There was a child, a girl, hung by her neck from a pole on the outskirts of town. The pole was tall, and from it flew a tattered, mustard-yellow cloth. The cloth signaled plague; the girl, the old man knew, signaled madness.
The road canted upward into the center of town and off toward the foothills and the gray, broken mountains beyond. Thus, the scene and the girl drew their attention upward, forcing the old man to lean back in the saddle. The stiffness of age made the Stalwart wince.
The Blade showed no such discomfort. Reaching from his horse to the bridle of the Stalwart’s mare, the younger man used his strength, quietly and surely, to settle both animals as they entered a place that smelled of death.
Between the Blade and the Stalwart, not a word passed as the streets leveled and the town closed in around them. Garbage lay in the road, a mix of tattered old plastics and rusted cans, of boxes and shattered bottles. It spread out from piles gathered high near the street corners, where rats could be seen, braving the daylight between one mound and the next.
Patches of ancient macadam showed here and there, interspersed with bunchgrass as they rode along a main street, flanked on either side by brick and stone walled buildings. Most were crumbling. Of those that retained glass in their sunken store fronts, the panes had grown age-hazed with the passage of time.
At first, only the hooves of the riders’ horses broke the silence. Yet soon, they heard men’s voices emanating loudly from one of the buildings up ahead. At the same time, along a street opposite, they saw a small boy and a young girl, she but a year or two his senior, pulling a cart.
As they approached, a body could be seen in the shallow transport, placed carefully and bundled in old quilts.
“Stop!” the Blade commanded, and the children obeyed. They reacted lethargically, dumbly, only staring as they awaited the consequence of this unexpected encounter. Dismounting, the young man strode without hesitation toward the bed of the cart.
From his position in the saddle, the Stalwart noted the grimace that passed across the features of his companion. “Vampire or plague?” he asked.
“Neither,” the answered the Blade, having pulled back the quilt. “This one died from an endless emptying of the bowels.”
“No medicine, no doctors. All this garbage. It’s to be expected.”
“One of the parents,” the Blade judged, his voice tense. “The other… already gone? Children left to deal with this alone! How could they even lift the body?”
“Difficulty can tap unexpected strengths,” said the Stalwart, “as well as bring out the worst in men.” He turned his horse toward the building of the loud voices.
“More wisdom of the ancients?”
“Ideas are not worthy simply because they are tenacious, young Thomas. Now, help these children with their dead, while I attend to the rabble. By the time you return, I may need your assistance.”
“Aye, old man. You may indeed.”
Leaving the Blade to his task, the Stalwart rode over to a cracked and bowed structure which, nonetheless, seemed lively within. After tying off his mount, he entered the dark, gaping interior, pushing back the folds of his great coat to reveal a somewhat oversized badge, the crest of which covered his heart.
Ahead, there were some twenty figures, hard men and disheveled women gathered in front of a bar. The smell of alcohol was heavy on the air. A pair of oil-burning lanterns provided modest illumination.
The old man stepped toward the group, killing their boisterous exchange with his presence and causing whispers at his approach.
Without directing a word his way, they made room for him at the bar, even clearing a rough old stool for him to sit. He produced a handful of darkened coins that chattered as they fell on the stained wood.
“Will that afford me a spot of the local courtesy?”
A young, wild-eyed creature with a shaved head poured him a drink. The old man’s eyes widened slightly as the bottle came into view, its amber liquid contained within a decorative glass of indubitably antique origins. He sighed as he reached for the shot.
In earlier days, the old man would have downed the prize in a single swallow, throwing it back at once, but the rigors of age had stiffened his spine. He sipped and waited. As expected, the headman of these survivors was soon at his side.
“The Protectorate sent you?” The man evidently saw a measure of humor in his own question. He was big and wide, wearing what would have passed for a business suit in another age, – a gray and egg spotted monstrosity covered in dirt and the smoke of uncounted funeral pyres.
“I don’t stand on ceremony. You may call me Rene. Excellent whisky by the way. I take it you’ve uncovered a depot nearby?”
“What we’ve found is no business of yours,” the suited man barked as if offended. He scowled at the bartender, then returned his attention to Rene. “If you’re here about the blood-sucker, you can turn tail and leave. We’ve taken care of it ourselves.”
