The winding staircase him to a circular room in the castle dungeon.  The air was damp and cool, like a well-built root cellar.  But instead of the inviting fragrance of fruits and vegetables, a subtle odor, like the stench of a cat that died in a hidden crawlspace, hung in the air.  The rotunda was windowless and completely devoid of furnishings except for an oblong box that sat in the center of the room.  This is it! Thought Abraham Van Helsing.  He had finally located Castle Dracula’s secret crypt and with only a few hours left until sunset.  

As Van Helsing ran his calloused fingers over the lid of the coffin a chill flickered up his spine.  With great care, he set his doctor’s bag on the floor.  Van Helsing leaned against the coffin lid and pushed.  The wooden cover stuttered across the rim and fell to the floor with a crash.    
The vampire hunter squinted, straining to see the coffin’s contents.  The soft, wavering light of the crypt’s sconces revealed a pale, bust mottled with loose dirt.  Van Helsing gently brushed the soil to the edges of the coffin.  Like an archaeologist dusting a fossil, his hand gradually uncovered the body of the infamous Count Dracula, deep in slumber.  
Van Helsing studied the Count's face.  Despite being centuries old his alabaster complexion was unmarred by even the shallowest wrinkle.  Not a strand of gray interrupted the dense field of black hair on his head.  On Dracula’s lower lip remained a trace of the source of his longevity: a drop of dried blood.  
What foul fantasies does the devil dream? Wondered Van Helsing.
He knelt and parted the bag’s leather lips.  The hunter withdrew a mallet, a stake, and a communion wafer.  He laid the wafer in the nook below Dracula’s crossed arms.  Van Helsing then set the tip of the stake over Dracula’s breast.  He raised the mallet overhead and paused.  With a few steady blows the Count will be destroyed, he thought, and Dracula’s curse should lift, freeing his victims from their undead purgatory.  
The mallet cut the air with a whisper, driving the point of the stake between Dracula’s ribs.  The Count immediately woke from his black dream, thrashing and shrieking.  As planned the communion wafer had sapped Dracula’s immense strength (it was rumored he could pull a man’s head off and drink him like a bottle of wine).  To the Count the wafer might as well have been a tombstone pressing on his chest.  
Van Helsing bore down on the Count’s collarbone with his elbow.  He steadied the stake and brought the hammer down again and again.  Each blow elicited a scream from the creature that seemed to cover several octaves at once.  When the head of the stake was pinned firmly against Dracula’s breast, the Count’s spasms trembled to a halt.  His body went limp, and he surrendered a long exhale, as if the vampire's spirit were finally escaping his ancient body after nearly a millennium of unholy immortality.  Slowly, the Count’s flesh grayed.  His skin flaked and crumbled, like a newspaper tossed in a fire, until the Count was reduced to a pile of ash.  
Van Helsing’s jaw drooped with a sigh.  He pulled a flask of whiskey from his coat pocket, uncapped it, and took a long sip.  In his heart he knew that Dracula’s victims had been freed.

