Mitchell could hear George's stomach rumble. He was staring at the last custard cream, occasionally taking a nibble out of it, making it last as long as possible. It made Mitchell anxious and smug at the same time, knowing that he'd been putting his share back in the packet when George wasn't looking, so George would have more food, would be able to hold out longer. But he did walk through to the living room so he wouldn't have to see it. Starvation wouldn't kill Mitchell, he was certain. He was pretty sure. He'd never had to test it before.
Mitchell couldn't believe he was already thinking in terms of starvation, but it was true. And really, there was actually only one person in their house who needed to eat - but Mitchell hated to think what it was like for the other families in their street. Now he himself was off ordinary food, his own natural cravings, that he struggled against all the time, were becoming sharper. He could smell the beat of frightened human life in the houses next to them, and the pull, the lure of it, was becoming stronger every day. He thought his range was growing too, he was sensing their heartbeats from further and further away - and Mitchell didn't like to sleep too much either, these days, because he dreamed red and bloody dreams.
There was a movement out of the corner of his eye and he spun round, already feeling his eyes darken, his fangs beginning to drop, before he realised it was only Annie. His heart was beating fast, and he felt shaky, dizzy.
Annie folded her arms. "We can't keep on like this."
Mitchell laughed and shrugged, "We can't do anything else."
"You're dead on your feet and George is so stir crazy that he's begun to alphabetize the spice rack." She thought for a moment. "Actually, I'm surprised he didn't do it before."
Mitchell smiled and waited for the little black spots to subside. "We’re all right."
Annie walked over and pushed him. He swayed - too heavily - and then sat down on the sofa. Even her cold spongy touch was too much for him to resist. He tried to make it look as though he would have sat down anyway.
"No, we're not," said Annie, and hauled up the leg of his jeans, a baggier pair than normal, because, well, he could admit that - it hurt when he thought about it. The looser fabric brushed against the wound less.
They both stared down at the bite injury. Which wasn't healing, however much Mitchell wanted to believe that it was. A drop of blackish blood oozed out and rolled down his leg before soaking into his sock, following the trail already blazed by many others before it.
"Bloody hell!" George's voice was more highly-pitched even than normal, and Mitchell winced. "You didn't tell me you were still hurt. Why haven't you healed? Is it like that attack from Herrick, with the stake? Do you need blood?"
"I'll be fine," said Mitchell, staring at Annie under his brows, willing her not to say anything.
"What? What?" George was going a bit pink now, from indignation, from pure Georgeness, and Mitchell wanted to touch, to smile, or fight the world for him. "You do need blood, don't you? Why didn't you tell me!"
"It's not a big deal. Leave it, will you."
George plumped himself down on the sofa next to him. He smelled of custard creams and warmth and George. Mitchell's mouth watered.
"I will not," said George, "You are not going to play the martyr about this, we’re all suffering.”
Annie reached out and patted their hands, she felt colder than normal, Mitchell thought, unless it was his own body temperature that was dropping. It was possible.
“He’s been dripping blood slowly, every day, for a week. I didn’t know the human body had so much,” she said, “And he’s running out of socks.”
Mitchell opened his mouth to ask why she’d betrayed him like this, but she was staring at him with a 'you idiot' expression, and he closed his mouth again. He wasn't in a fit state for an argument, that much was true. "It doesn't matter," he muttered weakly and turned away.
"But it does," said George, and began determinedly to unbutton his shirt, "We all have to stay strong to get through this, and that includes you."
Involuntarily, Mitchell found his eyes being drawn back to the expanse of pale neck that George was exposing - he was already feeling light-headed so it was hard to tell if there was any extra effect, but his fangs were itching, and there was saliva flooding his mouth. He clenched his hands into fists, where they rested on his knees, and made to get up. It was Annie who pushed him down again.
"No. You need this," she said, her eyes huge, and her mouth anxious. "We need you fixed, Mitchell."
And he needed this too, Mitchell thought, he needed it far too much. So much so that he couldn't possibly let...
George had opened his shirt halfway down his chest now, and Mitchell could smell him even more strongly, he could hear as George's heartbeat began to speed up, and then George reached out and tugged Mitchell flush to his side. He couldn't help it, Mitchell grabbed his arm, thumb resting on George's wrist, and then he could feel it too, the pulse beating away under the translucent skin. George tipped his head to one side, inviting, and Mitchell was so hungry, and George was right there, just as he'd imagined him in his wildest fantasies. Of course, he hadn't usually imagined Annie there too, but it hardly mattered, because there was red creeping in at the corners of his vision now as he tried to control himself, because he loved George so much, and he didn't want to hurt him. You hurt him every month you steal this, and then pretend you don't, a little voice whispered inside Mitchell's head, but he could barely hear it, could barely do anything but stare at George's neck, watching him swallow, his Adam's apple bobbing in his nervousness.
