Jan peered over Violet’s shoulder as she freed her key from the lock and opened the door. Even in the unlit gloom, he could easily see the windows, each sealed over with foil and blinds . . . but each one fully opened, cold night air streaming into the apartment.
No heartbeats but for Joseph’s behind him. No feel of the predator, the Beast, but that shared between himself, Violet, and Mila. No movement, no inhabitants. The walls were darker than before, the open front closet and living room empty, doors open . . . and a faint, but unmistakeable smell still hung in the air. Dried blood.
As the four filed into Timothy’s apartment, flicking on flashlights or peering about with their heightened senses alert, they could see why: Every wall, door, and ceiling was painted over in hand-high letters, the finger-thick daubs spelling out what looked like writing, crisp and clear despite the pigment. And yet so much writing was painted on that every sentence was tangled with its neighbors in varying shades of blood—each layer gleaming a different scarlet, crimson, carmine, or rust by age—that Jan could barely pick out a single letter, in English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Greek, Korean, Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, Latin, Tagalog . . .
“Holy—“ Jan let it hang in the air as his voice faltered. Even the Beast was quiescent.
“—Shit.” Everyone hissed the word to him or herself softly, in near-unison.
“Little Timmy’s been busy,” Violet sneered, features coldly sarcastic.
“Golly. Look at this . . .” Mila strode softly across the room, sweeping her iPhone’s light around the area. Violet followed her into the next main room—the kitchen. Behind them, Jan and Joseph quietly looked over the interwoven writing.
Jan raised his phone overhead, carefully examining the writing by camera light. “Okay . . . that looks like an H, maybe an E . . .”
“No, look closer, the E’s after that, “ Joseph countered, sweeping one big hand upward. He paused, took a picture with a flash and a beep. “See the way the . . . the blood spill changes?” The brief flicker at the edge of ultraviolet added an unearthly gleam for a moment.
Jan gave him a narrow-eyed look. “How the hell can you—“
“Her,” Joseph jerked his head after Mila. “It’s . . . a little part of what she gave me.”
In the neighboring room, Mila and Violet continued their sweep. The windows here were all open, the room stripped bare as the previous ones, but for the writing, layers of blood and filth smeared into the dingy white paint. Moreover, every other door was opened: The swinging door into the kitchen, the doors into the neighboring rooms, the water-heater closet door, the counter drawers and cabinet doors all opened, the doors to the refridgerator and all its racks and drawers opened—
Mila tilted her head, following the trail the Beast was following, its urges tugging soundlessly over here, that there was more, down into the open bathroom door to find.
Violet followed her, branched off to one side, peering into the bedroom. No furniture, writing everywhere, window opened, closet door opened, sliding closet doors opened . . .
What in the world . . .
From behind her, Violet heard Mila’s footsteps halt at the bathroom door.
“Ohhh, fuck.” Mila’s voice was soft, but that particular groan of dismay was unmistakeable.
“What is it?” Violet turned around, following her into the bathroom as Joseph and Jan came bringing up the rear. The bathroom door was the only one that had closed—partly—and Mila pushed it back open as they approached, holding it open this time.
The bathroom was surprisingly spacious . . . and filled with bodies. Several corpses lay stacked like cordwood, each in a slightly more advanced state of decay than the others, every single one lain out stiffly atop or next to its neighbor. Each body was neatly slashed open at the wrists, the throat, the insides of the thighs, flesh pallid or chalky. Every single one of the bodies was withered, decay somewhat slowed by the cold, dry atmosphere—the skylight was open to let in frigid late-winter air, as were the sink’s drawers and medicine cabinet—and apparently completely drained of blood and other fluids. The clawfoot bathtub across the room was a gore-choked horror; though empty, the elegant porcelain was caked in layers of maroon and blackish brown, the white shower curtain drawn back but likewise spattered. Its drain plug was open like every other portal in the apartment, the chain and rubber stopper coated with dried blood and other more noisome substances.
Joseph took a faint breath, made a brief grimace, and backed up. Despite the slowed decay of the bodies, the stench was nauseating to anyone still living, and the three Kindred likewise shared expressions of distaste. Jan edged closer, forcing himself to look carefully at the bodies, even as the Beast tensed in the face of this enormity.
“They’ve all been . . .” Jan began, shook his head, started anew. “They’ve all been opened.”
“Just like everything else in here,” Violet finished for him.
“There’s almost no, uh, mess,” Joseph added. “It’s like this guy just . . . hoisted ’em up, and used the tub like a, like an inkwell.”
Mila took a few steps closer to look into the bathtub. “And it’s like . . . he didn’t even drink from them at all. Just . . . used them for all the writing.”
“Shit. Guess that explains why the building’s so quiet.” Everyone looked at Jan, and he shrugged. “I haven’t heard hardly a living person in the place. Definitely not on this floor.”