Count Vidor awoke with a gasp that was immediately muffled by stale dirt caving into his mouth.  The Count writhed, struggling to open the lid of his coffin.  Vidor’s muscles spasmed as he pushed the lid to the floor with a loud, wooden clang.  The Count leaned over the side of the coffin and vomited a mouthful of soil.  
“Ivan!” called Vidor between hacks.
Several minutes passed before his manservant burst through the door, scuttling like a crab toward his ailing Lord.
“Master, Master!” said Ivan in his raspy tenor.  “Are you alright?”
“Do I look alright, you fool?”  The skin around his eyes tightened like clenched fists.  “Bring me nourishment now!”
Ivan disappeared into the wine cellar across the hall and returned a minute later cupping a goblet with both hands. He crossed the room as if he were walking a tightrope, careful not to spill a single drop.   Count Vidor was out of his coffin swiftly brushing the dirt off his tuxedo.  The soil never seemed to cling to him as stubbornly as it did now.  
“Here, Master, drink!  Regain your strength,” said Ivan as he handed the golden chalice to his Lord.
Vidor leered at Ivan as he snatched the goblet from his hand.  He lifted the cup to his thin lips and drank deeply.
Suddenly Vidor coughed, spraying blood onto Ivan’s tunic.  “Blah!” he shouted, flinging the cup across the room.  It clattered along the limestone floor and disappeared into the shadows.  “What is this?” yelled the Count.
Ivan studied the red liquid that slowly streamed around his worn, leather boot.  “It is blood, my Master,” he said, and then added quietly, “Your favorite.”   
It is not blood.”
“I swear, my Lord, it is.”
The count licked his lips and glanced sideways.  “Well,” he said and then turned back to Ivan with needling eyes, “it tastes like someone left it sitting out in the sun!”  
“I did no such thing, my Lord!”
Oh really?  Because I am reminded of last August when you pulled that dead goat from the bog, thinking I wouldn’t notice.”
Ivan flinched.  “No, Sire!  It is from a cow I slaughtered just this morning!  I give you my word.”
The Count narrowed his brow.  “Grass-fed?”
He cocked his head.  “I think so.”
“Then it must have been past its prime! I need something younger.” Vidor pointed to the door.  “Go find me a plump boy—ten year’s old at most!”
“Yes, Master,” said Ivan, bowing repeatedly as he backed out the door.
The Count huffed and shook his head.  He crossed his arms and waited.  Vidor was anxious to leave the crypt, but he did not want to run into the help after having just dismissed him in anger.  That would be awkward.  After the sound of Ivan’s footsteps on the staircase faded away the Count flung his cape over his shoulders and left the chamber.  
As Vidor climbed the stairs leading to the ground floor of the castle keep he couldn’t help but notice that his feet felt unusually heavy.  When he reached the top of the stairs he paused to catch his breath.  
Two wolves sat chained to the wall, flanking the entrance that led down to Vidor’s sanctuary.  They lowered their heads, but kept their eyes on the Count.
Ah, my children of the night.”  His voice dribbled warmly between his curled lips as if he were talking to his actual children.  He went to pet the black-furred mongrel he called Lucky, but the wolf snapped its teeth at Vidor’s hand.  
“Jesus!” cried the Count, zipping his fist away from the wolf’s mouth.  “What the hell is your problem?”  He looked to the other wolf, a grey-brown bitch named Anne, as if for sympathy, but she only growled at him.  
The Count grimaced.  He could control most of the vicious creatures of the wilderness, and he had shared a particularly strong bond with these two for years.  Could they be mal-tempered from malnourishment, the Count wondered?  Their ribs were visible beneath their mangy fur coats.  He committed to the theory and promised Ivan a flogging for not feeding his babies regularly.      
“Be good,” said Vidor caressing the back of his hand, “and I’ll give you the haunches of the boy Ivan returns with.”  
What an evening, thought Vidor.  He hadn’t been awake for more than a half hour and already the night was off to a terrible start.  A crooked smile crept onto his face.  He turned from his wolves and headed to the entrance of the great hall.  The wolves’ yellow eyes tracked Vidor as he crossed the room.  Lucky licked his chops.  The Count stopped before the giant wooden doors to straighten his cape and slick back his coal-black hair.  He filled his lungs with air and pushed open the heavy double-doors.
“My queens,” he purred, “I am in need of your—” Vidor stopped.  The grand bed in the middle of the hall was empty except for its red satin sheets and dozen lace pillows.  “My queens?” The Count’s voice floated to the ceiling.  The tapping of his shoes on the stone floor as he crossed the hall was the only sound in the vast chamber.  The tapestries still covered the windows.  They could not have been turned to ash by the sun, he thought.  He threw up the bedsheets and checked the cloisters—he even surveyed the ceiling (they had been known to hang from the rafters by their feet on occasion)—but the room was abandoned.  
“Sire!” said Ivan from across the room.  His forehead was greased with sweat.  
The Count’s brow narrowed.  “Where is my harem?” He yelled.
Ivan’s head twitched from one corner of the hall to the other with the punctuated rapidity of a chicken.  “I—I don’t know, Master.”
You don’t know?  Imbecile!  You are supposed to watch over them!”
Ivan cowered, bobbing up and down.  “Forgive me, m-my Lord.  They must be in hiding.”
The count tramped across the room with fists clenched.  “Of all the blunders—one of them was a redhead, Ivan!  
“My Lord, listen!” Ivan pleaded.
He shook his finger at Ivan.  “Do you have any idea how hard it is to find a redhead in Bulgaria?”  
“Master, please!  The villagers approach!”
The Count stared at the northern side of the room, as if his eyes could pierce through the wall.  “A mob?”
Ivan shook his head.
His eyebrow arched.  “Do they look vengeful?”
“They are carrying pitchforks and torches.”
The Count looked to the ceiling and cackled.  “The fools would dare?  Ivan!  Did you fetch me my fat boy?” His voice bellowed through the rafters.
“My Lord, there was no time.”
The Count rolled his eyes and sighed.  “No matter.”  He pulled his cape across his breast and marched passed Ivan.  “The rancid blood you fed me this evening should give me more than enough strength to deal with those peasants.”  
As the Count headed to the door of the keep Ivan rolled the words “this evening” around inside his misshapen head.  His simple mind took so long to process the statement that he did not realize his master was heading into certain peril until it was too late.   
Vidor grasped the iron rung on the door and Ivan gasped.  “Sire, wait! It’s not—”
But it was too late.  The Count threw open the door and sunlight flooded over his body.  
Vidor shrieked and fell to the floor.  He pulled his cape over his head and scrambled away from the light.  Ivan ran to his Lord.  He grabbed the Count’s arm and pulled him into the safety of the shadows.  When the count was out of the shaft of sunlight, Ivan helped his Master to his feet.  
The Count looked at his servant with bulging eyes.  He hadn’t seen sunlight in over 100 years and he hadn't felt it in more than 150.  “It is—it is daytime,” he stammered, still processing the discovery.  Vidor’s eyes crinkled.  “Why was I awakened before twilight?” He said sternly.
Ivan shook his head and shrugged.
“Were you playing in the bell tower again?”  It was more accusation than inquiry.
“No, sire, I wasn’t.  I swear on my life.”
The Count stared into the beam of light that tainted the entranceway of his musty keep.  His head tilted, as if imbalanced by a thought.  He lifted his hand in front of his eyes and examined it, turning it from one side to the other.  The sunlight had not seared his flesh.  He felt his face.  It too was smooth and unblemished.  He should have been happy to not have been sun-scorched, but his fortune left a gnawing discomfort in the pit of his stomach.     
He inched toward the doorway, taking care not to touch the ray of light blazing into the foyer. The Count raised his hand to his breast.  He snapped his fingers in and out of the sunbeam like the tail of a whip.  He examined his hand.  There was no sunburn.  Vidor flicked his hand in and out of the sun repeatedly.  Again, it did not harm him.  The Count stared into the glowing yellow shaft.  Finally, he took a deep breath and stuck his hand into the sunlight, holding it there.   
The Count’s jaw fell open.  He studied his fingers. There was no searing flesh.  No pain—not even a slight discomfort.  Nothing.  Vidor slowly pulled his hand into the shadows.  Again he examined it and found no singed skin or watery blisters.  
Half-hidden behind a stone pillar, Ivan watched.
The Count pressed his fist to his his mouth.  He pointed to the sunlight and then to the shadows, and then back to the sunlight and back to the shadows.  His eyebrow arched.  Vidor held his breath and closed his eyes, and then stepped into the sunlight.
Ivan reached out.  “Master, no!”
The Count opened one eye, and then the other.  He looked himself up and down.  There was no smoke rising from his body—no toasting skin.  Not only was the sunlight harmless, but the mild warmth almost felt cozy on a crisp late-September day.
The Count stepped back into the keep.  “What the hell is going on?” He said beneath his breath.  He hadn’t been this confused since he was first turned by his Master.  Vidor’s eyes blossomed.  The Master! He thought.  During his countless years as nosferatu, he might have encountered something!  
Vidor closed his eyes.  He lifted his hands to the sides of his head and massaged his temples.  
Ivan ran to the Count.  “Master, what are you doing?” he said tugging on his cape.
“Silence!” said the Count.  “I am calling out to my Master, Count Dracula.”  He snatched his cape from Ivan’s fingers.   “I need complete concentration.  Do not distract me!”    
Ivan slunk away like a kicked mutt.  The abuse he suffered under Count Vidor was constant, but this day was particularly excessive.  If it weren’t for the hope that the vampire would one day pass his powers onto him, Ivan would have personally led the villagers to the crypt at noon years ago.  
The Count closed his eyes and stared into the void of his mind’s eyes.  He had linked with Dracula a handful of times throughout the centuries.  His master was strong and it typically only took a moment to make a connection, but now there was nothing but mute darkness.
Vidor opened his eyes.  “He’s gone,” he said softly.  Then, turning to Ivan, “He’s gone!”  Everything was starting to make sense.
Just then there was a loud, hollow thud like a carrack bumping a dock.  The Count looked across the courtyard to the castle gate just in time to see the center planks buckle.
His face blanked.  “Oh shit,” he said.
There was another thud.  As if coaxing himself to jump into an icy river, the count stepped into the sunlight.  He looked back at Ivan.  “To the tower!” He said.
Ivan and the Count ran across the dusty courtyard to the entranceway of the northern tower that flanked the gate.  As the Count ran he tried to will himself into the form of a bat, but no matter how hard he concentrated his shape would not shift.  
They raced up the tower to the beat of the battering ram and onto the turret.  The Count leaned over the edge of the crenelated parapet and caught his breath.  Thirty-two local villagers armed with farming tools and crucifixes were gathered outside the gate.  The scent of fresh garlic wafted high above the mob.  Normally garlic and crosses would have burned the Count’s skin and blinded his eyes, but now they did nothing.  How strange, thought Vidor, to be so frightened of the sun and god—even food—for centuries, and to suddenly be immune to their effects.
How to handle this, mulled Vidor as he wiped the sweat from his brow.  Throughout the decades staggered generations of local villagers had besieged his castle seeking to put an end to his depraved crimes, and each time the Count had called upon the local beasts and his harem to help him slaughter his attackers.  He had put down the last insurrection—the grandparents of this group, he guessed—within a few hours.  The battle had left Vidor with enough blood for a week, as well as the lupine great grandmother of Anne and Lucky.  But that was back when he had his powers.  This conflict would require a radically different approach.    
“Heave!” yelled a villager in a yellowed button-down shirt and frayed straw hat.
Working together eight strong, young men carried a long oak log away from the castle gate.  The man in the straw hat was about to give the signal to ram the gate when the Count interrupted.
“Peasants!" He yelled.    
The villagers looked up.  Their mouths gaped and their eyes bulged with fear.  
The Count rubbed his chin as he reconsidered his choice of words.  “Friends!” he said.
“The Lord of Flies,” whispered one villager.  
“He’s awake,” said another.  
“In daylight?  How?”  
“Are the legends untrue?”
“I am glad that you all happened to stop by today,” said the Count, “for I have an announcement.”
The people stared at their ageless tormentor warily.  Few had ever seen him—only knowing of his existence through stories and the aftermath of his ascribed misdeeds.  Whenever someone disappeared or turned up dead (most always desiccated), rumors of Count Vidor, the night stalker, would spread through the village like wildfire.
The Count raised his hand as if giving testimony.  “I renounce my fraternity with the forces of darkness.”
“What’s he sayin’?” said a man with a red-beard holding a pitchfork.  
The count continued.  “From this day forward I will live with you in peace as your neighbor.”
The crowd continued to stare in dumbfounded silence.  
“It must be some kinda trick!” yelled the peasant in the straw hat.  “We must attack now while he is weakened by the sun’s light!”
“Wait!” said the Count.  “Perhaps I am not making myself understood.”  Vidor held out his arms.  “I wish to make amends with you good people.”
Make amends?” said a man wearing a felt hat.  “You mean you’re gonna give back all the cattle you stole from us?”
Vidor pulled on the winged collar of his shirt.  “That would be quite expensive, friend!”
The mob began to grumble.
“Friends, try to understand.  When I slaughtered your cattle I was afflicted with the terrible disease known as vampirism.  The British Medical Journal describes the predominant symptom of vampirism as ‘a bloodlust that causes one to involuntarily commit heinous acts.  Note the word involuntarily.”  
“You sayin’ you had no choice when you killed our cattle?”
“Correct, my friend. In fact you should be thankful I killed your cattle. For every cow I killed took the place of a precious human life. Right?”
The grumblings of the mob grew louder.  The Count’s muscles tensed.
“On second thought, maybe we can arrange some kind of repayment plan.  Say two heads of cattle a year over the next ten years?”
The crowd’s volume lowered as they talked amongst themselves.  The Count relaxed.
“And what about our daughters!” said a woman in a cape.  
“Yeah,” said her husband shaking a tree branch he had fashioned into a club.  “You stole our Gretchen from her bed in the middle of the night six years ago!”
The Count raised his index finger.  “Yes, but,” he paused and cast a glance at Ivan who simply shrugged.  “Yes, but—here’s the good news.”  He smiled.  “Anyone who I drained of blood will be restored to you just as they were.  Isn’t that great!"
“And what about Gretchen's virginity?” said the girl’s father.  “Will that be restored too!” he asked.
“Look, the important thing to keep in mind is that when you go home this evening, your loved ones will be there waiting for you.  I think that is something we can all be happy about.”
The villagers mumbled to one another.
“We musn’t listen to Count Vidor!” said the man in the straw hat.  “His words are foul lies!”
“Please, call me Kevin, friends—Kevin Vidor.  You cannot be a Count unless you’re a vampire.  That's the rule.”
“And what about me husband, Alvin?” said a woman with gnarled, yellow teeth.  “Ya gutted ‘em like a deer on Christmas Eve!”  She said and broke into tears.
The Count stared blankly for a moment.  “Ok, next question.  Yes, you have your hand raised,” Vidor said, pointing  at a man who did not so much have his hand raised as he was holding up a lit torch.”
“My uncle came to visit from Gundore,” said the torch-bearer.  “Ya ripped his head off and drank the blood gushing from his neck like he were a fountain!”  
The count huffed.  “Alright, listen here, idiots.  If you had read even a basic anatomy text you would know that there is no way I can—”
Ivan cleared his throat loudly.  The Count glanced at him.  He pursed his lips and shook his head.
Vidor took a breath and feigned a smile.  “I apologize, friends.  Today has been very stressful.  Look, I will be honest. Not everyone will be returning to you.  Anyone who was disemboweled, drawn and quartered, had their head put on a pike, burned alive, used in the construction of my throne of human bones, fed to wolves, or etcetera cannot be restored.  Unfortunately.”  
The crowd's mix of voices took on an angry tone.
Vidor clasped his hands.  “My merciful friends, you cannot take this so personally.  Vampirism is a force of nature.  You would not blame the leper when his nose falls off.  Would you? Or the bear who maims your husband as he walks through the forest?"    
The din of the mob rose to a climax.  The people bared their teeth and shouted at the Count, shaking their crude farming tools.
“I am trying to tell you people that I am on your side now.  I no longer have command over the powers of darkness!  Why don’t we let bygones be bygones and move on with our lives?”
The crowd stared at him in silence.  Finally, the peasant in the straw hat pointed at the Count.  “He’s lost his dark powers! Let’s get him!”  
The villagers roared.  They reared the oak log and prepared to thrust.  Vidor continued trying to reason with them, but was drowned out by the ruckus below.  Again the mob rammed the door, and Vidor recognized the distinct sound of splintering wood.  Once the villagers breached the gate they would soon be pouring through the outer wall.
“Come, Ivan!” he said.  “We must escape!”
They raced down the tower staircase.  As they crossed the bailey, Vidor heard a heavy thump.  Some of the villagers had slipped through the split in the gate and removed the wooden crossbar that sealed the doors.  The gate groaned as the mob pushed through.  
“They’re headed for the keep!” Someone shouted.  “After ‘em!”
As Vidor started down the staircase leading to the cellar, he jerked backward and fell onto the steps.  The Count looked over his shoulder to find Lucky with the end of his cape clamped between his teeth.  The Count yanked, but Lucky would not let go.  Vidor snapped the fine chain that fastened the cape around his neck and freed himself.  Lucky growled as he shook the cape from side to side.
“You stupid wolf!” said Vidor.  He went to kick Lucky, but Ivan tugged at his sleeve.
“Please, Master, we must flee!”  
They ran down the stairs and entered the wine cellar.  
Ivan pulled a torch from a sconce.   
The wine cellar was lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves containing a paltry collection of dusty bottles and empty oak casks.  Beside the door a mangy dog hung by its shanks above a basin half-filled with blood.  A few drops trickled from a slit in its throat.
Vidor placed his hands on his hips and glared at Ivan.  “A grass-fed cow?  Is that so?”
Ivan shrugged and chuckled nervously.  “It was standing near a cow.”
“You lying little—” Vidor was interrupted by the sound of the keep’s door tearing from its hinges.  
Ivan and Vidor looked at each other with protruding eyes.  The pair bolted toward a lone wine rack at the far end of the room.  A single green bottle lay in its lowermost cradle.  Ivan pulled the grimy bottle from the shelf.  He inserted it into a cradle on the middle-left side of the rack and twisted. A click sounded and the shelf began to shudder.  Slowly the rack slid across the floor with a screech revealing a secret passage leading into a darkened tunnel.  The Count grabbed his own torch, and then he and Ivan fled the castle.  As they ran down the roughly-hewn tunnel the sound of angry voices slowly muted as the wine rack slid back into place.  

