Friday, September 15, 2017

Three Thieves of Night Part Six: The Last Train to Golgotha



After the scuffle in Bethel, I wasn’t really looking forward to riding a few days to the train station in the valley below. However, we didn’t really have a choice in the matter.

John was in trouble, and we were no longer welcome in town, seeing as how Tristan and his uncle got into a huge fist fight that damn near killed him. If I hadn’t stepped in when I did…he wouldn’t have survived it.

His uncle left him with bruised ribs, a black eye, and a fat lip.

Catching his uncle’s punch the way I had, had really wrecked my body. I was sore all over, and the muscles in my right arm and leg felt like I had pulled them. I was limping and in pain, which didn’t make my situation any more bearable. In fact, I was so miserable that I was downright grumpy.

We were all short tempered and exhausted.

Mary, the Saint of Sinners, had insisted on riding with us to Trafalgar. She wanted to get her guns back from John, who for some strange reason stole them from her.

I really wasn’t sure why he’d do a thing like that, let alone bite her.

Nothing of what she told me about him sounded like something my friend would do. It was as though she was describing someone else entirely.

However, Tristan did not speak up. He did not say anything about her lying, and he would know, seeing as how he is psychic and all. Not that he’s a trained clairvoyant or anything, but his raw talent is still pretty impressive.

Needless to say, none of us were very happy by the time we could see the train station and the small trading town that sprung up around it. The hand carved sign read Ratwater. The name was…apt.

It was a small little place. Nothing more than a single main street lined with square, flat topped buildings. Tin roofs and wooden sides. Cheap and fast to make.

People that came here to live, were looking to make a living, and earn enough to either build a bigger, sturdier place to work out of, or hit the trail and head over to Concordia and try to find employment.

Personally, I thought they were better off not going to that damned city, but that was just my opinion. Every time I returned home, something horrible happened. But hey, anything was better than this shit hole.

Ratwater was a very rough place. Even in winter, it was inhabited by a gang of thieves and scoundrels ready to swindle you out of your wares.

Normally, a place like this would’ve made me feel at home.

However, I was not in a cordial mood. No sir, not one bit.

As we rode into town, we got some funny looks. Tristan couldn’t hide his swollen black eye and split lip, and Mary was glaring at anyone that happened to glance in our direction. They certainly didn’t know what to make of me, with my right coat sleeve all torn to shreds, and a blood spot on my back where the wound was still a twitching, itching open sore. I had wrapped a shirt around the ripped up sleeve and planned on sewing it back together during the train ride. I was too tired to deal with it now.

We were just a bucket-full of misery, the three of us.

We rode up to the stables and I got off my horse, wincing in pain, and limped over to the man tending the animals. He was friendly enough, considering what we currently looked like, and I made arrangements for him to watch our horses while we got our train tickets and got situated.

He was a scruffy, tough looking fellow, beady black eyes, unkempt beard, scarred up hands that he didn’t bother to cover in gloves, even though it was freezing outside.

He eyed me funny when I handed him some coin and said, “Just what sort of trouble did you get into?”

“Beg pardon?”

“That woman you’re riding with. I’ve heard about her. Never seen her this far north though, I reckon.”

“Oh, Mary? She’s just…a friend. Honest. She isn’t turning us in for a bounty or anything,” I said and tried to hide my smirk.

He didn’t look amused. “I see. Best keep an eye on her then. Don’t need a woman shooting up this place. Again.”

“Again?”

“A-yuh,” he said and pocketed the money. “A few months back, a strange fellow rode through like lightning was on his heels, and sure enough, a day later, this woman done come to town, looking for him. She was pale as death, with jet black hair. Had this weird bloody spot in her eye, here,” he said and pointed to inner side of his right eye.

My stomach sank.

John had that.

He was born with it.

A blood spot in the eye is an ill omen, a sign of the Evil Eye. It’s one of the reasons he became a mountain man. He stayed away from town most of the time because his strange eye made people nervous. They thought they’d be cursed if they angered him.

It’s just silly superstition, he really doesn’t have the power to curse anyone with a glance, but you try telling them that.

For a woman to have that same blood spot, in the same eye…it couldn’t just be a coincidence. Someone related to him was following him. Perhaps driving him to desperation. Was she the one that got him to go to Golgotha, to begin with?

“Say, uh…What did the woman do?”

“She kept to herself, bought some supplies, had a few drinks. The usual. But that night, there came a screamin’ from the saloon, and I saw a man run out into the street, hand over his neck, blood gushing out. That woman followed him, jumped on him, knocked him to the ground, ripped his throat out with her teeth and drank his blood. Saw it with mine own eyes I did.”

I whistled. “Let me guess, everyone came running, guns a blazing to stop her.”

“Yuh. Sure did.”

I noticed some bullet holes in the walls of the stable, peppering the sides of the other buildings that lined the only street that ran through the small town and nodded.

“What happened to her?” I asked.

“She laughed it off.”

“She did what now?”

“She laughed. Took guns from men’s hands and bent the muzzles down. Tossed men to the rooftops, just raised unholy hell. I wasn’t gonna get involved in that fracas, ya know? I got a family to take care of. Me being dead ain’t gonna do squat for ‘em, so I high tailed it out of there and didn’t look back.”

I sighed, rubbed my sore knee. “I understand. I really don’t blame you any. A vampire isn’t something that most people can handle on their own. You did a good thing, leaving like that. There was nothing you could do to stop her. You made a wise decision, sir.”

He nodded to the six shooters on my belt. “Can't help but notice that you and your friends are armed to the teeth. You hunters? You going after her?”

“That depends. She still around? Did she make a nest nearby?”

“No. She done run off before first light. That was a month ago. No one has seen or heard tell of her since.”

“I see.” I shivered as a gust of cold wind pushed past us. “Well, if she was still around, you’d hear of it. A vampire who travels would leave a very gruesome trail behind her. Do you know which way she ran off to?”

“The barber said that he overheard her saying that she was headed for Golgotha.”

“Is there a bounty on her head?”

“A-yuh. You can find the wanted poster on the mail office wall. It’s in the train station. Speaking of, you’re damn lucky. You got here just in time to make the last train before spring.”

“Yeah, how about that?” I said with a small smile and he chuckled.

“Take it easy on the fellas here. They ain’t used to city folk, let alone a group of hunters.”

“Oh, I know. Don’t worry, we’ll behave.”

I limped back over and helped Tristan get off his horse. He made a funny wheeze and his knees buckled. I grabbed him before he fell in the snow and he gave me an apologetic look as he wrapped an arm around my shoulders.

I winced. He was leaning against my bad side.

“Sorry.”

“It’s fine,” I said through gritted teeth. He felt heavier than usual, mainly because I was in so much pain. “Can you stand?”

“Yes.” He slowly stood upright and leaned against his horse. I held his arm and let him rest against me as well for a moment as he regained his footing.

Mary raised an eyebrow but said nothing. She just hopped off her saddle in a swift practiced motion and handed her reins to the man I had just spoken to.

“What?” she asked. He looked away and mumbled an apology and walked her horse over to the stable. “What’s his problem?”

“The stable master is worried that you’re going to start a gun fight.”

“That is the last thing he should be concerned with,” she said and adjusted her Stetson hat. “I have no quarrel with anyone here.”

“I know, but apparently John came riding through here with a vampire on his heels. She rode into town the next day and attacked people and there was a huge gun fight. They barely managed to drive her off, by the looks of things. Everyone is nervous. Especially about strangely dressed women that are armed and dangerous. Like you.”

“I noticed the bullet holes,” Tristan said and nodded to a wall. “There is a lot of fear here. These people are terrified. So much death…all in one night.”

“How many people died?” Mary asked.

Tristan shook his head. “It is difficult to say. Twenty, perhaps? Maybe a bit more. It was fast. She ran off before anyone could even register that she had slaughtered all the customers in the saloon.”

I whistled. “That’s impressive.”

“It is. The townsfolk…they want to move away, I can feel it. There’s an intense desire here to leave and find a new life elsewhere.”

“Can you blame them? This station is too close to the Night Lands as is. In a century or so, if it continues to spread, it will engulf this area as well,” I said, remembering the map I had looked at in Solomon before we started our journey.

I might not have a lot of magical skills or raw psychic talent, but I had a damned good memory and I was an amazing thief, not to mention a very good looking man and a charmer. Well…most of the time.

The Night Lands started out as a cursed town. Just one single town. I’m not sure the details, but a powerful necromancer was double-crossed, and he cursed the land with his dying breath. And, as most of those tales go, 13 years later to the day, the town was cloaked in darkness.

The sun never rose again.

Soon after it was overrun with vampires and ghouls and whatnot, and the blight and darkness started spreading out across the land like a plague.

Rumor had it that the great necropolis, Golgotha, was built on the remains of that cursed town, but I couldn’t find anything to verify it.

Most likely there were catacombs of some sort beneath the city. So, there was probably some kernel of truth to it, hidden deep inside the fantastic tale that people loved to tell each other over a campfire at night.

“Is it true, that the sun never rises there?” Tristan asked.

“Yes. Brightest it gets there is twilight. At that’s at mid-day.”

“Sounds rather unpleasant to me.”

“It is.”

Mary gave us an impatient look. “Let’s just buy what supplies we need and get over to the train station. I’m getting a feeling that someone is going to want to fight me if we don’t get out of sight soon.”

“Wonderful,” I muttered.

Tristan let go of my shoulder and stood hunched over, his arm at his side.

“You sure you just bruised your ribs?”

“Pretty sure. I’ve had broken ribs before, as a child. Fell off a horse. Doesn’t hurt like broken ribs do.”

“Well, looks pretty painful to me.”

“My uncle hits hard.”

“I know,” I said and rubbed my arm, near the shoulder joint.

“Hey, you know what you boys need?” Mary asked with a smirk.

“What,” I said.

“Some good medicine. And I know just how to administer it.” She winked at me and it made my skin crawl.

The thought of being naked and intimate with her was just…utter unappealing.

“Oh, ha ha ha. Very funny.”

“What? I don’t understand…is she implying something?”

“Yes, Tristan. That’s a whore joke.”

His good eye widened a bit and he looked rather surprised. “I. See. I didn’t know that you had a sense of humor, Mary.”

“There’s plenty you don’t know about me sweetheart,” she said and adjusted her gun belt. She hooked her thumbs in the tops of the empty gun holsters at her hips and sighed. “Damn Granger. Stealing my guns. I’m gonna punch him so hard, he’ll fall into next week.”

I shook my head. “Come on, let's get a move on. We don’t have all day. The train will be here in a few hours.”

Unbelievable. That woman was just full of surprises. I couldn’t tell if she was going to hit on me, or just plain hit me from one minute to the next.

It made me very uncomfortable.

Mary stopped in the middle of the street and turned to face us. “I’m going to pick up some things, I’ll meet you two at the train station in an hour.”

Tristan and I exchanged a glance. I didn’t like the three of us splitting up, but it wasn’t as though this was a very big place. If anything bad went down, I’d hear it just after it started.

I shrugged and gave him a questioning look and he nodded. He was fine with it.

“Suit yourself," I said to her.

“Why don’t you go get us tickets and I’ll head inside the store and get supplies,” Tristan said.

“You sure?”

“I can walk. I’ll be fine.”

I let go of him and he wobbled slightly before catching his balance, his arm pressed to his side.

“Man, you look like hell.”

“So you keep saying. Go, I can manage this.”

“All right,” I said and limped away, shaking my head.

The train station was a tiny little wood building, with benches and a ticket booth and not much else. A good number of people were waiting inside. Single rough looking men, women with their traveling companions, and a noble family sitting with a fancy expensive looking steamer trunk. They were pale but dressed as though they were well off, so I assumed that they were from Golgotha and on their way back home after a business trip of some sort.

