It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. Nina and I were vampire hunters, and we had hurt the vampire Namer, or at least frightened him. He wasn’t supposed to be able to come out before total dark, or outsmart us so easily.
But he had.
Namer held Nina the way a man would hold a hostage, like a shield, her throat bared to his fangs. The usually formidable Nina was as helpless as a kitten in his hands.
With dreamlike horror I realized how easily he had lured us here. I had known all along that it was too easy, too contrived, but I had ignored my instincts, had wanted Nina to look at me again the way she did when I thought I had defeated him before.
But I had been taught to deal with my fear.
“Let her go, Namer,” I said, my voice sounding faraway and strange in my ears. I looked for the crucifix around Nina’s neck, didn’t see it. It wouldn’t be totally dark for some time yet, and I didn’t think that he had his full power until it was. Sunlight would kill him, so even indirect light should weaken him.
“I don’t think so, my son,” he said smugly.
“One bite from me and she joins my legions.”
“And I will kill you,” I said, looking into the mesmerizing infinity of his eyes, unafraid now. “So what do you have to gain?”
Or was death what he wished to gain? Did my father still lurk somewhere deep within that animalistic brain, like a child in a deep well?
I felt the pull of his eyes, the ancient hunger they conjured in me. But Nina was a greater hunger, and I knew that I wanted to be with her forever, alive or undead.
“Do you dare bargain with me?” he said, almost losing his composure for a moment. “Do you really pretend to think that you can kill me?”
He sounded incredulous.
“I think NOTHING!” I snapped at him, my voice rising in the gathering shadows. “I know it, and if you have any sense, you know it too.”
The crucifix wasn’t around Nina’s neck, but I knew where it was. She’d grabbed it just before he’d taken her, so it had to be in her hand. I risked a hurried glance and saw the chain leaking from her fist. It had been useless against Namer before, but I had an idea that it might not be as totally useless as he thought.
For I really was a vampire killer, and knew things Namer didn’t. Another of those suppressed memories was filling my head:
The Minister came in the pearly dawn, at first as indistinct as a wraith, but solidifying with each bold step he took through the rags of fog that spring morning. The shrill of the frogs was a constant ringing in my ears, and the warm air was a close shelter around me after the chill terrors of winter. The animal that had once been my father slept the sleep of the sated beast now, and I was released from his evil clutches. He always left me bewildered and in a strange fugue, as if my mind were constantly fighting its way through thick cold mud. It was a numb, stupid kind of existence, ever since the day I had come home and found that my father had become one of the undead.
The Minister approached me where I sat in
the dooryard. “You are Talon.” It was more statement than question. “I have
come for you.”
He bent over me and put his first two fingers under my chin. He tilted my face up toward his and I looked into his piercing blue eyes, the eyes of a Siberian snow tiger. His strong fingers gently rocked my head back and forth as he examined my neck, which was still flawless.
“Remarkable!” he said, more to himself than to me. “Or should I say ‘Hallelujah.’ ”
He straightened and looked around at the house looming in the foggy morning. “Where is the abomination?”
I said nothing, just stood there looking up at him as I might look at Mt. Rushmore. He seemed at that moment as formidable as a mountain, but he was nothing against my father.
He strode for the house, his eyes darting back and forth, and unflinchingly climbed the front porch steps.
I finally found my voice. “Wait, mister,” I said, starting after him. “You don’t want to go in there.”
He turned to look at me, seemed to consider my words. “Oh?” he said at last.
I shook my head, my eyes wide, my mind a river of conflicting emotions.
“Perhaps you’re right,” he said. “After all, you are my first priority.”
He started to come down the steps, but then squared his shoulders and said, “Come. Show me where he sleeps.”
Dread filled me. I wasn’t sure where Namer slept, although I had my suspicions. And if I was correct, it would be a difficult place to get to, far back in the crawl space above the attic, where I had often hidden to listen to the rain on the roof just above my head. It was close and claustrophobic in there, and the thought of creeping across the rafters in the darkness, with him waiting…
I shook my head again, uncertain of whom I was trying to protect, this man who had dared to come and temp my father’s wrath, or my father, for I was beginning to suspect that there was more to the Minister than met the eye. I knew that vampires were supposed to be vulnerable while they slept, and that they could be killed, but that knowledge was robbed of its power now that I had actually been face to face with such a horror. He was my father, and often assured me that he meant me no harm, but when he took me on flights through the dark sky, when he hunted, when he terrorized, when he killed and drank and committed others to his dark plight--then I wondered: How could anyone willingly stand against such a monstrosity?
The vampire was amazingly quick. Where he came from or why he dared to come out in the morning light I didn’t then know, but come out he did. One moment the Minister was standing there on the front porch, wreathed in wisps of fog, his head turned to one side, considering, and the next moment he had a dark shadow as something rose up behind him.
