About three things I was absolutely positive. First, that he was a vampire. Second, there was a part of him that thirsted for my blood. And third, he owed us three dollars for a movie that had been over a week late.
“Are you sure that the movie in question was…late?” Like any vampire he spoke in honeyed tones that made every word practically drip from his lips. It was obnoxious as fuck, mostly because yes, I was sure that movie had been late.
I tried to keep my customer service smile plastered firmly to my face. “Yes sir, if you remember I was the one who rented it to you on the 3rd, I let you know it would be due back on the 8th. That was last week it was due, you just bought it in today.”
He pouted, which I had to admit was a good look, but any look was good on a vampire. Not that it was a look I liked, too dark and broody, and a little pale for my tastes. Also the fashion was so cliché and overdone that it made my eyes hurt; all those black leather pants and poofy white shirts practically drowning in lace. In all honesty my own fashion taste wasn't really any better, with a faded Fraggle Rock t-shirt and a long, tie-dye skirt that covered up a pair of tattered orange Chucks. But I had the excuse of being a broke college student working the late shift of a video rental store at 1am in the morning.
The vampire gave me a wide, glittering smile that managed to still hide the fangs I knew were there. “I would never argue with a beautiful lady such as yourself.”
It took all of my willpower, and a touch of healthy fear about angering a supernatural creature, to keep my eyes from rolling. Not even my mom would call me beautiful, and flattery had yet to get my human customers out of a late fee, I wouldn’t let a vampire slide by. Especially when I could feel that tingling brush of magic along my spine, the one that let me know he was trying to cloud my mind with some sort of vampire trick. But that sort of magic didn’t work on me. Lucky me; I got to work late renting movies to vampires and fairies, and I seemed to be the only one who could see them.
“I’m sorry sir, if you want to contest the late fee you’ll have to talk with the manager,” I said.
“No, no, no my dear.” He waved one elegant hand, leaning against the counter as if he were posing for a magazine shoot. “I will pay this late charge and I promise to bring back this movie on time.” He smiled again. “I suppose I must have forgotten, it was such an…enthralling film.”
I guess there would be some people that would consider Blade Trinity ‘enthralling.’ I said nothing as I finished up the transaction, ringing up Vampire Academy and Van Helsing, adding the late charge to his total. It may seem like a dumb joke for a vampire to be renting vampire movies, but every vampire that came in only rented vampire movies. They seem to think it was funny, or perhaps because of their massive egos they only enjoyed movies that were about them. Either way, it was something that got old quick, particularly when I kept getting questions from them about new vampire films and which ones were best. I didn’t like vampire movies, or anything about vampires or magic or the supernatural. I was firmly in the sci-fi camp when it came to entertainment, but somehow I had ended up living in a fantasy story.
Mr. Hot Goffick (his ‘real’ name was Ravyn Raziel Draconis and there was no way in hell I was calling him that) paid with a couple of crisp bills, his magic still crawling across my skin as he took his movies and glided out the door. I waited a minute for the tingling to stop, a sign that he was well and truly gone.
“Out of all the late-nighters that come in, that one is the worse,” I said with a sigh. I picked up a stack of movies that needed to be shelved and stepped out from behind the counter. “Why are vampires so obnoxious?”
Technically I was alone at this point, but there was another, unofficial worker of Movie Knight. Rudy flicked one of the main overhead lights on and off quickly in agreement. He disliked vampires as well, but I didn’t know if all ghosts didn’t like vampires, or whether Rudy had special reason to. It was hard trying to hold a conversation with someone who was invisible and couldn’t talk; two light blinks for ‘yes’ and one for ‘no’ was the best system we could manage and that didn’t really allow for more in-depth discussion. Despite the language barrier, Rudy was strangely good companion to have during these late nights, even if he did insist on only playing the movie, Rudy, non-stop on the big TVs hanging around the store.
