© By Gary Morton (3,600 words)
This grim story flows out of chaos, swirling to earth with brisk winds and a rush of autumn leaves. Brush strokes of dark illusion painting reality.
Beauty is truth and invisible to mortals. We walk in dreams, failing to see that all is a graveyard - or that living beings are but the flowers of the dying day.
Brittle leaves are the scrolls in a tomb, a parchment of history unrolling, and I am a shadow walking the path, nodding at the urns and stones placed for each person.
Masks swirl, there is wickedness and joy and I have come again like Halloween, from places that are not too real.
My feet strike the wall hard and I begin to walk like the most surefooted person of all. The stone and mortar crumbles underfoot, a slate slab tumbles to the blighted foliage below and I leap to a firmer place. Drunken shouting echoes behind me in the East City and ignoring it I look to the west at the tumbled wreck of a city beyond the shivering trees.
Plague lands, the death miasma of ten thousand bodies drifts with the cold fog. A skull shatters to fire and ice in my mind. Leaping from the wall, my black robes flutter as I descend, then I am on hard earth again, walking down a road of the dead. Frozen rutted mud, hovels tilting and leaning amid the thorns and dead weeds. The taller buildings of the downtown looking like monstrous sarcophagi thrown up from the jaws of the plague demons.
Farther down the road, I see a skeleton and rags in a tree and a dry fountain full of cracked skulls and bones. The germ of the plague is the tiniest skull of all, yet it cannot pass through the eye of a needle and kill me -- I am neither mortal nor immortal. If I had kind feelings for men, I would weep forever. If I had no feelings at all I would vanish into the uncaring maw of death. So I walk and sometimes I feel for the lonely man fleeing the howling winds, wolves and war.
This time I think of the man who sent me and I have feelings of hatred for him. Lucifer, a sorcerer who cannot appreciate that God and the gods created men and then left the world for other places. Unable to appreciate the beauty of this, Lucifer must meddle with men everywhere, and I would have no party with him if I did not need some of his magic on certain occasions.
Cobweb moss hangs from dead branches, for a moment I have the feeling of being in Cajun country and not in England. But this is England and my quarry is a vampire living under bizarre circumstances. A vampire soon to die. A death forbidden by Lucifer, who wants all to live in suffering for abstract reasons I have never been able to grasp. So I am sent to save this thing that should be more than put to death. And it is a vile thought. The cold flash of my steel has always been mercy and the end of evil men who create the hordes of monsters and freakish things. Perhaps I am arrogant; perhaps this is a task that will make me humble.
Gnarled apple trees shiver behind a huge rusty gate. I can see the remains of a prison and the waves of deep brown grass lapping against it. Cold tingling touches my face, and a vision rises. The dead will speak, so I walk to the gate. A flash of silver from the dark folds of my robes and my sickle has shattered the lock. And I watch as the gate creaks open of its own accord.
Death is an end to guilt, and even the walls of prisons are stripped as clean as bones. But here something lingers, and it is faceless and black, trying to mask itself as specters and deformity. I know it is a lie as the grass swells to mounds. The shivering of the apple trees is more of the bluff. Then the bodies begin to rise and I am temporarily tricked.
Shaking off the frozen sod, these are hideous things, rags, frost, rotten flesh, bile and blood. Fangs in mouths frozen open and twisted, and eyes lit by some sick fire of vampiric disease and lust. The mist is like poison as it sheets across their faces of scabs and sores. Their bones audibly creak as they walk slowly toward me.
Hunting this vampire for Lucifer truly makes me humble, but not so humble that I can stand the insult of these wretches thinking me to be food. It is questionable as to whether they should feed or not. They are not alive and they are not dead. Neither are they ghosts or specters. They are a mistake created by Lucifer's chosen vampire, Jason Burch.
They encircle me and the knowledge comes clear. Jason Burch has found a way to feed off plague victims. Perhaps drinking their blood when they are close to death, and the abominations before me are the result. Some of them lacking even teeth, and threatening me like bloodsuckers with useless open mouths like frozen pits.
