Roman walked down the street, his talons clicking on the pavement, his thoughts running rampant, unabated and tumultuous. Confusion and guilt had led him to suicide’s door, an entryway that remained ajar. Yet, another door was opening. It exposed a sliver of light upon the miasma of his mind, and no matter how faint that flicker was, perhaps, it would lead him to revelation, for salvation was too much to ask for.
Though the night was young, the streets were empty, and activities in this sector were relegated to the daylight hours. He passed gated storefronts. The tempered yet transparent glass behind the gates seemed to flaunt the treasures as well as protect them, tempting the inner thief residing in all.
Traffic was nonexistent. Normally, Roman traversed the metropolis above its streets, upon its rooftops or through its skies. But he had no desire to fly. His misery was a dolorous weight that anchored him.
Sensing humans a block ahead, he veered into an ally. He could have masked himself within his essence, but he didn’t want to deplete what he might need an abundance of later, and repletion required hunting.
The walls’ blackened bricks were moist and slicked with soot. Here, some of the old city endured. While metal encased most of Cityside’s civic structures, brick reigned in the back streets. Snippets of snow fell and merged with flowing brooks streaming into steel grates sidling the alley. Rivulets ran into metal mouths. Below, recycling stations digested what they devoured. A network of pipes wed to the rear wall with bolted clamps streaked to the roof. Steel saplings branched from metallic boles and clung like iron ivy. The leaden ductile limbs delivered filtered water to those who resided within the building. Roman pressed his brow against a pipe and enjoyed the cool sensation.
A demon? Was that what he was? The wingless vampire had bowed as if Roman was royalty. Roman had come across vampires before. He’d assumed their wings were sheathed and that they’d already fed, since their eyes weren’t like his, black and soulless. He’d made sure that they hadn’t seen him. Innately, he knew he should avoid them at all costs. He’d felt a need to. A need he couldn’t explain then or now. He remembered their feeding. They were nothing more than parasitical phantoms pilfering blood. They’d served as a mirror; the only reflection he’d ever see.
He’d enjoyed destroying Drake as a vampire more than he had when Drake had been human. Afterwards, Roman had felt no guilt. No remorse. Only bliss. The vampire blood now coursing through his system invigorated him far more than human blood ever had. In comparison, he felt like he’d been starving himself for a year. That he’d been wasting his time hunting humans. The blood of the damned satiated him. It filled him with euphoria. But he was not going to fool himself. He knew this ecstasy wasn’t pure. He felt hate’s churning undertow beneath those serene and seemingly tranquil waters. He’d felt a baleful bliss when feeding off Drake and he felt a murderous rapture thinking about consuming such evil again.
Drake had mentioned that Roman was breaking some covenant by being here. Roman didn’t know what that meant. Drake had called him a Renegade, mentioned an emissary, lust’s emissary, Bailien. He’d also mentioned somebody named Astor. Would they come for Roman? The thought didn’t frighten him. In fact, he welcomed it. He was weary of riddles.
His thoughts then turned to the girl. There was more to her and he planned on finding out exactly what that was. She was forcing him into a world he’d ignored since he’d been here. A world he’d shunned. A world he’d felt he had to shun, because living with himself was hard enough. The constant killing. The joy he felt when committing the act. The self-righteous feeling behind it, and the regret that followed. He’d always felt like a slave to the need, a passenger along for the ride. He couldn’t ignore the fact that she’d opened a door he’d been unwilling to step through. But that all had changed with one simple word: Remember. Now, he planned to barge through that door and tear it off its hinges.
Then, in one thought, his newfound harmony vanished, and guilt raised its weighted head. What had he done? Had he been an ignorant accomplice all along? A relay to an endless evil infestation? The affirmation was in the rise of Drake. However inadvertently, how many had he brought back? There was only one way to find out.
He extended his wings through the seams of his overcoat and dislodged the snow that had accumulated along his back.
Roman took flight. He sliced through the air and ascended the city’s spires. The wind whipped his hair and revealed a face paler than the watching moon’s. Although the elements tousled and mussed his pate’s covering, it always fell back into place, as if his flowing mane consciously cared for its appearance.