“I really don’t get why they all dress like that,” I said as I re-shelved and straightened up movie displays. “Do other vampires make fun of you if you don’t wear Hot Topic shit? Is there some sort of vampire rule that you have to pick stupid and overly-dramatic names? Do you remember when he signed up for an account here? He made such a big deal about his name being spelled with a ‘y’, spelling it out with those fucking hand gestures like he was a magician or something.”
Rudy hovered close by; close enough that I could make out a faint, hazy outline of a figure out of the corner of my eye. The light directly above us blinked twice and I smiled. It was nice having someone else in the store when it got super late, even if that someone was a ghost. It was especially nice knowing I wasn’t alone with customers gave me the ‘You’re All Alone Here?!’ conversation that I fucking hated at this point. Like way to drive the point home that I’m a woman working alone at night, then to point it out and specifically ask if I’m scared about being robbed/raped. I didn’t know if Rudy could do more than knock movies over or flicker lights if something did happen, but at least working in a haunted video store meant I wasn’t truly alone.
The clock crawled from 1am to 2am, my shift just three hours from being done. The night shift was pretty shitty, but at least it paid well, mostly because they were desperate for idiots to work it. Idiots like me. I had initially thought that a night owl like myself would enjoy working from 10pm to 5am, but I had underestimated how tiring the mind-numbing dullness of retail would be. The unexpected supernatural elements of my job were not a bonus, I didn’t want to worry about being eaten by were-wolves while also having to deal with people screaming at me over one dollar late fees.
Around 2:30 the Pixie Girls came in. Three tiny, child-like girls all dressed in rainbow colors and chattering to one another rapidly in a strange language that I was positive wasn’t human in origin. They never rented any movies and instead would hover around the snack stand, meticulously searching through the junk food and sugary drinks even though they came in every night and probably knew more about our candy inventory than I did. Occasionally one would turn and start talking to an apparently empty spot of air. I couldn’t tell if they were talking to Rudy, or whether there was another invisible person in the store.
The Pixie Girls weren’t annoying like the vampires, but they were unnerving. The colors of their hair and clothes were too bright and glittery with patterns and shades changing right before my eyes. Their sparkling skin and eyes held inhuman colors and up close I could make out the shimmering blur of wings along their backs. The movements were the strangest part, too jittery and fast, jerking as if they moved too fast my eyes to track.
“Do you need any bags?” I asked when they came up the counter with arms full of candy and drinks.
“No no nononno.” One girl spoke as they all shook their heads in unison, a motion so perfectly and eerily synchronized.
They carefully piled up everything on the counter, still speaking and giggling to each other as I rang everything up, trying to ignore how one had visible antennae poking through her short and jagged locks of purple and pink hair. The one with green tinted skin handed me the money and I tried to ignore the fact that her fingers were far too long and thin, with multiple joints like an insect. At least it was real money; after the second incident of the cash drawer being short in the morning I had casually mentioned to the girls that I might be out of a job if the manager kept finding leaves in the register when he opened. The Pixie Girls seemed to like me, at least they liked me enough to use real money now.
The door rang as another customer walked in, this one human. “Hiya ladies,” he grinned. “You girls look a little young to be out so late.”
The Pixie Girls giggled. “We’re not young, we’re old,” the one with silver eyes said. Dark lines rippled through her blue skin like water shifting just beneath her flesh. “Too old for you.”
The customer laughed and moved away from the door as the girls started to head out, unable to see how they hovered just above the floor. The Pixie Girls floated out the door to binge on candy bars and Mountain Dew while I was left with just one regular human customer who wanted to know if we had any copies of Fight Club.
“In our Cult Classic section.” I pointed him to the right rack of movies.
The late shift at Movie Knight was like that. Not super busy, but steady. And most of the customers seemed to be of the supernatural variety. I wasn’t sure if other employees had to deal with fairies and ghosts on a regular basis, but it wasn’t like I could ask them anyway. I’d yet to meet any other human who could see past whatever magical disguise these fantasy creatures used to hide among us. And the only person I had known who talked about seeing monsters…I shook my head, mentally and physically shying away from thinking about that. I saw them, but I didn’t have to be a part of that world. All I had to do was rent movies to them, that was it, and I was more than happy to keep it that way.
