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So we need a summary, right? Fine. My name's Cecil Tarin, and I'm also el Phantasmo, ghost-wielding superhero. I just met Metro City's newest superhero, cyborg and former pro wrestler Piledriver, earlier tonight. I had to help fight off an appearance of Mot, an ancient death god -- not that I was a lot of help after he stole a bunch of ghosts off of me. Then I had a run-in with Jonni Rotten, who is disturbingly in love with me because of my Undead Charisma.

And then I get home to find Dracula himself waiting for me.

Believe it or not, this isn't the first time I've met him. It's not even the fifth time I've met him. I spent two days last year visiting his home nation to help fight off an attempt by Lady Nocturne to take over Draculopolis. We got along pretty well, which isn't surprising since all undead creatures like me. I'm a little irritated that he didn't leave the lights on in the living room -- I would've recognized him then, and I wouldn't have gotten slammed up against the walls so many times trying to fight him.

Anyway, Gearbox comes barreling through the door after a couple of minutes, followed almost immediately by the Chrome Cobra. They both pull up short when they see the vampire sitting on the couch.

"What is Dracula doing in your house, Phantasmo?" asks Gearbox.

"Quiet, Gearbox," says the Cobra. "Phan, what the hell is Dracula doing in your house?"

"If you're going to talk about me like I'm not here," says Dracula, "You could at least use my official title."

"Oh, I'm so sorry, President Dracula," Cobra says with almost lethal sarcasm. "Do you think I could remind you that I'm not a public official and there's absolutely no protocol for requiring or even requesting that a civilian address or even recognize the titles of a foreign head of state?"

"There's no reason for that sort of attitude, Ms. Cobra," he says. "Draculopolis is an ally of the United States. You've been a welcomed guest of my nation more than once. You've even been awarded the Crimson Gallantry Pendant for service to me and my people."

"Forgive me, Mr. President, but I don't like surprises," she says. "And there's no bigger surprise than finding the King of the Vampires kicking back in the private home of a local superhero."

"I'm the duly- and democratically-elected president, Cobra," he says, somewhat impatiently. "I haven't been a king in almost a century."

"I'm sorry, I really need to interrupt right now," I break in, pointing at my dad, still slumbering at the kitchen table. "Did you suck my dad's blood? Because if you did, I'm going to fuck you up bad. I don't care if you can punch my ghosts around."

"No, Mr. Tarin, I didn't. You should know as well as anyone that we don't do that sort of thing anymore. A light touch of hypnosis, that's all. I didn't figure he'd accept my presence in the house, and I didn't think you'd want him remembering a scene like this."

"Alright, alright," says Gearbox. "I'm tired of listening to you biologicals bitch at each other. Your stupid mammal emotions are getting the better of all of you."

"Okay, fine, fine!" Cobra says. "You're the world leader here, Mr. President. Fill us in on what you're doing in Metro City."

"Basically, the destruction of a city," Dracula says. "Not necessarily this city, but a city, somewhere in the world. A group of rogue vampires believe there is an artifact in Metro City, the Bloody Pearl, which can create a second Draculopolis -- the population of an entire city transformed into vampires, the city itself eternally shrouded in darkness, shielded from holy symbols, sustained on mystically replenishing rivers of blood, but under the telepathic control of a single elder vampire."

"Okay, do you know where this Bloody Pearl is?" asks Gearbox. "Or how it's supposed to work?"

"No, I have no idea on either question," Dracula says. "I only know that it's being sought, and what it's rumored to do."

"Why did you bring this to us?" I ask. "This sounds like something the Council of Thaumaturges should be dealing with."

"I would prefer not to involve the Council in this," he says. "The Pearl can also be used to revoke the magical wards protecting Draculopolis. And while the majority of the Council accepts our existence, there are some members who I suspect would be very pleased to possess an artifact that could be used to destroy most of the world's vampires."

"Okay, not real pleased with that, for the record," Cobra says. "If we're talking about something that could turn a few million people into vampires, that's something I want a hell of a lot of people working to prevent."

"I'm sorry, but I have my own city to protect," he says. "I don't want the Pearl used on any city, including my own. And to be honest, I don't believe there's a need for a large number of people to foil the plot. If I know Metro City's superheroes, they should be more than enough."

"Alright, who did you bring along to help out?" Gearbox asks. "And who do we have to fight?"

"Ah, that's where the bad news comes in," he says. "I am, unfortunately, a man betrayed. I came in pursuit of an unknown coterie of vampire conspirators and was accompanied by Defense Minister Varney and his hand-picked strikeforce of almost two dozen vampire soldiers. Unfortunately, Varney and his strikeforce were themselves the conspirators behind the plot. I was quite fortunate to escape them, and I certainly hope they think I'm dead."

"Okay, that almost entirely sucks," says the Cobra. "Does Varney know where the Pearl is? He may already have it by now."

"I don't think he knows," Dracula says. "I can't say for sure, but he's had our scholars working overtime to try to pin down its location. He seemed to feel progress was being made and assured me that it would be inside Metro City, but I suspect he hopes to rely on his vampiric senses to sniff out the artifact."

"Alright, now for a really hard question," Cobra says. "Why did you bring all of this to Phantasmo's house? Come to think of it, how did you even know who he was in the first place?"

