A sickle moon hung in the starless sky, emitting a pale glow over the sleeping town beneath it. Steepled towers punctured the sky, their great spires casting long, fang-like shadows onto the empty streets below. Somewhere in the distance a lonely cat yowled, but its cry died away immediately, as if realizing the folly of bringing attention to itself this night.
In this emptiest of nights, Andrew found himself in a dark, stifling room. Moonlight poured over him through an open window, its curtains billowing gently in a wind he couldn’t feel. Broken glass lay strewn around his feet, but he had no idea how it got there.
Did he do this?
Andrew’s eyes surveyed the endless shadows that surrounded him and realized he couldn’t see the edges of the room. He flinched as a thin line of pain drew a path across the palm of his right hand. He held it up under the light and saw a thread of blood forming.
He mouthed his confusion, but no sound came out.
A harsh slam from behind spun him around, and he found a door had materialized. It creaked on its hinges, inching shut, but something compelled him to act. Andrew lunged for the doorway and stepped into a twisting hallway, illuminated by bronze candle scones. The walls snaked a thin path forward, shifting as if alive; it took him a moment to realize the walls were closing in around him.
Andrew started running, his jaw clenched tight as panic overtook him. The walls pressed into him, hard, squeezing his shoulders until he was forced to turn to his side. Wood groaned and splintered as the walls collapsed further, but he could see an exit just ahead. Sweat formed on his temples as he shimmied forward, and the hall started to squeeze the breath from his body, but in the last possible moment, he managed to pull himself free out the other end.
Andrew fell on his hands and knees, gasping mutedly for breath. He looked behind him and watched the hallway press flat into a thin line, then vanish into a solid wall. He felt along the walls in disbelief, but it was as if the hallway had never existed. He turned around to study this new room he was now in.
Bookshelves as far as his eye could see rose high into the shadows above, overflowing with gilded tomes and dust. He couldn’t see an end to it all, but he suspected that was the point. Andrew sensed an air of familiarity about the place, though, like seeing a child for the first time in years as an adult. The room, the hallway, the bookshelves—they were twisted versions of a place he had been before.
The realization came with a heavy sense of dread as icy fingers stabbed into his heart, gripping it in a terror that pulsed through every fiber of his being.
The stilted cry echoed hollowly around him, reverberating unnaturally off the walls. It spoke of immense pain, but mixed within the anguish was an undertone of defiance.
Andrew’s body flew into action on its own accord, and before he knew it, he was sprinting down the room; he didn’t know why he was, he just knew he had to. Shelf after shelf blurred past his face, but no matter how hard he pressed on he made no progress. The shelves began to tremble, and a low quake rumbled beneath his feet; it grew and grew with every step, until it became an overpowering crescendo. Books flew from their places, showering him in musty paper and old leather, but he focused on the way forward, urging his legs to run faster . . . and faster . . . and faster.
Andrew saw a closed door appear from the darkness, lit beneath a single overhanging light. He threw his shoulder into it and crashed through, collapsing behind a stranger. A man.
The man faced a dimly lit wall, its old wallpaper peeling in places. He suddenly grabbed at his throat with a gargling gasp and dropped to his knees; the man reached up with a bloody hand, pointed to something on the wall, and fell forward. Andrew watched a final sigh of life escape the man’s lips, blowing a small cloud of dust up from the floor.
Andrew couldn’t move—or rather—he didn’t want to. His eyes fixated on the body before him and watched a pool of sticky blood form under it. He was afraid. He didn’t want to reveal who the dead man was. Instead, Andrew led his eyes up the wall.
A butterfly, drawn in streaking swaths of crimson, took up the entire wall. Its wings were spread open with graceful curves, but where its body should have been, instead, was an emotionless, human skull. The butterfly shifted and its wings fluttered to life. A high-pitched sound filled the room and Andrew’s ears, drilling painfully through his head. He clenched his teeth and his mouth twisted into an agonized, yet silent, scream; the skull’s expression twisted up in glee at his reaction, its mouth contorting into a morbid grin that reveled in his demise.
