The hard part about the end of the world is surviving it, surviving when no angels scoop you up to fly you away to heaven. God doesn’t speak. But I kept asking.
“Unser Vadder im Himmel . . .”
My breath was ragged in my throat, my voice blistering around the words of the Lord’s Prayer. I spoke in Deitsch, the way my people always did when we prayed. It didn’t matter if evil understood me, only God.
“. . . Dei Naame loss heilich sei . . .”
I opened my arms, my coat and dark skirts flapping around my legs and wrists. I stared out at a field, holding a sharpened pole in each fist. One had been a garden hoe in a previous life and the other a shovel. The metal had been stripped from them, but they were still tools. Weapons. A crumpled piece of paper was fastened to my chest with straight pins, the writing growing faint and illegible in the gathering darkness.
Darkness with eyes.
“Dei Reich loss komme . . .”
I strained to see into the night. Shapes seethed. I knew that something terrible was out there. The bullfrogs had stopped chanting and the late-season crickets had gone silent. I heard crunching in leaves, saw something shining red.
“Dei Wille loss gedu sei.”
My knuckles whitened on the wood in my hands.
My head snapped around, my bonnet string slapping my chin. I could see two familiar figures retreating behind me. A short, round woman scurried through the field. Her platinum hair was bright against the night, almost appearing as a moon bobbing along churning water. She reached a nervous white horse who was pawing at the earth, clambered clumsily onto its back. Between her and me, a lanky shadow in a dark jacket gestured at me with white hands. Alex.
Bonnet. That was Alex’s nickname for me. My real name is Katie.
Alex said that God did not rule the end of the world. Alex said the end of the world was ruled by sun and Darkness. By time. And time was one thing we had very little of. The light had drained out of the day, and we were vulnerable.
I saw Alex taking off his jacket, wading through the grass toward me. I swallowed. That meant that he sensed the same thing I did, that the hair also stood up on the back of his neck, that he was ready to fight.
He stripped off his shirt. My heart flip-flopped for a moment and my grip on the stakes slackened for a fraction of a second. His pale skin was covered by black sigils that seemed to blur in the twilight. It was cold, but for them to work well, the creatures pursuing us needed to see them—the same reason I’d pinned the petition to God to my chest.
I worked the prayer through my teeth, one eye on the horizon, at the roiling shadows in the east.
“ . . . Uff die Erd wie im Himmel.”
“Damn it, Bonnet.” He grabbed my elbow. He tore the white bonnet off my head, stuffed it into his pocket.
I snatched at the strings. “Don’t . . .”
“This thing makes you a target. I could see you from all the way back there.” He stabbed a thumb at Ginger’s retreating figure on horseback, melting into the grass. “It shines like a beacon.”
I lifted my chin. “Ja. Maybe it should.”
This was an argument we repeated often. Though the end of the world had come, I adhered to the old ways. I was born Amish, and I would die Amish.
But hopefully not tonight.
Alex’s eyes narrowed and he looked over my head. I could feel his hand grow cold through the sleeve of my dress.
“They’re here,” I breathed.
Alex pulled me back, back into the tall grass disturbed by a breeze.
My breath hissed behind my teeth:
“Unser deeglich Brot gebb uns heit,
Un vergebb unser Schulde,
Wie mir die vergewwe wu uns schuldich sinn.”
I ran. I felt the grass slashing around my skirts as I plunged into the gathering night. The landscape slipped past, and I had the feeling of flying for a moment, of hurtling through that striped shadow in which no crickets sang.
But I knew that a more solid Darkness gathered behind me. I could feel it against my back, the way the air grew thick and cold, the way it felt above the earth right before first frost.
The last lines of the Lord’s Prayer slipped from my lips:
“Un fiehr uns net in die Versuchung,
Awwer hald uns vum ewile.
Fer dei is es Reich, die Graft,
Un die Hallichkeit in Ewichkeit . . .”
Evil hissed behind me, crackling like ice popping over a fire. I felt the thread of a spider web slip through the grass, breaking on my hands.
I turned, swinging the hoe in an arc around me. It whipped through the grass with the sound of a card trapped in bicycle spokes. A pair of glowing eyes leapt back, but claws scrabbled around the makeshift stake. I lunged with the second weapon in my left hand. The point struck home into something solid, and that something shrieked. I fought back the urge to shudder.
Nothing human made a sound like that. It was a sound like a bobcat wailing at sunset, mourning the loss of the day. Only this shadow mourned the loss of flesh.
Alex, ever the anthropologist, had a theory about that sound. In the calmer daylight hours, he speculated that this shriek had been at the root of the banshee myth, in an earlier, more orderly age. Once upon a time, when there had been civilization. I’d never heard the myth before, but I knew that inhuman sound all too well now.
The stake broke off in my hand, and I stumbled back with only splinters in my fist. Something swept up from the grass and ripped at my sleeve with claws.
I howled, smelling my own blood. The scent would bring more of them.
I twisted in its grip. The letter pinned to the front of my dress rustled and the creature with the glowing eyes hissed. It loosened its hold, enough for me to jam the ruined stake into its face.
I was no longer a pacifist. I meant to kill.