The stable master was right. The wall next to the ticket booth was lined with hand-drawn wanted posters. Some were yellowed with age. No one had picked up a single bounty here. Strange that.
There was an older matron manning the ticket booth.

She looked down her nose at me and adjusted her spectacles and said, “How may I be of service, sir?”

“Got any sleeper cars still open?”

“As a matter of fact, I have one left. It fits four. How many are traveling with you?”

“Just two others. How much for tickets?”

“A gold crown for the three of you. Food is extra. You pay in the dining car before you eat.”

I nodded and took a gold coin out of my leather coin purse and slid it over to her.

She picked it up, bit it, and nodded, then handed me three tickets.

“You’re in car 13.”

Of course. It had to be that one.

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“Sir…if you don’t mind my asking?”

“Hm?”

She leaned forward and whispered, “You wouldn’t happen to be Rourke Whelan, would you?”

“Uh…why do you ask?” I said and looked around, paranoid that perhaps someone was waiting to ambush me the minute I turned around.

“I have a package here for you. From John.”

My heart skipped a beat.

“From John? John Esten?”

“Yes. He said that he would be mailing a package to you, from Golgotha. Asked me to hold onto it for you.”

“Ah. Then yes. I’m Rourke.”

“You have to sign for the package sir,” she said and slid a clipboard over to me. She pointed to a line with an X drawn on it. “It’s procedure.”

“Of course it is,” I said and signed it and slid it back to her.

“Thank you.” She picked up a package wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine. “Here you are,” she said and handed it to me.

It was soft. I had no idea what was inside, but it was the size of a large book. And sure enough, it was addressed to me, in John’s handwriting. No return address though.

“Thank you.”

She nodded. “Train arrives in an hour. Best gather your men together so you don’t miss it. It’s the last one before the thaw next year.”

I nodded and tipped the brim of my hat at her and walked out, tucking the package inside my jacket and buttoning it up tight.

I spotted Mary walking out of a building, holstering a brand new shiny pair of six shooters, with a shotgun strapped to her back.

She nodded at me and I walked over.

“Well, glad to see that you weren’t planning on using my guns while we were in the city.”

“Of course not.”

She looked pale. A little green around the gills.

“Are you all right?”

“Nauseous. But I’ll be fine once I get some whiskey in me.”

“Su-ure.”

“Shut up. Go get Tristan. I’ll be waiting in the station,” she said and shoved past me. Which was highly unnecessary. There wasn’t another soul out on the road, save the two of us.

She was a weird one, I’ll give her that.

I went inside the general store, the scent of hay and pine needles hit me and reminded me of home. I ignored the pang of sorrow in my chest and walked up the main row, eying the shelved aisles that were chock-a-block full of products of various sorts.

I had forgotten what it was like, in these frontier towns. Nothing sold very fast, but they always ordered what they thought people would need, just in case they could make that one big sale that would get them through the rest of the year.

A large balding man, missing a few top teeth, stood at a cash register, reading a newspaper. Goddess only knows how old that thing was. It was tattered and had coffee stains on it.

I cleared my throat and he looked up, surprised.

“Oh, hello mun suh-heen!” he boomed. “Welcome!”

“Howdy, I’d like to buy some things off you, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course, of course!” he had a thick accent, rolled R’s, and the vowels were a bit flat. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that he was Exoduster, but he didn’t look it. He wasn’t wearing the usual desert attire, no head wrappings or long loose robes. And he was very pale. Exodusters had a robust bronze skin tone. Maybe he was adopted?

“Got any ammunition? Looking for six shooter bullets, silver tipped if you got them. And ammo for a rifle, and a shotgun.”

“I do! I do!” he said excitedly. I guess he didn’t get a lot of business in winter.

He bustled around behind the long wooden counter and put several boxes of ammunition in front of me. Three boxes of revolver bullets, one long one full of rifle ammo, and two shotgun shell boxes.
I would’ve preferred more, but at this point, I’d take what I could get. Solomon was plain out of ammunition and Bethel never sold anything like that in town. So, this was it. We’d have to make due.

I must’ve been frowning because the man paused and furrowed his brow. “Is not enough?”

“What? Oh, this is fine! Thank you so much. Ah…you have any bandages, sutures, rubbing alcohol, that sort of thing?”

“Yes, yes. You need?”

“Yeah. As much as you got, I’ll take it off of you.”

He whistled and grabbed a basket and bustled around the store, grabbing this and that from the shelves and then swiftly setting them down in front of me.

“You are a hunter, yes?”

“Why, yes, I am. What gave it away?”

He smiled. “You have many guns and knives. Was told another would be through here in a while. Must be you.”

“Ah. You spoke to John then? John Esten? About yay tall, blood spot in his right eye. Scowling, brooding type. He’s a Granger. Not a big talker.”

“Yes! Yes, I spoke to him!” he said and clapped his large hands together and rubbed them gleefully. “He bought many a thing. Told me to save you ammunition…you are the ald’hiyeeb, yes?”

Ald-hi-yeeb?” I looked at him funny. I wasn’t well versed in Exoduster. At all. That was John’s specialty.

The Grangers, his people, traded with the desert nomads when they came into town, so they learned the language over time. He picked it up in his travels. I had yet to do it though.

“He means the wolf,” a young woman said and stepped out from the back of the store, she had a modest black scarf wrapped around her silky black hair. Big doey brown eyes, swarthy skin tone.

Yup. They were Exoduster all right. My sweet lady was she gorgeous.

“Ma’am,” I said and tipped my hat, as was polite in these parts.

She curtsied, a quick gesture.

“You are the wolf then?” she asked.

“Wolf?” I wracked my brain for a moment. “Oh! Of course. Yes. That’s me.”

Whelan, my family name, meant wolf. That was John, always playing word games to throw people off of his trail.

She looked me dead in the eye. “How many thieves are there?”

“Three.”

“And what do they steal?”

“They steal back the night. Taking it away from the monsters, so humans can live in peace.”

She nodded in approval and turned to the man, who I could only assume was her father. “Is fine Papa. It is him. Give him the dagger, and the money.”

“Money?”

“Yes. Mr. Esten entrusted it with us. It was very flattering.”

“He knows good people when he sees them,” I said and she smiled. It lit up the whole store. Such a pretty thing, I wanted to sweep her off her feet and give her a good time or two.

Too bad we were leaving so soon.

I had the feeling, from the way that she was looking at me, that she would’ve gladly accepted my advances.

Oh well.

Her father took a curved dagger out from under the counter, it had a fancy jeweled sheath.

“Is for you,” he said and then set a heavy bag of coin next to it. The bag was leather, stitched together with fine needlework. John made it. I knew his stitching anywhere.

“Thank you. How much do I owe you for holding all of this for us?”

“Nothing,” the woman said.

“Oh, come on. Let me pay you for it.”

“No,” she said and put her hands on mine and shoved them away. “I insist.”

Her father leaned in close. I could smell tobacco on him. “He helped her mother. Please. Is all we can do to repay him.”

“I understand,” I said, and not wanting to insult them further. I let them put all of the items in a wooden crate for me and paid for the ammunition.

The young woman stepped up to me before I picked up the crate and took something out of her pocket. It was a plain silver cross necklace. Expensive. An heirloom. Probably passed down from mother to daughter for generations.

“Take this. You will need it.”

“Oh no, I couldn’t do that. Please don’t ask me to. That belongs to you.”

“It was my mother’s, she gave it to me to do as I pleased. I beg of you, take this. You are going to Golgotha. Is a very dangerous place. Many vampires roam there. I would sleep better knowing that you had it.”

“Ma’am, you don’t even know me. You should save that for someone important.”

“You are a hunter, are you not?”

“Well, yes.”

“Then, important you are. Take it,” she said and pressed it into my palm and curled my fingers over it. Her hands were so soft. They were as soft as her lips looked. And boy, did I ever want to kiss them.

“Thank you,” I said and lifted her hand up to my lips and kissed it.

She blushed and pulled away. “Please, do not die there. Anyone that does…comes back as something else. Demons, evil djinn controlled by the vampires, they live there. They take over bodies once you die, possess them, use them to attack people and suck out their blood.”

“I know,” I said and put her necklace on and tucked it under my shirt. “I’m going to bring this back, once we’re done.”

“Very well,” she said and looked me dead in the eye. “My name is Farina. Do not forget it.”

“I don’t see how I ever could.”

She smiled. She liked the attention. I really wanted to give her more, but time was running out.

I heard the door open and Tristan walked into the store. I didn’t even have to turn around to know that it was him. I knew his heavy, flat-footed boot steps anywhere.

“Get what you need?” Tristan asked.

“Yup. You?” I asked and picked up the wooden crate and turned to face him.

“Yes,” he said. He was carrying a large linen satchel. Full of what, I had no idea.

“Let’s go. Mary is waiting for us at the station.”

“I know.”

“Of course you do.”

We made our way painfully, and slowly, towards the station. My body griped at me for carrying a slightly heavy load, and I tried to ignore it, but my back started itching, and the prickly sensation was unbearable.

I stopped, hissed, and then wandered over to a support post on the outside of the station and rubbed my wounded shoulder against it and sighed.

“Still itching I take it.”

“Yes. I’m going to be so glad when we get John back. He’ll know how to stop it.”

“I hope so.”

“So do I.”

We met up with Mary in the station. She was sitting on a bench, leaning against her travel bag and rolling up a cigarette.

“There you two are. I was about to come find you.”

“This place isn’t that big,” I said and sat down next to her, leaving a nice sized space on the bench for Tristan to sit on. He winced as he sat, and I gave him a look.

“I’m fine,” he said.

“So you say.”

Mary shook her head, lit a match and then touched the flame to the end of the cigarette in her mouth, took a puff of smoke, and shook out the match and tossed it to the floor.

“Want one?” she asked.

“No. You…sure you want to be doing that? I mean…with your condition and all?”

She glared at me and I flinched. She had the look of hate in her eyes, it wasn’t just annoyance, she was angry. She punched my shoulder, hard.

“Ow. Seriously? Could you please stop hitting me? I’m sore enough as is.”

“Don’t be a bairn. I barely hit you. And no. I won’t stop hitting you until you stop being ridiculous.”

“No chance of that happening anytime soon,” Tristan muttered.

“Hey, you’re supposed to be on my side.”

“Am I?”

“Uh…yeah. We’re partners. Remember?”

“Oh. Right. How could I have forgotten.”

“Are you mad at me?”

“No. Just tired.”

“So sleep. I’ll wake you up when the train arrives.”

He shook his head. “I won’t sleep here.”

Mary leaned over my lap to look at him. “Why?”

I cleared my throat and she ignored me and dug her elbows into my thighs. I grimaced. She was doing that on purpose. I guess she didn’t want me bringing up the whole pregnancy thing. She could’ve just said so. She didn’t have to be so nasty about it.

I really couldn’t stand that woman. She didn’t want to be treated like normal. She wanted me to treat her like she was another man.

But, that went against my upbringing. One must always take care of a lady. No matter how brutish and uncivilized she was. So, I suffered in silence.

Tristan fidgeted and glanced around. “This place, the fear here. It’s very unsettling. I can’t explain exactly how I feel, but what I am sensing has me on edge.”

“Feel like we’re being watched?” she asked and blew smoke in my face.

I coughed and waved it away and looked at her like she was being very rude…which she was.

“What?” she asked me.

“Stop. I get it. Sorry I said anything.”

“Good.” She leaned back against her travel bag and sighed. “Don’t worry Tristan, this area has always felt like that. Something about the lay lines here. The node is frenetic. Anxious. Scared. Like a rabbit that has spotted a mountain lion that is about to pounce.”