“I see.” Rene sipped and considered. He turned and spoke so that all could hear. “Seems short-sighted. Hoarding spirits this good. You could use it for disinfectant. Even with the plague hot on them, there are towns where a mere portion of this could bring a good price. Medicine, clothes, and fuel, even seed for the fields we passed below.”
“Got no use for farmers,” said a teenager clad in leathers half a size too big. “Boss says the ‘demic hides in the dirt. Kicked ‘em all out.” His smile betrayed a deep satisfaction at the accomplishment.
“Caleb, shut up!” yelled the man in the suit.
“I see,” Rene answered. “Your boss must be a regular scientist. If you kicked out the farmers, exactly how do you people eat?”
“Well… that’s the thing,” Caleb explained, donning a contemptuous sneer, “we let the dirt-baggers keep their fields, as long as they bring us cans and stuff from the depot.”
“Hey, shit for brains, I told you to stop talking!” At the big man’s second volley, the young tough cowed. In no mood to have been upstaged, the big man now turned his wrath toward the Stalwart. “Old man, your welcome is running thin. Are you here for the vampire, or to lecture us on how to run our town?”
“Rene,” the old man insisted. “And you? Would you be the boss this boy spoke of?”
“Graydon. Everyone here knows me. And I asked you a question, old man.”
“The vampire,” Rene said simply. “Yes, that’s what brought me. Definitely. Word spreads, you know. Faster than contagion sometimes. Now, would someone care to explain the child’s body hanging from the plague pole at the edge of town?”
“A witch,” answered a crackling voice from within Graydon’s minions. Rene noted an old woman, her wrinkled skin unwashed for some time, retreating behind the shoulders of others even as she spoke the words.
“A witch?” Rene repeated, emphasizing his incredulity. He finished his drink and grimaced slightly. “Perhaps I should go.” He placed the empty shot glass upside down on the bar. “If you can protect yourselves so well from little girls, you don’t need me.”
“Look, Protectorate, you have no right!” The man named Graydon turned red, all but strangling on his own indignation. “That girl was found counting beads on a necklace and reciting curses in the devil’s tongue. She admitted her mother taught her the tricks!”
“I understand,” Renee said sadly, “more than you know.” He bowed his head, which always felt more comfortable these days. “And the vampire? There would be interest at the highest levels of the Protectorate in how you dealt with that. You must have a tale?”
Maneuvered into engaging with the stranger, Graydon told the story of the town’s history with authoritative clarity. The plague had been on them for years now, but they were holding their own. As with the world outside, it came in waves, often a generation apart. They farmed, hunted, and lived off the old depots when they could. This year it seemed, was the one the devil had chosen to claim them. More than half the town dead before the vampire came. Then the witch, only a week past.
When the last of the council died, Graydon had stepped into the breach. They were just making plans to take the next step when Rene arrived.
“You’ll forgive me,” said Rene. “I’m still unclear on the vampire. Was there a beast with fangs, or have you done in a dotard with bad teeth?”
Grunting angrily, the big man signaled one of his followers to bring out a lockbox from behind the bar.
“It’s like this, Mister Protectorate. We had a young couple, engaged and all. Well-liked. Tico and… her name was Becca. Day before the marriage, she caught the ‘demic and, not wanting to accept God’s judgment, the boy Tico took her to the salt cave for healing. But she wasn’t one of the lucky ones. She didn’t come back sound; she came back for his blood, and ours too!”
“Took her to the salt cave?” Rene asked, but all eyes were on the box and no one ventured a response.
Throwing back the lid of a box that may once have held currency, Graydon stepped aside and, with a flourish, encouraged Rene’s inspection. The bartender set one of the old lanterns close, bathing the presentation in a circle of yellow light.
Within rested what appeared to be a piece of badly butchered meat, bone protruding. Only as he bent closer did Rene recognize the shape of broken teeth, the conical certainty of a vampire’s fang. It appeared to be part of the maxilla.
“The well-liked young woman, I imagine,” Rene observed. “May I?” The Stalwart made a gesture indicating he wanted permission to lift the box. At a nod from Graydon, he did so.
Rene turned and walked slowly toward the exit, his attention focused on the unsavory contents of the box. No one tried to stop him, although several of Graydon’s henchmen followed closely.
