Dae After Death
By Sam Fletcher
My sneakers inched off the roof of my apartment building as the color orange flickered on the horizon. Smoke had not yet poisoned the night air. I breathed deeply. The town was still burning.
I felt good beneath the moonlight. Strong—hyper, even. In this moment, among the distant hum of the crying crowd, I felt invincible. In this moment I almost forgot I’d spent two weeks writhing in pain.
Chills, night sweats, fever, fatigue. My hunger died on that first night, and it hadn’t returned since. Odd I felt so strong, frail as I was. I hadn’t left my room. Hadn’t seen the sunlight, even.
But that part wasn’t strange. The rainforest’s edge pokes up behind a lot of towns along the Puget Sound; whole seasons come and go each year without a glimpse of blue.
The thin metal of the fire escape clanked when it took the weight of my leap. I’d become very content in the nighttime.
I was feeling better, too. Hadn’t coughed any blood in a couple days at least. Something about the darkness itched at my skin; I couldn’t take the restlessness.
The salty air came in from over the bluff, but that wet-dust smell quickly consumed it. Scattered raindrops sprinkled in. I could see my breath as I walked along the gravel lot behind the factory, along the railroad tracks. The place was quiet, away from the riots, but it was haunted by memory.
I don’t know if the crowd planned to meet there, or if it just happened, but some punk sent a squad car up in flames the night I got sick. He was promptly shot in front of us. That’s when the protest devolved to chaos. That’s when they drowned us all in tear gas.
I walked along the gravel path, kicking debris. Litter from the riot—lighters, bullet shells, cardboard, glass bottles, and even a bible scattered across the gravel. The lot had been long vacated, but I could still hear the screams, still smell the sharp pepper, still feel my eyes burn. Spooky how that works.
But ours wasn’t the only crowd there that night. That’s why I returned. A third party lurked among the protestors and the police: predators. At least they behaved as such.
Those in apex positions stalk the young and weak of the herd, the ones who stray. That’s how they found me. I’ve been straying for as long as I can remember.
I walked into the shadows, where the train tracks dip beneath the bridge. A small encampment of tents had been set up behind the concrete pillars. I climbed the chain link running up one of them, above the ‘No Trespassing’ plaque, until I could grab hold of a thin edge at the base of the bridge. I pulled myself up, patted myself down to make sure my paint can was still in my back pocket and my holster was on my waist.
My gun wasn’t impressive. A .38 revolver, compact enough to stay discreet. I’d been carrying it since the first riot broke out. It didn’t make much of a difference the night of the attack. They pecked me from the crowd before I could make a sound, surrounded me in the darkness before I could squirm.
I woke up the next morning, beneath the bridge and covered in gravel, with a parched tongue and a scorching headache. My pale skin burned, even beneath the thin overcast. I meandered back to my apartment and slept through the daylight; spent that night vomiting up what little substance my stomach held.
We had been warned about entering a crowd in a pandemic.
On the bridge I tagged a pig with a badge. Just killing time, really. I placed my legs beneath the railing and hung upside-down. The five-shooter remained clipped to my waist, but who knew if those guys would return tonight. And what was I to do, kill them?
I’d only emptied the piece a couple of times in my life. My dad left it behind when I was young. He was a strayer too.
A week after I found it, I put it in my mouth for the first time.
Solitary confinement is one of the worst forms of torture. Trapped, alone, unable to see anything but darkness. This is how I’ve felt my entire life. Cursed. Madness grows quickly in such environments.
After living in a series of broken homes most find connection in school or a workplace, but I never dressed like my classmates, never shared an interest with any of my coworkers. Bizarre what trivial quirks the world will leave you behind over.
Loneliness is potent as any poison. A person can only take so much of it.
But when you choose to live—really, truly choose—is when you feel the most alive. Existence is brief. When I could finally comprehend this, the idea that no one wanted me around brought me some sort of perverted thrill. It made me feel like, by simply existing, I was getting away with murder. Those who attempt suicide shouldn’t be alive to process it. The day I knew I would never taste that barrel again I rose from the dead. From that day on life was nothing more than a simulation.
