Published in: Taste of Midnight, Circlet Press
Honorable mention in: Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror
‘…a mythical creature of varied powers and weaknesses. Peasant wisdom claims that garlic worn at the wrists and neck and wreathed around doors and window frames will ward off the monster, and that the touch of a cross or Christian holy water will burn the undead skin, as acid would burn a human. They cannot bear the light of the sun, and the merest touch of it will sear them down to bone. Lastly, their only source of true nourishment is fresh and bubbling blood, preferably human and healthy, though they are inhuman, and cannot be infected by human ills. Among their other compensations are extremely long, if not immortal, lifespans and superhuman strength…’
"Peter?" The voice that echoed down the long hall of the apartment trembled. The stocky figure bent over the stack of heavy books lifted his fair head quickly.
"Yes, Ian? Do you need something?"
"No, I’m fine." A pause, and the voice continued, slightly weaker. "Are you coming to bed soon?" Peter’s heart twisted in his chest at the high quaver in that once-solid voice.
"A little longer, love. I’m going to do a bit more reading, and then I thought I’d take a walk before turning in. If you’d like to join me…" Peter fell silent, knowing the answer. In the last weeks, Ian had grown bitter at the need for the wheelchair and seldom ventured beyond the bedroom, relying on Peter for his food and medicines. He still managed to get to the shower, but it was an arduous trek, and once there, his frail, sunken body simply leaned against the wall while Peter washed him.
The voice whispered down the hallway, "No, I’m pretty tired. I think I’ll just go to sleep. Wake me when you come in."
"Of course," Peter promised, knowing that he wouldn’t have the heart. The voice was silent, and Peter bent again over his stack of musty books, dredged from used bookstores and almost deserted libraries. He was no scholar — a carpenter who worked more with his hands than his head, but his hands had been all but useless for months now, good only for taking what care they could of Ian’s swiftly decaying body. If the books could not help him, Peter was lost, so he had strained his eyes for months, desperately seeking the answers he hoped were hidden in the yellowed pages.
‘…can often be found in cemeteries, for they must sleep surrounded by their native earth, or they will not rest…’
The moonlight was bright, and Peter’s blond beauty shone in it as he walked, restlessly, in the shadows of ancient mausoleums. Encased in a long coat too heavy for the warm summer night, he strode back and forth, pausing occasionally to poke at the weeds above a gravesite with a wooden cane, searching for a break in the grass, a hint that the grave might contain more than it seemed to. His search went unrewarded, and eventually he sank to rest on a stone plaque that lay low to the ground and buried his face in his hands.
"Why so sad, pretty boy?" A woman’s voice, low and laughing. Peter’s head jerked up and there, kneeling before him, was a pale young woman. Silver hair flowed smoothly down her back and across one naked shoulder, and a silver ankh hung on a chain around her bare neck. Black leggings and leather boots would have completed the effect, were it not for the white crop tank she wore, decorated with a bright yellow smiling face, and "Have a nice day" inscribed below. Despite the incongruous top, Peter knew that he’d found what he’d been seeking. He froze, knowing the urgency, too frightened to speak.
"No answer? Of course not. Let us see what I can deduce of you, my beauty, since I have robbed you of speech. Why would an exceedingly handsome young man like yourself — so strong, so muscular — be haunting my cemetery, for seven nights in a row, with such a sad and sorrowful face?" She raised a slender hand and reached out to run a black-nailed finger along the curve of Peter’s cheek, stopping only briefly at the collar of the coat, before reaching underneath to draw out what hung on a heavy chain around his neck.
"Garlic and crosses, my sweet?" She laughed. "I know a delectable recipe for garlic and rosemary chicken — not very filling for me, of course, but the taste is sublime. The tales of garlic’s power against my kind are just tales, I’m afraid. As for the crosses — you don’t believe in their power, so I’m afraid they have no power over me. So sorry. But I do appreciate your doing your homework. It’s nice to have a client who really cares. Now don’t worry — this won’t hurt at all…" She bent towards him, crimson lips drawing back to reveal sharp teeth. Just as her tongue licked out to taste the salt-skin above the pulsing artery of his neck, Peter managed to whisper, "Wait…".
