Like The Prose 2021 – Day 8

Many writers of books and films choose to start their story near the end and then work backwards towards the beginning. This story starts near the end, then uses a series of non-chronological flashbacks, taking us three weeks, fifty years, a hundred and fifty years and finally three hundred years back into the past, thus effectively ending at the chronological beginning. Hopefully, this is less confusing when you read the story.

Cercul Morții

The room is dark. Elena and I are sitting on the floor, a circle drawn on the bare boards in front of us and a strange smelling powder burning in a mortar. As the sickly-sweet smell permeates my nostrils and she begins chanting the strange hypnotic words, my mind skitters back to the first time I saw her, three weeks ago at a party, and I wonder how different things would be if I hadn’t talked to her then…

There’s something strangely compelling about the dark-haired girl in the corner of the room. This place is crowded with young people going crazy after the ease up on Covid restrictions, but despite the mass of heaving bodies, she’s the only one I’m aware of. Something tugs at the back of my memory, but I can’t quite access it; know only that I’m tempted in a way I haven’t been for almost sixty years. Still, no matter how much I want this girl – and she’s a stunner – I know I can’t let anything happen. Not after last time…

She’s smiling at me now and coming over. Damn! I look for somewhere to hide, but it’s no good. My heightened senses are almost overwhelmed by her cloying, heady perfume. A hundred and seventy years old – give or take the odd part of a decade – and I’m acting like the sort of callow youth I look like to the outside world. Go away! I want to tell her. I’m a century and a half too old for you! But her eyes are deep and lustrous and the outfit she’s wearing accentuates her curves and I’m falling just like I did for Janine all those years ago.

Memory swirls me into the 1960s and a deserted park somewhere in the middle of London – well, not quite deserted because there’s a figure in front of me, walking quickly as if she’s afraid to be out on her own, every so often casting a look over her shoulder in case there’s someone following her. I slip silently from one shadow to the next, my eyes perfectly attuned to the darkness of night. I spotted her leaving the party twenty minutes ago and decided to keep an eye on her. Even though I don’t run with the vamps, I know where they hang out and this blonde girl’s just the sort of sport they like for an evening’s entertainment: pretty and innocent looking. She’s wearing one of those ultra-short dresses that are all the rage right now. Still, rising hemlines are probably less provocative than the plunging necklines I remember from my own youth in the 1860s; and I wouldn’t be what I am now if I hadn’t been seduced by a pretty ankle and a heaving bosom.

Someone – or something – emerges from a bush in front of her and the poor girl screams with terror. Don’t run, I beg silently. You can’t outrun a vampire and you’ll just get him more worked up. She can’t hear me, of course, and within seconds, she’s running for her life. At least those white boots she’s wearing don’t have any heels to speak of, although if she was wearing stilettos, she’d have a ready-made stake.

Deciding it’s time for me to make a move, I start running. I could catch up with them both easily if I used celerity, but I don’t want to warn the other vamp that I’m like him; and, besides, using celerity in public isn’t encouraged as it breaks the masquerade. I’ve spent a hundred years trying to keep beneath the radar, trying to live as humanely and as humanly as possible; and the last thing I want is for someone in the Camarilla to put two and two together and work out that the vampire hunter who’s been killing so many is actually one of their own kind.

He’s grabbed hold of her now, but he doesn’t bite her – not yet. He’s playing with her as a cat plays with a mouse: letting her break free and totter a few feet away, then putting out a paw to let her know she can’t escape after all. I’m expecting her to scream again, but she’s lost her voice, rendered dumb with shock. Checking the stake in my back pocket, I edge forwards, trying to act like a good Samaritan out for a walk. “Is everything all right?” I call.

Yellow eyes glitter in the darkness. He’s already started moving into feeding mode, his teeth elongating and sharpening, but he still tries to pass it off as a date gone wrong.

“We’re fine, thanks. Just wanting a little privacy.” In other words, Go away.

“Are you sure? Because it seems to me that the girl you’re with is frightened of something.”

I’m almost there now. If I can just get him to turn away from her for a moment…

He spins round, finally showing me his true face. Most people would run from something like that – but I’m not most people. The stake is in my hand before he has time to register what’s happening, and then it’s in his heart, and then lying in a pile of dust.

The girl’s crouched on the ground, eyes squeezed shut, making little whimpering sounds.

Hey,” I say softly. “You can get up now. He’s run off.”

