“What have you done?” Artemis snapped.
The magistrate almost seemed taken aback by his harsh tones, “What have I done? I’ve followed the book. I’ve handled things exactly how I was supposed to according to protocols.”
“Protocols? You followed protocols, “Artemis responded woodenly, “This wasn’t some poor housewife who practices voodoo in her spare time you decided to burn; this was a real beast.”
“Perhaps it was a mistake to come here, “the large magistrate’s back stiffened as he rubbed his beard.
“Coming here was the first thing you’ve done correctly,” Artemis growled, causing the man to stiffen further if that was even possible.
He probably shouldn’t have antagonized the man. He had realized that he had underestimated the power of a vampire. He glanced once more at the locked door leading to the cellar. He couldn’t bring himself to deal with that right now. He still had a little more time. Didn’t he?
“Alright,” Artemis declared, pinching at his nose, “What did he leave when he left?”
The magistrate stared at him blankly.
“The jail cellar where you had him locked up, how did he escape,” at another look from the magistrate he sighed, “You didn’t see the jail cellar, did you?”
The magistrate shook his head, “As soon as the messenger told me, I tripled the patrolmen tonight and ran here for suggestions.”
“Of course,” Artemis grimaced, “We’ll need to see it. It might give us a clue as to what this vampire is going to do next. Let’s hope your guards haven’t been cleaning up the mess.”
The magistrate seemed to blush at that, “I told them to watch it but avoid it, what if the monster comes back?”
“You’re scared? Well, at least you have some sense in you.”
The magistrate’s face reddened once again, this time in anger. However, before he could say anything, Artemis grabbed a coat near the door and pushed him back into the street. This was not the time to jab at the magistrate for petty vengeance. Right now, the magistrate was being complacent from fear and shock. He had to push things forward while he could before the man’s sensibilities returned and he became intolerable once again.
“Are you sure it is safe?” the magistrate spoke up once they began trudging down a moderately lit stone-cobbled road.
“Is anywhere safe with that thing out?”
The magistrate seemed to nod in understanding, not making any more noise as they headed for the jailhouse. Artemis saw the lit shapes of three to four men patrolling the streets every few blocks. The magistrate hadn’t been exaggerating about tripling the guard. This city didn’t really have that many guards, but most of the men were from neighboring towns and volunteer militia that only formed a few days ago when this all began. Either way, any four men would be no match against the vampire, Artemis knew that now, but he still couldn’t help but be comforted that he was never more than a yell away from a dozen armed men.
When they approached the building, he could see a few men standing watch on the empty house. The truth was that it wasn’t a jailhouse in the traditional sense. This small town didn’t have any dedicated policing office. They had simply converted a home to have a few jail cells in the basement, which was typically used when the town drunk became too belligerent and they needed to keep him out of public eye for the night. It was certainly not designed to house a vampire.
As they moved up to the house, the magistrate had a few words with one of the guards. The guard seemed to have a surprisingly skittish attitude, deliberately not looking into the house as he spoke. The guard seemed to be urging the magistrate not to enter the home. Eventually, the magistrate had to put his foot down before the guard moved aside.
The second Artemis took a step inside, he understood why. Body parts from at least a half dozen men were arrayed in an almost floral-like pattern in the middle of the room. Blood spattered across every wall, but was most prominent on the floor, emerging in a massive lopsided puddle that stopped a few steps from the entry point.
The magistrate fell to the side, retching noisily before Artemis had much time to register the scene in front of him. Arms and legs were arranged almost like a bouquet around a center point chair. Artemis took a few steps forward and realized the center was that of a guard head. He noticed something in the guard’s mouth.
Putting on his gloves, he opened the mouth and swiped it out with one smooth motion. It was full garlic cloves. What in the world?
“I don’t understand,” the magistrate responded queasily, “Garlic is poison to vampires.”
Artemis turned, surprised that the man had recovered and joined him so quickly. The magistrate must have been full of tougher stuff than he had originally given the man credit for. However, what he said now made sense to Artemis. This was all a message left for them to find. Artemis suspected that the garlic was a private joke. Perhaps the guard had been wearing garlic once Artemis revealed it was a vampire, maybe he simply mentioned it. The demon did this to mock them.
“I have to see the basement. The creature is telling us something, I just don’t know what yet.”
The magistrate gulped but made no word, waiting for Artemis to make the first move. He went over to the basement doors and opened them. Surprisingly, the room below was well lit. However, everything in the stairway took on a red hue, and it only took Artemis a second to realize why. At the bottom of the basement was a hanging of entrails over the entrance to the cellar.