"Ahh, yes, that is a hard question," the vampire says, looking a bit uncomfortable. "May I be honest? Espionage."

"Oh, this is going to be fun," says Gearbox.

"Alright, I hope you'll take this as a compliment," Dracula says. "We like you, Cecil. All vampires like you, and we realize that's your special power, but we like you anyway. And so our intelligence forces did some research on you, did some tracking and tracing, and found out your name and address. It's still Need-to-Know information -- I suspect fewer than one percent of the entire population knows who you are. But once I needed somewhere I could go when I got to Metro City, I realized I could just come to see you, rather than try to remember where the city's public-identity heroes lived."

"You are so totally busted, Mr. President," says Gearbox.

"On a somewhat related note," I say, "How did you find out my real name, Gearbox?"

He takes a moment before answering. "Espionage. Sorry, sorry. You called your folks once on your communicator, and you can't just expect me to resist the temptation to trace calls like that, man."

"Okay, we've got all -- or at least most -- of our cards on the table," says the Cobra. "Can I go ahead and mobilize the rest of the city's heroes on this one?"

"Everyone except for the Council stooge, I suppose," says Dracula.

"Good luck on that one," I say. "Kumiko's been trying to catalog all the city's magical artifacts. The minute she learns someone's trying to track any of them down, she'll be there."

"Yeah, either to help find it or to smack everyone down," says Gearbox. "If you try to keep it all secret, she'll be much more likely to hit us all with Auspicious Lavender ANVILS."

"Yeah, I do think we'll be better off getting her help," Cobra says. "I don't think she'll immediately call in the Council -- not that you'd be able to keep them from hearing about a military vampire invasion force eventually."

He grumbles about it, but there's not a lot he could do to change our minds. The guy may run a small nation, but he's got no idea how things work here in superheroville. While the Cobra starts calling the other heroes in town, I go collect my dad and lead him to his bed. No reason to leave him to sleep hunched over at the table all night, right?

By the time I get back, Dracula and the Cobra are arguing again.

"We really need to begin the search tonight," Dracula is saying. "We don't dare give Varney or his minions any more of a head start."

"We can't do it," Cobra says. "We've had no time to organize any sort of search. We don't know what to look for. We haven't done a bit of research. And it's already late -- the heroes who've been on patrol tonight are tired, and we've got to get you into a coffin before the sun comes up. Wait, do you even have anywhere you can go to? Varney knows where your safehouse is, right?"

"If necessary, I believe my status as a visiting head of state should allow me to get my rest in your local City Hall."

"Don't you need a coffin?" asks Gearbox. "Or your native soil?"

"I prefer them, but they're not necessary," he says. "The old legends never seem to die out, even when they're not true."

"We're not going to have you sleep in the basement of City Hall," says Cobra. "There's no guarantee of your safety there. And any public location like that will alert Varney that you're alive. It's to our benefit if he thinks you're dead and no one knows he's here."

"Well, I could sleep in your hideout, I suppose."

"Like I'm giving you any hint of my secret identity?" scoffs the Cobra. "That's just not going to happen, Mr. Espionage."

"Does Varney know any of the secret identities of the other superheroes in Metro City?" asks Gearbox.

"Just the public ones," says Dracula. 

"So he doesn't know Cecil's?"

"No," he says. "I don't believe he does."

"Well, there we go," says Gearbox. "You can stay here."

"My dad will probably notice a vampire sleeping in my bedroom," I say. 

"I can hypnotize him to ignore me," he says. "And I could sleep under the bed where he'd never even notice me."

"Oh, great, a vampire hiding under my bed," I groan. "Maybe we can also put some werewolves in my closet, too."

"No, I think this'll work," Cobra says. "Gearbox, mum's the word on where he's staying, not even to other heroes. Sound good? Yes, it does, no arguing. Everyone get situated and get some shut-eye -- I'm declaring the night's patrol over."

And that basically settles it. Cobra and Gearbox leave, Dracula goes to re-hypnotize my dad, and I try to figure out how I'm ever going to get any sleep with a vampire sitting at my desk sucking on a blood bag like a juice box.

Okay, it isn't actually that hard. I've got ghosts in various states of decay hanging around me all the time. I always sleep like a baby.

The next morning, I wake up, the undead president of a foreign nation is catatonic under my bed, and my dad is completely spacey. He asks me two or three times if I want to go to the car show with him this weekend, even though he knows I don't like cars the way he does. He probably didn't get nearly enough sleep last night, even with the vampire hypnosis.

I try to be patient with his automotive obsessions, but I eventually have to just ignore him. I focus on eating breakfast, get my books together, and head off to school.

Ya know what's kinda funny? We just studied Draculopolis last week in my World History class. I had trouble with the pop quiz at the end of the week, 'cause half the stuff in the textbook was wrong. They got some stuff right -- used to be called Transylvania, founded by Dracula in 1888, protected by powerful magic to keep it dark all the time, Romania and Hungary still dispute the territory, etc., etc.