“What if we were to steal babes and bathe in their blood on the night of a full moon?”
“I don’t think so, Ivan.”  
They hadn’t traveled more than a few miles through the Csarna Valley and already Ivan was dissembling the Count’s patience.  He continued to think up macabre methods in which to re-contract the vampire virus.  
“We could—we could sacrifice virgins to Lucifer in a blood ritual.”
“No.”  Vidor stopped to locate the sun’s position through the thick canopy of deciduous trees.  “I think Gundore is a few more miles to the south.”
“Then what if we exhumed the bodies of the dead priests and—”
The Count threw up his hands. He turned to Ivan.  “What is wrong with you?”  He paused and took a breath.  “Look, this arrangement isn’t working anymore.”
“Master, what do you mean?”     
Vidor exhaled deeply.  “I mean, I am no longer in need of your services, Ivan.”
“Sire, you jest?”
“Becoming human has robbed me of certain,” Vidor paused, folding his lips together “immoral desires.  I don’t wish to hurt anyone anymore.  You, however, you’re, well” he winced, “evil.  And quite frankly  it creeps me out.”
Ivan gasped.  “But sire, think of all we have been through together!”
“Yes, that is the problem.  We did awful, awful things I never want to relive.  Ivan, I’m sorry, but I would suggest you find alternative employment.”  
Ivan grimaced.  His breathing sped up.  “I am in disbelief!  I have done everything for you!  Everything!  And you have never once been grateful!”
"Well, that alludes to a whole other issue regarding your low self-esteem."
"Shut up! You have betrayed me!"
“Ivan, vampirism is like a dis—”
“Save it for the dirt farmers!  May you stew for eternity in the belly of the behemoth, Kevin!”  Ivan headed in the other direction.  “A pox on thee!”  
“Come on now, Ivan,” he called after him.  “There’s no reason to end on a flat note!”  
Without looking back, Ivan swatted the air as if Vidor’s appeal were a fly buzzing around his head.
Vidor shook his head as he watched Ivan disappear into the crowd of trees.  Suddenly a wolf howled in the distance.  Vidor’s eyes widened.  He continued on to Gundore as fast as the forest’s undergrowth allowed him.  

