“What are you?” Amanda demanded to know.
“A prisoner. Like many who’ve come to this place.”
“What are you talking about?” Julio asked.
“The people who run this place, they are not concerned with the education of sync youths. It is a different goal they pursue.“
“What goal?” Amanda asked.
“How are you talking right now?” Julio asked, squeezing his head in utter bafflement.
“Perhaps you are familiar with the tale of the Dark Spectre?“
“The who?” Julio asked.
“No. No it can’t be. That’s just an urban legend,” Amanda scoffed.
“Myths are more powerful than you give them credit for. The Dark Spectre is no different.“
“What the hell are you two talking about?” Julio asked.
“It was before our time. Just a lot of scary stories and boogey men meant to keep syncs in line,” Amanda said, though it sounded more like she was trying to convince herself.
“You mean… the Turbulence?” Julio asked.
“It was an age of freedom fighters, terrorists and rebels. Right or wrong, they were fighting for something. The Dark Spectre was a different thing altogether. It’s… it’s a…”
“A monster,” the bird said, finishing her thought. “Unfortunately for you, monsters happen to be real.”
“Is that what you are?” Julio asked.
“I am many things. Above all else, I am a prisoner.”
“And?” Julio demanded.
“A tired soul. A lost, tired soul.”
“Answer the question, big bird,” Julio said.
“You want to know if there’s a reason I was put in this cage. You want to know if I am deserving of this fate. I am no more deserving than you were when you were locked up, Hu-Lee-Oh. I am here for the crime of mere existence. Nothing more.”
“That’s fucked up,” Julio said.
“Is it? Is it if it’s a monster?” Amanda asked.
“You were a monster once, weren’t you, girl? And yet here you stand on the outside looking in.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Amanda scowled.
“Let me out. Let me be free, and I will repay your favor in kind.”
“How? You’re a bird,” Julio said.
“I know many things. Ask anything of me and I will tell you.”
“Anything? Like what?” Julio asked, suddenly interested.
“Whatever you want to know. I can tell you lost secrets. Powerful secrets.“
“Can you tell me about… the person I’m looking for?”
“Yes. I know all about your sister Amelia.“
Julio’s eyes went wide. Amanda noticed.
“Tell me. Tell me now,” Julio demanded.
“I will, of course. But first you must release me.”
Julio went to unlatch the cage, almost without thinking. Amanda stopped him.
“Are you kidding me? Haven’t you ever watched, like, any movie ever? If the creepy thing in the cage tells you to set it free, you don’t fucking do it!”
“Shut up. You don’t fucking know anything,” Julio snapped.
“I will reward you too, girl. I can tell you where he’s keeping them.”
Amanda’s eyes shot straight to it. Julio noticed.
“How did you know?” she asked.
“This cage may imprison me, but it does not dull my senses. I know why you’re here. Both of you. I can give you the answers you seek. You just have to free me!“
Julio and Amanda eyed one another, probing for the other’s motivations. Were they agreed? Was there any doubt?
“I need to know this,” Julio said.
“Same,” replied Amanda.
“So, it’s settled?” Julio asked.
“What if he’s lying?” Amanda whispered.
“Then we kill him,” Julio whispered back.
“What if we can’t?” Amanda asked.
“She was here, Hu-Lee-Oh. One year ago,” the bird said, clicking its beak.
“What happened to her?” Julio asked.
“I will say no more.”
“Damn it! Come on, Amanda. What’s it gonna be?”
Amanda looked into its orange eyes. It looked back intently.
“Okay. Together. Just… be ready for anything.”
“Okay,” Julio said. They reached for the latch. “Hold on,” Julio said, rubbing the sides of his head.
“What?” Amanda asked.
“Just… Let me… Okay. Okay, I’m ready.”
“You sure?” Amanda asked.
“Yeah,” Julio said, powering up his hands.
They reached out, undid the latch and stepped back. The giant bird pushed the door open with its blood slicked beak. Then, it squeezed through the narrow opening, leaving an oily slick on the bars behind him. Once out, it spread its black wings to their full span, clicking its beak excitedly.
