The Dawes name was famous in the 17th century. There are records of what we did. No one pays attention to it now, but it wasn’t hard to find them; old legal cases, church legers, diaries, that kind of thing. Everyone knows Matthew Hopkins because of that movie – The Witchfinder General – but, back then, we were just as famous.
My parents are ashamed.
When I told them I found out, my father left the room. My mum looked away and told me that every family has stains. As though we were like all the others who dragged people from their homes with no more reason than being unmarried, or giving women camomile tea. I tried to explain that those warlocks in the list proved we weren’t like the other witch hunters. We were protecting people. Saving lives. She wouldn’t listen. She wanted to know where I got these ‘crazy ideas’.
I almost told her about Skyla.
It wasn’t an accident; running into her in that club. She’d done her research too. She sought me out. Because I was a Dawes.
At school she was with the arty kids; the ones with so much confidence they could have been at Eton, not a comp in zone three. Seeing her at the club – black jumpsuit glowing purple in the neon light – wasn’t a surprise; but Skyla wanting to talk to me?
Of course, I gave her my number.
We met at the National Gallery. I saw her standing in the cast of the light. Her hair practically shimmered. And then she smiled when she saw me. Every nerve in my body tingled.
I didn’t notice where she was leading me. I’m not sure I even saw the walls slip by; I was just looking at her. The twist of her smile to the left when she paused between sentences. The way her eye colour shifted with the changing light. Before I could decide if they were grey or blue, we were in a room filled with shadowy paintings in twisted leaf-encrusted gold frames. We stopped in front of the darkest one.
Luminescent pearls of flesh blazed against the landscape of black and ash. There were crunched and huddled bodies in clusters of three. There were some figures huddled in the left, lighter and brighter than anything else in the muted wasteland. A woman cloaked in tarpaulin-blue, her face like spotted potatoes, was the most vibrant figure in the night; but what I remember was the figure above her. A faded shape, nearly human, draped in white cloth. On the right they were bound by fantastical creatures built from the shadowy landscape: one with a gaping red gash of a mouth and the other a craning skeleton, every vertebra as sharp as its sabre-pointed beak.
It was mirrored in the centre by a cracked and broken tree, blending into the shadows and slicing through the canvas. And hanging from the whisper of a rope was a man, his head slumped left, curving away from his fallen from his flaccid body. It could have been the weaving twists of a swan’s neck, except for the blunt finality of that nodule, just slightly raised above the head. You could feel the tension of his skin straining to hold him together.
“Witches at their Incantations,” she told me. She said it like the title was an answer to an unasked question.
“I can see you are connecting with it,” Skyla continued.
My shoulders clenched against the shiver in my spine.
“I brought you to this painting because I knew it would resonate with you.”
She sounded so confident. Not bolshy, but calm; certain.
I sat silently, trying to figure out what I’d missed. Wondering if she noticed.
It felt like they key to something was in what I did in that moment, but I couldn’t even find the lock.
And then she just continued to talk. She mentioned secrets – maybe she even used the words magic? Then it curved from history to the past year. Research she was doing. She never actually said that it was for school, I must have assumed.
It was history, you know? Witch hunting, the Protestant scare, the civil war. But the way she was talking about it, it felt more real than a book. Phrases stuck out: ‘the hysteria hid the truth’; or ‘the real heroes’.
I don’t think she actually used the word ‘vampires’ that day.
She just turned to me, freezing me with her chaotic grey eyes and whispered: “It’s been hard living with a dangerous secret. But I know I can ask you. You were born for it.”
I didn’t believe her at first. I’m not gullible.
And she didn’t try to convince me, either. When I rolled my eyes, she shrugged and said: “look it up.”
You can’t type ‘Dawes AND witch hunters’ into a search engine and get anywhere. But the British Library has books on the history of witchcraft. And when you are a student, they practically beg you to read them.
