A Halloween Hymn

by Eric James Stone

Maria was dead, and Father Nicholas had not tasted her.

“Bless me Father, for I have sinned,” said the young woman.

In the confessional, Nicholas fingered the silver cross that hung on a chain around his neck. The metal felt red-hot, but decades of practice had taught him to ignore the pain. Posing as a priest helped him avoid the occasional vampire hunter who came to Seattle.

Maria was dead: she had slit her wrists and wasted her blood down the bathtub drain.

“It has been five days since my last confession.”

Yesterday some of the older parishioners had frowned their disapproval at having a funeral mass for a suicide, but they came anyway: scandal attracted. But what if it was not suicide? What if another vampire had hidden his feeding by staging a reason for the loss of blood?

Maria was dead, but it was her voice on the other side of the partition.

“I have committed one mortal sin: I killed myself.”

She had to be lying. The other vampire had killed her, then raised her—it was the only logical explanation. So his plan might still work. Nicholas stood and exited the door of the confessional. He thrust aside the curtain concealing the penitent’s side of the booth … and found it empty.

He looked quickly around the church, but saw no one. The few parishioners who had come to evening mass were gone, probably to take their children trick-or-treating.

Had he imagined the voice? Perhaps he had dozed off and dreamed, coming awake only as he stood to go confront her. Shaking his head, Nicholas returned to his place in the confessional and closed the door. He sat down.

Maria’s face formed from the wood of the door and stared back at him.

“For this and all the sins of my life I am sorry.” Her wooden lips moved, lifelike.

He reached out to determine if the face were real.

She shied away from his touch, retreating into the wood. “Don’t. You’ll break the magic.”

He stopped. “What are you? Why are you here?”

She rolled her eyes—knots in the wood that were nonetheless Maria’s eyes. “I’m a ghost, of course, and on All Hallows’ Eve the wall between worlds is thin.”

“I’m sorry you’re dead,” Nicholas said. He had planned to kill her eventually, then raise her as a consort.

“You said I was the one who seduced you, and then you rejected me,” she said. “But I know what you are now, vampire.”

“The rejection was all part of the plan.” Nicholas shook his head. “I needed to make you desperate enough—”

“Forget your plans.” Her voice was sharp. “I’m beyond your reach, now. But I did love you, so I have come with a warning: you will have three visitors tonight, visitors who know what you are and are not afraid.”

“Vampire hunters?” Three at once would be a challenge, if they were competent.

“That’s all I can say. Farewell, Nicholas.” Her face faded into the wood.

To confront the visitors on holy ground would concede an advantage. Nicholas stood and grabbed the door handle.

It wouldn’t turn.

He jiggled it, then increased the pressure to force it. With a squeal of tortured metal, it broke off in his hand.

***

Nicholas quickly gave up the futile struggle to break through the door and walls of the booth, which were now tougher than steel. He judged it wiser to preserve his strength for when the visitors arrived.

The church bell tolled nine, ten, eleven, twelve, and still no one came.

As the echo of the one o’clock bell faded away, Nicholas heard slight clicks on the stone floor of the church. The sound drew closer, then stopped near the confessional.

Nicholas breathed in deeply and caught the scent of a wolf and a man. The man’s scent was vaguely familiar.

A thump shook the booth. An agonized howl came from the other side of the partition, forcing Nicholas to shield his ears. The howl changed to a scream, which then faded to labored breathing. The man’s scent strengthened.

He had heard that sequence of change before, but not for over a hundred years. He had believed the werewolves to be extinct.

“So,” said Nicholas, “you’re one of my visitors.”

“I am,” panted the man, in a British accent, “the Werewolf of Halloween Past.”

Nicholas frowned. “Is this some sort of joke?”

“No,” said the man. “My mission here is serious. I’m here to get you to change your path.”

“Who sent you?”

“Someone powerful.”

“Who?”

“Follow me and you’ll find out,” said the man.

Nicholas snorted. “I would follow, but I’m trapped in—”

And suddenly he was surrounded by trees, their trunks gray in the moonlight that filtered through their leaves.

“Follow me,” said the man. He leapt forward, transforming into a wolf in mid-bound.

After a momentary hesitation, Nicholas followed. Whoever was behind this had powerful magic, and it was probably best to play along until he could figure out what to do. At least he was free of the enchanted confessional.