I don’t like lying to her, but what’s the alternative? That guy was a vampire, but don’t worry: I staked him.

She looks up at me and my heart squeezes inside me – or rather, it would do if I still had a beating human heart. She’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen with big, lustrous eyes that are blue one minute and green the next and then a sort of aquamarine, almost hidden by the heavy fringe that falls over them. The rest of her blonde shoulder length hair is caught up with a ribbon, giving her an alluring innocence and making me long to protect her.

“Where do you live?” I ask. “I’ll walk you home – at least that way, you won’t be bothered by anyone else.”

She gets to her feet, still trembling a little, and then flashes me a weak smile. “Thanks,” she says. “I’d like that.”

I come back to the present and find the dark-haired girl looking at me curiously. “Are you okay? For a moment, you just zoned out.” Without waiting for me to reply, she continues, “I’m Elena, by the way, and you are…”

“Daniel.”

I know I shouldn’t be striking up a conversation with her because it’s bound to end in tears when she wants to hook up with me and I have to decline. And in case you’re thinking I sound way too full of myself, I’m speaking from personal experience. I’m a good-looking guy – always have been – even before I was turned in the late 1860s. I’ve come to realise that people today can access a lot of information about vampires through RPG games like Vampire: The Masquerade and shows like Buffy and Angel and True Blood. (Just don’t get me started on Twilight, though – that book series has a lot to answer for. Vampires sparkling in the sunlight! Where did the writer get that load of garbage from?) Anyway, the shows and the games and the books get some of it right, but hardly any of them tell you about vampiric allure. It’s as if being turned takes the best bits of you and makes them ten times more attractive, and if you’re someone blessed with good looks in the first place… Well, you can see where I’m going with this one, can’t you? It’s one of the reasons I tend to hang around in the shadows – or in badly lit parties – because I can’t afford to let anyone fall for me and think that they’re in with a chance. I’ve been celibate ever since Janine and I… Let’s just say it didn’t end well.

“You look lonely, Daniel…”

She’s flirting with me, but it won’t do any good even though she’s insanely beautiful with the most hypnotic eyes I’ve ever seen and a body that makes me want to… I toss my drink down quickly, hoping the cool liquid will quench the flames of desire, but I know I want her, and I think she wants me too.

Black polished fingernails reach out and touch my arm. A jolt of electricity runs through my body, threatening to accelerate a pulse that no longer exists. The room stills. For a moment, we are the only two people in existence.

“I can’t…” The words force themselves out in a thick fog of despair, coating my tongue with disappointment. “I’m sorry. I can’t.”

“You’ve already got a girlfriend?”

I shake my head.

“A boyfriend?”

I shake my head again.

“Nothing like that. I just… It’s complicated.”

The room spins and I’m arriving at Janine’s front door – or, rather, the front door of the building where she rents a bedsit. I start to make my goodbye, confident that she’ll be safe now, but she turns those incredible eyes on me, and I find myself falling, falling, falling…

               “Would you mind coming in with me?” she says. “After what happened, I don’t want to be alone tonight.”

               It sounds like an invitation for something else, and I’m about to say no when she speaks again.

“Please. We don’t have to do anything. I’d just feel safer with another person around.”                                                                                    

“I guess I’m coming in, then,” I say, struggling to keep my feelings under control. It’s a long time since I had a woman – not since the night I became what I am. I know plenty of vamps have active sex lives – with each other or with humans; but getting it on with someone like me isn’t going to help me to stay under the radar, and besides, there’d be all sorts of awkward questions about why I don’t feed on humans and some of it might trickle back to the Camarilla; and I don’t exactly know all the ins and outs of what would happen if I tried to make love to a living girl, but from what I’ve heard, being aroused in that way arouses other things too, like the desire to taste her blood, and I swore years ago that I’d never do that…

But she’s leading me inside and up a darkened staircase and then another to a little room at the top of the house with a washbasin and a gas ring and a bed with rumpled covers. There are charcoal sketches tacked to the walls and a couple of prints – one’s a Spanish looking lady with dark hair and eyes and a bodice that’s showing rather more cleavage than it should and the other’s a piece of op art – Bridget Riley, maybe, or Richard Allen. I look around for somewhere to sit, but all I can see is the bed. Janine sinks down onto it and pats the space next to her, and so I sit down too, a part of me knowing that this is a bad idea; but it’s been so long since I felt a girl’s arms around me, so long since I kissed anyone; and when her lips move towards mine, I let it happen…

I pull myself back to the present, making eye contact with Elena. There’s still that niggling feeling at the back of my memory as if I recognise her from somewhere, but it slides away from me, refusing to be caught. Perhaps it’s the Spanish girl from Janine’s room and that’s why she seems so familiar.

