“Me and Forrest were outside, just scoping out the area, cos you know, we might be in Gardien soon.”
“What? Really? That’s really happening then, is it?”
“Yeah! They’re getting people together, they are. Me and Forrest’s just been inducted, we have – innit, Forrest?”
“Er, yes. Riider and I got our letters two days ago. We are the patrollers of the team. The others are still being selected, but I think the leader wants about ten members in total.”
“Wow … well, anyway! What happened? How did you find her?”
“Now this is a wraith thing, Doc: we can feel danger sometimes.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“It’s okay, Riider, I’ll explain. We have empath abilities, we can sense danger. Sometimes, when someone is in grave danger, the feeling can be strong, like a scream or a hit to the stomach.”
“So that’s what me and Forrest felt, going Outside. Then we came across this lass.”
The one who had just spoken punched Penny on the foot for emphasis. The action dragged her unceremoniously out of her grogginess and she whimpered. The conversation stopped abruptly. All eyes fell upon the one in the bed, and she could feel them watching her intently. Hoping to milk the moment for all it was worth, Penny took the minutes to assess where she was. There was a medicinal smell in the air, mixed with a sweet perfume that must have come from the woman who had punched her. She was on a bed, and the way in which the walls seemed to press upon her skin meant that they were in a small room.
“Come on now dear,” said the first speaker of the trio, an older man.
“We knew you were awake from ages ago, gel! Get up! Up!”
Penny’s eyes fluttered open, and she looked at the trio of speakers wearily. One was a balding, middle-aged man in a white coat with long, pointed ears. A pretty couple sat next to her bed, both were black, with long, fine dreadlocks. Something about their eyes made Penny’s heart race: large, almond shaped, and a startling scarlet colour. It reminded her of Reverend Joseph’s, yet these eyes were warmer and prettier than his.
“Gel!” said the woman.
“Hello, how are you feeling?” said the man beside her, his face a mask of concern.
Penny opened her mouth to speak, but found that her throat was incredibly dry. A weird squeak emitted from her mouth, and she clamped it shut, feeling embarrassed. Whereas the dreadlocked man looked away politely, his female companion laughed at the noise and punched Penny on the foot again. Penny shot the woman a look. The woman raised her brows challengingly.
“Riider,” said the older man in the white coat.
“Eh? It ain’t my fault, Doc!”
The doctor gave a little wave of his arms and a jug of water and glass tumbler appeared in a puff of white smoke in his hands. Penny leaned forward in the bed, eyes wide, contemplating her sanity. The doctor looked at her pensively, and poured the water into the tumbler.
“I … I thought so,” he said. “Please, drink up.”
Penny shook her head vigorously. The doctor pursed his lips.
“You want answers, don’t you? I can’t give them to you if you don’t speak. I’m sure you’re just as confused as we are. Now drink, madam.”
Penny eyed the couple. The male watched her evenly, then turned to the doctor.
“I’m guessing that you’ve come to the same conclusion I have, doctor: this girl used to be human.”
At that, Penny snatched the tumbler from the doctor and gulped it so forcefully that the water felt rough in her throat. She tried to think why her throat felt so sand-papery in the first place, when the image of a tiny brown phial and its contents came into her vision. She had been in an alleyway, cramped and scared, and a man in a black cloak called Blythe had been boasting about killing dozens of women, and about a medicine, and how he was going to kill her. No wait, he had killed her, Penny had felt it; the wires in her body sparking their last; her heart slowing to a halt; her muscles turning to lead, and the heavy, frightening sense of nothingness, that she had not accomplished anything, that her life had been a waste.
“Tarquin!” she gasped, water tricking down her chin.
At that, the free faces became flat. The doctor then stared at her, open mouthed, and the woman took on a mildly interested expression. Her companion grabbed Penny by the shoulders and came close to her face.
“What do you know?” he said, his eyes wide with frightened excitement.
Penny struggled away from his grasp and flung the sheets from off her body. Tarquin Blood – he had tried to kill her. He needed his just-desserts for doing that to her, but where would she find him? She remembered Tarquin saying that it was his last night in London and that either meant he had fled to somewhere else in England, or he was in another country. Crestfallen, she slumped to the ground, but wasn’t there for long before she was lifted from her feet, hovering upside down in mid-air.
“Put me down!” she snapped. “I’ve had enough of all this! Who are you people? Are you with Tarquin?” Angry tears spilled down her face as she struggled fruitlessly.
“Calm down, young lady!” said the doctor, his arms outstretched as he performed his magic on Penny. “Calm down this instance!”
She didn’t want to, but Penny knew that her compliance was the only way she would get answers. She dropped her arms and allowed herself to be levitated towards the bed, where she was dumped like an old rag. The dreadlocked man patted her consolingly on the shoulder and then helped her get back under the covers.
“Okay, we’ve started off on the wrong foot, agree?” he said. “I think we need to start again, and I’ll begin with this: we are the good guys. We are not on Tarquin’s side.”
Penny looked at him sceptically, but the kind, soft twinkle in his eyes convinced her.
“Okay,” she said. “What’s going on? You tell me your story and I’ll tell you mine.”
