Thursday, October 1, 2015

ALEX SHALENKO: Bring Out the Dead

I am the Night
By Alex Shalenko © 2015

Monster. Such a simple word, yet so laden with meaning. Such a cavalcade of imagery that dances with every flicker of the flame as the sun goes down. A serrated tusk in the dark, a sinuous lash of a tentacle from the still water, a sharp fang against the soft flesh of your throat – you know them all, some as a distant threat from a cautionary tale, others as an intimate tugging inside your chest, an inexplicable urge to avoid the shaded places and to stay in the light.
It is an instinct that carries on from your primitive ancestors, their memories of huddling over the open fire inside the angry, hungry night – an instinct of prey knowing that it is being watched from that space where its eyes cannot see, the scent of danger and fear.
Make no mistake – I am watching you.
I see you hug the luminous circles of gaslight lamps as you warily make your way across the London street. It is as dirty and grime-ridden as the faces that stare from the narrow, dilapidated windows, a gathering of prey in their multitude.
As I skulk through the places where no light touches, I pause to reflect that there seem to be more of them now than ever before. It is easy to lose track of lazy centuries interrupted only by brief, exhilarating moments of violent feeding, so easy to miss the changes in the pace of the times, yet tonight, the time has never been better.
The prey is plentiful, and the night is the essence of the hunt.
My talons make a screeching sound against the stonework of the wall. Somewhere inside, a hushed whisper, an urge to be quiet. The day… might be theirs, but the night is not, and has never been.
I see you jerk around as you hear it, and scan the narrow alleys one by one. Under the street light, you are exposed – face painted with gaudy makeup to hide the onset of age, hair carelessly tucked away under the hat to disguise your recent proclivities, long skirts that almost, but not quite give off an air of respectability. Your fingers are weighed down with rings displaying stones that are just too large to be real; your eye shadow is smeared with sweat or perhaps tears. There is a slight tremor in your jaw, barely noticeable hesitation in your movements.
I hear you whisper something – a prayer, or perhaps some futile form of reassurance that the monsters do not exist, or that perhaps it was an adventurous vermin, or a drunkard stumbling about on his way home. For the moment, I remain completely, perfectly still.
You look at me and past me. There was a time when I would have appeared from the darkness in all of my terrible majesty, savoring every moment of terror that comes before the end, every tear of denial, every whimpering sob before that which has no mercy.
The times have changed. Primitive spears and swords gave way to the weapons that leave the sting of lingering pain even though they have little bearing on the final outcome without the numbers. And now, there are many of you, too many to be taken in the open.
These times do not favor the beast and his savage ways. No, they call for another kind of predator – a patient hunter who thrives even when outnumbered, using the very constructs of his prey to expand his prowling grounds into their world.
A slight breeze touches my face, and with it, smells of raw sewage from the Thames laced with barely noticeable undercurrent of salt from the Channel, rotting seaweed, and ever-present heavy overlay of coal powering the industries of the city. There is a scent of something dead on the wind, and I cannot shake it off even when trying to focus on the essence of your mortal shape.
You are no more than a hundred feet away, if that. I savor the thought of racing across the cobbled stones of the street, where rain gathers in stagnant pools of filthy water and the day’s detritus decomposes into unrecognizable miasma. Hunger pulsates within me like a living heart, making my claws expand and contract with anticipation, bringing a snarl to my face as my tongue feels the outlines of my growing fangs. I can almost taste the sweet, coppery sensation, the feel of the warm liquid gushing from your open arteries, the texture of the meat and the organs as they are ripped out of your still twitching carcass to sate me.
You stumble, one last failure of mortal imperfection before the great, horrifying unknown consumes you, and I allow myself a moment of laxity, peeking from the shadow to let you glimpse that which is stalking you.
You scream in sudden terror, and it saves me.
I feel the blade as it rushes through the air, hand shaken off course by a momentary lapse of resolve. It strikes me in the back, though no longer true, and I screech a howl of agony even as I scale the wall, bleeding precious vitae. A window, barred from the inside. A brick misaligned with the rest of the stonework becomes a foothold, then a springboard towards the roof.
I land among the chimneys even as bullets wheeze past me. The wound on my back aches with dull throbs, but it is not mortal, and I thank my luck for the scream that caused my assailant’s aim to falter. I cling closer to the roof, blending in, becoming one with the night as I slither between the protruding chimney stacks.