“I’m not going to change your mind, am I?” Her voice is full of regret.

I watch her pick her way across the room to the group of people she left and one of them hands her a drink. A moment later, his mouth lands on hers and they begin kissing. I turn away uneasily, wondering why I mind so much.

It must be almost an hour later when I catch sight of the two of them going upstairs. I find my gaze following them. There’s something off about this. The guy looks back at me and his eyes gleam yellow in the dimmed light. And that’s when I know.

Muttering something about using the bathroom – even though no one’s listening – I start treading the stairs myself, hoping I’ll be in time. They’re not behind the first door I come to, but when I push the next one open, the vamp looks up from where he’s pinning Elena to the bed, and I see his face contort with a mixture of annoyance and hunger. Celerity puts me beside him within seconds – we’re the only people in the room and Elena’s eyes are closed so I don’t need to worry about blowing my cover. I’ve staked him before he has a chance to fight back and so I turn, intending to slip out quietly before Elena opens her eyes, but she’s staring up at me, a strange look on her face.

“You’re a vampire hunter,” she says.

My mind spins. How did she…

As if reading my mind, she continues, “I’ve encountered vampires before, but never someone who hunts them.” A pause. “I’m part Romany,” she continues. “One of my ancestors was turned by a vampire sometime in the 1600s, and the story’s been handed down the generations.” Another pause before she continues, “I always knew I would meet you one day.”

Me. Not someone like me. I know Romany people have powers – magic some people would call it – but her words still make my spine crawl.

“You feel it too, don’t you?” she says, touching my arm the way she did before. Her eyes are large and hypnotic, but I force myself not to respond.

I know what she means, though: there’s a strange electricity between us as if we’ve met somewhere before. Again, that elusive memory fluttering just out of reach. I want her so badly, but I can’t afford to lose control the way I did with Janine.

Janine’s lips on mine. My body a flame of desire: a heightened sensation that’s more intense than anything I ever knew as a living man. Hunger for her consumes me. I need to get lost in her, to feel her body pressed against mine, to sink my teeth into that pulsing vein in her neck…

Giving way to the monster inside me, I feed.

“There’s something you should know.” Back in the present, I force myself to be honest. “I’m a vampire hunter, but I’m a vampire too. I kill my own kind.”

A hiss of – what? Shock? Disappointment? – escapes her mouth. Then, “Are you telling me I’m not safe with you?” she asks.

I shake my head. “You’re safe – as long as we don’t get physical.”

Janine’s lips on mine: the kiss of a newly turned vampire. Surely, I reason, we can stay beneath the radar. There’s animal blood aplenty in the local abattoir, and we can hide away in this room of hers so no one ever finds us.

It’s not what she wants, though. By the time she’s made her seventh kill, I know I have to intervene. I made her, and now I must unmake her. I wait until she’s asleep and then I drive the stake into her heart. If I were any braver, I would have turned myself to dust too.

So, no more getting physical – not ever, although it’s ironic, really, that my lust caused me to be turned in the first place. Back in 1860, I was a wastrel, a gambler, a ne’er-do-well, but I had coin and plenty of it, and the girls who walked the streets were easily bought. I can’t even remember now what the girl looked like – whether the one who dragged me into Mother Seddons’ establishment was a vamp herself or just a human compelled to do her mistress’s bidding. There must have been four or five of them in the room, and at first, it seemed like every man’s dream come true to have so many willing beauties wanting to make him happy. I remember the wine – lots of it and probably drugged – but the faces blur into one so that I cannot recall which one of them it was who bit me. Perhaps they all did. It only took one to turn me, though: to change me from a man of twenty to one of the living dead.

At first, I was unaware of the change. I awoke from what I took to be my usual alcohol-induced slumber to find myself in a room that had all the aura of a house of ill repute. There was nothing new in this, but I felt… Peculiar. The buzzing of a fly echoed a thousand times louder than it had any right to and I could hear the blood coursing through the veins of the girl who was bending over me. A pretty thing she was, and yet it was not her face nor even her bosom that caught my attention but the smell of her blood: a dizzying sweetness that called to me as if begging me to taste it.