“You’ve been here before?” he asked, rubbing his side, right where the bottom of his rib cage sat.
He needed to get his ribs wrapped up tight. As soon as we got in the train car, I was going to do that for him.

“A very long time ago. It looked nothing like this though. It was still covered by a glacier.”

“Glacier?” I asked. “Just how old are you?”

“Old enough,” she said and shot me a look that told me that she really didn’t want to talk to me any further.

I sighed and stood up and stretched and walked around, pretending to look at the wanted posters. I could feel her eyes on me, burning holes in my back.

I thought back to Bethel, to her crying in my arms and then suddenly turning her back to me the minute she was done. Such a cold woman. For a saint, she really lacked empathy. She was a fierce predator, not someone to care for. Not at all.

Don’t get me wrong. I respected her skills as a hunter. She was one of the best. But her bedside manner left much to be desired, and then some.

Since she liked Tristan more, I let them chat and continued to stretch my legs, impatiently watching the clock and waiting for the train to arrive.

When I heard it rumbling down the tracks, I sighed in relief. Finally.

The steam engine pulled to a stop near the loading platform. Tristan and Mary took the supplies, and I went and fetched our horses and got them on board the horse car. I paid the boy that was hired to watch over the animals while we traveled and warned him about Old Grey. The kid seemed nice enough, so I told my horse to not bite him and then went to find our train car.

By that time I was exhausted.

We had gotten a sleeper car all to ourselves. Technically it was a drawing roomette, with a separate washroom compartment on one side, and sleeping quarters on the other, with two bunk beds. The porter had already come in and put sheets, blankets, and pillows down.

Mary was tending the fire in the small potbelly stove, which had an exhaust leading directly outside the train car.

“Cozy,” I said as I stepped in. The wood floor was polished and even. Looked like it would be a comfortable ride. Which would be a nice change of pace, considering the trip thus far.

“It’s adequate,” Mary said and shoved the fire poker into its holder.

“You’re welcome,” I said and sat down on a bed and sighed. Tristan was sitting on the end of it, gingerly taking off his boots. “You need to soak your feet.”

“I do.”

I went to stand up and Mary made an annoyed sound and grabbed a metal wash basin and went over to the bathroom compartment in our car and got some water from the sink.

“You want it freezing cold, or boiling hot?” she asked.

Tristan looked up at her. “Hot is preferable. Thank you.”

“Mm,” she said and grabbed the tea kettle they provided for us and poured the water in it, and set it a top of the stove to boil. I shot him a look and Tristan shook his head and said nothing as she sat on the floor by the fire and stretched and sighed.

The train engine started chugging, the whistle blew, and the iron-sided beast lurched forward and began to pick up speed as we left the train station and headed east for Golgotha.

Tristan leaned down and gingerly pulled off his socks.

I took one look at his bare feet and grimaced. Blood encrusted cracks ran between all of his toes, down along the bottoms towards his arches. By the end of this trip, I wouldn’t be surprised if his feet were entirely covered in them.

“You forgot the salve, huh?”

“We were rather busy, trying not to die out in the wilderness. Riding for days on end.”

“True. But still, you need to take better care of your feet Montebalm. Just looking at it hurts…”

“Better me, than you,” he muttered.

I chuckled and patted his shoulder. He pulled away roughly and frowned.

He was angry. I could tell. About what, I had no idea.

“Hey, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing. Just in pain. That’s all. I need to get some sleep.”

I pursed my lips. I wasn’t going to press it. Not with Mary here. Some things can’t be expressed properly with a woman present. Especially when the two of us were involved. We were too modest, and polite, I suppose, to really get into an all-out shouting match when there was a lady around.

Stupid Concordian ethics.

“Hey,” I said. “We should wrap your ribs. It’ll be more comfortable for you if they’re supported,” I said and dug out the bandage wrappings I bought from the general store.

“Oh…thank you.”

“My pleasure,” I said and started helping him take off his jacket and shirt.

Mary scoffed and stood up. “I’m going to go check on the horses. Make sure they’re all right. I’ll be back.”

“Sure…” I said and she stomped out angrily. “What is her problem? Did I do something to piss her off? Again?”

“Doubtful. Most like she’s angry at herself more than anything.”

“I see. She shouldn’t be so hard on herself. She might be a living saint, but she’s not perfect. I mean, she’s still human, so she’s prone to making mistakes, just like the rest of us.”

“You try telling that to her,” he muttered and I chuckled.

“I will.”

There was a huge bruise blossoming across Tristan’s left rib cage. I could see where Gilead’s fist had impacted, side center, the purple mottling branched out from it, and the circle where his fist had hit was dark, almost black in color.

I whistled. “You sure your ribs aren’t broken?”

He said nothing, just stared at the wall behind me.

“Tristan. Talk to me. Come on now. Are your ribs broken or not?”

“...no.”

I poked him in the center of the bruise and he winced and cried out in pain.

“That’s what I thought. Why didn’t you say something?”

“Nothing to be done. It needs to heal. That’s all.”

“Stop being an idiot.”

“Excuse me?”

“If you’re hurt, you have to tell me. How can I watch out for you, if I don’t know your current physical limits? Huh? There’s only so much I can do, you know. I’m not like you. I’m not built like a horse. I can’t carry you for days on end.”

“I know…I’m sorry. I just…” He sighed. “This is all my fault.”

“What? The broken ribs? Yes. It is your fault.”

“Thanks.”

“What did you want me to say? Gosh, I’m sure glad you didn’t let your uncle kill you. Oh, wait. That was me. I stopped him. If I hadn’t done what I did, you would’ve let him kill you.”

“It’s not like that!”

“Then what?”

“I didn’t want him to kill me. He was trying his damnedest to do so! Look, I am truly sorry for not thanking you properly. This entire thing is just a mess and my head is not in the right frame of mind to process everything just now. All right? I’m sorry! I’m sorry,” he said his voice lowering from a shout to a whisper, just like that.

“Hey, come on now. I didn’t realize that…I mean, I saw it, and I tried to talk you out of it, but I still didn’t believe that your uncle would really want you dead.”

“You don’t know my family.”

“Guess not.”

“Show any sign of weakness and they try to beat it out of you. Survive, you get stronger. Die, you were too weak to be worthy of the family name and the magical bloodline.”

“Sweet Sophia. Are you serious?”

“Yes.”

“I--” I sighed and picked up the bandages, clutched them in my hands. “Sorry man. I just…I couldn’t stand the thought of losing you. I know we don’t always get along, but you’re like a brother to me. You and John are the only family I’ve got.”

“I understand. I share your sentiment. Really, I do. I just, I hate what I do at times. The fighting magic in my blood is a curse. The anger it brings with it…it’s not for the weak-willed.”

“Who called you weak-willed? You’re one of the most stubborn people I have ever met.”

“You haven’t met my father.”

“Oh?”

“If death knocked on his door at midnight, he’d refuse to answer and tell it to come back in the morning, during proper visiting hours.”

I laughed. “Wow. That bad huh?”

“Very.”

“Lift your arms, let me wrap you up.”

He complied and I wrapped his ribs up nice and tight and cinched off the end, and clipped it together with a safety pin.

“Better?”

He took a shallow breath and nodded. “Yes. Thank you.”

“Anytime.”

“Rourke…”

“Hm?”

“About Bethel.”

“What about it?”

“The demon, it said something..about me.”

“Did it now? I recall it said a lot of horrible things. Most of which are not true.”

“But…some of it was.”

“Yes, I know, the thing with Mary.”

“Not just that.” He shifted his weight where he sat, looked embarrassed, humiliated even.

He was making me uncomfortable. I didn’t like it. Not one bit. Hated to see him beat himself up like that.

“Hey,” I said gently. “Listen, it doesn’t matter what it said. It’s a demon. It’s evil. It’s trying to drive a wedge between us. It knows that our blood oath, and our friendship, is a very potent bond that can’t easily be broken. It’s a source of our strength; our loyalty and devotion to each other and the hunt, to ridding the world of monsters and making life better for humanity. I won’t let anything get in the way of that.”

“Yes…but.”

I put a hand on his shoulder and he froze. He didn’t pull away, but he didn’t want me to touch him. His ears were red. He was blushing.

Poor bastard.

"What is going on with you?"

He said nothing.

“Tristan, look at me.”

“I…can’t.”

“Whyever not?”

“Because if I do, I’ll say something extremely stupid and foolish and it will ruin our friendship.”

“Pfft. Don’t be stupid. That’s the pain talking.”

“Maybe…the water is boiling.”

“Ah. Yes. Let me get that for you.”

He sat there, miserable, and let me pour the boiling water into the wash basin. I set it on the floor by his feet and got some cold water from the washroom, and added it to the mix, to make it bearable.

“Try it now.”

“Thank you.”

“No problem,” I said and pulled some iodine powder out of the box the merchant gave me and poured some in the water and mixed it in. “There. That should help.”

He gave me a small smile and nodded. Tears welled up in his eyes.

“You uh…need some time alone?”

“No. I’d rather not,” he said and knuckled out the tears, and cleared his throat.

“Suit yourself,” I said and slid my boots and coat off and lay on the bed with my legs behind him. I put my hat on the hook overhead and sighed. “I am beat.”

“We all are.”

“Oh…crap. I forgot.”

“What?”

I reached the package I got from the ticket seller out of my jacket pocket.

“Look at what was waiting for me at the train station.”

Tristan took it. “It’s from John.”

“I know. Sly bastard. Wish he could’ve sent word to us sooner, but I’ll take whatever I can get.”

“You really think he sent some missive to us?”

“This is John Esten we’re talking about. Of course, he did. Go ahead, open it.”

“No, it’s addressed to you. I shan’t wish to see something private if he left you a note.”

I rolled my eyes and took the brown paper wrapped package from him, pulled off the twine and opened it up.

“Huh.”

Inside was a letter.

Rourke, this is for you.You know what to do-J.E.

There were ridges running across the paper, indentations, markings of some sort. A code maybe?

“What is it?”

“A letter. With a cipher on it. I’ll need a lead pencil to make a rubbing of it. He was being careful. He didn’t trust anyone it seems.”

“That much is obvious,” Tristan said and I handed him the letter. “Strange. He certainly has a lot of faith in you.”

“Of course he does. I’m no dummy. I have a fantastic memory. And I love solving riddles. It’s a past-time of mine.”

“Don’t remind me,” he muttered.

“Awww don’t be sore about losing that bet. It was rigged from the very beginning and we both knew it.”

“Hush you.”

The other thing in the package was a folded up piece of leather. Soft and pliable, simple brown tint to it. I knew John’s craftsmanship anywhere.

I unfolded it and saw that he drew a crude map. Dotted lines zigging and zagging across the fabric, up to a pile of skulls. Three of them, with a vulture sitting atop. The edges of it were stitched very finely.

“That stitching,” Tristan said.

“I know. He made this. But I have no idea what it is. It must line up with something else. Another map or something.”

It was even, made with a firm hand…except for the very end, which was frayed a bit. I paused.

“Tristan…he is always very meticulous about his work, isn’t he?”

“Yes. Why?”

“He didn’t finish this,” I showed him the end of the thread and he raised an eyebrow.

“May I?” he asked and I handed it to him.

Tristan held it in his lap, and let out a slow breath. His gray eyes grew cloudy, and I knew that he was trying to see what happened when John was making it.

“What do you see?”

“John. He’s…harried. Half starved. Raving mad. Muttering to himself…I don’t know the language. Possibly his mother tongue. He put something inside this map, stitched it shut and stopped at the end, and…He is defeated. Close to giving in.”

“Giving in? To what?”

“Hunger. Thirst. A raging thirst inside of him grows, even now.”

My stomach sank. “Oh…no. Please, tell me he’s not.”

