The floorboards creak, and they know that it's almost their turn.
The Guardian hears his father talking outside, in his long, slow drawl. Talking as calmly as he can to the other parents, like they were discussing a fieldtrip for the three children huddled quietly in the small hall closet. What they are talking about is not for the children, but about them. About what they can do, about what they know they'll have to do in a minute. But for now, he can only watch, huddled in the dark next to the two girls.
Even in the dark, he can tell who's who. The Seer stands tall, almost on her tiptoes, eager to see what waits in the room beyond. She sees her father, a man who barely looks at her, much less spends time with her. But The Guardian knows that even the sight is enough to make her giddy.
The girl behind him, however, is another story. The Vessel crams herself into the back corner of the closet, sniffling and shaking. She knows what's coming. And unlike The Seer, she fears it. The Guardian can't help but blame her. The Seer is not the one who falls into thrashing seizures every time they have to 'perform' for the men outside. The Guardian himself is not the one who's throwing up the strange, clear goo for hours afterwards, in strings that seem to choke the very breath from her.
The Vessel alone wakes up screaming in the night for they – whatever she sees – to leave her alone.
She knows what's coming. He does too. So does the Seer.
But they all sit and wait.
"She's late, Glenrose." His father growls accusingly at the man in the chair. "She's late an' yo' lyin' to us. Ah'd bet my soul she only said that damn cat was gonna die 'cause it looked lahke death wahmed ovah."
He hears The Seer suddenly pause in her excited toe-tipping, sniffling a little. Her kitty, a pretty fluffy thing, had died suddenly three days ago… The Seer had seen it reflected in her mother's cup of coffee. They had found it in a puddle of vomit in the shoe closet.
The Guardian saw The Vessel playing with an invisible animal outside hours later, swirling some yarn for it to chase.
He reaches over, holding The Seer's hand and giving it a reassuring squeeze. In the dark, she squeezes twice, part of their secret code. There is no sound but The Vessel sniffling and the men outside talking.
"If you had a soul to bet, Baines." The other man sneers, watching the his father with obvious contempt. "And if that were the case, you'd lose… she's not late. She's right on time. I can prove it to you, if only the Vessel were working properly." He adds, with a pointed glance in the direction of the third member of their party.
The third man, the one none of the children has ever seen, squirms uncomfortably on the couch. "I… Stephen, you have to understand… I can't-" he swallows, loud enough to be heard all the way in the closet. "I can't get to her, I can't… help her." He blinks over the top of his glasses, sweating a little. "Her brother, he has a restraining order-"
"Jason?" the one called Glenrose sounded surprised. "He's the one recording these tests, is he not?"
"No no, not that one." The man shook his head almost violently, dark wiry hair going all over the place. "No, he's trying to help me. It's the younger one." He swallowed again. "Carl."
"Ca'hl." Baines sighs, putting his hand to his face. "So yo' sayin' that we'ah bein' held up bah that shrimpy li'l good-fah-nothin', just 'cause he goes whinin' t' his Mama whenevah yo' stupid enough t' get too close?"
The new man licks his lips nervously and shrugs his shoulders. "I can't get close to her if I don't want to draw attention to myself. That's what it's all about, correct? Not drawing attention?" he looks hopeful, like he's trying to stall. The Guardian knows that look well, he's done it a million times himself. "We can't be seen if we need it to work-"
"If we want it t' wahk at all, Thomas." Baines paces slowly, circling like a tiger staring at the walls of a cage. "We gave him ou'ah wahd it would. The'ah ain't no goin' back now."
"Well, whose idea was that, then?!" Glenrose looks nervous, suddenly, rising from his chair. "I'm not having my neck on the line because you made a promise you couldn't keep, you bastard. I have a life, a family-"
"Oh, spare me!" Both Baines and Glenrose fall silent, and turn to stare at the new man. He's shaking now, and for the first time, he actually looks something other than scared. He looks angry. "Spare me your lies, Stephen. You would gladly sell Stephanie to the highest bidder, just so you could have enough money to convince your wife not to cheat on you again!" He claps his hand over his mouth as soon as it's out, gasping.
Behind the Guardian, the Vessel stops sniffling. She strains over his shoulder on her toes, trying to look. There's something about the new man that feels… familiar. She just can't quite put her finger on it. The Guardian knows that feeling well.
"…You," The Seer's father rounds on the third man, glaring at him. "You have no room to talk, you cowardly son of a bitch. You have no family, you're only in this for yourself."
"Because you took them from me."