My anger is enough, my gloved hand sweeps the folds of my cloak left and a wave of liquid darkness is born. The creatures fly rag doll into the air, the trees and grass. Black smoke and loud sparks spit from their burning rags and flesh and their mouths open and howl, though they can't emit much sound. The effect is that the roar of wind seems to be born of them.
Pacing over the uneven sod and mounds, I reach the prison and a heavy metal door. It is locked and my eyes flash red, heating the metal to a temperature that cracks the stone at the hinges. A whirl of my cloak sends in a frozen fist of wind that rings the door like a church bell as it knocks it down. Then I am inside and pacing down a corridor strewn with implements of torture and the bones of the dead.
There is nothing on the ground floor and above, just empty cells, and my senses tell me that like Hades, the evil is below. The stairs are blocked, the elevator winch broken. As I force the door, I hear bats flutter up the shaft. Dropping down, I kick the bottom door loose. A screech of hinges then it falls with a huge crash.
A long stone corridor drips with stalactites of ice and slime; corpses mummified with dust and cobwebs are crumpled against the walls. My heels ring as I walk to the end, and at an arch to a larger room, I pause and raise a hand. Candles and torches ignite at the motion and I have a clearer vision of the room. It is wide, with a second level balcony, almost like a small theatre. Tokens of witchcraft and of Christ decorate it - this is an unholy temple, with an altar of dual abomination that even Lucifer would hate. A bright pentagram burns with phosphor in a mosaic floor and from higher up, a cross casts its shadow. The marble slab of sacrifice has both a Satanist's dagger and holy objects. Remains of the last victim rest on the altar, mummified in ash and cobwebs. Chest and heart have been torn open, almost as if Aztec priests had done the work. Jason Burch would be the priest.
In his absence, I decide to rule his church unholy and deserving of destruction -- my judgment final. A last look around, a row of skulls in the balcony seeming to be my audience, then my scythe becomes the stroke of midnight and an eclipse over both cross and pentagram. The air grows warped, a twisted mirror, stone and metal begin to melt and burn. Silver and gold filaments rise and crackle like fire as the floor softens to clay and shifts. It sinks slowly as the mouth of a pit swirls open.
Dashing down a shaking corridor, flames and gases igniting me like a flare, tumbling slabs engulfing me - I feel invigorated. I reach a blocked door as part of an explosive force shooting up the tunnel and get blown out as the earth splits.
The grounds are in a storm of smoke. Hot steel and stone pounds like evil bells as flames, dust and sparks roar from the prison windows. An apple tree crashes beside me and another is falling. A powerful leap and I get over the grounds to the top of the wall and there I wait for the quaking earth to settle.
The jail heaves like a slab in quicksand, then its centre roof collapses and huge smoke signals rise to a sky as flecked and scarred as the diseased city below. I have visions of a corpse coughing up soot.
The plague zombies appear again, walking in the rain of ash on the grounds. A ruling on their fate is required - heaven or seven shades of a rainbow of fire. Running along the wall, I throw a sickle blade up in the smoke. Thunder booms high above, and the soot becomes rain. Golden drops falling only on the grounds of the jail. Water that burns the unholy stone like powerful acid, but as it hits the unholy skeleton crew, the rot on their bones froths and the golden bubbles smooth to flesh.
Thunder booms a second time and I find myself staring down from the wall at a crowd of naked humans. Saying nothing, I raise my hand and point in the direction of the gate and the road. Then I grin as they begin to run. The grin because of the fear in the eyes of people who should be shouting for joy.
The vampire Jason Burch's mansion stands near the centre of town. The setting sun and winter cirrus clouds create a shell of red-gold behind it. I see the skeletons of birds matted into the high turret roofs -- as if the flocks had gone mad and blind and attacked. Many of the sooty windows are cracked and boarded and the south side is heavily damaged from the fire and stones launched in some military assault on the place. No doubt the vampire had been blamed for the plague itself and the hordes of the diseased had tried to end it by killing him.