Tristan shook his head, and his vision ended. “He’s not dead. And he’s not a vampire. I don’t know what is wrong with him.”

“Are you certain?”

“I’d bet my life on it.”

I nodded and took one of my knives and ripped open the stitching. I unfolded the map all the way and a key fell out into my lap. It had an ornate gold fanged skull with pearl inlay on the handle. Rubies were set in the skull’s eyes. Looked very expensive.

I whistled. “Wonder what this opens?”

“I’m sure we’re going to find out, one way or another.”

“Right. So…John counted on us coming to find him. He’s left us a trail of breadcrumbs to follow. This is a good thing.”

“Unless we’re too late to save him.”

“Don’t. Don’t talk like that. Don’t you ever give up on him. Understand? He’d never give up on us. Ever.”

He nodded, stared at his cracked feet soaking in the basin. “You’re right. I apologize. I am just under duress. This is really testing my limits.”

“You and me both buddy,” I said and the door to the car opened and Mary walked in, holding a plate of food; loaves of bread, cheeses, dried sausages, and a bottle of wine.

“Figured you boys would be hungry. We haven’t eaten at all today.”

My stomach growled and I chuckled. “Huh. You’re right. No wonder we’re so grumpy.”

“It happens,” Tristan said.

I got up and grabbed him a towel for his feet and after he dried off and I tossed out the water, we ate in companionable silence.

“What’s that?” Mary asked and pointed to the leather map on the bed.

“John sent it to the train station. He knew we were coming.”

“I see. Clever man.”

“Very.”

“He also left us a bag of coin and a fancy dagger. Not sure why.”

I showed them.

Tristan opened up the coin bag. “This isn’t money.”

“What is it then?”

“Silver nuggets.”

“That sly bastard,” I said and looked at them. “These are the perfect size to melt down and make bullets with.”

Mary chuckled. “You know, if he hadn’t stolen my guns, I’d really like him right about now.”

“Oh yeah, and the woman that was following him, here’s her wanted poster,” I said and pulled that out of my other jacket pocket.

“Well, you’re just full of resourcefulness, now aren’t you Mr. Whelan?” Mary said.

“I have my talents. Thank you very much. But…this is just from being friendly and chatting with people. Nothing special really. Just me, being me.”

“As if that isn’t a gift. You undersell yourself, Rourke,” Tristan said.

“Stop, you’ll make me blush.”

He laughed and winced and clutched his side. “Don’t make me laugh. It hurts too much.”

“Heh. Sorry.”

Mary took the wanted poster and stared at it a moment before handing it back to me.

“If I see her, I’ll kill her and rip out her fangs myself.”

“Vicious much?”

“Always.”

I chuckled and put the poster back in my pocket.

Not long after, we all settled down. Mary in her bed, and Tristan and I in the other. They were wide enough for about three people to sleep per bed, so it didn’t feel crowded at all.

I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow, and started awake when someone tugged at my feet.

Tristan was pulling off my boots. “You forgot to take them off.”

“Sorry,” I mumbled and let him take off my boots and set them by the fire. I could feel wet spots on the bed linens from the snow that had melted off them.

“Don’t apologize to me. Apologize to the porter for getting the sheets wet.”

“Yes, dad.”

“Shut up,” he said and slowly crawled into bed and groaned softly as he lay down. “At least the bed is comfortable,” he said and settled down, pulling the blankets over his large muscular frame.

“Mm-hmm” I said and fell asleep on top of the covers. The fire made the car pleasantly warm, and with the rocking of the train as it moved, it didn’t take long for us all to fall fast asleep.

I was dreaming.

Concordia was on fire. I was running through the streets, with that monster on my heels. The one that attacked me. The great hulking beast with the body of a man and the head of a crazed wolf, saliva dripping down its chin as it growled and chased after me.

“You can’t fight me off forever, little lamb. I’ll get a hold of your soul soon enough,” it said and pounced on me, knocking me face first to the cobblestone street, right in front of my family home, where it proceeded to rip and tear and claw me to shreds and feast on my entrails.

I could feel it all.

“Rourke. Wake up,” Tristan said, his voice strained. I felt the cold hard end of a gun muzzle shove against the back of my head, heard the hammer click back.

“Let. Him. Go. Demon,” Mary said.

My vision wavered, I looked around. I was on the floor, my arm…my right arm was held out at an odd angle, and my hand was choking Tristan where he knelt next to me. His face red from lack of air.

“Rourke, please. Let. Go,” he said and made a pained choking noise and grabbed my arm.

I could feel his hands gripping it, but I couldn’t control it.

“That’s. That’s not my arm. It’s not my arm!” I screamed and twisted around the right way and grabbed it with my left hand and tried to pull it back away from him. My right hand wouldn’t do what I wanted it to. It wouldn’t let go of him.

Mary took the pommel of her gun and slammed it into my hand, several times.

It hurt.

I screamed.

Eventually, my hand let go and I scrambled to a corner of the room, away from them, holding my right arm down, sitting on my throbbing hand, wondering just what in the hell was going on.

Tristan coughed, his chest heaved as he gasped for air.

Mary loomed over me, her eyes black as death, and pointed both of her six shooters at me.

“Don’t. Move. Or so help me, I’ll end your misery right here and now.”

“No!” Tristan shouted and shoved her aside. They started yelling at each other, and he grabbed her wrists, tried to get her to drop her guns. They wrestled, and I sat there, completely freaked out.

“It’s not my arm. It’s not. I’m sorry. That wasn’t me. It wasn’t me!” I was babbling, in tears, scared out of my mind. My arm twitched and tried to pull out from under me and I sat down harder and ground my teeth from the pain. If Mary hadn’t broken my hand, she sure bruised the ever-loving hell out of it.

Tristan and Mary shoved apart and he put his hands up as she cocked her guns and aimed them at his heart.

“Take it easy,” Tristan said. “You know I can’t let you kill him. I swore a blood oath to protect him.”

“I. Know,” she said through gritted teeth. “But you attacked me. No one does that and lives.”

“You’re not thinking straight.”

“Shut. Up. Montebalm, or so help me.”

He sighed, glanced past her at me and she whirled, ready to shoot. She saw me babbling like an idiot and sobbing and mumbling about how my arm wasn’t really my arm and she slowly lowered her weapons and holstered them.

“Rourke, you’re a mess.”

“I…I don’t know what to do,” I said. It was hard to breathe. I was in the grip of complete panic. Hard ice formed a pit in my stomach and I was hyperventilating. "It won't stop moving. I can't make it stop. It's not my arm. It's not mine!"

Tristan carefully stepped past her and knelt next to me. “Rourke,” he said and put his hands on my shoulders. I looked at him, my heart racing, and thoughts of suicide slammed into my mind and I closed my eyes, screwed the tightly shut and shook my head.

“Just let me die.”

“No.”

“Let me die!” I screamed and he slapped me.

I sat there, stunned. My cheek stung.

I looked around, slumped back against the wall, could feel my back puffed up and swollen, blood dripping down it and puddling on the floor, getting my feet wet.

Mary went to say something and stopped. Tristan stood up, alarmed, and went for his sword.

“What?” I whispered.

Mary took out her guns and aimed them at the ceiling.

I blinked, rubbed my eyes, and waited for my fuzzy vision to focus.

Up in the ceiling of our train car, in the walkway that went from one car to the next, was the silhouette of a woman, dressed all in black, with a duster and riding pants, bracing her arms and legs against the support beams. She opened her eyes, and they glinted silver. The firelight glowed in them. Pupils as black as night stared out from them.

There was a vampire. In our train car.

In the blink of an eye, Mary moved, and the woman dropped from the ceiling in a blur of motion. Gunfire went off, Tristan rushed towards them with his sword, and the woman caught the down strike with a bare hand, and sparks went flying.

I cocked my head, unsure as to what I was seeing. I was struggling with my right arm, trying to make it stay by my side and not attack my friends again.

The woman barred fangs, and Mary shot her point blank in the chest, six times.

She let go of Tristan’s swords and backed away. Her wounds started closing up and the bullets plinked to the floor and she laughed. From the stable master's description, she appeared to be the one who attacked people in Ratwater. But that was over a month ago. Was she waiting for us, all this time?

“You,” I said and stood up on shaking legs. The entire world spun on me and I staggered forward and leaned against the bed."Not another move or so help me, I'll kill you where you stand."

“Hello, handsome. Have we met?” she asked me, her voice crisp and proper. Aristocratic. She deflected another hit from Tristan’s sword and he cursed under his breath and he stumbled back.
Mary snarled and took out a wooden stake from her travel back and with a wordless shout of rage, she lunged towards the woman.

The woman grabbed her wrist with an easy swift practiced motion and tossed Mary over her shoulder and into the wall. Mary rolled to her feet and lunged at her again. They struggled.

The vampire was strong. She must be old, well trained in combat. Someone's foot soldier, or Assassin maybe.

I grabbed a six shooter from my belt with my left hand, my arm wavering as I aimed, waiting for an opening. I held my right arm fast against my side, and it kept jerking and trying to move away from me.

When the woman tossed Mary aside again, I got a clear shot, and hit her right in the chest, in the heart.

She cried out and fell back against the wall and slid to the floor, breathing erratically.

“Silver bullets! You bastard.”

“You should know better than to attack a group of hunters, vampire,” I said and spat at the floor. “Now…who are you, and why are you in our train car?”

Tristan held his sword at the ready, and I could tell that he was bracing himself for another attack, and trying to figure out how to cut her head off in one clean sweep of his blade. But, that would be difficult. She was strong and fast. He was injured. As was I.

Mary stood up, her head bleeding at the left temple where she hit it on the wall. “You bitch. You’ll pay for that.”

“That’s what they all say. And yet…here I am,” the woman said.

Her attitude and pure contempt for us really pissed me off. I strode up to her, shoved my gun muzzle in the wound in her chest and she cried out in pain.

“Speak. Or I’ll just finish you off here and now. Understand?”

“Yes.”

“Who are you?” I asked and she sighed as her eyes returned to normal. She had spent whatever magical power she had accumulated from feeding off of people, either that or she was faking it.

The irises of her eyes were ruby red, like gemstones, sparkling and glinting in the firelight. There was a blood spot in the right one, just about in the same position as the one in John’s eye. There was something about the cut of her jawline, the curve of her thin lips that reminded me of him.

Could she be? No…it’s not possible.

“My name, is Erzabet Valeskew. I am a noblewoman of the House of Ledes. The Viscountess of Golgotha. I was sent to stop you. To dissuade you from your quest. Your friend is no longer human. You should not have tried to come and save him.”

“Which friend?” I asked and cocked back the hammer of my gun. She flinched.

“John. John Esten. He is…a distant cousin of mine.”

“John has no living relations,” Tristan said and stood next to me. I could see in the corner of my eye that he was having trouble standing up straight.

“Of course he does. He has a whole bunch of them. In Golgotha.”

“What. Are you talking about?” Mary asked. She stood on my left side, opposite of Tristan.

“John is not an orphan. His mother summoned him home,” Erzabet said, and lifted her dainty chin haughtily.

“That’s impossible,” I said. “His entire family was slaughtered by vampires. By your kind.”

“Were they? Didn’t you ever wonder why he wasn’t killed? Why he was left alive when none of the others were spared?”

“No,” I said and made a face of disgust. “The thought never crossed my mind.”

“That’s because they were ordered not to kill him. He is special to us. And he has returned home to claim his birthright.”

“Oh, shut up,” Mary said and punched her hard in the jaw. Erzabet’s head snapped back and hit the wall and she glared at her. “Stop lying to us.”

“I’m not lying. You of all people should know, Saint of Sinners.”

“Well?” I asked. “Is she lying?”

