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Nocturnes and Neon

by Joseph Armstead

Excerpt

In the Californian bayside cities of New Barrington and West Sussex, a secretive underground society exists. Amoral, arrogant, sinister and predatorial, the brotherhood of THE MOON-CHOSEN rule the night. Two investigators, friends of an immortal vampire-hunter, venture into a world of dark dangers as they confront the reality that vampires exist in their world!

*     *     *

The pallid rays of silvery moonlight burned down through the thick cloudcover to be lost amidst the electric glare from the streetlamps and the neon from various resteraunts, theatres and bars. The low whistle of the wind from off Borrego Bay was overpowered by the technological din of traffic from narrow aging city streets clogged by too much traffic. Shadows grew long and only barely resembled shapes of the objects, cars and buildings and signs, that cast them as the clouds blown in from the far north by the jet stream altered the angles at which they focused the moonlight.

Litter and debris danced in the breezes. People huddled in small groups or in bland-faced pairs together in the face of the cold, not letting the sudden chill damper their night time plans for dinner, dancing, drinking, theatre-going or for the odd clandestine ren-dezvous in a dark place. In the dark alleys and in stairwells behind buildings, illicit money changed hands, lies were told, hearts were broken, and immoral things were plotted.

Occasionally a sudden shout of surprise or a high-pitched bleat of shock or alarm cut the general city-din, slicing through the familiar fog of routine noises and the faint sound of a police siren ululated over it all like the swiftly fading wail of a soul cast into one of Hell’s deep fiery pits.

The windows in the grimey converted industrial face of Manticore’s Way seemed to blink from the light cast from within it’s depths, like the eyes of a brick and steel Jack O’Lantern winking at frightened children as they passed by. The doors to the nightclub opened every now and again, letting more people in and others out into the night on unimaginable errands, and a lacey puff of steam would blow out from inside, like the breath of a restless dragon. Manticore’s Way had sung it’s siren call to the Children of Bleeding Sin. The Moon-Chosen gathered within, celebrating their dark and seemingly endless lives and telling one another tales of pain, betrayal and corruption as an electronic industrial beat blared, pounding in the background like the manic pulsebeat of a mad robot. A large number of the younger Nightrunners danced with reckless abandon, as if purposely ignoring the beat of the near tuneless industrial-goth music, and others swayed and bobbed to the jackhammer melody. Other Moon-Chosen flitted from group to group meeting old friends, renewing acquaintences and trading secrets. The older and more powerful of Sin’s Children sat in enclaves at candle-lit booths and watched things happen, or not happen, with an almost reptilian patience. Three nights each week,
Manticore’s Way was their communal home, a place for the gathering of the Night Tribes.

The air was thick and humid inside the nightclub, throbbing with desire and danger. Outside it was cold and thin, bleeding away Hope and Love with each swift cutting breeze.

Father Clement Frey and Professor Patricia Silver huddled close together across the street from Manticore’s Way and wordlessly bolstered one another’s courage as they committed themselves to the goal of entering the Wampir nightclub. This was not some-thing they looked forward to. This was not something they were sure was even the correct thing to do. But, right now, it was the only thing they could think of doing. They were feeling the edgy bite of desperation and had just spent nearly half an hour arguing
about it.

Just an hour after Quinn had left to meet with Lorenz Novembre, Doctor Romann Reaves had unexpectedly emerged from his depressed stupor, leapt out of the chair in Quinn’s apartment with a feral shout, and ran pell-mell out the penthouse door. Father Frey had been in the kitchen making a few sandwiches and Professor Silver had just emerged from out the bathroom. Both she and the priest were deep in thought reviewing their recent research into Mustain Industries, hematological disorders, and the possibilities for biological terrorism that the Abyssinian Project presented. They’d both barely registered Dr. Reaves’ drunken presence since he’d lapsed into silence after Quinn and Vic Towers had left. The man had seemed deep in the morass of his depression and
bereft of any will to move at all.

So when he hoarsely screamed a cry of wretched despair and bolted they were caught flat-footed. He was already down the outside corridor to the elevators, sobbing about faces and being unforgiven and betrayal, when they first stepped outside the penthouse after him. There had been no strategy to the pursuit, it was all purely primal: hunt for spoor and follow the trail; and it had taken everything they had to just try keeping up with the running maniac after that.

It had brought them to this place, nine blocks away and uphill, to Manticore’s Way. It was the place Quinn had warned them never to visit without him at their sides.

They’d seen Romann Reaves run stumbling exhaustedly through its doorway inside . . .

“We shouldn’t do this. We should wait for Quinn to get back”, the priest said softly, his eyes locked on the shadows surrounding the recessed door into the nightclub. “I’ve only heard about this place third-hand. A few of my younger parishoners, you know, the obligatory slacker/goth-types that make up the fringe element amongst the youth in-town, have mentioned rather disturbing . . . episodes . . . they experienced in there. Some of it may be the result of introverted teenage angst run amok, but I know in my heart that some of it was true . They play some dark games in there. And they’re a close-knit bunch. Outsiders stand out. If there really are Nightrunners in there, I’m damn sure I don’t want to stand out more than I already do.”

Patricia Silver ran a hand through her hair and frowned. There as a fine sheen of perspiration on her cheeks and forehead and her attention, like Father Frey, was focused on the doorway into the haven for the secretive enemy they dreaded to confront. She was by nature a quietly forceful woman, never reluctant to take charge of any situation she felt she could contribute to, but she was feeling less than confident about the way this situation was unfolding.

