Thursday, November 9, 2017

Three Thieves of Night Part 7: Golgotha the Vampire City of Skulls



I woke up just in time to see the last sunrise we’d witness for three months. It was like something inside my head clicked on, and I was wide awake. Soon I found myself standing at the back window of the last train car, watching the sun come up.

I’m not sure how I managed to do that. I was typically a late riser. Hey, when your job requires late nights, staying up past midnight it starts to become a routine.

I took off the scarf that Mary had wrapped my bad arm in and absentmindedly rolled it into a ball as I watched the sky blush red and orange. The sun tinted the snow clouds pink, and I found myself wondering when I would be able to see it again.

 Someone walked up behind me and slapped their hands on my shoulders. I jumped and whirled to see Mary standing there, smirking at me with an unlit cigarette in her mouth.

“Morning,” she said cheerfully.

“Very funny.”

“What are you doing back here?”

“Watching the sunrise.”

“Why.”

“So that I have it in my head as a pretty picture to remember when things get bleak,” I said and tapped my temple with a finger.

“That’s…rather romantic of you.”

I shrugged. “I’m weird like that. I’ll see something and make a permanent picture in my mind that I go back to as needed.”

“Really?” She sounded genuinely surprised.

“Yep. Maps, paintings, people’s faces, crime scenes, you name it. It’s all stored in here.”

“I had no idea you were brilliant like that.”

“Wow. Thanks.”

“You are just full of surprises, aren’t you Mr. Whelan?”

“I reckon so.”

“You gonna be back here a while?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll fetch you when the dining car puts out breakfast.”

“Thanks.”

I listened to her boot steps as she walked away, and made a mental note of her casual cadence. There was an easy stride to her steps today. She wasn’t stepping heavy and angry, like she usually did, slapping her feet down like she was punishing the world and hitting it with each step.

She sounded…happy.

Maybe she was happy because we were that much closer to getting her guns back. Or, maybe she was happy because she was about to run into a place where she could go wild and relish in the carnage of a good bloodbath of evil incarnate.

Who could say with her?

I returned to the room to find Tristan melting down the silver nuggets that John left us. He was smelting them and pouring them into bullet molds, of which would make the tips for our revolver ammo.

“Good morning,” he muttered, not looking up from what he was doing.

“Morning. Uh…how’s your throat doing?”

“Fine,” he said in a short clipped tone.

“Are you mad about that? I mean…it really wasn’t me that choked you.”

“No. I just don’t want to burn myself. Stop distracting me.”

“Ah. Sorry.”

I grabbed some of the tips that had finished cooling and started crimping the primed casings on. We got into a nice rhythm before Mary slammed open the door to our room and walked in with a pot of coffee and some fresh bread.

The smell hit me like a sledgehammer, and I realized just how hungry I was.

“Your stomach is growling,” Tristan said and I rolled my eyes and helped myself to some food while Mary sat down and inspected our work.

“I guess these will have to do,” she said.

“Excuse me? I think we know how to make ammunition. We’ve been doing it for years now.”

“Well, you’ve been making them crooked and that would explain why you miss so damn much.”

“I don’t miss a target,” I said and snatched up a roll from the plate she brought it.

She smacked my hand hard. “Did I say those were for you?”

“No. But you got enough for three people.”

“Hm.”

“Ugh, fine! I’ll go get my own! Honestly,” I swore under my breath and grabbed my long coat and hat. “I’ll be back. Tristan, hungry?”

“Yes. One moment.”

Mary smirked and poured herself a cup of coffee. “Someone’s moody this morning.”

“And you’re rude. Your point?”

“Guess I don’t have one.”

“Damn right you don’t. Come on Montebalm. Clearly, the lady doesn’t wish to eat with us this morning.”

Tristan glanced at her and shook his head.

“What,” she asked.

“Don’t insult his handiwork. He is very diligent about things. Let a man have some pride.”

“I’ll consider it.”

He raised an eyebrow and said nothing, grabbed his coat and joined me.

We walked through the different train cars until we reached the dining area, which held cramped tables and chairs. White tablecloths, linen napkins lined with silverware, it was a fancy set up.

We found an unoccupied table and sat down. I put my hat on the chair next to me and Tristan sighed and took off his coat. He looked awfully tired.

“Didn’t sleep well?”

“No. You?”

“Not really. Sorry if I woke you.”

