,” Base said, but his voice sounded colder than usual. I shivered. “And I wondered how long it would take you lot to show up to bother me,” Jack said easily. “Come on in then. The whole gang’s here.” The whole gang included a tall man who didn’t say much, a much younger man who liked to play video games, and a woman called Mary who didn’t trust us. All three of them were in the bungalow when we entered with Jack. Mary groaned at the sight of us. “Not this crowd again. What now?” The quiet one sat on a chair, smoking a joint. He nodded a greeting, looking completely undisturbed by our presence. Gamer boy waved then turned his attention directly back to his game. Didn’t he get enough violence staking vampires, I wondered as he cut through a zombie with a chainsaw. “If you’re here, somebody special is, too,” Callum said, leaning against a wall. “So we’re here to help.” “To help?” Mary gaped at us for a moment before bursting into hysterical laughter. “They think we actually need help?” “There are a lot of vampires in town,” I said hesitantly. “They’ve been killing people.” “That’s what vampires do, honey.” She sobered a little. “And I’m sorry about the deaths, but we’ve been cleaning up. We don’t need help.” “Of course you need help,” Base scoffed. “If you didn’t, the vampires would be extinct.” She looked at him with too much interest. “Hey, if you’re looking to be a lifer, we’re always recruiting, but we don’t need anyone getting in our way right now. There are plenty of experienced hunters around to do the job. None of you need to worry.” “She’s right,” Jack said with a drawl to his tone. “We’ve been on a winning streak that just keeps getting better and better. And we’ll be gone soon. We’re closer to this monster than we’ve ever been, and we’re about to seal the deal.” “It doesn’t look like that from where I’m standing,” I said. “Hey,” Jack said. “It looks bad right now, but in the grand scheme of things, we’re on the winning side.” He gave me a fatherly look. “Don’t worry about the vampires. We have it covered.” I glanced at Base, but he shrugged. “Fine. Let’s go.” I reluctantly followed him and Callum to the door, but when I looked over my shoulder, only Jack was standing there, still looking at us with an ounce of regret. *** “I can’t believe they turned down our help,” Maisy said from the back of Base’s car later that night. “The cheek of them.” “They’re just confident,” Franco said. “Maybe things really are going well for them.” “If it was going that well, the Big Bad would be dead already,” Base said. “They’re cocky,” I said. “Too arrogant for their own good. They’re going to fall flat on their face, and I’m not going to be there to help them back up again.” “Yes, you will,” Base said softly. “No, screw them. They wouldn’t help us before. They won’t take our help this time. Who do they think they are anyway?” I was working myself up into a temper. “That they’re the only people who matter? Everyone matters. Every life is important. If they can’t see that then they’re as bad as the vampires.” Base reached for my hand and squeezed my fingers. His was warm and steady, while mine shook with fear and anxiety. We needed numbers. We needed to team up. Was I the only one who saw that? “We should follow them,” I blurted, and the gentle squeeze turned painful as Base groaned. “Dev, no. No stalking. Please.” I pulled my hand out of his grip and turned in my seat to look at the others. “They’ll be tracking down vampires all the live-long day. Quickest way for us to find the vampires is to follow the hunters who may or may not have a clue what they’re doing.” “I don’t think they’ll be pleased,” Franco said slowly. “It’s perfect,” Maisy said. “You’re a genius.” “No, she isn’t,” Callum scoffed. “But we might get a chance to see how they work. I’m in.” “But stalking,” Base said with another, louder, groan. “Don’t wuss out on me now,” I said. “We’re just going to waste our time roaming the streets, hoping to hook in a vampire. The hunters could lead us to where we need to go.” “And then what do you think will happen?” he asked. “Are the hunters going to struggle until we jump in and save the day? Do you think they’ll declare a national holiday, and we’ll be honorary hunters? Do you imagine they’ll beg us for help?” I gave him a sharp look. “Do you have any better ideas, Brian?” He sighed and faced forward. “No. I don’t.” “All right then. We’ll go to the hotel and find their van. If it’s not there, we’ll carry on as we were. No big deal.” I gave Base a pleading look. “Please?” “Fine,” he said reluctantly. “We’ll check it out and see what happens.” But he muttered under his breath as he turned the car around. I knew he felt as though we were wasting our time, but the attacks so far had seemed random and uncoordinated. I wasn’t sure any of the vampires were even trying to work together. If we could just find a clue, something that connected everything together, then it would all be okay. The others argued out the benefits of the situation while we drove. I tried to relax in my chair. It bugged me that the hunters had turned down our help. It wasn’t about the slight on our efforts; it was the fact I didn’t think the hunters were taking everything as seriously as they should. I peeked at Maisy in the back seat. She was animated as she joined in the conversation, but she was already looking peaky. I rummaged in the glove box until I found what I needed. I handed her a camera. “Here. Take this.” She frowned. “Why?” “You’re going to make sure we get some new footage. If even one person pays attention to our videos and gets saved because of it then we did some good.” She narrowed her eyes. “I’m capable of fighting, Dev.” “If you hadn’t almost died, then yeah, maybe,” I said. “But you’re still recovering. We need somebody to keep a record of what’s really happening on the streets.” “And it has to be me because I’m the weakest link,” she said bitterly. “I need you,” I said. “And I’ll get distracted if I know you’re fighting. You haven’t done this before, Maisy. You haven’t had the chance, and I think it would be irresponsible of us to let you jump in the deep end while you’re still recovering. I’m not telling you what to do. I’m asking you to record some videos. It’s your choice, and it always will be.” I faced front. The car was silent for a moment until Maisy spoke in a small voice. “Okay,” was all she said. We made it to the hotel barely before curfew hit. The van wasn’t there, and the disappointment made my heart sink. Base pulled in outside one of the bungalows. As we passed, I saw a group of people leave and head to the motorbikes. “Right, they’re not here,” Base said wearily. “Can we move on now?” “Wait,” I whispered. “Look at that lot over there.” Everyone turned to look. “Right. Cool wheels?” Maisy said questioningly. “No, look at the one in the back. Look at what he’s carrying!” The last of five people held a stake in his hand that he shoved into the bag over his shoulder as we looked. “More hunters,” Callum said slowly. “We’ve seen them before,” I said as the realisation hit me full blast. The night the vampires returned, I saw those bikers pass us by. There have been hunters here all along.” “And people have still been dying,” Franco said. “Exactly,” I said. “They need help. They’re just too proud to admit it.” “So we follow this crowd instead,” Maisy said. “I don’t know,” Base said. “They don’t look friendly.” “Just drive,” Callum said. “We can’t pass up this opportunity.” He was right, and Base knew it. With a heavy sigh, he started the car and turned around. He followed the bikes as best he could, but we weren’t exactly able to dart in and out of traffic in the way they did. We managed to keep them in sight, or at least, within hearing. An hour later, we were still on their tail. “They have to know we’re following them,” Base said. “Maybe they don’t care,” Maisy said. “They’re stopping,” Callum said. “Everyone be careful.” Most of the bikers had stopped at the other end of the street and were already taking on a group of vampires. And as we drove, a vampire ran down the street, directly for us. “One’s getting away!” I cried. Base pulled on the brake, almost giving me whiplash. I released my seatbelt and opened the door before the car came to a full stop. I jumped out just as the vampire was running by. I tackled it without even thinking twice. Stunned by the attack, the vampire stumbled then threw me off. I didn’t recognise her face, and she was strong, but she wasn’t like the big deal sire who had caused a fire. We could definitely handle her. She hesitated as I scraped my hands on the ground, probably wondering if she had time to feed, but then she spotted Base approach, and she darted off. But Callum and Franco were both there, holding a chain in their hands. She ran right into it, and they both quickly rounded on her, twisting her up in a silver chain. “I’ll do it,” Base said. “No,” Franco said insistently. “Let Maisy try it.” I glanced at Maisy in surprise. She was standing by the car, still holding the camera. She gave Franco a grateful nod and passed the camera on to me. “Do it,” Franco urged. “Pay her back for what was done to you.” I froze to the spot, stunned, as he encouraged my lovely friend to kill her first vampire, told her exactly how to position the stake. And she did it without hesitation, but she wasn’t putting enough strength into it, so Base helped her ram the stake right into the vampire’s heart. As soon as the creature began to disintegrate, the others stepped back from the mess, but Maisy stood there, stood in it, and watched every part of the process. I moved behind her, wrapping my arm around her waist and resting my chin on her shoulder. “You okay?” I asked. She nodded, but her body was trembling. “That was intense.” She looked at Franco. “Thanks. I think… I think I needed that.” He nodded. “I could tell.” But I had been too, what, preoccupied with the hunters to notice? I was a crappy friend, even when I tried. But Maisy turned around and hugged me, and when she released me, her eyes were bright and excited. “What’s next?” she asked as she took back the camera. “We should probably get out of here,” Base said uneasily. “These other hunters might not like that we were here.” “Surely killing the escaping vampire is all that matters,” I said. “They obviously don’t think like us.” “He’s right,” Callum said. “But we should circle the neighbourhood and see if any more vampires made their escape.” After a brief argument, we all agreed that was the best course to make, and we prepared to get back into the car. But as we were about to drive away, a familiar van turned the corner and drove directly in front of us, blocking our path. “Well, shit,” Base said. “Looks like they might be pissed.” We all got out of the car, and the four hunters followed suit. Mary looked outraged, but Jack didn’t appear to be at all surprised by our presence. “Fancy meeting you here,” he said lightly. “You idiots,” Mary raged. “Are you trying to get yourselves killed? Or is it just us?” “Excuse me?” I said. “Is there a vampire hunting license we require to kill monsters now? Or do you think you rule the streets or something?” Maisy folded her arms. “We just killed a vampire who was getting away. I’ll take a thank you any second now.” “Thank you?” Mary spat. “Are these people for real?” “This is boring,” Gamer boy said. “Hurry up and get this over and done with. I’m getting back into the van. It’s cold out here.” The quiet one followed him with a shrug of his broad shoulders. Callum stepped forward. “You don’t have any right to tell us what to do. You might not want our help, but we’ve been on these streets every night while you’ve been out there not killing your target. Now, taking years to get your man might be for you hunters, but us real people who have to live here kind of need things to move a bit more quickly than that.” “We did tell you we were going to handle it,” Jack said easily, but he looked slightly perturbed. “And other hunters might not be as friendly.” He nodded in the opposite direction. “You don’t want to get in their way. Not tonight or any other night. Thank you for killing a vampire, but if you’re on the streets, we’ll have to worry about you keeping you safe, or worse, not having you alert the vampires to our presence.” “Where are they?” Franco asked. “Where’s the vampire you’re after? And Emily. They burned down our livelihood. I want to know where they’re hiding.” Jack’s expression faltered. “They’re not exactly hiding anymore, kid,” he said gently. “They’re knocking down doors and making sure we know they’re around. And that’s what’s making it so easy on us. The vampires have changed tactics, and they’re not working for them anymore. So we’re in the lead.” “You sound like you’re trying to convince yourself,” Base said astutely. “Any particular reason for that other than you’re full of shit?” “Listen, let’s not go there,” Jack said sharply. “This is what we do, and we’d thank you to stay out of our way. Do what you have to do at night; just don’t follow any of us around, and if we’re in a fight, don’t get involved.” “Exactly,” Mary said. “Don’t interfere in our work, and we won’t put up a fuss.” Her eyes grew hard and cold. “But if you get in our way again, you’ll just have to deal with us.” She turned and hurried back to the van. Jack shrugged. “Hunters don’t work with outsiders.” Then he joined her. When they drove off, I turned to look at everyone else. “You’re not going to listen to that shit, right?” “Hell, no,” Base said, even though he had been the one who was opposed to following the hunters in the first place. “We do our own thing from now on, but screw those hunters. They don’t even deserve our help.” “Let them take care of their master vampires,” Franco said coldly. “We’ll just have to take care of everything else.” Maisy shrugged. “It’s not like we have lives or anything.” I smiled at her then looked at Callum. “So, what do you think, Mr. Garda? Are you still on for doing things our way?” He was staring after the retreating van with an unrecognisable look on his face. When he spoke, his voice was hoarse. “Oh, yeah,” was all he said. Chapter Nine I awoke to my phone ringing next to my ear. Groaning, I reached out and grabbed it, answering in a croaky voice. “Devlin,” Callum said urgently. “Turn on the news. Quickly.” I scrambled out of bed and stumbled into the living room. I turned on the telly and found the latest news reports. A reporter named Evelyn Molloy was standing outside a state-run hospice, her expression grave. I remembered the redhead as a reporter who had tried to talk me into giving her a story once. She had seemed uncaring then, but now even her cold exterior seemed to crumple. “What the hell?” I whispered into the phone as she kept talking. “They killed everyone? Everyone?” “Thirty-six people,” he said gravely. “There’s never been anything like this here before.” “Why would they kill the dying?” I wanted to puke. “What are they doing?” “Drawing attention to themselves,” he said. “And it wasn’t just the dying who were killed. Any staff who were there that night were murdered, too. Nobody had a chance to call for help, to even make a sign that something was wrong.” “What does that mean?” “My guess is that the vampires overran the place, got rid of the staff first, then moved on to the sick. They may have cut the phone lines or surrounded the place, but nobody was around to stop them.” “Meaning the hunters weren’t there.” I stared at the building. It looked vaguely familiar. “I think I know the place.” “I thought you might. It’s not far from your pub, but it was in the news last year over health and safety concerns. There’s been talks about shutting it down altogether.” He hesitated. “I suppose it will now.” “We can’t even protect the sick and elderly,” I whispered. “If it’s any consolation, I’ve heard that the private hospice across town is hiring security guards to complement the gardaí support they’re lined up to receive after this.” Yet another attack on the poor part of town. The thought of those helpless victims, laying in their beds, maybe asleep, maybe too afraid to move because of the violence and terror around them, made me want to cry. The news switched up from blaming gangs to blaming drug dealers selling dodgy cocaine. “Really?” I said to Callum over the phone. “They’re going to get away with blaming coke heads on this?” “I’ve seen people do some pretty weird shit,” he admitted. “Although mass massacre tends not to happen too often.” “Goody for that.” I sighed. “So is this going to raise or lower drug sales?” “Not a lot puts people off,” he said. “But this is serious shit. If they don’t arrest somebody for this, then people will really go to war. We don’t need vigilantes getting in our way.” I let that sink in for a second. “You mean like us getting in the way of the hunters.” “But we’re not vigilantes,” he said, then he hesitated. “Okay, we sort of are, but it’s different. We know who’s to blame. We’re not just randomly attacking strangers to sate our need for revenge.” “That’s… kind of exactly what we’re doing.” “But with vampires,” he said in an agitated voice. “We’re doing this right.” “I’m just saying. Maybe that’s the way the hunters see us. If we can convince them that we’re the real deal, then maybe they’ll stop shutting us out.” “You hate the hunters, Devlin. What are you saying? That we should bow down to them now?” “Callum, thirty-six people were murdered last night. That doesn’t happen here. I mean, ever. I’m scared of what’s going to happen next.” “I know,” he said apologetically. “But at the same time, we need to be careful. If we end up in yet another investigation’s crosshairs again…” “I can’t let anyone get in trouble for this,” I said. “And if they do arrest someone, we have to help them.” “How are we going to help them?” he asked. “The best thing for that person is to stay under arrest because the vampires will attack again.” My stomach felt queasy. “I have to go,” I said. “I’ll see you tonight with the others.” I hung up, more worried about Callum than ever. He had gone seriously gung-ho about the whole thing. His obsession with the vampires outranked even mine, and that was disturbing in itself. *** That evening, all five of us met up again in anticipation of another attack. But the streets were exceptionally quiet. Window after window was lit with a candle to mark the tragedy in the hospice. “This is so much more boring than I imagined it would be,” Maisy said, playing with her phone. “Great high score,” Franco said, leaning over to watch. “I know, right?” I exchanged a bemused glance with Base. “It’s not supposed to be fun,” Callum said, staring out the window. His mood had been foul all evening. “People are being slaughtered.” “And we could be next,” she said, shoving her glasses securely up onto the bridge of her nose. “So you’d think it would be a little more exciting.” He made a sound of disgust at her rather obvious teasing. He had really lost what little sense of humour he had. Although that had been miniscule in the first place. “I need to take a break,” Base said after a couple of hours. “I’m going to stop at a drive-thru before they shut for the night.” “I need to pee,” Maisy blurted. “Let’s go inside for a bit.” “We can’t take breaks all the time,” Callum said angrily. “It’s not all the time,” I said soothingly. “And we need to stretch our legs every now and then. The last thing we need is to be stiff and sore when we have to chase after a vampire.” Or away from them. “Fine,” Callum said after a minute. “We can do that then.” Base nudged me and whispered, “You’re magical.” I did my best to give him a disapproving frown. “Garda Whisperer,” he mouthed at me. I stuffed my fist in my mouth to stop from bursting out laughing. But the peace didn’t last long anyway. “You have no respect,” Callum was saying only five minutes later. “I do have respect!” Maisy retorted. “I have a lot of respect, and I think it’s terribly sad what happened. I was just making the point that it could have been worse. It could have been a maternity hospital or something. At least most of the people in the hospice had already lived their lives.” “There were young people there, too,” Callum snapped. “But they were already dying,” she said, her voice raising. “Which, given the alternative, isn’t the worst possible scenario, Callum.” “Okay, this is getting us nowhere,” Franco said. “Let’s all get something to eat and drink and calm the feck down a bit, eh?” I glanced back at him, noting an odd tone in his voice. His bluster was back, which probably meant he was upset. “Sorry,” Callum said when we pulled in to get something to eat. “It’s just tough knowing that they got away with what they did. So many families will never know what really happened to their loved ones.” “And maybe it’s better that way,” I said. “This is a hard truth to bear.” We got out of the car and headed inside to use the loo and pick up some food. Base and I queued at the counter to place the order, but an argument between a crowd of people stopped us in our tracks. “I saw you,” a woman exclaimed. “You sold that girl drugs, and now she’s going to lose her mind and stab people.” The girl she was referring to was older than me, maybe early twenties, and her down-turned mouth made her look sorrowful. But her eyes were empty of life, devoid of anything but need. She could probably be blown away by a strong wind, too. The man next to her was at least two decades older. He rolled up his sleeve to display his grossly expensive watch, and sneered at the accusation. “Do you hear yourself?” He grabbed his order and left, the girl trotting after him like a puppy. “Murdering scumbags,” the woman fumed to her male companion. “Don’t worry. I got him on camera,” he said. “I’ll upload it to the site later.” “What site?” I blurted, unable to help myself. He grinned slyly. “There’s a new website devoted to tracking down the scumbags who got all of those people killed in the hospice.” “And you think it was that pair?” Base asked, sounding sceptical. “It doesn’t matter who it was,” the woman said. “They’re all a part of the problem. Junkies and dealers alike. And they’ll get their comeuppance, don’t you worry.” “Get a grip,” I said. “That girl can barely stand up straight. She didn’t kill anyone, and you know it. Maybe concentrate on your own problems before you go after anyone else’s trouble.” “Does she look high to you?” the woman said, jerking her chin in my direction. “Her pupils are a little dilated, aren’t they?” “It’s the fluorescent—Hey!” The man snapped a picture before I could stop him. “Nah,” Base said, whipping the phone out of his chubby fingers. “I don’t think so.” “Give me that back,” the man demanded furiously. Base held his open palm against the man’s face as he messed about on the phone. “Yeah, just as soon as I delete the pictures you took in here.” He gave a low whistle. “Wow, she’s a bit young, isn’t she?” He held up the phone to display a half-naked girl who looked barely out of her teens. The woman’s mouth dropped open. “You filthy bastard, Jay.” She slapped his face so hard, I almost felt it. She stormed off as he protested his innocence. “Here ya go,” Base said, flinging the phone at the man. He barely caught it, the phone slipping in his sweaty fingers. “Wanker,” he hissed before chasing after the woman. “Well played,” I said. Base shrugged. “Lucky he’s a skeevy perve, eh? So. What do you want to eat?” Grinning, I placed the order, but while we waited, I started wondering about the website. “Do you think people are really targeting dealers and junkies for these murders?” He nodded. “I wouldn’t put it past the mob. You know the type. They feed on gossip and rumours. This is probably the highlight of that pairs’ lives.” “Never thought I’d be defending a dealer,” I said. “We don’t need people getting hysterical,” he said. The others joined us at the counter. “You missed the scene,” Base told them. “A pair of eejits were taking pictures of a junkie and her dealer to post on some website.” “The cokeheads get blamed on the news, and everyone goes after the total stoners who can barely keep their eyes open,” I said. “It’s ridiculous all round, but it could mean trouble.” “The people living around the warehouses could get hassled,” Base said. “Poor sods.” “Who are they?” Maisy asked. “Tom used to bring them food. They’re mostly homeless. Very few junkies stuck around after the vampires made their home there. And the people are harmless, but they’re easy targets. You know what people say about the bad side of town.” “Ah.” She nodded. “They just want someone to blame right now. It’ll die down.” “Unless someone hypes them back up again,” I said. “Maybe we should do a run-around over in that direction, just in case. I’ll bring extra food.” “Maybe they’ll be able to tell us something,” Base said. “God, I hope not. They’ve been through enough already.” “It’s worth checking out,” Franco said. “And Tom would want us to keep an eye on them.” I nodded. When I saw Callum giving me a quizzical look, I tried to briefly explain. “Tom’s brother fell on hard times, too. He passed away, but Tom liked to do his bit. The people liked him, and they gave us some clues when we were looking for Emily and Janelle. They were being picked off by the vampires, too, so it’s a good place to check out in any case.” “I’m up for that,” he said, and he paid for the extra food. I was about to stop him, but Base shook his head at me. Heading back to the car, Callum pulled me aside. “I got you something,” he said, sounding embarrassed. “I hope it’s not weird.” I laughed nervously. “I’m not feeling very confident about that, judging by your face right now.” He took out his gym bag full of supplies and removed a baseball bat. “I know your old one was smashed up by the vampires, and I remember how upset you were about it, so I thought maybe it would help you this time. Make you feel a little… less afraid.” “Thank you,” I said, touched by the idea. “Tom gave me the first one. It helped me through… a tough time.” “Yeah, I guessed,” he said. “I told you I’ve seen a lot, Devlin. Very little surprises me, although vampires are pushing that theory a bit. Still, if it helps…” “Careful,” I said jokingly. “People might start thinking you actually know me.” He grinned. “The stalker story is so much more interesting though.” I hefted the bat in my hands. “Watch it, Mr. Garda.” I swung the bat and nodded at him. “Feels good. Seriously. Thank you for this.” He cleared his throat. “No problem.” I got into the front seat with my new toy. Base gave it a brief look but didn’t question it. We headed on, driving too close to the carnival grounds where Maisy had been kidnapped only months before. If that hadn’t happened, she’d be tucked up in bed, still blissfully unaware that vampires even existed, never mind were attacking our town. As if to distract her, Franco constantly kept the conversation flowing. When Base stopped the car near the old abattoir, I asked the others to stay in the car. “They’ve seen me and Base before,” I explained. “They might get nervous at the new faces.” The others agreed, so Base and I carried bags of food to the old abandoned slaughterhouse. A group of people sat gathered around a fire. A couple of them slipped away when we approached, but most were intrigued enough by the bags to stick around. “I remember you,” a woman called out, her eyes gleaming in the fire. I nodded. “You’re Tanya, right? We’re friends of Tom.” “Where is he?” she asked. “Haven’t seen him in ages.” “He’s gone away for a while,” I said. “We have extra food to share if anyone wants it.” “I’ll divide it,” she shouted before everyone close by made a grab. I handed her the bags of food. She waited, her eyebrows raised. “You didn’t come here for nothing.” I glanced at Base. “We were wondering if you had any more trouble,” he said. “Like before. People going missing.” “Here? Nah,” she said. “No trouble with ghosts anymore.” She grinned, flashing the gap where her tooth should have been. “Different kind of trouble, maybe.” “What do you mean?” Base asked. “Has someone been here recently?” “News crew,” she said, sighing. “Making their reports about us deviants. Some nosey redhead. Murphy or Molloy or something.” “Did she show you on camera?” I asked. “Did she ask any questions?” “Lots,” a man said. I remembered him as being terrified of the “ghosts” in an abandoned warehouse. The ghosts had turned out to be vampires, but these people didn’t know that. “Like what?” I asked gently. “About before,” he said. “People going missing, blood. She asked if any of us stayed at the abattoir because we liked blood.” He shuddered. “And she kept smiling the entire time. She creeps me out.” The woman let out a hoarse laugh. “She was probably thinking the exact same thing about you, with your scratching. She was trying to build a story. That’s what they do. They come out every year, trying to make people think the town is going to hell because of us transients.” She snorted. “Not that we ever move from this fucking shithole, let me tell ya.” “But she asked about the things that happened here before?” I asked. “About the ghosts.” “I told her there wasn’t any ghosts,” the woman said impatiently. “But these fools kept insisting.” “There was something,” an old woman said, pulling a blanket tighter around her shoulders. “There was something out there, and you’re just pretending not to know it.” “There’s nothing,” the woman said again, focusing on me. “You know there’s not, right?” “When was she here last?” Base asked. “Today,” the woman said. “She wanted to know if we had heard about the hospice killings. That’s bad, isn’t it? Killing sick people and old folks like that. She wanted to know if we had ever met anyone capable of something like that. If drug dealers hung around here. I asked her what did she think we could pay dealers with? Our quick wit?” A ripple of laughter spread around the circle. “If she comes back, don’t answer her questions,” I said. “You can’t trust her.” “We don’t trust anyone,” she scoffed. “So don’t be talking like you know us.” “She’s trouble,” I warned. “She doesn’t care about getting people hurt or anything. She just wants her story.” The woman blinked at me a couple of times. “That’s life, love. Sorry to break it to you. Thanks for the food.” I nodded at the dismissal and followed Base back to the car. “I hate that reporter,” I said in hushed tones. “She’s just looking for a story,” he said coaxingly. “It doesn’t mean she’s going to bring trouble on them.” “But what if she shines a light on this lot, and she films them talking about ghosts and people going missing and turning up with bites on their necks? Especially in the light of all this war on drugs business. They’ll either be targeted by vigilantes or the vampires themselves. That’s not right, Brian.” “Hey, stop.” He gathered me to him. “Even an idiot mob is going to know the difference between a couple of harmless homeless people and someone so psychotic that they could murder almost forty people.” I shivered. “I just feel like everything is spiralling out of control again.” “We’ll fix it,” he promised. “We’ll get things back to normal. You’ll see.” We made it back to the car and updated the others on what the homeless group had told us. Maisy shuddered. “Why stay out here with all that going on?” “They might not have a choice,” Callum said. “There are homeless shelters. Lots of them,” Maisy continued. Base frowned. “Yeah, and most of them are dangerous places. And that’s if they can even get a bed. At least here, they all know each other. They aren’t sleeping in a different bed every night surrounded by strangers. You have no idea what it’s like for them.” Maisy looked shocked by the harshness of Base’s tone. “I didn’t mean anything by it, Brian.” “Maybe you should get the full story before you say things you don’t mean,” he retorted. “This isn’t getting us anywhere,” Callum said. “What’s next?” “We’ll need to look out for that news report,” I said, grateful for the opportunity to change the subject. The last thing I needed was for my boyfriend and best friend to fall out. “My internet connection is a bit dodgy out this far, but I found that website,” Franco said, holding up his phone so we could all see. He scrolled down the page. Lots of different users had posted relatively blurry shots of people they had seen or assumed were selling or buying drugs in their area. Base squinted. “Isn’t that a teacher from our old school?” “Drug dealer, my arse,” I said. “This is just a vendetta wall now. Don’t like somebody? Post them on an idiotic website. Great job, humanity.” We drove around for the rest of the night, but there wasn’t a sign of a disturbance anywhere. The vampires had left our town alone for one night, but it looked like the people living within it might turn on each other first. Chapter Ten We had a couple of good nights after that. No more vampire attacks, no more deaths. And although I tried to think positively, part of me was constantly waiting for something awful to happen again. “Maybe we can finally take a break,” Maisy told me over lunch in my place. “I’m exhausted.” “Tell me about it.” I took a sip from a glass of orange juice. “Think the hunters actually did it?” “What? Killed all of the vampires?” She