“Ah. This is it. This is freedom!” the bird cawed. It flapped its wings and flew around the room, screeching with delight. Julio felt a pit grow in his stomach. He hoped they hadn’t just made a huge mistake.
“Okay, that’s enough. Start talking,” Amanda commanded.
The bird landed hard on its feet, shaking off the weight of decades.
“I am hungry. Perhaps if I could have a small morsel, I could…“
“No! You made a promise, now stick to it,” Amanda said, water droplets rising all around her.
“Yes of course. I am a bird of my word.“
“Me first,” Julio said.
“The fuck you are,” Amanda yelled. Julio frowned.
“Mmmmm fine! Fucking hurry up,” he said, scowling.
“Tell me, bird, where is my family?”
“They are in Blood Ridge Pass, in the mountains of the Far West. At the end of a lonely road, a church with a cemetery. They are being held in the cellar.”
“And Neville Grooms? Where can I find him?” Amanda asked.
“He lives in New France to the South. Look for the floating house where the river meets the sea.“
Amanda considered the bird’s words. They were pretty vague, but not vague enough she couldn’t work with it.
“Thank you,” Amanda said.
“Okay, it’s fucking my turn!” Julio snapped.
“Go for it. I’m outta here,” Amanda said, giving them the peace sign.
“Fine. Fucking whatever. Okay, bird guy, tell me about my sister. Spill it!”
“She is still here.”
“At the school.”
“Where at the school?”
“Professor Rivera knows. As does Professor Salvador.“
“What happened to her? Is she alive? Is she okay?”
“There was an accident. She was badly hurt, but she lives. In a manner of speaking.”
Julio fell to his knees, tears flowing freely. She was alive. She was here and alive. He thanked whatever deity was listening.
“Tell me where she is,” Julio cried.
“She is hidden from my sight. I cannot tell you. But, maybe after a quick bite, I will have the strength to. Just a quick… bite.”
The bird’s eyes glowed red with hunger and hate as it loomed over the prostrate boy.
Amanda made it to the top of the stairs and crossed the lounge toward the front door of the clubhouse.
“Amanda!” someone called. She cursed and turned to the sound of her fake name.
It was Melissa and Zach. Melissa had an arm over Zach and he was helping her to walk.
“Where’s Julio?” Melissa asked.
“I don’t know I… I saw him go that way,” Amanda said, pointing toward the stairs.
“The stairs? Oh no,” Melissa said.
“What?” Zach asked.
“The vault. He must not get into the vault!”
“Why?” Amanda asked.
“Because there’s a…”
A blood curdling crow shook the house, forcing all of them to cover their ears.
“The fuck was that?” Amanda cried.
“A vampire,” Melissa said grimly.
Julio flew backwards into a stack of manuals. He quickly got to his feet as the bird flew at him. Julio rolled out of the way of its mighty beak. It crashed into the wall, flapping manically as it reacquired its prey.
“You said you’d give me answers!” Julio screamed.
“And so I have. I was true to my word. I never said I wouldn’t harm you,” the bird said, hopping around and tilting its head this way and that.
“You technical motherfucker,” Julio snarled.
The bird lunged. Julio dodged to the left and jabbed where its wing met its torso. It cawed and whirled around for another go. Julio stayed light on his feet. If it got him, it’d be over. That much he could feel. It pecked at his face, hopping faster than Julio thought something that big could move. It lunged at him with razor sharp talons raised, but he managed to jump back just in time. He ran into the display case holding the lightning gun. He smashed the glass with his elbow, pulled the gun out and aimed it at the bird. The bird crouched warily.
“Perhaps I was quick to judge you as prey. We can come to an agreement, I think.”
“Sure. Just answer this for me.”
“Medium or well done?”
Julio pulled the trigger. The gun farted and an icon appeared on the side in Italian which read, “out of charge”. That made four languages he could now read. If the bird could smile, it would have. It hopped closer. Julio broke the glass for the drill lance and tried to pick it up, but it was super heavy. He huffed and puffed, but it wouldn’t budge.
The bird tackled him, sending Julio tumbling to the ground. It got right on top of him, trying to peck at his face, but Julio kept its sticky slippery beak at bay. It cawed in frustration as it tried to unsuccessfully impale his head.
