Part VI: Incense and Iron
I am so self-indulgently excited about this chapter. It is all of the tropes and weird shit that I love, thrown together because I can and no one is stopping me (for better or for worse. I should be stopped, honestly). It was so much fun to write and I am just so happy to reveal more about our kindly priest, Father Lazarus.
Everything is coming to a head for our vampire cowboys. An enemy is at their door and they'll need to pull out every stop to make it through the night. What tricks do they have up their sleeves?
I hope you're all doing well and having a wonderful spooky season. This is such a fitting chapter to drop right before Halloween! Please let me know if you like it! I am really, really excited to see how everyone reacts to this one. It's our longest chapter yet but I promise that it's completely worth it.
Incense and Iron
The trio watched as the coyotes coalesced and swarmed. They howled and yipped in discordant, unnatural timbres. Boucher grinned, almost as if she had canines to bare as well. Her horse looked shockingly blaise about everything, as if this had happened before and would probably happen again. Boucher raised her hand and struck the mission again with a blow like tossing a stick of TNT, trying to weaken whatever ward encircled the holy buildings.
“What do we do?” Leon asked, turning to his unlikely companions. Father Lazarus looked pained, as if every blow to the buildings was a blow to himself. He pressed a hand against his heart, grimacing.
Jack noticed the motion and frowned. “It ain’t gonna hold, is it.” he said flatly. He had been to the mission before, he knew what the ward was held together with. He also knew the priest would extinguish his own life to keep it safe.
“No.” Father Lazarus said, shaking his head. “I have no idea what she’s using but it’s so strong. Too strong. It’s meant to keep out thieves, not… whatever she is.” He shot an accusing look at Jack. “If you had told me, if you had been honest, I could have prepared.”
Jack held his hands up in surrender. “I didn’t know this would happen! I thought I had lost her.”
“I’m sorry, Father,” Leon sighed. “I should have said something. I didn’t mean to bring trouble to your door.”
The priest opened his mouth to reply but yelled in pain instead, knees buckling. Jack rushed to catch the slender man, holding him up gently. Father Lazarus turned a hateful eye back to the window. A crossbow bolt, shining like a falling star, hung trapped in the air right before the small adobe wall that surrounded the mission. It blazed a hungry, pulsing silver and the air around it sparked like flint against a stone.
Boucher laughed and notched another bolt into her crossbow.
“Clever!” she shouted. “But not clever enough!” She shot another bolt and it stuck in the air near it’s twin. Father Lazarus jerked as if he had been struck instead. The air crackled and whined, and between the two bolts something shimmered and snapped. The ward was weakening. The coyotes could sense it. They brayed at the change in the energy of the air, ears pricked forward, jaws snapping in excitement.
Leon reached into his holster and checked his pistol. He had a few bullets in the gun but not enough to hold off a horde of monsters. If he got lucky, maybe he could shoot her, but he would have to get to her first. It might be the last thing he ever did. Father Lazarus moaned in pain as another bolt hit his ward. Leon turned to the altar, crossed himself, and marched out of the room.
“Oh no you fucking don’t!” Jack shouted, grabbing him by the arm. “What the hell do you think you’re doing! That’s suicide! You Catholics with your weird lust for martyrdom!”
“Let me go, Jack! I’m the reason she’s here anyway! We gotta do something and I don’t see you having any bright ideas!”
Father Lazarus grabbed them both, shaking them apart. “Stop it! I know what I have to do. It’s a desperate measure, but the mission must be protected at all costs. It will fall over my dead body. It doesn’t matter why this is happening, only that she has to be stopped! We can all yell at each other like idiots later!”
“What are you going to do, Father?” Leon asked, unsure what the priest knew. Clearly he had some esoteric knowledge but he didn’t seem to be a hunter.
“You ain’t talkin about-” Jack was cut off by the priest shoving past them and making his way out of the chapel, his gait unsure and slowly, body still hunched in pain. Jack hurried after him, grabbing his arm to help him. Leon swore, shoved his pistol back in it’s holster, and ran after them as the building shuddered again from the onslaught.
