I woke up just in time to see the last sunrise we’d witness for three months.
It was like something inside my head clicked on, and I was wide awake. Soon I found myself standing at the back window of the last train car, watching the sun come up.
I took off the scarf that Mary had wrapped my bad arm in and absentmindedly rolled it into a ball as I watched the sky blush red and orange. The sun tinted the snow clouds pink, and I found myself wondering when I would be able to see it again.
I was deep in thought when someone walked up behind me and slapped their hands on my shoulders. I jumped and whirled to see Mary standing there, smirking at me with an unlit cigarette in her mouth.
“Morning,” she said.
“What are you doing back here?”
“Watching the sunrise.”
“So that I have it in my head as a pretty picture to remember when things get bleak,” I said and tapped my temple with a finger.
“That’s…rather romantic of you.”
I shrugged. “I’m weird like that. I’ll see something and memorize every detail. I like to make a permanent picture of something in my mind that I go back to as needed. It's gotten me through some tough times in the past. So, I keep doing it. Just in case.”
“Really?” She sounded genuinely surprised.
“Yep. Maps, paintings, people’s faces, crime scenes, you name it. It’s all stored in here.”
“I had no idea you were brilliant like that. You are just full of surprises, aren’t you Mr. Whelan?”
“I reckon so.”
“You gonna be back here a while?”
“I’ll fetch you when the dining car puts out breakfast.”
I listened to her boot steps as she walked away, and made a mental note of her casual cadence. There was an easy stride to her steps today. She wasn’t stepping heavy and angry, like she usually did, slapping her feet down like she was punishing the world and hitting it with each step.
She sounded…happy. Almost.
Could it be because we were that much closer to getting her guns back? Or, maybe she was happy because she was about to run into a place where she could go wild and relish in the carnage of a good bloodbath of evil incarnate?
I wasn't quite sure. Maybe it was both.
Once we had traveled far enough away that the rising sun disappeared over the horizon and left us in total darkness of the Night Lands, I returned to the room to find Tristan melting down the silver nuggets that John left us. He was smelting them and pouring them into bullet molds, of which would make the tips for our revolver ammo.
“Good morning,” he muttered, not looking up from what he was doing.
“Morning. Uh…how’s your throat doing?”
“Fine,” he said in a short clipped tone.
“You're not mad at me about last night, are you? I mean…it really wasn’t me that choked you. You know that right?”
“Yes. I know."
"Then what's with the attitude?"
"I just don’t want to burn myself. Stop distracting me.”
I grabbed some of the silver bullet tips that had finished cooling and started crimping the primed casings on.
We got into a nice rhythm of assembly before Mary slammed open the door to our room and walked in with a pot of coffee and some fresh bread.
The smell hit me like a sledgehammer, and I realized just how hungry I was.
“Your stomach is growling,” Tristan said and I grinned at him while Mary sat down next to me and inspected our work.
She picked up one I had just set down and made a face, the corner her lips pulling to one side in disapproval.
“I guess these will have to do,” she said, sounding slightly disappointed.
The tone of her voice didn't sit right with me. Hearing her say that caused a spark of anger to flash in my chest.
She was really starting to grate on my nerves.
"You disapprove?" Tristan asked.
"I've seen better work."
“Excuse me? I think we know how to make ammunition. We’ve been doing it for years now,” I said.
“Well, you’re making them crooked. Of course, and that would explain why you miss so damn much.”
“I don’t miss a target,” I said and snatched up a roll from the plate she brought in.
She smacked my hand. “Did I say those were for you?”
“No. But you got enough for three people. You set the plate down in the middle of the table, like it was for all of us.”
“Did I now?”
“You know what? Never mind. I don't feel like eating with you this morning. Honestly,” I swore under my breath and grabbed my long coat and hat. “Tristan, you hungry?”
“Yes. I'll join you. One moment,” he said and finished pouring the last of the smelted silver into the mold. He stood up and shot Mary a look.
She raised an eyebrow and poured herself a cup of coffee. "What?"
"You didn't have to do that."
"Be so rude to him."
I sighed, annoyed. “Come on Montebalm. Clearly, the lady doesn’t wish to eat with us this morning.”
Tristan glanced at her and shook his head as he went to grab his coat and hat.
“What?” she asked.
“Don’t insult his handiwork. He is very diligent about things. Let a man have some pride.”
“I’ll consider it.”
He muttered something under his breath about nosy women and grabbed his coat and joined me.
We walked through the different train cars until we reached the dining area, which held cramped tables and chairs. White tablecloths, linen napkins lined with silverware, it was a fancy set up.
We found an unoccupied table and sat down. I put my hat on the chair next to me and Tristan sighed and took off his coat. He looked awfully tired.
“Didn’t sleep well?”
“Not really. Sorry if I woke you.”
“It’s fine. I kept waking up at every little sound anyway. Once you got up I figured there was no point laying in bed anymore and started getting things ready."
"I guess we're both getting anxious. I know I'm ready to find John and get MAry's guns back. If anything, just so that she no longer has an excuse to bother me so damn much."
He chuckled softly and shook his head.
"You two. You go together like oil and water."
"I know. Don't remind me."
"So, where did you go?”
“The end of the cars to watch the sunrise.”
“It’s so dark out here though.”
“In the distance in the east you can see it, well, you could at any rate. I caught what was most likely the last one we’ll be seeing for a time.”
A morose-looking thin fellow in a waiter’s outfit stepped over to our table, gave us piping hot coffee and took our orders. He was close-lipped and talked in clipped short words.
I was dying to ask him about his job. I wanted to know how they handled cooking large orders in a train kitchen. But, I knew if I tried, I wouldn't get much information out of him, so I let it go.
“You showed restraint. I’m impressed,” Tristan said.