“Yeah, well I’d prefer to wait for Quinn, too, but what are we going to do? We need Dr. Reaves and the information he has in that mess of neuroses he calls a mind. And we need to know why he ran away, if he’s somehow under the vampires’ thrall and whether or not they planted him on us, like a stalking horse.”

“Yes, Patricia, I know all that, too. But we’re not equipped to defend ourselves should the worse come to pass . . .”

“You mean if any of them in there decide to ring the dinner-bell.”

“I do indeed”, the priest said glumly.

“God, this is ridiculous! We don’t really know that these creatures really live on blood”, she mused aloud. “Well, do we? Have you ever seen them feed? Have you ever even seen a corpse they reputedly left behind? I know I haven’t.”

“This is a hell of a situation for you to start expressing your doubts in”, Father Frey grumbled angrily. “Having a crisis of Faith? Or trying to convince yourself that we’re not in any danger? Either way, your timing stinks.”

“I know, I know. Sorry”, she mumbled. She took a deep breath, shook her head and then turned to face the priest. She gave him a darkly stern, solemn stare. “We have to do this.”

Frey turned away for a minute and then reached up and slowly fidgeted with his tunic. He unbuttoned and removed his white cleric’s collar. He sighed raggedly as he did so; the act of removing the collar when he was about to confront, in their dark sanctuary, the enemies of all that he believed was Good in this world almost seemed a betrayal of the vows he’d taken over twenty years ago. After all, when he’d been a soldier he’d worn his uniform into battle, why not now? For surely he was now about to go into battle against the Encroaching Dark, so why not proudly declare his allegiance for all to see? The answer resounded within his mind like the tolling of a bell: “You were far better armed and better prepared for battle, then, soldier, and the enemy was, like you, merely human—the enemy you face now is stronger, bolder, more cunning and as alien as The Man in the Moon.” The moon . . . Father Frey stifled a nervous giggle. In all those hoary old Grade-Z movies full of Halloween cliches, whenever the courageous vampire-hunter confronted the Undead the Full Moon always rode the dark skies overhead. He looked up. All he saw was the cold yellow-white glare of a street lamp vying with the harsh neon sign above the nightclub for dominance over the growing twilight gloom. Father Frey stared at the white collar, tinted with red from the sign over Manticore’s Way, the stiff thing curling like a cardboard smile in the palm of his hand, and then he pocketed it.

“Okay, then. Let’s do this.”

Together, they crossed the street, a divide that felt as wide as a football field wherein time passed in huge sluggish chunks wherein they each experienced the emotions of fear and self-doubt and then anger and righteous indignation, indignation at the thought that they must place themselves at risk like this because the Moon-Chosen had brought violence and evil into their world, and, still together, they walked up to the door of Manticore’s Way . . .

Where suddenly, appearing as if from out a puff of dirty smoke, a short coke-bottle shaped young woman in modernized velveteened Victorian dress with an outsized partially-exposed bosom and pouting lips was between them and the door’s handles. She looked at them irritatedly, as if they were in her way, her dark eyes full of fire and challenge and then cold with haughty dismissal, and she wrenched the large metal doors open to vanish into the neon glare within so quickly she appeared to be no more than a swiftly fading blur.

Startled, the pair looked at one another meaningfully and Professor Silver mouthed the girl’s name soundlessly. Helinor. It had to be her. She matched Quinn’s description of the arrogant little murderess perfectly.

Without further hesitation they went in, half expecting Helinor to be waiting for them inside. She wasn’t. She had disappeared deep within the place to pursue her private affairs and left no trace. The shadows inside that doorway threatened to swallow them whole.

They entered a short curved corridor, moderately narrow but made even more so by a few sullen leather-clad men and women who loitered within it’s dimly-lit confines, that led to a stormfence chain-link cage in which a young hatchet-faced woman checked
people’s passes. Brilliantly green-eyed like a cat in human form, the young punk female possessed an odd opaque milky pallor and an incredibly thick thatch of unruly blue-black hair that masked half her face, a face on which a Chinese I-Ching character had been tattooed in red-brown henna ink. She looked disinterestedly at Father Frey and at Professor Silver and held out her hand expectantly.

“Private club”, she said nasally. “No pass, no entry.”

There was a sudden shift in the deeper shadows near the steel cage and something flickered in the half-light. The young woman frowned and looked behind her, her hand still positioned out and palm up, awaiting the key-token of Manticore membership.
Softly, sibilantly, a disembodied male baritone spoke in a whisper that reeked pure scorn. A voice that seemed to wind it’s way softly down from the ceiling and all around them like smoke sent a chill down Patricia Silver’s spine as she recognized the clipped
Highland Scottish accent.

“My, but yuir a rude dirty sow. They’re bloody royalty, they are, and they need no guff about ‘passes’ from the low-born likes of ye. Let ‘em in or I’ll be eatin’ yuir liver while yuir eyes are still open.”

Confused and now a little alarmed the girl opened her mouth as if to speak—and then was abruptly yanked soundlessly, bodily off from her barstool in the cage at near supersonic speed to disappear from sight, her Army Surplus GI-Infantry booted feet flying into the air higher than her shoulders. Three heartbeats later she was roughly deposited back onto the barstool. She was trembling and dripping a shiny, cold-looking
sour perspiration and her feline emerald eyes were wide and sightless as a porcelain doll’s.

