It was just a brief moment in time, but it felt like forever.
There we stood. Tristan on point. Mary behind me. I moved slightly to their left when she backed up to fill in the right side to cover Tristan’s back.
Tristan held his sword up and exhaled slowly. I could feel the electric charge of his fighting magic as he called it up from his blood. He raised his sword high, ready to strike, a gold glow engulfed his hands and ran up the blade, making it shine. It lit up the entire back alley where the vampire gang had lured us.
I felt the falling snow tickle my face, sweat ran down my spine, my heart beating in my ears.
A motion to my left, a vampire oozed out of the shadows, attempting to get behind Tristan and deal a killing blow to his back with its vicious claws. Wisps of fog dragged off behind its arms and legs and I inhaled and aimed my six-shooters.
I shot it in the chest. Once. Twice. The bullet from my numb right hand missed its heart, something I rarely ever do, and the vampire whirled on me with bared fangs.
Cursing I adjusted my aim and shot it between the eyes, black corrosion surrounded the bullet wound and it fell back as it burned from the silver.
That wouldn’t happen again. I never miss a target. Ever. That was just a fluke.
Tristan moved forward instinctively as he entered a battle trance, his gray eyes clouded over and blank as he saw with his mind’s eye only, the mystical properties of his power taking hold of his body as he relinquished control over to them.
He had entered a fighting trance, one of the psychic skills he honed through natural grit and talent alone. No training. None whatsoever. If he had some, he’d be unstoppable on the battlefield, no two ways about it.
I had already decided how I was going to take out the four vampire ghouls that were leering at me. I figured Mary could take the six by her while Tristan took on the master of the vampire pack, who looked like a little girl, but whose black eyes betrayed a cunning far beyond her physical age.
Her eyes turned silver as she drew on the blood she just drank from her victim, the corpse of which still lay warm and steaming on the cold cobblestone pavement.
The master vamp was using it to fuel her preternatural powers. It made me pause. I wasn’t sure what she was capable of, but the feeling I got from her magic was that she was of a noble bloodline. Noble vampires had different magical powers, depending on whether they were born or turned, and how old and powerful their sires were.
My original plan was to shoot before they got too close, then run in and plant knives into their hearts, followed by Tristan cutting off their heads while they remained paralyzed. At least, that was how we usually did things, but this was a master vamp we were dealing with, not another low powered ghoul.
No doubt Mary would go for the hearts, chest shots would drop them fast. They were pack hunters and used their numbers to their advantage like wolves did. Except these wolves were bloodthirsty parasites in the shape of men.
Vampires became paralyzed by objects piercing their dark hearts. So it was always the best idea to drop them fast, especially before they reached you. The problem was, they were faster, agiler and a hell of a lot more stronger than humans. So no matter how much you train, there was always that chance that in a split moment in a fight, you would be a tad too slow, and they’d sink their fangs into you and inject their venom. Stung like hell and acted like laudanum. Numbed and slowed you down, made you easier to kill and devour.
I always thought that fighting vamps was like leaping headfirst into a viper’s den. Snakes strike in the blink of an eye. So do vamps.
I heard the scrape of claws on the walls and cautiously looked behind me. Crawling down the sides of the buildings of the alleyway, were more vampires. At least ten of them. Maybe more. There was some motion on the rooftops but the deep fog hid their true number from me. We were more than surrounded. We were severely outnumbered.
“Tristan. They have friends,” I said.
“I know. I’ll take the girl. You two cover my flanks,” he said and sounded like he was half asleep.
Yup. Full battle trance incoming. This was going to be one hell of a fight.
“Oh, don’t be so glum Rourke. You have a saint on your side,” Mary said and laughed. Before I could retort she started firing on the vamps that were crawling down the walls towards us, dropping them onto their brothers as they crept closer. Buying us some time.
The vamps had to throw off the dead weight of their paralyzed brethren.
I shot at the three vamps closest to me and sent them sprawling backward, the silver bullets burning holes into their flesh, leaving smoking black wounds in their wake.
Mary was smiling. The smile actually met her eyes this time. She was grinning ear to ear as she shot them and reloaded so fast, her fingers were a blur.
