The interior of The Dungeon was a blend of Gothic and Art Nouveau, inviting in the teenager who preferred their soft drinks to resemble freshly drawn blood. This haven for fantasies without the pain was ideal for the vegetarian enthralled by the idea of mythical bloodsuckers. The glamour of teen werewolves and vampires moon-crossed in love by supernatural forces beyond their control was a dimension away from the brutalities of the real world; a world which at that moment was having to deal with the discoveries of mutilated corpses in the local area. This was something rarely mentioned in The Dungeon.
Julius, Morgana and Daryl sat in their favourite candlelit corner reviewing new images discovered on their tablets.
Morgana had the knack of winkling out the most remarkable Pre-Raphaelite and Beardsley designs. She even discovered a photograph of The Dungeon's elusive proprietor - obligingly posted on Flickr by another (anonymous) customer. It was 30 years old, yet Clancy Delamaine looked virtually the same.
The mystery intrigued Daryl and he took up the search for any similar images using as many keywords he could think of. Morgana and Julius hardly expected him to find a match, even though that Gothic portrait of Clancy was iconic of everything The Dungeon represented. Then, when they were about to give up, the same picture appeared on the home page of an obscure Romanian looking website. Although in another language, it obviously related to the twilight world of the supernatural and witchcraft. Because this portrait of Clancy Delamaine was much larger, it was apparent that the first one had not been a photograph after all - it had been captured from this oil painting. In the original the artist had included a peculiar weapon resembling a gun, which the 16-year-olds could not identify. Some of its bullets were strewn over a map on the table before him with an overturned, ornate chalice.
Daryl felt a thrill of apprehension. But if Clancy was posing as a vampire slayer, why were there no silver-tipped arrows, crucifix or Bible? And it all looked disconcertingly real, the paintingís subject having too much of a businesslike air about him. There was nothing flattering in way the balding, portly Clancy Delamaine had been depicted, as though he resented having to sit for the portrait. The only hint of elegance was in the scarlet scarf embroidered with mysterious emblems draped over his shoulder. That also hadnít been in the first picture. Even more baffling, the text on the webpage was in a dialect Google refused to translate.
Julius, Daryl and Morgana thought it best not to show the portrait to anyone else in The Dungeon. If Clancy found out and he really turned out to be an immortal slayer of werewolves and vampires they would have had no idea what to say to him. It all had to be an elaborate hoax set up by someone with the technical know-how and not much of a life. The companions would have felt pretty foolish if it was discovered that they had been taken in by a prank like that.
Daryl bookmarked the webpage and left with Julius and Morgana to talk over the discovery in their second favourite meeting place, St Mary's Cemetery.
They arrived shortly after a wedding and confetti flecked the path to the bridal arch. Now everything was still and sombre, as befitting a place for the slumbering dead.
Daryl took out his tablet and propped it up against their regular tomb. He, Morgana and Julius sat on its lower step and examined the website, confident that there would be no inquisitive gaze looking over their shoulders here.
Morgana was pretty good at identifying languages, but still didn't recognise the dialect and could only be sure that it wasn't Romanian. The URL was just as mysterious, its root folder containing characters it was surprising any browser recognised. The index pageís source code gave no indication of what keywords Daryl had used to find it and, as often happens, he had now totally forgotten them. Then Morgana realised that the text was composed of Sumerian cuneiform and various other codes, some used as recently as World War II. She was very clever like that. She could complete a complicated crossword in five minutes and should have been studying maths or physics, but had instead opted for history in the hope of qualifying to work in a museum.
Eventually Julius, Morgana and Daryl came to the conclusion that the portrait of Clancy Delamaine with its map, strange weapon and emblems were all part of a complex persona he used in some secret society.
"The slayer of monsters," a husky voice behind them announced.
Startled, the companions looked up guiltily from their favourite tombstone step to see the Reverend Anita Brown, broom in one hand and surreptitiously smoking a cigar with the other.
She was studying the tablet. "When you kids start rooting out the interesting stuff, you certainly find the nooks and crannies the rest of the world misses."
Morgana accidentally knocked over Daryl's tablet in surprise, which he fortunately caught before its circuits were re-arranged on the tomb's step.
"Slayer of Monsters?" she asked guiltily. "Is he really called that?"
"Thatís what it says."
The teenagers didnít dare ask how she knew; they were just relieved that the Vicar of St Mary's was not being judgemental. She had always been aware of their 'secret' meeting place and was impressed at how profound their curiosity in the inexplicable was.
"Well done. I know a few heretic hunters who would pay for your services."
The three of them looked up at her, aghast.
"Only kidding," she laughed. "They don't really burn people any more, just bombard them with emails telling them to repent."
"You know about this sort of thing?" Morgana asked tentatively.
The Vicar took a deep draw on her cigar. "Part of the job description. Odd things sometimes crop up on the ecclesiastical grapevine. The fellow you're looking at has nothing to do with bell, book and candle, though. That's my area. Not much call for it nowadays."