She pulled back, frowning. "Now, you shouldn’t have been able to do that, my pretty one. That’s what the ‘look’ is for, after all, to calm and freeze our clients. I won’t kill you, you know, no matter what the stories say. Crude and tasteless to treat a human so — only the very young are so unrestrained, and I have not been young for millenia. So just relax — you might even enjoy it, and you’ll have forgotten all about it by tomorrow." She bent forward again, but before she even touched the skin, Peter was whispering, "Please…oh, please…".
A look of frustration crossed her face, and she stood up, her body a dark shaft in the pool of moonlight. The night suddenly grew quieter around them, as the wind died down and the small animal noises disappeared. "Don’t irritate me, lovely boy. Even if I let you live, the blood-taking doesn’t have to be pleasant…". Peter was silent again, and the moment hung between them, low and heavy. One, two, three, four seconds passed like hours, and then she laughed again, her mood shimmering and shifting like the moonlight.
"All right, talk! Whatever’s bothering you, it must be tremendously strong for your emotions to overcome the ‘look’. But your story had best be a good one. And I’ll have to take this…an ingenious version of a wooden stake, by the way." She reached out and pulled the cane from his hand, then settled onto the grass, leaning against a nearby gravestone. Peter’s voice was suddenly free again, and after a long breath the words spilled out, stumbling over themselves in their anguished plea.
‘avoid their haunts, for though they possess a unearthly beauty, these undead monsters have no soul, and therefore have nothing in them of human kindliness. There is no warmth, no pity to them, and even the most impassioned of pleadings will not sway them from their dark desires…’
She listened, and questioned, and responded to Peter’s words, and when he had finished, she paused a long moment before shrugging her response. "A very sad story, not amusing at all. And so common nowadays…my little golden child, even assuming that I do possess the happy ending you so greatly desire, why should I give it to you? What can you offer me?" She tilted her head, so that the light washed against the delicate planes of her face, and waited for his answer.
Peter’s hands clenched at his sides as he gave the ancient creature the answer he’d prepared. "Myself. It’s all I have, all I can offer. My money, my home, my body, my life…my service through the centuries to come. Make me one of you as well and I will be your devoted slave, lady, if you will do this one thing for me that you could do so easily." He was trembling now, breathless with his need.
"Ah, there you’re wrong." She paused, and what seemed to be, but could surely not be, fear crossed her narrow face. A moment later she shrugged and continued. "Doing what you ask would leave a horrible taste in my mouth for weeks…but you are somewhat appealing. Perhaps a trial run, to see if you can please me? The grass is soft, and the night is warm…" She was laughing now, a fine full laugh with head tilted back, as she watched Peter struggle to step forward, to wrap her slender body in his strong arms. He finally managed to overcome his distaste, and she whispered softly, "See, women aren’t so scary. Just wait ’til you see what you’ve been missing all these years…"
She tore the chain from his throat, briefly and terrifyingly reminding him of her unnatural strength. Then she discarded the garlic and crosses, wrapped her arms tightly around Peter, and pulled him down to the soft grass. She gently moved his hands under her top to her white breasts. He shivered slightly, and then bent to kiss her. The kiss — his first with a woman — was surprisingly sweet, though her lips were shockingly cold. A current ran between them, and without volition his hands closed on her breasts, tighter and tighter as she sucked deeply on his lips and tongue, careful not to even brush him with her teeth. She moaned encouragingly, and Peter struggled to remember what his female friends had told him — all the ways in which a man could do too much, or too little. So much depended on his pleasing this creature tonight — who was at least female, if not human.
He rubbed his rough fingers over her nipples, tentatively at first. She twisted beneath him, and Peter almost stopped…then he realized that she was arching up into his touch. He rubbed harder, and she slid a thigh between his, wrapped her other leg around his hips so that his left thigh pressed against the curiously smooth intersection of her legs and hips. Peter kissed down her face, along the line of neck and up to bite gently at her earlobe, teasing it as he had teased Ian’s so many times. They slid against each other, her hands on his buttocks urging him on, in a motion that was not so different from ways in which he had moved before. His own sweat was rank in the air, but from her came the scent of sandalwood and soil, and while her flesh did not warm beneath his touch, he could taste the femaleness of her, the sweet musk permeating his skin.
