Story by Michael M. Jones
Illustration by John Waltrip
It was well past midnight in Vatican City. Outside, the world held its breath as it awaited the white smoke signifying the election of the next Pope. Inside, the Cardinals debated and argued and prepared for yet another round of voting. Underground, in the labyrinth of centuries-old tunnels which honeycombed the city, a desperate battle raged between good and evil. Though the fighting had begun somewhere under St. Peter’s Basilica, they were now closer to the Apostolic Palace, in a disused corridor lined with alcoves filled with statues of saints and decorated with threadbare tapestries. It was a location left behind by time and progress, unexpectedly brought back to prominence by the night’s events.
The aggressor: a dark-clad figure made up of shadows and hatred, blood and fangs. His form constantly shifted, never entirely solid as though held together only by sheer will. He wore the ragged remnants of papal finery, his chasuble billowing out like dark wings, pallium draped loosely, its ends whipping viciously with every movement. He proudly sported an elegant though tarnished silver tiara, his only spot of brightness. The Church’s deepest, darkest secret, filled with hunger and vindictive self-righteousness.
The defender: a middle-aged, bearded man dressed in a simple white cassock, head covered with a white zucchetto, a silver pectoral cross dangling from the red cord around his neck. He shimmered with a holy light, a soft and soothing radiance which banished any shadows it touched. The Church’s secret defender, a man whose faith had summoned him back from the shores of death to serve and protect in times of crisis.
The sole witness: a sleek grey cat which had found awkward perch in an alcove formerly home to a statue of the Virgin Mary—now smashed and forgotten, its pieces strewn across the floor. Her eyes stared upwards in silent disapproval. The cat’s vivid green eyes missed nothing, darting back and forth between the combatants.
“Get out of my way, Urban,” hissed the dark man, lunging forward with razor-sharp claws and bared fangs. “We’ve danced before, and you know you can’t destroy me. You will fail, and the new Pope’s blood will be mine!”
Saint Urban, once called Pope Urban I, leader of the Catholic Church from 222-230, merely smiled, blocking his foe’s attack with a pastoral staff conjured from his holy aura. He quickly twirled the rod to jab at the monster with its cross-tipped knob. “John,” he scolded, his tone gentle yet firm. “When will you accept that your time was over a thousand years ago? The Church has moved on. The world has moved on. You need to do the same. Accept this, and embrace God’s love. He forgives you your trespasses; if only you’d repent.” Though the two spoke forms of Italian separated by centuries, they understood each other quite fine.
John, once known as John XIVb, the lost Pope of 984 who had been transformed into a vampire and struck from the Liber Pontificalis and later the Annuario Pontificio in perpetuity, reeled back from the staff’s warmth. Its light touched the edge of his shadows, burning them away. His eyes flared with red rage, and he regrouped several steps away, outline blurred and angry. “You’ve made this argument before, Urban, and the answer remains the same. No! I’ll kill whoever those apostates elect, and finally reclaim my place as the one true Pope. I’ll end a millennium of antipopes and heretics, and make them pay for erasing me from history!”
Urban sighed deeply, sad eyes betraying the pain John’s words incurred. “It’s not your fault,” he soothed. “The Devil whispered in your ear and seduced you. But you betrayed the Church. You killed so many innocents before you were stopped. We should have destroyed you when it first happened, but it didn’t seem right to condemn God’s chosen voice on Earth to such a fate. Better by far to redeem you and let you perish a martyr rather than a monster.” He shook his head. “I’m so sorry, John. For all of this.”
With lightning speed and a furious cry, John picked up a piece of the shattered Virgin Mary and whipped it at Urban. Though the holy man tried to deflect the missile, it clipped his shoulder. With a gasp more of surprise than pain, he dropped the glowing staff, which vanished as soon as it left his grasp. The corridor dimmed considerably, shadows stretching out unnaturally. John stalked forward. “You’ve grown old and weak over the years Urban, while I’ve drunk deeply from hundreds of victims over the centuries. Gathering my strength. Gathering my power. Every time you caught me and returned me to my prison, I held a little more in reserve, letting it build over time.” His smile grew inhumanly wide, his cold eyes victorious. “Every time I killed one of those false Popes, I devoured their essence, knowing that someday I’d overcome you once and for all, and clear the way for my ascension. Damasus I, Celestine IV, Pius III, Marcellus II, Urban VII…and of course, John Paul I. All screaming inside me, making me so much more than I once was. You’re the dim past. I have always been and will always be, the immortal future. I will be the Last Pope, as long prophesied!”