It wasn’t my father, but no doubt my father had sent him.
My eyes widened. I opened my mouth to warn the Minister, but he turned, seemingly unconcerned, and faced the vampire, which had for some inexplicable reason stopped instead of attacking. Perhaps it was the light, or perhaps it was the lack of fear on the Minister’s part.
Or maybe he realized, too late, that he was doomed.
Either way, the vampire stood there, uncertain, and that was his undoing.
“Dehab kiy shem Yahoshua ben Yehoveh aniy tsavah attah giyach muwth,” the Minister said, his voice calm and unafraid. The Hebrew words sounded strange and magical in my ears; not knowing what they were at the time, I thought them some Druid incantation.
The vampire shivered as though in the grip of a high fever. He hugged himself and began to keen, a high, coyote-like sound that made my ears cringe. Then, to my amazement, he began to shrivel as smoke rose from his clothing. The keening rose to a shriek as the vampire’s skin and clothing began to turn a smoldering black, like paper in fire. In a matter of moments he was a smoking husk, a twisting, tortured manshape. Horrified, I watched, unable to look away, as the death cries faded and the vampire collapsed onto the ancient planks of the porch.
The Minister nodded, as if the whole thing was no more than he had expected, and then turned to me.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
The kindness in his voice made tears well up in my eyes as I nodded.
He must have seen a different answer in my eyes; he came down the steps and knelt before me. Taking my arms, he pulled me to him and hugged me close. I felt the loving concern and smelled his cologne, Old Spice, as the months of stress melted away and relief filled me with tears. Unable to help myself, I clung tightly to him and wept on his shoulder as he assured me in a calm, caring voice that all would be well. The fog whirled and eddied around us, the only colored objects in that vast sea of gray. Time stood still, meant nothing.
Finally, the Minister straightened and looked down kindly at me. “I have work to do. I must bury the body. Do you want to help?”
I wiped my runny nose and nodded at him, seeing through the prisms of tears a new hope.
“My car is down the road a bit,” he said. “I have everything we need to dispose of this…thing properly.
“Come along. You don’t have to ever stay here alone again.”
“Are you a preacher?” I asked him as we strode down the driveway and out the road.
He smiled. “Sometimes. Mostly I think of myself as a minister. Lights don’t talk, they just shine.”
In the cavernous trunk of his big black car he had a strange assortment of items: A large shopping bag filled with roses as red as blood, and wrapped in a blanket were wooden stakes sharpened to a keen point, a crucifix, odiferous garlands of garlic, a spade, and a sharp, double bladed ax with a red handle.
“We must chop off the head and stuff the mouth full of garlic,” he said thoughtfully, as if he were talking about the weather instead of an ancient, forgotten rite. “Ordinarily, we’d bury the body in a casket and fill the casket with roses, but we don’t have one, so we’ll have to improvise.”
I watched, fascinated at such lore, as he took out the ax and the spade and sat them aside. He handed me the box with the roses and draped the crucifix around my neck.
Shutting the trunk, he turned to me. “Are you ready for this?”
I nodded, wiping my face with my sleeve.
It was a gruesome task, but I had seen and heard much worse horrors lately. We dug a shallow grave just below the road that ran by the house, between it and the garden that was now fallow. And the whole time we worked the Minister talked to me.
“Vampirism, like lycanthropy, is as ancient as the earth itself, older than humanity. The earth is infested with evil spirits, son, but they are nothing to fear if you know how to combat them; most of them have power over you only if you allow them to. For the most part spirit beings are far too clever to make themselves known, but the stupider ones, relatively speaking, of course, are the ones who possess people. However, there are some that are very…sensual, who crave the things of the flesh. They are similar to the ones who in the antediluvian world procreated with human women and gave birth to giants. These are vampires. Vampires are very, very seductive creatures, regardless of gender, and when you look into their eyes you are looking into the spirit realm, which is mesmerizing. They do not simply possess, but rather kill the person, and then take the body. Thus they are called undead. It takes a very powerful demon to do this, that’s why one starts it and then it spreads, for there are many weaker ones eager to assume a human form that cannot, without help from the master. They are shape shifters, even when in the dead body, and can assume the form of a wolf, or a crow. They cannot be killed, only driven from the body, and we bury the bodies thus to prevent the demon’s return. This one is a relatively weak vampire, newly empowered with a body, and unable to stand against the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ. But the one who is in your father‘s body--it will take much more to drive him out.
“We will have to put a stake through his heart if we are to destroy him.”
Finding rocks to pile over the body was no problem in such rocky country, and by the time we’d tamped the dirt back over the grave the sun was tattering the fog, breaking through like a revelation.
Afterwards, to my chagrin, the Minister wanted to go after my father, and I didn’t try to dissuade him. I stayed so close to him that at times I was certain he would push me away, tell me to stop smothering him, as mothers in that part of the country do when children hang too tightly to their apron strings, but he didn’t, and I think that was when I began to love the Minister.
