The following evening, I made as comfortable a bed as I could for my daughter out of blankets and pillows in a corner of the Marquis’ room and settled myself once again in my chair to now guard my two charges. I fell to thinking over the stratagems that I had laid out the whole of the day as I tried to shut out the din of the wind as it howled outside the single window of the chamber. It was evident what sort of blasphemous phantoms I had – for the Marquis de Conflans’ dubious sake – pitted myself against. These creatures were the Un-Dead and they maintained their deathless state through thirsting and feeding off of the blood of the living. The only way that such a one might be vanquished was if a sharpened stake is driven through his heart and the rites of the dead are spoken over him. It had been difficult to convince the reticent villagers to aid me in procuring such a stake and, taxed for time, I simply bought a bundle of wood from one of them and set about sharpening their ends myself.
The element that made my plan somewhat difficult to carry out was due in a large part to the cruelty of the Marquis. Because he had buried his unfortunate victims in unmarked, unconsecrated ground and because such a great length of time had passed since their deaths, it was impossible to find anyone who remembered where precisely they were buried. Thus, though it was the generally accepted custom to slay these re-animated spirits during the daylight hours when they were asleep, I realized that a new plan of attack would have to be drawn. The creatures, inhumanly strong though they were, had to be confronted at night for that was the only time in which they were even abroad. Fortunately, in spite the added dangers involved, I had something of a plan in mind.
Elaine was restless that night and rose out of bed frequently to stand at the window and gaze out upon the storm as it raged across the courtyard and the farmlands beyond. Then, complaining at the stuffiness of the room, she unlatched the shutters and opened the window, leaning her head out into the maelstrom of lightning and whipping rain.
It flashed within my mind that perhaps I ought to tell her to close the window – to tell her of what I had seen two nights before upon its glass panes. But even then I was older and feeble-minded and did not think to speak until it was too late. Two white arms like albino serpents came down from somewhere above the window and seized Elaine by the arms, lifting her as easily as though she were but a child and bearing her upwards before I had even time to spring to my feet and dash to the sill. Peering desperately through the wind, I could see nothing through the darkness but the tossing of branches and the clouds as they went livid with lightning.
Throwing on my cloak, I raced out of the Marquis’ room – down the spiral staircase – past the bewildered Jacques who uttered a startled “Monsieur!” – and finally out into the empty courtyard. I shouted Elaine’s name several times but received no answer and, sickened with fear, I ran across the lowered drawbridge into the fields beyond. Catching sight of a white figure lying some distance ahead at the edge of the forest, I ran forward until I reached its side. It was indeed Elaine and although she was wholly unconscious, she seemed to be unharmed. I lifted her in my arms and proceeded to return back towards the Chateau de Conflans; when we reached the gate, she suddenly awoke, clutching my arm as though affected by a sudden, agonized terror.
“Father, there is a tomb close to the edge of the forest – I saw it as she bore me up above the battlements. It is not their tomb but someone else’s – ”
I stared at her breathlessly, beginning to realize that for all of my preparations, a sinister trick had been played upon me and that I had catered to it in precisely the fashion that he had expected. Taking Elaine roughly by the shoulders, I said, “You say that she took you. Do you mean to tell me that Clotaire was not there?”
She shook her head, her visage one of deathly fear. Seizing her hand, the two of us hastened back into the chateau and reemerged in the Marquis’ chamber. The single candle within had been extinguished but a brief flash of lightning from outside revealed precisely what I had feared and expected. The Marquis was gone.
I caught up the holy instruments of defense that I had collected and gathered them into a satchel. I could not remember where I had put my stakes, but had no time to organize a search for them, deciding that I would have to make do with what I had. The main thing was to find the Marquis and return him to his chateau alive. Motioning for Elaine to follow, the two of us once again departed from that cramped little chamber, closing the door behind us. Though we did not realize it, it was the last time that we would ever enter that room again.
