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So here I am, Cecil Tarin, otherwise known as el Phantasmo, semi-famous superhero blessed with Undead Charisma. There are a bunch of vampires from Draculopolis searching Metro City for an artifact called the Bloody Pearl, and President Dracula is in town to try to stop them.

Unfortunately, I got my neck chomped by his rival Varney the Vampire, and I got a little of his vampire blood in my mouth. And it looks like that's slowly turning me into a vampire, too.

On the bright side, being a vampire is turning me into a major-league ass-kicker. Just ask the high school bullies I just curbstomped. Big fun, lemme tell ya. I could keep curbstomping bullies all day long, but I've decided I've earned a half-day's vacation from classes.

Once I get outside, I start thinking about what my next move needs to be. Obviously, sunlight isn't completely deadly to me, as I'm out here and haven't burst into flames yet. But honestly, it doesn't feel real good. Unpleasantly hot. I should go somewhere out of the sun. Or better yet, I should put on a mask. Luckily, I've got one of those.

After a few minutes, I find a convenient alley and get changed into my costume. Feels better already having the sun off my skin. Doesn't solve all my problems, though. The main thing I'm wondering is if I'm going to need to start drinking blood. Well, I completely don't know. I'm not all that thirsty right now, and I didn't feel any great urge to drain any of the jocks before. Maybe there's some kind of trigger? Or maybe I don't need blood -- it's not like I have much to worry about when it comes to sunlight, you know?

Maybe I'm a special vampire. Maybe I'm not a full vampire yet. Who knows? I guess I'll find out later.

Okay, now that I'm actually out of school, what do I do now? I mean, I'm wearing my costume, I guess the famous el Phantasmo could go out and fight crime, but there's not that much crime during the middle of the day unless you just happen to run into a bank robbery. And those really aren't that common.

I guess it should be pretty obvious. I should go out and find Varney the Vampire. He's the guy who vamped me out, right? Maybe I can get him to change me back. Of course, I have no damn idea where to find the bald bastard.

My communicator beeps at me.

"Hey, it's you-know-who," says the Chrome Cobra. "You in a safe place to talk?"

"I sure am," I say. "What's up?"

"I know it's gotta be late in your lunch break, but do you think you could manage to skip out on the rest of the day?"

"Oooh, is there crime afoot?"

"No, nothing like that," she says. "Kumiko has been theorizing about Varney and the Bloody Pearl, and she'd like to check you over."

"Check me over for what?"

"Well, she was thinking, since the Bloody Pearl boosts the effects of any sort of blood magic, it might boost Varney's vampiric abilities as long as he held it."

"Right," I say. "We'd already talked about it making him stronger."

"True, but Kumiko started wondering if it'd increase the, uh, the 'strength of his blood,' I think she called it. If it'd make it easier for him to create other vampires. We don't want him creating a new vampire army while he's here, and Kumiko thought, since you and Hybrid had actual contact with him last night, we might be able to use that connection to track his location."

Huh, might explain a few things. Instead of taking a week's worth of blood drainings and a big drink of vampire blood, all it took was one bite and the little bit of blood I got in my mouth when Varney puked his blood on my mask. And it might be why I've got weird abilities. Extra-strong vampire blood made me an extra-strong vampire. Or semi-vampire, or whatever I am.

I bet he doesn't even realize he did anything to me, because he doesn't really seem to know much of anything about the Pearl. I get the impression Varney is a bit of an idiot.

"So how 'bout it, Cecil?" says the Cobra. "Think you can come help us out? It might be really important."

The whole thing smells fishy. I probably ought to just avoid the Cobra and whatever she's got cooked up.

"I've got a test coming up next period," I say. "I've been studying for it for weeks. Couldn't you get Hybrid to do it?"

"We've already checked with her," she says. "She got bit, but her regenerative powers cured her too quickly. But we were hoping someone with magic-based abilities like you might retain a connection with Varney for longer."

"Don't think I can get out of that test, Cobra," I tell her. "It's a pass/fail kinda thing."

"Your class after lunch is P.E., Cecil," the Cobra says, her voice much more serious now. "And the GPS on your communicator says you're not even on the school grounds right now."

There's a flash of light behind me. Silver Protector Kumiko has just teleported in, along with the Cobra, Express, Jonni Rotten, Piledriver, and President Dracula.

"Congratulations, Phantasmo," the Cobra says. "You're officially inducted into our vampire hunting squad. The correct response I expect from you right now is 'That sounds great, I'd be pleased to help.' "

"That sounds great, Cobra," I say. "I'd be pleased to help. I was just hoping to play a little hooky from school, you know?"

"You've never willingly played hooky in your life, Phan," she says. "What's the verdict on him, Kumiko?"

"He's basically a vampire," says Kumiko. "A few differences, obviously. But in less than 24 hours, those differences will be gone."

"Aw, no way," I protest. "I like those differences!"

"Don't try to make a joke out of this," Cobra says. "This isn't the least bit funny."

"You're dying, Phan," Kumiko says, and Jonni coughs once, startled. "Your heart rate and body temperature are dropping. Once those hit zero, you're dead, and you're a full vampire for the rest of your existence."

