Hungry Vampires

This is one of my early stories, which makes me sound very established authoress-ish, ooh la la. It's the first vampire story I wrote. I try to avoid writing vampire stories now; they are so hard to sell. The industry is inundated with them and even the vampire-specific magazines are tired of the same-old, same-old. The guidelines for Dreams of Decadence (one of DNA's magazines) states:

I do NOT want to see any more stories about posers or wanna-be's; Dracula (historical or Stoker's); vampire monks/priests; or Jesus Christ, Santa Claus, or the Easter Bunny as vampires. The following are NOT STORIES; please do not send them to me: Someone becomes a vampire; Vampire feeds; Vampire gets laid; Vampire gets staked. If that is all that happens in your story, this is NOT the market for it. It is okay for any of those things to happen in a story, but none of those is a sufficient plot. "Vampire feeds" is equivalent to "Someone eats a hamburger": It happens all the time, but it doesn't make much of a story.

Mine is, eh hem, historical. Really. I did research and everything: dhampirs existed in the 19th century. But the story isn't vampiric enough so it belongs to my "when I'm rich and famous, I'll force them to publish all my early works even if those works aren't that good, ha ha" pile.

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Only dhampirs can see vampires; only dhampirs can kill them. Sebastian had been a dhampir for five years when he came to the village.

The village sat back from the main road along a trading route which wove in and out of the trees, sweeping down into a hollow. Sebastian entered the village on a warm day at the end of September. He wore two coats and carried a knapsack over one shoulder.

The time was almost evening, the hour at which the sun hangs like a ball right above the horizon, sending darts of sunlight into travelers' eyes. Sebastian walked slowly, nodding to the few men he passed. They eyed him, muttering to each other.

He reached the center of town, a small cobbled square hedged by houses. He slid his knapsack to the ground, stretched and throwing wide his arms, shouted, "I sense a presence!"

People stopped moving past him. Doors and windows slammed open. Women and children peered out into the square.

"I sense a presence," Sebastian repeated. "One among you is dead but walks still; one whose unquenchable thirst for blood will never be satisfied."

"Vampires," somebody whispered.

"I feel an urgency. It will walk soon, soon it will stir itself from the confines of coffin and earth, will rise up against this village, against all that lives and walks, against all who are filled with the sweet liquid that is life."

"Vampires!"

Commotion in the square. A crowd surrounded Sebastian. Sebastian picked up his knapsack and waited. A group of older men approached, dividing the crowd. Their leader advanced.

"Who are you?"

"Sebastian, a dhampir." He bowed.

"We've had dhampirs here before," said the leader.

"I hope they performed their duty well."

"Oh, yes," the man said. "They were quite expensive."

"For the work required--"

The man waved his words away. "They come through here every month or so. There isn't a thing I can do about it. Last time I threw one out of town, I had every man, woman and child cursing my name until the next one came along. For the sake of peace and quiet only, I allow them to stay."

He glared at Sebastian, and Sebastian stared back, trying to control the twitching at the corners of his mouth.

"I take it I'm hired," he said, finally.

"I take it you are," the man said.

Sebastian grinned. The man swung away, marching out of the circle. The villagers filled in the gap. A large man with a heavy beard offered Sebastian lodging for the night. Sebastian accepted, and the crowd--led by the bearded man, his arm around Sebastian's shoulders--flowed down the street to the inn.

Villagers crowded into the inn that night. Sebastian was fed, toasted and plied for stories. He told them about vampires, stories from other parts of Serbia; told them, even, about the Great Vampire, the Count from Transylvania.

He told a story about a small town attacked by a family of vampires; the populace--with the help of a dhampir--vanquished all.

The villagers--released from the thread of words--clapped, relieved and offered Sebastian more drink.

"No, no," Sebastian. He turned away from his patrons and caught--just outside the circle of listeners--the gaze of a dark girl in a gray smock. She retreated, and her eyes dropped.

The innkeeper--the bearded man was the innkeeper--began to hustle his customers out. "That's enough," he called, clapping his hands. "It's time for all you to go on home; this man needs his rest."

"Aye, aye," they agreed and shambled out, sagging against each other and bowing to Sebastian.

"Good-night," said the innkeeper and slammed the door on the last of the stragglers. He disappeared down steps that led into the living quarters of his house, leaving Sebastian alone.

"You tell stories well."

"Thank you."

The girl came towards him out of the shadows. "Stories," she repeated. "You're lucky Bacchus didn't throw you out-- "

So Bacchus was the village leader. Sebastian interrupted:

"From what he told me, he didn't have much choice."

The girl frowned. "He told you that?"

Sebastian nodded.

"It's just to keep them happy." She indicated "them" with a shrug of her shoulders towards the outside door.

Sebastian raised an eyebrow.

"If vampires really existed," she countered.

Sebastian's mouth quivered.

"They're so stupid and naive--" another quirk of the shoulder-- "they can actually be made to believe in anything."

"Not made--" Sebastian said.

"You just have to mention the word 'vampire,' and everybody's hysterical. It's stupid."