“Get away from him!” Melissa shouted.
The bird looked back at her. Julio punched it in the throat. It squawked, then grabbed Julio up with its talons and threw the boy across the room. Zach almost peed his pants. Melissa held her hand up.
“More food. Good. I have quite the hunger from so many years trapped down here.”
“Get back in your cage,” Melissa commanded.
“You have no power over me,” the bird clicked.
“Gabia Vinculant!” Melissa chanted. The golden cage glowed. The bird was pulled back slightly but it resisted.
“How unfortunate,” the bird cawed. It flew at them, beak first.
Julio smashed its face with a well placed upward swing of a glass case atop a pedestal. The bird fell to the side. It got to its feet but stumbled.
“You! You annoying brat!“
It went for Julio’s face, but Julio used the pedestal to keep the bird at bay.
“Et Recrimino!” Melissa shouted. The bird cawed as it writhed in pain. Julio swung again, connecting on the crown of its head. The bird flew backwards, away from them. Julio hefted the pedestal like a javelin and threw it at its head. It ducked just in time to let the pedestal sail past.
“I am weakened. The ceaseless light, the ages without true sustenance, I am not even at half strength. Had I been at my full strength, none of you would have stopped me.“
“Whatever you say, bud,” Julio said.
“Everyone! Concentrate on the sound of my voice,” Melissa said.
“Okay!” said Zach.
“Got it!” said Julio.
“Um, maybe not you, Julio,” Melissa said.
“Oh. Um, okay.”
“I will not be caged again!” the bird said. It flapped its wings, getting ready to escape.
“Now! Gabia Vinculant!” Melissa shouted.
The cage glowed a very bright gold and the bird was caught in mid-air as it tried to fly away. It screamed as an invisible force stuffed it back into the cage. The door closed and the latch snapped shut.
“Holy shit. We did it,” Julio said.
“Yeah, and what exactly were we doing here in the first place?” Melissa asked, accusingly.
“Oh. Um. I was… well, I couldn’t sleep and I went downstairs and saw you… um.”
Julio kept the red memory string stuffed in his pocket. He swallowed hard.
“Is everyone all right?”
Professor Vasquez appeared in the vault just then. She wore a flowing multi-colored robe that seemed to shimmer and change color as she moved.
“Professor. What are you doing here?” Melissa asked.
“Night rounds. About a thousand pressure sensors went off in here so I came to investigate,” she replied. “Looks like Club Tildi suffered a lot of damage. Any injuries?”
“Yeah. A few,” Melissa replied.
“What happened?” she asked.
“I was talking with Julio earlier tonight. And um…”
Julio was sweating bullets. He tried not to move or look suspicious or do anything.
“Yes?” Professor Vasquez asked.
“I was talking to him and then… Well, then everything went blank.”
All eyes went to Julio.
“Yeah, well, we were talking and then, um, you got this funny look on your face and then your astral shell exploded and…”
“Excuse me?” Vasquez and Melissa asked simultaneously.
“My astral shell exploded?” Melissa asked.
“Yeah. But but I was able to put it all back together,” Julio said.
“How were you able to do that?” Vasquez asked.
“Oh, you know, I just pulled it all together best I could. Yup,” Julio sniffled.
“That…” Vasquez shook her head. “That’s amazing. You saved your club president’s life.”
“I… yeah. I did?”
“A shell exploding is super fatal. If you hadn’t acted, Melissa would be passing on to the next plane right now,” Vasquez said. Melissa shook her head, still not comprehending her near fatality.
“I, um, well yeah. You know. I just did what I could,” Julio said, awkwardly chuckling.
“What you did was advanced level. Very advanced,” Vasquez said. “I might even recommend Professor Rivera giving you a medal.”
“Oh. Uh. I don’t know about that,” Julio said.
“Just as soon as you explain how you ended up down in the vault fighting a vampire,” Vasquez continued.
“Well I… wait, a vampire?” Julio exclaimed.
Zach looked back and forth at everyone, wondering when would be too soon to duck out and resume his midnight snacking.