Father Randolph Purgeon sat at his desk gazing out the window of the rectory, absently stroking his grey goatee, deep in thought. An assortment of books lay before him, all relative to the same subject: Angelology. There were dictionaries containing the names of angels and their fallen brethren, ancient texts, sacred scrolls, bibles from every religion. There were also books on the supposed language of the celestials, Enochian and Malachim. Angelic lore was a hobby he’d enjoyed well before he had become a priest.
Yet, neither the books nor their topics were on his mind right now. He was thinking about the young man that had stood him up last night. He was disappointed; he looked forward to their weekly meetings.
He’d waited for Roman at their usual meeting place: a diner along Woodside’s lone highway just outside the city, along the outskirts of the forest, where few dared to visit, let alone live. The woodlands were a savage garden where beasts roamed freely. Where man was once more afraid of the dark outside their feudal cities.
Roman and Father Purgeon covered a lot of ground in their two-hour sessions. The topics of discussion varied: books, movies, climate, current affairs, politics, and of course, spirituality and religion. The last pair was their most detailed and debated subjects. Hours would go by as they argued over the true nature of good and evil. Their first meeting nearly concluded with the oncoming dawn. For this reason, Roman had set a time limit to their sessions.
Father Purgeon was feeling like a failure; Roman hadn’t changed much since they first met.
He’s standing on the church’s front steps. It’s a cool evening, with a tinge of frost in the air, the kind of chill one smells and tastes more than feels on their skin. Nevertheless, the priest flips up his blazer’s collar and gazes up at the church, then back down at the faithful taking their leave from the night mass.
So few. There were never many. Not in his lifetime. Maybe before the war.
As the flock of his congregation tapers to a trickle, Father Purgeon crosses the street and heads to the park, looking for a spot free from prying eyes. He needs a post-mass smoke, badly, and it’s a habit he doesn’t want to promote. Besides, Father Purgeon is in his fifties, and he’s embarrassed that he hasn’t been able to quit what he considers a disgusting habit.
The park is one of the few places in the city that has trees, that has grass. Yet, what greenery graces the park is wizened and withered. No matter the time of year, the foliage’s color rarely strays from its eternal autumnal hues, begging to bloom past impotency, a last gasp from nature. There’s a tree just past the entrance where the shadows are deep and many. It’s a solitary snag whose bark is more gray than brown. Its canopy of twisted dead boughs provides the seclusion and discretion the priest requires.
It’s much colder underneath the awning. The wind has also picked up and there’s a bite to it, making his blue eyes tear. Father Purgeon dabs the moisture away from his eyes with the back of his hand, then runs it through his short salt and pepper hair. He wishes he hadn’t forgotten his wool cap. He lights a cigarette, takes in a deep pull, feels his lungs expand, and then breathes out the fumes.
“How do you keep your faith, Father?”
The priest jumps, fumbles and drops his cigarette. He turns toward the voice.
The owner of the voice is a tall man, over six feet, lean, yet looks strong, and he towers over the priest who’s a modest five foot eight, though their builds are similar. He’s wearing what the priest could only describe as some sort of black overcoat. The fabric seems thin, but layered and sturdy. To the priest, the material looks as if it breathes and flows. The man’s pale features are prominent, a striking contrast to the black hair just grazing the collar of his coat. Cobalt eyes that seem just a little too big and a little too round for his sharp, angled face, pierce the priest.
“It’s a job,” Father Purgeon says, smirking, bending down to retrieve the still lit cigarette. “Almost a chore.”
The man looks to the church, then at the great iron crucifix on its roof. His face-hardens, as if the sight hurts. And for a second, his visage becomes a mask of hate. Then the look is gone.
“I was just kidding,” Father Purgeon says.
“I have always believed, but I never cared,” the man says. “Yet I am in pain. Can you help me?” The man’s voice is heavy. His face falls. Makes the priest think of storm-strewn waves drowning a ship lost at sea.
“That depends.” Father Purgeon follows his stare. “Would you like to come inside, talk about it?” He hopes the young man will comply.
“Must you do your work within its confines?” The man glares at the church. “Perhaps you could make an exception?”
If it wasn’t for the way he asked, for the man’s obvious need, Father Purgeon might have declined. But, Father Purgeon feels that it’s his duty to aid those in need. Especially those who seek it.
“On one condition.”
“Anything. Except having to go in there.” The man looks back at the church.
“I’d just like to know your name.”
The man smiles, relieved, as if expecting a far more difficult demand. It’s a true smile, though a closed mouth one.
“Roman, Father. My name is Roman.”
