“Would you call me a wretched soul?”
I glanced at my friend, Eli Shade, as he drilled the question into me with gray, unblinking eyes. “We all are, I suppose.”
“Don’t give me any of your high-church answers,” he shot back. “I mean genuinely wicked, the most despicable of men.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say—”
“Oh, come now, don’t sugar-coat it! Avarice, indolence, gluttony—I’m guilty of all your church’s ‘deadly sins’. I’m a liar, a gambler, a drunkard; I’ve done my part to oppress the poor, committed theft, and some would even tell you I’ve murdered—but I won’t confirm whether those rumors are true or not. Honestly, I’d think you a strange Christian indeed if you didn’t think I was vile.”
In my heart I knew this to be true. Eli Shade was a detestable portrait of all that was ugly about humanity. Why I, a devout Christian, would choose to befriend such a man was a mystery to everyone, myself included. Perhaps I thought that by shining some light into that black soul of his, I could save him.
“You know,” he went on, “the only sin I’m not guilty of is suicide. Now that would really do me in, wouldn’t it? The final assurance of my condemnation, the last nail in my spiritual coffin.”
I started at this remark. “I hope you’re not—”
“Oh, you know me better than that, Charles. I’m too narcissistic. I know I’ve told you I’d rather live forever.”
Eli Shade fell quiet for the rest of the evening, his gray eyes glancing here and there without really seeing. Having observed him like this on several occasions, I knew he was deep in thought, and past experience warned me that it would be useless to probe the workings of his obscure mind. The minutes ticked away slowly, counted out by the swaying pendulum of the clock on the wall of my study, where we sat facing each other over a game of chess which had been abandoned hours ago.
At last Eli stood up, saying, “I believe I’ve desecrated your home long enough. Thank you for the game; pity we couldn’t finish it. Goodnight, Charles.”
All of our meetings had similarly abrupt endings, and they always left me with a strange feeling, a nasty premonition that he was answering some perverse call from his twisted nature.
Yes, Eli Shade, I thought as I listened to him escape out the front door, you are a wretched soul.
I stared down at Eli Shade’s tombstone with an odd lack of emotion. It was hard to say that I was surprised to learn of his death; it was just the sort of thing he’d do. I did regret that I’d been unable to succeed in my stated goal of saving him, but in truth I had resigned myself to the impossibility of the task some time ago, only clinging to my doomed mission for some intangible reason that I myself had trouble naming.
Another soul in Hell, I thought, trying to bring myself to feel some manner of emotion. It was sobering enough, I decided, and I took my leave of the cemetery.
I often distracted myself with long walks, hoping the smell of the grass and the soft babbling of the stream would clear my cluttered consciousness. These days it was mostly occupied with guilt. It was a tenacious feeling, one that refused to be dislodged too easily, so my stroll took me farther out of town than usual.
What’s done is done, I told myself. At least I tried where others wouldn’t have dared.
With thoughts such as this I consoled myself, until my heart felt lightened enough to turn back toward home. By this time I’d wandered down a grassy path which followed the sound of the brook, hidden in the trees that obscured my view of the town, until it ended in a quiet meadow. Aside from the rustling of the leaves overhead and the whisper of the water over the stones, it was a peaceful glen. I was unwilling to abandon such an idyllic location, but I directed my feet back the way I’d come. However, only a few steps into my return I was stopped short.
On the furthest edge of my vision I caught a dark shape lingering near the trees, and turning my curious gaze thus I beheld what appeared to be a man shrouded in a heavy, black veil.
I started at this discovery, for adding to the strangeness of this draped figure was the utter stillness of its posture and the peculiarly uncomfortable sensation that it was watching me.
I kept my eyes fixed on the figure as I passed out of the meadow, tearing my gaze away only when the trees along the path obstructed my view. With hurried steps I made for town, but I couldn’t shake the watchful feeling that tickled my spine. Peering over my shoulder I released a slight gasp; the figure was still there, tall and dark in the distance, unmoving as a statue.