The Guardian watches the man closely, as much as he can through the little crack in the door. He's hunched over, his face in his hands. He looks like he's in pain. More important than that, he looks like someone The Guardian knows. He just can't quite put his finger on it…
The man looks up slowly, sharp brown eyes filling with tears. "You took them. From me. My wife, my son, my-" his voice cracks. "My daughter… Christ, Baines, do you even know how long it's been? The last time I saw her, she couldn't even breathe. She wasn't even crying, and her mother…" He covers his face in his shaking hands again, choking back a sob. "My poor Mary…"
"Oh, now spare me, Thomas." Glenrose snarls. "Mary was a foolish bitch to even volunteer in the first place, don't go blaming it all on us. You were just as compliant as we were, experimenting on your own daughter-"
Thomas leaps to his feet like an explosion and seizes Glenrose by his expensive lapel. "Don't you, don't you ever talk about her that way." He throws the other man back against the wall near the door, causing the three children in the closet to jump and squeak with surprise. He shows unexpected strength from a man so scrawny. "You, who would just throw their child away- I've had it." He's literally shaking with rage. "I've had it! I want her back! I want my daughter back, you give her to me, RIGHT NOW!"
"You lowlife bastard." Glenrose rights himself, glaring daggers. "You want her so badly? Want to suddenly be a daddy again, do you? WELL, FINE. TAKE THE LITTLE DISEASED BITCH." Before the Guardian can do anything, a large hand forces its way into the closet, breaking their protective bubble and thrashing around as it searches. They try valiantly to hold the door back, but to no avail. He nearly rips it right off its hinges.
The three children emit small cries, with The Seer pleading to her father to "Stop, Daddy, please stop…". Her pleas are ignored. The older man is swatting her carelessly aside, reaching towards the back corner for The Vessel, who's crying at full volume now and sinking fast towards the floor, curling up in a little defensive ball. The Guardian, in a last ditch effort, moves in front of the ball of girl and tries valiantly to strike The Seer's father away. The older man punches him square in the jaw, and he staggers back, tasting a liquid kind of like sucking pennies. The Guardian looks to his father, hoping to see him look angry, want to punch The Seer's father for laying a hand on his boy. His father does nothing, watching with a grim expression and folded arms. He isn't even looking at the blood running from his son's mouth, he's looking at The Vessel, who screams and cries and scrambles to get away as The Seer's father drags her out by her dark hair.
"HERE SHE IS, THOMAS!" he throws her small body at the feet of the seated man, glaring at him with the fires of Hell. "Now tell me, is she just like you wanted? Does she look like her mommy? Do you feel better, now that you know she didn't come out a disfigured freak like the rest of them?!"
The new man – Thomas – watches the Vessel on the ground with such a terrible look, the Guardian is scared just looking at it. That's not because the new man looks like he's going to hurt her – not at all. It's just that the way he's looking at The Vessel is filled with such… pain. Insufferable pain. Like the whole world is exploding and rebuilding itself inside his stomach, all at once. The Guardian looks at Thomas, and though he doesn't understand why this man is about to cry, he wants to cry too.
It is a long time before the man can speak. When he does, it is barely a whisper.
"I'm so sorry." He says. He falls down to his knees, gazing at the Vessel. She just lays still on the floor, trying to play dead in hopes the stranger will just leave her alone. "I'm so, so sorry… my little girl." Thomas bites his lip hard, and he reaches over to brush some black hair out of the Vessel's face. "This is… not at all what I meant for you to do."
"Too late fo' that now." The Guardian's father speaks up for the first time in a long time, rolling his eyes at the third man. "She's doin' this wheathah she lahkes it o' not." He sends a half-glance at The Vessel, still sniffling on the ground and afraid to get up without orders. After a moment, the sympathy disappears, replacing itself with apathy. "Now get yo'self togethah, Thomas. We need this to wahk without you gettin' snot all ovah e'erythang."
"It'd better work-" The Seer's father glowers at the other man. He is stopped, however, by the sudden approach of footsteps. He looks panicked a moment, straightening his tie and hair, before looking completely calm. Almost like magic. He sends a withering look to his accomplices, and mutters something along the lines of "For all our sakes." He turns and opens the oak door wide for the person outside.
The Guardian feels a right chill of fear trickle down his spine. The man on the other side of the doorway looks only fifty, but in the air around him he feels a surge of power, older than the boy can even begin to imagine. He reaches forward, picking The Vessel up by the back of her shirt and drawing her back into the closet, pushing The Seer behind him a bit to try to defend her with his small frame.
The new old man walked forward into the room, making everything feel colder by ten degrees even though it was summer. Immediately, the other two fathers rose to their feet.