shrugged. “Maybe they got enough of them down to make the vampires think that perhaps it’s not such a good place to linger right now.” “That would be so good.” I pushed a piece of red bell pepper around my plate. “I think I’m vegetarian now.” She choked on her sandwich. “Oh, shit, Devlin. Don’t make me laugh when I’m eating!” “I’m serious!” “You’re the queen of takeaway burgers. I think this might be the first time I’ve seen you eat something that hasn’t been fried twice or dipped in sugar.” “I’m not that bad.” I grinned, thinking of the stash of energy drinks in my fridge despite my semi-serious vow of abstinence. “Anyway, seeing the vampires feed has really put me off my meat. And the abattoir hasn’t helped either.” “It’s not a working slaughter-house, Dev.” “It’s the whole connection between the two in my head. I had porridge for breakfast this morning. The idea of rashers of bacon turns my stomach.” “It’s like I don’t even know you anymore,” she teased. Then she gave her food a doubtful look. “I get what you mean, though. To animals, we’re the vampires, except we actually cook them first. It kind of sounds more barbaric when you put it that way.” I groaned. “Trust you to make it worse. How can they even bear to… drink… like that? I wonder what happens if somebody who can’t stand the sight of blood gets turned into a vampire. Do they still have that queasiness or do they just forget everything they were when they were human?” “You told me Janelle didn’t forget,” she reminded me. “Janelle was weird though. She couldn’t let go of the life she had. I think she hated what she became, but the need to feed overcame any of that. And from what we’ve gathered about Sully, he hated himself until he found a way to amuse himself.” “Killing humans is amusing?” “No,” I said in a quiet voice. “Torturing them with their own memories is what he found so entertaining.” “What exactly did he do to you, Dev?” I shook my head, wrapping my arms around myself. “It’s hard to explain.” “Try me. I can be a good listener when you let me.” I gazed at her. Her expressive face was full of hope and sympathy. I knew that I could trust Maisy, but I was still scared sometimes, scared of being vulnerable and letting my guard down. But as I looked into Maisy’s eyes, I knew it was time to tell her everything. “You know he came after me and Mam and Aoife, too,” I began. “But he treated us all differently, I suppose. He was looking for a certain type of girl, someone with a past, someone he could manipulate. And he tried with me, but I was able to fight back somehow. Jack, one of those hunters, he said that some people are born with an awareness. Like, we just know that somebody is off, wrong somehow. And that’s the way it was with Sully. He repelled me, and he wasn’t used to that. He made me see things, remember things, feel things.” “What kinds of things?” she asked in a soft voice. “Just… stuff from my past. Mam had some terrible boyfriends, but one… one was creepier than the rest. He used to torment me one minute, then sort of groom me the next.” “Groom you? Oh, Dev. I’m… that’s horrible.” “It didn’t get too far,” I clarified. “Mam caught him before… anything could happen, and he beat her up and put her in hospital. That’s why we moved here, because he got out of prison, and she was terrified he’d come back.” “And Sully made you relive all of that? Bastard. I’m just…” She blinked away some tears. “I knew you had a story, and I’m sorry I pushed so hard for you to tell me if you weren’t comfortable with me. I get it now. The way you were before, with Deco and everything.” I sighed. My ex-boyfriend was one of my biggest mistakes. I had used him to protect myself, and I had hurt him in the process. “I was awful to Deco,” I said. “I realise that now. I thought he didn’t care, that it wouldn’t matter, but it did, and I’m sorry about it.” “I had no idea.” “It’s not something I talk about. I told Base. That’s part of how we were able to work together against Sully. He tried to protect me, but we just put Aoife at risk instead. Sully hypnotised her or something.” “Poor Aoife.” She shivered. “I suppose he made her relive her past, too.” “You know about that then? What her family put her through?” “Everyone knew. I had half-forgotten though. She always managed to keep her chin up. She doesn’t know about vampires. How confused she must have felt when it was over.” “I know. It’s been harder for her, in some ways. Maybe she was lucky he hypnotised her and didn’t get a chance to make her remember everything again. He told me he liked to do that. He would make people do horrible things and force them to remember it all before he… finished.” “So he definitely hypnotised her? To do what?” “I don’t know everything that happened, but she threatened Brian’s brothers, and she attacked me. Even her dad was part of it. And all the time, Sully was terrorising my own mother. He came into my house at night, scared us, and when Base was there, he would come to the window and call my name all night. I know it sounds like nothing now, compared to everything else, but at the time it was terrifying.” “I would have been terrified, too. I’m so sorry you had to go through all that alone. I remember once, getting into his car. Did he…” Her voice trailed away. “He tried,” I said. “But you stopped him,” she said. “You protected me from him, but you couldn’t tell me the truth. That’s so much for you to deal with alone.” “I had Base,” I said. “We got close trying to deal with Sully. At first, we thought he was some kind of abuser, like one of Mam’s ex-boyfriends in the making. But it was so much worse.” “It really was,” she said. “I saw that video you posted of him, and I never asked, but I did wonder what the hell was going on. And then when I was taken…” She shook her head. “Life’s way more complicated than we ever imagined, isn’t it?” “I know. Is this all a big giant reminder of what happened to you, Maise? If so, you don’t have to come out with us at night. I mean, it’s not your responsibility to watch over everyone.” “It’s not yours either,” she retorted, “but some things are worth suffering for.” I smiled at my best friend. “Yeah, I suppose they are.” “My time with Emily is hazy, but I’m pretty sure she didn’t torment me the way Sully tormented you. That sounds like some kind of mental torture. Emily really did see us as food.” “How weird is it that we’re acting like that’s preferable now?” “I’d rather be bitten than tortured, but whatever you’re into, O’Mara.” She leaned forward, a mischievous grin brightening her features. “Let me get this straight. You got close to Base because of Sully, but you always had a thing for him, right?” “I was in denial,” I said, laughing. “Major denial,” she scoffed. “And everything’s going well? I mean, you’ve sorted the weirdness now that you know he was just out with Callum all those nights?” I hesitated. I was okay, but not. And it was too hard to explain to myself, never mind Maisy. “Dev? What is it?” “Opening up the oul’ feelings has kind of triggered some stage five clinger symptoms.” “You’re clingy?” I shrugged. “I’m a little afraid he’s going to leave with the hunters. A lot afraid, actually.” “Those arseholes? Why would he go with them?” “Because they’re constantly protecting the rest of us from vampires. They might not win, and their moral high ground is a little uneven at best, but at least they’re trying. And Brian feels like he owes it to the world to make use of what he knows. Even if that means leaving with a pack of arseholes.” “Would you go with him?” And that was the big question. Would I choose his desires over my own? Even if being with him would make me happy? “I love him, I do, and I think it’s important that we not let the vampires walk all over us.” I hesitated. “I just don’t think I could live that kind of life forever. They choose to sacrifice people to get closer to the vampire they want to kill. That’s not me.” “But you have to save everyone,” she said dully. “I have to at least try. And I know the whole lifestyle probably sounds exciting, but I mean, I already have a life here. It might be a shitty one, but it’s mine, and I’m in relative control of it.” Her brow creased into a frown. “You never want to leave? And is this for you or your mother?” That stung. “I’m capable of leaving her, Maisy.” “Are you?” She held my gaze. “Or are you just going to choose her over Base and risk losing that chance of happiness?” I fidgeted with my fork. “There’s more than one way to be happy.” “I just don’t want to see you take the easy option again because it’s less of a risk to your heart.” “I know.” I met her gaze. “But let’s say I choose a different life. One that takes me away from here. It doesn’t change much. I mean, if I move on, it’s to travel and experience life, not play games in a hotel room while I’m waiting to hunt a vampire. There are things I want to do, but my only family is here. Maybe this is where I belong for now.” “You really don’t think you’re holding yourself back for your mother’s sake?” she asked. “Because you feel guilty?” “I don’t think I have any guilt left for her, to be honest.” The words were a relief to say out loud. “This sounds cruel, but I’m so tired of dealing with her problems.” “It doesn’t sound cruel to me.” She reached out to take my hand. “You have a right to live your own life. You shouldn’t have to be responsible for her just because she’s your mother.” “Shouldn’t I? Isn’t that what family is about?” “Only when it works both ways,” she said firmly. “And I know she was doing better for a while, but that doesn’t make everything else okay. You need time for yourself.” “Her not being here is a little bit of a break,” I admitted. “It’s just so stressful, constantly watching her for a slip. Or when she’s fully off the wagon, cleaning up after her. I’ve spent most of my life caring for her and looking after her. And I’m just… tired. That must sound so selfish to you, but the thought of looking after her while hunting vampires is exhausting.” “I get it.” She reached out and squeezed my hand. “I’ve never been through what you have, but I know how stressed you were when she screwed up AA.” “And all for a man. Again.” “I just don’t get it,” she said. “How did it even happen?” “She overestimated herself, I suppose,” I said. “She didn’t seem to realise how easy it was to fall back into old rhythms again. Or maybe she just wanted to go back. Maybe she was tired of being normal. And I was so distracted with other things that I wasn’t on top of it. I wasn’t prepared. I should have been more observant with her.” “It’s not your fault, Dev.” “What if it is though? What if this vampire stuff just pushed her back over the edge? There’s no cure for that kind of addiction. It’s a case of learning to live with it, to manage it, and that’s not so easy when your kid is luring psychopathic killers to your doorstep.” “Again, not your fault. I can’t imagine how much you’ve had to deal with over the years. It doesn’t seem fair that you have to deal with this now, too.” “Other people have it worse.” I settled back into my chair. “I don’t know. After Sully, she tried, she really did. And she did so well that I thought maybe this time it would work. This time would be the last time. But having to move stressed her out, and losing our jobs when the pub burned down was a disaster. She had too much free time on her hands, and she couldn’t get another job. She spent too many years drunk. The only experience she had was cleaning in a pub. Who’s going to hire a drunk for that unless they’re friends with her daughter?” “Mark’s pub burning down changed a lot of people’s lives.” “Which I’m pretty much responsible for.” I held up my hand to interrupt her protests. “Don’t. Don’t say the vampires are responsible. We both know I instigated half of this trouble. I could have left Sully alone.” “And you would probably have died for it,” she cried. “Isn’t that better than having a bunch of people lose their jobs? Or better than thirty-six people dying in a hospice? I should be grateful that my biggest problem after the fire was my mother growing desperate to knock back a bottle of vodka.” “That’s serious, too,” she said in a softer voice. “It felt like the end of the world, after everything,” I admitted. “When Sully failed to kill us, she acted like she was stronger than me. She was stronger than the vampire. And I started to depend on her, started to think that it was a fresh start, that we could beat anything together. But when she gave up, it was sort of like telling me that the vampires were going to win after all.” “You can’t think like that.” “But I did, and I still do, sometimes. I have serious issues related to her problems with alcohol, Maisy. I can’t help the things that connect or don’t. It’s been like that my whole life. We’re the losers who get beaten down. That’s what the empty wine bottle tells me. It’s been a bad day, or a bad month, or she’s been dumped again. She had to go to the AA meetings because of the little breakdown she had in hospital after she broke her leg, but even so, she still needed to go to them. And I didn’t want to see it. Instead, I kept seeing the lack of empty bottles as victories.” “Why wouldn’t you see that as a good sign?” “Because I was fooling myself, missing the real story. She was living by the minute, waiting for the seconds to tick by before she let herself think about opening a bottle. She was preparing herself. She started hiding little bottles around the house, and it was just a matter of time before she gave in. She couldn’t be trusted.” “The AA meetings are supposed to help.” “They do, when you take it seriously, I suppose. Maybe it made her over-confident, helped her forget about the little struggles. She’s been to the meetings before, and there was a time that she was clean for a decent stretch, but she started to convince herself that she could handle a drink here and there. She forgot how the drink changes her. Makes it harder to stop, easier to forget everything else. It’s a massive downward slide. Some people manage alcohol by facing it. She has to be completely clean, but all it takes is one slip, one bad day, and all of the hard work is thrown away.” “Doesn’t sound like AA works then.” “I think you have to be in the right frame of mind. Really prepared for the long haul. A lot of it sounds like total bollocks to me, but maybe it’s what people like her need to hear when they’re ready to make a change. I know that you’re definitely not supposed to get involved with anyone in there. And now I can see why. She met this man, thought he was so lovely.” I shook my head with a wry smile. “I take it he wasn’t lovely,” Maisy said. “Oh, but wasn’t he great for getting off the drink by himself? Wasn’t he a good influence for being clean for so much longer than her?” I shuddered at the memory of my mother’s words. “Typical bullshit really, but she was genuinely impressed by him, looked up to him.” “And she fell for him?” “Fell is probably the most appropriate word. She has this ritual, and it was obvious, but she acted so innocent about it all. She was suddenly so keen to get to the meetings. She dyed her hair, and she dressed up to the nines. She wore her best lipstick going out, but she’d come back with bare lips. And I knew what she was doing, but I was so happy that she was dry that I didn’t want to rock the boat.” My voice broke. “She really was trying, Maise. She tried so hard it hurts. But she got dragged down with him when he fell off the wagon. She wasn’t strong enough to resist, and it turned out he was exactly like all the others when he was drunk. She was okay physically, but it was just… the end for her. If he couldn’t do it, then how could she? She stopped believing in herself. She just gave up.” “Leaving you to pick up the pieces,” she said angrily. Even my happy-go-lucky friend couldn’t keep the judgement out of her voice, and it irritated me. “It’s an illness,” I said sharply. “She can’t help how twisted her thinking has become. And she’s addicted. It’s hard for her. Especially hard knowing there are vampires running around. How can I blame her?” But I did. I blamed her, and it was all I could do to push my anger down to a place it couldn’t be seen or heard. “Besides,” I said, bolstering myself up to lie. “Getting this place together was a great distraction from everything else.” “And when she comes home, Dev? What are you going to do then? Be her keeper forever?” “Don’t judge us, Maisy.” “You judge Brian’s mother for needing him. Why do you encourage him to free himself, but that’s not all right for you? Someday, you’re going to have to cut the apron strings, Dev.” “You know we made changes, that we tried. But it didn’t work for us.” “Yeah, well, she can’t take care of herself if she’s constantly relying on you. And you’re never going to have any kind of a life while you’re happily taking care of her. It works two ways. You needed her to need you, and only you. And she needed something that nobody else could give her. That’s a recipe for disaster if ever I heard one. What are you going to do if you have a kid? Is she going to help? No, you’ll be looking after the pair of them like a gimp.” “That’s a bit bloody harsh.” “Look at this place,” she said. “What’s it going to be like when she comes here to live?” I looked around my tiny flat. It was making me happier than I had ever thought possible. The main bedroom was the noose around my neck that I pretended didn’t exist. If I just thought about the living area and my bedroom, I could see myself being happy while I figured my life out. But the thought of empty bottles, vomit smells, and burned pots made my stomach turn. “I’m dreading it,” I admitted. “But I can’t leave her on her own. Especially not now. It’s bad enough how little I’ve been visiting her. I can’t just leave. God knows what would happen.” “And that’s what you’re going to be thinking for the rest of your life if you don’t do something now,” she said triumphantly. “I’ve seen a completely different side to you, Devlin. You’re not as tired or stressed as you used to be, even with the vampires hanging over our heads.” I thought about that. It was true I wasn’t as tired, but that’s because I wasn’t in school, working a full-time job at night in the pub, and taking care of Mam whenever I was at home. And it had been less stressful. Now that she was in rehab, I didn’t have to worry about her burning the house down or puking on my uniform. I didn’t have to get up at crazy o’clock just to get stuff done. I was free to come and go as I pleased, and I had made the flat look as homely as possible. And it had turned into my place. The thought of sharing such a tiny space with my mother made my skin crawl. “Holy crap,” I said. “I’m going to go demented if I have to live here with her.” And when I grinned, Maisy laughed at my expense. “I do love her,” I said when she stopped. “But the idea of looking after her while dealing with vampires is just beyond my comprehension right now. Thank feck she knows they exist. She might be a little understanding when she gets out.” My face fell. “To be honest, she doesn’t seem so keen at the idea of coming home. I tried to show her pictures of the flat, but she’s just not interested.” “She’s probably ashamed of herself,” Maisy suggested. “I mean, I would be.” “She’s constantly ashamed,” I said. “That’s part of the problem. She hates herself for our lives. She blames herself, but that just makes her more depressed, and that in turn makes her go to drink to cope. It’s a horrible cycle. And it’s why I don’t drink.” “Good enough reason, I suppose. Has she ever been suicidal?” “Not really. I mean, if she drank a certain combination, she would talk about things, but that was just her being weepy. She didn’t actually want to die. I learned early on that I had to hide certain types of drink to avoid those nights.” “How did you ever manage to do schoolwork?” I grinned. “I used to go to school extra early. That’s why I was so tired half the time. I’d be there as early as possible and get as much homework done as I could. I’m just glad that’s over.” “Are you disappointed about not going to college?” she asked out of the blue. I clocked my head to the side. “A little. But now that I can’t work with Mark, the whole idea seems a bit pointless.” “What do you want to do though? You’ve told me already that you don’t like the pub you’re working in.” “I liked working for Mark,” I said. “I’m too used to that to really give anywhere else a chance. Besides, having an alco for a mother doesn’t make you keen on serving alcoholics half the time.” “I can imagine,” she said, but she had gotten me thinking again. Someday, the vampires would be gone, and if I were still alive to see it, I would have to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. Chapter Eleven I yawned as I counted change in my hand. “Buck up,” the manager said, not unkindly. “You look like a zombie today.” “Sorry.” I handed the customer their change then closed the till. “I haven’t been able to get much sleep.” He leaned against the counter. “The murders getting to you? Bit close to home, wasn’t it?” I nodded. “Just a bit, yeah.” “Some run of bad luck we’ve been having. I saw your face on the news last night, by the way.” I froze. “What?” “Yeah, I knew your face was familiar when Franco brought you in for an interview. You’ve been through a lot, haven’t you?” I turned my back. “What was the story?” “Just the crime rates rocketing up. Lots of pictures of victims. I knew you left your last job because the place burned down, but I didn’t connect it with those kidnappings that time. They didn’t catch anyone for any of that shit, did they?” “No,” I said hesitantly. “Well, no wonder you can’t sleep. I wouldn’t be able to sleep either. Let’s hope the worst of it is over now, eh?” He moved on, but I was fuming. If people started connecting me to things, I would never be able to move freely at night. If I wasn’t the vampire video girl, I was the victim. I needed a change, big time. The next morning, I roped Maisy into accompanying me to the hairdressers. “Are you sure about this?” she asked. “I love your hair.” “All I ever do is pile it up into a bun and forget about it.” “I’d love to have long hair,” she said wistfully. “But whenever I let my hair grow, I can’t get a comb through the tangles.” “At least your hair is interesting. I just need a change, Maisy.” “I get it,” she said. I touched the ends of my hair. It would drive Mam mad, but she had to start dealing with the changes in our lives. And I wanted to cut myself free of the old memories for good. Maybe a haircut wasn’t some kind of miracle cure, but at least it would rid me of some dead weight I just didn’t need. Inside the salon, the hairdresser lifted up a lock of my hair. “What were you looking for?” “A long bob or something,” I said. “I just want to get rid of most of the length.” She started talking about different types of bobs. I cut her off because I didn’t really care. “Just do whatever you think looks best.” She dropped my hair and rubbed her hands together, a terrifying look of glee in her eyes. “I know just what to do.” Less than two hours later, my mop had been transformed into a sleek angular bob. I would never ever style it so perfectly myself, but I had to admit I enjoyed the lightness and smoothness, even if it would only last until the next time I jumped into the shower. “It looks great,” Maisy cooed. “You look so different.” “Good,” I said. “That’s exactly what I was going for.” I paid way too much money for my hair, but a growing part of me felt it was worth it. No longer was I walking down the street with my head bowed in case somebody recognised me. I was a different person, unveiled from a freshly made cocoon. And I even felt a little good about myself. “Did you tell Base?” Maisy asked as we walked arm-in-arm down the street. “No, why?” “It’ll be a surprise, that’s all.” I touched the ends of my hair self-consciously. “In a bad way?” “Just a different way. Stop worrying. Nobody died last night. That’s another win.” “Yeah, but I checked on that website last night.” “The stupid drugs thing?” “Yeah, way more uploads. A crapton of angry comments. I think it’s getting a little demented.” “Just a bit,” she said wryly. “Hopefully, it’ll calm down when more nights go by without any deaths.” “Yeah, let’s hope so,” I said. When Base arrived to pick us up later that day, he did a double take before wolf-whistling. “Hey, hot stuff,” he said with a broad grin. “Wanna take a ride with me before my girlfriend shows up?” “Shut up, you idiot,” I said, but I couldn’t help grinning back. “It’s a bit dramatic, so be gentle.” “It looks great,” he said. “Suits you.” I got in next to him, leaned over, and kissed him right on the lips. “Thanks for only making it a little weird.” “No bother,” he said, his eyes sparkling with humour. “Yeah, I’m still here,” Maisy said grumpily from the backseat. “Can you at least wait to get a room until the night is over?” “I’ll try my best.” Base looked me over one last time, giving a low whistle. “It’ll be tough though.” Maisy made an exaggerated groan, and Base stopped teasing long enough to collect Franco and Callum. Franco didn’t notice the hair, and Callum frowned at me with squinting eyes for a full minute before looking away. Men. We didn’t run into trouble that night, and we saw the hunters in the distance only once. The news the next day reported no deaths at all, and as it was a bank holiday, people celebrated by doing the obvious thing and going to the pub. A number of promotions ran all over town that night, and Franco and I had to work instead of vampire hunting. Weirdly, work was a nice kind of relief. The atmosphere was back to the old days, and people were jolly and loud. Laughter filled the pub, the jukebox constantly played the latest hits while the alcohol flowed freely. And it seemed as though the hunters really were keeping the vampires at bay. I didn’t mind being wrong about that. “Great takings tonight,” Franco said as he wiped sweat off his brow. “Yeah, it’s definitely one of the better night for sales,” I replied. “Ha, I meant the phone numbers,” he said, patting his pocket with a devilish grin. “I’m back to my best, O’Mara.” “Creep,” I muttered, but I no longer meant it. I knew his game, and I saw through his mask. The evening was coming to a close, and the night was winding down when the front door swung open, and a figure burst into the pub. Barely anyone noticed his semi-dramatic entrance, but a shiver ran down my spine as I took in the visible fangs. “Watch out!” I screamed, reaching for my bag and fumbling to get my stake. Franco had already hopped over the bar, and when I made to follow him, a shrill scream echoed around the room. The vampire had taken hold of a tall man built like a rugby player, and was swinging him around like a doll. The vampire flung the man into the wall. Blood splattered as his nose broke, and he fell to the ground, seemingly unconscious. Piercing screams filled the air as a wave of people tried to push their way out of the pub. The vampire gripped hold of a fleeing woman and sank his fangs into her neck. She shrieked so loud, my ear-drums felt fit to burst. As the crowd surged toward the door, some people tried to help the woman. The vampire flung them away without even letting go of the woman. A couple of obviously intoxicated men threw themselves at the creature, tackling him to the ground. He gripped one man’s arm and snapped it, breaking it easily. The howls of pain put off the others. Franco reached the vampire before I did. He swung a wooden barstool into the air and aimed it at the vampire’s back. The chair broke into pieces, shards of wood flying everywhere. I was being pushed along with the fleeing crowd, and I struggled to get back to the centre of things. The vampire spun around to attack Franco, but my friend had picked up a large, sharp piece of wood and aimed it at the vampire. With a howl of anger, the vampire fled, leaping from table to table toward the bar. Franco made chase, but I was closer once I dodged the last of the crowd. Most of the customers had already left. Others were tending to the injured. The manager stood behind the bar with a huge knife in hand as the vampire approached. He brandished it with a shaky hand. “Fuck right off.” The vampire made to attack him, but the manager grabbed the water hose and aimed it at the vampire, getting him right in the face with a dose of water. The vampire spluttered, giving me time to throw a chair over the counter at the thing. When the vampire looked at me, it spotted the proper stake in my hand and ran through the back. “Call an ambulance!” I shouted at the manager as I sprinted after the vampire. Franco followed me. “Hurry,” he cried. “I heard the door.” We ran toward the emergency exit, bypassing the stockroom and staffroom. We burst outside the door to find the vampire on the street, mouth bloody and snarling as a passer-by gaped at him in horror. Distracted, he made to attack her, but Franco and I moved as one to grab him back. “Run!” Franco shouted at the woman, who took heed and legged it away. “Careful,” I cried as the vampire barely missed biting Franco’s wrist. Ignoring the warning, he determinedly helped me drag the vampire back toward the door. I stamped on the back of the vampire’s knee to trip him up. He toppled over, almost taking both of us with him. “Get off me!” the vampire shouted. “Take your filthy hands off me.” We pushed the vampire onto his back and pinned him, all of us breathing heavily, even the vampire who was technically dead. “Where are you staying?” I demanded. “How many of you are there?” “Enough to destroy every hunter in this city,” he spat. “How many of you are there? Where are you staying?” “You’re the one that’s about to die,” Franco said mockingly. The vampire laughed, a horrible laugh that said he didn’t give a shit if he lived or died. “I was already dying. And I’ve lived more these last few days than I have in my entire life. Besides, I’ll go knowing you’ll follow me out sooner or later. Time’s up for the human race.” “You need us to survive, idiot,” I said angrily, but his confidence rattled me. “Like you need herds of cows,” he said. “We’ll breed from you when we need to, and the excess will die. We’re never sated, and we’ll never be full, and it turns out humans were never on top of the food chain.” “Shut the fuck up,” Franco said, then he stabbed down with the stake. I pushed him back and hurriedly moved out of the way myself as the vampire began to disintegrate. I wondered what a scientist or doctor would find if they studied a vampire. If it was some kind of disease or parasite keeping them on their feet, if there was a way to use their bodies to help the sick. But the risks were too large to even measure, I decided. It was better if they went extinct instead. “Nice one,” I panted, giving Franco a weak high-five. “We should go back inside and see what the damage is.” We headed for the door, but the manager was standing in the way, just staring at us. “Do I even want to know?” he asked, giving the stain on the pavement remains of a vampire a disdainful glare. “Probably not,” Franco said. “I can’t have this shit in my pub,” the manager continued, looking ill. “Did you see what happened in there? What have you two done?” “Us?” I exclaimed. “We just saved your arse from that thing.” “Or you brought it here in the first place,” he retorted. “Look, I don’t know what the hell your deal is, but I can’t afford to have people attacked on my premises, and I definitely can’t afford to have the whole building burn to a crisp. You have to go.” “You’re sacking us?” Franco asked, sounding shocked. “We didn’t do anything.” “I saw you. You knew what you were doing. This thing probably came for you. Fucking hell, this is the weirdest shit I’ve ever seen, and I’ve worked in this industry for too fucking long. Just leave now, through the back door, and I won’t tell the police what happened out here.” “We’re getting references though, right?” I pushed. I really needed to work. “References, my arse,” the manager scoffed. “You just… Do you not see what just happened?” “And we’ll just come back as customers every night if we don’t get references,” I said coldly. “So if you’re right about this thing following us here, it’s only a matter of time before the same thing happens to your place as our last job.” Franco nudged me, but my gaze was locked onto the manager’s. “Jesus,” he said after a minute. “If I wasn’t so scared of you working here, I’d give you a promotion just for the balls. Fine, I’ll post out references. Now get the fuck out. I don’t want to see your faces again.” He at least let us grab our things first. The ambulance and police had arrived, and it was probably best they didn’t see us anyway. I rang Base asking him to give us a lift home, but he called me back after a few minutes. “I can’t get through,” he said. “They’ve closed off almost every street in town.” “What’s going on?” I asked. “I’ve no idea,” he said. “But it looks serious. There are gardaí all over the place. And I drove past your favourite news reporter interviewing people by the side of the road. Something’s going on.” “Well, we got one at our place,” I said. “And we got sacked.” “Shit, I’m sorry,” he said