Piston’s shotgun blasts echoed throughout the cave as she released its contents into the descending horde of white-robed vampires. The slugs tore holes in the creatures’ torsos, knocking them away from us. As they landed around us, though, they scrambled back to their feet, the wounds rapidly closing.
“Uh . . .” I said as they rushed toward us. “I don’t have any crosses or holy water.”
The first vampire reached us, but Textile intercepted it, swinging his katana.
“That stuff’s all a myth perpetuated by the Catholic Church in an attempt to stay relevant,” he explained as he fought the creature. “Vampirism is a DNA-altering mutation triggered by a venom produced in Vampire King’s mouth. Vampires are just another type of SPI. They’re fast, resilient and stealthy, but they have one major weakness.”
As if to demonstrate, he rolled across the ground, swinging his blade in a horizontal arc. The razor-sharp edge sliced cleanly through skin, muscle and bone, and blood spurted from the vampire’s severed leg stumps as it dropped to its hands and knees, hissing. Textile followed up with a stab into the back, running the blade completely through the other side, where the creature’s heart should be. Almost instantly, the vampire’s flesh and organs liquified into a crimson fluid, leaving behind a skeleton that crumpled to the cave floor.
“The heart,” Textile continued, flicking the blood from his katana and swinging the weapon at the next attacker. “You destroy the brain, cut off the limbs, nothing. Their sensory input, neural processing, even cell integrity, it’s all held together in an organ that develops around where the heart once was.”
Nearby, I saw Piston taking careful shots with her shotgun, tearing holes into the vampire’s upper torso with enough accuracy to clip their hearts and melt them. As she paused to reload, one of the vampires pounced, but Cylinder intervened, driving his Bowie knife into its chest and reducing it to a wet skeleton. Piston snapped her next magazine into place, continuing her onslaught.
I rushed forward, clenching my fists, and swung my arm at an incoming vampire. It easily dodged my attack, its yellow eyes darting rapidly as if it were processing my attempts as they happened. I lashed out at its shins with my boot, trying to trip it up, but it, gracefully hopped beneath my strike, kicking me in the stomach. Sliding backwards, I assumed a new fighting stance, trying to catch my breath as the sharp pain dissipated.
The vampire circled me, hissing, and I sensed another rushing me from behind. At the last moment, I crouched, allowing the would-be ambusher to fly over my head. As it arced through the air, I struck the palm of my hand against its heart, flooding the spot with electricity. It landed on its face, spasming on the cave floor, and I saw blood begin to bead on its skin like sweat. After a few seconds, I heard it emit a final gasp as it melted away, leaving behind a fanged skeleton.
Turning to the first vampire, I offered a half-shrug. “You want to be next?”
The vampire smiled, its fangs glistening in Piston’s flare light. “Boy, I’ve been killing people like you for over two centuries. You think today is the day I die?”
I gestured at the skeleton on the ground between us. “I mean, it was his. Why not yours?”
The vampire hissed at me, dropping to all fours and darting at my legs. I tried to get out of the way, but its shoulder caught my knees, and I flipped to the rocky floor, landing on my stomach. Rolling onto my back, I saw the vampire scrambling frantically toward me. I steeled myself, but as it drew within striking distance, a short sword twirled through the air, embedding in the creature’s skull. The vampire hissed, backing away.
“Grab my wakizashi!” I heard Textile call nearby. “Go for the heart.”
I leapt to my feet, grabbing the handle of the wakizashi and jerking it out of the vampire’s head. Blood trickled from an already-healing wound as the creature swiped at me. I narrowly dodged the attack, instinctively retaliating with a swing of the blade. The edge caught the vampire’s neck, chopping about halfway through. Blood spurted from the wound, and I pulled back, swinging again. This time, the wakizashi severed the spinal cord, and the vampire’s head flew from its body.
Pausing to catch my breath, I let my arms fall to my side, watching the headless corpse stumble around. It didn’t fall, however; instead, the vampire’s body straightened up, gurgling through a bloody stump. Some kind of wormlike proboscis rose up from the severed neck, tilting toward me to reveal nothing at the end but a giant mouth ringed with rows of jagged teeth.