It felt natural in the end. As soon as Mitchell's fangs touched his skin, legitimately, openly, in the daytime even, George moaned. It felt more intimate to Mitchell in that moment than a kiss might have, although he longed to kiss him too. He'd wanted this for months, or longer than that, years even, and now the moment was here, he didn't care if Annie knelt at their feet, or if a brass band marched through their living room, all that mattered was the taste of George under his tongue, the feel of him in his arms, the way he went loose and pliable as he bit him, letting Mitchell do what he liked, take all he wanted, because he was Mitchell's, all of him, not Nina's, not Annie's, not anyone but Mitchell's. He could have fought the world for George in that instant, he was so strong and powerful - and still had the clarity of purpose to know when to draw gently away.
That was the strangest thing. How his mind was so crystal sharp, his body satisfied, completely sated as never before. It was so much better than the furtive tastes he'd allowed himself on the nights after George's transformations, incredibly better than any of the meals he'd indulged in back when he was drinking blood for real. It was as though he was comparing sawdust to caviar, it was a... revelation.
Annie was staring at his leg, and Mitchell knew it had healed. There was a hint of dark pink on her cheeks and that was a new thing, that made him smile - who knew that ghosts could blush? He grinned even wider, from the sheer joy of life, and from wonder, because however deep in shit they were, he couldn't help it - he felt wonderful.
Mitchell turned to George then, realising he was still holding his wrist, and swiped his thumb across the inside in a rough caress. Mitchell's grin couldn't contain his exuberance, he wanted to share it, he wanted to rub himself all over George, to bathe in his scent, to claim him completely, but his habits of mind were holding him in good stead, he restrained himself to that gentle caress. But his good mood began to falter as he looked at George. He looked dazed, out of it, he was lying back on the sofa and he wasn't moving.
Mitchell didn't know how he knew it, but he hadn't taken too much, he knew he hadn't. It wasn't like with humans, there had been no lust that carried you away in a killing frenzy - with George, it had been fantastic, but Mitchell had known exactly what he was doing. George should be fine. However, it didn't stop the edges of panic beginning to assault his senses, as he began to doubt himself, as he began to wonder, and Mitchell tugged desperately at the hand he held, hoping for a response.
Slowly, lazily, George opened his eyes. His pupils were blown wide, as though he was high on the greatest trip of his life. He blinked at Mitchell, seeming confused, and then Mitchell could see it, the moment when he connected to the world again, because his hand suddenly tightened its grip, and George surged forward, locking his lips to Mitchell’s, who was too surprised to protest, or prevent it. Not that he wanted to, but this… didn’t feel right. This wasn’t George – was it? Surely, this too was something from his wildest fantasies, something he didn’t deserve, a coercion of some kind… Fuck, but George tasted good. And Mitchell moaned into his mouth.
They were interrupted by the sound of a throat being cleared in a pointed way. A feminine, irritable, embarrassed noise, that gave Mitchell goose-bumps, and caused him to jerk away from George, who made a little whimper of protest and tried to follow Mitchell with his lips.
“Don’t mind me,” said Annie, “I’m only a ghost, part of the furniture really. No-one you need to consider, after all.”
The spots of colour on her cheeks were deeper now, and Mitchell swiped at his mouth, in reflected embarrassment, and then licked his lips, to remember the taste.
"Sorry," he muttered, his gaze drawing itself back to George. He wasn't though.
George was still lying in a blissed out heap, and he hadn't let go of Mitchell's hand. His eyes were half-lidded now, staring at him. "George?" Mitchell tried.
"You didn't tell me it was like that," George whispered, "All the angst, and the horror, and the blood, you told me all about that - but not this, not this feeling. You should have told me, Mitchell. It makes a difference, dying in bliss. It really does."
"But it's not like that," said Mitchell, feeling helpless, "With other people, it's not like that. Only with you."
"It's like the wolf feels it too," said George, "It's like its anger, its hunger has been drawn away, been fed along with you somehow. Bloody hell, I feel good. So bloody good."
And Mitchell could only hold on helplessly to George's hand as he lay there blinking at him - and realise that he could think clearly again now, finally, because he wasn't starving any more. And that he couldn't possibly have George starving any more either, or allow Annie to watch them suffer, or... He had to do something, he had to save them.
And that's when Mitchell thought that he came up with his plan.
"We're going to break into other people's houses? Isn't that, like, illegal?"
George was back to normal, or as normal as he got. Mitchell resisted putting out his hand to squeeze George's shoulder, which meant he was back to normal too, wanting to touch and making himself stop.
"Yes, George, it's illegal," he said, "But then, so is being trapped in our house by a psychopathic bunch of vampiric nutters and watching your mates starve to death."
George snorted as he eyed the back wall of their attic - or it might have been the dust, it was hard to tell. But then he sat back onto his heels to study it, and leaned into Mitchell's shoulder, as though unconsciously. Mitchell resisted the urge to put his arm around George, feeling the warmth of him through the cotton of his shirt. He forcibly dragged his attention back to the task at hand.
Mitchell gestured at Annie. "Go on then."
She bit her lip, but obligingly vanished for a few seconds before popping back into existence. "It's just an attic - nothing special. A couple of boxes but they don't look heavy."