sympathetically. “Has Callum’s scanner not picked up anything yet?” I asked. “He’s not with me,” he said. “I’ve no idea where he is.” “That’s not good news.” “No,” he said grimly. “You two need to be careful. Stay on the roads where people are. If you see anything weird, run the fuck away. I’m going to need you to meet me somewhere. They’re letting people walk out through the checkpoints, but there’s no way I’m getting into you.” He told me where to meet him, and I promised I’d be careful. “No idea where Callum is,” I said to Franco as we walked briskly toward the meeting point. “Um, isn’t that him right over there?” he asked. I followed his gaze to a checkpoint down the street. “Come on then,” I said. “Let’s see what’s going on.” We hurried toward Callum. He wasn’t wearing a uniform, but he was helping the police direct people away from the centre of town. When he saw me, he beckoned us over. “What are you doing here?” he asked. “Had an incident at work, and the manager decided we were too risky to have around. Base can’t get through the checkpoints to pick us up, so we’re trying to meet him.” “Good,” he said. “But be careful. There’s been a lot of incidents tonight.” “What do you mean?” Franco asked. Callum sighed, looking queasy. “I mean, there’s been a death on almost every street in town tonight. All at roughly the same time.” “You’re kidding me,” I whispered. “Afraid not.” He glanced over his shoulder. “I can’t talk now. We’ll meet tomorrow, and I’ll catch everyone up on what I know so far. Just be careful, you two. It’s a bad night.” Nodding, I walked past the checkpoint, keeping my blood-stained hands in my pockets. As soon as we were free, we ran toward where Base was waiting. “This is fucked up,” Franco panted. “Just get to the car so we can get the hell out of here,” I said, feeling a brand new chill invade my body. “There’s the car,” he said, pointing, but Base was already driving toward us. When he pulled in, Franco and I jumped into the backseat in a panic. Who knew what was out there, or how many. Franco explained what had happened while Base drove off. I barely listened. Instead, I watched intently out the window as we drove down the streets. We were in serious trouble. The vampires were coordinating attacks against us now. And what would happen if they gathered together and decide to pick off the entire town, one house at a time? “Seriously?” Maisy was saying. “Every single street.” “That’s what Callum said,” Franco told her. “What was he even doing there?” Base asked, sounding worried. “They must have needed extra bodies out there tonight,” I said. “Trying to limit movement to catch whoever caused the attacks. Those checkpoints and barriers need to be manned. Callum might be on his way out the door, but he’s still experienced.” “Still,” Base said. “They must be desperate to call in help from people they’re trying to sack.” “The vampires just fucked us right over,” I said. “And the hunters didn’t do a thing to stop them. We’re all desperate right now.” “How can the hunters think they’re on the winning team?” Franco asked in disgust. “Maybe they think tonight would have gone a lot more badly if they weren’t around,” Base said, sounding annoyed. “It couldn’t have been much worse,” Maisy said. But it could have been. “So what was the point?” Franco said slowly. “Why did they attack one by one like that? If they met up with an angry enough crowd, or a bunch of hunters, they would have been screwed. So what was the point of the whole thing? They could have easily killed way more people by being sneaky.” Everyone looked at him in horror at the realisation that the vampires had a plan. “Holy…” I swallowed hard. “The vampire who attacked us was new. He was strong, but that’s because he was fighting against unsuspecting drunks. He ran when he saw a stake. And he said he was dying anyway. I don’t know. It just sounded like maybe—” “He came from the hospice,” Franco said in a disgusted voice. “They turned people from the hospice to use them for this because they didn’t care if they survived the night.” “But why?” Maisy asked. “They were trying to cause fear and mayhem,” I said. “Because they know that ultimately, we’re our own worst enemies. We’ll be so confused, so busy looking for someone to blame, that the real perpetrators will be able to do much worse.” And the car ride got very quiet after that. Chapter Twelve The next day, a heavy cloud hung over the neighbourhood. The news reports were muddled and confusing. “Unknown assailants” and “unprovoked attacks” were the main buzzwords. A number of vigils had been organised around town. “They’re planning on lighting candles at each place that was attacked,” Maisy informed me over the phone. “Even my parents are going.” “Don’t let them.” “I’m doing my best,” she said. “I don’t want them out there either. For all we know, this is the big plan. Get everyone to gather together in the one place for easy pickings. So what are your plans for the day?” “Mope around and wonder why I don’t have a job anymore.” “I’m sorry about that.” “It could have been worse. From what I hear, the pub was one of the few attacks that didn’t end in a human fatality. Two people are in hospital, but at least they’re alive.” “I feel like that’s all we say anymore,” she complained. “At least we’re alive.” “Gets old quick, doesn’t it? Well, I’ll let you get back to work. See you tonight if you’re still up for hunting.” “We definitely don’t have a choice anymore,” she said. After she hung up, I searched online for talk about the vigils. It was looking like a massive group of people were planning on attending. I wondered if warning of future attacks would scare people off or encourage vigilantes. There was no winning sometimes. Bored, I flicked through the television stations for something to watch. A certain red-headed news reporter caught my eye. I froze on that channel then raised the volume to hear what she was saying. I groaned when it sank in. Evelyn Molloy was informing the world about the website that was dedicated to identifying drug dealers and junkies. And anyone who had pissed off some vindictive idiot. “This public led website is a valuable service,” she was saying. “We need to act now. The government isn’t helping us, the police certainly aren’t capable of stopping this crime spree, so we have to help ourselves.” Her gaze was a mixture of sincerity and determination. She actually believed the crap she was spouting. “We have to remove these deviants from our streets. We have to clean up our own backyards. These murders and tragedies cannot be allowed to continue. And when you attend a vigil, commiserating with the losses of life this week, perhaps consider what a little justice would do for our town. This has gone on for long enough. Who will be next? Your child? Your—” Disgusted, I switched off the television. That woman was going to get someone killed if she wasn’t careful. *** Curfew was extra strict for the next couple of nights. “They’re saying a group of people taking part in the vigil disappeared,” Callum announced to the rest of us. “No signs of violence, nothing. It looks like they just walked off and left.” “Or were under a thrall,” Base said. “It’s that bloody reporter’s fault,” I complained loudly to anyone who would listen. “This has made people even angrier,” Franco warned. “The vigilantes are going to get worse.” “We’ll be careful,” Maisy said. Callum was able to keep us informed about the places where the gardaí had gathered the largest force, but even he had to admit that they were chasing shadows. “It’s so frustrating,” he said as we drove around together. “If they would listen, we could give them all of the information they need.” “We need proof,” Base said. “Proof they can’t ignore. Proof the public can’t ignore. The hunters aren’t going to save us.” “Well, let’s get some proof,” Maisy said. “Evidence or whatever. Let’s just fucking go for it. Are we really going to let people die because we’re scared people aren’t going to believe us?” “No way,” Franco said. “Upload that last video, Maisy, right on the page about tracking down dealers. Let’s force them to notice.” “And we can get more videos,” I said. “All we have to do is bump into a lone vampire again.” “There are a couple of videos going around already,” Callum said. “People took videos of those attacks the other night.” “Instead of helping?” Base asked, sounding disgusted. “Who does that?” “More people than you’d think,” Callum said wryly. “Scumbags,” Base muttered under his breath. In the following days, the tension around our town was a physical thing, weighing over everything. The bad feelings intensified as people egged each other on. A group of gardaí manning a checkpoint were attacked by a group of belligerent drunks fed up of the police “doing nothing” while people were going missing and being murdered. We weren’t just keeping alert for vampires anymore. Even humans had become a danger. As the five of us drove around together, Maisy kept an eye on the main website that encouraged violence. “They’re keeping to this side of town,” she said after a while. “It looks like they’re making sure nobody’s hiding out in… oh, no.” “What is it?” I asked. “They communicating in some shitty code, but it sounds like they’re going to be checking out the old industrial park.” “You mean where the homeless are staying,” Base said, his voice deepening as he tried to contain his anger. “When?” Callum asked. “Now, I think,” she said. “Tonight anyway.” “We should take a look,” Callum said. “If there really is trouble, I’ll call it in.” “And will we have to scarper again?” I asked. “Probably,” he said, but he sounded excited. Base turned the car around and headed toward the abattoir again. “Doesn’t your mam ever need the car?” I asked. “Curfew,” he said. “And she thinks I’m staying with you. She’d rather I have the car. And himself is in the bad books, so she’s actually been spending time with the boys. Aoife’s trip kept her home, too. She loves Aoife.” I gave him a sharp look. Was that a dig at me? He noticed me looking; confusion spread across his face. “What?” I shook my head. “Nothing.” I didn’t speak for the rest of the journey because I felt on edge. If people were really going to show up to attack the homeless, then I was legitimately going to freak out on them. It wasn’t fair. Chills ran up and down my spine as we approached the slaughterhouse. There was always an awful atmosphere in the air, as if the buildings retained the memories of the past. Blood and fear and death in all its forms. As we turned, the headlights lit up a group of people holding up signs. “What the fuck is this going to achieve?” I said, barely managing to grind out the words. The usual fire had died down to an ember, and the homeless were nowhere to be seen. “They must be hiding in the slaughterhouse,” Base said. I glanced at him. “They must be scared. All of the vampire attacks, and this is who they have to be scared of. Humans.” “There’s that reporter,” Maisy said. I got out of the car and headed straight for Evelyn Molloy. I pushed my way through the mob to find her. I ignored the complaints as I barged through a path of my own making. Fuckers didn’t deserve manners from me. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I demanded when I reached her. She had been standing to the side, touching up her lipstick. She snapped her compact shut and glared at me. “Excuse me? Oh, it’s you. I should have known.” I frowned. “And that means what exactly?” “You’re one of my loose threads. So have you come here to help? Or are you on the other team?” “Team? What team?” I spluttered. “Why are you driving people here, of all places?” “To protect themselves, of course.” She smiled, her television smile. “It’s time for us to stand up and be noticed, Miss O’Mara.” “You realise there’s a curfew,” Callum said. “And the people who stay here might not have homes, but that doesn’t mean you’re free to harass them.” “Ah, it’s the ex-policeman.” Her smile widened. “You’ve come up in my investigation quite a bit, too.” “Investigation,” he said, snorting softly. “You’re a hack reporter whipping up a frenzy amongst the clueless. Go home before you cause any more trouble.” “Me? Trouble?” Her disposition instantly shifted into something predatory. “There’s something very wrong going on, and I intend to get to the bottom of it. And as far as I can tell, the murders started happening here, in this business park. If those people hiding in that building aren’t responsible, then they’re protecting those who are.” “Or they don’t know a thing,” Base said, subtly shifting to my back as the crowd pressed forward with a disturbing eagerness. “They must know something.” Her eyes narrowed. “Then again, so must you all. You’ve been part of this crime wave, have you not?” “I won’t have you terrorising victims now, too,” Callum said, but she reminded me a little of him before he knew the truth. Maybe this woman was like us, maybe she sensed something was wrong, and it was driving her half-crazy trying to figure it out. “If we get rid of this crowd, the murders will stop!” a male voice shouted from within the protection of the crowd. The reporter looked startled, but she nodded. “If they leave, then we—” “No!” another voice cried out. “Burn them out!” Evelyn held up her hands. “That’s not what I—” Callum was already moving. The rest of us followed. The crowd separated. Some moved away, disturbed by how things were turning out. Some had grabbed placards and were burning them in the dying fire. “Stop!” Callum commanded, pulling his phone out of his pocket as he ran, presumably to call someone for help. The camera person moved with me, getting a good view of the faces distorted in anger. “This is something else,” he muttered. “Something you people caused!” I shouted, getting pushed back by the surging crowd. I jumped to see over the shoulders of some people blocking my way, barely catching sight of Base tackling a man to the ground. I couldn’t see Callum or the others anymore. Something crawled up my spine, that feeling that screamed something was watching me. I turned on my heel. Somewhere in the darkness, a flame flickered and died. Before I could even think about what it meant, I realised the reporter was slowly moving toward the light. “Stop!” I shouted, running toward her. The flame flared again, this time, a huge ball of fire. It flew toward us. “Get down!” I threw myself forward, knocking the reporter over. With an oofing sound, she landed heavily beneath me. “What are you doing?” she snapped. “Stay down,” I whispered, then crept forward, toward the light. The light had made red spots appear in my vision. I couldn’t see a thing in the darkness. The other flame ball had safely disappeared, but the second flew right over my head. I watched as it flew over the crowd, only to crash into the roof of slaughterhouse. For a second, I stood there open-mouthed. And then the roof exploded. Impossibly, horribly, half of it collapsed inward, likely on top of the hiding group of homeless people. Somebody screamed, and then I was moving, desperate to help. A siren blared in the distance. I wasn’t sure how I heard it. All around me, people were moving in one direction or the other, and most of them were screaming or shouting. In his rush to get away from the raging fire, a particularly large man shoved me out of the way, knocking me to the ground. I scrambled to my feet, only hesitating to look over my shoulder. The reporter was still sitting in a state of shock, staring into the darkness where the fire had come from. How would she explain this one? The fire had been started by the vampires. Somehow. And if it really was some kind of magic, then how the hell did we fight back against that? Getting control of myself, I ran straight to the burning building. Maisy gripped hold of me and held me back. “Stop!” she pleaded. “Please, don’t!” “We have to help.” “They’re already helping.” “Who?” But I already knew. I broke free of Maisy’s grip and narrowly avoided Franco’s. “Just clear a path for the fire brigade,” I cried out over my shoulder. The fire was toward the back of the building. I didn’t feel the heat until I tried to get inside. A blast of hot air made me take a step back. I pulled up my shirt to cover my mouth and chin, exposing my stomach. It was dark, despite the light from the fire. How was it so dark? My eyes adjusted to the smoke in time to see Callum leading a small group of people toward me. “Get them out of here!” he shouted. “Where’s Brian?” I asked as the first woman gripped my arm, her eyes wild with fear. “I’m going back for him!” And then he was gone. My stomach turned, but I managed to move back to the door, leading the people out into the fresh air. “Maisy!” I cried. Those who hadn’t fled the scene helped the homeless outside, taking care of them as though they hadn’t just been trying to run them out of town. “Where’s Brian and Callum?” Maisy asked, pressing her hands against my cheeks as though trying to get my attention. “In there.” “I’ll go,” Franco said, brushing past us. “There’s more inside?” a woman called out. A buzzing sound rang in my ears. I lunged forward, following Franco back inside before anyone could stop us. We had only taken a few steps when we saw Brian and Callum helping an unconscious man away from the fire. Brian’s shirt was burned. Franco urged Brian out of the way so he could help Callum with the unconscious man instead. That left me free to help Base. He was sweating, his face and arms were covered in soot, and he didn’t try to speak. We followed the others out, all of us coughing. We had only moved a couple of metres away from the building when the rest of the ceiling collapsed. I looked at Brian in horror. “We made it out,” he said hoarsely, but he looked just as disturbed as I felt. Emergency services began to arrive. I would have been happy to go straight home, but a passing paramedic advised us to go to the hospital to check on Brian’s arm. “I’ll be fine,” he said. “That’ll keep burning,” the woman said sharply. “Do yourself a favour and get it looked at.” “I’ll drive.” “Good,” she said, and then she moved on to someone else. We passed the men who had originally tried to start a fire. They were sitting on the ground, staring into space, emptiness in their eyes. “Were they…?” I asked. “I think so,” Brian said. “Vampires must have controlled them. That fire wasn’t normal, Dev.” “I know. I saw it, sort of. I saw fire being… thrown over our heads.” “This isn’t going to just go away. People have seen something unexplainable, but I’ll bet you anything those lads on the ground there will be blamed.” “Even though they couldn’t have possibly done this,” I said. I saw the reporter speaking with a police officer. She glanced at me and frowned, but her face was wan and drawn. “This is her fault,” I complained. “She didn’t start the fire, Dev.” “She might as well have. She stirred things up, made it easy for the vampires to take it to the next level. This was insane.” “Everything’s insane. Why not this?” He yawned then winced. “Maybe I will go to the hospital. Fancy driving?” “Of course,” I said. “Should I call your mother?” “I’ll tell her when I’m already bandaged.” Callum was busy getting told off by one of his old colleagues, so I dropped Maisy and Franco home before heading to the hospital with Base. He fell asleep on the way, but I couldn’t help keeping a constant eye out for vampires. Everything was ramping up, but where did the vampires plan on taking it? As I pulled into the hospital carpark, I felt those shivers again. The hospital was overrun with the sick and injured. What if the vampires decided to strike there next? Chapter Thirteen We were still sitting in the waiting room early the next morning. The hospital was packed out from the incidents of the night before. There had been more than one incident across town. When Base was called in to be seen by a doctor, I sat in the waiting room alone. The doctors and nurses were doing the best they could with what they had, but they were obviously understaffed. A part of me longed to help, but that would hardly have been allowed. I remembered the nurse who had been good to me when my mother had her accident. Was that comforting thing they did something they learned? Or did it come naturally? I had flicked through every magazine nearby at least twice and went back to people watching instead. Out of the corner of my eye, a movement attracted my attention. A tall man was walking away, but something about the way he moved caught my eye. And then I realised that he looked like one of Jack’s hunters, the quiet one. I had never learned his name. If the hunters were in the hospital, maybe with an injury, then it was my chance to knock some sense into them. The hunters hadn’t been around the night before. Did that mean they weren’t as good at tracking the vampire as they thought, or could more than one vampire create fire from seemingly nothing? For that matter, could I have been fooled? I needed answers. Brian was going to be a while, so I got up off my seat and slipped down the hallway after the retreating hunter. Frowning, I hesitated. Was it actually him? The hunter hadn’t been in my presence for long. Was I imagining things? But then he turned a corner, and I caught sight of his profile. It was definitely him. I upped the pace to catch up with him. When I turned the corner, he was gone. All of the doors in the corridor were closed. Another shiver ran down my spine, and I turned slowly to see Emily approaching. I reached for my stake. She froze, holding her hands up in the air. “I didn’t come to fight,” she said. This time, I mentally added. “Where’s the hunter?” I demanded. “It doesn’t matter.” “So, what, you’re attacking the hospital now?” My hand moved from the stake to my phone. I could at least warn Base if a full-blown attack was about to kick off. She cocked her head to the side. “A hospital. That would make sense, wouldn’t it? All of these poor defenceless fools, ripe for the taking. I never really enjoyed the fight, to be honest. Too untidy. I like it when everything’s neat.” “I’m going to kill you,” I said, putting emphasis on each and every word. “I might not be able to kill your sire, but I’ll take you out for sure.” She traced her nails along the wall next to her, leaving a trail of indentations in her wake. “Maybe. Maybe not. Do you know what he is? The grand sire? A first generation. That’s what they call themselves. First gens. Like it’s a title.” “Am I supposed to care?” “You should. There are very few of them left. So few, that with a little effort, they could even be wiped out.” I glared at her suspiciously. “And why do I get the impression that would just make your day?” “Because it would.” She sighed and leaned against the wall. “They create us, us being second gens, because we give them strength. They pull power from us and use us to do the things they can’t. We can fit in with humans, can walk in the sun. They need us. But then they feel disappointed when we’re not as strong as them, and yet…” She bit on her lower lip until it bled. “Yet, at the same time, they’re happy because we’re weaker than they are. Even though we far outnumber them, they can control us, safe in the knowledge we can’t fight back, can’t even leave unless we create a third gen.” She laughed softly. “You and I both know how well adjusted third gens end up. Most of us never dare. But for freedom? Sometimes, it’s worth the risk.” “Oh, poor you,” I snapped. “It must be terrible for you to get to kill as many people as you like.” “I have to be told when and where!” she shouted abruptly, making me flinch. “I don’t get to leave! Second gens without a living sire are shunned, but at least they can live as they please. If I don’t get to have the power, then what’s the point? Death is so… messy. I have a process that makes everything delightful, and that’s the first thing he bans when I’m back in his clutches.” “You’re a vampire. You kill whether it’s delightful or messy or not.” “But it doesn’t have to be like this! I thought I wanted to live out in the open, but not like this. This game isn’t even fun. It never was. And with the first gens dictating to the rest of us, we’re slaves as much as the humans.” “Right. Except I don’t see anyone kidnapping and eating you very often.” She made a sound of frustration. “Don’t you see? This will never end. My father has lost all control. He craves more and more, and we have to do his bidding. His kind think they descend from gods. Can you imagine? They’re so old, they don’t even remember how or when they got here, but half of them believe that a god must have created them, that humans were only created to feed them. Cattle. That’s what you are to them. The entire planet is their feeding ground, their playing ground, and now some of them want to take it back. And every bored and foolish second gen has been lured here to help my father take it for himself.” “Headline news. Vampires are egotistical maniacs. What a surprise.” She poked at her own chest. “I give people a chance at life. He gives me slavery.” “For God’s sake!” I grabbed the stake in my other hand and dropped my bag to the floor. “Enough talking, Emily. Let’s end this right here.” “End this?” She sounded almost hysterical. “Can’t you understand the chance I’m giving you? I can help you. I can work with you to get rid of the first gens. It’s the only way any of us will be free.” I took two steps back. “Bullshit.” “The only way to defeat the first gens is to weaken them. I can show you how. Lead you right to them. I’m desperate,” she said harshly. “I can’t live like this anymore.” “Are you even alive?” I couldn’t help asking. She rolled her eyes. “It’s time to grow up a little, Devlin. You’ll never beat him alone, so be reasonable about this. We need each other, you and I. This is our perfect chance.” “It wasn’t long ago that you were torturing innocent girls to drive me mad. I’ll never need you.” “But that was before. Are you really going to hold a grudge for the sake of your pride?” A smile danced on her lips. “I know his weaknesses. I know how to pit his new followers against one another. He’s drawing them here, trying to establish this little country as the ultimate test subject. If he destroys this place, other first gens will want a piece, too. Vampires will take over the world.” “As if that isn’t exactly what you want.” “I don’t want this,” she hissed. “This is rules and a caste system. In my world, I’m a queen. In his, I’m a faulty pawn. I’m expendable to him, a mistake. He controls me, and if he wins this battle, I’ll never be free. And neither will the human race.” “I don’t believe you,” I said, but I was starting to. “This is perfect,” she continued as though I hadn’t spoken. “He will never suspect me of betrayal in this form. He hasn’t forbidden me from speaking with humans. That’s his problem, you see. He thinks humans are so far below him that it doesn’t even register that you all could be a threat. He just wants to get back on top again, draw attention from his silent god, show this power that he’s worthy of attention. You and I want the same things, Devlin, and I suppose we both have to accept responsibility for what’s going on.” “Oh, really. Both of us.” “I should have been more careful with Sully. I shouldn’t have come here and played with you when I discovered the truth about what happened to him. I was just desperate. Only by siring another do I have the power to leave my father’s side. But he’s forbidden me from forcing rebirth on a human, and if he gets stronger, I’ll never have a chance to leave. That’s where you come in.” I sucked in a harsh breath. Here it came. “I just need someone strong and willing,” she said. “I admit I had my eye on the Gilligan boy, but a hunter will work just as well. I have one running around. My father has plans for him, but I could steal him first. You just need to persuade him to sacrifice himself for the cause. He’ll need to feed. And they have plenty of blood here in—” “You’re kidding, right?” I squared my shoulders. “You think I’ll let you turn somebody into a vampire?” “Let me?” Her voice deepened, and she took a sideward step toward me, her nails appearing to lengthen. “You really think I can’t make you do anything I want you to?” “So much for helping us,” I said snidely. Her lips lifted into a grin that I didn’t like. “You’ll see,” she said. “When the burden lifts off you, you’ll understand exactly what freedom makes you capable of doing. And you’ll beg for my help.” “The fuck are you even talking about,” I began, but she had already started moving. Emily backed up then ran faster than I imagined possible, lifting herself off the floor and onto the wall as she moved. I ducked under a flying kick that had her landing only a couple of feet away. I scrambled backward then got to my feet, stake firmly in hand. “You’ll have to do better than that, Em.” Furious, she ran at me. If she collided at that speed, I would break a couple of my ribs at the very least. I stayed firm for as long as I dared. When I felt the wind whip at me from her movement, I dodged and pressed myself against the wall, lifting my arm to stab downward as she skidded past. I caught the stake on her shoulder, and she made a hissing sound as she shrugged herself free. “It’s time for your lesson,” she said, darkness dripping from her voice. “You’ll soon see, Devlin O’Mara. He’s brought an army to your home, and he hasn’t even started attacking yet. This isn’t war, this is him feeding his brand new warriors. You’re not going to like what happens next.” “What happens next?” I panted. “The part where you realise you can’t win without me.” She turned and walked away, but when she reached the end of the hall, she turned and looked back at me. The darkness was gone, and her face looked as it did the first time we had met, fresh-faced and young, innocent even. “You’re just the excuse, human. The war has been years in the planning. Come find me when you realise the truth. Maybe I’ll think about helping you when you’ve lost everything.” I froze to the spot then, unable to move from a deep rooted fear of her words. “And Devlin,” she added as she opened a door. “Hospitals are excellent feeding grounds, but after last night, half the town is here, including the police and a serious abundance of hunters. Good thing this isn’t the only hospital in town, right?” Frowning, I followed her, watching her leave. I called Brian’s number, just in case. “This had better be good,” he said in a teasing voice when he answered. “I’m getting nasty looks from some well-armed medical staff in here.” I heard a female voice say something in a scathing tone in reply. “I see you’re making friends,” I said. “But watch out, okay? I just had a run-in with Emily. Something’s going on, and I think that…” I stopped and stared as the words turned around in my head. Hospitals were excellent feeding grounds, and I wasn’t in the only hospital. “No,” I whispered. “It can’t be.” “What’s wrong?” he asked, instantly serious. “They’re attacking a hospital. But not this one because everyone’s here. Emergency services are here, bringing people in. We’ve been watching them all night.” “Devlin?” “I have to find my mother,” I whispered before hanging up and running out of the hospital. I had Brian’s keys, so I used them and stole his family’s car. I didn’t care. I just had to get to my mother and make sure she was okay. Emily was taunting me. It was probably a trap. I was able to breathe easy when I realised Emily had said she had to do what her sire said, and if that was the case, she would be attacking by his side. And dawn had already broken. He couldn’t go outside in the day. But that weakness hadn’t been passed on to the so-called second generation vampires. I tried to make sense of the conversation, but my heart was beating too hard, my breathing too laboured to just take a second and think. I drove fast and clumsily, hitting the kerb a number of times on a turn. The rehab was on the other side of town from the hospital, more on the outskirts than anything else, closer to the slaughterhouse, now that I thought about it. I clenched the steering wheel and sped up, thinking about nothing but seeing my mother’s face. What was it Emily had said? My burden. No. My throat dried up. This couldn’t be happening. Not to us. Not now. I wasn’t ready. *** I pulled in outside the hospital gates. It was more of an institution, but it was still a hospital, still full of the helpless and defenceless, and anyone who could protect them was elsewhere after the events of the night before. I got out of the car and looked around. Crows flew around overhead, constantly making harsh sounds as though signalling to one another. That was the only sound. So early in the morning, there was little traffic on the roads, and from the whispers in the emergency room all night, the evening before had been eventful for everyone. The front gate hung wide open. There was nobody around, no caretakers, no early morning deliveries. Mam had mentioned once how she was constantly woken up too early because of all of the noises. But there was an eerie emptiness around me. I hesitantly walked up the short driveway, noting a familiar looking van awkwardly parked in front of the building. I couldn’t think. I had to keep walking. That