We searched the house from basement to attic, but found neither my father nor any of his minions. I suspected, though I kept it to myself, that he had sent the vampire out as a sacrifice while he escaped under cover of the fog, while he still had enough protection from the sun to do so. Namer was no fool; he must have sensed that a mortal enemy had shown up.
Where had he gone? I didn’t know, although I had my theories, which I kept to myself.
The sun rode high in the sky when we left the house in Dark Hollow.
As we drove the sun drenched little country road, the Minister said, “God has set you aside for a special purpose, son. That is why Namer fears you; he cannot harm you. Make no mistake, Talon, your father is dead, and the only reason Namer lets you live is because he has no choice; he has no power over you. If he did, you would have been one of them right away. They are completely merciless, with no humanity whatsoever.”
“What purpose?” I asked, frightened and intrigued at the same time.
He looked at me thoughtfully. “It has been passed down, from generation to generation, since time out of mind, the art of vampire hunting and killing. The Most High sets someone aside for the task, and I am the latest. You seem to be the next. So I will train you, if you so desire.”
I could only stare at him, wide eyed.
“You think it over, son. Take your time, and let me know when you’re ready.”
The Minister took me into his home. He lived nearly fifty miles away from that dark and bloody place, and he taught me many things about love and faith and what he called The Way.
And he taught me how to kill vampires, though we never found Namer.
Little by little the awful memories of Dark Hollow faded.
And with it faded the memory of what I was taught, while I drifted like smoke through the years.
But those memories were returning now.
I smiled at Namer, feeling the power I now knew I possessed. Namer didn’t like that smile; his own smile faltered. He hissed and lowered his fangs closer to Nina’s precious neck.
“Don’t do it, my son, or she is dead,” he promised, but there was a whiny quality to his voice now. The shadows were drawing closer, bolder, advancing from the forest into the yard. A sudden breeze stirred autumn leaves about, and I smelled the death of summer like lost love.
“You are not my father,” I said, still smiling at him. Nina seemed to find assurance in my confidence; she was less frightened now, more eager to fight back. The crucifix was gripped tightly in her fist, as though she were ready to stab Namer with it.
I warned her with a look. I held Namer with my eyes, as he had so many others over the years, and didn’t want her disrupting the slight edge I had over him.
“My father is dead,” I continued, staring him down. “And he has been dead for a long time.”
I recalled the last words of the Minister to me: May the Eternal smile on you and bless you.
“Dehab kiy shem Yahoshua ben Yehovah aniy tsavah attah giyach shemittah ushsharna,” I intoned, my voice deepening with power, full of faith. Not even the Sacred Names would kill this one, but we would deal with him later; right now Nina was my first priority.
Namer’s reaction was immediate and amazing. He seemed to recoil from Nina, so abruptly that she fell to the porch before she could catch her balance, and there was no longer any semblance to my father as Namer’s eyes glowed with an insane fire, as if they had captured the sunset for a moment. He was no longer a man; now he was a caricature cut from black cloth, which unraveled into threads of smoke and vanished into the gloaming.
Nina was on her feet in a flash, eyes wide and darting about, her gun out. I guess it was habit. Seeing no immediate sign of danger, she hurried to me and I took her in my arms, feeling her heart beating against mine. I buried my face in her dark hair and let out a shaky breath. While facing the vampire I had been full of faith and courage; now, however, I shivered at the thought of how close I had come to losing something that had inexplicably become more precious to me than life itself.
“You okay?” I asked, the scent of her hair finer than any perfume.
She nodded wordlessly against my cheek, the butt of her SIG Sauer .9 mm digging into my back. I held her for a long time while the shadows drew around us, embraced us, and the world slowly surrendered to the mystery of night.
“We have work to do,” I said finally, when I knew that I had to let her go or be swept away by passion. “We need to finish this.”
She drew back, holstered the gun, and looked at me, the crucifix still clenched in her fist. “I don’t get it, Talon. Why didn’t he…take me?”
She didn’t know the things that were coming back to me.
“Because he has no power over me, and he fears me,” I said slowly, looking around at the dark memories, not all of them bad. “The only way he’ll be safe from me is if I join him. Since he can’t kill me, he knows that the only way I would ever join him is willingly. He knew that if he killed you I would kill him. But if he could make me helpless with fear, and take you, then he knew I would join him.”
“To be with you,” I explained, seeing the question in her eyes.
She looked away, but her eyes were drawn back to mine. She knew what I was saying, but she wanted me to put it into words.
“Because I love you,” I said, and saw a light in her eyes. “Somehow, he must have known it even before I did, else why pick on your father?”
“I love you too,” she said, and then looked away, as if she didn’t want to admit that she, Nina Castle, technically my boss, could ever feel such a thing as love.