The trees flashed by faster than they were running, and in a few moments they emerged from the forest into a world that was suddenly day. By carefully increasing his exposure to direct sunlight, over the decades Nicholas had built up a resistance to the sun’s rays. Sunlight still hurt, and prolonged exposure of several hours would cause his flesh to blister and peel off. But this sunlight didn’t hurt, which meant this was all just an elaborate illusion.

When they stopped, he recognized where he was: farmland on the outskirts of Sfântu Gheorghe, in Transylvania. This was where he grew up as a boy, back when his name was Nicholae. It didn’t look like it had changed much over the past two hundred and eight years. That small house there was almost exactly…

A woman in her forties stepped out of the door. “Nicholae!”

He started walking toward her. “Mama?”

“She can’t see or hear you,” said the werewolf’s voice. “We’re not actually in this time.”

“Coming!” A boy of about eight walked past, firewood piled so high on his arms that he had to use his chin to steady it. “See how much I can carry?”

The sky flickered, and the boy transformed into a young man of about fifteen, who dumped a few pieces of firewood on the ground before the woman, who was now gray-haired. “Fetch your own firewood from now on,” the young man said. “I’m leaving.”

“Please,” said the woman as he turned his back and walked away.

“You’re cheating,” said Nicholas. “That didn’t happen on Halloween, did it?”

“Close enough,” said the werewolf. “What with the Julian versus the Gregorian calendar, I have some leeway.”

“OK, I’m a bad son.” Nicholas shrugged. “I’ve done a lot worse, so if you’re trying to make me feel guilty, you’ll have to try much harder.”

“Leaving is what put you on the path to where you are today,” said the werewolf.

“And choices have consequences. You can skip all that—I’ve given a few sermons myself.”

The wolf’s head nodded. “Skip it we will.”

The world flickered, and they were in a church. Nicholas recognized it as one where he had been a priest in London in the 1890s. Catholic, not Church of England.

“It feels good to confess, doesn’t it?” said a voice in the confessional.

“Yes,” said a boy.

“Of course, you can’t confess if you haven’t sinned.” Nicholas recognized the words he had said so often over the years. “You need to have something to confess next time, so you can feel good. Now go.”

After a few seconds, the boy exited the booth with the slightly dazed look of someone who had just woken from a vampire’s hypnotic spell.

“The boy is me,” said the werewolf. “I started on a path that day.”

“Impossible,” said Nicholas. “Lycanthropy doesn’t extend life, it shortens it. You’d be dead by now.”

“Oh, I am,” said the werewolf. “I just think ‘Werewolf of Halloween Past’ is a little less clichéd than ‘Ghost of Halloween Past,’ don’t you?”

“I’m didn’t mean for you to become a werewolf. Does that help any?” Nicholas shook his head. “I corrupt people, yes. Manipulate them. But it’s to set them on the path to becoming vampires. An innocent won’t do—only someone who has so given themselves to debauchery that they will embrace the change.”

“Must be hard on you, then, living as a priest,” said the werewolf.

“Keeps me alive. I feed only when the thirst sings within me.”

The wolf head cocked to one side. “Sings?”

Nicholas looked up to the arched ceiling of the church. “I think it’s a form of synesthesia. To me, my thirst sounds like music. A hymn. Just a simple melody at first, then harmonies as it grows stronger. It’s beautiful, really, like Bach. Because my thirst is also beautiful to me, I think I endure its pain longer than most vampires. I don’t go into a killing frenzy when I get thirsty. I take my time, plan my kill carefully so I don’t get caught.”

“Maybe that’s the different path you’re supposed to take,” said the werewolf. “Stop killing, and just concentrate on the singing.”

“Even the most beautiful music becomes painful to hear, eventually,” said Nicholas.

The church bell clanged once, twice.

And Nicholas was back in his confessional booth. He tried pushing on the door, but it didn’t yield. The werewolf was gone.

Even with his acute senses, Nicholas barely heard the slow, soft footsteps approaching. “Hello?” he said.

Someone sat down on the other side of the partition. “I am the Mummy of Halloween Present.”

Nicholas sighed. “Let’s go, then. Show me what’s happening in the present that will make me want to mend my evil ways.”

The world flickered, and they were standing on top of the Space Needle looking at the lights of downtown Seattle. A light drizzle seemed to pass right through them without getting them wet.

“That’s hardly the right attitude,” said the mummy.

“Well, you don’t get it. I’m not Scrooge. My life’s not going to be all Christmas morning if I give up sucking the life out of people, so I don’t see the point of this.”

“The eternal fate of your soul doesn’t matter to you?”