“It’s fine. I kept waking up at every little sound anyway. Once you got up I figured there was no point laying in bed anymore and started getting things ready. Where did you go?”

“The end of the cars to watch the sunrise.”

“It’s so dark here though.”

“In the distance in the east you can see it, well, you could at any rate. I caught what was most likely the last one we’ll be seeing for a time.”

A morose-looking thin fellow in a waiter’s outfit stepped over to our table, gave us piping hot coffee and took our orders. He didn’t seem in the mood to chat, so I didn’t bother him, even though I was dying to ask him about his job and how cooking worked on a train and all.

“You showed restraint. I’m impressed,” Tristan said.

I chuckled and played with my coffee cup. It was a little too hot to drink at the moment, so I wrapped my hands around it and let it warm them.

There were a few others in there with us, none of them had healthy complexions. Most were deathly pale and looked like they were heading towards a funeral.

Maybe they were…in more way than one.

I must’ve made a face because Tristan looked at me curiously. “What?”

“Nothing. Just, taking in the scenery.”

He sighed and rubbed his lower ribs with a wince.

“How are you doing, really?”

“I’ve been better. Everything hurts today, to be honest.”

“Tell me about it.”

“Rourke…where we’re going, and with your injury, it could cause a lot of problems.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, think about it. It’s not healing. You bled out pretty bad last night. Who’s to say that won’t keep happening? You’ll be leaving a rather blatant trail in our wake.”

“And what am I supposed to do about it? I couldn’t let you go after him alone. That’d be suicide.”

“I know, I just…we should be extremely cautious. With everything we’re dealing with, I have a feeling Mary is going to make our situation one hundred times worse than it should be.”

“That, I completely agree with. You notice how happy she is? It’s creeping me out.”

“Yes. I feel the same way. When she smiles it makes my skin crawl.”

“You too? I thought it was just me like I was over-reacting or something.”

“No. It’s not just you. I told you that she had an aura of death. I meant it,” he said in hushed tones, not wanting to draw attention to us.

“Understood,” I sighed and rubbed my shoulder. It was starting to itch badly. Like most wounds, the minute I started to think about it, it hurt. And the more it hurt, the more it itched, and I gritted my teeth and rubbed it against the back of the chair and hissed and winced as a sharp jolt of pain shot through me.

“Rourke?”

“Ow.”

“Are you?”

“I’m fine. I’m not bleeding through my shirt am I?” I asked and turned so he could look.

“No.”

“Good. That would be embarrassing to do in a dining car.”

A faint smile danced on his lips. “You are a ridiculous man Mr. Whelan.”

“Thank you.”

“So, are you going to figure outJohn's letter?”

“Oh, shit. Thanks for reminding me. My goddess, I am not with it right now.”

I unfolded John’s cryptic letter and took out a small piece of drawing charcoal and rubbed it over it.
Just as I got done, our food came.

“Ah, thank you,” I said to the man who probably hadn’t smiled in over a decade. The waiter nodded and walked away. “Such great staff they have here. So friendly.”

“You ever stop to consider that perhaps he is not a morning person?”

“Or a day person, or a night person…or a person at all! Perhaps he’s just an illusion, and this food isn’t even real.”

Tristan gave me an annoyed look and refilled his coffee cup. “Shut up.”

“What?”

“It is far too early for you to be making jokes such as that.”

“So…when will be a good time then?”

“How about, never o’clock?”

“Got it.”

He hid a smirk and I chuckled and looked at the letter. And then stared at it closer, and turned it this way and that.

“What is it?”

“I have no idea.”

The lettering on it was crooked, dashed lines. It wasn’t in common, I didn’t recognize the language at all.

“Magic spell maybe?” I said and handed it to him. He was careful not to get his fingerprints in the charcoal rubbing and glanced it over. “You know that language?”

“Nope,” he handed it back and started eating his eggs. “Maybe Mary would?”

“I 'm not sure if I want her to see it. I don’t exactly trust her. Every time something happens, she threatens to kill us, and then not even five minutes later she does something to save our lives. She's a tough nut to crack.”

“I know. I don’t quite understand her. I can’t tell if she is truly on our side, or not.”

“I think she’s on the one side she’s always on. Her own.”

“Well, she does have the reputation for being one of the most vicious monster hunters in Creation. But I have never heard tell of her being duplicitous or betraying anyone.”

