The less you know about me, the better. If you saw me on the street, you wouldn't notice me. I pass easily for an unremarkable woman somewhere between her twenties and thirties. If I've been sent to find you, it's because you're doing something you're not supposed to, and you don't see me at all, until it's too late.

I don't want to give you the impression that just anyone can do this. She's more vamp than vampire, for sure, but she's not some confused teenager dabbling in black vinyl to express some amorphous dissent. She's got money, for starters. If her country weren't a democracy, she'd be a duchess, and the pharmaceuticals empire on the maternal side would be merely a source of petty cash. Enough money to buy her way into places inaccessible to idiots who haunt shopping malls and the internet claiming they know something about the world's dark corners. But it all starts in a bar.

It's a forgettable bar in an Eastern European city that will have a different name and a new system of government in ten years. If any of us needed to cover our tracks, we could have it blown up for the price of a good bottle of scotch. The old woman pouring wine knows this, too, stores the awareness in some fireproof box in her crumbling mind. She passes each of us as if we were shadows. The duchess, her waxy companion with the glow of recent death still on his skin. And me in the corner, watching but unwatched.

I hadn't seen her in person before today, though I've been studying her for two weeks. We were half hoping she'd lose interest.

She looks the part, like she commutes between some members-only goth club where the cover is paid in blood and a brocade and midnight opium den in the 18th century. She orders her cuban-heeled silk stockings custom and uses a series of corset makers, each for different occasions. She wears a perfume called Memento Mori, the subtler notes of which include a rare breed of rose whose scent suggests rotting flesh. Her sizeable jewlery collection is all antique and all cursed. If anyone ever saw her in public, she'd probably be quite famous for her calculated eccentricities.

Ah, but she's young. Young people are often fools, and rich people are often fools, and she's all three. She slides a key across the table. He's wearing a long coat and a hat, hiding his emaciated fingers until they stretch out to take her payment. The bluish white flash of death is like a bulb exploding in the darkness of the underground bar. It's a bank box. She'd need an army of lackeys to carry what it costs in cash.

So she had her chance to get out and she decided to fall headlong into damnation. Good for her for following her dreams. It's rare that this happens, it's been half a century maybe since I've worked. But I'm not here to stop her. The duchess is the cheese, they're the rats, and I'm the trap.

What she's bought herself is a tour of sorts. Any asshole can pick up one of a thousand guidebooks claiming to list haunted places for the morbidly curious, site of murders and unexplained disappearances. And to be sure, there are a handful of those that really do have a touch of evil. But it's an echo, it's not living evil. For that you have to pay a corpse to take you to spots the world has forgotten, the places humanity has been shunning since long before civilization. There aren't many, yet they're always closer than you think.

She overpays for their wine by just enough that she's sure to cover it. They don't have to confer with the propietor about price, they can stand and silently leave. I pay for my drink with exact change and I follow about a hundred feet behind.

She has a car and driver sleeping outside the entrace, and she bends gracefully to tap on the window. It slides open an inch, but she waves and it rolls back up. The car starts and thunks gently away over deserted cobblestone. This is abnormal. Whose car are they taking, then?

Once the car is out of sight, they keep walking. The street is dark, but still I'm forced to drop back. The buildings are shoulder to shoulder, without alleys or doorways, and a fog over the city is catching enough ambient light that, if they looked back, they could easily identify my motion through the shadows. I have to follow by scent now.

It's not hard. As we walk, the buildings get older and their doors grow cauls of bolted-on plywood. Soon the only living blood I can smell is the duchess'.

They turn into an alley whose blackness even the clammy fog cannot penetrate. Once I'm upon it, I almost miss it. I feel my way along the tight, slimey walls, forward blindly. My eyes are older and it takes them a moment to adjust, but when they do I see what sense already told me. There's a single door at the end, and through it something I never expected to find so close to humanity. Its rusty hinges have not quite drawn it closed, so I count my blessings and slip through, willing its ancient joints not to sing out my arrival.

It's an inconspicuous wreck, skeletal walls and toppled furniture. The top half of a main stairway hangs from the second floor, suspended above me dripping splinters and moldy carpet shreds. It looks like what you'd see if you were falling and your last chance for salvation had just lost its grip. It doesn't matter, they didn't go up.

Even if I couldn't see the vapor of her human heat leading to a more modest stairway in what could have been a kitchen, I'd know we were going down. I can feel it in my stomach, the hungry humming. I can feel their ears perk up below me, hear the subaudible gasp of their nostrils flaring in unison as they pick up the same scent I'm tracking.

