The night air was crisp, filled with the scent of pumpkin and chimney smoke. Hundreds of old trees dotted the cemetery grounds, their gnarled branches clinging to the last of the crinkled orange and red leaves that gave them voice when the wind swirled through their rustling tips. Dim and forlorn, a quarter moon hung low in the treetops, looking as if a single tear had been sliced in the black starless sky surrounding it. Off in the distance, a dog howled and two more answered it, a melancholy sound.
Caleb Archer slowly walked down the long, cobblestone path that led from the main cemetery lane to the area housing the oldest and largest crypts in this very large, old graveyard. He knew every stone and crack in the path. His footsteps carried him on his familiar, dark journey without hesitation. For the last one hundred and fifty-seven years, every All Hallows Eve, he traveled this path.
He didn't think about the chill in the night air, the heavy foreboding shadows hanging in the sky, or the dozens of masked and costumed children running past him. They were on their way to frighten each other and terrorize the town on this one night of legal mischief and mayhem, better known as trick or treat night, Halloween night, in these modern times.
Caleb was from a time before trick or treating. From a time when a man's profession became his name. Before a time of childish games and sugary gifts. Even before the time when this night was recognized as the eve to honor the dead that had departed from this world. He supposed if he thought about it, it was actually a night to honor him. He was dead, after all. All vampires were dead, soul-less. Just not their bodies, minds or, in his case, their hearts.
The groups of children tapered off and the last of the brazen huddles of white-sheeted ghosts and black-hatted witches raced away into the night, soaring past Caleb with a round of adolescent giggles and one high-pitched shriek of delighted terror.
A few feet away, a small girl, maybe six years old, dressed in a simple long smock with a ring of dried spring flowers in her pale brown hair lingered on the path, alone but unafraid. She seemed to shimmer in the moonlight, her pale skin nearly translucent. Her soft, doe-eyed gaze seemed to call to Caleb's long lost soul.
"Hello, Sarah Beth."
She smiled and Caleb smiled back, then nodded, prompting the child to come near and take his hand. She gazed up into his face, a sad expression on her unformed, sweet, childish face and they shared a moment of silent understanding before Caleb sighed, squared his broad shoulders and looked away.
And just like that, tall, towering, dark vampire and tiny wisp of a ghostly girl walked on, as they did every year, hand in hand, up the crumbling pathway.
Her slippered feet made no sound on the stone walkway. She was nothing more than a puff of fog to the humans that had raced by earlier, but the dead can see the dead and she was Caleb's yearly companion on this night.
Caleb's boots slipped stealthily through the leaf-strewn path without disturbing a single one. As they walked, more swirls of mist surrounded them on their journey, all eventually solidifying to pale, translucent forms of the human beings they had been once, long ago. Caleb ignored them all, save the girl, her chubby fingers grasped loosely in his own.
Looking up as they silently climbed, Caleb's gaze latched onto a massive marble crypt sitting on the crest of a hill. It was in the darkest section of the cemetery, surrounded by ancient trees and old-fashioned, spiked iron fencing. The tomb itself was a pale smear against the night, its once white marble structure, aged and cracked, marked by time, elements, and human hands. The pillars were towering posts carved with ancient symbols Caleb knew the meaning of and wished he didn't, along with the painted markings from more recent, less skilled hands. The paint looked like graffiti at first, but Caleb recognized the unholy crest and the smell of the human blood it had been written in.
He pushed through the heavy, iron gate and entered the crypt, lighting ancient but still usable torches that hung on the walls. He moved deeper into the silent crypt, suddenly assaulted with the decaying odors of mildew, feces, burnt flesh, and sulfur. The faint scent of a familiar rich, distinctive blood still hung on the stagnant air.
Caleb released the girl's hand and she reluctantly drifted away to stand in one corner beside a broken statue of a gargoyle, one who had failed in his job of keeping away the evil spirits from this once sacred place.
Five stone coffins were laid out in the center of the massive chamber. Three were broken and their seals removed, the bodies vandalized, their spirits part of the mists that had joined Caleb on his walk and that now hovered around the edges of the cold, dank room.