“Doesn’t mean that it doesn't happen. People she double crosses probably die. Wouldn’t be hard to keep that sort of thing quiet if all of your victims are dead.”

“Wouldn’t they come back as hungry ghosts?”

“Not if she consecrated the bodies. She is a saint after all.”

“Good point.”

I sighed. “On the one hand, I’m glad she’s with us because every fiber of my being is screaming at me and telling me we’re going into a trap. But…on the other hand, all she does is make things worse and hit me. Like…all the time. On the same spot on my arm. I have a huge bruise there. She does it on purpose.”

“Maybe she likes you.”

“No. She doesn’t. She hates me. Said so herself last night.”

“Right…if she hates you so much, why does she go out of her way to help you?”

“I don’t know? Because she’s crazy?”

“Rourke. Mind your tongue.”

“I’m serious. She’s certifiable. A total nutter. I can’t believe that anyone would worship her, let alone want to be her friend. I mean, she physically threatens violence to someone on a regular basis and yet expects them to ride with her as though there’s nothing wrong. Who does that?”

“She does, obviously.”

“It’s bad enough she has a chip on her shoulder the size of a city, but to be expected to be nice? Just because she’s pregnant? And then she gets mad when I am polite about it? I just can’t win with her. There’s no way she doesn’t hate me.”

“I think that perhaps you aren’t seeing the entire situation clearly because you are in a great deal of pain. You are under duress due to the nature of your wound.”

“Duress? You want duress, try being bait for a demon, and then having it attack you and bite the ever-loving hell out of you and then being blamed for it when it doesn’t outright kill you.

"Rourke, watch your tone."

"Why? I'm just telling the truth. And not only that, but she keeps putting guns up to the back of my head. If she liked me, she wouldn’t be so close to blowing my brains out, now would she?”

“Rourke!” Tristan hissed and glanced emphatically behind me.

Oh.

Shit.

Mary pulled the seat out from under me and I landed on my ass hard.

“Ow.”

“You were saying?” she asked. She was still holding the back of my chair.

I stood up, straightened my shirt, trying to regain some dignity. “I was saying that you are nuts, and rude, and a terrible woman who always hits me. That’s what I was saying.”

“Is that so?”

“You just yanked my chair out from under me! I think that’s a pretty damn good indication of your rudeness, don’t you?”

Tristan cleared his throat and I noticed that everyone was staring at us and I sighed.

“I’ll go back to the room. With my breakfast,” I muttered and threw on my coat and hat and took my plate with me.

By the time I got there, my food was cold.

“Damn women. Always causing problems,” I muttered and choked down my slimy congealed eggs and chased it with a big swig of lukewarm coffee.

I took out John’s letter and stared at it.

I couldn’t wait to find him so that we could get her guns back, and she could leave us in peace.

Well…no. That is not how that would happen either. She’d take them back and then try to kill him for stealing them. And then Tristan and I would have to hold John back because he would not hesitate to return violence against her, saint or no.

“Fucking hell,” I said and rubbed my hands down my face. I glanced at the letter and that’s when I noticed it. “Tricky bastard,” I said and folded the paper so that the symbols lined up to form letters and grabbed another piece of paper from my travel bag and started writing down what the note said.

The letter had to be folded this way and that to get all the lines to form words. He must’ve worked on it for several days, slowly making the indentations by drawing on a separate piece that he had laid over it.

I scratched my shoulder as I worked, having occasionally to stand up to rub the spot I couldn’t reach with my hand against the door frame.

For John to do this, he had to be under constant supervision. It reeked of paranoia and fear.

I was almost done transcribing the last line when Tristan walked into the train car.

“Hey,” I said and he didn’t reply.

I glanced at him, he looked annoyed. He sat on the bed and glared at me.

“What?”

“You need to mind your tongue.”

“Sorry about that.”

“I know that this is very trying for you, but you aren’t the only one hurting here. We all have our burdens to bear.”

“What are you talking about? Mary is fine.”

“No. She is not.”

I made an annoyed sound and looked back at him, over my shoulder. “What now?”

“She made me pay for her meal.”

“Of course.”

“She also told me that she had come to find us because she had something for you.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. And that she was going to be very polite to you at breakfast until she heard you bad mouthing her in public. Then she changed her mind.”

“Wonderful. Sorry man. I just…” Why did I say those things? I usually kept thoughts like that to myself. 