"Oh no, that sounds awful," I say.

It doesn't really sound that awful. I kinda like being able to kick ass. And I could quit wasting time in school. And I could make Autumn Bradshaw love me. No more sunlight? Ehh, I could survive. I like the night better anyway. I always have.

And right now, I'm kinda enjoying the attention. Express keeps flickering between worry and fury. Kumiko is mostly doing her usual snooty-and-aloof act, but every little bit, I catch her looking at me like she wants to jam that silver staff through my heart -- and then looking embarrassed that she can't stop fantasizing about killing me.

I can't see the Cobra's face. She looks pretty calm, but her fingers are twitching and fidgety. She's nervous, and I'd love to find out if she's worried about my well-being or about her own. Piledriver is, compared to everyone else, almost perfectly calm, but she's watching me like a hawk.

Jonni looks as miserable as I've ever seen her, like she wants the ground to open up and swallow her away.

"Hey, Jonni," I say. "How ya doing? You've been pretty quiet."

"I'm -- I'm okay, Phan," she says. "We're gonna get you out of this, I promise."

"Thanks," I say. "I know I can trust you to help me... sweetie."

She smiles slightly for a moment, so hopeful and happy, and then it slowly collapses. I don't know whether to love or hate myself, but I am a little gratified by how angry the rest of them look.

"Please do just shut it, Phantasmo," Kumiko says.

"Jonni, you alright?" the Cobra asks.

"I'm fine," she says quietly. Then she catches herself, glares at the Cobra, and her usual rage creeps back into her voice. "I'm fine. Worry about yourself, bitch."

"Quick question," I say, pointing at Dracula. "What's he doing walking around in daylight?"

"Ms. Kumiko has cast a spell that protects me from most of the harmful effects of the sun," Dracula says tiredly. "It doesn't feel particularly pleasant, though, and I suspect I'll probably have to sleep for two or three days whenever the spell wears off. But it's too important to stop Varney and find a cure for your condition."

"Hey, don't do me any favors."

"Dammit, man, just be quiet," says Express. "You don't have a clue how serious this is."

"I just don't really see how I can be that helpful," I say. "I don't feel any psychic connection to Varney or anyone else. And my ghosts just tend to get knocked around by vampires anyway."

"You might not feel anything until after sundown," says Dracula. "Varney's brain will be completely inactive until then."

"Well, okay then," I shrug. "You guys know I'm supposed to move over to my mom's house tonight, right?"

"I've already called your mother," Cobra says. "I told her you were getting detention."

"Seriously? My folks are gonna be so pissed! I've never had detention in my life!"

"Skipping school," Cobra says. "Fighting. Putting three of your classmates in the hospital. Did you think I wouldn't hear about that?"

"Oh, yeah," I say. "You should've seen it. It was fantastic."

"Shut up, Phantasmo," Cobra says.

"What did they drag you along on this thing for?" I ask Piledriver.

"Come on, guy," she says wryly. "I like to help people. And I need to show these guys I can be helpful."

"Pff. Needy."

"And I don't know you as well as everyone else does," she says. "If you turn full vampire, I can stake you without feeling too much distress over it."

"No fucking way," I say. "You guys just brought her along to kill me?!"

"We're not going to do that," Jonni says, both of her tonfa sticks already in her hands. "I'll break you down for scrap if I have to."

"Oh, take a chill pill, you dorks," Laura says. "Did you know in the dictionary, the entry for 'gullible' reads 'Please see gullible?' "

"You guys suck," I say. "Why should I wanna go along if that's the kind of stuff you think is so funny?"

"Because you want to get the vampire who did this to you." says Piledriver. "If there's one thing I've learned from repeatedly watching my girlfriend's old horror movies, it's that the hero always wants to go kill the head vampire."

"Corny," I say. "And unrealistic."

"Corny," says Dracula. "But actually completely realistic. It's why I have to keep upgrading the security systems in my castle."

"Okay, so what are we supposed to do 'til it gets dark?" I say.

Turns out they have specific plans for what we're going to do.

Homework. Nothing but homework.

Express runs into the school at superspeed and gets my books out of my locker. They all take me to Derek's house and order Chinese. Then they make me do all my homework.

They make me do tonight's math homework. Then they make me do extra math problems 'til I'm actually sick of math.

Express supervises my science homework and gets really picky about stuff I get wrong. Cobra gives me a long lecture on Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, and John Cage, complete with downloaded music tracks played through her communicator, and when I tell her we've gone way past them in Music Appreciation, she tells me to shut up and listen anyway.

Dracula gives me a critique on next week's historical presentation, even though I haven't finished writing it yet. Part of me is glad to be getting help from someone who's actually been a part of history; part of me wants him to shut up so I can stop thinking about stupid history.

I don't even have English homework tonight, but Kumiko and Piledriver pick random poetry out of my English books and make me explicate them. They say it'll help me learn how to analyze all kinds of writing in the future. So absolutely, impossibly irritating.

Jonni's the only one who doesn't make me study anything. She spends the whole time practicing her tonfa skills on one of the big trees in Express' backyard.