We passed out of the courtyard and once again into the farmland and forest outside of the chateau’s walls. The rain had died down and in its place a white, warm mist had blanched the landscape, impairing my sight considerably. I asked Elaine, however, if she remembered in which direction the tomb in the forest lay – the tomb which she had sighted when Katriane snatched her into the air in order to lure the two of us away from the Marquis. Elaine pointed towards the western edge of the forest and thither we went – I with my hand firmly clasped about my crucifix and prayer book. We soon entered into the deeper darkness of the forest, the rain dripping down upon us from the overhanging branches above. Then, ahead, rising before us like the brooding, uplifted bulk of some dark, shrubless mound, we saw the grey, granite walls of a small, chapel-like sepulcher. It was nearly as large as a goodly-sized stable and its iron-hinged door hung open. I saw by the inscriptions above the door that it was the mausoleum of the Conflans family – and I also saw by the flickering shadows that danced from within that there was a light that burned somewhere within.
Pressing the holy wafers into Elaine’s hand, I told her of what I had in mind and what I wished her to do if the worst occurred. Then, crossing myself and uttering a whispered prayer that no harm might come to Elaine if I myself proved weak, the two of us entered the Conflans crypt.
I expected the smell of ancient decay and corruption to meet us; instead, I smelled the bittersweet scent of incense, mingled with a sharper, more metallic scent that seemed familiar but which I could not quite place. Stepping forward past the rows of coffins that lay upon stone shelves and the flickering torches upon the walls, we at last reached the stone altar that stood at the far end of the mausoleum. Here, I supposed, the funeral services were held; and here, with two tall candles at his feet and at his head, lay the body of the Marquis, still and silent. And rising out of his chest like some monstrous growth and dabbled horribly with blood, I saw one of my stolen stakes driven deeply into his heart. Elaine turned away and I gazed on with a sickened amazement, the reality of my failed mission not yet having fully come over me yet. Then, as I raised my dazed eyes, I saw a cloaked figure standing within the shadows behind the altar and I knew when I met those dark, languishing eyes and saw that fatal wound upon his breast who indeed it was. I heard a sharp intake of breath from Elaine, but I kept my voice steady as I spoke: “It seems as though you have glutted yourself with vengeance, spirit. Why, I wonder, did you not glut yourself upon his blood as well, since you have such a taste for it?”
“Were I starving and all other mortal throats denied me,” Clotaire replied, his low, resonant voice reverberating within the sepulcher like the echoing voice of a stone lost within the depths of a cistern. “Were I enduring already the agonies of the damned and my very salvation depended upon it, I yet would not thirst for his blood. Think you that I, who suffered so greatly at his hands – I, who was cursed by his priest to this blasphemous existence – I, who was forced to draw upon the blood of my own Katriane and thus damn her to my side – think you that I would wish such a one to continue within this world as a marauding spirit thirsting for blood as well? Nay – far better, Sir de Vair, that I godspeed his way to Hell now rather than delay the inevitable and ruin other souls during the interim!”
“Why did you not draw upon my daughter’s blood when she was in your power the evening before?” I could not keep a slight tremor from my voice as I spoke, for I could not understand the motivations behind this mercifulness.
“Because you are a stranger here, Monsieur,” he replied with a certain warmth. “And a stranger whose occupation I respect greatly. I was once a knight as well – before I sickened and was forced to become a torturing instrument of the Marquis. I would no more force your daughter to become one of our kind than would I dishonor the daughter of a dear friend of mine. My spiritual contagion may only be caught if I draw upon the pulsing blood at my victim’s throat.” His watchful eyes wavering between Elaine and me, he continued, “Shall you depart from this place now?”
“Yes,” I replied. “Once I have released your soul from its dreadful state so that you may at last be at peace.”