As he approached the door, he found he could position the grisly trophy within a ray of sunlight that had forced its entrance through a crack in an otherwise opaque window pane. After a moment, the meat began to smoke. When he opened the door and stepped fully into the light, the grisly contents seemed to simmer like water on the boil. Finally, after a count of no more than twenty, it burst into flames.
Closing the lid, he quickly returned the smoldering box to the bar.
Raising his voice, Rene addressed all those present, excepting Graydon, whom he deliberately ignored.
“Not all vampires fear the sun, nor does all vampyr flesh burn beneath it,” he proclaimed. “What we are dealing with here is a Deceiver. An ancient spirit, it no doubt took the form of your Becca to deceive her beloved Tico. It would have beguiled and fed on you all, except for what must have been this young man’s bravery and perspicacity. You owe a debt to her beloved Tico.”
“We found him with his neck torn open,” said one of the unkempt women.
“She was on top of him, covered in his blood, drinking a stream of it like she had found a spring,” said Graydon, his tone alone casting doubt on Rene’s story.
“Then you fell upon her with hammer and axe, machete and scythe,” Rene postulated. “This was at night, in an alley perhaps, or someplace lovers might go in secret.”
“Yes,” someone whispered.
“What are you getting at, old man?” Graydon insisted, grabbing Rene’s arm meanly.
“You would never have survived her if your Tico had not found the chance to learn and speak her true name. That revealed her. Only then were you able to handle her, and only then was she cursed to burn in sunlight. Otherwise she could have walked among you, and all of you unknowing.”
“Never heard nothing like that!” Graydon spat. “The boy never said no secret name; never had the chance.” The big man closed his hand all the harder, but Rene was determined to show no discomfort, nor give the slightest satisfaction to the boss.
“Once the true name of a vampire is spoken, the sun will turn them to cinders,” Rene insisted. “I applaud you for keeping this trophy of your conquest.” He tapped the now quiescent box. “You have others, I’m sure. You seem the type.”
“Listen old man, you’re trying to make us think you know something,” Graydon snarled. “We can handle things ourselves around here. We don’t need the Protectorate, and we’re not paying for this visit, collecting taxes, or listening to any more nonsense. We know what we have to do!”
Rene’s impassive reaction in the face of Graydon’s bullying made the larger man all the angrier. He was about to manhandle the Stalwart out the door when a rather profound silence caught his attention. When Graydon looked up, he saw a crossbow pointed squarely at his chest.
Eyes gone cold, the big man stepped back, his hands raised in surrender.
“That’s better,” said the Blade from just inside the door.
“Welcome, Blade Thomas,” said Rene. “These are the good people of Sylvan Springs, if the placard behind the bar is to be believed. Did you accomplish your mission?”
“Yes, Stalwart Rene,” answered the Blade, “and just in time, it seems. I found a few good men in the fields south of town to help with the burning. The children will be taken in.”
“Good, good,” said Rene. He walked away from Graydon and the mob to take up position at his Blade’s side. The crossbow remained up and ready. “Now, would someone please explain to me the story of the salt cave?”
“You told them what?” asked Thomas, unbelievingly. He referred to the story of the Deceiver which Rene had explained to him over dinner. “That’s nonsense. Where did you even come up with a tale like that?”
They broke their day long fast that evening, camping at the edge of a potato field, where a nearby copse of trees provided firewood for the night. The meal, consisting of venison jerky, apples, and coffee, was taken slowly and interspersed with generous periods conversation.
“Truth is a seed for which the ground must be prepared,” Rene explained. “Where I could see the truth would not do, I needed a suitable deception. Pardon the pun. As to making it up, I have always been quicker in thought than on my feet.”
“You have told me ‘the truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.’”
“I believe you have that one right, Thomas! An ancient philosopher named Windstone, if it is given to me to recall. Anyway, we arrived none too soon. This place is about to destroy itself. Along with its humanity.”
“Anyone can see that,” Thomas chided his mentor. “Plague stresses the health system, then the civil order. Half the time you end up with bullies like Graydon making a worse mess of things.”
“Well this would be one of those times,” Rene said absently, withdrawing an age worn journal from his pack and angling it to catch the light of the fire. “What else?”
