The silver arrow whirred through the air, burying itself in the shadow as it jumped down. The vampire exploded, scorching the trees around us, and tossing Darrien from his horse. Bits of bone and brain rained down, painting the forest a sickly shade.
A decapitated head bounced off the ground, and rolled in Darrien’s lap. He scooped it up like a hot coal, and dumped it next to him. I fished a severed jaw from my collar, noting its fangs. “Definitely vampire problems.” I tossed it aside.
Darrien combed his moist curls with his fingers, and came away with a tangle of intestines. “Get it off, get it off!” he shrieked, swatting the gore from him.
“Be still.” I brushed it off best I could. “Another is lurking above.”
“Then what are you waiting for? Shoot him!” He scraped gray matter from his scalp.
I traced my bow over the trees, following the clatter of branches into the distance. “He is a threat no longer, but I fear the same cannot be said of you.” I turned my bow on him. “Is chance truly what brought us together this eve?”
“Are you suggesting that I had something to do with this?” Darrien squawked. “Why would I do such a thing?” A dismembered toe slid off the side of his head.
“Give me a reason why I should trust you.” I held firm.
Fear faded from Darrien’s eyes, replaced with the fire of contempt. “I know what this is about.” He stood. “You are no better than the thieves wandering these woods. If you intend to rob me, you will be disappointed, for this is all I have.” He pulled open his shirt and beckoned my arrow. “Be done with it already.”
I looked deep into his eyes. “Are you sure you don’t have anything to do with this?”
“No,” he replied.
His eyes were fierce, but did not betray him. “Of course not.” I lowered my bow. “We’d best be on our way.”
Darrien glared, and then mounted his steed. As he turned away, he stopped and circled around. “I appreciate the risk you are taking by coming here. You are the only one to answer our call, and for that, I am grateful. Please accept my apologies.”
“No need to apologize.” I put the bow aside.
“I fear Avarié will not know what to do with itself once you have left.”
“It is unwise to ponder a vampire hunter’s departure when he’s just arrived. Take me to the cemetery. We’ll inform our Mr. Thompson of our actions later.”
“Very well.” Darrien nodded graciously. “Tis not far. We’ll pass it on the way.” He urged his steed forward, careful not to roam too far.
“A graveyard in the woods? What an odd choice. Why not bury them in a churchyard? You do have a church, don’t you?”
“Of course,” Darrien chuckled. “It was the centerpiece of Avarié before tragedy struck, and many went wayward.” He recounted the town’s legend as we stalked the sinuous path through the woods.
A decade previous, Avarié had been wiped out by the plague. Free land lulled a bevy of eager souls until a second outbreak occurred. It was not until they uprooted the valley, and rebuilt Avarié farther downstream, that the townspeople found solace.
Despite its troubles, living in Avarié made good business sense. It was a tax haven, and the land was still arable. There hadn’t been an outbreak in years, and most of the offending structures had been torn down. The church that had been used to care for the sick was neatly tucked in the woods, and the infected had been burned, their ashes scattered over the forest.
“Most likely they are staging attacks from the chapel, and counting on the town’s reluctance to burn it down. But you must. They are using your faith against you.” I snapped off a branch and ignited it. “I assure you that it has lost its luster over the years. Take down the cross, burn the remnants to the ground, and mount it atop the structure of your choosing.”
Darrien shook his head. “Never would I do such a thing. I helped erect the first pillar; she is where I lived and worshiped.”
We got off our horses, and tied our reigns to the trees.
“I came here to become a priest, and I was for a time…before…I fell.” His eyes trailed off. “I met a woman. Oh, how she filled me! We tried to hide the affair, but with such a small town, it was only a matter of time before the others found out. I married the two of us here, in this chapel, on the very day that I renounced my vows.” He rubbed his hands together, the winter air finally piercing him.
“Ever disappointed my father was, even more so when I told him that I wanted to take up the life of the cross. I’d already slipped from his favor, and now I couldn’t even keep my word with God. What a failure I’d become.
“From his graciousness, a neighbor bestowed a small plot of land so that Larissa and I could begin anew. Father granted nothing, not even a grain of wheat. As I worked the land, I noticed odd things sprouting from it. Such a fool I was; I should have known that the plague would eventually find us, and take her from me.” He shook his head. “Here I cared for her, till her last breath, never earning a chance to redeem myself when the plague took my father shortly thereafter.”
Darrien turned. “So the church stays, as a testament to her, and until I can erect a new pillar in my life.”
“I am sorry, father. We all have a cross to bear.” I patted him on the shoulder, and extinguished the torch. “We’re men only once. How do you know it wasn’t God’s will that you love another?”
“Not with the things I’ve seen…and done…” He wiped the tears from his eyes.
“The final chapter of your life is not yet written. There’s much good you can do, lives you can save.” I handed him a shovel.
Darrien nodded and took it in his hands. “You expect me to dig?” He cracked a smile.
“We both shall.” I grabbed a second shovel.
“This is consecrated ground. Their souls are already with God.”
“I do not intend to disturb them, just assess their accommodations. If the disease reveals itself, then I may be able to offer a cure. Trust me, I shall not be long.”
“Very well.” Darrien genuflected once more. He walked to a gravestone, and brushed the leaves aside. “This is Mary Thompson’s grave. Her friend Edna is buried over there.” He gestured.
“Felled by the bite alone?” I asked.
“So they claim.” He pierced the ground with his shovel.
“How were they buried?”
“With their heads at their feet, as is custom. I assure you, Mr. Thompson had reservations about this. Sharp reservations. But it was the only way to be sure.” He tossed a shovelful of dirt over his shoulder.
“We can only hope that he followed his head, not his heart.” I stabbed the ground with my spade. We labored for a half hour, excavating rocks and moldering roots until our shovels bumped against the wooden planks. “A shallow grave.” I set the shovel down, and brushed off the lid as the church creaked in the distance.
“Do you always carry two shovels?” Darrien climbed out of the hole.
“Only when I do not wish to dig the graves myself.” I slid a three-barreled Flintlock from its holster. “Trust me, there have been many.”
I clenched my teeth, and tore the lid free. “Would you mind grabbing my lantern?”
Darrien fetched the lamp from my horse, and handed it down. I lit the fuse, and ran it over the empty void. “Looks like she didn’t get a proper burial after all, unless she fell through.” I poked a smaller hole with my pistol. “The infestation has already claimed one family, let’s pray there are not more.” I wiped my forehead with my sleeve.
“Thank you, Mr. Parker. You have uncovered the real plague that threatens Avarié,” Darrien whispered.
“That’s funny, I do not recall giving you my name.” I turned.
Darrien swung the shovel, striking me in the back of the head. He tossed it aside, and stood over me. “Consider it a revelation.”
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