Chapter 6: Lost Apostates

The arms of an angel held him aloft. Marcus. A thing who was once a man. The statue presented him to the heavens in explication. “Here, I present to you a ravenous abomination forever exiled from the dawn.” Its left thumb had been digging into his spine. Another insult meant to spice up his injury. His affliction. Wherever he was, Laura had certainly picked a scene that drove the reality of his degradation straight into his heart. She had planted him in a mausoleum. The vault was devoid of any source of light, but Marcus was able to make out every line, every pebble, every depth and detail therein. Don’t you love what I have given you, Marcus, new eyes to see! New eyes to take in the necropolis where his brethren are meant to dwell, amongst the rats, and the beetles, and the worms. His sight was just as unnatural as he. No particles around to properly trigger the rods and cones made to govern his vision. It was all a uniform gray, the niches, the arches, the gates, and his angel. He might have just mistaken that for the color of cold stone, but the texture of the aegis at its mantle could only be conducive to weathered bronze. It was as if someone had rendered a grayscale sketch of the environment over the environment itself. The closest thing he could adequately compare it to was the cell-shading of textures in a game like Mad World.

He reached into the pocket of his cargo shorts and pulled out his phone. Turning on the flashlight, he shined it straight at the angel’s face. That bright yellow light restored his normal vision, though the reflection of the metal married with the jarring adjustment caused him to squint. Quite a lot of it held the swampy green hue characteristic of corrosion. Not only had he been sleeping in a mausoleum, but a damp and poorly sealed one at that. Whoever had designed this place had been far too focused on aesthetics to recognize the factor of longevity. The builders had been unnerved from the dead, unblinking eyes of the angel watching them at all angles to really consider proper precautions against the nearby reservoir. The only part of the state which appeared in its original, reflective bronze sheen was its face. Framed with many encircling curled locks, the lion’s share of its features had been rubbed down and smoothed over. The one portion to remain was a stumpy mound of nose with two shallow nostrils. Apparently, there was some supposition around here that you had to touch the face of the angel in order to escape certain death. Fantastic, he was able to discern that information, but zero clue as to where he actually was.

Returning his gaze to the phone screen, he spotted his wallpaper. A red cardinal that had landed in his yard a few weeks ago, which he had somehow managed to sneak close enough to without disturbing during the sweltering midday. Marcus ground his teeth together, hyper aware of the way his canines scraped against each other. His intuition told him that this majesty of the vibrant greens and reds, dew soaked in the summer heat, were now only accessible to him through digital imagery. He supposed that he would have ample time to mourn, though, and it was only now that he could be free to act. He typed the following message out to Dove:

I hope that you’re okay wherever you are, I think that I’m in a cemetery.

Texting Audrey would only be counterproductive. He knew that she would still be with Laura. She was her pet, afterall. Her favorite. Laura could easily just take her phone, pick her brain for the passcode, and then impersonate her in order to steer Marcus to the next triggerpoint for her plans. That sort of trickery was no doubt far too mundane for her tastes, but it was likely the best case scenario if he attempted to contact his friend. If he was going to fight back against Laura, to beat her at her own game now that she had forced him to play, he would need to learn the full extent of her capabilities. She had to have weaknesses. There had to be some way he could strike back. She had done this to him. Taken advantage of him. Betrayed him and all of humanity. She had killed him. She did not deserve to call herself his friend. She did not deserve to be recognized as human. Neither did he now, because of her machinations. It was 4:28 AM. He adjusted the glasses that he no longer needed to see. But they were still his to wear.

