We shuffle in, walk along the length of a curved bench, sit down. A dark shape looms toward me. “Come with me, you three,” the teacher says to us. “We have special VIP seats for such esteemed guests as yourselves. Usually only the eldership is permitted to sit there, but for you we’ll make an exception.” Sissy, Epap, and I get up, move to the front row. The VIP bench is wider and cushioned with a velvet pillow.
The teacher’s voice comes from behind. “Welcome to your bimonthly visit to the Vastnarium. As always, the purpose of this visit is to remind ourselves of the cruel world that we are called to watch over, to reignite in us a sense of purpose and mission. To make real that which might regress to the merely abstract and theoretical.”
Next to me, Epap is bouncing up and down with excitement.
“Now,” the teacher says, “take your GlowBurns. Snap them, then throw them twenty meters in front of you.” Instantly, from the row behind, a clatter of snaps cracks the dark. A nimbus of green light breaks out. Not a second later, rotating blades of green light fly over our heads, smacking against a glass wall in front of us. The sticks smash on impact, splattering a glowing green fluid. The fluid drips down, illuminating the glass wall. And what lies within the walls, within the sealed glass chamber.
The chamber encompasses an area roughly the size of a classroom. A petite young girl stands inside, her body willowy and sylphlike, long raven hair falling over one half of her face. Her eyes are feline-shaped, awesome in intensity, her lips small. She lifts her head slowly, as if with great reluctance. She stares with only mild interest at the row of students but when she sees the three of us sitting in the VIP seats, her head cocks viciously sideways. She stares intently at us.
“What’s going on?” Sissy asks, her voice urgent. “Why is that girl inside?”
Epap can barely contain himself. He slides closer to Sissy, his mouth widening in a toothy grin. “What makes you think it’s a girl? What makes you think it’s even human?” He inhales, once, twice, wetly, quickly. “It’s one of them. A ‘dusker.’ That’s what they call them here. Fitting name, don’t you think, since they only come out at dusk. Wish we’d thought of it. All those years being gawked at by them at night, it would have been nice to have a name to yell back at them.”
Sissy flinches back, her face collapsing in shock. Her hands grab the front edge of the bench. I see the bones of her hands jutting out with tension as she stares at the imprisoned girl. The dusker girl. I whisper the word, “Dusker.”
What is it doing here? How did it get here?
Epap snaps his GlowBurn. The green light illuminates his suddenly serious face. He leaps to his feet, throws the stick with all his might. It splatters dead center. He raises his hands aloft in celebration, then notices the GlowBurn still sitting in my suddenly slack hands. He snatches it, snaps and throws it with a shout. The stick smacks into the glass directly in front of the girl. She does not blink. She’s still staring at us. At me.
Behind us, everyone is quiet. Not a sound from the group of young children.
Epap finally sits down. “Just wait for what’s coming next,” he says, breathing hard.
Boots clip-clop down the center aisle. A teacher walks down, her arms wrapped around a tightly capped plastic jar that’s filled to the brim with a dark liquid sloshing inside. The dusker girl suddenly goes erect, its back bent, eyes fixed on that jar. “We must never forget, never stop fearing,” the teacher whispers, “the insatiable hunger and thirst duskers have for our flesh and blood. Watch and learn, little children.”
The teacher stands in front of a tiny glass slot, the dimensions of which are so small, they’d barely accommodate even a small fist. She pauses. The dusker, as if by some previous agreement, moves to the opposite side of the chamber, eyes fixed on the jar. The teacher waits until the dusker crouches on all fours, then places the jar into the tiny slot and shuts the door. The teacher bolts the door and the corresponding slot door swings open on the inside of the chamber. Instantly, the dusker girl springs forward, sprinting across the short length of the chamber. It doesn’t slow down but simply flies into the wall with a force that would have concussed a dozen heads. The dusker grabs for the open slot even as it drops to the ground, its arms and legs grappling as if each limb were a separate entity in direct competition with the other.
A young girl screams from the row behind me. Then another tearful cry, the sound of sobbing now spreading down the line of schoolchildren.
The dusker rips open the lid with her teeth, then pours the liquid down its throat. Within seconds, it’s downed the liquid, its tongue flicking out to lick the blood dribbling down the sides of its mouth. The dusker girl looks at me again. A surprising sadness fills its eyes, an expression of shame courses off its face. It turns around and retreats to the far corner. Into the only part of the chamber still hidden over in shadows.