"He didn't look like he was in the mood to chat."
"He wasn't. He's half awake. Poor man."
"I know what that's like."
My coffee was a little too hot to drink at the moment, so I wrapped my hands around my cup and warmed them up.
There were a few others in there with us. None of them had healthy complexions. Most were deathly pale and looked like they were headed towards a funeral.
Maybe they were…in more way than one.
I must’ve made a face because Tristan looked at me curiously. “What?”
“Nothing. Just, taking in the scenery.”
He sighed and rubbed his lower ribs with a wince.
“How are you doing, really?”
“I’ve been better. Everything hurts today, to be honest.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Rourke…where we’re going, and with your injury, it could cause a lot of problems.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, think about it. It’s not healing. You bled out pretty bad last night. Who’s to say that won’t keep happening? You’ll be leaving a rather blatant trail in our wake.”
“And what am I supposed to do about it? I couldn’t let you go after him alone. That’d be suicide.”
“I know, I just…we should be extremely cautious. With everything we’re dealing with, I have a feeling Mary could make our situation one hundred times worse than it already is.”
“That, I completely agree with. You notice how happy she is this morning? It’s creeping me out.”
“Yes. I feel the same way. When she smiles it makes my skin crawl.”
“You too? I thought it was just me, like I was over-reacting or something.”
“No. It’s not just you. When I told you that she had an aura of death, I meant it,” he said in hushed tones, not wanting to draw attention to us.
“Understood,” I sighed and rubbed my shoulder against the back of my chair.
My back prickled like I had rolled around in nettles for an hour. And, naturally, the minute I started to think about it, it started to hurt worse. And the more it hurt, the more it itched.
It was driving me crazy.
I couldn't ignore it anymore. I gritted my teeth and scratched it against the back of my chair and winced as a sharp jolt of pain shot through me.
“Are you all right?”
“I’m fine. I’m not bleeding through my shirt am I?” I asked and turned so he could look.
“Good. That would be embarrassing to do in a dining car.”
A faint smile danced on his lips. “You are a ridiculous man Mr. Whelan.”
“Why, thank you, kind sir.”
“So, what do you think of John's letter?” he asked, changing the subject. Maybe he thought if he could take my mind off of it, it wouldn't hurt so damn much.
“Oh, yeah. I almost forgot about that. Thanks for reminding me.”
I unfolded John’s cryptic letter and took out a small piece of drawing charcoal. I rubbed it over the indentations, to reveal parts of words, half letters and odd symbols scrawled across the page. They had been written on a separate piece of paper that he had pressed down deliberately hard on while writing, to leave the indentations behind.
It was a secret message, left for me to find and decipher. What it was, however, I was not quite sure just yet.
"What does it say?"
"No clue. I'm missing something. Look, only parts of letters are showing up. It's a cipher of some kind."
"John must not have been someplace where he could trust people when he wrote that."
"Hey. Don't be rude to me. I am not the one you are mad at."
"Sorry. My back, it's making me irritable."
"I've noticed. Your usual sense of humor is quite lacking this morning."
"I'm that bad huh?"
"Well, then, a thousand apologies my friend. And thank you for being so patient with me."
Just as I got done with the charcoal rubbing, our food came.
“Ah, thank you,” I said to the man who probably hadn’t smiled in over a decade. The waiter nodded and walked away. “Such great staff they have here. So friendly.”
“You ever stop to consider that perhaps he is not a morning person?”
“Or a day person, or a night person…or a person at all! Perhaps he’s just an illusion, and this food isn’t even real.”
Tristan gave me an annoyed look and refilled his coffee cup. “Shut up.”
“What? You said that I had lost my sense of humor. I'm just trying to make up for it now.”
“It is far too early for you to be making jokes such as that.”
“So…when will be a good time then?”
“How about, never o’clock?”
He hid a smirk and I chuckled and looked at the letter. And then stared at it closer, and turned it this way and that. Held it up to the light coming from the lamp on the wall and sighed.
“What is it?”
“I have no idea.”
The lettering on it was half-formed, crooked dashed lines ran across the page. Sometimes it formed strange symbols that looked vaguely like they were occult runes. But what kind, I did not know.
I didn’t recognize it at all.
“Magic spell maybe?” I said and handed it to him. He was careful not to get his fingerprints on the charcoal rubbing as he glanced it over. “You know that language?”
“No, I don't recognize it all.” He handed it back to me. “Maybe Mary would?”
“I don't want her to see it. I don’t trust her."
"Neither do I. Her presence is very unsettling."
"Every time something happens, she threatens to kill us. And then not even five minutes later she does something to save our lives! I don't get it.”
“She's a tough nut to crack. I can’t tell if she is truly on our side, or not.”
“I think she’s on the side she’s always on. Her own.”
“Well, she does have the reputation for being one of the most vicious monster hunters in Creation. But I have never heard tell of her being duplicitous or betraying anyone.”
“Doesn’t mean that it doesn't happen. People she double crosses probably die. Wouldn’t be hard to keep that sort of thing quiet if all of your victims are dead.”
“Wouldn’t they come back as hungry ghosts?”
“Not if she consecrated the bodies. She is a saint after all.”
“On the one hand, I’m glad she’s with us because every fiber of my being is screaming at me and telling me we’re going into a trap. But…on the other hand, all she does is make things worse and hit me. Like…all the time. On the same spot on my arm. I have a huge bruise there. She does it on purpose.”
“Maybe she likes you.”
“No. She doesn’t. She hates me. Said so herself last night.”
“Right…if she hates you so much, why does she go out of her way to help you?”
“I don’t know? Because she’s crazy?”
“Rourke. Mind your tongue.”