I found my last name in a handful of indexes. The books weren’t about us: one was on the sexism of witch hunters; another was on the concept of the witch as it changed over time. It was a book on English witchcraft that mentioned Michael Dawes in a footnote. Michael, like the archangel.
From there I could go into the country records. I didn’t read everything; but I read enough.
I messaged Skyla. She knew more than I did, but everything she said matched up with what I’d already found.
So, are you in?
In what? I asked.
I can’t say anything else unless you say yes.
I did. Anyone would.
It was smart having me meet the group. If it had just been the two us talking, she might have given up on me before I truly believed it all.
Vampires are a huge leap from witch-hunting. And when someone tells you that today – in the world of the internet and GPS and CCTV of every move we make – that vampires are real? Not a chance. But meeting five people who all had seen it, who had been face to face with them…
I still walked out. At that first meeting.
I nodded, said ‘okay’, and then turned and left.
Skyla came after me. Well, it’s not like she ran or anything. She called my name, and it sped to me along the silken glass lined buildings. It was a whisper and a yell: loud but caressing.
She wasn’t surprised or upset, but she asked me not to leave. There’s a power to that: being wanted.
But I resisted.
She offered to walk with me.
As we walked along the road toward the tube station, she told me about Jacob. There was an eight-year gap between Skyla and her brother, so she felt like a second mum to him. Her parents worked nights, so she was the one heating up dinner and helping with homework. She was also the only one home when he woke up screaming from the nightmares.
What they thought were nightmares.
They went on for weeks. In the day he was a scramble: he couldn’t follow her to the end of the sentence. Sometimes she’d check on him and he was lying in a curl on the bed, staring at the wall. His skin shifted slowly to having purple undertone instead of pink, making his eyes look bruised. He was always cold when she held his hand. She said that should have been the clue.
“Now, I’d recognise the signs. All three of us would,” she said, meaning her parents.
One night she looked in on him – “for no reason” – and she saw one of them. The hunched form blocking her brother’s body. When she screamed it disappeared, leaving her brother catatonic on his pillow. His face was drained and blue in the moonlight, and his eyes were open and blank, the irises rolled to the back of his head.
“His eyes were like billiard balls.” Her voice cracked.
In the night, under the scattered mix of streetlights, I thought I saw her hair grow white as she spoke. The memory was so fresh you could practically see his cold corpse play back over her eyes.
“The Hospital recorded it as blood loss,” she shook her head. “And the death certificate doesn’t mention that only marks on him were two small holes.”
If you had seen the look in her eyes talking about him – the way she was struggling so hard to keep her face composed – you’d know it was true. It was hard for her to tell me. You could feel the pain spread out of her body and into the air between us. The tears she kept held in her eyes reflected the scenes as she spoke them.
I went back to the flat with her. I didn’t say anything; I just listened. For the first few meetings it was like that. It was through their meetings that I realised how little I really knew. I had been thinking too much like a human. Vampires might look like us, but they don’t think or act the way we do.
Rachna was the one who explained it best: for vampires, survival was about passing. They didn’t want anyone to know who they were. With their pale skin they had a chance to fit in with the mainstream, the people who weren’t always questioned, side-lined, and misjudged. Then, as long as they kept their hunting to the overlooked or the homeless and layered on SPF, they didn’t draw any attention. They could be safe. As she spoke, there was a flicker of understanding in her caramel eyes.
They only let me so recon work at first. It was easy enough: watching a road to see which house a certain car pulled into, or noting what time they left and returned. You don’t have to wear black to blend in with the shadows. A group of three or four of us hanging out was invisible as long as we didn’t bother anyone. If a cop asked, you were walking home. The long way. And after 4am, you can be another determined woman going for a run.
Some of them were slow to trust me. Mark, with his shaggy mop of grey and black curls barely even spoke to me. But he watched me, silently judging. Every night out with him was a test, but he didn’t tell you if you passed. Despite his glare, I kept being asked back for a while. And then I Skyla moved me to research.
