The Church of St Lawrence was the only building big enough for the whole town to gather. The town was not wealthy but they had at some point gathered enough coin to pay for a sizable portrait of the saint, brightly painted on wooden boards, and hung behind the altar and crucifix. The saint lay tied hand and foot upon his gridiron, calmly allowing the orange-red flames beneath him to curl about his limbs and burn them black. A beatific expression was on his face. I’d seen people burned alive before and they never looked like that. But I suppose that was what made him a saint.
Before the portrait of the burning saint, and the sculpted image of the crucified messiah, the townsfolk huddled in their rows. One hundred and eighty adults had gathered, with children and infants on the women’s laps. It was not all the townsfolk, but it was most of them. The priest stood before them at the sanctuary. He was not an impressive-looking man, to my eyes, which was why he’d become a priest, I suspected. He was moist-eyed, and plump-lipped, with shapeless-limbs. He was not fat, but he reminded me of uncooked dough. He blinked too much.
“Children, please settle yourselves,” he called to them in a surprisingly strong voice. Despite his features, he seemed to have something of a presence about him. The crowd began to settle, taking their seats. “We are faced with a great evil,” he told them. “But God will deliver us, if we have faith in His goodness and are careful to avoid the temptations of the Devil, who has taken shape here among us.” I felt a shiver go down me at his words. He was a good preacher, he had trained his voice. And his words connected with the old lessons of my childhood, and reminded me that I was not just facing a dangerous creature, but an ancient and implacable evil. We were all of us here not just in danger of death, but in danger of hell.
The priest went on, short, sharp reminders of Satan’s fearsome dangers, followed by warm encouragement, high hope, and ultimate safety in God’s eternal provision. It was all good stuff, and he didn’t let himself go on too long, cutting his speech off as soon as he’d hit the points he wanted to say. He then introduced me to them, “I recommend to you the noble-hearted Dennis of Wurzheim,” he said. It had been many long years since I was in Wurzheim. But it was as good a place as any to give them for my hometown.
“He has come to us with wise truths, and staunch advice, to allow us to weather and resist the evil that has come to threaten our souls. Give him your ears, my children. And harken to him well.”
I stepped forward, thanked the priest, and faced my audience. I wasn’t so good in large crowds. I was better with small groups, where I could look all of them in their eyes, and judge their character as they responded to my words. Large crowds acted differently to small ones, like an ocean that could be calm one minute, and a tempest the next without warning or reason. You had to be wary of crowds. One wrong word and they could turn on you, and none of them after could tell themselves why.
I explained what had happened to the mayor’s daughter, and what we’d done and seen the previous night, as briefly as I could. Then I explained to them what a Vampire was, and what it did to a person. I could tell they were getting restless though. Too much strange new information, they couldn’t take it in, and that frustrated them and made them angry and unfocused. I changed tactics to simpler, practical matters.
“When a Vampire is among you, there are simple measures that you can take to protect yourselves. You must check yourselves and your family each morning for marks, for cuts and scratches you do not remember receiving. You must clean your boots each night, and check them in the morning for mud on their soles, in case you have been walking abroad in your sleep without your knowledge. You must bar and board your windows and doors, to prevent any forced entry. You must keep a lantern burning outside your front door all night, to ward against evil.”
The last was more of a practical matter; our patrols would find it easier to spot anyone moving around if the streets had more light on them. But the townsfolk’d be less likely to do it if it was explained to them like that. Why spend your money on extra oil just to make things easier for your protectors? Better for them to think it gave some supernatural protection for themselves.
“Beware of sleeping alone,” I told them, “make sure you share a bed. If you do not already, find a friend to sleep with. Beware living alone, make sure if any of you are alone, stay in your neighbour’s house overnight. Vampires enjoy preying on the isolated and the vulnerable.”
They were more attentive now. They could appreciate simple practical steps. “Look out for strange behaviour,” I told them. “If your spouse or child or neighbour starts sleepwalking, if they leave the house at night, if they do anything during the night time that they have no memory of the next day. These are all signs of the Vampire’s touch.”
Good, they were listening again. I allowed myself to go on to more informative matters. “Not everyone who is touched becomes enthralled. It takes three nights at least before a mind becomes the Vampire’s, tied inextricably to its own soul and will.
“The first touch of the Vampire only drops a loose thread about one’s mind. Such a one may find themselves strangely inclined towards odd behaviour they cannot explain. They may have intrusive thoughts, or feel a sudden powerful compulsion towards an action they would not normally do. But otherwise they are still their own.
“One touched a second time by a Vampire will be captivated; their will and thoughts will be hopelessly aligned towards those of the Vampire. They will wish to do its bidding, and desire only what it desires. Such a person may at times realise that their will is not their own, and struggle against the Vampire’s influence, but they will not be able to resist a command if the Vampire brings its full attention upon them.