A new arched bridge spans the gully and the front entrance looks heavily fortified with huge timbers barring a solid oak door. I look at black water trickling at the bottom of the gully and then up at the ashes blowing over from the remains of the jail. A heavy rain of the ash begins to tumble on the high chimneys -- my eyes grow transparent as I watch these flakes of death, and I vanish from the bridge as I enter the mansion with them.
The halls feel musty, and the atmosphere like the touch of an unclean hand. A sconce-lit stairway leads me down to the main rooms. I pause to look at a painting of the four horses of the apocalypse, and then I push aside some heavy tapestry and enter a room on the north side -- an armory, all manner of swords and instruments of death on the walls. The vampire, Jason Burch, is there, sitting in a huge throne-like chair with a sword on his lap. A fire blazes behind him; crossed battle-axes centered by a sword and bronze skull plate gleam above the mantle.
Crossing the marble floor, I greet him with a grin. "You will need more than a sword and fangs to escape from me."
Darkness hoods Jason Burch's face. He speaks slowly. "Am I so important that you come for me a day early?"
"You are so important that you are not even going to die."
"Lucifer has you as a slave, too?"
"I owe him a favour, that is all."
"He asks for favours that shouldn't granted. Look at the suffering horror he has made of me. Now he inflicts intolerable suffering before men leave earth. You shouldn't permit it?"
"You have done the same, but he shouldn't do it. I will have to consider that - you may be right."
"No matter - I became a vampire willingly. Sold him my soul as you would say. I wanted the beauty and power of the undead. Look at this body of pain, scabs and sores. He has not kept his promise. He has no claim on my soul. I will die to spite him. Tell him to restore my health and looks or I will die at dawn and cheat him."
"But how will you die? The plague has deformed you. It has not killed you as it did the rest. A vampire can't die by his own hand."
"Not by my hand, by holy hands. The pope has decreed it. A holy procession enters the dead city tomorrow and the archbishop will execute me using prayers and holy water. I arranged it myself and I know you can't stop it, Reaper. You can't interfere with the work of the Church, and neither can Lucifer in this instance or he would not have tried to meddle by sending you."
"I guess you have me, Jason Burch. I will wait and tomorrow I will watch. You have defied all of the higher powers, and you are a fool to want to die and speed their judgement upon you."
"Pain knows not what a fool is -- and revenge knows no master. In dying I will at least escape the suffering for a moment and will have the pleasure of having cheated Lucifer."
The dawn arrives like another a shade of night. Cold light salts the sky and is enough to light the frosty road. Bones glisten in the heaps of deadwood and dirty ice gleams on the rooftops. Hungry crows flying above the city gate are an omen of the coming procession. Standing on a high ledge waiting, I view a portion of the road narrowed by mold-eaten stone walls. Above, the light seems brief, and the sky darkening as though a saint and not a devil were about to perish.
Specks of snow grow and shift, white robes appear. Apple-cheeked boys carry smoking silver at the head of the procession. They look startlingly out of place in the dead city and their presence alone does more to purify the land than any holy smoke can. These altar boys also serve to purify the train of priests behind them.
The holy men wear special robes of dark gray and heavy cloth, muffling all but their eyes. Their walk bent and tired and they seem to be pulling some great weight that is behind them on invisible strings. Seeing only their eyes, I see nothing but fear -- fear and then the archbishop's heavy carriage. One horse pulls it and I am sure they plan to put the horse to death at the gates when the procession returns.
The day looks set to go against Lucifer's will. The archbishop will walk into the mansion, sprinkle his holy water and hold his huge cross over the perishing vampire. Grinning, I imagine the anger on Lucifer's twisted features.
Leaping into the sky, I land on a high wall of the mansion. At my call, a blast of steaming heat blows in and sweeps the grime from an arched window. As I look down at Jason Burch, I hear bells tolling faintly in the distant living part of the city. Burch is in red and purple robes, his face visible in the open cowl. It is hideous, matted flesh and veins pulsing, hardened like a form of wood. He has taken off his gloves, revealing hands that are the same -- thick purple veins -- clawed appendages that could belong on some gnarled tree.
