*The Watcher in the Darkness Series and all characters contained therein are the sole copyright of K.M. Spires. All rights reserved.*
The Watcher in the Darkness series contains adult situations, graphic violence, and lots and lots of bad language. Rated M for Mature, seriously.
The first rays of dawn sliced through the gloom, marking the end of what had to be the longest night of my life. It was yet another night without sleep, and my head hadn’t stopped hurting for even a second. My senses had been wide open for hours, yet I sensed nothing except the dank graveyard and the radiant song of the city.
Since before my release, Michael had been insisting that a revenant must return to its grave every sunrise, or else lose its powers. This seemed to be the only point the ancient texts could agree on. I’d argued that if a revenant was lurking around the vampire cemetery every day, someone would’ve noticed. Whatever. I followed the lead, if only to shut him up, but of course it was bullshit. History is written by humans, and humans only catch about half of what’s going on around them.
I climbed out of Justine’s coffin then replaced the lid. Once it was secure, I took the crumpled city map out of my back pocket, then flattened it against the glass. The location where I’d seen Karen’s neighbor reanimate was marked by a red X. No less than two dozen similar marks were spread out around the map, one for every obituary Michael had in his office. Each mark represented a person that had died of the same disease that had nearly killed Karen, the disease Justine was spreading.
And it was my fault. I might as well have drained those people myself. At least I would have gotten a hot meal out of it.
This was the last, and least, thing I could do for Michael. By the time the morning was over, I would really, really owe him.
I stared at the red marks for a long time. There was no obvious rhyme or reason to them. The locations were as random as Justine’s choice of victims. Businessmen uptown, suburbanites downtown, several homeless in the warehouse district, as well as a couple by the shipyard. One seventy-year-old woman died her bed, but she had been in perfect health three days earlier.
In movies or television shows, a detective will study a chart or map like the one spread out before me, then suddenly his brain will connect the dots and tie everything together. All at once, it will make sense. Not only has he figured out the killer’s motives, he knows exactly where they’ll strike next.
This wasn’t one of those times. I wasn’t a detective. I wasn’t that smart, and god help me, I had nothing invested in stopping Justine. Even so, I would pass the map along to Michael. He’d probably take one look at it then know exactly where to find my ex. More power to him.
I took the time to fold the map then returned it to my back pocket. I would shove it under Michael’s door when I was sure he was asleep, then go fulfill my destiny at the Sanctuary.
The five-gallon gas cans sloshed as I moved them from the corner of the tomb to right outside the door. I took a deep, cleansing breath through my nose, the overgrown cemetery a welcome change from the greasy stench of gasoline. I squinted up at the hulking silhouette of the Sanctuary and the butterflies in my stomach grew bat wings.
I couldn’t tell if it was I was anxious or wet-my-pants-excited. It was a combination of both. I’ve never been very good at identifying my feelings. I really should’ve paid more attention when Michael talked in group.
My thoughts were interrupted by a deep growl near the stone wall to my left. I turned to discover the man-eating black wolf lurking in the shadows between two trees. I might not have noticed it at all if the hellhound hadn’t alerted me to its presence. Goddamn demons and their lack of scent.
Its eyes were its most striking feature, so much so that I could see why lore had focused on that aspect of the beast. The parts of its eyes that were supposed to be white were bottomless black, while the parts of its eyes that were supposed to have color were as red as blood and burned like lava. A voice in the back on my head pointed out that I wasn’t supposed to meet a hellhound’s gaze more than twice or I would surely die, but that seemed to be a moot point.
The hellhound watched me with its head lowered and its hackles up. In some ways, it reminded me of a skittish stray dog, only a thousand times more unnerving.
“Hey,” I said. Really? ‘Hey’? Holy shit, I’m dumb. “Did you decide to take me up on my offer?”
In response, the hellhound darted toward the cemetery gate. On the sidewalk, it whipped to the right as though its spine was made of rubber then vanished.
I sprinted after it, afraid the hellhound would outpace me, but found it waiting for me at the street corner.
“What, do you want me to follow you to Karen?” I called as I jogged toward the wolf. “Do you work for someone else? Look, I don’t give a shit. My offer stands. I’ll do anything.”
The hellhound whimpered as I got closer, ready to run. It waited until I was a couple yards away before it started to paw at a nearby manhole.
I stopped with a frown. “What?”
The hellhound continued to dig at the steel cover for a few seconds, then it leapt onto the high Sanctuary wall. I had only a moment to be impressed before it turned on its back feet to leap again. Its body split into three parts in midair, then a trio of huge black ravens squawked into the sky.
I felt my features harden into a glare. “Fucking shape-shifters,” I muttered as I turned my attention back to the manhole cover. Only an idiot would fail to know what the hellhound wanted, but going into the sewer was an extremely bad idea. Demons have no love for vampires, and the feeling is extremely mutual. The entire setup reeked of a trap.
I pulled the heavy cover off the sewer entrance. The stench that vomited out was so rotten that it was like being punched in my sense of smell. I turned my head in disgust, cursing between dry heaves until I ran out of breath. I didn’t dare inhale again as I forced myself to look down at the olive green river churning beneath my feet. Swollen by the previous afternoon’s rain, it almost overflowed the concrete canal.
I didn’t see anyone when I poked my head into the open manhole, but that didn’t mean there was no one there. I weighed my options. The water wasn’t fresh by any stretch of the imagination. There was virtually no chance a nixie was waiting for one of my kind to get close enough to yank into that river, but I wasn’t reassured.
I sighed. “Whatever,” I said as I dropped down into the hole.