Reason tells me her scent must cover mine, nine centuries old and only half-human, but still I reflexively find a wall and make my way along it facing the room. Some people will ignore a crazy person on the street, but not me. I keep my eye on them until they go away. Never turn your back on a madman if you don't want to chance his greasy fingers closing on your shirt or your wrist. Never turn your back on a shadow if you don't want to feel the prickle of icy air sliding right through your spine, the humidity of battle-scarred fangs against the nape of your neck, the cold slippery digits of the dead around your elbow. I picked up some ninja moves in the fourteenth century. I slide against the wall without sound, pursuing them down the stairs.

The stairway is small and walled in by bricks, leading down into a basement. The floor is dirt, and it's cold. It's not a haunted house basement, with rusty washing equipment and a lingering cat piss smell, or some Victorian horror dominated by the gated eye of a cold furnace. It's two stories deep, carved from the bedrock like a giant well, and it smells of death. I can hear the whispering here, unintelligble but still human, plaintive cries and demented suggestions in dead languages. The voices are moving, but they're too far gone to see or smell. You just hear them. Echoes.

There's a hole in the floor that looks like a cave-in, and that's where they've gone. I can see the fresh tracks of her body heat through the stagnant darkness like blood under a blacklight.

I wonder if she knows what she's doing, how far she'll get. It's clear she's done her homework. My research turned up blood on her lips and flesh on her tongue, the kind of dark rituals you can't dig up in even the creepiest library. She's been as far down as human knowledge can take her. But the power she wants predates humanity, even this planet. Speech cannot carry promises of what she's walking into, and there are no words to write it down. They've sold her a feeling, the freezing hand that squeezes your stomach when you leave your body. Somewhere she found a taste of what it's like to slip off your humanity, and instead of running or succumbing to insanity, she wanted more.

And so we all descend.

This stairway is narrow and steep, without walls. I can't see the bottom. The stairs don't move as I step down, and no creak betrays the footsteps of my prey below me. They've had a long, long time to settle. Vertigo churns my guts as I force myself to continue, keeping track of the width and height of the steps, resisting the temptation to locate each with my toe before stepping down. There are certain points where the air changes, where caverns in whatever we're descending through butt up against the stairs and far off motions touch me as breezes. We're close to them now, and they're coming for us.

Below me there's a scream, swallowed up almost before it reaches me. Followed by her escort's zombie moan, and then the gelatinous thunks and chorus of cracks of something - not the duchess or the cadaver - tumbling down the stairs, finally a scrambling of threadbare fingers as it tries not to fall over the edge. It fails and it's quiet. Quiet enough to listen to the air. I pause on each step to be sure I'm alone, trying to surpress the pathetic human instinct to turn and run. Humans die running, not standing still. And surpressing that other urge, the one the thrumming of its presence brings out in me, making me salivate at the thought of rushing forward until I can taste those two whole bodies in my jaws. It's been a long time...

Bloodlust and terror fill my nostrils to the point where I almost miss the hand announcing itself on the wind. It only brushes me, but it's unmistakable. Slushy, wrapped in a skin of bruises, warped and folded over on itself around crevices of mucus membrane. I can only see it in my mind, but I remember it. They live on the doorsteps of evil places, crooked humanoids that look like hydrocephalic infants all grown up, sloshing bags of flesh who split their time between fucking and eating one another, waiting in the dark whole generations for fresh meat.

I brace myself just as it drops, hitting the back of my leg and trying to attach itself. The deformed physiology is impossible to predict - I can only pray my kick doesn't plant itself in one of the folds they use for both reproduction and digestion. I'm lucky, the blob creature slides wetly across the step and falls without so much as a grunt. That thing could have been my great-great-grandparent. I fight the temptation to vomit. Forward.

They aren't making much better time than me, even though the air is getting hotter now. I'm beginning to see a red glow below us, or it's a trick my eyes are playing after too much darkness. This is good, because it means we're distancing ourselves from the creatures who need to eat. It's bad because it means we're getting close.

Close means the voices get louder. They stop being human and begin speaking in frequencies that can be deafeningly high, sickeningly low, or - terrifyingly - both at once. And she can't hear all of them, but we can, her zombie and I. They don't want help anymore. They want murder. They demand to see her bones, our bones, our organs, our brains uncased, writhing and suffocating as our bodies watch helpless pinned down by the liberated bones of our own fingers, torsos flayed as we swallow our own entrails and -

There's a moan, and then a crack. My heart is pounding. I close my ears, I know enough now and that snap could have been me. Jesus. God knows how much she can pick out of the cacophony, but she knew enough to feel it when he turned on her. Smart girl. She broke his neck, or the fall did.

They're anxious. I can feel their bodies brushing me but I will not flinch. I drop my weight so I am harder to move, stepping down so that my hips are level with my top knee as I lower the other foot. I'm impressed. I don't feel the impact of a fall from further down. She is hanging on.

It's definitely not an illusion, I am coming into the light. Flames on gas flues cut the air like claws and I smell tar, earth's blood, mixed in with an odor of rot strong enough to taste. And I can see the glow of her skin. Shit. She's at the Mouth.

