In the cold autumn of 1738, following the demise of the entire Karnstein family, the townspeople notice shades in the graveyard.
The small hamlet of Karnstein sat on the edge of the great castle and had done so for nearly a century now. A count and his countess stewarded the land, though it is said they had little love for the people that grew in their shadow. The town was small enough that it went mostly unnoticed by those of us in the surrounding villages, and we often saw them trading in the larger town, trading rumor as much as gold. We all loved to gossip on nobility, and the Karnsteins had much to gossip about, until the plague came. It threatened to ruin the town, and many inhabitants fled to avoid its wrath, but the Karnstein family locked themselves away behind their stone walls and, one by one, they perished. They were buried in the crypts beneath the castles, and it seemed with their end so ended the plague. Those that remained recovered, and those that had taken residence in the surrounding villages were starting to return for their things. No one mourned the count and his family. It seems cruel of us, but what reason did we have? There were children, yes, who died, including the count’s lovely daughter, but a man who has been looked down on by someone cannot help but feel satisfied when that person is now beneath their feet.
It was a few years before rumors started again. Those that lived in Karnstein began to worry and whisper about the things they heard at night. Shadows in the castle, they said. No one went to the estate for fear the plague might still lurk its halls. An industrious man might find items within worth selling, but something compelled people away, a dark aura of sorts, much like the fog that permeated the hamlet when day met night. But a man who was used to walking the soft paths beside the crypts came shouting into town one day. He warned the people of Karnstein, and as he left town, warned us. I listened closely as he told us of what he’d seen while performing his rat catching duty. They often led him to the crypts, and he had seen, in the distance, a mausoleum with its door ajar. From within, a white faced ghoul stared at him, her dark hair long and wild, her eyes black, and her fingers bloodied and raw as though they had scratched their way from her coffin. He had been so afraid, he’d raced away, gathered his things, and left. None have seen him since.
We laughed at the rat catcher after he’d gone his way, but curiosity soon colored the conversation. We gathered, a few of us from neighboring towns, and drove horses to Karnstein, arriving at sunset. People closed their doors in fear as night began to descend, and a fog poured from the castle onto the surrounding village. A tavern remained open, spreading yellow light into the already dark street, and we went there. The people of Karnstein looked down into their mugs and said very little. After the sun set, I saw the tavern keeper go to the door and lock it. We remained inside, growing more and more nervous with each passing hour. As the moon rose over the houses, we heard a strange howl from the woods that surrounded the two. The tavern keeper went to draw the shutters on the window, and then he shouted in surprise. I raced to see. Outside was a child, possibly ten years old, maybe younger. He was bone white with black eyes that filled his small face, dark hair matted against his forehead. His clothes had been clean once, but now the fine fabric was frayed and dirty and damp. He opened his red rimmed mouth to reveal sharp teeth, and then he dashed away.
Many in the tavern began to panic. I turned to the tavern keeper, and I asked him how long the revenants had been walking the streets. His voice shook when he told us it was a week now, quietly at first, but now they were out nearly every night. People fled in terror, but one woman had not been fast enough, and they found her the next morning, drained of blood.
We stayed the night, but none of us slept. I sat at the window, refusing to let the tavern keeper close it. Outside the streets were quiet and still, the fog blanketing it, and I would watch the revenants pass. There were so many of them, and they all shared the same features: round cheeks and pointed chins, small, peaked lips, sharp and short noses. It was no doubt these were the Karnsteins returned. The plague had damaged them, leaving welts on some, and all of them with bloodied mouths. The count himself was nearly unrecognizable, his shoulders hunched forward, his eyes bleeding red as well as his mouth, and his fingers and nose were more bone than flesh. The most startling was their young daughter, who looked nearly unchanged except for the paleness of her skin and the deep, dark eyes. She stood at the window and watched me back. Something in her eyes suggested a sharpness and intelligence I was not prepared for. She studied me as I did her.
Sunlight harkened the end of the revenants’ run on the town. They fled back to their crypts with the fog. Truly none of us knew what to do. The town was terrified, and we were only country folk, no more prepared to face those terrors than anyone else. We were in luck that one of us knew a priest and wrote to him immediately. Now more than ever, we stayed away from the castle and the catacombs beneath. It was whispered that they were cursed, and the Karnsteins had cursed the land in turn. I stayed in the town while we awaited the priest, and I went with other men to the graveyard. The woman that had been drained had been seen outside her husband’s home. We carried shovels and went to her grave. Like the revenants, her skin had turned white, and her red hair gleamed around it like blood. I watched as one of the men raised an axe to remove her head, which they put at her feet, and then quickly they returned her to her grave. I said a prayer for her, though the words sounded hollow. What eternal life can be promised to someone who has died and risen again?