If watching houses helped our hunters pick their moment to attack, the research picked who. Most of the database information is online now, so no one was suspicious. And you didn’t have to look for anything classified like medical records. You could tell a lot by tracing a family name back a few generations.
Do you know anyone who lives in the same house they were born in? How about the one their great grandfather was born in?
I put it all down for Skyla and Mark to sift through. They did the dangerous bit. One would break into the empty house to find the coffins, while the other kept watch. Then they hid and waited until they came home. The big moment didn’t happen until the vampires were home. And then, they had two per vampire. At least. You need that kind of backup.
The first battle happened without me knowing it. We were hanging out waiting for Mark and Skyla to start the meeting. Ten, twenty minutes late… I actually wondered for a moment if they were off… well… Anyway, we were sitting around and chatting – the usual thing – and a giant whoop cut through the air.
The hair on the back of my neck stood up.
The hunter I was talking to leapt out of his chair.
The cries of everyone overlapped: congratulations from those around me me, heroic growls from Mark, and a swirl of questions from every direction. I stood and tried to listen for the clues among the weaved questions.
“How do you feel?” “What happened?” “Was it easy?” “How did you get in?” “Any injuries?” Mark gloried in telling the story. Violet’s eyes glowed silently behind him, energy radiating from every inch of her skin.
“Where did you burn the bodies?” Rachna asked when he finished. Her voice seemed to cut dead the murmurs of excitement.
“Incinerator in the Southeast,” Skyla snapped back. “You don’t think we forgot?” She raised an eyebrow like wielding a sword.
Whatever Rachna mumbled back must have been acceptable. Violet smiled, and the ice broke. Everyone started talking over each other again.
“How did they break into the Incinerator?” I whispered to one of the others.
“We have someone in the police who knows what we are doing,” Skyla interrupted him.
I hadn’t even realised she could hear me.
“It’s safe,” she continued and walked across two people to place her hand on my back. “Don’t worry.”
I looked into her eyes and the rest of the room went out of focus. In that moment, she didn’t have to say anything. She and I were different form the rest of them. They were in it for the thrill of the hunt, but Skyla hunted because the world needed to be safe. It was a burden as much as a privilege. And I felt that way too.
From that moment on it was usually the two of us, researching together. We found the Fryers together.
The Fryer family had been living in the same house in Milton Keynes for five generations. Five. Yet there isn’t a tombstone in their name at the church.
We scouted the house quietly. There were four of them. Two were pretending to be teenagers. It was like a bad fantasy novel. Skyla decided we needed to add Mark and Rachna to even out the numbers. One per vampire. It was safer.
I did have a moment of hesitation.
I couldn’t find signs that they were killing in the town, though. Skyla told me they knew better than to hunt where they lived. And never the rich. People went looking for the rich. And, ironically, they also didn’t ask the rich questions. It was the perfect place to hide.
“A wolf in wolf’s clothing,” she explained.
We broke in New Year’s Eve. Everyone was out and we knew they would stay there ‘til after midnight.
My moment to shine came with the security alarm. When we first looked into the Fryers, Mark said there was no use in trying, because they used an alarm. Skyla smiled and looked over at me. Her eyes were glistening blue and grey like a whirlwind.
I explained my scholarship and Mark smiled at me for the first time. He started calling me “IT girl”, even though it’s more about electrical engineering than tech.
Once I was in disabling it was nothing. Mark patted me on the head like a dog. But Skyla winked at me.
Rachna and Mark scouted the locations, and we chose the Master Bedroom. We hid in the guest room until they returned, and waited until the house went quiet.
Silently we peeled off, Skyla and I moving to the master bedroom with mark’s instructions.
There were no coffins. I hadn’t expected that.
I looked over at Skyla as my heart slammed in my ears, but she casually pointed the tip of her stake at the far wall. Where I knew there should be windows was an undulating wall of black. I glanced around the room and realised there wasn’t a single shadow. The blackout curtain had turned the space into an enclosed tomb.
When I looked back to the outlined mounds on the bed, my mouth went sour in disgust. That’s what wealth can get a vampire now: the trappings of humanity.
