When Hazel Loman reached her front gate, she stopped and pulled the bobble out of her hair. She still felt tired and couldn’t get the smells of meat and dairy out of her nose, but just being able to shake her wavy, strawberry blonde hair loose made her feel that bit better.
When she put the key in her front door and turned, the door was pulled open from inside. She yelped, before clamping a hand over her mouth.
“Hazel.” Her father stood at the door, chuckling. “Sorry if I startled you.”
She felt her cheeks burning as she stepped inside. “Hi dad. Yeah, no worries.”
“How was work?”
“It was work.” She said with a shrug.
There was a yip and their Labrador puppy Rosie dashed out of the living room to dance around her feet. Hazel’s younger sister Lucy followed the animal, still wearing her school uniform. She was like a miniature version of her big sister, with the same hair and even the same pout when she was annoyed.
Hazel stroked the dog’s head and said hi to her sister, before their mother came out of the living room to call Lucy back in. Melissa shot an apologetic look to her husband and said hi to her daughter before closing herself in the living room with the child and the dog.
Hazel took off her bag and dropped it at the bottom of the stairs, then unpinned her name tag. She stared at the words ‘Happy to Help’ just below her name for a moment before dropping it into her bag.
“Is this happening, then?”
“All set to go when you are. Joel is waiting out back.” Joseph Loman looked youthful for a man fast approaching fifty, and still in good shape at that. He headed through the kitchen into the back garden. She gave a sigh and followed her father out to a covered deck in the top-right corner of the garden.
The furniture had been cleared from the deck and a three-branched gold candelabra placed in the middle of the floor, the candles currently unlit. A red cushion had been placed either side of it, at about arms’ length. Joel Morris was waiting for them there.
“Alright Joel.” She said.
At eighteen, he was a year younger than Hazel, and at five-foot-eight he was around the same height. Looking so youthful, and buzzing with nervous energy, belied the weight of the responsibility that fell to him.
Noting the leather sheath at Joel’s side, the bronze hilt emerging from it. Her stomach tensed and she clenched her hands into fists, though more at the thought of what came after the ritual than of the steel cutting her flesh. She had trained for most of her life, and she was committed. She wanted to do this, and yet now that it was upon her she couldn’t account for that heavy feeling in the pit of her stomach.
“Hey.” Joel laughed. “Warm sunlight isn’t really the right atmosphere for an ancient bloodletting ritual, is it?”
Hazel glared at him, not in the mood for his sense of humour.
Joel flushed and cleared his throat. “Never mind. Shall we get on with this?” He bent down and lit the candles between them as Hazel and her father knelt on either side of it. The flames didn’t flicker in the still air. “Joseph, hold out your left hand.”
Hazel watched Joel draw the blade at his side, a dagger no longer than a large kitchen knife. As the tip of the blade touched her father’s palm just below his index finger, she remembered to breathe and let out a whistle of air.
“Say the words.”
“I am Joseph Loman, Sentinel of the bloodline of Cimon, and my duty is done. I kneel and with open arms offer the gift of blood to my successor.” He didn’t wince as Joel drew the blade across his palm, producing a line of red. “Hazel, born of my blood, once again take the gift of my life.”
She held out her right hand, felt the cold steel touch her flesh, and spoke. “I am Hazel Loman, of the bloodline of Cimon, and my blood is the blood of the Sentinel before me.” She did wince, as she felt the steel move across her palm, more from expectation than actual pain. “Father, I accept your gift gratefully and vow to carry on your work.”
“Now, press your palms together.”
When both did as bid, Joel clasped his own hands around them. She felt a tension in her arm as he pushed both hands down towards the highest flame on the candelabra. She tensed up as the flame touched her skin, then Joel muttered some words in a language she didn’t understand, and the flame expanded to engulf their hands.
He spoke louder now, in English. “Time passes and man grows old. But the work of a Sentinel is never done. From father to daughter, inheritance passes and the fire of Cimon’s struggle burns on.”
Hazel closed her eyes. Her head swam and she had to put her free hand on the floor to brace herself. Her breath quickened and she felt something soft and cold run up the skin of her back. Then it was done.
Opening her eyes, she suppressed a gasp as she took in the sight of her father. All at once he looked his age. There were more lines on his face and a streak of grey had taken over his hair. He still looked healthy for nearly fifty, but there was no doubting the sudden transformation. She looked away.
“Haze, I’m fine.” He said. Though he grunted as he rose to his feet. “Anyway, how do you feel?”