Spurred on by the disturbing realization that I was being followed, I hurried my pace, glancing back now and then to track the progress of my silent pursuer. It was always there, in spite of the many twists and turns of the path, although I never once saw it take a step forward. When I finally reached the outskirts of town, I looked back one more time. I could barely see the black figure, obscured as it was in the shadows of the wood, but I could still feel its vigilant gaze, hidden behind its impenetrable veil. With a shiver I resolved never to return to that peaceful meadow.
My sister and her husband looked exhausted as they settled down at the dinner table opposite me. They invited me to supper on a weekly basis, and usually they were splendid hosts, overflowing with cheerful conversation. I had greatly anticipated their company. Tonight, however, we dined in relative silence.
“Where’s James?” I asked, glancing at the empty chair where my nephew usually sat.
“He’s asleep upstairs,” my sister replied. “The past few nights haven’t been altogether restful.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I answered.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” my brother-in-law chimed. “The poor boy’s been having nightmares is all. Keeps us up with his cries.”
“But don’t you worry about us.” My sister changed the subject. “How have you been?”
“I’ve been better.”
“I know you were good friends with Eli Shade. We’re sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you.” I couldn’t be sure how sincere their condolences were. I had no doubt they truly felt sorry for me, but as far as Eli Shade was concerned they probably felt nothing. Like everyone who occupied my circle of pious acquaintances, they’d often questioned the wisdom of consorting with such an immoral human being.
A high pitched wail pierced the still atmosphere, and I jumped in my seat.
“That would be James,” my sister explained as she rose from the table and disappeared upstairs.
“It’s only a matter of time before we all lose our minds,” my brother-in-law said once she was out of hearing. “It’s been going like this for over a week now.”
We continued eating in silence until my sister returned, cradling a small boy in her arms. “Here’s the little dreamer,” she sang as she set James down in his chair. “Now eat up.”
I didn’t stay very late that night, opting instead to let my relatives get some much-needed rest. I took the long way home, wandering the cold streets under the dim glow of the lamps, enjoying the cool nocturnal breeze and the clarity it brought to my worried head. By the time I finally arrived at my doorstep, a low-lying fog was rolling into town, and the damp air was beginning to chill my bones.
I made straight for bed, reveling in the warmth of the covers after my cold walk, but I wasn’t asleep for very long. A pounding from downstairs aroused me, and as my sleep-muddled mind began to clear, I realized it was someone knocking on my front door. Taking a moment to render myself mildly presentable, I hurried down to see who would be calling at this absurd hour.
I was quite surprised when I peered through the window to find my sister and her husband standing without, their son clinging sleepily to his mother’s side. I quickly unlocked and opened the door asking, “What’s going on? Come in, please.”
We settled down in my study, and in the light I could see that everyone was quite shaken. “What happened?” I asked.
“James woke up screaming,” my sister began. “It was the third time tonight. The first was at dinner, and the second soon after we’d gone to bed. It was my turn to check on him, so I went to his room, thinking it was just another nightmare. But when I went inside there was someone else in there! I couldn’t see them very well. It was so dark and they seemed to be wearing a heavy cloak. I grabbed James as fast as I could and fled.”
“When she told me what happened,” her husband interjected, “I went to see, but there was no one there. I searched the whole house, but there wasn’t a soul aside from us, and no sign of an intrusion either.”
“All the same, we didn’t feel safe to go back to sleep, so we came here. We’re terribly sorry for disturbing you, but we didn’t know what else to do.”
“It’s alright,” I answered. “I’m afraid I don’t have any extra beds, but you can probably make do with some of my more comfortable chairs.”
I was out for an evening stroll—having discovered how much I enjoyed them the other night—not paying much attention to where I was going. Around the time the nightly fog began to roll in, I decided it was time to head back. I took one last, deep breath of the cool air before turning around, and there I froze.