was all I was capable of. The front doors had been ripped away. I couldn’t see them anymore. I forced myself onward, forced myself to walk through the gates of hell to see what was on the other side. But a part of me already knew. A part of me never wanted to see. Mostly, I deserved to look. Blood slicked the doorstep, and I almost fell. I gripped the doorway to catch my balance, and my hands came away bloody. I imagined I could smell it, taste it in my mouth as though I had just breathed in something metallic from the air. I wiped my hands on my jeans. My palms remained red, a haunting message. The hallway was dark, but as I walked, my eyes slowly adjusted. So many blood stains, but not a soul to be seen. I checked around, stalling from going farther. Beyond the reception area, I saw a pale, lifeless hand laying there, outstretched from behind the desk. So this was it. It was really happening. I turned in the other direction and walked as though in a trance toward Mam’s room. Then I remembered she had recently switched rooms and tried to backtrack instead. Red hand prints covered the hallways, a streak or two randomly colouring the floors. But no people. I took a wrong turn and ended up in the cafeteria. As soon as I opened the doors, I knew. The silence hung low, threatening to suffocate me as the devastation revealed itself. Every surface was blood-splattered, every breakable object had been smashed or squashed or torn apart. Bodies, body parts, so many in my path. A pile of bodies had been built in the centre of the room where the tables usually stood. A young male had been crudely crucified to the wall. With a great deal of horror, I recognised him as the game playing hunter who was on Jack’s team. I swallowed hard and kept looking. The room was a sickening mess. Some more bodies were laid out in some macabre rendition of a tea party. The vampires had a sickness, and I had to witness it alone. I walked through the room, trying hard not to slip on the blood or trip on a stray arm or leg. My heartbeat pounded in my ears as I passed by body after body. I forced myself to look at the wide open eyes that stared into nothing, at the faces contorted with fear and shock. I made myself remember them all because their deaths were on my shoulders. No matter what Emily had said about the plans of war being a long-time thing, I had lured the vampires here, to us, and I had to face the consequences. A gurgle attracted my attention. Someone was alive. Something…. Could it be? I ran to the corner of the room, to a pile of broken and bloody bodies that appeared to have been flung haphazardly aside. “I’m here,” I said in a panicked voice as the sounds increased. I pulled aside the dead until I came to the living, and that’s when I experienced true disappointment. There lay Jack, the vampire hunter. “Are you all right?” I asked in a flat voice. He blinked rapidly, groaning as he tried to sit up. I helped heave him up against the wall. He made to grip my hand, wincing in apparent pain instead. His hands looked shredded, the skin loose and torn. My stomach turned at the sight. “Foolish,” he gasped. “Too cocky. Should have… should have known better.” “The others,” I said. “I think they’re dead. The boy, I saw him die. The others might… help them.” “I need to find my mam,” I said, feeling numb. His eyes widened with surprise. He didn’t know she was there. I left him alone, amidst all of the death, and continued on my search. In the television room, a couple of bodies were sitting straight up, apparently watching reruns. The laugh track grated, but as I searched the room, I found the female hunter. Mary’s spine had been ripped away, and her body was impossibly contorted. The vampires still had the third hunter. Jack was lucky. The only survivor. So far. I shuffled out of the room and found the right corridor. I shuffled my way along the increasing blood stains until I came to Mam’s room. Terrible things had happened in this hospital, and all I could hear were those stupid fake laughter tracks on the television. I should have switched it off. An orderly was outside mam’s room, his neck twisted in an unnatural angle. I stood there for a long time, trying to make my feet move. Swallowing hard, I stepped into my mother’s room and let the scene unfold in my head. The room was almost perfect, barely any blood. The bedside locker was turned over and crushed as if something had jumped on it. The woman my mother shared a room with was halfway under her bed, her legs limp and lifeless. Most of the visible blood was streaked along her knees as though she had crawled through a puddle of it. That left only one thing really. On my mother’s bed, a woman lay with a smile on her face, as if she had welcomed death. Her eyes were closed, as though she hadn’t needed one last look at the world. Her hands and arms were outstretched and unclenching, another sign of welcome. I gazed at my mother’s face, unable to move for what seemed like hours. In the distance, I heard the sounds of a car. I sat on the bed next to my mother and brushed her fringe away from her face. In death, she looked so much younger, so much happier. Anger rushed through me at the thought she had given up, that she had willingly left me behind. That quickly died. I didn’t have the energy to burn with anger anymore. I leaned against the wall and pulled her onto my lap. She weighed less than she had for years. I should know. I’d had a lot of practice at trying to carry her into bed. My eyes burned, and I had to stop and take a deep breath and wait for the moment to pass. But when it did, I lifted her into my arms and hushed her like a baby, trying to believe she was finally, after a life of pain and anxiety, at peace. Chapter Fourteen Familiar voices mixed in with the strange. The building was full of the living now. The living who took away those who died frozen in terror. Everyone else had died in fear, and my mother had smiled. Death had been a welcome release. I wasn’t even sure how exactly she had died. I didn’t want to know. All I could do was watch over her as she passed into whatever world came next. And maybe nothing happened next, maybe there was only a void of darkness, but she had been happy to go. She had watched death coming and embraced it. I thought I heard Brian calling my name, but I couldn’t see past the body in my arms. There was still the slightest trace of warmth, I thought, still the remnants of life, and that’s why I couldn’t let her go. I couldn’t leave her alone until she was gone, really gone. And I couldn’t be sure that the soul, if it existed, wasn’t lingering. It was best to be sure, to— “It’s over,” someone was saying, putting pressure on my shoulder. Their hand felt heavy. “She’s gone. It’s time to let her go, love.” Love. They didn’t know love. I didn’t know love. If I did, I would have taken her and run when I had the chance. I wouldn’t have left her in the guise of a rehabilitation centre. It was a mental institution. It was for people who couldn’t find a way to exist in the real world. And now there was no real world. There was just emptiness. A space in my heart that could never be filled. I didn’t want it to be filled. That would be forgetting. I had been quiet until they tried to take my mother from me. It was then I screamed, then I imagined her last moments, everyone’s last moments, my last moments. The blood. So much blood. So much fear and pain. A scream came long and hard, ripping my throat with pain that I deserved. Maybe I could scream the death away, chase the reapers from us, find a way to undo what had been done. A needle sank into my arm, and the screaming turned into a whimper. The sounds didn’t stop until my eyes closed. *** Fuzzy, crackling white space, and an ache in the pit of my stomach. Something had happened, but I couldn’t quite remember what. Something was swallowing me, suffocating me. If I could just break the surface, I would see, I would remember something important. There was a smell. A strangely familiar smell. I concentrated, almost reached the surface. Was I dead? No, there was my heart beating. I could hear Callum’s voice somewhere close by, telling a story he had made up. “The witness said he was passing by when he saw the place being broken into. He approached the intruders and was attacked. He passed out, and when he came to, he called the first number on his phone. He had hit his head and couldn’t recall the emergency number.” “But why was the girl here? And the young man. He’s been arrested before.” “And released,” Callum said. “The witness called Brian Gilligan who knew the hospital because of Devlin O’Mara. They called me for help and came to find her mother.” “Idiotic move,” a third voice said. “People do strange things when they’re scared and grieving,” Callum said sharply. “And after everything, I think that girl has the right to grieve.” “Nasty business,” the second voice said. “The whole town has gone insane. They set the army on patrol in the city. Here will be next. This place has gone to hell.” “That’s one way of putting it,” Callum said dryly. “I’m going to the hospital with them.” “We’re going to need to talk to the girl.” “I know. But maybe you should let her wake up first.” Oh. I burst through the surface, and the memories came back, but I didn’t want them anymore. I wanted to sink. I tried to, but something kept me still. The smell was still there. I was still there. In that room. That place. Surrounded by blood and death. There was a bit of teasing that faded as though moving away, a couple of filthy cracks that had no place at a crime scene, and then there was silence. I became aware of a hand holding mine. I squeezed, and my hair was brushed out of my face. I curled up on my side, and more hands moved to my back as though to stop me from falling. There was a feeling of weightlessness as I was lifted into the air. There was a mask over my face, and I tried to yank it off. A voice murmured something, then I felt another pinch. A stray tear rolled down my cheek as my stomach turned over. And then peace came, just for a little while. *** I didn’t dream, but suddenly I was awake and staring at a white ceiling. “There she is,” a female voice said. I looked in the direction of the sound. A familiar face. A nurse. “Did I fall asleep?” I asked, but the words cracked and broke in my dry mouth. “Can’t keep away from the place,” she said as though I hadn’t spoken. “I only saw you last night, I think.” “You,” I tried to say, but my tongue felt too large for my mouth. What was going on? And then I remembered her face. She had been a matron in the hospital. I was in hospital? Why did I know her? Who had… Oh. Mam had fallen down the stairs while drunk. The matron was helping me. “Is she okay?” I murmured. “Did she wake up?” “What?” The nursed moved closer to me and cupped my cheek with her hand. “Ah, pet. Do you not remember? We couldn’t help her. It was too late to help her.” But she had only fallen, I tried to say, but then it came back to me in a flood. “Oh,” I whispered. “Oh.” “Devlin, you’re going to feel a little pinch, and you’ll have a bit of a headache, but you’re going to sit up and have a strong cup of tea with me to settle yourself. When you feel up to it, someone will be by to talk to you. If you’re not ready, tell me, and we’ll chase them off. Are we clear?” I nodded, blinking through glazed eyes. She helped me sit up, and I saw the room clearly for the first time. I was wearing a nightdress, perfectly clean. There wasn’t a trace of blood on my hands anymore. She urged me to take a sip of some luke-warm tea. I needed to drink. My mouth felt like a desert. “I’m not hurt,” I managed to say after a moment. “I didn’t get hurt.” “I know,” she said. “But you’ve had a bad shock, and we like people to be where we can keep our eye on them after a shock like that.” “But it’s too busy here for people who haven’t been hurt.” “It is a bit,” she admitted. She pressed her hand against mine. “But I can take a few minutes every now and then to check on you. I looked at your emergency info, but…” When she hesitated, it dawned on me that my mother was my next of kin. And she was gone. That left me. Just me. On my own. It started to hit me then. The significance of everything. My mother was gone, and I was all that was left. My hands were shaking. It hurt to breathe. “Is there anyone you’d like me to call?” she asked softly. Who did I want to see? Someone who hadn’t been there, someone who didn’t know what my mother looked like in death. Somebody I could still associate with life. “Maisy,” I said after thinking about it for a few moments. “I need my friend, Maisy. Her number is… I can’t remember it.” “Is that the girl with the curly hair and glasses?” she asked. I nodded, surprised. “She’s already here. I’ll go find her, shall I? Not to worry. You’re in a quiet ward. All of the action is going on in the other side of the hospital.” “Did he make it?” I blurted as she reached the door. “The man who… was still alive.” Her lips pressed together. “He made it,” she said after a moment. She was gone for a while. When the door opened again, I looked at it expectantly and was surprised to see Callum sneaking into the room. “No,” I said firmly. “I don’t want to see you or anyone.” He looked momentarily horrified before nodding. “I can’t keep the police away for long, okay?” I looked away until I heard the door close. I knew he had been there. He had seen her. He had responded to the crude jokes. I just wanted to wipe that memory away. I stared at my hands. They were shaking again. The next time the door opened, it was Maisy. She didn’t say a word, didn’t ask me any questions, didn’t say anything foolish or sympathetic. She just took off her shoes, climbed into the bed, and let me lay in her arms. My facade fell, and with it, so did I. I burst into uncontrollable ugly sobs that wracked my body. “I know,” she whispered. “I know, Dev.” I couldn’t contain the grief. I tried to block it out, but when it managed to touch me, it hit me hard. I had looked after my mother for years and years without help. And when I finally admitted I needed help, I had felt free, and it turned out that the help had killed her. I had sent her away, to her death, and I would always blame myself. “What am I going to do?” I whimpered. “How can I… what do I do?” “I’m so sorry, Dev,” she whispered, holding me tighter in her arms. “I don’t even know what to say.” “Tell me you’re leaving the country,” I said, gasping for air. “I’m not leaving you,” she said softly. “You have to go to be safe. That’s what we all should have done. Tell me nobody else I know is going to get hurt by these monsters.” She stiffened. “And then who’s going to kill them? Who’s going to make them pay for what they’ve done to us?” “It was over before I even got there,” I whispered. “I couldn’t help her. Nobody could help her.” “You helped Jack,” she said. “He might have bled out before anyone realised something was wrong. He could have died, but you told Brian where you were going.” “Is Base okay?” “Not really,” she said. “He’s not moved from outside this room. He won’t come in until you ask for him, and he won’t leave until someone makes him. Callum’s just… you know, doing his thing. Franco’s here. And Aoife.” I nodded and swallowed. So many people already knew what happened. I hated the thought of them discussing her. It felt… I wasn’t even sure why it made my skin crawl. I needed to distract myself from that. It was like claws pulling me into a mire of darkness. I had to keep myself above it, separated from the anger and the pain, or I might just fall apart. “Can you get Aoife to come inside?” Maisy hesitated. “Not Brian?” I shook my head. “Not yet. He was there. He saw… I can’t… just not yet.” “He gets you better than I do then,” she said. “I’ll get Aoife. Do you want me to go to your house and pick up your things?” “Yes, please. Other people need this bed more than I do.” “The police are hanging around. Not just for you, but they won’t let you leave without talking to them.” “I know,” I said. “And thanks, Maisy.” She got out of the bed then looked at me. “It won’t always hurt this much, Devlin. I’m so sorry for your loss, but it won’t always feel this big. And you have us. You’re not alone.” But I had never felt more alone in my life. She left the room. Shortly afterward, Aoife arrived, her eyes red and swollen. “Are you okay?” I asked unthinkingly. She gave me a horrified look. “I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t be… I just can’t believe what’s happening.” “I know.” I sat up and tried to regain control of my shaking voice. There were steps that had to be taken, moves that had to be made. Nobody else could feel the way I was feeling. It had to end, the pain, the suffering, the grief and the misery. We had to put our loved ones out of reach of the vampires. Aoife was staring at me as though she didn’t know what to say. “I need you to do something for me,” I said. “Anything,” she gushed, moving to the edge of the bed. She was uncomfortable and scared, and I didn’t blame her. She didn’t even know what was going on. “I’m going to tell you things, and you’re not going to want to believe me, but that’s okay as long as you do what I tell you.” Her face fell. “What’s going on?” “This, all of this, has to do with Sully, Aoife. The deaths, no, the murders, are all to do with him.” “He’s back?” “No,” I said. “We killed him that night.” “No,” she said. “That’s not—” “He was a vampire,” I said, trying not to think about what that meant. “All of these deaths are being caused by his kind, and if you and Maisy don’t take your families away, you’ll lose them, too.” “Oh, Devlin,” she said, her eyes full of sympathy that made me want to slap her. “You’ve been through so much, that—” “Ask Base,” I said. “If you ask him am I telling the truth, he won’t keep the secret anymore. But even if you don’t believe us, you have to get out of here. Go as far as you can. His brothers are next, Aoife. They came for my mother, and they’ll come for his family, too. They’ll hurt everyone we know, just to punish us. I know I can rely on you to get them out of here.” “But where would we go?” she asked. “What am I supposed to tell people?” “Anything that makes them run,” I said. “I don’t care what you tell them, just go. The boys… Frankie’s grandmother lives on the west coast, rural. Go there. Stay for as long as you can. Get everyone’s family to go, as many people as you can persuade. Maisy, her family, Brian and his, Franco and Callum, just make them leave. You can persuade them. They won’t listen to me, not now.” “What about you?” she asked. “Aren’t you coming?” “No,” I said. “I don’t have a family left to lose. I have to bury my mother, and then I’ll figure out what I’m going to do next. But you need to get those boys out of here because Brian will never forgive himself if anything happens to them.” “I don’t believe you,” she said after a few moments. “I think you hurt your head, and you’re confused because of the drugs they gave you. I get it, you’re upset, and there’s definitely something going on. You and Brian are in trouble. The whole county seems to be in trouble. I’m more than happy to leave. If I can get people to come with me, I will, but it’s not that simple.” “What do you mean?” “I mean when does it end? Everyone’s calling it a crime problem, that it’s the scumbags killing each other. But outside of our community, nobody cares about what’s been happening. They’re just happy it’s not happening to them. So when do we come back if this is how life is now?” “We’ll figure something out,” I said in a shaky voice. “Just promise me that you’ll get people to safety if you can.” “After the funeral,” she began. “No,” I said firmly. “Now. Today. Tonight. Not tomorrow.” When she left, I figured I had persuaded her that it was too dangerous to stay. She thought I was crazy, yeah, but so much was obviously wrong that it was hard to ignore. Two police officers came to speak to me before Maisy returned. Both were suspicious of me. “But why were you there?” the female garda asked me impatiently. “We’ve already told you,” I said. “Do you think I killed all of those people? Do you think the man who survived is lying when he says I helped him? Do you think I hurt my own mother? Arrest me then because I don’t care about anything anymore.” “You’re not under suspicion,” the male officer said in a softer voice. “But none of this makes sense, and we’re just trying to piece together the details.” “Good luck,” I said sullenly. “I wouldn’t mind knowing the truth either.” They asked me question after question, but I gave them vague answers, pretending I was still too caught up in a haze of drugs and grief. It wasn’t much to fake. If I thought about my mother too long, if I didn’t manage to blink away her image when it appeared before my eyes, then a pain would pierce my heart so strongly that I found it hard to breathe. She was gone, and there was no going back, but if I swam in my misery, I might never get back to my feet again. If I concentrated, I could fuel the anger in my heart. If I let it, the anger could swallow up the fear. And I needed to be strong. I needed to be brave. And I needed to be vengeful. Because the vampires had killed my mother, and I had little left to lose. I had no family, no sense of purpose, nothing. Except maybe I did have a purpose. To pay the vampires back. To make them regret ever setting foot into my town. To make them regret ever laying a hand on an innocent person. I didn’t know how, and I didn’t know when, but I wasn’t going to stop until somebody had paid for the death of my mother. And that thought gave me the strength to get off the bed, sign myself out, and go back to the little flat that my mother had never had a chance to step inside. That thought seared through all of my grief and pushed it aside. I needed anger, and I needed death. Chapter Fifteen The steam from the iron made my face sweat, but I didn’t care. The sound of it was a reminder of the one decent boyfriend my mother ever had. The one who had inevitably struggled to deal with her drama and left us to have a nice, normal life elsewhere, not that I could blame him. At least, not anymore. Anyway, that boyfriend had ironed his shirts every evening. Ironed my school uniform, too, for that matter. I felt safe when I saw him iron. How odd was that? But that feeling of security had been real to me. Too real. Too fleeting. Somebody had come to take care of us, to make us look and act like a normal family. Evan would press the iron against his shirt, his tongue sticking out the side of his mouth as he concentrated on smoothing the fabric close to the collar. And for a while, I knew I didn’t have to take care of my mother anymore. I would lean on the back of the sofa and watch him iron, fascinated by his steadiness, at how long he could keep at the one task. And sometimes, sometimes Mam would wear her lipstick and raise the volume on the radio. She would dance around him like some kind of carefree angel, and secretly, I longed to be just like her in those moments. There was something about her on her best days, something that drew people in. She had a kind of power, so it was baffling to me how easily she lost it. But on those good days, those great days, she sparkled. Evan would try to keep ironing while she distracted him. It was a game, and he and I were the co-conspirators. He would keep her waiting, winking at me because we both knew he would give in. He always gave in. Until the day he didn’t. But back then, before things got bad, he would eventually set the iron aside and take her into his arms. He would dance her around the room, and I would feel a burst of something special in my chest, a kind of respect, and maybe even love, that had been broken when he left. And of course, I couldn’t deal with the ache in my heart at his desertion. I felt it just as keenly as my mother, but I didn’t have booze and other men to fall back on. Instead, I had hate, and I chose to focus on and cultivate a special kind of hate, just for him. A hate he didn’t deserve, but I didn’t know of any other ways to deal. And that was my problem. I turned even the good into something bad. I didn’t savour or appreciate the good times enough. And I had been so selfish that I wanted that man to suffer with us just so I wouldn’t be alone. And now it was all over anyway. Only a gap remained. A space with no gravity, no substance, no meaning. My purpose for a long time had been the care of my mother. What was I supposed to do now that she was gone? Cry? Move on? Nothing fit into the space she left. I had felt suffocated and wronged, and now the burst of fresh oxygen was overwhelming, dizzying. That empty space could be filled with anything of my choosing. And was that feeling in my gut terror… or excitement? My stomach turned, but I ignored it. I set the iron down and lifted up my black shirt. Funeral attire. Not that it would be much of a funeral. With everything going on, it had been hard enough to book in a spot at all. My mother and I had always agreed to take the cheapest option available to be sensible, but in the end, I had to take what I could get. Too many people had died. Mam actually had an irrational fear of waking up in a coffin, and the topic of cremation had come up often enough, drunk or sober, for me to understand there was no other choice, but it had been made clear to me that any ceremony would be rushed in order to accommodate the influx of death. I quickly dressed. Being in the flat wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Mam had never even stepped foot inside the place. There were no memories. Not even a lingering scent. It was almost as though she had never even existed, as though my moving into the flat had really been my stepping out of her life. I had left her, and she had died. That seemed like some sick kind of punishment to me. I was too early, so I sat on my sofa in silence until my phone buzzed with a text message. Base and Maisy were outside in a taxi waiting for me. His family were already long gone in his family car, travelling to Frankie’s grandmother’s house with Aoife. She really thought I had lost my mind, but telling her the truth had been a relief. The world needed the truth. A shiver ran through me. Maybe that was what the vampires wanted, too. I grabbed my bag and headed downstairs, getting into the backseat of the taxi with Maisy. She gave me a watery smile and tried to make light conversation. Her hair was covering her face. An odd feeling stirred in my gut. I moved the hair away from her face. Her right eye was swollen, the purple lid closed from the damage. “What happened?” My voice was so hoarse, it hurt my throat to speak. Colour rushed to her cheeks. “It doesn’t matter.” “Tell me.” “Something happened at the dance studio. I went to help out with a class, and a pair of,” she lowered her voice, “vampires attacked.” I stared at her. “Nobody was hurt,” she hurriedly added. “I mean, not badly anyway. Franco came with me because he thought maybe… one of us would be next. We fought off the attackers. Most of the kids were upstairs when it happened, missed the whole thing. But they’ve closed down the studio for a while. Some of what happened was caught on film, and the police watched it. I think… I think maybe some of them are starting to believe.” A spark of anger ignited within my chest. The vampires had the vulnerable in their crosshairs, and if somebody didn’t stop them soon, so many more lives would be lost. I clung to that anger, falling back to my old ways of replacing pain with rage. “None of that matters today,” Maisy said softly. “This is about honouring your mother’s life.” Ignoring her, I watched out the window as we passed shop window after shop window that had been smashed up. The town was destroying itself. Did we even need the vampires to help? It had been three days since my mother died. Three days of feeling as though a shield around me was keeping the rest of the world out. Muted sounds, wishy-washy colours. And I felt it grabbing at me. That despair that had entangled my mother. The same kind of feeling that had threatened to engulf me after my initial dealings with a vampire. I was close to succumbing, close to giving up. It would be so much easier, and looking at the destruction around me, we didn’t stand much of a chance anyway. The vampires were winning. They would always win. They had power we couldn’t dream of, and we were nothing. Nobody. A tiny voice screamed at me to stop, to keep fighting, to do the right thing. But it was growing fainter, and I wasn’t sure I would always hear it. I wasn’t sure I had enough strength left to do the right thing. Adversity made a person, and I was coming up short. Base kept turning in his seat to catch my eye, but I avoided his gaze. That was easier, too. I couldn’t stand the pity. There were moments when I almost forgot, but that constant concern let the memories tighten their hold. It would have been nice to let go for even a few minutes, but it was impossible when everyone around me maintained that understanding, sympathetic look. And as we drove past an off-licence, I had a new understanding for my mother’s struggles. That beautiful oblivion was out there, just waiting for me. All I had to do was reach out and take it. An easy method to forget, a quick way to let go. I finally understood my mother, and it was too late for both of us. I didn’t even remember getting out of the taxi and going to the graveyard. I sort of awoke with a start after the cremation, wondering how I had managed to fake my way through it all. Blank faces surrounded me, too few of them to honour a woman’s life, and yet maybe more than either of us deserved. Words were said in the same tones, and I kept nodding and answering on autopilot. It felt so fake of me to mourn her when a sense of relief chased the waves of grief. There was an undeniable weight off my shoulders, and I hated myself for it. The thought of never seeing her again made me want to rip my own heart to shreds to stop the pain, and still, behind it all, that weightlessness remained. The guilt hung heavier than anything else. I desperately needed to talk to her one last time, to figure out the things I was feeling, but she had found her peace, and I couldn’t wish her back. Maybe she was the lucky one. And then I finally got a chance to walk away, to move from the fray and chatter, to breathe. A movement caught my attention, a figure in the distance. Something triggered a memory, but then he was gone, walking away in a hurry. “Wait!” I ran after him, cursing myself for wearing heels. What had I been thinking? Wasn’t I always running? He kept walking, faster now. “Evan, please wait!” I called out, panting in my panic to catch up. He hesitated, stopped, and then turned around to face me. The one decent boyfriend may have left us, but he had come to pay his respects in the end. “You came,” I said stupidly. He nodded, his pale-coloured eyes taking me in and sizing me up, probably waiting for me to swear at him. “I’m sorry,” he said in a cracked voice. I remembered the terrible things I had said to him and suddenly felt embarrassed. “No, I am,” I said then shook my head. “I’m doing this wrong. I meant to say I get it. I know why you left, and I shouldn’t have blamed you. I shouldn’t have… I wasn’t good at coping. Just like her. And I’m… I’m sorry I treated you badly. It’s just… you were the only… it doesn’t matter now. I just wanted to apologise for my behaviour.” “I didn’t come here for that, Devlin.” He swallowed hard. “You’re a credit to her, actually. I didn’t blame you for being angry, not really. It was just frustrating not being able to explain. And I wanted to check in with you, but—” “I made it impossible,” I said, trying to smile. “Anyway, it always worked out better when I did the caring. I’ve never been good at being looked after.” He nodded at the crowd I had just left. “Friends?” I looked over my shoulder at the group gathered together. Base was quietly waiting for me, anxiously preparing himself for whatever breakdown I was supposed to have next. Maisy and Franco were doing their best to distract people from me. Callum… I couldn’t even look at him properly yet. Old school friends, a couple of people from Mark’s bar. More had turned up than I realised. I had friends. I wasn’t alone. And Tom was back. I hadn’t even noticed. My nose prickled. “Yes,” I managed to say. “They’re friends.” I faced him and cleared my throat. “Are you happy?” “Yes,” was his automatic response, but he cringed as he said it. “No, that’s good.” I tried to smile, but a sudden need to cry made it hard. “I’m glad. I saw her, you know. She looked… at ease. It’s just now I’m realising that I never saw her completely at ease before.” “Maybe she’s in a better place.” He shuddered. “If you need anything, you know where to find me, right? If you’re alone, or—” “I’m not alone,” I said firmly. “But with everything that’s happened, it might be a good time to take a holiday, Evan. A lot of people I know have been hurt. Take your wife and that little baby somewhere safe.” He looked as though he wanted to say something else but changed his mind. “I’ll see you around, Devlin. Make something of yourself, okay?” I nodded then waited for him to walk