A Short Story
It was a bitter cold night, even for January in southern Oklahoma. The thermometer hovered just above freezing, and rain lashed down on the ranch house, beating at the windows as if it longed to extinguish the warmth within. Joshua Parker tossed another log onto the fireplace and then joined his wife Isabella on the love seat, looking across the den at his guests, seated on the sofa, clutching cups of hot cocoa or coffee. Behind the sofa, the Christmas tree still stood, although he had unplugged the lights once the children were in bed. He reminded himself that he needed to take it down before classes started back up next week.
“So when does yer Spanish fort open to the public, lad?” Duncan MacDonald asked him.
“Probably by next summer, Duncan,” Josh replied, barely remembering not to call Duncan ‘Father.’ He still couldn’t get over the fact that his friend had left the priesthood after thirty years in order to marry. “We finished up the last of our excavation in September, and I’m doing the final write-up on the site right now. A crew will start working on a reconstruction of the mission as soon as the weather allows, and the onsite museum building has already begun construction.”
“That was indeed a fascinating discovery ye made there,” the former priest declared. Beside him, his wife Katherine nodded. Josh had taken them up the Archeology Lab at OU and showed them all the artifacts recovered from the ancient mission a couple of days ago, before the weather had turned so bad.
“What about you two?” Luke Martens interjected. “How goes the work on the Gnostic Library?”
Katherine shook her head sadly. “We’ve completely finished excavating the main library building,” she said. “Unfortunately, the explosion destroyed about ninety percent of the manuscripts that were left there. We recovered two codices and one scroll with relatively minor scorching, and a few hundred burnt scraps that will take years to decipher and translate. Those jihadists committed a horrible crime when they destroyed that site!”
“Not to mention the crime they committed against the two of you,” Luke said grimly. Duncan and Katherine had been kidnapped by the jihadists, led by notorious terrorist Muhammad Al-Shavadi, and been tortured for days before being rescued by the Egyptian army – a rescue in which Josh had played a vital role.
“They paid dearly for their outrage, and I would be telling an untruth if I said that their fate troubled me in the least,” Duncan replied. “But, dear, tell him the good news!”
Katherine smiled. “Good news indeed!” she replied. “We knew from the letter written by the librarian whose mummy we found that there was another structure next to the Library, still buried in the dunes. We started excavating there last month, and although the roof has collapsed from the weight of the sand, it appears that the contents of the building may be largely intact. It’s going to keep us busy for years to come!”
“Good!” Luke said. “Alicia and I will be headed to south Texas this spring, diving on some eighteenth century villages buried at the bottom of Lake Amistad. It’s a joint venture between the Texas State Historical Association and the government of Mexico, but fortunately I was the thesis advisor for the senior archeologist on the project, so we got an invite to take part.”
“The last thing Alicia needs is a chance to get more tanned,” Isabella Sforza-Parker said.
“Hey!” Luke’s young wife said. “Two things a Southern girl can never be – too skinny or too tanned!”
Isabella rolled her eyes at her friend and looked out the window. “Such a nasty night,” she commented. “I am so glad all of you are staying here!”
Josh stared out at the storm again. “I second that!” he said. “But such a dark and stormy night, to borrow a phrase, should not be wasted. We need a ghost story or something!”
“Not one of your gory horror movies,” Isabella groaned.
“No, not that kind,” Josh said. “I mean something real. Surely one of us has had some sort of strange encounter with the unknown that would make for an entertaining tale on a night like this?”
Luke Martens simply shrugged his shoulders, and Alicia shook her head.
Josh looked across at Duncan. “Come on, old man,” he said. “You’ve been digging longer than any of us! Surely you can spin a tale or two.”
MacDonald laughed. “Oh, I’ve seen a few things,” he said. “But I can only think of one that is a fit tale for such a dreadful evening.”
“I knew it!” Josh said.