“Education breaks down,” the Blade continued his litany. “These people believe in witches and don’t understand disease. They think the plague lives in the dirt, so they kicked out the only people who know how to grow food. Don’t they remember how all this started?”
“No,” Rene answered pointedly. “Even if they did, the masses prefer simpler explanations. A thousand or two years ago, they had a dying called the Black Death. Knew for a fact it was God’s retribution for the sins of man. Tell the people of Sylvan Springs that the ‘demic is a weapon of war used more than a hundred years ago and they’ll laugh at you. Darn good weapon it was too… goes dormant, mutates, attacks different enzymatic gene expressions in each generation.”
“They live off canned fodder,” the Blade continued as if not listening at all. “They don’t bathe, and they let garbage pile up. If they don’t like soil, you’d think they would clean themselves! That was no doubt a cholera death we saw this morning. They’ll have an epidemic soon. It’s all madness!”
“Stop talking so fast,” Rene ordered. “It’s evening; now is the time for calm deliberation. Do you think you could solve all this by putting a bolt through Graydon’s heart?”
“I could try.”
“It may come to that,” Rene agreed, “but we must destroy the idea of Graydon, or another will take his place. I’m far more interested at the moment in this salt cave they spoke of. Were you able to learn any more in the town?”
Thomas expelled a breath of air as though defeated. “What’s left of this place is terrified of Graydon. They won’t talk much. The townsfolk have been taking their sick to the salt cave for many years. Not just for the plague.”
“A medical facility?” asked Rene. “Has anyone been healed of the plague?”
“So they say. They told me to talk to the farmers. Graydon won’t let the townsfolk take anyone to the cave anymore, not since that girl came back as a newly minted vampire.”
“Yes,” said Rene. “There’s something about that. Isn’t it customary for vampire whelps to stick close to their makers? Ah, here,” the old man pointed to a dog-eared page in the journal he had been scanning, “It’s all about dosage and timing. The venom of a rattlesnake can kill you or immunize you against snake bites.”
“Why are we talking about snakes?”
“We’re not. Young vampires burn in the sun because the infusion of blood necessary to turn them is too extreme. It takes many years, even centuries for vampires to bear the light at all. It follows that the vampire in the salt cave is too old and experienced to allow a newly blooded whelp to go hunting, alone. It has me puzzled.”
“Who said anything about a vampire at the salt cave?”
Rene closed his journal with a snap. “Thomas, of course Graydon was right about that, otherwise I would have had no need to cast doubt. Knowing the kind of man he is, we’ll have to get an early start. Are you ready for what comes next?”
“Yes, Stalwart Rene,” Thomas replied gravely and without pride. “I believe I am.”
Come morning, they purchased hay for their mounts and paid enough to engage the field worker they had come across in conversation. It was one of the men who had helped Thomas the previous day, and he appeared bright and well-muscled, cleaner and healthier than those Rene had seen around the bar.
“You’ve been to the salt cave?” Rene asked.
“I have,” the man answered. “My family took me. I was dying. I had the plague.”
Reaching gently, Rene took hold of the man’s arm and held it out, turning it in the rising sun. It was well-muscled and bronzed, though darker than he might have expected for such a high altitude.
“No light sensitivity at all? No marks on the neck.”
“What do you mean?” the farmer asked.
Rene nodded approvingly and released the strong man’s arm. “The work of a master, unlike any I’ve seen. What are you called, my son?”
“Ben… just Ben.”
“Ben, are there many who are sick in the cave? Thomas said you spoke of a caretaker, a woman?”
The field hand seemed reticent. He looked to the coins in his hand as though he thought better of the sale and would return them to the Stalwart. Suddenly, Rene realized his badge was showing.
“I fear,” said Rene, “that Graydon and his followers will burn out the cave and, if it is their pleasure, force any survivors to flee, beyond the mountains, never to return.”
“Those children,” the farmer looked to Thomas, “their mother is there. I have an aunt…” Concern stressed his features.
“Graydon told us the vampire bride came from the salt cave,” said Rene. “He believes one of the fanged creatures hides within; that possibly the woman who tends to the sick is herself a witch. Else how could she cure what God, blessed in his wisdom, has sent in judgment upon us all?”
“She is an angel,” the man replied, trembling. “From all the towns, families send their sick and their dying. Those who are not afraid of death. They come to die as much as to live.”