"You're very sure of yourself," Sebastian said.

The innkeeper entered the room. The girl made a face, ducked under the innkeeper's arm and disappeared down the stairs.

"If you'll come with me, sir," the man said, and Sebastian rose, shaking his legs awake, to follow him.

The next morning, early, Sebastian set out for the hills that lay to the west of the village. "Step one in vampire hunting," he wrote his friend who was attending school in Zagreb, "is to look for the vampire's grave. I've never really understood why dhampirs are expected to do this. Not that I mind. I just always insist on doing it alone."

He did stop by the graveyard, brushing away the weeds to read the names and dates etched into the stones. It was quiet; even the wind was still. Leaving the graveyard, he set out, keeping the top of the nearest hill in sight. Reaching its base, he began to climb, grabbing a branch or shrub to pull himself up, one foot in front of the other. Once or twice he glanced at the sky. He wanted to be back in the village before night.

A clump of trees topped the hill, surrounding a small glade. There was a dark, black spot in the center where something had been burned--rather efficiently, Sebastian noted. He sat down and leaned back, peering up through the leaves that were already turning a faint yellowish color. The sky peered back at him: a blue monster half-hidden by leaves. A faint sound caught his attention, and he turned his head slightly, lowering his eyes. A shadow brushed his face. He sat up.

"How long have you been following me?"

The girl entered the circle of trees.

"Since this morning."

"Why?"

She picked at the bark of a tree.

"I don't understand. You didn't want anyone else along. All the other dhampirs, they would bring the whole village out." She pointed to the burned spot. "One of them came up here. Can you imagine--" she laughed suddenly, startling Sebastian--"Mileki and Gregi and Deda who is--" she puffed her cheeks and stuck out her stomach-- "and Herfila and all their families following a dhampir up that slope. They had a horrible time of it." She hung out her tongue and rolled her eyes. This time it was Sebastian who laughed. "But you didn't want anyone," she said.

Sebastian settled himself against the tree trunk. "I did when I was younger," he said. "When I still believed I had to impress my audience. But that was . . ."

"When?"

"Two years ago."

"That's not so long ago. You're not even that old."

"When two years convert you from an idealist to a cynic," he shrugged; "they might as well be eons as far as I'm concerned."

"I don't understand. How did you change?"

"I stopped caring." He met her eyes. "They want me here," he said. "Whether they believe in it or not, they like to watch me do my stuff."

"You lie."

"No."

"Promoting superstitions is wrong."

Sebastian shook his head. "Where do you come from?"

"Here."

"From here, thinking the way you do?"

The girl shifted reluctantly.

"I do," she said. "But my father came from Dubrovnik."

"Ah." Sebastian relaxed again. "The coast. That explains it, then."

"Actually, it was my grandfather. He left after the earthquake. With my father. I was born in Oscrac."

"How did you end up here?"

"My father came here. Because of the Turks."

Sebastian nodded again. The girl watched him.

"What are you going to do when you get back to the village?" she asked.

"That's when the show starts." He teased her gently with his voice. "Are you going to be there to watch?"

She stood up and walked away. He laughed.

"I'm going back."

"Goodbye," he said and watched her run through the trees to the side of the hill. He wondered if her father was dead. He wondered why she hung on his words like they meant so much when they didn't really at all.

He left his knapsack at the inn before going to the meeting house. It was already dusk, past supper, and the entire village was gathered in the hall: standing or sitting against the walls. Bacchus's eyes met Sebastian's over the empty space in the middle. Without me, his eyes seemed to say, without me this wouldn't be so easy.

Perhaps, Sebastian answered him silently, but you said yourself you had no choice.

Sebastian began the way he always did; he closed his eyes, pushed everything out of his mind and concentrated on the stiffness in his muscles, the strain at the back of his neck, the tightness at the center of his chest: relax, relax, ease the tension, let go, relax. He listened, waiting for the first signs of restlessness in the crowd: a baby crying or a sudden burst of uncomfortable laughter. Then, he whistled loudly, opened his eyes and flipped backwards.

There are several ways to catch vampires. Many dhampirs like hand-to-hand combat but that involved pantomime, and Sebastian had never gotten the hang of it. Usually, he played a variation of hide-and-seek which he narrated, saying, "I see him standing by the door," (this always resulted in utter pandemonium). "He comes closer, closer. He carries in his fist a sharp, burning sword. Get back, get back." And Sebastian would fall to the floor, screaming with pain.

That night he danced.

He circled the floor, pulled off his shirt, dropping it into the hands of the nearest spectator. He studied the hall, looking--of course--for vampires, but also, assessing the amount of available space. He ran straight towards the center of the hall, pushed off and executed two somersaults in mid-air. Twisting sideways, he pushed off again, this time in the opposite direction, twirling side-ways again and again and again, a trick that used to make him dizzy as hell until he mastered the art of keeping his eyes focused on a single object. Remembering his audience, he kept his fists moving, fighting the vampire. At one point, he leapt into the air, bringing his legs up, stabbing at the invisible monster. He finished with a lunge forward, his hands striking the surface of the floor. "The vampire," he announced, standing, swaying, the sweat rolling down his cheeks and neck, "the vampire is dead."