“What do we do now?” Her usual composure was back.
“Burn the house,” I said without hesitation. “Destroy his hiding places, one by one, until he has to find new ones. Sooner or later we will find him asleep and then…”
“I have matches in my pack,” she said, retrieving it from where it sat cloaked in shadows. She started to open it when I said,
At my tone she dropped the pack and looked up, eyes wide, gun out in one swift motion.
“They’re coming,” I said softly. “Stand behind me.”
“No,” she said, “beside you.”
She took her place there, gun brandished in a shooter’s stance.
What a woman.
They materialized out of the night, at least a dozen of them, coming from both sides of the house through the overgrown yard where I had once played, their passage a quiet whisper through the dead leaves. Pale, men- and women-like creatures with eyes as red as insanity, they looked like walking hillbilly cadavers, freshly risen from their graves by some terrible voodoo. They must have heard me talk of burning their lair. Or perhaps they were just awakened and hungry.
“Put the gun away,” I said, “and take out the crucifix.
“Have faith, my love.”
The shadows gathered around, dark coconspirators.
Nina put the gun away and raised the cross. I knew it to be a pagan symbol in use a thousand years before the birth of Christianity, but Nina didn’t know, and she was the one wielding it: If she believed it had power, then it did.
I spoke the ancient Hebrew incantation, my voice steady and just loud enough for them to hear. The darkness was nearly complete, neon lit by lightning bugs, but Nina and I were haloed by an eldritch glow of light as unnatural as those we withstood. That eerie light warbled and ebbed and flowed around us, seemed almost to sing with celestial joy.
Or perhaps it was just my imagination.
The vampires hesitated, wavered, and shied away from the light we radiated, for that light was rightness, a perfection that had nothing to do with us, but with something holy and good that we were merely the conduit for. Like cornered rats they swayed and hissed, and in the blink of an eye they were gone, tattering the night with the sound of a thousand flapping wings. The darkness shivered, as if in fright, the light dimmed, and an autumn wind rushed in to fill a sudden void.
Still holding the crucifix in front of her, Nina looked around in wonder, as if unable to believe what she had just witnessed. And who could blame her? The human mind isn’t wired to accept the things of fable.
But spend a night in the backwoods of Kentucky, and you will believe in vampires, in evil.
“We did it,” she said softly, her eyes large and childlike. She looked at me, and then at the cross in her hand, the way a convert might look at a newfound messiah.
“They’re really gone?”
“Yes,” I said, turning back to the business at hand. “But they’re stronger than I thought. That should have killed them. Or perhaps they have strength in numbers. Can you get those matches now?”
The ancient wood of the house blazed with an unholy fire that soon lit up the night like a funeral pyre. We stood back from its searing heat as the flames shot fireflies toward the stars, as if they were eager to join that distant brilliance. I stood emotionless and watched the fire consume my childhood home, until there was only a fiery framework left, and molten, infernal rooms where good and evil had once sown seeds of hope and destruction.
We stepped even farther back as the weakened structure collapsed in a great gout of flame and billowed dark smoke into the choking sky, where the stars had been eclipsed by a million fire-moths, which traced serpentine figures on the chalkboard of the night before vanishing without a trace. Soon only a cauldron of sullen red coals remained.
We turned away to allow our eyes to adjust to the darkness, for there were eyes watching us, whether imaginary or real we didn’t know.
But when dealing with vampires, one treated
the eyes as real.
“What now?” Nina asked as the conflagration slowly surrendered to the encroaching night, though its heat was still warm on our backs.
“We either camp here,” I said, “or we leave.”
“And go where?”
I thought about it. Town was a long ways off, too far to walk, and there were no habitations closer than two or three miles. And it was doubtful that they would welcome us in. The world was a different place than it used to be, a restless, stressful place.
I shrugged. “There are farms a couple miles or so from here. We could sleep in a barn.”
“And if the owner catches us?”
“We can always work it off, I suppose,” I replied, trying not to think about being in a hayloft with Nina, not when there were other things that needed my concentration. “You know, like Me And You And A Dog Named Boo.”
She seemed impressed. “You know that song?”
“Sure,” I said. “Lobo is a favorite of mine. The only thing I don’t like about him is that he didn’t do enough albums.”
She nodded. “You’re right. So, where do me and you and a dog named Boo go from here?”
With nothing better to suggest, I nodded toward the trees on the slope beyond the house. “Let’s camp in those trees. We’ll build a fire, have a bite to eat, and sleep under the stars.”
She nodded. “Okay. I’ll take first watch.”
I didn’t think we’d have anything to worry about; the vampires would be out feeding, searching for the blood they had an insatiable appetite for, but it was best not to take chances.
And so we picked a spot under a giant beech tree where once upon a time I had carved my name, and there in the leaf filled ravine we waited for the dawn to come.