Perhaps I would have given in to the monster inside had it not been for the arrival of Mother Seddons herself. Striding across the room, she threw the shutters wide open, and I cried out in pain as a shaft of sunlight hit my arm, causing it to smoke.

Even then, I did not realise what I was, my alcohol-fogged brain telling me that this was bit imagination. But as I caught sight of the mirror hanging on the wall and the empty space where my reflection should have been, I suddenly knew. I was one of the soulless: one of the vampires from the poems of Mr Southey or Lord Byron.

Elena sits patiently while I stammer out my story, listening while I describe how I sought help from the Church but was turned away by one priest after another. Determined not to give in to the craving for human blood, I lived on the streets for months, skulking in the shadows, venturing out only after dark and feeding on rats and other vermin. I spent decades living thus, and then England found itself at war with Germany and I resolved to go and fight for king and country, reckoning that at least my immortality could be put to good use on the battlefield.

“But you could have been staked by a bayonet!” she protests, almost as if chiding me for my heroism; so I make myself tell her the sordid side to my story: roaming the battlefield at night, feeding from those who lay dying. At the time, I told myself I was doing those men a service in helping them to die quickly rather than in prolonged agony. I did not believe it then and I do not believe it now.

“And when the war was finished?” she prompts, so I tell her of the way I made myself blend into society, living ten years here and ten years there to avoid arousing suspicion when people saw I did not age.

“That was when I became a vampire slayer,” I tell her. “I realised there were plenty of others like me – but they were hiding by day so they could hunt at night. The priests had told me I couldn’t enter heaven, but at least I could try to send a few vampires to hell.”

“Speaking of slaying vampires…” Her hand strokes my arm again. “How would you feel about rescuing my ancestor – the one who was bitten?”

I want to tell her that such things aren’t possible, but she’s already outlining her plans, her words tumbling over one another in her haste to explain. “My grandmother taught me a Romany spell,” she says. “One handed down over hundreds of years while the rest of my family waited to find someone they could send back in time to prevent that fatal turning.” Noticing the sceptical look on my face, she adds, “I’ve been waiting for this moment all my life. I always knew I would find you one day.”

So that’s why I find myself here now, a few weeks later, sitting in a darkened room with Elena – a circle drawn on the floor in front of us and a strange smelling powder burning in a mortar on the floor. Elena’s black hair is loose about her shoulders and her eyes burn with something other worldly. Hecate herself could not look more disturbing. She’s dangerous and alluring at the same time.

Strange, arcane symbols are chalked around the circle. Elena wipes the dust from her fingers and sits back on her heels, muttering under her breath. She produces a small cloth bag and begins to scatter herbs from it into the mortar. Blue flames flare; shadows dance on the ceiling. Her eyes are wild and strange in the half-light. I shudder involuntarily.

“You must enter the circle,” she says, her voice low and guttural.

I do as she says and find myself stepping into the past.

I’m on a hillside somewhere out in the countryside and there’s just enough moonlight for me to make out the shape of someone struggling not far away. The vamp must have his hand over the girl’s mouth because the only sound I can detect is a muffled grunting that hints at terror and the sound of him trying to hold her still enough to bite.

I can risk celerity in a time centuries before my own, and even though he hears me coming, I’m still too swift for him. He disappears into dust and I gaze at the girl I’ve rescued, realising with a shock that she’s the spitting image of Elena. Memory tugs at me again, like a kite begging to be set free. Desire tugs too: Elena’s relative is the Spanish lady in Janine’s painting come to life, her eyes dark and hypnotic, her breasts swelling against the low-cut bodice she wears.

All the longing I’ve supressed since Janine suddenly breaks free and I find myself covering her mouth with kisses, imagining it’s Elena beneath me and not some distant relative. The girl’s struggling again, but I’m caught up in something primeval: I need to taste her; need to drink from her.

As I sink my teeth into soft, tanned flesh, the elusive pieces of the past suddenly complete the jigsaw: I’m back in 1860, looking into Elena’s hypnotic eyes as she savours my blood then makes me drink from her. She’s my sire! But if she’s a vampire, why has she sent me back to save her ancestor?

No, not her ancestor: the girl in my arms is Elena herself. I’m her sire and she’s mine. We’re connected through blood: mine in her and hers in me. I am responsible for my own downfall.

My scream echoes through the centuries as I realise the enormity of what I’ve begun.

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