“Now, keep in mind,” the former priest said, “that, according to the Holy See, none of what I am about to tell you ever happened. In fact, Cardinal Klein went to his reward ten years ago, and he was the only one besides meself who was privy to all the details of what happened at this excavation. I know that our report is buried in the files of the Vatican Department of Antiquities, but it might not see the light of day for several centuries, if ever. So I suppose telling this wee tale might be considered as me doing my duty to Clio, the Muse of man’s past.”
Luke raised an eyebrow. “No one spins a yarn like a defrocked Scottish priest,” he said.
“Not defrocked,” Duncan said. “Just laicized. But yes, I have been accused of loquaciousness once or twice in my career. Now tell me, lads and lasses – have any of you ever heard of Saint Sevastre?”
“You’re talking to a room full of Baptists, other than Isabella and Katherine,” said Josh. “The only saints we study are the ones in the Bible.”
Isabella, the only other Catholic in the group, furrowed her brow. “I remember a good many saints from church as a girl,” she said. “But that one I cannot seem to recall.”
“Small wonder,” replied Duncan. “His story is buried deep in a couple of medieval chronicles, and his name quit showing up in the calendar of saints’ days sometime in the thirteenth century. He was a Gaul, and his Roman name was Sebastius. I was reading over some of my old notes on that dig shortly before we left for the states, and that’s what brought him to mind. Here is what the scholar Simon of Aquitaine wrote about him in the tenth century, although it was copied from a much older source, according to Simon: ‘And it came to pass that during the reign of the Emperor Caracalla that there was a judge named Marcus Decimus, whose hatred of the saints surpassed all others, and he imprisoned many sons and daughters of the true church. Among those arrested were a mother and daughter of exceptional piety, named Agnes and Dolores. When they were cast into prison, the other prisoners would fain have ravished them, but they were defended by another prisoner, a bishop who gave his name as Sebastius of Gaul. He slew one of the prisoners, a loud and lusty Greek named Loukas, with his bare hands after warning him to leave the women alone. The other prisoners withdrew to a corner of the cell, and when darkness fell Sebastius, having prayed for strength, tore the doors of the dungeon from their hinges and conducted the women to safety. They fled to Rome, and took sanctuary in the household of the Pope, Saint Zephyrinus, the fifteenth pontiff in direct line of succession from Saint Peter of blessed memory. When the Pope heard of their miraculous escape, he declared that Sebastius must have been blessed by God with supernatural strength like Samson of old. Not long after he heard that the blessed Sebastius had been martyred at the hands of Marcus Decimus’ legionaries, and Zephyrinus declared the Gaul to be numbered among the righteous, and a generation later, Pope Fabian proclaimed that he be numbered among the saints. It was said that some in the Gallic churches objected to this, claiming that Sevastre’s great strength – for such was their name for him - came not from God but from the devil. But these Gauls were held to be schismatics, and the Pope disregarded their tales as idle gossip. Thus the feast day of Saint Sevastre is held on the twenty-ninth day of October, two days before All Saints’ Day.’ That’s the official church version of Saint Sevastre’s martyrdom and canonization, and it was the earliest and best account available – until 1990, when we excavated his tomb.”
“Wait a minute!” said Joshua. “You actually found his burial place?”
“Not me, actually,” said Duncan. “It started when a very old church in France – I won’t give its name, but it was not far from the ancient Gallic stronghold of Alesia – decided to build a new rectory. As they were digging the foundations, they discovered part of the exterior wall of a church from the Fourth Century. I had just finished up a season of excavations at the catacombs of Turin, and the Department of Antiquities assigned my supervisor, Bishop Heinrich Klein, and me to excavate the site and determine its significance. We hired some local diggers, gridded the site off, and began to excavate within a couple of weeks of the discovery. We found that the church itself was small, but had a large building with multiple living chambers attached to it. We thought it was a monastery of some sort, but it was too early to belong to any known monastic order. Finally we did find an inscription on one of the walls inside. It referred to the ‘Order of the Watchful Guardians.’ That was a real puzzler! Remember, nothing was digitized back then, and we had Vatican librarians scrambling through ancient codices trying to find any reference they could to this cryptic order.”