Yeah, some vampires sided with the Axis during World War II, but the country as a whole was officially neutral. Yes, there are quite a few vampires who'd rather attack and kill normal humans, but most of them are okay with the Harker Accords -- turns out, when you don't put the fang on humans all the time, humans don't try to stake you all the time. And it probably helps that anyone can turn on the faucet in Draculopolis and get a glass full of fresh blood, all provided by magic.

Still, there's a lot of fear of vampires, mostly driven by pop culture and politics. But I've met enough of them that I can tell ya, the worst thing about most vampires is that their breath stinks. You try drinking a coffee mug full of blood and tell me how your breath smells. A banquet hall full of vampires smells worse than Jonni Rotten on a hot day.

Anyway, before I get to school, I get a call from Gearbox. I tell him the president is sound asleep, and he fills me in on other developments from last night. Kumiko is on board with keeping this a secret from the Council of Thaumaturges, at least for 48 hours. Gearbox is the only hero working the case right now -- mornings are rough for super-people 'cause we're all either going to school or work or we're catching up on the sleep we missed while patrolling. Anyway, Kumiko and the Cobra both have him doing some research on possible artifact locations.

Nothing for me to do but try to get through another day at Robert Kanigher High School.

Sometimes, I think I should be more weirded out by how bizarre my life is. I mean, I spend a lot of my off-hours flying around the city fighting super-criminals and giant monsters and alien invasions, and then during the day, I go to school and live a completely normal, dull life. This should be completely astonishing to me, but I just feel so totally accustomed to it. Sometimes, it strikes me when I'm sweating over an English test, and I think hey, just last night, the Society of Lycaon almost beef-jerkied me, so I wonder if I should tell Mrs. Griswold about that so she'll give me a few extra points on the curve. But really, for the most part, I just accept that it's the way my life works.

So here's how the day goes.

Pre-Class: Cool Stuff: I get to play a fast game of Magic with Bud Mooney and Toby Whitney. They tell me the Star Trek marathon last night was pretty sweet.

Pre-Class: Uncool Stuff: Jared Shaffer and Alex Riley kick our decks over. I had to order the ghosts not to go mess 'em up.

First Period: Cool Stuff: Percy Morse shows me the new set of polyhedrals he got last weekend. Solid black with green specks in 'em. Really gorgeous. And we don't have much to do in class, 'cause everyone's doing their historical presentations, and mine isn't due 'til next week.

First Period: Uncool Stuff: All the presentations are really dire. Eve Noone decided she didn't want to do anything on the Civil War -- she wanted to talk about the Bible instead. Mr. Pyle rescheduled her for next week and told her he'd flunk her if she didn't do the presentation she was assigned. Just embarrassing.

Second Period: Cool Stuff: Math class! Always awesome.

Second Period: Uncool Stuff: Nothing uncool. It's math class!

Third Period: Cool Stuff: Autumn Bradshaw is just divine. I mean, so absolutely spectacular. Miniskirt. Could not. Stop. Staring.

Third Period: Uncool Stuff: Autumn Bradshaw never notices me. And she's going out with Robert Marquis, and I hate him so much.

A-Lunch: Seems like all the really interesting stuff happens at lunch. Unfortunately, it's nearly always uncool.

So I'm in line with Quinton McDonald and Bud Mooney, looking to score some of those delicious cafeteria Salisbury steaks, and we get blatantly cut on by, of all people, Skarf Shelley, Abe Pillot, and Helen Bustillo, who are all so emo-goth, it's a wonder they don't commit suicide every other day. Bud asks 'em what the heck, and Skarf actually says, "Shut up, nerds." Which is just insane, because Quinton's been getting his growth spurt on, and he might be able to beat up all three of them all by himself. But it's not like any of us would actually start a fight anywhere, so as usual, we just let people walk on us.

"Ugh, this damn school," says someone behind me. I turn around, and it's Lena Gomez.

"Hey, Lena, what's up?" I say.

"Oh god, Cecil, every time you talk to me, Melody starts making more trouble for me."

Yeah, Lena is always worried that Melody Sutton and her crew of popular girls are going to embarrass her, so she always tries to go wallflower in public. She's actually okay -- not too likely to be mean, and she's even stuck up for people who're getting bullied. All that, plus she's really cute.

"She doesn't watch you constantly," I say. "She has plenty of other people to abuse."

"She doesn't watch anyone constantly. Just when it'll be inconvenient. And she's like four tables away, so stop talking to me."

A tater tot flies between us and hits one of the cafeteria ladies. She looks up and jabs a finger behind us.

"Mr. Sanger!" she says loudly. "Pretty girl over here is throwing food!"

And there goes Mr. Sanger, the school discipline officer, marching across the cafeteria, looking like someone laughed at his toupee, making a beeline for the Mean Girls table.

"This one, Mrs. Morvin?" he asks.

"That's the one."

"Oh no, not Autumn!" I find myself saying out loud. Oopsie.

"Quiet, Mr. Tarin," Sanger says as he leads the Love of my Life towards the door. Oh, and now that rotten Robert Marquis is glaring at me. Time to turn around and pretend the green bean casserole is super-fascinating.

"You dork," Lena says. "Autumn's almost as bad as Melody is."

"No, she's completely awesome," I say. "I think she was trying to hit me!"

"God, boys are so stupid," she grumbles.