“Something of what she is saying is untrue,” Tristan said.

I sighed and shot her in the foot and she screamed.

“What was that for!”

“Tell the truth, or I’ll fill all of your limbs with silver bullets. I have four left.”

“Bastard!”

“You should do as he says. Rourke has no pity for creatures as vile as yourself,” Tristan warned.

“Vile? I am nobility! Same as you, Montebalm.”

“You are nothing like me.”

“So you say.”

Mary lifted the wooden stake, regarded it thoughtfully. “You know, we could tie you to the roof of the train car, let the sun cleanse you when it rises.”

“You wouldn’t dare.”

“Try me.”

Erzabet sighed and eyed my gun warily. She couldn’t move. I could see her pale flesh darken and blister around the bullet wound. The silver was doing its job, cleansing her flesh of the evil within.

“Kill her,” a dark voice in my head said. I waved a hand at my ear, tried to shoo it away.

“What was that?” the vampiress asked, and her eyes widened in fear. This was the first time she had honestly looked afraid.

“Oh…that? That’s the demon I trapped in my arm. He’s a real piece of work.”

“You…trapped it? Made it a part of you?” she asked, terrified. “What kind of beast are you?”

“The kind that doesn’t care if I kill a piece of trash like you. So talk, or we’ll end this now.”

“If you’re going to kill me, kill me. Stop wasting my time.”

Tristan rested his sword blade against her neck and she stiffened.

“Tell us what you know. Speak the truth. I’ll know if you’re lying.”

“Psychic nenorocitule. Of course, you will.”

“Rude much?” I asked and aimed at her other leg.

She flinched. “What do you want to know?”

“Where is John?”

“In Golgotha.”

“Where, in Golgotha?”

“At the palace, of course. With his mother. She’s the Prince of the city.”

“What.”

“I told you, he had fangs. He’s a dhampir. Has to be,” Mary muttered.

“No way,” I said. “We’d have seen signs of it before now.”

“He’s right. Dhampir, they get the bloodlust when they are six years old. I’ve seen it first hand,” Tristan said, not lifting his blade from Erzabet’s dainty neck.

How someone so slender and delicate looking could be so strong as to fight us all off, and not break a sweat, she had to be a vampire. Right? And if they were cousins…

I shook my head. “What is John?”

“He’s the heir apparent to the throne of Golgotha. And a powerful one at that.”

“Great.”

Mary shot me a look and before I could stop her, she slammed the stake through Erzabet’s heart.

The vampire shrieked and shuddered and then went limp.

“Hey! I wasn’t done talking to her!”

“She wasn’t going to give us any more information,” Tristan said and with a look of disgust on his face, he cut off her pretty head. It tumbled to the floor near my feet and I took a step back. Her beautiful unearthly ruby eyes stared blankly up at me.

“Sweet Sophia, save us,” I said and crossed myself.

“Well, that was certainly interesting,” Mary said and she hauled the vampire’s body out of the train car and tossed it off the side, where it would be engulfed in flames once the sun rose.

In the distance, I could see a wall of pure darkness, where the moonlight would not enter.

“Welcome to the Night Lands,” Mary said. “Welcome to hell on earth.”

“You’re so delightful to travel with,” I shot at her and went back inside.

Tristan was sitting on the bed, in obvious pain.

“You all right?”

“No.”

“Need something?”

“A good stiff drink.”

I chuckled and handed him a bottle of whiskey from my travel bag. He gulped down half of it, and handed it back to me and laid down.

I took a swig and sat near the fire and put another log on it. I clutched my right arm hard to my side and grimaced as it continued to twitch.

Tristan sighed and closed his eyes and swiftly fell back to sleep. The lucky bastard.

Mary stepped in and sat next to me on the floor, snatched the liquor bottle out of my hand and finished it off. She set the empty bottle down and hiccuped.

“Rude much?”

“Only to you.”

“Liar.”

“How’s your arm?”

“Still acting up. Half tempted to cut it off.”

“I wouldn’t. It’d probably animate and try to kill us.”

“Oh. That’s great! Thanks for sharing that thought.”

“You’re welcome. Here," she said and grabbed a red silk scarf from her travel bag. I let her wrap it around my spasming hand, like a mitten and then she twisted it into a sling around my bent arm and tied it tight around my shoulder.

I winced. It hurt, but it kept it from flailing around and choking people.

“What are we going to do about this?" I asked.

She shrugged. "One thing at a time Mr. Whelan. It'll settle down as soon as the sun rises."

"You sure about that?"

"Son, this isn't my first rodeo."

"Right."

“That vamp, she said that John's mother was the Prince of Golgotha. That’s some serious magical power she’s wielding if she can control the heart of the city from the palace. Which means that she’s one hell of an old vampire. Older than I am, even.”

“How old are you really?”

She punched my arm.

“Ow! Seriously. Stop that!”

“Never ask a lady her age.”

“You aren’t a lady. Not even close to being civilized. You heathen.”

She chuckled and lit up a cigarette.

“This isn’t going to be easy.”

“Nothing ever is,” I muttered. “I’m going to try to get back to sleep.”

“I’ll keep watch. Just in case your arm gets any funny ideas while you’re out.”

“Thanks. I feel so much better now.”

“You’re welcome.”

“I can’t stand you.”

“The feeling is mutual,” she said and slapped my back, on the good shoulder. She was so rough.

Sighing I went and lay back down, my eyes grew heavy as I watched her tend the fire. As I fell back to restless sleep, I wondered if maybe we should listen to Erzabet’s warning, and got off at the last train station before we hit the Night Lands.

But I knew, if we did, there’d be no turning back. We’d be abandoning our my friend, and my blood brother, to suffer under the hands of a vicious and evil fiend. A vampire. The same vampire that had his entire family killed when he was a child. The very same one that would kill us, without hesitation, if it meant keeping him there, under her spell.

It was clear to me then. We were on a suicide mission. And I wasn’t sure if any of us was going to make it out alive.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Three Thieves of Night Part Five: First Blood at Dawn



So there I stood, in nothing but a robe, my six shooter several feet away, hiding in my towel. My back twitching as the wound began itching like crazy. I balled my fists, clenched my jaw, tried not to draw attention to myself, well, no more so than I’d normally get, and failed miserably.

Mary, the Saint of Sinners-- one of the most dangerous hunters in Creation-- was also without her guns. She was side-stepping towards the exit, where Tristan and his uncle Gilead stood, glaring at one another.

Their fighting magic was surfacing, the electric crackle of it made the hair on my arms stand up. That was some serious mojo they were drawing up, and the scary things was, I was pretty sure neither of them was doing it intentionally.

It was a natural byproduct of their anger, of which House Andiron and by extension, their cousin House Montebalm was infamous for. Because Andiron was founded by the first son of the god king, our Holy Imperator, and the magic in their blood was strong and full of explosive potential.

Tristan did not like using his fighting magic. It made him lose control of his temper. The more he used it, the more volatile his emotions became, and the less control he had over his psychic abilities as well.

The bitter truth was, he had a lot of power, but it controlled him far more than he could ever control it. And his uncle knew it. I could see it on his face, that bitter arrogance. That haughty, “I know I can kill you in an instant” look in his gray eyes.

Tristan looked a bit like him, the family resemblance was striking.

Same strong chin, broad shoulders, lots of muscles, even the scowl was similar. Tristan was just a smidge shorter than him, and he has his mother’s nose and lips.

His uncle’s hair was almost completely white from age but other than that and the wrinkles near his eyes, he didn’t look a year over 50. Rumor has it that he was closer to 400, thanks to the royal blood that ran in his veins.

Mary, impatient, sighed and said, “Listen, gentlemen, I have no quarrel with you. If you would be so kind as to let me pass, I shall not have to get involved in what is clearly a family affair.”

Gilead regarded her cautiously. “And who might you be?”

“Mary. They call me the Saint of Sinners. Most know me by that name.”

“I have heard of you. Why were you in here with my nephew and that gene trash?”

By gene trash, he meant that I had dirty commoner blood, and was not from magically powerful breeding stock.

“That, is not your concern, Herr Montebalm,” she said darkly and I swear I saw viper fangs flash in her eyes.

“Are you here to wreak vengeance for a lost soul?” he asked, not for once taking his gaze off of Tristan.

“No. However, I sense that you are thirsty for justice, even though no true grave injustice has been done to you, or your kin,” she said.

“Mary, this is not your concern. Uncle, step aside. Let the lady pass in peace. You are blocking the door. On a saint.”

“His pride is making it difficult for him to be courteous,” Mary said. “It is typical nobleman behavior. I have seen it many times over the years.”

Gilead’s eyes flicked her way and he made a disgusted face.

“That is not the case. If I move, I give all three of you tactical advantage.”

“Uh…three?” I said. “Hey, I’m not looking for a fight with one of the heads of House Montebalm. But, since you included me, I guess that this worthless piece of gene trash will be forced to get involved after all.”

“Rourke.” He said and gave me a stop hand signal. It was subtle, just a few fingers of his hand moving, something we came up with, for situations such as these, where sudden movements would cause everyone present to break out into a fight. Gilead was looking for an excuse to throw the first punch, and Tristan didn’t want me to give it to him.

I shut my mouth, folded my arms, and waited for the inevitable to happen next.

“Nephew, I would like a word with you, if you please,” Gilead said and gestured towards the hallway. His words were not friendly, they were laced with the threat of violence and bloodshed.

“Might I remind you uncle, that this is a sacred place of healing. If bloodshed occurs between us, we shall surely be cursed by the local god. Such a curse could very easily extend to the entirety of our House, and no one of our bloodline shall ever be able to heal from a wound ever again.”

“He’s right, “ I said. “If you fight in here, you’ll get kicked out and the local god will curse your entire family for disrespecting her temple. She does that, and no one will heal well ever again. People will die from simple cuts because they will never stop bleeding. You really want to explain to his father why that happened? Think about it. And think on it good. You’d have to explain to the ruling head of the House why all Montebalms are cursed for eternity because you couldn’t control your temper in a healing temple?”

He narrowed his eyes and the heated rage coming from them made me take a step back.

“I don’t know who you think you are, but no one talks to me that way.”

“Wow, you really don’t listen, do you? Is your ire up that much, you have blood ringing in your ears so you can’t hear me? I can talk louder if you like. My name is Rourke Whelan. I am one of the Three Thieves of Night. And Tristan is my brother at arms. So no, I will not allow you to speak to him in such a way, nor will I allow you to harm him.”

“Rourke, shut. Up,” Tristan hissed.

“You should listen to your betters, and step aside, commoner.”

“No. I won’t. You want to hit him, you have to go through me first.”

“Stop,” Tristan said and put a strong hand on my shoulder and squeezed. It was like an iron vice grip. Yup. His fighting magic was just soaring through his veins now.

“Ow.”

He let go, leaving a red hand print on my shoulder that would most definitely turn into a bruise.

Mary stood there, legs wide, hands at her hips like she was about to start dueling pistols, and then she made an annoyed sound and lowered them and balled them into fists instead.

Old habits die hard, I suppose.

“Rourke is right uncle. If we are to work this out, we must need do this outside of sacred ground.”

Gilead made an annoyed sound. He didn’t unclench his fists, but he didn’t exactly start swinging them either.

“I am very well aware of that, boy. Mayhap we should speak outside Bethel’s gates instead? That way, I won’t have to deal with your father’s disapproval for the rest of my life.”

Tristan slowly nodded. “That is agreeable. We shall speak there. And resolve our differences in kind.”

“It is settled then,” Gilead said and backed out of the room, not taking his eyes off of any of us, and then turned on his heels and walked away at a brisk pace. Even his footsteps sounded angry.

I sighed and rushed to the wood post and scratched my itching back and hissed in relief.