Talking with Roman had helped him through his own grief. It had surprised Father Purgeon when he became aware of the hope that still resided within himself, that he didn’t know was still there, especially after losing Nancy. He’d thought his hope had died along with her. He’d lost more than a friend when Nancy had died. He’d lost a lover. An unconsummated love, but love nonetheless. At first, he’d wondered if he could help Roman, if he even had the right to. Father Purgeon had lost his faith then, not in God, but in himself. Wasn’t that the same thing? He’d felt he had let her down. He felt he’d chose God over her. Being there for Roman, listening to him, hearing the anguish and remorse Roman hid behind his rage laced words, had allowed him to forget his own pain long enough to find the hope that his hurt had covered. That he’d thought was no longer there. He still didn’t know if he had completely forgiven himself, or if he’d ever be able to, yet maybe, the hope he’d found in himself wasn’t for him. Maybe it was for others.
Randolph Purgeon had joined the church at a time when most had abandoned it, in one massive global exodus. When the world had given up on an organization that seemed to care more about its own existence than the people it professed to love. Where ceremony and ritual had become more important than the spiritual path religion was supposed to point to. He’d joined the church to assuage his guilt. Had given his life to a god he’d felt he dishonored, by killing so many of his creations during a war he’d volunteered for, a war whose cause he’d believed in.
He’d tried getting Roman to come to the church and attend one of his sermons. Roman would always politely decline, stating that it wasn’t the house of God he admired, just one of its servants. Three weeks into their talks, Father Purgeon had stopped asking, though the offer, of course, was always there.
The phone rang. At first, Father Purgeon just stared at it-so lost in his ruminations that the instrument of communication seemed alien to him, an absurd thing that screamed for attention.
The phone rang twice before he reached for it. He picked it up on the third ring. Even before placing it to his ear, he knew who’d be on its other end.
“Couldn’t make it to the diner, huh,” chided the priest.
“I am in grave need. I require your assistance. I cannot discuss this with you over the phone; it must be in person.” The urgency in his voice was unquestionable.
“Are you okay, Roman?”
“I need you, Father. I am not far. May I come up?”
The request surprised the priest. This had to be important. “Of course, of course you can.”
Roman’s voice hardened. “I need you to be prepared, Father. Prepared for what I am about to tell you, and, for what you are about to see.”
The line went dead.
Father Purgeon was still holding the phone to his ear, wondering what had caused Roman’s sudden change of heart. Had something happened? Was he in some sort of trouble? Before he could speculate any further on Roman’s reasons, the lights dimmed, and a chill ran down his back. The room suddenly felt cold, cutting through the fabric of his thick cotton sweater. He hung up the phone and went to close the window. It was already shut. Why was it so cold? The doorbell rang. He hurried out the room and down the stairs.
It grew colder with each step. He was shivering by the time he reached the foyer.
He cupped his hands and blew hot breath into them. He paused, looking up as the light above the front door flickered. Then he reached for the doorknob, but it was already turning. He stepped back. The lights above him flickered again and then went out. The door clicked open.
Darkness swelled in from the doorway. Father Purgeon could see nothing but his own breath. Breathing hurt. The frost numbed his throat and tears welled in his eyes. His bones felt brittle; they ached.
“Step away from the door, Father.”
The priest remained still, though his heart was thumping.
Lightning flashed across the evening sky. Father Purgeon saw Roman in the doorway. There was a sleeping girl cradled in his arms. The priest stepped back and Roman crossed the threshold, the darkness preceding him like a living thing. Behind him, thunder crashed and it began to drizzle.
Father Purgeon looked at Roman, and when he saw his eyes, Roman’s true eyes, the soulless black orbs halted any words that meant to escape his lips.
“You have already given me leave to enter,” Roman said as the door closed behind him. Seemingly unaided, the door’s lock engaged. “I am sorry you must see me this way, Father, but I need your help.”
The priest stared into Roman’s eyes. Roman had seen this terror before, in many mortal eyes-but never in the priest’s, never in his friend’s. He didn’t like what he saw.
In the past, Roman had always made sure to feed before they met. Mortal blood heated his body and quelled the frost that emanated from his frame. He’d just drank from the dead; Drake’s blood compounded the frigidity that preternaturally poured from him. Drinking mortal blood masked him in other ways as well, especially his eyes, which adapted to the color of his latest victim’s. For the first time, the priest saw him as he truly was.
“My God,” Father Purgeon managed to say, sucking in his breath.
“Keep your faith, Father. It is all you have, and all you will ever need.”
