The Last Victim by Martin Shelby

The body crumpled like an old sack of laundry in the vampire’s grasp. He licked his lips and stared into the rapidly fading light of the man’s eyes. This passing of life never failed to captivate his attention. The vampire suspected, during his brief moments of sobriety after feeding, that he had once been like this man in his arms. But that was long ago, and the vampire could not remember if it was so. When the life at last passed from the body, when all tension had eased from the cooling muscles, the vampire let the husk fall to the ground. One more, just one more, and the bitter cold within would be driven back for another night.

“Sasha!” cried out a small voice.

The vampire’s head snapped up. Here in the gloom, back in a narrow alley between two houses, the night encompassed him in an abyssal pitch. The homes here were old, their wood threatening rot, their roofs flaking shingles like dead leaves from a tree. Behind the houses, an axe stood cleaved into the flat round of an even older hewn tree trunk. The vampire felt comfortable here, and it had been here he discovered the man braving the Caliphas night to procure more fuel from the wood pile. He hugged one wall, wood splinters tugging at his cloak. The small voice called out again, and the vampire’s blood hummed.

A small girl, her form a pale flow in the night, took several tentative steps into the deeper dark. She called, more softly this time, “Sasha?”

The vampire watched her from underneath the dark locks of hair which spilled down his forehead. The moonlight cast her form in perfect silhouette, and she glided up the driveway as if a shadow. Her approach became more cautious, and the vampire could see her clear now, watched her worn nightgown trail the ground ever so slight about her. He could smell her in the air, like a touch of jasmine. And he could smell her young, fresh blood. She came closer still, brown eyes skittering here and there.

“Sasha, where are you?”

She was almost on top of him now, but even her young eyes couldn’t pick out the vampire’s dark form from the deep opacity. He could see the vein pulsing in her neck, could hear the rhythmic thud-thud of her racing heart. His sharp tongue, black and dry, flicked over one fang, and he prepared to take her just as the girl spun and faced squarely towards him.

“Yaah!” she squealed, and fell backwards on her rump. She scrambled to her hands and knees and stood up. “Gods, mister, you scared me! What are you doing out here?”

The vampire hesitated.

“Are you a nobleman?”

The vampire glanced back where the corpse lay. Once, he imagined, he had been a man of culture. “I am no nobleman.” The words felt strange on his lips, and the sound of his own voice was that of an old friend long forgotten. The words and thoughts so disused came easily to him while the dead man’s blood was still alive within him.

“Oh. My name’s Elle. What’s yours?”

Name?

“Varic,” the vampire at last replied. And, perhaps in some forgotten time, that was true.

“I’m looking for my cat, Sasha,” Elle explained, looking around. “Sometimes he gets out at night, and I want to find him so he doesn’t get hurt. He’s all white with one black paw. Have you seen him?”

“Little girls shouldn’t be out so late at night. It’s dangerous.” How long had it been since anyone faced him with such fearlessness, much less spoken to him? This child was too young to see her danger, to appreciate the fear of the Ustalav night instilled by years of nightmare and superstition. Her boldness struck a chord within him.

“I only live just down there. Besides, I’m almost to my seventh name day. I can take care of myself.” Her eyes scanned the vampire. “Are you sure you’re not a nobleman? You have a sword.”

“I am not. We had best take you home now.”

“What about Sasha?”

“Your animal will return. Come, now, you must go home.”

The vampire nudged the girl forward. Already he could feel the cutting cold crawling back into his extremities and his conscious mind fraying ever so at the edges. Soon that cold would begin to burn, his lucidity crumble, and he would be forced to feed. The little girl’s heart continued to beat in his head, and his lip trembled in anticipation. He squinted as they stepped out into the brighter moonlight.

He kept his eyes focused sharply on the ground passing beneath his boots, his eyes peering into its many cracked canyons and jungles. But the thud-thud of the girl’s heart grew stronger, more persistent, with each passing step. The strange affection he felt would soon melt away to raw desire. He wondered if he would remember her when his splintered thoughts coalesced and her body lay before him.

“You wring your hands a lot,” commented Elle, her voice chiming in the vampire’s ears, “I have a grandmom who does that too. She says it helps keep her hands warm.”

The vampire glanced over but said nothing.

Elle skipped beside him, any initial fears or startles she may have had washed away. “I’m glad it’s summertime. I hate the winter, don’t you? I don’t like cold weather.”

“Everything has its own time,” replied the vampire, his tongue traveling about the inside curve of his lower lip. “Are we near your home yet?”

Elle pointed to a home with a small garden burgeoning in the front yard. “There.”

The vampire gazed about them. No sound came from any of the houses. A candle burned here and there, and the moonlight cast all into silver and shadow. The vampire leaned his head back, the stars pinpoint diamonds in his dark pupils, before returning his attention once more to the girl. Her body was a tiny furnace, the only source that could relieve the cold that was now a million needles piercing his being. Perhaps he could take just enough of her to melt away the cold for a little while, and still spare the child’s life. No. No, that would never be. Once he started he would not stop. Everything had its own time.

The call of her blood had become so strong the vampire had to clench his fist. He reached to grab her, and a menacing growl hit them from behind. The vampire turned, his hand going to the hilt of his sword instead as he took in the hellish nature of the thing stalking them.

The beast’s eyes shone a dull orange. Hair sprouted in misshapen bursts from its muscled flesh, and its sharp teeth snapped at the air, sending spittle flying. It advanced on all fours, ears laid flat and growling deep in its throat.

The vampire glanced down at Elle, frozen in fear. “Run inside. Now.”

The beast launched itself at them, faster than the vampire thought imaginable. Still he caught it with his blade and felt the steel cut through flesh and scrape across bone. It gave an anguished, angered howl, and swept around towards the vampire. Its bulk smashed into the vampire’s chest, carrying them both to the ground. Its teeth sunk into the vampire’s shoulder and its feet, more finger-like than paw, clawed at his sides. There was no thought for the vampire, no pain but for the intensified cold as his blood spilled. His long sword plunged into the beast’s side, shoving deeper and deeper, until the thing gave a shuddering heave and stopped moving. A moment later, it collapsed into ash.

The vampire pulled himself up and looked around. The sound of the girl’s heart no longer resounded through his body. He sheathed his sword and took a step towards her home, his mind filled with pain. The girl…she would let him in. He wondered what her name had been, and that was his last conscious thought before the desire for blood overcame him.

He stood, motionless, staring at the house, and took a step towards it. Then he felt something brush up against his leg. He looked down to see a white cat bearing a single black paw winding itself between his legs. In an instant the cat was in the vampire’s grasp, and his teeth sank in around the soft white fur. Moments later the vampire let the carcass fall to the ground and disappeared into the night.