She hopped to her feet with far more ease than her father. “Sound, actually.” She laughed at how odd the words sounded after the arcane formality of the ritual. Joel cracked a smile as well.
“Well then,” her father said, “you should be up for your first challenge as Sentinel.”
Joel was in good shape and had sharp instincts, as she had seen when the two of them trained together. But where with the ritual behind her she now felt at ease, as if this was exactly how things were meant to be, he had hardly stopped chattering since.
“What do you think motivates people to fall for them?” He was asking. “I mean, I get the romance and all that around the Gothic imagery and that. Well, I don’t get it, exactly. But I know that it’s a thing. But this isn’t some person dressing up a certain way to try and entice a lover, this is a thing, luring in prey. Victims. It’s not human. More than that, it’s dead, so you would have thought that –”
He closed his mouth and they carried on walking, her shouldering the weight of the holdall with their weapons in. But it didn’t bother her. In truth, Joel’s words had sent her mind somewhere else.
A voice whispered in her memory: “I love you. I want you to be mine…forever.”
She gritted her teeth. Joel was right; they weren’t humans, they were things, and they had to be destroyed. She had learned that lesson the hard way some years ago. But that didn’t mean she needed him reminding her of it.
When she looked over, he still had his eyes down to the ground. She had upset him. She sighed and rolled her eyes.
He looked over at her, eyes wide.
“I just need the quiet to think this through, that’s all. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“It’s okay. I’m not upset.” The way he puffed out his chest told her that was a lie.
She smiled. “Alright, then. How about we get this done?”
Katie struggled against the rope around her arms, but the knots wouldn’t budge. A dull throb pulsed through her arms and the streams of tears burned her face.
“It’s not so bad.” The other girls cooed from behind Nathaniel. “We all had to go through it. You come out stronger at the other end.”
Still she strained and pulled against the rope. Until Nathaniel smiled at her and revealed his true face. His beautiful, pale skin turned yellow and grey and his face became the face of a monster. The web of veins, the bloody red eyes, the skin drawn so far back he looked like a skull. The teeth like those of a shark. Her breath caught in her throat. She wanted to scream, but instead all she could do was gasp. Then his mouth was on her neck.
Several hours later, she still felt light-headed. There was a burning at her neck, covered over with a bandage. She swam in and out of consciousness, and in the moments where everything went dark she saw her mother’s face, heard her voice scolding her about Satanism and witchcraft. She laughed in the face of her imaginary mother, the laughter becoming tears as she jerked back to reality.
A crash downstairs stopped her tears. It was followed by more noises. Grunts, smacks, clatters, screams. It sounded like a fight, but with who?
The door burst open and one of the other girls – she called herself Shayde – came running in. She was gasping, crying, and looked genuinely terrified.
“What…” Katie said.
Shayde clamped a hand over her mouth. “Don’t.” She whispered. “They’ll hear you. They’ll kill us. They’ve already killed Nathaniel.”
Her breathing quickened and her mouth twitched under Shayde’s hand.
Shayde ran over to the door, remembering it was still open. As she closed it over, it flew inwards, splintering and knocking her over.
She held her hands up, pleading. The attacker, a girl with strawberry blonde hair and a slim, athletic figure, didn’t listen. She swung the sword in her hand, decapitating Shayde in one clean blow. The head rolled over to Katie’s feet, now trapped in the same horrific form she had seen Nathaniel in.
This time, Katie did scream.
A young man followed the girl into the room. He was the same age as the girl, short and lean. He’d looked briefly at Katie, then at the girl, but no words had passed between them. He picked up the head in one hand, dragged the body by its collar with the other, and disappeared.
“Did you ingest any of his blood?”
“Did I – What?”
“The man who brought you here, he fed on you. Did he make you drink his blood?” Both her voice and her manner were sympathetic, which calmed Katie down somewhat.
“Err, no. No, I never he…” Before she could say more, the girl raised her sword and swung. Katie winced and cried out. Her arms came free and she slumped to the floor. When she looked up, the girl had lowered her sword and was offering her a hand.
“I’m Hazel.” She said as she helped Katie to her feet. “The man and women who had you tied up were vampires. They’re gone now. Let’s get you out of here and home.”
She could think of nothing to say except “Okay.” She followed Hazel out of the room and downstairs, doing her best to ignore the trail of blood where Shayde’s body had been dragged. In the hall, it joined up with five other trails that all led out into the back garden. The lad Hazel had been with came back from that direction shortly.
“Done?” Hazel asked. When he nodded, she said, “Katie, this is Joel.” Her tone was different when she spoke to Joel, harder and more abrupt. “Let’s get her home and call it a night then.”