Half an hour before closing and I was finishing up straightening the store. Half an hour before I was free and could go home for some sleep before my classes started. And I still had half a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food at home, unless my inconsiderate room-mate had eaten it all again. Maybe I should grab another pint at the 24/7 convenience store along the way home. I could also get a couple energy drinks and then—
“So it was not a lie.” The smooth tones of another vampire broke through my thoughts. “Still it is strange to see one such as yourself working here.”
I paused in the middle of dusting off the suit of armor posed in the middle of the store, (the manager called it a lovable gimmick, I thought it was kinda dumb and a pain to clean). “I’m sorry sir?”
It was another vampire. Tall and beautiful, with cheekbones like knives pressed up underneath alabaster skin, and long golden hair that practically glittered beneath the florescent lights. Emerald green eyes watched me carefully and with a jolt I realized I couldn’t feel the tell-tale tingle of vampire magic. He wasn’t trying to seduce me or fog up my mind. Almost as if he could tell it wouldn’t work, but that couldn’t be…
“You do not need to pretend with me, Cassandra.” He smiled as he adjusted the long, black coat that practically flowed off his tall, lithe frame.
I swallowed hard. “It’s Cas…I’m not sure what you’re saying.” I could see one light flickering, Rudy’s signal that he was watching, and tried to mentally take stock of any potential weapons in the store. “How do you know my name?”
“It is a fitting name. Cassandra the ill-fated prophetess. And like her, you see the truth of things.”
I slowly moved away, wondering if the sword posed within the armor suit’s hand was usable and if I could grab it quick enough. “I’m sorry sir but we will be closing soon. Is there a particular movie you were looking for?”
He glided toward me, still smiling as if I were his best friend in the whole world. “You have permission to call me Lucien. I am not here for a movie, little seer, I am here to offer you a gift.”
I edged to the right and close to the sword, praying that Doug hadn’t super-glued it the armored hand. “Look, we’re closing and I have no idea what you’re talking about. Either pick out a movie or leave.”
Lucien paused and tilted his head. “It is clear that you have the gift, it is not possible that you are blind to what lies before you. However I have no time for charades. I know you see me, see us as we are, human. I have a use for such gifts and would offer you a position of power and wealth within my clan.”
“I’m calling the police.” The lights above us strobed frantically as I reached for the sword, my fingers brushing the hilt right as Lucien moved toward me.
I didn’t have time to blink, much less grab the sword, before Lucien grabbed me and pushed me to the floor, one hand covering my mouth before I could even take a breath to scream. He hovered above me, his body as hard and immovable as steel, his cold hand pressed tight against my mouth. Despite the radiant appearance he smelled musty and stale; like an old, damp room that had been locked up for a hundred years. My heart raced as I watched crimson lines crawl across his face and into his eyes, the brilliant emerald bleeding into a glowing red.
Movies crashed down around us as I struggled, but it was like trying to push a mountain off my chest. Darkness crept in along the edges of my vision, my view narrowing down to Lucien’s face framed by all that bright, golden hair and lit up by red demon eyes. He leaned close and sniffed my neck as I whimpered.
“You smell so good.” He pulled away with a smile. Long, white fangs slid out from between his lips, saliva dripping from the razor points. “I told you, little seer, I have no time for games. And neither do you. If you do not accept my offer, my protection, then they will use you. I promise you that you that this fear you feel now is nothing compared to what will happen when they find you.” His breath was like an open grave, cold and stinking of death as he whispered to me. “So think carefully, choose wisely, and I will return for your answer.”
My heart was pounding so loud that I could barely hear him. The cold hands pressed tighter, bruising me, and all I could see was his face moving closer. Those fangs, growing longer and sharper, ready to pierce my skin. And between one heartbeat and the next, he was gone. I was lying on the floor all alone, tears running down my face as I gasped for air, the lights blinking so fast above me that it made my eyes heart.
“Rudy,” I gasped. “Is…he…gone?”