Father Purgeon backed away. When the heel of his right foot met the bottom stair, he stumbled, fell backward and landed on his rear. If the priest noticed his clumsiness, he gave no indication. His eyes never left Roman’s. He even forgot about Roman’s cargo. Hugging himself against the cold, the priest gazed up, afraid to take his eyes off him. Yet fear wasn’t the only inhabitant swimming in his eyes. Roman saw something else there. He saw fascination.
“What are you? Dear God, what are you?” Father Purgeon’s hand crept to his blazer’s breast pocket. He didn’t even notice he was doing it.
Roman smiled mirthlessly and showed the priest his fangs. “I am a vampire, Father. At least, that is what I think I am,” he said. “Without much of a memory, it is difficult to be sure. You now see why I needed your guidance. And as I needed you then, I need you more so now.” His eyes returned to the priest’s hand. “You do not need that, Father. The strength resides within you. Your faith is your shield.”
The priest’s hand ceased its march and froze by the inside pocket. His finger grazed the crucifix within.
“Come,” Roman said. “We have much to discuss.” He moved to the stairs, slid past the still staring man, and ascended the steps, the girl in his arms.
The priest stared after them and watched them disappear into the darkness above. Was Roman really a vampire? He thought about everything he knew about Roman, now and then. Roman had asked his permission to come into the rectory. The temperature had dropped right after his call. The flash of his fangs. His black eyes. His extreme pallor. Their meetings had always took place at night, every one of them. Father Purgeon had never seen Roman during the daylight hours. Roman had always declined Father Purgeon’s invitations to come to the church.
Father Purgeon glanced at the front door and thought of leaving. Escape was so close; the door beckoned. Though he was afraid, his desire for knowledge overwhelmed him. This was an opportunity and a confirmation. For if Roman was indeed what he proclaimed himself to be, then other supernatural beings must exist.
Come, Father. I do not have much time. Roman’s voice, in his head.
Father Purgeon rose on wobbly feet. He gave the door another glance. He reached inside his jacket and clasped the cross waiting in its breast pocket. He gave the door his back and pulled the crucifix free. He climbed the stairs, now on steady and unwavering legs.
When he reached the top of the stairs, he saw that Roman had already placed the girl on the couch by his personal library, and had covered her with a quilt procured from his bed. Roman was drying her face with a corner of it.
“I truly am sorry for this,” Roman said. “It could not be helped.”
Father Purgeon noticed how the darkness held around Roman. It billowed with him as he moved. The light that was seeping into the room from the outside streetlights failed to penetrate that dark. It was like watching the night move.
Rising, Roman turned to the priest.
Father Purgeon still stood by the top of the stair’s landing. “My God. Your eyes. How come I never noticed them before?”
“I have always made sure to feed beforehand, Father, as to not startle you, as to not reveal myself.”
Father Purgeon thought about Roman’s words. Really thought about them, especially the words feed beforehand. Had Roman been killing people before their meetings, drinking their blood? The thought disturbed the priest, made him feel extremely uncomfortable.
Roman’s eyes fell to the cross firmly clutched in the priest’s hand. “As I told you before, you do not need that.”
At first, Father Purgeon didn’t know what Roman was talking about. It was hard following that gaze. “Just the same, I’ll keep it close, Roman.” He tightened his grip around the cross, feeling like a knight with a sword fending off a mythical creature. “What do you want from me, Roman?”
“I have the girl’s safety in mind and you are the only one that I can turn to. She was abducted. I interfered and rescued her. Her captor killed her mother and eleven other children. But he is dead now. I made sure of that.”
Father Purgeon lowered the cross.
“I need you to care for the girl; you must keep her safe. Keep her hidden. Tell no one of her. There may be those who wish to harm her, if for no other reason but to get to me. Others like me. You must bring her to the church. She will be safe there.” Roman remembered the vampire he’d seen visiting Drake in the cellar while the killer king slept. Surely that vampire wouldn’t be pleased with Drake’s demise. Obviously, since that particular vampire had been feeding Drake the addresses of all the children he’d eventually abduct, he knew of Avalyn and might come for her.
Prior to meeting the priest, Roman had tried entering Father Purgeon’s church. Upon crossing the threshold, his blood had broiled beneath his skin. His pores had opened and the boiling blood had spilled. With a great effort, he had retreated. Luckily, the church had been empty and no one had seen him.
“She should wake soon, Father. I merely swooned her for the ride here.” Roman wished he could tell the priest more, but he couldn’t tell him what he didn’t know. He needed more information. “I will return tomorrow night.”
Before Father Purgeon could respond, Roman seemed to disappear before his eyes, an almost imperceptible blur of motion. He felt the air by him shift, cold and frigid. The window over his desk swung open. Roman was gone and the warmth returned.