The pale orange sun kissed the horizon.  Kevin wiped the sweat off his tanned brow and then threw one last handful of corn to the pigs.  He opened the gate to the pen just wide enough so that he could squeeze through without any swine following after him.  Kevin latched the gate and headed toward the farmhouse.  
“Don’t forget ta wata the mud tomorrow morn, Kevin!” said the farm manager from the stable window.  He leaned his head out and spit a few inches in front of Kevin’s boot.    
Kevin nodded without looking at him.  How he wished he could have his powers back for an evening, if only to eviscerate his miserable boss.
He headed up the dirt road that led to the forest on the western edge of town.  After a mile on the wooded road Vidor reached a disused barn that sat behind a bend of trees just off the path.  Kevin approached the weathered double-doors that fit the barn like a pair of bucked teeth.  
He issued the secret knock—three quick raps followed by a pause and then a fourth. A moment later a panel on one of the doors slid open.  “Yeah, whataya want?”
Kevin rolled his eyes.  “Only dogs have fangs,” he said joylessly.
The panel slid closed.  The door unbolted and cracked open.  As Kevin slid inside, a haggard old woman in a soiled robe eyed him from tip to tip.  Kevin nodded and dropped a denar into the dented tin cup she held in her hand.  
He was late.  Kevin tiptoed into the main hall of the barn, trying not to distract anyone.  When he was a vampire he could move as quietly as a growing shadow, but that was then.  
A man with a bald head wreathed by long black hair was wrapping up his sharing session.  “I think I miss the power and wealth the most,” he said.  “But that part of my life is over, and I've accepted it.  I just try to take things one day at a time.”      
The crowd clapped lethargically as the man stepped off the stage.  
The chairman stood up in the front row and faced the crowd.  “Thank you for sharing that with us, Vladislav.  Remember, you don’t have to see the whole staircase at once, just the first step, one step at a time.  Humanity is a journey, not a destination.  Alright, who’s next?” he said scanning the room. "I see some new faces tonight." Kevin tried to hide behind a wooden pillar.  "How about you, sir? In the brown vest."
Kevin cursed under his breath.  It was only his first meeting and he had hadn’t planned to speak.  He shuffled to the front of the room and climbed onto the makeshift stage with an inaudible sigh.  “Hello, friends.  My name is Kevin V.”  
“Hi, Kevin,” said the crowd in unison.
He cleared his throat.  “Being cured of vampirism has been hard to accept.  I lost my castle.  I lost my servants.  My harem.  Everything.”  He looked around the room at the dimly lit faces.  Were any of his victims here, he wondered.  “At first I was in denial.  I thought there might be a way to re-infect myself.  For months I prayed to Lucifer, begging him to return my powers to me.”  A few attendees nodded.  “I continued to drink the blood of any animal I came across—rats, dogs, cats—but that did nothing.  And it tasted awful.”  Some in the crowd chuckled.  Many of them had tried the same thing.  “At my lowest point I intentionally disturbed a cave of vampire bats, hoping they would bite me.  A few did, but nothing came of it—except a three-day fever.  That was when I realized I had hit rock-bottom.”  His eyes fell on the worn, oak floorboards.  “I knew I needed help if I was going to get on with my life.”  Kevin looked to the chairman.  “What else am I supposed to say?”
“Anything else you’d like to share,” said the chairman.  “Or nothing at all.  It is up to you.”
“I think that that’s good for now.”
Kevin was accompanied off stage by applause and even a couple hear hears.  (The group liked to show extra support to newcomers.) He took a seat beside a young woman in a green dress sitting on a bale of hay.
“That was a lovely speech,” said the maiden.  
Kevin flashed a gentle smile.  “Thanks.”  He squinted at her.  “Do I know you?”
The woman smiled.  “Yes.  You used to be my master.  You bit me on my way home from the market and left me to turn in a cornfield.  Remember?”
Kevin chuckled.  His cheeks flushed.  “Oh, right.  Sorry about that.  I was,” he hesitated, “a vampire, you know?”
She pushed a strand of blond hair behind her ear.  “Anything a vampire lets go of has claw marks all over it.”  It was a common statement among former vampires.
“I’m Kevin,” he said holding out his hand.
She shook it.  “Esmerelda.”  
“Esmerelda.  Were you able to reunite with your family after you were cured?  Parents?  Siblings?”  He cleared his throat.  “Husband?”
“My husband died a few years ago.  Pneumonia.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Thank you.  In a way I might have been lucky.”
“How do you mean?”
“If I hadn't been a vampire, I might have died along with him.”
Vidor nodded.  “That’s a good way to look at it.”  The conversation lulled for a moment and then Kevin spoke up.  “Do you have plans after the meeting?”
Esmeralda blushed and looked at the floor.  “No.”
“Would you like to accompany me to the Angry Boar?  I would like to buy you a pint of ale—an apology for draining your blood those many years ago."
“I would like that,” she said.
Kevin smiled.
Taking her hand he helped Esmerelda to her feet.
“That’s all for tonight,” said the chairman.  “I’ll see you all next week, unless of course if you had other plans,” said the chairman.  The former vampires streamed out of the barn.  “And remember, it’s not vampire-ism, it’s vampire-wasm.”
Esmerelda leaned her head against Kevin’s shoulder as he escorted her to the Angry Boar.  His skin blotted with goosebumps.  Suddenly Kevin remembered a side-effect of humanity: affection.  
He smiled.  Maybe being human isn’t that bad after all, he thought.

The Rule

          The train pulled into Chambers Street at 8:04am. It was teeming with passengers as usual. I stepped through the doors and spotted a sliver of space on the far end of the subway car. With briefcase in hand I weaved my way through the crowd to that small piece of unclaimed real estate.
          The door chimed and the train began to move. As I reached for the overhead bar to steady myself my palm grazed a man's hand. He was holding the rail with his right hand and clutching a folded copy of the New York Post with his left.
          "Sorry," I said automatically.
          The man slowly turned his head to me. He stared at me with his wide, brown eyes. "We're gay now,” he said coldly.
          “What?" I said with a chuckle.
          "Your hand touched mine,” he said. “That makes us gay together."
          I laughed, but I stopped when I realized he wasn't joking. "Uh, yeah, I don't think so."
          His face was pale and flat, like a tombstone. "That’s the rule," he said.
          I winced.
          We stared at one another uncomfortably. After a moment the train stopped, and the man began to inch toward the door. As he shuffled behind me he spoke softly into my ear. "We might as well get started. Meet tonight at eight at the Barley Club for an intimate dinner." His brow narrowed. "Don't be late, I have reservations."
          As he walked down the platform something struck me. I stepped out the door and called after him. "How do you have reservations if you just met me?"
          The man's only reply was the ruffling of his black suit coat. 
          A chime sounded and I stepped back into the car just as the doors closed.

          I arrived at the Barley Club at 8 o'clock for an unsatisfying steak dinner. After tiramisu and coffee the man--his name turned out to be Jeff--asked me how I was enjoying my life as a newly-minted gay man.
          "It’s,” I paused, struggling to find the right word, “different. You?"
          He shrugged. "No offense, but I preferred my girlfriend. But rules are rules." 
          Candlelight and shadow danced across his face.  I pictured us, twenty years from now, silently walking two French bulldogs down a quaint side-street in Greenwich Village. "Yeah,” I sighed. “Rules are rules."

Love in the Time of the Old Ones

We watched through the broken window of Spagnoli’s Fish Market as Ryan Beachard slowly ascended the massive pile of rubble that was once the South Street Seaport Mall.  He took one last drag of his cigarette before flicking it into the water.
Sarah stood to my left holding my calloused hand in her strong fingers.  Her grip tightened when Ryan reached the peak of the mountain of debris.
Pei Ling Chen stood to my right, her hand intentionally grazing mine from time to time.  It was both exciting and aggravating.    
Light flashed in the distance.  Ryan had cast the summon spell, as we called it.  Depending on where it was when summoned the thing could show up in anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours.  Ryan knelt down and rummaged through his messenger bag, searching for another cigarette, I guessed.  He threw a Camel into his mouth and lit it with his Zippo.
Suddenly the ground began to shake, and a massive waterspout erupted as a towering form rose out of Upper New York Bay. 
Ryan’s eyes followed the shape as it rose to 20 stories above the water.  The cigarette fell from his mouth and sparked against his coat before being lost in the rubble.  The creature stood on three crab-like legs, each the width of a redwood tree trunk.  Hundreds of tentacles flowed out of its torso like the tendrils of a marine plant.  It crawled toward the Seaport.
Ryan appeared to be frozen, which was no surprise.  He wouldn’t be the first person who had ventured as far only to be driven mad by the sight of the towering abomination.  But I knew Ryan, and I knew that his mind was stronger than the others.
After a moment, he raised his hands toward the sky.  Ryan drew shapes in the cool autumn air as he spoke the arcane incantations. 
The thing saw Ryan with crimson eyes that roiled to the surface of its gray, corpse-like skin, only to burst and disappear like bubbles in a boiling pot.  It was no longer the spell that called the thing to Ryan.  It was the promise of live meat.
When the ritual ended.  I held my breath.  The thing stood in the water, pulsing and writhing.  The spell didn’t seem to have an effect on it. 
“Damn it,” I said and kicked the wall. 
Shhh!” said Sarah.   
Now it was the creature’s turn to attack.  It swung a thick tentacle at Ryan, the pallid limb curving through the air like a train falling off a cliff.  Ryan crouched, bracing for the inevitable, but before he could be devoured by one of its mouthed suckers the tentacle was deflected by a bell-jar of solid energy surrounding Ryan. 
Pei Ling perked up.  “Interesting,” she said in her thick Chinese accent.  “A force-field.”
I saw Sarah leer at Pei Ling from the corner of my eye.
I exhaled, but my relief was short-lived.  The thing beat on Ryan’s glass house again and again until it shattered in a blinding display of light.  When the light of the magic faded, Ryan was gone. 
The thing backed away from shore.  It climbed the remaining tower of the Brooklyn Bridge where it perched like an eagle waiting for prey to scurry out of hiding.      