“That does sound rather ominous,” Alicia said. “This is a good story!”
“It’s just beginning,” Duncan said. “We found a lead-lined chest inside one of the cubicle chambers of the building, and after several days of jiggering with it, managed to pick the lock and get it open. Inside we found a silver crucifix, an ancient robe that was once white, and a leather-bound codex in Greek. Cardinal Klein asked me to take some time off from the dig in order to translate the codex. It was written by a priest named Linus late in the Fourth Century, and described his journey to Gaul in order to build this watch-station and church at the direction of Pope Damasus. Much of its content was mundane, but as Linus arrived at the site where the church was being built, it got more and more interesting. Mind you, the actual codex is now filed in the most secret wing of the Vatican library, where even I cannot access it – but I did keep the notes that I took while translating it. The first entry that caught my attention was this: ‘Damasus has asked us to erect a watch-station here, with a consecrated altar below it, so that the evil that slumbers here may not be awakened again.’ The rest of that entry was about the laying of the church’s altar stone, but I’ll admit that piqued my interest.”
“What evil was he talking about?” Josh asked.
“Well, a few pages later, I got a clue. Linus wrote about a letter he received from Rome. As best I can remember, this was the gist of it: ‘Damasus, the Bishop of Rome, says that the well-known story of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastius, or Sevastre as the locals call him, is only a part of the truth about the man. Sebastius was indeed the pastor of a local flock during the persecutions of Marcus Decimus over two centuries ago. According to a letter received in Rome not long after his martyrdom, one of his disciples described how his master, out of good Christian charity, did receive into his home late one night a pale young maid, who told of being robbed and ravished by bandits as she rode with her family through a nearby forest. She seemed most distressed, and so the pastor bade her spend the night under his roof, in the watchful care of his own daughter. The next day the daughter awoke, and found no sign of the stranger they had sheltered. Going into her father’s bedchamber, she found him seemingly dead, his body pale and a slight wound upon his neck, although indeed there was no blood around it or on his bedding. Great was the mourning among his congregation at the loss of so kind a servant of God, and in vain did they search for the young maid who was believed to have somehow murdered her host. But no sign of her was ever seen, either before or since.”
“Then, that night, as Sevastre had been laid in his coffin and prepared for burial, he suddenly sat up, pale but alert, and great was the fear that struck his parishioners. But he told them that God has somehow vouchsafed his return from the arms of death, and spoke so many soothing words of faith and charity that they overcame their fear and rejoiced greatly.
For a time, the faithful of the church were content, rejoicing that God had seen fit to restore their pastor to them. But then dark whispers began to emerge, that Sevastre was somehow changed by his ordeal – that he shunned the light of day and was seen wandering far and wide after dark, and that his flesh never regained the tones of life, but retained the pallor of the grave. There were whispers of travelers attacked at night, dragged into the darkness and assaulted, waking hours later weakened and pale, with odd wounds about their necks and arms. Indeed, the elders of the congregation were about to send to Rome for counsel when the Emperor’s troops descended on their flock like the very wolves of Satan. Many were slain, and Sevastre himself was arrested and taken to the dungeon from whence his most celebrated escape occurred. For aiding in the escape of the faithful who were there imprisoned, he was beatified and later declared a saint.
However, the Pontiff of Rome recently came into possession of some notes from the trial and execution – if it can be called such – of Saint Sevastre, from the annals of Marcus Decimus himself, the scourge of the church in Gaul during the time of Caracalla. Damasus had a scribe make a copy and sent it to me, and it is grim reading. I will not copy it here verbatim, but this quote does much to explain our errand here: “The most Excellent Marcus Decimus was pleased to have captured the Christian leader Sebastius, who had murdered a fellow prisoner and helped two of his co-religionists escape not long before. He was sentenced to be torn apart by wild beasts during the Feast of Lupercal, but the lions could not kill the Christian, although they inflicted many grievous wounds upon him. As the day waned, his strength seemed to grow instead of waning, and he slew a lion with his bare hands. At this point the Tribune, recognizing that the Christian was under the bane of blood, ordered his Legionaries to bind the man, and they placed him in a bronze coffin bound with chains of silver, and buried him alive underneath the Temple of Mars. It was said that his cries could be heard coming from underneath the flagstones for many months thereafter . . .”