“Go on in”, she said through a tight throat. She seemed to be having some difficulty breathing. She frowned and looked down at her knees as she whispered wheezily to seemingly no one in particular, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry . . . , please . . . , I’m sorry.”

The priest was slowly backing away from the cage and looking for something, anything on which to focus his attention, some familiar threat he could confront, and thus root this macabre tableau in some recognizeable reality. He was fully in the grip of his primal fight or flight response when his narrowed eyes caught those of Professor Silver who said, as calmly as she could although her own insides were racked with tiny fear tremors, “We should be okay now, Clement. We should go inside now quickly.”

“What was that voice, that whisper? It sounded like it belonged to the Devil himself.”

Silver allowed herself an off-balance grin born of secret knowledge and anxiety. “A recent friend of mine. He’s trying, in his own way, to be of help. We shouldn’t question his intentions or his methods right now.”

“Thank you, Lucien”, she said under her breath.

“Wise lassie.” The Scot’s whisper hissed from beyond the shadows.

“Let’s go”, Silver said. With Father Frey still peering frantically into the dark places in the corridor, they walked past the terrorized gate check-girl and passed through the waist-high turnstile at the landing to the stairs leading down into the club.

* * *

The interior of Manticore’s Way. The lion’s dark den . . .

It was like a cross between an underlit, tastelessly over-decorated Hollywood set of a discotheque and someone’s converted factory building loft. There was a lot of chain-link storm-fencing and thick hanging drapery. Gargoyles on pedestals and bas-relief faux-Dore scultures lined the walls. Neon signs advertising beer and harder drink clashed with black light beams shining on posters of panthers under full moons and comic book illustrations of Bela Lugosi amid the crumbling ruins of Carfax Abbey. A kung-fu movie projected distortedly on a billowing white sheet running from floor to ceiling, played silently as the shadows of dancers meshed with the cinematic images. Cigarette smoke and the faintly sickening scent of old perfume and hashish smoke teased the nostrils and created small headaches for the newly-initiated. And the sound, the sound of an over-ampped DJ mixer-board playing ‘80s rock songs from Bauhaus, New Order, The Cult and Lords of the New Church and then morphing into 90s Gansta-style rap from Machavelli, Mia X and Silkk the Shocker, fairly raged through the club, setting moods and inspiring bored-looking dancers to act out their emotions or to hide behind a theatrically false face. Here and there, the sound of raucous laughter, hints of desperation and the faintest edge of sadistic derision robbing it of joviality, broke the thundering tempo of the music’s hypnotically-blended bassline. The place was a veritable laboratory of psychiatric and sociological theorems run amok, too, it was a place where embryonic nightmares waited to be born.

It was repellent. It was exciting. It was adolescently silly. It was simultaneously bright and garish and yet dangerously dark and menacing. Intoxicating.

And everywhere there were the beautiful and ageless, strangely extrahuman expressionless faces of the Moon-Chosen, some animated in conversation, some openly expressing licentious intent, some moody and dark as they suppressed some murderous urge here within a place of sanctuary, and some looking impossibly lonely and saddened as they watched their brethren with that look one gives to family members they wished they weren’t related to.

Silver overheard Father Frey mumbling prayers to himself as they selected and sat down at a table near the stairwell, on the edge of the dance floor. She sighed irritatedly and locked the priests’ eyes with an angry stare.

“Dammit, Clement, knock it off. You actively TRYING to get us noticed and maybe killed?”

“I’m TRYING to understand”, he roughly whispered, anger finding it’s way into his voice. “What have you allied yourself with? Does Quinn know about your dark ‘friend’? Does this friend watch over you all the time?”

“Yes, Quinn knows and yes, I believe he does. So drop it”, she snapped.

The priest shook his head. “Boy, I am having some fun now”, he remarked. “Now what?”

Silver shrugged. “I have no idea. Now we watch and scan the crowd until we see Dr. Reaves and then we try to get him out of here.”

“And if he doesn’t want to go?”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it”, she replied tensely.

A waitress, an aerobic queen-thin woman in a modified tuxedo jacket over a revealing skin-tight shiny latex bodysuit and high heels, came over to their table. The nervous priest and Professor Silver unintentionally examined her every physical detail as she exasperatedly waited for them to order. She flicked a fuschia-dyed stray lock of her hair and gave the two of them a withering look.

“Two drink minimum”, she intoned in a voice tinted with a Bostonian accent. She did not look at them. She no doubt thought them tourists or trendy Yuppies slumming with the predominantly Goth crowd.

Frey ordered. “A lime margarita, Cerveza Gold and extra salt, and a Guinness Stout.”

The unfriendly woman strolled away with a wave of her hand signifying she’d taken the order and would be back . . . eventually.

The two exchanged a look and silently agreed, answering their unvoiced question: the woman seemed human enough, normal enough. She wasn’t one of the Moon-Chosen.

“Didn’t take you to be a margarita man”, Silver quipped.

“I’m not”, he replied feigning mock insult. “We’ll arm-wrestle for the Guinness.”

They didn’t talk for a few moments after that and the relentless bass-heavy beat of the music pulsed like some dark pagan god’s heartbeat. It seemed to drive the clutch of over-dressed funereal-faced dancers into a momentary frenzy as they collectively recognized a tune they all liked. They looked at the gyrating crowd and they despaired of locating Dr. Reaves in the forest of flailing arms and bobbing heads and flickering neon lights.