Oh, shit, I thought.
“He did say the heart, man,” Cylinder called, struggling with two vampires at once as he stabbed them with his Bowie knife.
“Yeah, yeah,” I said, readying the wakizashi.
The worm-headed vampire snapped its mouth at me hungrily, sprinting in my direction. I concentrated my senses on its bioelectric aura, using the subtle changes in its tensing muscles to anticipate the direction of its attack. When it was within range, the proboscis lunged forward, aiming for my face. At the last second, I ducked, skewering the vampire in the heart with Textile’s blade. The creature shuddered, then melted away, and I returned to my feet as its bones collapsed.
As I stared down at the blood-soaked wakizashi, shivering, I realized that the gunfire had ceased. Looking up, I saw that the rest of my team were cleaning their weapons, surrounded by blood and bones.
Taking a deep breath, I walked over to Textile, handing him his short sword. “Thanks.”
“No problem,” he responded.
I looked around. “Where’s your main sword?”
“Oh, that?” he turned to the side, revealing a blood-soaked vampire pinned to the cave floor by the neck with his katana. “I’m using it for something.”
I spied Cylinder returning his Bowie knife to a holster on his belt. “Hey. Why didn’t you use your guns? I thought that was your thing?”
Cylinder glanced at me. “What am I, made of bullets?”
Piston walked over to the vampire, crouching near its head. “How you feelin’, mate?”
The vampire hissed, shifting its yellow eyes away from her face.
“Well, let me tell you how I’m feeling,” Piston continued, pulling out her 1911. “I’m feeling like I came here to save some kids from being turned into sex slaves. But, lo and behold, I run into a chapter of The Last Patriots in a cave below the city.”
“Who are The Last Patriots?” I whispered to Textile.
“Klansmen,” he explained. “Vampire King has been around for a very long time, turning ideal candidates into his minions. Religious extremists, conscienceless warriors, criminal masterminds. He has vampiric knights, samurai, mafiosos, and this group, The Last Patriots. They’re a bunch of former Confederate soldiers who dedicated their lives to the Ku Klux Klan. Turns out, their lives were much longer than they expected.”
“So,” Piston said, pressing her 1911 against the vampire’s heart, “I find myself asking, ‘Why would Vampire King give a shit about child prostitution?’ I hear you blokes lose your junk during the transformation process anyway.”
The vampire scoffed, looking away.
“Not feeling chatty?” Piston asked. “That’s fine. We’ll just take you outside and let you tan for a while. That won’t kill you, right? It’ll just hurt really, really bad.”
The creature’s eyes widened, and it opened its mouth, coughing through a blood-filled throat. “Wait! Wait. Let me go, and I’ll talk.”
Piston shrugged. “Sure. We can do that.”
Sighing, the vampire closed its eyes. “Okay. Okay.”
Piston stood, crossing her arms expectantly.
“The sex trafficking and pornography are just a front,” the vampire began. “A way to make ends meet while covering our tracks. Until you four broke into here, no one knew there was any vampiric involvement.”
“What’s the real point, then?” Textile pressed.
“Assassins,” the vampire answered. “We need small, disposable bodies who can get into secure places and remove our enemies. We aren’t going to sacrifice any of our own people, and with them being so young, the sex work breaks their spirit and makes them more . . . obedient.”
Cylinder turned away from the conversation, his face contorted in disgust. I felt my stomach churn.
Prostitutes and killers. Everything people like The Last Patriots accuse us of being . . . it’s nothing more than what they turned us into themselves.
Piston’s flare began to fade, and she retrieved a new one from her belt, igniting it. “Thanks for the info. Keep the lights on for us, will you?”
The vampire parted its lips to respond, and she shoved the flare into its mouth, ramming the flaming object down its throat. Flames erupted from the opening, and the vampire’s eyes widened as it screeched in pain. The skin around its face and neck began to blacken, and it frantically scrambled to pull the katana from the stone. Textile, however, seemed to have embedded the blade deep, because the only thing the creature accomplished was to slice up its own fingers.