Artemis fought the bile rising in his throat before descending down. The intestines of some poor human were strewn across the entrance, forcing him to brush them aside to enter the jailing area. His eyes immediately jumped to the wall. The remaining guards had been nailed into the concrete of the wall. He could hear the magistrate dry retching in the corner once again. He could not blame the man.
The bodies of the guards were twisted at odd and unnatural angles, legs and arms were broken in order to make strange turns wherever the vampire cared to move them. It took Artemis a moment before he realized that the bodies were nailed up in a very specific way. The bodies formed letters. He took a step back, glancing at the whole word.
“Mine,” he said suddenly, “It spells mine.”
“What is?” the magistrate responded weakly still crouched in the corner.
“I don’t know,” Artemis shook his head, moving forward as he noticed something else that caused him to fight the bile rising in his throat once again, “Scratch marks.”
“What does that mean?”
Artemis turned away from the scene to see the magistrate facing him, “It means at least some of them were still alive when he started nailing them to the wall.”
The magistrate looked away with disgust. For once, the pair of them were in perfect agreement. One of the guards outside called down for the magistrate, causing them to vacate the room with haste. They didn’t need a lot of incentive to leave the room as quickly as possible. When they exited the home, both men took deep breaths of clean fresh air. As they calmed their nerves, one of the guards approached the magistrate.
“Sir, there is a fire at the granary on the other side of town, we need to send men to deal with the flames,” the guard reported.
Something wasn’t right. Artemis could feel it in the air. He took a few steps away from the two men, looking off into the distance. He noticed a glowing red coming from a few streets over, the warm glow barely identifiable over the starry sky. He could smell smoke in the air. It was acrid and rich, the smell of a home burning.
“Is the granary in that direction?” He asked, pointing.
“No, it’s over-“ the guard stopped, squinting in the direction Artemis was pointing, “Good lord, that looks like the cobbler’s place.”
He called a few men over and they were running off in that direction within moments. Before he could turn back to the magistrate, a small boy used for messenger running approached him.
The boy yawned, still not entirely awake yet, “The south watch has told me to tell you there is a fire at the church and they request all available to assist putting it out.”
The blood drained from the magistrate’s face, but the guard shook his head, “What in the blazing hells is going on?”
The magistrate turned slowly to Artemis, who cringed at the look.
“I think I know what mine means now…” he spoke up.
“What is it?”
Artemis sighed, “If you lose a needle in a haystack, how do you recover that needle?”
The magistrate said nothing, but the guard turned to regard him, “What’s this now? There is no way. That’s why they say it’s ‘like finding a needle in a haystack’ when you can’t.”
“No, “Artemis spoke slowly, shaking his head, “There is one way. You burn the haystack to the ground, and then you sift through the ashes.”
The guard laughed, “Who’d do that? Needles are cheap and you’d be out a perfectly good bushel of hay.”
Artemis and the magistrate stared at each other for just a moment before the magistrate spoke up, “Not if the needle is worth more than the haystack to the person in question. Artemis, what is the needle?”
Artemis blinked, but as he thought about it his mind went numb. No… he had been a fool. He should have finished when he had the chance. What had he done? What was he going to do now?
“Veronica!” Artemis shouted, turning and running at full sprint, ignoring the magistrate’s confused look as he moved.
He could see more fires starting off in the distance. The town would have no way to stop this. Every other home was composed of wood. Wood shingles made up the majority of the houses. The fire would spread across the city. Anyone who didn’t flee the city now would be consumed in scorching fire. However, he couldn’t leave. He had to finish what he started
He relentlessly berated himself for being weak before. He should have just done it. The magistrate could have waited two minutes. Just because she had a pretty face and seemed so selfless, he had wasted his chance. Now he’d most likely die in the encroaching fires with thousands of others. If he could at least stop one more vampire from entering the world and killing indiscriminately, maybe that would give his life just a little more meaning.
He could see fires on some of the buildings nearby now. The acrid smoke filled the air. He saw some people out on the street in their pajamas, struggling to toss buckets of water on the infernos around them. The fires had grown too big, and there were too few to stop it. Soon the air would turn to poison, and they would all die if they didn’t flee the city. He wanted to stop. He wanted to warn them, but his feet wouldn’t stop dragging him forward. He had to finish what he started.
This was all his fault. His curiosity had doomed this entire city. He had wanted to learn more about these creatures. He wanted to study and dissect everything about them. In the process, he had inadvertently caused the death of thousands. He had doomed an entire city to a demon and its hellfire. He coughed violently as he gasped in a waft of acrid smoke.
He finally made it to the old woman’s home. The house next to her’s was on fire. Her roof was starting to crackle and burn from the adjacent inferno, but the house had yet to be engulfed in flames. He had made it just in time. He burst through the front door, thankful that the old crone had not locked it when he had left. She was not in her customary chair. She slept in that chair. She only left it to cook. These thoughts only drifted across the surface of his mind. He had more important things to be about.