At the gate, the procession halts - the boys remain, fanning smoke, and the archbishop descends from his carriage. He is also covered in special robes, his face nearly a bandage. As he pulls it back, I study his stern hawkish features. His cold eyes rest at an evil slant - he strikes me as eviler than Jason Burch.
Choosing four of his best priests, the archbishop walks up to the entrance. Two burly priests remove the bars. The doors swing open slowly as they force the rusty hinges, and the air rushes out, causing the archbishop to stagger back, his nose and face twisting at the vile fumes.
He enters slowly, the priest on his right holding his staff and the priest on his left carrying an enormous cross. The vestibule leads to an open front room and near the far wall, Jason Burch sits by the fireplace on his makeshift throne. The room is nearly bare - blocks of cold stone, a coat of arms and crossed swords on the wall behind him. Jason Burch keeps this room bare for open combat. Today the fight is to be lost; his coffin sits off to his right as a symbol of his defeat by the church.
Jason rises and walks to the coffin, and then he turns to face the archbishop. "This will be quick, I hope? My soul cannot be saved, so do not waste time with prayers."
"Prayers were said all night at the abbey, and they are being said now. We did it this way to spare you the pain. But there is one other thing."
"What is it? Not more nonsense to delay this?"
"No. But I have to ask if you realize that this is not an execution. You will die because you are unholy. We are not putting you death."
"I am aware of that as I am aware that holy men always have ways of washing their hands when it comes to these affairs."
"Very well. You will now remove your robe and lay in the coffin. My priests and the cross will be at the side to hold you down. After the bathing begins you will no longer be able to fight."
"Good," said Jason Burch, removing his robe and handing it to a priest. "Let us end this."
As Jason eases himself onto his back, the priest to his right places the staff across his chest to hold him should he try to rise. Another priest moves up with the large cross, and seeing it Jason hisses mildly and closes his yellowing eyes.
Taking the largest gold vial from a silver tray of vials, the archbishop prepares to dispense the holy water. Crossing himself, he opens it, and to begin, tosses a small drop on Jason's legs. There is an immediate hiss and reaction. A puff of blue smoke rises. Satisfied, the archbishop pours the whole the vial up and across to make a cross on the corpse.
The reaction comes instantly; a violent hiss, and cross of fire and smoke roaring with such fury that the archbishop and his priests choke as they stagger back. John Burch rises, the brilliant cross burning on his body. Red drops bead his face and they work to heal his flesh and shoot fire into his eyes. He turns his head away, pained by the light. But that is only momentary as a gust dims the room with eddies of smoke.
His hands burning, the priest drops the large cross and it falls and clangs on the hard floor. The staff-bearing priest regains his balance and strikes at the vampire, but Jason blocks the blow as he powers his way up. Fire, sparks and smoke fly from his palms as he throws the staff and the priest across the room. Then the archbishop stands up, holding his tiny neck cross to fend off the vampire.
John Burch is on him almost instantly, a swipe of his deformed hand tearing away the cross and much of the skin on the archbishop's neck. The holy man's gasp does not lead him to pause. He strikes again, this time tearing flesh.
A grotesque flap of flesh hanging, blood spurting onto his heavy robes, yet the archbishop somehow stands there for a moment, a ghastly grimace of horror carved into his aging face. Then he goes down and the vampire flies down to feed.
Sensing the time to be right I rap the glass hard. John Burch looks up, his face full of blood from the archbishop's torn neck and chest. Beyond the bloodlust in his eyes, there is fury. Jason Burch knows I placed drops of blood in the holy water.
And that is what I want him to know. I study him for a moment more, and then I leap into the depths of the sky and darkness, leaving Jason Burch to live on in certain agony. He had sold his soul for the beauty of the undead and now his face was more skull than mine. Lucifer hadn't broken his promise at all -- beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
------ The End -------