The waitress returned with their drinks. Patricia Silver reached into her purse for her wallet. The waitress shook her head and pointed past them into a partially-enclosed booth. “The Big Man’s paying for it. Says he knows a friend of yours.”

She shrugged and walked away.

Father Frey and Professor Silver sat still as statues. They didn’t know anyone here. The only friend they had in common was Quinn. And Quinn was no friend to the Moon-Chosen by any stretch of the imagination. Their eyes met and the fear passed between them like a quick flash of quiet lightning.

Trouble.

A tall hawk-nosed woman, exotic and sensual, with darkly twinkling almond eyes and a massive-muscled taller man who shared facial similarity and yet was actually prettier than the woman silently stood at either side of the table where Frey and Silver sat. The pair emanated a physical threat. There was something reptilian about their silence and their patience, something calmly psychotic, as they eyed the seated duo like guard dogs awaiting the command to attack.

“Mr. Cartarrian would like to offer you the hospitality of his table”, the woman hissed. “I believe your Mr. Quinn has no doubt mentioned his association with Mr. Cartarrian. Many people can find their first experience here at Manticore’s Way somewhat unset-tling so Mr. Cartarrian would like to shepherd you through the somewhat . . . outre . . . rules and customs at the club. Make you feel at home, as it were. Please come along now.”

The model-pretty bodybuilder in Gauthier leisure-wear smiled like a Great White shark just before feeding. There was nothing friendly nor recognizably normal in the expression and they felt ill at-ease staring at their own reflections in his dark sunshades.

To Professor Silver’s surprise, it was Father Frey who responded first and who spoke with an arrogant edge to his words. “Thanks for the drinks, but we like where we’re sitting and we have some business we need to attend to. That means we’re not going to do much socializing. So thank your Mr. Cartarrian and tell him we’ll get back to him some other time, won’t you?”

“Sure about that, are you?” the woman commented lightly. She seemed amused. She was fingering an ornate Rosary that swung over her exposed cleavage. Instead of a crucifix at the end of the Spanish-style neck chain, though, there was a finger-length blue-steel replica of a human skeleton with the wings of a bat.

“You’re breathing my air, doll-face,” Frey growled. His eyes stayed fixed on the crowd of dancers.

“I like you”, the woman said grinning. “I’ll bet you’re a bleeder. Bleeders are always fun.”

The dandified bodybuilder looked bored. “Let’s go”, he said and turned away. They left without further comment and for a moment neither the priest nor the doctor spoke. Then Pat Silver allowed herself a small smile and she turned to face the priest.

“Well, I guess you told THEM”, she chided. “I know you are an ex-military man, but were you always such a tough guy?”

Father Frey rubbed his stubby-fingered fist across his brow and replied, “Being a priest in modern day California, home of Silicon Valley and multi-cultural Gang-Bangers and the Hollywierd drug-culture doesn’t make for faint-hearted clerics, Professor.”

A moment later they both surrendered to the feeling of a presence hovering near them, pulling at them like something so massive as to have its own gravitational pull, like a rogue celestial body, and they looked up into the dead face and blood-red eyes of Cartarrian himself. He did not look amused. Fists the size of gallon jugs were wrapped around the silver handle of a cane that looked like it was made of wrought-iron.

‘Jupiter’, Patricia Silver thought, ‘if the planet Jupiter had human form, it would look like this man.’ And in the next fleeting thought she realized that ‘Jupiter’ had also been the name the Greeks had given the God of the Underworld.

The Romans had called that same god ‘Hades’.


“You seem to be under some illusion that you have a say in the matter. Let’s not play games, shall we? We all know who and what we each are. And you are far too vulnerable here, in this place. And I do not see your protector with you.” He paused, the sound of his rumbling, echoing, otherworldly voice fading briefly like thunder from a passing storm. Silver noticed that the man did not seem to breathe. “So get the fuck over to the booth like you were told. You’re in MY world now. MY rules. You can both live or die in the next few seconds, MY decision. Now move. Besides, it’s rare when I feel this hospitable.”

They moved. They quietly rose from their table and walked the short distance over to the surprisingly spacious and Italian Restoration-designed ornate booth. The brother and sister team of psychotics awaited them and rose to wave them to sit on the interior curve of the booth’s padded bench. They then sat to bracket the pair as Cartarrian lumbered over and sat at the opposing end of the bench. The man moved like he was heavy as a battleship and yet he seemed unbelievably liquid and graceful; he was a combination of restrained power and ancient primordial rage, held barely in check. Though it was obvious the brother and sister were his bodyguards it was just as obvious that he didn’t really need them. Frey and Silver wondered just how much protection the pair could actually provide to someone so obviously extrahuman, and obviously powerful, as Cartarrian.

The big man waved his cane at the DJ booth in the mezzanine and the music faded out. He nodded solemnly to someone beyond the neon glare over the dance floor that the pair couldn’t see. The dancers began to walk off the dance floor. Some of them looked
annoyed that they’d had to stop dancing, but none of them expressed that annoyance nor looked directly at the big man.

“As I said”, Cartarrian rumbled, “MY world, MY rules.”

“What do you want with us?” Silver asked haltingly.

Cartarrian turned his expressionless face to her, his eyes unhuman red orbs that seemed to give off heat, casting red highlights across the pallid gray flesh of his cheekbones. “Why, I thought I’d share in my enjoyment of a little dinner theatre.”

He turned away and faced the dance floor area where club staff had quickly erected a small stage composed of a trio of wooden chairs, a barstool, a wrought iron candlabra with seven branches that held red candles and a waist-high brass sculpture of that leg-endary hybrid beast known as a “griffin” or “chimera”.