While the vampire thrashed, wailing, Piston turned to me. “Where are the kids?”
I closed my eyes, focusing beyond the vampire’s cries. “Ahead, about fifteen yards.”
“Then let’s move. This has gone on long enough.” Piston moved forward, cradling her shotgun in her arms.
As we passed the makeshift pyre, I turned to Textile. “Will that kill it?”
He looked at me. “Nope.”
Without adding any other details, he strode past me, palming his wakizashi.
We ventured further into the cave, eventually rounding a corner that branched out into a dozen dark tunnels. I tried scanning the corridors to determine their length, but they stretch beyond my senses’ capabilities. Instead, I directed the others toward tunnel number four, where we soon found another metal door embedded in the stone.
“What’s waiting for us?” Piston whispered, readying her shotgun.
I closed my eyes, placing my hands on the door. “Nine vampires. Twenty-three children. They’re all here.”
“Are they armed?” Cylinder asked.
I focused on the position of their bodies. “I think so. Rifles, maybe?”
Cylinder rested his hands on the handles of his revolvers. “How big is the room?”
“Not big,” I replied. “Maybe a large storage room? I think they’re holed up in here because they heard the shooting.”
Cylinder and Piston traded glances.
“Okay, let’s go inside,” Piston said.
“What?” I hissed. “You’re crazy!”
She winked at me. “Trust me, mate. This isn’t our first rodeo.”
They all began to remove their weapons, placing them on the ground outside the door. Cylinder, too, unholstered his revolvers, but as he moved toward the others, I noticed the guns had disappeared from his hands. I blinked in surprise, but decided not to question it.
Reaching out, Piston rapped sharply on the door three times. Her knuckles created a hollow echo as the sound waves traveled outward, spreading from metal to rock, bouncing off the cave walls. Glancing at us, she held her hands behind her head, and we followed suit.
I heard a grinding noise, and the metal door slowly opened, revealing a tall, white-robed vampire holding a shotgun. It looked at us, then at the weapons on the floor, grinning.
“Here to surrender?”
Piston sighed. “We don’t want anything to happen to the kids. I’m proposing an exchange. Us for them. Imagine, bringing some SPIs to Vampire King.”
The vampire seemed to consider her words. After a moment, it nodded, stepping to the side.
“Okay. Let’s talk.”
Piston led the way into the room, followed by Textile, Cylinder, and myself, all the while keeping our hands behind our heads. As we entered, I saw a mass of small children sitting cross-legged in the middle of the room, bearing distant, somber expressions and covered in ragged, threadbare clothing. Surrounding them stood eight more white-robed vampires, holding old-looking shotguns and carbine rifles. When they saw us, they turned and trained their weapons on us.
The vampire who’d answered the door closed it behind us, and I heard a latch click into place. The room darkened, but dim fluorescents embedded in the rock overhead kept everyone visible. I heard a sniffle, and glanced down to see one of the little girls in the front of the group wiping away tears, her hand absently rubbing bloody, skinned knees.
The first vampire circled us, a sly smile spreading across its face. “Now that you’re in here, what leverage were you expecting to have?”
I felt my heart pound in my chest, and sweat formed above my domino mask, despite the cave’s cool climate.
Textile turned his own masked face toward the creature. “We can still put up a fight, if you aren’t planning on cooperating.”
“Then all these children die,” the vampire chuckled. “Trust me, no one will miss them.”
“Can I look at her?” Cylinder blurted out, startling the vampire.
“What?” it asked.
“Her,” Cylinder repeated, pointing at the girl with the skinned knees. “I’m a medic. I just want to make sure she’s okay.”
“Well, once we get them out of the city and to Vampire King, she won’t be hurt anymore,” the vampire said remorselessly.
“Why haven’t you turned her already?” I asked.
It looked at me, tilting its head. “You new here?”