Our party was silent as we negotiated the rubble strewn about Wall Street.  The strong smell of decaying flesh radiated from the ruined buildings.  We hadn’t the time or manpower to clear the rubble and dispose of the dead, and so the corpses were left to decay where they fell.  One thing people never imagine when they envision a post-apocalyptic world: the god-awful stench. 
I looked back at Pei Ling who was holstering her nine millimeter in order to climb over a crushed BMW SUV.  Guns, like most conventional weapons, are useless against the monsters.  Their hides are either too thick or their bodies are ethereal.  We carried them in case we ran into any people that might try to steal our supplies—maybe even eat us.
Pei Ling smiled when she caught my gaze.  I smiled back.  Our stare lingered too long.  When I looked forward I was met by Sarah’s scowling face.  I could tell this would come up later. 
After an hour we reached the 2, 3 subway station.  Three months ago, when the buildings were intact, the same trip wouldn’t have been more than a ten minute walk.  We took flashlights out of our backpacks and shuffled down the stairwell.  Three months ago we would have ridden a subway train to Pennsylvania Station.  Now we walked through the tunnels.

“How’d it go?” asked Jeffrey Pilaster as we made our way up the static escalator. 
“Bad,” I replied.  “The spell didn’t hurt the monster.  But it did create some kind of barrier around Ryan.”
Pilaster put his hand to his chin and stared pensively through his cracked glasses.  After a moment he whispered, “Protect self….  I thought it was ‘project self’.  Did it save him?” he asked with reserved hopefulness.
I shook my head.  “The thing made short work of it.”
Pilaster furled his brow and exhaled a deep breath.  He pulled a pack of Pall Malls from his breast pocket and withdrew two cigarettes.  He put one in his mouth and handed me the other.  I was about to light the end when Sarah swooped in and snatched it from my mouth.
“These are disgusting,” she said as she crushed it in her hand. 
I rolled my eyes.
I turned back to Pilaster.  I could tell he felt guilty.  “It’s not your fault, Jeff,” I said.  “You have to keep trying.” 
He nodded and then walked back to his apartment with his head down.
“Have a pleasant evening, Arthur,” said Pei Ling in her formal speaking style.  She headed toward the ticketing booth for radio duty.
“Have a pleasant evening,” I parroted.

Sarah and I entered our home—the former Penn Station Taco Bell.  I shut the metal gate and turned around to find Sarah standing only inches behind me.
“Don’t think I don’t see what’s going on,” she said acerbically.
Don’t think, you don’t see,” I said, counting the negative conjunctions on my left hand, “what’s going on.” 
“If I find out you’ve been messing around with that little Chinese tart,” she said, her finger wagging at my nose, “I’m going to cut your balls off, Arthur—just like I’d do to a dog that can’t stay in the yard.”
“I love you too, honey.”
Sarah shoved me into the security gate.  The slated door buckled under my weight.
The friction between us was nothing new.  During the two years we were together our arguments had grown increasingly personal and violent.  One night, after a memorably vitriolic argument, I had made the decision to leave Sarah.  But before I was able to muster the courage to end it, an urgent TV news report broke. 
Something had been smashing houses to smithereens during the middle of the night in a small Hamlet just outside of Providence, Rhode Island.  It was something so huge it could completely demolish a small building, and yet there wasn’t a single eyewitness account.  It was a curious and frightening account, but it was only a sample of things to come.    
In the days following several creatures began to appear near an abandoned radio station near Providence.  They tore into our world by the dozens, destroying everything in their path.  The military attacked, but their efforts were futile.  There was in-fighting over territory.  Eventually the creatures spread, first across the country, then the globe. 
Sometimes a disaster will bring people closer together—it did for us.  We used each other as crutches to limp on through the dark times.  For a while we were civil again, but you can get used to anything.  After we adapted to life beneath the “feet” of the Ancient Ones the old problems reared their persistent heads. 
I lifted the gate halfway and ducked beneath it.
“Where do you think you’re going?” said Sarah said.
I turned back.  “Ryan’s memorial service—I need to spread the word.”
“I’m sure you do,” she replied sarcastically.
I left Taco Hell and walked down the connecting concourse toward the ticketing office.   My steel-toed boots echoed down the corridor.  A few months ago the hallways would have been strewn with sleeping refugees—the stores and offices triple, even quadruple-bunked—but the halls were empty now, and a few of the stores were even vacant.
My knuckles rapped on the private sign stuck to the door of the ticket vendors’ lounge. 
“It’s me,” I said.
There was a muffled reply, “Come in.”
I entered the office and quietly shut the door behind me.  Pei Ling was seated at a desk running through bands on the CB radio.  She looked cute in camouflage pants and a wife-beater. 
“Anything?” I said picking up her clipboard.  She had written the time and several radio frequencies.  Next to each frequency were the words no transmission written in perfect calligraphy.
“No.  I reported today’s activities, but no one responded.”
We kept in touch with other pockets of resistance.  We would transmit our efforts over the CB and note any significant broadcasts that came back.  Our hope was that someone somewhere might discover the creatures’ weakness.  We had yet to hear anything useful.       
“Maybe they’re busy,” I said, trying to sound optimistic.   
“Maybe,” she said standing up.
Pei Ling stood.  She threw her arms around my neck and gave me a hard kiss.  “Baby, I missed you so much!  Did you miss me?”
Women, I thought.  It had been less than an hour since we last saw each other.  “Of course I did,” I said with a smile.
I stared into her wide brown eye and tried to forget that we were on the verge of extinction, if only for a moment.   
“I don’t have a lot of time,” I told her.
“I understand.”  She immediately began peeling off her clothes. 
What a woman, I thought, as I followed her lead. 

Twenty minutes later we lay sprawled on the floor with only our clothing between our sweaty bodies and the cold tile.
“Baby, when will we be together?” Pei Ling asked as she combed her fingers through my chest hair. 
The question had become a recurring theme to our tryst. 
I sighed.  “I don’t know, babe.  Sarah—”
“You do not love her anymore?”
I opened my mouth to speak, but no words came out.
“Then you should leave her.”
“It’s not that easy.”  I said frustrated.
“If you are not satisfied with a relationship, then you abandon it.”
“Sweetie, it isn’t like before—when you broke up with someone and never saw them again.  We work together—live together—I see her every day.  She sees you every day.”
“It is exactly the same as before.  We are the architects of our own happiness.  You just have to take action.” 
“Believe me, if I left Sarah and started up with you she would do everything in her power to make our lives hell.”
“The world is not already hell?  What more can she do than already has been done?”
I raised my eyebrows and sighed.  “I have to get back.”