“This is getting better and better!” Josh said.
Duncan gave him a baleful glare. “And if you keep interrupting, it will get nowhere!” he scolded his young friend.
“Sorry, Father – I mean, Duncan,” Josh said with a rueful grin. The former cleric favored him with a wink to show he was only kidding, and then continued.
“That was as much of the ancient source that Linus quoted at that point, but a few entries later he referred to the narrative again. Here was the gist of what he wrote:
Once the altar of our church was complete, I bade my men to tear up the floor of the Temple of Mars (for it was long abandoned, like most of the old Roman temples in Gaul), and seek for the coffin of Sevastre. It was found after many hours of digging, and while the bronze had blackened with age, the silver chains were still tightly bound around it. The men carefully carried it to the crypt below the new altar, where we had prepared a niche for it. After it was lowered into place, I put my head against the lid for a few moments. Although it was very faint, it seemed to me that I did indeed hear something stirring inside, albeit feebly. I placed a crucifix on the lid and crossed myself, trying to forget the barely audible rustling and scratching! We kept vigil beside the coffin all night, lifting earnest prayers for the soul of Saint Sevastre, a good Christian who apparently was enthralled by darkness. The next day the crypt was sealed, the altar consecrated, and our order continued to work on the station where six of us will dwell from now on, guarding the church and the crypt, lest the evil that engulfed Sevastre visit this district again.
“The rest of the codex simply laid down the rules of the order, and the responsibility of the local bishop to make sure an ordained priest was always in attendance on the church there. Needless to say, the narrative caused quite a stir among the dig crew when I read my translation to them! Some of them – perhaps some of your relatives, Joshua -” he winked again at his American friend “- were already saying we had found the Catholic Dracula! Bishop Klein scotched that talk pretty quickly, of course.”
Duncan took a sip of his coffee, which he had flavored with a small dash of Scotland’s namesake beverage, and continued.
“We continued excavating for a couple more weeks before we uncovered the altar stone of the ancient church. The inscription on it was chilling. It simply read: Ecclesia Sancti Sebastius - Faxit Deus ut non evigilabit.”
“The Church of Saint Sebastius – God grant he not awaken again,” Josh translated softly.
“I am getting seriously creeped out here, Duncan!” said Alicia.
“I think my husband is pulling our legs,” Katharine said with an arched eyebrow.
“As a man o’the cloth, me dear lass, I assure you that is not the case,” MacDonald told her.
“Well, then, tell us the rest of it!” Luke Martens interjected. “It’s not polite to leave your friends hanging like this!”
MacDonald laughed, and looked at the group.
“I have forgotten how much I missed this,” he said. “It’s been too long since we were all together. Now, where was I?”
“The altar stone,” Isabella said.
“Aye, lassie, that was it precisely!” he said. As always, when he was telling a story, his Scottish brogue came on thick and strong. “It was mid-morning by the time we had that stone with its inscription uncovered and photographed, and of course all of us were dying to see if that bronze coffin was still there. Bishop Klein pretended to be indifferent, but even he was curious, however hard he tried to conceal it. So after lunch, he gave the order for us to lever the stone up and see what lay beneath it. T’was beastly heavy, but we managed to lift it up and pull it aside with damaging it. There was a gaping black hole underneath, and the smell of ancient soil and damp and rot rose up thick. I’m sure it was my imagination, but there was something different about this smell, unlike any tomb or catacomb I’ve ever explored. I can’t really explain it, but if evil has a smell, that was it!”
