I found the perfect Christmas tree, tall in stature with bristles as green as Mariana’s sparkling eyes. I set it down within my cart and went looking for a wreath, peeking down the aisle to find Mariana excitingly placing ornaments in her basket.
I noticed an older woman standing beside her, most likely helping Mariana make a decision. I smiled to myself as I turned my attention back to the wreaths. I tried to find the perfect one as I noticed a wreath near the bottom of the shelf with little snowflakes dangling from the center, hopefully, reminding Mariana of the snowfall outside.
I wanted to make this Christmas as special as I could and I was going to do everything in my power to keep a smile on her face. The smile that caused my heart to flutter by the mere thought of it.
I set the wreath in my cart, looking down the aisle to find Mariana and the older woman were now gone. My first thought was that they may have walked into another aisle, but then this bad feeling crept in, and sadly, my gut was never wrong. I yelled her name, but there was no response. I yelled again and still no response. I knew she could take care of herself, but that didn't stop my worry.
I left my cart by the wreaths and made my way towards the ornaments. As I approached, I found Mariana’s basket filled to the brim with different types of Christmas items, but no sight of her. I stepped forward and heard the crunch of glass beneath my foot, looking down to find a broken ornament.
I crouched down to examine the glass as I felt hands grasp onto my shoulders. Then a slight push as I was thrown onto the ground. I quickly got up to yell at the person who decided to knock me over only to find no one there. What made matters weirder is I was now in the cereal section rather than the Christmas one.
I pretended that maybe I fell into this aisle and wandered back towards where I thought the Christmas aisle was. As I got close, I looked back for only a mere second and when I turned back I was surrounded by plants.
“What the hell?” I muttered beneath my breath.
I tried to walk forwards again, but then I just wound up in the toy section. I did this several more times, always ending up in a different spot. Each time I was more tired than the last, running out of breath and energy, which made no sense as I was in good shape and walking was like nothing.
I tried one last time and as I began to walk I felt the sensation of a hand grabbing my shoulder. This time when I peered behind me I found a man I did not recognize clinging to my shirt.
“Who are you?” I asked
"The man who’s saving your life.” He muttered in return.
I turned around to face him as I found we were in a storage room surrounded by boxes. I pushed the man away as I wanted answers. “Who the hell are you and what the hell just happened?”
The man shrugged. “The name’s Conner and as I said...I saved your life.”
He began to walk away from me, but I wasn’t finished. I quickly approached, grabbing his shoulder so he would look back at me.
“Saved from what?” I asked, confusion consuming every feature on my face.
“Follow me and you’ll find out…”
Conner removed my hand, continuing to walk through the boxes. I caught up to his stride as Conner led the way to a door. This door led us to a security office with three others inside: a little girl, her mother, and her father. They were sitting in the corner, clinging to each other as if it was life or death.
Conner approached the far wall, which was covered head to toe with computer screens. He began typing quickly with his fidgety fingers. I tried to speak, but his hand rose into the air to shush me.
I sighed deeply with annoyance as he continued to type. When he clicked enter, the center screen went back to the moment where we were both in the furniture aisle. He used his raised hand to motion me forward.
I moved beside him, Conner motioning with his head for me to watch. I silently agreed as he pushed play. The security footage showed Conner grabbing my shoulders. I leaned forward and watched something unbelievable occur. One moment we were there and the next we were gone. As if we were blinked out of existence.
Conner pushed pause as I voiced my confusion. “How is that possible?”
"You're lucky I grabbed you when I did. If I hadn’t, you could’ve ended up anywhere and continued to lose energy until you eventually died.” He explained
“What do you mean lose energy and die?” I asked with a raised brow.
Conner sighed. “Each time you teleport some of your life essence is taken. If you hadn’t noticed, each time you moved you grew more weak and tired. If I had left you, you most likely would have died. She would've drained you to nothing.”
“She? Are you saying the store is alive?” I asked
“At first that’s what I thought, but then I noticed something. Watch closely.” Conner ordered
He rewound the tape and slowed it down to a mere crawl. I leaned in close and watched as we slowly faded out of frame. For only a split second, a figure appeared beside us. When we vanished, so did it.
“What was that?”
“That is what is keeping all of us in the store. Just by teleporting you, she can drain life energy, but back here she cannot reach us. Iron lines the walls keeping her out there.” Conner explained with a sigh
“Why would iron keep her out?” I asked
Conner wrung his hands. “If I tell you, you have to promise you won’t freak out.”
“Oh, don’t you worry. I just saw something teleport me, I think I can handle whatever you're about to say.”
Conner sighed deeply as he offered me to sit. I took a seat at the desk as Conner say down in the seat beside me. The family in the corner stayed silent as Conner cleared his throat and got down to business.
“The thing keeping us here is...a shtriga.” Conner admitted. “I keep trying to kill the damn thing, but every time I get close...she vanishes. I’ve been trying to rescue this family for over a month, but I can’t get to the door without her stopping me. She loves to play with its food.”
“What's a shtriga?” I muttered
“It's an Albanian witch that feeds off the life essence of children, but this one has started to attack adults. It can shapeshift, drain life energy, and is nearly impossible to kill. Plus she has super strength, speed, agility, and can wield magic.” Conner explained
“Why is she trapping people in a store?”