"Lucero," The Seer's father bowed as low as his bad back would allow. "It is an honor, a pleasure, a delight, please sit down-"
"I came for a demonstration," the new old man said coldly, glaring at the man before him. "Not a social call. You show me what happens, and if I like it, I will leave and send for the children later. If not…" he paused, smiling. "I haven't eaten yet today."
The Guardian shuddered, staring at the mouth with rows and rows of teeth seemingly all crammed together in that one little space, and imagined his limbs being torn off by that man's wide grin. Not a comforting thought for a ten-year-old boy. But that was to be the least of his worries.
"As you wish, my lord," The Seer's father bowed again and turned towards the closet, reaching in and pulling out both The Vessel and The Seer from The Guardian's tight grip. There was a small struggle, a muffled sob, and a sharp smack across the face that sat the boy right down on the floor. He did not get up this time, afraid of being knocked down again. The Seer walked over to the round table, with the stones lay so carefully across it, and smiled an empty smile towards the cold new old man. He did nothing but watch her, then watch the stones, returning the gesture with not so much as a smile.
The Vessel was a harder one to control, and it was apparent in the way the man and the girl struggled. Both were afraid of making a scene in front of the intimidating cold new old man, but even more than that, The Vessel was afraid of what was going to come if she sat down at that table. She tried to slip away, clawing, fighting, until The Seer's father smacked her across the face with a resounding SLAP noise. She became much more compliant after that. Taking her seat next to The Seer, she kept her eyes down and her head bowed, still shivering as she sat still.
The Guardian did not join them, as much as he wanted to. He never had time in front of the people like this; his only job was to watch over the girls and make sure they didn't try to run away. Because if they did, then there'd be nothing to guard. They'd have no use for a Guardian.
And a ten year old boy would be found face down in the Hudson, the back of his skull bashed into bloody shards.
So for now, he watches, and waits for his job to start again.
"You know who it is you seek?" The Seer's father asks, watching the new old man reverently.
He nods, almost carelessly. "Not Leonardo." He adds, looking to the father as if having to explain this to a small child. "No. I am more interested in a recent change in the household… his son." He looks back towards the table, frowning at the stones. "The youngest boy."
"Very well." The father seems a mite confused, and worried… they had been practicing finding the spirits around this "Leonardo" for months now, and his son was an entirely unexpected variable. The Seer's powers are limited to people she has met before.
Still, they have to try.
The Seer's father turns down the lights, nodding quietly to his daughter to begin. The Seer nods, gathering up the symbol-marked stones in front of her, one at a time. Four rows, six in each, each stone to be picked up one at a time until her little hands can't hold them anymore. She holds them there, watching them like a bunch of birds' eggs about to hatch… and for a minute, all is silent.
Until the whispering starts.
It starts low, at first. Seer's voice is soft, coaxing, trying to draw the spirits into the open. It is a promise, a giggle almost, a shared secret between her and the unknown.
Now the Vessel came into play. She starts to look a little ill, squirming a little in her seat. As the chanting gets louder, she continues to look more and more uncomfortable, until tears run from the corners of her eyes and she begins to whimper softly, begging for it to stop. She abruptly collapses, her forehead smashing against the table in front of her. Her spine arches up and back, her small body writhing against the invisible things that were trying to force their way inside her. Her hands, one by one, slap themselves face down on the table, like someone has brought them there and is holding them down. She squirms, she sobs and moans, but eventually she is silent, shaking. The Seer keeps chanting, The Guardian keeps watching. The Vessel sits, still shuddering.
There is a pause, and the room seems to stop breathing.
The Vessel's hands fly apart, sliding to opposite ends of the table and slamming themselves on the oak surface yet again. Her spine cracks horribly as it contorts, her head bent at a precarious angle. The Guardian fears that if she turns it too much more, it will fall off her thin neck. Her eyes, glazed a strange green behind her glasses, fixate on the new old man. In a voice that is not hers, she speaks.
"What… do you wish…?"
It sounds like a thousand people are talking through her mouth. Young people, old people, men, women, children, all of them talking from somewhere else, someplace The Guardian cannot see. They use The Vessel as a puppet, like those strange marionettes he had seen once at The Seer's house.
The new old man looks at the girl before him, his nose wrinkling in slight disgust. "I wish," he says gravely. "To know the fate of an enemy, and what he will mean to me."
The Vessel exhales, and tilts her head to the other side, her eyes still a sickening green. "Who…?" The thousand people speak again.
The new old man watches her, hesitating with what he is about to say, afraid of what words will follow.
"Bram Stoker Blithson."
The Vessel's body convulses, and she seems to turn in on herself, her spine cracking as she goes. She sits there, her head resting on her left shoulder, her right one raised as her hands grasp the air like claws, as if searching for something there. She gasps, suddenly, and for a moment the green fades – only to come back again stronger than before.