“Only Vampire King can turn humans into vampires,” Piston explained to me under her breath.
“Come on,” Cylinder pressed, attracting the vampire’s attention again. “I just want her to be comfortable. It’ll only take a second.”
The vampire rolled its eyes. “You foreigners are all so emotional. Whatever.”
Cylinder took a step forward. “Thank you. It’ll literally just take a second.”
He approached the quietly crying girl, slowly lowering his hands and bending his knees to her level. “¿Oye, estas bien?”
She rubbed her eyes, nodding gently.
Smiling, Cylinder relaxed his arms at his sides, and I caught a glimpse of silver protruding from the sleeves of his denim jacket. “Necesito que te tapes los oídos.”
The girl, along with the other children, raised her hands, covering her ears. The vampire who’d been speaking to us glanced at them. “What did you-”
Cylinder tilted his wrists, his hands blurring as his revolvers dropped into his palms. In one swift jerk, he spun his body in a full circle, flicking the hammers of the guns while keeping them down at his sides. In that brief, split-second spin, the revolvers cracked off nine shots in such quick succession that it sounded like continuous machine-gun fire. Before I could register what had happened, all nine vampires dropped to the floor, holes in their hearts, melting away until only their skeletons remained.
Returning to his feet, Cylinder began rapidly ejecting spent bullet casings from his revolvers. “I told them it would just take a second.”
“Vamonos,” Textile commanded, gesturing to the children to follow him.
Piston turned, unlatching the metal door and shoving it open. Behind me, I heard Cylinder finish reloading his guns. I turned to him as his hands dropped back to his sides. “That was amazing.”
Cylinder shrugged. “It’s a useful skill sometimes.”
We followed Textile and the children out of the room, back through the tunnels into the main area of the cave as we recovered the weapons we’d left in the tunnel. The children gasped as they saw the charred, smoking vampire, still pinned to the ground by Textile’s katana. Textile walked over to the vampire, who weakly reached out to him for help. Ignoring the gesture, Textile jerked the blade from the stone, planting it into the creature’s heart and watching it melt into a pile of bones.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said, sheathing his sword.
Footsteps echoed ahead, and I saw a figure emerge from the library passage stairs, approaching us. Piston, Cylinder and I hurried forward, joining Textile in placing ourselves between the children and the newcomer. I frowned, even as I assumed my fighting stance.
This person had no bioelectric signature.
“No, I don’t think you’re going anywhere,” they said in a low, soft voice.
The figure emerged from the shadows, revealing a tall, pale man with black, slicked-back hair, wearing a black tunic beneath a red, collared cape. He smiled, baring long, sharp fangs, and his eyes shimmered blood-red in the light of Piston’s flare.
“Fuck,” Cylinder whispered. “It’s Vampire King.”
“You’re supposed to be out of the country,” Piston said, slowly reaching for the shotgun on her back.
“Well, I was,” he said, his voice carrying softly, though I easily heard every word. “But my Patriot friends reached out to me when you attacked. I thought I’d come and see who was playing hero while The Public Servants were above-ground dealing with Angler’s pet.”
“What do we do?” I whispered to Cylinder.
“You are getting these children to safety,” he responded, reaching for his watch and squeezing both sides for a few seconds. The screen flashed red twice, then returned to normal. “We’re going to hold him off as long as we can. We are severely outclassed here.”
I nodded, quietly gesturing for the children to follow me. We slowly walked toward Vampire King, drifting to the right to circle around him. He held up a hand to stop us. “You aren’t leaving with my property.”
“Your property?” I said, “How dare you think-”
Rapid gunshots interrupted me, and I saw a volley of bullets pelt Vampire King’s face, forcing him to cover it with his hands as he took a step back. He pulled them away for a second, revealing almost no damage, and hissed at Cylinder.
“Reloading!” Cylinder yelled, reaching for an ammunition pouch on his belt, and Piston stepping in, unloading her shotgun at Vampire King’s head.
“Go!” I encouraged the children, and they made a beeline for the stairs while Vampire King was distracted.