The Rev Brown would have carried on sweeping up confetti but wasn't going to escape that easily now she had stimulated their curiosity.
"But this is the owner of The Dungeon. It's got to be some sort of spoof," protested Daryl.
The Rev Brown would have sent them away believing just that if these inquisitive young people had been compliant members of her regular flock. "Some things are best left to fester in peace."
Daryl was undeterred. "The Internet is filled with websites like this, mainly to make money from running ads - though not many do judging by the number of visitors they get. But this one doesn't even have any external links. It's got to be a spoof. Why put it up otherwise?"
The Rev Brown lost interest in sweeping up and stubbed out the cigar on her heel before tossing it into the pile of confetti. "The World Wide Web is a wonderful engine - not just for social networking, selling baubles of the Devil and the proliferation of pornography. It also gives ancient agencies an effective way of secretly communicating without resorting to Tor."
Julius and Morgana silently thought, "Oh my God!" to themselves and wondered whether it was wise to pursue the matter with one of his agents.
Yet, despite the warning signs, Daryl had to know more. "Are you telling us that this website is for real?"
The Vicar decided that she had said enough. "It could be just another pagan fairytale for all I know. Church only goes in for miracles, so I'm no expert."
"What fairy tale?" he asked.
Having raised their suspicions, she realised that Daryl wasn't going to let her off the hook that easily.
"Humans weren't the only people to clamber out of the primeval slime - or be descended from Adam and Eve - depending on your point of view, so the story goes. Other hominids emerged in parallel evolution. Unlike the Neanderthals, Homo erectus and us, they took to the dark side, the caves and tunnels, only coming out to hunt at the dead of night."
"Hunt what?" asked Julius fearfully.
"Us mainly. They developed a taste for our chicken-like flesh no doubt, and probably all the other parts as well. Cannibals aren't that picky about their food."
"That's disgusting!" exclaimed Morgana who viewed teeth marks as only acceptable in love bites and playing vampires.
The Rev Brown laughed. "As I said - probably all fairy tales."
But Daryl knew better and a terrible thought occurred to him. It made him shudder so much he daren't mention it to his more squeamish friends. The remains of all those homeless people that had been cropping up, half eaten - though the police would not confirm it - possibly proved that the local cannibals were, after all, picky about their food.
He said nothing. Julius and Morgana were innocents in their own engaging ways and were already horrified enough by what the Rev Brown had just told them.
Julius needed reassuring. "But they couldn't really exist... Could they?"
The Vicar laughed. "Oh I'm sure, if such creatures ever existed, they would have been eliminated by now. Can't have cannibals crawling out of the sewers to take midnight snacks can we."
"But couldn't they have been taught to eat vegetables instead?" suggested Morgana, the ever optimistic, unrealistic, vegetarian.
"Why not? After a diet like that, the roughage would have probably been good for them."
The werewolves and vampires of folklore were safely scary. The prospect that real monsters actually existed was not something Julius and Morgana wanted to think about as the sun began to set.
All too aware of what they were thinking, Daryl got up. "Well, we'd better let the Vicar get on. I'm sure there are plenty of weddings and baptisms for her to arrange."
The Rev Brown noted how the young man deliberately avoided mentioning funerals. He was a deep one for his age and had probably noticed that the outer door down to the crypt had been opened and knew that it gave access to the city's storm drains.
Clancy Delamaine should have had that tall, gaunt appearance, as befits a hunter of supernatural monsters, yet there was nothing of the Hammer Horror vampire slayer about this man. On his rare appearances, the young clientele of The Dungeon regarded the proprietor as a friendly, slightly plump, host on the old side (he must have been at least 40) not to mention balding. Yet, beneath the affable exterior, was the physique of an all-in wrestler, complete with broken nose and noticeable scars. Now that Daryl suspected his true vocation, they seemed to make sense. The slightly built, careful teenager was also insatiably curious and could not pass over the opportunity to discover the truth about The Dungeon's owner.
He didn't invite Morgana and Julius to join him that night. Real blood worried Morgana, for all her crimson lipsticks, and Julius was intimidated when his brother's puppy snarled. And, unlike Daryl, they both looked very edible. He was sallow, sinewy and unappetising. So he gave his friends a lame excuse about having to babysit instead of going round to hear Julius's new CD.
Daryl sat for at least two hours behind a tombstone before someone entered through St Maryís bridal arch. Clancy was not the stealthiest of stalkers as he confidently strode across the midnight cemetery to the door of the crypt. Whatever the monster slayer was up to, Daryl was determined not to get involved. After having lied to his closest friends, as well as to his mother about sleeping at a friend's house, he couldn't face having to explain how he became caught up in a venture to slay monsters in the city sewers.
Clancy was carrying the strange weapon from his portrait.
He loaded it and then entered the crypt.
As Daryl suspected, its door must have been left open that afternoon for bait to be placed amongst the tombs of the ancient dead.
He followed the slayer into the crypt.
