The child couldn’t have been more than ten or eleven years old, yet she advanced through the centuries-old cemetery as boldly as though it had been a playground. She stumbled sometimes, her foot catching on uneven ground or an almost buried tombstone, but she never fell, never slowed down, never ceased to look straight ahead. She couldn’t possibly be aware of much. The moonless sky only offered the cold light of the stars to guide her. Still, she walked on, determined as any general marching into battle that Wilhelm had ever observed.
He followed her at a distance, his attention divided between the strange child and her surroundings. The rhythm of her heart beat loud and steady in the emptiness of the night, and Wilhelm knew that if he could hear it, other vampires might as well. The last thing the city needed with the recent surge of demon attacks was for a vampire to kill a human child. Wilhelm had worked too hard to let that happen; he intended to make sure the girl was safe and home before long.
For now though, he wanted to know where she was going in the middle of the night, and why she was out alone after curfew—why she was alone, period.
From what he could see, her clothes were in good condition and clean, blue jeans and a slightly too large sweatshirt, and when a gust of wind brought her scent to him it was the clean odor of soap and shampoo. She didn’t seem to be one of these refugees who arrived in town in droves every few days, attracted by the fortifications and the armed Guards that were supposed to keep out the demons.
Finally, she stopped, and by the way she stood straight and still, Wilhelm could tell that she had arrived where she wanted to be. He continued to walk toward her, slower now that she wasn’t moving anymore. In front of her, the marble tombstone was tall, the ground newly turned, the spray of white roses still fresh.
She remained immobile for a little while, the only movement being the wavering of her shoulder-length hair in the weak breeze. Then just as Wilhelm was about to cross the last few feet to reach her, she pulled something from the inside of her too long sweatshirt sleeve, and gripped it tight in her raised hand. The stake seemed eerily out of place in her hand, and Wilhelm stepped forward without further deliberation.
As much as he wanted to ask immediately what she was doing there, Wilhelm didn’t dare be too abrupt, lest he frightened her and sent her running. He purposefully made noise as he approached, and when the child turned to him, eyes wide and startled, he tried to smile as non-threateningly as he knew how.
He was just beyond her arm’s reach. Any closer, he felt, and she would bolt.
“My name is Wilhelm,” he said after a few seconds of silence.
She frowned. “That’s a weird name.”
“So I’ve been told. You can call me Will, if you want. What is your name?”
Her frown deepened and she took a step back. “I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.”
With some difficulty, Wilhelm managed not to laugh. “I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to be out in a cemetery in the middle of the night either.”
She looked away, her cheeks darkening but her head still high as she stared at the marble stone in front of her. Wilhelm let his eyes trail over the inscription, and the pieces of the puzzle fell into place.
Beloved husband of Emily
Loving father of Paul and Ariadne
He will be missed
The date of death was only three days earlier. Next to it, the symbol etched into the marble, a diamond trisected by a Y, told exactly how Robert Vanyard had died. There were too many of these symbols on recent graves, in this cemetery and all over the world.
“You won’t need a stake, Ariadne,” Wilhelm said very low.
The child’s heartbeat accelerated, and this time when she looked at him, her eyes were even wider than before.
“How do you know—” she started, but seemed to think better of it. Her fist clenched around the stake as her voice shook in intensity. “Dad said people killed by demons come back, like vampires. He said that was why there are so many demons.”
Wilhelm had heard the theory before, oftentimes before witnessing graves being dug up, caskets torn open, and corpses burned. He hated that this new myth was spreading even though it had no ground to it. He hated even more that it likened in humans’ minds vampires and demons. How long until humans started killing the first as vengeance for what the second did?
“I am sorry to have to say this, Ariadne, because I’m sure you loved your father very much. But he was wrong. You could wait a year by his grave, and he still wouldn’t come back.”
If she had not been so still until now, Wilhelm might not have noticed how she started trembling. As it was, he pretended not to see.
“Come on, honey. Let’s get you home.”
A light hand on her shoulder sufficed to turn the child back toward the direction from which she had come, and she walked with Wilhelm without further prompting. After a few seconds, quiet sniffling sounds broke the silence; those were harder to ignore.
Wilhelm pulled a handkerchief from his jacket’s pocket, and held it in front of Ariadne.
“’Trade you,” he offered.
A shaky hand proffered the stake, and a second one took the linen from him. A word of thanks was uttered, but so low that anyone else might have missed it. Wilhelm tucked the stake into his pocket, and rested his hand on Ariadne’s shoulder once more, lightly enough, he hoped, to be comforting without being oppressing.
It had been over three centuries since his mother had drilled into him that a gentleman never left home without a hat, gloves, and a clean handkerchief. After a few decades, Wilhelm had let go of the first two, yielding to the dictates of fashion, but the handkerchief had remained, futile but easy enough to keep hidden in a pocket. At times like now, it could be of use.
Once they reached the street, he let Ariadne’s steps guide his, keeping his hand on her shoulder and his attention on their surroundings. Despite what the rumors said, the fortifications and the Guard did not stop all the demon attacks, which was why the curfew remained in vigor. Why, also, Wilhelm continued his solitary patrols through the city rather than take his turn standing guard over the walls.
Only three streets away from the cemetery, the child stopped in front of a fenced yard and turned big, teary brown eyes up toward Wilhelm.
“That’s my home,” she murmured. “You can go, now.”
Wilhelm shook his head and pressed her onward without a word. He wouldn’t leave her until he had figured out why and how such a young child had been allowed to wander out at night.