“What do you mean?” asked Thomas. “’To die as much as to live?’”
“The cave is a place of hope more than cures. The lady of the caves is known for curing some, but even more so for caring kindly. It is a place to die without being forsaken.”
“Or being told that God has forsaken you,” Rene ventured. “Of those who do survive, are all as well and strong as you?”
Holding out his hands, the farmer clasped his finger into powerful fists. “It’s the work that makes me strong.”
“Of course,” Rene agreed. “Now, can you tell me the woman’s name. Neither we nor the Protectorate wish her any ill.”
“Miriam,” answered the field hand, “she is called that. What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to ask you to be very brave, and to trust me with your life,” Rene answered. “Go now, as quickly as you can, and warn Miriam that we are coming, and that Graydon is coming too. Can you do that?”
“Yes.” The farmer’s breath was getting short, his uncertainty showing.
“Good,” said Rene, “that’s a good start, Ben. From there, it’s going to get dangerous.”
From a knoll above the cave, the Stalwart and the Blade watched for half a day. The cave itself was no hole in the rock, but a grand stone façade built into the hillside by a civilization that had thrived before the engineered cycles of death had been loosed upon the world.
At intervals through the morning, carts and wagons came, drawn by horses. Men in the back of some dumped clothes and food near the entrance and sped away. Others gentled sick relatives to the ground, but even these hurried off quickly thereafter. One mother stayed long enough to say a prayer over a small form swaddled in a carrier before returning to her carriage and never looking back.
Like lepers avoiding contact, the inhabitants of the cave exited only when the visitors had driven out of sight, collecting the sick and the dying, pulling in the supplies. They appeared to be from among the ill and the injured themselves: older women and young boys, some in bandages and others on canes. Once, they struggled to bring forth a body from the cave and carried it to a great pit west of the entrance, the edges of which had long ago been blackened by fire.
During one of these scenes, a hooded figure exited the cave to step among the helpers. She ministered to those among the newly arrived who seemed the most fragile, or the most frightened, holding their hands as her helpers transferred them onto frameworks of cloth stretched between poles and lifted them up.
“Miriam?” Thomas questioned. As he did so, he pointed first to the sun, which at that hour lay hidden behind an overcast sky and next to the trail leading up from Sylvan Springs. Along it came a troupe of marching rabble, pitchforks and torches in hand, scythes and hammers at the ready.
“Miriam? Yes, I think so,” answered Rene. “I didn’t see any sign of our Ben though, did you?”
“No, but we have the horses.”
“He had a running head start and half the day. A young man like that should have gotten here by now.”
At the head of the townsfolk, seated atop an old mare, rode Graydon, a few marks short of resplendent in his greasy suit. Bringing up the rear was a hand drawn cart, pushed and pulled by four men, containing what appeared to be a variety of bottles.
“The general has arrived,” Thomas said sarcastically. Reaching to the back of his saddle, he unhooked his crossbow. “What’s next?”
“Get down there, Thomas. Block them at the head of the road, before they can fan out. Don’t kill Graydon, I need him. Appeal to his self-conceits. Tell him I require his assistance in the cave, but that he and I alone are enough to face the danger. None of his people need be exposed to the plague inside. I can protect us both from the contagion long enough to route out the vampire. And if Miriam is a witch, we shall have her too. Can you remember all that?”
“Aye,” said Thomas, cocking his bow straight and evenly. “If he’ll listen to a third of it. And what if he’s smart enough to ask why you chose him over a Blade for such duty?”
“I suppose that’s a possibility, Thomas. Take him aside and tell him it’s important for his people to see his example. We’ll be counting on him to make all the difference in this region. Word of what he’s done here will spread well beyond Sylvan Springs.”
“Aye, Rene. I suppose it will. And if it proves Miriam does not honor that badge of yours?”
“Ride now, Thomas. You worry too much!”
Thomas spurred his mount into action, and a moment thereafter, so did Rene.
Down toward the cave, the Stalwart pressed his ride in a fashion that brought back memories of youth and reckless ventures into bandit territory. This time though, neither his horse nor his arthritic neck appreciated the gambit; still he arrived at the entrance to the salt cave well ahead of the slow-moving townsfolk, and Thomas arrived at the head of the townsfolk before they could clear the trees.