I was no stranger to death. We Amish lived close to the earth, under the watchful eye of God and all of his kingdom. I had helped with the butchering of pigs, mourned the loss of dogs at my kennel in whelping. I had stood at the bedsides of my grandparents when they died. I’d held my mother’s last child, a stillborn, and witnessed a neighbor die during childbirth. Those things had happened in normal life.
But when life stopped and God’s kingdom fell into shadow, I saw death in an entirely different fashion. I had dressed the bodies of women in my community for burial, only to be forced to cut their heads off before daylight’s fingers of sunshine had left them. I had seen children torn asunder, reduced to unrecognizable smears on a ceiling. I had slain men who were once like brothers to me, impaled them, and burned them.
I had seen too much.
I had seen true Darkness.
My heart thudded against the fabric of my dress and the holy letter pinned there—small defense against the undead, but still a defense. I thrust down with all my might to jam the stick into the face of the creature twisting beneath me in the grass.
This was not murder, I had decided. This was doing the Lord’s dirty work. Putting the dead back in the earth.
I glanced up to see a pale face with a gaping maw hurtling toward me. I saw fangs, red eyes, little else. I flung my right hand with my remaining stake up before me, but the creature slammed against it, buffeting me back to the sea of grass. I landed on my backside, my feet tangled in my skirt. Its cold shadow passed over me, blocking out the pinpricks of starlight in violet sky. It smelled like blood.
“Food,” it rasped. “Lovely food . . .” It reached toward my face, gently, reverently, almost as an intimate might. It was a very human gesture, rendered savage by the greed in the red eyes. By hunger for the blood that slipped down my arm and pooled in my palm.
“Get away from her!”
A black and white blur passed between me and death. Alex. From behind, I could see the familiar tattoos stretching across his skin: a Djed pillar, sacred to Osiris. And on his chest, an ankh made of scars, which he told me was the symbol of eternal life.
It was nothing like the carefully scripted letter pinned to my dress. It was called a Himmelsbrief, and had been made for me by my community’s Hexenmeister, a petition to God on my behalf. But any symbol of divine power behaved in the same way, the way that crucifixes and holy water did. God, in whatever guise he chose, did have some power over these creatures.
The vampire reached for Alex with an expression of longing.
“Food,” it whispered, with a nearly palpable sorrow.
But its hands were stilled just above the ankh burned on Alex’s chest. It was as if this was an invisible barrier it could not cross. The vampire froze in puzzlement, and I could almost imagine that some thoughts still rattled around its head as it had learned what was safe to eat and what was poisonous.
“Not food,” Alex responded. There was a subtle jerk at his elbow, and the flash of a silver knife plunged between the vampire’s ribs. The creature clawed, scratching at the edge of the ankh. I could hear the sizzle of his flesh, a sound like bacon frying. Black blood flowed over Alex’s wrist. He shoved the vampire down to the grass, and I could see his knife slashing, the black droplets of vampire blood clinging to the tips of the grass stalks like dew. I was still mystified by it, by its lack of redness, by its soft, inklike consistency. It smelled like iron, though, which was enough to tell what they had once been. Alex speculated that iron oxidized in their blood, darkening it.
That black blood was on my wrist. I smeared it against my skirt as Alex’s fingers wound around my hand. “We’ve got to go. There will be more.”
I nodded. This was no time to contemplate biology or humanity. This was time to act, to move. To survive.
We ran, hand in sticky hand, sliding through the grass like ghosts.
I could see the bright helmet of Ginger’s hair and the stark white figure of the horse far before us. We’d given them a head start, which was good—Alex and I had the only really effective weapons against the vampires. Alex had his tattoos and I had the Himmelsbrief. They were more of a deterrent, Alex said, like spraying mace at a perpetrator. The startlement they created sometimes gave us enough opening to run away. Or kill.
“Where are we going?” I asked, casting my gaze about the dark landscape. It was suicide to be out in the open like this. “We can’t fight until daylight.”
He shook his head, mouth pressed in a flat line. “I don’t know. The sign said that there was a church back there, but all we saw was burned timbers. Useless as shelter, if it was desecrated by the vamps.”
“We’ll have to find someplace else,” I decided, nodding sharply to myself.
“How do you feel about sleeping in trees?” His face split open in a lopsided grin, his teeth white in the darkness. There were some at the horizon we could possibly reach, but none in the field.
“I’m quite sure the vampires can climb trees.”
“Maybe not if we set fire at the roots . . . they don’t like fire.”
I made a face. “I don’t much fancy the idea of being roasted alive in a tree.”
“Reminds me of a movie, The Wicker Man . . .” he began.
I glanced at him blankly. I had never seen a movie.
“Never mind, then. I’ll tell you later.”
Ginger’s horse was climbing a slope ahead of us. This part of the meadow wasn’t cultivated, and the grass and weeds swelled over this rill in the earth, perhaps five feet tall, stretching east to west.
My skin prickled. In the far distance, I could see more glowing eyes gathering. They had heard us. They smelled blood. I pulled at Alex’s sleeve and pointed.