Rather than follow them, I turned back to their tormentor, funneling energy into the transistor coil in my right glove. Gritting my teeth, I sprinted at Vampire King, ducking below Piston’s gunfire. Reaching out, I struck him in the heart, releasing all of my available electricity into the spot. Yellow sparks flashed away from the point, and I smelled his tunic burning.
Vampire King, however, just smiled down at me. “Hey, you stopped one of my hearts.”
He grabbed my outstretched arm and turned his upper body, flinging me into the air. I felt my stomach flip as I tried to combat the vertigo, but then I was tumbling across stone, pain shooting through my body.
“Textile, get ready!” I heard Cylinder yell as he fired his revolvers at Vampire King.
Rolling onto my back with a groan, I caught a glimpse of Vampire King smirking at me before he darted forward in a blur, striking Cylinder in the face with his palm. I heard Cylinder’s nose snap, and he rocketed backwards, sliding to a stop as his guns clattered across the ground.
Piston moved forward now, while Textile hung back, fiddling with the strange-looking bow I’d seen back at the safe house. Vampire King easily dodged Piston’s flying kicks, parrying them with swift, sharp hand and elbow strikes. Within seconds, Piston crumpled to the cave floor.
“Turbine!” Textile yelled, snapping me back into focus as he retrieved one of the thick arrow-like bolts and notched it against the bowstring. “Get the children to S.S. I’ll keep him at bay.”
“You?” Vampire King laughed. “What are you going to do, shoot me with an arrow?”
Textile took aim, using his arm to pull back on the bow. “That’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
He pulled a trigger on the front of the bow handle, and I saw wheels spin on both ends, stretching the string. A hydraulic hiss synchronized between the bow and the arm holding the bolt, and I saw compressed air ruffle his cloak. His gloved fingers unfolded, releasing the bolt, which snapped forward with so much force that I felt it rumble like a thunderclap. The bolt struck Vampire King in the center of his chest, propelling him across the cave and pinning him to the stone wall.
I staggered to my feet, stumbling to the staircase as Textile notched another bolt. I made it to the top, bursting into the library, past the unconscious guards, and collapsing on my hands and knees in front of the children. They gathered around me, helping me to my feet, and I gestured for them to follow me.
As we made it outside and across the street, I turned toward the distant kaiju battle. The crab creature’s outer shell was cracked and leaking now, and it swayed on its feet, collapse imminent. I turned away from the scene, leading the children into the new building and up into the safe house. When I saw that all twenty-three were safely settled, I turned away.
“Where are you going?” one of the boys asked me in Spanish.
I smiled at him, responding in kind. “I have to help my friends. They’re in trouble.”
“Don’t go,” he pleaded, tugging at my body armor.
“It’s okay,” I said, crouching to his level. “You’re safe now.”
Before the children could protest any more, I backed out of the safe house, sealing the door behind me.
I rushed back down the stairs, across the street, and back into the library, heading back to the secret door. As I turned the corner, though, I saw a figure emerge from the staircase.
A figure in a red, collared cape.
“Ah, there you are,” Vampire King said, stalking toward me. His tunic was covered in bloody holes, likely from where more of Textile’s bolts had pierced him. “Where are my children?”
“They’re not your children,” I spat, backing away. “And they’re far from your reach now.”
Vampire King took another step forward. “When I’m done with you, I’m going to go back downstairs and finish tearing your friends apart, piece by piece. That can be avoided, if you just turn over the livestock.”
I raised my fists, assuming a fighting stance. “Why don’t you come try it, asshole.”
Jet engines roared over our heads, beyond the roof of the library, and the ceiling exploded, dropping a massive cloud of dirt and plaster between us. From the rubble rose a tall, red-eyed figure made of metal.
“Vlad,” S.S. said, addressing Vampire King.
“Ah, the robot,” Vampire King replied. “I should have known this was your doing.”
“I’d suggest surrendering,” S.S. continued. “You’ve done enough.”