Peter was curious now, and began to explore her body, sliding the black leggings down to her knees and laying bare the triangle of hairless flesh that lay between her thighs. She arched blindly as he did so, seeking his touch, and he denied her, amazed at his own temerity. Slow…slow was what women liked, or so he’d been told, and now he staked his own life and that which was so much more precious than his own life on the honesty of his friends’ gossip. Slowly his fingers trailed over the sharp angles that were her body — yet not so sharp as what had become of Ian’s body, as the wasting took him, and the flesh melted away. Her skin was chill, but firm, and as he curved his large hands around her rounded buttocks a thrill of lust shot through Peter, shocking him with its presence and intensity.
He lowered his head, to lick circles around her belly and up to her breasts, her top now pushed high to bare their small firmness. He sucked each nipple gently, then firmly; then, as her nails sank into his back, perhaps drawing the first blood, he bit down, his own fingers digging into her soft skin, his crotch pressed hard against her thighs. Down again, and this time only a little teasing, a light dip and taste before he dove, tongue searching and prodding, and she tasted like flowers and soil and moonlight wrapped together. Though she moaned and shivered beneath him, no fluids appeared to coat her passageway, and so he licked long and hard, finally licking a finger and thrusting it deep inside her. She screamed then, and Peter thought he’d hurt her until he looked up to see the smile on her face, the fierce possessive smile that said yes.
And the urgency was strong in him now. He unbuttoned his jeans and pushed them down, releasing his cock into the chill night air for a moment before he slid inside her. At least by contrast she was warm and wet. He pushed up and in, and then pulled back, and this motion at least was familiar, so familiar that only a few strokes later he came, shuddering deep inside her, legs pressed hard against hers and his hands clenched deep in the soil. He collapsed on top of her, mindless for a moment. She let him rest there, silently, and it was not until he raised his head to look at her, a question in his eyes, that she smiled at him and asked, "Again?"
‘…for they are creatures of insatiable appetites…’
They lay nestled on their sides in the shadow of a stone, her hips against his, her small left breast cradled in his long-fingered hand. He was asleep, and the small puncture wounds in his neck were barely visible in the fading moonlight. Her green eyes were opened wide, and her fingers curled around his hand, tracing lines in the skin. They lay that way an endless time, until the light of day began to creep over the eastern hills.
"Peter…" Her voice was surprisingly soft, and he did not answer. "Peter, it’s time to go." She turned in his arms, but he only groaned. A smile stretched across her face, although something lurked beneath it. She raised a hand and raked a nail across his chest. Peter’s eyes flew open, a question burning in them. Before he could ask it, she stopped his mouth with a kiss, long and sweet and sad with might-have-beens. Then she was pulling away and dressing quickly in the breaking light. "I’ll come to you tomorrow night," she murmured. "Be sure that he’s asleep. Drug him if you must. I make no promises — none of my kind has attempted this."
"And the price?" Peter asked. "What do you want from me in exchange?"
She pulled her top over her head and shook her hair free before turning to smile at him. "The price is paid. If it works, the two of you can buy me dinner in a century or two…and perhaps we’ll share something more than dinner?" A sad question lingered in her eyes, but before Peter could ask her what was wrong, he blinked, and she was gone.
‘…and remember, the grave is a cold place; the coldness of the soil they sleep in will creep into the monster’s skin and remain there, despite all they do to warm themselves…’
Ian hadn’t wanted to take anything to help him sleep. Peter had had to borrow their landlord’s cat, bring it quietly inside and let it walk around the bathroom for a bit. When Ian used the bathroom later, the hair set off his allergies and he started coughing, shuddering. Peter’s throat tightened, but it did mean that Ian was willing to take some antihistamines…and within half an hour, Ian was out cold. Peter opened the window, and she flowed into the room, naked and lovely. He didn’t even ask her how she’d managed that, considering they were two stories up. He didn’t want to know.
They stood facing each other over Ian’s bed, where he lay, curled and trusting as a child.
"Pull back the sheets," she said.
Peter hesitated — but Ian had pulled them up so tight that only his face was visible. Peter gently pulled the sheets from Ian’s fingers and drew them down. She dragged in her breath and bit her lip.
"He’s so ugly!"
White-hot words rose to Peter’s lips and died there. To a creature made perfect in form, any human might well be ugly…and Ian’s body was a cruel parody of what it once had been. Peter could still see the perfection of line in Ian’s curving back, the hidden strength of his hands. He didn’t need to show her, though.