And finally, the sun goes down. I can actually feel it when it's below the horizon. It's like getting a light switch turned on. I feel brighter, stronger, hungrier. And there's this little voice in my brain, singing "I know where Varney is, I know where Varney is, I know where Varney is..."

Dracula is looking right at me. "You know where Varney is, don't you?"

"I can't give you an address," I say. "But I can lead you to him. I can feel him in my blood."

"Let's hit the road," says Cobra. And we head out the door.

We end up traveling fairly slowly, unfortunately. Can't just fly all the way or I end up losing the trail, so we end up walking an awful lot. The rest of Metro City's heroes have been told that we're vampire-hunting, and they aren't to bother us unless it's beyond super-important. Atlas flies overhead at one point and waves. We see Hybrid a little while later watching us, crouched on her haunches from the top of an apartment building, but she leaps off into the distance after a minute or two.

Eventually, we arrive at Wrightson Cemetery. It's the oldest existing graveyard in the city, with the most relentlessly gothic monuments. I don't know why we didn't look here right away -- it's kinda perfect for vampires.

The trail dead-ends at an old broken-down crypt, with the gate over the entrance hanging open. The entrance is still sealed up, aside from a few cracks in the top corner.

"Easy to get through those cracks if you can take mist form," Dracula says. "Probably not so easy for the rest of you."

"Leave this to me!" Piledriver says, flexing theatrically. "Ladies and gentlemen, mortals and immortals, world leaders and everyone else in the arena! Prepare yourself for feats of unrivaled power! Brace yourself for the impossible, for the unequaled, for pure unstoppable mayhem! We'll sell you the whole seat --"

"Just open the door, you cyber-ham!" Jonni shouts.

"Pff, no taste for great entertainment," Laura grins. She slides her fingers along the side of the door 'til she's able to get a good grip, then braces her feet and starts pulling. More of the concrete edges of the crypt crack and flake away, then the entire door thunders aside with a scraping bass rumble and whine of protesting metal hinges.

"That racket probably let anyone inside know we were coming," says Kumiko.

"So sorry, Your Magicalness," says Laura. "It's a bit difficult to tear open an ancient crypt silently."

"Want me to run through and clear a path?" asks Express.

"No, we stick together," says the Cobra. "I don't want to give them a chance to get the drop on anyone."

Inside the crypt, there's a sizable hole in the floor, right between a couple of old rotten coffins. Piledriver ducks down into it to make sure it's safe -- a pretty short five-foot drop, and she's in a narrow cavern tunnel.

Cobra follows her in, then me, then Kumiko. Once she gets into the tunnel, she straightens up and bumps her head on the ceiling.

"Oww, low bridge," she says. "Watch your head when you get down here, Derek."

I almost don't hear her at all. I'm focused like a razor on her forehead, where she's gotten a scrape which is just... oozing... blood...

And then I'm lying on my back, chin hurting, my mask split open from the bottom clear up to my nose. Kumiko is holding her silver wand -- which I always figured was just ornamental -- like a bo staff, and everyone else is looking at me like I just tried to eat a baby.

"You bitch," I growl. "Did you just hit me in the face with that goddamn staff?!"

"Stay down, Phantasmo," she says quietly.

"And pull those fangs back into your skull," says Express.

"Oh god, Phan," Jonni whispers. "Oh god, oh god, oh god."

"You backstabbing bastards!" I yell. "Any of you lay another finger on me, and I'll tear your goddamn throats out!"

"Seriously, little dude," says Piledriver. "Get a grip. Retract those fangs, like immediately, okay?"

"He probably can't right now," says Dracula. "New vampires rarely get the necessary control for several weeks after they turn."

"He's not a vampire yet," says the Cobra. "We're your friends, Phan. Get yourself upright and let's get going. Kumiko, get rid of that scrape."

I slowly get back to my feet, glaring at all of them. They're all glaring at me pretty hard, too. Kumiko touches her forehead and whispers, "Celestial Jade Caduceus." When she takes her hand away, the scrape and the blood are gone. But I know she's still carrying it around under her skin. All of them are, except for Jonni, Piledriver, and Dracula.

"See, we're all good," Cobra says. "We're all on the same side. We're gonna get Varney, and we're going to get Phantasmo back to normal. No more attacking each other. I'm pretty sure I can still take all you guys down if I have to, right?"

"Sure, you bet," I say. "You're the boss, Cobra." I don't mean a word of it.

"Lead the way, Phan," she says.

And we all head back down the tunnels.

Five minutes later, we arrive at a large oblong room with at least a dozen other tunnels branching off from it. And there are seven vampires waiting for us.

"You bloodbags make so much noise, don't you?" says one of them. "Just screaming away like no one else is going to hear you."

"All of you stand down," says Dracula. "I'm your president, and you can consider that a direct order."

"You're not our president," says another. "We didn't vote for you. We're casting our votes for Varney. He'll lead us to our true heritage as vampires."

"Greetings, new little brother," says a third one, staring right at me. "Are you going to cast your lot with these mortals or with the real winners?"

"All of you can just shut up," says the Cobra. "Surrender right now, or I will fill your veins with sand."

Apparently, that's a hell of a threat in vampiredom, because the fight begins immediately.