A tall thin man dressed like a modern matador in plum-black clothing sat on a barstool in the center of the empty dance floor. He began to play an acoustic twelve-string guitar with incredible grace and skill while a flutist, a willowy woman wearing a delicately crocheted floor-length black dress that showed off her colorless nakedness beneath, played a haunting accompaniment. A muscular black man, wearing a leather mask that covered half his face and dressed like a riverboat gambler in charcoal gray, played a delicate and complex choral structure on an aged and expensive-looking violin. As he played he began to sing a darkly fugue-like tune, seemingly of old Celtic origins, about being blinded about the morning light and the forgotten face of a lost love.

Two punk rock dandies in customized Army Surplus clothing and leather chaps led a blindfolded mixed pair of young adults onto the dance floor. The punks walked with an elegant ballroom strut like princely dancers. The blindfolded couple stumbled as they
walked and suppressed a silly giggle. They felt their way along like young actors performing in a senior class play. The young man, a blonde with a classic swimmer’s build and dressed in the latest shopping mall biker-chic, and the red-haired woman, in a floor-length emerald-green sheath ballgown, looked fresh-faced and eager to participate in whatever it was they’d freely agreed to participate in. Those observing the strange scene could feel their excitement pulse and build like a low-level electric field. Anticipation made the heart beat faster.

Nightrunners and humans . . .

Pat Silver felt herself beginning to breath faster and she felt a rush of dread that made her nerves on edge…

The punks began pantomiming a very solemn waltz with the blind-folded pair, eerie since the pace of their movements really didn’t match the musical accompaniment and yet there was a strange blending of the dance to the scene. The musical shadings wound
through the shadows and across the floor, almost a solid physical presence like another person, old and withdrawn and bitter, and the young man and woman began to laugh more freely as they were spun about while they danced. Their faces were flushed, their movements somehow growing more sure as they surrendered their trust to their dance partners.

Then a hooded, muslin-cloaked monk appeared from off-stage and he carried a very long, ripple-bladed dagger with a jeweled pommel. He approached with slow reverence.

Father Frey involuntarily reached for and grasped Pat Silver’s hand as the monk drew into the light, center stage.

The professor herself, on the edge of her seat and feeling hemmed in by Damon, Pytthias and Cartarrian, felt her anxiety grow.

“I know that the news media and the tabloid press these days are making much of the Generation X club phenomenon called “Blood Clubs” and “Bleedings”, social gatherings of bored slacker-Goth types and psycho-sexual adventurers at private parties where they pierce one another’s flesh and drink of the blood”, Cartarrian sneered as he passed a baseball mitt-sized hand across his ruby-hued eyes, his voice ripe with an air of unimaginable ennui, “And I’m sure there are those who believe that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. You condemn on one hand and feign repugnance and moral repulsion, yet you ape our appearance and our mannerisms and now you physically try to imitate our hunger. It’s pathetic. Truth to tell, you sensory-deprived, sensation-retarded, mayfly-lived creatures haven’t a true clue to what it is like to have to, to be driven to, consume the warm blood from another being to sustain your own existence. It is incredibly heady, dark and primal stuff, to feel such a need.” He paused.

When he resumed speaking he had reached across Father Frey’s chest to grasp the front of the woman named Pythias’ exposed neck, which he caressed with an air of ownership. She began to breathe heavily and her brother Damon slowly licked his lips, momentarily exposing his pierced tongue, his eyes flickering to his sister’s passion-twisted facial expression as she began to subtly but rapidly rock in her seat. The priest shot a cold raging stare at the Elder Moon-Chosen and put his hand across Cartarrian’s thick forearm and pushed it off his chest. The Nightrunner lord released Pythias’ neck with reluctance and she cooed disappointedly as he let go. The big man smiled humorlessly at the priest. “Consider yourselves fortunate. You will be amongst the very few human normals who will ever see The Need fully exposed and exhibited without actually being victims to it.”

Across the vast nightclub chamber, up in a semi-secluded loft area on the mezzanine off the girdered catwalk, Dr. Romann Reaves leaned on the waist-high wrought-iron bannister and stared down at the macabre tableau unfolding on the floor below. A long Art Nouveau-styled rasberry-colored sofa and a matching wingback chair sat on opposite sides of a claw-footed marble-topped cherrywood table. Helinor reclined on the sofa, the ever-dour Malachi standing behind the sofa gently massaging her shoulders. She watched Dr. Reaves alarmed anxiety and his nervous pacings with a mixture of delight and distaste. Helinor’s other Thralls, Josene and Piotr-Nikolevitch, sat on the tiled floor, pewter goblets of lemon Bacardi in front of their folded legs, and they watched the conflicted hematologist like sleepy reptiles.

As he watched, Dr. Reaves couldn’t resist the morbid fascination he felt for what was about to occur next as the punks led their human charges through a series of showy and baroque spinning dance steps. The musicians played ever more sinuously, the music
becoming more ominous and yet compelling. He wanted to look away and yet he couldn’t. The scene brought out memories of the text of the organic forensics report he and other team members of Abyssinian filed at Mustain just two months ago.