Once I get my lunch, I head for the table where Quinton, Bud, Toby, Percy, and Gerald Horn are sitting.

"Nice going, Cecil," says Gerald. "You got one of the Alpha Pack in trouble. Your life is over."

"I didn't do anything," I say. "It was the cafeteria lady."

"Barn Broadside isn't going to beat up a cafeteria lady," says Toby. "He'll have to settle for you."

"In your memory, we're gonna run an epic Pathfinder campaign this Saturday," says Bud. "If you're out of the hospital by then, you can bring that dumb dwarf cleric you love so much."

"You guys never recognize the sheer awesomeness of Brother Tinkles," I say.

"I recognize a lot of terrible psychological insights about Brother Tinkles," says Bud. "What I don't recognize is oh shit, Cecil, you should maybe run now."

Well, yeah, I was already getting silent alarms from the ghosts. Robert Marquis coming up behind me fast. Quick decision: to run? To let the ghosts help me dodge whatever's coming, like I usually do? To just sit there and let it happen?

Seconds to decide, but I go with letting it happen. Every time the jocks throw something at me, I have the ghosts deflect it. But it'll get really suspicious if every one of Robert's punches just barely miss me. So it's oh-god-let-this-be-over-fast time.

Well, it could've been worse. I was kinda expecting a fist to the back of my neck (in which case, I'd hope the ghosts could pad the impact enough). But all I get is Robert grabbing me by the back of my head and pushing my face into my refried beans. A bit hot, a bit humiliating, better than spinal trauma, right?

"Why the hell are you checking out my girl, freak?" Robert growls at me while I burble in my beans.

"Whoa, wait, you like girls?" That's what I would've said if I didn't have my face buried in bean paste.

"If I ever hear that you're looking at Autumn again, I'm gonna tear your fucking balls off."

"So you're really into touching other men's balls?" Again, that's what I would've said if it weren't for the impromptu legume facial scrub.

"MARQUIS!" Mr. Sanger bellows from across the cafeteria. "MY OFFICE RIGHT NOW!"

Robert finally takes his hand off my head and starts walking off. "This isn't over, Sissy Cecil."

I've got no comeback for that at all. Too busy trying to get my lunch off my face.

"Good grief, Cecil, take my napkin," says Quinton. "And next time someone tells you to run, just run."

"Can't run forever," I say. "And again, I did nothing wrong."

"You don't have to run forever," says Percy. "Just 'til graduation. My brother says everything gets less insane after you're in college."

"And you totally did something wrong," says Bud. "You can't keep mooning over Robert's demon-bitch girlfriend."

"That's a terrible thing to say about the woman I love!"

"Autumn Bradshaw is a terrible human being," says Toby. "I don't care how hot she looks. She's Albert Fish in a cheerleader skirt."

"Who the hell is Albert Fish?" asks Gerald.

"Serial killer in the 1920s," says Toby. "Complete loon, killed and ate kids, then sent letters bragging about it to their parents. How can you guys not know about this stuff?"

"Toby, please read about something other than serial killers, okay?" says Quinton. "You make me nervous as hell sometimes."

By now, I've gotten enough refried beans off my face not to feel much more than 50 percent humiliated. I finish eating, make a fast stop in the restroom to wash up, and head to my next class.

Fourth Period: Cool Stuff: It's P.E. There's nothing cool about P.E.

Fourth Period: Uncool Stuff: Flag football. And with Barn Broadside, Moses Figueroa, and Alex Riley on the other team, I put my ghosts on a strict "stay invisible, but keep me from getting killed" routine.

Fifth Period: Cool Stuff: English class. Autumn Bradshaw is in this class, too. Soooo beautiful.

Fifth Period: Uncool Stuff: I can't remember anything uncool, because all I can think of is Autumn Bradshaw.

Sixth Period: Cool Stuff: Music Appreciation. Probably my favorite class, because all the jocks are at practice, and I'm one of four guys in a class with 20 completely gorgeous girls. Autumn isn't in this class, but almost every other girl in class is insanely hot.

Sixth Period: Uncool Stuff: Mrs. Rumblidge is just way, way too into '70s disco.

After school, I find out from Abel Santiago that Robert Marquis is still pissed at me and waiting for me in the parking lot. I really don't want to deal with any of that stuff anymore, so I head for the restroom, have the ghosts turn me invisible, and fly myself home.

Once I get home, I call my dad to let him know I'm home and check on President Dracula -- still fast asleep under the bed. Then I call the Cobra to see what's been happening while I was at school.

"We've basically made no progress," she tells me. "Kumiko said the Bloody Pearl isn't one of the artifacts she's already cataloged, and she's trying to do some simple research about this without alerting the Council that something's up. What she's found out so far is that it's a component in several different rituals, most of them pretty nasty, and that it's basically an ancient relic infused with necromantic magic. She said its particular gimmick gives a natural boost -- or more like an unnatural boost, I guess -- to any sort of blood magic."

"Yuck, do I even want to know what blood magic is?" I ask.

"Any magic affecting blood or utilizing blood," she says. "Stuff with human sacrifice. Or vampires, to be honest. It can't be very well-known, or more vampires would've gone after it over the years."

"Fun. So what's the plan for tonight?"

