Nicholas hurtled through the empty air between the trees and grabbed a thick branch like a swing-rope, whooping at the top of his breath and launching himself up into a triple somersault. He landed in a crouch on top of the branch, wood splintering beneath his toes as it shook thrillingly from his weight. The ground stretched over a hundred feet below him, carpeted in orange and yellow leaves. It could’ve been concrete for all Nick cared.
The branch shook again. Nick felt a cold hand smack him on the bare shoulder blade.
“You’re it!” Tabby shouted, leaping away trees two at a time.
Nick grinned, wound his limbs like a cat, and sprang off the branch. Whatever his new family thought, Nick still assumed evolution was the true origin of mankind and all associated species. What he was starting to doubt, though, was why anyone would ever want to come down from the trees?
Nick crossed the old growth canopy with the ease of a sidewalk, following the silvered brown shape of his friend through the blades of moonlight cutting through the leaves, barely registering the occasional brush of wood against the soles of his—
Danny crashed down through the leafy ceiling like a pale javelin, his toes striking Nick in the small of his back.
Nick plummeted towards the forest floor—already plotting terrible vengeance on Danny—when something soft but fast plucked him out of the air.
Winona Lennox landed deftly, holding Nicholas in a bridal carry. She smiled down at the child. “Saved ya.”
Nick grinned. “No you didn’t. Impressed you kept your hat on.”
Winona tipped the brim of said hat. “Thank you.”
“Not sure why you’re wearing a sunhat at night, though.”
Winona ran her fingers along the hem of her stars and crescent moon patterned dress. “Same reason I’m immune to the elements and wearing this fabulous outfit.”
Nick remembered Agatha’s glasses, smiling at the connection.
Well, they are twins…
“...This was totally just an excuse for a hug, wasn’t it?”
Winona smiled and touched her forehead to Nick’s. “Damn straight.”
Nick looked up at the trees. Danny and Tabitha were clashing among the branches like warring lightning bolts. “I’ll allow this, dread vampiress, but only if you do me a favour…”
Tabby and Danny faced each other, each perched on opposite branches. Danny’s snow-white skin was mottled with deep bruises. One of his eyes was weeping. His earlobe was presently regrowing like fleshy mold.
Tabby glanced at her fingernails, smirking. “Why do you fight me, Danny? You never win.”
Danny didn’t smirk. In fact, his tone was as flat as ever when he asked, “Why do you fight my nephew?”
Tabby hissed and leapt at Danny. Danny followed suit.
As the two children arced towards each other, features screwed in mutual, joyous rage, they heard Winona shout:
Nick rose serenely between his fellow vampires like a young, underdressed Clark Kent. He smiled between his friends. “Hey.”
Nick’s arms lashed out like vipers, grabbing Danny and Tabby by the wrist. He tucked his legs in, letting gravity drag the three of them down. A few feet from the ground, he let go.
Tabby and Danny thudded down onto their backs. A second letter, Nick’s feet slammed down onto their chests, knocking the unneeded air out of them.
Nick folded his arms and smiled. “Concede?”
Danny nodded. “Yeah. Cool move.”
Tabby thought about reaching up and ripping off Nick’s nuts. It’d be a rite of passage, really.
“...Yeah,” she said finally. “It was cool.”
Nick hopped off the other two. Tabby got back to her feet and dusted herself off, spotting her mother leaning proudly against a tree.
“You did cheat, though,” she muttered.
“Lilith smiles on teamwork, sweetie,” Winona retorted.
Nick stretched happily. “So, I’m amazing and everything and you’re pretty neat too but… why are we out here, again?”
“You need a reason?” asked Danny.
“We were going to play video games,” replied Nick. “For the first time in two months. So yes.”
Winona planted her hands on her hips. “I was already telling you.”
“Yeah, but then you started talking about ‘defying mortality’ and ‘spiteing the Old Father’ and my brain went all wobbly.”
“Then Tabby threw you into a tree,” added Danny.