Yet, as all of them stretched out with their senses, they could feel something else . . . approaching. Under the dead quiet of the apartment, the sound of the elevator hummed and creaked, with a sudden clunk as the cab reached the top floor in the hallway outside.
“Shit, shit, shit, go, go, go—” Jan hissed as he backed out of the bathroom and into the apartment’s main rooms. With his senses so attuned to the area, he could sense multiple persons approaching—none of them alive, and every single one carrying the same predatory taint as Mila, Violet, and himself. Other Kindred.
Violet quickly moved to the front room, and turned the locks on the apartment’s door, dashing back into the kitchen where the rest gathered. Mila pointed to one window. “Here, the fire escape—” but as she put her head and shoulders out, looking over the rickety galvanized metal steps and landings, she could see another figure making its way up from where the escape terminated above the ground floor. “—shit, there’s another one of them.”
Penned in by the approaching Kindred in the hall and on the fire escape, the three neonates and one ghoul ducked into the front room. Violet backed around a corner, knives in her hands; Jan slipped behind a door and pulled out the heavy revolver under his jacket; Joseph unslung the AR from the duffel bag over his shoulder as he took up a spot near the fire escape window, and tossed Mila a prybar from the same bag.
Long, cold seconds ticked by as they waited, and they could feel the others drawing nearer. The faint ribbon of light under the front door was partly occluded by a pair of feet as they halted at the door . . . then another . . . then a third . . . and the third was accompanied by another: smaller feet, a low, rapid heartbeat and the sound of hoarse panting.
The four exchanged nervous glances in the dim room, and raised each of their weapons. Outside, the fire escape gave an occasional clank or shudder as whoever was out there continued their casual climb upward.
The knob rattled back and forth as whoever was outside tried the locked door. Then the whole door shuddered in its frame as they pounded against it. Then the wood gave a splintering crack as it was kicked in. Framed in the light of the hallway outside, three figures stood watching, all bearing the same blank, focused expressions. One of them, a stocky black-skinned man in street clothes, held the end of a chain leash leading to the collar of a mastiff.
Without a word, he released his hold on the leash and his pet bounded forward, seizing onto Mila’s ankle as she tried to backpedal across the room. The man followed his pet in, shrugging a length of steel pipe from the sleeve of his jacket and raising it high.
Violet darted out of the corner where she’d concealed herself, drawing back both her knives and raking them down the man’s back, leaving jagged rents in clothing and flesh, but hardly slowing him as his makeshift club crashed into Mila’s arm. Even as Mila swung her prybar furiously at the ghoul hound, yelping in pain and surprise at the assault, the man made no sound at all.
The second figure followed the first in, a fit-looking blonde in jogging attire who raised a worn Louisville Slugger and prepared to bracket in Mila, as a third—painfully thin with bulging eyes and a tattered three-piece suit—slipped in behind him to drag Violet away from their compatriot.
Jan slammed into tall-and-skinny as he grabbed hold of Violet, ramming the barrel of his gun into the man’s torso. “Mother fucker!” he shouted as he pulled the trigger. There was a muffled pow and the scent of scorched cloth, but only a tiny exit wound and a brief dribble of blood marked the injury. Most times guns won’t do shit on Kindred, he briefly remembered Rickard telling him, ‘specially if they’re tougher like Nomads like you an’ me, or Lords. He snarled, teeth beginning to lengthen as he threw the gun aside and grappled with the assailant.
Mingled anger and pain drove Mila on as she forced Vitae through her body, her heart thudding unsteadily while she raised the crowbar and swung it down hard onto the ghouled dog. Bone cracked and the animal yelped, then bared teeth, muzzle almost foaming as it seized on her again, head jerking back and forth as it nearly yanked her off her feet. The dog’s keeper swung his pipe into Violet’s shoulder with a soft crunch of metal on bone, prompting an angry “Owww!” from her before she stabbed one of her knives into his abdomen.
As the man wielding the baseball bat closed in, Joseph raised the AR and snapped off a shot that grazed the man’s skull, leaving a little furrow in his blonde hair. At the burst of light and sound, his gaze fixed on Joseph, and he moved in a sudden blur across the room, barreling into the larger man. With no sound other than a brief low hiss, he bared his fangs and sank them into Joseph’s shoulder.
“Joe!” Mila screamed in fury and dismay, and took another hard swing at the hound, cutting its snarls short with a yelp of pain and the sound of cracking bone.
The tall, skinny suited man’s attention turned to Jan, and with an almost casual swing of his fist, slammed him back against the wall. As Jan snarled, eyes filling with a blank, murderous fury, the black man wielding the pipe also turned in his direction, recognizing the threat, and moved to assist his companion.