He waved it off. “Do not worry about it overmuch. She isn’t that mad. Just apologize to her when she returns and fix things between the two of you before we arrive at the station.”

“Fine. I can do that. But only because you asked.”

“Very well. Did you figure out the letter?”

“I think so. It’s still a bit odd, but, it looks like a set of directions. I think. Maybe.”

He sat next to me and when I reached back to scratch my shoulder he batted my hand away and scratched it for me.

I hissed in relief and sighed. “You are a beautiful man, you know that?”

“You’re welcome. What does it say?”

“Well--” I yelped in pain and jerked away from him as I felt my skin tear like the wound was splitting apart more.

“What? Did I hurt you?”

“No, no. It wasn’t you, it’s just this damn thing…I think the wound is growing.”

“Let me see.”

I took off my shirt and he removed the bandages and set them aside. They were soaked in fresh blood.

I could feel my blood slide down my back in rivulets, it tickled and I squirmed.

“It really hurts.”

“I can see that."

"Well?"

"The wound is getting longer. The areas that split open when you hauled up me on Devil’s Pass, they’re about two inches longer. Like someone took a knife to your back and cut the gaps wider.”

“Fuck.”

“Language,” he said.

“Sorry. I just…what am I supposed to do?”

“I don’t know. I was hoping the healing springs in Bethel would help. But they don’t seem to have done any bit of good for you.”

“Yeah…damn it.”

There was a knock at the door and Mary stepped in.

I raised an eyebrow. “Wow. You knocked?”

“I didn’t wish to interrupt anything between the two of you.”

“There’s nothing going on between us,” I said sharply. “He’s just looking at my shoulder. You know, the one with the gaping wound in it? The one you couldn’t fix? That one.”

She frowned and stepped up to me, grabbed me by the shoulders and spun me around roughly so that she could look.

“Sophia save you.”

“Yeah, I don’t think prayers are going to work here.”

“Shut up. I made something for you while you were sleeping, you idiot.”

“Oh really?”

“Yes,” she said and picked up a large roll of bandages from her bed. There was writing in red and black ink all over it. Holy symbols, some words I could read, others were in languages that were entirely foreign to me and just looked like squiggles and funky wavy lines. “My angels suggested we try this. I haven’t made one in years. Well…more like in a few hundred years, but still, it should help you for a bit.”

“What does it do?” Tristan asked. He looked hesitant and worried.

“It won’t heal the wound, but it will stop it from getting worse. It will numb the pain and prevent it from bleeding or growing in size.”

“But?” I asked.

“Well, like most magic, there is a price to pay.”

“And with this one?” Tristan asked.

“Any damage that the wound would inflict on you, will be tripled once the spell wears off. It lasts for two days, after that, the pain will come on and will be intense because you’ll be experiencing an entire 48 hours of agony all at once. But…seeing as how we’re going into a vipers nest of vampires, I thought it a good idea to prevent your wound from bleeding. The minute they smell blood on us, we’re dead.”

“I know that.”

“Well…do you want it or not?”

“I guess.”

“Rourke, this is not a good idea. I find it highly inadvisable to do this.”

“I might not have a choice. How can we save John if we’re both injured and not in top form? We’re going into Golgotha. THE vampire city. This isn’t a city with an infestation, this is a city made for and run by, vampires. There’s a big difference.”

“I am aware. That is why I tried to stop John from going there to begin with.”

“Well…I can’t have that damn demon getting in the way of things and taking me over when we’re in the middle of a fight with a vampire lord, now can I? That would mean instant death for me, and you, and Mary, and John, and whoever else gets drawn into this freaking mess. Right?”

He sighed. “Yes. I just…I don’t want to see you hurt any more than you already are. The thought of you suffering three-fold does not sit well with me. At all.”

“Duly noted.”

“Aw, you love him.”

“Shut. Up,” we both said in unison and she bit her lower lip and turned away, trying not to laugh.

“What’s so funny? Huh? Does my suffering amuse you?”

“What? No! I just…I think you two are cute together, that’s all.”

“What. Just what are you implying woman? Hm?”

She waved a hand. “It’s nothing. Ignore me.”

“That’s what I thought. So…how do these bandages work exactly?”

“Oh, I just slap them on and say the magic words to activate them. That’s all.”

“Wonderful. So, is this going to sting, or what?”

