FATHER STRAVINO'S LAST BATTLE by Ray O'Bannon
The three monks standing at the gates of the castle were not merely men of virtue. They were men of very specific virtues, and had been sent here in hopes that their combined strengths might overcome the demon they were facing. The monastery had sent them with nothing whatsoever in the form of conventional weaponry, since all involved were certain the enemy was of supernatural origin, and therefor impervious to physical damage. Each monk carried a wooden cross and a book of scriptures, as well as a few personal items needed for the journey. Father Veneti seemed satisfied at having a few extra books in his pack, and Father Brunello always seemed satisfied pretty much regardless of the situation. But Father Stravino would have been much more comfortable if he'd been allowed to bring a crossbow or at least a small sword. Not that he didn't have faith in their ability to succeed. Father Stravino was a man of great faith. That was why he was here, standing in the rain beside the castle gates.
The explosion had startled everyone at the monastery. The cause was soon discovered to be the mail carriage, which arrived twice a month to this remote location, bringing correspondence from the nearby village. The carriage had crashed into a small supply shed where lantern oil was kept, and something had caused the volatile liquid to ignite. The carriage driver had escaped with only a broken ankle, but was delirious, screaming for someone to save him from the hideous flying man he claimed was chasing him. Most of the mail was destroyed in the fire, but one package was at least partly saved from the destruction. It was from Father Angelo, the priest who oversaw the church in the tiny village, and was addressed to Bishop Litani, the leader of the monastery. Bishop Litani carried the smoldering fragments into his private chamber, where he remained for many hours. He then came forth to share the horrible news with the rest of the monks.
The village had been destroyed, and nearly everyone in it had been killed. The buildings had been burned to the ground, and as the few survivors watched fearfully from the little stone church, a dark winged creature was seen swooping down into the flames and then carrying away bodies. Father Angelo's letter explained that this horrible vampire must be stopped before it destroyed other innocent villages. He had drawn a map showing the location of the ruined castle the monster dwelt in, and enough of the map remained to serve its purpose. There had also been a page explaining about the things needed to conquer this evil abomination, but most of that page had been lost to the flames. Only three words remained clearly legible: sacrifice, wisdom, faith.
The monks gathered to consider the situation, and it was decided that the individuals among them who best exemplified the three virtues mentioned would be the emissaries sent out to battle the vampire. Everyone agreed that Father Brunello was the most personally sacrificing soul among them. He was so giving and generous that his robe had no pockets, for he kept nothing for himself. He had always given all he had when others were in need, and had always done so with an expression of deep satisfaction and contentment. Father Veneti was without question the most scholarly among them, with a vast knowledge of many subjects, so it was agreed that he would bring sufficient knowledge and wisdom to the mission. Father Stravino was thought to be the most faithful among the monks for having once lived nine days without food and water, while lost in the mountains. The diary he had kept told of his absolute faith that he would be saved. He wasn't feeling the same confidence now, but if the other monks considered him strong enough for this mission then he certainly wasn't going to embarrass them by saying he wasn't.
And so the three monks journeyed to the village. They found the little stone church destroyed, and no survivors were found anywhere. As the sky grew overcast, the trio made their way up the side of the nearby mountain, at the top of which sat the ruined castle. As they reached the ancient structure the rain began, and a fierce wind rose up to push them across the suddenly slick cobblestones, threatening to send them falling over the edge of the tall mountain. They managed to reach the front gates, and stood catching their breath for a moment under the huge stone arch. Father Veneti pushed against the large iron gates to be sure they were locked, and the three monks stared in astonishment as the gates swung silently open.
Beyond the gates was a very deep moat. Rain had filled the bottom, where large boulders could be seen, and the only apparent method of crossing this chasm was a frail looking bridge made of wood and rope. It now swung back and forth in the angry wind as though wanting to tear itself away. It was obvious that the narrow rotting bridge would only support one of them at a time. They stood staring at the darkened castle entrance on the far side of the moat. And a sudden tremendously strong gust of wind hit them from behind, sending all three of them tumbling into the chasm.
Father Brunello managed to grasp a large tree root that reached out near the rim of the moat, and he now dangled a few feet from the bridge. Father Veneti had slid at least twenty feet down the side of the moat, and now clung to an outcropping of rock. And still farther down the chasm's side lay Father Stravino, sprawled unconscious on a small ledge.
Pulling himself along the tree root, Father Brunello was able to reach the bridge and climb onto it. He looked down to see Father Veneti carefully climbing back up the jagged side of the moat, while Father Stravino still lay motionless. He considered his options for a moment, and decided the most important thing was to stop the horrible creature they were searching for. Father Veneti looked up in time to see Father Brunello vanishing alone into the darkened castle entrance.
I short while later, Father Veneti managed to reach the top of the chasm, and raced to the foot of the bridge. He looked down to see Father Stravino still hadn't moved, and feared the monk must be dead. Trying his best to be brave, he started off across the frail rotting bridge in pursuit of Father Brunello. The inky black entrance seemed to swallow him eagerly.
Father Stravino awoke with an unbearable headache, but found himself otherwise unharmed. He gradually made his way up the wet slippery wall of rock, and again stood gazing at the darkened castle entrance. Clutching his little wooden cross, he started forward.
The dark castle entrance led into a long narrow chamber. The door at this chamber's far end had been bricked up, and a large hole gaped in the floor. Father Stravino was certain the others must have gone this direction, so he carefully lowered himself through the hole and dropped the short distance to the marble floor below. He was now very much aware of no longer having a way to exit the castle if he should need to. He looked about the chamber, hoping to find something tall enough for him to stand on so he could reach the hole he had dropped through. And that's when he saw Father Brunello's crumpled form.