The lights stopped flickering and I waited with my heart struggling to push through my throat and out my mouth until there came one single and definitive light blink. I sat up slowly, feeling as if my body had turned to jelly while my head was heavy and made of iron. The room slowly spun around me and I could see that Rudy had managed to knock down all the movie racks directly around me. The sword had fallen too, though I couldn’t remember if I had managed to grab it or if this was Rudy’s doing as well.
I wiped away tears, still feeling his hands on my face. “Thanks Rudy, I know you tried.” I tried to ignore the way Lucien’s eyes glowed red in the back of my mind and wobbled to my feet, rubbing my skin as if that would take away the crawling sensation of insects that moved across my flesh.
It took me nearly an hour to clean up everything. I worked in a daze, barely aware of my surroundings, just moving on automatic while my mind replayed Lucien’s words over and over again. He had known I could see him. For years since this gift or curse had started I had known one simple truth: I was safe from the monsters as long as they didn’t know I could see them. But he knew.
Worse, there were others who might know too.
I would’ve been too scared to go home after meeting Lucien, if not for the fact that my room-mate was a goddess. Still, it took me longer than usually to close up the store; my hands shaking as I counted the cash drawer, finished up the paperwork, and locked up Movie Knight for the few hours it was closed until Doug came in to open it up.
Working the late shift meant that sometimes I was heading home to sleep as the sun was beginning to rise. Dawn had lightened the sky in broad streaks of ash grey just above the city skyline of Lakerun. As my bus took me back over the Spindle River I could see the gold glow of the sun just beginning to rise over Tibikenibi lake. The tightness in my chest eased at the sight and I realized I had been clenching my hands so tight that the fingernails had left bloody marks in my palms. I had never been so glad to see the sunlight in my life.
The bus dropped me off a few blocks from my apartment, but with the sun starting to shine I didn’t feel so nervous about the walk home. Plus, I had a can of bear mace stashed in my purse; I figured anything that could stop a bear was good enough to use on a cracked-out murdering rapist. The walk home wasn’t that lonely though; people were starting to fill the sidewalks and streets around me, many carrying cups of steaming coffee and backpacks, the trademarks of a college student. Lakerun was a college town and home to an impressive and fairly respected university that had been around since the 1700s. My mother had cried when I got my letter of acceptance, even though she hadn’t wanted me to move into the city by myself. The promise of a room-mate was what kept her calm, mostly.
Lakerun University lay close to the heart of Lakerun, within the part of the city that locals called ‘Edgetown.’ Edgetown was also the nicer part of the city and had many accommodations for the massive student population, including apartment complexes that offered discounts for students. Even with the discount I wouldn’t have been able to afford one of the apartments at Garland Terrace if it hadn’t been for my room-mate.
Outside of my building I could see a man in ragged, dirty clothes huddled near the alleyway. Just because this was the nicer part of town didn’t mean there weren’t any homeless, though I heard some of my neighbors complain that they paid enough to avoid this sort of…inconvenience. As I walked past the man mumbled something that sounded like ‘change’, and I gave him a couple of dollars I kept on hand for this sort of thing. It wasn’t that I had the money to spare, it was the opposite really, but I remembered growing up in need. Not just poor, the word ‘poor’ didn’t really convey fully what it was like to grow up hungry, to be ten years old and missing meals and having kids at school tease you for wearing dirty clothes ‘because mom didn’t have the money for laundry that week.
I keyed in my code and entered the building, feeling another knot of tension loosen inside. But it wasn’t until I was inside my apartment, door closed and locked behind me, that I felt truly safe. There was a raspy meow as Byron stumbled up to me for some attention.
“Hey fatass, I missed you too.” I stroked the soft black and white fur, scratching behind the one tattered ear until he squeezed his eyes shut in bliss, a rattling purr filling the air.
Despite the poetic name, Byron was a rough looking specimen. I had found him shortly after moving to Lakerun, or rather I had rescued him from a couple of psycho kids who had decided to practice their budding sociopathic tendencies on a helpless kitten. Now over a year and several surgeries later he was looking better. Sure, he was missing one front leg, half an ear, and his tail had a weird bent near the tip, but he had grown back all his fur and there were only faint scars left on his face and ears. I told him everyday that the scars made him look dashing, like a pirate.