Just like that day in the idyllic meadow, there was someone—something—watching me. Like a terrible black statue it stood firm, framed by the rolling mist. I slowly backed away from it. It made no move to follow me. The heavy veil that shrouded its form didn’t stir in the slightest, and before long it was no more than a dark spot at the end of the road. Not until then did I turn my back on it, turning down the street to my house. I cast a final glance over my shoulder as I hurried to my door, and—what a horrific shock—there it was! Although it had never made a single step in my direction, there it stood, impossibly, at the end of my street.
With a shiver I unlocked my door and hurried inside.
What fitful dreams I had that night! Nightmares, really. At times I found myself smothered in darkness, nearly asphyxiated by the weight of a heavy, black shroud. I would awake and find it was only my blankets, wrapped about my head as the result of my unconscious struggles. Falling back asleep I would find myself in that meadow I had vowed never to visit again, or in the cemetery that had been so prominently featured in the newspapers of late, or on the dark street outside my home. Always, I was watched—by whom or what I couldn’t tell for certain, although I just knew that if I turned around I would find a veiled figure standing behind me; I knew that if I dared to look, then I would never wake.
I joined my sister and brother-in-law in James’ empty room that evening, watching their grief unfold in silence.
“I don’t understand,” my sister sobbed. “How could he have even gotten out there? The door was locked…the window, too…”
I didn’t know what to say. I felt, disturbingly, much the way I had after Eli’s death; a passive observer oddly unaffected by the tragedy. This bothered me deeply. He was my nephew, for Heaven’s sake! What kind of man felt nothing at the passing of his own kin?
The guilt I felt over my own indifference was nearly overwhelming, and I could no longer bear to be in that grieving household. I offered the best condolences I could contrive, and left.
I entertained no thoughts of long walks to clear my head; past efforts had ended in fear. Instead I made straight for home. The lock on my front door gave me trouble. I blamed my unsettled state of mind as I fumbled with the key. At last I stumbled inside, turned on the nearest lamp, and nearly shouted.
There it was, that horrible black statue, standing as still and lifeless and watchful as ever, right there in my home! Panic gripped me, and my first thought was to flee, but where? Where could I be safe if not my own home? Instead, my terror manifested itself in violence, and I struck out at the veiled intruder, catching it across the face—or what I thought was the face.
At first the thing stood unperturbed. Then, with deliberate slowness, something shifted beneath the shroud. Arms, I imagined. The cloth began to slide, inch by painstaking inch, and as it fell away I realized I had no desire to see what lay underneath.
“Good evening to you, too, Charles.”
I was breathless. Before me hovered the face of Eli Shade, paler than I remembered, thinner as well, but otherwise a perfect facsimile.
He laughed at my incredulous expression. “Come now, you never guessed? I told you, didn’t I, that I’d rather live forever?”
“I-indeed,” I stammered, “you did.”
“And here I am,” he smiled, “alive as ever…in a way. I figured it out, Charles! The path to immortality! It’s a wonderful paradox, really: through death, eternal life. I admit, I was afraid when I slipped that rope around my neck. What if it didn’t work? What if my intuition was wrong, and those books were nothing more than dark fairy tales? It would’ve been condemnation for me”
“B-but…how?” I was still flabbergasted. I’d seen them lower Eli’s body into the grave.
“Ah, my poor friend. Let me back up and explain. Long ago I came into possession of a curious collection of books. Many strange secrets were written within, things I’m sure would’ve made a pious man like yourself shudder with disgust. I learned that there are, in certain desolate regions of eastern Europe, legends that tell of wicked men and women, wretched souls, ‘cursed’ to rise from the grave. Cursed! Nay, blessed I say. Intrigued, I studied the matter further. It was difficult, for most of my leads ended in tales of frightened peasants who would burn their own family alive if they demonstrated so much as a hint of abnormality; innocent corpses staked through the heart, entire villages razed to prevent the spread of nightmares and nothing more. There were, however, amidst the accounts of fear-deluded simpletons, more reliable stories, enough to convince me that there was at least some truth to the matter.