That’s why I attended the protest. To support the cause, sure—why not do so while trapped in flesh?—but more so because I was free. Free in ways few will experience. Restless in ways I’ll never be able to articulate.
My dark locks dangled down off the bridge as I closed my eyes. Muffled yells faded in from the distance. Strange, I didn’t feel any blood rush to my head. I felt as comfortable upside down as I did upright, with a steady, even circulation throughout my body. As if no gravity pulled my blood at all; no earthly one at least.
The crunch of gravel broke my peace. Then a loud squeal.
The predators were back. Dressed in black and moving through the shadows, they dragged a young girl flailing her limbs against the rocks. They’d found their next victim.
I opened my eyes and breathed, heart pumping new blood. My legs tingled in anticipation of confronting them.
They swarmed the girl, pinned her to a pillar by her arms. She screamed, but no one could hear. No one was able to do anything at least, no one but me.
Three of them held her down, while the fourth approached her slowly. She yelled as he kissed her, tried to shove him back but couldn’t. One of them laughed as she did so.
I unclipped the gun from my belt, held it up to my face, breathed. Now was the time; what was I to lose?
The punk grabbed hold of the girl’s throat, about to make his move. I leaped down from the bridge onto the gravel. He flinched, startled by my entrance. Then he backed off of her, shifting his approach to me with grace.
I held the revolver out with two hands, stiff.
He took another step, and I fired.
He stopped in place, looked down at the blood trailing from his chest, then he laughed. He looked back to the others, who had silenced the girl. They started howling with him.
He kept walking toward me, and I fired four more times, emptying the gun in his torso. When he could reach it, he ripped the weapon from my grip and tied my hands behind my back. He wrapped a thick rope around my head, burning my cheeks as he tied it so I couldn’t close my jaw.
My struggle was useless against his speed and strength.
The girl and I met eyes as he did this to me. He lifted me onto his shoulder without struggle, and another did the same to her. They carried us out, off of the gravel and onto the pavement.
One of them led the way on a skateboard to an old pickup in an abandoned parking lot. They slammed me and her, unable to make a sound, into the bed. I could feel my blood drying on my face.
They started up the tired engine and took us into the night, to a future uncertain.
I looked at my companion: her frazzled, blonde hair and the bruises on her arms. Her pupils whipped about in all directions, and she heaved. I’d never seen someone so terrified in my life.
I was nervous, I’ll admit—it was hard to kill natural instinct even in my state. But I knew, no matter what occurred, the worst outcome of it all would be death. Death was no enemy of mine.
We persisted down dirt roads into the deep woods. The more the city lights were just a memory, the more I saw this as an opportunity I’d never been presented. I was going to die tonight; that was certain. I looked at the girl, still sobbing. She knew it too.
But—I wished I could ask her—would she want to spend her last moments feeling this way? I would want mine filled with adventure, humor, pleasure. I intended to make it so. The more I considered the opportunity, the more my fear was consumed by giddiness.
The truck grumbled up the steep mountain. I kept my eyes peeled to where we were headed, until I saw in a bare patch the tips of trees had been replaced by those of turrets.
It was one of those homes I’d see in the distance when I explored these woods in years past. Perched high on the steep edges of the mountain, miles from any paved road. I’d always wondered—who would possibly live all the way out here? How do they even get to such a home?
Now I knew.
A dense ring of evergreens fenced the property. Thick fog soon consumed the truck; headlights could hardly cut through it.
When we passed over the bluff and the trees thinned I made out the outline of the mansion—chateau, to be precise—the largest I’d ever seen. Whoever lived here had an amount of money I couldn’t comprehend earning in a lifetime.
Our captors drove slowly onto the property, and the fog only thickened the closer we got. I could see movement out among the long grass, shadows lurking across the stretch of land. Whatever casted them was four-legged and pacing.
The goons killed the engine by the front door and unloaded.
“What are those things?” I heard someone say; must have seen what I did.
“Dunno,” said the other. He hopped up onto the porch and clanked the door knocker.
Bats startled out from beneath the eave, but no other sound came.
“They’re not home?” one of them asked.
The guy at the door hopped back down onto the grass. “Let’s take ‘em to the cellar, then.”