“I’m serious. She’s certifiable. A total nutter. I can’t believe that anyone would worship her, let alone want to be her friend. I mean, she physically threatens violence to someone on a regular basis and yet expects them to ride with her as though there’s nothing wrong. Who does that?”
“She does, obviously.”
“It’s bad enough that she has a chip on her shoulder the size of a city, but to be expected to be nice? Just because she’s pregnant? And then she gets mad when I am polite about it? I just can’t win with her. There’s no way she doesn’t hate me.”
“I think that perhaps you aren’t seeing the entire situation clearly because you are in a great deal of pain. You are under duress due to the nature of your wound.”
“Duress? You want duress, try being bait for a demon, and then having it attack you and bite the ever-loving hell out of you and then being blamed for it when it doesn’t outright kill you."
"Rourke, watch your tone."
"Why? I'm just telling the truth. And not only that, but she keeps putting guns up to the back of my head. If she liked me, she wouldn’t be so close to blowing my brains out, now would she?”
“Rourke!” Tristan hissed and glanced emphatically behind me.
Someone pulled the seat out from under me and I landed on my ass hard.
“You were saying?” Mary asked. She was still holding the back of my chair.
I stood up, straightened my shirt, trying to regain some dignity. “I was saying that you are nuts, and rude, and a terrible woman who always hits me. That’s what I was saying.”
“Is that so?”
“You just yanked my chair out from under me. I think that’s a pretty damn good indication of your rudeness, don’t you?”
Tristan cleared his throat and I noticed that everyone was staring at us and I sighed.
“Sorry for causing a commotion here folks. I’ll go back to the room. With my breakfast,” I muttered and threw on my coat and hat and took my plate with me.
By the time I got there, my food was cold.
“Damn women. Always causing problems,” I muttered and choked down my slimy congealed eggs and chased it with a big swig of lukewarm coffee.
I couldn’t wait to find him so that we could get her guns back, and she could leave us in peace.
Well…no. That is not how that would happen either. She’d take them back and then try to kill him for stealing them. And then Tristan and I would have to hold John back because he would not hesitate to return violence against her, saint or no. It was a no-win situation, and I was stuck in the middle of it. As usual.
“Fucking hell,” I said and took out John’s letter and threw it on the table.
Sighing, I rubbed my hands down my face and glanced at the letter between my fingers, and that’s when I noticed it.
“Tricky bastard,” I said and folded the paper so that the symbols lined up to form letters and grabbed another piece of paper from my travel bag and started writing down what the note said.
The letter had to be folded this way and that to get all the lines to form words. He must’ve worked on it for several days, slowly making the indentations by drawing on a separate piece that he had laid over it.
I scratched my shoulder as I worked, having occasionally to stand up to rub the spot I couldn’t reach against the door frame.
For John to do this, he had to be under constant supervision. It reeked of paranoia and fear.
I was almost done transcribing the last line when Tristan walked into the train car.
“Hey,” I said and he didn’t reply.
I glanced at him, he looked annoyed.
He sat on the bed and glared at me.
“You need to mind your tongue.”
“Sorry about that.”
“I know that this is very trying for you, but you aren’t the only one hurting here. We all have our burdens to bear.”
“What are you talking about? Mary is fine.”
“No. She is not.”
I made an annoyed sound and looked back at him, over my shoulder. “What now?”
“She made me pay for her meal.”
“She also told me that she had come to find us because she had something for you.”
“Yes. That and she said that she was going to be very polite to you at breakfast until she heard you bad mouthing her in public. Then she changed her mind.”
“Wonderful. Sorry man. I just…” Why did I say those things? I usually kept thoughts like that to myself.
He waved it off. “Do not worry about it overmuch. She isn’t that mad. Just apologize to her when she returns and fix things between the two of you before we arrive at the station.”
“Fine. I can do that. But only because you asked.”
“Very well. Did you figure out the letter?”
“I think so. It’s still a bit odd, but, it looks like a set of directions. I think. Maybe.”
He sat next to me and when I reached back to scratch my shoulder he batted my hand away and scratched it for me.
I hissed in relief and sighed. “You are a beautiful man, you know that?”
“You’re welcome. What does it say?”
“Well--” I yelped in pain and jerked away from him as I felt my skin tear like the wound was splitting apart more.
“What? Did I hurt you?”
“No, no. It wasn’t you, it’s just this damn thing…I think the wound is growing.”
“Let me see.”
I took off my shirt and he removed the bandages and set them aside. They were soaked in fresh blood.
I could feel my blood slide down my back in rivulets. It made me shiver in disgust.
“It really hurts.”
“I can see that."
"The wound is getting bigger. The areas that split open when you hauled up me on Devil’s Pass? They’re about two inches longer now. Like someone took a knife to your back and cut the gaps wider.”
“Language,” he said.
“Sorry. I just…what am I supposed to do?”
“I don’t know. I was hoping the healing springs in Bethel would help. But they don’t seem to have done any bit of good for you. Not even the stitches could prevent it from opening wider”
There was a knock at the door and Mary stepped in.
I raised an eyebrow. “Wow. You knocked?”
“I didn’t wish to interrupt anything between the two of you.”
“There’s nothing going on between us,” I said sharply. “He’s just looking at my shoulder. You know, the one with the gaping wound in it? The one you couldn’t fix? That one.”
She frowned and stepped up to me, grabbed me by the shoulders and spun me around roughly so that she could look.
“Sophia save you.”
“Yeah, I don’t think prayers are going to work here.”
“Shut up. I made something for you while you were sleeping, you idiot.”
“Yes,” she said and picked up a large roll of bandages from her bed. There was writing in red and black ink all over it. Holy symbols, some words I could read, others were in languages that were entirely foreign to me and just looked like squiggles and fancy wavy lines. “My angels suggested we try this. I haven’t made one in years. Well…more like in a few hundred years, but still, it should help you for a bit.”