As his eyes turned to the cellar door, Artemis froze. The door was wide open. The lock was gone. Did the old lady go down there for some reason out of the blue? No, no, no! He leaped down the narrow stairway, barely avoiding the hit to his head by the shortened cellar. The wine cellar door was open, where he had placed Veronica. He knew it was too late, but he felt compelled to make the last few steps into the room. The room was empty. The chains that had held her to the slate were pushed aside, and the vampire woman was gone.
Artemis collapsed to his knees, a sob escaping his throat. He had failed. All of this, everything he had done, and Veronica had escaped him. The city burned around him. Likely he would not be able to escape the blaze. If he did, all he would have to report to the Capitol was a complete failure. He would lose everything with that. What had he learned? Nothing when compared to the cost of obtaining it. Perhaps the pursuit of knowledge had been a mistake all along.
A cracking sound above Artemis brought him out of his contemplation. He moved up the staircase and entered a room engulfed in flame. The fire was spreading far faster than he had given it credit for. The heat blasted his face. The smoke assaulted his eyes. He coughed fiercely, covering his mouth and he ran out the door. If the old crone was still inside, there was nothing he could do about it now.
As he emerged from the fire into the night air, he gagged and coughed… The outdoors did not provide as much respite as it could have. Almost two in every three buildings in this neighborhood were already engulfed in flame. The remaining would be in mere minutes. He had to flee the city now. There was nothing he could do anymore. There was probably nothing he could have ever done in the first place.
As he turned to leave, two hands grabbed at him and he turned in surprise. The magistrate had some ash and suet on his face. He looked desperate and confused, but when his eyes focused on Artemis’s those eyes narrowed.
“You said Veronica, why did you call her name,” the magistrate snapped.
“We have to go! It’s not safe here anymore,” Artemis tried to divert the conversation.
“My city is burning, if I die here, I want to know why!” the man shouted.
“The vampire didn’t kill Veronica, it turned her into one of his kind,” Artemis finally declared.
“You knew? You knew and you said nothing!”
“Of course I knew!” Artemis shouted back, the roar of flames around them making it harder to hear.
“Did… did you… finish her?”
Artemis was about to respond when a sickening crunch resounded through the air. The magistrate’s mouth opened; his eyes were wide in shock. The magistrate’s gaze looked down and Artemis now saw it. A hand emerged through the magistrate’s chest. The bearded man looked back up at Artemis as blood fell from his lips. He tried to say something, but no sound came out.
His body flew to the side, flying into a nearby home and engulfing in flames before it hit the ground. Artemis fell back several steps down onto the cobblestone street. A man emerged, the vampire Artemis had met earlier. He casually shook his hand, flecks of blood flying off of it as if he was shaking a rag. Artemis crawled back on his elbows, trying to put a little bit of distance between himself and the vampire.
The man seemed to be more amused by the gesture than anything. He took a few steps forward, crouching nearby, but still several steps away.
“So, did you touch what is mine?” The man cooed dangerously.
Artemis coughed, the smoke starting to thicken in the air around them, “You have what you want, you’ve taken your revenge, now just leave!”
The vampire burst out into an uproarious laugh as he slapped his thigh before refocusing on Artemis with the casualness of a man with all the time in the world on his hands.
“Now, why do you think I have everything I want? I still want things. Things I don’t have. Besides, I’m a monster, why do you think a monster like me would respond to pleas of mercy?”
“I’m not in your way,” Artemis coughed again, “I’m not worth your time.”
“True,” the vampire responded, “You’re more of an extra boon. You know too much about my kind. That’s dangerous. I don’t like people knowing any more about me than I’d like.”
Artemis closed his eyes and after a second opened them. The vampire didn’t seem to move an inch. So instead, Artemis decided to take the first move. He pulled a knife from his boot and tossed it at the vampire. The creature casually caught it with a look of bemusement on his face. That look turned to surprise as Artemis used the distraction to collide with the monster. He pulled another knife from his cloak, and with all his might shoved it down into the man’s chest.
He gave a cry as the creature caught his wrist. His dark eyes flashed with annoyance and anger as he pushed Artemis away, still grabbing his arms. Artemis tried to struggle from that grip, but it was pointless. The man squeezed, and the pressure was almost enough to break his wrist. The knife dropped harmlessly down, and the vampire looked at Artemis sternly.