Placing the black duffel bag he had been carrying on a raised section of the floor, Caleb pushed it carefully out of the way, close to a still sealed coffin directly in front of an altar carved into the wall of the tomb.
Caleb rose and faced the altar. Where once had been the figure of an angel that now lay shattered on the floor, there sat the cracked, skinless skull of a woman, its jaw broken and the eye sockets still bearing the scorch marks where the eyes had been burned out decades ago.
Caleb knew her.
He knew her briefly in life and he knew her now in death. All dead things knew each other. Her spirit haunted this place along with the others, bound to her place of destruction until her debt in life was paid.
She had been Shaddal, beautiful seductress, spinner of lies, destroyer of love, and servant to Astaroth, Duke of Hell. She had been Astaroth's consort as well, indebted to the demon for six thousand years of tribute and service in exchange for power over men, and eternal youth and beauty.
But she had not been granted immortality.
When Caleb killed her, drained her of all of her blood, energy, youth and power, she became nothing but a hollow shell that ignited in his outraged hands. In the end, her firm, ripe, young body became nothing more than a pile of ash and the broken, scorched skull now on display in the shallow altar.
That had been one hundred and fifty-seven years ago, but Caleb still heard her screams echo off the walls in this place, remembered the sight of her eyes burning, and her flesh melting away to dust.
Astaroth appeared just as Shaddal had died, summoned by her earlier chants. He was too late to change her fate, accepting her death by one of his own creations, a vampire, to be binding.
He was accepting, but was also a vengeful demon. Shaddal had been his favorite.
So tonight, like every other Halloween night since her demise, Caleb came to make payment on the price of Shaddal's death.
His gaze flickered briefly to the little girl, still uncomfortable with her witnessing his payment, even after all these years. She gave him a solemn nod and he returned it. Then, for the first time in one hundred and fifty-seven years, a feeling of calm and strength he knew didn't belong to him filled his mind and body. He stared at her, marveling at the offered gift of comfort. His soul was long gone, but her tiny presence warmed him all the same.
Broad shouldered and muscular, with a vampire's speed and strength, Caleb still paused before accepting his fate once again. His own actions had brought him to this place and he had a debt to pay. Standing in front of the altar, Caleb pulled a knife from his jacket pocket. It was small and old, the blade honed down to a tiny sliver of metal by centuries of being sharpened and used, a small piece left over from a life Caleb had almost forgotten. He hefted it thoughtfully in his hand for a moment, and then swiftly slit his right wrist with it.
As the blood flowed off the end of his fingers, he drew a V over a blackened circle on the floor before him, then drew another one, this time inverted over the first. In the center of the enclosed shape, he drew the mark of the eye of the devil, then let the wound seal. It disappeared in seconds, leaving his skin unmarked. He knew there would soon be plenty of unhealed marks upon his flesh and none of them would heal this quickly.
Digging a handful of ashes out of his other jacket pocket, Caleb sprinkled them over the still-wet blood and began a harsh, guttural chant he memorized the first night he heard Shaddal say it in this very tomb. The night she had summoned her master with a stolen gift in hand. The night she had died by Caleb's hand.
She should never have tried to gift her master with what belonged to Caleb.
As he finished the chant for the third time, the ash ignited in a flash of blinding light and acrid smoke. A clap of thunder shook the stone foundation and a broken pillar split and fell behind him. Caleb didn't bother to run and look because before him stood the hulking form of Astaroth, Duke of Hell, treasurer of the underworld, keeper of check and balances. The demon Caleb owed the debt to.
Astaroth stood eight feet tall. His massive body was covered in plates of molten stone. The edges of his rock-like muscles glowed a fiery orange and wisps of smoke curled from between his joints. His face resembled a disfigured bull and his red eyes wept streams of blood to mark trails down the uneven planes of his massive snout. Fangs protruded from between his lips and razor like claws replaced his fingers. He smelled of death and fire, brimstone and ash. His voice rolled through the room like thunder, scattering the more timid of the ghostly specters to the rafters of the tomb.
A mournful wail filled the air. Though he knew it was meant as support for him, it nevertheless raised the hair on Caleb's arms.