“The commonly-held mythology surrounding the feeding habits of a sentient vampiric human are just that: myths. There is actually no basis in factual biological science nor in natural physical development for a nocturnal based higher-order mammal with the capacity to draw sustenance from consumption of fresh human blood in the manner described first by Bram Stoker of literary ‘Dracula’ fame. The idea that a creature of human origin with standard human skeletal restrictions and facial musculature can
suck enough blood through elongated razor-sharp dental incisors to sustain life is beyond merely being ludicrous—it is patently impossible.

“While using the extra-long sharp incisors to bite through the exposed neck and into the carotid artery IS indeed within the realm of possibility, it would be impossible for any blood to be drawn up through these same teeth and it would be equally impossible for the vampiric creature to ‘drink’ and swallow the blood gushing from a severed artery fast enough to avoid choking on it. Moreover, quickly drinking seven pints of ANY liquid at one sitting would be enough to paralyze most mammalian animals into painful systemic shock. The natural, although involuntary, digestive response to such an action, for which humanoid thoracic musculature and biochemical digestion is not designed, would be to immediately regurgitate almost all the blood volume that had been ingested.

“And, frankly, there is nothing in mythology nor in fact-based biological hypothesis to indicate that humanoid vampires throw up a lot after they eat.

“Careful examination of the parallel sub-species vampiric entities in the laboratory indicate that there is an accordian-like ‘bladder’ at the base of the esophagus, just before the connection to the stomach chamber, that expands to collect upwards of three full pints of liquid and that squeezes this liquid, by degree, into the stomach interior as digestion provides more space. The blood is drawn from the victim via a lamprey-like hollow tongue, a muscular tube surrounded by thin walls of flexing muscle, that attaches itself to the wound created by the twin incisor teeth. It is through this ribbed, hollow tongue—which in external physical appearance closely resembles the normal human tongue—that the blood is drawn directly from the carotid throat wounds in volume.

“So, whereas it would normally take a victim of deep carotid arterial wounds of a size matching the circumference of human incisor teeth over half an hour to bleed to death, the lamprey tube-tongue allows the vampiric sub-species to feed on a full three-quarters of involuntarily-released normal human blood volume in just over three and a half minutes. The esophageal-abdominal bladder then temporarily allows the vampire to store the blood it cannot immediately keep within the stomach without initiating the regurgitative anti-shock response. Too, there is present in the common mythology an element indi-cating that after the initial bite(s) is made, the vampire’s victim falls into a languid sympathetic mood, a trance, wherein the victim appears happy to accommodate the vampiric feeding and may actually draw their parasitic assailant physically closer to them, to embrace the vampire, to further aid the feeding process.

“There is some truth to this. There has been discovered present in the bite-wounds traces of a natural organic narcotic, a variant on the endorphin hormones, that is absorbed into the victim’s body and is quickly transported via blood flow through to their brain. This concentrated high-strength endorphin-variant induces a state of lassitude and euphoria that keeps the victim from struggling too much and to thus hamper the vampiric feeding. It is delivered into the victim by way of a pair of tiny muscular sacs located behind the sharp, hollow-centered vampiric incisors, injecting the hormone much the way a cobra or rattlesnake injects venom into victim’s of their bite-strikes.

“All in all, this is a relatively efficient predatory feeding system for a creature dependent on surprise and secrecy . . .”

My God, Reaves, thought, how could we have written so impersonally about such an efficient manner of homicide? Didn’t we believe what we’d seen with our own eyes in that damned laboratory? Did we just not allow ourselves to react to the awful predatory bestial reality of what it is these Moon-Chosen creatures are? My God!

“What’s the matter, Doctor? Feeling queasy? Are they really dancing that badly down there?” Helinor chided between sardonic giggles. “Or are you just beginning to see a far bigger picture of what this world is all about, our world, a world view far larger and far more dangerous than the sterile safe human-centric view within your secluded laboratory?”

God. He tried to block out her arrogant taunting voice, but couldn’t.

“Tell me Doctor, how’s your guilt-level these days, huhn?” She clapped her hands and lay back on the sofa laughing nastily.

Malachi allowed himself a thin-lipped feral smile, ripe with superiority, as he watched Reaves wipe sweat off his brow. Josene coughed a hoarse laugh and made rude sucking and slurping noises behind Reaves’ back. Piotr-Nikolevitch simply sneered and sipped more lemon-flavored rum.

Reaves couldn’t help holding his breath as he stared down to the dance floor below, fighting dread and fascination as the scene continued to unfold . . .

The silent monk drew nearer the dancers and as he did, they began to gradually step up the pace of their movements and widen the small invisible circle they danced within. As the shadow-masked robed figure glided closer to center stage, his robed shape seeming taller, thinner and more predatory with each passing step, strange atmospherics began occuring; the lights in the vast room dimmed at sporadic intervals and the air seemed somehow thicker, smokier, and there was a sweet scent on the eddying air currents that wound their way through the watching crowd, something somehow organic, even animal, and yet old and far removed from these surroundings.

The movements of the dancing couples seemed to physically slow to where even the flow of the folds of their clothing as they moved took on a time-lapse aspect, more like that of swimmers underwater imitating the land-borne antics of dancers. The sounds of the string instruments sounded lower and slower, still in tune and still darkly melodic, but more mournful. The long knife glittered under the muted light.

And then the monk was right there with them, dancing with them like their shadows given substance. He twirled when they twirled, dipped when they did, stepped into a long slide and suddenly changed direction, arms swathed in his voluminous sleeves extended balletically just like theirs, even as they executed the same movements.

It was beautiful. And yet it wasn’t, it couldn’t be; the intent was too obvious.

The dagger danced with them.