There is now light in the alley, a torch if the smell of burning tar and the flickering orange of the open flame are any indications. I hear the footsteps – one, two, three sets, a drum beat accentuating harsh, terse verbal exchanges.
“It is there, I’m telling you,” speaks a voice, by the sound of it a young man possessed by the rash bravado of his kind. “We should go up and finish the job, Professor.”
“Patience, milord,” counsels another voice. This one is aged, weary, with the raspy undertone of a long-time tobacco smoker. “We have it cornered. Your bullets will only give it pause. We should wait it out until it leaves the roof and we can stake it for good.”
Now, a third voice enters the conversation. This one is higher-pitched, either a youth who had just hit puberty, or a woman. “Are you sure this is… wise? Can it hear us? Can it understand what we are saying?”
“The Nosferatu abandoned all higher faculties of reason, my dear Alice,” the Professor replies with the smug conviction reserved for extremes of misplaced arrogance. “Think of it as a wild beast. A dangerous and cunning wild beast, to be sure, but do not mistake its form for its function. Though it looks like a man…”
“Enough with the lectures,” the young man interrupts impatiently. “We came here to end this thing, not to hold academic debate.”
“Adam…” the woman, Alice, interjects, and I crawl closer to the edge of the roof.
“This thing has been killing women around Whitechapel for weeks,” Adam shouts. I dare not show my face in the flickering light of the torch as it peels away the layers of fog, so I imagine him as an amalgam of many others, a tall and overconfident youth with the latest weapons of his era, clad in the fineries his privileged position affords him and utterly, hopelessly fearless. That, however, is what makes him dangerous. Men like him do not make cautious, rational decisions; they are as likely to make a terminal mistake as they are to give in to a moment of sudden brilliance.
I feel the muscles in my wounded back reknit themselves. There is a burning feeling in the wound, as if the blade that struck me was laced with poison, and it takes me much resolve to clench my teeth together, not letting a sound escape.
Every generation spawns those who fancy themselves hunters. Though most come woefully unprepared, there are always few who, either through painstaking attention to detail or dumb luck, manage to be a real threat to the likes of me. I remember them quite well – savages with their bone-studded clubs, armor-clad knights with maces and swords, fops of more libertine eras who fancied themselves heroes as they struck with their muskets and rapiers. The beasts have fallen to them, too, but this is not the age of the beast. This is the time of the patient hunter, and I am ever ready.
Perhaps, a day will come when the knowledge of men will finally match their desire to match wits with the unknown. There might yet be the moment when it is my blood that runs down the paved streets where generations of prey died to sustain me. Perhaps, there will be a night when they would laugh in my face and end the bloodline older than their civilizations and nations, more venerable and pure than the exalted among them.
Tonight is not that night.
I cannot see them, but I can still hear the sloshing of dirty water under their feet, the slight wheeze in the Professor’s breath, the sound the fabric makes when the sleeve rubs against the torso. I can hear all the little things that are hidden from mortal ears, for the night is bountiful with gifts for those who would accept its tutelage.
They are standing in a semi-circle, and only one of them keeps moving. I guess that it is Adam; he sounds like the type who cannot stay still even in the face of danger. This is good news; I pinned him for the most unpredictable and dangerous of them all, yet his own impetuousness is what gives him away.
Does he seek to challenge me for some perceived slight? Does he want to prove himself in the eyes of his peers, or perhaps to earn adoration of a woman? There are many reasons why men take up arms against me, and yet all meet the same fate no matter how different they believe themselves to be.
It is the other two who trouble me now. The Professor’s breath is a clear sign of where he remains, its shallowness an indicator of well-hidden anxiety. He, like me, is a patient hunter, but he made one mistake. A hunter who does not respect his prey will find his fortunes reversed, and will soon be prey himself.
I do not know what to make of Alice. Women rarely take it upon themselves to challenge my kind, and I find myself puzzled over it. Is this a sign of the times, I wonder? Is this another development of the new, industrial age of history?
Slowly, silently, I creep closer to the edge of the roof. The chimneys belch out grey and black smoke that blends in with the infamous London fog. Tonight, it serves to my advantage.
I cannot turn into mist, shift into a bat, or do one of the myriad things the humans tell each other about me as they huddle by the fire. Sometimes, when they need a monster, they invent one far more fantastical than the one stalking them, and in doing so, blind themselves to their fate.
