Sarah drove I-90 on a straight shot through Virginia. She couldnít wait to get to Sadieís new place outside of Denver and tell her about all of the things she had discovered. But first, she had to stop in Chicago. Thatís where he was. Raven. She had much to tell him. Finding enlightenment in the mountains of the Himalayas needed to be shared with him. Seana was kind enough to write his number and address down so Sarah could surprise him when she arrived. He was her best friend in the entire world and they had had a rough parting. She finally understood he could do nothing that would cause her pain and suffering. Now was the time to make amends. She thought of how she would approach him, how they would have a laugh or two about old times and Seana, and then they would have a drink and talk about the incident. After that, the air would be cleared and they could resume their independent lives free from hate and guilt.
Suddenly Sarah snapped awake from the middle of her daydream. She found herself driving along an unmarked blacktop headed north and slightly east. A sign flashed past stating that a town called Gravesville was five miles in the same direction. There was no way of knowing where the highway was from this point, so she decided the best course of action was to drive into town and ask for directions. As the truck rounded the bend, a small country store appeared on the opposite side of the road. She turned into the parking lot and shut off the engine. After a momentís hesitation, she slid out from behind the wheel and shut the truck door. An icy tingle ran down her spine, warning her of potential danger. Her gaze rested on an old man sitting in a decrepit rocker just outside the door. She couldnít quite place it, but she suddenly had a feeling of terrible dread that she couldnít reconcile.
As Sarah walked into the store, she paused slightly. Her grip on the handle tightened as the old man stirred and locked his eyes onto hers. She felt violated by his cool survey of her body, like he had stripped her not only of her clothes, but her flesh as well. She could feel her naked soul exposed to this man. Alarmed, she broke the gaze hurriedly. Immediately, the feeling passed as quickly as it had begun, but some unnerving foreboding still embraced her tightly. She composed herself, flung open the door, and walked in.
The store appeared to be deserted. There was one register with a low counter situated near the door. A vacant stool set behind it with itís only company, a well worn fly swatter. Sarah strode over to the empty register and waited for a few minutes. In that time she heard no sound but the wind and the old manís ragged breath. She found this more unnerving. She decided to investigate her surroundings. She looked around, but all she could see was normal grocery store stock. She wandered to a set of shelves and looked at the wares. There was an overabundance of canned meat and pickled eggs but nothing looked suspicious. She walked to the back where a swinging door separated the storeroom from the main area. She peeked into the little window. The room was pristinely clean and neat. A faint smell of ammonia ascended from the floors as well as the single bowl sink. The faucet dripped steadily with a light beat. A set of knives stood in their block like patient soldiers waiting for orders. To the left, boxes were neatly marked and stacked to the ceiling. To the right, a metal door broke the smooth surface of the wall.
Sarah started to turn away when she heard a muffled sound echo behind the shiny metal door. Thinking that someone may be locked in she hurried through the swinging door and across the backroom. She pulled lightly on the handle. The door wouldnít budge. She pulled harder and felt the door stubbornly begin to give. After a slight pause, she tugged again and, to her surprise, got no resistance at all. She flung the metal door open so hard she nearly ripped it off the hinges.
The cold air stung her face sharply. The temperature in the meat locker was so low that the door had frozen solidly to the frame. There was at least an inch of ice extending into the doorway. She peered inside. The room was pitch black. She felt along the side for a light switch. There was none. Squinting, Sarah thought she could make out the tiny line of a string extending from the ceiling. She leaned in as far as she could to try to reach the string. It was too far. Not wanting to get locked in, she stepped back out and listened for the noise. It came again, much louder, now that the door no longer hampered the acoustics. It was a bubbling, gurgling sound, like an animal drowning in its own fluids.
Sarah stood in the doorway, trying to pick out anything that might sound like words. The voice came from deep inside the locker, but without a dependable light source, she didnít want to risk the door closing if she went in alone. She turned and looked around the backroom. There wasnít very much that was easily moved. Left with few options she examined the door. A thick sheet of ice covered the hinges. Thawing it out would take too long. She centered herself, then tore the door completely from the hinges, making a mental note to tell the owners to send the bill to Seana.