Mitchell looked at George, who was clutching an axe, and took a deep breath. Mitchell was wielding a lump hammer. It was amazing what you could find in the cupboard under the stairs. It didn't take very long for the partition to come down, which was just a bit of plasterboard, as Mitchell had suspected. These houses had been built in a long row - and sometimes the partitions between them, particularly in the attics, were shoddy. He lived on the corner of a shoddy row of houses - which somehow didn't surprise him, however useful it was now. He waved George forward, and when he looked surprised, said, "I haven't been invited. You'll have to go."
"Now look," said George, "I'm not going to run away and save myself, however much you might want to play the martyr - I'm just not going to let you."
Mitchell gave in and squeezed George's arms, feeling the muscle move under his fingers, as he pushed George gently through the hole. "Thanks. But the house is empty because they're away on holiday, so you can't make them invite me in. Remember, we were meant to water their pot-plants? Here, take the hammer with you."
George looked like he was going to protest, but instead he scrambled through the hole. Mitchell didn't want to tell him that actually he wasn't able to leave, that if Mitchell could sense the vampires outside, then they almost certainly could sense him in turn. And that they were waiting him out. There was a cluster of vampires stuck closer than glue here in this little suburb of Bristol, what else could it mean?
That was his primary reason, the reason he acknowledged to himself, but there was also his more secret reason, a truth that had been gnawing away at him from the very beginning of this affair - that maybe it wasn't him at all. Maybe his giant ego didn't want to think about it, but in the deepest, darkest, most roiling parts of his psyche, Mitchell was prepared to contemplate it. He hadn't let Annie acknowledge anything, but he knew, he really did, that this time round it might not be all about him. It might, in fact, be George that they were after. He couldn't let that happen.
So if that was in fact the case, then it was best that he got George as far away from here as possible.
He looked at Annie, who was still biting her lip, and staring at him.
"Will it be ok?" she asked, and Mitchell shrugged.
"Keep an eye on him yeah?" he asked, and she nodded, and smiled, and then reached out and held his hands, loosening the fingers. Mitchell realised he'd been clasping them together so hard there were little white crescent moons indented in the flesh. So perhaps his casual air wasn't holding together quite as well as he'd thought. Damn it.
She patted his hands again, cool and tingling, and then she was gone. Mitchell was left alone. And that usually went so well.
Mitchell had never thought of himself as the curtain-twitching type - lace and chintz weren't exactly his style - but he was so nervous, he was hard put not to keep peering down the street every few minutes. He'd tried pacing, like George liked to do on occasion, but it didn't seem to work as well for him. Not to mention it reminded him of George, which was unbearable at the moment, as he didn't know what was happening, how far had he got, who else had he got out, if he was safe, or anything.
So he sat down, and flicked over the pages of a magazine, an interview with Paul Wilson from the Real Hustle should be enough to hold his attention… No, it was no good. Mitchell sat on the sofa, his head hanging down, and tried to stop his muscles twitching. He concentrated on it, trying to stay calm, and slowly, eventually, he realised that the less stressed he was, the more he was able to sense with his other abilities, that once the jangling of his body was reduced to a minimum, he could feel what was happening at last.
The fizz on the back of his tongue indicated that the strange vampires were still there, strongly, but perhaps - not quite as strongly as they were? Were they moving away at last? The scent and beat of human life around him was lessening too, their heartbeats further away, which perhaps meant that the plan was working, although it made Mitchell unexpectedly full of a swooping loneliness. He'd held himself apart from people for years, because he'd had to, but things had been different lately, and emergencies like this brought home to him how much he was still a part of humanity, still involved, however much he'd once tried to deny it. He wished he could have gone with them. He didn't want to be left behind.
Then, at last, Mitchell tried to feel for George, and almost swore aloud, because it was so easy. The rich, warm sense of George slipped over him like a blanket, and Mitchell revelled in it, stretching like a cat in front of the fire. George was a little anxious, Mitchell could tell, and his breathing was elevated, but he wasn't stressed, he wasn't in danger.
Or was he? Suddenly Mitchell could tell that George's adrenaline had spiked, that his fight or flight had kicked in, that he was fearful, but that he was also angry. Mitchell didn't know how he knew such things - he never had before - but it set his own nerves on fire, and he couldn't help himself, he jumped up and went to the window again, peering through the curtain just as nosily as Mrs Powell from no.37. He felt his own palms begin to sweat, because it was worse than he'd thought - the strange vampires were gone. Completely vanished. He knew they were closer than that, but what his eyes were showing him, and what his senses were telling him, were not compatible, unless… George. He's been peripherally sensing George all along.
Fuck. Mitchell dithered for about a second, but only a second, because he could also feel George doing something very similar, psyching himself up to do something that Mitchell was sure he wouldn't like. He opened the front door, and stared carefully around - there was nothing. So then Mitchell stepped outside, however stupid he knew he was being, and took a deep breath of fresh air, that he hadn't tasted for over a week. It was fantastic. It was glorious. Then he looked around - using all his senses - for George, who was outside in the street too.
It was a stand-off - it would have been a tableau, but the images were still moving. George was trying his best to look menacing, shifting a step here, a step there - he was saying something too, offering bravado and threats, Mitchell hoped, but knowing they'd be terrible, because this was George and he was utterly incapable of being properly menacing. And George was desperately trying to keep between the vampires and their neighbours, as they streamed out of the last front door in their row of terrace houses. There was Mrs Powell, looking small and terrified, and Alan Simpson, his shoulders hunched in his brown coat - Mitchell could almost smell the onions. And there was Alfred, and Joyce, and even Lee, all of whom had drunk their tea and eaten their biscuits at one time or another, and now their sociability was being paid back, in the lives that they owed George for his… sacrifice.