away. As he reached the gates, I saw a news van waiting and rolled my eyes. Were we really so newsworthy now? I headed back to the others, feeling as though a loose end had been tied up. It felt good. Life was fleeting, and bearing old grudges suddenly seemed so pointless. I made a beeline for Base as old friends and even enemies from school avoided my path because they just didn’t know what to say to me. It was enough that they had showed up. But maybe it was time for me to say my goodbyes to the world—just in case. Tom was speaking to Brian as I approached. He wrapped me up into a bear hug, and I instantly relaxed. “You came back,” I said in a wobbly voice. “As soon as I heard. I’m so sorry for your loss, Dev. How are you coping?” “I’m okay,” I said. “Where were you? Are you all right?” “That’ll save for later.” He searched my face as though trying to figure out something. “Have you anything planned?” I shook my head. “Didn’t seem like the time to have a wake.” “Maisy and I made sandwiches.” Base rubbed the back of his neck as though he were embarrassed. “We thought we could all head to my house. Save anyone being alone.” I made up my mind to cope better. “That’s a good idea. That’s what we should do.” “Are you sure?” he asked, sounding concerned. “I mean, we can just leave it or—” “No, it’s fine. Maybe we all need to catch up.” I wiped under my eyes in case my mascara had run down my cheeks. “Did your family get away okay?” “They arrived safely.” His smile was wistful. “I’ll miss the car though.” “If anyone needs a lift, I’m driving,” Deco said, approaching us in a wary sort of way. The last person I had expected to see was my ex-boyfriend, but I appreciated his presence, even if he did look exceptionally uncomfortable. “Thanks,” I said. “You don’t have to go out of your way or anything.” “There’s been a little trouble in the centre of town this morning,” he explained. “I don’t think it would be a good idea for anyone to end up alone or stranded. Those gangs have really lost control, you know?” I glanced at Base and grimaced. “Yeah, I suppose they have.” “I’m so sorry,” Deco said immediately. “That sounded… I didn’t mean…” “It’s fine.” I tried to smile. “And thanks for coming. It means a lot.” I nodded at Shauna as I spoke. My ex-best friend could hear me, but she looked too terrified to approach. I didn’t blame her. I wouldn’t have known what to say to anyone in my position either. I had changed in everyone’s eyes because the murders had been so horrific, so infamous already. Everyone was talking constantly about the madhouse murders. No more rehab-speak. People were fascinated as much as they were repelled. So far, it had been the dregs of society who had been lost. At least as far as the rest of the world was concerned. Only the poor side of town had been affected. The wealthier parts were doing fine. It was the rest of us making a descent into the pits of hell. “Are you going to leave town?” Brian asked Deco politely. There was still a lot of tension between them, but they would get over it. “No way,” Deco said, and I had to smile. He had always been stubborn and brash and cocky. “I’m not letting any scumbags chase me out of my home.” “No shame in leaving,” Tom said. “Are you all leaving?” Deco demanded. “Maybe,” I said softly. “Maybe it’s time to leave.” Brian gave me a concerned look. “Are you thinking about going?” I gazed out at the graveyard. Would it run out of space before the end? Whenever that would be. “I don’t know. We’re fighting a losing battle here. Everything’s falling apart. I’m not sure what we can do to help it.” “I’m staying,” Deco insisted. “And I’m going to go on as normal, too. Screw these scumbags. They’ll get what’s coming to them.” As I listened, I almost believed him. But then I remembered that we were fighting monsters. They were outnumbered, but they had all the power. And people like Deco, well-meaning people trying to make a difference, would suffer because they didn’t have all of the information. “You’re right,” I said after an awkward silence. “Running won’t help, will it?” Maisy rubbed my arm. “You’re cold. Let’s head on. I’ll do a coffee run.” “Not alone,” I said immediately. “I’ll take her,” Deco offered. “Great,” Tom said before I could even think of a reply. “I’ll make sure everyone has a lift, then I’ll take Dev and some others on to Brian’s house.” It was only then that I realised they weren’t going to let me be alone for a while. I sort of half-laughed, half-sobbed, and everyone froze to the spot. Brian pulled me into his arms and held me close so I could hide my face. I didn’t want to cry, not really, but the idea that I really wasn’t alone almost broke me down. It was still a new concept to me; I could have friends, could let people into my heart. Maybe I was deserving of their time and affection. Maybe there was a happy ending out there for us. “Come on,” Brian whispered. “Let’s walk around for a bit.” Base and I strolled to the front gates, his warm fingers wrapped around mine, to get a few moments of quiet while the others organised. We lingered by the gates, watching as a group of cars pulled up outside, probably for yet another funeral. Base looked unsure of himself. It was the first time we had been alone together since… everything happened. He brushed my hair behind my ears. “Is there anything I can do?” I shook my head. “I’ll be okay. I’m sorry I haven’t been… you know.” “You don’t have to apologise. I’m here when you need me, and if you need space, I’ll try to give it.” “Thanks.” I gazed at the houses near the cemetery. All of the lamp posts had been smashed up, rubbish was strewn everywhere, and not even one child was playing on the large green across the road. What a difference so little time made. I felt as though I stood on the precipice of a future I wasn’t yet ready for. So many decisions needed to be made, so many unknowns still existed. I kept flying between despair and rage, and neither were helping me focus. “Were you really thinking about leaving?” Brian asked gently. “No. I don’t know.” I ran my hands through my hair, feeling frustrated. “It’s just hard for me to find a silver lining. It’s like the world is burning around us, and we’re powerless. I can’t control the situation, and it’s driving me mad.” “Devlin, that’s real life,” he said. I glanced at him. “I’m pretty sure vampires aren’t supposed to figure into real life.” “Life is unpredictable and uncontrollable,” he said. “You can do things to make the best of it, but you never know what will happen next, what’ll come knocking. You prepare when you can, and you fight to stay on top, but monsters or not, life has never been in our control.” “That’s depressing.” “I think it’s kind of freeing,” he said. “It’s not all aligned in the stars. We get handed these situations, and the outcome depends on how we deal with it. It’s ultimately in our hands.” “But it feels like all we’re deciding is when we die.” “We’re dying the second we’re born, and we keep healthy and fit to live a little longer, but even at that, we can’t predict a car crash or cancer or a million other things. It doesn’t mean we give up.” He cupped my cheeks. “I’m not telling you how to deal with this loss, Devlin. I would never even try. But I need to know that you won’t give up. That you won’t let them win just because it seems hopeless.” I saw something in his eyes then, a kind of desperation. It mirrored my own. He needed me to tell him I would stay strong, and I needed to make that promise to me. I had to force that despair to lose its clutches on me, to push it back under the waves and lose its strength. No matter what happened, the vampires couldn’t take my strength or my hope unless I let them. I had to remember that. I held his gaze, mentally making a decision. “Whether we stay and face them or run for the rest of our lives, I will never make it easy on them.” My face fell. “But I do feel guilty,” I admitted. “Why?” he whispered. “What do you have to feel guilty about?” “I’m a bad person, Brian.” “You’re not a bad person.” He kissed my hair. “You’re the best person.” “You don’t understand. I… I felt relieved.” I avoided his eyes. “I’m sad, I am, but I also feel… weightless without her. I’m so ashamed, Brian. I loved her so much, and I can’t even grieve her death properly. I can’t even feel the things I’m supposed to feel.” “It’s the shock.” He wrapped his arms around me. “And so many other things, but it’s okay to feel how you feel. There’s no shame in any of it, Devlin. You have a good heart.” “No, I don’t,” I said bitterly. “I’ve always been heartless, even back… back then.” “That’s not true,” he said firmly. “You protected yourself. That doesn’t make you heartless.” “You don’t get it. I’m a coward. I just care about myself.” His voice softened. “You’ve spent a good chunk of your life taking care of your mother.” “That’s because I felt guilty!” I pushed my way out of his embrace. “I… Her ex was hitting me, and I was relieved when he moved on to her. I was so bloody relieved that he was hitting her and not me anymore.” “You were a child,” he protested. “It’s not just then.” Tears rolled freely down my cheeks. I didn’t even try to stop them. I was too busy spitting out my darkest parts of my soul. “Back in Sully’s house, I was relieved when he bit Aoife instead of me.” He brushed the tears away. “What do you expect me to say? That you should have been eager for a vampire to bite you? Cop on.” “She’s your friend! And I’m telling you I was glad that he hurt her instead of me.” “If that was really true then you wouldn’t have spent so much time and effort trying to get her away from him. Devlin, it’s normal to want to survive bad things. There’s nothing wrong with not wanting pain. Nobody expects you to martyr yourself, to beg for bad things to happen to you instead of anyone else. You didn’t hurt your mother or Aoife. You did everything you could to save them, and I don’t think—” “Why are you the only person who can’t see what I’m really like?” I demanded. “Are you just blind or stupid or what?” I thumped his chest. “I’m showing you who I am, and you’re completely ignoring it!” He caught my wrists and held them gently. “I know exactly who you are. You can’t push me away. Not now. Not like this.” “I don’t want to push you away,” I cried, barely able to stand the affectionate look written all over his face. “I’m doing it without even trying.” “You’re trying to punish yourself because you feel responsible for the vampires. They aren’t your responsibility. Even your mother—” “Preferred rehab to living with me. Preferred awful men to my company. Preferred death to being my mother. Even she could see I wasn’t worth it.” “You are worth it,” he said earnestly. “My God, you really need to start seeing that, Dev. You can’t be scared of happiness because you’re afraid you’re not worth it! Your mother just lived with her guilt in a different way. And maybe she went to rehab to give you a chance at a life of your own. Maybe that was her way of setting you free.” “She didn’t even want to see me.” “She pushed you out of the nest in the only way she could.” “She wouldn’t do that,” I insisted. “She needed me. And I let her down. I let her go. I wasn’t there. I couldn’t save her, and I… I don’t even miss the burden of taking care of her. I should miss it. I should be crying. I should be grieving properly.” His expression turned incredulous. “I’m looking at you grieve right now, Dev.” “This isn’t grief. I don’t even remember what happened back there. I wasn’t paying attention when they cremated her! I should have made the most of every second with her but I’m acting like I’ve already moved on. Why am I like this?” “Because it’s helping you survive.” I turned away. “Don’t feed me with bullshit. We both know this isn’t normal.” “Normal.” He snorted. “Who gets to say what’s normal? Who gets to tell you that your feelings are wrong? Death is forever. It isn’t defined by how you act on one specific day, and no matter what you think today, it’s going to affect you in ways you can’t even imagine. There’s no end date, no limit to it. You’ll think you’re fine one day, and then the next, it’ll hit you like a truck, as though it had just happened. Grief doesn’t go away. It’s always there, always at the back of your mind.” I looked at him, full of shame. “I’m so sorry. You lost your dad, and I’m acting like you haven’t a clue what it feels like.” “There’s no point comparing,” he said. “Because no two people go through the exact same thing. But I can tell you this: one day, it’s going to hit you that she’s never coming back, and you’re going to grieve hard. But right now, you don’t have time to fall apart. And that’s what makes you strong. The vampires want you to fall apart.” His voice grew firm. “But you’re not going to give them what they want.” I nodded, buoyed by his faith in me. I had told him the things I felt ashamed of, and he still trusted me. And when he spoke, I wanted to believe him. He was right about the vampires. They had taken my mother, my confidence, and so many more things. No more. No more. Chapter Sixteen I watched in the wing mirror as we pulled out of the graveyard. As I might have predicted, the news van followed. As if the woman didn’t have enough to do, she had to follow me around on the day I said goodbye to my mother. That wasn’t strictly true. I had said goodbye to her body when I found her. Ashes in a box would mean little enough to me. My attention was soon drawn to a group of people in the centre of the road ahead of us. Trouble. Tom slowed the car, hesitant, as though he were contemplating helping or leaving. “Keep going,” Base advised. “It’s bound to be trouble.” “Yeah, but what kind?” I noted the flinch of surprise from the others when I spoke. I ignored it and continued with, “Half the town seems to be under some kind of a thrall. The other half is either demented with worry or wound up to the point of violence and destruction.” “Making it easy on the vampires,” Tom said. “I hope the others don’t drive this way.” The news van was still behind us. The crowd dispersed, moving back as one to reveal a fistfight. And as the two men fought, a woman jumped on one of their backs, looking like a wild animal. That triggered some kind of madness as half the crowd threw themselves into the fray. My stomach turned with anxiety. “Screw it,” Tom muttered. He revved the engine and sped toward the crowd, slamming his hand on the horn as he drove. The car made a squealing sound, protesting at the speed, but most of the crowd jumped out of the way and stopped fighting. Tom barely missed the last two scrappers with the car. I let out a breath I hadn’t realised I had been holding as people swore after us. The news van slowed, almost to a stop, probably videoing the scene. But the fright had broken some of the tension, and the brawl appeared to be over. As I watched, the crowd worked together to separate the fighters who still seemed intent on knocking lumps out of each other. A woman was making a keening noise somewhere in the crowd, and I rubbed my arms, feeling a chill at the sound. We were all being used for the vampires’ entertainment. “It has to stop,” I said viciously. Brian glanced at me. “Yes.” “We’ll make a plan,” Tom said. “We’ll figure this out together.” “Are you staying now?” I asked. He looked at me, his gaze full of regret. “I think I’m needed here. I tried to help in the city, met up with some like-minded old friends to help out the soldiers on patrol.” “Did that go well?” I asked. He sighed. “We thought so, but it seems we just chased the trouble away.” “This was probably always the plan,” Base said. Tom didn’t look convinced. “Whatever happened, the biggest problem is here now, and we need to get ahead of it.” “You mean figure out the attacks before they happen?” I asked eagerly. “They’ve picked on the helpless so far.” His jaw clenched with anger. “The homeless, the elderly, even kids and the…” “Insane?” I offered when his voice died away. “It’s okay. Everyone else is calling it that.” “Your mother wasn’t insane,” he said in a harsh tone. “She was just tired. Not everyone is as strong as you, Dev.” “I’m not strong. I can’t even…” I shook my head. I didn’t feel strong. “You’re a survivor,” he said after a moment, echoing Base’s sentiment. “If that doesn’t make you strong then I don’t know what does.” I looked down at my hands. Calloused from training. Sometimes marked with splinters from a home-made wooden stake. Mam hadn’t been interested in being physically able to fight back. But I wouldn’t have fared any better if I had only arrived at the hospital a little earlier. Survival was an odd term. It implied something that I wasn’t sure I could claim. “Emily spoke to me, Tom,” I said after a few moments. “She wanted to work with us. She knew where my mother was, knew what was happening. I can’t tell how much of it is personal and how much is part of their big plan, but what if we could bait them into attacking us somewhere we’re ready for them? What if we could turn the tables?” “That would be ideal,” he said. “But do we have enough to stop them yet? And I know she can look innocent, but you don’t really trust Emily, do you?” “Never. But we could use her. The hunters, too.” “I thought they died,” Tom said, sounding confused. “Jack’s team died,” Base clarified. “All but him. But there are others in town. We’ve seen them.” “But if they’re here, that means—” “That there are more vampires here,” Base said, then he turned to me, probably eager to keep including me in the conversation now that I was finally talking about something other than my self-pity. “Tell him what Emily called her sire.” I let my conversation with her drift through my mind, picking up the important details while ignoring the glaring fact that my mother had already been dead while I exchanged barbs with a vampire. I cleared my throat. “Emily called them first-generations. They’re the ones in charge. They’re old, have survived a very long time, apparently. But they have their weaknesses, and they create second generation vampires because they can somehow pull power from them. It’s like… the more they sire, the more power they can wield, but if that was really the case, then why don’t they each have an army of thousands by now?” “Competition?” Base offered. “Or maybe the power gets out of control. Maybe they can only contain so much.” “Maybe,” I conceded. “Emily made it sound like there are second gens running round who don’t have a sire anymore. So they follow a first gen who looks like he’s gaining power. Anyway, these first gens need the second gens to do their dirty work for them. They really can’t go out in sunlight, by the way. That’s probably their biggest weakness.” “So we find them and wipe them out while they can’t go outside,” Tom said. “They’ll be protected by their second gens and probably half the humans around here, too,” Base said wryly. “It just won’t be as easy as it sounds.” “Right,” I said, “But if their sired second gens die, then they lose a bit of power until they replace them, just like Emily with Sully and Janelle. Kill enough second gens, and we weaken the first gens. In theory, anyway. Emily told me that there aren’t many of these first gens, but they’re the ones with the power. So if we remove the head…” Tom nodded. “I see. Go for the top to take out the entire system.” He caught my eye in the mirror. “This is war, Devlin. Are you ready?” “No,” I said. “But I think we’re all done with waiting to die.” His smile was wide enough to see his gold tooth. “It’s time we won a battle, eh?” We arrived at Brian’s house and got out of the car. I shivered as a brisk wind assaulted us. The news van pulled up nearby, not even making a show of hiding. “Give me a minute to deal with this,” I said before strolling over to the van. Evelyn Molloy lounged in the passenger seat next to the male driver who I assumed also handled the camera. Her red hair was tied back into a severe bun, and up close, her makeup was harsh, her cheeks overly contoured, and her lips over-lined. She looked completely unconcerned by my approach. I fixed my most intimidating glare on her. “No shame at all, have you?” The driver looked uncomfortable, but Evelyn smiled. “When I sniff out a story, I follow it through to the end.” “Oh? And what’s your story here? Do grieving daughters make headlines now?” “You don’t look so sad to me,” she said smartly. “Of course, in your case, it’s a little different. The woman invited violent men into your home and let you deal with the consequences, didn’t she?” She threw a snide smile in Base’s direction as he joined me. “So exactly how far did the apple fall from the tree?” I clenched my fists. “Why don’t you—” “Dev, let’s go inside,” Brian said softly, his hand wrapping around one of my fists. “It’s cold out here.” “Yeah.” I held the reporter’s gaze. “It really is.” Her smile froze for a moment before she recovered. “Carry on,” she said. “I’m still intrigued.” I stuck up my middle finger before letting Base lead me away. He wrapped his arm around my shoulder. “Don’t let her get to you.” “You’d think she’d have better things to do than stalk funeral-goers.” Tom held open the front door, welcoming people in as they arrived. When we reached him, he gripped my hand for a moment and squeezed. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here.” “I was here, and it still happened.” His expression fell. “I’m don’t know what to say.” “I’m just glad you’re back.” I moved inside, but I froze by the living room door. “Everything okay?” Brian whispered. “I need a minute,” I said, suddenly crippled by anxiety. “I can’t see everyone yet. They’ll all be… looking at me. I can’t take the sympathy.” “Come upstairs to my room,” he said. “We’ll hide out until you feel up to it. They’ll all be too busy devouring my beautiful sandwiches to notice.” I allowed myself a small smile and let him guide me upstairs. The Star Wars cover was on the bed again. That made me smile, too. “Have you noticed how much time we spend hiding out in each other’s bedrooms?” I asked, strolling over to the bed and running my hand over his alarm clock. He came up behind me and kissed my neck. “Not enough, if we’re keeping track.” I turned and wrapped my arms around him. “I’m scared, Brian.” “You’re safe.” “No, I mean, I’m scared I’ll forget her. When I’m home, it’s almost like she never existed, like I always lived alone. Sometimes I forget how it was before. Every battle we fight seems to drive the old memories away, and that’s all I have. Old memories, I mean. We didn’t make enough new memories together. Only in our old house, and Mark’s pub before it burned, and even in Sully’s house. But all of those places are out of reach now, and it’s like… she is, too.” “You won’t forget her, but it’s not such a terrible thing to forget the bad times. You’ll always love her. Even when you were angry at her, you still loved her, Devlin. You never let anyone hurt her or say a bad word against her for a reason. You worked hard to take care of her.” “Until I didn’t.” “Stop that. You did it for too long,” he said, a little too loudly. “I’m sorry, but you’re punishing yourself for no reason. You did everything you could for her, and she was the one who couldn’t….” “Couldn’t what?” I said miserably. “Love me enough to try a little harder? To fight back?” “She loved you,” he said. “Or she would have given up completely long ago, I think. You both loved each other, but it wasn’t healthy, and her going to that place was the best thing she could have done for you. She wanted to stop being your burden, Dev. She wanted you to live your life, to travel, to experience things she didn’t. She didn’t want you to sit here feeling like you weren’t enough.” “If I hadn’t sent her there, she’d be alive.” “You don’t know that,” he said. “Nobody knows what the what ifs would bring. Do you think she wanted you to put your life on hold forever? She was the only person with the power to fix herself. You are not responsible.” “I love you,” I said abruptly. “But I don’t think you can talk me out of this.” “So tell me what I can do,” he said pleadingly. “Help me help you feel better. Help me make you see yourself through my eyes.” “You see the best in everyone,” I said gently, cupping his cheek. “Not true. I still want to punch Deco every time I see him.” “Liar.” But I smiled anyway. “I haven’t been kind to you this week, I know.” “Fuck kind,” he said. “I’m the one who’s supposed to be there for you this week. You need me, and I’m practically useless.” “Not useless.” I kissed him. It helped drive the black thoughts away, helped hide the misery behind a door for a while. It felt good to think about something other than death. I slipped off my jacket and pulled his shirt free from his trousers. “Are you sure?” he asked, running his hands through my hair. “Yes,” I said urgently. “I need you.” “Well,” he said teasingly. “Seeing as you asked so nicely.” “Oh, shut up.” A little warmth and happiness touched me again at his familiar banter. That felt better, so I pulled him closer. He lifted me and set me on the bed. That funny little hitch he sometimes made at the back of his throat let me know that he needed me too. Sometimes all we had left was that carnal place that drove everything else away. But a sudden scream ripped through the haze of warmth and security. It was quickly followed by a loud crashing sound. I pushed Base away and sat up. “What the fuck was that?” Somebody pounded on the front door. “Help!” a female voice shouted in a panicked voice. “Oh, God,” I whispered, closing the buttons on my shirt. Base followed suit, but as he crossed the room, something collided against the window. It crashed right through, covering both of us in shards of glass. I ducked out of the way, hearing a thud on the floor. For a split second, I imagined Sully had come for us. I turned defensively, but nobody was standing there. “Oh, fuck,” Base said. “There’s a body in my room, Devlin. A dead body. In my freaking bedroom.” He was right. On the floor, amidst the broken glass, lay a corpse, his neck twisted in an unnatural shape. I avoided the man’s body to look out the window. Nobody was outside, but the news van had been overturned. Footsteps sounded on the stairs. Both Brian and I moved out of the room. Tom and Callum were racing up the stairs. “There’s a man on the floor,” I said in a voice that didn’t sound like my own. “The vampires threw him,” Callum said darkly, moving past me to see. “But they’re gone,” I said. “What was the point?” “To spook us,” Tom said, taking a look himself. “Who is he?” Base asked. “The camera man,” I said, suddenly realising. “Is the reporter… dead?” “No, we got her inside in time,” Tom said. “They didn’t try to follow her.” “Okay, but what the hell do we do about the body in my room?” Brian asked, still looking dazed. “I’ll take care of it,” Callum said. “I’ll call it in, have the body removed. But this is going to look bad. I mean, really bad.” “When does it ever look good?” Brian said wryly. He grabbed my hand. “Let’s go downstairs. This is creeping me out.” “Sorry,” I whispered as we descended. “This isn’t your fault,” he insisted. “Fuckers are sick though.” In the kitchen, a couple of people were trying to console the reporter. “Are you hurt?” I asked coldly. She shook her head, her fingers shaking around her cup. “It’s the same as that night at the abattoir, isn’t it?” I nodded then took a seat. “He’s dead.” “Oh, God.” Her lips trembled. “He has kids.” I tried to muster up an appropriate amount of sympathy for her. It was tough when she seemed so heartless, but I called myself heartless, and I was capable of feeling pain. I had to try to remember that everyone had a story, reasons for the way they behaved. It was easy to hate, easy to accuse, and I wasn’t that much better a person. “I need to talk to you.” She looked at me pleadingly. “Alone.” I touched my chest. “Me?” “Yes, you.” There was a hysterical tinge to her words. “I need to speak to you.” I grudgingly agreed. Brian shrugged and helped Maisy escort everyone out of the room. The police would soon arrive and likely make everything so much worse. I closed the kitchen door then sat at the table and faced the reporter. “What is it?” “She threw him into the air like he was a soft toy,” she whispered, tears glistening in her eyes. “She?” “Yes, she! A girl! There were two of them, and they tossed him back and forth. They were playing with him. And they would have come after me, too.” She lifted up a small camera. “I videoed them, you know. We caught footage of them. They’re not human.” “You just… watched?” “You think I would let him die for nothing?” she asked sharply. “He died for footage like this, to show the world what’s really going on!” “So what’s really going on?” I asked calmly. “If you have everything figured out.” “I don’t have it figured out.” She fumbled with the camera, her hands trembling. “That’s why I’m talking to you!” She played the video. It was rough and shaky, but I could clearly see two vampires behaving badly. I didn’t recognise either of them. “At the slaughterhouse, I saw… I didn’t know what I saw. I thought I was imagining things.” She wiped her face clean of tears. “Mass hysteria, I don’t know. But I saw something out there that night. Something that created fire. Something that started…” She shook her head. “You know. You’re the link. You’ve been connected to all of this. Tell me. Tell me what’s happening!” “You wouldn’t believe me.” But maybe she would try. She gestured to the camera. “I don’t believe this! But it happened anyway! I have evidence. Proof.” “If you don’t believe it, then nobody else will.” “But all of these murders and kidnappings and crime. It’s all escalating. And nobody’s been caught! How can that be? How can this really be happening? It’s impossible.” “I know.” I sighed wearily. “Will you air this?” “Air it?” She sniffed. “With what commentary? How do I explain this?” “How about with the truth,” I said. “You’ve seen my videos, haven’t you?” “Oh, yeah,” she sneered. “You’re a rising star with your—” She stopped, and a look of terror spread across her face. “You’re not serious. You’re not telling me that stupid vampire prank was real.” “Is your video real?” I asked her calmly. “Of course it’s…” She shook her head. “No, you can’t fill me up with this crap. I won’t believe it, and it’s not funny.” “So leave. Walk out that front door right now.” She froze. “What if they’re still out there?” “Who? Some teenage girl and her friend? If they’re not what I say they are then what’s so scary about them?” “They killed my friend!” she shouted. I slammed my palms on the table, making her flinch. “They killed my mother.” “And it’s made you lose your mind.” But she didn’t sound convinced. “Oh, my God. What’s happening to us?” “Vampires.” She flinched at the word, but at least she had stopped arguing with me. I had to give her credit. It had taken me a lot longer to stop fighting it. “Trust me, I know how hard this is to understand, to accept,” I said, keeping an eye on her reactions. “But the boy who kidnapped me, my mother, and my friends, was a vampire. Not only did he drink blood, but he could do things to our minds, put us under a thrall, make us see terrible things.” “So you’re telling me he’s responsible for all of this?” she asked sceptically. I shook my head. “We killed him.” “I knew it!” she said vehemently then flushed with colour. I rolled my eyes. “Anyway, his maker came after us. She looks like a teenage girl, too. But she was behind those kidnappings. She was trying to figure out who killed Sully, but in the end, she just wanted to punish me. And when we got the better of Emily, her sire came to take her back.” “And did you kill him, too?” she asked snarkily. I shook my head. “He’s different. He makes fire out of nothing, can move things with his mind. And he didn’t go away, not for good.” “You’re telling me we’re all going to die. That’s what you’re saying, isn’t it?” “Not necessarily. There are hunters, people who track his kind, and some of them died with my mother. But there are more out there, more vampires, too. The only way to stop the vampires is to make people believe, equip them with the knowledge to fight back. We can win.” “How?” she asked. “How do we win against these… things who can make fire and throw people as if they’re nothing?” “By working together,” I said. “They don’t all create fire. They don’t all agree. There isn’t even that many of them, but they’re putting their thrall on people like us, forcing them to cause trouble, making it harder to see the real threat.” Her eyes narrowed. “Like those people who started the trouble at the abattoir.” “Exactly like them,” I said excitedly. “They’re distractions. But you can help us.” “How? How the hell can I help? Do you expect me to go Buffy on their arses or something?” She screwed up her nose in disgust. “You really are crazy.” “But you can push this into the public eye. The vampires can’t thrall everyone, not forever. It takes power and time and energy. If you make our videos get out there in the mainstream, then people actually have a chance. You could even help us lure the vampires when we get enough people together to fight back.” “Like who?” “Us. More hunters. Anyone who can make a difference. You could help people see the truth. Film what we do and share