“...And then Tabby threw me into a tree.”
Tabby grinned. “Yep!”
“Indeed she did,” said Winona. She tapped her fingers against her jawbone. “Was your stepfather the kind of Christian that does First Holy Communion?”
Nick cocked his head. “Ah, not the kind where you like, dress up and people give you expensive pens. But there were a bunch of Italian and Mexican kids in my class, so I think I know what you mean?”
Winona nodded. “Right. So, me and Agatha were thinking we’d do your Reclaiming after Halloween.”
Nick clicked his tongue. “Cult.” The boy somehow pronounced the word with two syllables.
Winona laughed. “Whatever you want to call it, honey.”
Nick shrugged. “I don’t mind. Cults have all the fun. Just ask Lovecraft.” Nick honestly couldn’t get into Lovecraft much. For every really cool story, the guy had like, three that were mostly just being afraid of Polish people and weird noises. Still, he used big words and that was all that mattered to Nick at the time. And Nick was pretty sure he was currently swimming down to Y'ha-nthlei.
“It’s a bit of a two-for-one occasion,” Winona explained. “We’ll be celebrating you shucking off mortality and original sin and all that human nonsense, and your adoption into the Old Colony.”
Winona and Agatha mentioned the “Old Colony” a lot, the latter a lot more solemnly. From what Nick had gathered, it more or less meant “all the monster-people in Tremontaine and Mahican State.” Something between a tribe, an extended family, and the local branch of the Illuminati. The coven.
Nick was also pretty sure the Lennox sisters were in charge of it.
Winona arched an eyebrow. “I assume you want to join our coven, Nick?”
Nick looked at the other two children. Danny seemed to be watching a pill bug crawl through the leaves at his feat, but Tabby had a clearly hopeful smile on her face.
Nick smiled, too. “Yeah. I am.” He quickly added about two percent more wryness to his smile. “Gotta join the winning team and all.”
Tabby pumped a fist. “Hell yeah!”
“So,” said Nick, rolling his tongue. “You said we’re doing this after Halloween.” He grimaced. “I don’t have to stay in the woods and fast or something for two weeks, do I?”
Winona laughed and shook her head. “Self-denial is for humans, Nick. This is more…” The vampire woman thought of an appropriate analogy. “...Shoe shopping. The ceremony’s a bit different for all the patrilines. Different all around the world, really. But here in the Old Colony, us vampires need to fetch a little something for ours.”
“A whippoorwill!” Tabby interjected.
“Exactly right. It’s almost a joke, really. The Sethites around here believe that whippoorwills, charming little nocturnal birds that—”
“I know this one!” exclaimed Nick, jumping on his heels. “Whippoorwills are supposed to sing when people die and catch their souls!”
“Ooh.” Winona golf-clapped. “You sure you’re not from around here, Nicholas?”
Nick puffed out his chest ever so slightly. “Just read a bit, you know?”
If only having read “Horror at Red Hook” would prove so useful.
“A good habit,” remarked Winona.
Tabitha giggled. “Don’t tell Simeon you said that.”
Nick gave her a flat look. “It’s not fair when you make jokes I won’t get.”
“Don’t worry,” said Winona, folding her arms. “You’ll get it soon enough.”
Winona sighed. “I invited Simeon, okay?”
Tabby threw her arms up. “Yay!” She looked at Nick and broke out laughing. “Put your jacket back on, it’ll be hilarious.”
Nick was pretty sure the correct term always was “cool,” but still, he complied.
As to be expected, Nick smelled the newcomer before he saw him. Very vampire. Pleasant, but with a sharp edge. Strawberry was the best comparison Nick could think of, if strawberries had skin like pineapples.
A boy came crashing through the trees. He was the ice-pale that was the vampire version of “Caucasian”, but slightly shorter and rounder than either Nick or Danny. His hair was a bouncy mass of metallic blond curls. He came to a stop amongst the other vampires, beaming about at them. “Hi guys!”