Because it was a sacrifice - Mitchell had been in enough battles to know that. George was keeping between the frightened gaggle of humanity, and the on-coming pack of vampires, but it wasn't going to be enough. They didn't seem to want to hurt George, which was allowing him to be as effective as he was, and Annie was trying to fill the gaps, but surely there were too many of them? Mitchell knew her power had grown, he wasn't even concentrating and he could still sense the cool tingle of her anger, but even so, could it be enough? Without even consciously thinking about it, Mitchell broke into a run, his trainers slapping the ground, but he knew it wouldn't help, they hadn't been fazed by him last time, he'd only been a nuisance, just another ordinary vampire who they could dispatch easily, he couldn't stop them - but it didn't prevent him legging it as fast as he possibly could.
He was still more than half the street away when they pounced. Their filthy arms reaching out, grasping for George, as the mass of them pushed forward as one. There were wails and screams, and George tried to wildly punch one of them to no effect, or perhaps one hunched figure stumbled and went down, but it was too little, far, far too late. There was a snarl, like an animal's, and Mitchell realised it was coming from his own throat, as he lost sight of George, as he disappeared into the seething, writhing horde of them.
Until he tore into the pack at last, punching indiscriminately, kicking, his fangs bared, his eyes black, looking for George, always for George. But it did no good. They didn't fight back, he could have been a phantom, or a child, for all the notice they paid, and somehow, impossibly, the pack of them began to melt away. He turned, and they vanished, he turned back, and more had gone. He was furious, and past terrified, because he didn't recognise this power, for power it must be - something his vampires had never had, or never learnt. He turned once more and his fists sunk into a cool, almost gelatinous form and Mitchell stopped at last, breathing hard, as Annie caught him into her arms.
The people, their neighbours, stared or whimpered, or curled up, as their nature took them. But they weren't dead. They were all there and intact. It was some kind of miracle, Mitchell thought, once he was capable of paying such attention once more.
But he didn't care much really, in the end. Because George was gone.
"You have to stop," said Annie. "You have to do something!"
Mitchell stared at her blearily. Which did she want him to do first, to stop, or to start? It made no sense to him. He lifted the bottle and took another swig. He thanked all the stars in the sky, and all the deities he could make up, that alcohol could still affect vampires. That seemed like a unlikely blessing in this fucked-up world.
Annie was wringing her hands again. Mitchell really must tell her to stop doing that, it wasn't a good look on her, showed all her nerves, no good for poker, she'd never win a hand like that... Fuck, but he was drunk. At least that was a good thing.
They were alone, in an empty house, in an empty suburb of Bristol, their neighbours presumably all being cooed over in some lovely A&E Department, all his vampires dead, or in comas so deep it made no difference, George gone... Mitchell took another drink. Was it the end of the fucking world, or what? So much for his grand ideas of living like a human being again. At last. What a joke.
He was all out of ideas, apart from the one that said downing a bottle of whisky as fast as possible was a brilliant plan, and as some of the liquid ran down his chin, and he choked a little, Mitchell wasn't even sure that was true any more.
Annie was still talking, but Mitchell had stopped listening. He'd tried tramping up and down all the nearby streets, feeling out along his senses for a hint of where George might be, terrified about what he might feel, what George might be going through, but it hadn't worked. George could have disappeared into thin air, as far as he was able to tell. It had been like walking through a ghost town, the streets deserted, newspapers blowing in the wind. Which given that it was only he and Annie left, wasn't far off the bloody mark.
It was ironic, given how long they had all been stuck inside the place, but Mitchell had come back to drown his sorrows at home. Home is where the heart... Fuck. The cushions still smelled of George.
The doorbell rang. Mitchell was on his feet before he was even aware of it, swaying admittedly, but upright. What next? A herd of tap-dancing elephants? A crazed troupe of dwarves? It was hardly going to be the cavalry. Annie moved forward, cautiously, but it wasn’t her kind of Door, just the boring old regular kind. It still had scratches in its paint from a certain stray werewolf. It was their usual doorbell ding-dong too, but it didn’t stop Annie throwing the door wide open as though throwing open the door to a lion’s cage – and then darting back, as though afraid of being bitten. It crashed into the wall with a large reverberating bang. There was a little girl with pigtails standing on their step, looking very unimpressed.
“Well?” she asked, her accent harsh with the patter of London’s East End, “Ain’t you going to invite me in?”
She smiled and her mouth showed fangs.
“Bleeding hell, Mitchell, you’ve come down in the world a bit, ain’tcher?”
Hetty thrust her glass forward and waggled it a bit. Mitchell obligingly topped up the whisky, while Annie stared, her eyes huge, still processing apparently.
“Are you sure you should...?” she ventured, her voice small and uncertain.
Hetty glared at her. “What? At my age? Four hundred and sixty two. I should bleeding well hope so.”