“So I began my mission. I committed every sin I could think of. If ever the opportunity arose for me to do something vile, I seized it. Thus I continued until but one thing remained, and I’m sure you remember what that was, don’t you, Charles? Yes, I hung myself—suicide, the final nail in my spiritual coffin, my elixir of life.
“I have no memory of what happened next, but then I was awake, alive—or rather, not dead. It was then that I discovered the first drawback of my condition: thirst. I remembered what I’d read, and followed my newfound instinct until I found blood—for that is what nourishes the body of an immortal. I also recalled other…disadvantages. I could no longer walk beneath the sun, so I procured for myself a covering.
“Since then, I’ve tried many times to meet you, to tell you of my discovery, but always you fled. I don’t blame you. I know I must present a startling figure.”
Now that I understood, I found myself even more frightened than when there was nothing but a sinister, unnamed fiend haunting my steps. My brain made connections, and I began to accuse the monster who stood before me.
“You killed James, didn’t you?”
“Killed? No, although you would call it that, wouldn’t you? True, he is…dead, for now, but soon he too will rise as I did. Come now, don’t give me that look! I needed blood, Charles. Besides, he’ll live forever now, which brings us to the purpose of my visit tonight.”
I backed cautiously away from Eli as he licked his lips hungrily.
“You were—and I still consider you to be—my friend, Charles. I wish to share this blessing with you.”
“My eternal life is already assured,” I answered him, shaking my head.
“Come, Charles,” Eli snapped, “don’t be a fool! You’re assured of nothing! Have you ever seen your precious Christ? Here I stand, proof that my way works, and yet you cling to your blind faith. I want you to choose my way, Charles, because we are friends, but know that whatever your decision, you will become like me, for I am thirsty, and I must drink.”
The way Eli’s voice turned at the end of his speech made my neck prickle. In his pleading tones I caught a hint of aggression, of primitive rage. I knew he meant what he said; he would get what he wanted.
“Will it hurt?” I asked, slowly inching down the hallway toward my office.
“I don’t know,” he answered, steadily swiveling his head to track my progress. “I wasn’t turned like James.”
The wall behind me vanished; I’d reached my office door. “How long does it take?”
“I died the night of August the twenty-sixth. I emerged from my grave the night of August the twenty-ninth. Assuming the process is consistent regardless of method, three days.”
I backed into my office, making as if to sit down at my desk. Eli followed me, advancing slowly.
“What is your answer, Charles?”
Eli’s smile was positively devilish, and I caught sight of his teeth: ivory daggers that glinted in the lamplight. “The wise choice, my friend,” he whispered as he leaned close.
I waited until I could feel his breath. My hand closed around something on my desk, a dark leather book with a gold foil cross stamped on the front cover. When Eli was close enough, I hurled it in his face.
Eli hissed and shrieked in a most inhuman fashion as he recoiled from the blow, clawing at his face and uttering all manner of profanities while I bent to retrieve the Bible, which had fallen smoking to the floor.
“Blind faith no more,” I announced, holding the holy book between Eli and myself.
Eli lowered his hands. The pale skin of his face was burned. “Curse you, Charles, you fool! I will have you, if not this night then another! You and all you hold dear!” He made to attack me, but I thrust the Bible forward. He flinched back. “Curse you!” he hissed one last time before donning his shroud and vanishing like a black mist.
In spite of all his vile qualities, I could always tell when Eli Shade would be true to his word, and never had I been more certain of it than when he threatened me that night. The friendship that had protected me then was gone, dissolved by the wickedness of his new form, and I never knew when Eli would strike.
I could hardly sleep in light of that knowledge. I lay awake in my bed, holding my Bible close. I’d used it on a whim that night, knowing little of monsters and their weaknesses. Now it was my most prized possession.