Within moments, he was at the river, perched on the spiked heads of the iron railings. The wind sloshed the current and transformed what was once a gentle lap into an enraged, turbulent tide. Sleet speared its surface and riddled the river with pockmarks. Accumulated frost formed islands of ice that floated on its face. Urged by the winter’s breath they streamed across the icy divide. The flowing drifts shone brilliant, caught in the sentient moon’s gaze. It seemed the rushing tide captured the stars the polluted landscape had abandoned.
A few miles downriver, the Lone Bridge swayed in the winter wind. Coiled cables flexed their metallic muscles, fanning from spiked towers sharpened for succor. Down the harped steel strings, sparkling cerulean flames ran as the cables captured lightning for power, like every other spire the city offered to the elements. Intermittent traffic coursed across its lanes. The vehicles’ gleaming eyes penetrated the smog trying to thwart their journey.
He was stalling. He wasn’t prepared to go in and possibly not find what he was looking for. He was being a coward and he knew it. A craven fool. He had to go in. If he didn’t, he might as well have ignored her call and waited for the day.
He leapt from the railing; his wings pressed flat against his body, and sank as a stone into the river. A few fathoms below the thick and murky water, he unfurled his wings to slow his descent. Underwater, his preternatural powers were useless; he couldn’t employ his essence or his echolocation. He’d have to rely on his sight. Caution was key; there were many obstacles to avoid, remnants of a previous civilization.
Deeper he went. He stretched the membranes of his wings to further decelerate, for beneath him he saw the pylon of the fallen bridge. He wondered if anyone living had ever seen it stationed by its still standing sibling. He didn’t think so. As far as he knew, the remaining crossing had always been called the ‘Lone Bridge’. He angled away from its columns and headed south, the landmark dissipating behind him as the murky water swallowed it from sight.
The river’s rock bottom came into view beneath him, sloping steadily downward. More artifacts appeared out of the gloom. Pieces of a statue littered the floor. Here he passed the giant’s dismembered limb, her fractured torch still clenched in hand. Once raised towards the heavens promising autonomy, it now laid in fragments, forgotten, its flame extinguished.
Roman followed the decline until he saw the head of that symbol. Rust and algae clung to her face. Sharks weaved in and out of the spikes of her crumbling coronet like vultures circling cliffs. Within her still recognizably handsome face, his dead waited. Hopefully.
The pull of the current was strong and relentless. He sheathed his wings and sunk toward the riverbed. He gripped the bottom with his taloned toes and treaded toward the statue’s head. He reached his victims’ vault and nudged aside the coarse nose of a curious sea predator. Their eyes met; black on black. The shark turned and fled.
To the rear of the statue’s head Roman trudged. He shoved aside more of the swarming swimmers congregating by the seal of his tomb. Most shunned him and gave him ample space as if they were reluctant to feel his lifeless touch. Yet, as he approached the barricading slab of stone he’d acquired from some other sunken structure, he still had to push away some of the more adventurous ones. He didn’t want them inside and would allow no trespass into his tomb.
Now in front of the great hunk of concrete, he slid aside its tonnage, and stepped inside. Apprehensively, he turned around and faced the dark of his underwater necropolis.
Roman squinted through the murk. Were his dead still there?
The rusted railings rose in a spiral, anchoring the dead to their tarnished pickets. Limbs swayed as if welcoming their killer home. Like kites, they floated; their wind was the sea. Their binds yanked them back when they rose too far, tethered by cables stolen from the sunken bridge. Most had no clothes, but the tattered clothing of a few billowed in the underwater current. Loosening flesh clung to fresher kills while others still decomposed. Their grey, rotting flesh drifted in the dingy water. Earlier deposits were no more than skeletons.
He could only see a dozen bodies from where he stood. The rest disappeared into the swirling depths above. He had to be sure that they were all here. He raced up the helical staircase past wavering limbs and leapt over the gaps of missing steps.