First things first, he would have to get down somehow. From his current vantage point he could see no viable path except one where he landed flat on his face. Of course, he could always just float down… what? He had already noticed that his intuition was stronger now. Not only was it supplying him with the anxiety of bad omens, but now it was giving him specific information that he should by no right have immediate access to. If he wanted to float, he just had to imagine himself holding up his body and gently lowering it to the ground. That was not what he had wanted to know. He had wanted to know how and why he was able to conjure up this knowledge. That information was not available to him. This insight was not a database that he could peruse directly, it was more like the bits and pieces in his mind were being fed to him by another consciousness. Was it Laura? Had she somehow taken up permanent residence in his head?! No. Then who or what was it? He did not get an answer. He refused to move an inch until he got an answer. His thoughts wandered back to the earlier events of the night, to the blood he was forced to drink, the blood that had dripped from the mouth of a pregnant spotted hyena. Did this consciousness come from the original source of that blood? Perhaps. Well, fuck, of course it was not gonna give him a straight answer to that. But it seemed to him that Laura had given him some kind of sapient parasite as part of her scheme. Would it ruin her plans if he simply died and deprived it of a host? A parasite was much easier to get rid of, kid. Dammit! He was getting a headache from this asinine game of twenty questions. Maybe it would help if he tried to distinguish the alien mind from his own with a different voice. But what voice to choose? The only voice he could think of was Vincent Price. In spite of the fact that the only time he actually played a vampire was in his seventies. Fuck it, it would have to do.

Marcus, my boy,” came a voice that sounded exactly like a half-remembered impression of Vincent Price, “we need to make our affairs in order. Get down from there this instant before I have to fling you myself!

Nope. Nah. That was not going to work. He wasn’t even sure if it was the actual parasite speaking, or just his own mind telling him what he thought the parasite might say. Which was it? … radio silence, of course. Fine, this was getting him nowhere, so he might as well get a move on anyway. He decided to send another text to Dove to check whether or not this was something that only he had to deal with:

Is there a voice in your head telling you what to do?

God, he was really hoping that Dove was okay. Realistically, they were the only person that could actually help him. They had shared trauma and hopefully strategic advantages. If they reunited soon, they could potentially come up with a plan to save Audrey, assuming that she wasn’t already too far gone. Maybe the three of them could put a stop to whatever Laura was plotting. Maybe… maybe they could even reverse what she had done to them. All of that could have just been wishful thinking, but hope was the only thing that could keep him going.

Okay, it was time to test out the thing that the brain worm had suggested. He imagined a huge, white gloved hand like the kind that old school cartoon characters wore. The hand hovered above him and grabbed him around the waist. He felt nothing, of course, except for deep embarrassment in thinking that would work. He thought of the hand gradually lifting him up. Shockingly, he could feel his midsection start to lift up, yet his legs and upper torso stayed in place as his body slanted upward in an involuntary pelvic thrust. Stop. It was evident that he was doing this wrong. If he wanted it to work, he would have to allow himself to float, rather than forcing himself to do it. Like swimming? Yes, that was a decent analogy.

He lowered his waist back into the angel’s arms and dispensed with the disembodied hand. Instead, he began to imagine the room filling with water. Rain poured in sheets down the walls and through the cracks in the ceiling, flooding the room in record time. Once it rose up the angel and the cool fluid licked his back, he shut his mouth and eyes tight to keep the water from getting into him. As it immersed him further, both his skin and his clothes grew damp. Soon, his body floated up on the water’s surface from the arms of the angel. Sticking out his right arm, Marcus pushed against the statue’s face to propel himself a few feet to the left. Now, before he could be squashed against the rough worn ceiling, the rainfall ceased and the water slowly started to drain out through the floor. He bobbed lazily as he descended at a ratio of two feet per five seconds. When he opened his eyes again, he was sprawled out on the cold, clammy cobblestone of the floor and dry as a bone. None of the mechanics of what had just happened made any sense to him. Had his body somehow become less dense than the air? Something like that. Wow, the stupid bug was becoming less and less helpful by the minute. He could dwell on those sorts of questions once he got to safety.

Was he in danger? He was going to be if he didn’t hide right now. Where did it expect him to hide? There was an empty shelf in the back right hand corner of the room. Ah, so he guessed he would have to just squeeze right in there. Fine. At least his ominous intuition was marginally less useless now that it had been personified. Before hoofing it over to the aforementioned shelf, he took a quick peek at the inscription which sat at the angel’s base:

In the face of darkness, we vow to never stray from the sun’s rays.
Avenging angels redeem the souls of the lost.