Mary glanced at me, the corners of her mouth twitched.

“Well?”

“It will hurt, but a brief moment, and then all pain will be gone.”

“And then?” Tristan asked.

“Then he has 48 hours. So we have to find John before the spell wears off.”

“What happens if it wears off before we find him?” he asked.

Tristan was worried. Hell, I was worried. But…the siren’s lure of no pain for a few days, it was calling me in sweet dulcet tones.

“I’ll be fine,” I said. The skin around the wound on my back prickled, twitched and started itching like crazy.

I sighed and balled my fists, dug my nails into my skin. It wasn’t stopping. It was getting worse but the day. That thing was taking over my body, bit by bit. Soon, the wound would grow to cover my whole back, and my right arm…I’d have no control over it. I’d have to cut it off, or maybe…I could just kill myself and get it over with.

My mind wandered to my holster, and the guns therein. I was barely conscious of it, of pulling my six-shooter out and holding it, running my fingers down the barrel.

Maybe, just maybe, I could just kill myself and get it over with. Would that demon take over my corpse? Would it matter? I mean, I’d be dead so…

“Whatever you are thinking, stop it. Now,” Tristan said in a low, hushed tone. He gripped my shoulders hard and I was then aware of the cold steel in my hands.

My gun. I was thinking of killing myself and I was holding my gun.

Shocked, I dropped it.

Mary kicked it away and stood before me, hands on her hips. She looked me dead in the eye and I froze.

“This isn’t a permanent solution, but, it’ll save your life. Hell, all of our lives, while we’re searching for John in that godforsaken city. The bleeding will stop. The pain will cease. The spell I wrote on these bandages will essentially stop time for your body. You will think clearly, and will see just how much you are suffering right now.”

“Isn’t that dangerous, in and of itself? It’s a quick fix, and well…I might become desperate enough to want you to do it again.”

“We’ll deal with that bridge when it’s time to cross it, Mr. Whelan.”

“Right.”

“The angels, they say that John can help you. I’m not sure how they know, but I trust them, so, you just need to keep it together long enough for me to cast this spell. Understand?”

I nodded, tears welling up in my eyes.

Was I that suicidal? Or was that thing seriously messing with me and trying to break down what remained of my mental defenses?

“Rourke? Can you hear me?” she asked.

I nodded and cleared my throat. “Yeah, I hear you. I’m just, so tired. It won’t stop. It hurts so much. It’s getting worse. Every day. And I’m sick of it. It's making me desperate.”

“I know.”

Tristan tightened his rip on my shoulders. I took a ragged breath.

“Promise me something, Tristan.”

“Anything,” he said softly.

“Promise me that you’ll let me go. If we try to stop this thing, this demon, and nothing works. And I mean, nothing, you’ll let me end it. A man can only take so much pain before it twists him, deep inside. I don’t want that to happen. I don’t want that thing to win.”

I heard it laugh, from my shadow on the floor, and goosebumps raised on my arms.

“Did you hear that?” I whispered.

“I did.”

“As did I,” Mary said and she slammed her booted foot down on my shadow, hard. I winced. “Did that hurt?”

“No. I just imagined what it would feel like for you to stomp my face.”

She chuckled. “You are a ridiculous man, Rourke.”

“That I am.”

I tried to turn to face Tristan, but he wouldn’t let me.

“Tristan…”

“I’m sorry. I can’t give you my word on that. Forgive me.” His voice cracked with sorrow.

It was too much. It was just too much. For all of us. That demon, whatever it truly was, wasn’t just eating at me. It was devouring a part of him as well.

Mary was right. Because we had made a blood oath, the magic that bound us together by our fates, meant that we would all be affected by my curse.

Shit.

“Rourke,” Mary said gently. I looked up at her. “Come on. Let us ease your pain for a time, so you can rest, and think straight. You’ll need your wits about you, in Golgotha. You’re hardly yourself right now.”

“I hate to say this, but she’s right. Let her help you. Please.”

I nodded, let him steer me over to the table bench and sat down.

“Sit in front of him. Hold his hands down. Just in case.”

Tristan did as she told and I let him grip my hands tight. He was ashen with fear. He looked awful, to tell the truth. I didn’t notice just how poorly he was feeling until just then.

“Sophia, give me the strength to endure all things, in this life and the next. Let me always seek knowledge, until the very end of my days, so that I may be with you in your wisdom, forever, and always,” I prayed.