“And that was only pig blood,” the teacher whispers over the children’s sobs. “On the rare occasion, when it’s fed human blood, it is that much more frenzied, that much more manic.”
Human blood? I think, chilled at the thought.
The teacher walks over to where the dusker is hunkered. She snaps another GlowBurn, holds it toward the dusker. “See how the light of the GlowBurn bothers it,” she says as the dusker scampers away, arms shielding its eyes. “Duskers are averse to almost every light we know. They cower before even the light of a full moon.”
“How did you get this dusker?” Sissy asks, her voice tense.
“No questions,” the teacher says. “We don’t permit questions in the Vastnarium.”
A pause. “That’s just the way it is.” This time, it’s not the teacher who speaks. The voice is masculine. The elder. Standing by the doors, recessed in the shadows.
“I just want to know—”
“Carry on,” the elder directs the teacher, his voice loud and dismissive.
Epap leans over to Sissy. “This is the best part,” he whispers excitedly.
The other teacher walks down the aisle, lugging a heavy burlap sack that is dripping with blood. She walks along one side of the glass chamber and by a door that I notice for the first time. For a reason: it’s barely visible, no more than a rectangular outline etched into the glass, a thin metal handle on the outside. An electronic key lock stands in front of it, on the outside.
I jolt in my seat. “No way! Tell me you’re not going to open that door.”
The teacher stops lugging the sack for a second. “Of course not. Don’t be ridiculous.” She starts pulling the sack again, past the door.
“Does that door even work, then?” I ask.
“Huh?” the teacher says, huffing with exertion.
“That door. With the keypad.”
“It’s secure, don’t worry. Always locked. Only the top-level elders know the combination.”
“What’s it used for? Isn’t it way too risky to—”
“No questions!” The elder’s voice booms loudly like a slammed door.
The teacher lugs the sack to the far corner. The dusker, observing, cocks its head and rushes over to a tiny square pool of water on the ground pressed right up against the glass. I hadn’t noticed this small pool before. Its watery surface is flat as a mirror, an exact square with sides no wider than three feet. The dusker stops right in front of it, kicked dirt falling into and rippling the surface of the pool.
“Duskers love human flesh,” the teachers says, “but they will also ravage any kind of animal flesh. Today, we have pig flesh.”
And that’s when I notice yet another square pool of water. This one is on the outside of the glass chamber, right by the feet of the teacher, identically dimensioned as the inside pool. It lies on the other side of the glass as if the two pools are perfect mirror images of one another. The teacher lifts the sack directly over this outside square pool, drops it with a splash. To my surprise, the sack is swallowed up, altogether disappearing, before bobbing back up like a cork.
“This is actually a U-shaped well,” the teacher explains to Sissy and me, “with one vertical shaft descending on the inside of the glass chamber, and the other vertical shaft descending here on the outside. These two very narrow shafts drop ten meters down where they join underground, forming a U. The openings, as you can see, are here at my feet, and”—she takes a glance inside—“at the dusker’s feet. This U-shaped well is completely filled with water. Because duskers can’t swim—they could drown in a puddle, stupid things—it’s perfectly safe. In fact, so averse are duskers to water, many speculate that this U-shaped well is the most secure portion of the chamber. In my book, it’s absolutely genius, so simple yet brilliant. It enables us to feed the dusker larger items—like these chunks of pig flesh—that don’t fit through the tiny slot.”
The teacher grabs a long pole from under a row of seats, and plunges it into the well. She uses the pole to push the sack down the well. When the pole is almost fully submerged, she leans it at an angle toward the glass, jiggles it. Satisfied, she pulls the pole back up. “I’ve pushed the sack over to the other shaft. It’s floating up the vertical shaft on the inside now. All we need to do is wait. Shouldn’t be long now.”
The dusker is on all fours as it stares intently into the watery opening, its chin almost touching the water. Its body hums with anticipation; strands of saliva drool into the water. The light begins to fade and the teacher snaps a few more GlowBurns. The dusker flinches against the light but does not otherwise move. It has thrown its long raven hair over its head in a way that obscures its face. As if to hide in shame. Then its hips rise into the air as its head dips even closer to the water. In a blink, it plunges an arm into the water, all the way to its armpit, its face twisted to the side an inch above the water surface.
Then the bag is grabbed out of the water, and the dusker girl is ripping through the hessian sack material. Sprays of drool and droplets of water fling in the air and splatter against the glass. The dusker snarls and plunges her face into the cold wet meat.