Reverend Alpert woke at dawn to find his campfire stoked and roaring. His bag of food had been pulled down, and a young girl was tearing into the contents. And next to her...
It was, hands down, the mangiest, filthiest, most enormous stuffed owl he'd ever seen. Its lumpy body was covered in patches and dirt, it was missing one of its eyes, and one of its wings had apparently been restitched on many times. However, its beak and claws looked sharp, and on its cloth face was an expression of disreputable crankiness. On seeing Alpert move, it opened its stitched beak and hooted, sending a few flurries of stuffing out of its mouth.
The girl looked up from her impromptu breakfast. Her dark eyes had deep circles under them, but she couldn’t have been more than fourteen.
Alpert didn’t reach for his chalk yet. His wards hadn’t gone off, which meant that either the girl was strong and savvy enough to disable them, or they meant him no harm. Either way, he was in no hurry to fight that monstrous owl.
“Do you speak Spanish?” The little girl asked in the same language.
Alpert nodded. “If you were hungry, you need only have asked.”
For a moment, the girl looked guilty and fiddled with the peach in her hands. Then she sat up straight and fixed him with a piercing stare. “I’ll ask the questions! Who are you, and what are you doing here?”
“My name is Alpert. I’m a Gestaltist, an exorcist en route to Seguin, to meet with la curandera. If you’d like, the letter should be in that bag somewhere.”
The girl hesitated, then dug into the bag. Eventually, she came up with the letter, which she sat to read. Her expression became sorrowful.
“Apparently the town has come under some trouble…?” Alpert prompted.
The owl ruffled itself unhappily, and the girls’ shoulders slumped, but only for a moment. “You’re too late. Seguin’s fallen to plague zombies.”
Alpert closed his eyes. “I’m sorry.”
“Yes. Well. At least they’ll be gone in a week now.”
It was true. Past a certain point, plague zombies became an almost unbreakable cycle of devouring and multiplying, but once everyone was consumed, they’d mysteriously vanish, leaving the town otherwise untouched. It made them popular pets for land-snatchers.
The girl stood and curtseyed halfheartedly, and Alpert saw that she was wearing the remains of what had once been an expensive dress. “I guess since I’m the only one left, it’s my job now to welcome you. My name is Prudencia. I’m la curandera’s daughter. This is Lechuza.” She patted the owl, which fluffed itself.
“I’m sorry to meet you under such circumstances. I’m glad you survived. Perhaps I could escort you…”
“Actually,” she said, “I’d like your help with something else. My mother’s still in Seguin. I have to lay her spirit to rest.” Hastily, as though expecting refusal, she added, “I’m still in training, but I can lay the dead to rest! One at a time, I mean. With preparation. And I’m her daughter; it’s my duty to do it! I have to! I can’t just let her disappear! Please.”
She stood, fists clenched, eyes filled with suppressed tears.
“I would be honored to help you,” Alpert said.
The town of Seguin was a crawling, moaning mass of rotten meat.
“So many of these people are strangers,” the girl said from where she sat atop her stuffed owl’s back. “I don’t know where they all came from.”
“In my school, we believe they’re created by fear.”
“You Gestaltists always think that.” She squeezed Lechuza with her legs like a horse, and it plodded forward.
Reverend Alpert had chalk in his hand and careful diagrams on his sleeves and gloves. Prudencia wore a string of crosses around her neck, ash on her face and hair, and Alpert’s red undershirt, which she wore inside out. She was sweating under the wool, but didn’t complain, even after the intense prayer session she’d used as preparation.
They moved carefully, slowly, and the plague zombies mostly ignored them, except for a few vacant stares before shuffling on. As they moved deeper into town, Alpert grew thankful for Prudencia’s presence; Seguin was a nightmare of unmarked alleys and twisted corridors, and he never would’ve been able to navigate it on his own. As it was, she and Lechuza moved unerringly through the maze, Alpert at their side.
As they made their way, however, Prudencia appeared to start recognizing the plague zombies. Her face went pale and the plague zombies halted in their aimless shuffling. They began to stare.
Lechuza twitched its wings aggressively, but Alpert put a hand on Prudencia’s knee. “Focus,” he whispered.
Prudencia clenched her jaw, shut her eyes, and under her breath, began to rapidly mutter prayers. The zombies relaxed and returned to their drifting.
After that, Prudencia kept her eyes closed, letting Lechuza navigate, until they reached a small adobe building. Except for a small painted owl over the doorway, there was nothing to differentiate it from any of the other buildings. Alpert would never have found it on his own.
Alpert nudged Prudencia, and she opened her eyes. At his questioning look, she nodded: this was it. Sweat was dripping down her face, but she was shaking.
The zombies were staring at them again.
“Prudencia…” Alpert started warningly.
The zombies began to move towards them. Prudencia hastily shut her eyes and began praying again, but it was too late; her concentration had been broken. Fortunately, they were right at the door.
Alpert threw himself to his knees, swiped a hasty chalk circle around them, and slapped his glove to it. The lines blazed, and the zombies fell back, moaning and hissing. It wouldn’t hold for long, but it’d give them enough time to get the door.
It wouldn’t open.
Prudencia pulled him away, pressed her hand against the door, and murmured quietly. Nothing happened. She frowned and tried again, and when that failed, gave up and jumped off Lechuza, who lunged forward and smashed the door down with its wings. They rushed in, and Alpert fumbled the door back up on its hinges. While Lechuza held it in place, he added a closing star to force it shut, then hastened to follow Prudencia into the house.
“It should only be her in here,” Prudencia said, grabbing a bottle off the shelf with shaking hands. “She’s been sick a long time; she probably couldn’t make it up…”
They halted at a staircase down into the basement. Below was darkness, and a perplexed slurring moan. Prudencia froze.
Alpert took a step forward, but she stopped him. “I’m la curandera,” she said. “This is my job.”
She nodded to Lechuza, and it leapt down the stairs. There was a crash and a whump, and then the telltale yowl of an agitated plague zombie. Steeling her shoulders, Prudencia took a firm grip on the rail and went down the stairs. Alpert took a moment to blow his chalk into luminescence, and then followed her.
On the floor, pinned under the monstrous weight of the stuffed owl, was the corpse of a wan, frail-looking woman. At the sight of Prudencia, she groped forward and moaned.
Prudencia didn’t flinch. She touched the cross around her neck and unscrewed the top of the bottle. Circling around Lechuza and the parody of her mother, she began to pray.
“Jehová es mi pastor, nada me faltará. En lugares de delicados pastos me hará yacer…”
At first, the corpse only grew more agitated. But Lechuza held it down, and as Prudencia continued, her voice grew stronger and her hands grew steadier. She kept her eyes open and steady, even as tears creased the ashes on her cheeks. She didn’t appear to notice.
“Y en la casa de Jehová moraré por largos días,” she finished.
For a moment, the dead woman looked calm. Then she wilted to the ground, quiet and still. Prudencia stood there, bottle hanging from her hand.
“You did very well,” Alpert told her, but the words felt flat and empty, and she didn’t appear to hear him.
The bottle fell from her hand, bouncing off the floor, and she didn’t seem to fall so much as collapse in on herself, clinging to the dress of what had once been her mother. She didn’t make a sound. Lechuza wrapped them in its ragged wings, and together, they waited for the plague zombies to disappear.