Isabella Sforza-Parker had never liked horror movies or scary stories, and as Duncan spoke those last words, she gave a small shudder and snuggled a little closer to her husband, who hugged her supportively. Mentally she was chastising herself – one of the world’s most well-known archeologists, and here she was mentally cowering at an old man’s tall tale! She deliberately leaned forward in order to hear Duncan’s every word as the story continued, defying her fears.
“I got a torch and shone it down into the hole, and we saw a very narrow set of steps, carved into ancient limestone, trailing downward. I was a young fellow then, and very spry, so I got two graduate students and headed downward into the crypt – although I’m not ashamed to admit I crossed myself as we dropped out of the sunlit world into that unholy chamber of death!”
“The chamber was small, but deep – the stairs went down a good six or seven meters below the surface before widening out into a rectangular chamber. A rectangular block of stone had been left protruding from the carved floor, a natural pedestal, about a half a meter high. On top of it rested an ancient bronze sarcophagus, clearly Roman in origin, decorated with beautiful reliefs of fauns and satyrs dancing as Pan played his pipes – although the details were obscured at first beneath centuries of dust and grime. A long silver chain was wound around the casket in loops about four or five inches apart, from the head all the way down to the foot. Heinrich Klein descended the steps at this point and carefully surveyed the scene, and our resident photographer, Thomas Reasoner – he was a bright lad, killed in Kosovo later on while serving as a relief worker there – snapped multiple pictures of the coffin and the inscriptions on the walls. Most of those were Latin prayers and scriptures from the Vulgate.”
Duncan took another sip of fortified coffee and continued.
“It was after three o’clock, but there were still several hours of daylight left. We had a tent set up to curate most of the artifacts in – nothing like the nice mobile labs we all had on the Isle of Capri, I can tell you that! – and a very rough trailer that all of us diggers slept in. But the modern church was actually temporarily vacated due to the construction at first, and our dig later, so we decided to bring the casket into the sanctuary in order to have room to study it and to keep it out of the elements. There were large rings sticking off of either side of the casket’s bottom, so we went back up topside and came back with some sturdy metal poles that had been left over from the scaffolding on the sides of the church. Surprisingly, the sarcophagus was not that heavy – I think it may have been bronze-plated wood instead of solid bronze. Six of us were able to lift it easily and slowly carry it up that narrow staircase on our shoulders and into the light of day.”
“How awesome that must have been!” Josh said. “Knowing that it had not traversed those steps in sixteen centuries or more!”
“The thrill of discovery has been the fuel of archeology since Heinrich Schliemann discovered the ruins of Troy, if not longer,” Duncan said. “We were all excited about discovering the remains of an ancient saint! So we carried the sarcophagus into the church and found an old wooden table that looked sturdy enough to hold it. I will say, though -” he paused for a moment. “This may be my imagination, but as we carried it across the threshold of the church, that bronze coffin seemed to grow heavier for just a moment, as if it did not want to enter consecrated ground. Of course, I had spent two days studying and translating that codex, so I was primed to believe odd things about Saint Sevastre at that point.”
“Once the casket was settled on the table, we went over it with brushes, cleaning away the dirt and grime and photographing the beautiful reliefs. The bronze was darkened with age, but this thing was a beautiful example of late second century Roman craftsmanship. I’ve often wondered if it was a casket prepared for Marcus Decimus himself. After the photography was done, Bishop Klein carefully began removing the silver chain that bound the sarcophagus shut. Our excitement mounted as we realized that we were about to gaze up on the features of a saint from the early days of the Church, before the time of Constantine even. I was doing the math in my head, trying to think of when Sevastre might have been born, and I realized that his grandfather could have known the Apostles! I said something to that effect out loud, and several of the others began commenting excitedly, and even Bishop Klein looked up from his work and gave me a smile and quick nod. He was a good man, a fine scientist and a devoted son of the Church. I miss him cruelly to this day.”
Joshua nodded. He barely knew Klein, since the German cardinal had been killed in the bombing of the Museum of Antiquities in Naples nearly a decade before, after the discovery of Pilate’s Testimonium, but during his brief acquaintance the man’s knowledge of Christian history and his passion for archeology had deeply impressed him.