“Amen,” Tristan answered in habit.

Mary sat behind me and began unwinding the cloth bandages that she had painted angelic runes on and started murmuring an incantation in a language long dead. It was a sussurance of syllables, shushes, rolling R’s and sharp K’s.

I shivered, tried not to bolt, even though every fiber in my being was screaming at me to run.

Tristan held my hands so tight, my fingers began to lose circulation. But I didn’t let go or pull away.
I closed my eyes and kept praying to Sophia, the goddess of wisdom and light, while my skin crawled and my back seared with pain.

I was out of my mind with fear.

What would happen to me, once the spell wore off? How much would it hurt? Would I even survive getting hit with that much agony, all at once? Or would it be the death of me?

Would I even care at that point? If it killed me?

I didn’t know. And that fact alone scared the ever loving wits out of me.

I could feel the demon’s fear welling up inside of me, a mixture of unadulterated hate and rage, tinged with anxiety, like a wild animal that saw that it was about to be trapped and slaughtered.

An image of a big wolf’s maw flashed in my mind, dripping with blood, black fur matted with fresh gore.

I cried out, tried to pull away, but I was stuck fast. It loomed closer, eyes glowing with bright green balefire from the very pits of hell itself.

“Soon,” it said with a vicious deep growl. “Your soul will be mine, mortal. And no one can stop me. No one.”

I felt it dig its razor-sharp claws into my back and I cried out in pain and felt an ice cold bandage press into my wound. It was followed by another sheet, and another. And suddenly, the pain was gone.

I sat there, leaning forward, my forehead resting against Tristan’s shoulder. It took a moment for it to register that I was leaning against him. My right arm went numb, and I felt my hand lessen its grip.

I sighed in relief.

“Better?” Mary asked.

“Yes. Thank you,” I whispered.

She kept wrapped up the bandages, threading them around my shoulder and chest to hold them down and then tied off the ends.

“Done,” she said and stepped away and lit a cigarette.

Tristan said nothing, he let go of my hands and let me lean against him. He didn’t embrace me. He just sat there, with me.

He was so fond of me. It wasn’t healthy. I was a thief and a liar. And since I hated liars…I suppose that meant that I hated myself as well.

“Huh,” I said and sat up and rubbed my numb right arm.

“What?” he asked.

“My arm is asleep.”

“That’s because the demon is sleeping,” Mary said and blew smoke in my face.

I coughed and waved it away. “You’re so charming.”

“I know.”

I stretched, fully, for the first time in over a month, and yawned. I was tired, down to my bones, dead tired.

“Get some sleep,” Tristan said. “Mary and I will finish making the silver bullets.”

“Sure.”

My head hit the pillow and I was out cold.

I slept like a log. It was a deep, healing sleep, and it was wonderful.

I woke up when I heard them arguing.

I yawned and rolled over to see them sitting across from one another on the floor of the train car. They were both drunk and playing cards.

“Stop cheating. It’s not ladylike.”

“I’m not. You’re just lousy at poker.”

“I am not. I know card games. And you are not as slick as you think you are.”

She pointed at him with a lit cigarette in her hand. “Maybe you’re the cheater.”

“Beg pardon?”

“You’re the psychic. You probably know exactly what is in my hand right now.”

“I would never use my powers for such an insignificant thing. Besides, they don’t work that way. They only show me when I, or someone I care about, is in danger.”

“Well, they would work like that, if you trained properly.”

“Shut your mouth woman, and deal the cards right, or I’ll deal them.”

I reached over the side of the bed and tapped him on the shoulder.

He was sitting against our bed, Mary was leaning back against hers and shuffling the cards. A fire roared peacefully in the stove.

He looked back at me. “Did we wake you?”

“Nah. Just remembered something.”

“What?”

I slid down to the floor next to him. “I forgot to tell you, never play cards with her. She’s impossible to beat.”

“Mm,” he said.

“You want in? We have an hour before we get to the station,” Mary said.

“Why are you both stinking drunk if we’re so close to getting there?”

“She started it,” Tristan said and Mary smirked.

“Don’t tell me…loser of a round takes a shot?”

“Yes,” he said.

“I leave you alone with her for a few hours and you get deep in your cups. Thanks a lot, Mary.”

“I aim to please.”

“Well…maybe instead, you should aim to keep on your best behavior instead? Hm?”