“What does it do?” Tristan asked. He looked hesitant and worried.
“It won’t heal the wound, but it will stop it from getting worse. It will numb the pain and prevent it from bleeding or growing in size.”
“But?” I asked.
“Well, like most magic, there is a price to pay.”
“And with this one?” Tristan asked.
“Any damage that the wound would inflict on you, will be tripled once the spell wears off. It lasts for two days, after that, the pain will come on and will be intense because you’ll be experiencing an entire 48 hours of agony all at once. But…seeing as how we’re going into a vipers nest of vampires, I thought it a good idea to prevent your wound from bleeding. The minute they smell blood on us, we’re dead.”
“I know that.”
“Well…do you want it or not?”
“Rourke, this is not a good idea. I find it highly inadvisable to do this.”
“I don't have a choice. How can we save John if we’re both injured and not in top form? We’re going into Golgotha. The Vampire city. This isn’t a city with an infestation, this is a city made for and run by, vampires. There’s a big difference.”
“I am aware. That is why I tried to stop John from going there, to begin with.”
“Well…I can’t have that damn demon getting in the way of things and taking me over when we’re in the middle of a fight with a vampire lord, now can I? That would mean instant death for me, and you, and Mary, and John, and whoever else gets drawn into this freaking mess. Right?”
He sighed. “Yes. I just…I don’t want to see you hurt any more than you already are. The thought of you suffering three-fold does not sit well with me. At all.”
“Aw, you love him.”
“Shut. Up,” we both said in unison and she bit her lower lip and turned away, trying not to laugh.
“What’s so funny? Huh? Does my suffering amuse you?”
“What? No! I just…I think you two are cute together, that’s all.”
“What. Just what are you implying woman? Hm?”
She waved a hand. “It’s nothing. Ignore me.”
“That’s what I thought. So…how do these bandages work exactly?”
“Oh, I just slap them on and say the magic words to activate them. That’s all.”
“Wonderful. So, is this going to sting, or what?”
Mary glanced at me, the corners of her mouth twitched. She was hesitant to reply. I could tell.
“Well?” I said.
“It will hurt, but a brief moment, and then all pain will be gone.”
“And then?” Tristan asked.
“Then he has 48 hours. So we have to find John before the spell wears off.”
“What happens if it wears off before we find him?” he asked.
Tristan was worried. Hell, I was worried. But…the siren’s lure of no pain for a few days, it was calling me in sweet dulcet tones. I couldn't pass it up. Even if we weren't heading into a death trap, I'd say yes, just so that I could rest in peace for a time. I had been suffering with this constantly, for over a month now. It was just too much.
“I’ll be fine,” I said. The skin around the wound on my back prickled, twitched and started itching like crazy.
I balled my fists, dug my nails into my palms.
It wasn’t stopping. It was getting worse by the day. That demon was taking over my body, bit by bit. Soon, the wound would grow to cover my whole back, and my right arm…I’d have no control over it. I’d have to cut it off, or maybe…I could just kill myself and get it over with.
My mind wandered to my holster, and the guns therein. I was barely conscious of it, of pulling my six-shooter out and holding it, running my fingers down the barrel.
Maybe, just maybe, I could just kill myself and get it over with. Would that demon take over my corpse? Would it matter? I mean, I’d be dead so…
“Whatever you are thinking, stop it. Now,” Tristan said in a low, hushed tone. He gripped my shoulders hard and I was then aware of the cold steel in my hands.
My gun. I was thinking of killing myself and I was holding my gun.
Shocked, I dropped it.
Mary kicked it away and stood before me, hands on her hips. She looked me dead in the eye and I froze.
“This isn’t a permanent solution, but, it’ll save your life. Hell, all of our lives, while we’re searching for John in that godforsaken city. The bleeding will stop. The pain will cease. The spell I wrote on these bandages will essentially stop time for your body. You will think clearly, and will see just how much you are suffering right now.”
“Isn’t that dangerous, in and of itself? It’s a quick fix, and well…I might become desperate enough to want you to do it again.”
“We’ll deal with that bridge when it’s time to cross it, Mr. Whelan.”
“The angels, they say that John can help you. I’m not sure how they know, but I trust them, so, you just need to keep it together long enough for me to cast this spell. Understand?”
I nodded, tears welling up in my eyes.
Was I that suicidal? Or was that thing seriously messing with me and trying to break down what remained of my mental defenses?
“Rourke? Can you hear me?” she asked.
I nodded and cleared my throat. “Yeah, I hear you. I’m just, so tired. It won’t stop. It hurts so much. It’s getting worse. Every day. And I’m sick of it. It's making me desperate.”
Tristan tightened his grip on my shoulders. I took a ragged breath.
“Promise me something, Tristan.”
“Anything,” he said softly.
“Promise me that you’ll let me go. If we try to stop this thing, this demon, and nothing works. And I mean, nothing, you’ll let me end it. A man can only take so much pain before it twists him, deep inside. I don’t want that to happen. I don’t want that thing to win.”
I heard it laugh, from my shadow on the floor, and goosebumps raised on my arms.
“Did you hear that?” I whispered.
“As did I,” Mary said and she slammed her booted foot down on my shadow, hard. I winced. “Did that hurt?”
“No. I just imagined what it would feel like for you to stomp my face.”
I tried to turn to face Tristan, but he wouldn’t let me.
“I’m sorry. I can’t give you my word on that. Forgive me.” His voice cracked with sorrow.
It was too much. It was just too much. For all of us. That demon, whatever it truly was, wasn’t just eating at me. It was devouring a part of him as well.
Mary was right. Because we had made a blood oath, the magic that bound us together by our fates, meant that we would all be affected by my curse.