"Patrol as normal," she says. "Keep an eye out for vampires. Prez Drac may be able to help us with that once he wakes up."

"Yeah, but that won't be 'til the sun goes down," I say. "That means hours where Varney and the other vampires can increase their head start."

"I'm not that worried," Cobra says. "They're all asleep, too. If anything, we're the ones getting a head start."

"Should I have the ghosts look around for vamps?" I ask. "Vampires are pretty distinctive to your standard noncorporeal ghost, but they might not find any 'til after dark."

"That's actually a really good idea," she says. "How many could you mobilize?"

"A few thousand," I say. "But it'll probably take hours to get the word out. And it might take another few hours before they see anything. If they see anything at all."

"It's worth trying anyway. Make it so, Phan. How much homework do you have before you can come out and start patrolling?"

"Nothing all that important, Cobra."

"Ohhh, don't give me that, Cecil."

"Just some math, a one-page paper for Music Appreciation, and a little studying for a quiz in social studies."

"Great," she says. "Get it done. You don't leave the house 'til it's all finished."

God, she is such a tyrant about this stuff.

But there's nothing to do but to get the work completed as fast as I can. I used to try to tell her all the homework was done when I was saving some of it for after I was done with patrols, but she just sees through lies somehow. It's easier to not try to snow her.

Dad gets home after five, microwaves a pizza, and grills me half-heartedly about school. He's bored with all my school stuff, I know, but he asks all these questions because he's trying to be a "good dad." I give him the bare minimum information I need to so he'll feel like he's done his duty, then go back to my room to study. This way, he can go back to his true love -- the Mustang in the garage.

By the time I get all the homework finished, it's getting close to dark, and I decide I should wait for Dracula to wake up before I head out. Pretty much the minute the sun disappears below the horizon, there's this thunk under my bed, and the President of Draculopolis says, "Owww."

"Are you alright, sir?" I ask.

"Just fine," he says. "My coffin has a bit more headroom than this. I should've slept in the closet, I think. Any interesting news to report?"

I fill him in on what the Cobra told me.

"It's unfortunate the Pearl couldn't be tracked, but probably the best we could hope for," he says. "And using the ghosts to search the city for vampires is an excellent idea. I hope we'll hear from them soon, though that likely depends on how quickly Varney and his men resume their hunt. In the meantime, may I accompany you on your evening patrol?"

"You bet," I say. "Do you need to go re-hypnotize my dad? If so, could you see if you could make him be a little less obsessed with his car?"

"I'd rather not overdo the hypnotism," he says. "It's only really necessary if he realizes I'm in the house. And he seems like a very nice man, Cecil. I know hating your parents is something young people do naturally, but you should try giving him a break sometime."

"Please. He puts up with me because he has to. My mom can't keep me all the time -- she'd have to actually crawl out of the bottle to do that -- but my dad's true love has four wheels and a candy-apple red paint job. He's actually got framed photos of that car in the living room. You saw that, right?"

"Well, first of all, I'm sorry to hear that about your mother," Dracula says. "I don't suppose I can blame you for being resentful, nor would I want to put myself in the position of trying to psychoanalyze your familial relationships. But it wouldn't hurt to maintain some empathy for her. I don't want to guilt you into maintaining a relationship with her if her behavior is actually dangerous or damaging to you. This sounds like something you should speak with some of your fellow heroes about -- I know some of them are trained counselors, and their insights could prove quite valuable."

"And second, your father has photos of the car because he won a trophy for it," he continues. "It's just two photos, and they both have him in the picture showing off the trophy. And he has at least a dozen photos of you all over the house. There's no need for you to feel short-changed in your father's affections."

"Okay, sir, no offense, but that sounded really dorky. Can we just go on patrol already?"

So we head out, with Dracula taking on his mist form so he can hide among the swirl of my aura of ghosts. The ghosts are a bit freaked out by it, but not enough to seriously affect how they perform. After a minute or two of flying, my curiosity gets the better of me.

"Sir, can I ask -- why do vampires not have a better reputation? I mean, you're a really cool guy, and the people of Draculopolis seem really dedicated to being good citizens, and we're national allies and everything. So what's the deal with how there are still movies and books getting made where vampires -- and you in particular -- are set up as the villains?"

"Ahh, Phantasmo," his voice whispers in my ear. "Welcome to the world of public relations and marketing."

"I guess so," I say. "But it just doesn't seem fair that you guys should suffer because Hollywood has better marketing than you do."

"No, you misunderstand," he says. "The fact that we're thought of so well is really a testament to our own public relations efforts. We deserve all the bad publicity we've gotten over the centuries."

"But that was in the past," I say. "You're all trying to change."

"Clearly, we're not all trying to change, or Varney wouldn't be working to create more vampire cities," he says. "Vampires are predators, all of us. We're somewhat tamed now, thanks to the Harker Accords, thanks to the spells protecting Draculopolis, thanks to being able to get blood out of a tap rather than out of a human. But we're all predators."

"You're trying to change them, though."

"Cecil, I'm the chief predator," he says. "I spent almost 400 years killing people to satisfy my own bloodlust. I'm responsible for the existence of almost five percent of all the world's vampires. The main reason I founded Draculopolis and endorsed the Harker Accords is because I did the math and realized that we were unlikely to survive more than another two centuries unless we modernized and civilized ourselves."