Mary whistled. “Well Tristan, I am impressed. Most would not be able to ignore such a challenge and would have started fighting right then and there.”

Tristan stared out the doorway, his fists clenched so tight that his knuckles were white. “It was not easy,” he said softly. “But there was more at stake than just my pride in that moment. Our entire family could’ve suffered if I had let him goad me into hitting him first.”

“That is true.”

“So…that was a declaration of war or something?” I asked, still scratching my back. It wasn’t easing the pain, and really, the itching wasn’t letting up any, but I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t stop.

“Yes,” Mary said. “You wouldn’t know, but it’s an old tradition. The old Houses, when they challenge a duel, they release an aura of magical power so everyone at witness can feel their intent. That is what just happened here. Their discussion is going to be one of blades and fists, not words,” she said.

“Lady, I could’ve told you that. It was pretty obvious what his intent was.”

Tristan sighed, shook his head, and walked out of the room.

“Hey!” I ran after him, grabbed his shoulder to make him stop.

He whirled on me and shoved me back roughly and I slammed into the wall.

“What is your problem?”

“Rourke. Do not get involved in this. It is not your fight. I made an error that I cannot easily fix, and now I must pay for it.”

“With your life?” Mary asked.

“If I must.”

“You seem to forget one thing,” I said and stood up straighter and looked him in the eye. “We’re blood sworn. We made a powerful oath, sealed by our own blood, to protect each other and keep one another safe. I will not break that oath. Even if it means angering you further, I will honor it. I always keep my word. Especially to my hunting party.”

“You two are blood sworn?” Mary said. The tone of her voice made me think that she knew something, and I braced myself for what was coming next.

“Yes,” Tristan said. “All three of us, Jon included, swore an oath when we formed our hunting party. It seemed a good idea at the time. It strengthened our bonds of friendship.”

Mary swore under her breath.

“What?” I asked.

“Any curse can spread to others that have made a blood oath with the original target of a dark spell.”

“And?”

“And you, Rourke, are most definitely cursed.”

“Ah…well…that puts a damper on things, doesn’t it?”

“If I had known…” She shook her head. “Hopefully your companions are strong enough to keep the evil from influencing them.”

“Are you saying that I am contagious?”

“After a fashion, but only to them.”

“Shit.”

Tristan, seeing that I was distracted, bolted down the hallway towards our hotel room.

“Oh come on!”

I ran after him, bare feet slapping on the smooth stone floor. Mary easily kept pace with me on her long legs.

I got to the room just as Tristan was shutting the door and shoved my arm through, forcing the door to stay open.

He glared at me, let go of the door and went over to his things to get dressed.

“Tristan. Don’t do this. It won’t solve anything.”

He didn’t respond. He just kept moving and getting dressed.

Mary, nonplussed by his now naked body, stepped up and stood in his way when he went to grab his pants.

“Tristan. Listen to your blood brother. He is right. This duel will not fix the damage that has been done. Fight him and you will suffer the wrath of your House.”

“I must. I injured his son. He demands satisfaction.”

“Taking it out on you isn’t going to heal Barnabas, nor will it make your idiot cousin a good man,” I said.

“I am aware of that, thank you,” he said and pushed past Mary and hurriedly put his clothes on.

“If you fight here, you won’t be welcome back inside. You know that, right?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“However badly you are hurt, they won’t heal you or tend your wounds. You'll be stuck with them, all the way to Golgotha. You'll suffer the whole train ride there.”

“I know!” he shouted and turned on me, seething. I have never seen him so mad in my life. “I have to do this. There is no easy way out. I dug the hole, I must lay in it.”

“Why? So you can be punished for losing control and letting your fear get the best of you?”

“Yes! Damn it. I am weak. Don’t you understand? I can’t control my abilities or my temper. I--”

What he couldn’t say out loud, I realized then, was that he believed that he deserved to be punished for what he did. As though a serious beating would ease his guilt.

I knew damn well that it wouldn’t, but there was no telling him that. The stubborn fool had made up his mind.

“I’m doing this. Stay out of my way, or I will make you move.”

I put my hands up, “All right, all right. Go. I’ll get our things and the horses ready, and meet you at the town gates.”

Tristan, fully dressed, grabbed his sword and hat and stormed out.

I shook my head. “He’s going to get himself killed.”

“Not unless we stop them,” Mary said.

“We? Oh no. You are not going to get involved. He’d never forgive me if I let you fight his fight.”

“I won’t allow that man to kill him. It would be unjust. Tristan is a member of my flock. It is Sophia’s will that I protect the innocent.”

“And he is innocent? He punched someone into a coma.”

She gave me a bitter smile that made my skin crawl.

“It was just one hit. Bad angle, too much force. It was not his intention to kill or incapacitate, just to get his cousin to shut his big fucking mouth.”

“Language!”

“I will use whatever words I wish, when I wish.”

“Fine, but…how do you know that? Were you there?”

“No. I have angels on my shoulders, remember? They see the past and the present. They tell me what I need to know.”

“Well, lucky you, I guess.”

“We should make haste and stop that duel before it turns deadly.”

“Agreed. Three punches and they’re done.”

She chuckled and left the room to get her things.

“This is insane,” I muttered. “What the hell am I doing? They’ll pulverize me in an instant if I try to stop them.”

I was not one to eagerly enter a fist fight with men who had demi-god like powers.

In fact, most of the time, I’d find a way to talk myself out of a fight, if I could.

But not this time…not this time.

I double checked the room to ensure that I gathered all of our belongings.

Fortunately, since we hadn’t been there long, we not unpacked much of anything, so it was simple enough to grab our bags and go.

I dropped the room key off at the front desk and told the man working the night shift that something came up, and we were leaving early. He wanted to give me a refund, but I didn’t have time, and to be honest, I didn’t want it.

I told him to keep the money and ran out to the stables to saddle our horses.

Mary was already there, walking her horse out.

It was dark. The early morning air was harsh, cold and bitter. The sun wouldn’t rise for a few more hours. I wasn’t looking forward to riding without getting any sleep, but I didn’t have a choice.
I wouldn't be able to sleep until we got on the train to Gologotha.

“Got everything?” she asked.

“Yes. And yes,” I said, putting the saddle on Old Grey and patting his haunches. “Be nice to her,” I said to him. “She’s a saint.”

He knickered in reply and I saddled Tristan’s mare, Buttercup, and then we started heading towards the town’s gates, where my friend and his uncle were about to seriously slug it out.

Mary handed her horses reigns to me and walked over to where they were arguing and I just stood there, wondering what in the hell was going to happen.

“Before you start, I would like to say something,” Mary said, her voice loud and clear and unwavering.

Gilead glared at her. “Oh?”

“I’m the Saint of Sinners. These men are under my protection. Kill Tristan, and I will kill you. Understood?”

“What?” Tristan and I both said at the same time.

“Is that so?” Gilead said in a measured tone.

“Sir, I’m a living saint. Don’t fuck with me.”

“Language!” he said looked perplexed. “What kind of saint has such a foul mouth?”

“This one. I have lived many years and walked the path of many lives, and I can tell you this, the old ways are still viable. Whoever draws first blood, wins the duel. Satisfaction shall be met without murder. If you demand more, you should require him to pay reparations, as per your House laws.”

“What do you know of our ways, woman?”

“Plenty. I knew Andiron when he was a child. Watched him grow up into a fine man with quite the temper. His father established rules of conduct so that he wouldn’t commit murder anytime someone challenged his authority and pursued a duel.”

I stared at her.

If she knew young Andiron, she had to be well over a thousand years old. Was that even possible? Was she of noble birth? Or was it a because she was sainted by Sophia and the goddess granted her an extremely long life?

I mean, I heard the rumors, I knew the tales about her being cursed with immortality, and even if I had teased her about it before, I didn’t really believe it. Until now.

“The law you stated is correct," Gilead said. "We shall abide by it. Now, step aside. I shall not pull my punches if you happen to be in the way, and my nephew needs to be taught a lesson in manners.”

I could feel the electric crackle of their fighting magic growing stronger. Both he and Tristan were starting to form golden auras of light as they called on the full strength of their power. They lit up the area, made the snow banks sparkle. It would’ve been pretty if I hadn’t been there to watch my friend get beat all to hell.

They had to stop at first blood. That meant any blow strong enough to cut or break something open to cause the opponent to bleed would end the duel. It was not to the death.

Didn’t make me feel any better about it.

Mary stepped back, her hands at her hips.

“Do you require someone to start and call the end of the duel?”

“If you wish,” Tristan said.

Gilead narrowed his eyes at him. “That is…acceptable. I suppose.”

Great. With Mary acting as the referee, she wouldn’t physically get involved until either party was close to being killed. That meant it was up to me to rush in if they didn’t stop after drawing blood.

I walked the horses over to the hitching post by the gate and tied them off, just in case I had to run over quickly and end things.

If saving my friend's life meant that I was used as a punching bag, then so be it.

It was cold. Our breath steamed the air. We stood on the outer side of the stone wall gate of Bethel, and Tristan and Gilead stared at each other.

I fought the urge to check my guns. I knew that they were loaded. I had looked at them before I left the hotel room.

This was starting to feel more like a gun fight, than a fist fight, and I half expected them to pull out weapons. Instead, Tristan took off his sword and tossed it to the ground near Mary. Gilead removed his guns and did the same.

Mary didn’t move or flinch when they were thrown. She must be used to that sort of thing.

“Remember gentlemen, do not get carried away. Your magic is highly destructive. The force of your blows alone could destroy the town if you are not careful.”

“We know. Call the start already,” Gilead said. He sounded impatient. Angry. Ready to kick the ever loving shit out of his nephew.

“Just had to say it. In case you forgot.”

“Mary, just call it. We can handle ourselves. After all, this isn’t the first time we’ve fought, is it uncle?”

“No. It is not. And it most likely will not be the last either. You still have a lot to learn about your place in Creation, nephew. It’s time I taught you a thing or two.”

“So be it.”

Mary glanced at me and I shrugged. I had no idea what their past was like. Apparently, they’ve been fighting for some time. Tristan never once said a word about it. Maybe it embarrassed him.

I stood by her and she tipped the front of her Stetson hat up.

“Get ready,” she said.

Gilead rolled his head, cracking his neck with the action and put his fists up.

Tristan dug his boots into the snow, stance wide, and hands loose at his side. He shook his arms out and raised them up, fists at the ready.

My heart was racing.

I didn’t want him to get hurt. I couldn’t care less about what happened to his uncle, but still, if he killed him, the rest of his House would come after us. And we didn’t need that right now.

All of this was a waste of time.

John was in trouble, and yet here we were, waiting for Tristan to duke it out with his asshole of an overbearing uncle.

“You might want to shade your eyes,” Mary muttered.

“Huh?”

She raised her hand. “When I lower my hand, you shall begin.”

They watched her, waiting and in a blink of an eye, she brought her hand down, Gilead started glowing so intensely bright it was like looking at the sun and I was blinded for a moment while snow flew around us and the ground shuddered from the force of their blows.

I could barely make out their silhouettes in the brilliant golden light. Tristan’s power was nowhere near as bright as his uncles, his aura was a lighter almost silver color in comparison, and it was drowned out, subsumed by the bleed-off of his uncle's magical power.

I could hear their fists hitting, sending out rushes of air with each arm stroke.

It was incredible.

I never saw Tristan use his fighting magic to its full extent.

Whatever they were saying to each other was personal. I couldn’t make out most of it, but it sounded rather nasty to me. Tristan's uncle was cruel and cut him with words, as well as bruised him with his fists.

I didn’t like it.

Not one bit.