A brief glance is all it takes. The young man fires shot after shot in my general direction, heedless of me rolling across the edge of the roof to flank him and his companions. He is as I imagined – wild-eyed, long-haired youth with scraggly sideburns attempting to cover the childish pink of his cheeks, wearing a vest with ornaments reminiscent of faraway exotic lands. I only get a fraction of a second to look before I move on.
Speed is of the essence here. His bullets, even if they have silver tips, cannot kill me, but they can slow me down enough for the blade to pierce my heart. Therefore, he is my first target.
I fall down like the tide of muscle and sinew encapsulated in one vicious form, talons extended, jaws open. One of the three would-be hunters screams. Perhaps it is the realization of what is coming after them; perhaps it is the instinctive reaction of the mortal mind to things that dwell in the night.
I hide nothing. Though I share the most basic vagaries of shape with their kind, there is little mistaking me for what I am. A monster, they cried through the long centuries as their lifesblood fed me. A creature of the night, a beast that walks like a man yet is completely inimical to the children of the sun. A nosferatu, as this new breed of prey calls me.
A leap takes me into the air and near Adam. He does not have time to change his aim, and his last shot goes wide. His other hand holds a torch, which he promptly drops to the ground. I hear a whooshing sound as the burning tar meets a puddle of standing water, going out. The alleyway is dark, once more.
I slash with my claw, and feel the resistance of meat ripping under the onslaught, starting at the shoulder and downward towards the chest and the abdomen. His clothes become wet rags dripping with blood as I twist, turning his body into a makeshift shield between me and the other two hunters.
My other talon enters his body at the stomach. I feel the warm liquid, the pulse of life stifled as I mangle the internal organs, ripping through the intestines and smelling the acidic stink of stomach juices on my claws. The serrated edge of the talon moves up as his scream is stillborn, muted by the violence of my assault.
“Now!” the Professor shouts. It is a call to action if I had ever seen one, but he is too late. The humans are too soft, too slow, too susceptible to sudden shock, and I take full advantage of their failings. Before the other two hunters get a chance to react, I push Adam’s body toward them.
My claws are still covered in gore and the deep red of blood as I charge them.
They are a sorry couple – the young woman a willowy waif brandishing a crossbow, the Professor an elder past his prime with a sword in one hand and a cross in the other. A bolt strikes the dying body as it falls towards them, probably finishing Adam off for good.
I rip the crossbow out of the woman’s hands. Without it, she is no threat at the moment; instead, I concentrate my attention on the Professor. His eyes are wide with shock, and he stumbles backwards, waving the cross in my face as if it is going to save him. The sword, a relic from some bygone era, is pulled back, poised for a rapid thrust toward my vitals.
Perhaps he expects that I will give him time for some grandiose speech, or heroic last stand. I give him no such satisfaction. Before he has a chance to finish the curse on his lips, I swipe the cross out of his hand. It flies out of sight as a testament to misguided belief.
Mankind has no power over me, and its gods are but an afterthought of its fevered delusions. Though my mouth is no longer suited for human speech, I want to tell him that he is not the first to put faith in symbols, and that this is not the first god invoked to stop me. Many were their names, and their worshippers, and many more yet will come, for the gods can die. Only I remain.
He swings at me clumsily with his sword, and I easily sidestep its thrust. I see the sweat gathering on his face in tiny beads; his hair, or the little of it that still remains, is wet and sticking to the skin. His teeth rattle just enough to suggest the presence of dentures, the sound of porcelain rhythmically struck against porcelain.
I strike him once in the neck. Blood sprays out in a small geyser as I hit the artery with expertise borne of a million nights. The second swipe of my talons nearly decapitates him; soft cartilage breaks under my attack, and a gaping wound opens in the side of his neck. There is only enough air in his lungs to let out a sickening sigh in place of a scream.
A shot hits me in the back like hot coals against the tender skin. I am propelled forward by the force of its momentum, stumbling over the body of the Professor and losing my balance. The second shot hits me near shoulder and throws me on the ground.
The woman, Alice. Of course, it had to be her, frantically reloading the gun as I rolled over, my angry snarl the promise of retribution.
Why did I ignore her, the thought runs through my mind? Was it out of old habit, or perhaps due to poor judgment?