Ginger had reached the top of the hillock. She was panting, and her glasses slid down over her nose. She was dressed as an Amish woman, but she was not one of my people. She was an Englisher, like Alex. She was an old friend of my family who had lost everything: her husband, her children. And she was the only part of my old life I had left. I clung to her.
The horse stared to the south. His ears flattened, and his eyes dilated black as obsidian. His nostrils flared, and his tail swished back and forth. He pawed the earth, pacing nervously. I had found him back on Amish land with an empty saddle, smeared in blood and with his former rider’s boot still in the stirrup. We had discovered that the horse had a sixth sense about the vampires. Perhaps he could sense them the way dogs could sense earthquakes. Or perhaps he was merely a nervous horse and vampires were everywhere.
Alex had named him Horus, after an Egyptian god of the sky who defeated evil. Ginger and I just called him Horace.
“They’re out there,” Ginger said, staring out at the dark and patting Horace’s sides soothingly.
“Ja. They’re coming.” I climbed up the hill, gazing at the flattened trail of grasses we’d left.
Alex scrambled to the top of the hill. Ginger and I made to rush down the slope on the other side, but he said: “Wait.”
I looked up at him, my brows drawing together. “What do you mean?”
Alex shook his head. He squatted, and squinted to the beginning and the end of the strangely squiggling formation of land.
“Alex. We’ve got to go.” Now it was me urging him on.
He slipped on his jacket. “We wait here.”
Ginger’s head popped up above the grass line like a platinum gopher. “What are you talking about? We’ve gotta get moving.” She tugged at Horace’s reins, but he would not budge. He stood on the pinnacle of the hill as if he were a statue.
Alex shook his head, and he pressed his hands to the ground. He was smiling. “No. We wait here. On the hill.”
I bit my lip. Perhaps the stress of running from vampires for the last several weeks had caused Alex to finally lose touch with reality. Perhaps he had some desire to make a last stand. I confessed to myself that I felt like that often. I hadn’t been baptized, so I wouldn’t get to heaven, but it was sometimes peaceful to imagine not existing in this chaotic world any longer. I didn’t think I’d be sent to hell, but I just wasn’t sure.
In any event, I wasn’t quite ready to test theology.
“Alex,” I said. “We need to go if we’re to have any chance of—”
“Do you trust me?”
He crouched on the top of the hill, looking at me with an infuriatingly jovial smile. I felt myself frown, but I reached down for his hand. Behind me, Ginger sighed and scrambled up the grass bank.
We sat on the crest of the little hill, looking down, as dozens of glowing eyes converged upon us.
“We’re screwed,” Ginger said.
I didn’t disagree with the sentiment.
Those luminous eyes drew near. I counted more than two dozen pairs. My heart hammered, and my mouth felt sticky and dry. I fingered the rough edge of my makeshift weapon. I might be able to kill one vampire with it. Not dozens.
Jagged silhouettes of people pulled themselves from the grass, like spiders extricating from webs. I braced myself, clutching my puny staff. Their eyes swept up the hill. I expected them to rush to us like water in a trench after a rainstorm.
They reached up with pale fingers that smelled like metal. Their lips drew back, hissing, and I could see the thirst in their eyes. But they made no move to climb the hill.
I sidled closer to Alex. “What’s stopping them?”
“Holy ground,” he said, grinning.
My brows drew together. I didn’t understand. I saw no sign of any human habitation here. No church. No graveyard. Just this oddly shaped hill that rose up out of the field.
Ginger started laughing behind me. She turned on her heel and surveyed the sad little hillock. “I see it now,” she said. She huddled in closer with us when a vampire snarled at her.
“We’re on an Indian mound,” Alex said. “A holy site built by any one of a number of tribes in this area. They were used as burial mounds, ceremonial sites, astronomical measure- ments . . . some, we have no idea what for.”
“How did you know?” It looked like just a rill in the land to me. A bump.
“See how it’s sorta shaped like a snake?” He gestured to the west. “It’s hard to see underneath the tall grass, but notice how it undulates in the ground?” He swished his hand back and forth like a snake swimming, and I could see some of the suggestion of a reptile in it.
“I saw a mound one time that was shaped like a big serpent eating the moon.” He cocked his head and started to walk off down the snake’s back. “I wonder if this one is like that . . .”
Ginger snagged the back collar of his jacket. “No exploring in the dark with the monsters down below.”
“What do we do now?” I leaned on my staff. The hissing and bright eyes below were unnerving. Pale fingers combed through the grass.
Alex sat down. “We wait for morning.”
I sighed and knelt down to pray. I could feel the chill of the earth beneath my knees, dew gathering. My skin crawled at the thought of the creatures, only feet away. I shut my eyes, trying to prove that I trusted God. He had kept us safe so far. He would keep us safe as long as it suited his purposes.
That was part of what I believed—what the Amish believed. We believed in Gelassenheit—surrendering ourselves to God’s will. It was difficult, at times like this. I struggled to keep my eyes closed, seeing crescents of light beneath my lashes; I could not quite make myself trust the darkness.
“Unser Vadder im Himmel . . .
. . . dei Naame loss heilich sei . . .”
“Damn. I wish I had a harmonica,” Alex grumbled.