Tabby punched him. He fell flat back on his back, hands clutched over his nose.
Nick scowled, gesturing at the other boy. “What’d you do that for?”
Tabby blinked. “Do what?”
The blond boy sat up, tongue lapping up the blood trickling from his nostrils. “Yeah, what?” He hopped to his feet and kicked Tabby sideways in the knees. Nick could hear her bones creak from the impact.
Tabby winced. “Nice one, bro.”
Nick rolled his eyes. Vampires were such boys. Even the girls. Maybe especially the girls.
Winona pointed between the boys. “Nicholas, Simeon. Simeon, Nicholas.”
“Hello!” chriped Simeon. He trotted over and straight-up sniffed Nick.
Nick felt supremely awkward. He also wasn’t going to be outdone. He licked Simeon on the forehead.
Huh. Tastes like milk.
Simeon smiled and cocked his head. “Think you gonna need to track me by taste sometime, buddy?”
“Just go with it,” Nick said.
Tabby threw an arm around Simeon. “So, this is me and Zeke’s brother.”
“Oh.” Nick examined Simeon and Tabby. The blondeness and browness respectively and looked at Winona. “Half-bro?”
“That’s right,” she replied.
Simeon pointed at the woman. “Also, she’s my grandma.”
“Not that hard,” said Tabby. “My older sister is Simeon’s mom.”
“Yes,” said Winona. “My Charlotte.”
Immortality was weird, Nick decided. He wondered if the question he was about to ask was inappropriate, then remembered vampires didn’t give a shit about anything:
“So, is your dad around somewhere? Or does it work like boy cats?”
“Dead,” Simeon replied, still smiling.
“Oh,” said Nick. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” said Winona. “He was trying to assassinate my sister at the time.”
“Vampire-hunter,” explained Tabby.
“Knew his stuff, too,” said Winona. “Used silver and everything.”
“Wait, silver hurts us?” Nick looked about the other vampires, slightly aghast. “Why didn’t anyone tell me that?”
Tabby shrugged. “Didn’t come up.”
“Silver’s pretty common, Tabby!”
“I thought human movies were always going on about silver hurting us?” remarked Danny.
“Yeah, them too.”
“No, I mean—” Nick put his hands behind his head. “Arrggh!”
“I’m sorry,” Simeon said, lip shaking slightly.
“You didn’t do anything!” Nick took a deep breath. “Okay, why did you have babies with a vampire slayer?”
“He put up a good fight. Shame to let his seed go to waste.”
Vampires were gross.
“Wait, you didn’t…” Nick trailed off.
Winona raised an eyebrow, only for realization to light up her features. She shook her head. “Oh, no, of course not.”
Nick sighed. “Ah, good.”
“He was dead already.”
“He was dead—he was dead already?”
“Yep,” said Winona, smiling knowingly. “Still fresh, though.”
“You’re telling me you, your sister, and your daughter… fucked a dead guy? Together?”
“No. We took turns. Trust me, honey, it’s not an experience that’s improved by company.” She ruffled Tabby and Simeon’s hair, smiling. “Even if the end result was very worth it.”
The two siblings beamed proudly. Nick was gawping. He also wanted to throw up:
“What do you mean ‘how’?” asked Simeon. “It’s just like with Mother Lilith and Abel.”
“But that’s just a story!”
Tabby and Danny gasped. Nick couldn’t believe it. Tabby’s moms did a corpse, and they were gasping at him for not believing some old vampire fairy-tale. His mind scrambled to find a rationalization. Maybe it was like those Greek guys who thought if a lady did it with two dudes, they were both—
Simeon slapped Nick hard across the face, hard enough to wipe it clean off if he’d been human. A red hand briefly marred his pale face.
“Blasphemy is for the Old Father,” Simeon said evenly, face stern.
Nick rubbed his cheek. “...Sorry?”
Simeon nodded. “Apology accepted.”