“How is her majesty doing?” I asked, not sure if he really understood what I was saying, but I knew she would hear it.
Byron merely purred, leaning heavily against my leg as he tried to inspect what was inside my grocery bag. I had made a quick stop on the way home at one of the 24/7 stores that were all over Lakerun, a common fixture and necessity in a college town. In addition to the usual supplies like milk and toilet paper, I had also picked up another pint of ice-cream for myself and some offerings for my room-mate. I had learned quickly that anytime I needed to talk with her, it was necessary to bring along some offerings. Thankfully I had also quickly found the easiest and cheapest way to appease my room-mate goddess.
After putting away groceries and giving myself a minute to compose my thoughts, I prepared the offering plate and walked toward the end of the apartment toward my room-mate’s bedroom/throne room. It was the largest room in the apartment, but I didn’t mind her taking it; after all she was the reason why we could afford such a nice place in the first place. Besides I didn’t think arguing with a goddess was a good idea. Balancing the plate on one hand, I knocked politely on the door and waited.
“You may enter.” Her voice rolled through the door and across my skin, a physical caress that felt like warm velvet and filled the air with the scent of sandalwood and amber.
I opened the door and entered a room that was much larger than it should be. It had originally been the largest room in the apartment, but now I was sure it was the largest room in the whole complex. The décor was the very definition of opulence; with swaths of silk colored in warm crimson and gold shades covered three of the walls, while the fourth wall was a huge window that looked out over the front street even though the layout of our building made that impossible. The carpet was thick and plush, except for one path that led from door to throne that was paved in what appeared to be real gold and alabaster. The throne was also gold and alabaster and covered in more silks and velvets, surrounded by more massive pillows and cushions for the cats to lounge on.
And when I say cats filled the room, I mean there were more cats in here than I had ever seen in my life. Cats of all colors and patterns, all different breeds and a few I was sure were not entirely mortal in nature. Cats sat by the window wall and watched the birds flitting about the feeders hanging outside, cats slept on pillows and climbed up the numerous cat-trees placed like decorative statues around the room, cats walked along the ledges lining wall and crisscrossing the high ceiling, their eyes glowing amid the golden, tear-drop shaped lights above. And on the throne sat their goddess, surrounded by small end tables with laptops that were no doubt filled with pictures and videos of cats. Bastet, goddess of cats, was enjoying a resurgence in popularity and power due to cat memes.
“I trust you have bought a proper offering?” Bastet purred, her green-gold eyes focused on the plate. “I did not like that…mushy fish.”
I handed her the plate with two cans of albacore tuna, chunk not mush, a pack of Hello Kitty pens, and a birthday card featuring two kittens playing with flowers. “I hope this pleases you, lady Bastet.”
Bastet took the plate and speared a chunk of tuna with one long, crimson fingernail, daintily placing the fish between her brilliant white teeth and chewing slowly. “It is acceptable.” She took a couple more bites before placing the rest on the floor for the cats. “No doubt you wish to talk with me about the vampire who visited you last night.”
I nearly choked at her words. “How—"
Bastet waved one slim, golden hand. “One of my children saw and told me.”
She leaned back on her throne, admiring the cat card as if I had given her a priceless painting. At the moment she was wearing her ‘casual’ disguise as I thought of it. One that appeared fully human, of Egyptian descent with golden-brown skin a few shades lighter than mine and long, straight black hair. Her features were perhaps a little too perfect, and her green-gold eyes were eye-catching (no pun intended) to say the least, but no one would look at her and see the ancient Egyptian goddess of cats and perfume. Even I had been fooled, unaware of her true nature when we first met until she had told me that my cat had told her of my ‘seer powers.’ At first, I had been frightened that one of the monsters had seen me, until Bastet explained that my abilities, while interesting, offered nothing to her. It was the province of cats, she had said, to already see what was unseen.