The other came around and unhinged the tailgate. I stood and hopped down on steady ground. The girl needed a little force.
They led us around the side of the house, down the brief slope to the back. The leader stepped forward, tightened his fist around the black handle of the wooden cellar door and ripped it open. Out came more bats.
With a shove, I was in first. I stepped onto the concrete staircase, ignoring the thick spider webs leading into the darkness below. My heart pumped, but this time in excitement. My remaining moments fleeted, but each was more interesting than the last.
Small, open windows filtered in the moon’s rays, our only light in the concrete basement.
Before the goons could leave us, though, the wind whipped and howled. Fog poured in from the cellar entrance. It felt as though the vault itself took a deep breath, sucking it all in. It came in from each window, until none of us could see a thing.
Then it condensed in front of us. The fog formed itself into a tight ball, dropping like dust and spreading out across the cold floor. From it, a large being emerged.
They were not quite human, as large bat wings replaced their arms. They hunched over, moved about as a bat would by walking on their feet along with the tips of their wings. Dark mist continued to trail off of them as they did so.
Our captors’ attention had been robbed. They all gazed at the figure, amazed, as if they were meeting for the first time.
“You brought dinner!” the being roared, startling even the goons. They flew over to the whimpering girl and inhaled her fumes. Then, they hobbled over to me.
“And what is this?” They sneered back at the others. I examined their face as they did mine. It was chiseled, pretty. Not quite masculine, not quite feminine. They had long, dark hair like my own, as well as large canines extending far past their lips. “This is not food.”
“He followed us to the girl.” One of them spoke.
They brushed the back of their black hand across my face. Their nails were painted black, like mine, but not so chipped, not so filthy. Theirs looked to have been refreshed earlier that day.
“You’re not food at all, are you?” they asked me, sniffing as they did the girl. They brushed their cheeks against mine, lowered to my neck and nestled in my collarbone. Then I felt their long tongue rise up from my Adam’s apple to my jawline. “Mmm, but you are sweet.”
Next they sliced the knot on the back of my head with their sharp nails. I moved my sore jaw for the first time that hour.
They held it steady with their long fingers. “Speak, boy. How do you feel?”
“Great,” I said.
A thin, wide smile cracked across their face. “Ah, yes. The darkness has a natural effect on the body that the living tend to ignore.”
I found myself squinting at them. “The living?”
“In fact, ‘lunacy’ itself comes from the Latin root luna.” Their palm reached out to the moonlight. “A pity how the living has put such a stigma around something so natural.”
“What is your name, boy?”
I didn’t want to answer, so one of the goons did for me. “His ID says Daemon Finch.”
Their eyes met mine. “Daemon?”
“Dae,” I told them.
I watched their eyelids widen. “Dae?” They turned to the others. “Strange name, isn’t it?”
“And what is yours?” I asked them.
They turned back to me. “I am called Miksa.”
I couldn’t help but smile.
“Ah, but my name is of great legacy. Not far up my lineage will you find the Přemyslid dynasty itself, the centuries-long reign over Bohemia. Where is your name from, Dae? A baby book?”
“So your name matters more because of some guy a thousand years ago?”
That evil smile returned to Miksa’s lips. “Oh, you don’t understand. Directly descending from Vratislav Přemyslid, king of Bohemia, after 200 years’ time, is Edward the Third—king of England.”
I paused to search for the connection, so they continued.
“Directly descended from Edward the Third, some odd 400 years later, is your very George Washington.”
I shrugged. “Some guy 300 years ago, then.”
Their smile only grew. They leaned in so close I could feel their breath as they spoke to me. “Adorable, how you still interpret time as the living does.”
They were starting to irritate me. “Does it take this long for you to kill everyone?”
Miksa pulled back. “I’m not going to kill you, Dae.”
I looked to the girl cowering on the floor. “What about her?”
They floated over to the girl, stretched over her body, took in her scent once more. “Ah, yes—she has seen her last sunny day.” Miksa jerked back with a theatrical spin, mist wafting off their dangling cloak. They appeared larger, perching themselves by grabbing onto the stone wall, perfectly comfortable in this strange position. “But ‘killer’ is not the right word for what I am.” They directed their attention back at me. “Tell me, Dae—what would you call someone who indulges in a taboo libation? Someone who, just by taking in the sacred nectar, is granted access to the ancient spiritual arts in ways most will never fathom? Taste the sacred nectar, and become something more. Become…immortal. What would you call that, Dae?”