Father Lazarus walked out into the hallway and opened a door next to the chapel. Jack had once walked through that door by mistake and ever since that day he had stayed far from it. He would never admit it but he felt queasy at the idea of going back down. Leon followed behind, dawn-tired limbs lightened by adrenaline. He was quickly realizing he had no idea how vampires worked. He had only been taught how to kill them, not what made them tick. Now he knew they had adrenaline and his entire body throbbed with it, pushing aside the sleepiness the encroaching sunlight brought. He felt dizzy with it, like his body had been sped up and the world slowed down.
The room next to the chapel was small and windowless, a glorified broom closet. In busier times it might have been used as a place for the priest to get ready before a service, to store all the items needed for a thriving church like robes and altar cloths. It was bare now apart from a small wooden chair in the corner. Father Lazarus knelt, hands finding a loose stone in the floor. Jack helped him move it, trying not to think of the day he had walked in and seen that open hatch, of what he had seen below. Never in a million years did he think he’d be going back down there.
Leon was astonished to see steep wooden stairs leading down into the gloom. A root cellar, perhaps? Basements were unheard of out here. Who would ever take the time to dig down into the hard, dry desert earth? Father Lazarus looked at his pair of vampires, his expression serious.
“Touch nothing. Do you understand?” he asked.
“Don’t have to tell me twice.” Jack said. Leon nodded, confused but cowed by the priest’s severe tone. Satisfied, Father Lazarus descended down into the darkness. The building shook again and they could hear a howl rise up from outside. The ward was weakening quickly. Jack groaned and hurried after the priest, Leon bringing up the rear.
The air was bone dry and still in the darkness. Leon couldn’t see an inch in front of his face, even with his new vampire sight, and kept a hand on Jack’s shoulder as they went down the steps. The air was heavy with incense and flowers, and something Leon couldn’t place, the smell foreign but not unpleasant. They stopped at the foot of the stairs and the hairs on the back of his neck went up even though he had no idea why. There was something in the dark, a looming presence he could feel but couldn’t see. Father Lazarus said a word in a tongue Leon didn’t understand and the room filled with light, lamps on the walls flickering to life. Jack made a little noise in the back of his throat and Leon suddenly understood why.
Skeletons were crammed into every part of the low-ceiling room. Skulls, grinning with the self-satisfied knowledge only given to the dead, were stacked in neat piles in alcoves in the walls. Long bones, femur and tibia and humerus, were arranged in their own strange geometry, dried flowers nestled around them. Pelvis bones and rib cages and spines hung from the ceiling like chandeliers.
The small room wasn’t a root cellar, it was an ossuary.
Leon gasped in horror, unable to believe his eyes. Father Lazarus walked into the room, hands solemnly running over skulls and femurs as he went, like a friend greeting someone they had not seen in awhile. Against one wall stood desiccated skeletons still clinging to shreds of their flesh. They wore habits similar to Father Lazarus’, their skulls bowed over hands that had been wired together in prayer or that held rosaries and smoking thuribles. The dry air of the underground space had mummified them, though whether on purpose or by accident Leon could not even begin to fathom.
“What-” Leon’s voice died in his throat. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the tableau before him.
“I come from a long line of sin eaters, spirit talkers, exorcists, and psychopomps.” Father Lazarus said, not looking back at the terrified vampires in his wake. He no longer stooped in pain. He had power here and it strengthened him. “When the Spanish came they feared our blood and what we could do. They slaughtered us. They killed the whole village. Women, children, the old and infirm. They burned our homes. They took our gods and replaced them with their own. But they didn’t kill all of us and old gods took on new jobs.”
The priest said another word, in a language older than conquistadors and lost to time. A final flame crackled to life, illuminating one final figure at the very back of the room. Leon wished that it was a statue, like the one above them in the chapel, but he knew it wasn’t. He knew it had to be real.