“She's gotten crafty. Instead of going out and searching for food she lures people into the store and traps them here, slowly feeding on their life force. I came here because a family member of theirs was concerned.” Conner said, motioning to the family. “I found them at the point of death. Luckily, we teleported near this back room and I got them inside before she could get to us. The iron keeps her out and is our only safe haven.”
A bad feeling sunk in. “What does she shapeshift into?”
“Anything that will allow her to get close to her victims. From what I saw when I came in contact with her she likes to take on the look of an old woman. A harmless old woman. Why?” Conner asked as he saw how stiff my posture had gotten.
“There was an old woman with my...friend, Mariana, before she vanished.” I explained
Conner understood exactly what I was asking for. He nodded and quickly typed on the keyboard. The camera rewound to show Mariana looking at ornaments.
Mariana was looking at the shelf when the camera glitched. Within the glitch, the old woman I saw appeared disheveled and broken. She ran to Mariana, grabbing at her arm.
Then after a short conversation, the two vanished. The camera glitched again and the old woman, for only a split second, had dark hollow eyes. This feeling in the pit of my stomach told me that was bad and the look on Conner’s face helped seal that in.
“The old woman...” Conner began, meeting my gaze. “Was the shtriga.”
“Are you sure?” I asked
“Yes, her kind, in their true form, have dark hollow eyes.” Conner said quickly. “But why her? She has come for us many a time, but never so soon after arrival. She usually weakens her prey before she feeds directly upon them. Why would she take Mariana so soon?”
I looked at the family in the corner and back to Conner. I knew saying what I was about to say may put Mariana in danger, but it may also save her life.
I sighed deeply. “Mariana’s a...vampire.”
Conner stiffened as the family sitting in the corner just looked more worried. I knew they all believed me, but Conner’s reaction is what made me nervous.
“If she has your vampire friend, she’ll never escape. This creature feeds on energy and as long as Mariana is kept alive she is a constant source. She wouldn’t have to trap anyone else in this nightmare.” Conner explained
“Does that mean we could escape?” The little girl asked
Conner’s eyes met mine before turning his attention to the girl. “Yes, that means we should be able to escape. She won’t want us anymore.”
“I thought vampires didn’t have souls?” I exclaimed
“Yes and no. Vampires have souls, but they’re tainted. They may be black and shriveled, but it’s still there. Every creature has one, even the most deadly.” Conner sighed, meeting my gaze. “Does Mariana care for humanity?”
“Yes.” I said without hesitation. “She has never liked killing humans. It makes her sick to her stomach. She drinks from blood bags because she loves life and wants to protect it.”
“Then the shtriga is going to love her. Mariana has never truly given up on her humanity, which is when the soul becomes fully tainted. When it is tainted too much, the shtriga will avoid it as it is not enough of a meal, but Mariana’s soul is different.” Conner explained
“Then let’s go save her.” I said, moving towards the door to notice none of them followed, not even Conner.
Conner shook his head with a sigh. “Kevin, this may be our only shot. If we let her keep the vampire, we can escape. We’ll be free.”
“Letting someone innocent suffer is not the answer!” I yelled
“She's not innocent!” Conner snapped, losing his patience. “If she is a vampire as you say...she has killed and killed many. She may have fought for her humanity, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t a monster. She has just as much, if not more, blood on her hands than the shtriga does.”
“Fine, I'll go save her myself since your head's too far up your ass to do so.”
I made my way to the door. My hand hovered over the doorknob, knowing I couldn't let Mariana down. I promised her an amazing Christmas and I was going to deliver.
I began turning the knob when Conner yelled after me. “You don’t even know how to defeat a shtriga!”
“Then tell me what to do!” I yelled, causing the family in the corner to jump. “If you want to get these people to safety and run for the hills fine, but I am saving my friend...my partner. Now Mr. Hunter, tell me what I need to know.”
“Going against a shtriga of her age, especially if she has Mariana to feed on, is suicide.” Conner pointed out
“And I am willing to risk it for my partner. How. Do. I. Kill. It?” I enunciated
Conner swore beneath his breath. “You would need...consecrated iron.”
“Yes, consecrated iron. It’s iron blessed by a priest. Anything else will only cause a mere flesh wound.” Conner explained
“Do you have consecrated iron?”
“Of course, I have consecrated iron...you dumbass.” Conner snapped, pulling out a gun to show the rounds he had blessed. “I came here to kill the damn thing. Why in the hell would I come here without something to kill her?”
“Then help me.” I pleaded, taking a step forward. “You have the knowledge and the weapon. We can escort this family to the door and go for Mariana. If we win, you can say you took down a shtriga. I’m guessing that ranks high when it comes to kills for hunters, right?”
I could tell from the glint in Conner’s eyes that I was right. If he killed her, he could tell all his hunter friends of what he had done. His pride was winning over his brains and he caved.
“Fine, but we get them out first. Clear?”
Conner got the family to stand up as we headed for the door. He handed me an iron rod in case the shtriga made an appearance. It wouldn’t kill her but would cause some major damage if it came down to it.
Conner counted to three and we booked it for the door. He yanked the doors open and the family ran through. The mother and her daughter ran for the car as the man turned back to thank us.
Once they were out of sight, we re-entered the main lobby. Conner pulled out a second gun, splitting the bullets between the two weapons. He handed me the second gun as I placed it within my belt. Once weaponized, I began toward the aisles when Conner grabbed my arm.