“That was certainly an interesting display of bravado. Albeit, you’re not the first person to think they will go out a hero. I do have to say, that never is the case,” the vampire reached out grabbing his throat and lifting him into the air, “Most humans instead go out like this. Helpless little puppies with no chance at survival-“
The force ramming into the pair of them threw Artemis to the ground. His hand landed on a sparking ember burning him. He gasped in the air, mostly taking in acrid smoke, causing him to sputter and cough. He grabbed onto his hand, his eyes bleary and his throat raw and burning. He turned to see what was going on. He didn’t have the energy to run if he wanted to.
The vampire had rolled into a crouch, glaring back at the force that had hit him aside. When he saw what the force was, he froze. Veronica stood there. Her funeral dress was in tatters, soot and smoke smattered across her face. Her hair was wild and untamed, her body heaving. Her eyes were black and darkened. Her face was contorted in anger and loathing at the vampire in front of her.
The vampire put on a look that almost looked like hurt, “My name is Damien; I didn’t have a chance to tell you before.”
“I don’t care!” she screamed, her face contorted in rage and anger.
She seemed to be struggling with something, her body was sweaty and her features seemed to almost take on a feral edge.
“Look, you need to care,” Damien pleaded, his voice suddenly sounding concerned and smooth.
The sudden change in the vampire’s demeanor caught Artemis completely off guard. He seemed to be concerned about the woman he had sired. Artemis had always assumed their behavior was more polygimistic, but this almost seemed like… well, Artemis wasn’t really sure what he was seeing.
Damien continued on, “That look… you need to feed soon. You are newly woken and you need to eat. If you don’t, you’ll turn feral. You’ll lose your mind. Soon after, you’ll go catatonic. You may not understand what is going on, but I can teach you. I can show-“
“Be quiet,” Veronica snapped, her voice venomous, “You turned me into a monster like you. Then you burned my city to the ground. My friends, my family, you killed everyone. I will never be like you, I’d rather die!”
Damien took a few steps forward, his hands out front and Veronica stepped back, her body bristling, “It’s alright. We’re both monsters, but now we can be monsters together. We can be each other’s friends; we can be a new family.”
Artemis raised an eyebrow. This was certainly something completely different than he would have expected. He knew he wouldn’t live through it, but the whole scientist within him would not quit filing down the strange observations he was making. He tried to cover his mouth with a piece of cloth. The billowing smoke around him was becoming too much. Even if Damien didn’t get around to killing him, there was no way he could make it out now.
Damien continued taking steps forward, “Look, together we can get through this. Just you and me. I didn’t change you on a whim. I watched you. You were absolutely perfect. The idea of living for an eternity is agony. However, seeing you, on that night, I realized I could live an eternity… if I had you by my side.”
Damien reached an arm’s length of Veronica. He held out his hand to her. His face took on a demure pleading look that horribly contrasted the evil psychopath Artemis had seen before. He gave her a grin, his fangs glinting from the light of the fires around them, reds and orange light dancing across his face.
“No!” Veronica screamed, lashing out and striking Damien.
Damien flew back several meters, striking the hard pavement only a short distance from Artemis. He stood back up and glared. His look was dark and malevolent, the look that Artemis had grown to expect on him before it smoothed out again rapidly. This time his face took on a hallow, sad look. He walked over to Artemis and grabbed him, lifting him up to standing.
The added height put Artemis into billowing clouds of smoke, choking him from inhalation alone. Veronica reached out a hand and gasped, a look of terror on her face. Dimly, Artemis wondered why Veronica would care whether he lived or died. Yet there she was, concern flooding from her in waves. Damien seemed to pick up on this as well, and his features darkened once again.
He grabbed the knife Artemis had chucked at him earlier and cut the side of Artemis’s neck. Veronica screamed as Damien dropped Artemis, his body falling flat, all of the energy drained from him. He felt the warmth of his own blood against his cheek. So this was how it would end? He supposed he didn’t deserve any better.
“You’re won’t be a monster like me? We’ll see how long that lasts. I know the burning in your throat. Here’s your meal Veronica. I’ll be waiting when you’re done. Enjoy the feast. Remember just one thing. I love you. I’m the only one who will ever love you now. Don’t abandon this chance at salvation.”
He could hear the steps walking away from him, and with all of his might, he pushed himself over onto his back. Veronica stared at him like someone close to starvation. She looked sick, trying to hold herself back, her hand grabbing her other arm roughly, desperately resisting. Still, despite her efforts, she took several steps towards him. He looked at her face. She still looked beautiful, even now.
He wanted to tell her it was okay, but he could no longer speak. To be honest, he should have died ages ago. Looking into her face as the last thing he saw wasn’t a bad way to go. The blood drained from him. The coldness set it. Veronica licked her lips, her body now over him. Darkness flooded his vision as her form pulled him into a final embrace.