At the sudden shift in attention, Jan’s eyes locked on the pipe-wielding man, and he hurled himself at him, claws and teeth elongated, the only thought the Beast allowing kill. Kill. KILL. The two collided, and just before the Beast eclipsed all coherent thought, Jan spun and kicked the man’s legs out from under him, then leapt atop his body, swinging, clawing, biting, howling.
Tall-and-skinny moved to pull Jan off of his ally, but stopped short as Violet grabbed him from behind in turn, and his attention fixed on her once more. The two locked eyes, and Violet’s widened, the darkness behind them billowing out, a cold feeling of dread and unease emanating from her as she glared unblinking, then swung hard, the fist clenched tight around the pommel of her knife colliding with his face in a hard Vigor-powered blow that dislocated the man’s jaw with a wet pop.
Across the room, the jogging-attired Kindred continued to chew into Joseph’s shoulder, and the ghoul gave a pained groan, then a louder roar. He grabbed hold of the man’s hair, yanking back hard to pull his fangs out of his shoulder, and let out another furious roar as he turned, battered the smaller vampire’s head against the wall, again, and again, then picked him up bodily and hurled him through the window nearby. The muffled crump of the body landing far below went unnoticed by the rest of the combatants.
The sounds of the other figure ascending the fire escape—just a story or two away now—paused as the climber made a puzzled, surprised sound, then the stairs rattled and clanked anew as they began moving again.
Still fending off the ghoul hound, Mila raised the crowbar high and swung hard as she could, putting all her strength into the attempt. This time, her blow shattered its spine and its back legs collapsed, the animal’s snarls turning to pained whines, then silence as she brought down the bar again, and again.
Violet and her opponent slammed into each other, grappling for dominance, each one much stronger than they appeared, wrestling, shoving, punching, kicking. Finally, Violet broke free, baring her teeth in a snarl as the nameless Kindred flexed his hands, ragged nails bent into claws. He raised his hands, looking back and forth between the two women—before another loud bang sounded and the back of his head exploded. The vampire collapsed, a small neat smoking hole near the middle of his forehead, and Mila and Violet turned back to look at Joseph, still bleeding freely from the gash in his neck, holding up the rifle, a faint trail of smoke still rising from the barrel.
There was a soft, wet sound in the corner as Jan’s teeth sank into the last Kindred’s throat and tore into it, ripping down to the bone. His opponent gave one brief bubbling wheeze, then went still, body slowly beginning to curl in on itself. The neonate atop him sat up, looking around as reason slowly returned to his eyes. His jacket was a torn ruin, the shirt underneath spattered in blood, his face and arms and chest battered from the fight, still slowly mending.
The three kindred and one ghoul looked warily at each other, watching injuries heal, looking at the two bodies—one obviously very dead and by now looking weeks-decayed, the other shriveling in on itself, limbs curling toward the torso—then to the window . . .
“Oh shit!” Violet darted to the window. The sounds of the climber on the fire escape had stopped some time ago, but no one was yet to be seen.
“Guys, uh . . .” the rest of the group joined her, looking out the windows and down the back of the building. The body of the third assailant lay sprawled atop a neighboring one-story structure—and someone else was crouched over it, pinning the body in place, head bowed over the throat in a familiar pose.
“What the hell—” Mila said, as the unknown figure rose from the body, which was rapidly turning into a human-like outline of clothing filled with greasy ash. As the figure stood, he turned, a wide grin on his face, and a flash of yellow in his eyes.
He gave the assembled watchers a tiny, almost friendly wave, as if to say “Thanks!”, then turned and leapt, springing feather-light across the rooftop, bounding away on tiptoes, lightly touching on the edge of a roof, the top of a flimsy HVAC duct, a spinning vent, each stride almost weightless.
Hurriedly, Mila dug out her phone again and snapped a few pictures. The images came out slightly blurry, but silhouetted against the orange-lit cloudy night skyline, the frames captured the figure bounding in mid-air.
“What the fuck just happened?” Jan asked, looking out at the heap of ash far below, then back at the two Kindred bodies—one definitely dead, the other perhaps the same, if not beaten into torpor.
“I dunno, man . . . ah, fuck,” Joseph winced, put a hand to the injury on his neck. The bleeding was beginning to slow and scab over rapidly, but he looked just a touch shaken nonetheless. “Who was that?”
“I could be wrong, but I’d say that was Timmy North,” Mila said, looking her ghouled husband over. Even over the reek of gunpowder from Jan and Joseph’s weapons, the smell of spilled blood hung heavy in the air, and the sight and scent of the wound on his exposed skin plucked at her senses. No, not now . . . she told herself.
“We should . . . get these wrapped up . . . take them back to Master Kaintz . . .” Jan said.
Violet nodded in agreement, reaching out and taking his hand. “I’ll, give him a call . . . let him know we need some help here.”