Rene found the door beneath the great stone arch unguarded, as the threat of plague provided its own certain barrier against intrusion. He walked in easily, without the need to say a word.
After negotiating a short tunnel in total darkness, Rene stepped out into a vast space. As his eyes worked to adapt, his ears informed him that he was surrounded. There were many people here, lying about him in niches filled with hay and covered with warm quilts. He could hear their breathing, and from the echoes of their coughs he gained a sense of the great space into which he had rushed.
Lanterns shown down from the walls and galleries like stars, and though there may have been a hundred or more, they were lost in the vastness like minor constellations. From everywhere came the smell of sickness and distress, covered by drifting wafts of incense. There was no panic.
Rene walked on, head bowed, trusting to his feet and listening for those who might oppose him. Finding at times that he must step around bodies, and once having his leg grabbed by an outstretched hand, the Stalwart soon realized the entrance was lost behind him.
It was then that a presence blocked his way, a sense of power he could neither see nor touch with outstretched hands, but which drew so close, it was as if the breath of another were on his lips.
“It is I,” said a commanding but feminine voice. “You are of the Protectorate? You wear the seal.”
“I am Rene Dalphonse. Do you know why I am here?”
“It was my error,” Miriam admitted. “There is no excuse.”
“Yet there is an explanation.” Rene insisted.
“She was too far gone, that one, but there was love. I tried beyond myself, at first to save, and then to bring her to my side. There is much to do here, and the help of another of my kind would have been welcome.”
“The young know only hunger,” Rene said sadly. “Her love conjured only appetite, and both lovers have fallen because of it.”
“A pity. As I said, it was not my intention. Before I could stop her, she killed two of my aids, then fled in darkness to the town. How much has she done?”
“Little. They found her with her lover and slew her. Unaccompanied, the young vampire cannot survive.”
“And of the old? How many of us remain?”
“Of those who see the need? Enough, perhaps. The west grows strong. Like the plagues of old, we are coming through it. A thousand or more years ago, the contagions beat us down, one century upon the next. Your kind helped us then. You are helping us now.”
“I’m not that old,” said Miriam, laughing faintly. “Yet I know the lesson. If I let the plague take you all, what then for dinner?”
“It’s more than that,” Rene assured her. “There is skill, measure, and deliberation in your work. Few are as skilled and discreet as you. Else the Protectorate would have been here long ago. How do you decide?”
“I decide. There are those whom my blood cannot heal. There are times when I am too worn to give. There are times when my hunger gives them peace.”
“And times when even mortal love clouds your judgment?”
“Let us return to the first, Rene Dalphonse, Stalwart of the Protectorate. Why are you here?”
Quickly, Rene outlined the approaching danger, and the plan he had prepared. So crafty in thought, it now seemed hinged on too many variables, any one of which could come undone.
“Did the man from the village, the one called Ben, did he make it here?”
“We would not be speaking otherwise.”
“Where is he?” asked the Stalwart, his voice betraying a sense of urgency.
“Safely bound. You understand, over the long years, I have learned the ancient proverb – to trust but verify.”
“Ah, that is a great one,” said Rene, “I must remember it. Miriam, we are going to need Ben’s help.”
Even as they spoke, in the darkness behind them the doors of the entrance way slammed open, and the light of a torch shouldered its way into the great cavern. The stiffness of age obliged Rene to turn fully for a better view, and he was relieved to see but a single torch, and behind it the bullish frame of the man in the gray suit.
“Now, I think,” Rene said. “Right now.”
“You will stand here, until they emerge,” Thomas ordered. Though it had proven impractical to keep Graydon’s people confined to the road leading up from Sylvan Springs, he had ridden ahead to guard the entrance to the salt cave. Maintaining his mounted position was risky. It gave him height and a commanding view but limited him to a single shot and the prospect of a clumsy reload on the move.
Several of Graydon’s men were happily preparing individual bottles from the wagonload of spirits to be used as fire bombs. Two burning torches were fixed into the ground and waiting.
“They’ve been in there long enough!” shouted the wild eyed one Thomas recognized as the bartender. “They could be dead already. We need to purify this place!”