The first one flies at the Cobra, and she karate-kicks him in the groin before he even makes a landing.

The second charges at Express. You'd expect that one to be over  fast, because speedsters are scary good in fights, but the vamp ends up being able to counter almost all of his superspeed punches.

Piledriver headbutts the third one and sends him sprawling. She could've probably wiped that one out easy, but Laura stops to make another wrestling speech and gets judo-thrown for her trouble.

Kumiko aims her staff at the fourth, but she turns into mist and flows around the staff. But if she thought she'd have an easier time in close combat, she was definitely wrong -- I kinda hate Kumiko's guts right now, but there's no doubt she can hold her own in a fight.

The fifth one manages to get its claws hooked into Jonni. But that just means he can't get away once she starts beating him with her batons.

The sixth vampire is after Dracula, fangs bared, claws out. But it doesn't look like Drac is even going to break a sweat. Patriarch vampire vs. non-patriarch vampire doesn't seem to be much of a contest.

The seventh one looks around for me. But I'm not even there anymore. I'm heading down one of the side tunnels. Let the rest of them kill each other in the chaos. I'm going to get to Varney before any of them.

The sounds of the fight fade away behind me, and I'm running in silence and darkness. Doesn't matter to me, though. I can see in the dark just fine now. I can hear things in dead silence that you wouldn't believe.

And then, finally, I've gone far enough, and there's another room, some long-lost cavern, barely outfitted with enough amenities to turn it into a living space. And Varney, that bald, rat-faced bastard, is sitting there waiting for me.

"Well, well," he sneers. "El Phantasmo. I'm quite sure my minions haven't had time to defeat your fellow 'superheroes' yet, so I'd guess you ran away from the battle. There won't be room for cowards in Varney City."

"Go to hell," I yell at him. "I don't care about your stooges. I just want to make you die."

"There won't be room for bravado either," he says. "Not unless you can back it up. I like you very well, young man -- all vampires do. But judging by your new attitude, you won't be good for much beyond the slave pens."

"Just shut up. You planned all this from the beginning."

"No, believe it or not, I didn't," Varney says. "Oh, I expected to find this little bauble here." He tosses the Bloody Pearl into the air, catches it, and peers at it closely. "I expected to use it to enslave a proper city, perhaps London or Prague. I certainly didn't plan on it being bound to this backwater. I didn't plan that it would be able to enhance my own abilities so wonderfully. And I didn't plan on turning some useless child into a new minion. I suppose I could let you live, but I'll need some assurance that you'll be loyal."

"You sure won't get that," I say. "I'm gonna kill you so hard."

"Disloyal, underage, and stupid," he laughs. "You're a neophyte. I'm a patriarch. And with the Pearl, I'm even more powerful. You're a very likeable youngster, but I'm not foolish enough to let your supernatural charisma keep me from killing you. And you'd be easy to destroy."

"You've got it backwards," I say. "You created me while holding the Pearl. That probably makes me stronger than you'd expect. I also don't have your weaknesses. Sunlight doesn't bother me. I haven't had to suck anyone's blood yet. And as for the Pearl?" It suddenly jerks out of his hand, flies through the air, and lands in my palm. "Would you like to start begging for mercy now?"

"Ah, your little ghost friends," Varney says. "Even without the Pearl, they're not very effective against vampires. Would you like a reminder of that?"

He leaps forward, shockingly fast, drives his fist into my sternum, and knocks me clear back against the wall behind me.

Before I can even react, he takes me by the arm and slings me to the other side of the room.

Then he grabs the back of my head and slams me against the cavern wall a few times.

He rakes his claws deep across my chest and neck and throws me to the floor.

I start to push myself to my feet, but he plants his foot in the middle of my back and stomps me back to the floor.

It's probably not good that I'm already lying in a pool of my own blood, is it?

"You were able to hold onto the Pearl?" he says, not even breathing hard. "I'm impressed. By all means, keep it, for at least the next minute or two. It enhances blood magic, as I'm sure you know. Unfortunately, you have no idea how to use blood magic or any vampiric powers. It's worthless to you."

"Y-Your dick's worthless to you."

"Really?" says Varney. "Those are the worst last words ever. Do you want to try again?"

"Sure, why not? You're so good at beating up my ghosts, right?"

"Obviously," he says. "Any vampire is worth at least two dozen ghosts."

"I came here through a cemetery," I say. "I decided to invite a few extra friends to the party."

I wish I could see his face. It's gotta be super impressive when 750 ghosts materialize in front of you.

He's pretty good. He manages to hold them off for about two seconds. But there are just too many of them. And they're all pissed.

I don't even have them work him over too hard. They just hold him against the wall while I struggle to my feet.

"You are a coward," he sneers as I limp over toward him. "You need to use others to do your work."

I have several acceptable comebacks for that one. I've heard the taunt multiple times from other supervillains. I've got several I use regularly. "Knowing the right people is a superpower all its own." "I use ghosts; you use fire blasts. What's the difference?" I used to use "I get by with a little help from my friends" all the time, but that's so cheesy.

But I'm not in the mood for comebacks. I'm not in the mood to talk about friends. I'm not in the mood for witty banter.