it.” “I can’t just share any old video. It’s not up to me.” “So you find a way,” I snapped. “You’re smart. You can think of something. But we’re at war, and we’re going to lose if people don’t start understanding what’s at stake.” “You actually believe in this stuff,” she said slowly, obviously still debating whether I was a raving loony or not. “I’ve seen it with my own eyes, and I… lost my mother to this. I don’t want anyone else to lose somebody they love. But the only way we can do this is to work together. So are you in or out?” She made a face. “I need to find the end of this story. So for now, I’m in. But if I think you’re all a pack of nutjobs, then I’m out.” I shrugged. “Then maybe we’ll let you hide out here until it’s safe.” She made a wry smile, but she stuck out her hand to shake mine. Now all we needed was the hunters to join us, and we might actually stand a chance. And when the police arrived, Evelyn Molloy switched on her professional face and showed them her video, making it clear she wouldn’t accept doubt. “Come on,” the female officer said to Callum in a tired voice. “Not this again.” “Explain how he got through an upstairs window,” Callum said. The male officer sat heavily in a chair. “I don’t know, Bess. It’s getting hard to stay sceptical. You’ve seen the same things as I have.” Bess paled. “That doesn’t mean we have to start believing any lunatic’s story. And we need to take these people to the station. They’ve been involved in half of the crimes over the last year.” “How many families have been informed that their loved ones are dead?” I asked. “How many more will hear the same thing?” She actually looked like she felt sorry for me. “I’m just doing my job.” “If your job is to protect people, keep them safe, then it’s not going well,” I said sharply. “We all want the same thing. To stop these murders.” “Please, Bess,” Callum said softly. She gave him an impatient look. “There’s only so much I can do, Callum.” Her colleague rubbed the stubble on his cheeks. “They just came from a funeral. We don’t have to question anyone today.” “Fine,” she said. “But if I get orders…” “I know,” Callum said. “We just need time. And you two need to know how to protect yourselves. Just listen to me this time. If it comes to nothing, then you can laugh, but humour me for now.” And somehow, bizarrely, after a lot of quick-talking, Callum persuaded two gardaí to carry stakes and holy water with them when they left. At this rate, it was going to take a very long time to break through to everyone in town. Chapter Seventeen It took a lot of mustering up my courage to get me to walk inside a hospital again, but I had to see Jack. The night before had seen more attacks, more madness, more violence and mayhem. It had to end. And the only way I could see that happening was with the aid of real hunters, ones with knowledge and experience. The hospital itself was packed. The nurses were always overworked, but this was something else. They moved from patient to patient as though they had superhuman qualities, and the patients were packed into small rooms that had never been supposed to bear so many people. Makeshift beds lined the hallways, while even more people were propped up in chairs. It was a mess. Nobody had the time or inclination to stop me from roaming freely. Which kind of meant that a vampire like Emily could have a field day in a place like that. And the sharp antiseptic smell reminded me of another place. Ignoring the dark chill creeping around my bones, I made my way through the wards until I found the right one. People had called Jack the lucky one. He had been the sole survivor, the one who got away. But he had also been the one who had to watch the horror. That had to change a person, no matter how tough they were. Maybe my mother hadn’t wanted to survive the things she had seen. And maybe I should have been happier to see Jack alive, but I kept thinking that he was only taking her place. That she should have been the survivor. Life didn’t work that way. His bed was pressed into a tiny private room along with three other beds. There was barely enough space to walk across the room. Jack was staring at the ceiling when I arrived. Covered in visible bruises and bandages, I felt sorry for him, maybe even regretted not visiting sooner. “Hey,” I said. He blinked rapidly then looked at me with a little surprise. “I… didn’t expect to see you here.” I held up a brown paper bag. “I brought you some food. Figured they might not have time to feed people properly.” “Thank you.” He held up his bandaged hands. “I might fumble it, so do you mind leaving it on the bedside locker?” “I could feed you.” I sat on the side of the bed and put down the bag. “I’m kind of excellent at looking after helpless eejits.” He barked out a laugh. “Is that what I am now?” I hesitated then decided to ask. “Your friend, the tall one, was he with you when… everything happened?” He stared at me. “You’ve seen him, haven’t you?” “I think so. With the vampires.” “Bastards,” he spat. “He was still alive then, but there’s no saving him, right? If they’ve turned him. No going back.” “The only way to save him now is to drive a stake through his heart,” he said bitterly. “And I can’t even do that right now.” “Yeah, but I can,” I said softly. “And I think a lot of people could, if the right hunters helped us.” “We were so full of ourselves,” he said with a harsh laugh. “Thinking we could do it all when really we were the mice in the trap.” “I’m sorry about what happened, but what’s next? I mean, what’s the big hunter plan?” “Kill until we die.” He looked at his hands in disgust. “And I couldn’t even get that right. You should have seen them. They were vicious. Young vampires, mostly, feeding in a frenzy. I’ve never seen anything like it. And all the while, they were being directed.” “Did you see who was leading them?” “Maybe.” He tried to shrug then winced. “I’m not sure what I saw anymore. It was a living nightmare. They made me see… everything, but it couldn’t have been possible. I’ve no idea what was real and what was delirium. I wasn’t even sure you were real until they told me later.” “What about the other hunters?” “They’ll carry on with their jobs.” “And leave your vampire alone?” I asked incredulously. “But he’s the first gen who’s leading this.” “He’s not the worst out there.” “Are you serious?” “Trust me. There’s scarier. Sometimes, they lay dormant for a few centuries, and we lose track of them. But, usually, when one of the first gens makes a push for power like this, the others find a way to squash him. We’ve held out on that happening and worked to contain the situation.” I frowned. “But that hasn’t happened. He’s still… here.” “I know, but we’ve lost more than my team. It takes time to fill out the numbers, and this is how we work.” “How you work isn’t, you know, working!” He held up his hands again, a wry look on his face. “I do know this, Devlin.” I lowered my voice. “All I mean is that we should all be working together. One of the vampires came to me, tried to make a deal. Apparently, all is not happy in vampire land. We could use that, Jack. We can take advantage of this.” “How?” “Use it. Lure them to a place of our choosing and unleash war on them. We’re not prepared for random attacks, so we need the fight to be at a place and time of our choosing. It’s time we took control of this fight. We’re getting distracted by baby vampires and enthralled humans. We need to do better than this.” “You don’t have to tell me that,” he said. “But how?” “There’s a news reporter who’s willing to take a chance on us. She’ll broadcast videos of the truth until they stop her. She’ll let the world see what’s happening and make up their own minds about it.” “It’ll be blamed on something reasonable,” he said. “It always is.” “Yeah, when it’s over, but there’s a chance that enough people will be on their guard right here, right now. It’s worth the risk. And if you act as a go-between and persuade the other hunters to work with us then—” “It’s not that easy.” He sounded dismissive, but I could see the wheels turning behind his sharp eyes. He was ready for a change. “Nothing’s easy, but this is war,” I said, wishing I could come up with a more encouraging speech. “If I get them to speak to you, do you have a real plan?” “I have ideas,” I said. “And it’s not just revenge over your mother?” I flinched. “Not this time. But what do you expect me to do, Jack? Wait until the vampires come for me? She’s dead, and I’m alive. I want to keep as many people alive as possible, but I need help with that. The one big advantage we have over the vampires is numbers, and we haven’t used that yet. We need to work together, to join forces, put our heads together, and come up with a plan that actually has a chance of working.” “Okay,” he said at last. “I’ll try my best. We’ve had more casualties than I’d like to admit, but there’s somebody left who might listen. She’s not as old-school as the rest of us. She’s more concerned about getting things done.” He smiled. “Maybe she’s a little like you in that way.” “Set up a meeting,” I said. “And I’ll convince her. We all know this has to end.” *** I was counting on being watched when I left Jack’s room, but I still jumped when I heard Emily’s voice from a corridor to my right. “Haven’t you lost enough people yet?” she crowed. “Don’t you just want to kill him?” I turned to face her. She was alone, sitting on a chair in a small waiting area. A bald patch on her skull where a chunk of her hair had been removed was clearly visible to me. I wondered what that was about. “Was it your idea?” I stepped into the hallway. “My mother?” “That was just a bonus.” She laughed softly. “Are you mad at me?” “Is it ever going to stop?” To my surprise, she looked scared. “No,” she hissed. “That’s why you have to stop him.” “So you can free yourself.” She grinned. “My victims are nearly always willing.” She slowly rose to her feet and moved closer. “I bet you would be willing, too.” “Then you really are deluded.” She smiled. “Shall we see?” I held her gaze for a second too long. A shroud of warmth surrounded me, and everything else went away. Almost everything else. The feeling of the stake in my hand kept enough of me grounded. She peered at me, her fingertips stroking my arm. “Wouldn’t it be so much more pleasant to stop fighting me?” She was all about the seduction. A sudden need, a real longing, rushed through my body. It would be so easy to succumb, but I had experience. My fingers tightened on the stake. I smiled at Emily, finding it easier to throw her off than I expected. Her thrall was just as convincing as Sully’s had been, but I knew how to avoid the grasp of a fantasy now. And perhaps I had just been more susceptible to the pain than seduction. I closed the space between us, then shoved her as hard as I could. Startled, she fell back, and I defiantly held the stake high. She pouted. “Fine.” She pushed herself out of my reach. “I was just trying to prove a point. No need to get violent.” I lowered the stake, tempting as it was to drive it into her flesh. “How are we going to work together without killing each other then?” “So you’re in?” “He killed my mother. I want him dead.” I didn’t have to fake the ferocity. “You’re finally behaving in a smarter way,” Emily drawled. She leapt to her feet in one scarily quick movement. I automatically stepped back. We glared at each other, enemies who had to work together to get rid of a common foe. I felt dirty until I imagined being the one to end her before she fled. Her expression turned wary, and I wondered what she could see in my eyes. “So what can you do for me, Emily?” I asked hurriedly before she got too spooked. She took a seat and made an effort to look relaxed. “What do you need?” “I have some ideas. I want you to keep reminding him how much of a pain in the arse I am, all while you feed the other vampires with doubt. I want him focused on me. Can you do that?” She shrugged. “It wouldn’t take much effort to keep you in the forefront of his mind. But why?” “We need to lure him into a battle that we set up.” “And then what? Cut your own throats to save him the hassle? Haven’t I told you how strong he is? Even the other first gens won’t take him on right now. You need to weaken him first to have a chance at winning.” “You mean get rid of what makes him strong. Doesn’t that include you?” She made a face. “Yes, but,” she grinned suddenly, “you really need to kill his favourite.” “His favourite?” “His son,” she said through gritted teeth. “The golden child. When the others learn that he couldn’t even keep his favourite, his strongest progeny, safe from a mere human child, they’ll doubt him all the more. Maybe even make their own move. Power is fleeting, and they’re all about territory and control. It could stir up some real trouble for him. And it’ll give him a brand new reason to hate you.” “Won’t he just turn another person into a vampire to replace this son?” “True strength comes with age. They can create second gens all day long, but the real power doesn’t come freely. It takes time.” She cocked her head to the side. “And blood. Lots of blood. There’s a window of opportunity. You saw yourself the difference between Janelle and Sully. And my father won’t be used to such a loss of power as this. He’s depended on golden boy for far too long. This is almost perfect.” “Just how tough is this son?” I asked warily. “Very. You’ll need my help. We’ll just have to make sure I’m the only survivor in that battle.” “So you’ll lure him somewhere?” She frowned. “Yes, but I can’t be the only witness. I might be challenged. No, it won’t work. It’ll be my word only. We need to think of something else.” “What if you don’t fight him? We could take him and film ourselves doing it. What if a certain news reporter gets hold of the footage and broadcasts it? Nobody will be able to challenge that. It’ll be everywhere. And it’ll be a frequent reminder of his failure.” She rubbed her hands together gleefully. “That would work even better. I’ll lure him to you during daylight while avoiding the camera. I’ll have no way to explain my escape if I’m seen. It will be glorious this way. Won’t Father be angry?” I took another step back. The manic look in her eyes was back. “When can you do it?” “I took a phone.” She fished it out of her pocket. It was streaked with blood. “Save your number, and I’ll let you know.” I gingerly took the phone and typed in my number, calling my own phone to give me her number, too. “Fine,” I said. “We’ll be ready.” “It won’t be easy,” she said. “Are you sure you’ll be ready?” “Humans aren’t as breakable as we look,” I snapped. She raised a brow then turned to leave. “Emily,” I called out. She looked over her shoulder. “Why are the attacks only happening in the poorer areas?” Confusion flitted across her face. “Because nobody cares about them, of course. We drink our fill from the forgotten, and those in power won’t even notice. By the time we’re strong enough to take everywhere else, it’ll be too late to stop us.” “That’s sick,” I blurted. “It’s not my fault humans don’t care about each other.” I blinked twice, and she was gone. I breathed deeply. It was going to be tough juggling all of these different problems. Chapter Eighteen I could tell that she used to be pretty, that people used to stare at her in admiration. Now, they wondered what had happened to her. One side of Jack’s hunter friend’s face was covered in horrific scarring, as though something had tried to tear her flesh away. Arwen had lost an eye in the process. Her remaining doe-shaped eye was slate grey, and she had a habit of holding her head in a way that made you think she looked down on you. I wondered if that was on purpose or from an injury. I kept being drawn to the scarring, wondering how she even survived that kind of attack. “It’s rude to stare, you know.” A hint of a Welsh accent made her pronunciation interesting. “Just ask already.” “I don’t mean to stare.” “But you are,” she said sharply. I shifted uncomfortably under her unflinching glare. “It’s just… I can’t imagine being in a fight with that kind of injury, and I get the feeling you didn’t sit in a corner and cry while somebody saved you.” She turned her gaze to the coffee cup in front of her. There were very few customers in the café, but they all stole glances at her. Her high cheekbones gave her the appearance of a model, but the disfiguration overshadowed the beauty. And I was pretty sure that any pity in my eyes wouldn’t go down well. I couldn’t help admiring her for that. The corner of her mouth lifted into a wry smile. “I quite like being alive. Honestly, I barely noticed the pain until after. You’re running on adrenaline, and there’s nothing but you and the kill, so I just… fought. I didn’t know how bad it was.” “And you got away.” “Eventually.” She twisted a lock of wavy chestnut hair around her finger, an unsettled expression on her face. “My entire team were either dead or out of hearing distance. It was just me and him, and I had to be more determined than him to stay alive. He didn’t even try to kill me with this.” She gestured at her face. “This was his playtime. Destroying a woman’s face to cause her another kind of pain. But I haven’t cared about those things in a long time.” She dropped her hair and straightened. “I like Jack, but I’m busy, so why am I here?” “Because we can help each other.” I lowered my voice. “This is bad, right? You haven’t seen this before.” Arwen hesitated before speaking. “Honestly? It’s not unheard of, but it hasn’t happened in my time. My team are supposed to track down a first gen, but she hasn’t been seen or heard of in a long time. We weren’t busy, so we were sent here to figure out what was going on. That’s the joys of tracking a dormant vampire, getting sent on errands.” She sighed. “But then we got here. I’ve never known so many hunters working in the same place before. Sometimes we come across another group, but not like this. Vampires don’t generally work together.” “Right. So it’s a big deal.” “It’s not a first. I mean, similar things happened years ago, when it was easier to cover up a massacre, mostly during wars or famines. But this… this is out in the open.” “Exactly. So we need to play out in the open, too.” She gave me a warm smile. “Oh? And is it a game?” “The vampires are the ones playing a game. We just have to change the rules. We’re dying, all of us, because we’re fighting small battles all over the place. We’re fighting distractions. We need to pool our resources and go after the leader in our own way.” “A first gen with enough power to gather an army? That isn’t easy,” she said slowly. “And I don’t see what resources you can provide if we’re doing the pooling. All I can see is us babysitting people who will just get in our way.” “I have people willing to fight for their home town,” I said sharply. “And I might sort of have… a vampire.” She leaned back in her seat and folded her arms. “A vampire.” “They’re not all in agreement,” I said. “If we can take advantage of that, then we can—” “By working with a vampire? That’s not how we do things. This conversation is over.” She rose to her feet. I reached out and grabbed her arm. She spun and gripped my throat. A gasp of alarm sounded from another table, but I ignored it. I didn’t flinch, didn’t block, didn’t do anything but look Arwen in the eye. “I didn’t say we work with the vampire. I’m talking about using her.” Her grip loosened. “And if that’s their plan?” “Then we feed them with bullshit. We bait them with our fake plans and force them into a fight of our choosing.” She let go and sat down. “Giving ourselves all of the advantages.” She drummed her fingers on the table. “This won’t be easy.” “Of course it won’t be easy. But we need to try.” “I mean getting hunters together with people like you. We don’t do that.” “If this is a unique situation, then it calls for unique measures,” I said. She frowned. “Why are you so keen to do this? You’re just a kid. You have your whole life ahead of you.” “You don’t exactly look ancient, Arwen. And none of us have anything ahead of us if we keep letting the vampires do whatever the hell they want. Didn’t Jack tell you about me?” Her sudden smile made her look younger. “He did, actually. That’s the only reason I agreed to this. It was too ridiculous to pass up. I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that our way of life is high-risk. You do realise that you’re bound to be bait at some stage.” “I’m okay with that.” I held my breath for a moment as she ran that over her mind. “And if I started it, then I should be the one to end it.” “But we’re counting on a first-gen actually giving you enough consideration to be a threat. What if he just doesn’t care about you? Then what?” “We’ll think of something else,” I said. “But he’s pissed because we hurt his pride. I stand for something to him. We can use that.” “How exactly?” “There’s a reporter. She’s going to put my videos out to the local news station, feed our stories, and make it sound like we’re the ones winning this war.” “Making it public.” “You don’t sound like you disagree with that.” “That’s because I don’t. If the vampires are making their lives public, then we might as well add a bit of our own truths.” “Exactly,” I said enthusiastically. “It’ll hit the papers and the evening news, and he’ll be forced to look at my face, at his failures. It’ll sting, and if we can manage it, Emily will stir the pot a little for us.” “Emily?” “The vampire I mentioned. Her sire is the instigator. She’s not happy being forced into a war. And if she reminds Daddy of how much of an annoyance I am while causing a little dissension in the ranks…” “Then he’ll have no choice but to deal with you himself.” “That’s the plan. But if you still need convincing, we’re going to hurt him by taking out his strongest progeny.” “That’s ambitious.” I grinned. “We go all out in this neighbourhood.” “Hmm. You’re hitting him where it hurts and destroying his reputation at the same time. I like it. If it works. But what happens to Emily when this is all over, assuming we’re all still alive? Do you plan on letting her go?” The look in her eye made me feel like it was a test. “No. She can never get away with the things she’s done. She has to die, no matter what happens, but she could be the key to turning this our way. All she wants is to escape. We’ll give her the means, but we’ll be the ones who stop her in the end.” She chewed on the corner of her lip. “I have to think about this.” “Watch out for the video, but know that we’re doing this with or without you,” I said. “I have no other choice. This is where we live. We have to defend it.” “People will die,” she said. “A battle against a vampire of this calibre means certain death for some of you. Are you sure you can handle that?” “We all can,” I said, and I hoped I meant it. *** Evelyn Molloy looked at me suspiciously. “Maybe this isn’t a good idea.” “Look, you’ll be safe.” I rubbed my hands together to warm them up. “We’re the ones taking the risk.” “And if you die?” “If six of us can’t take down one measly vampire then we don’t deserve to live,” I snapped. The others looked at me in surprise. “Oh, shut up,” I added. “I’m nervous, too.” Tom patted my shoulder. “We’ll get this done.” Maisy shuffled her feet. “Why is he the favourite though?” “Because he isn’t as whiney as Emily?” I offered. “Maybe he’s more powerful than she is. It doesn’t even matter. We can do this. Don’t let anything else psyche you out.” “She’s right,” Callum said. “It doesn’t matter who or what he is. All that matters is a vampire has to die today. And it has to look as easy as possible for us.” “I’ll keep rolling,” Evelyn said. “But it’s going to take some sneaking to get anyone to broadcast this.” She grinned suddenly. “Good thing I’m popular.” I was about to make a smart comment when my phone beeped. I checked the message. “They’re on their way,” I said as my stomach did a nervous flip. “Everyone into position. She’s going to try to ensure he goes on ahead, but he might realise something is up, so be careful. If it looks like we can’t win this, run back to the van and get the hell out of here.” Tom nodded. “Everyone know their job?” Everyone said yes, one by one. I was shaking, but I tried to look confident for everyone else’s sake. We were about to take a huge step toward the big plan. Unless Emily was playing us. No, I couldn’t think like that. I had to believe that this would convince the hunters we were a force to be reckoned with. That it would remind Emily’s maker I would haunt him until the day I died. He took my mother. I was taking his son. It felt like a weird kind of justice, and a black spot in my chest surprised me. Was that really who I wanted to be? It didn’t matter. It was too late now. Base and I moved to the centre of the alleyway. Despite the early time of day, the light was weak there, and the alley full of shadows. The van was parked at the corner, and the camera had a good view of the alley. As long as the vampire didn’t drag one of us over the roof tops, we were okay. Tom and Callum moved into the darker parts of the alley, hidden by shadow. I really hoped vampires didn’t have a habit of counting heartbeats. Maisy and Franco moved to the entrance of the alleyway, ready to surround the vampire when he attacked. “Hey.” Base squeezed my hand. “You’re not scared are you?” “Excited, actually,” I lied. He pressed his lips against mine just as we heard a slight scuffle on the roof. I tapped to three on his hand, and then we both separated before the vampire could land on us. Barely. He was fast. Faster than Emily or Sully. For an instant, fear seized me, but my body kicked into automatic mode. I ducked when he struck out with one hand, apparently seeing me as the easy target, or perhaps he knew my face. Perhaps he saw me as an enemy he had to annihilate. There was no expression in his arctic blue eyes. There was something off about his features, and I wondered exactly how old he was. He came at me, managing to grip my shirt and lift me into the air with little effort. He didn’t react when Base struck him on the back of the head. His face didn’t even change when Tom and Callum grabbed his arms. I kicked his groin, and the combination of our attacks made his hold loosen. My shirt ripped at the collar, and I slipped out of his grasp and into a kneeling position on the ground. The rest of the group worked together to flip him onto his back. It was only then a flicker of emotion crossed his face. He was genuinely stunned. I knelt on his thighs, helping Franco and Base contain the lower half of his body. Maisy, small, slight and lithe, was the one who slammed a stake into his chest. She made it look easy, but she was stronger than she appeared and she had learned from her first try. Part of our plan involved letting someone like Maisy take on the job to make it appear all the more impressive. The vampire opened his mouth. No fangs. How strange. He muttered something I couldn’t make out before his throat collapsed. We stepped away from the body as it dissolved into a purple and red mass of matter that disintegrated until it was no more than a stain. Maisy had taken the stake and wiped it against the wall with an excitable laugh. “I thought he was supposed to be tough,” she said scornfully, but her hands were shaking, and I knew she was trembling from the adrenaline and the impact of what she had done. I took her hand and laughingly led her out of view of the camera. “You did great,” I whispered. “You okay?” She nodded, her eyes glistening. “That… wasn’t how I expected it to be this time. I almost… I’m sorry, but I almost pitied him.” “I know,” I said. “He might have been already dead, but it still feels like taking a life.” “It’s weird, right?” “I feel… felt the same way. You did the right thing. You just saved lives, Maise. You’re a freaking hero.” She let out a gasping giggle that sounded a little like a sob. “You make it sound like—” “That was amazing,” Evelyn Molloy said, leaning out of the window of the van. “I can’t believe you just did that, and you made it look so easy. Wasn’t he strong? I mean, obviously he was,” she continued babbling. “He lifted Devlin in the air with one hand. And the way he leapt down from the roof was like something out of the Discovery Channel. This is amazing.” “So you’ll broadcast it?” Base asked as the others reached us. Her eyes glittered with excitement. “I can’t stand back from this.” A sound from on top of the van alerted all of us. Emily. She sat on the edge and dangled her legs, grinning broadly. “You actually pulled it off. I’m almost impressed.” “What are you doing here?” Franco demanded. She pouted. “Don’t you like me anymore, Franco?” He made a sound of disgust. “Shouldn’t you be running along to Daddy?” I asked. She shrugged. “I had to see for myself. That was embarrassingly easy, but you might actually be of some help. You’ll hear from me soon. I suppose I have work to do, too.” She hesitated. “This is going to be the ultimate humiliation, and it’ll help me persuade the others, but it’s not the end. He’s not foolish. He won’t walk into a simple trap. You’ll have to come up with something better than this.” “Why didn’t he have fangs?” Franco asked in a quiet voice. I held my breath. I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear the answer. “Because he was broken,” Emily said scornfully. “And I can’t let that happen to me.” She leapt onto the roof and disappeared from view. “Imagine having that kind of speed,” the news reporter said longingly. “And those weaknesses,” Tom said wryly. “I’m not sure about letting this video go public,” Callum said, sending a flash of irritation through me. “It could cause hysteria.” “We don’t have a choice,” Maisy said firmly. “After all, this is war. People are already going crazy. At least this will be on our terms.” “She’s right,” I said. “And we needed to fight back. This is hitting him where it hurts. His pride. It puts the spotlight back on us. And with the other first gens watching, who knows what will happen? If they don’t leave then maybe they’ll do the dirty work for us.” “I doubt that,” Base said. “But this might persuade the hunters that we’re worth working with. We’re a good team, all the same. At least, now we are.” It hadn’t always been that way. “Practice,” Franco said, lighting up a cigarette. “We put in the effort, and it’s paying off. But that was just one vampire. If we get ambushed by a whole bunch of them…” “That’s why we’re all armed,” I said. “And if we play this right, it won’t be long until the vampires are wiped out.” The doubtful looks around me spelled out disagreement, but I didn’t care. I had to reach for the stars or else what was the point? *** The video did indeed broadcast. It wasn’t as clear as I would have liked, but those who knew us could tell who we were. And I was sure that Emily’s master knew. That he saw. That he was reminded constantly. The video itself was going viral, and interest had been renewed in our old videos. We were constantly being texted by people we knew with questions, while related news reports were frequent. In some, people argued over authenticity while in others, ordinary people showed off how they were arming themselves. Something big was happening, and it was our doing, rather than the vampires’. The face of Emily’s so-called brother was on the front of all of the newspapers. We had called the vampire out, and we were all waiting for the repercussions. I made Base stay with me, which was just as well, because his neighbours reported that every single one of his windows had been smashed in. “It’s a desperate attempt to scare you,” I said, trying to be reassuring. Base was sitting on my sofa looking as though he were about to burst a blood vessel. “I’ll help pay for the repairs.” “With what?” he snapped then shook his head. “I’m sorry. It just pisses me off.” “We killed someone important, and they responded with some broken glass. I think we won this round, Brian.” He looked at me and laughed, all of the stress leaving his body. “You always find the silver lining.” “Only when I try really hard,” I said softly. “I’m so tired of this mess, but I feel like we’re close.” “Tell me about the hunter,” he said. “What is she like?” “Tough,” I said, thinking back. “Not cocky like Jack’s team, but she’s definitely self-assured. I liked her. She’s not scared of death, but she said herself that she really wants to live. You know for sure, don’t you, when you’re about to die. There’s that brief second when you could just give up and something inside of you just says, screw that.” He smiled. “I thought it was your voice I was hearing, actually.” I teasingly slapped his chest. “Shut up. You want to live.” “I do,” he said earnestly. “But I also kind of feel like I owe the world something, too. Like, if I have this knowledge, then I should be using it for the greater good.” “Running off and getting yourself killed?” I asked, trying to keep the accusing tone out of my voice. “Because that’s what it comes down to. Hunters don’t live long lives.” “Nobody lives forever. Not even vampires. If we just worked together, I mean really worked hard, we could wipe them out. The world could be free.” “Except for the fact first gens apparently have a habit of