While Lorelai’s guests wait on dinner, a grim reaper automaton emerges from the clockworks above the fireplace. With staccato movements, it smites the bell three times with a scythe.
No one pays attention. Lorelai frowns. She spent all year planning the décor, the food and entertainment, hoping to give herself and the others a memorable reprieve. No one had expected the decline to advance so fast.
Shadows from the candle-lit chandelier flicker across the slumped figures gathered around the mahogany banquet table. None look at each other.
The tolling foretells an afterlife filled with either comfort or torment. A human concept, and an attempt to cleverly foreshadow the evening’s program. It’s not working.
Expressions bored, the guests sip eggnog dusted with nutmeg.
It must be nice to believe in eternal life. She licks a spot of blood from the back of her hand while stealing glances at Alaric.
Alaric tilts his glass toward Lorelai. "Do I detect eggs from a Rat snake?"
She suppresses a shudder, smiles, and nods. "A pleasant change, I hope. Also, the last goat died before the summer solstice, but we’ve managed to collect sufficient pigeon milk. I’m not sure what we’ll do next year." She pauses. "If there is a next year."
When Lorelai’s guests depart this world, they’ll disintegrate into dust. Before, they could count on centuries, millennia if they were careful, to savour their existence. No longer.
The years following the collapse have been difficult. The scarcity of food is a big challenge, but the waiting is especially trying. Earth’s a wasteland.
For their kind, starvation is a horribly slow process. The mind goes long before the body.
The fire pops and crackles and the occasional ember skitters across the stone floor. Tinsel drips from the branches of a leafless tree languishing in the corner. The silver reflects the light of dozens of candles set around its base.
The heat from the flames is not welcome, but the last of their kind cling to tradition, to the façade of normality.
Alaric and his two remaining children were the last guests to arrive, and her first instinct was to kill them. Not very hospitable, but old feuds die hard.
Those three blood-bound sit together at the end of the long table and slightly apart from the other guests. They favour a look that fell out of fashion two centuries earlier. Hairless heads, sharpened front teeth, sweeping black capes with wide collars, and long, curling fingernails.
Clutching her pearls, Lorelai counts the occupied chairs as she creeps around the perimeter of the room. Eighteen.
Her turn as host of the annual Yuletide gathering wasn’t due for another seventy-six years, but these subterranean crypts are on her land within the far northern territory of the draculae. None will return home when the festivities are done. Thanks to the heat and storms, none have homes to return to.
Above the archway leading to a spiral staircase and the outside, the surviving vrykolakas have carved two words into the stone. Ultima Forsan—perhaps the last hour of life. Raging fires consumed their Mediterranean homeland, and their clan was the first to be driven from their lairs.
Creatures of the night, they ruled the shadows, feeding on the teeming life form that held domain during the day. Symbiotic with humans, or so they thought. They hadn’t paid close enough attention to what went on in the light.
She hooks her fingers over Alaric’s shoulder, bends and needlessly whispers in his ear, “I’m delighted you were able to join us.”
All eyes are now on Lorelai. She’s finally broken through their apathy. Perhaps they hope for a spectacle, but one does not murder invited guests.
She’s spoken to Alaric several times before this, essential interactions only. Gradually, her revulsion and disdain receded. At first, this filled her with dismay. It shouldn’t be so easy to move past centuries of hate and rivalry.
The eighteen guests represent the four remaining clans: draculae, strigoi, vrykolakas and now the nosferatu. One Yuletide past, they numbered thirty-four. Only a handful of years ago, in the hundreds. None of them require history books to recall when they were legion, with dozens of clans scattered across the world.
Alaric hoists his glass and raises his voice. "To a successful year!"
"To a successful year," the guests chant in dull unison. Many are still waking up.
Perhaps instead of declaring war, they should have listened to the nosferatu all those decades ago when they warned what the humans were inflicting on their shared environment, but there is nothing to be done for it now.
The past decades brought soaring temperatures and ecosystem collapses. The ancient families of the night moved into the deepest dungeons and subterranean crypts, but the midday heat followed them down, baking some in their lairs. Millions and then billions of humans perished, and the clans starved as the blood famine grew.
Lorelai reaches into an alcove and extracts a branch of fresh mistletoe. She holds it up and points to the bone-white berries. “Bloodless. A reflection of our lives, perhaps?” She curls her lips back to reveal teeth and chuckles.