I'm in the mood for blood.

I bite into the inside of his elbow, because I figure he'll bleed like crazy there, and I'm not wrong. Tear off a chunk of meat, swallow it straight down, then here comes the blood. It's not really like a fountain, but he gushes good and steady, spurt, spurt, spurt. Tangy and coppery. Tastes great. I drink down all I can.

It's not even like real blood. I know, my first time drinking someone's blood, and I'm already such a damn connoisseur, I can tell the difference between human blood and vampire blood. But I can tell. He doesn't really have his own blood -- he has other people's blood mixed together, like when you put chocolate and strawberry syrup on ice cream and then mix it all up. It doesn't really taste like what I think it should taste like. And it's not really warm at all -- just a little below room-temperature. But it's blood, and hot fuckingdamn, do I need some blood.

Varney screams and curses at me for a little bit, then he just settles down into moaning and crying. Ha ha, asshole, you deserve it.

I don't even know how long he keeps bleeding. I keep drinking for a hell of a while, though. As long as he keeps gushing, I keep drinking. I probably had too much, but I don't care. I finally quit when the blood flow slows to a trickle.

I step away and check myself out. I'm still covered in blood, but it isn't my own anymore. If you drink enough blood, I guess it heals up your injuries. Nice to know. Something to remember for the future. Looks like I can do a little blood magic after all.

Varney really doesn't look good. He's not dead, 'cause I guess you can't kill a vampire by draining his blood. But he's kinda wrinkly and gray. Looks like a shaved possum.

I think I'm done with this town.

I wish I could take the Pearl with me. It'd make a lot of things easier. I bet a little extra strength would help me a lot. But I don't want to make a city full of vampires, and since it can't leave the city limits, I'll just have to leave it here, maybe in some other pawn shop.

Still, I can make some use of the Pearl while I'm here. I can go find Autumn Bradshaw and make her like me. I can go get some of the other girls from school -- Melody Sutton, Mae Collier, Andrea Schubert, Lena Gomez, Sharon Armendariz. I wouldn't mind snagging Miss Mega or Squiddie, but they'd probably be a lot more trouble than they're worth.

Still, get me a harem and hit the road. Maybe kill a few people. Sounds like a plan.

There's a scrape on the cavern floor behind me, and I turn around just as Jonni runs into the room. Her eyes go wide when she sees me.

"Oh my god, Phan!" she shouts. "What did that maniac do to you?! Come on, we can get everyone else back from the side tunnels and have Kumiko heal you up!"

"Hey, don't worry, Jonni," I say, smiling. "I came out on top. See? No injuries, and I drained Varney almost dry. Everything's going great."

"I'm pretty sure you're supposed to avoid drinking anyone's blood," she says. "I don't know that it's all that bad for you right now, but it's just not really... nice."

"I don't care about nice right now," I shrug. "I'm blowing this popsicle stand, pretty lady. Wanna come with me? As long as I've got the Bloody Pearl, there's a chance I could maybe make you a vampire. Gotta be better than being a zombie, right?"

"No," she says. "You can't leave. You've beaten Varney, you've got the Pearl, now we need to get you back to normal. I don't wanna be a vampire, and ultimately, I don't think you wanna be one either."

"Okay, listen, what I want is to not be in Metro City anymore," I say. "I'm tired of being in school. I'm tired of getting bullied around by kids my age and the Chrome Cobra and other superheroes and every damn supervillain I run into. I've got some pretty awesome powers right now, and I'd like to bug out of here while I still can. I don't wanna get dragged along to Draculopolis, I don't want the Cobra telling me what to do, and I don't want to run the risk that Kumiko or the Piledriver will pound a stake through my heart just to get me out of the way. Is that what you want?"

"No, of course it isn't," she says. "But we can get you back to normal. Don't you want to be normal?"

"To hell with normal," I say, grabbing her hands. "Come with me, Jonni. We can get away from here. I don't mind how you look anymore. We can go away and be together forever."

She sobs once. She can't cry -- no tear ducts. But she sobs, and a smile flickers across her face.

God, I can't believe she's buying this. What a complete sucker.

"Just come with me," I tell her. "We can set up shop in Los Angeles or New York or Tokyo, you can beat the crap out of people, I can drink all the blood I can, and we can completely rule our corner of the planet. You know it'll be great. You know you'll love it."

"I don't know, Phan," she says. "I've built up a good, well, existence here. My whole family is buried here. I couldn't leave all that behind, not without really good reasons. Why couldn't we be together here?"

"Because I want to leave, and because I want you to come with me. Come on, I love you, and I'm pretty sure you love me, right?"

She grabs my hands tight, looks into my eyes, and gets a more serious expression. I think she's bought it this time for sure.

"Phantasmo," she says. "I know all about the Undead Charisma. I know how it affects ghosts. I know how it affects me. For the most part, I don't care. It's easy to forget. It's easy to let myself forget. It feels really, really good to be in love, and sometimes, it's just so easy to say, who cares if it's fake, let me feel like I'm a normal girl, like I can have normal feelings, like there's hope for me."

"Come on, Jonni. There is hope for you. It's not fake, it's completely real. Let yourself believe that."