Byron crawled into my lap as I sat on the floor, purring loudly when I offered him a bit of tuna at the goddess’ behest. Byron was the reason why we had first met and why the goddess had become my room-mate. She was also taking classes at LU and had decided that a mere human who had risked her life to help a cat was one worth rooming with. After the initial shock of meeting a goddess I had quickly seen the advantage of living with one. As long as she was supplied with plenty of tuna and funny cat pictures, she was pretty easy to deal with. Even the masses of cats weren’t a problem. There was no ‘crazy cat lady’ stench, instead the air was filled with a rich perfume of sandalwood, amber and myrrh. There were no visible cat boxes, but I figured the goddess of cats had enough power to effectively deal with the issue of cat shit.
Her major was philosophy with a minor in religion and the reasoning behind her choice seemed to be she liked to argue with people.
A slim calico leapt into Bastet’s lap as she placed the cat card next to one of the laptops and regarded me with a small smile. “While I know of last night’s events, I would prefer to hear you speak of them.”
Two other cats, one solid black and the other a fat tortie, had joined Byron in begging for attention. I had always liked cats, and the purring soft bodies slowly lulled me into a more relaxed state as I told Bastet what had happened. When I finished she closed her eyes, tapping one fingernail against her full, red lips in thought. A faint shiver ran through her body, and the very air echoed her motion in a ripple that passed through walls. The street view from the window shimmered and warped into golden sand dunes and a bright, blisteringly blue sky.
Bastet had changed into one of her more ‘divine’ forms. Her black hair had turned as golden as her skin, with black tips, and her eyes were larger with thin pupils like a cat. A thin, silk white skirt was her only clothing, the rest of her slim body was bare and covered in tattoos of black hieroglyphics and geometric designs. She should’ve looked ridiculous with the golden cat ears tipped in black and the long gold furred tail that curled around her legs, instead this appearance seemed more natural to her.
Bastet fingered the heavy golden collar that covered her throat and part of her chest, set with brilliant gems. “You will not accept Lucien’s offer.”
She didn’t phrase it like a question, but I still answered it. “No. I’m not going to work for fucking vampires.”
Bastet smiled, revealing small white fangs. “Good. It is better to avoid their kind, they are…fanatics.” She crossed her legs and I could see that instead of feet there were small, dainty paws. “But Lucien is correct when he says his enemies will seek you out as well.”
I frowned. “Who are they fighting?”
Bastet wagged one bejeweled finger at me. “The better question is who they are not fighting. Vampires are enemies with anyone who does not follow their god.”
“Vampires were once human, like you, until they prayed to their god for immortality. And he gifted them, in a way. They see themselves as chosen of their god, righteous followers…fanatics.” Bastet said the last word with clear disgust, her lips twisting as if the very word had left a bad taste in her mouth. She flicked her ears and the golden rings lining them rang softly with the motion. “They are very particular about who they share their god’s gift with, so I would not worry about being turned into one of those creatures.”
“Thanks, I think.” Byron flipped over in my lap and I rubbed his belly, wishing my life was as simple and calm as his. “What do I do?”
“Your first question was the better one.” Bastet leaned forward and ran one finger down the side of my face, the clawed tip just barely scratching the skin. “Who are they fighting? You know little of the situation and that ignorance could get you killed.”
“And I know me dying will be a terrible inconvenience to you.”
“It would be irritating to have to search for another room-mate mid-term.” Bastet stood up and walked to the window soundlessly, her tail twitching behind her. “You have seen the library, the big one.”
“Grand Oak? Yeah, I’ve studied there.”
“You should ask to speak with the woman who runs the archives there, Ms. Alexandris, tell her that Aaliyah Gamal sent you.”
I smiled at Bastet’s human name. She said she chose it for the meaning, not because of the singer, but the music I heard playing from her temple said otherwise. “She’ll be able to help me?”
Bastet turned and smiled, her appearance fading back into a normal, albeit very beautiful, woman. “She can offer you information.” Her smiled widen and I could see fangs still shining between her red lips. “And information is always power.”