I found myself standing on a narrow, railed ledge. To my right, the passage was blocked by steel bars designed to catch debris. I turned to the left.
My journey would have been a hell of a lot more interesting if there had been anything to see. There were no albino alligators or half-mad nosferatu, hunched and bald from their diet of rats. There was just the river of shit. My footsteps echoed in the tunnel as the stench coated my nostrils like tar. The dank shaft went on for about a hundred feet to yet another set of bars, where the path branched to the left and right.
I went left again, because why not?
This tunnel was all but pitch black. If I didn’t have vampiric eyesight, I would’ve been blind. The ceiling dropped by nearly a foot, but the passageway dead-ended after twenty feet.
There was no sign of Karen, but I didn’t sense any sort of trap, either. There was no squat, ugly troll that grinned bright gold teeth, waiting in the shadows to offer me a deal. There was nothing at all.
“Hello?” I said, annoyed beyond words. “Is anyone there? Was there a point to this or were you just yanking my dick?” There was no reply beyond the resonance of flowing water. “No? Awesome. Well, thanks for wasting my time and fuck you very much.”
I turned to leave, but then I noticed a service door tucked into a shadowy alcove at the end of the dark tunnel. I could see the very faint glint of several padlocks.
I hesitated. Investigating further would mean I’d have to cross running water, and only an idiot vampire would cross running water. Half-vampire tastes just as good as regular vampire to a nixie; well, I assume. Hell, it’s probably better, because I’m involved. If I wanted to play it safe, I needed to backtrack and find a bridge.
I’ve never played it safe. I jumped the distance, and no monstrosity with shark teeth, gills, and a child’s face jumped out of the water like an orca at SeaWorld. Still, my heart pounded as I ducked into the alcove.
It looked like the entrance to some sort of maintenance room. I pressed my ear against the door but heard only a very soft hum, almost electrical but not quite. The locks crumbled in my hands like old cheese, then I ripped away the dingy tape that crisscrossed the door. The wood was swollen from the humidity and stuck, but two shoulder-slams fixed that.
The door swung open, and I found myself struck mute and paralyzed. Several minutes passed before I could fully wrap my mind around what I was seeing.
The first thing to assault me was the smell. Oh, god, even not breathing in didn’t stop the rancid stink from sludging down my throat. The river of sewage was a clean mountain stream in comparison.
The hum I’d heard became a roaring hiss as thousands upon thousands of black flies took to the air. They swarmed around me, bouncing off my face like tiny pebbles until they finally dispersed into the tunnel. When they were gone, there was nothing left to conceal their feast.
The floor inside the ten-by-ten-foot room was carpeted with squirming maggots. Bodies were piled on top of each other, heaped into the corners like so much garbage. Some of the corpses were so decomposed they were nothing but blackened skeletons. Others were fresher, their bones red and glistening.
The world tilted and I put my hand on the doorjamb to steady myself. I guess I must have taken a step forward, because the toe of my boot nudged a decapitated head. It rolled lazily, its features so swollen that it was impossible to tell if the face was male or female. The bloated, purple tongue bulged from its swollen lips.
On top of the nearest mound lay the corpse of a Hispanic child, a little girl. She couldn’t have been more than seven years old, her sleek black hair plaited into two braids. Her sundress was bright yellow, and a grimy teddy bear was tucked into her right arm. She appeared to be asleep, except her torso was an empty ribcage, and all of the flesh had been stripped from her thighs. I felt a wave of sorrow crash over me, but it was cut short when the child opened her eyes then turned her head. Her chalk-white lips parted and she began to make a gurgling sound.
Frost spread across every inch of my body. Michael was right; Justine did return to her grave after all, and with definite regularity. If I waited until she dragged her next victim back to her lair, I could finish her off once and for all.
I took a step back, closed the door, then left the sewer the same way I’d come.
Back on the street, the sun was up, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I pulled up my hood, then closed my eyes. The image of Justine’s feeding chamber was branded into my mind, but I tried to purge it by refocusing on what needed to be done at the Sanctuary.
The dark fantasy lurked just below the surface, all too eager to distract me. I would start with David, the teenage vampire. I hated that little prick. I felt my sickened horror evaporate as a smile returned to my face. Even my migraine faded to a dull, background ache.
I began to step through the cemetery gate but was almost immediately pushed back by an unseen force. What the hell? I tried to go through again, only to meet the same invisible wall.
Before I could question what was going on, Michael stepped out of Justine’s shrine. His hands were in his pockets and his expression was grim. I’d seen that look on his face before, so I knew what was coming before he opened his mouth.
“I knew when you came back from prison that it hadn’t been a good experience for you. I knew that for you, such a punishment would be more than your psyche could handle, because you, Toby, took for granted a freedom the rest of us can only imagine.”
“Michael…,” I said, as though I had the foggiest idea how I would finish that sentence.
“But this?” Michael help up my last letter to Karen. It was crinkled from having been crumpled into a ball then thrown in the trash, but it was still readable. “I never would’ve imagined something like this from you, not in a million years. Hell, I still might not have believed it if I hadn’t found the gas cans.”
“I didn’t mean it.” It was a lie so obvious that it was obscene. “I was just blowing off steam.”
Michael shook his head. “Don’t insult my intelligence, Tobias. We both know that every vampire in the Sanctuary would be dead now if I hadn’t found this.” He held up the letter again. “I know that this isn’t you, but I can’t help you. And I can’t let you back in here. I wish you the best of luck. I’ll give you until I get back to my office before I call the police.”
I watched him walk away until Michael disappeared through the Sanctuary’s double doors. My disappointment was so sharp that it howled inside of me.