I hated seeing him so upset. He was a good friend. Probably the first true friend I ever had in my life. He saw something in me that no one else ever did. He saw that I could be a hero, that I could and would save people’s lives from the evils of the night, and it changed my whole life.

There was no way in hell I was going to let anyone take him away from me.

Not Gilead, not Mary, and certainly not the damned vampires of Golgotha. No. I would rather die than see him hurt.

The longer I stood bathing in their golden magical auras, the stronger my anger at Gilead grew.
I wanted to hurt him. I wanted him to suffer. I wanted him to die, horribly, at my own hands.

“Mind yourself,” Mary said and put a hand on my shoulder. I shoved it off.

“Don’t touch me.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Rourke? Are you affected by the light?”

“I have no idea what you are talking about,” I said and stepped a few feet away, heart pounding in my head. I wanted so desperately to run in there and rip Gilead off of him, but I couldn’t.

All I could do was watch as they moved in fast blurs of motion and gold, the snow throwing up from their feet as they rushed two and fro.

Tristan was blocking the flurry of blows, trying every so often to get a hit in, and missing completely. He was getting frustrated, I could hear him make a sound of annoyance.

Neither was getting in a good solid punch, nothing that would draw blood. They’d have to hit each other in the face to do that.

"You've gotten sloppy nephew, hunting has not served you well."

"And you've grown soft and slow, old man. Mayhap it's time for one of your sons to take over for you?"

"Rourke." Someone whispered my name behind me. A chill ran down my spine. I could feel their breath tickle the back of my neck and when I turned to look, I saw my shadow being cast on the ground by the Montebalm's golden auras, but it wasn’t in my shape. It was a wolf-headed beast, black as death, with hellfire green eyes.

I had seen that beast before. In Concordia. Its face flashed at me right before it bit me and ripped a hole in my shoulder. And that wound has not healed. At all.

My entire body ran cold. I started shivering. I couldn’t look away. I felt stuck, staring in those unholy eyes.

“Rourke,” it said, its voice dark, deep, colder than the very depths of hell itself. “It’s time.”

“No. No…I won’t let you.”

“It’s far, far too late for you little lamb. Can’t you see? Your throat has already been slit and you are bleeding out as the sacrifice.”

I felt something hot and wet slide down my throat and my hand went up to it and came away slick with red steaming blood.

“Death is too good for you, don’t you think? You should suffer, greatly, before you die. Yes, I think that will do nicely.”

“This isn’t real. You’re just messing with my head.”

I tried to pull away, but I could feel my mind getting pushed further and further down like I was so very far away from my own body, and I could see out of my eyes, I could feel my body, but I wasn’t in it. My mind was in my shadow, somehow.

It was cold. And dark. And I was terrified.

Mary stepped up to me, and I turned and smiled and said, “When are you going to tell them about him? About you and I? And that bouncing baby boy of yours?”

“Excuse me? What did you say?”

“It’s been far too long, sweetheart. Did you miss me?”

“Rourke? What’s wrong?”

“Oh, he’s not here right now. He’s taking a nap. In hell.”

“You son of a bitch, let him go.”

I could feel everything, even my mouth moving, but I couldn’t control what I was doing or saying. I was there, and yet, I was not. I was just along for the ride. My mind was split into two places at once, in my body, and in my shadow. I was fractured, and it was hard to focus.

It ignored her and stood there, with my hands clasped behind my back, rocking on my heels

“Such a great morning for a good fight. Do you think they’ll kill each other?”

Mary pulled out her cross necklace, a modest thing made of carved wood with a leather string and held it up.

“By Sophia’s will, I command you to leave this corpus and go back to hell from whence you came.”

It laughed, waved my arm and her cross caught on fire.

Cursing she tossed it off.

Tristan cried out in pain and I saw that Gilead had knocked him down to the ground and hit him hard in the ribs.

Anger flashed in me, white hot and painful. In that instant, I felt myself wrest back control, just enough to move, in the blink of an eye, from where I was standing, to in between the two Montebalms.

My right arm grabbed his fist as it lowered to strike him again and I held it, the force of the blow reverberated through my body and pushed my feet down into the frozen earth. The ground snapped and crackled under the weight of the blow, my feet buried in the dirt and snow spilling into the tops of my boots.

In that moment, I had managed to overpower that thing with my will, and we were both using my body at once.

My hand…my arm…there was black shaggy fur on my arm, it had tripled in size, ripped open my shirt and coat sleeve with thick rope cord muscles, the fingers ending in black sharp claws. Like a werewolf.

I shouldn't have been able to hold Gilead back, let alone with a single hand, and yet, I was. The demon...it was strong. Far stronger than any of us had ever realized, until just then.

“That’s enough,” I said. “You have proven your point. Step down, or I shall be forced to kill you.”

“What is this?” Gilead said through gritted teeth. Blood trickled down his knuckles as I stood, still gripping his fist with my strange hand.

“I should kill you for what you did to him. I really ought to. It would be ever so satisfying to rip your intestines out with my bare hands.”

“Rourke,” Tristan whispered.

It, that thing controlling me, ignored him as we struggled for control. My anger, my rage at my friend being treated so poorly by his family, overpowered it. But just barely. I could already feel myself slipping away under its fierce hold. It affected my words, tainted them with malice and cruelty.

My legs were about to buckle, Gilead was still pushing down his fist, and not letting up.

I made an annoyed sound. “Shall I break his arm, Tristan? Would that be enough compensation?”

“Stop. This isn't your fight.”

“No. And you can’t make me, even if you wished to.”

Still gripping his fist, I shoved Gilead back and pushed him down, forcing him to kneel.

"Down on your knees, you filth," I said and I started bending his arm to the side at an awkward angle. If I kept going, I was going to snap it in twain.

“Enough!” Mary shouted and ran forward. I saw my shadow reach out and grab her and toss her into the stone wall as though she weighed nothing.

She hit her head and landed hard on her side and groaned.

I turned my attention back to Gilead, glaring at him. His eyes were no longer filled with rage, they were filled with fear.

“You know, Gilly, you are just like your father. What do you think he would say if he saw you acting like a coward? Would he take the belt to your back, like he did when you were a child? Hit you so hard your skin breaks open? Like old times?”

“Who are you? What is this? I demand you tell me who you are!”

I could feel his arm giving way and gleefully applied more pressure until it snapped. Bone broke through the skin, glistened in the weak morning light.

The man’s golden aura faltered and died off as he passed out from the pain.

“Pathetic. I thought he would've put up far more of a fight before he dropped like a dead squirrel from a tree. I guess you never can tell, can you?”

“Rourke…what have you done?” Tristan was holding his side, trying to stand and falling back to his knees. His face all battered and bruised, his left eye was starting to swell up.

When he saw my face, he jerked away and fell on his ass and backpedaled until he hit the stone wall.

“No. Not you. Not again.”

“Oh yes. It’s me. Been a while, hasn’t it?”

“Not long enough,” he said and I saw that he was reaching for his sword.

“Too slow,” I said and knelt on his free hand. He winced and pulled it out from under my knee. “I should’ve killed you in Solomon when I had the chance. But someone was too much of a coward to do it. Such a pathetic and weak vessel they chose for me. What a disgusting man.”

“Rourke is not weak. He has fought you off longer than any other man ever could.  And you know it.”

I laughed, got in his face, he fell back against the stone wall.

“You should tell him, lover boy, how you really feel. I’m sure he’d like to know. About your secret. About what you fantasize about when you’re alone.”

Tristan looked mortified.

I laughed. “The look on your face! It’s perfect!” I leaned closer and whispered, “He’d never accept you if he found out. He’d push you away, and you’d lose the one person you love the most.”

“Shut up!” he screamed and shoved me off. He cried out, grabbed his side again and rolled away, crawling to his sword.

“And what are you going to do with that? Cut his arm off? Hurt your friend? You think that will get me out of him? It’s far too late you know. I’ve already taken root in his mind. Eventually, I will get to his soul and devour it. And then, I’ll completely possess his body. His sleek, muscular form that you admire so much, especially when he’s not looking your way.”

Mary moaned, her eyes fluttered open and she sat up, looking completely and utterly pissed off. She got to her feet, staggered towards where I stood over Tristan, mocking him.

“That’s enough foul beast! The sun is rising. This is Sophia’s domain now. You have no more power over him this day.”

I looked at her and smirked. “You know, for an immortal, nine months really isn’t that long at all. Before you know it, that little seed growing in your belly will be born.”

All the color drained from her face. “What?”

“You don’t know? Didn’t you suspect? I mean, I don’t work for the demon lord personally, but I think it’s great that you would give him a child. Any time darkness gets a foothold in Creation, it is a time for celebration. One step closer to humanity's destruction, on step closer to my dark father's rule.”

“No….no, that’s not possible.”

“Oh my dear, anything is possible, when a demon is in love with you.”

“Shut, up!” She grabbed Gilead’s gun and pointed it at me. “Let him go or I will shoot you between the eyes.”

“You'd kill him? But he’s innocent. I don’t think you have it in you.”

She swore under her breath and I heard something stir the air around us, like large feathered wings beating down as a bird took flight.

“You bitch, you wouldn’t dare.”

“Oh I would, and I am,” she said and muttered an ancient prayer in a language that has long since gone dead.

A halo of tarnished bronze formed over her head, and white wings dripping with blood unfurled behind her as she prayed.

The beast inside of me panicked and I tried to run but Tristan tackled me and held me down as Mary strode forward, her feet not actually touching the ground, like she was floating just inches above it.

“It’s too late,” I snarled at her. “You can’t stop what is coming. Creation itself will be destroyed when we’re done. My master is on his way. You won’t be able to stop it. Not you, not the Venerable August, not these Three Thieves, not even the Crow and his Wolf will be able to end our reign of darkness. All of the hunters will fall. We will take root in the world and finally kill the Imperator once and for all and plunge Creation into an era of darkness and despair. You can do nothing to stop what is coming for you all. You will fail! You will all fail!”

“It is Sophia’s will that I fight,” Mary said. “And it is by her will that I bind you inside this vessel.”

I could feel her righteous saint’s fury, I could feel the holy power within her stirring and coming to life, and it terrified me.

“No! No! I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you all!”

I screamed and flailed and she reached out with a glowing white hand, blood dripping down from the stigmatic spot on her palm.

She touched it to my forehead and said, “I anoint thee with saint’s blood. I call upon the power of the heavenly hosts and all of Sophia’s angels to protect this soul, and bind the evil within so that it may do no more harm.”

I screamed.

It burned.

Her blood burned!

My body was on fire.

My arm was killing me, the wound on my shoulder was puffed up and pulsing as the demon struggled to break free.

Tristan held me down, the arm out at an angle in a submission hold as Mary finished her prayer, using words not once uttered by mortal man.

Glowing sigils of holy power glowed in the around her, wrapping around her in a ribbon and then winding down her arm and around my body.

It hurt. It hurt so much.

I screamed and hollered and said awful things about her and Tristan, and how I was going to hurt them both.

It wasn’t pretty.

Then…the horrible words could be uttered no more. The rage subsided. Sputtered out and turned into numb horror.

I froze, then went limp and lay there gasping in the cold snow. My throat raw from screaming obscenities. My whole body wracked with pain, tendon's torn from the impact of Gilead's fist when I grabbed it.

My arm started shrinking back to normal size, the shaggy hair dissipated, the claws disappeared.
The wound on my shoulder screamed in pain. I could feel it bleeding. The stitches were ripped out.

Again.

"Please, let go. You're going to dislocate my shoulder," I said hoarsely, face pressed down into the snow.

Tristan sighed and let go and sat next to me, breathing hard. "Sorry."

Mary collapsed to her knees, her tears of blood plopping on the snow and on her pant legs. The holy light of her saint’s power dimmed and dissipated, her wings gone, but the stigmata on her right hand still bled.