She switched her gimlet gaze to Mitchell, who shrugged. “You’ve had a bit of a problem here, ain’t you? Gang warfare, my arse. I came as soon as I heard.”
Carefully, Mitchell said, “That’s very kind of you.”
“Kindness ain’t got nothing to do with it. If the Eldest are walking again, then it’s a bit bleeding serious. Worth breaking off a spot of gallivanting in the Americas for the protection of the known civilized world, that kind of malarkey. I can drink pinacoldas another time.”
She sniffed, then made a face. It was true, Mitchell thought. It wasn’t a very good whisky.
"Who are the Eldest?" he asked, trying for indifferent, suspecting that he failed. Hetty stared at him, amusement making her face almost young again.
"You're kidding me, right? Please tell me Herrick didn't ignore your education to that extent. Whisper in my shell-like that your sense of humour needs an overhaul."
Hetty downed her whisky and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. "They're different to us - they remember the old country. It's all instinct with them, the burning African sun, the heart of darkness, all that palaver. I thought they were dead."
She got up from the sofa, leant to put her glass down, and then began wandering around the room. Lifting an ornament here, flipping an old menu there. Mitchell looked at her - a little girl, maybe ten, maybe eleven, with eyes like holes in her head, smelling of whisky. He wouldn't want her life - what he had could have been a lot worse. In his maudlin state, it took a little while to notice the difference - he hadn't seen Hetty for years, for decades even, but if there was one thing that characterised her, it was confidence. She'd seen it all before, over and over again. But as he watched her pace he realised her hands were trembling slightly, and that she was trying to disguise it. Once he'd noticed, Mitchell wondered why he hadn't spotted it before.
"What is it?" he asked, abruptly, "Why are you really here? It's not out of the goodness of your heart."
She giggled, a true little girl giggle. "There are some that might say I don't have a heart."
Mitchell waited, and when Annie made to move or say something, he held out his hand, stopping her - watching Hetty.
She stopped pacing eventually and sighed, the glitter of her eyes back to their full malevolence. "All right, I get it. You scratch my back, I scratch yours. I'm not here for you, I admit it. I'm here for them." She smiled, slowly. "Revenge has been a long time coming - four hundred and fifty two years at last count. And I can't deny, I'm a little… nervous. Don't you think it's about time I got to thank Daddy in person? A girl might have abandonment issues after four hundred years."
Mitchell wanted to step back, to get away. She made him feel unpleasant and dirty. He hoped there would be something else left of him after so long - something more than hate. But he was horribly afraid that he'd be no better. He missed George suddenly, with a deep abiding ache. Fuck it.
"I couldn't find them, not in the deep places of the world, and believe me - I looked," said Hetty, "But the shift in power, Herrick's death - we could all feel that. All of us. Even them."
She twitched her coat open, letting them see the lining; rows of pockets sewn in so carefully, precisely, stitching pretty in multicoloured thread, as any girl might like. And then within each pocket there was a knife, or a spike, or a silver-shod stake, all made to fit the hand of a child. Hetty licked her lips.
"They've been attracted to a place of uncertainty, of change - drawn to the chaos. I couldn't find them before, but it's different now. I know Bristol - none better."
She pulled out a well-worn stiletto and fondled it like a toy.
"I know where the bastards are hiding."
"Mitchell, have you really thought about this?" Annie asked, "You don't know what you're walking into, it could be a trap."
She was holding his hands, and she was muttering close to his face, not shouting like he knew she wanted to. Her presence so close to him was a cool breeze, almost like a breath. Hetty was in the living room, and they were in the kitchen for an illusion of privacy, although Mitchell decided not to tell Annie that at her age, Hetty could probably hear a hummingbird fart on the other side of the world. He thought that Annie could do without that knowledge right now.
"I know it could be a trap. I expect it is a trap. I plan on it being a trap," he explained, and pressed her hands. Trust me, he tried to ask without words.
Of course, he knew it was a trap. George was special, presumably that was why the Eldest had taken him. It made sense that they would also expect somebody to want him back.
Annie looked dubious and put her head on one side. "So what's different? What's going to stop them turning you into cat food? Little Miss Bossy Boots in there? She's crazy! Just one of them could eat her like a tasty snack!"
Mitchell tried not to wince. Still, that was old habits dying hard - he had no real need to pander to Hetty any more, now that the whole of the Bristol nest was destroyed, it hardly mattered. And Annie was right, he had no more idea of how to deal with the Eldest now than he did when they took George. He tried to smile in a reassuring manner.
"It'll be ok, I promise," he said, and hugged her so she couldn't see his eyes.
Later, standing with Hetty outside the iron grill at the entrance to Redcliffe Caves, she nudged him in a companionable manner, like one of his men might have done on the eve of a Big Push, sharing a confidence that wouldn't be remembered when morning came.
"You don’t expect to come back, do yer?" She sniffed, and rolled her shoulders, preparing in her own way. "Not my business, of course, but not telling your ghostly girlfriend was the coward's way out. You better not break in there, or I'll gut you myself."
Mitchell glanced down at her deceptively fragile form. "I won't break," he said, and tore the grill out of the wall.