Like the Lady of Sorrows made of faded wood above them, this skeleton was draped in lush robes of bright reds and blues untouched by time. Seven beautiful gold swords pierced into the sacred spaces between it’s exposed ribs, bony hands covered in precious jewels and rings clutched at the hilt of one sword, the other extended out in entrity, as if inviting them closer. Large turquoise stones sat in the eye sockets, the skull covered in jewels and gold, topped with a shroud of lace and a crown. It grinned as if laughing at it’s misfortune, instead of the piety and pain of the other Mary. Every bone had been covered in gilt or gem. The wealth of an entire doomed village had gone into her creation.
Father Lazarus knelt before his skeletal Mary of Seven Sorrows, head bowed against her knee. Leon felt his skin crawling and couldn’t fight the feeling that he was being watched. No, not just watched. As if he was being examined, measured, weighed. Jack had gone still before him as well, not daring to move even a muscle.
“Dearest Holy Mother,” Father Lazarus prayed, “there is an enemy at our gates and I seek your aid.” Much to Leon’s ever growing horror, the skeleton saint’s hand moved. It turned almost elegantly and slowly ran it’s bony fingers through Lazarus’ dark curls, brushing against his cheek and cupping his chin. The movement was oddly maternal somehow. He raised his head to look at her, face alight with the devotion of one who had been touched by a god.
The skeleton did not speak, but it nodded approval. The hand gave their beloved, blessed acolyte a final pet before returning to its regular position. Father Lazarus stood slowly, reaching into a pocket and pulling out a small, slender glass vial. It was a delicate thing, with a gold motif of bones and flowers decorating it’s sides. Her skull dipped forward, almost mournfully, and the vampires watched as tears began to well up in it’s turquoise-decorated sockets and dripped down the bones of its face. Father Lazarus held the Lacrimosa bottle against an eye and caught the holy tears.
“Thank you, Holy Mother,” he said. The priest took a step back and bowed to her. The skeleton tilted it’s head back into place and continued smiling the inscrutable smile of the dead. He turned back to Jack and Leon, wryly amused by the twin looks of terror on their faces. It wasn’t every day you got to scare the daylights out of a vampire.
“So, uh, what’s that, padre?” Jack asked, trying to keep his voice normal as he gestured to the Lacrimosa bottle.
“Divine intervention.” Father Lazarus said. He raised the vial to them as if toasting to their good health before swallowing the tears of the dead god he had collected.
He shivered and closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them back up the chocolate brown of his irises had been replaced with a bright, sickly yellow. His smile was almost feral, delighted by the surge of magic that thrummed through his body. Turning on his heel, he clapped his hands as if trying to get the attention of a roomful of people.
“Brothers, it’s time to wake up. You are needed.”
Slowly, the mummified monks and skeletal priests began to move. Leon suddenly realized what Father Lazarus had meant when he had said his name was a family joke. What else would you name a man who could raise the dead?
The ward around the mission crashed down under the weight of the hunter’s magic bolts. She laughed as it crumbled and winked out of existence, her bolts tumbling harmlessly to the ground. She held her coyotes for a moment, like pet dogs waiting for a treat balanced on their nose. With a howl of her own she let them loose, watching as they dashed across the desert, too-long legs eating up the distance to the walls. Aurélie hummed a jaunty tune to herself as she turned back to her horse, setting the crossbow back in its place behind her saddle. She’d give the coyotes a minute or two before walking in to make sure they had done their jobs. Hopefully there would be enough left of Leon Carpenter to take back as proof of her success.
Aurélie paused, eyebrows knitting together. Something in the air had changed. She turned just in time to see a skeleton in a brown habit grab one of her coyotes and snap its neck. The undead walked out of the mission with purpose. They weren’t the shambling voodoo horrors she had been told about as a little girl by a nanny desperate for anything to make her behave. These bones moved fast, as if they still remembered the thrill of having flesh and blood. They were ringed with a yellow-tinged magic to her well trained sight. This was not a complication she had planned for and she realized, with a strangely delighted shock, that she had been taken by surprise.
The coyotes attacked their new foes but found themselves outmatched. They tore arms out of shoulders and heads from necks but this barely phased the skeletons. They just took the limb back, stuck it back on, and kept going. Father Lazarus stood behind them, watching and directing what they did. Aurélie had underestimated the priest. The ward had been blood magic and she thought for sure it was the work of the vampire Jack Stryker. What a surprise to discover it had been a man of the cloth all along. Another unholy monster. She would have to burn the entire mission down to remove it’s taint from the world.
