Thomas thanked God for his skill and begged forgiveness for what he knew he must do with it. He had volunteered, after all. Despite Church propaganda, he knew the war with the vampires was going poorly and he had given up his Parrish for this. He had no wish to fight, but he could and that is what it seemed that God needed of him.
“Ready,” he said, brown eyes fixed on the empty, stone chamber beyond the iron gate. Torches flickered uneven light across his strong face and his long frock coat stirred in the cool breeze that blew through the catacombs beneath the Vatican.
A gate at the back of the chamber opened and Thomas and three other young priests solemnly entered. Each wore crusader’s robes, more ceremonial now than anything, silver collars and red scarves. Each carried a silver crucifix dented and scarred with nine hundred years of these ceremonies. Each priest took up a position in a different quadrant of the chamber according to the crimson Roman numeral emblazoned on his robe. Thomas was number three.
Thomas looked at the mirrored wall on the other side of the room, but it did not reflect him because of the angle. It was more than a little unsettling to cast no reflection in a mirror. He could not see them, but he knew that four cardinals stood behind that wall of glass, prepared to give last rights in such an eventuality.
The gate at the back of the chamber closed.
Thomas had undergone rigorous spiritual as well as physical training. He had even been presented with the terrible things they might see in the field, the terrible things they might be forced to do.
This, however, was real.
The portcullis at the front of the chamber slid up into the stone ceiling. Beyond the doorway, only darkness lay.
The priests exchanged looks and then returned their gaze to the tunnel that led away from the chamber. The air in the passage, and in the chamber to a lesser degree, smelled like blood. No matter how often they scrubbed it, it always smelled like blood.
Adrenaline wearing off, one of the priests scratched the back of his calf with the tip of his shoe. Another priest wiped the sweat from his lip with the back of his hand. Thomas could see all their shoulders slump with the anticlimax of it all.
“God made me the same as you,” a voice said, slithering across the cold stone.
Priest I dropped his crucifix as he spun on his heel, running back to the gate by which he had entered this nightmare. Screaming by the time he got there, he tried to climb over the gate, but found himself unable to squeeze between the top of the gate and the stone archway.
Priest II turned around to see where his partner had gone and was the first to die, as the vampire’s claws tore the back of his head open. The vampire herself did not make an appearance until Priest II’s body had fallen to the floor. She materialized in the empty space behind him, a pale, dark-eyed nymph who seemed to move without touching the floor.
Priest IV backed calmly into a corner, bringing his crucifix up. He strode right up to the vampire and presented his crucifix to the beast. “In the name of God, I deny you,” the priest said, strictly textbook in both stance and delivery.
The vampire fell back at the sight of the cross, and something passed across the priest’s face.
Relief? Had his faith wavered?
The vampire had seen it, too.
Thomas fell between the priest and the vampire, backing the creature away with his cross. She chased easier prey.
The fleeing priest never turned around, so he never saw the vampire, who removed his spine with such surgical precision that Thomas doubted that he had even suffered.
The vampire turned her attention back to Thomas, backed into a corner and shielding himself and the other priest with the crucifix.
“Have you come to bless me father?” The vampire moved in, reached for the men, but reared away screaming, holding her smoking hand.
“I am not afraid of you,” Thomas said.
“Nor should you be. Are we not both but children of God?” The vampire glided rhythmically like a snake.
They had been trained for this. Evil talked. It told lies and truths and mixed the two together. Perhaps this thing had been a human being once, but no longer. Maybe it had been someone’s sister, someone’s daughter, but now it was just a murderous thing. Thomas’s job had always been to save souls, not to destroy monsters. He wondered for a moment who this girl might have been.
His cross lowered.
The vampire sprang at him.
The stake must always remain hidden, Thomas thought, drawing his from beneath his robe and driving it into the girl’s heart. He brought the silver cross up and hammered the stake in.
The vampire shrieked and fell to the ground.
The gate in the back of the chamber slid open and a five-man detachment of Vatican security soldiers rushed in. The silver crosses on their segmented black armor shined in the torchlight, as did their riot gear shields. Swinging heavy, silver-tipped truncheons, they beat the screaming vampire back to her hollow and the portcullis slid closed.
“Bless you,” Priest IV said, stepping out of the corner, straightening his robe.
The Captain of the Guards raised a nine-millimeter and shot the priest dead. Vampirism was believed to contaminate the faithless.
One of the cleaners held a trash bag open while another one struggled to place the spinal column into it.
Thomas took several deep breaths through his nose. He tried to swallow.
He watched the cleaners remove the three dead priests. They would have to be decapitated, staked through the hearts, mouths stuffed with garlic, buried under flowing water, the whole process.
Angered, Thomas wondered how long it had been since the Archbishop and Cardinals had left the guarded walls of the Vatican.
God made me the same as you.
Thomas left the room. There were still prayers to be said and condolence letters to be written, though he wondered if anyone would even be alive to read them.
© Gary Buettner
Gary Buettner lives in Indiana with his family. His work will soon appear in the anthologies Rotting Tales and Gone With The Dirt: Undead Dixie both from Pill Hill Press.
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