The Redcliffe Caves had been mines once. As they began making their way inside Mitchell could still see the marks of tools on the walls. There was no rhyme or reason to the layout as the miners had presumably just followed the line that gave them the best deposits. The plaque outside had told him as much - all of these twisting turning tunnels had been dug to provide sand to the glass trade, over several centuries. But it was abandoned now and the darkness was thick and old, and getting deeper, the dull red of the sandstone that gave this place its name swallowing any real remaining light.
But being able to see in the dark was one of a vampire's first tricks, along with all the other senses that ended up enhanced. Mitchell stopped and let himself adjust to the lack of light, letting it enfold him and caress him, becoming familiar with it, treating it like an old friend. The smell of the place, damp and earth and metal, all breathing from the walls, gave him an extra dimension, and the feel of the air currents as they stirred, added to the image. His eyes snapped open, black as the air itself, he knew. And Hetty's too, as she waited for him impatiently in the darkness. They were ready.
At first, Mitchell followed Hetty. She seemed to know the place, could take them deep into the hillside with confidence and certainty. He wondered vaguely as he followed her pattering footsteps, how long ago had she come here? Had she seen the mines at the height of their industry? Was this her youth she was revisiting? But soon enough she faltered, her steps becoming slower, more tentative. Mitchell could see her head shaking, as though dislodging a fly, or throwing off a headache. He pushed forward until they were standing side by side again.
"My turn," he said, and shut his eyes.
Everything immediately became sharper and more distinct. The passages branched and twisted back on themselves, but Mitchell could use all of his senses now, and he knew he could stroll back to the surface if needs be, as though on a broad highway. But that wasn't what he wanted. He knew the two of them were in the right place, he could tell somehow, without any sound or scent to make him certain - when he relaxed, and let all his longing for George, all his fear, and worry, and love, point him where he most needed to go, the path was easy.
He could hear Hetty sniff again, in reluctant appreciation, he assumed, but he couldn't let himself think about her, or care, as his steady tread carried him forwards, his boots scuffing up red mud and tramping through puddles. There was a barrier, Mitchell thought, a sort of mental firewall, something to keep strangers outside and away - a kind of SEP field, George would call it. The thought made Mitchell smile. Then, abruptly, it just fell away, as though they'd breached it, or their antagonist had given up and let them in. Hetty huffed and her steps gained confidence again. Mitchell just couldn't stop smiling.
It didn't matter where in the world they tried to hide him, Mitchell would always know where to find George. He was confident now, he'd got the trick of it, and best of all, he was sure that George was still alive. He wasn't certain how, but Mitchell thought he'd always know from now on. He hadn't realised until that second, how much of his black mood had been to do with just not knowing. As he strode along, almost as though they were casually strolling along a bustling thoroughfare, not penetrating a dangerous lair, he turned his face, as though towards the sun, towards George, and then stopped. Here. He was here. Mitchell opened his eyes.
There was candlelight. It transported the caves back in time, to the days when men in breeches and shirtsleeves laboured long under the ground. The smell of burning wax was hot and dry, mixing with the dampness, and the rich, ripe odour of the Eldest themselves. Mitchell tried not to cough, their scent catching the back of his throat as always. He tried not to swear either, as he took in the sight before him. There were dozens of hunched shapes, possibly more. Mitchell swallowed and tried not to let his heart jump too much. His fangs itched, ready for battle. He was poised on the balls of his feet, ready to move at the slightest hint of an opponent, but not one of them made any kind of hostile move. Mitchell was scanning for George, knowing he was here, but being unable to see him, until suddenly, their hulking forms parted enough to allow him to see George's pale skin, glimpsed through the crowd.
Mitchell made a sound then, unable to help himself, because there was far too much skin on show. George had been dragged off dressed in a t-shirt and jeans, shirt loose over the top. But he wasn't wearing any of it any more. He was as naked as the day he was born, as bare and vulnerable as he was once a month waiting for the change - as naked as he was the next morning when Mitchell took his stolen mouthfuls, suckling at George's wounds, stealing his blood to fuel his own obsession.
Mitchell thought he'd been angry before, but this - this was different. He could feel rage pooling in his belly, and fizzing in his blood - and if it was fuelled by just a hint of guilt, well, he wasn't about to let that stop him. George's eyes were closed, he was unconscious, his body slumped limply in the grasp of these monsters, and it was hard to tell in the candlelight, which caused shadows to flicker and shift and his eyesight to doubt itself, which had been so very clear in the dark - but Mitchell rather thought he saw marks all over his body, pink and wet, as though he'd been... fed on.
He growled, and the crowd in front of him shivered, like a row of saplings in a strong breeze. He heard dimly, as though from very far away, a small hiccupping giggle, like a real child, and then the clink of metal. Mitchell felt strong and invincible, filled with a righteous rage - he would tear them apart, he would get his revenge and rescue George, he would die for him. The Eldest made noises then, soft moans, and whispers, coughing grunts, as though they were trying for language, but had forgotten what it was for, or how to speak it. It was eerie, and made Mitchell feel more lonely than solitude would, as though he were facing beasts, or monsters, not thinking beings. And that made him even angrier, because he had been trying so hard, and now here, in extremis, he was losing again all the humanity he had once thought to regain.