She held it out in front of her and stared at it.

“I don’t believe it. It can’t be true,” she whispered.

And then I heard a beautiful angelic voice that sounded like ringing crystal, answer her back, “But it is. You are with child. With HIS child.”

“But…we didn’t. I mean, I don’t recall us doing that. We didn't. I never would have let him do that to me.”

“It matters not, all he had to do was touch you. You forget how powerful a demon he is.”

“Fuck.”

“Indeed.”

“Who are you talking to?” I asked softly. I sounded so weak.

“Rourke?” Tristan said and helped me roll over.

“Hey. You look like shit.”

“I know. Thank you. For stopping him.”

"Sure. You're welcome. No Problem. Anytime man."

He shook his head. “You are out of it.”

“No. You are out. Of it,” I said and poked his shoulder. “Out. Of. It.”

“Stop. That hurts. Everything hurts now.”

I slowly sat up. I felt like I had been hit by a train.

I looked over at his uncle and said, “Oh…no. Gilead.”

“You broke his arm. You shouldn’t have done that.”

“I didn’t…that wasn’t me! It really wasn’t! I swear!”

“He’s right,” Mary said, and she sounded so tired and defeated. “It wasn’t him. He had no say in it. He was trapped in his own mind. I haven’t seen a demon with the ability to manipulate its host's shadow, let alone take the full brunt of a powerful hit like that, and overpower someone of the Imperator's bloodline, in a very long time.”

“Oh? How long are we talking here?” I asked.

She shook her head and gripped the wrist of her bleeding hand. “Last time I met one that could do that…” She went still, her eyes wide. “Oh no.”

“What?” Tristan asked.

“This is bad. This is very bad.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” I said and moved to sit next to Tristan with a sigh.

“We…may be in serious danger here.”

“Please specify, we are not well versed in demons. That is John’s specialty,” Tristan said.

“The last time something that powerful wandered the earth, the angelic war broke out. It almost destroyed all of Creation.”

Tristan looked at her funny, his left eye now swollen shut. “You…you were there. I can see it. You walked among them.”

“Yes. I did. I lost everyone, and everything then. And then I became someone else.”

“That is how you were sainted. Your righteous fury, your cries for justice, they were answered by Sophia. She heard you. She…she stood before you? You were touched by the goddess?”

“Seriously? That’s…unheard of.”

“Yes. At that time, the celestial gods walked the earth. To bind the powers of darkness and chaos, they had to give up their worldly forms and ascend to the heavens. They made a huge sacrifice for us all. And in return, I fight the good fight for Sophia. I am her vessel here in Creation now. I am her arm of justice. Her weapon. And I shall never rest until all the world’s evils are destroyed.”

“Damn. That is unfortunate,” I said. Tristan hit me and I winced. “Ow! Please don’t hit me. I feel like I was hit by a train. No joke.”

“Shouldn’t I be the one complaining about pain?”

“No. Obviously."

"What do you want to do about your uncle?" Mary asked.

Tristan nodded towards the town. I saw a man running down the street towards us. It was one of Tristan’s cousins that we saw in the dining area of the hotel.

He stopped when he saw us. “What in the blazing hell happened here?”

“We had a duel. Your father won,” Tristan said, sounding defeated and tired.

“If he won, why is he passed out in the snow with a broken arm?”

“Oh uh…” I said and we all looked away from him. “He…tried to block a hit and Tristan knocked his arm the wrong way and, well, it snapped. You know, it’s a wound from trial by combat. It happens. The important thing is, that he won. So he has satisfaction and justice has been gained for Barnabas.”

“Ah. I didn’t even know you were here, Tristan.”

“He must’ve seen us come in and decided to take care of it himself,” Tristan said with a shrug. “You know what your father is like. He never tells anyone anything until afterward.”

His cousin nodded, picked up Gilead’s gun belt and then hefted his old man's arm over his shoulders and made him stand up.

Gilead moaned and looked around bleary eyed.

“Hey, congratulations, you won!” I said and he blinked in my direction.

“I did?” he asked.

“Yes. You beat the ever loving hell out of Tristan. So, you won the duel. Are you satisfied now?”

“Yes. How did I break my arm?”

“Battle wound,” Tristan’s cousin said.

Gilead nodded. “Tristan hits harder than I remember. It is good. Let’s get some breakfast, I’m starving.”

“All right, all right,” his son said and they walked away, both shooting us a parting glance and whispering to each other about stigmata and weird wolf shapes in the snow.

I looked around.

Where I stepped when I was possessed, large wolf prints were left behind. Not boot prints. And where I had fallen in the snow, the shape of a wolf was, not a human body.

“Uh…guys? I didn’t transform did I?”

“Just your arm,” Mary said.

“Then how come I left wolf prints in the snow?”

She shrugged. “It’s a very old and powerful demon.They do things like that. Warp and twist reality. It’s in their nature. It’s not even something they attempt to do, it’s just something they do. It’s like a tell of theirs. It’s a sign of a strong possession. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I was even going to be able to force it to back down.”

“You can't exorcise it? You can only put it to spiritual sleep?"  Tristan asked.

"Wait...you didn't send it packing? Just made it take a nap?"

"Unfortunately, yes. This is something that is beyond me. It is too ingrained in you. It is fusing with your soul.”

“Do you think John might know how to stop it?” Tristan asked.

“If he doesn’t, the Crow would.”

“Uh…who’s  that?”

“The demon mentioned him,” Tristan said. “Said his name with such contempt too. Must not care for him much.”

“There's a posse of hunters in Eugenica. They call their leader the Plague Crow, but don't let the name fool you. He’s a healer and a man of medicine. He treats the plague victims that are sent to Eugenica. He’s a good soul. Sharp as a knife and smarter than I’ll ever be. His magic is quite strong. I don’t even think he knows just how powerful he is yet.”

“Oh…wonderful. So, if John can’t fix it, we go to Eugenica? Is that the plan?”

“Sounds like it,” Tristan said and sighed. "I'm so tired."

"Are your ribs broken?" I asked.

"No. Just bruised."

I leaned back against the stone wall, closed my eyes. Everything hurt. The wound on my back was throbbing, and I could feel blood seep into my shirt and grow cold in the crisp winter air.

"I'm so tired," I muttered.

"So am I," Mary said. She sounded closer than before and I opened one eye. She was resting next to me. Sitting awfully close in fact.

Her arm was resting against mine.

"You wrecked your jacket," she said.

"I can mend it. I'm used to darning things back up."

She was shaking.

Tristan was breathing shallowly, and I feared that he had been hurt more than he wanted to let on, but would never admit it until he was forced to.

We all needed to rest before we left for the train station. We couldn't go back to the hotel, but maybe...

I slowly stood up, groaning.

"Where are you going?" Tristan asked.

"Just over to the stables for a minute. I'll be right back."

"Mm," he said and watched me go.

I could barely walk in a straight line and I leaned against the open stable door like a drunkard and peeked inside.

The stable boy was busy with his morning chores.

"Hey, kid," I said and he looked up and smiled.

"You back already?"

"Sort of. Listen, me and my friends need to warm up before we head out on the road today. Would it be all right if we rested in the barn here for a few hours? I can pay you."

He grinned. "Sure! Pa said you might want to do that, seeing as how you all got into a scuffle outside of town. I was waiting for you to show up."

I chuckled. "Smart man, your pa is. Here, for your trouble," I tossed him a gold coin and he bit it and smiled wider.

"Thanks, mister!"

"No, thank you," I said and wandered back to Tristan and Mary.  "We can stay in the barn for a bit. We all need to grab some shut eye before we head out. So let's take advantage of it and rest, shall we?"

"I am not going to argue with that," Tristan murmured and I helped him stand up. He winced, pressed a hand against his side and limped towards the barn behind the stables.

The stable boy ran out and took the horses off the hitching post and walked them back for us.

Mary said nothing, just wrapped her bleeding hand in a handkerchief and shivered. She looked haunted. Scared out of her mind. I didn't want to tell her that though. She hits hard.

I helped Tristan sit down on the fresh hay in a corner of the barn, away from the other animals, and he sighed.

"You're going to have to wrap those ribs up before we go," I said.

He nodded. "I know," he said and leaned back against a bale of hay and put his hat over his face.

I plopped down unceremoniously and groaned as my shoulder throbbed in pain and all my joints complained at me.

"Taking a hit like that is not good for your body," Mary said.

"No kidding."

"Why did you do it then?"

"Couldn't help it.  Besides, I wasn't exactly in full control back there, remember?"

"Yes. I am fully aware. But, that demon didn't decide to protect Tristan, you did. Your force of will made it do that."

"Yay for me, I guess."

She scooted up next to me, and I saw that she was crying. The tears of blood had dried on her face and she was crying normal tears now, washing streaks out of the dried blood stains.

"Here," I said and handed her my handkerchief. "Your face is a mess."

"Thank you." She wiped off the blood and sat there, staring at the white cloth and shuddered.

"What's wrong?"

"Rourke?"

"Yes?"

"Can I?"

"Hm?"

"I just..." She looked away, shame burning red on her face. She was blushing, embarrassed. Flustered. Scared? Maybe?

"What? You can ask me anything. Tristan is already asleep, so it's not like he's going to hear it."

"He is?"

"Yeah. He can sleep anywhere. Lucky bastard."

"Huh. I guess he is."

She scooted next to me and I froze as she hugged me tightly and whispered,"Sorry, I just...need comfort. I know this is awkward. But...I don't have any family left. To bring a child into the world, alone? It terrifies me."

I made a sound of pity and patted her back. "I see. Well, in that case, feel free to cuddle away. But don't think that it means anything because it doesn't. I'm just being nice because you're a saint. We shall still hate each other after the hugging is over. Got it?"

She made a pathetic laugh and buried her face in my chest and clung to me and cried.

We lay there a while like that until she calmed down and abruptly let go of me and rolled over, putting her back to me.

"You're welcome."

"Thanks," she said bitterly and sighed. "I am so fucked."

"No, you're not. You're the strongest person I know. You'll get through it, raise a great kid to be the world's best monster hunter and the two of you will be a force to reckon with. You mark my words woman. You will do just fine."

She rolled over and glared at me. "You think so?"

"Uh...is that a trick question? Will you hit me if I say yes?"

"No. I won't hit you."

"Then, yes. I think so."

"Don't treat me any different, I just had a moment of weakness."

"I know. It happens to the best of us. Don't worry about it. I won't tell a soul."

She made a face of annoyance. "Uh huh."

"I won't!"

"I know, Rourke. I know. And for the record, I like Tristan more than I like you."

"I gathered that. Most people do. It's because he's the strong silent type, and I'm the rakish charming type that never shuts up. I talk way too much. It's a blessing and a curse."

"You're an idiot."

"I cannot dispute that."

She sighed, wrapped my now dirty handkerchief around her other hand and pressed it to her lips. "I'll get you a new one for your troubles."

"No need. I have plenty. Keep it. It's yours now."

"Very well then. Thank you."

"You're welcome."

I glanced over at Tristan, who was sleeping soundly.

"Hey, do you think we'll survive Golgotha?"

"If Sophia wills it, we shall. That is all I can say on the matter. If I can get my guns back, it will triple our odds of survival. Until then, it's a fifty-fifty chance that we'll make it and get John out of there in one piece."

She was right. She was always right. I hated that, but it was the truth.

"Get some sleep, Mr. Whelan. Today is going to be a very long day, for all of us."

I yawned and nodded.

We all slept for a few hours before the stable boy came in and said that it was safe for us to travel on the main roads, and with that, we all painfully got on our horses and rode down the mountain pass to the train station, where we would start the final leg of our journey to Golgotha, where even more fresh hells awaited us.