“From The Papers of AvH” by Kathy Sherwood

Of all my experiences and studies of the undead, the first time I encountered them face-to-face has haunted me the most throughout my life.

I was in medical school, though at the time in question, it was a holiday, and I had left the city for some climbing. It was my plan to only spend the day in the mountains, and perhaps had taken too few precautions.

I had forgotten my watch, and I was still high among the cliffs and woods late in the afternoon when a monstrous thunderstorm appeared out of nowhere. Soon, I became lost, and quite frightened, wandered through the woods in the dark. Lightning struck near me more than once.

It was with great relief when I stumbled across the ruins of an old castle. And it truly was a ruin—to get out of the rain, I, foolishly, ventured deeper inside and down below to its crypt. It was dark, though occasionally punctuated by flashes of lightning above.

            Without the rain on my head, I felt safe.

            Then I saw them.

            They stood still, no doubt as startled to see me as I was them. A man and two women, all engaged in unwrapping themselves from their shrouds.

            The smallest woman recovered first, snarling like a beast, springing forward, fangs bared. Fortunately for me, she was not yet out of her shroud and could not get very far.

            I turned and ran, taking the stairs two at a time—by some miracle not falling. The only indication of their pursuit was the noise of their hisses and snarls. Their feet made no sound.

            In my shock and disorientation, I made a wrong turn, running up the stairs, and ran deeper into the ruins. And then I did fall, tripping over some roots that were tearing up what had been the old flagstone floor. I landed on my shoulder, and my right arm went painfully numb.

            Staggering to my feet, I saw that the male vampire had caught up to me. He lunged at me, and though I tried to jump out of the way, he caught me by my numb shoulder. We grappled, his rotten breath making me cough and choke almost as much as his grip on my neck. Then I was suddenly snatched away by another force—the small woman had entered the fray. Her fangs were already extended, and my heart stood still, waiting for them to sink into me.

            The man abruptly let go of me, causing the small woman to lose her balance, and I managed to pull myself out of her grasp. He advanced on her, striking her hard across the face with enough force to throw her to the floor.

            With one arm still useless, I tried to run again, but it was further into the dark. Unable to see where I was going, I suddenly found myself face-to-face with the taller woman. She didn’t speak or move to attack me. She did raise one hand and pressed a finger to her lips. Then against mine.

            She then pointed to a passage leading to the left. There was a hint of light in there, and I could vaguely hear rain striking the stones again. I looked back at her, and she shoved me down through the doorway.

            I ran again, after a few yards breathing in fresher air. Hope surged within my chest, and along with a sense of confusion. Abruptly the hope died away when I realized I had come into what appeared to be a dead-end, the fresh air coming from a lack of roof. I looked over my shoulder, to find the tall woman just a step or two behind me. She pointed ahead, still silent, and not knowing what else to do, I looked at the dead end again.

            Lightning flashed, momentarily illuminating the space. She hissed, sounding like she was in pain, as I took in what remained of the old castle’s chapel. A cross was carved into the wall, once ornate, but now rough and faded. The altar still stood, if a bit tumble-down.

            Glancing over my shoulder, I saw that I was alone. But I knew what she intended me to do.

            Carefully making my way across the broken up, slippery floor, I stumbled to the front of the chapel and crouched down behind the old stone altar. Rain poured on my head and pooled underneath where I sat. It was terribly cold, but a sense of relief warmed me from within.

            A cacophony of angry, animalistic noises outside the chapel made me cold with fear again, and I waited for the creatures to return. But they never did.

            Gradually the feeling returned to my right shoulder and arm, and slowly the lightning stopped, the thunder silenced, and the rain gave way to a heavy morning mist. I couldn’t bring myself to move until sunlight peeked over the highest wall of my ruined sanctuary.

            And when I first tried to move, I found I couldn’t. My limbs were stiff and cold from spending the night crouched beneath the stones. It took me several minutes of crawling, stumbling, and once grazing my forehead on the feet of a stone saint I could no longer recognize before I was able to walk somewhat normally again.

            All my instincts screamed for me to run back to civilization, but my escape had been so narrow… it would not be right for me to leave this danger to befall anyone who might come after me.

            The trees, courtesy of the violent storm, presented me with a bounty of broken branches, and I found several that possessed sharp points. The ruins themselves were full of heavy, easy to hold rocks. So armed, I descended down the stairs again, until I found the shrouds.

            The first one I pulled back contained the man. He lay like a statue, his eyes open, like two gray islands in seas of blood.

            I selected a stick and hammered it against his chest, just above the heart. His face contorted, but I knew I hadn’t broken the skin. His shirt was very old, though, and tore easily. And striking again, with more strength, this blow brought up a pool of black blood, and he howled in pain. It took me three more strikes before he was silent.

            Standing back to catch my breath, I watched in horror and awe as his flesh melted away to become a dusty skeleton, still with pronounced fangs.

            I pulled away the next shroud, revealing the small woman, who also rested with her eyes open. Out of delicacy, I left her clothes in place as I leveled my makeshift stake. It took six blows with the rock. My ears rang as I straightened up, and her screwed up features dissolved into bone.

            Trepidation filled me as I pulled back the final shroud. The tall woman had scratches on her face, and I wondered if she received those as punishment for aiding me. Unlike the other two, her eyes were closed. My palms began to sweat, in spite of how cold I was.

            She was a vampire, I reminded myself. Even though she had saved my life, eventually she would have to drink the blood of someone else. Maybe they would even become a vampire, like her. I had to do it.

            But I still hesitated another long moment before I steeled myself, aimed my stick, and brought the rock down with all my strength. Then again. And again.

            I looked down at her as her face shrank down, finally fading into bone like her companions. She still had fangs, but one of them fell away. As I took the shroud out from under her bones, her skull was knocked askew. I replaced it.

            The others I left where they rolled when I pulled the shrouds away to burn.

            Throughout the years, I encountered more vampires, and they all were reminiscent of the two creatures who attacked and fought over me. I never understood why the tall woman chose to help me—she had to know what would happen to her if I survived the night—and I still wonder if other vampires had any chance to rise above their monstrosity as she did.

Kathy Sherwood was born in Virginia, educated in Ohio, and now resides in the wonderfully morbid Wisconsin. She has written and loved the horror genre her entire life. Kathy recently published an ebook, In the Full Moonlight, and is currently working on another novel, Born Dead.

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