“Impossible. I’m a trouble magnet.”

“You can say that again.”

“How are you feeling?” Tristan asked.

“Tired, but other than that, I feel great.”

He gave me a bleary-eyed look of disbelief.

“What? I do. Honest.”

“All right. If you say so.”

“I do. And I also think that perhaps you two should start sobering up and packing up the gear you took out to use while on the trip. We won’t have long now before we reach the station at the city gates. Once we get there, we’re going to have to stable the horses and get a map of that place. From what I’ve heard, it’s a like a freaking labyrinth, so getting from the city gates to the center is a pain in the ass, and with that map that John made, I’m going to need a reference to work from.”

Tristan smiled.

“What?”

“That’s the Rourke I’ve missed.”

“I haven’t gone anywhere.”

“I know. You just haven’t been yourself for a time. You’re sounding like your old self again.”

“Ah. Well…thank Mary for that, while you sober up.”

“Should’ve made some coffee,” Mary muttered as we started packing up.

Not long after, the train arrived at the station.

It was completely dark out, even though it was mid-day. I found it eerie and disconcerting. Tristan kept looking around, nervously. Mary, on the other hand, went about her business as though this were just another stop on her journey.

We stabled our horses at the station, paying triple the rate the ensure that they’d be there on our way out.

Tristan paused as we went to leave and he tapped my shoulder.

“What?”

“Look.” He pointed and my heart skipped a beat. One of the long-term stables in the back held a dun mare, with a star on her forehead. There was no saddle, but a riding blanket hung over the side of the stable. It was dark red, with a black wolf in the center. The Granger family crest.

“Johnathan,” I said softly, and he nodded.

“He’s still here.”

“Or, he’s dead and paid to over-winter his horse and they haven’t bothered to sell it off yet,” Mary said and anger flared up in my chest.

I had to ball my hands into fists or I would’ve punched her. Hard.

“Watch. Your. Tone,” Tristan warned, a hand on his sword hilt. I noticed that he moved and put himself between the two of us, just in case I really lost my temper and took a swing at her. He was trying to protect me from myself.

She smirked and stepped out of the barn.

“You all right?” he asked me.

I took a deep breath and let it out. “Yeah. She’s just…you know?”

“Yes. She may be a saint, however, she is blunt as hell and very rude. Mayhap that is why she has no true traveling companions. No one can stand her for more than a few hours at a time.”

I chuckled. “Got that right.”

“I must say, I’m not comfortable working with her Rourke. I don’t trust her.”

“Oh? Why?”

He shook his head. “Can’t say. Just have an uneasy feeling. It’s like sitting across from a mountain lion. You know it is going to pounce and rip you to shreds, but you’re not sure just when it’s going to make its move.”

“Personally, I think she has a punchable face. But maybe that’s just me.”

His eyes widened in disbelief. “Rourke!”

“What? It’s true.”

He sighed and adjusted his Stetson hat and said nothing.

“Come on,” I said. “I’d say we’re wasting daylight, but it doesn’t exist here.”

He shook his head and we stepped out. “To be honest, Rourke, I say it’s a good sign that John’s horse is still here.”

“I agree. If word got out that a Granger was killed, they’d find out who and sell his horse to free up room in the stable.”

We walked over to where Mary stood. We were at the top of the small hill that the stable and train station were built upon. Before us, in a haze of coal smoke and lamplight, a huge city rose up from a central hill. This area was a series of peaks and valleys, a wide river ran through the low points and for countless centuries, carved out three hills from the countryside. There were two small ones on either side of a large wide hill where the vampire city of Golgotha resided.

Tristan shivered and tightened his scarf around his neck.

“What is it?”

“I can sense the laylines here. Crossing the river, forming points of power. There’s something in the deep, underground the city. I can feel it, it’s frozen claws trying to dig into my head. This city. It’s alive. Somehow.”

“The oldest cities are, you know. Sentient. They have their own souls. Little Gods, spirits of the place. I’d hate to see what hellspawn was brought into being by this necropolis. It’d be a nightmare to deal with if we accidentally pissed it off,” Mary said.

“Oh, well, that’s so reassuring. Thank you for that. Not only do we have to worry about vampires, now we have to worry about a god of a city of the dead. Wonderful.”

“Have faith, we shall survive this,” Tristan said and I glared at him. “What? You don’t have faith all of a sudden? Sophia has not abandoned us. Not by a long shot.”