A smattering of polite laughter.
Lorelai holds the mistletoe out to Alaric. “Your presence raises the stature of my house. Please, do us the honour of hanging the blood symbol.” She reaches into a deep pocket in her dark skirts and retrieves a burgundy velvet ribbon. “This will do nicely.”
Alaric stands and bows. He’s tall with a massive wingspan—the perfect choice for this ceremonial task.
The guests clap politely. It’s enough.
Lorelai nods in approval. Appearances and tradition are all that stand between these survivors and nihilism.
If only they had done things differently. They should have made themselves known, asserted their will, and involved themselves in human politics.
Unfortunately, they’d already tried this once, back in the latter part of the nineteenth century and it didn’t go well. As a result, most of them had no appetite for the drama and hysteria a twenty-first century intervention would have wrought.
Lorelai sighs. They should have done it anyway.
Her kind have always treated humans in a sustainable manner, but also took them for granted, assuming that vast resource would always be there.
The nosferatu tried to warn them…
Now it’s too late. The biggest losses are behind them. There’s nothing to look forward to except the end, and what small pleasures they can wring from the world in the meantime.
Lorelai's black-lacquered nails click as she snaps her fingers several times.
Pale servants drift in. One sets a copper braiser in the centre of the table. Another lowers a quivering globular sphere onto it. A third lights the fire beneath.
A warm meaty scent fills the room. The guests lean in, almost imperceptibly.
Lorelai bites her lip. She'd hoped for a better response, but this is just the appetizer. The main course is yet to arrive.
From his seat at the table, Alaric pats the empty chair beside him. As host, the correct response would be to ignore him. She’s already favoured him and it’s time to turn her attention to others.
She retracts her fangs. Tradition be damned. She accepts the offer and sits.
Chair legs screech across the floor. One of the women struggles to stand. She twitches and moans. “I’ll paint my dreams en plein air and watch the sunrise in the morning. I’ve always longed to—”
A low murmur, as several express an interest in joining her.
“Please,” Lorelai begs, scrambling to her feet again. “You'll miss the best part." She motions to the servants and hisses. "Hurry!"
Indifferent eyes glow in her direction; then they hear the wails. Anemic smiles crease eighteen faces.
Two ragged, skinny humans are dragged in. Neither is much of a specimen, but they're alive and that's what counts.
Her guests surge forward.
"Hold, hold," Lorelai lifts splayed hands. "The holidays are a chance to enjoy activities as a family. Let us relish this meal together."
Outside, it’s inky dark, but they can see.
Below the ancient monastery, mistletoe has overrun the trees and bushes along the river. The greenish-yellow clumps with their white berries have their own fatal beauty in this dying world. A parasite that kills its host slowly. Lorelai grimaces. They’re a mirror, of sorts, reflecting our essence.
By tradition, the eldest among the gathered clan members is granted the role of herder and the coveted first bite. Alaric.
The humans are released and allowed a head start.
Lorelai stays back. The fun is for her guests and custom demands they return with the prey largely intact for the communal feast.
She’s not suicidal; she visited the humans earlier. The memory warms her. Their terror, melting into trembling fear under her gaze, her touch. Helpless. Endearing even.
Over the centuries, she’s borne many dhampyrs with carefully chosen humans, selecting the most promising of the offspring to turn into her children. She killed the rest, but never ever fed off them.
She stares at the opaque sky. She used to love to star gaze, but ash now clouds the atmosphere.
Earlier, the two humans begged her to turn them. “It doesn’t work that way. Besides, nothing will save any of us now,” she crooned before sinking fangs deep into their still tender parts.
Lorelai smirks a little, as she savours the first far-off scream. Humans always hunted us mercilessly.
The entertainment’s over quickly. The humans are dragged into the clearing and the feasting takes place. A blood mist tints the air orange.
Servants carry out bowls of warm water, towels and fresh robes.
Lorelai reaches for Alaric's hand and leads him down the stairs, stopping beneath the bloodless mistletoe. This will be their first, and most likely their last, festive season together. They kiss. She licks him clean.
The grim reaper swings its scythe eleven times.
“Memento mori,” she murmurs. All things must die.
© 2023 KT Wagner