Nicholas scoffed. “You’re saying I have a chance of going to Heaven instead of Hell?”

As the mummy shrugged, one of his bandages unrolled slightly, revealing more bandages. “Oh, you’re going to Hell, all right. But so did I, five thousand years ago—although it seemed like a lot longer while I was there. And look at me now, working my way out.”

“Yeah, that’s a real comfort. Forgive me for trying to delay my thousands of years of punishment.”

“Be that way,” said the mummy. “It’s no bandage off my nose.” He gave a small bark of laughter.

“Can we just get this over with?”

“Sure.”

The world blinked, and they were inside a small bedroom decorated with posters of boy bands. A woman—Maria’s mother, Nicholas realized—sat crying on the edge of a bed.

“So,” said Nicholas, “I caused her daughter to commit sin and then kill herself. Boo. Hoo. Are we done here?”

“You really don’t feel the least bit of sorrow for what you’ve done?”

“Not a bit. Whatever part of me felt sorry for others must have died the day I became a vampire, if not earlier.”

The mummy looked up at the ceiling. “He’s all yours.”

And Nicholas was back in the confessional.

The church bell chimed three times, even though Nicholas was sure he had been gone only a few minutes. He waited for the next visitor to show up. After a few minutes of not hearing anything, he half-heartedly tried the door, and it opened.

Stepping out into the church, he saw a figure hooded and cloaked in black standing in the aisle. “You’re the third visitor,” Nicholas said.

The figure nodded.

“Well, you’re very Dickensish, but I’m sick of this game.” Ever since Maria’s warning, Nicholas had been prepared for a fight. He needed to act, to take control of the situation. “Either lower your hood and show who you are, or I’ll come over there and rip it off.”

The figure lifted two skeletal hands and lowered the hood, revealing a grinning skull.

“Let me guess,” said Nicholas. “You’re the Skeleton of Halloween Yet to Come.”

“Wrong! I’m actually the personification of Death. Nice try, though.” Death looked around searchingly. “But you probably didn’t recognize me without … ah!” He reached down onto one of the pews and picked up a foot-tall hourglass half-filled with red sand. “I have a scythe, too, but it’s so bulky I usually leave it at home.”

Nodding slowly, Nicholas said, “So the unspoken threat is either I change my ways, or you’ll kill me and take my soul to Hell.”

“No, no,” Death said. “I must respect your free will. Without your consent, I can’t kill you except at your scheduled time. This is all about convincing you to make a free choice, and a choice made under threat of … well, me … isn’t really free, is it?”

“What I don’t understand is why you’re making all this effort to get me to change my ‘path.’ If I’m going to get myself killed, you wouldn’t be trying to save me, and if you’re trying to recruit me to become some do-gooder vampire, that only happens on TV.”

“Come with me and you’ll understand.” Death held out his hand. “You were right, in a way. I can show you what is yet to come, the future that will happen if you do not choose a different path.”

After a final hesitation, Nicholas stepped forward and clasped the bony hand.

The world flickered around them.

It was like watching a time-lapse movie of his life. Nicholas watched as his other self did his priestly routines. Occasionally he would kill and drink someone. Several of them he raised again as vampires.

“I don’t know if you realize this yet,” said Death, “but you’re the next step in the evolution of vampires.”

“What?”

“Resistance to crosses, immunity to sunlight—they give you a freedom most vampires lack.”

Nicholas snorted. “Evolution didn’t do that. I did. I worked hard to achieve those goals.”

“Evolution took you partway. The vampires who were better at resisting sun and cross were more likely to survive and create more vampires, so you were already above average. But vampires can also progress through Lamarckian evolution: changes you make to yourself can be passed on to the vampires you raise.”

That was a useful piece of information Nicholas had not known. “Why are you telling me this?”

“To explain what you’re about to see.”

The flickering sped up. Nicholas saw himself leading a group of vampires that could raid in the daytime. At first the group consisted of only a half dozen, but it swelled rapidly into the hundreds.

The world flickered even faster, and Death took him to Los Angeles, New York, London, Paris, Rome. His group of vampires became an army, then several armies. His vampires were stronger and quicker than human soldiers—and much harder to kill.

The flickering stopped, and the world froze.

“Vampires conquer most of the world,” said Death. “You enslave humanity to use for your pleasures.”

Nicholas laughed. “And this is supposed to convince me to change the path I’m on?”

“There is one final battle,” said Death. “And here’s the result.”