After several nights cowering in fear, I thought to myself, This is no way to live. I resolved to learn more of the dark things that Eli had studied so I could better protect myself. Finding the material was difficult. My first thought had been to search Eli’s house, but that would’ve been too dangerous. Instead, I resorted to the library, and although resources related to the occult were scarce, I at last happened upon a single volume.
That afternoon, I equipped myself. Every windowsill was lined with cloves of garlic. Roses were scattered here and there—several bouquets worth, much to the surprise of the florist who, I imagine, must have thought me delusional with love. If only it was so harmless a matter as that!
Warning my sister and her husband was a difficult affair. I knew they’d never believe the truth, but I had to convince them of the danger they were in. I didn’t lie, but I worded myself carefully, leaving them with the impression that I’d fallen in with bad company, angered the wrong people. Let them think what they will, I thought. Let the rumors fly. As long as they were safe, I cared not.
Once I’d secured safety for myself and my family, I began waiting. He’d come eventually, I knew. He’d promised, and whether or not one considered the word of Eli Shade to be of any worth, I knew he meant it. It was only a matter of time.
My office stank of garlic. Everything did, even the roses. It was a vile mixture of scents, but I’d grown used to it, learned to embrace it, even. A nocturnal schedule now held sway over my life. I’d made arrangements with my employer to work from home so I could sleep during the day and sit awake at night, always ready for a visit from Eli Shade.
Tonight, I thought. It will be tonight. Things were different tonight. Outside, the street was darker than usual, and the inky blackness seemed to dance as it slowly strangled the feeble light from the lamps.
Thus, I wasn’t surprised to see a swift rustle of cloth move past the window, and I didn’t jump when someone knocked on my front door.
Come in, I thought, it’s open.
The doorknob rattled, as if Eli were testing it, then it turned. I took a deep breath, rose from my desk, and tightened my grip on my weapon: a wooden stake carved from a chair leg. Stepping out in the hall, I faced the door and fell into a ready stance, my Bible held in front of me like a shield and my stake raised high.
The door opened.
I leapt forward to strike, but caught myself. It wasn’t Eli Shade! A short figure covered with a heavy black veil waddled into the hallway.
My blood ran cold. I knew the answer to my question before I opened my mouth, but I asked it anyway. “Who are you?”
The little figure shed its cloak, and there stood James, my nephew. He eyed my stake with a look of curiosity and asked, in his innocent little voice, “What’s that?”
What vile cunning! Eli knew I’d prepared myself, that I’d be ready for him, so he sent his slave—my little nephew!—to do his bloody work. How could I drive my weapon through James’ tiny chest? My arms fell uselessly at my sides, and my stake clattered harmlessly to the floor.
James’ gaze now strayed to the Bible in my hand. “You know I can’t come any closer while you hold that,” he said. “Will you put it down?”
“No,” I replied, but I could feel my fingers begin to loosen.
“Please, Uncle Charles? Then you can take me back to Mommy and Daddy. They miss me terribly. Think of how happy they’ll be to see me again.”
I did think of it. I saw their smiles as I presented their little boy to them, alive. They smiled as they kissed their boy, as he kissed them back. They all looked at me and smiled, and each smile was framed with a pair of ivory daggers. I knew what I had to do.
Renewing my grip, I wound back my arm and let my Bible gly. James let out a startled screech as he raised his arms to defend himself, a cry that turned into an angry roar of pain as the holy book singed his skin. While he was distracted, I dove forward, quickly sweeping my stake off of the floor and driving it into James’s torso.
My little nephew shrieked and writhed, and with a sense of guilty horror I realized I’d missed his heart. I’d hoped to end it quickly. The stake was torn from his chest as he shoved me violently away, releasing a sickly wave of blood from the gaping wound. Paying no heed to his injury, he leapt after me, his fanged mouth hanging open like the jaws of a corpse.