The chamber was filled with the lurid glow from the lantern Clancy had hung on a central bracket, so Daryl remained on the steps where he was unlikely to be noticed, yet had a clear view. As the cannibals lived in the dark, the red filter was probably for their benefit. The light also picked out an unpleasantly steaming heap of organic matter in the central aisle - the bait! Only then did the teenager realise that there was the possibility he could see something - or someone - killed for the first time in his life. The fact that the creatures living in the sewers were not human did nothing to reassure him. Intuition insisted that if he stayed he would never be able to view the world with that same humdrum feeling of security again. Now was the time to back away and run off through the cemetery to his life of safe fantasies and warm friendships. But Daryl had become so horribly fascinated by the prospect of what was about to happen he could not move.
By the time there was a movement from the far side of the crypt it was too late to try.
In a niche, the wall had crumbled away sufficiently to give access from the city storm drains.
From its shadow came an odd shuffling and scratching of long nails against the walls.
Clancy Delamaine took cover behind a pillar as two crouching forms shambled towards the pile of flesh and entrails that had been placed in the central aisle. It was difficult to make out their features as they snuffled and grunted, obviously suspicious.
Daryl's blood ran cold. Did living in the sewers rob these creatures of a sense of smell? If it hadnít, they must have known he and Clancy were watching. Six more the creatures entered the crypt. Both humans were well and truly outnumbered. Morgana and Justin would have fled long before this, as Daryl should have done. But the teenager had placed his confidence - and perhaps his life - in the unlikely monster slayer below. He nervously waited for the inevitable confrontation, which he was convinced Clancy would win.
Then the unthinkable happened.
The ancient weapon he carried jammed.
Worse still, the creatures heard it and smelt fear, even in such a seasoned monster hunter. Daryl understood - he had almost wet his pants in terror.
Then the clawed, horny hands clasping fistfuls of meat were picked out in the lurid light of the lamp. These could never have been hominids - they were more like hairy velociraptors without tails!
Daryl had never felt so helpless. There was no point in trying to phone the emergency services on his mobile; that beeped whenever he tapped in a number; even 999 would have been fatal. And if his mobile did manage to receive a signal down there, all that would have been left of them by the time help arrived could have been scraped into a polystyrene chip carton.
Having lost interest in the bait, the cannibals shuffled into position around Clancy.
Daryl could clearly see their leathery features and skin covered by lank hair, and septic sores from wounds they had no doubt inflicted on each other. All the cannibals appeared to be adult males, with the exception of one female who was apparently the ringleader.
She grunted the order and they raised their horrible talons to tear Clancy to pieces.
The monster slayer had given up trying to unjam his weapon and in desperation turned it to use the butt as a club.
He didn't stand a chance.
Then Daryl had one of the flashes of inspiration which only came when he was in a tight corner. What would creatures who lived underground hate more than daylight - Noise!
As his mobile annoyingly beeped while he desperately fumbled with it, hungry eyes turned in his direction.
Only then did Clancy Delamaine realise he was there.
He was horrified. "Get out of here, you idiot! Get out while you've got the chance!"
In reply, Daryl held up his mobile.
There was the loud blast of drums. The sound ricocheted about the crypt: even the monster slayer had to cover his ears.
"Come on!" bellowed Daryl, but Clancy couldn't hear above the noise and the yowls of rage from the cannibals.
The teenager rushed down to seize his arm.
Suddenly the drums cut out.
"Bugger! The battery's gone dead!"
Now he was surrounded as well.
Clancy pushed his would-be rescuer against the pillar, braced to defend both of them with the butt of a weapon which had probably served his ancestors well, but was now no more effective than a child's plastic cricket bat.
Daryl wanted to yell, but sound would not come. His vocal chords had frozen with fright and the bloodcurdling screeches of the creatures as they closed in seemed to turn into rapid gunfire.
It was rapid gunfire.
Standing on the crypt steps was the Reverend Anita Brown, Mauser pistol in each hand, picking off the cannibals with remarkable accuracy for a holy woman. The onslaught must have only taken seconds, yet seemed like forever.
"Oh my God! Oh my God!" was all Daryl could keep shrieking at the sight of screaming bodies crumpling untidily onto the flagstones.
He was only able to stop after Clancy had given him a hard slap.
Daryl wanted to throw up, yet managed to somehow ask instead, "Won't the others come looking for them?"
"There are no others. The population was starving, so the strongest ate the weakest until there were no children or females of breeding age left."
Then Daryl pointed to the Vicar of the parish who had just put on the fluorescent lights to reveal the true horror of the gory scene. "But you're..?"
"Ex-marine. Unfortunately the Church insisted I didn't take up my ministry fully armed. Fortunately, I had an elderly parishioner who confessed to holding onto a couple of Mauser pistols and several magazines of ammunition from the Second World War. He wanted me to find a safe place for them."
"But all this mess and gore... What are you going to do with the bodies?"
"I have access to a crypt, cemetery, and keys to the crematorium next door. I'll think of something. Don't tell the police - they've set their hearts on a serial killer."
"Failing that," added Clancy Delamaine, "we could do it the old-fashioned way, like my ancestors."
"You really don't want to know."