“After the chain was removed, Bishop Klein pointed out that there was only a simple latch holding the casket closed. He called on us to gather around, and said a simple prayer for the dead from the old Latin mass, words that would have been familiar to Sevastre himself sixteen centuries before. Then he worked the latch loose and lifted the lid on the casket. We were prepared to see something awful – after all, this poor man had been buried alive after enduring torment at the jaws of wild beasts! But when the lid finally gave way and lifted up with a screech of ancient hinges – what met our eyes drove me to my knees in reverence.”
“Reverence?” Isabella asked, her dark Mediterranean eyebrows arching in surprise.
“You must understand, lass, I was a deeply religious Catholic raised in the pre-Vatican II church,” Duncan explained. “One thing that was driven into our heads at seminary was the old doctrine that the bodies of the saints were incorruptible! And Saint Sevastre – I get goose bumps to this day when I remember what we saw in that coffin!”
“Well out with it, man!” Luke said. “This suspense is unbearable.”
The wind outside had reached a howling crescendo, and as the thermometer dropped the sheets of rain were giving way to the unmistakable rattle of sleet on the windows. Despite the warmth of the fire, Alicia shivered slightly.
`Duncan laughed. He was a master storyteller, and all four of his friends – and his wife – were hanging on his every word.
“All right, lad,” he said. “The first thing I saw were the scratch marks on the coffin lid. I was right about it being bronze plate – the interior lid was dark, fine wood, probably mahogany, and there were deep gashes etched into it, desperate attempts to escape from a man who had been buried alive. But as for poor Sevastre – well, first of all, he looked like he died yesterday. His skin was slightly darkened, but every feature of his face was perfectly preserved, and he looked serene and calm. His hands were neatly folded under his chin in an attitude of prayer, as if he had realized his struggles were in vain and called on the Almighty as he felt his end approaching. But in forty years of archeology, as both a student and a field archeologist, I have never seen a human body so perfectly preserved – especially since, if the account was true of his burial, there had been no attempt whatsoever to embalm him! All of us felt it – I was not the only one who knelt in awe. For several minutes no one said a word, and finally it was Bishop Klein who broke the silence. He looked at us all and said: ‘Whatever his faults, this man died at peace with God, and the church was clearly correct in canonizing him, for his flesh is as incorrupt as any saint’s has ever been.’ Then he began barking out orders, and Tom began snapping pictures, and the spell was broken. Don’t get me wrong, we were still excited, but it was a different kind of excitement. After the pictures were taken, Klein lowered the lid on the casket, and we went out to our mess tent and enjoyed supper prepared by a local woman who had agreed to serve as our caterer for the duration of the dig. I remember that she turned pale when she overheard us talking about seeing the face of Saint Sevastre in person, although when I asked her about him later, she insisted that the name meant nothing to her.”
He sipped the last of his coffee and held the cup out to Josh, who got up and poured him a bit more. Duncan decided to forego the dash of Scotch this time, and sipped the bittersweet brew, relishing its heat as he listened to the ice falling outside.
