Vasha’s heart beat to a dangerous rhythm. Dangerous to the humans, anyway.
The unguent spread smoothly over her flesh. She liked the sensation, but it felt strange to be applying anything like this to her body. She definitely wasn’t in the habit of using creams or lotions—anything with an artificial scent. Her sense of smell wouldn’t stand it. Perfumes were for humans.
This, though, was something else.
Vasha grinned. The day was bright, even with the thin layer of cloud across the sky. She stood naked at the center of a little grove of trees. Her clothes hung from a low, bent branch. What she was doing was already starting to feel ritual-like. She’d been doing it for weeks now, once every day. She rubbed the cream into her skin the same way each time, beginning at her feet, working up her legs and body. Right now she was smearing the stuff over her firm, flat midriff. Once it was applied, she no longer felt it. It didn’t dry stiffly on her, even though she coated every inch of herself.
Her special ally had supplied her with this paste. It had taken years—hell, decades
—to finally find something that worked. Vasha wasn’t tapped in to human culture, to their advances in science and medicine and all the other technology they were so pathetically proud of. But she understood that there was a general advancement among the creatures. They made new things, usually useless things. She had watched them build industries and raise nations and overpopulate the Earth like they wanted to deliberately destroy it.
None of those achievements had ever helped Vasha. The humans were weak. They were, in a sense her prey, though she didn’t hunt them for food.
To the human race she was only a fable, a legend. Being a fable kept her safe, she thought. Only crazy people hunted after legends, and they never had any real resources.
One day though, the truth would come out. It was inevitable, a direct result of the campaign Vasha herself was waging. She meant to change the humans, to convert them one by one, to build an army of her own kind. It was a huge ambition for someone who had started out so humbly. But the Beast had changed her. She wasn’t who she’d once been.
* * * *
“Vasha” was her true name. A name rich with the flavor of the maternal continent, Africa, it had been given to her by her mother. She liked its sound. Unlike so many others born into slavery, she hadn’t been given a false name, hadn’t had to accept one of the careless, thoughtless names given out by the ghost-men. She’d been born Vasha long ago. She remained Vasha to this day.
They had never gotten their chains on her. She had never felt the ghost-men’s iron. Neither had their whips ever kissed her back. She was proud of this. She had escaped when she was a girl, a child too young even for the most perverted of the ghost-men. She had gotten away before any of them had felt the urge to touch her.
It was the adolescent son of one of the ghost-men, she later learned, who had delivered her from those shacks and fields and all the pained faces of the slaves who had surrounded her since she was an infant. That male offspring of the ghost-men—barely more than a boy himself, really—was responsible for her birth. Some half-buried conscience had forced him to arrange at great cost and personal danger to have Vasha taken away. So she had escaped the hopeless life she’d been born into.
Well over a decade of turmoil and adventure had followed. She’d still had a child’s mind, and her memories of that period of her life were murky. How untamed the American landscape had been back then. The people taking care of her kept taking her west, but she’d had no concept of “west.” She remembered long empty prairies, bone-chilling nights, shadows dancing around the campfires. She remembered the people she traveled with. None of them was her mother, and Vasha had wondered why the woman wasn’t there.
She had no sense of a destination, though the adults—who were both like and unlike the ghost-men of her childhood—often talked about a purpose, a plan. A place to go? Vasha didn’t know. This
had seemed like a place to her, the wagons, the horses, this company that had taken her to their bosom. She liked these people. They were rough but not cruel. They laughed and sometimes even sang. No one beat her. No one tried to put chains on her.
But eventually, after months—years, more likely—they did reach some place.
That, or the caravan had simply broken up. She wasn’t sure. Still, she had arrived. What followed was a time of hard labor. She remembered scrubbing floors, chopping wood, feeding pigs. But she knew somehow that this was her job, that it was employment, that she wasn’t working just because someone had told her to. She was paid coins—or rather, the woman who had stayed on from the wagons as her guardian collected those coins. Vasha was no longer a child by now.
She never went seriously hungry. She slept in a bed inside a tiny house with the woman whose name was Rebecca. Rebecca was much older. She had wispy little whiskers growing from the tip of her chin and hair that was straight and brittle unlike Vasha’s own tightly coiled dark hair. Vasha worked, and Rebecca made certain she was fed and clothed and warm. Sometimes there were cruelties, though never from Rebecca. Vasha had sketchy memories of hands raised against her, insults snarled, boys chasing her and throwing rocks.
But it wasn’t like being under the whips of the ghost-men. She knew that much. She was not unhappy. It was a harsh but survivable life.
And one day it all changed.
There was fear where they lived. It was fear she remembered from the time of wagons and horses and traveling. The constant fear of what was outside the circle of the campfire. Mysteries and horrors seemed to wait out there. But there were concrete dangers too. As Vasha was different from the people around her, there were still others who were different from her. Those others were savages and cutthroats, and everybody had to watch out for them. Vasha had had to learn to fear these unseen strangers spoken of in stories, but she’d never quite gotten the knack of it. Her earliest memories were of menacing men, but these stories weren’t about them.
Rebecca had explained. “They devils. Evil like nothin’ you knowed, girl.” It wasn’t much of an explanation. Vasha had already known evil. So she was more curious than scared.
When the warriors swooped down on the place with their rifles and war cries, Vasha had hidden. She had burrowed into the mud and stayed there, with pigs squirming all around her. She never saw Rebecca alive again, nor most of those people she’d been surrounded by those past years.
Eventually she dug her way out of the mud, long after the screaming had stopped. A few fires were still burning. The place where she had lived was gone, more or less. Only smoking timbers remained of the tiny house she’d shared with Rebecca. Here and there somebody moaned. Vasha got water for some, blankets for others, whatever they asked for. She couldn’t however give any answers to their terrified questions. She didn’t know if the savages would come back. She couldn’t say if help would arrive for the wounded.
It was night. A fat, full moon, like the overfed colorless faces of the ghost-men, rose. It shone down on the destruction, on the dying as they slipped one by one into silence. It shone on Vasha who wandered around numbly, more stunned than horrified. Were those whooping red-faced warriors somehow in league with the ruthless ghost-men from so long ago? The outlandish idea felt more real every minute. Surely the ghost-men wanted her back, even after all this time. Would that mean though…that she would see her mother again?
But the great, bloody drama wasn’t yet done. At a deep hour of the night as Vasha sat on a charred barrel and plucked idly at a seam of her dress, she heard the song of the Beast.
She immediately looked up at the moon. The sound had seemed to come directly from there, from above. She expected to see the moon changed into a living face, one full of the animal fury she’d heard in that initial cry. But the moon was still the moon. Then a second howl came, closer than the first. She stood up, with the moans of the dying people all quiet now.
The Beast appeared.
How lovely, how lovely, she had thought. The folks from the wagons had often spoken of God, using glowing words that Vasha only half understood to talk about God’s actions and wisdom. It was like God was the exact opposite of the evil things they were all so afraid of. The strange thing about it though was that the people were afraid of God too. It was confusing.
In that first moment when she saw the Beast, however, Vasha decided that this
must be God. He certainly seemed to fit the description—glorious and menacing, exciting and scary.
She didn’t run, not even as the Beast paused to raise its snout and sniff the air. Somehow she knew when it had caught her scent. Or maybe it had had it all along. It moved toward her, its fur shining in the moon glow, a deep growl in its throat. It ignored the dead bodies. The last embers of the burnt buildings made its eyes gleam.
Vasha looked into those eyes. She didn’t flee. Not even when the Beast leapt suddenly into a charge, that growl turning into another songlike howl that shattered the night.
That was the night Vasha received her Bite.
Eric Del Carlo