This story is by Susan Smith-Harmon and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Dorian lay there in the dark. It was the same gloom he met each evening when the setting sun brought him out of his slumber. The same emptiness.
He pulled his tattered cloak against his collar, his bile rising in disgust at his deteriorating appearance. Then he chuckled. He had no idea how he looked. He hadn’t seen his reflection since crossing over two hundred years before. But Dorian knew he’d been attractive, downright irresistible before his unfortunate imprisonment.
“Never go against the Church,” he muttered aloud. It was his new mantra.
His mind raced back to the awful dawn of his interment. An acolyte had led him to a cellar beneath Notre Dame to hide him from a wrathful cardinal and the rapidly approaching dawn. With just a gaze, Dorian had persuaded the youth to help him. But hiding had been his undoing. The cardinal had used the daylight hours to find him and turn his refuge into his prison. The tortured corpse of that poor boy told the tale. The cardinal had bolted the door and filled in the stairwell, cutting off this room from the world above…effectively making it a tomb.
Dorian had raged for nearly a year, before growing too weak to protest. One morning he’d closed his eyes, certain he would not open them again. His throat tightened as he recalled awakening after all. A queasy mix of relief and despair had overtaken him when he realized that hunger alone would not end him.
But starvation was driving him mad. His mouth watered as he remembered the sweet, phantom aroma of humanity that night. He’d known it was a lie. The hunger was making him insane. Then he’d heard it.
It had happened again; a faint, trembling breath.
He’d inhaled deeply. His fangs elongated remembering the warm, delicious aroma of man. His heart pounded recalling the trepidation as he’d opened his eyes. At first, it had seemed as black as always. Then he’d detected a faint disturbance in the darkness, a gray smudge, hunched in the far corner. His mouth had watered at the faint glimmer of dingy aura.
Did he dare believe it?
The blob had moved then, just a shift in weight, but before Dorian could come to any sort of rational conclusion, he’d snatched up the creature and sunk his fangs into the grimy flesh. Dorian had drunk deeply until the filthy aura faded to nothing and his perfect darkness returned. His preternatural skin had tingled afterward. Yet he hadn’t been fully sated. That would take more than one putrid soul.
Dorian had piled the drained body in a heap and wiped his hands on his shirt. In the old days, he would have bathed fully and changed clothing after contact with such vermin. But it didn’t really matter. One could never wash away the filth that invaded one’s mind while drinking the life of a pedophile or slave trader. That’s why Dorian had always preferred to imbibe of harlots and gambling cheats rather than those who preyed on innocents. Their blood was sweeter, and more fulfilling. But given his circumstance, Dorian had been thankful someone had chosen to dispose of the reprobate thusly.
It was months before his next meal. Only when Dorian found himself growing so weak that he again contemplated his own death did another present itself. The mind of the second had contained such graphic, violent memories that Dorian had thought he might be sick. But once the grubby aura had faded, his stomach had settled and his cells buzzed with renewed vigor. Still, he’d found himself too weak to break through the door—now only bolted and barred—and reach the world above. If ever I should get two meals within a month, he’d thought, I would be free.
The next time he’d waited before pouncing at the dingy aura that had materialized while he slept. He’d held himself back, wondering what evil this one had committed to turn his aura so black. His fangs had extended as his hunger threatened to overwhelm him. He’d wrapped his arms across his chest, symbolically restraining his hunger. He’d stared at the trembling blob—no, man, he’d thought. That was a man. The acknowledgement had that brought Dorian a step closer to his former self.
Dorian had studied the man for several minutes. Each passing second made his delay more difficult. Dorian had shifted his weight, and the man had reacted with a panicked, “Who’s there?” At this Dorian had struck, ending the torment for both of them.
Every few months, when another pitiful soul was plunged into Dorian’s hell, he continued this exercise in restraint. Each time, he reminded himself that the creature before him, no matter how vile, was a human being, just as he had once been.
In his afterlife, as Dorian liked to call his existence, he’d learned to feed without killing on mostly willing donors. But these lost souls had not come to him willingly. He’d come to that realization while draining a politician whose muddy soul belied his corruption. The guilt had given Dorian indigestion. And he began to wonder if he could spare one, if he really tried. And if he did, could he feed again before his captors came to collect the body?
Dorian lay there in the dark, scenting the blood on the air. Although he knew he would feed tonight, he hadn’t yet opened his eyes. He was getting good at this. He couldn’t wait forever, but he could now captain his own pace.
He opened his eyes and sat up slowly, deliberately. He brushed the dust from his sleeves, primping before greeting his dinner guest. It was a habit built over centuries, albeit, a much simpler one in his current situation.
When he finally felt presentable, Dorian ventured a glance toward the door. He was instantly mesmerized by what he saw. This time instead of a murky blur, he saw a faint, golden glow. He inhaled, finding the coppery aroma of blood, but not the reek of fear that usually accompanied it. “Hello there,” he said, for lack of anything better to say.
The room was silent.
He stood, and then crossed the room, each footfall bringing the soft scuff of boot on stone, the sound exaggerated in the dark stillness. But the creature didn’t stir. She just lay there, softly breathing, and bleeding. The smell threatened to undermine all of his restraint. It was heavenly and he was so hungry. Her golden aura told him she was different from the rest, so he hesitated.
Dorian sat, watching her breath, studying her. This woman before him could be just what he needed, if she was as innocent as her aura indicated. With her blood, he would recharge faster. With her blood, he could perhaps save them both—if he could resist killing her.
His fangs scraped his bottom lip and his head swam with need. He assessed the situation. He had been building his willpower, delaying his kills longer and longer. He didn’t want to drink her dry, but if he couldn’t stop himself, then he was damned.
He laughed out loud. He was already damned, condemned to this isolation. He had nothing to lose but hope.
He reached for her hand. It was soft and warm, and he could feel her life pulsing beneath her silky skin. He lifted it to his lips, and kissed the tips of her fingers. Gently. Slowly. “You can do this,” he coaxed himself. He kissed her palm, smelling the salty tang of her skin mingled with the faint scent of lavender. He smiled. She was either a lady or a whore, two of his favorite things. How perfect, he thought as sunk his teeth into her wrist.
Her blood was like liquid fire, flooding him, overwhelming him. Her mind gifted him with images of the countryside, replete with flower gardens, and babbling brooks. He saw her life on a farm, simple yet idyllic. There was love! And joy! And laughter! Oh, how he had missed laughter. And as he drank in deeper, he could feel her iron will, fighting her captors. He felt the terrible shame at what they’d made her into. He felt the rage at what she’d become. He felt the fear that she was dying too soon. She was so helpless and so worthy of help. He had to help her. But how? She was dying.
A soft moan nudged at the corners of his awareness and he pulled his mouth from her wrist. He stared down at her.
She breathed still. He had done it. He moved to the other side of the darkness and sat with his back against the wall, listening to her soft breathing. She was alive. As long has he made sure she stayed that way, he could rebuild his strength. And then he would free them both from this dark underworld, and return them to life.