“What happened next was a dream. Let me emphasize that right up front. It had been a deeply emotional day, and I had breathed in quite a bit of ancient fungus down in that crypt, so I do not think for one moment that what I saw that night was real. But it does show just how strongly the day’s events weighed on my mind, and that’s why I include it in my tale. I went to bed shortly after eleven, having said my nightly rosary, and sleep came almost instantly. At first, my dreams were snatches of various moments from my life – my mother, urging me to become a priest, my first tour of a Roman ruin, snippets of lectures from my years in seminary and graduate school, a dig in Beirut from a few years earlier -”
His voice caught for a moment, although only his wife knew why. Then he swallowed hard and continued. “But then I dreamed I got up and put on my shoes, afraid that something had gone horribly wrong in the church. I walked across the campsite, from the rickety trailer they had housed us in. It was raining softly, and the front door of the church was standing open. When I entered, I saw that the coffin was open again. A strange sense of dread and wonder overcame me, and I crept forward to look on the saint’s face once more. But then I saw that the coffin was empty! I turned to run to the cottage where Bishop Klein was staying and tell him about it, when I saw a figure standing in the door of the church, silhouetted in the faint light. Then it stepped forward and I saw none other than Sevastre himself. He was wearing the same simple brown tunic he had been buried in, and although his skin was still dark, his lips looked red in the light of the candles. When he saw me, something dark and savage flared in his gaze for a moment – but then he looked more closely at me, his eyes also tinged with red, and he saw my clerical collar. His features underwent a strange transformation, as hunger gave way to a look of profound regret and shame. Then he gestured with at me with his hand, and all went black. I woke in my bed the next morning.”
Alicia looked at him with a mixture of awe and skepticism.
“Are you SURE you’re not making this up?” she said.
“The lack of trust among you children these days is so disturbing,” the former priest scolded. “I told you this story was true, and I meant it! Well, when I woke the next morning, I noticed two things. First of all, my shoes, which I had left neatly at the foot of my bed, were now lying alongside it, carelessly tossed down. I figured one of the others had kicked them getting dressed in the dark, and thought nothing of it. But when I came out of the trailer, there was quite a stir in the camp. Bishop Klein was, as you Americans put it, on the warpath! Someone had crept into the church overnight and opened the lid on the casket, and left it that way. Of course, Saint Sevastre was still there, looking exactly as he did when we found him – nearly enough. His skin had lightened a bit, and some of the creases in his face were not as deep as they had been. Klein grilled us all as to who had done it, but no one would confess, and he was out of sorts all day long. He spent a good part of the day back in town, on a long distance line from the local bishop’s house to Rome, trying to get instructions as to what he should do with the body of Saint Sevastre. There was some stir in the town, because a young woman had been attacked walking home from her brother’s house that evening. She was not seriously harmed, just some cuts to the neck, but she was so traumatized by the event that she had no memory of it at all. When Madame LeFlour brought our food that night, she was unusually nervous and out of sorts. All of us seemed to be on edge, and two of the graduate students who were digging up the last outer wall of the old church even got into a fist fight. That night I had the same dream again, and again, the next morning, the coffin lid was open, and Sevastre’s face was lighter and even more lifelike. Obviously, the scientific explanation is that his naturally mummified body was slowly rehydrating, but it was extremely unnerving to see him lying there, so well-preserved that I expected his eyes to open any minute. Klein was even more angry now – he was prepared to send the lot of us back to Rome, I think, if someone did not speak up soon – but the thing is, looking at the faces of my comrades, I don’t think any of us did it. We were, for lack of a better word, scared to death of what we had found. That fear intensified when the local bishop came up to see the body of the saint and told us that another woman had been attacked in the night – the owner of a local tavern had found his wife out back, next to the ash cans, her dress torn and her neck lacerated. She, too, was expected to recover in full, and she, too, had no memory of being attacked.”
He took another sip of coffee, looked at the cup, and decided to pour a bit of liquor into it after all. Despite the roaring fire, the old memories had chilled him a bit. He pulled Katharine closer to him, relishing the freedom, after thirty years of celibacy, to be physically affectionate to a woman he loved.
“By now Klein was more worried than angry. That night, before we shut the church doors – more and more curious local priests and parishioners were showing up that day, wanting a glimpse of the ancient saint – the Bishop took his crucifix and placed it on the corpse’s breast, then lowered the lid of the casket. It was still shut the next morning, and there were no reported incidents that night. All of us were looking at one another, and a few had already begun whispering the word that was on all of our minds – vampire! Of course, it was the late twentieth century. No one actually believed that sort of thing any more. We told ourselves that over and over, and as long as the sun shone in the sky, I think most of us believed it.”
Duncan heaved a long sigh and looked at all of his friends. The skepticism in their faces was gone, replaced by pure fascination.