The bullets are, of course, silver, and they burn. Oh yes, they burn, and will leave scars. But I have lived through worse.
I get down on all fours and leap like a lupine beast of prodigious size and strength. She manages another shot, but it fails to stop me, fails to hit anything vital. My weight, considerably greater than any mortal’s, knocks her down and keeps her pinned in place.
I imagine what she sees as I smell the delicious pheromones of fear in her shallow breaths – the very reason her kind built fires and walls to protect them from the angry night, the distilled essence of nocturnal predator assembled from the ancestral terrors of human race. The claws; the teeth; the eyes that abandon any pretense of compassion or mercy. She sees it and turns her face to the side, sobbing, trying to whisper something.
Do you not like what you see? Are you too pathetic to witness the majesty before you?
This is always the case with prey. In the daylight, they are proud and self-assured, believing themselves the masters of all they survey and dismissing the night terrors as flight of imagination. As the sun goes down, however, the fears return – the knowledge of being watched, the challenge to their status as the crowning achievement of all creation.
I consider feeding then and there, but decide against it. A good hunter never lets the prey escape, and my original prey, you are still alive in the narrow streets of the Whitechapel district, still running for your pathetic life.
The woman goes limp as I rip out her throat in one swift movement, then spit out the mangled flesh. A taste of blood whets my appetite for more, yet I refrain from gorging myself on it. Not now. Not yet. The stinging sensation from silver bullets retreats, though not far enough. I still feel it – it will become a motivation to finish the hunt promptly.
I leave the hunters where they are as a warning to others of their kind. Already, the sounds of fighting are beginning to attract attention; it would not be long before the city guards – the constables, I believe they call them these days, arrive in numbers too large even for me to handle.
As I hear the sounds of many feet rap against the cobblestone streets, I run.
*          *          *
It does not take me long to pick up your scent again. I can smell it clearly now, a mixture of cheap perfume, sweat, and damp clothing. Though the fog and the light rain muddle my senses, they are not sufficient to keep me from tracking you to another street, just a hundred or so feet away from what must have been your home.
I strike as you dig frantically for keys, eager to escape the horrors of the dark. The moment you see me is your last, and you do not even get a chance to scream as my hand covers your mouth. My fangs, now fully extended, rip into your neck, and your struggles become more feeble by the second as I draw sustenance from your life.
The sweet, succulent vitae drips into my mouth, and for the moment I forget the pain of my wounds, though not the fate of the hunters. While the city guards are occupied, while they search the bodies of the dead for any clues to their killer, I have all the time I need to lay you down, to tear open the abdomen and the rib cage, to feed on the still warm organs inside.
For you see, the Professor was not entirely wrong to label me a beast. I am simply a better predator, a being more at ease with what it is, and more honest than my prey with your civilization, with your manners and rituals, with your delusions of higher powers protecting you from the dark. Though the age of coal, steel, and stone requires a patient hunter over the brute savage, I am what I always was.
For I am every shadow that ever was, the flickering of light before it goes out as it casts unearthly shapes on the wall. I am the apex of predation who traded pretense of humanity for the simple pleasure of the hunt that lasts through centuries. I am the noise in the dark that makes you question everything you know through reason and faith, the last moment of a nightmare lingering even after the dream is over and carrying into the waking world. I am the end. I am the monster. I am the night.
© Alex Shalenko, September 23, 2015
Two SIGNED PRINT COPIES of Alex Shalenko’s bring out the dead!!! Because these are print copies, winners are limited to U.S. and Canada!

Alex Shalenko is a science fiction, fantasy, and horror author, with the debut novel "Bring Out the Dead" due in 2015 through J. Ellington Ashton Press. A native of Ukraine and a heavy metal enthusiast, he writes imaginative stories laced with darker atmosphere and complex, realistic characters. Alex makes his home in scenic Maryland, USA.

Severozavodsk, Russia is no one's choice destination. A frozen industrial wasteland, it is a grim place where secrets are buried by blizzards and men. When Jake Levin and Bill Jones, American financial analysts in search of an investment opportunity, arrive in Severozavodsk, they will get much more than they bargained for, as the darkness at the heart of the city surges and primal, inhuman forces begin to stir under the permafrost. Even with the help of beautiful and secretive Olga, will Jake and Bill survive the reckoning with powers beyond their comprehension that threaten the town and all in it?              


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