"Are you saying this is all an act?" I ask.

"Initially, perhaps it was," he says. "But I've come to appreciate humans as -- let's say equals. Vampires and humans have much to learn from each other, much we can contribute to each other. I enjoy having non-undead friends like you, like the Cobra, like many other people here in America, Europe, and around the world. I think most of Draculopolis' residents would agree. It's better for us as world citizens. But Cecil, if circumstances changed -- if Draculopolis' protections vanished, if the modern conveniences stopped working, we are still predators, and we'd return to the old ways quickly. Present company included. One does what is necessary to survive."

"Holy crap, sir," I say. "You pretty much went from dorky school counselor to potential serial killing psycho in just a few minutes. Why have I been letting you sleep in my house? Why have I been letting you sleep under my bed?"

"Because you're spectacularly polite, for one thing," he says with a chuckle. "And because I am a civilized man. I promise, Cecil, I wouldn't do anything to harm you or your father, or any of the superheroes in the city. Or anyone else, for that matter. I like myself better civilized than I ever did as a monster."

By now, we're flying over the city, and I get a message from the Cobra to meet her, Daphne Diller, and Kumiko on top of the Infantino Building.

As we come in for a landing, I see that there are a couple extra visitors to the Infantino tonight -- Fedora Man and Captain Metro. They're some of the city's wannabe superheroes. They've got no powers, but unlike Penitente, they've also got no actual crimefighting skills. Unfortunately, they basically think everyone should accept them as real superheroes because -- I'm not really sure why they think everyone will just accept them. They're all either idiots or assholes, and I don't much like any of them.

Anyway, Fedora Man is a guy in a trenchcoat, fedora, and domino mask, and Captain Metro wears a flashy red and gold costume, calls himself "the greatest hero of Metro City," and desperately hates the Chrome Cobra.

"We will be patrolling the city tonight, Chrome Nobody!" Captain Metro is proclaiming loudly. "Metro City needs real heroes, not pretenders and weirdoes!"

"I really don't care what you do, Victor," the Cobra says. "Just so long as you don't get yourself in trouble or commit assault. You do perfectly good charity work, so why not stick to what you do best?"

"Being superheroes is what we do best," says Fedora Man. "And everyone would see that if you'd stop trying to show us up all the time!"

"I'd advise you to get out of town while you still can," says Captain Metro. "I've been cultivating some important friends on the city council and at the newspaper, and I'm sure I can convince them to see things my way!"

"You show up to speak at city council meetings, Vic," says Daphne. "And you write letters to the editor. The fact that they wait 'til you're out of the building to laugh at you doesn't mean they're your friends."

"We do not have time for any of this, Cobra," says Kumiko. "We have very important things to worry about instead of this nonsense. Do I need to teleport these people somewhere quiet and safe?"

"You can't scare us!" shouts Captain Metro.

I believe that's my cue.

"Have you guys heard of the Tucker Twins?" I ask.

"Don't even start on us, you little... what is that?" Fedora Man trails off.

It's footsteps. Soggy footsteps. Squelch draaaag squelch draaaag squelch draaaag. Just on the other side of the darkness, but coming closer.

"Ohhh, yeah, the Tucker Twins," says Daphne. "I remember that case. Did they ever find the bodies?"

The footsteps finally make it into the circle of light nearest us. Two little girls, cold white skin, wet black hair in their faces, the perfect pictures of the Stringy Haired Ghost Girl.

"I've seen this movie," says Captain Metro, his voice pitched maybe a little higher than he intended. "It bored me after the first ten minutes."

The girls raise their heads, the hair slips from their faces... and there's nothing there but clammy, decaying flesh, sliding slowly right off the skull.

"Viiiiictor," they whisper together, and Captain Metro and Fedora Man don't say another word as they rush for the roof access door.

Once the door slams and the two wannabes are rushing down the stairs, Daphne gives me one of her patented glares.

"Phantasmo baby, thank you for getting rid of those guys," she says. "But that was really pretty damn gross."

"And I think I've got to object to making these girls flaunt their deaths this way," says Kumiko. "It can't possibly be good for their self-esteem to be used as objects of disgust."

"Girls, introduce yourselves," I say.

They both snap to attention, then do perfect curtsies. Their gory appearances melt away, leaving two blonde-haired seven-year-olds wearing star-spangled Uncle Sam costumes.

"I'm Tina Tucker!" says the first one.

"And I'm Tilly Tucker!" says her sister. "And we are..."

"The Terrific Tucker Twins!" they say together. A pair of twirling batons appear, and the twins spin them and toss them into the air.

"Thanks so much for your help, girls," I say. "You did an incredible job. You were almost as scary as Jonni Rotten."

"Thank you, Mr. Phantasmo!" they say together, dropping another couple of curtsies. They really are pretty adorable, even if their costumes look goofy.

"We've gotta talk superhero business now, girls," I say. "Give us a few minutes?"

They both turn and drop curtsies for Cobra, Daphne, and Kumiko. Tilly points her baton at Kumiko and says, "We liked your cartoon, Miss Kumiko! Next time, do more singing!"