Though he hadn’t arranged them in any particular order, they might as well have been numbered and tagged, for as he passed each one, touching them as he went, he remembered them and their death dates. They were something to hold onto when there was so much that had slipped away. That had been forgotten. Like a prisoner charting the passage of time by scratching marks on the walls of some deplorable cell, his kills served as his sepulchral calendar. He was remiss to let go of his guilt and wanted a constant reminder of what he was, of the things he’d done. He held on to hurt; one of few emotions he could honestly feel, and Roman held on to what little he had, in all its grandiose suffering.
He came to a halt when his hand grazed his first kill. After a year, it was nothing more than bleached bone.
Everything breaks beneath Roman’s fall, trees, the living things within them, and finally the earth. He barely hears the trees’ breaking boughs over the burning, beating sensation coursing throughout his body or the hammering in his head.
Feelings of emptiness and loss are paramount. But when he opens his eyes, these feelings are overruled by a far more pressing need: hunger.
Stabbing pain explodes in his head. Blood seeps from his ears. Screaming, he presses his palms against them and sits up. The sky’s navy blue turns a royal shade. At the sight his eyes tear. He rubs them. They start to burn. He pulls his hands away. Claws grace them. Blood stains them. Then he feels a fiery sensation along his arms. He pulls back the layered black fabric that is both alien and familiar. Blue veins line his arm and punch through his pale skin. He stifles a scream, biting down on his bottom lip and puncturing it. He runs his tongue along the top tier, finds that they are not teeth at all, but fangs.
He feels his sternum stretch. Then feels the skin tear along his back as something massive and moist extracts itself. He glances over his shoulder and cannot quite decide if the motion or what he sees pains him more. Wings. Like a bat’s.
He tries to get up, but he’s too weak and almost faints. Instinctively, he knows that the approaching day is the culprit. As if sensing this, his wings act. Serving as an extra set of limbs, their tips grasp the earth like a runner pushing off the track with his toes. With his wings carrying him through the woods, he looked like a spider scurrying to its lair.
Ahead, he sees a two-story home, whose facade is entirely blanketed with foliage. There’s a car in the driveway. Above him, twilight is reaching its climax. His flesh starts to burn.
His wings bear him to the rear of the home, to a locked cellar door. The right wing supports his weight, while the left one, curling its finger bones into a fist, shatters the door with a single blow. It joins its twin on the ground. Both wings push off the earth and hurl him inside. As he falls down the stairs, the wings form a leather cocoon around him.
At the bottom, they unfurl. The bleeding slows. Most of the pain has subsided, but he’s still too weak and hungry to move on his own. The wings carry their master to the cellar’s center. Their clawed tips find the floorboard’s crevices, and pull up the planks. Once enough are removed, the wings shovel into the hard earth.
Suddenly they freeze in mid-motion. A keening sound emits from the fur covering them as every pelted follicle stands erect, and Roman knows that only he can hear these ultrasonic echoes.
An image of a man with a shotgun inspecting the battered cellar door enters his mind.
His hunger rises.
The wings abandon their digging and deliver him to the back of the stairs. Once there, they form a cocoon around their master again. Above, footfalls descend.
Although he’s inside the cocoon, Roman can see the man. He’s just reached the bottom of the stairs and is staring at the hole in the floor. He’s a small man, barely reaching five feet. A pair of glasses sits on his flat nose. Long unkempt, grey hair sprouts from his pate in patches. His clothing’s tattered and stained.
The man walks to the hole.
A field of grey surrounds the man’s body. Again, intuition serves him; he knows this is the man’s aura. He also understands that he’s not attracted to it. But the starving don’t get to choose their next meal.
Beneath the man’s flesh, the arteries beat a brilliant red, and Roman’s veins pulse with it, as does the sonic throb of his echolocation. His need ignites a burning hunger. The wings unfurl.
Attracted by the sound, the man turns. He cannot quite comprehend what he’s seeing. His mouth hangs open, his eyes widen, and the shotgun falls to his side. Roman’s wings serve as his legs. They gallop Roman forward.