"Born before the moon was new, and will die before it's full." The voices say softly. "He is his father's son, in all ways."
"But will he come to lead?" The old man glares at The Vessel, striding across the room to stand right in front of her. The strange man, the one with the dark hair, leaps to his feet and starts to follow – but the Guardian's and Seer's fathers hold him back, still watching the old man. "Will he come to lead The Resistance? What threat is this boy to me?" His voice becomes more and more frantic as he continues asking questions. "Should I kill him? Should I capture him? I have to know! I HAVE TO KNOW WHAT TO DO!"
As Lucero's eyes are nearly bulging out of his head, it is here something changes – a strange but subtle fluctuation in the normal pace of things. The Guardian knows this is wrong. Something's not going like it should, in all the times they've done this. The Seer is frowning at her stones – something unexpected has appeared. Something she did not See. She looks to the new old man, who is still staring wild-eyed at The Vessel, and looks to her father… before she does the unthinkable.
She switches two of the stones.
The Guardian has never seen her do something of that magnitude. To switch stones could change a fortune entirely, even change who it is being discussed. To do that is to pull a string in the fabric of the universe – something the Guardian, even in his ten-year-old mind, knows not to do. Why The Seer's doing it, he cannot imagine… but he hopes to whatever God there is that she has a good reason.
This change is not unnoticed by the Vessel. Her body turns again, looking at the Seer with her spine bent at an almost ninety-degree angle. She looks from the Stones to The Seer, realizing what has just been done… and the dead do not like it. They inhale, and let out a thunderous, thousand-strong scream… before The Vessel's spine snaps back into place. Her wrists are released by whatever holds them, her head lolls on her small chest.
All is quiet again.
The new old man is the first to break the silence, staring from the Vessel to the three men.
"What happened?" he says, almost a whisper. "What's wrong with her? Why isn't she talking? What happened?!" he goes on with more force, glaring at the men before him.
"Lucero…" The Seer's father starts, looking panicked. "She… she's only a girl, a small one, her body could've collapsed under the stress of the possession… Death could've overpowered her easily. Really. She's… she's too weak to handle it-"
"THEN WHY USE HER, YOU IDIOT?!" Lucero was screaming again, glaring at them both. "WHY USE A VESSEL WHO CAN'T EVEN HOLD WHAT IT'S SUPPOSED TO?!"
"Lucero, we can fix this." The Guardian's father steps in. "We… we can try again, anothah day…"
"No, we CANNOT." Lucero snarls. "MY WINDOW WAS TODAY. /TODAY/, YOU CRETINOUS BLOODBAG. IT'S TOO LATE AFTER, HIS FATE WILL BE SEALED."
"Lucero, please, we tried-" Glenrose begs.
"TRIED?! TRIED ISN'T GOOD ENOUGH." Lucero roars, and with a sweep of his hand both men are on the ground. "I'LL KILL YOU BOTH, YOU HEAR ME?! I'LL-"
"Highness," Another man runs in from the door outside, dark hair swinging around a pale face. "Highness, a Resistance patrol has detected us, we're out-numbered. We need to-"
"DON'T TELL ME WHAT WE NEED TO DO, BARTOLOMEO, OR I WILL NEED TO REMOVE YOUR HEAD FROM YOUR SHOULDERS." Lucero turns on his aide, his fangs glinting harshly in the dim light of the room. Bartolomeo shuts up immediately, his eyes still fixed on Lucero with a mix of fear and reverence.
Lucero turns again, his eyes fixed upon the two men. "If," he breathes. "A word of this is ever breathed outside this room, I will find you. I will find you, you worthless blood-cattle, and I will render your organs from your shattered bones." The three men are silent, still looking on in fear. "And that's not even what I'm going to do to /them/." He spits vehemently at the three children, all three of whom are quaking in fear from the shouting. Lucero turns abruptly on his heel, and begins gliding towards the door. As he does so, his figure shifts, dissolves, turning into nothing more than a black mist. It oozes out from under the doorframe, and out into the night sky. The aide follows with no more than a sneer over his shoulder as he too dissolves, following his master like a dog.
The room is still. No human breathes, listening for the vampires to disappear at last.
When they are gone, all hell breaks loose.