"I can't," she says. "Not for my sake. I don't really care about me. But for your sake. Because this vampire stuff has messed your mind up bad. So I need to take this away from you."

She steps away, and I realize she's got her rotten hands on the Bloody Pearl.

"Jonni, what the hell?" I shout. "Give it back! Give me that goddamn pearl, you zombified bitch!"

She pushes the Pearl into the front pocket of her jeans and gives me a sad smile. Goddammit, I hate that pitying expression. Just completely goddamn hate it!

"I don't have time for this!" I yell. "Ghosts! Get me that pearl back! And take this corpse to pieces for me!"

"No," she says. "Ghosts, listen to me. I know you all feel so much love for him, like I do. Maybe not exactly the same, but we all like him so damn much. But you can tell he's not normal. You can tell he's dying! And you know he's not going to agree to get the help he needs."

"Ignore her! Get me that damn pearl!"

"He won't agree to get help, so I'm afraid I'm going to have to make him," she says. "I promise you, I won't kill him, because I don't kill anyone. All of you know I don't kill anyone, ever. But to help him, I'm going to have to hurt him."

"Are you spectral losers just going to fucking ignore me?!"

"I may have to hurt him a lot," she says, drawing her tonfa sticks. "But for his sake, please, please... don't help him."

There's a sigh in the air, and I feel all of them, all 750 of the ghosts I brought with me, all of them pull away from me.

"Goddamn traitors," I snarl. "I don't need any of you. I can tear her to ribbons all by myself!"

"I'm so sorry, Phantasmo," she says. "I think I really do love you, Undead Charisma or not. But I'm going to have to beat you up now."

There's a bolt of lightning that hits the side of my head, and I find myself down on one knee, wondering who just shot me in the face. I look up, and she's spinning one of her tonfa in one hand. Did she just hit me? 'Cause I didn't even see her move.

Another bolt of lightning hits, and I'm kissing the cave floor. I didn't see that one either. How the hell could she hit so damn hard?

I jump to my feet. I'm an unstoppable creature of the night -- you think a few bumps on the head can even slow me down? So she gives me another couple of bumps on the head. And then another couple more. And then... Well, I eventually get both of the batons away from her. What's she gonna do without weapons?

Well, I guess she could pull out that staff she keeps strapped to her back. She immediately knocks the tonfa sticks out of my hands. She then hits me in the stomach, both feet, my balls, and my chin.

I try to tell her how much I hate her, how much she disgusts me, how much I want to puke every time I look at her, but I'm down to pretty much just incoherent screaming while I charge at her. She answers me by breaking my arm -- which really, really goddamn hurts! -- and clouting me in the face at least six times with the staff. I kinda lost track toward the end. God, I hate her. I'd hate her even more if I could just focus on where she was standing.

Another thump into my stomach doubles me over, then she knocks me in the face so hard, I think my feet actually leave the floor. By the time my vision clears, she's standing over me, staff raised for another blow.

"Y-You ruined it all for me, Jonni," I croak. "I'll n-never forgive you for this..."

"Neither will I," she says sadly, and she swings the staff down again.

When I wake up, I'm still on the cavern floor. Everything hurts, from my feet to my face, and everything in between. My vision is totally blurry, but I can make out Express and the Cobra next to me, trying to bandage me up. Kumiko is standing over me, holding her staff in the air. Jonni walks up and hands her the Bloody Pearl.

"Clear to the side," Kumiko says.

"Just a second," says Cobra.

"CLEAR!" Kumiko shouts, and Cobra and Express scoot away from me.

"Curative Blood THUNDERBOLT!"

Something hits me in the chest and bounces me off the ground. I hear someone screaming and realize it's me.

"Goddamit, woman, let me splint his arm first!" yells Express over the noise.

"We don't have time!" Kumiko yells back. "Medicinal Hemoglobin SCOURGE!"

It feels like my heart is exploding. Hell, it feels like everything is exploding.

"Knock him out, Kumiko!" Cobra yells. "Get him unconscious now!"

"Alright, alright!" she shouts. "Primeval Arcane ANASTHETIC!"

And I wake up again, later, much later. I'm still in the cavern, but everything is a lot quieter, and a lot less painful.

"Welcome back to the land of the living!" Piledriver says happily, looming over me. "May I interest you in a corn dog?"

"Oh, back off a minute, Quinn!" Kumiko says, hustling her out of the way. "I have nothing but good news for you, Phantasmo. We've purged the corrupted vampire blood from your system, thanks to me casting every blood purification spell I knew while holding the Bloody Pearl. I've also gotten your various broken bones healed, along with the other traumas Jonni inflicted. I believe the Cobra actually took photos of your face, if you want to see what you looked like -- something about 'documenting Jonni's artistry.' Honestly, I wouldn't advise looking at them -- I don't think I've ever seen anything so gross."

"The man almost certainly needs corn dogs, Kumiko," says Piledriver. "He needs solid food and protein to build his strength back up. Corn dogs, Phantasmo!"

"Let him drink something first," says the Express, handing me a small glass of liquid.

I drain the whole thing as fast as I can. Tastes weird, but I'm just glad it's not thick, red, and salty.