It was Hetty who attacked first. That knowledge pleased Mitchell in some small way - he had been an officer in the Great War, he knew how to charge a faceless impregnable enemy, but he also knew that tactically, the first to move would probably inevitably be cut down. He didn't want to waste his death. But he wasn't more than a second or two behind her as he made for the centre of the room, where their crowd was thickest, heading straight for George. Hetty was so small Mitchell immediately lost track of her, but there was a metallic chime, as a blade might make scraping along a stake; Mitchell thought he could track her by that and the inevitable screams.
He lashed out himself, his vision turning red, his arms outstretched, his fingers curled tight into fists, but hit only empty air. He whirled seeking a target, his jacket flaring at the speed, but every opponent seemed to melt away, his blows only meeting empty air. He thought they were trying to lure him in, and let them, because he didn't expect to escape, but at least he could die at George's side, and that was something. That was more than something, that was everything. If he lived long enough he might even be able to get George to the door, or help him escape, wishful thinking, Mitchell knew, but it was comfort.
He still hadn't landed a blow when he bumped into something warm and solid, which was shocking in its intensity. It was as though his anger was interrupted, as though a switch had been thrown, like icy water pouring into his mind. Everything suddenly became clear, a crash of reality, and Mitchell groped behind him to George, who was lying on some rough sort of table, and held on to him, his flesh slightly slippery with sweat perhaps, but so very real and alive.
The Eldest were still not attacking. Now his mind was clear Mitchell found it stranger than ever, and he stood and watched them, as they milled in front of him. He tried to think of a practical way he could get past them, but it still seemed impossible. He was even able to wonder what had just happened, what had brought him to his senses like this, as his gaze flickered from one to another.
Then the crowd shifted and one in particular stepped forward. It was an indistinct movement, fluid and organic, but still a representative appeared to have been chosen - or tearing him into small pieces was the special privilege of the leader, it was difficult to say. Mitchell gripped George harder, hard enough to bruise perhaps, willing him to wake up. He missed him, and if he was going to die, Mitchell was selfish enough to want George there for it. He glanced behind him, then looked again. The slippery fluid that he'd taken for sweat wasn't just that. There were little pinprick holes all over George, and they were oozing, just a little blood, to lie and mix and twist out onto his skin, patterning him like some crazy tribal idol. Mitchell couldn't even count them - the bites were so numerous, overlaying each other, but carefully, as though planned, there was no tearing of the flesh, but there was still horror in it, in imagining all of these creatures with their hands on George, their mouths, all stroking him and feeding from him. Mitchell's gorge rose, and he scrabbled frantically at George himself, checking for a pulse, for a sign that George would be able to survive this. How much blood had been taken? No wonder his skin was so pale.
There was a harsh coughing sound then, that came from the leader, as though clearing a throat that had not spoken in centuries, and for all Mitchell knew, that was the kind of time span they were talking about. He left George behind him, solid against his thighs, and glared at him, preparing to attack.
"Thine Consort, he is not harmed. He is... recovered. He recovered us. He..." The creature appeared to lose the use of his words. "We regret... We regret the need... We need..."
There was another ripple, as though an unspoken communication was shivering through the mass of them. Their leader stared at Mitchell through a helmet of hair caked in mud and other darker substances. But his one white visible eye looked more intelligent than Mitchell had thought any of them capable of being.
"He is thine, cannot be ours, but he can... He... We ask that thee allow him to burgeon others, for us. Thee can understand our need... Thee feed... Thee understand."
Their leader held out a hand, as a supplicant, Mitchell thought. He struggled to understand what they were asking him - what did they mean? What did they want?
"We cannot return to the mud and the madness. We want to live. We need the Wolf to tame our Demon. Yea, dost thee understand? Surely, thee and thine Consort? Thee must understand!"
There was a note of despair now, a desperation in the air. The Eldest were swaying, in the grip of some strong emotion, and Mitchell prepared to defend George again because it seemed as if things might be turning ugly.
Then there was a scream, a childish sound not so much of agony, but rather of frustration and anger, beyond all natural limits. Mitchell recognised it, and flinched, just a little. It seemed that Hetty had been captured. She was dragged out into the middle of the cave, at least three of them holding her down. She had caused them wounds, and a dark thick fluid, which Mitchell assumed must be blood, was coursing from their arms, and faces. But there was no anger in them, that Mitchell could see, no appearance of retribution, and it surprised him. All his people, from the slaughter in the funeral parlour, had damage as if from frenzied attacks. These creatures were tamed now, it seemed, or at least holding themselves in check. It made no sense.
Their leader was looking at Hetty, and then he lowered his eyes, as if the sight of her hurt him in some way. He motioned his fellows forward, and before Mitchell could react, or do more than raise a hand, he had been seized by limbs that seemed as tough and as unyielding as tree trunks. He was drawn away from George's side, and could not fight it. He could only look on in despair as the leader bent and carefully bit George, causing more blood to flow in a thin stream down his thigh. Hetty was brought to George then, and her mouth lowered to the wound. She tried to fight at first, holding herself back, but Mitchell could see the fight being lost as the addictive smell of fresh blood overcame any remaining scruples. She licked at the blood like a cat might lick at cream, both delicate and animalistic. She would have torn into him, Mitchell knew, if she had been given the chance, but she was being carefully restrained. It was a small mercy, as he watched his George being suckled upon, and being unable to do anything about it. The hands of the Eldest bit into his own flesh, as Mitchell strained and fought to be free.