They reached the door, and Ariadne stood in front of it, head down and sullen.
“Aren’t you getting in?” Wilhelm prompted her.
She shrugged. “I don’t have a key.”
“Then how did you get out?”
Her eyes flickered to something behind Wilhelm’s shoulder for a second. “I know how to climb down from my window,” she said. “But I can’t climb back up.”
Glancing back at said window and the decorative woodwork along the façade of the house, Wilhelm refrained from commenting. While little girls could run away, using this kind of fanciful trellis, demons could also climb up to them.
Then again, demons rarely bothered with climbing to second story windows when they could simply tear down a door.
He took his hand off the child’s shoulder and pressed his finger against the bell. He could hear it chime inside, three long notes that were probably easy to hear from anywhere in the house. The light and noises he expected did not come, however. He rang again.
“Mom is sleeping,” Ariadne said. She sounded close to tears again.
“Well, we’ll just wake her up, that’s all.”
A third time, he pressed his finger to the bell, harder this time as he was beginning to lose his patience. Finally, he could hear footsteps inside the house, and light filtered from the hallway through a window panel on the side of the door. When it opened, Wilhelm had to frown when the grown woman he expected turned out to be a teenage boy maybe three or four years older than Ariadne. The boy looked at Wilhelm, then at the child. His gaze seemed to push her into motion and she slipped past him and into the house, her steps faster as she started running up the staircase facing the entrance.
The boy turned to watch her go, and when she had disappeared turned an inquisitive look back toward Wilhelm.
“Are you with the Guard?” he asked.
There was a hint of heat to his voice, or was it reproach?
“I am not,” Wilhelm answered truthfully. He had been part of the men that had created the quasi-military group, and he had trained more than his share of recruits, but he had never formally been part of them. “Are you Paul?”
The boy stiffened and gave a sharp nod. “Ariadne told you?”
“Something like that. I wish to speak to your mother. Is she home?”
Paul’s eyes hardened even as his fists closed. Everything in him screamed of his protective instincts. “She’s…unavailable. Come back in the morning.”
“I found your sister alone in a cemetery in the middle of the night,” Wilhelm said, keeping his voice cool despite his growing irritation. “I am not with the Guard, but I assure you the Guard will be informed and investigate this matter if I do not get to talk to your mother now. Can I come in or not?”
Technically, Wilhelm wasn’t supposed to ask permission to enter a home without first identifying himself as a vampire. The city’s charter said as much. There were times, though, when that information only complicated a simple matter. If he weren’t allowed access now, he would send in the Guard as he had said he would. He understood grief as much as someone who had witnessed thousands of deaths still could, but no amount of grief excused allowing a child to run through the night.
“Come in,” Paul said at last, resigned. He stepped out of the way, looking down as he did. “She’s sleeping upstairs.”
Wilhelm walked in and closed the door behind him, then motioned the boy to show him the way. Paul did so with obvious reluctance, but didn’t say anything. He pushed a door open when they reached the landing, and after turning on the lights, he let Wilhelm walk in first.
“She took sleeping pills,” he murmured. “You won’t be able to wake her. She didn’t even hear the bell ring.”
Wilhelm glanced back at him. Leaning against the wall with his arms crossed, he seemed angry, though with whom Wilhelm couldn’t tell.
On the side of the room, a door was ajar, revealing the en suite bathroom behind it. Wilhelm walked to it and quickly found a washcloth, which he soaked in cold water. Coming back to the bedroom, he went to the bed and sat on the edge of it, his upper body turned toward the woman lying across it. She wore pajamas and a slipper on her right foot, the other one having fallen onto the floor. A picture frame lay beneath her cheek, the glass still wet with tears.
With more gentleness than he felt capable of at that moment, Wilhelm dabbed the wet cloth against her brow, then over her cheek and down the back of her neck.
“Wake up,” he said, his voice low, yet commanding. “Wake up Emily. We need to talk.”
After a few more moments, she finally started to stir and raised her head weakly toward him.
“Robert?” she asked, clearly confused. “Is that you?”
“Robert is dead, Emily. And your daughter could have died as well tonight.”
He stood as he spoke, and she sat up to keep looking at him. She was blinking repeatedly now, her brow furrowed in incomprehension.
“Ariadne? She… what? Who are you?”
“I am the vampire who found your child at your husband’s grave and brought her back to you. You can thank whatever God you pray to that I have no appetite for little girls.”
Judging by the way that she paled, she was beginning to understand. Wilhelm intended to drive his point home further.
“While you lay here lost to the world, your child slipped away from you. If she had died, you would have had no one to blame but yourself. Grieve your husband if you must, but do not put yourself in a position where you’ll have even more reasons to grieve.”
Wide eyed, the woman brought a hand to her mouth. Within seconds, she was stumbling out of the bed and rushing to the bathroom. The retching noises that ensued assured Wilhelm that she had understood his warning.
When he turned back to the door, Ariadne was standing in front of her brother, both his hands clenched onto her slim shoulders. They were both looking at him through eyes that reflected a mix of fear and awe.
“You’re… you’re really… really a vampire?” Paul asked.
Wilhelm nodded, giving the two of them a small smile that he hoped held some comfort.
“Take care of your sister now, boy. And no running at night for you, honey.”
He noticed, as he walked by the two children, that Ariadne’s hands still clutched his handkerchief. They were closed so tight on the piece of linen that they were almost as white as it was. He walked away without another word or a look back, sincerely hoping that he’d made enough of an impact on both mother and daughter that this family, or what remained of it, would be safe from now on.
… continued in Aria & Will