Urban stood his ground, attempting to conjure his staff again, but the light flickered fitfully, unable to coalesce. Desperately, he held up the cross around his neck, channeling his faith into it, desperately muttering in Latin. “In Nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sanct…”
John snorted, reaching out to tear the cross off its cord. He flung it behind him with a contemptuous bark of laughter, where it clattered to the floor. “That may work on demons and normal vampires, but you can’t repel me with holy symbols and prayers, you idiot.” He shook his head. “How you ever bested me all those other times, I’ll never know.” He put both hands to Urban’s chest and shoved, hard. The other man stumbled backward, tripping over a piece of debris and crumbling to the ground with a pained grunt. The shadows threatened to swallow the last of the light as John loomed over his would-be victim.
“No,” Urban said, reaching out to ward off another attack. “You can’t—you mustn’t. The world needs this new Pope. He can do great things for us all. Please, John. In God’s name, have mercy! Remember where you came from, why you answered the call in the first place!” He crossed himself instinctively. “You can stop this!”
“The only way this will stop is with your death, you pathetic relic. I’ve always wondered what you’d taste like…” John opened his mouth wide like a snake’s, fangs aimed at Urban’s throat.
“Now, Romulus!” screamed Urban. And the cat leaped from its spot in the alcove, transforming from small housecat into something much larger—a sleek grey creature with great white angel wings and halo-golden eyes. It collided with the vampire, sending John tumbling backward with a surprised, frustrated hiss. The feline angel leaped again, pinning him to the floor.
Before his foe could react, Urban flung out a hand, praying for a miracle with all his strength in the name of all that was good and righteous, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. At first nothing. But then the corridor shook, causing the well-worn statue of an early saint to tremble and topple right onto John, trapping him. Romulus sprang away just before the impact, reverting back to its former form in the same instant.
Urban clambered to his feet and limped over to John, who was already struggling to dislodge the statue. “I’m sorry,” he said. Pulling a stake from within his cassock, he thrust it into John’s blackened, withered heart. “Whittled from a piece of the True Cross and blessed by Saint Peter himself. I know it can’t kill you, but it’ll strip you of your powers.” He smiled sorrowfully. “You’re not going anywhere, John. Except to an even more remote and much more secure prison. I’m afraid you’re right, it’s too much of a risk keeping you anywhere near the Vatican. I believe they’re sending you to Alaska, of all places. ”
John could only glare at Urban and the cat, which was busy grooming itself. “Someday, we’ll do this again and you won’t be so lucky.”
Urban crossed himself again. “Someday, perhaps you’ll repent, and we can welcome you back into God’s embrace. And then you can find your eternal rest in Heaven at long last. I have faith, as always.”
As members of the Swiss Guard, led by a special detachment from the Secret Archives, finally arrived to deal with their ancient shame, Urban turned and strode down the hallway. The newcomers didn’t even seem to notice him, their eyes sliding right by him as he passed. Only one elderly priest nodded in silent acknowledgment and thanks. Urban returned the nod with a smile but didn’t stop. The priest went back to directing the cleanup.
“That was too close, Romulus,” Urban told his companion.
“You’re telling me,” it replied as they turned a corner. “Next time how about less preaching, more action?”
“Oh, my friend, what good would we be if we didn’t give everyone, however deluded or evil, a chance for redemption?”
“That’s how you were martyred in the first place, and look how that turned out. Worst death ever…”
Then they were gone, until the next time they were needed.
— ♦♦♦ —
Next week we offer a follow up to our Christmas story from 2016 titled “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. Detective Lasky is at his worst in “A Hard Kiss Goodbye”. It had been a real blow discovering that his partner, Stephanie Jones, wasn’t the perfect human being he’d always made her out to be. It did mean that he cracked more cases than ever. But he made a mistake that could cost him his life. On top of, that Steph’s ex floated back in town. What the hell was he gonna do now?