going into hiding for a couple of centuries. All it takes is one to keep this going. Who’s going to believe in vampires after a couple of centuries of silence? Even now, it doesn’t matter what we do, not how many videos we make, no matter how many unexplained deaths there are. People won’t believe. Some will. People who see for themselves, maybe even the gullible, but people ultimately don’t want to believe. We’ve been trained to be cynical, and now it’s going to screw us over in the end.” “You’re cynical, and you believe.” “Now I do. But not at first. And imagine if this was happening elsewhere. Even if we saw those videos, would you and I believe they were real? That there wasn’t some kind of serious editing skills going on?” He paused. “I’d probably laugh it off. You’re right. But that doesn’t mean we should give up trying.” “Zealot,” I teased. He kissed me. “You love it really.” “I love you. And I’m glad we’re in this together because I don’t know how I could do this alone.” “A lot of people have your back,” he said gently. “Even if something happens to me, you won’t be alone.” Tears immediately swam in my eyes. I couldn’t handle another loss like that. I was barely hanging on as it was. In fact, this war with the vampires was the one thing keeping me on my feet. “Don’t,” I chided. “I don’t even want to imagine it.” “Just one more thing,” he said urgently. “If it goes bad, if I die, get out of there. And if it goes worse, if they turn me, make sure those hunters drive a stake through my heart. Then you go and travel and find something you love to do and someone you love to do it with. Promise me.” “No,” I said smartly. “So you’re just going to have to stay alive.” He laughed. “You’re impossible. I’m trying to be serious here.” “I’m completely serious. Why don’t you promise me that you won’t die?” His expression softened. “Would you miss me, Devlin?” His eyes were warm and soft, as they used to be. Lately, I had seen them hard and determined far too often. I leaned into him. “You know I’d miss you. I know we’ve never had what counts as a normal relationship, but that doesn’t mean…” I hiccupped a sob. “I’m sorry,” I said, horrified. “I don’t even know why…” “Hey,” he whispered, wrapping his arms around me. “It’s okay to let it out. It’s okay to need comfort.” He pulled me closer and stroked my hair. I curled up in a ball and sank into him. My hands were shaking. I didn’t even know why. “I don’t think I can take any more death,” I whispered after a few moments. “I’m too weak.” “That’s ridiculous,” he said. “It’s not weak. Do you think I’m not scared? Do you think I’m not afraid to lose you?” “You’re not a mess. I mean, look at me.” I tried to scold myself out of the dampening mood, but I couldn’t lift myself back up. “I’m not a mess?” He gave me an incredulous look. “Do you not realise how much I lean on you? How much I need you to be strong? You’ve just lost your mother, and I’m the one depending on you. Half the time I’m only able to keep standing because you’re off running headlong into danger all over again. I’m not coping with this, Devlin. None of us are. I’m just waiting for it to be over. If I didn’t have you, I don’t know what I’d do. If I had been through half of what you’d been through then I’d probably lose my freaking mind.” “You’ve been through this with me. All of it. You’ve been there from the beginning.” “I’m just sorry I wasted so much time being a snarky yet funny dick,” he said, his mouth lifting into a grin again. I laughed through my fear. “You really are an idiot, Gilligan.” He surprised me with a heady and passionate kiss. “I am,” he said. “But I did one thing right, and I’m not going to screw that up by doing something stupid like getting myself killed. You’re right. I promise.” “See, that’s all I wanted.” He laughed and kissed my neck, but a part of me was wondering what it would take for him to screw it up. Would it be an obligation to his family or the rest of the world? Would it be a call to join the hunters? Their numbers were down, and I knew that now more than ever, they needed people with the right instincts. Brian wasn’t as mouthy as me, or as disciplined as Callum, but he was the strongest out of us all. His body might as well have been made for fighting vampires. And that might be the thing that made him leave me. I held him a little tighter and hoped that day wouldn’t come any time soon. Chapter Nineteen Three men stood at her back, but Arwen acted as though they weren’t there. She studied Callum and Base as we approached. She had contacted me after watching our latest showstopper, asking to meet in an empty carpark. It was early morning, but we were the only people around. The men behind her were older and looked gruffer than Arwen. Despite her toughness, she was still soft around the edges. “You called and we appeared,” I said. “Have you made a decision yet?” She folded her arms across her chest. “You killed a second generation vampire and let the media broadcast it to anyone who would pay attention. What did you hope to achieve?” Her tone had gone cold, which was odd, considering I had warned her of our intentions. “We were hoping to piss off a first gen and make the others doubt his abilities,” Brian snapped before I could. “What have you done?” The corner of her mouth curved slightly for half a second. “You doubt our abilities now?” she asked in a dangerously low voice. “I’m just wondering what you’ve done that makes you equipped to look down on us,” he said pleasantly. “We actually have plans. Do you?” “Yes, I do,” she said, allowing herself another small smile. “But I’m part of a team. We all get a say. But tell me this. How did you target him? My info sets him as more of a bodyguard than anything else. So what was he doing alone?” “He wasn’t alone. His vampire sister led him to us,” Callum said matter-of-factly. The men behind Arwen showed their surprise. She, on the other hand, wasn’t surprised at all. She was just letting them hear the information first hand. I realised her game, all of a sudden. She was acting unbiased, but she was asking the questions she knew would provide the most compelling answers. “So you’re working with a vampire to take down other vampires?” She examined her bitten nails. “Sounds risky.” “Sometimes you have to use the little you have,” I said. “And we’re absolutely using her. She’s already helped us. A few more things, and we’re done with her.” She glanced over her shoulder. The oldest man, his face covered in a thick grey beard, nodded slightly. Arwen looked at me then, her eyes narrowing. “See, we don’t understand a few things. A first gen is after you personally, and you have his own progeny working for you. How did it even come to this? He wants you dead, but you’re still here, luring his offspring to their deaths. What the hell is even going on around here?” “It’s not only about me,” I said. “She’s just the most annoying thorn in the paw,” Base said, earning a smile from Arwen. I glared at him. “Anyway. As far as Emily explains it, this first gen is sick of being hunted. He wants to claim his, erm, rightful place in the world. He’s a predator. He wants the world to fear him.” “They all want to be feared,” Grey Beard said. A thicker note of a Welsh accent came through in his words. Arwen must have caught me looking at him with curiosity because she pointed at him. “That’s my uncle, Glyndwr. He knows more about vampires than any of us here.” “And it’s not often a first generation vampire steps out of the shadows like this,” the older man added. I nodded. “I get that. But he’s sending out a beacon to all of those similar-minded vampires out there. Thinks he came from some god or another and deserves to inherit the earth. ” “Foolish,” Glyndwr said after a moment. “Arrogant, too.” “And easier to trip up,” Arwen murmured. “You’re taking this seriously?” he asked, but he didn’t appear surprised. “What other choice do I have? Ro is dead. Who knows who’ll be next? Kynan might be in charge for now, but you know as well as I do what he’s like. We need a plan, and they have one.” “They don’t have the experience,” Glyndwr said, but he was looking directly at me. Arwen let out an impatient sigh. “Glyn, you saw the video.” “A video won’t convince me of anything. We’ve never been able to bait a first gen.” “You need to reread your history books,” she said, a smile dancing on her lips. “That’s exactly what happened in the fifteenth century.” He indulged her with a smile of his own. “Child, we don’t live in the fifteenth century. They’ve had hundreds of years to learn their lessons. You, on the other hand, have managed less than thirty.” He nodded toward me. “And that one even less.” “Look, we know it’s a risk,” Callum said. “We know there’s a good chance that we can’t pull off our plans, but we’re going to try. He’s killing our home and the people in it. Somebody has to stop him. We’ll just have a better chance if you work with us.” “Even with our help, the numbers aren’t great.” Arwen gave us a pitying look. “We’ve lost important people since we came here.” Glyn nodded his agreement. “There’s never been a large, extended battle with vampires that didn’t end in human deaths. It would be irresponsible of us to let these people tag along, Arwen. You know how you’ll feel when they die.” “With the right plan, our chances of survival skyrocket,” Arwen said. “We pick the time and place and make our losses as low as possible,” Callum said. “We take the advantage. You tell us their weaknesses, show us what you work with, and we come together to get rid of them. It’s the only way.” “It’s not the only way,” Arwen said. “Your way isn’t working,” Base said. By the way she looked at him, I could tell she liked him, respected him even. “You’ll die for this? Watch the people you care about die for this? Even her?” “I’ll do whatever it takes,” he said. “But I don’t plan on any of us doing the dying.” Her smile was full and broad. “I like that kind of thinking actually.” She looked at Glyn. “I think Kynan will, too.” “He’s as reckless as you,” Glyn said, but his tone was affectionate. “Arrange a meeting if you’re sure.” Arwen nodded. “Tonight. At nine. Outside the hospital. We’ve been running into a lot of newly made vampires around there, so we’ve spent way too much time protecting the place. It’s not working. Neither is hunting one first gen at a time. I’ll make the others listen to you, but you have to be prepared for the fact that you won’t be in charge. You got that?” I nodded after the others did. It was hard to let somebody else tell us what to do, but they really did have a lot more experience. “Jack told me a lot of things,” she said after a few seconds. “I personally think that this can work, but I’m not the one who gets to decide. We’ll see vampires tonight, no doubt, and you’ll get a chance to prove yourselves or die trying. You up to that?” “We’ll be there,” Callum said. She looked at him with interest. “I look forward to it. And Devlin, try to keep your mouth shut when they tell you no for the first time. There’s more than one way to get the right answer, so follow my lead tonight.” I was so stunned that I just nodded in response. Glyn gave us a parting nod, then the entire group left. “Think they’ll come to our way of seeing things?” Brian asked. “Probably not,” Callum said, “but she has a better chance of persuading them than we do.” “We should let the others know,” I said. “I haven’t heard from Emily yet, so we can’t depend on her. Has Evelyn mentioned anything about the response she’s gotten?” “Half of her colleagues think she’s insane,” Callum said, “but apparently, she’s owed a lot of favours.” “Good thing the schemer is on our side then, I suppose,” I said. “And some people are talking about this being a prank now, but I have it on good authority that there are severe holy water shortages in the local parish this week, so take that as you will,” Base said lightly. Maybe enough people would prepare themselves, “just in case,” to survive. *** I was actually nervous on my way to the hospital. I lagged behind the others as we walked toward the back entrance. Tom led the way while Base made Franco and Maisy laugh with some story designed to distract them. I couldn’t be distracted by a funny story. Callum fell into step with me. I hadn’t spoken to him alone since before my mother died, and I could sense his hesitance. “How are you holding up?” he asked, trying to squeeze my hand. I moved out of his reach. “Okay, what is it? You haven’t spoken to me unless you’ve had to. What’s going on?” “You made jokes,” I said in a quiet voice. “She was dead. Everyone was dead. And you and your colleagues stood there and joked around.” He drew in a sharp breath. “I didn’t know you could hear me. You have to understand that—” “It doesn’t matter.” “It does matter. I don’t want you to think that I—” “It’s fine. It’s over now.” “It’ll never be over for you, will it? Everything that’s happened to you, to all of us.” I looked at him, wondering if he really meant himself. “Maybe I’ll forget.” “You won’t forget. You’ll feel better. You’ll move on. You’ll laugh. But in an instant, at any time, you’ll be sent right back to that place in your head.” “I’ve done a good job of holding it off so far.” “You have, but when the vampires are gone—” “Will they ever go? No matter what we do?” I shrugged. “One decent plan won’t wipe out a species.” “The hunters will. Not today, not tomorrow, but someday.” He touched my arm to stop me as the others turned a corner. “Listen, back at the hospital… it’s a coping method. The jokes, I mean. None of us have ever seen anything like it, and we can’t afford to fall apart at a crime scene. So we make light of things to get us to the end of the day.” “And what then? What happens at the end of the day?” “Well, most of—” His words were interrupted by a sound behind us. Both of us moved at once, unfortunately in ways that counteracted each other. He made to attack; I shoved him out of the way. The jerky movements disoriented the male vampire coming at us, but it also shook us. From the sounds nearby, the others had encountered their own vampire or two. “Devlin!” Callum signalled at me to go behind the vampire. With a plan, I could relax. I just had to help him surround the thing. We had gone over set pieces, as Base liked to call them, but it was different when it came to the real thing. We could never train enough to react as a team to everything that might go wrong. In our theories, the vampire would go for Callum first, the biggest threat being larger and stronger, but this vampire refused to let me behind him and decided the best way to counteract that was to attack me instead. For an instant, I froze again, but then my blood heated up with fire from a potential fight, and I moved to give myself more space. Callum followed, hopefully realising we had to swap places and figure the rest out later. I had to admit we were limited in our abilities, but we were also all still standing. So suck that, vampires. The vampire appeared to want to go full-aggro with me, forcing a fight, while I intended on giving Callum a chance to stake him. The vampire quit moving, becoming eerily still. Callum made the mistake of approaching first. The vampire snapped his leg behind him, so quickly, I barely saw the action. His foot connected with Callum’s groin, sending him to his knees in pain. I winced for him, but I had no time to worry about anyone else because the vampire’s predatory gaze was now pinned on me. I took a few steps back, carefully checking over my shoulder in case I was walking straight into yet another monster. I attempted to lead the vampire away from Callum, but the vampire didn’t appreciate moving slowly. He leapt into the air, giving me no time to think. I dropped to my back, hurting myself and letting an oof whoosh out of me. As the vampire sailed over me, I struck out then quickly rolled out of the way. Startled, the vampire fumbled the drop and face-planted into the ground, for the first time appearing un-coordinated. I was on my feet before him, miraculously, and Callum finally joined me. I leapt onto the vampire’s back and wrapped my arms around his neck to distract him while Callum went in for the kill. The instinct for the right angle and direction was in both of us, but I hated the vibrations as the stake connected. It was a sort of pulling ricochet trembling through my fingers that made me feel as though my hands were directly connected to the vampire’s life source. It was a silly thing to think, but I let the others do the actual killing as much as they wanted. I didn’t find glory in the end result. Just… mess. It was an absurdity, me thinking that way, but a lot of things were changing, and I was beginning to realise I would much rather heal than injure. I stepped away from the mess as the vampire began to deteriorate. “Let’s see how the others are doing,” I said, already breaking into a run. We had moved farther away than I realised. I ran the length of the way back then turned the corner. Any fight there was over, but my friends and boyfriend were facing off with a large group of hunters. Arwen waved us over. “Here they are now. Are we done yet?” She looked at the young man sitting on the back of a motorcycle with a great deal of impatience in her eyes. He bore a close resemblance to her. Yet another relative? “Well?” Base asked. “Are we? Any more tests or hoops you’d like us to jump through?” He was barely containing his anger, and I wondered what had gone on beforehand. “Steady on,” the man on the motorbike said, but a spark of humour flashed in his grey eyes. Arwen rolled her eyes. “This is my brother, Kynan. He’s an idiot, so ignore him.” “I’m also in charge in this place, so watch your mouth,” he said with no anger in his tone. “You’ve been in charge for less than a week,” she scoffed. “Don’t let it go to your head.” “I can still send you packing at any time,” he retorted. I exchanged an exasperated look with Base. When he nodded, I shrugged. “Right,” I said. “We’ll be off then.” Arwen blinked a couple of times, but she looked amused herself. Kynan stood up from the bike. “You’re leaving?” “Yeah, see, we thought we were dealing with professionals. That you could actually help us. We don’t have time to stand around listening to… whatever the hell this is. Nice meeting you, Arwen.” When I turned to leave, the others followed. But as I expected, Kynan called out for us to stop. He looked less confident. “No need to throw a tantrum,” he said uneasily. “We were getting to the other part.” “Today?” Franco asked smartly. Kynan surprised me by laughing. “Yeah, maybe if Arwen shuts up for a minute. Look, let’s be real for a minute. Our numbers have halved since we got here. We weren’t prepared for any of this mess, and we’re all struggling to keep the rest of our teams alive. If you have a plan and contacts then we’ll listen to what you have to say.” “Your numbers have halved because you’re dividing your resources.” Tom cracked the knuckles on his right hand. “We’re not into secrecy.” “We’ve seen the videos,” a red-haired man whose arm was wrapped up in a sling said in a harsh voice. “We’re not impressed.” “We kinda weren’t thinking about you lot when we made them,” Base said as lightly as he could with his hackles practically raised. “Ky, I’m not crazy about this idea, but they’ve done well with no training or guidance,” Glyn said, to my surprise. “And we’ve already lost enough. Our numbers were weakening even before this mess.” “Enough,” Kynan said when the redhead tried to interrupt again. “This isn’t the time for the old rules. Tradition is getting us eaten.” “Turned,” I said. “They’re turning hunters, too.” Kynan’s expression hardened. “That can’t happen to me.” “Nor me,” Arwen said. “At least you two agree on something,” Glyn said. “Now how are we going to stop that from happening to us all.” “We have plans,” Maisy said. “We’re working with a contact in the media, and Callum has contacts with the police, and…” She looked at me, lost for words. “And there’s a vampire who wants to double-cross her master to be free of him,” I finally admitted. “Come on,” the redhead said in an exasperated voice. “Ky, I can see your sister getting taken in by this crap, but you have more sense, surely.” “Watch your mouth,” Glyn said in a deep, rumbling voice. That set everything off-kilter until Kynan persuaded the hunters to calm down. “We don’t make deals with vampires.” But he was looking at Arwen. “It’s not a deal,” she said, avoiding his gaze. “They’re using her.” “Why? For what?” “To make me bait,” I said. “We killed another vampire he sired, his personal favourite, to weaken him while keeping his eyes on me still. This started with me pissing off vampires. It should end the same way.” I glanced at Base for reassurance. “We want to lure him out, make him walk into a trap of ours. We’re tired of being picked off. We want to be the ones to start the trouble this time. Maybe even finish things if you work with us.” “What could lure them out?” Kynan asked, looking interested. “This particular…first gen has a personal interest in us,” Base explained. “He’s attacked our homes, the places we work, the people we love.” His breath hitched. “We just need him to think he has another chance to do that.” Kynan looked at Arwen who shrugged. Maisy was the one who had come up with a possible solution. I’d had a huge problem with the idea, but we had all been brainstorming for days, and we still hadn’t come up with a better solution. She shoved her hands in her pockets, looking uncomfortable. “We were supposed to have a debs. It’s kind of like a prom, but it’s a big deal here. With everything going on, the hotel we booked is one of the businesses that’s been abandoned. There won’t be any staff there, and if there’s damage, it’ll look it was looted or something. It’s in a quiet location, so it’s perfect for a confrontation if we fake a debs there.” Franco nodded. “I worked there one summer. Lots of space in the function room, but it’s on the top floor with a limited amount of entrances. Only so many vampires could get inside at a time. Plus, there’s a lot of cover outside if we planted people in hiding.” “But how do we get the vampires there in the first place?” Glyn asked. Maisy’s voice took on an excited tone. “Emily, the vampire, could help persuade her sire to attack one of the most important nights of our lives, and the reporter could do something with it, too, make it sound like everything’s going back to normal because there’s no real threat out there. We’re counting on that infuriating Mr. Big Bad. He’ll do his best to ruin everything for us. But we would be waiting, and with your help, we would already know how to target his weaknesses. When he falls, the other vampires might back off. He’s the one leading the charge here.” “Our biggest problem is his special powers,” Tom added. “But if he uses fire inside, we can set off the sprinklers, and we’ll remove any furniture we can’t make use of before he arrives. We’ll have to split into groups, but we’ll likely be able to pick off quite a few of his followers that way.” “Unless they arrive as an army,” Arwen said. “An army will run through us no matter where we take the fight,” Tom said. Kynan glanced at Glyn. “If enough vampires are inside, we can do something special with the sprinklers. Remember Stockholm?” His uncle nodded with a grin. “That could work. A week is enough time to prepare without giving us away, I think.” He gave me an inquiring look. “And you can get this vampire to cooperate, even against her sire?” I nodded, but I was still hoping Emily wasn’t playing us instead. *** I heard her before I saw her, and I tried not to flinch. “You took your time.” “I have a curfew,” the vampire said petulantly. “What do you want? I don’t have much time.” “Next week, we’re holding our debs in a certain hotel,” I said without looking at her. “It’s an important night. Lots of music, drinking, drunken teenagers, and careless hunters about. We wouldn’t want any blood-sucking gate crashers.” “A dance,” she said with a sigh. “Is it a masquerade ball?” “Eh, no. It’s a fake event, idiot.” “You’re so classless.” I realised I was arguing with a dead thing and gave up. “Look. It’s next week. It’ll be a bit out of the way. We’ll be there. Will you?” “I’ll see if I can make the date,” she said. “So this is it? Expecting him to give it all up for a teenager’s party?” “It’s a little more than that,” I said. “And we have plans to make it enticing.” “And where is it?” “Watch the news and you’ll find out. Local interest story about how everything’s going back to normal now that we’re winning against this crime wave.” Emily snorted. “I hope you have a good plan for when he hunts you down.” “Me, too. How’s the dissension in the ranks thing going for you?” “A few well-placed hints have proven priceless,” she said confidently. And then in an even more smug tone, “And my watch dog is gone and hasn’t been replaced yet. That’s worth a lot to me.” “Is your… father angry?” “Outraged and more importantly, acting foolish. He’s behaving recklessly in his weakened state, and some of his groupies have ditched him already. He’s mad, so expect some massive deaths before your party.” She shrugged. “You might not make it that long.” “Any hints on where to avoid?” She frowned. “He’s mentioned the police stations a number of times. He’s no longer focusing on the weak. He believes the humans know he’s ruthless already. Now he’s going after those who are already strong.” “That’s going to be a disaster,” I said. “Better them than you,” she rattled off. “Better nobody.” “There’ll always be somebody.” I looked at her and found her smiling. “You don’t really think you’re going to wipe out the vampires completely do you?” she asked. “We’re here to stay. Evolution may not have improved us greatly, but each generation makes up for another’s weaknesses.” She stared up at the sun. “Like seeing this kind of beauty.” “You can see beauty?” I said with a snort. “I’m a person, too,” she snapped. “A person who happens to enjoy killing things.” She grinned, letting me see her fangs clearly. “You can’t say you don’t enjoy it. It was obvious in your little video how much satisfaction you derived from my brother’s death.” “He was already dead,” I said in disgust. “We just gave him peace.” “There’s nothing,” she called out as I walked away. “Nothing happens when you die, you know. Trust me. I’ve been there. There’s just darkness. But if you’re lucky, you get transformed into an immortal being like me. Strong, deadly, indestructible. If you had been nicer to me, I might have given this gift to your mother.” I didn’t say anything, just kept walking, but I was imagining Emily’s face when I made her eat her words. If there was only darkness, she would find it by my hand. She wasn’t as indestructible as she liked to imagine. Chapter Twenty The real hunters might have helped us prepare, but I still wasn’t sure we were ready, and I said as much to Jack during my last visit. “I just don’t know how well we can work together,” I said. “The hunters don’t even seem to like each other much. Arwen and Kynan spend more time arguing than anything else.” Jack sighed. He was looking a little better. “That’s the twins for you.” “What’s their story anyway?” “The quick version is that the vampires killed their parents when they were toddlers. Glyn almost died protecting the twins. He ended up joining the hunters, raised the twins in the same life.” “Wow. They don’t seem to get along now, though.” “Don’t let them fool you. In a battle, don’t even think they won’t watch each other’s backs. They used to be on the same team and got separated because they spent too much time protecting each other. It’s not so good to be trying to watch over the people you care about when you’re trying to stay alive yourself. Maybe you should remember that.” “I’m not going to screw up.” “Everyone has the chance to screw up.” He held up his hands. “Even when we’re old enough to know better. How do you feel anyway?” “Nervous. Excited. It’s a good thing Callum was able to warn the police stations about a concentrated attack. Only three were hit, but they were at least a little prepared, thanks to a couple of converts. Most of them still think they were fighting people who were high on some new kind of drug.” I met his eyes, half-afraid of what I might see. “What are the chances of us making it out tonight, Jack? I mean, realistically.” “You won’t all make it,” he said after a minute. “Does that make you want to pull out of the plan?” I shook my head. “It should, but I just keep thinking about how many people will die if we don’t do something. It’s out of control out there. I’m afraid. And that’s what makes me so bloody angry.” “Just keep a clear head tonight.” I nodded. “And let’s hope the stupid bitch vampire doesn’t betray us or none of us are making it out of there.” “You have an escape plan though,” he said, sounding worried. “Individual and group.” I tried to sound confident. “I wish I could be there.” “This is just the beginning. By the time you’re back on your feet, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to do more stupid things.” I checked the time. “I need to get going and make sure everything’s going to plan. It’s so stupid. We’re still decorating the place, making it look beautiful, and it’ll all be ruined. Let’s hope it’s not for nothing.” “Fighting back is never for nothing,” he said. “Not at times like this.” *** I yawned as I pinned yet another decoration against yet another fake piece of foliage. Maisy had insisted we keep up the pretence for as long as possible in case the Big Bad vampire found a way to spy on us. “This is the dullest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” I complained. “I can’t believe you actually managed to rope me into this.” “Yeah, I asked the vampires to repetitively attack our town just so I could watch you decorate. Nice of ‘em to comply, eh?” Maisy shook her head and kept moving along. “I’m sorry,” I said, following her. “I didn’t mean to sound so flippant. And if it’s any consolation, you did a great job. It would have been the best debs of all time.” She looked around the room with a smile. “It really would have been.” “All because of your superior decorating skills.” She snorted softly. “Don’t overdo it. Listen, Dev, if anything happens to me, you’ll look out for my parents, right?” I took her hand. “Nothing’s going to happen to you.” Why did people keep talking like they were about to die? She gave me a look, and I hurriedly added, “But of course I’d look out for them. Same for me, right? Except with…” I held her hand a little tighter, and her face fell with sympathy and concern. “With Base,” I said after a moment’s hesitation. “Make sure he doesn’t do stupid things alone if I’m not here to help him with them.” We laughed together, a nervous kind of spluttering laughter. We might not survive the night, but at least we would be side by side, doing something real and important. “Imagine,” I said. “We were total bitches a few years ago. Brats showing off half the time in school. And now we’re possibly sacrificing our lives to save people. Some turnaround, huh? No guidance counsellor ever predicted that one.” Maisy giggled and wiped a stray tear from her eyes. “Look what you have me getting myself into. I always knew you were trouble, but this is bloody ridiculous, Devlin O’Mara.” We hugged it out, and I wondered if she was thinking the same thing as me: both of us might not survive. “Uh, we have a problem,” Franco said, peeking in the doorway. “What’s up?” I asked. “Some people seem to think there’s actually a debs going on.” “Oh, shit. Maise, I thought you sent everyone texts and emails telling them to ignore the news story about it.” “I did!” I ran over to the door and peeked out into the hallway. Callum and Base were trying to persuade at least twelve people that there was no debs being held at all. Deco waved me over. “Hey, Dev. Tell your psycho boyfriend that he can’t stop us from going to the debs. We bought our tickets.” “There’s not actually a debs,” I said. “It’s been called off.” “Then why are you wearing a dress?” Shauna asked. Shit. I hadn’t even spotted her there. I looked down at the dress Maisy had loaned me. “It’s… a disguise.” A couple of people burst out laughing. “Look, it’s true,” Maisy said. “You need to get out of here quickly.” “There’s no time,” Arwen said, running up the stairs. “They’re on their way.” “Who the hell are you?” somebody asked. “Fuck,” Base said. “How do we hide this lot?” “Hide us?” Deco said incredulously. “From what?” I decided it was time to be moderately honest. “From the people who have started all of these attacks.” “I told you she was on the news,” one of the lads said, slapping Deco’s shoulder. “What’s really going on?” Deco asked, focusing solely on me. He would believe me. “Vampires,” I said. Nervous laughter followed, but Deco’s face remained serious. “It’s not a prank. You remember what happened to my mother, what happened at Base’s house. And even Sully,” I said a little breathlessly in my panic. “Well, we’re fighting back. We made them think there’s a debs so they would come here. There are… people who can fight back, help us get rid of this madness for good.” “As if we’re going to hide from that,” Deco said