“At peace,” he murmured in a hollow voice, his eyes lowering to the dead form upon the altar. “And are you so tender-hearted that you believe that once you have exorcised me, that I shall wend my way to the Fountain of Life where every tear is wiped away and night becomes a thing of naught?” The redolent irony within his voice deepened as he continued, “Or rather, do you not believe that I shall follow the soul of the Marquis de Conflans into the Outer Darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth? For I have sinned knowingly – I have shown myself merciless rather than merciful towards those who have treated me shamefully, renouncing our Savior’s example and thus renouncing all hope of Heaven. It is because my vengeance has not yet been sated that my soul is condemned to this state – it is not wholly the fault of the archbishop of Conflans. I pray, Monsieur, that you show pity and not consign my soul to the Lake of Fire so soon.”
I met his gentle, pleading gaze with one of stern resistance. “That is impossible, as you know. I cannot in good conscience allow you and your consort to remain, preying upon the living and swelling the ranks of your cursed kind.”
His gaze moved somewhere behind me and he murmured, “I do not see how you intend on preventing me, Monsieur.”
I turned and beheld a woman standing only a few feet away from me, her eyes two steady blue flames fixed upon my face and her loose, golden hair gleaming in the torchlight like a coronet of flames.
“You have been clever, Clotaire, but your desire for vengeance has caused you to blunder,” I said. “Elaine, catch hold of Katriane’s arm. Do not be afraid – you have the holy wafers. She can do you no harm.”
As Elaine did as I bade, I saw Clotaire start forward, his face full of an agonized fear. Swiftly, I moved forward to stand betwixt him and Elaine. In my hand, I held my crucifix aloft so that he might clearly see it. He stopped short instantly with a visage of such frozen dread that one would have thought that he was faced with the severed head of the Medusa.
“It is checkmate, then,” he murmured, his lips pale. “Sir de Vair! Of your kindness, I pray that you do not torture Katriane with these holy objects. I am yours entirely – what is it that you would have of me?”
“I believe that you know.” I gestured towards the altar. “I shall remove the Marquis – and once I have, I wish you to lie there in his place.”
Clotaire watched silently as I hauled the lich off of the stone altar and wrenched the stake out of his heart. Then, crucifix still in hand, I gestured for him to do as I had commanded. He complied with the same wordless resignation, though as he lay upon the altar before me, I heard Katriane utter a shaken, grief-stricken sigh that wrenched my very heart. “I beg you, Monsieur – ” she began, but with trembling fingers, I opened my prayer book and sought to drown her out with the beginning words of the last rites. As I prayed aloud, I fumbled in my pouch for my vial of blessed water and, wetting my fingers with it, I bathed Clotaire’s forehead and throat with it. His skin felt burningly hot to the touch and I noticed that his breathing had slowed and become less regular as well. After I had finished the prayer, I raised the stake and placed it above his breast. I felt him shudder beneath its weight and, unwillingly, I met his gaze. It was one of such transfixing despair that there was almost an element of serenity about it and, as before, I felt a foolish pity rise within me. As I drew out my hammer from my satchel and raised it above the stake, he spoke and his voice held such a gentle humility and concern that I could not help but know it to be unfeigned: “Sir de Vair, once you have done what you must here, depart from the environs of Conflans as soon as you are able – for it is not safe for you to remain.”
“I shall,” I replied and, moved more than I should have liked to admit, I pressed his white, fevered hand. “Do not be afraid. A repentant heart with a love for God need have nothing to fear at the judgement seat.”
“I have proven myself disobedient to the edicts of the God whom I have professed to love,” he replied steadily. “Vengeance is the Lord’s and yet I took it upon myself to carry out – and both Heaven and Hell know that I would do so again had I the chance. You are kind, Sir de Vair, but let us make no mistake about which realm it is to which you send me.”
I wrenched my eyes from that cursed gaze and raised my hammer to strike it home, intending to finish him with one swift, powerful stroke. At least, though I could not promise him salvation, I could ensure him a swift departure from this world…
To be continued…