She followed them into the street. The whole road was derelict and empty, metal or wooden boards blocking the windows and doors of the houses.
“How did you fall in with them?” Hazel asked her.
“The vampires. As a rule, they groom their victims rather than just snatching them off the street. I take it that’s what happened to you? Where did you meet them?”
Grooming. It made it sound so seedy, perverted. Maybe it was, though, since Nathaniel did seem to have been building up a harem of girls he could have his way with whenever he wanted – forever. She shuddered at the idea. They came out of the street onto one with lights on and more traffic, making her realise she had been silent for some time.
“It’s okay, take your time.” Hazel said.
Katie shook her head. “No, it’s okay. I go to this club called Sanguine. It’s like a Goth club, you know. I made friends with Shayde there, and she said she would introduce me to this really cool guy called Nathaniel, if I was up for it. Well…” She gestured.
“Right, yeah.” Hazel shared a look with Joel that Katie couldn’t interpret. “So, where is Sanguine?”
“Oh. No,” Katie shook her head. “I don’t think they knew anything about it. They’re really nice people and they wouldn’t condone that kind of thing.”
“Maybe not, but there might be others who pull the same trick in there. We’ll need to find out.”
“Right, okay. Well it’s in an old warehouse a bit down from the Camp and Furnace.” She said, giving some directions so that they could find it. After that, they carried on walking mostly in silence, until she realised the direction they were walking in. “Wait, are you taking me home?”
“Yeah.” Joel said. “Your mum reported you missing three days ago, and then today someone tipped off the police that they thought someone was being held hostage on that street and gave a description that matched you. You’re really lucky, actually. Usually by the time we find these nests, the people who’ve been taken to them can’t be helped.”
“Joel!” Hazel snapped.
“It’s true.” He said, with a shrug.
“Yeah, but…” Katie stopped walking and took several deep breaths. “Okay, I’m really glad you saved me back there. I promise, I am. Thank you. But isn’t there, like, a shelter or something for people who’ve been through that?”
“What about…” Joel started.
“She doesn’t want to go home.” Hazel said. She took Katie’s hand, firmly, and looked her in the eye. “Look, love, I know what it’s like when you feel that you can’t handle your family. I promise, I do. Maybe we can help?”
Katie swallowed and straightened up, her resolve hardening. “You cannot tell my mum that you found me. Or tell her I’m dead. Yeah, tell her that. I bet she doesn’t even cry, I bet she says it was my own fault and I deserved it or something. Tell her that.”
“We can’t tell her you’re dead.” Hazel said. “But if you don’t want to go back we can help you.”
Katie felt her eyes watering. She didn’t know Hazel, and in all likelihood she would never see her again after tonight. But in that small space of time she had saved her life and had promised to help her get a fresh start. It was more than anyone had ever done for her.
“Thank you. Thank you! Thank you!” She said, as she threw her arms around Hazel and caught her in a hug.
Hazel was still awake as the sun came up outside her bedroom window. She had gotten home not too long after one in the morning, once she had made sure that Katie had somewhere to sleep for the night and someone responsible for making sure that she made out okay. But despite how long a day it had been, starting with a seven am rise for her last shift on a checkout, she didn’t feel at all sleepy. She wasn’t particularly wired either. She just had what her mum would call ‘a busy mind.’
Katie hadn’t told her what her mum had done to her that she would rather be thought dead than go back, and she hadn’t asked. Seeing how much it had affected her had been enough, though the downside was that it now left her speculating on too many grim possibilities.
She’d never had to deal with anything like that, and comparing the angst and drama of her mid-teens to that was probably doing it a disservice. Yet, for that, was the result all that dissimilar? Out of her earshot, Joel had called Katie a fool and Hazel had chastised him for it. But in truth, he was right. She just didn’t like the implications of that.
She closed her eyes and rubbed at her temples. She needed a distraction, something to clear her head so that she could get some sleep. The fact that she had been coming up on twenty-three hours awake ruled running out as an option. Her mind went to the vibrator buried under her socks in her bedside cabinet. That would do the trick, and without any particularly strenuous effort on her part.
Just then, there was a knock on her door and she turned to see Lucy cautiously peering into her room. “Haze, mummy and daddy say it’s too early to get up. Will you make me some Frosties?”
The vibrator would have to wait, then. She smiled at her younger sister and got up off the bed. “Sure, why not. But we’ll have to be really quiet, okay Luce?”
Lucy nodded, then took Hazel’s hand and let herself be led downstairs.