“Rourke,” Mary said gently. I looked up at her. “Come on. Let us ease your pain for a time, so you can rest, and think straight. You’ll need your wits about you, in Golgotha. You’re hardly yourself right now.”
“I hate to say this, but...she’s right. Let her help you. Please.”
I nodded, let him steer me over to the table bench and sit me down.
“Sit in front of him. Hold his hands down. Just in case.”
Tristan did as she told and I let him grip my hands tight. He was ashen with fear. He looked awful, to tell the truth. I didn’t notice just how poorly he was feeling until just then.
“Sophia, give me the strength to endure all things, in this life and the next. Let me always seek knowledge, until the very end of my days, so that I may be with you in your wisdom, forever, and always,” I prayed.
“Amen,” Tristan said.
Mary sat behind me and began unwinding the cloth bandages that she had painted angelic runes on, and started murmuring an incantation in a language long dead. It was a sussurance of syllables, shushes, rolling R’s and sharp K’s.
I shivered, and tried not to bolt, even though every fiber in my being started screaming at me to run.
Tristan held my hands so tight, my fingers began to lose circulation. But I didn’t let go or pull away.
I closed my eyes and kept praying to Sophia, the goddess of wisdom and light, while my skin crawled and my back seared with pain.
I was out of my mind with fear.
What would happen to me, once the spell wore off? How much would it hurt? Would I even survive getting hit with that much agony, all at once? Or would it be the death of me?
Would I even care at that point? If it killed me?
I didn’t know. And that fact alone scared the ever loving wits out of me.
I could feel the demon’s fear welling up inside of me, a mixture of unadulterated hate and rage, tinged with anxiety, like a wild animal that saw that it was about to be trapped and slaughtered.
An image flashed in my mind of a big wolf’s maw that was dripping with blood, its black fur matted with fresh gore.
I cried out, tried to pull away, but I was stuck fast. The demon wolf loomed closer, eyes glowing with bright green balefire from the very pits of hell itself.
“Soon,” it said with a vicious deep growl. “Your soul will be mine, mortal. And no one can stop me. No one.”
I felt it dig its razor-sharp claws into my back and I cried out in pain.
An ice-cold bandage pressed into my wound. It was followed by another, and another. And suddenly, the pain was gone.
I sat there, slumped in defeat, my forehead resting against Tristan’s muscular shoulder. It took a moment for it to register that I was leaning against him. My right arm went numb, and I felt my hand lessen its grip.
I sighed in relief.
“Better?” Mary asked.
“Yes. Thank you,” I whispered.
She kept wrapping the bandages, threading them around my shoulder and chest and then tied off the ends.
“Done,” she said and stepped away. She stood next to the potbelly stove and lit a cigarette.
Tristan said nothing, he let go of my hands and let me lean against him. He didn’t embrace me. He just sat there, with me.
He was so fond of me. It wasn’t healthy. I was a thief and a liar. And since I hated liars…I suppose that meant that I hated myself as well.
My back felt cool, it didn't hurt at all. my arm, the right arm that the demon kept possessing and controlling, it was numb, my hand and arm both were tingling with pins and needles, like it had fallen asleep.
“Huh,” I said and sat up and rubbed my numb right arm.
“What?” he asked.
“My arm is asleep.”
“That’s because the magic in the bandages put the demon to spiritual sleep, and that is the main part of your body that it currently resides in."
“Good to know.”
I stretched, fully, for the first time in over a month, and yawned. I was tired, down to my bones. Dead tired.
“We have a few hours until we reach the station. Try to get some rest,” Tristan said. “Mary and I will finish making the silver bullets.”
My head hit the pillow and I was out cold.
I slept like a log. It was a deep, healing sleep, and it was wonderful.
I woke up when I heard them arguing.
I yawned and rolled over to see them sitting across from one another on the floor of the train car. They were both drunk and playing cards.
“Stop cheating. It’s not ladylike.”
“I’m not. You’re just lousy at poker.”
“I am not. I know card games. And you are not as slick as you think you are.”
She pointed at him with a lit cigarette in her hand. “Maybe you’re the cheater.”
“You’re the psychic. You probably know exactly what is in my hand right now.”
“I would never use my powers for such an insignificant thing. Besides, they don’t work that way. They only show me when I, or someone I care about, is in danger.”
“Well, they would work like that, if you trained properly.”
“Shut your mouth woman, and deal the cards right, or I’ll deal them.”
I reached over the side of the bed and tapped him on the shoulder.
He was sitting on the floor with his back against our bed, Mary was leaning back against hers and shuffling the cards. A fire roared peacefully in the stove.
He looked back at me. “Did we wake you?”
“Nah. Just remembered something.”
I slid down to the floor next to him. “I forgot to tell you, never play cards with her. She’s impossible to beat.”
“Mm,” he said.
“You want in? We have half an hour before we get to the station,” Mary said.
“Why are you both stinking drunk if we’re so close to getting there?”
“She started it,” Tristan said and Mary smirked.
“Don’t tell me…loser of a round takes a shot?”
“Yes,” he said.
“I leave you alone with her for a few hours and you get deep in your cups. Thanks a lot, Mary.”
“I aim to please.”
“Well…maybe instead, you should aim to keep on your best behavior instead? Ever think of that?”
“Impossible. I’m a trouble magnet.”
“You can say that again.”
“How are you feeling?” Tristan asked.
“Tired, but other than that, I feel great.”
He gave me a bleary-eyed look of disbelief.
“What? I do. Honest.”
“All right. If you say so.”
“I do. And I also think that perhaps you two should start sobering up and packing up the gear you took out to use while on the trip. We won’t have long now before we reach the station at the city gates. Once we get there, we’re going to have to stable the horses and get a map of that place. From what I’ve heard, it’s a like a freaking labyrinth, so getting from the city gates to the center is a pain in the ass, and with that map that John made, I’m going to need a reference to work from.”