Nick wondered if maybe the Collins would’ve gotten on better if they randomly attacked each other. Eh, was probably a vampire thing. He turned around. “So, whippoorwill hunt!”
The five of them traipsed through the forest together. Nick could smell a dozen different feathery scents, and had only matched maybe five to their owners yet, so he mainly followed the others lead.
Simeon started singing:
“Hanging from the family tree…”
Nick looked at him, hearing the unfamiliar melody, when Winona and the other children also joined in:
“Family tree! Family tree!”
Danny carried on tune, singing with surprising vehemence, “One branch you and one branch me!
Everyone joined in again, “Family tree! Family tree.”
God, Nick thought. Sing-alongs. He felt like he was at Bible camp again. Nick was pretty sure he sung crap like this in kindergarten. How could a bunch of twenty-something monsters be so kid?
The tune suddenly dropped out. Nick became very aware of the other children looking at him.
What? They think I know vampire nursery rhymes?
Winona saved him. “Fruit from flower and the bee!”
Nick joined in the next refrain. Nobody was going to call him a slow study. “Family tree! Family tree!”
Simeon waved a finger like a conductor’s baton. “Floating pollen no sirree!
“Family tree, family tree!”
Nick burst out into giggles. “Really, fellow badass vampires? ‘No sirree’?”
Tabby shrugged. “If that’s what it sounds like to you...”
Nick cocked his head, repeating to himself, “If that’s what it sounds like...” He looked at Simeon. “Hey, sing that bit again.”
“Floating pollen no sirree!”
Nick listened to the words more closely. They weren’t English.
“Uh, why do the words sound weird?”
Tabby and Winona both laughed, high-fiving.
“Zeke owes us ten bucks!” crowed Tabby.
Nick frowned. “What.”
“Dude,” said Tabby, “none of us are speaking English. Not even you”
“Yes we are!”
“Nope,” said Danny. “You’ve been speaking Enochian since we met.”
“Yep,” said Tabitha. “You kinda slip in and out. It’s funny.”
“The first language,” said Danny. “The language the Old Father speaks.”
“That doesn’t make any sense!” cried Nick. “I never learned Enochian or whatever!”
“Nobody learns the first tongue,” explained Simeon. “Everyone knows it. The Old Father just doesn’t let Cainites and Sethites speak it because of that big tower they built. And he’s mean. Mostly mean.”
“They still understand it, though,” said Danny.
“And I’ll tell you what,” said Winona. “It works wonders on humans when you lie in it. It’s like giving a man wandering the desert poisoned water. They don’t care if something's wrong with it.”
Suddenly the incident on the road to the Lennoxes made more sense to Nick. He rubbed his chin. “...So, why did nobody tell me about this?”
“Honestly,” said Winona, “we thought it was funny. You beat out Gren and Zeke at least. They bet you wouldn’t figure it out for another month.”
“That was mean, Granny,” said Simeon sternly.
Nick probably would have agreed with Tabby’s brother-nephew. He might have blinked again at a woman who looked younger than his mother being someone’s “Granny.” Then he might have spent some time pondering the phrase “brother-nephew.” As it was, he was too busy considering the possibilities. “Hmm. I propose an experiment, fam.”
“Yes?” said Winona.
“Tell me if I’m speaking English or Enochian.”
Everyone nodded. Nick cleared his throat. Very evenly, he said, “Shit.”
Winona and Tabby smiled. Danny’s face remained blank. Simeon answered, “French.”
Everyone looked at the blond vampire.
“...‘Pardon my French’?”
Winona decided not to ask if her grandson was joking. “English.”
Nick grinned. He let his body speak without thought. “Fuck!”
“English,” answered Danny.
Nick groaned. “I was trying for Enochian!”
“That was Enochian,” said Tabby.
Tabby smiled encouragingly. “Still Enochian!”
Nick smiled. “Hey, that one was on purpose!”
“Fucking damn it!”