There was a dark massive bloodstain on one of the chamber walls, and another directly across from it. Below this second terrible splotch of red lay Father Brunello, and it looked as though he had somehow been crushed. Glancing around the room in horror, Father Stravino noticed a hole in one of the walls, perhaps two feet square. Inside the hole was what looked like gears, very large and very rusty ones. As he stared uncomprehendingly at them, they began to move. And the two bloodstained walls began sliding toward each other with a massive grinding sound. Father Stravino now realized how Father Brunello had met his doom, and the chamber was now closing in upon itself to smash another victim.
Father Stravino spun madly back and forth, knowing his hands would be crushed if he tried to grasp the huge rusty gears, and he saw no way of stopping the slowly advancing walls. He began pushing as hard as possible against one of the walls to see if he could slow its progress. But a large crack in the marble floor caused him to slip and fall painfully to his knees. A few coins had fallen from his pockets, and he automatically reached down to retrieve them. He had been saving the coins to buy toys, which he had planned on sending to an orphanage in a distant village. He now had grave doubts about ever having the chance to do this good deed, and it seemed such an unfortunate sacri...
The sudden realization sent him plunging desperately towards the hole in the wall. His trembling hands carefully placed the small stack of coins between the teeth of a gear, his fingers nearly being smashed as the opposite gear swung a tooth towards them. But the little stack of coins caused the two massive gears to lock up, and the walls stopped moving.
A door now slid open beside the hole, where the gears still seemed to strain futilely at crushing the coins. Beyond the door was a set of stone steps, leading downward. Father Stravino looked back at the mangled body of Father Brunello. It seemed such a horrible mockery that a man so willing to offer such large gifts of generosity and compassion had nothing as trivial as a few small coins to sacrifice. The foul monster they chased must have somehow known this would be the case, and Father Stravino began to realize the true depth of the evil they were fighting. Clutching his little wooden cross tightly, he marched through the doorway and descended the steps.
The monk found himself in an odd chamber with a raised walkway down its center. The walkway was perhaps two feet higher that the surrounding floor, and led to a waist high platform at the far end of the room. Upon the platform was a large stone tablet with mysterious lettering. It was illuminated by a group of candles flickering behind a very large sheet of stained glass set into a recess in the wall, directly above the platform. In the dim illumination, Father Stravino could dimly discern several large holes in the walls to either side, and the chamber had an odd scorched look, as though it had once held a great many torches or perhaps a large bonfire. As he approached the platform to inspect the stone tablet, Father Stravino noticed the pile of ashes lying on the walkway. Closer inspection revealed the truth...he was staring down at Father Veneti's charred remains.
As his mind reeled at this new horror, there was a deep gurgling sound from somewhere beneath the floor, and steam began pouring from the holes he'd noticed in the walls. A few seconds later bright glowing lava lit the chamber as it poured out from the holes and spilled to the lower section of the floor. It puddled along the edges of the walls and then began seeping out towards the walkway that crossed the room's center. Father Stravino stood staring at the stone tablet, trying desperately to make sense of the mysterious lettering. He glanced back to see the lava filling the lower floor area, leaving only the walkway exposed above it's bubbling surface. He continued studying the strange lettering, his mind racing as the lava began to spill onto the walkway. The lettering refused to make any sense to him, and Father Stravino realized he was out of time.
The situation was so completely frustrating that Father Stravino found himself grasping the stone tablet and shaking it in frustration. How dare this foul vampire taunt him so? The indignity was unbearable, and he suddenly hurled the tablet directly into the sheet of stained glass. Broken shards flew everywhere, and the tablet went tumbling into the emptiness behind the candles. Stepping forward, the monk saw a dark passage that had been hidden by the glass. He crawled atop the platform as the lava was covering the last of the walkway, and made his way past the candles and into the darkened passage beyond.
As he crept down the passageway, his mind shuddered at the implications of his situation. Father Veneti had depended upon such vast knowledge, and yet all that was needed was the wisdom to see the situation's simplicity. Father Stravino suspected the foul demon was somehow aware of everything that was taking place, and was enjoying their misjudgments. He told himself not to worry, that he had not been sent here because of anything to do with the making of decisions. He was here because he was known to have faith. But he feared his faith would be somehow challenged. Would he be strong enough to resist the monster's foul temptations? Could he hold tight to his faith no matter what nightmarish visions were visited upon him? Father Stravino was trembling as he reached the end of the passage, and stepped out into the vampire's burial chamber.
The low stone room held an elegantly carved coffin, which now lay open and empty. Against the far wall sat a large throne-like chair, and in this chair sat the vile monstrosity the monks had hoped to destroy. It was shaped roughly like a man, but had massive black wings which it now unfurled as it rose to stand before the terrified Father Stravino. "Please" it whispered in a soft melodic voice, "step closer."
The monk advanced a few hesitant steps before pausing. Father Stravino then raised the little wooden cross as though it were both a weapon and a shield. "You cannot shake my faith, foul demon" he began. As he continued, a sense of righteous anger built up inside him. "My belief is pure! My faith is strong, and you will NOT weaken it!" His voice grew louder there in the stone chamber. "Father Brunello may have lacked the right sort of offering to sacrifice, and Father Veneti may have had the wrong sort of wisdom, but faith is basic!" His voice rose louder still. "Faith is beyond your lies and contrivances! FAITH is INDESTRUCTABLE! You CAN NOT destroy it!" And at this point Father Stravino was screaming. "AND I HAVE FAITH!!!"
"I'm very happy for you" purred the vampire. "And you aren't entirely incorrect in thinking your little cross can destroy me. It can indeed do so under the correct circumstances." The creature smiled faintly. "Unfortunately for you, these are not the correct circumstances. You see, my dear fellow..." grinned the monster, "you aren't the one who has to have the faith. I am."
And then the vampire leaped forward and Father Stravino was no more.