The friar emerged from the crypt, blinking against the morning sun. It was later than he had expected; there had been no cockerel crowing to herald the dawn. He found the bird – little more than a collection of scattered feathers now and the odd gout of blood. Who would do such a thing?
Not who, he corrected himself. What?
His heart quickened as he picked his way down the hill to the village. From a distance, he could see the tiny settlement was quiet – too quiet. No vehicles were on the roads. No pedestrians bustled around.
There was no sign of life.
The friar thrust the back of his hand into his mouth, trying to stave off the horror rising in his gorge.
I must not get ahead of myself. I must find out for sure…
But he knew it was true. Despite his warnings, everyone was dead.
Fools! Damned fools!
At the end of the only thoroughfare stood the general store. Still shuttered but an arc of blood splashed in an upstairs window confirmed the friar’s fears.
Shaking his head in sorrow, with revulsion leaping in his stomach, the friar crossed to the saloon. He found the doors unlocked but the place abandoned. Debris of the night before was all around: empty glasses, discarded bottles, the odd upturned piece of furniture.
Something moved on the stairs. The friar froze.
Silence. The friar held up his hands to show they were empty.
“I will not hurt you,” he smiled. “Please.”
With a sob and a shuffle, a child peered over the banister.
“Peter!” the friar cried. “Come down, child! Let me look at you.”
The boy hesitated then descended. The friar inspected Peter’s throat and wrists for injury and was relieved to find the skin unbroken.
“I’m hungry,” Peter snivelled. “Mama – her bed – empty.”
More relief. The child had not walked into an horrific scene.
“I shall find you something,” the friar shuffled to the kitchen.
“Not pumpkin!” the boy followed. “I’ve had enough pumpkin.”
Despite himself, the friar chuckled. More pumpkin might have saved them all. He found some bread that wasn’t too stale and set about toasting it, rummaging in the cupboard for jam or some such.
“Father, where is everybody?” the boy chewed thoughtfully on the crust. “Is it true? Were they taken in the night?”
The friar nodded sadly. “I am afraid so, my boy. Despite all the warnings, they are gone.”
“But – but – that’s not fair,” the boy scowled. “They did everything they were supposed to. Dressing up as scary monsters. Carving scary faces into pumpkins to frighten the evil spirits away.”
“Yes,” said the friar. “But not at the right time. You see, my boy, one must do all these things on the appropriate evening or else the magic will not work. But we live in an age of convenience. People want to observe the traditions but only if it is fun to do, and if it is convenient. And so, everyone did their dressing-up on Saturday night. And I’m sure everyone had a lot of fun. But last night was when it mattered. But no one bothered. They were all partied out. And they have paid a heavy price. We have these traditions for a reason and they are not to be taken lightly.”
The kitchen door slammed shut as though shoved by an invisible hand. The friar wheeled around. The boy elongated until he towered over the holy man, his teeth bared, sharp and glistening.
“No need to sound so smug about it, Father,” a deep voice rumbled. “You’re an irrelevance, a throwback. Obsolete.”
“Perhaps,” sighed the friar. He whipped a small pumpkin from his robe, a snarling face carved into it. The thing that had been Peter recoiled, screeching. “But I still know what works.”