After she set the door aside, Sarah carefully picked her way through the room to the string. It disturbed her deeply that the darkness was too thick for her to make out more of the room, but she put her fear aside. As soon as the light came on, the source of the unusual darkness was made clear. The walls were covered in some sort of lackluster, black paint that stood in sharp contrast to the immaculate back room. She became aware of a faint odor coming from behind the back wall. She got as close as she could and inhaled slightly. The smell was frighteningly familiar, something she knew but couldnít quite place. Her mind went through all the possible adjectives to try to describe it. Sour, bitter, sharp, biting, astringent. Astringent. Like a hospital, not ammonia, but some other cleaner that was used. Something strong.
She heard the gurgling sound again, much clearer. It came from just beyond the wall. Frantically she pounded her hands on it, trying to find a way through. No good. Sarah could tell the cold, rough surface was concrete. She decided to break her silence, although her inner voice warned against it.
"Donít worry," she said in a loud, clear tone, "Iím going to call the police to get you out."
Sarah turned toward the doorway. Thatís when she caught her first sight of them. The three that would haunt her dreams for the next fifty years. The big one in front smiled menacingly at her. She knew they were not here to help. She took two steps toward them, ready to fight her way out. Suddenly the floor gave way beneath her and she slid down a long chute which ended, abruptly in the drainage pool for the condenser units of the cooler. She burst through the surface of the freon-laced water, the smell burning her nasal membranes. She realized instantly that this was the odor permeating through the back wall. She waded carefully to the edge and climbed out. The gurgling voice sounded again, this time above her, from one of the condenser units burping out more of itís nauseating mixture into the pool. It did not strike her until much later, when she had learned the purpose, of why there were so may cooling units for one eight by eight meat locker. It was also much later when she realized there had been no meat in the meat locker as well.
Sarah sat on the edge of the pool and surveyed her surroundings momentarily. She was in an enormous cave. The ceiling was at least twenty feet high and the end of the chute extended only three or four feet into the cave from the highest peak. Anxious to find a way to escape the noxious fumes, she stood up and looked for a door or tunnel. A slightly shadowed area ten feet from where she was standing seemed the most promising. The eerie light from the condenser units didnít penetrate it and she hoped the smell wouldnít either. As she approached, she was relieved at the smell of fresher air as well as the dimly lit tunnel that extended from the archway. Cautiously she proceeded down the tunnel. She heard unrecognizable sounds drift toward her. Slowly, the end of the tunnel came into view. It seemed to merge with another, larger tunnel that cut it almost perfectly perpendicularly. That is when she realized the tunnels were man-made. Carved in such a way to look like nature had taken its toll. They must have been years in finishing.
Quietly, carefully, Sarah approached the intersection. The voices were coming from the left. Unfortunately that was the same direction the fresh air came from. She picked her way along the sides, pressing close to the wall if sounds rose too sharply or loudly. As she glided along, she missed a small dip in the floor of the tunnel and tripped. She caught herself deftly, but the voices suddenly ceased. She heard movement about twenty feet ahead of her, several pairs of footsteps headed in her direction. Glancing quickly about the tunnel, she noticed a small ledge just above the archway in front of her. She leapt up and stood still, letting herself become one with the wall. Five people walked out under her and inhaled her scent deeply.
Sarah watched them with great confusion. Their movements marked them as vampires, but their scent was something else. There was something darker and more menacing in that odor. A stale, rotten smell that Sarah had never encountered among any of her kind. Two times one of them looked up, cocking her head this way and that as she stared at where Sarah stood. The second time Sarah thought she was revealed, but the creature only shook her head violently and resumed inhaling the air. In the end, the five headed out, tracking the intruder scent down the adjacent tunnel.