The next morning there was a pounding on the security gate.  I raised the door. 
“I found another one,” said Pilaster holding up the ancient leather-bound tome.  It was early morning, but he was already smoking a cigarette.  “You have to get everyone together for the lottery. 
I massaged the bridge of my nose and let out a tired breath.  “Later tonight,” I replied.  “They’ll cast tomorrow.”
“But the thing is still out there,” he said pointing east.
“Can we have a moment?” I snapped at him.  “Ryan’s body isn’t even cold yet.  We’ll send someone tomorrow.”
Pilaster looked at the cracked concrete floor and nodded.  “Alright.”  He paused.  “Tomorrow.” 
He left and I shuttered the door.  My stomach was grumbling for breakfast, which would undoubtedly be tortilla-related.
“You should send Pei Ling,” my wife said, surprising me.
“What do you mean I should send Pei Ling?” I glared at her.  “I don’t send anyone.  Chance does.”
“Don’t give me that horseshit.  You run the lottery, don’t you?”
I stared at her uncomfortably. 
She flared her eyes at me.
“So I should just pick Pei Ling and let her get killed?” I said flabbergasted.  “What is wrong with you?”
“You’re going to kill someone.  Does it matter who?”
I don’t kill anyone!  It’s up to chance—it’s a god damn lottery!”
Sarah took two steps toward me.  “Someone has to die, Arthur.  Why should you care if it were Pei Ling?”
The icy calm in her voice sent a chill through my body.  I shook my head as I backed away.  “I have to go,” I said.  “I have work to do.”
I left our apartment and made my away around Penn Station.  I pounded on security gates and office doors alerting the people that there would be a memorial service followed by a lottery. 

After Ryan’s memorial service, which was officiated by Pilaster, the group congregated in front of the staircase in the main concourse.  The numbers seemed thinner than ever—30, 35 maybe.  Had some deserted us?  
                I headed to a fire extinguisher cabinet bolted to the side of the stairs.  I pulled a key from my jacket pocket and unlocked the padlock.  Inside was a large Folger’s Coffee can.  Normally the case wouldn’t be locked should someone need the extinguisher in the event of a fire, but I had fixed a padlock to the door to keep people from tampering with the coffee can.   (The fire extinguisher was on the floor beneath the cabinet.)   Taking the can I wove through the crowd and hopped onto the third step of the staircase.
Looks of anxiety and despair adorned the peoples’ faces.  Pei Ling stood in the back leaning against the door of an Auntie Anne’s pretzel shop, her arms at her side.  Sarah stood on the other side of the room, arms crossed and glaring at me.
“Friends!” I yelled.  The people stopped talking and looked at me.  “Thank you all for coming.”
“Why do we bother?” shouted someone in the back.  I strained to see who, but the light from the barrel fire wasn’t strong enough to illuminate his face.  “We just end up getting ourselves killed!” 
There were supportive rumblings from the crowd.
“Friends, please!  I know you are all tired and frustrated, but we are getting closer to finding a spell that will banish the Old Ones.”
“How do you know that?” shouted Ryan Beachard’s sister.  She had the same pale skin and curly blond locks that her older brother had. 
“The translations—”
“Pilaster can’t read Arabic for shit!” shouted another voice from the shadows.
From the corner of my eye I could see Pilaster lower his head.
“Mr. Pilaster is doing all he can.  It’s only a matter of time before we find the right incantation!  This struggle has an end!”
More rumblings sounded, this time in my favor.
“What else can we do but keep trying?” I said.
“We could leave!” shouted another faceless voice.
“And go where?  To the Mountains in the north, where the monster floats above a bed of timber and bones?  South, to the grotto of the dreaming god?  On the radio an army Lieutenant claimed there’s a whole city of humanoid fish creatures on the west coast.  Should we try there?”
The rebels were beginning to lose steam. 
“This isn’t a problem we can run from!  We make our stand here, now.  There is a spell that can exile the monsters.  Dr. Pasqual was certain of that.  We just have to keep trying until we find it.”
A few heads nodded.  Some people sighed in resignation.  They knew I spoke the truth.  The things were everywhere.  All we could do was scurry between the cracks beneath their feet, like the rats in the subway, until we found a way to defeat them.
  “Remember we’re not just doing this for ourselves.  We are doing this for the world.  Now, I’m going to draw a name.”  I reached into the coffee can and withdrew a scrap of paper.
I read the name, which had been written by the entrant herself.  “Karen Wooster,” I said definitively. 
A girl gasped.
“No!” cried her father, Robert Wooster.
I pursed my lips and looked at the floor. 
“Not my Karen,” he said.  “Draw again!”
“It’s a lottery, Robert,” I said holding up my hands. 
Unlike Pilaster, I had given up on feeling guilty.  I’d always been the one to draw the names, but the selection process was based on chance.  If I didn’t draw the names, someone else would.  And if it wasn’t Karen, it would be another.  These were the rules the group had agreed upon in the beginning.
Robert paused, his face smeared with anger and desperation.  “Then I’ll do it.  I’ll go in her place.”
I looked into his eyes.  “You can,” I told him.  “But are you absolutely sure you want to?”
“It’s my daughter,” he said indignantly.  “Of course I’m sure.”
I shook my head.  “Then meet with Pilaster tomorrow at dawn to learn the spell.  We’ll head out at noon.”  I addressed the crowd.  “The lottery is settled. You can all go home.”
The crowd slowly dispersed to a coda of grumbling and whispers.
The only other person who had ever volunteered to cast a spell was an NYU professor named Doctor Victor Pasqual.  Pasqual had access to NYU’s Bobst Library, a repository for rare texts, which he frequented to indulge his personal interest in the occult.  It was here that he found the ancient tome.
Although the readings in the tome fascinated Pasqual, he had never believed them to be anything more than ancient folklore.  But when the creatures started to appear, and the doctor saw that their anatomy was strikingly similar to the diagrams and descriptions logged in the tome, he concluded that the book was rooted more in reality than superstition. 
Realizing the tome was the key to unraveling the mystery of these eerie new creatures, Pasqual seized the book from the Bobst Library and felt into the subway. 
After stumbling through the underground for days, scouring for a safe haven, the doctor happened upon our encampment under the ruins of Madison Square Garden.  Like most refugees, we took him in and gave him a place where he felt safe.
It wasn’t long before Pasqual began conducting experiments based on the readings in the tome.  I had never believed in magic before I met the doctor, but with the book he was able to do impossible things.  He could reanimate dead rats.  Make shadows speak in tongues.  Once I even saw him turn a dog inside out by merely speaking a few arcane syllables.  (He swore the dog was an accident.)      
After months of research Pasqual thought he had found a spell to bind the Old Ones.  He was so certain of his discovery that he insisted he be the one to cast it and, I think secretly, the one to get the credit.  While the thing was busy destroying the Brooklyn Bridge, Dr. Pasqual marched out onto the balcony of the South Street Seaport.  He shouted the incantations in a tone fat with undeserved triumph.  But magic is often vague and unpredictable.
When he concluded the spell a flash of light flared around his body.  The thing raised—what I could only assume was its head—and looked directly at the Doctor.  With only a moment’s hesitation it leapt toward the seaport.  Terrified Pasqual clumsily descended the staircase, but it was too late.  The thing whipped the building to pieces with its innumerous tentacles. 
Twenty of us had escorted Pasqual to Seaport, eager to see the monster destroyed—only seven of us made it back.  The good Doctor was not among those able to count their blessings that day. 
It was stupid to let the Doctor cast the first spell being the only person among us who could read Arabic.  We realized that as soon as the thing charged the Seaport.  Fortunately the doctor had at least enough sense to take on a protégé in the months leading up to his becoming a creature hors d'oeuvre.  Pilaster may not be an archaeolexicologist, but he’s better than nothing.  Maybe Ryan Beachard would have disagreed, but I don’t.