She laughed. Sheer glee in her bloodlust. It was terrifying.
“Look out!” she shouted and shoved me aside as a red shining whip flew at my face. It was blood. A whip made out of blood.
The master vamp, she had two of them trailing out of her wrists.
Tristan had easily side stepped out of the way of them, twisting in time to a song that only he could hear, parrying her attacks effortlessly as the master vamp threw the whips at him. She was fighting rough and dirty.
She laughed, grabbed one of her ghouls with a whip, tossed him up in the air and reached out her hand, all the blood inside of him seeped out of his orifices and swirled around her, forming a crimson flowing cape. In the air around her, shards of crystallized blood floated in an arc.
I had never seen anything like it in my life.
“She’s the child of a nobleman!” I shouted.
“Really? I hadn’t noticed. What gave it away? Her cute frilly dress?” Mary said and moved fast, put her arm in front of me, shoving me back and firing on three vamps that had gotten close while I was distracted.
She let off a rapid succession of shots. How she cocked the hammers back so fast with her thumbs was beyond me. Then again she did have over a thousand years of fighting under her belt, and one hell of a death grip of a handshake, so I tried not to let the fact that a woman had stronger hands than me get me down. She was a saint, after all. She was allowed to be manlier than me. I guess.
No sooner than the bullets zipped into their chests and pierced their hearts, the four vampires behind me dropped dead.
“Don’t take your eyes off them!” she shouted and shot one that had snuck up on my side.
I spotted several sneaking up behind her and threw three knives in quick succession past her head, almost grazing her face--if it had been anyone else they would’ve hit her for sure-- and hit the vamp that had leaped towards her before he landed on her back. She kicked him back and he landed, stiff, arms crooked up, and black eyes tilted towards the forever darkened sky.
I had lost track of how many we killed. They just seemed to keep coming.
Tristan’s blade rang out as he leaped up and sliced through the air, hitting several of the blood crystals and smashing them onto the ground.
The little master vamp hissed at him, and threw her whips towards him, trying to grab his legs before he landed.
Tristan knocked one out of the way, and grabbed the other, letting it wrap around his wrist while he held his sword in one hand. He yanked her forward as he landed and punched her in the face, tried to grab her neck and she slithered out of his grasp, her skin stretching like so much putty, as she turned into a puddle of blood. The other blood crystals flew towards Mary and I, and I threw as many knives as I could to knock them away.
Mary had put an arm up to brace for impact and looked up, surprised when they all cracked and shattered on the ground instead.
“Shut. Your. Mouth. Woman,” I said through gritted teeth and ran forward, ducked down to sweep up my knives and turned around on my heels and threw my knives at several more vampires that had snuck up behind me. They dropped with satisfying thuds and I took out my guns and shot them between the eyes, and retrieved my knives.
Mary cursed, I saw that one had managed to grab her as she was reloading her six-shooters, and I ran to assist, but before I could get there, she slammed the revolver bullet door shut and shoved the gun into the vamp's mouth and fired, shooting its brains out. It screamed. Foul-smelling smoke filled the air and she shoved it off her hand and shook the clotted blood off the sleeve of her long coat.
“Damned leeches,” she muttered.
There was motion coming from my left and I turned just in time to parry a hardened tendril of blood with two knives. The force of it drew sparks from the metal.
I saw Tristan appear behind the little vamp, spinning from dispatching the heads from several vampire ghouls that had come to assist her, he went to cut off her pretty little head.
Tristan’s sword swept cleanly through her flesh, a little too easily, and her neck tissue reattached.
He swore as she motioned with her hand and her cloak wrapped around his midsection and squeezed. He screamed in pain, and I knocked away the hardened blood tendril and pulled my six shooters and shot her point blank in the chest.
The bullets ripped through her and sunk into the blood cloak.
For a split second, I feared that I had hit Tristan, but the bullets fell to the cobblestone, flattened. The cloak had turned into a hard shell of some kind. Similar to the crystals she had made.
“We have to get him out of there,” Mary said.
“I know! Any ideas?”
Tristan was hitting it with the hilt of his blade, grimacing in pain. I could see his cloudy eyes start to clear up. She was trying to break him out of his battle trance, so he’d be easier to kill.