I hurry down the last few steps and land on a floor littered with carnage, all fresh even though this place is inviolate. Who knows how they get it here. Some are the bodies of the cold air creatures, exploded like rotten fruit. But most are human. I see my own face impaled on a femur. It's an illusion, stay with it. She's rising from the fountain.

She turns to me and smiles, freeing fangs she didn't have when we were above ground. She's torn her clothes off and blood drips down her body from her mouth. Her hands and her legs up to her knees are coated. Her eyes have gone black, and her veins are swollen, gruesome blue eskers across her pale skin where the poison is doing its work.

"Drink," she invites me. I can't shut the voices out now, not this close, and they speak with her. Pain shoots through my head and it does seem I should dunk my head into the fountain, the Mouth of Evil, to quiet it.

I get over it. There's a knife in my boot and I reach for it. She screams (they all scream with her), and launches herself at me claws first. I dodge, and she only tears my arm. I feel my own claws pricking through my fingertips, and my own hot blood dripping down my hands. But I hold the knife and resist the desire to sate my hunger at her neck. I bring my foot around after her, kicking her sharply in the small of her back. No crack. I back away toward the fountain. I can feel them all amassing behind me, but they're not as strong. I shrug off a tangle of bony fingers, containing the shiver as other phantom hands trail across my skin.

She's up and comes at me again, more carefully this time. She makes a swipe and I catch it, spinning her onto her back, but she gets in four lucky slashes across my stomach on the way down. Hanging onto her arm, I flip her over so she is face down, and break the arm across my thigh. I let her howl as I back away again, closer to my target. I don't want to turn my back, but I have to, I pivot and drive the knife into the fountain, soaking my sleeve with blood. I feel her rushing at my back and duck, grabbing her raised arm and flipping her into the fountain, which is congealing around my knife. Her impact splatters gore on me, but I don't care, I am already running back toward the stairs, the cavern clenching and the voices threatening to deafen me. All hands grab at me and I let them rip my clothes away, let them bend my fingers back. An ankle sprains but I force myself to put weight on it, the screaming pain lost in the din of an orchestra of terror and panic so profound I can't differentiate between my own and the monsters'.

Something is scrambling on the stairs behind me, something real. Dignity be damned, I use my hands to climb forward as though the steps were a ladder.

I feel wet on my pinky as it slides through the toothless maw of a blob creature. I'm fast, I congratulate myself as I pull the hand away, almost toppling backward with the force. I stand and dodge around the place where it was. I get lucky. I slam my chin on a step as I fall forward, but I don't slip, I pull and keep going.

I'm at the hole in the basement and the dimness is like daylight to my starved eyes. But I can see too much. There are a few up here now, slipping toward me, tumbling over their own deformities as though they were wheels. I avoid them. The building will have to be bombed.

I'm at the door. I hear a splash as the duchess intersects with a hungry abomination, as she cuts it down with her claws. Fuck. The door won't open.

I turn and she's coming up, dragging one arm like a dying animal drags an injury. But she's not dying, she's laughing. I try to kick, but she grabs my ankle from the air, and I slide down several steps on my ass to find her bloody face too close to mine, I smell her graveyard breath and the last feeble puff of that clever perfume.

"I'm entitled," she hisses.

Her claws are close to my throat, but I insert mine into her stomach first. She falls backward, landing back on the basement's earthen floor.

"Sure you are," I whisper. "Enjoy it." She's stunned, slow to raise herself up on her good arm. She hasn't noticed that her bad hand is stuck in something's stomach.

I pull on the doorknob with all my weight. It slams open and I slip, hanging from it for a moment, but I regain my footing and I'm out as she begins to scream.

I run through the vacant building like I'm crazy, dripping blood and smearing the walls where I collide with them. I can't draw my claws back and I can't heal hungry, so I slide out the front door of the cursed place and hide in the shadow of the alley. With one quick hand around his torso and another clapped over his mouth, I grab the first poor sucker I see. I rip his vocal chords out first. His blood is warm and I feel my wounds tighten up. I pick his bones clean. Finally, I pass out.

Shame hits me immediately when I come to. I wait until the dead of night and slink home, naked and smelling of murder. A quick phone call and an hour later, the house is gone, rubble pushed down expertly per directions in a three-ring binder that used to be a leather scroll, burying an injured hellgate.

The duchess is more famous dead than alive, but they give up searching for her pretty quickly once her family meets some of the more interesting characters she kept company with. We consider people like her acceptable losses, greedy for a curse whose horrors they cannot fathom, their fragile, deluded minds breaking instantly upon impact. I could have saved her, sent her home once I found its hiding place. But she was begging for it.

Stupid bitch.

submitted, respectfully, to The Night's Plutonian Shore: The 2007 Halloween Horrorquest

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