When she was sure they were far enough away, Sarah headed down the main tunnel toward the fresh air. She paused, for a moment, at the opening of a small room off the right of the tunnel. In the middle of the roughed out room stood a weather-worn table flanked on either side by a splintering bench. On top of the table sat some kind of raw meat. Blood was soaked into the tabletop, staining the wood an odd brown color. She leaned in for a closer look and recognized a piece of hirsute flesh still attached to a muscle. She inhaled deeply. The carcass smelled vaguely human.
That explains their odd smell. Sarah thought to herself. They devour dead flesh. Must be some sort of zombies.
She quickly exited the room and made for the end of the main tunnel. The opening was brightly lit, which confused her. The hour was late when she pulled into the parking lot, she knew, but there were still several hours left before sunrise. And she knew she wandered around in the tunnels for a little over thirty minutes. She slowed her pace and cautiously approached the exit. The sweet, cool air swirled dirt around her and, though she did not need to, she took a deep, refreshing breath. Then she walked through the arch and into another tall chamber.
She searched for the origin of the invigorating air and soon found it. Large vents, high in the ceiling, pumped fresh air in from the surface. The air was forced toward the floor of the room and stirred the dust into small whirlwinds. She looked around. There was only one door and it was currently occupied. The five traced her scent.
Sarah thought they were hideous from the back but from the front they were unfathomable. Rotted, filthy, molded rags barely covered the decaying flesh that clung with desperation to their creaky bones. They approached her with a slow, definite stride. They knew she had nowhere to go and were savoring every step that brought them closer to their prey. Their acrid odor contaminated the fresh air blown in through the vents. She stared at their inhuman faces, too terrified to move. She saw something more in them. She suddenly realized what they were. The leader held up a hand and the world fell into blackness.
When Sarah woke she felt cold. Very cold. Like she was frozen. Her limbs were stiff and she had a difficult time opening her eyes. When she finally managed to pry them open she noticed that she was suspended from the ceiling of a cave, and looking straight up at the hook that housed the securing chain. Wondering how she was held in mid-air with her hands tied behind her back, she followed the chain down. About an inch from her nose the chain y-ed and ran down to two large, barbed hooks that protruded from her bare chest. Dried blood marked the entry wounds.
It was then that she realized why she was so cold. Normally changes in temperature only affected her if open flame was involved. Now, however she was deathly cold and the only way for this to happen was the low consumption of blood along with a great loss of her own. In short, she was going into vampiric hibernation, a deep form of rest when the body is too damaged and blood depletion is too high to heal. She would stay in this state until her blood resources were replenished or she was destroyed by an outside source.
She tried to slide a hand out of the chains that bound them behind her back. A bolt of pain was sent screaming through her body. It came from the hooks that not only pierced her flesh but also hooked around a couple of ribs and through her lungs.
Well, she thought to herself, itís a good thing I donít have to breathe. Course if I did, I wouldnít have to suffer this kind of agony since Iíd be dead already.
Sarah could feel three sets of chains elaborately inter-linked to keep her as still as possible. The one attached to the chest hooks, the one binding her hands, and the one wound round her legs. All of these chains were attached at some point so that the slightest movement caused immense pain to go shooting thorough her body. She still wore the rest of her clothing, just her shirt had been stripped, so her legs were spared the agony of the chains biting directly into her flesh, unlike her wrists which were almost rubbed raw. She could feel a little bit of blood ooze out from under the chains each time the vent air jostled her slightly. She ached to keep every drop she could, but, somehow, she knew this was not allowed.
Suddenly she heard a pitiful whimper beside her. She carefully turned her head and saw she had a companion. At first she was unsure if he was conscious or not. As her eyesight returned to normal, she hoped that the sound she heard originate from him was just the relaxing of a dead body and the final expulsion of air from the lungs. She surveyed him thoroughly, trying not to get sick. He reminded her of something, something she couldnít place at the moment.
She could feel he was vampiric, not unlike herself. But he had been butchered beyond comprehension. His left arm dangled by the few sinews of muscle that hadnít been torn. It appeared as though his body had tried to heal itself before it was drained. He had no legs and his trunk looked as though someone or something had been cutting pieces at it. His head lolled to one side, jostling back and forth in a rubbery motion as cold air came out of the vents directly onto their bodies.