“I have one,” Mary said. “Stand back. Out of the light.”
“The light? What light?”
She grabbed me with her steely hands and tossed me back. “Get back!”
I ran to the corner and ducked down, I could feel her drawing in magical power from the air. At least, that is what it felt like. But, I could see her, glowing, and I knew that she was about to unleash her saintly powers like she had back in Bethel when the demon in my back took over and tried to kill them.
Mary started praying in that ancient language again, loudly, and goosebumps raised on my skin as a hot wind from some desert place in the old world swirled past me and around her, kicking up snow in the alleyway, and mixing it with sand.
“Good sweet lady, what is she doing?” I muttered, and in the shadows from the glow of the fire that emanated from her, I could see a silhouette. It was so familiar to me, it made my heart leap.
The man looked my way and bolted.
“John! Wait! We came here to find you!”
I tried to run but suddenly, a burst of flame gouted out of the alleyway, blinding me for a few short seconds as it burned all the vampires to dust.
The wound on my back twitched and I raised my arm up to protect my face.
I heard what sounded like glass breaking, and looked to see a cross made out of fire had formed on the master vampire. The girl was squealing and screaming but it had her pinned to the ground and was piercing her chest, burned a hole clean through it right to her heart and burning it, but no sooner did it burn, did it start to grow back.
This was the real deal. A true noble vampire.
“By the old laws, and the old ways,” Mary said, her voice loud, so loud that it hurt my ears. It was a side effect of her magic. Her saintly powers. “I command thee to die, vampire. Your wandering higher soul now belongs to Sophia. I bless thee and send thee back to hell. May your next life be merciful and kind.”
The master vamp screamed in pain and rage and terror. Her silver eyes wide with fear, as her heart completely burned through, turning to a lump of coal. Her body burned up and the flames licked at Tristan, who had knelt down, put his sword up in front of him, tip to the ground, and hands on the hilt had raised a shield of golden light to protect him from it.
Mary looked at the lumpy coal heart and crushed it under her heel in contempt. Then, she staggered forward and leaned against the wall, and the flames and hot desert wind faded to nothingness. Piles of sand rested up against the walls and in places on the cobblestone where the stones were raised up. It was surreal to see it.
The smell from the ashed vampires was awful. Like burning rotten meat.
Tears of blood ran down her face. Her eyes were completely bloodshot and bright red.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
She shook her head and then threw up.
Tristan got to his feet, breathing hard and sheathed his sword.
“I’m good. You?” he asked and offered Mary a handkerchief. She nodded in thanks and wiped off her face, blood staining the white linen.
“Fine. Listen…I think I just saw John.”
They both looked at me.
“What?” Tristan asked. “Where?”
“He was right here. I swear it. I was about to run to him when the fire shot through the alleyway. I blinked and he was gone.”
“Are you certain it was him, and not a trick of this place?” he asked.
“Oh, now you’re cautious? You couldn’t have been like this prior to running to save someone and dragging us right into a trap?”
“Point taken. Please, let us argue about this later. We shouldn’t stay here for much longer.”
“Yeah. No kidding,” I said and gathered up the rest of my throwing knives and sheathed them.
Mary was pale. She looked like she was about to get sick again.
“Mary?” Tristan asked and went to put a concerned hand on her shoulder and she swatted it away.
“I am fine. Just nauseous.”
“Is that normal?”
“No. But, like someone said…I’m pregnant. So, it’s bound to happen sooner or later.”
“Look, I’m real sorry that you had to find out that way,” I said.
“It’s not your fault. I blame the demon you're hosting.”
“That…really doesn’t make me feel any better about it. But…thanks?”
“You’re welcome.” Mary offered the handkerchief back to Tristan and he put a hand up to stop her.
"You can keep it."
"Thank you," she said and shoved it in a pants pocket.
“You know, it was strange. My sword sliced right through that thing’s neck and did nothing. I was not anticipating that. I didn't see it coming," he sounded concerned, and a little surprised.
“She was an old one. Not your fault. They get…tricky as they get older. Can do things you wouldn't believe to their bodies. The older a noble vampire gets, the less human they are,” Mary said and reloaded her weapons. "I've seen one turn into a mobile puddle of blood once. It's insane."