"Uh, thank you, I think?" says Kumiko. "You're both wonderful performers."

Beaming, the Tuckers fade back into mist and rejoin my swirl of spirits.

"They were very well-known locally in the '50s," I say. "They were even on the Ed Sullivan show once. They both died in a car accident. And they love horror movies so much, Kumiko. I couldn't keep them from doing this stuff if I wanted to. They're some of the best actresses I've got access to."

"They're cute as buttons," the Cobra says. "Kinda thought they were cooler with the peel-off faces, though. You got the president with you?"

"Right here, Ms. Cobra," Dracula says as he solidifies next to me. "Ms. Diller, Ms. Kumiko, a pleasure to meet you both."

"Charmed, I'm sure," says Daphne.

"Not me," says Kumiko. "I'm completely charm-proof. I've got three different anti-hypnosis spells on me. So don't you try anything."

"I promise you won't have anything to worry about from me," Dracula says. "But a good strategy nonetheless, especially if we meet any of Varney's strikeforce. Perhaps you should cast those spells on your fellow heroes, as well."

"Already done for most of them," Kumiko says.

"Enough time-wasting," says Cobra. "Tell him what else your research turned up."

"I was able to make a few simple inquiries to the Council about the Bloody Pearl," Kumiko says. "Turns out the Pearl is almost certainly here in Metro City, because it's actually on record with the Council as one of the many Metro City-only artifacts. It literally cannot be moved outside of the city."

"I wasn't aware that Metro City was a particularly magic-rich city," says Dracula.

"Disturbingly, I wasn't either," says Kumiko. "When this is over -- if we don't all end up getting turned into vampires or something like that -- I'm going to hit up the Council for all the info they have about Metro City's artifacts. The few names I've heard so far are seriously bad news."

"The other bit was the thing I thought sounded interesting," Cobra says.

"Maybe, but it could be just one of those mystic double-speak things that the really high-powered wizards are so fond of," says Kumiko. "Research says the Pearl 'can be possessed but never owned, lest it be by none or by all.' Could be a mistranslation, too."

"Could be in some unclaimed area of Metro City," Daphne says. "Or it could be on public land, since that would be owned by everyone. I'll put a list together. We can do a little searching at those locations."

"Sounds like a plan," says the Cobra. "It'd be nice to get a head start on Varney and his allies."

And then the alarms on our communicators go off.

"So much for the head start," Cobra says as she clicks on her wrist-set. "Talk to me, Atlas."

"Starlin Science Museum," Atlas' voice says from the communicator. "Don't know what a bunch of vampires are doing looking for a magical artifact at a science museum, but they are all over the place.  Defender and I are going to need some backup fast."

"I'm hitting the Panic Button for you," says Cobra. "We'll all be there as fast as possible. Let Defender block for you for once -- if they try to bite her, they get a mouthful of computerized nanogoop."

"I got my doubts they'll be able to bite through my skin, Cobra," says Atlas. "Just hurry up -- we can't hold all these vamps off alone."

Cobra hits the Panic Button sequence on her communicator and says, "Starlin Science Museum, full vamp attack. No one stake President Dracula."

The Panic Button alarms go off on Daphne's, Kumiko's, and my communicators, but we thumb them off immediately. We know what the assignment is.

"Get going," Cobra says as her boot jets lift her off the building. If you see anyone who needs a lift, grab 'em. Mr. President, are you coming with?"

"Yes, definitely," he says. "You couldn't keep me away."

"Okay, you look for Express as soon as you get there," says Cobra. "He'll be fast enough to stop any attacks coming at you. We will avoid killing any of your citizens, but if we have no choice, they are getting it in the heart."

"I understand," he says. "I'd prefer trials for as many of them as possible, but they've already committed treason against Draculopolis. Do what needs to be done."

With that, we all take off. Kumiko carries Daphne, Cobra flies solo, Dracula turns into a bat.

It's heavy stuff when we start talking about killing people. And yeah, vampires basically count as people. Technically undead, but they've got free will, and they meet every definition of a sapient being. The UN says they get all the rights that robots don't get. (Get Gearbox started on that, and you're going to be treated to some really amazing swear words.)

And yeah, actually, superheroes kill people sometimes. I know there are people who try to go "Heroes never kill," but that's largely bullshit, because it's so impossible. Cops are told not to kill people, but no one complains when a police sniper pops a guy who's about to shoot his coworkers, right? Same with us -- we try not to kill -- and we've got so many more options for ending crises without using deadly violence -- but if your choice is either kill a bad guy or let the bad guy kill someone else? You kill the bad guy.

I haven't had to kill anyone yet -- the ghosts make it really easy to disarm gunmen quickly and almost nonviolently -- but I've injured two people badly enough that they almost died. One was a hostage-taking loon who was strangling his ex-wife; I broke six of his ribs, and he suffered some serious lung injuries. The second was some scumbag supervillain called the Buzz. He was shooting the Express with a few hundred volts of electricity and didn't look like he was going to let up at all. I fractured his skull and didn't even feel bad about it.

The only other superheroes besides me who haven't had to kill someone are Calypso and Polyphemus, because they're so new to the business, maybe Piledriver, 'cause I have no idea about her history, and Jonni Rotten, who never kills anyone.