It took a month for the priest to arrive. He claimed knowledge of many things and carried with him accounts of other evils he’d faced. He told us of a demon he’d exorcised in a countryside villa in France, and the dark things he saw in a manor home on an isolated cliffside island. He had met such revenants before, he told us, in the eastern states, where old monsters still walked beside man. There they called the revenant vampyr, and would deal with the creature much in the way we’d dealt with the newly risen woman. Dismantling their limbs made it so the vampire could not rise again, but it took much effort to destroy a vampire. They did their work at night, but tit did not mean they couldn’t be seen during the day, and on their place of death they were even more powerful. We went together to Karnstein, where he planned to go into the crypts and defeat the revenants.
He arrived again as the sun fell behind the castle. The fog began to permeate the air, and the revenants came. As though sensing the presence of the priest, they came in many numbers, shrieking and clawing at the windows. It is said a revenant cannot enter a place without invitation, but they howled and snarled at every door and window. We would have stayed within the safety of the walls, but we saw a family who had been trapped outside: a wife, a husband, their son. The revenants descended on them with their full numbers, and the priest ran outside, few of us behind him. He raised his crucifix and said the Lord’s Prayer. The revenants screamed and wailed in response, spitting blood on the ground. They leapt at him, only to be thrown back by his words. To our horror, one changed right in front of us, racing back as a large cat. The family wept as the monsters were driven away, and we gathered them inside the tavern.
The boy had a bite on his arm, one that had drawn blood. I wiped it with a towel, and when the priest returned, he removed some holy water. He blessed the boy, and as the holy water touched his forehead, he screaming and kicked, moaning that it burned. His parents helped hold him down as the priest finished his work, flicking the water into the wound, which we then wrapped. They hugged the boy close as we waited out the sunrise.
As dawn broke, we gathered all manner of weapons. I took an axe, while other men had knives and scythes. The priest took only his Bible and his crucifix. Together five of us went down the stone steps of the catacombs, where we found a hallway filled with darkness. Two of us held lanterns, and we walked the long, empty hall, our feet echoing like drums, announcing our presence to the revenants. The first crypt we came to was not the most recent Karnsteins, but of the ancient counts. We left them in peace. From there the catacombs stretched and became a series of intersecting hallways and rooms, and in the darkness it became uncertain which way we had come. Finally, we found the crypt belonging to the most recent Karnsteins, the gate opened slightly as though, in haste, someone had forgotten to close it. Ten coffins lay inside. I admit I shouted when a rat ran past my feet, but we held in our fear. We opened the first coffin, and inside lay the boy. We all looked at each other, but I was the one who brought the axe. I raised it up, staring at the face of the small boy, and at once he opened his eyes, hissing at me. I stumbled back in shock, and he leapt from his tomb, reaching for my face.
The sound of a thousand snakes filled the air as the lids of the other coffins began to pen, and white hands reached out. One grabbed onto one of our men, and the daughter emerged, biting down on his neck as he screamed and flail. I saw no more as the young boy descended on me. His small hands clawed my face, drawing blood, and he opened his jaw wide as he lunged down. It was only by reflex that I struck at him with my axe, lodging it into his face. I pulled with all my weight as the boy shrieked, and then pulled again, finally freeing the weapon. I had cut through his eye, and a thick viscous blood oozed from the wound. It only took one more swing of my axe to silence him.
Now all of the revenants were crawling from their coffins. The priest spoke his prayers again, but the countess took him by the shoulders. He turned around, crucifix extended, and it pressed into her flesh, burning her skin. She screamed and struck him with a blow that sent him to the ground. The others quickly turned. I brought my axe down on the countess, but she caught it. Her dark eyes stared at me, and, like the daughter, I felt a sharpness from them that did not suggest mindless horror. She threw me aside. Her daughter was beside her, and an elderly woman as well, and it seemed for a moment that all three would descend upon me, but the countess held her hands on them, and they became shadows. I shouted, but the other revenants had taken over our group. I raised my axe and slammed it into the count’s back. He roared as he faced me, and it was another man that plunged a knife into his neck. We worked together to throw him onto the ground and remove his head.
The priest prayed, speaking the words as though he were in front of Sunday’s mass, clear voiced, projecting through the crypt. It caused the revenants to shriek and hold their ears, and we took our opportunity. The priest stood from the floor, Bible over his head as though reaching it up to the Lord Himself. The revenants howled again and crawled back into their coffins. We made quick work of them, striking the ones that still wormed and moved until they did no longer. Once their heads were removed, we removed the arms as well, and they were placed beneath their bodies like a gruesome Jolly Roger. The ones we’d struck to the floor were dragged up as well, and–to be certain–we each took a hammer and nailed the coffins shuts so the creatures could never rise again.
It took much time for us to finally leave the catacombs. We returned to the tavern, exhausted, covered in wounds and blood. I warned the others of the three I’d seen escaped, and they had not been counted among our final dead. We remained in town for a few days after, but they did not make themselves known. We saw no more revenants. There are always rumors. Sometimes, when the night is dark, and the wind whispers through the trees, I close my eyes and see that girl again, waiting outside my window, looking at me not like an animal would, but like a hunter. The town died away completely after that, except for one lone woodsman who felt the forest too good to give away his trade. Karnstein the town died with the remaining Karnsteins. I pray I never see those revenants again.