“Duly noted. Thank you for the assist,” he said.
“Always. You know that.”
We gave each other a comradric hand clasp and half-hug and Mary rolled her eyes.
“You fellas are rather slow,” she said.
“Beg pardon? I think we fared just fine.”
“She was going to crush you to death, if I hadn’t stopped her.”
“We would’ve found a way to stop her if we were on our own. We’ve fought a hell of a lot worse and survived.”
“He’s right you know. We would’ve been fine if it was just the two of us.”
“I doubt that. I killed more than twice than what you shot.”
“You engulfed them in holy fire! Of course, you killed more than me.”
She smirked. “Just admit that you’re happy I’m here with you.”
“Fine. I am so glad that Sophia blessed us with your presence. Satisfied?”
“No,” she said and I was about to give her a piece of my mind when an alarm bell clanged in the distance.
I looked out of the alleyway to see a figure startle and run off.
My heart skipped a beat.
There was no mistaking it. That had to be John.
But why was he running away?
I sprinted after him, gritting my teeth as my bad leg griped at me for pushing it too hard.
Tristan and Mary followed, swift on my heels.
The minute I got out onto the main road, he was nowhere to be seen. Not even on the rooftops.
“Damn this smoke and fog. He was right there. I swear it.”
“You sure it was him?” Tristan asked, panting from the sprint.
“Yes! I’d know John’s silhouette anywhere.”
“You sure that you’re not just seeing things? I heard no footsteps save ours,” he said.
“Yes! I swear. It was him.”
“Or…his ghost,” Mary said.
I glared at her, anger welling in my chest. I fought the urge to punch her in the face.
“Shut. Up. Not another word, or so help me.”
“What will you do? Huh? If he’s dead, he’s dead. The odds of a lone hunter surviving capture here for as long as he’s been missing are slim to none. He was out of his mind when he attacked and bit me. You need your wits about you to live here. No telling what kind of torture they submitted him to,” Mary said and Tristan stepped up behind her and put a hand firmly on her shoulder.
“Now would be a very good time for you to stop talking,” he said darkly. He sounded pissed. I could see the rage building in his eyes. This was not good.
“Look, we’re about to be run over by a squad of vampire guardsmen. How about we make our exit and argue about this later?”
“Don’t have to tell me twice,” Tristan muttered and let go of Mary. She glanced over to him and said nothing. She didn’t look angry. Sad, maybe?
Shit. She really was soft on him, wasn’t she? If I had done that she would’ve knocked me on my ass and given me a pounding and left me with a black eye.
“Mary, need I remind you that we’re oath-bound? If John were dead, we’d know it. We’d feel the break in our bond.”
“You sure about that cowboy?”
“Yes. I’d stake my life on it.”
Footsteps. Lots of them. Armed guard from the sound of it, headed our way.
“We better go, before they catch us.”
“Aw, don’t want to kill armored vampire guardsmen?”
“No. That would cause more trouble than us killing a street gang of vamps.”
“Smart man. Which way?”
Tristan closed his eyes and stood still a moment, then pointed southeast.
"That way. There’s a cathedral, with a bell tower. We can use it as higher ground and catch our bearings and look at the map.”
“Great,” I said and we ran, fast. It hurt, but there was no stopping. We couldn't let them catch us. Not before we found John.
It didn’t take long to get out of hearing range of the approaching guard. I was thankful that the streets here were mostly empty and laid out in a straight uniform grids in this section of the city. The outer rim was a maze of curved and hilled roads, the further south we went the steeper the incline in the road.
Between the freezing air and the smog, it was terribly difficult to breathe, even with our scarves and kerchiefs tied around our mouths and noses. My lungs burned. Tristan was limping and pushing through the pain, occasionally hissing in a breath.
Globes of lamplight dotted the street in eerie auras. It was such a gloomy place, I couldn’t see why anyone would want to live here. But, maybe those people didn’t know how much nicer the rest of the world was. If you were born in this, you’d think it natural.
We passed by a giant dead oak tree that had pushed up through the cobblestones and dared to try to live here. That had to have been back when the city still got sunlight before it was engulfed by the ever-growing boundary of the cursed Night Lands.