Interesting. He took a good look at his hideaway before committing to it for who knows how long. Considering the no doubt interminable length of his not-so-silent passenger’s life, “right now” could mean inside of the next microsecond or the next decade. Peering within, Marcus was able to make out a web in the back left where a common brown spider was busy making a meal out of a beetle. He was not entirely sure if spider venom would even affect him anymore, but he was squeamish enough to plan against finding out. Standing perpendicular to the shelf, he stooped down and lifted his left leg behind him. He then scooted onto his stomach and stuck his left arm out to his side before hoisting the rest of his body onto the slab. There was just enough room for him to crawl around on his knees and elbows. He had to suck in his breath to keep from wincing in pain every time a loose pebble jabbed into his skin. Curse him for choosing to wear shorts and a t-shirt rather than jeans, knee pads, and an overcoat. Discomfort, apparently, was a sensation common to the living and the undead.

He had made it about a foot into the alcove before he heard the sound of a rusted, iron door creaking from its own weight bearing down on the hinges. Two voices steadily grew louder as they ricocheted off the walls of the mausoleum. Considering that they were the most viable candidates for the danger he had been warned against, he scurried a bit faster until he was sure to be out of their immediate sight line. you’re sure these rumors aren’t just the results of a new drug craze?” Came the husky voice of a mature woman, “I know you weren’t around for it, but the last time we had a ‘false-alarm’ the institute threatened to fully defund the program. We’re already running things on a shoe-string budget. One more screw up and they’d shut us down as soon as they say, ‘sorry old pal, better luck next time.’”

I think it would be worth our time to look into it,” said a younger, mid-range masculine voice that might belong to a man around Marcus’ age. “The family in charge of that area has already been missing for months, and the agent assigned to investigate their disappearance has herself failed to provide any new reports. The last report she was able to send in was very concerning, I think, and she implied that the red queen may have even taken up residence there. I don’t need to tell you, professor, the unmitigated disaster this could spiral out into if she is truly active again.

I appreciate your concern, Ian,” the professor retorted, “but you’re still young, and to really assess the risk you need field experience. I have fought one or two of these beasts in my own time, back when active hunters were still a hot commodity, but anyone who isn’t a raving lunatic has already transferred to research positions or private security. You’re right, the queen is a genuine threat, but behind the fangs and the bluster she is just a doddering old woman pining for her glory days. Her kind is a species that cannot reproduce. The rare cases of turnings result in weak mules that can barely last a few months before succumbing to the sun or starvation as they run out of the last dregs of their own blood supply. I’m sure the old bat would love to break the seal, bring back the old gods, but any hope she might have within her black heart is just a delusion to keep her from self-immolating.

But is it really just false hope, professor?” Ian pleaded to her, “you yourself have lectured us about how the seal is unstable. It could not fully sap their power or kill them off as it was intended to, and it’s in the nature of their gods to eventually return. What if she found a way to break it? How long would it take for a city the size of Saperavi to be saturated with blood-sucking fiends? How would we even know that it had been broken, for that matter, if we refuse to pay attention to the very warning signs we’re seeing here?"

Marcus clung onto every word of this strange conversation that was surprisingly relevant to his own predicament. How serendipitous. Who were these people, academics? They were seemingly talking about vampires, but how did they know that they were real? Did Laura send him here to spy on them? From the context of their conversation and the inscription on the statue, he could deduce that they were some kind of secret society that both hunted and researched vampires. It somewhat stood to reason that the fact vampires were real would imply that there would be vampire hunters. Weren’t these exactly the sort of people that he needed in order to oppose Laura? If she had just wanted him to scurry around and collect information on them, then he’d much rather reveal himself and pool information. This, however, was the stupidest possible thing that he could choose to do, and it was imperative for him to cease entertaining such a notion.