The left wing wraps itself around the man. The hairs along the appendage feel like tiny daggers piercing his flesh. The man is all but covered, only his head peeks from the membranous casing. Joining the impaling hairs, the single claw along the wing’s top, stabs into the man’s neck.
Both fang and multitudinous hairs feed their master. And although Roman doesn’t quite like the taste, he understands that he needs it to survive. Already, the blue veins along his body recede into his flesh; the throbbing, stabbing pain in his head diminishes, even though the hunger is not fully sated.
Both wings embrace the man now; press him hard to Roman’s chest. Roman and his prey fall into the hole his wings have made. His fangs extend and he slams them into the man’s neck. Now that their master is feeding on his own, the wings pull free from the man, and extend past the lip of the grave. They shovel the loosened dirt upon them. Once he’s packed in, his essence seeps from the ground. The planks lying by the hole rise. They fall into place. Within seconds, it looks as if the ground has never been disturbed.
After the memory, Roman shuddered. He remembered the taste of that human. The leaner. His aura had been grey, a morality that fluctuated between light and dark. An ambivalent soul. The man’s blood had done nothing more than quell his thirst for the night. The next evening Roman had been just as hungry.
He hauled up the helix. As he scudded to the summit, he spotted two empty slots, where torn cables that had once fastened the dead to the iron handrails, hung frayed and tattered as if they’d been no stronger than string.
Roman rushed to the empty slots. The old recrudescent guilt returned, bubbled and churned within him. He knew they’d risen. He remembered their difference.
The air is thick and humid, and would be considered unseasonably warm, if the earth still had seasons, thanks to the nuclear wars that had decimated an already delicate planet going through climate change, caused by factors such as solar radiation, plate tectonics, oceanic circulation, volcanic eruptions, and human induced alterations of the natural world. Roman wonders if it will rain, if winter’s chill will return. Though the weather is unpredictable, he’s used to its drastic, fluctuating changes.
Roman is hunting. He soars past rooftops and peers down into alleys. He’s past many a mortal meal, but none is to his liking, for he’s looking for someone worthy, worthy of death. The murderous red. He will not feed on those undeserved of murder, no matter how long it takes, no matter how long his hunger has to wait.
Then he sees it, beneath him, within an alley, the crimson beacon, with a black throbbing shield encapsulating it. Roman’s veins quiver and ach.
There are two mortals in the alley. And at first glance, it looks like a woman is raping another woman. But Roman knows that the attacker, his target, wasn’t born a woman. She stands over six-feet, thick-thighed and muscular. Her mouth is generous, as are her breasts, backside, and crotch. From her soiled mind, he finds her name, Servanah, and knows that she has done this many times before. As long as her victim is smaller, is weaker.
Roman drops from the sky. As he falls, the slits along his back take in a foot’s worth of his wingspan on each side, to accommodate the alley’s clearance.
He lands on her back and wraps his arms about her waist. Wings swath his prey. As he bears her to the rooftop, he sinks his teeth into her neck. Holds her close as he takes her life, enjoys its end, and never realizes that she might rise again with a greater evil.
Servanah and the other missing one had tasted the same. Their blood was unique and far more filling. But it had been more than just the blood. More than their taste. It had been their auras: not only red, as all his other kills had been, but surrounded by a layer of black. Was this the Mark Drake had mentioned?
He thought about the other missing body. The one he’d killed before Servanah. The only other one he’d killed who had been Marked.
He’s lost track of time. His trek continues, deep into the darkness of the backstreets. The lanes lose their linear monotony and become curved and angular. Shadows grow bolder and congregate en mass, blur turns, eternalize corners, make the mundane mysterious. Battered trash bins collect pools of water in their dented pockets.
He reaches the lip of an intersection. His victim is just around the bend.
The alley reeks of death. At its end, there’s a rusted metal door. No handle. He knows his victim is inside. Roman moves forward and his essence comes.
Though his wings are sheathed, Roman can still employ his echolocation, albeit, at a mitigated range. He looks past the door and views his victim.