Sarahís eyes grew wide as she suddenly realized what he reminded her of, a side of beef in a meat cooler. Thatís what they were, meat in a cooler, waiting to be carved up and served for dinner. It was his arm she had seen lying on the table in that side room. That was the dead flesh they were feeding on.
A scream rose in her throat but she swallowed it. Instead, she decided to see if he was still conscious, despite the fact that finding the truth terrified her completely.
"Hey, buddy," Sarah whispered, softly at first, then louder, "Hey!"
He raised his head so unexpectedly that she jerked back involuntarily. This sent spasms of pain throughout her body and she closed her eyes for a moment to compose herself. When she reopened them, he was thrashing about, with a terror so consuming that Sarah felt herself becoming infected with it.
He began shouting hoarsely at her, "Kill me, for Godís sake kill me. They took my legs and arm. They ate them while I watched. I donít want to go on with that memory. Kill me."
A tear escaped her eyes and coursed gently down her cheek. She wanted so badly to give him his wish, but he didnít realize that she, too, was helpless. He had smelled a new arrival, heard her voice, and responded. What she hadnít realized, at first, was that he was blind. Two black holes marked where his eyes used to be. They had been removed, one at a time. She could tell because the cauterizing of the wounds was different. One was much older than the other. One had had the chance to heal. She bowed her head and stifled her sobs.
After some time he tired and stopped rattling his chains. He had fallen into a fitful doze and, again his head lolled to the side where his burnt out eye sockets were hidden from her view. She bowed her head and tried to calm herself. The monks had taught her panic would give her nothing. She must be calm, steady. She must try to think of a way to get out of here.
Sarah was drawn out of her meditation by the sound of approaching footsteps. She looked toward the door and saw the three from the store enter. She could make them out clearly now, but their movements were odd and they smelled somewhat vampiric but also slightly acidic. They were in far better shape than their zombie counterparts. One of them went over to a crank and lowered Sarah and her companion to the floor. They came to her first and forced some blood into her. Reluctantly, she swallowed, her hunger over taking her common sense. They were careful to give her just enough to liven her up a bit but not enough to empower her. One of them began sharpening a carving knife with the skill of a seasoned chef. She tensed at the sight and a sharp pain shot through her body starting at her chest and radiating outward. She stifled the cry that rose in her throat. The large one who had smiled at her earlier, spoke.
"Go on aní crah missy," he said haughtily, "No one goní a hear ya anyway."
He stroked her cheek gently and she held back the urge to bite him. He saw it in her eyes and smiled big, toothless grin. "Go ahead, ya woní like what ya get."
The one with the carving knife stepped forward and, instinctively she pulled away, but not far enough. He sank the knife into her abdomen with deadly precision, carving away a good-sized portion of her flesh and muscle and handing it to the other. Instantly she felt her flesh bind itself back together, slowly, painfully reconstructing the skin and tissue it had lost. When it was repaired, she felt exhausted, like she had gone days without a drop of blood to sustain her.
The other two gathered around the one holding her pound of flesh. They poked it, examined it, then whispered back and forth for a while. Finally the large one grunted and pointed to her companion. In one swift motion the carving knife came down and severed the remaining limb entirely from his trunk. He screamed painfully and begged for them to end his suffering. The large one picked up the arm and headed out the door with the smallest man in tow. Much to her and her companionís horror, the butcher slammed the knife into her companionís shoulder and took a small bottle out of his pocket. He poured some liquid out of it onto the wound. It sizzled and popped for a few moments as it seared the gaping hole closed. Her companion passed out from the pain.
The butcher walked over to the crank and turned it in the opposite direction. Slowly, painfully, they rose back to their original height. He set the brake, then followed the others out the door.
Sarah finally let loose, but cried softly, trying not to wake her companion. She did not want her existence to end this way. In the belly of something that has no name.