Pilaster had called a special meeting to discuss the book.  Six of us sat at a fold-out table in a security office.  Six leaders—unelected and unqualified. 
“This is the last spell,” Pilaster said getting right to the point.
“What do you mean?”  I said.
He grasped the tome by its covers and shook it as if trying to fling the pages from their binding.  “I mean this thing is kicked.”
“What are you talking about?  The book is huge,” Sarah said, referring to the tome’s 1,000 plus pages.
Pilaster let out a brief chuckle.  “This tome is one part history book, one part anatomy text, and one part grimoire.  The spells are only sprinkled throughout, and only a handful of them allude to being offensive.”
“If there are no more spells, then what the hell are we going to do?” My heart stopped.  “What am I going to tell them?” I said pointing toward the main concourse.
“There may be hope.  Pasqual’s journal spoke of another book that was alleged to contain spells.  It’s called the Libris de Lumine.  Literally translated it means the Book of Light.”
“And what’s ours called?” Sarah said pointing to the book in Pilaster’s hands.
“This one,” he said stubbing his finger on the ancient leather cover, “translates to the Book of Dead Names.”
“It’s called the Book of Dead Names?” Her eyes widened.  “Jesus, I can’t imagine why nothing good has ever come of it.” 
I closed my eyes and sighed.  “Where is this Book of Light?” 
“According to Pasqual, Bauman Rare Books was in possession of a copy when everything went to hell.  It might still be there.”
“Yeah,” snorted Joe Cabot, “buried under a pile of rubble.”  Joe was a former army Lieutenant, which made him our default weapons expert.
I thought for a moment.  “Alright, we’ll cast the last spell tomorrow and then head uptown to try to find the other book.”
“I have a suggestion,” Pei Ling chimed in.  “I think it would be desirable to send two groups.  That way the monster will be distracted by the spell as the second team recovers the book.”
“Good thinking,” said Pilaster.
An idea came to me.  “Sarah, you lead the team to Spagnoli’s to monitor the effects of the spell.  I’ll take another team to midtown to try to find the book.”
She looked at me skeptically.  “Why you?”
“Because you’ve done the Seaport run a dozen times, and I know the area around Bauman’s—my office was just around the corner.  Remember?” 
Sarah’s brow narrowed, but she said nothing more.

We set out the next day.  My team consisted of four people: Joe Cabot, Brendan Weller, a scavenger, and, of course, Pei Ling.  Sarah was infuriated, but there was nothing she could do.  I had already picked my role in the mission.  Pei Ling was free to choose which team she would aid. 
We headed up 8th Avenue through the A, C, E subway line.  A few trains plugged the tunnel, but they were deserted.  When we reached 5th Ave & 53rd Street we left the relative safety of the subway and headed above ground. 
To our surprise some of the buildings were still intact—a rare sight since the thing had made New York City its playground. 
“Bauman’s is only a few blocks away,” I said examining a fell street sign.
“Smooth sailing,” replied Joe.  He pulled a beige army cap from his back pocket and pulled it over his shaved head.
Brendan looked at him anxiously, as if Joe had just cursed our expedition with his hubris. 
We passed a few stores as we headed north on Madison Avenue.  The front windows were smashed.  Clothing was strewn about.  The food taken.  No surprise there.  Raiding had become our new pastime.      
Bauman Rare Books was relatively intact.  The glass doors were shattered, and a few tomes were scattered across the marble floor, but compared to the other shops Bauman’s looked newly renovated.  Literature wasn’t something you needed to survive an apocalypse. 
We fanned out and began searching for the Libris de Lumine
As I climbed the spiral staircase leading to the balcony, Pei Ling let out a scream.  I bolted down the stairs and followed Brendan and Joe into a back office.  We found Pei Ling frozen,her hands over her mouth.  In front of her sat a man’s decayed corpse.  There was a large splash of dried blood and brain matter on the wall behind him. 
“Are you alright?” I said, taking Pei Ling by the shoulders. 
Her focus broke away from the carnage.
“Arthur,” she paused.  “Yes.  I—I am sorry I caused you alarm.”
“You don’t have to apologize.  I would have screamed too—only the pitch would have been higher,” I said with a wink.
“I should be used to these sights by now.”
“It’s human to be scared.”
Joe bent down and pried the Smith & Wesson Russian revolver that was still clutched in the corpse’s stiff hand.  “Is there anything in this store that isn’t an antique?” he said dismayed by the find.

We continued the search.  After two hours we were about to give up when I noticed a white book sitting atop a plaster plinth on the library balcony.  I lifted the book from its resting place, my fingers trembling under its unnatural weight.  This has to be the it, I thought.  I can feel it. 
“I’ve got it,” I shouted to the team.  Curious, I looked at the price tag.  Six thousand dollars.  “Oof,” I cringed.  “Bill me.”
Just then the ground shook.  Several books fell off their shelves, landing haphazardly on the floor.  An ornate vase wobbled off a pedestal and shattered.  We looked at each other, eyes bulging with dread. 
“Time to go,” said Brendan. 
I stuffed the book into my surplus army backpack and dashed down the spiral staircase. 
We hustled outside and headed south on Madison Ave. toward the subway.  As we crossed 54th Street we heard a roar that sounded like the oscillating twang of a mammoth band of rubber.  It rumbled in the distance, and then grew louder.
Suddenly there was crash as loud as dynamite.  I looked up in time to see a strange monster slam into the side of a skyscraper.  It looked like the dismembered head of an aardvark, but it had a shorter snout that ended with mandibles.  Its head was encircled with a wreath of waving tentacles, each tipped with a long curved spine. 
The thing slid down the building and smashed into the asphalt.  One of its tentacles flailed toward us.  It landed on Brendan, crushing him with the weight of an oak tree. 
“No!” screamed Joe.
“Run!” I yelled.
But it was too late.  A massive section of stone and glass detached from the skyscraper.  Joe tried to outrun it, but that one moment of hesitation was enough to get him buried under a mound of debris. 
Pei Ling and I kept moving.  Behind us we could hear the new monster lifting itself from the rubble.   As if the situation couldn’t get any worse, the thing skittered out from behind the New York Palace Hotel just north of 50th Street.  When it spotted us with one of its bubbling red eyes it let out a wail that fluctuated in and out of the human ear’s audible spectrum.
“Don’t stop!” I yelled to Pei Ling. 
We raced the thing to the corner.  If we could make it one more block we could hide underground.
The thing whipped a massive tentacle across Madison Ave, blocking our path.  It took a step closer and raised its trunk-like leg.  But before it could crush us underfoot the aardvark creature soared overhead, crashing into the thing’s rubbery body.  The thing was thrown onto its back, dragging the barricading tentacle with it.
While the aardvark speared the thing with its tentacles, Pei Ling and I rounded the corner and made for the subway station.  We darted down the stairs jumped off the platform.  As our feet touched the track bed a loud thud sounded overhead.  Then there was a crash as part of the street caved in behind us.  Pei Ling and I bolted toward the tunnel as the cave-in spread like a crack in a car windshield.   Dust and debris ushered us into the pitch-black tunnels.

We had to stop and rest once we reached Port Authority.  I boosted Pei Ling onto the subway platform.  As soon as I hoisted myself out of the track bed she threw herself into my arms and began to sob. 
“There are two now,” she croaked into my polyester jacket.  “Two.
“I know, baby,” I said.  “I know.”  I felt an urge to cry myself, but I didn’t dare fall apart for her sake and for the sake of my sanity, which was now walking the edge of an abyss.  “But we can stop them now.”  I said, trying to reassure her.  I patted the side of my backpack.  “We have the Book of Light now.”
Pei Ling continued to cry.  For over an hour we sat coupled together in anguish, the domes of the yellow tactile paving digging into our knees.  Her fears were valid.  There were two of those things now, and unless one of them was killed or retreated their fighting would completely destroy what little of the city was left.  And as much as I wanted to whole-heartedly believe in the tome nestled between my shoulder blades, I couldn’t—not completely. 

