Chapter Twenty-Three: Business as usual
The post-mission Gardien meetings were held at Ulrich Dagger’s bedside at Dr Spink’s surgery in the Cave Hospital. The werewolf was suffering from monthly transformation sickness, an unavoidable trait of his species. His usually immaculate spikes were limp as he regarded them warily from beneath his bed covers, with a strange green tint to his skin that gave Brian’s zombie hue a run for its money. Josh unhelpfully fluffed his pillows and attempted to shove rat meat soup down his throat before the werewolf threw one of the books Forrest had gifted him at his head, spewing a tirade of curses as he did so. Equally unhelpful was Blythe’s habitual smoking, which he continued despite Dr Spink’s ire, and the cold looks Ulrich shot his way.
The following three days were lived under media scrutiny, with the Cave consensus split between gratitude for Gardien’s work in getting Peaches home and killing Melanie Malavender, and disappointment that Tarquin Blood was still on the loose and their only key suspect, Hawthorne Cole, knew nothing of any use to help their investigations. Penny’s appointment to Gardien was now front-page news, which made her feel so fraudulent she went to great lengths to avoid anyone she recognised from Greymalkin’s in the street.
Chloe proved to be a great relief, and Penny often visited her between combat training with Hollow. Her Gardien partner had been horrified to know Penny could not fight, and immediately started training her, with Tick-Tock assisting in her strange, whimsical way. Chloe kept Penny updated on Greymalkin’s gossip, including the news that the planning committee was currently organising a summer ball in affiliation with both the Arrow and Sword Clubs. Martin Dell apparently had a secret admirer, knowledge of which had captured the imaginations of the year elevens, and a school-wide hunt was underway to catch the mysterious Creep in question.
For the most part, Gardien had proven itself in the eyes of Ross Rowe and the Cave Police, so they were set to work again after Ulrich’s recovery, investigating Melanie Malavender’s origins both in the Cave and Outside for any leads on her relationship with Tarquin Blood. Their investigations took them all around the UK and to the borders of Europe, forcing them to enlist the help of the Paris, Berlin and Madrid Cave police departments. Their operations were now in full swing.
On one of their rare days off, Penny and Hollow went to a café in Scare. Penny ate a chocolate fudge cake and green Gecko tea bought with her generous Gardien stipend, whilst Hollow educated her on all her gaps in knowledge of Cave life. The chatter died down to a reverent silence, triggering Penny and Hollow’s investigative curiosity. They found the source of the café’s attention at the door, by which Tick-Tock was busy talking to the cluster of faeries that had been milling by the hanging baskets outside. When she finally entered, waving madly at the pair, the diners whispered excitedly. Tick-Tock bounded towards them, oblivious, her golden outdoor cloak trailing on the ground behind her.
“Sharans are a big deal, isn’t it?” said Penny.
“This is nothing,” said Hollow, moving aside to allow Tick-Tock to sit beside him, “once, people started bowing to her. She’s takes it all in her stride, though. How’s it going, Tick?”
“Fantastic,” said Tick-Tock, “cake please!” she slapped her hands on the wooden table and the mage waitress behind the cake stand jumped and rushed over to them, writing down Tick-Tock’s order with a shaky hand. When she had departed, Tick-Tock said, “Penny’s mum is in grave danger.”
“What?” Penny and Hollow said together, but Tick-Tock was distracted by the waitress, who had returned to their party with a slice of strawberry cheesecake. Tick-Tock thanked the mage, cut a slab from the cake, and shovelled it in her mouth.
“Your mum, Penny,” said Tick-Tock, “she’s in danger.”
“What kind of danger?” said Hollow.
“Not sure,” said Tick-Tock, stabbing the cake with her fork, “I woke up this morning and saw her in the place called Lockview Village in Cumbria, and there was a black cloud over her head. That means danger. You need to see your mum, Penny.”
The Sharan held the plate to her chin and tipped the remaining crumbs in her mouth. With no other thought to share, she dropped the plate on the table with a clatter and skipped out the door, thanking the waitress and the chattering diners.
“What was that about?” said Penny, “what did she even mean?”
“She gets premonitions all the time, and they’re one hundred per cent accurate,” said Hollow, “but because it’s not wintertime, they’re a little bit weak, otherwise she’d be able to tell you everything, every detail,” the vampire’s eyes were vacant, as if recalling his own living proof of Tick-Tock’s gift, “we’d be stupid not to take her seriously… do you think Tarquin would go to your parents’ house?”