“If you are prepared to die first, so be it!” proclaimed the Blade, steadying his mount and releasing the safety on his crossbow. He took aim.
It was then the doors to the salt cave opened, and Graydon reappeared. His gray suit bore new stains, like dark burns down his lapels. He seemed confused, stunned. His mouth was bloodied and worked strangely, though no words came forth at first.
Behind him, the farmer named Ben held tight to the boss’s shoulders, resolutely manhandling Graydon into the light.
Rene followed and Miriam with him. Her arms were bare, and her hood thrown back. The Stalwart was close enough to hear her grit her teeth.
“Can you bear it?” he whispered.
Recovering some sense of himself, Graydon loosed a terrifying wail from lungs filling with foreign blood. He wrenched around, dragging Ben with him as he stabbed an accusatory finger toward Miriam.
“She!” he screamed.
“She has named the Deceiver,” Rene projected with all the authority and theatrics he could muster. “This is not the Graydon you knew, not the man who led you. This is the Deceiver, taken your man’s shape and positioned himself to feed on you all, to feed on your blood and your fears, and to lead you into darkness!”
“No! Don’t listen,” Graydon commanded. Though he turned to them, pleading, his troops stood dumbfounded before the entrance to the salt cave. Thrashing from side to side, it was obvious the big man was stressing Ben’s strength, but the farmer held on admirably.
For his part, Rene was counting. When it seemed he must act, whether the ruse worked or not, he stood forward and leveled his right arm toward Graydon.
“Beelzebul, they call you!” Rene shouted. “An angel appeared to Miriam to warn her. Beelzebul!”
Now, it was apparent the flesh of Graydon’s face had begun to smolder. Feeling the source of his pain, the boss of Sylvan Springs looked up to see the sun appear fully between a brace of white clouds.
His cheeks were the first to catch fire. His hands were next to burst into flame.
“The Deceiver!” Rene continued, putting all the energy and emotion he could into the show. “He is the one who cursed your town, defiled the young bride and made of her a fanged predator. He caused you to hang that girl, innocent of all but knowing the prayers of her ancestors. Deceiver!”
Suddenly a flaming bottle crashed to the ground at Graydon’s feet.
At a signal from the Stalwart, Ben released his prisoner and retreated to Rene’s side. Another, well placed shot, shattered against the boss’s skull. The big man in the gray suit turned blindly as the flames engulfed him.
Thomas took aim and put a bolt cleanly through Graydon’s heart.
“Do you really think you should leave?” the Blade asked. He was on foot, near the edge of town. The old man was on his horse, near the plague pole. The mustard yellow cloth still flew, but the girl had been buried for some weeks now.
The streets were clean. The cache of alcohol was being used for disinfectant, and Graydon’s old gang were at work in the fields.
“It’s your town now, Thomas. Do the Protectorate proud.”
“What if I must lie, Rene? Like all that nonsense about deceivers and such.”
“It did its work,” Rene answered. “Would you rather tell them the truth about vampires being our only hope against a biological terror weapon? About how a measure of vampire blood can save some of them; enough perhaps for us to hang on until the plague burns itself out, a hundred years hence?”
“They would come by the thousands, Rene. Miram would be a prisoner or fugitive within a month.”
“So would they all. Don’t worry, Thomas, Mirian won’t make any more mistakes while these people live. Just do your job and protect her. Keep her secret for all our sakes. And if you feel yourself getting sick, go to the salt caves, or have Ben take you there.”
“Aye,” said Thomas, but the Blade seemed sad. “Any last words of wisdom, Rene? I’ll miss those.”
“I have a few stanzas,” Renee agreed, “that might do you well until we meet again:
‘From my grave to wander I am forced
Still to seek the God’s long sever’d link,
Still to love the bridegroom I have lost,
And the lifeblood of his heart to drink.’”
“Ah,” Thomas smiled, “it’s about the bride that came back to drink the blood of her husband.”
“No,” Rene assured him, “it’s about Miriam and her love of humanity. Serve her well, Thomas.”
As he rode away, Rene couldn’t help but look quickly back over his shoulder and wave to Thomas, one of the most promising young Blades he had ever known.
Note: The stanzas quoted by Rene at the end of the piece are from The Bride of Corinth by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1797. They are from a poem about a young woman who returns from the grave to seek her betrothed.