Father Clement Frey’s heart felt as if it were stuck in his throat and it was with a start as he came out from his growing sense of dissociation to realize that he had been softly and urgently chanting the phrase “NoNoNoNoNoNonononono . . . !”

He looked over at Patricia Silver and saw that her eyes were locked not onto what was happening on the dance floor, but instead onto Cartarrian’s grinning face. What he saw there frightened him. She looked like one of The Furies of legend, her stare was all cold judgment and hatred, her mouth a thin grim line, her posture stiff and formal.

When the first slice of the dagger cut home, swiftly and effortlessly cleaving the flesh of the blindfolded man’s back through his shirt, Frey felt as though lightning had struck.

The man yelped and instinctively jerked his body away from the path of the rippled blade. Surprised, he tried to pull himself out of the embrace of his parahuman dance partner. He failed, of course. Nightrunners were several times more physically powerful than even a very athletic human normal. His failure drove him to a panicked frenzy as the dagger slashed yet again and again and laid open his back and sides down to the bone. He howled as his blood flowed, soaking his clothing.

Hearing the pain and fear-maddened cries of her partner, the woman quickly reached up and pulled away her blindfold—and then began screaming her throat raw. Her own dance partner laughed gaily and pulled her yet more closely against him. Arms that could effortlessly rip a car door from off its frame squeezed with enough force to completely silence the poor woman in mid-scream. Her facial muscles froze into a constricted grimace as the air was forced from her lungs by the bear hug. Her feet kicked weakly.

“The boy’s blood”, Cartarrian said calmly, “is tainted. He is a self-destructive unclean beast. He is a recovered cocaine addict and he is HIV-positive. We could never willingly feed off such filth, although our own bodies would be immune to the mutagens and viruses his blood carries. It’s simply a matter of not wanting to consume garbage. The spilling of his blood is purely ceremonial. The girl is, however, a completely different matter . . . She is clean, free of disease and narcotics abuse. And now the adrenalin hormone will flavor her blood. In the right combination, it is an intoxicating flavor.”

The slashed boy had fallen to the sawdusted dance floor. He was propped up on one elbow, lying on his side while shaking like a frightened dog. His mouth opened and closed soundlessly like that of a hooked fish out of the water and his saucer-wide eyes were locked onto the wildly pirouhetting figure of the macabre monk. Arms outspread, the monk suddenly spun lowering himself to the floor next to the boy and with a balletic flourish he plunged down with the dagger. The blade of the knife tore into the young man’s chest with such force the blade ripped out through his back and struck the floor with a metallic sound that resonated like a broken bell.

Damon’s hand swiftly clamped over Father Frey’s mouth like a steel trap slamming shut, knocking the priest’s head back against the padded wall of the booth, just as Frey tried to shout an outraged warning to the girl.

Cartarrian slowly turned his massive head, seemingly as large and heavy as that of a bull, to face the cleric and the only facial expression he allowed himself was the momentary raising of a thick hairy eyebrow in an archly superior expression.

“Behave, please”, he said softly, “We don’t want to have to resort to unnecessary violence.” He looked past the priest and over to Professor Silver. She stared coldly back at him, her face frozen but her eyes blazing. “I see that you completely understand your somewhat neutral-by-decree observer status, Professor Silver”, he commented.

She said nothing. Her eyes never left his. Cartarrian’s eyes narrowed at her unspoken challenge and he held her gaze for a long moment, then he frowned and then turned his attention back to the dance floor.

The musicians were no longer playing their instruments. They were now gathered into a small circle, facing one another, backs turned to the gory spectacle behind them, and they were chanting a musically percussive choral arrangement that scaled the octaves.

It was unearthly and otherworldly. Somehow the choral music they made evoked bleak emotions black as pitch.

“The ceremony is important to us, helping define our culture and as a way of sharing our communal history”, Cartarrian explained.

“It is a Passion Play, an allegory, that tells of the story of our trials and tribulations as a people during the Inquisition of the Middle Ages and how we survived the Great Blood Pogroms of the Elizabethan Era. It illustrates our joy in celebrating our differences from
normal humanity and the sadness we feel as outcasts forever draped in misinterpreted defamatory legends and persecuted for our very existence.” He paused, looking thoughtful. “I have to admit, too, that it is a great way to celebrate and express the passions we feel during the hunt and the kill.”

At this point Cartarrian rose from the table, a planet leaving its orbit, commanding the night sky and pulling all eyes to him as if emitting the intense lethal pull of a gravity well, and he strode with the arrogance of exiled royalty to the dancers, the monk ceasing his small balletic movements long enough to bow in obeisance to the Moon-Chosen Elder, the edged blade of the knife scraping the floor.

Cartarrian smiled.

The punk rocker swayed and whirled, carrying his seemingly weightless captive in that damnable iron embrace over to the massive vampire. As Pat Silver watched, she noted that the pale face of the ensnared girl was a classic study in absolute terror . . . well, yes,
what other emotion could there be but terror as you’re forced to watch a friend being murdered, slaughtered like livestock for food . . . and the Professor felt a growing sense of disconnectedness as her own emotions shut down seemingly in geometric opposition to the increasing horror and hysteria of the poor doomed soul on the dance floor. Silver watched as rivulets of sweat raced down across the girl’s cheek, as panic and dread brought a fiercely hot blossom to her exposed flesh. The entrapped victim trembled incessantly as she entered the vampire lord’s field of influence, feeling his presence like the heat from the fires of damnation.