I stared at Miksa towering over us. I contemplated their dark magic. “A—god?”
Miksa’s laughter roared, and their goons joined in. “The word I was looking for was ‘vampire,’ dear boy, but I’ll take the compliment.”
They dropped to the floor. “Old folklore considers us cursed, demonic even, the embodiment of sin. We, of course, know now that sin is but a flimsy construct with little meaning outside of the thin veil of this particular culture. And so, with nothing left to ‘curse’ us, what remains is not a curse, but the power the perceived curse holds.”
Miksa hobbled over to the girl once more, examined her. They felt her breast, grazed her neck. “The blood is life,” they said, turning to me. “Say it with me. The blood—is life.”
Then, they jabbed their fangs deep into her neck. They wrapped her in their cloak, then drank her blood like it really was nectar and she was but a soft peach. The sight made me queasy. This lasted for a whole minute before they dropped her cold, lifeless body onto the stone floor. She was pure white—near translucent—and sucked scrawny. Vibrant blood soaked into Miksa’s cloak, covered their face, dripped from their fangs.
The place fell silent as Miksa cleaned themself off with their tongue. I felt tense, hot. My eyes started to water. I couldn’t believe what I had just witnessed, couldn’t bear to look at her corpse on the cold stones. “You think preying on those weaker than you makes you strong?” I roared. The others seemed shocked by my outspokenness, my anger.
“I am hardly a killer,” Miksa said over their shoulder to me, loose blood dripping from their mouth. “And she is hardly weak.” They turned to the goons. “Is she?”
One of them, leaning against a wood beam, spoke. “Perhaps in status,” he said. “But not in spirit.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“She threw the firebomb, that night we found you. That’s what turned the protest to a warzone.”
“No,” I said. “It was a guy. They shot him in front of us, remember?”
The young vampire shook his head. “He made the cocktail, but she pulled the bottle from his back pocket and lit it. Then she disappeared, so we found you. It took us weeks to track her down, but we knew we’d find her. She could hide in the gas, but not in the shadows.”
“And for that she deserves to die?”
“If you are asking me,” Miksa chimed in, “I’d say yes. But she is only dead in the same sense you are.”
I wanted to keep thinking Miksa was the lunatic they claimed, but my whole chest sank with my heart. That’s when I realized why I had been sick; I couldn’t deny it forever. It wasn’t tuberculosis, as I considered, nor even COVID.
The old vampire found me once again, leaned over me until the blood dripped from their chin onto my face. I sealed my mouth shut so I wouldn’t taste it. “The blood…is life,” they said again. “Open.”
I wouldn’t do it. They took my jaw, stuck a finger between the cracks of my lips, and pried. Then they leaned in and kissed me. A deep, pressing kiss twining their tongue around mine, and when they pulled back all I tasted was her blood.
I didn’t hate it as much as I thought.
“We prey only on the weak, Dae, but only to turn them into something the strong trembles before.”
I couldn’t keep my eyes off her corpse.
“Why do you fear death, Dae?” Miksa asked me.
I returned my vision to them. “I don’t,” I said.
“Ironic, as you are among the few who will never truly experience it.” Miksa turned to their goons. “I suppose it isn’t ironic at all, is it? Such is the condition of those like us.”
From the woods came a wolf’s piercing howl. Miksa, for once, stood up straight. “Go, now, be free unto the night. I’ll take care of her.”
The others strutted up out of the cellar without hesitation. I followed them. Before I was fully in the clean air, Miksa bid me another farewell.
“You were not cursed, Daemon. Not now, and not before.”
With one final nod I dipped back into the darkness.
I woke the next day after dusk had fallen. A cloud of gas rose from the park downtown; that’s where I needed to be. I left my revolver at home and leaped to the streets, to prey as others of my kind do.
I ambled along the musky streets, breathing in the poisonous haze. I could see as fine in the murk as I could in the dark, and it didn’t sting as it used to. Nothing did.