His name is Darius. His eyebrows are a bushy tarp, a single unit over oval shaped brown orbs. Dreadlocks descend to the middle of his back. Like his body, his face is sharp and angled: high cheekbones, pointed chin, and a stippled goatee around his slash of a mouth. His cheeks and neck are covered in acne scars.
Roman has never seen an aura quite like his. It’s not the crimson, but the onyx shell surrounding it. A field of solid black. The scarlet is enough to seal the man’s fate, but the blackness beckons an unbridled desire.
An unmarked van pulls into the alley, headlights off. The driver exits, a stocky man, built like a bull, wearing a drab grey business suit, matching overcoat, and black work shoes. Roman picks the man’s name from his mind: Boris. Boris makes his way to the back of the van and opens the doors. He unloads a gurney, then another. There’s a body on each one. Both in body bags. Steering each gurney with a hand, he effortlessly wheels them past an invisible Roman, and up to the door.
Roman studies his aura. It’s a jaundiced yellow. Black tiny worms jostle within it.
Boris bangs on the metal door. There’s a pop, and then the door opens.
“I’ve got two more,” Boris says. “Laszlo sends his regards.” He pulls out an envelope and hands it to Darius. “And payment.”
Darius reaches for the envelope. Boris pulls it back. “But remember, you’ve gotta keep them alive. Twenty percent of their blood goes in the blood bags. Someone will be by later to pick them up.”
Darius responds with a single nod. Boris turns and leaves.
Unlike Boris, Darius can only manage one gurney at a time. After bringing them both inside, and before the door closes behind him, Roman, still camouflaged within his essence, slips inside. Darius leaves one of the gurneys behind, and pushes the other down a long hallway. Tiles once white have now yellowed by both time and apathy. The walls are grime-encrusted. Overhead, fluorescent tubes glare through discolored, plastic shields, their luminosity, the same sickly shade as the ground.
Darius heads for the freezer room. The body on the gurney is alive, drugged, as is the other one he left in the hallway. They are always brought in this way. But he knows that they will awaken soon. He has to hurry. He wants them to wake within the cadaver racks, where their terror will be amplified, where their muffled screams are music to his ears. Reaching a set of double doors, he pushes the gurney through.
Steel cadaver racks line the walls, filing away bodies within their silver wombs. The entire room can hold twenty-seven frozen corpses. Ten of the units aren’t refrigerated. Hard to keep the humans inside alive if they were.
At the opposite end of the room, there’s another pair of double doors, leading into the Autopsy Room. Darius slams the gurney through the doors.
He parks the gurney by a steel cadaver table, where a male corpse lays, head propped up by a wood block. Injected tubes drain bodily fluid; an attached formaldehyde tank hums and drones.
As he turns to leave, en-route to retrieve the other gurney he left in the hallway, Roman emerges from his camouflaging mist, unsheathing his wings. His fangs extend. Black eyes pledge death. Roman snaps his wings shut around his prey, like a Venus Fly Trap, and feeds.
Yes, it was indeed the black field surrounding their auras. The risen ones were Marked, like Drake. It had to be some sort of claim. Roman remembered their taste. How it had filled him as none of the others had. Normally, he’d have to feed at least once a week, if his kills had red auras. If he fed on what he called leaners, he’d have to feed daily. But when he’d fed off those with the black field surrounding them, he’d been satiated for a month.
Movement from above drew his attention. He pumped his wings and hurried toward the crown beyond the final dead stragglers. There he discovered a dead shark wedged half inside the statue’s head. There were two puncture wounds on its belly. The metal surrounding the dead sea predator was in ribbons, as if something powerful had punched its way out.
Unknowingly, the undead awaited the hunt, and Roman no longer wished to delay their demise. He’d bestow a final death upon them. This was a wrong he felt he could right. A wrong he had to right.
Moments later, the river’s surface bubbled, then exploded into a geyser, sending massive waves in every direction. From its core, the cause of this disturbance flew.
On wings of wrath, Roman sought his missing dead.