“Now, as for this last bit – I want you to understand, I SAW nothing myself. At least, nothing of what happened in the Church. I had said my rosary, and was not quite sleepy enough for bed yet, so I decided to pull my shoes on and walk around the ancient church we had uncovered. I was standing there, beside that altar stone with its strange inscription, when I heard the door of the modern church slam loudly, and Bishop Klein came running out, as pale as a sheet. I asked him what was wrong, but he said nothing, only crossing himself before hopping into his auto and gunning it straight to town. The next morning, two large vans pulled up onto the site. In an hour’s time, they loaded up the codex, the altar stone, and the official site report, unfinished though it was. All that went into one van, and then they opened the back door of the second van and carried a heavy, solid silver chain into the church. They went right by me, and I saw that every single link had the sign of the cross etched into it. Moments later, they emerged, carrying the closed sarcophagus, now tightly bound with the chain. They loaded it into the van and drove off. Cardinal Klein called us all together and told us that we were bound by sacred oath never to speak of the excavation, or our discoveries, again, under pain of excommunication. And I have kept that vow until tonight, my friends, with one exception.”
“Don’t worry, Duncan, your secret is safe with us,” Josh said.
“Of course it is,” Luke added. “But – may I ask one final question?”
“Absolutely!” Duncan said. “But I canna guarantee I’ll be able to answer it.”
“What did Klein see?” Martens inquired.
“Oddly enough, he violated his own injunction about ten years later,” McDonald replied. “We were on a dig in Jordan, near the city of Petra, looking for the copper mines mentioned in the Old Testament, and stayed up late into the night talking. I asked him that very question you asked me now, and I could tell he was eager to answer it, despite his initial reluctance. Finally he opened up and told me. He had suspected, of course, the same thing we all did – that’s why he put his crucifix on Sevastre’s chest that third night. But he was curious, too. So shortly before midnight he went into the church and raised the lid of the casket. Sevastre lay there, calm as ever, hands still in an attitude of prayer. Klein looked at the Saint’s face, and it seemed to him as if the expression had changed. One moment, there was serenity and peace, but the next, some stark, raving hunger lurked behind that sleeping countenance. Fascinated, Heinrich reached down and removed his crucifix from the ancient corpse.”
Duncan looked at his coffee, then shook his head and took a quick pull from the steel flask he carried in his pocket. He swallowed, grimaced, and continued.
“As God is my witness, friends, this is what Cardinal Klein, God rest his soul, told me that night in the desert, and it gives me chills to this day. He lifted the crucifix and started to put it back around his neck, when suddenly Sevastre’s eyes opened wide, and his lips drew back. He did not have long fangs, as the movies portray, but rather every single incisor had a needle point on it. Heinrich started to recoil in terror, but that bony hand shot out and grasped him with a terrible, supernatural strength. Heinrich said the hunger on that face was so intense that he feared for his life, but suddenly the features twisted. That serene and peaceful face was fighting for control with the ravening beast, and for just a moment, it prevailed. Then Sevastre spoke, and cried out in Latin: ‘Propter Deum, posuit illud!’ - ‘For God’s sake, put it back!’ Klein dropped the crucifix back into the casket, and suddenly the ancient corpse resumed its former pose, hands folded, face serene. He came running out of the Church, drove to town, and called the Vatican directly. You all know, now, what happened the next morning, and that is why the name of Saint Sevastre is nowhere to be found in the calendar of saints to this day. Still, I like to think that he retained enough of his godly nature that he would rather be chained till Judgment Day than be driven to prey on the innocent any further. Perhaps his canonization was not unwarranted, under the circumstances.”
Duncan MacDonald stood and stretched, taking Katherine by the hand.
“That my friends, is the full story,” he said. “You asked for something dark and frightening, and that’s the darkest thing I have ever been a part of. I bid you all a good night and pleasant dreams.”
As it turned out, none of Josh’s guests, except Duncan himself, slept soundly that night at all.