We returned to Penn Station after dusk.  I was exhausted having had to carry Pei Ling for most of the trip back.  I set her on the couch in the ticketing office lounge and covered her with my jacket.  I wanted nothing more than to lay by her side and hold her until I drifted into unconsciousness, but I had a relationship to pay homage to. 
Reluctantly I headed back to Taco Bell.  Pilaster would have to wait until morning.  As I reached down to lift the security gate I felt a strange feeling come over me.  I found myself hoping that Sarah wouldn’t be there—wishing she had somehow become collateral damage in the monsters’ battle.  And when I raised the gate and found her waiting for me expectantly with that familiar scowl on her face, I found myself feeling deeply disappointed.    
“Where the hell have you been?” she said angrily.
Dumbfounded I raised my hands to the ceiling.  “Where do you think?  I was retrieving that god-damned book!”
“It doesn’t take all day to go to midtown!”
 “Oh, you know.  Pei Ling and I stopped into the Ginger for a few glasses of wine, and then we got a room at the Hudson Hotel.”
“You probably would have if you could,” she said, taking a step toward me. 
“Would you cut the petty jealousy?” I shouted.  “Half of our team died today!”
“You think we all made it back in one piece?” She said, getting up in my face.
“So what, it’s my fault?” 
“I needed you there with me!”  Her eyes glistened.  “But instead you were with that little tramp!”
“This is crazy,” I said taking a step back.  “This is crazy.  I can’t deal with this right now.  I can’t.”  I lifted the gate.  “Goodbye, Sarah.” 
As I walked toward Pilaster’s apartment, Sarah followed.
“Fine, go ahead!” She said.  “Go to your little whore!”
“Don’t call Pilaster a whore,” I said without looking back.
If anyone was lucky enough to fall sleep, our exchange surely put an end to their good fortune.
I knocked on the door that shuttered the Penn Station Starbucks.  In a matter of seconds Pilaster threw up the gate.
“Arthur,” he said, his eyes wide with surprise.  “I… I didn’t—”
“You thought I was dead,” I said matter-of-factly. 
“When I didn’t see you return, I—I feared it, yes.”  He peeked into the hallway to see if anyone else was with me.  “Come in, come in.  I’ll pour us some coffee.”
The Starbucks hadn’t changed much since Pilaster had moved in.  The interior’s earthen color pallet and rich wood floor made the room feel warm and inviting.  Pilaster had even left the faux leather furniture scattered about in their original places.  The only real difference was that the merchandise was gone—either used or put into storage—and replaced by cartons of cigarettes and arcane books—Dr. Pasqual’s legacy.
Pilaster ducked behind the Corian barista counter and returned with two cups of cold brew. 
“Remember hot coffee?” he said as he set a cup in front of me.
I chuckled. 
                He took a sip from his cup and then sighed.  “Arthur, I want to apologize to you—to all of you really.”
                “What do you mean?”
                He took off his glasses and rubbed the corners of his eyes with his thumb and forefinger.  “It’s because of me that we now have another monster.”
                “About that….”
                “The spell that Robert cast—it opened a portal into their world.  And another one came out.” 
                I closed my eyes and kneaded my forehead.
                “I know I’m not the best translator,” he said looking away. 
                “You’re all we’ve got, man,” I said with tired resignation.  “If that book were in my hands, I wouldn’t know what to do with it.  With you we at least have some hope.  And that’s more than the rest of us can offer.”
                Pilaster stared bleakly at the coffee swirling around his cup.
                I unzipped my backpack.  “Maybe you’ll have better luck with this,” I said and handed him the Book of Light.
                “The Libris de Lumine.”  He smiled softly.  “You got it.”
                “Yeah.  At the expense of Joe and Brendan.”
                “Oh,” he said gravely.
                “That just means we need to make this count.”
                Pilaster shook his head.
                Suddenly the demands of the day caught up with me, and I could barely hold my head up.  “Do you mind if I just lay here a minute?” I said and lay down on the couch before he could answer.
                “Go right ahead,” Pilaster said turning his attention to the book.  “I want to get to work on….”
                His voice faded as I fell asleep.
When I opened my eyes I found myself standing at the end of a dimly lit subway corridor.  I pulled out my flashlight and tried to turn it on, but it wouldn’t work.  I smacked the end against my palm repeatedly when suddenly I heard a sickening roar.  My blood froze.  A writhing, tentacled shadow appeared on the wall a few feet away from me.  Something was approaching from an adjacent hallway. 
                As the shadow climbed higher and higher on the wall the roars grew louder.  It rounded the corner, and I braced myself for the sight of its horrible form, but I was surprised to see that it wasn’t an Old One.  It was Sarah dressed in a flowing black ball gown. 
“Sarah, thank god,” I sighed in relief.  “I thought you were one a monster.”
She cracked a wicked smile and shook her head.  As she came closer her skirt trembled and split into a cluster of oily tentacles. 
My jaw dropped.  I couldn’t move.
Sarah reached toward me with a trembling arm that morphed into a tentacle covered in round mouths, each one snapping its needle-teeth between its bruised and bloodied gums. 
As she wrapped her tentacles around me the mouths bore into my skin.  Sarah leaned in for a kiss, and as she did her mouth split into mandibles.
I screamed.
“Arthur!” said a voice from a thousand miles away.
As I came to Sarah’s horrible image faded and it was replaced with Pilaster’s mousy face. 
“You’re having a nightmare,” he said.
“Jeffrey,” I said.  “Thank god.”
“Get up.  I’ve found one.  You have to call a lottery.”
I rubbed my fists against my eyelids.  “I’m on it.”

I had managed to get everyone together shortly after dawn.  As the crowd waited I walked beside the staircase to fetch the coffee can.  To my surprise Pei Ling was waiting for me.
“Pei Ling,” I said, looking around to make sure no one was near.  “What are you doing back here?”
“Arthur, I just wanted to thank you for taking care of me yesterday,” she said and handed me my coat.  “Without you, I surely would not have returned.”
“It’s fine,” I said.  “I can’t really talk, it’s time for the drawing.”
“Of course.  Good luck.”  Pei Ling smiled and headed over to the Auntie Anne’s pretzel shop.
Good luck? I thought.
I leapt up the stairs with the can tucked beneath my arm.  The group was down to twenty five people—the smallest number ever.  The hopelessness in the air was palpable—the latest deaths having crushed what remained of the group’s morale. 
I explained that Pilaster had found a new grimoire and that we would be drawing for someone to cast the first spell.  Surprisingly I was met with no objections.  I quickly realized that the group was complacent only because their spirit had finally been broken.  There was no fight left in them. 
“Come on now, people.  I need you,” I said, trying to enliven them.
A middle-aged woman with a gaunt face looked at me and plainly asked, “Why, Arthur?  Why should we think this one will be any different?”
Because,” I said, “this one came from the Book of Light.” 
Subdued curiosity dawned on a few faces.
“A light to banish the things that came from the darkness!” 
Their hopelessness seemed to diminish at the mention of the book’s name, but it didn’t vanish completely.  The people had been defeated too many times to allow themselves to get worked up.
“I’ll draw a name and they’ll cast the spell this evening.”
Some people looked confused.  Usually the spell would require more than just an afternoon’s preparation.
“We don’t have any time to lose.  Those things are up there tearing the city apart right down to the subway lines.  We have to act now before the Garden comes down on top of us.”
I caught a nod from Pei Ling.
I reached into the coffee can and shuffled the ribbons of paper before choosing an entry.
I looked at the crowd, my eyes as big as half-dollars.  “Sarah Buckland,” I said in a state of disbelief.  
There were a few gasps from the crowd.  No one had expected me to draw my own wife’s name.  Whether by cheating or pure chance, no one thought it would happen.
I looked at Sarah.  “I’m sorry,” I said. 
Sarah’s face showed no emotion, which was surprisingly more unnerving had she become enraged.

Thunderous roars and seismic vibrations accompanied the group on the way to the Seaport.  Pei Ling decided to sit this trip out for obvious reasons.  Sarah didn’t speak a word to me throughout the entire trek. 
After we were situated in Spagnoli’s I turned to Sarah.  “Are you ready?”
She nodded—nothing more.
“Look,” I said feeling guilty.  “I’m sorry it turned out this way.  But—hey—it could work this time.  This is the Book of—.”
“Stop,” she cut me off.  Sarah looked out to the mound of rubble that was once a thriving tourist attraction. Without looking at me she said one last thing.  “You better pray the spell doesn’t work, Arthur… for your sake.”
She opened the fire door and crossed the FDR Drive.
It was obvious Sarah suspected I had rigged the drawing, and, although I hadn’t, I still held part of the blame.  When I read the ribbon of paper, I vaguely recognized the neat calligraphy in which Sarah’s name was written.  Before locking up the coffee can I pulled out a handful of entries.  Sarah’s name was written on each one.    We are the architects of our own happiness, I recalled Pei Ling saying. 
Sarah could have tried to appeal to the camp, but would anyone listen?  She said it herself—someone has to die.  A redrawing would only mean that one of them might end up taking her place. 
As Sarah climbed the mountain of debris, I thought about what she had said.  I didn’t think the first spell would end any differently than the others.  That would be too easy.  But what if Pilaster’s expectations were justified?  What if the spells in this book were different? 
Suddenly I found myself hoping the spell would fail.  Because if the creatures were destroyed, or banished back to their far corner of space and time, it meant that Sarah would survive, and she would return with a wrath more terrible than could be dreamed-up by any moldy, old God.

-The End