When her crying dried up she, again, surveyed the scene. Her companion swayed lightly, his trunk following the motion of the air from the vents. The chain attached to the hooks in his chest was the only thing tethering him to the ceiling with twenty feet extending down to the crank.
Her eyes fell upon her companion again. In her heart, she hoped he was finally at piece, but she knew he was still with her. She sighed and let herself go into a deeper meditative state.
A moment later, a figure appeared in the doorway. It was the butcher. He looked up at her with a confused look on his face, then walked over to the crank. To her surprise, he unhooked her chain from the main one and lowered only her companion. The sudden movement woke him and he started screaming in desperation.
"Kill me! Kill me, please!" His hoarse cold voice was only met with silence form both Sarah and the butcher. He locked the crank into place and walked over to her companion. He withdrew the carving knife with a sickening sound. Blood and tissue clung to the blade. This, to her horror, he licked clean right before them, then smiled a soulless, evil grin. Her companion fell into a shock and his trunk stiffened. The butcher placed the knife in the back pocket of his overalls.
The butcher unhooked the chains with one hand as he held up the dismembered vampire with the other. He set the chains aside after inspecting them for any stray bit of flesh or blood that might have escaped. He then slowly drew out each of the hooks from the chest. Sarah could hear the grisly puncturing sound that they made as they ripped through the lungs as well as the cracking of a few ribs before sliding effortlessly through the thin layer of skin that was left. He licked these clean, like he had the knife and put them in his pocket as well.
He then hoisted the torso onto his shoulder and walked out the door. He paused, momentarily, giving her another queer look, then exited the room.
When Sarah was sure he was far enough away, she threw her head back and screamed. Once she stopped, she stared blankly at the ceiling, lost in a feeling of hopelessness. For a minute she stayed in that state. Then it hit her. Her sudden, jerking movements werenít that painful. She looked down. The butcher had forgotten to reconnect her chain to the crank to keep it taut. Now she just hung there with gravity causing her only slight discomfort compared to the pressure the crank had put on the chain.
She had to move fast. She could feel the chest hooks beginning to give a little. It wouldnít take long for them to work their way out of her chest, but, thankfully, it would be quicker than what her companion had gone through. Sarah, again, surveyed the ceiling, this time studying the hooked that housed the chain. It was fastened tightly. She also noticed the small edge of what looked like a root. Examining the ceiling further, she noticed that there was a large root network making up the roof of the cave. It was almost ten feet in diameter but had been obscured by the dirt and lack of light.
Sarah took a deep breath and concentrated, reaching out to the roots. Slowly her strength grew and she felt vigor return to her limbs. Quickly she burst the chains around her arms and grabbed for the one secured to her chest hooks just before they slid through her chest wall with a painful sucking sound. She reeled slightly, then gathered her strength to bust her legs free of their harness. She wrapped them around the chain and pushed up for a better view.
Almost twenty feet below her was the door, but since all but the ceiling chain had clattered to the floor, she didnít want to rush a potentially crippling drop. She reached out to the roots again, but this time they gave an agonized cry in response. She would get no more strength from the great oak above her.
Up seemed the only possible way out. Sarah hoped she had the strength to join with the earth and fuse her way out. She climbed up to the chain housing and reached out to the earth. She felt her form change and slid in, and became one with the earth.
Sarah traveled along for what seemed to be an eternity. She thought she was going relatively straight, but had to dodge so many of the great oakís angry roots that all she knew was that she wasnít headed down. The trip would have been must shorter and she would be on the floor of the cooler, bones broken, and unable to heal. She cruised along, happy for her freedom when her path came to an abrupt halt.
Something had hit her hard on the head and she inadvertently reverted back to her natural form, pieces of dirt shaking loose from her as she did. She rubbed her head and looked up. A neat row of concrete blocks formed the top of a crawlspace she found herself hunched in.
Christ, she thought to herself, Iíve ran into the foundation of a house.