Andrew shook awake, and his eyes flew open with a yelp. Vanilla walls swirled into focus, and it took a moment for him to realize he was sitting on the couch in his apartment, safe. He shut his eyes and focused on his haggard breathing, bringing it under control. As his thundering heart slowed to a dull thud, so too did the memory of the nightmare recede into the deepest pockets of his memory. When he opened his eyes again, he found himself looking at his right hand, at a jagged scar that ran the length of his palm.
Andrew leaned forward and pinched his brow with a weary sigh. This was the first time he had this nightmare in almost five months—he peeked at the coffee table in front him, piled high with books, photos, and files—but it was no surprise to him that it returned. When they had first started a year ago, they were at their worst, plaguing his dreams every night; each night, the memory twisted a little differently, like his mind was trying to view the same event through a distorted prism to glean a new clue. Some pinch of truth that he could use.
Andrew scratched at the rough whiskers that had grown on his usually clean-shaven face, and he realized he was still dressed in the same slacks and undershirt from last night. He tutted, disgusted with himself, making a mental note to clean up within the hour.
His eyes wandered back to the table, and he absent-mindedly grabbed his copy of Vampiric Creatures and How to Slay Them, Volume 3. The book was opened to a page about the elusive nelapsi. The text went into great detail about their biology, of which he had underlined the important parts. The rare nelapsi wasn’t any ordinary vampire, they were a cut above the rest—a very far cut above. The usual tools of fire and silver had no effect on them, and their speed and strength was unmatched by their lesser cousins. In the margins of the page, he had scrawled in a single name: Tatjana Grand.
Andrew folded the corner of the page to hold his place and shut the book with an annoyed grunt. He tossed it back among a pile of like-minded material. There were detailed drawings of various species of vampire, with their ridged noses and oversized ears, knife-like fangs and claws, and emotionless, predatory black eyes. Books on their dark history and hunting patterns made little towers. He had newspapers clippings of their attacks on humans and kavi alike, and he even had grainy photos of them spotted in the wild. Some might have called him obsessed—Penelope had, when she learned of his collection—but in his mind, he didn’t have a choice in the matter.
Andrew reached for one photo in particular, bringing it up to his face. Though he had spent hundreds of hours studying the photo, he always found himself drawn back to it. The photo was of a crime scene, evident from the blood stains that had seeped into the floor of the room in the picture, but it was what was on the wall that interested him.
A skull with butterfly wings sprouting from its temples, the Dracul butterfly.
Andrew wasn’t sure how long he had been staring at the photo, when a knock from his apartment door interrupted his trance. He set the picture down and padded through the kitchen on his bare feet. He pressed his eye to the peep hole on the front door, and saw silver hair and blue skin on the other side. Andrew opened the door for the visitor.
Veera stood in the doorway, her silver hair made into a long braid. She wore a simple, cotton dress, accentuated by an orange scarf that wrapped around her hips, crossed her torso, and draped over her shoulder. Snug, leather bands rested around her biceps and wrists, and a pair of brown sandals peeked out under the hem of her dress. Her attire was typical of usual kavi wear.
“What’re you doing here?” he asked, a little more aloof than he intended.
She gave him a warm smile and presented a cardboard box. “Penelope said to come get you, since you weren’t answering your phone. I thought it would be nice to bring you lunch, too.”
Andrew glanced at the candlestick telephone on his kitchen counter, the cord unplugged from the wall, then focused back on Veera. “So that’s who was calling me. Anyways, what’d you bring me?”
“Your favorite,” she explained, popping off the lid.
Andrew’s eyes brightened at the site of golden battered fish and chips, still steaming fresh. “I might’ve worked with Penelope for ten years and you only one, but you are very quickly becoming my favorite person.” He took the food from her with eager hands, pausing midway. “Wait, you said lunch?”
Veera nodded. “It is nearly one.”
“Great daemons, already?” Andrew shook his head in shock. How late had he been up reading?