Vampire King cocked his head. “All of your friends are right down the street, yet you came alone. Didn’t want them to see what you’ve been up to?”
“S.S., how did you know to come?” I asked.
S.S. turned to me. “Cylinder sent out a distress call. I’m glad I made it. You should go check on-”
In a blur, Vampire King propelled himself into S.S.’s back, wrapping his arms around the cyborg’s head in an attempt to rip it off. S.S. grabbed Vampire King by the hair, flipping him off of their metal body and slamming him into the library floor. The ground shook from the force of the blow, sending books tumbling off the shelves all around us.
“Turbine,” S.S. said. “I’ve got this. Go get the others.”
I nodded, rushing to the secret staircase and descending it as Vampire King and S.S. traded blows that cracked the windows and rattled my bones. I found Textile standing over Piston, trying to wake her up, while Cylinder shakily crawled to his feet, wiping blood from his broken nose. Textile turned to me as I entered the cave, and I saw one of his own bolts protruding through his right shoulder, the entry wound leaking blood onto his powder-blue armor.
“Textile, are you okay?” I cried, rushing to him.
He nodded, gingerly touching the bolt. “Yeah. Vampire King got a little cheeky near the end. I’m keeping this in until I can patch myself up.”
Cylinder stumbled over to me, leaning against my shoulder. “What about Piston?”
“He really did a number on her,” Textile admitted. “Let’s get her to her feet.”
Textile and I lifted the woman by her arms, and she mumbled incoherently through her swollen, bruised face. As we helped her toward the stairs, faint rumbles washed over us.
“What’s that?” Cylinder asked, readying his revolvers.
“S.S. came, thanks to you,” I answered. “He saved me from Vampire King.”
We painfully pulled ourselves up the stairs, eventually reaching the top landing. When we limped back out into the library, we found it demolished, the shelves and walls splintered and crumbling. S.S. and Vampire King were nowhere to be found.
“Are the kids in the safe house?” Textile asked.
“Good. We’ll stay in the area until S.S. sends Social Services to come pick them up and find new homes for them.”
We spent the rest of the day in the safe house with the children, keeping them company while they helped us patch each other up. Cylinder was able to reset his nose, and we finally pulled the bolt out of Textile’s shoulder, only to find that the projectile had broken his collarbone when Vampire King stabbed him with it. Piston took longer to come to her senses, but eventually she recovered enough from her apparent concussion to talk to and play with the children some.
That night, uniformed officers came to the door, using our code phrase to signify their relationship with S.S. We relinquished the children after some long, heartfelt goodbyes, and promised to visit them in their new homes when we had the opportunity. After they were gone, we packed up our gear, changed into civilian clothes, and made our way to our midtown base. We opened the door to find S.S. waiting for us inside.
“Good evening, team,” S.S. said. Their metal frame was covered in dents and scratches, and their left arm hung loosely at their side.
“You came in person?” Piston asked incredulously. “You never do that.”
“Are you okay?” I interjected.
“Oh, I’m fine,” they responded. “Nothing that won’t buff out.”
They sat on the floor, addressing the entire group. “We’re currently sweeping the tunnel system you found beneath the library, and eventually plan on sealing it so neither Vampire King nor any of his accomplices will be able to use it for nefarious purposes.”
“Do you need our help?” Piston asked.
“No, no, that’s not necessary,” S.S. answered. “You’ve done enough. Your mission is complete.”
The cyborg turned their red eyes on me. “Mr. Electric Eel, I want to thank you for your service. You worked alongside the rest of the team flawlessly, and I’m compelled to commend you on a job well done.”
I felt my face flush with pride.
Returning their attention to the others, S.S. continued. “Had I known about Vampire King’s involvement, I would have been more cautious about sending you after those kids. This is your time, then, to rest and recover. Think of it like a vacation.”
I traded glances with the others, relief washing over my body.
“When you’re ready, though, let me know,” S.S. added. “There’s plenty more work to be done, and I know now more than ever that I can trust the four of you to take care of it.”