“That’s the Rourke I’ve missed.”
“I haven’t gone anywhere.”
“I know. You just haven’t been yourself for a time. You’re sounding like your old self again.”
“Ah. Well…thank Mary for that, while you sober up.”
“Should’ve gotten some more coffee,” Mary muttered as we started packing up.
Not long after, the train arrived at the station.
It was completely dark out, even though it was mid-day. I found it eerie and disconcerting. Tristan kept looking around, nervously. Mary, on the other hand, went about her business as though this were just another stop on her journey.
We stabled our horses at the station, paying triple the rate the ensure that they’d be there on our way out.
Tristan paused as we went to leave and he tapped my shoulder.
“Look.” He pointed and my heart skipped a beat. One of the long-term stables in the back held a dun mare, with a star on her forehead. There was no saddle, but a riding blanket hung over the side of the stable. It was dark red, with a black wolf in the center. The Granger family crest.
“Johnathan,” I said softly, and he nodded.
“He’s still here.”
“Or, he’s dead and paid to over-winter his horse and they haven’t bothered to sell it off yet,” Mary said and anger flared up in my chest.
I had to ball my hands into fists or I would’ve punched her. Hard.
“Watch. Your. Tone,” Tristan warned, a hand on his sword hilt. I noticed that he moved and put himself between the two of us, just in case I really lost my temper and took a swing at her. He was trying to protect me from myself.
She gave him a pointed look and stepped out of the barn.
“You all right?” he asked me.
I took a deep breath and let it out. “Yeah. She’s just…you know?”
“Yes. She may be a saint, however, she is blunt as hell and very rude. Mayhap that is why she has no true traveling companions. No one can stand her for more than a few hours at a time.”
“Got that right.”
“I must say, I’m not comfortable working with her Rourke.”
“I have an uneasy feeling. It’s like sitting across from a mountain lion. You know it is going to pounce and rip you to shreds, but you’re not sure just when it’s going to make its move.”
“Personally, I think she has a punchable face. But maybe that’s just me.”
His eyes widened in disbelief. “Rourke!”
“What? It’s true.”
He sighed and adjusted his Stetson hat and said nothing.
“Come on,” I said. “I’d say we’re wasting daylight, but it doesn’t exist here.”
He shook his head and we stepped out. “To be honest, Rourke, I say it’s a good sign that John’s horse is still here.”
“I agree. If word got out that a Granger was killed, they’d find out who and sell his horse to free up room in the stable.”
We walked over to where Mary stood. We were at the top of the small hill that the stable and train station were built upon. Before us, in a choking haze of coal smoke and lamplight, a huge city rose up from a central hill.
This area was a series of peaks and valleys. A wide river ran through the low points and for countless centuries, its waters carved out three hills from the countryside. There were two small ones on either side of a large wide hill, where the vampire city resided.
Golgotha was big. At least double the size of Concordia, and oddly enough, it had no outer wall. The river served as a moat of lethal liquid, the stench alone could deter people from wanting to sneak inside.
Tristan shivered and tightened his scarf around his face.
I tied mine around my nose and mouth to block out the smoke before I started coughing. Mary had already tied a kerchief about her face. This place was covered in a blanket of smog. It was hard to breathe in. It was enough to throw a strong, able-bodied man into a coughing fit.
“What is it Tristan? You sense something?”
“Yes. I can feel the laylines here. They cross the river, and form points of power in the center of the city. There’s something in the deep here, underground the city. I can feel it, its frozen claws trying to dig into my head. This city. It’s alive. Somehow.”
“The oldest cities are, you know. Sentient. They have their own souls. Little Gods, spirits of the place. I’d hate to see what hellspawn was brought into being by this necropolis. It’d be a nightmare to deal with if we accidentally pissed it off,” Mary said.
“Oh, that’s so reassuring. Thank you for that. Not only do we have to worry about vampires, now we have to worry about a god of a city of the dead. Wonderful.”
“Have faith, we shall survive this,” Tristan said and I glared at him. “What? You don’t have faith all of a sudden? Sophia has not abandoned us. Not by a long shot.”
“Not yet she hasn’t.”
Mary gave me a look that turned my blood cold.
“As long as I live on the god’s green acre, Sophia will be with ye. Understand?”
“Good. Let’s get going. We need a hotel room and a city map, yes?”
“That we do. Without a street map, there's no way I can figure out the trail John drew for us.”
"Then let's go find one."
"Works for me."
We walked across the empty bridge to the chilly, lonely cobblestone streets of Golgotha.
There was a large sign on the side of the bridge that gloomily announced in stark letters that we were entering the North Cordon, Caturix district. The white sign was stained black from the sooty coal smoke that choked out the skies.
On an adjacent bridge to our right, large metal boxes on wheeled flatbed carts were being pushed by teams of pale, grim-faced men. All of them had scarves or kerchiefs tied around their faces, and the cloth was stained black. Streaks of soot covered their jackets and hats as well.
The river was full of sludge and foam. The heat from the water made it steam. Soft green lights winked in the murky depths and I shuddered to think of what kind of creatures could live in such a toxic stew.
Stark red flowers on pale gray stems lined the river bed. Occasionally dropping to the ground and oozing apart. They looked like they were bleeding.
Not something that any sane person would willingly live by, that’s for sure
I had never seen anything like it, but I had heard of runoff waters coming from manufacturing plants that had popped up in the Formicarium in the east. The closest thing I have been to one of those was a logging camp. The sheer size of the scale of production was mind-boggling to me.
Mary noticed me watching the men pushing items to the waiting train and said, “The factory district is over there. Many things are fabricated here, and then shipped to Eugenica and assembled. The trains bring back up iron and coal from the domed city. They're manufacturing supplies. There's whole chain of production in motion. It's a rather impressive business, to be honest."