“There,” Tristan pointed.
An old boarded up church of Sophia, surrounded by a gate and a cemetery yard, complete with creepy tombstones and weeping angel statues.
“Lovely. That looks like such a safe place to hide.”
“Just like home,” Mary said and tried to push open the wrought iron fence gate. It wouldn’t budge. It was rusted shut. With a shrug, she hopped over it and strode up the walk to the front door of the church, leaving us behind in the street. A lone streetlamp lit up the area with an eerie glow. It was as quiet as death.
I glanced to Tristan, who was watching her with a raised eyebrow.
“It is safe. It is still sanctified land. Somehow…”
“Gosh, it’s like a miracle! Who would’ve guessed we would witness a miracle while traveling with a living saint, huh?”
“I thought it was hilarious.”
“You would.” He winced as he vaulted over the fence and I followed, trying not to land on my bad leg.
Running on sprained muscles was a bitch. Jumping and landing on pulled muscles? No thank you.
“You’re a ridiculous man, Rourke.”
“And you’re a mess.”
“Don’t remind me.”
“I do worry about you, you know.”
“I know. I shall be fine. We just need to find John and get out of Golgotha, and then we both can rest and heal up.”
I nodded. It was as though he read my mind. Which, considering that he was psychic, I wouldn't put it past him to be able to do that, if he really wanted to.
Mary had pulled off the boards and kicked off the bottom one by the time we had gotten up there. She pulled open the door and held it for us.
“Thank you, I said and Tristan gave her a nod in acknowledgment as we stepped inside. She gently shut the door behind us.
“Welcome to sanctuary. This cathedral is a house of Sophia and a safe haven. Rest your weary bones and give thanks,” Mary said.
"Will do. After I get to the bell tower and figure out where we are on the map and compare it to John’s cryptic scribbles.”
Tristan walked up to the front pew, wiped off the dust and sat down stiffly, with a sigh.
“Rest your feet man. I got this.”
He nodded. “I’ll stay here and keep an eye on the door. Just in case.”
It was dark, with faint light from the street lamps shining in through the stained glass windows. An avenging angel stood atop a great hill and men and women bowed to it in reverence.
“Hey, you know him?” I asked Mary jokingly.
“Yeah. He’s long gone now though. He did his deeds and then wandered off into Creation.”
“Huh…Remember his name?”
“Nope. Just that he had a beautiful smile that would comfort even the most miserable souls in the world. Great presence. Good storyteller. Kick ass fighter. Like most of Sophia’s messengers.”
“Faltiel,” a voice from her right shoulder whispered and I shivered.
Both Tristan and I stared at her.
“I heard that,” I hissed.
“As did I.”
“And? I hear them all the damn time. Welcome to my life.”
“That has to be annoying.”
“Why can we hear your angel all of a sudden?” Tristan asked.
She shrugged. “Probably because you were both bathed in the light of holy fire. It’ll fade in time. Just a minor blessing, that’s all.”
“Interesting,” Tristan said.
“Never a dull moment with you around, huh Mary?”
“Nope. Come on, the bell tower is back this way. We’ll need light though.”
I dug out my lantern and lit it, then May and I wandered deeper into the cathedral while Tristan rested his sore feet.
There were tapestries on the walls, most of scenes depicting great battles between angels and demons.
We kicked up dust as we walked, a runner of thin carpet lined the hall and muffled our steps.
Mary put her hand on my shoulder, gently, and I stopped and faced her.
She leaned in and whispered, “Is Tristan going to hold up? He’s starting to slow us down.”
“He’ll be fine. He’s pulled through a lot worse.”
Her lips twitched. Her breath smelled like vomit. I pulled my face back before the smell turned my stomach.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. Look, lady, I’ve hunted with him for years. He’ll have our backs when it really matters. He did fine in that fight with the master vamp, didn’t he?”
“Yes,” she said and sighed. “I wish I had my guns. That would’ve been over in a minute. Hasn’t taken me that long to send the undead packing in centuries.”
“We’ll get them back soon enough, and then you can kill vamps to your heart’s content, all right? Cleanse the whole damn city of them, If you want.”