"YOU IDIOT GIRL," The Seer's father rounds on her. "WORTHLESS LITTLE BITCH, WE'VE DONE THIS A THOUSAND TIMES-"
"Daddy, I'm sorry." The girl's eyes are locked on her stones, trying not to show that she's crying. "Daddy, please, it just didn't work this time…"
"Stupid li'l twat, don' even know she almost got us all killed…" The Guardian's father breathes, glaring at The Seer. "'Didn' wahk this tahme'," he mocks in an imitation of The Seer's breathy tone. "Tha's bullshit. You did somethin', Ah bet you anythin'…" He rounds on her father. "You put her up t' this, didn' ya', Glenrose?"
"Oh yes, Baines, of course, that's exactly what I wanted to do." The Seer's father snarled. "Have my failed-abortion daughter screw over a vampire overlord so we can all get ourselves ripped to pieces. Yes, that's my grand master plan." His eyes, bloodshot with fear and lack of sleep, look frantically around. They lock on The Vessel. "Here, now… what about this little scrap?" He lunges across the room faster than The Guardian can move, seizing The Vessel by her dark hair and nearly lifting her out of her chair, despite her struggles and protesting sobs. "If we should blame anyone, it's her. She lost the connection, she stopped the sťance." He pushes his nose right into the girl's face, glaring at her from dark brown eyes. "You should've been drowned, you hear me you little freak?" he hisses softly. The Vessel cries harder. Not because she's scared, but because she believes him. The Guardian feels a dark rage stir in his small hands, something he hasn't quite felt before. He moves forward, seizing an empty bottle off the table and moving to strike, when a gunshot rings out in the room.
The boy drops the bottle, The Seer ducks under her table. The Seer's father lets go of the struggling Vessel, staring at the hole in the wall about an inch from his head.
Thomas is holding a gun. It looks familiar to The Guardian… and he realizes why when he sees his father looking from the gun to an empty holster on his hip, wondering how the weapon got into the scientists' hands.
"If," he says, in a whisper that sounds like a shout. "If you ever, ever lay a hand on her again, Glenrose, I will personally see you no longer have a hand to grab her with, much less a whole fucking arm. Understood?"
The Seer's father looks slightly shaken, staring still at the hole… before regaining his composure once more. A cruel smile perches on his thin lips as he turns to face Thomas. He puts his hands innocently behind his back. "Very good, Thomas. You finally got your spine back." The smile disappears in a blink. "We'll just have to go about removing it again, won't we?"
Before Thomas can realize what's going on, The Guardian's father has snatched the gun back and hit him hard on the back of the head with the pearl handle. There's a loud CRACK noise accompanying the blow, and he crumples instantly. He's barely coherent as Baines muscles him out of the room, and can only murmur his parting words:
"I'll be back, Jodelynn. I promise-"
Stephen watches him leave before turning back to the three children and sneering. "Get yourselves cleaned up. No dinner, and you'll be damned lucky if you get lunch tomorrow, you understand?" To emphasize his point, he lands a solid kick into The Vessel's ribs as she tries to sit up. She crumples like a house of cards. With a final disgusted snort, he exits the way Thomas and Baines went, slamming the door behind him.
As soon as he's gone, The Guardian runs to The Vessel's side, rolling her over to make sure she's still awake. "JoJo?" he whispers. "JoJo, how many fingahs am Ah holdin' up?"
"He kicked my ribs, Darius, not my head." A joke. A feeble one, but at least she's coherent enough to make it. She tries to smile, but winces as she inhales. Based on the toe of Stephen's boot, The Guardian estimates she'll have a bruise in her ribs the size of a small fist.
The Seer, meanwhile, has not noticed either of them. She crawls out from under her table and up into her chair, looking at the stones on the surface. They remain the same as she left them, but something in their arrangement makes her pause. Then smile. Then even laugh. Soon she's laughing louder than The Guardian ever heard anyone laugh in this dismal place, the noise triumphantly bouncing off the walls.
"Stephanie!" His sudden bark makes her stop and look around. "What the hel-" he catches himself, still only a child. "Heck is so darn funny?!" How can she laugh at a time like this? No food, bruised ribs, and probably being locked in their rooms for the next couple of days… how was there anything funny in that?
"It's not funny." The Seer is matter-of-fact. "It's amazing. It's wonderful." She smiles again. "It's perfect."
"What?" The Vessel, still slightly gaspy, looks to her giddy friend. "What's perfect?"
Stephanie grins like any child with a secret. "I found out how we're going to get out of here."
The other two are all ears. They clamber towards her as fast as they can, The Guardian almost knocking The Vessel down again in his haste. They climb up onto two more chairs and stare intently at the stones. They want to see what she sees. After a minute or so of trying, The Guardian is already impatient.
"How?" he asks.
The Seer points to a stone as if it's written there, plain as day. "It's simple." She says. "We just need to find the boy they were talking about.
We need to find that Stoker kid."