“That seems fair,” he said. “Well, my name is Forrest Gardner. This is Riider Malone,” he gestured to the pretty female beside him. “And that’s Doctor Spink,” he nodded to the doctor, who sat down at the foot of Penny’s bed. “We are Creeps, that is, we are non-humans, creatures of the night. Doctor Spink is a mage – that means he can do magic, and Riider and I are wraiths – ghost people.”
Just as he said this, Forrest and Riider vanished and reappeared again. Penny gasped and was once again leaning forward in her bed.
“Wha –?” said Penny.
“That’s not all we can do, gel!” said the woman named Riider. “We can go through walls and all sorts! And we can –”
“—okay, Riider, let’s not get excited,” said Forrest, turning back to Penny. “That was just so you would believe us, and it will make things easier to explain.
“We are currently in a city beneath London called The Cave, a place the humans are unaware of. There are Caves under all the major cities of the world: New York, Los Angeles, Kingston, Dublin, Accra, Canberra … you get my drift. We live by a law that prevents us from revealing The Cave's existence to humans, and to live in harmony with those above us, but every now and then, someone ruins it, they spoil our peace. The last time this happened, it was by a mage called Rubin Child, bent on creating a huge explosion to purge the world of humans.
“Now, Tarquin Blood is on the loose. He was known as a genius warlock, always doing something spectacular at the Academy, he made a name for himself, he really did, but then he disappeared, fled The Cave, and vanished for several years. It has been three months since his first kill, when he kidnapped and poisoned two tourists on the Outside. It was all by chance that they were found; a Cave policeman just happened to be Outside when he came across the bodies, and as a Creep, he knew they had suffered supernatural deaths.
“The Cave police force did all they could to keep an eye on the situation, but in the following weeks, more women went missing, and the same poison was found at all the crime scenes. Forensic investigations led to Tarquin Blood, and he has been wanted ever since.
“Two days ago, ten bodies were found in the River Thames, and a homosilisk who lived in the river brought it to our attention. It was the same women who had gone missing – Tarquin’s victims. It looked as though he had kept them somewhere and then decided to discard the bodies. Either way, it’s a disgusting case.
“So an organisation called Gardien has been set up to capture Tarquin Blood and bring him to justice. Riider and I are the first members of this team.”
“Me and Forrest found you last night in an alleyway,” said Riider. “You’d been out cold for well more than a day, and we knew that you’d been attacked, but it was kinda strange, cos the same poison we’d smelt on all the other victims was on you. It just didn’t add up, because you’re a Creep. We brought you down here for help, but, well,” she turned to Forrest, “what did you say earlier? That she used to be a human?”
“Yes. That’s what I said.”
He was staring at Penny and Penny at him. She didn’t want to believe what this Forrest guy had just said, but how else could she explain her strange attack of two days ago? The body-binding, the odd transportation, as if magic had been present. Even the little tricks Doctor Spink and Forrest and Riider had performed were evidence of the tale.
“I feel sick,” she said. “It’s like I’m in a dream. What would Reverend Joseph say?” A smile crept across her lips and she suppressed a giggle. “Hold on, everyone in Lockview would faint if they found out where I was!”
She was oblivious to Forrest’s suggestion that she wasn’t a human until the wraith in question tapped her on the shoulder.
“Was Lockview your home? Because I’m sorry to say that with you being a Creep, it will be hard for you to return.”
Penny’s smile fell.
“A Creep? I’m not …”
“You are, I’m afraid,” said Doctor Spink. “Otherwise you wouldn’t be in this room. The Cave is very far down, and the air is filtered for Creep lungs. Humans cannot breathe down here.”
Penny stared at the trio, mouth agape.
“I’m not …” what could she say? All those years of being told that she wasn’t of this world, to be suddenly told that she was a Creep by a pair of wraiths and a mage.
It was Tarquin; this was down to whatever he had fed her.
“Okay,” she said finally. “Okay, okay, okay. I’m … I’m Penny Dido –”
Was she supposed to call herself ‘Sloan’? Surely she wasn’t a Sloan anymore? Richard and Caroline had disowned her; Reverend Joseph had banished her from the village.
“All right, Penny Dido,” said Riider. “Why don’t you tell us what’s happened, eh?”
Penny gulped audibly before continuing.
“I was kicked out of my village in the country, but I’m from London originally. When I got here, I met Tarquin, but he told me his name was Blythe at first –”
“Ha!” said Doctor Spink humourlessly.
“Bloody ‘ell!” gasped Riider.
“What? What?” said Penny.
“Nothing, it’s just an ironic name is all,” said Forrest quickly. “Please, Penny Dido, carry on.”
“Well, we saw the bodies in the River. I wanted to help out, but Tarquin stopped me, then he used his magic to take me to the alleyway you found me in. He started saying how … how he had made a potion and that he’d used it on all these women. He even said that he’d a lair. Tarquin told me that the bodies in the River were from him, and … well he said all sorts of crap, really – but he definitely told me that he was leaving London, probably forever. But next thing I know, he’s pouring some potion down my throat, it was the poison you guys are talking about, and then I blacked out.”