“I… I’m not sure,” said Penny, “maybe, I don’t know.”
Her heart hammered against her chest. She could imagine nothing worse than a warlock invading the reclusive religiosity of Lockview. It would only reinforce their fear of the outside, and further prove to them that she was no good. She had not thought about her parents since stepping into The Cave, but the mention of their names made her disorientated and nauseous. An uneasy truth began to creep up her spine, and she realised that she was scared of any potential harm being done to her mother.
“We’ll go see her tonight,” said Hollow, “as soon as the sun goes down; I’ll get you there in an instant.”
“Thanks,” said Penny. She looked at her chocolate cake, as if searching for an answer. Her appetite had vanished.
In in the darkness, the celestial piety of Lockview Village was palpable. Hollow flew above the patchworked greens of the countryside, subdued to brown and black in the darkened sky, and descended when Penny pointed towards the circle of warm lights that marked the barricading hills of her former home. She did not want to see Peter McDonald as she felt like she had betrayed him, the one person in the community who didn’t hate her, and who had tried to defend her in the face of her accusers. If he saw her now, non-human, and flying on the back of a vampire, he would never believe anyone’s sob story again. Penny refused to be the cause of his cynicism.
Hollow waited until Penny identified the small cottage where she once lived. Nothing seemed out of place; there was no sign of paranormal activity, conflict or danger. Penny wondered if Tick-Tock’s premonitions had been wrong after all, but Hollow’s determined belief rattled her enough that she rushed towards the front door and knocked without checking to see if her parents were alone. Her father opened the door so suddenly she jumped back. When his beady eyes fell upon her, she winced. Mr Sloan staggered back, mouth agape. He looked petrified.
“Dad,” said Penny, “I’m not here to stay, I’ve just come to—”
“Help! Help!” he roared to the darkness.
Penny gestured to Hollow for assistance. The vampire had hidden himself in the shadows by the door. He leapt forwards, hands clamped on Mr Sloan’s mouth, and pushed him in the house. Mr Sloan’s eyes widened at Hollow, and his gaze darted between Penny and the vampire rapidly until they rolled to the back of his head. He slumped to the floor in a trembling heap.
Mrs Sloan ran down the stairs in her dressing gown.
“Dear, what’s---WHAT IS GOING ON?”
“Mum, wait!” said Penny, slamming the front door. She quickly snapped all the curtains shut, cordoning off the scene from the prying eyes of their neighbours, and ran towards her mother, hands bared to placate her. “Honestly, I haven’t come to cause trouble.”
“WHAT IS THAT?” Mrs Sloan said, pointing at the vampire crouched over her husband.
“Mum, that’s my friend, okay?” said Penny, “remember when you guys abandoned me in London? Well I got attacked and now I have friends like these.”
“Unsurprising,” Mr Sloan spat, gaining to. He slapped Hollow’s arm and winced regretfully, mistaking the vampire’s smooth skin for softness as opposed to the brick of iron that it was. Hollow jumped away obediently, standing in the furthest corner of the hallway, his eyes narrowing beneath the bright, artificial lights. His skin was significantly paler because of it, and Penny instinctively turned the dial of the light dimmer to assuage his discomfort.
“Both of you need to listen to me,” said Penny, “I know, this is scary.”
“Scary?” said Mrs Sloan, “there’s a DEMON IN THE HOUSE.”
Mr Sloan leapt to his feet, and began to placate his wife. He staggered towards her, and began pushing her towards the stairs again, when she toppled over onto the floor. Mr Sloan looked mildly irritated as he pulled her upright again, and began ushering her away from the Creeps in the hallway. Penny had seen enough to know that something was gravely wrong; her mother’s fall had revealed the pale skin of her legs, which had become thin and bony enough to emphasise her pink, fleshy knees. Penny scanned her mother’s disoriented expression, and the haggard, dazed glare in her blank eyes.
“Have you taken her to the hospital?” said Penny.
Mr Sloan halted. He looked at Penny with eyes of fury.
“I don’t want you talking to me,” he said, “I always knew you were of the dark but now I’ve seen it with my own eyes, I’ve been justified! Get you and your demon out this house! You were never here, you don’t exist anymore!”
“But did you take her to the hospital?” said Penny, more forcefully than before.
“He has, Penny,” said Mrs Sloan, “we prayed and we prayed, and God told us to go to the hospital.”
“And what did they say?” said Penny.