The world flickered, and they were in Times Square in New York. It was deserted, its billboards scarred and faded. Trafalgar Square in London: deserted. Not even pigeons remained. City after city they went, and each was desolate. They ended on top of the Space Needle. Burned-out shells of buildings poked up in places from the rubble.

“What happened?” asked Nicholas.

“Armageddon. The End of the World. Final Judgment.” Death chuckled. “The trump blew. Everyone got sent to Heaven or Hell, and I was finally out of a job.”

“What happened to me?” asked Nicholas.

“Somewhere along the line, one of your underlings killed you and took your place. You went to Hell, of course.”

“So God wins in the end.” Nicholas shrugged. “I always figured that, anyway, with the whole omnipotence thing. What’s the point in changing anything? Unless … you’re not trying to change the final result, are you?”

“Not at all,” said Death. “Just some of the details. On your current path, you’ll cause a lot more horror and misery than would otherwise come to pass. And you’ll corrupt millions who will have to be condemned to Hell. We want to avoid that.”

“You want to avoid it. I don’t.”

Death sighed. “I thought as much. Well, you’ll be punished for it eventually.” Death looked at his hourglass. “I guess I should take you back to your church now.”

“Wait,” said Nicholas. He had some leverage here, he realized. “Maybe we can cut a deal.”

Death cocked his skull. “What did you have in mind?”

“Punishment in Hell doesn’t exactly appeal to me. Get me into Heaven, and I won’t do the whole vampire army thing.”

“I don’t have the authority to grant that,” said Death, “and you wouldn’t be happy in Heaven, anyway.”

Nicholas wasn’t ready to give up. “You said I got killed. What about true immortality? Permanent immunity from you? I could live a lot better if I didn’t have to worry about a stake through the heart or decapitation or burning.”

“Hmm. I think that’s doable.” Death stroked his chin, finger-bones clicking. “You agree to not create your vampire army, and not to teach other vampires how to resist sun and cross. In return, I will never take you. You will continue to live as a vampire forever, eternally young, with the ability to recover from any damage to your body. You will never make it into Heaven, but you won’t ever be taken to Hell, either. Satisfied?”

After a moment’s thought, Nicholas nodded. “You have a deal.”

“Good.” Death nodded.

Nicholas waited for the illusion to vanish and return him to the church, but it didn’t. Instead, the city below him changed—still deserted, but no longer looking like a war zone. A drizzle started coming down, and Nicholas could feel it on his face. This was no illusion.

“Well, I must be going,” said Death.

“Wait.” Nicholas grabbed at Death’s cloak, but his hand passed right through it. “You have to take me back to my time.”

“Bringing you to the future and just leaving you here without your consent would be against the rules. That whole ‘free will’ thing. But…” Despite being made of fixed bone, Death’s skeletal grin seemed to widen somehow. “…we made a deal. You have my word that I will never take you. And I intend to keep it.”

“I didn’t mean you couldn’t take me back!” shouted Nicholas.

Death shrugged. “Not my fault you weren’t more specific. Have a nice eternity.” And with that, Death disappeared.

After a few minutes the drizzle became a downpour, and the rain soaked into Nicholas’s cassock. He climbed down the stairs and began to wander the empty streets of the city, piecing together how he had been conned.

The parallels to A Christmas Carol had fooled him into believing that the visitors were trying to change his behavior. The first two visitors had shown him illusions of the past and present, lulling him into believing that his journey to the future would be illusory, too. All of it was a show designed to get his unwitting consent to being left alone in the future.

Completely alone.

Over the patter of the raindrops he could hear, soft and sweet, the first notes of the hymn of his thirst.



A Nebula Award winner, Hugo Award nominee, and Writers of the Future Contest winner, Eric James Stone has had stories published in Year’s Best SF 15, Analog, and Nature, among other venues. His debut novel, a science fiction thriller titled Unforgettable, was published by Baen.

While getting his political science degree at Brigham Young University, Eric took creative writing classes. He wrote several short stories, and even submitted one for publication, but after it was rejected he gave up on creative writing for a decade.

During those years Eric graduated from Baylor Law School, worked on a congressional campaign, and took a job in Washington, DC, with one of those special interest groups politicians always complain that other politicians are influenced by. He quit the political scene in 1999 to work in the internet industry in Utah.

In 2002 he started writing fiction again, and in 2003 he attended Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp. In 2007 Eric got laid off from his day job just in time to go to the Odyssey Writing Workshop. He has since found a new internet-related job.

Eric lives in Utah with his family. His website is www.ericjamesstone.com.


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