“One who has been visited a third time by the Vampire will be fully enthralled, their own will and thoughts will be destroyed and gone forever, and only the Vampire will control them, a mindless vessel for the Vampire to move and act through.
“A crafty Vampire will not wish to be served only by thralls. As hollow vessels for its soul, they possess many of the same weaknesses that it does. They too will struggle to cross a boundary without invitation, and the Vampire’s control will be greatly weakened over them if they do. They too will lose their vitality during the day. While the Vampire, a dead thing, lies unmoving in its tomb during sunlight hours, the thrall is still living, and will sleep, though they appear as though sickened to the point of death, too weak to leave their bed. Thus a thrall will be obvious to attentive observers, and easily restrained when discovered.
“A captive will still be themselves during the day, though weakened and wasting in limb and mind. However, they may cross a threshold more easily than the thrall. A touched will act with less direction or fervour during the night, like a sleepwalker barely aware of its surroundings. But it may enter anywhere as any man can, and will appear entirely normal during the day, even more healthy and vigorous than before, entirely unaware themselves of the Vampire’s touch upon their minds.
“For this reason, a cunning creature may spend its early days in a town touching only lightly upon its victims, spreading its influence widely, without clear notice or sign. And then when its influence is securely laid upon many score of townsfolk, only then will it show its hand.
“For this reason, we must be especially attentive over the next few days, watching one another carefully for any signs of the Vampire’s touch. If we can espy and isolate any of its victims, then they can be saved from further despoliation, and the Vampire’s plans will be greatly hampered.
The nave was silent, the whole town quietly absorbing this fount of information. I knew they’d struggle to comprehend it, to really put it into practice. But each would hear and take on board some of it, and after, they would talk and slowly more of it would bed in among more of them.
One of them rose hesitantly to her feet, a woman, with hard lines on her face, and hair turning to grey.
“You are saying that these of us who have been touched by the Vampire, they can be saved?” she asked. “How so, if the Vampire has inveigled itself into their souls? Forgive me for my confusion, but would not this taint be permanent, would not death be a mercy?”
She was smart, this one. I addressed her directly “Goodwife, I would not wish to bring the sword to any one for whom hope of their salvation still remained. This is no Inquisition I am proposing. Anyone who brings a son or daughter to me may rest assured that they will be made comfortable, and kept secure, and that is it. No sword or flame will be spoken of.”
She fixed me with a suspicious look. “You mistake me, sir,” she said. “I am not proposing we hide our infected from you out of some foolish notion of mercy. I am saying, should we not take a knife to their throats ourselves, and be done with it? Why play games with the Devil, when he is at our doors and in our beds.” Her neighbours looked uncomfortable, but did not mutter against her. There were signs that some among them even agreed with her. I was impressed. Such steel was hard to find among those settled in towns.
“I applaud your grit, my lady,” I told her. She looked unimpressed and impatient with my flattery, “However, there is no need to engage in such desperate measures before they become necessary.” She was right though, we didn’t have the numbers to secure the touched properly. Maybe one or two, but not if we uncovered a score or more. In that case we would certainly have to turn to the quick knife in the dark, and a shallow grave. For now however, I didn’t want to discourage anyone from bringing their suspicions to me, for I suspected not many would see things the way this woman did.
“You say it is not yet necessary,” she insisted. “But when will it become necessary. I gather that point exists does it not?”
“It does, though I do not anticipate us ever reaching it. If the number of touched outnumber those of us who are unaffected, then yes, I admit desperate solutions may become necessary. Simple practical measures however will easily avert this, and give us time to defend ourselves before it gets unmanageable.”
“And what is this defence, which we are buying you time to carry out,” she asked.
“I will lead a party into the woods beyond the east walls,” I told her. “I am confident that the Vampire has its corpse hidden there in some animal’s den, some distance from the city, yet not too distant to disrupt its influence. I would guess no more than an hour’s walk from the east gate.”
“A lot of wood to cover within that distance,” she replied calmly.
“Of course,” I answered. “And I do not say that it will be easy or immediate. It may take several expeditions before we uncover its den. But we will discover it within the week, for certain. And it will need many more days than that for it to infect enough souls that we can no longer handle them with Christian decency.”
I spoke firmly and confidently, though I felt neither. I said nothing of the Vampire’s ability to lead parties astray, no matter how wary they were, of wandering for hours in a circle, and finding oneself helplessly lost and panicking as the sun slipped inexorably closer to the horizon. We would set out in the first light of dawn, of course. But time and distance would pass strangely as one got closer to the Vampire’s den.
It was the most dangerous thing in the world a man could do, to hunt a Vampire when it knew you were coming. And I would not have dreamt of asking anyone to do it, were it not the only way any of them might survive the week.