Mr Sloan grabbed the hat stand by the hallway telephone and brandished it at her. Hollow sprung to action instinctively, knocking the stand backwards, which made it crack and break in two in Mr Sloan’s hand. Mrs Sloan screeched, and Mr Sloan almost fell backwards onto her.
“Get out!” said Mr Sloan, his eyes wild and livid, but Penny saw a glassy despair reflected in them. “Get out and don’t return!”
“Penny, let’s go,” said Hollow. He held her shoulder gently, and had whispered the suggestion, but Mr and Mrs Sloan whimpered anyway.
Penny remained rooted to the spot, looking at Mr Sloan, and then Mrs Sloan, and back again.
“What did they say?” she asked quietly.
“Penny,” said Mrs Sloan, “haven’t you caused us enough distress? Please go.”
“Come, Penny,” said Hollow, pulling her backwards. She followed him out the door and crossed the lawn numbly.
“You okay?” said Hollow.
“I only told you to leave because I don’t think us being there was helping much,” said Hollow, “with the risk of her getting sicker.”
“I understand,” whispered Penny. She didn’t know how to feel. Her emotions tumbled within her like clothes in a washing machine. A myriad of feelings overcame her body, and she crouched low to the ground, not knowing what to think. “Why are they like this?” she said, anger prevailing, “they couldn’t even be bothered to tell me—”
Hollow made a sharp, hissing sound, louder and more ferocious than any noise Stoker could make. Penny jumped to her feet, watching him warily. The vampire was looking at something in the distance. Penny edged closer to him, peered into the dark evening, and she spotted two scarlet eyes, shimmering ominously, watching them in silence.
“A wraith?” said Penny.
“No, worse,” said Hollow. His body was trembling, and she was unable to decipher whether his expression displayed anger or fear. He hissed again, and the eyes grew brighter in intensity, but did not move. Hollow crouched low, about to advance towards the being, when the eyes disappeared totally, and the vampire relaxed his stance, albeit uneasily.
“What was that?” said Penny, “was it after my parents?”
“Probably, or you, maybe,” said Hollow. he snatched her from the ground and flung her onto his back. She protested when he leapt into the air.
“We should go back!” said Penny, watching the retreating countryside. When she turned back to Hollow, she saw that he had slipped into his hyper-sense, eyes white and bulging.
“We can’t,” said Hollow, coming to. “Penny, I have to tell you something about that village… it’s not normal. A Dark Mage lives there. How can I explain it?” he said, anticipating her barrage of questions, “I’m sure you’ve gathered just how powerful mages can be when properly trained. Forget hammerspace, they can create and recreate almost anything they want, just from oxygen alone. Their powers are immense, the only species more powerful are Sharans.
“There’s one thing mages can’t recreate, though: life. Many have tried to, making philosophers’s stones, searching for the elixir of life, all that crap. And it’s turned them mad. Sometimes that madness gets twisted, infects their pure power, and makes them forever dependent on other life sources. They can’t use magic anymore, but the only way for them to stay alive is by slowly feeding off the life energy of living things around them; the forest, animals, other Creeps, and unsuspecting humans. We call those Dark Mages.
“It’s easy to spot a Dark Mage; normally their eyes are pitch black, but when they feed off of life sources, the eyes turn red, brighter than a wraith’s eyes. They’re also extremely manipulative, and love preying on vulnerable people. A lot of these cults you hear about, where people have gone and drunk poison for some special dream or belief, has a Dark Mage at their centre. Dark Mages can’t live in The Cave, instead they get banished to barren places like the countryside where they can live off the forests and wildlife. Lockview has a Dark Mage feeding off of everyone’s energy. We have to go back with reinforcements, and soon. Your mum’s clearly sick; she needs her strength.”
“How long"?” whispered Penny, “just for how long as that Dark Mage been living there? Who is it?”
“I would say about thirty years… he’s over a hundred years old but he looks forty, that’s some good life he’s been sucking up, there. And he looked like a priest.”
“Reverend Joseph!” Penny all but screamed. And now everything made sense; his weird behaviour, the village’s obsessive devotion towards him, as if hypnotised by something she was just unable to see, and his deep hatred for her, the only person immune to his mental charms. All this time, he had been sapping the energy from the villagers, turning them against the world and feeding their superstitions about the paranormal, when he was the threat all along.
She tucked her face within Hollow’s thick black mane, and blinked. Bewildered, inappropriate tears fell down her cheeks. She wiped them hastily, embarrassed at herself, and cried harder.
“It’ll be all right,” said Hollow. He didn’t look at her as they continued into the night. “It’s okay, we’ll sort something out, I promise.”