“Maybe it’s the jacket thing?” Simeon suggested, leaning forward on his heels.
“Clothes,” said Simeon, closing his eyes and shaking his head distastefully. “How can you speak nature’s tongue all wrapped up in rags?”
“...What?” Nick looked up at Winona and whined, “Winona, he’s being dumb! Make him stop!”
Winona laughed. “That’s your job, sweetie.”
Nick growled and turned back to Simeon. “It’s not like people in berets can only speak French! Trust me, I’ve met Shadow!”
“Shadow can hardly speak English,” said Danny.
“You what?” Nick asked, wrong footed. “Isn’t he just, like, sorta weird?”
Tabby shrugged. “No one ever taught him English. You should listen when he tries. Kinda sad how few words he knows.”
“Oh.” Nick remembered what he was trying to debunk. “That just proves my point, but! Shadow wears clothes and he can speak Enochian whenever!”
“That’s ‘cause you still need to stop being all human,” explained Simeon gently, like he was trying to tell a four year old why they couldn’t ride the roller-coaster.
“Wha—hey!” Nick yelled. “I’m all vampire!”
“Shadow’s dad was cool enough not to teach him any of that—”
Danny smacked Simeon hard in the face. The boy’s expression was ever-placid, but he was shaking, his breathing utterly still like reverse hyperventilation.
Simeon rubbed his cheek. “...What’d I do?”
Winona put a hand on his grandson’s shoulder. “We don’t say nice things about Shadow’s father. Ever.”
What followed was the kind of awkward silence only creatures that didn’t need to breathe could manage. Tabby shuffled her feet, eyes darting questioningly between Danny and her mother. Nick somehow found her confusion comforting. Danny was still gazing at Simeon, who appeared to be frozen like a deer in headlights.
This sucked, Nick decided. The air needed cleansing. He whispered to Danny, voice so low he might as well have been blowing air into his ear canal.
Danny nodded. “Okay.”
Nick shot Simeon a grin and blurred. The other vampire yelped, suddenly wrapped in Nick’s buttoned up U-boat jacket. Nick clapped him on the shoulder. “There. Naked enough for ya?”
Simeon looked down at himself, biting his lip. Mother said the work of human hands deserved death. But said work of human hands belonged to Nick. Tearing it away would be rude. He couldn’t be rude right in front of Grandmother…
Simeon whimpered. He felt like he was trapped in a chocolate bar wrapper. It rested weirdly on his shoulders, like… bad snow. He could (wrongly) feel his power ebbing away at the very touch of it on his skin. What if Lilith was watching, somewhere? Or worse, his mother.
Danny actually smiled. It didn’t look terribly natural on him. He took his phone from his Batman belt. “Smile for the camera.”
Simeon squeaked, jumping up into the tree cover just in time for Danny to snap a picture of his bare feet. He hung by his arms from a branch like one of his presumed ancestors. “You can’t take photos of me! What if it gets on…” Simeon tried to remember some of the weird electricity books Danny liked so much. “...The Book of Faces!”
“The Book of Faces.” Nick smiled to himself, turning the words over in his head. Sounded like a Lovecraft title. Though, all the faces would probably be Italian or something.
The corner of Danny’s lips twitched. “Facebook? Only old people and creeps use that anymore!”
“And you,” Tabby said under her breath.
“Not for anything but food!” Danny looked back up at Simeon. “Just for that. I’m making an album.”
Simeon fled through the tree-tops. Danny folded his hands behind his back and nodded at Tabby and Nick. “Seize him.”
Tabby leapt into the trees with a laugh. Nick gave Danny an off-hand salute and followed, climbing into the air with a spring of his heel.
Not being terribly familiar with buttons, Simeon pulled the jacket off over his head as he flew between branches and threw it behind him, right into Nick’s face. Danny jogged at a light pace below, a rock in hand. He tossed it at a branch ahead of Simeon, blowing it clean off the tree. The boy’s foot found only empty air. He landed on his feet, only for Tabby to jump down behind him.