She glanced back and forth between them. Her hands clenched and unclenched at her sides. She took a step forwards, and reached down to touch Ian’s chest.
"You won’t…" Peter didn’t know what he could say — everything was in her hands now, and she could do whatever she wanted, but still…
She shook her head. "I have no desire for your lover. I will not touch him beyond what is needful. But there is a problem."
"What?" Peter’s voice broke on that one word, but he didn’t care. It was too late for caring about such things.
"I cannot do this without desire. The blood will be foul; I need heat burning through me to clean it. Lie you down beside your lover. Touch me as I taste him. Keep me burning, or we will have no chance of cleansing him."
Peter nodded, and slowly stripped. He lay down on the bed and she lay down atop him, her mouth near Ian’s throat. Peter’s pulse quickened at the feel of her flesh on his chest, the feel of Ian’s thigh against his — still, despite everything. She kissed him, and he caressed her breast, feeling the fire start to burn. Then she lifted her head.
"One more thing…" she said.
"Anything." What could he deny her now?
"I am Katya." She smiled, with some effort. "I thought we should be properly introduced."
Peter wondered how much danger was in this for her, after all. He wanted to ask — but she didn’t want to say, and perhaps it was better that way.
"Sounds Transylvanian," he said instead.
"Ukrainian, actually." Katya smiled more genuinely then, and bent down to Ian’s throat. Peter slid a hand between her thighs and began to caress her as her teeth sunk into his lover’s skin and the bright blood flowed.
‘…it is their power that is so beautiful, so sexual and irresistible to the poor mortal…’
The effects hadn’t been immediate.
Katya had left just before dawn, and Peter had gotten up, pulled the shade closed, and then climbed back into bed. He was asleep within minutes, and had slept until nightfall. When he woke, Ian had still been asleep, and Peter had pulled back the sheet carefully. His eyes had filled with tears when he saw no change in his lover’s body — he almost woke Ian then and confessed everything.
Katya had said it might take more time than usual. He had promised her he would be patient.
Now his patience was rewarded. Three weeks gone, and Ian was looking better. The difference was slight, but there was visibly more flesh on his bones. He was eating more, and keeping it down. His interest in sex had rekindled, and though Peter still refused to let Ian carry his full weight, he could feel the returning strength in Ian’s body.
They made love slowly at night, and Peter kept his mouth busy all over Ian’s body, along back and thighs and calves — anywhere but on Ian’s own mouth. Katya had warned him that if they kissed, the fangs might extend involuntarily, and Peter wasn’t ready to tell Ian what he had done — not until he was absolutely sure of the cure’s potency. So Peter’s mouth was most often on his lover’s cock, his hands feeling the returning muscle of Ian’s thighs. When Ian moaned his pleasure, his hands clenched in Peter’s hair, Peter thought of Katya and prayed.
‘…as we remarked earlier, their unholy vitality can only be explained by a pact with Lucifer. Yet it is easy to see why a man might be tempted by eternal youth, health and life, though it be at the cost of his soul…’
Peter sat cross-legged on the wide bed, watching the snow fall outside their window and carefully avoiding sight of Ian’s heavy gold crucifix on the west wall. Peter still dreamed of her occasionally, though it had been several months since they’d met, and he had to resist the impulse to visit the cemetery again. He had found other streets for his nocturnal ramblings; the city was large enough that it would be months before he learned all its nighttime moods and places. Of course, he had nothing but time.
Ian stirred in the blankets, flinging one pale arm out from under the covers and across Peter’s thighs. The impact woke him, and he blinked sleepily at Peter. "It’s almost morning, dear. Been up all night again?"
"Mmhmmm…" Peter reached out to draw down the shade, as he had every dawn since that night in the cemetery. The light hurt Ian’s eyes. "How are you feeling today?"
"Actually, I’m feeling wonderful." Ian spoke slowly, considering his words. "I didn’t expect another remission — I didn’t even expect to see Christmas this year, you know. But I feel almost healthy today. Perhaps we could go for a walk later? It’s been so long since I’ve been out in the light…"
Ian smiled up at Peter hopefully, and Peter’s heart twisted once again as he reached to pull Ian into his arms. "Of course we can go for a walk, love. I’m so glad that you’re feeling better. But perhaps we should have a talk first. There’s something I need to tell you…" ‘…and I pray that you can forgive me,’ he finished silently.