She pulled her legs out of the dirt and looked around. One the far side she could make out a small vented window. She crawled cautiously to it. There was no way to tell if any light was beyond it, so she carefully pulled it loose and slipped to one side.
A dim, silvery light penetrated the darkness of the crawlspace. Sarah sighed in relief. Light from the full moon. She was almost moved to tears. Cautiously, she exited through the hole and made her way through a short row of empty houses. The deserted feel of the area unnerved her. She picked her way to a nearby clearing and looked for Polaris. Once she located it, she started walking in the northerly direction, not caring is she wound up in the Great Lakes, so long as she was gone from here.
The sound of voices from the left attracted her attention and she veered slightly to investigate. She kept as close to the shadows as she could and noticed a dancing fire eerily lighting up the night sky. She hid behind the tree and watched the three vampires as well as the zombies engage in some sort of ritual. As she observed them, she noticed they had something sitting on a natural stone table. From her vantage point, Sarah could not make out what it was. As she contemplated stealing quietly closer for a better look, a high pitched scream issued forth from it. It was a scream of a rabbit caught in a plow. It was the most horrifying sound she ever heard. She knew it was her companion and they were eating him, alive. Blood stained his mouth as they had force-fed him to keep him conscious. As they supped, they threw the stray bones onto a stone wheel that had another wheel attached to it perpendicularly.
Sarah recognized the millstone and instantly understood what they were doing. They consumed all soft tissue and when that was done, they would grind his bones to put into the stew pot with whatever vile concoction steamed in there now. She also knew why they kept him awake and fed and it repulsed her to tears. To let him drain out, would lead to his destruction and he would dust in peace. In order to satiate their hunger he needed to be fed in order to supply them with his power. They would keep him existing for as long as possible.
She bit into her hand to stifle her own screams as tears ran openly down her cheeks. She backed away slowly, wishing she had her pistols or a crossbow or something to put him out of his misery. She turned to run.
Not paying attention, she slipped on a dead branch. With a loud crack it announced her presence to her predators. They instantly took up the hunt. Sarah leapt to her feet and sped north. Her tormentors were close on her tail. Suddenly a path that cut through the wood appeared before her and she tore toward it. Out of nowhere the old man appeared, blocking her escape. Skillfully she dodged him and cut into the thick of the woods. She could feel them biting at her heels and pushed herself harder. Finally she thought she saw her salvation. A great hill of earth rising out of the woods climbed toward the heaves before her. With one last push, she reached out to the earth and was swallowed inside. To her amazement, her captors did not follow her into the hill.
Sarah traveled several yards before she came to the opposite side. It occurred to her, while safely housed in the belly of the mound, that she may have had the great fortune to join with a foot hill which could afford her many feet of protection. Carefully she exited the earth, this time able to prepare herself for whatever she may encounter.
She looked around. The woods seemed strangely empty. The moon had hidden herself behind a black cloud and the darkness thickened.
Sarah wondered if she was safe. All vampires had hunting grounds and generally once you reached those boundaries you would be safe from harm. Since these creatures were unlike the vampires she knew, she would not rest easily. Slowly she picked her way through the wood, trying to ascertain north again, now that the wood was too dense for her to see the stars.
She crossed her arms around her bare breasts more for protection against the sharp, low branches rather than any sense of being cold. Any one of those natural stakes could be bad news if she tripped onto one.
How embarrassing, she thought with a cruel laugh, Iíd never live a death like that down.
Suddenly she picked up on a familiar scent. From behind her, she heard dry twigs snap and pop as though a lot of weight was on them. She ran as fast as she could straight ahead, no longer caring if she did impale herself on a tree branch. It would be a far more desired death than the one that waited her if she stopped.
She tripped on a root curling up menacingly from the ground and hit the hard forest floor with a loud thud. She tried to push herself up but all of her strength had left her. The moon slid out of her hiding place and a large shadow covered Sarah. She knew she was caught. She pounded her fists into the dirt in one last cry of desperation as the blackness fell over her like the night.
(Copyright 2002 Gina M. Wood - Random Quote Productions)
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