“So…where does the final product get sent?” I asked.
“The Formicarium, to the Imperial army mostly. They make swords and firearms. Canons. That sort of thing. They also make parts for trains; rails, spikes, wheels and so on.”
“How do you know this?” Tristan asked.
She shrugged. “I forget who I was speaking to. Some official dandy somewhere on the road. I think I was in Trafalgar, a few years back.”
"Come on, let's stop gawking and get a move on before we're spotted by the locals."
All the buildings here were topped with Gothic spikes and spires. On the rooftops, skull bottomed lightning rods and hideous grinning gargoyles stared down at us with ruby eyes.
The buildings were all made out of a dull grey stone that they brought over from the quarry that we had passed on the way here.
"Look," Tristan pointed to the clock tower that loomed before us from where it stood on a corner building.
It had 24 hours on it. Not the usual 12.
"How else would they know what the time was? It's not as though they can tell from the position of the sun, or the moon for that matter. Neither have risen here in centuries," Mary said and I nodded.
She was right. It was just odd to see it.
There were double the street lamps, which made the hazy smog that filled the streets glow an eery yellow light. It was unsettling, how quiet it was. Other than the sound of men working to unload from the train, we heard nothing. No bird calls, no dogs barking or cats raising a fuss. Not even groups of people chatting as they walked hurriedly along, as they would if we were in Concordia.
It was creepy, to say the least.
Most cities were bustling with activity during daytime hours. It was 12 noon on the dot. I compared my pocket watch with the clock tower just to be sure. Yup. It was lunchtime.
So where were all the people?
“What’s wrong?” Tristan asked, looking around warily.
“There’s no one out and about at high noon. It’s rather odd, don’t you think?”
“Rourke, this is a vampire city,” Mary said. “Work hours and living hours are reversed. Wait until midnight. You’ll see. Day is the night shift for them. Even though here, there is no daytime. It wasn’t always like that. The town that the necromancer’s curse started in, is far north of here, near the mountains. And, well, old habits die hard, especially after generations of working under vampire rule.”
“So what you are saying, is that this was a vampire city BEFORE it was swallowed up by the Night Lands?”
I whistled. That had to be before the Imperium started colonizing the new world. That was one hell of a long time ago.
“If the sun never shines here, what do they eat?” Tristan asked.
“Yeah, what DO they eat?” I asked.
Mary paused by a street lamp, it was one of those fancy iron poled kerosine lamps whose flames framed her head in a halo of yellow light and lit up a cigarette.
“Canned food, mostly. Like Eugenica. There’s a rumor that in the catacombs there’s a sun garden, where human nobility get fresh food from, but I have no idea if that’s true or not.”
“Sounds lovely. Come on, let’s go find a room and a map.”
The further we walked into the city, the thicker the yellow choking fog became. After a time, we couldn't see more than a few feet ahead of us. It was like moving through a thick soupy mist that smelled like dead fish and sulfur. It was going to take several washes to get the smell out of our clothes.
We kept walking and walking, looking for someplace to buy a city map at. But just about every store was closed.
An hour later, we were totally and completely lost.
Poor Tristan was limping and in obvious pain, his feet had to be a complete mess at this point. He didn't complain, but I knew that it had to hurt immensely.
My right knee was griping, the leg inflamed from absorbing the impact of Tristan’s Uncle Gideon’s fists. But my back didn't hurt. Not one bit. I got some feeling back into my right hand, thankfully, but the arm was still a bit numb. Nothing I couldn't handle, to be honest. I was more annoyed with the fact that we were lost, and running out of time.
Not just for me, but for John.
The longer it took us to find him, the more time those evil vamps had to sink their her fangs into him and turn him into one of their kind.
That didn’t sit well with me, at all.
I stopped in the middle of the street when I noticed that we had walked past the same building three times.
“Wait. Wait. Stop,” I said.
Mary sighed angrily. “What.”
“We’ve walked past this shop three times. We’re lost.”
“We are?” she asked.
“If Rourke says that we’re lost. We’re lost," Tristan said. "He has the best memory out of anyone I know. He knows what he is doing.”
“If you say so.”
“Look, this seems to be the only place with lights on. So, I’m going to go inside and see if they can point me to somewhere I can purchase a street map. We can’t just go walking willy-nilly in such a huge place with foggy labyrinthine streets that just go in circles.”
“Fine, we’ll stay out here and keep the bench warm for you.”
"You do that," I said and left them out at the side of the street, where they sat down on a wooden bench under a street lamp.
It seemed a bit out in the open, but the smoke and fog made it hard to see more than six feet in front of you. It really hampered visibility.
I didn’t like it. Not one bit.
I silently prayed to Sophia that Tristan could keep Mary in line while I was gone and pushed open the heavy oak door to the shop. What they sold there, I had no idea. The sign was written in a language that I had never seen before.
The interior smelled of mothballs.The walls lined with faded yellow paper, and a man was sitting at a desk facing the door. A well-stoked fireplace roared happily behind him.
On the wall by the hat stand, was another rack, where a brass gas mask hung forlornly. He must be well-to-do, to own such a thing. Looked rather expensive.
The man was scribbling on paper with a fountain pen. He didn’t look up.
He was so pale, like he would just burst into flames if he stepped out into the sun. Like the noblemen I saw on the train, his skin looked fragile, like parchment, and his blue and red veins were easily seen from within.
I saw posted on the wall by the door a wanted poster. It was of John- wanted for murder and theft. One thousand gold crown coins reward. That was a lot. Even for one of us.
My boots sounded loud on the polished wooden floors.
I pulled down the kerchief to show my face and said, “Excuse me.”