“If only I could. I’d have to access the heart of the city to do that though.”
“Realy…guess that will be our back up plan, huh?”
She rolled her eyes. “Let’s focus on saving John. I have a feeling whoever took him is running the show here. We’re being toyed with. That’s why we got lost so easily after entering the city. It has to be it.”
“Oh? Is that a saint power? Or experience talking?”
“Neither. It’s woman’s intuition. Something you two gentlemen lack.”
“Ha ha ha.”
“I know when I’m being spied on by a royal bitch. How about you?”
“You can feel it? Like a sixth sense?”
“Something like that.”
We made our way to the bell tower and climbed the ladder to the top, making sure to keep the lamp low so that it would not shine out and give our position away.
I took out John’s map, and the map of the city and we both peered over it.
“There,” Mary jabbed at the paper. “We’re here.”
We weren’t that far into the second ring of the city. Golgotha was constructed in rings that grew smaller inward like up the hill it was built on.
I took a piece of charcoal and drew a circle on the spot.
“All right. So we came in here, then this road out in front of the cathedral ahead of us leads to the center of the city. The man I bought the map off of warned me not to go there, said it was too dangerous.”
“No doubt that is exactly where we are going to end up,” Mary muttered. She looked very pale in the muted lamplight.
“Are you sure that you are going to be all right?”
“I’m fine,” she said through gritted teeth. “Why must you bother me so?”
“You really don’t like me caring about you, do you?”
“No. I don't. I’m not your friend. I am an ally, nothing more. Don't get too attached to me. As soon as I get my guns back, I'm gone.”
“You’re so amiable and kind and giving. A real saint of a woman.”
“Shut up or I will punch you so hard, you’ll see your grandchildren looking down over your grave.”
“Ouch. Fine…” I moved John’s crudely drawn map over. “I can’t make heads or tails of this.
“Hold on,” she said and held the city map over the lamp. “Bring that over here.”
I placed John’s map on top of the city map, and with the light shining through so that we could see the drawings, she lined up the pile of skulls and the dotted lines with buildings. The pile of skulls was over the center of the city.
“Here. Bet you anything we have to go down into the catacombs to get to him.”
“You mean we have to go through the catacombs of a vampire city? What possible evil monstrosities could be lurking down there? Is it even possible to traverse them as a human and not be eaten alive?”
“No idea. But we’ll find out soon enough. Won’t that be fun?”
“I wasn’t joking.”
“You’re really enjoying this, aren’t you?”
"Do you honestly wish for me to answer that question?"
“Then yes, I am enjoying this. It's been a while since I’ve had a decent challenge.”
“Maybe you should just ditch your magic guns then, and fight like a real man.”
“Shut your foul mouth before I shut it for you.”
“You actually like hunting with us, don’t you? That’s it, isn’t it?”
Her lips twitched into a smirk and she looked away out at the city.
“Come true night time, this place will be crawling with vampires. We should get a move on The faster we get off the streets, the better.”
"That much, I can agree with you. You know, it's possible the dotted lines don't refer to streets but, maybe catacomb passages below the city. This map was hastily drawn, he might not have had time to put any more detail on it before he sent it out to us."
"It's possible. Be sure to keep it handy once we get down there."
I nodded and gathered up the maps.
“Hey,” I said while I folded them back up. “You really think John is dead?”
She shook her head. “Wherever he is, Sophia cannot reach him.”
My stomach sank and my chest went cold. “That is not good.”
“No. It’s not. But it doesn’t mean that he is a lost cause. Just…lost…at the moment.”
“Do you believe that I saw him?”
“I don’t know what you saw. It’s possible. Then again, this city is playing with our heads, messing up our perceptions with its damnable fog. So, you could’ve just seen what you wanted to see.”
“You wanna keep that map out?” she asked as I put them in the inner pocket of my long coat.
“Naw, I got it memorized now.”
“Already? You just glanced at it.”
“Could draw it from memory if I had to. Just need a glance at something and I remember it. Perfectly.”
She whistled softly. “You got me, Mr. Whelan. I am impressed by that.”
“Ha! I win.”
“Let’s go, see if Tristan is rested enough, and hunt down John and get my guns back.”
“Sounds like a plan.”