So anyway, we're all heading for the Starlin Museum when I get a late message from one of my ghosts.

"Cobra, I've got a possible complication," I say into my communicator. "I've got another report of vampire activity from one of my ghosts."

"More vampires?"

"Actually just one," I tell her. "He's inside Jusko Pawn downtown."

"What's a vampire doing inside a pawn shop?" she says. "Go check it out. Wait, don't go by yourself. Hybrid's not far -- I'm going to have her assist."

Hybrid and I arrive at the pawn shop at the same time. "Hey, Phan," she says with a grin. "Think we can get this guy wrapped up fast? I'd like to be able to help out with the raid out at the museum."

"I'm all for it," I say. "I'm hoping the ghosts are just mistaken. A run-of-the-mill burglar won't take too long."

"Great," she says. "I'll take lead and try to scare him into a fast surrender. If he rabbits, you can have the ghosts wrap him up."

"On it," I say. "Want me to bust out the glass or just pop the front door lock?"

"Let's pop the lock. Always a chance it might be the owner working late."

I send a couple of ghosts into the lock and they crack it open in a couple seconds. The lock clicks loud enough that it probably ruins any element of surprise we had going for us, and the squeak of the door definitely lets anyone inside know we're coming.

"Face down!" I yell as we go in. "This is a citizen's arrest!"

Hybrid lets out a theatrically loud snarl, and some bald guy in the back of the shop stands up, looks right at us, and smiles. Lots of sharp white teeth

He holds up a small trinket he's holding in one hand -- a small red sphere that glistens like a drop of blood.

"Looking for this?" he says with a sneer. "I believe someone just beat you to the prize."

Hybrid leaps at him without another second of hesitation, and I send my ghosts after him at the same time. Unfortunately, he shrugs my ghosts off, just like Dracula did before, then judo-throws Hybrid against a wall. Before she can even get back to her feet, he's right back after her, slashing her with his own claws.

Fine, the ghosts can't help, but I'm not going to let Hybrid fight this guy by herself. I grab the nearest weapon I can. No, not a gun -- those are locked in a cabinet, and I'd have to find ammo for them, too. I pull a golf club out of a nearby bag and charge in. 

The vampire is pressing his attack -- Hybrid's face and arms are really cut up. He's got Hy on the defensive, and I don't know how long she'll be able to do that. She's already getting mad, and as soon as she completely loses it, she's not going to be able to do any strategic fighting.

I come up behind him and swing the club as hard as I can into his ribs. It's a good, hard hit, too -- the vampire screams, and I start thinking maybe this'll give Hybrid a chance to get back into the fight. But he spins and hits me good and hard across the face -- knocks me clear across the shop.

It doesn't kill me, thank god, and it doesn't completely knock me out, but everything's bright twinkly lights and bone pain. I hate it when people hit me.

He turns back to Hybrid as she's about to leap onto his back, grabs her by her hair and slams her face-first into a wall a few times.

Then, while she's half-stunned, he takes hold of the back of her head, extends a pair of nasty two-inch-long fangs, and bites into her neck. She stiffens, yells, tries to break free, but he's got a good grip on her. But after a second, he pulls his head away from her, makes a face, and spits her blood on the floor.

"Gaah, woman," he growls. "I don't know what the hell you got in your veins, but it sure as hell ain't proper blood."

He throws her aside and turns toward me.

"You look like you've got normal blood, though."

Well, crap. I try to get to my feet, but I'm still too damn woozy. Once he gets his hands on me, there's no way I can break away. I'm kinda hoping he'll do the usual supervillain taunting thing, 'cause maybe then I can figure out how to get away, but I guess vampires don't do that. He just tilts my head back and... chomp.

All that stuff in movies where it feels really, really good when a vampire sucks your blood? Turns out that's complete bullshit.

It hurts like hell. It feels like someone jabs a couple of thick needles into your neck and then starts draining your blood away. Worst pain I've ever felt in my life, for real.

So I'm kinda stuck there, spectacularly painful fangs buried in my throat, vampire literally slurping down my blood like a double-thick strawberry milkshake, trying not to cry, ghosts completely flailing. This is a goddamn stupid way to die, isn't it?

Then the vampire lurches, yanks his teeth out of my neck (which hurts even worse than before, thanks), howls with pain, and pukes blood all over my face. He drops me on the floor, and I get treated to the sight of Hybrid, blood all over her costume, full-on enraged, roaring in mindless fury, trying her damnedest to tear the bloodsucker in half. She's got her claws buried deep in his shoulder and his ribcage, and he's completely unable to fight back.

Yay, the good guys are winning, and I think I'm bleeding out.

The vamp gives up almost immediately. Like a lot of bad guys, they can dish it out, but they just can't take it. He turns into mist and almost rockets out the front door. Hybrid starts to chase him, still screaming with rage, but then runs back to me, struggling to get herself back under control.

"Ph-Phantashhmo!" she rasps through her fangs. "Sh-Shhhtay calm! Trrr-Trry not to m-move! Jusshht try -- dammit!"

She jabs a clawed finger at her communicator and yells, "Evac! Shhhomeone get ussh shhome evac now! Now, dammit!"

That's when the whole world gets drowned out in red and I pass out.

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