“May I come in?” Veera asked expectantly.
“What? Oh, yeah, yeah, of course you can.” He ushered her through the door and followed her into the kitchen. “If I knew you were coming, I would’ve cleaned up a bit,” he said, motioning sheepishly to some dirty dishes piled in the sink.
Veera wrinkled her nose at the sight, but ignored it, placing a gentle hand on his chest. “Are you okay? Ever since the jawman contract, you have been . . . distant.”
“What?” he said, defensive. Andrew’s thoughts went to all his work in the connecting room, and he wished he had known she was coming. He would have hidden it all back in his bedroom closet. It was too late now, though. He could only hope she wouldn’t notice. Andrew gave her a chuckle. “Yeah, I’m okay.”
“Truly?” she asked, a skeptical arch over her eye.
What could he say? He couldn’t tell her he had sensed his brother’s spirit that night in the storm drain tunnels, not without Penelope thinking he was losing his grip on reality. Though, maybe he was? One of the first things he had learned in Gast Academy’s Wraith Hall was that spirits don’t last long without an anchor, and those that do linger—well, that was something he didn’t want to think about.
Andrew walked to the kitchen table, waving a flippant hand over his shoulder as he passed by her. “You know me, I like my alone time.”
Veera folded her arms and leaned against the counter, her eyes scrutinizing him. “That’s not what Penelope says. She says you used to be quite the social butterfly, until you left the team’s house and moved into this apartment alone.”
Andrew shrugged and started on his food, biting into the fish’s flaky crust with a satisfying crunch. “A sign of my age, maybe?” he suggested around a mouthful of food. His appetite swelled at the fried, salty fish, and vinegary flavor that he loved, and resumed eating with a burgeoning enthusiasm. He hadn’t realized how hungry he was. He paused in thought, and couldn’t recall when he last ate, actually.
Veera walked into the living room and drew back his windows curtains, letting the sun shine in in all its glory. “This place could do with some fresh air,” she said, pushing one of the windows open, but the words were barely out of her mouth when regret sunk into her expression.
Andrew lived on the twenty-second floor, right in the bustling heart of Van Buren. When most folks thought of Hafland—aside from Gast Academy’s mountain fortress—it was the iconic skyscrapers of Hafland’s busiest borough that they envisioned: Van Buren. With eight million men and women crammed into just under eight hundred square miles, busy was putting it lightly. Car horns, shouting, and thousands of people fighting through crowded streets created a cacophony of city life that reverberated up the buildings walls and poured into Andrew’s apartment.
“Too much for you?” he asked, amused.
Veera closed the window and pulled the curtains shut. “Quite,” she said flatly.
Andrew swallowed a mouthful of fries. “How are you adjusting to life here, anyways? I know how much you kavi like things quiet.”
Veera hummed thoughtfully. “It is certainly louder than it is back home, but living in Gast Academy is nice. The mountains create a serene environment, and the natural splendor is beautiful to behold.”
“Someone told me you can hear a pin drop across most cities in the Radiant Empire. Is that true?”
Veera smiled, and two small dimples formed in her cheeks. “An exaggeration, to be sure. Though there is a popular saying among the kavi: silver is the tongue, golden is the mind.”
Andrew’s back stiffened as she walked past his coffee table, and though he thought his repository of vampire lore was screaming for attention, Veera didn’t seem to take notice. Andrew blew a relieved breath. The last thing he needed was word of what he had been up to this last week getting back to Penelope. She had forced him to put away his collection months ago, on the claim it was damaging his health and preventing him from moving on.
Andrew pushed away the rest of his food, his appetite suddenly gone. “So, why did Penelope send you all the way into town to fetch me?”
“We have another contract,” Veera said.
“No,” he said flatly. “We just finished the jawman contract. Tell her we can go pick out another one from the Nerve Center in a couple weeks.”
“You misunderstand,” she replied, “Penelope does not wish to choose another contract, someone has chosen us. They have requested you, specifically.”