"What is this stuff?" I ask.

"It's Pedialyte," he says.


"You threw up a lot," says Express. "Drink all of this you can stand. And no solid food for at least another hour. Might keep you from puking it all up again."

I finally get to look around a little. Piledriver, Express, and Kumiko are still hovering over me. The Cobra is standing a few feet back looking impatient. Jonni is standing against a distant wall, seemingly trying to blend in with the shadows. President Dracula is checking the dematerialization-proof handcuffs and muzzles on the other vampires, including Varney. And my ghosts are back to swirling around me, whispering apologies and reassurances where only I can hear them.

"So he's going to survive, right?" asks the Cobra.

"Not a doubt," says Kumiko. "I've got him healed up good as new."

"Yeah, he's fine," says Express. "I'd still recommend he take a day off tomorrow -- school and patrolling -- to get some more recovery time."

"Good to hear," Cobra says. "Now gimme some breathing space so the two of us can talk."

They help me sit up, then everyone else helps President Dracula start hauling the other vampires out of the cavern. Once everyone is out of the room, the Cobra sits on the floor next to me.

"Cecil," she says.

"Ms. Cobra," I reply.

"Every piece of clothing you're wearing is utterly ruined," she says. "That's probably a minor issue, all things considered, but are we going to have to strip you naked and make you walk home?"

"Are you joking or serious?" I say. "I'm sorry -- I just can't always tell the difference with you."

She sighs. "Partly joking. No, we wouldn't take your clothing. But you are completely covered in blood, and I don't really want to send you home that way."

"Well, it's a Futorium costume," I say. "It'll wash out."

"Sure, it'll wash out," she says. I can almost see her rolling her eyes at me. "But for stuff like blood, you can't just throw a Futorium atom costume in the washer. You gotta wash it by hand to have any chance of working the stains out. And even your mom would notice you spending a couple hours running bloody water down the kitchen sink. And even then, you don't want to leave a pile of torn, bloody clothing in a pile in the middle of your bedroom, right?"

"Okay, in that case, I have no idea what to do about it," I say. "Should we have Kumiko magic the blood off me?"

"Let's not," she says. "We're starting to rely on her too much as it is. And it's probably insulting to ask her to use magic to do your laundry for you. To be honest, I think we should consider that particular outfit done for. Get home invisibly, put the clothes in a garbage bag, and tomorrow, give me a call. I'll have Express pick up the bag and get it shipped back to the Futorium Support Foundation."

"Okay," I say. "I'm just being nothing but trouble for everyone today, aren't I?"

"I think it'd be unfair to blame any of this on you," she says. "You didn't ask to get bitten, no one had any clue the Bloody Pearl would let Varney start turning you so quickly, and once the process started, your brain basically went into meltdown mode. I'm not wrong, am I?"

"No, ma'am," I say. "I think you're right."

"Having said that, however, you've got a hell of a lot of people to apologize to, don't you?"

"I do," I say. "I have a lot of 'em. I'm gonna get kicked out of school, too, aren't I?"

"Honestly, I don't think you are," she says. "I think I'll be paying your principal a visit tomorrow morning to let him know that your behavior was caused by a vampire bite. We were able to cure you in time, luckily."

"You really think that'll let me off the hook?"

"Not entirely," she says. "You're pretty much going to be apologizing to everyone in school, right? Everyone you acted like a dick to? Those guys you put in the hospital?"

"God, I guess so," I say. "No way I can even fight back when they bully me, right?"

"Well, at least you already didn't like these guys," she says. "When I was in school, I always wound up getting into fights with my friends. Most of 'em never spoke to me again. And these guys may not even bother you after this. You may have scared them off. They may have decided you're cool now. Boys are weird that way."

"I've still got lots of other people to apologize to," I say. "All my actual friends at school. My parents probably think I'm in jail or the hospital right now. And, um, I'm sorry for being such a dick, ma'am."

"Pfff," she snorts, slapping me on the shoulder. "I already said I wouldn't blame you for any of it. Still, I'll accept the apology, 'cause you were totally a dick."

She pauses, then says, "Good luck on your other apologies. Good luck on that one in particular."

The other apologies go alright. Piledriver and Express both laugh it off. Kumiko gives me a hug; it's nice to be hugged by pretty superheroes. Dracula shakes my hand and says, "Now you know why I decided to stop being a predator." He also tells me that Draculopolis is going to pay for the bullies' hospital bills, just to make sure my folks don't have to. And the Cobra even calls both my parents to give them the official story about why I've been off-the-grid all day.

And finally, we're all splitting up for the night, so I say, "Jonni, walk me home, okay?"

"I dunno, Phan," she says. "I don't know where you live. I don't want you endangering your secret identity, alright?"

"Jonni, walk him part of the way home," Cobra says. "The kid's been multiply traumatized tonight -- let's make sure he can make it home without passing out."

So we start out. It's late enough by now that the streets are mostly deserted, but to make sure no one bothers us -- I am still pretty plastered in blood, after all -- I have my ghosts do a little one-way invisibility thing. Jonni and I can see each other, but no one else can see us.