Time slowed in that moment. James’ fetid breath hit my face like a cloud of pestilence, his cold blood splashed over my fingers as it dripped down the stake. In that brief second, I saw my chance, and I lunged.
Instantly, I knew I had struck my target. James’ momentum was halted as a burst of black blood erupted around his second wound. He released a last, pitiful cry before collapsing, then moved no more.
I fell to the floor, feeling psychologically ravaged in spite of being physically unharmed. I sat there until my pounding heart slowed to a regular pace, then began to ponder my next move. My nephew lay impaled in my front hall. Everyone thought he was dead—truly dead—so there was no immediate danger of discovery. However, I had to dispose of the body before someone came to call, and I’d have to find some way of cleaning up all the blood.
I began by heaving James’ body down the hall toward the cellar. I wouldn’t be able to keep it there indefinitely, but it would do until I found a chance to dispose of it more thoroughly. It was then, as I tugged on one blood-soaked arm, that I noticed the slip of paper peeking out of my nephew’s pocket. I paused to examine it, and found that it was a letter. Addressed to me.
As I finished reading, a voice shouted from my front door. “What’s going on here!”
My eyes shot up to find, to my alarm, a police officer standing there. The officer seemed just as shocked as I was as he pieced together the clues.
I thought fast. James’ body lay between me and the officer, and the floor was slippery with blood. Hopefully, that would be all the advantage I needed. Turning my back on the officer, I sprinted toward the back of the house. Behind me, I could hear the policeman begin his clumsy pursuit, struggling for traction and tripping over the corpse. My goal was a window that looked out over my tiny backyard. If I could escape through there, I could easily gain the concealing shadows of the surrounding buildings.
The police officer cursed as he slipped a second time on the bloody floor. Without turning to check his progress, I dove for my window, squeezing my eyes shut to protect them as my body shattered the glass. My face and arms stung as I fell the short distance. Warm fluid dribbled down my cheeks and wrists, and then there was a dull crack as my shoulder hit the ground.
“Oi!” shouted the officer, at last managing to reach the window and stick his head out. “Get back here!”
Ignoring the screaming pain in my shoulder, I clambered back to my feet and sprinted for the shadows of the town. The officer continued to shout at me as he tried to climb safely out through the broken window, but his caution made him slow, and I was well beyond his reach by the time he escaped the house.
Complying with Eli Shade’s wishes was out of the question, I determined while crouched in a shaded alley. What weapons I had were back at my home, which by now would be crawling with police.
A shout caused me to shrink further into the shadows, tucking myself between a pair of crates as I listened to the running footsteps of my hunters. I knew I had to escape town before dawn, when daylight would make it impossible to stay hidden. Eli would be expecting me in the meadow to the east, so my best course of egress would be to the west. Where I’d go after that I had yet to determine.
The voices of the patrolling officers faded into the distance, and I risked abandoning my hiding place, darting through the streets as I slowly worked my way westward. I’d been zig-zagging my way across town for the past few hours, darting from cover to cover, and I’d nearly reached the outskirts. One more incident-free dash and I’d be in open country, but first I made one more stop to catch my breath.
“I am hurt, Charles.”
It was only with great effort that I stifled my cry of surprise as that voice wound its hold on my ear.
“I waited for you. You never came.”
I cast about in a panic, trying to locate something with which to drive back the shrouded monster. The alley in which I crouched ran between two abandoned structures, their roofs on the verge of caving in and their windows shattered. One such window rested just above my head, its jagged remains glinting in the moonlight.
“I don’t see why you’re putting up such a fuss,” said Eli, licking his teeth as he leaned closer. “A brief moment of pain, then an eternity of power!”
A pale hand shot out from under the heavy black cloth. I twisted out of the way, reaching up to seize one of the triangles of glass from the broken pane. Eli’s shroud fell away as he lunged, revealing his monstrous face with its gaping, fanged maw. I slashed my newly-acquired weapon across that ghoulish visage, buying myself enough time to prepare a more fatal line of attack, then struck.