She grabbed her crossbow again and ran forward, scooping up discarded bolts and rearming her weapon. No matter what beastie you were, silver would ruin your day. She dropped two mummies easily, one after another. She aimed for a third but the shot went wide. Blood bloomed on her shoulder and her stomach went cold. Being shot had not been part of her equation. Leon Carpenter glared at her and aimed his pistol again.
“Interesting company you keep lately, Carpenter.” she said, stepping back to get out of range. Her entire right arm felt numb and she didn’t have the strength to shoot her crossbow again.
“Could say the same for you,” he said. “Who sent you?”
She laughed. “Who do you think? When you burn down a church, murder scores of the holy-”
“You WHAT?” Father Lazarus shouted.
“What? Didn’t tell your little necromancer friend? How many lies have you told them already?”
“Shut up.” Leon said. Around them the howls of the coyotes clashed with the groans and growls of desiccated vocal cords and the click-clack of bones.
“So irresponsible.” Aurélie continued. “So careless. What kind of hunter gets turned into a vampire anyway? I can’t wait to tell everyone.”
Leon fired at her again. It went wide and slammed into the dirt next to her. She sneered at him. A coyote escaped the grasp of a skeleton and made a beeline for the vampire. Jack emerged from the shadows and grabbed it, a knife glinting in his hand. They fought until Jack got the better of it, slicing through its belly until it’s entrails spilled onto the ground. The coyote slumped and faded back into the aether it had come from. Jack shook his knife clean and returned back to the fray, leaving the hunters to deal with each other as the undead tore the coyotes apart.
Leon had his pistol still trained on her and she growled at him, enraged. He was supposed to be an easy assignment. They had said he would be easy to kill, that he was a poor shot and a coward. She hated being misled. There was nothing else for it. Her pack of coyotes were losing and the tide had turned against her.
“Until next time, Leon Carpenter. You haven’t seen the last of me.” she ran back towards her horse. Leon swore and chased her. He tried to aim and shoot, the bullet hitting the ground near her feet instead. One last desperate shot caught her in the calf and she tumbled to the ground. Leon caught up with her as she limped to her horse.
The hunter tried grabbing the horn of her saddle but her shoulder was bleeding hard now and she couldn’t manage to pull herself up. She slumped down to the ground, furious. A Boucher would never admit defeat. Surely another plan would come to her. She looked dispassionately at her blood pooling around her.
Aurélie was not surprised when she saw the other hunter’s worn boots in front of her. She tilted her head up and looked at him. His blonde hair was wild and he looked harried. The horizon had started to go pink at the edges. If she kept him talking, the sunlight would do her job for her.
Without preamble, Leon wearily pointed his pistol at her head. Aurélie stared at him.
“You wouldn’t.” she said. “How dare you.”
“I’m only showing you the same kindness you would have shown me.” he said. She scowled at him, burning hatred in her eye. “You know the rules as well as I do. Hunters don’t suffer monsters to live.”
Father Lazarus winced as he heard the gunshot. Without their mistress, the coyotes faded like fog in the dawning sunlight. He ordered his undead brothers to wait and walked out into the desert. Leon sat on his knees before the mad hunter’s body, exhaustion in every line of his body, shaking slightly as if caught by fever.
“It had to be done.” he said.
“It did.” Father Lazarus agreed. He helped Leon up and let the vampire lean on him as he got him safely back into the mission and away from the cresting daylight. With Leon settled, the priest went back outside and began to shepherd his skeletons back inside, thanking each and every one for their help and wishing them another good, long rest.
Jack stumbled into the mission last. If he was a better man he would have offered to help the priest clean everything up. The body, the damage to the mission, all the broken odds and ends. Jack knew it had been a long, long time since he had been a good man and didn’t bother. He bent down near the hunter’s body and checked it to make sure she was really dead. Her one blue eye stared unblinking at the sky. No pulse, no nothing. Satisfied, he went inside to escape the sun and to begin planning their next steps.
No rest for the wicked, after all.