The man finally looked up. His eyes sunken in. Tired. Hollow. They searched my face, then looked me over. The fact that he noticed the gun holsters slung at my hips and the throwing knife bandoleers I had strapped to my chest was not lost on me.
“Yes?” he asked, his voice almost a whisper.
“I was wondering if you could point me to where I could purchase a street map. I’m here on business and I’m terribly lost.”
“Ah. Well, I have one. It’s rather dated, but you’re welcome to it.”
“Oh, really? How much?”
“Don’t worry about the price. It’s on the house,” he said and slowly opened a desk drawer and pulled out a thick folded map. “Districts have changed, but the street names are the same. Should help I imagine. At least it will assist you in getting your bearings. I’m told by foreigners that their sense of direction gets upset the moment they step inside the city. Probably due to all the iron in the buildings.”
“Is that so?”
“Yes. An interesting phenomenon. One I should like to study someday, I think.”
“I can appreciate your healthy sense of curiosity. Keeps the mind sharp.”
He smiled tersely.
“Are you sure you don’t want payment for this?”
“Positive.” He handed it to me, looked me dead in the eye. He didn’t let go of the map. “Stay. Safe. Don’t go to the center of the city at midnight.”
“The nobility. They’ll smell new bloodstock on you. You won’t stand a chance.”
“What makes you think I would want to go there?”
“You’re a hunter, aren’t you?”
“Then you’ll find yourself drawn there, one way, or another. She always gets what she wants, after all.”
He smiled, it was a creepy, knowing smile full of yellowed and rotting teeth. “You’ll see.”
He let go of the map.
“Thank you, kind sir, your help is much appreciated.”
“Don’t mention it. Now, please leave. And keep in mind, if I am asked, I never saw you here.”
“Understood,” I said and walked out, frowning.
I started unfolding the map and instantly regretted it. I fumbled with it as I stepped over to Mary and Tristan.
“Found one, huh?” she asked. “In the first place you bother to step inside to ask. How convenient.”
“Yeah…about that. The prince of the city, she knows we’re here.”
“Of course she does,” Tristan said. “It’s not as though we’re trying to blend in while we look for John.”
“You saying that we should’ve done more research before stepping into the snake’s den?”
“I see. Thanks for mentioning that now. Damn it, I have no idea how to open this up right. It’s folds within folds.”
“Give it here,” Mary said.
Tristan’s head perked up and he looked around. “You hear that?”
He stood up, alarmed.
A little girl’s scream pierced the air.
“Help! Someone help!” a girl's voice called out. She sounded vulnerable. Scared.
Before I could say anything, Tristan bolted, running at top speed towards the sound of a girl’s panicked voice.
“Wait!” I shouted.
“Damn it,” Mary said and tossed the map at me. I shoved it in my jacket pocket and we both ran after Tristan, who quickly turned a corner into a dead end alley and drew his long sword.
As soon as we caught up with him, we were immediately surrounded by a gang of men. No. Not men.
Their fangs and silver eyes glinted in the lamplight.
Mary stood with her back to us, watching our only exit as she pulled her guns.
I took out my six shooters.
In the center of the alleyway, a young girl stood, blood slathered down her chin. It had soaked down the front of her white frilly dress and into her grey wool overcoat. Her white Mary Jane shoes had splashes of blood on them.
She stood there, smiling sweetly at Tristan.
A woman lay dead on the cobblestone, her throat gone, torn out by the vicious little vampire.
The corpse looked fake.
My mind expected a puddle of blood to be beneath her. But she was drained dry by the pack of vamps that now surrounded us.
The girl had drunk her fill, her cheeks rosy from the blood she had engorged herself with.
The others were hungry.
I could see it in their silver eyes; empty, starving, half-mad with hunger.
“Have you come to help us?” she asked. “My friends are very hungry.”
I could feel Tristan drawing on his fighting magic, the electric charge filled the air and made my hair stand on end. He was about to get serious and introduce her to the point of his blade.
“You killed an innocent woman,” he said, his anger barely contained.
The girl laughed and clapped her hands. “Uh-huh. And now we’re going to kill and eat you!”
Oh. Great. The girl was the master vampire of the pack. Wonderful.
I heard Mary cock the hammers on her guns. “Six behind, seven in front,” she muttered. I wasn’t sure if she was talking to me or not. But I appreciated the headcount.
I could handle four of them on my own, while Tristan went after their sire, the little girl who had eaten first.
Vampires had a pecking order, and she was clearly the one in charge of this pack of fanged nightmares. She was the smallest, and toughest one there.
Mary could take the six behind us, or so I hoped. I know she didn’t have her blessed magic guns, but still, she was no slouch when it came to firearms, and she had been fighting monsters for a hell of a lot longer than the both of us combined.
“Look, kid,” I said, hoping to distract her. “We’re not from around here. We don’t want to cause any trouble. All right?”
“I know. You smell delicious. Fresh stock for my brood. Maybe I’ll keep the big one to breed. He looks like a good strong bull of a human. I’ll mark him and sell off his seed.”
“That’s disgusting! How dare you!”
“Tristan, keep your wits about you, she’s trying to piss you off.”
“I know, and it’s working.”
The girl’s smile fell. “Aww, not happy to help now?”
“You,” he said darkly. “It was you who got us lost here. You clouded our minds, and drew us out, to this secluded space.”
“Yup! That was me!” She tilted her head, her dirty curled blonde locks drooped to the side.
“You’re different. You’re like us, mind-speaker.”
“He’s psychic. He’s nothing like you, you fiend,” Mary said and the tone of her voice made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Her words were laced with the black promise of murder and bloodshed. It was terrifying.
Boy, was I glad that she was on my side.
“Hm...I’m done playing. Kill them. Save me the big one,” she said, and we all braced for the attack.