“Now,” Skyla whispered.
I plunged the stake in.
It wasn’t smooth. My wrist burnt as it skittered and jolted, crashing against the hard frame of the ribs. They could have been stone. Iron. The pain splintered up my arm and spread over my shoulder.
At the same time, there was a scream. Loud, howling, and at an inhuman pitch. A wail straight out of hell. My ears rang with it, nearly imploding in my head. My brain crushed against my skull. I had to close my eyes against the force of it, but I still drew up my leaden hands and threw them down.
The resistance gave.
The scream stopped.
In the silence, my eyes tight, I thought I’d died. Blind, deaf; the world was gone.
Then came the racing of footsteps. The light went on and burned my eyes white.
“What happened?” “Are you Okay?” “What the fuck did you do?” Mark and Rachna hissed over one another.
“It’s fine.” Skyla’s voice was cold and tight. “She missed the first time.”
“How about you two?” Skyla took his attention in hand.
“Fine.” “Done.” They confirmed together. I had a fraction of a second to realise this had been Rachna’s first time too. She hit the heart the first time.
“Let’s get them into the fireplace,” Skyla commanded.
I’m not sure what they did. I looked back at the bed.
I didn’t have long to look but I remember it. The bodies under a twisted Morris duvet were white but calm. There wasn’t very much blood. I could have been looking at mannequins. Or a painting.
It didn’t feel like murder. I didn’t feel sad or scared or even confused. I just felt cold. A fire seemed strangely appealing.
We dragged them to the fireplace; a massive cave of a mouth done up to look medieval. Skyla flipped on the gas, and it sparked to life. The flames were miniscule.
Someone cursed. It would take hours to burn them.
Skyla suggested setting the house on fire.
We grabbed anything that would burn and draped it from the fireplace to the furniture.
I never got to see the news, but they told me the fire trucks were quick.
They saved most of the house.
The bodies charred, but they didn’t burn completely.
The moment I finish speaking, thirst claws at the back of my throat. I can feel it cracking deep down, past my tongue. My handcuffs clash against the table, and I flinch. The sound is still harsh and new to my ears. I have time to get used to it.
The therapist watches me reach for the paper cup of water. Her eyes are green, and gentler than most. Maybe that’s why she became a therapist. She seems friendly. Even after everything I’ve told her. There’s no wrinkle in the centre of her forehead of confusion, or lift of her eyebrows in surprise.
“And when did you find out?” she asks. Her voice has the quality of cotton to it – light but sturdy.
I swallow. My tongue feels thick. My eyes sting.
“Jacob. Skyla’s brother. The one who –” I can’t say it. I swallow. My saliva is as thick as oatmeal.
“When we were arrested, her family got to speak to her. We were all in the cell together.”
Another swallow. It might choak me. I might die.
“I don’t know why I did it. Maybe to feel like they could trust me. That I understood…”
“I told them I was sorry for their loss. For losing their Jacob. They just stared at me. Confused.”
The tears take over without warning. My mouth can’t even shape letters under the siege of the sputtering current. I can feel my lips stretching outward in a grimace I can’t control. All I can manage are my staccato wheezes: shallow, strained and bubbling. At some point my forehead hits the table. My face burns. So does my back. It spreads over my body like a fever. My tears should be turning to steam.
Even though I can’t speak, the words play out in my head, louder than the retching sobs.
“We don’t have a son.”
Skyla never had a brother. Everything she said was a lie.
Lauren Jane Barnett is a London-based author. Her first book, Death Lines: Walking London’s Horror History, is the first walking guide to London’s role in the evolution of horror cinema, which Kim Newman called “the London A to Z horror fans need”. Her short horror fiction and non-fiction work in magazines including BFS Horizons, Horrified, Audience Askew and anthologies including Superstition, LISTEN, and Bloody Good Horror. Follow her on Instagram @laurenjanebarnett and find out more at laurenjanebarnett.com.