We've been walking in completely awkward silence for a few minutes when I realize I've got to say something eventually, so I take a deep breath and dive in.

"Jonni, I think I really need to thank you for... well, for everything, for saving my life."

"No," she says. "Don't thank me. I beat the crap out of you, Phan. Don't thank me for that."

"If you hadn't done it, Kumiko wouldn't have been able to reverse the vampirism thing," I say. "I would've died and turned into a vampire permanently. I would've left Metro City, left my family -- fucked-up however much it may be -- left my friends. I probably would've killed some of my friends and gone all the way into supervillainy. You only did what you had to do."

"Oh god, Phan, no," she says. "I did more than I had to. I could've knocked you out so much faster than I did. I think -- I think I was enjoying it. It's like -- god, I am so sorry, but I felt like I was getting back at you."

"Well, okay, I'm not saying I was having any fun while it was going on," I say slowly. "But vampire-me had said a lot of really terrible things. I think I deserved some of that."

"I wasn't just doing it to vampire-you," she says. "I was hitting regular-you, too. Because -- sometimes, I do like being in love, but sometimes, I know my emotions are being manipulated, even if you aren't doing it on purpose. Sometimes, that just makes me mad. And so I unleashed everything on you. I'm so sorry, I really am."

"But I --"

"No, wait. It's not just the manipulation. It's that your powers make me love you, and a lot of the time, you still can't hide how much I disgust you. I mean, you can barely keep from throwing up when you look at me! I don't know whether to run away and bury myself somewhere or to beat the holy goddamn crap out of you! It's like going through high school all goddamn over again!"

"J-Jonni, listen," I say. "I'm sorry, but there is just no way, no possible way I could -- I mean, you're -- I like you, Jonni, you're completely cool, and you kick ass, and you're nice to me even when you're being mean to everyone else. But I'm never going to be able to be attracted to a zombie."

"And if you ever are, I'm going to kick your ass even harder," she says vehemently. "Necrophiles are the worst."

"So what are you wanting me to do?!" I yell. "You're mad because I think kissing a zombie is gross, and if I didn't think it was gross, you'd be angrierWhat do you want me to do?!"

She steps back and spreads her hands. "You know what? I don't want you to do anything. I know it doesn't make any sense. I want you to love me instead of being disgusted, and if you ever did love me, I'd be disgusted by you. It pisses me off that the stuff I want is so contradictory. Just -- Just try to understand me. I think that's what I want. Try to understand me."

"I can barely understand girls at school," I say. "But I'll do my best."

We knock fists. That's what superheroes do, ya know.

"And I'm sorry," I say. "I said awful things before. I never would've said it or even thought it if I'd been in my right mind. But I still said a bunch of terrible things, and I'm ashamed that any of it came out of my mouth. And I'm also sorry that my powers do all this stuff to you. I'm sorry for all of it, really I am."

"Dude, all is forgiven," she says.

And I guess I'm feeling like one more grand gesture is needed. We're the two superheroes with the most direct connections to death -- it seems like we should be closer somehow.

So I take my mask off.

"Wait, what are you doing?" Jonni says.

"I'm unmasking, obviously," I say. "Even if you freak me out sometimes, I really do think you're a good friend, Jonni. And I think the fact that we've got this weird undead connection means I shouldn't mind letting you know who I am and what I look like."

"Well, great," she says. "First, I have no idea what you look like. Seriously, man, you're still covered in blood. You look like one big blood spatter, and I couldn't see your face if I wanted to. And second, do not tell me your name. I don't know why you're getting all let-me-reveal-my-secrets-to-you, but you do not want me to know your real name, unless you like the idea of me getting into one of my moods and looking in your window at all hours of the night. Your parents would completely freak."

"Ahh, well, okay. I don't guess I thought of that." I put the mask back on.

"Wow, I'd forgotten how goofy high school kids were," she laughs. "Always with the grand gestures. Here, man, just gimme a hug. I promise, no kisses this time."

So we hug each other, and it's not even that bad. But she does hang on for a little longer than I'd rather.

She finally lets me go, smiles, and knocks me on the shoulder. "You can make it home from here, right? I'm starting to get in the mood to go beat up some super-criminals."

"Yeah, it's less than a dozen blocks from here," I say. "The ghosts will make sure I get there okay."

"Alright, take it sleazy," she says. She puts both hands in the air. "Let's go, guys, gimme some undead high-fives."

A bunch of swirls of vapor coil off of me and swish their semi-translucent hands through hers.

"Be good to this little twerp," she says with a laugh. "I bet I can beat even you guys up if I have to."

She takes off down the street at a slow jog, swinging her tonfa sticks around in her hands. Then she stops suddenly, looks around at me, and gives me a thoroughly nasty grin.

"Hey, Phantasmo!" she calls back to me. "Just wanted to  remind you -- the Chrome Cobra actually called your parents and told them you'd almost been turned into a vampire -- and you're covered in blood, you've got zombie stink on you, and you're wearing your costume. So right now, they're probably wide awake and waiting for you to get home. Good luck on trying to sneak into your house!"

And she actually skips down the street, laughing evilly.

Oh, crap. I think I'm definitely getting grounded now.

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