“Child . . .”, he rumbled in a tone like muffled thunder and he reached out to stroke her face. It was a graceful, almost feline gesture, surprisingly tender and intimate, yet at the same time it was a gesture of ownership, of inarguable command.

At his touch the girl stiffened, her fearful tremors stilled and her facial expression froze, her head tilted to lock her eyes upon the Moon-Chosen Elder.

Professor Silver and Father Frey held their breath. Expectation weighed on them like a physical thing, creating an unyielding pressure that grew heavier and more oppressive with each heart-beat.

They both knew instinctively what was coming next, but they continued to deny the undeniable as the scene played out through to conclusion. Their hearts pounded in their chests, their skin felt a thousand electric prickling tingles and they wanted to look away, oh God but they HAD to look away . . .

The punk rocker unfolded his arms from around the girl like a bird unfurling its wings and she was suddenly left standing on her own. She started to stumble, but clumsily righted herself before completely losing her balance as, in contrast, the punk danced lithely away, feet barely touching the ground as he moved with inhuman grace. She gasped lungfuls of air like someone who’d come close to drowning and she tried walking a trio of unsteady steps before suddenly whirling about to physically confront Cartarrian. Her arm reached out to him to fend him off and he reached out for her theatrically with both arms, like a loving parent. She was rooted to the spot as he drew near enough to touch her hand . . .

. . . and then he was gently caressing her neck and shoulders with hands large enough to cover her entire head. She jerked back at first and then, incredibly, she leaned in towards his massive chest, turning to rest her back against him.

. . . and then he ducked his head towards her in that cinematically-familiar imitation of a lover’s intimacy as he lightly brushed his lips against her neck and jawline, finally stopping to kiss the nape of her neck and then lingering on the sides, one kiss for each. Her eyes were closed dreamily while his burned madly, open wide as the Gates to Hell.

. . . and they didn’t want to see what happened next. They didn’t. God, blast out their eyes and leave them blind before letting them see what just HAD to happen next and have that vision haunt them forevermore . . .

When Cartarrian ripped her throat out, the move was so quicksilver fast and fluid that it didn’t jar or rock the girl’s body. Only her fiery red hair fanned out as Cartarrian’s head ducked away, trailing a thin comet of blood from his lips, the strands of her hair fluttering in mimickery of her hands vainly seeking solid purchase to keep her standing as strength left her body. She began to fall and he was there letting her drape across his huge arms and then himself descending with her as he again locked his mouth onto her neck.

As she fell, he drank.

As she fought to catch her next breath, he drank, more deeply still.

As she grew colder, his darkness embraced her. She spasmed once and then became still, one arm falling limply to her side.

From up above on the mezzanine-platform, Dr.Romann Reaves let loose a deep and echoing bellow of abject shame and horror. He fell to his knees and began repeatedly hitting his head against the ornate railing surrounding the small loft alcove as he sobbed. Behind him, Helinor chuckled throatily and sardonically shook her head watching his mournful histrionics.

Below, Cartarrian lowered the girl’s dead body to the floor and slowly walked away without a backwards glance, his face like stone but his eyes like red furnaces as he rivetted Silver and the priest with a fierce unhuman gaze.

The silence in Manticore’s Way was deafening.

Jupiter settled back into orbit as he returned to the booth and sat down at one end of the padded bench. Cartarrian sat quietly for a dozen heartbeats, his face slack with remnants of euphoria from his hot feeding. Then he turned to face his human captives, his arrogant composure returned.

“Now you can say that you have SEEN what it is vampires do. Now you can say that you KNOW what vampires are about. Now you can cast your doubts aside and BELIEVE”, he said harshly, his voice the hiss of a midnight’s rainstorm. “And what good will this knowledge avail you? Who will you tell? The police? The F.B.I.? Who? And if you DO tell them will you be prepared for the bloodbath that will surely follow when we at last unleash our formerly carefully controlled hunger against the unsuspecting citizens of this city?”

The real question was unvoiced, masked by the brutish threat, but Silver and Father Frey could not mistake what it was the Moon-Chosen Elder was asking: However will you stop us?

How indeed.

“Go. Now. You are no longer welcome here. You have seen what you wanted to, no, NEEDED to see. We are done and you have no place here.”

As he rose to let Pythias move away and let Professor Silver out from the booth, a trio of nightrunners quietly cleaned away the gory mess on the dance floor and the D.J. began once more pumping beat-heavy tuneless industrial-goth music through the club’s speaker system.

“Go”, he commanded and did not again look at them as Damon guided them over to the stairs leading up and out from the club.

Clement Frey lingered a moment, nearly frozen into immobility by his outrage and his need to avenge what he’d just seen. There were tears on his face and his hands were bunched into fists. But after a moment his shoulders slumped and he turned away to leave, too confused to do anything else.

But as she walked, feeling drained and weary and somehow dirtied, Patricia Silver held communion with the shifting shadows near her and said in her softest lowest voice, “I understand.”

“Good lass. Good. And what would ye do now?” The response was so light as to be mistaken for a delusion, a misinterpretation of a more familiar noise amongst the growing disco din.

“Set things right”, she said flatly.

“Ah, but it’ll cost ye, lass, it’ll cost ye dear.”

“I know”, she said. After that she was quiet.

Then, within two dozen steps that felt like a journey through a dark eternity, they were suddenly outside in the cool air of early evening, a three-quarter moon winking down at them through the moving cloudcover.
 

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