“Very interesting,” said Doctor Spink. “So it’s as Armand was saying; the Spine –that’s the potion Tarquin fed you– changes human DNA in such a way that the human is turned into a Creep-like being. This is unbelievable, Penny Dido … you’re the first person to survive this attack.”
“Great,” said Penny.
“It is great,” said Forrest. “Aren’t you happy to be alive, knowing full well that there is a list of women who didn’t make it? That could have been you, Penny.”
Penny frowned, feeling ashamed of herself.
“Yeah, I know,” she said. “It’s just a lot to take in, I guess. I really wasn’t expecting this at all …”
“So is she a wraith, Doc?”
“You know she isn’t. Look at her eyes! Do they look scarlet to you? She’s just been turned into a wraith-type being!”
“All right! Calm, down, mate!”
“Stop it, both of you,” said Forrest, turning back to Penny. “Penny, we will look after you for as long as you need it, I promise. Riider and I could do with another Creep around the house. And I’m sure your experience will help the cause against Tarquin Blood.”
“I hope so to,” said Penny determinedly. “He doesn’t deserve to be walking around out there. And … thanks for finding me,” she added.
“You’re very welcome.”
“Well, gel, you’re gonna be famous, I tell ya,” said Riider. “We’re gonna have to go to The Big Boss Guy and tell him you’re awake and all what you told us and stuff. He might need to make a statement and everything.”
“Who’s Big Boss Guy?” asked Penny.
“Our Gardien leader,” said Forrest, shooting Riider a look of reprove. “Riider gives silly nicknames to everyone, I’m afraid.”
“Oh really,” said Penny, grinning. “And can I ask you something? What’s a homosilisk?”
“Ah. A mix between a human and a basilisk. You find a lot of them in Scotland. That’s where the whole Loch-Ness Monster legend has come from,”said Riider matter-of-factly.
“I can’t believe this!” laughed Penny.
“You better believe it, gel!” said Riider. “You’re part of this world now! You’re one of us.”
Penny’s smile fell. A lump quickly formed in her throat and she felt stupefied tears pooling in her eyes, and the feeling left her aghast and ashamed. It was the first time anyone had included her in their group. She took a good look at the room, assessing her surroundings. It was fairly dim, with purple, bulbous lights on the ceiling, but it looked similar to most hospital rooms – save for the dragon anatomy charts on the walls. She looked back to Forrest and Riider. The former had been watching her.
“Come with me,” he said earnestly. “I think it’s time you saw where you were.”
Penny leapt from the bed. Forrest took her hand in his and exited the room with Riider and the doctor in tow. The hallway they stepped into was lined with purple lights, and there were photographs of the hospital staff on the wall. Some of the nurses had green skin, other members of staff had horns protruding from their foreheads; bright scarlet eyes and bloody bandages covering the bottom half of their faces.
There was a set of oak doors at the end of the corridor. Forrest opened them revealing a black iron balcony. Penny took a tentative step forwards and gasped at the sight. They were very high up, looking out at a giant cavern that was home to a vast underground city. Grey clouds swirled lazily above them, blocking the ceiling a crest of brown hills and fells framed the horizon. The Cave was lit by bright bulbous lights, each encased in a stand that looked like an eagle talon, and the cobbled streets paved way for thatched cottages with stained-glass windows, each cottage selling clothes, food, potions and all manner of strange accessories.
Hundreds of Creeps milled about the streets: green-skinned witches, with black pointy hats and old broomsticks slung on their backs – they even had black cats trotting arrogantly by their heels; mages clad in brilliant velvet robes and clutching long wooden staffs; wraiths, with their soulful, scarlet eyes; stunning vampires – their eyes totally white-less, instead both iris and sclera were coloured deep black, or navy blue, or yellow or green, a stark contrast to their pale skins; warlocks, all kitted in the same silk black cloaks that Penny had seen Tarquin wear; walking, talking skeletons; ghosts, some apparently dressed in the bloody clothes they had died in; mummies and beasts of all shapes and sizes.
Penny clutched the black railings until her knuckles went white. It was something out of her favourite novels, like a magical Hallowe’en town. What was more: she was a Creep. She was one of them. Lockview Village, Reverend Joseph and the Sloans had evaporated from her mind. She would never have to sit through sermons again, never be bullied, never be made to feel that she wasn’t wanted, better off dead. She had a home now.
Forrest patted her on the shoulder. He had been watching her reaction the whole time.
“You were kicked out of your village,” he said, looking at her empathetically. “You’ll find the Creeps are different; we’re all pretty much the rejects of society, after all.”
“Yeah!” said Riider. “Talk to some of the witches down there; they’ll tell you how they almost got burnt at the stake back in the olden days!”
“Well, that’s obviously worse than what I’ve been through,” she said. “But as you said, we’re all rejects, right?”
The trio of Creeps smiled at Penny. They turned back into the hospital, but Penny stayed rooted to the spot. As the morning turned to afternoon, and the afternoon to evening, she watched The Cave go about its daily business, completely transfixed by everything.