They clapped and cheered. Baachus smiled and nodded, his eyes warning Sebastian, If I ever see you here again. . . . Sebastian bowed to him and grinned; Baachus threw him a sack of money, and he bowed again. He fell asleep quickly that night, and the sleep was deep.

Sometime after midnight, he woke, dragging himself into consciousness. A hand touched his arm, and he opened his eyes.

A vampire stared down at him. A long, white shroud covered the thing's head and shoulders; blood dripped from its mouth; mud and blood covered its cheeks, its forehead and eyelids.

Sebastian screamed and struck out. The thing shrieked, stumbled and fell.

He sat up, fumbling for a lantern and lit it.

The girl lay on the floor, huddled under a white blanket. She lifted her head for a moment, and Sebastian saw a dark fist-shaped mark beginning to form and swell under her left eye.

"What's the matter with you?" He climbed out of bed and knelt beside her. She sat up, rubbing at the grime that covered her face.

"You're making a mess," he told her.

"You hit me."

"What did you expect me to do?"

She stopped rubbing. "I scared you?"

He shrugged.

"Just superstitions," she said, "and you fall for it like all the rest."

"I didn't fall for it."

"Oh, was that acting?" she asked, laughing.

He leaned back on his elbows and ran his eyes over her, slowly, until she winced.

"Maybe," he said.

She flushed. Scooping up her sheets, she swept out of the room: a silent, furious wraith. He waited until every sound of her had completely faded before climbing back into bed. He lay there, thinking, for a long time.

The next morning, a crowd gathered outside the inn to see Sebastian off. Sebastian watched them from his window. They had already paid him. No matter. He would do this one extra thing for free.

The girl was also there, standing slightly away from the crowd. The bruise had spread across her cheek. Good, he thought. That'll help.

He packed and joined the innkeeper in the public room. The innkeeper threw an arm around his shoulders and led him outside. The villagers surrounded them, smiling. Sebastian waited. The innkeeper thrust out his hand, saying, "We have been honored."

Now, Sebastian thought; he dropped his knapsack, straightened, his body stiffening. Only his eyes moved, back and forth, from one face to another.

"What?" said the innkeeper.

Sebastian closed his eyes. "There is another. I sense another spirit--an evil and malicious spirit--among you."

"Sir!" That from Bacchus--behind him--protesting.

"Silence!" Sebastian began to move slowly through the crowd. "Last night, this spirit attacked me in my room. I fought it for many hours. Only the dawn saved me. But I managed to wound the creature before it left me. It has entered one of you. One of you is possessed."

And whirling, he stopped directly in front of the girl.

Her face paled, accentuating the darkish bruise. Most of the villagers surrounding her fled but a few reached for her, whispering curses. Sebastian pushed them aside. Slipping an arm around her waist, he held the villagers off with one hand.

"She's a vampire."

"Her father was a vampire."

"She is an orphan."

"Strange."

"Abnormal!"

But Sebastian just shook his head and held them off.

"No," he said, "let her see a priest."

They argued until Bacchus waved them into silence and sent a man off to the church to find the priest who lived there.

"Stupidity," he barked. His eyes peered into Sebastian's. "Stupidity," he repeated.

Oh, well, Sebastian thought, I'm not doing this for you.

The priest arrived. "How can I help you?" he asked Bacchus.

"We want a exorcism," Bacchus said and nodded at Sebastian and the girl. His tone said that they--Sebastian and the priest--had better do it now and quickly and get it over with. The priest nodded.

"Come here, child."

The priest wasn't as elaborate as some Sebastian had encountered. He blessed the girl, sprinkled water over her head and murmured a prayer.

"Finished?" Sebastian asked.

The priest nodded, and Sebastian loosened his hold on the girl's arm. She wretched forward, spitting at him, broke and ran.

Half-a-mile outside the village, Sebastian climbed down a bank, splashed through a shallow stream and squatted down in front of the girl.

"What's your name?"

"Why do you care?"

He laughed, said:

"You're not going back?"

"I can't very well, now. They never really liked me."

"Or understood you," he said. She shook her head. Sebastian smiled. He had enough money for the next two months and all the free time in the world. They could go to Zagreb, maybe; she would like that.

"What's your name?"

"Iliana"

"You're not a bad actor. Did you know that, Iliana?"

"Really." Oh, she was a careful one. Not giving anything away. But Sebastian read the expression on her face, weighed the plea found there against the coldness of his own heart, and compromised.

"Yes," he said. "You've been acting ever since I got here."

She looked away towards the water.

"Would you like a job? I think an addition to my act might seriously improve it."

"Sure." She shrugged, but there was no hesitation. He gave her his hand and helped her to her feet.

"Are you cold?"

"Yes," she said, and he gave her one of his coats.

They walked up the bank to where a path wound in and out of the trees to the main road. The boy, Sebastian, must have told a joke because the girl, Iliana, laughed, and the hungry look began to go out of her eyes.