Look, son, I appreciate your enthusiasm,” He could see the glow of the woman’s flashlight glinting off the base of the statue. “But the only thing you’ve convinced me of here is that this is a matter for your seniors to look into. You’re a wonderful grad student, truly, but if something serious is happening, I’m afraid you’d likely end up getting drained or with your head stuck on a pike.

I’m not looking to get in on the hunt, Josephine, I just think it would be a waste if I lost the opportunity to directly research the subjects of my own life’s work.

Marcus took rapid breaths in and out. He was determined not to hide away in this claustrophobic cubby hole like some frightened rat if these people could actually help him. In fact, they were sure to do just the opposite. Shut up! He wanted the parasite out of his head, it was just forcing him to do Laura’s bidding. No, it was not, it was just interested in his self-preservation. Fuck off bug, he was not going to allow it to control him. He started to shift his leg towards the shelf’s entrance, accidentally dislodging a pebble that rolled off the side and made a soft click against the hard floor.

Ian, wait… there’s something here…

Really?” Ian sounded less sure of himself, “you’re just messing with me, right?

You’ve been found out.” Josephine’s flashlight shined on Marcus and illuminated his face, “come out slowly if you are inclined to remain all in one piece.

No! This was easily preventable and now he had put himself in danger! Marcus was anxious, a little scared that the threat was not just a manipulation tactic, but he also felt triumph in proving that he was still in control of his own actions. Well, it’s wonderful that he felt like a big man. He slowly crawled back to the edge of the shelf, laboriously repeating the motions of getting inside backwards. Finally, he leaned up against the shelves as the bright light shone in his face.

Are you a student here?” Ian stared at him.

As Marcus had estimated, this man was almost exactly his age. He was a black man with his hair cut short and wire frame glasses perched on the tip of his nose. His eyes were understandably inquisitive. He was about half a foot taller than Marcus, but he quivered like a willow in the wind. He was wearing a plain blue polo with a pair of black slacks that had a slight coffee stain on the knee. Across his chest was the strap of a green messenger bag that sat against his hip.

"Um, no,” Marcus’ voice was a bit scratchy from underuse, “I kinda just woke up here.

Huh?” Ian squinted his eyes and turned to Josephine, “you think someone put him down here as a prank?

Unlikely.” Josephine took a few steps towards Marcus.

I think I might have some information that pertains to your, uh, conversation. You see I… um…

What?” Ian folded his arms, “What do you mean?

The professor who held the flashlight appeared to be middle aged, her hair silver and kept in a dutch braid. She was white and quite tall compared to her protege, most likely six foot. Her outfit was casual, a sage green blouse stuffed into faded jeans, yet Marcus could make out something on her left thigh that seemed to be an empty scabbard. There was something off about her that made her feel familiar. If he focused, he could just catch some of the tendrils he had seen during the ritual dancing in his peripheral vision. He could not see the telltale mist that had marked both Laura and himself as vampires, but the minor similarity was concerning. She had made her way up to him, her chest hovering in front of his face so that he had to look up into her brown eyes. Out of the corner of his eye, he swore he could see her remove something from behind her back. She leaned down so that he could feel her breath on his ear.

Did you think that I would not smell your taint, cur?

Before he could process the intent behind her words, Marcus felt time stop as there was sudden, immense pressure in his heart. Josephine removed her hand and retreated a few steps from him. He gaped his mouth in a noiseless scream and stared down at the metal spike lodged deep into his ribs. Blood spread out from the wound across his chest. The pain was fierce and sharp, like an arctic chill spreading through his veins and freezing his blood. He fell down to his knees and clutched at the spike, desperately trying to free it from his chest. His efforts were futile. He could not breathe. He could only faintly wheeze as he stared at his assailant and her companion. Josephine’s expression was as cold as the wound she had inflicted on him, while Ian looked nearly hysterical. If he was screaming, Marcus was unable to hear. His vision was getting hazy as long black fingers scraped across his eyes. Losing his balance, he plummeted to the floor.

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