“Time for your photo shoot!”
She grabbed Simeon’s wrists and yanked them above his head. Nick jumped down in front of them, slipping his jacket back over Simeon. He tilted his head appraisingly. “Looks kinda good on you. Not as good as me, but still…”
Tabby nodded sagely. Simeon snarled and hissed, thrashing in her arms. “Farmers! Farmers, the lot of you!”
Nick was mildly offended. He didn’t know why. But he was. He stepped aside for Danny. For once, the boy’s utter lack of expression seemed perfectly fitting. He raised his phone, intoning in his best Austrian accent, “Say cheese, baby.”
The camera lit the forest white again and again like a photographic thunderstorm. Simeon recoiled from every click and flash like King Kong faced with all of New York. The confectured camera-app noises were soon joined by an altogether less mechanical tune. A whistling, whooping chorus that seemed to curl in on itself. Beneath that, the beating of small wings.
Nick turned his ear to the air. “Is that—”
The children broke apart, scattering into the greenery. An undeclared race had started.
Nick found a bird with mottled black and brown feathers singing idley on a lower branch. Nobody had shown him a picture of a whippoorwill, but its song was unmistakable. Nick bent his knees and pounced.
The tree was pulled aside like a theatre curtain. Nick fell through empty air onto a pile of leaves. He winced a pair of small feat dance across his back. His jacket was laid over his body like a burial shroud.
“That’s for the pictures!” Simeon jeered down at him.
Nick poked his head out from under the jacket, spitting out a few leaves. “Friggin magic.”
Danny was going for a slower approach, climbing up a tree where one whippoorwill was hard at work renovating its nest. He reached out his arm—
The whippoorwill fled in musical protest as the old oak fell sideways, taking Danny with it. The limbs of its brothers and sisters caught the tree like it was going crowd surfing.
Tabby laughed with bloody knuckles at the tree’s, split, splintered base. “Timber!”
“You’re supposed to say that before knocking the tree down,” said Danny, hanging one handed from a weedy branch.
With his free hand, Danny reached into one of his belt’s pouches and pulled out a small plastic capsule. Atonally he sang, “Na, na, na, na…”
He threw the ball down at Tabby, where it exploded into acrid grey smoke.
Danny screwed his eyes shut and dropped down into the cloud. “...Batman!”
The pair were still scuffling when the smoke cleared. They stopped when Nick cleared his throat:
Danny and Tabby looked at their mutual friend. He had a shaking whippoorwill cupped in his hands, wrapped in his jacket like a blanket. “Found my bird while you to were being dumb.”
Simeon emerged from between a couple of trees chewing loudly, a couple of feathers caught in his mouth. He swallowed. “I squeezed mine too hard.”
“Ah, caught one I see,” said Winona, venturing amongst the children with an old fashioned wrought birdcage in one hand. She smiled. “And you did it yourself! They say it’s good luck.” She squinted at the white patch on the bird’s belly. “Male, I think. The ecologists will be marginally pleased.”
Nick made kissing noises at the bird as he closed the cage door on it. He looked at Winona. “So, what do we do with him on the day? Are they like doves at weddings?”
The answer was simple. “You eat him, and thus insult mortality.”
“Oh.” Nick didn’t know what else he expected. He glanced at the birdcage. “Sorry, buddy.”
The whippoorwill sung timidly, perhaps for its own future. Simeon started singing again, too:
“Oh the bee was caught by the pretty flower…”
Winona and the other children backed her up, “Pretty flower! Pretty flower!”
Nick rolled his eyes. Total baby song.
“His pollen was mixed with her nectar's power…”
“Nectar’s power! Nectar’s power!”
Nick blinked. Wait…
Simeon beat at his chest. “Freedom from God's law and the smokey tower!”
“Smokey tower! Smokey tower!”
“New leaves burst from our branches by the hour!”
Nick smiled to himself. Maybe singing was alright.