scornfully as he took off his jacket. “We’re all affected by these scumbags. Let’s see them try to wreck our debs.” “There’s no debs,” Maisy insisted. “Nobody cares,” one of Deco’s friend’s said, following Deco’s lead. “We’re not hiding.” “They could help,” Arwen said. I sighed wearily. “Then they’re going to need some stakes.” The group exchanged bewildered glances. I knew what they were thinking, or I could at least guess, but there was no going back now. “There’s no time to explain everything,” Base said. “Just know this is a fight to the death. If you want to barricade yourselves into the bathrooms until there’s a chance to run, there’s still time.” But I was looking at Arwen. By her expression, there wasn’t much time left at all. *** “Dance with me.” I gaped at Base. “What are you even on?” “It’s on the list,” he explained. “Remember? The things you haven’t done that we’re going to do together. This is our only chance to dance at a debs, and we’ve about ten seconds to take it.” I giggled a little hysterically as he spun me around in a circle. We stopped moving and stared at each other. We might not see each other again. “Remember when I gave you this?” he asked, touching the silver cross hanging from my necklace. “How could I forget,” I whispered. “We’re going to get them all killed.” He glanced over his shoulder at the others. “We don’t know that.” “Watch out for Maisy,” I said. “Don’t let her get hurt.” He frowned and looked as though he were about to reply when footsteps sounded on the stairs. “Here we go.” I kicked off my shoes and moved into position. A stake was stuck in my belt, and my baseball bat felt sturdy in my hands. I nodded at Maisy across the room and readied myself. We hadn’t had enough weapons to go around, so some people had to make do with broken legs of chairs. Some of the hunters were outside the building, lying in wait to surround the last of the vampires. There were two narrow entrances into the room. We split into two groups to guard both, hoping to bottleneck the vampires’ entry somewhat. The main door flew off the hinges. Callum ducked just in time to avoid being knocked out. He and Tom took the lead at the main doorway, moving as a team and making sure they didn’t give the vampires room to move. At first, it worked well. They took care of the initial vampires easily. However, they were likely newly created third gens. Those of us experienced in a vampire battle formed a protective barrier between the encroaching vampires and everyone else. If the vampires got past the doors, they would at least find resistance. Arwen and Kynan led a small group at the service entrance, catching vampires who found a way in through the kitchen. But most seemed to have gathered at the main entrance, putting Tom and Callum under the most pressure and constantly pushing them back toward the rest of us. Vampires slowly flooded the room, including Emily, and the collective panic grew. Emily approached, stalking like a cat. I watched her warily, but she nodded at me and snapped the neck of a vampire about to launch into Base. He immediately staked the fallen vampire. A second howled in anger and went for Emily. She wasn’t as strong, but with the help of my trusty bat, we easily took him down. More vampires found their way into the room, but more turned on each other at Emily’s command, and soon, we were all fighting for our lives. I tried not to focus on the fact that Evelyn Molloy was hiding behind the bar with a camera, having assured me that she wasn’t missing out on the final story. Or the fact that my old school friends were facing off against the vampires who got past the rest of us. At least Deco and his friends were athletes; they stood a fighting chance. Strangely, Emily had become the biggest target in the room. But as the fight continued, some of the vampires fled the scene. I caught sight of Glyn cutting through two vampires with a single swing of his handmade axe and didn’t blame them for running. I wasn’t sure how many vampires I had tackled so far. The battle felt as though it had lasted seconds and yet a lifetime, too. Sweat trickled down my back, and my arms were aching from swinging the bat. A vampire had bitten my wrist, and the wound throbbed, but the fight itself had been a blur. Somebody had helped me, but I couldn’t think who. I just kept fighting to hold my position, no matter what happened. I managed to grab a second to breathe and take in my surroundings. Tom and Callum were fighting hard to my right. Maisy was backing up Franco to my left. Arwen and Glyn advanced on a pair of vampires pinning Kynan against the bar. I wiped my forehead with my uninjured arm. A vampire managed to fling Emily out of the way and run straight for us. He made a beeline for Base who had his back turned to fight off a second vampire. I shoved Base hard to push him out of the way of a pair of fangs, only to get knocked to the ground. A vampire leapt right over me, closely followed by a hunter who accidentally kicked me in the head. I dizzily got to my feet, but another vampire pounced on me, knocking me back down, grabbing my hair, and smacking my head against the ground. I struggled to stay alive, only barely keeping his fangs out of reach of my neck. Base was surrounded as he tried to reach me. Distracted by my predicament, he didn’t even notice the approach of the vampire who managed to sink her fangs into his flesh. I screamed, and my attacker took the advantage. I had to get to Brian. The vampire sank his claws into my arms. I dropped my baseball bat, but I didn’t feel the pain. I fought back in a rage until I managed to kick him off me, getting the strength out of some unholy place. I tried to run, but the vampire wrapped his arms around me and pinned me to his chest. With a scream of outrage, I whacked the back of my head against his chin, and then shoved him into a fight between Emily and another vampire. I finally reached Brian. With Franco’s help, he had already freed himself of the biter, but blood was flowing down his neck. “Brian!” I cried, but more vampires closed in before I could help him. I fought as viciously as I could, all the while imagining him to be bleeding out next to me. When I grabbed some breathing space, I ripped off the edges of my skirt and pressed it against his neck. “I’m fine,” he said gruffly. “Stay alert. This isn’t over.” I tried to see who was alive. Two kids who had come with Deco were injured, but they seemed to be alive, although they weren’t able to fight. Shauna was looking after them, a fierce look in her eye. I ran over in time to stop a straggler take advantage of the situation. Shauna hit him over the head with a chair, distracting him from me. One of the injured boys grabbed his leg and tripped up the vampire. I managed to stake him before he could bite anyone. “Thanks,” Shauna gasped. I nodded and moved on. Across the room, Maisy was being attacked by an enormous beast of a vampire. I wouldn’t make it to her side in time. But Tom was there, coming out of nowhere to physically lift her out of harm’s way. As he set her down, the vampire pounded on his back, and by the look on Tom’s face, he hit a sensitive spot. Tom fell to his knees. Franco got between him and the vampire who already had blood all over his mouth and chin. As I passed the bar, I noticed Evelyn on the floor, her eyes wide open as she lay in a pool of blood. Horrified, I kept moving, but there were more vampires than I expected. “Emily!” I shouted. “Help them!” I half-expected her to laugh at me, but she looked at my pointed finger and nodded, grimly throwing herself at the massive beast of a vampire. He didn’t expect her attack, and while he fought her off, Franco managed to stake him. All the while, Maisy protected Tom who somehow couldn’t get back up off the ground. I tried to reach them, but I kept getting pushed back in the tide of battle. But seeing vampires die had spooked some of the others, and they fled toward the door. For an instant, I felt the relief that came with the knowledge we might actually win the fight. But then a horrifically terrifying voice called out Emily’s name. A shiver ran down my spine as she froze to the spot, her hands moving jerkily as she struggled to maintain control. I followed her stare to the door and saw a tall, hooded figure calmly standing there, his arms out as he ushered the fleeing vampires back inside the room. In their terror, they attacked the closest humans to them, and I saw a hunter fall. The man who had called Emily lifted his head. His hood fell to his shoulders and revealed inhuman features marred with red veining. His blood-red eyes looked as though they contained hell inside. The Big Bad had finally arrived. He opened his mouth, displaying fangs that were far scarier than Emily’s. When he said her name, I felt the power in the word, and my heart sank. Emily’s eyes glazed over, and she moved toward Franco. “Franco, watch out!” I shouted. But he was still staring at the Big Bad, his limbs apparently frozen in fear. With one quick movement, Emily reached out for Franco and snapped his neck. He dropped instantly. I screamed and automatically moved toward his body. Somebody shouted my name in warning. I glanced at the first gen. His clawed, wrinkled hand was open, and a ball of fire hovered over his palm. I glanced at Emily. Her gaze was set on Maisy who was calling Franco’s name, even though his eyes were wide open and unseeing. And the first gen’s gaze was directly on me. As he raised his hand to throw a fireball, I sprinted toward Emily, and the fire disappeared. Was her sire afraid to kill her and lose more power, I wondered? I collided with Emily, and the breath was belted out of me. I grappled with her, struggling to stop her from going after Maisy as well. All around me, the sounds of pain and fighting were growing louder. The arrival of a first gen had given the vampires confidence, and the tide was turning against us. “I can’t… stop,” Emily rasped in a panicked voice. “You have to let me turn you to get the strength to fight back.” “You wish,” I spat. “You didn’t even try to fight back for Franco. You pathetic little coward!” “Tom then,” she pleaded. “Let me take Tom. He’s old. He’s done. Look at him. Look at him!” With a scream of rage, I punched her in the nose. We danced around each other until a group of fighting humans and vampires got in between us. I caught up with Emily in time to see Tom tackle her to the ground, his face contorting with pain as he moved. He was too slow to respond to her twists to free herself. She wrapped herself around him and sank her fangs into his neck. I reached for her hair as another vampire came out of nowhere and wrapped his arms around my waist to pull me away. I desperately tried to fight him off, but Tom had already managed to free himself and pin Emily to his chest. Panicked, she struggled, never noticing her sire approaching. He gripped her by the throat, lifted her easily out of Tom’s arms, and flung her across the room. He fixed his sights on me, but Emily’s hysterical shriek as she struck the wall caught his attention again. “Pathetic!” he roared, then made his advance on her. Maisy and I scrambled to help Tom to his feet. “I’m fine,” he grunted as Maisy pressed her hand against his wound. “Just an old back injury playing up.” He knocked her hand away then slammed his back against the wall. He briefly went cross-eyed then nodded. “Better.” He took one last regretful look at Franco before glaring at me. “Keep fighting, you two. Don’t let this be for nothing.” I followed his lead back into battle, trying my best not to look at poor Franco’s body. Arwen came out of nowhere to grip my arm. “Looks like your little friend is—“ She gasped sharply. “I don’t believe it.” “What?” “There’s mine.” I followed her gaze toward the doorway. Emily was about to have her head ripped off by her sire, but he had been distracted by the arrival of another first-gen. This one looked more feminine, but they were equally monstrous. Behind her were many tall, strong looking male vampires. “We nicknamed her the Black Widow,” Arwen whispered. “She sires men and kills most of them every century. Nobody’s figured out why, but the stories about her are terrifying.” “What do we do?” “We can’t fight both of them.” And by the way the Big Bad let go of Emily and jerked to face the new arrival, it was obvious the opposition had shown up. He crouched into a defensive position. With a silent command, all of the fighting vampires stopped attacking and moved to his side, ready to protect him from us… and the new vampires. “Fool!” the Black Widow declared as she gazed around the room. “Playing games with humans. You disgrace yourself.” The Big Bad gestured toward the closest dead body on the ground. “This is how we were meant to be.” “You don’t speak for me. You barely recall your own existence. I was there when humans first walked the earth. I know what it is to be vampyre. You have no idea. Don’t you remember the hysteria when another like you attempted this? How our numbers were destroyed? You indulged yourself, and we will pay for it.” She glared at those of us who had grouped together on one side of the room. “The hunters are creating an army because of you, filling the world with stories we’ve put energy into making them forget.” “Why should they forget? Why shouldn’t we take what we desire?” “Because we’re outnumbered, you fool! Our way of life has existed for a reason. And now everything we have worked for is gone, wasted in one petulant fit. No more. This ends here.” I ignored the pointless argument to kneel next to Franco. His life had been wiped out in an instant. I touched his hand. It was so warm that I couldn’t believe his life was over. It was my mother all over again. I shivered as Base touched my shoulder. “Come on,” he whispered. “We might make it out of here.” It was only then I realised that Kynan was trying to sneak everyone out through the service door. “Stop!” the Big Bad commanded, and we all froze. “We were never meant to play with our food,” the Black Widow said mockingly. “And your punishment is soon to be delivered.” The two first gens flew at each other, colliding in a mass of violence. A whirlwind ensued as literal sparks of energy flew from the battling pair. “Now, Ky!” Arwen cried. “We can still do this.” Resorting to the original plan, Ky leapt on a table and held a lit lighter up to the sprinklers. A half-second later, a gush of liquid sprayed on top of all of the vampires. They immediately screamed and cowered, the younger vampires in particular. It was a combination of things, Kynan had explained to us earlier, but holy water and liquid silver were just two of the ingredients. It would slow the vampires down temporarily, giving us a chance to vacate the building. Then the final stage of the plan could begin. The two first gens had recoiled away from each other, unwilling to allow an enemy so close while they were injured. Their skin burned, actually peeled away from their faces, but it healed as quick was it was ruined. The water trick wasn’t going to work for long. As the spray continued, they were driven to their knees. Most of the vampires were curled up in a ball, howling with pain. “Here’s our chance to get out of here,” Arwen whispered. “Get everyone out the door before the vampires recover. This won’t give us much time, but it’s better than nothing!” We gathered everyone and urged them to the doors. I was happy to see Deco and my other school friends make it outside. I lingered, wishing we could take Franco with us. Arwen and I were the last to the door when a rush of wind flew in front of us, knocking us back. The Black Widow made an awful sound and lashed out at us with one final burst of telekinetic energy. Caught up in the powerful surge, Arwen and I were both slammed against the wall, but I somehow managed to break her fall. A crack sounded, and an excruciating pain in my arm followed. I whimpered and clambered to my feet to follow Arwen out. The service door had swung shut by the first gen’s power, but it had cracked in the process, and when Arwen tried to push it open, it stayed shut. We were the only two humans left in the room. “Quickly, through the main exit,” Arwen cried. “They’re recovering already!” She ran, and I followed, noting how some of the vampires on one side of the room were already starting to revive as the sprinkler’s spray weakened. But I noticed Emily crawling toward me and hesitated. “Help me,” she pleaded. “Help me get out of here.” She reached out and touched my ankle, and the skin from her fingers peeled away. Her face was covered in burns and lesions, but as I watched, they healed, only for new ones to form. In a flash, I saw my mother’s body in my arms, then Emily’s smug expression when she let me know it was too late to save her. “I’ll help you,” I said, painfully aware of the fact some of the vampires were slowly getting to their feet. She made a sound of relief, and it filled me with a new rage. “For my mother, for Franco, for Mel, for everyone your disgusting race has hurt,” I hissed as I shoved the stake into her chest. Her eyes widened as she realised what was happening, but she had no power to stop me. “Devlin.” Habit made me look directly at the one calling my name. Emily’s sire, the one we not-so-affectionately nicknamed the Big Bad held my gaze. “Come here,” he said, and his voice was softer than anything I had ever heard before. He grew taller before my eyes as he moved to his knees. “Come here,” he said again. I fell into a pit of darkness, the only anchor that voice, those eyes. That wasn’t hell I had seen before. It was paradise. I took a step forward, eager to find my way home again. For an instant, I saw my mother’s face, smiling at me. But that was wrong. She was dead. And not even a powerful vampire’s thrall could make me believe in that kind of miracle. I shook myself free of the haze surrounding me and turned to run. But I had gotten too close to a recovering vampire. He gripped my legs and pulled hard. I had been holding my likely broken arm and lost my balance, falling to my knees. After everything, I really had screwed it all up at the end. I kicked out with my legs, refusing to die quietly. An angry yell sounded behind me, and then an axe swung down on the back of the vampire’s neck. I was free. “Run,” Tom urged, pulling me to my feet. Many of the vampires were crawling toward us, some of them on their knees, desperate to drink their pain away. A vampire with no face stood on unsteady feet near the doorway. I looked around. There were more. We were surrounded. Tom slammed into the vampire blocking our way, but something in the movement hurt that old back injury again, and he crumpled to his knees. I moved to his side to help him. “Get out of here before it’s too late,” he hissed. “Shut up.” I hurriedly helped him to his feet, but he winced in pain as he lifted the axe. A pair of vampires reached out for us, and I moved into a defensive stance. There were too many to turn our backs on. “Go!” Tom roared, and he shoved me through the doorway, slamming the door behind me. The sound made me feel sick. Tom hadn’t followed. I automatically reached for the door handle when a large hand slapped mine away. For an instant, I thought it was Tom, but it was Glyn. “Don’t be foolish,” he said. “It’s too late to go back.” “But Tom—” “He made his choice,” he said, not unkindly. “And he’s giving the rest of us time. Now run. One of the vans is waiting. If we don’t hurry, they’ll die for us, too. Do I have to carry you?” I shook my head, but I was shivering as we ran down the stairs. Fighting noises sounded from above, but there was no way Tom could survive. Another death on my hands. Base came running up the stairs as we descended, relief written all over his face when he saw me. “They’re going to leave. Hurry!” Somehow, we made it outside and into the van. It was a bit of blur. I kept thinking of the people we had left behind. “It’s about time!” Arwen cried as she hugged Glyn. Maisy was sitting quietly, refusing to look anyone in the eye. “I couldn’t find you,” Base said as the van pulled away, tyres screeching. “Tom’s gone,” I whispered. Base held my hand tight, but I couldn’t stop shaking as I watched out the window. Another one of Kynan’s special ingredients was something incredibly flammable, and as we drove away from the building, he set off an explosion that rocked the ground beneath us. We felt the heat from the flames, but we were already out of range for any damage. The windows of the building blew out, and I wasn’t sure if the burning bodies had jumped or been flung by the force of the blast. And it was only then, as we watched the burning building through the back window, that I finally let myself cry. Chapter Twenty-One The sun had no right to shine, and yet it did. Just as it had every day in the last three weeks. We had won the battle, attended many funerals, and now the hunters were leaving, back to follow the vampires who had escaped the final fire and the first gens who hadn’t interfered in the war one of their kind had wrought upon us. The fire had gone on for a long time, but we had heard reports of burned figures running the streets. The hunters had gone through the remains. It was hard to tell how many vampires we had taken down, but there hadn’t been one death in my town ever since. Whoever remained of the vampires had retreated, too scared to even feed in case the hunters followed. We all knew there was a long way to go toward wiping out the species, but surely we had taught the vampires a lesson. And lost so much in the process. The entire town was in mourning. Businesses were destroyed. So many jobs lost. Maisy had been inconsolable after the battle, and I wasn’t sure she would ever recover her light-heartedness. So much death and violence left a permanent stain. Franco, who had been so scared of so many things, had lost his life in a hopeless fight to save our home. I had wasted so much time misunderstanding him only to lose him when I finally considered him a friend. Tom had sacrificed himself to help me and the others get away in time while he delayed the recovering vampires. The delay had been my fault. He had always been the protector, the person anyone in need could turn to, and my need for vengeance had ultimately caused his death. Base and Callum had turned inward. Both were reluctant to talk about what happened. I couldn’t say I was any different. Talking didn’t help. I wasn’t sure what would help. Even thinking back, the fight had been such a blur. There just wasn’t the words to explain what we had gone through. Maybe it was because we didn’t dare hope it was really over. The vampires were gone. We were sure of that. But that didn’t mean they would never come back. And I kept wondering if that would persuade people like Brian that they should go on the offensive and track down the vampires before they caused the same disasters again. I couldn’t. Revenge had only ever caused more problems. My town needed to heal. And that took time and people willing to help. I had to be one of them. We had seen too much damage, too many deaths. And once the shock wore off, it would be time to start repairing our lives and our community. Callum, Base, and I drove to the airport to wave the hunters off before they left for good. Proximity and mutual losses had made us all grow closer of late. While my friends headed straight to Ky, Arwen, and Glyn, I found Jack sitting on a bench, waiting patiently to move on. I took a seat next to him. “Sure you’re ready to be running around again, old man? “Who’s ever ready?” He stared up at the sun. “I was getting too bored sitting in hospital anyway.” “You could stick around,” I said softly. “Settle down or whatever.” “Is that what you’re planning on doing? Settling down? Sure it won’t get too boring for you?” “I’m over excitement,” I admitted. “Over causing death, too.” “You didn’t cause death,” he said gently. “Didn’t I?” I swallowed past a lump in my throat. In my head, Tom had been invincible, but he had given his life for me. Franco had gone out of his way to do the right thing, but he had been punished for it. And Mam… I had gotten her so wrong. Base had been right. She really had wanted to give me my own life. I could see things differently already, and only partly because she had left me a gift that would help me set myself up in any new life I chose. I had choices now. But I had always had choices. The difference was I was now determined that my choices would save lives rather than take them. “The vampires are the only ones to blame,” Jack said. “I’m sorry about those you’ve lost, but I don’t think it does you any good to blame yourself. Trust me. It does nothing but eat you up.” “I just need time to… take it all in, I think.” I blinked back some tears. “You know, it’s really weird because I haven’t told anyone else this yet, but I think my mother had a plan for me. It turns out she took out life insurance on herself years ago, and she managed to keep paying the premiums, even when she was… having bad days. It’s so bizarre. I don’t know how she kept it from me. It’s not a fortune, but it’ll give me a chance to make a fresh start.” “Any ideas what you’re going to do with that?” “Actually, I’m going to stick around here,” I said. “Do something that would make her proud of me. I’m thinking about going into nursing. Seems kinda like…” “Redemption?” he offered. “Maybe. Is that stupid?” “Would it change your mind if I said it was?” I smiled. “Not even a little bit.” “For the record, I don’t think it’s stupid. We all deal in different ways. And I think it’ll be perfect for you. You’ll be too busy to get yourself into trouble.” I laughed then, and the sound surprised me. It was the first easy laugh since the funerals. There hadn’t seemed to be anything funny in the world after that. “I’m sorry you lost your team,” I said after a moment. “It must be hard to move on without them.” “I’m sorry, too,” he said. “And it is… tough.” He rested his hand on mine. “We’ve both lost too much. And I know I warned you not to let it eat you up, but I think you’ve already got a handle on that stuff.” “None of it has sunk in yet, I’m afraid. I think I’m going to need to take some time to grieve before I can be… the person I want to turn into.” “What if you encounter another vampire?” “Then I’ll deal with it,” I said. “And I’ll go back to my life. I know this isn’t truly over. There will always be monsters in the world, and there will always be people who fight against them. But I’m not going to let them take over my life because that’s the same as letting them kill me. I have the chance to really live for the first time. I intend to take it, Jack. And the vampire that tries to stop me is one stupid arsehole.” He squeezed my hand, and when I looked at him, he was grinning, but his eyes were watery. “I hope you’ll keep in touch,” he said when he composed himself. “You might make me remember there’s a real world out there still.” “I will,” I said, meaning it. Arwen joined us. I had grown to like her a lot. She was tough, yet compassionate, never bitter about the things that had happened to her, and I sort of looked up to her. “Injuries healing nicely,” she said, nodding at my arm. “I was lucky.” “It wasn’t luck,” she said, frowning. “It took hard work to survive. Don’t let yourself forget that.” It had also taken sacrifices, but thinking about that again might make me cry in front of everyone. “So you’re all set to leave,” I said, trying to change the subject. “It’s best if we get out of the way before too many sensible questions start getting asked. And isn’t it great news?” She grinned and nodded at Callum and Base. “I even picked up a new recruit along the way.” My heart threatened to stop. I felt winded, as though her words had just punched me right in the gut. I nodded, trying to smile. Brian was leaving. This was it. The moment I had been waiting for. After all of the dreading, it still came as a shock. Things between us had been, well, fantastic. But perhaps the bad memories were something he couldn’t come to terms with. Surviving a war was tough. Living with the things you did to survive was so much harder. I was still trying to remember how to breathe when the others joined us. As if on cue, Brian beckoned me aside. “There’s something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about,” he began. “And I don’t know how you’re going to take it.” I held up my hands. I couldn’t hear the words coming from him when he thought I was about to freak out. And if I didn’t say what I really wanted to say before he started, then I really might freak out and say things I didn’t mean. “Just… wait,” I said. “Let me say my bit first. I know what you’re going to say. Arwen told me, but I kind of already knew. I’ve had a feeling for ages, and that’s why I’ve been moody sometimes, but I swear I’m not upset.” “Er, Dev?” “The thing is,” I said hurriedly. “I love you, and I thought that meant being with you forever, but it really means I want you to be happy no matter what takes you there, so I’m not going to freak out or guilt trip you or make you want to stay with me. I’m going to worry about you, but it’s because I love you that I won’t try to stop you from leaving with the hunters. I just hope you’re safe and happy and that you know you always have people here who care about you.” A smile hovered around Brian’s lips. “Devlin.” Callum interrupted him. “Did he tell you yet?” I nodded glumly, not trusting myself to speak. “Well? Do I not get a good luck even?” I frowned. “Good luck about what?” He scratched his head. “Uh… about leaving? With the hunters?” “Callum’s the one going with Arwen,” Brian said gently. “Not me.” I glanced at him, my heart wanting to stop for an entirely new reason. “Are you serious?” “Yes, Miss. Paranoid,” he said, barely containing his amusement. “Holy shit,” I shouted and wrapped my good arm around Callum. “Good luck.” He staggered back a step before hugging me back. “Well, thanks, I suppose. Didn’t think you were looking forward to getting rid of me this much.” “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m just… happy for you. Are you sure you want to go?” “I feel like I have unfinished business,” he said. “I can’t let the vampires all get away with what they did, and I’m never going to be a part of the police force again, so why not this? They have the resources to help me. Maybe someday I’ll come back, but I’m hoping I won’t have a reason to.” He glanced at Base. “It was good knowing you all. You know that… well, let’s just call this a see you later. Too many goodbyes lately.” Base nodded and shook his hand. I felt a little sorrier that Callum was leaving. But unlike me, he wasn’t ready to let go of the idea of revenge and step back into a normal life just yet. “It’s going to be weird,” I said shakily. “Everything’s changed.” “Maybe some of it will be for the better,” Callum said. Arwen grabbed his attention, giving me the time to remember that Base had wanted to talk to me about something. And looking at his serious expression, my stomach turned with fear. “Hit me with it before I chicken out,” I said. “I can only take so much news in the one day.” He reached out and took my good hand, pulling me closer to him. “I’ve been thinking a lot about this, about the future and everything else. I mean, do you have plans?” “I’ve been thinking, too,” I said. “The thing is, I want to go into nursing. I know that’s a crazy change from working in pubs, but after everything, I want to help people heal. I want to be a part of the cure, not the problem. Of course,” I babbled nervously, “I can’t start now, but it’s something to aim for, something to keep me looking forward when all I want to do is look back. I know it’ll be difficult, but—” “I think it’s a great idea,” he said firmly. “It’ll suit you perfectly. You’re tough, and you can run things efficiently, but you still care, and you go the extra mile for everyone. Plus, you’re not squeamish, so, bonus.” “And your plans?” I asked when it became apparent that I was going to have to drag it out of him. “I don’t know what the big plan is,” he said. “But I want to take the year to figure it out. I’m thinking we should go away for six months, travel and work abroad for a bit, get some perspective.” He cupped my cheek. “And heal, Dev.” “We?” I brightened. “Did you say we?” “Of course I said we. You loon.” He kissed my cheek. “If we can make it through crazy vampires and death and destruction, then we can make it through anything. I’m restless to see something of the world, but a part of me is dying to settle down to something normal. Almost dying has a weird way of making you look at the world, you know? I feel like leaving a different kind of legacy behind. I don’t want to be known as the man who killed a thousand vampires. I want to be happy and make other people happy. I want to make you happy. I already think of us as a family, and I can’t imagine facing anything without you. I don’t know. I just think we’re pretty freaking good together, O’Mara. So what do you say? Want to see some of the world with me before we settle down into boring old people?” I grinned. “Hell freaking yeah.” And I was looking forward to it, too.

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