At last, Hetty was drawn away, and George was left alone. She was set upon her own feet then, in front of their leader, and Mitchell waited for her to take such an opportunity to exercise both her anger and her array of toys. It never came.
Instead, the leader sighed, deep and tremulously, and said, "Daughter, pray thee accept my sorrow and my apologee. I never meant to sire thee, and I never meant to leave thee to this world all these ages, all alone. For we had been driven mad, and all that we knew was the madness. Truly, we would have cared for thee, and taught thee, if only we had had our Consorts. But we had been torn rudely from our homes, and all the ancient wisdom was lost, and drowned, and we were bereft."
Mitchell watched as Hetty stared, and did not attack, did not launch herself at his throat, did not hiss her intentions and her hunger both. He realised that some part of him wanted her to, that he felt betrayed because she wasn't still a creature of blood and revenge and nothing more. Because she was staring up at the Eldest as though she were really a child.
"The blood of this Wolf cannot be for us. He is not our Consort, child. But thee has been long in the world. Thee must know of others." He looked across at Mitchell then, a proud sort of pleading in his eyes. "If thou dost not know of others then we shall return to the madness and we shall be lost. And the world shall be lost with us."
Her voice when she spoke at last was small and piping. There was a tremor to it that Mitchell had never heard.
"If I find you more of the dirty wolves, will you stay with me, Daddy? Will you stay with me forever?"
The Eldest stared into her eyes and Mitchell swallowed, hard. There was moisture there, heavy black fluid rolling down his filthy cheek. "I shall. I vow to thee, my daughter, that my eternity will be all thine own, to do with as thy will."
And he folded her up in his embrace, mud-caked fingers curving protectively around her small shoulders, and she hugged him back, and did not care who saw.
"So what you're telling me - and stop me if I get this wrong - that when I was dragged underground and virtually gang-raped by a bunch of senile vampires, I was actually saving the world?"
George looked bemused at this, rather than appalled, rather than horrified or in shock. Mitchell counted it a win. They were sitting close together on the terracotta spoil tips outside of Redcliffe Caves, Mitchell's jacket was around George's shoulders, some unearthed coveralls sheathing his lower half. Mitchell could count every breath George took, could feel every slide of George's shoulder next to his own through the thin cotton of his t-shirt. He rubbed his hands together, the wool of his fingerless gloves squeaking high in a bat's register. George grabbed his fingers to still them, and his hands were warm and soft and alive.
"Fuck," said Mitchell, and started shaking.
"Hey, it's all right!" said George, holding on and blinking, looking more naked without his glasses than he ever did without his clothes.
Mitchell turned George's hands over and examined the back of them. Every inch of George's body had been covered in bites, there hadn't been any skin that was unblemished, that could now be Mitchell's alone. But it didn't matter. The bites were healing already, only one or two had been deep or really torn the skin, the first ones, Mitchell had speculated, and after that the tamed Eldest had regulated the process. A mouthful or two, no more. Like he himself took on the full moon. He felt ashamed.
"Look, there's something I have to tell you..." he began, and then stopped, tingling all over, as George launched himself at Mitchell, agressively pushing into his personal space, all grabby hands and fingers impatiently scrabbling to get at skin. Then his mouth was on Mitchell's, hot and wonderful, despite being slightly askew, the sensation almost overwhelming - the taste of him and feel of him, so George, all passion and awkwardness, eagerly stroking against his tongue. He wanted to ask, are you sure, are you really sure? Mitchell's hands hovered, and then came down uncertainly on George's shoulders, before giving in at last and tugging him closer, and then closer still. They were both gasping when they finally broke apart, Mitchell resting his forehead on George's and breathing him in. There was that awful wild stink of the Eldest, but there was George too underneath, solid and smelling of home.
"So, is that how it's going to be now?" asked Mitchell trying for casual, and missing by a mile. George was smiling, that slightly sideways grin of his, the one that meant he couldn't really believe his good luck. His eyes were like stars.
"Well, once we've found enough werewolves to save the world - but it should be ok, yeah? There's Nina..." George's voice didn't hitch at all, Mitchell noted with happiness. "And Tully, and - what's that girl's name? - Amy McBride."
"And we can bring back the rest of my people once the Eldest are all sane again - apparently you can bleed on a vampire's bones and if you're not actually dust, it brings you back. Who knew?"
"And Annie can help us search for more werewolves - there must be others, right? Maybe she can mobilise the whole ghost network to look..."
"And so that is how it's going to be, isn't it, George?"
There was a pause. They were filthy and George was pale and faintly trembling from blood loss, but also somehow luminous, his mouth unable to stop smiling. Mitchell just couldn't stop touching him, couldn't believe how things had turned out in the end.
"Nah," said George, "Let's go watch the Real Hustle. Let's go home."