“Not yet she hasn’t.”

Mary gave me a look that turned my blood cold.

“As long as I live on the god’s green acre, Sophia will be with ye. Understand?”

“Yes Ma’am.”

“Good. Let’s get going. We need a hotel room and a city map, yes?”

“That we do. Without a street map, there's no way I can figure out the trail John drew for us.”

"Then let's go find one."

"Works for me."

We walked across the empty bridge to the chilly, lonely cobblestone streets of Golgotha.

There was a large sign on the side of the bridge that gloomily announced in stark letters that we were entering the North Cordon, Caturix district. The white sign was stained black from the sooty coal smoke that choked out the skies.

We all tied a handkerchief around our mouths and noses to block out the smoke. It was enough to throw a strong, able-bodied man into a coughing fit.

On an adjacent bridge to our right, large metal boxes on wheeled flatbed carts were being pushed by teams of pale, grim-faced men. All of them had scarves or kerchiefs tied around their faces, and the cloth was stained charcoal black. Streaks of soot also stained their jackets and hats.

Golgotha was a horrible place.

Stark red flowers on pale gray stems lined the river bed. Occasionally dropping to the ground and oozing apart. They looked like they were bleeding.

The snow was yellow, with black ash on top. It smelled awful, like an over-filled outhouse at a county fair.

Not something that any sane person would willingly live in, that’s for sure

The river was full of sludge and choking algae, even in winter. The heat from the water made it steam, soft green lights winked in the murky depths and I shuddered to think of what kind of creatures could live in such a toxic stew.

I had never seen anything like it, but I had heard of runoff waters coming from manufacturing plants that had popped up in the Formicarium in the east.

The closest thing I have been to one of those was a big logging camp. The sheer size of the scale of production was mind-boggling to me.

Mary noticed me watching the men pushing items to the waiting train and said, “The factory is over there. Many things are fabricated here, and then shipped to Eugenica and assembled. They get iron and coal from the domed city in return.”

“So…where does the final product get sent?” I asked.

 “The Formicarium,  the army mostly. They make swords and firearms. Canons. That sort of thing. They also make parts for trains; rails, spikes, wheels and so on.”

“How do you know this?” Tristan asked.

She shrugged. “I forget who I was speaking to. Some official dandy somewhere on the road. I think I was in Trafalgar, a few years back.”

“Understood.”

Golgotha was big. At least double the size of Concordia, and oddly enough, it had no outer wall. The river served as a moat of lethal liquid, the stench alone could deter people from wanting to sneak into the city.

All the buildings here were topped with Gothic spikes and spires. Skull bottomed lightning rods and hideous grinning gargoyles stared down at us with ruby eyes.

The buildings were all made out of a dull grey stone that they brought over from the quarry that we had passed on the way here.

The first thing I noticed was that the clock tower had 24 hours on it. There were two concentric rings demarcated on the face; the inner ring had minutes marked at the 15-minute points, and the outer ring was cluttered with numbers for the hours.

The second thing I noticed was that there were double the street lamps lining the walkways. Not only that, but it was mid-day and there were no loiterers talking in groups, blocking the path.

It was eerie, to say the least.

Most cities were bustling with activity during daytime hours. It was 12 noon on the dot. I compared my pocket watch with the clock tower just to be sure. Yup. It was lunchtime.

So where were all the people?

“What’s wrong?” Tristan asked, looking around warily.

“There’s no one out and about at high noon. It’s rather odd, don’t you think?”

“Rourke, this is a vampire city,” Mary said. “Work hours and living hours are reversed. Wait until midnight. You’ll see. Day is the night shift for them. Even though here, there is no daytime. It wasn’t always like that. The town that the necromancer’s curse started in is far north of here, near the mountains. And, well, old habits die hard, especially after generations of working under vampire rule.”

“So what you are saying, is that this was a vampire city BEFORE it was swallowed up by the Night Lands?”

“Yes.”

I whistled. That had to be before the Imperium started colonizing the new world. That was one hell of a long time ago.

“If the sun never shines here, what do they eat?” Tristan asked.

“Yeah, what DO they eat?” I asked.

Mary paused by a street lamp, it was one of those fancy iron poled kerosine lamps whose flames eerily sent out a circle of yellow light, and lit up a cigarette.

“Canned food, mostly. Like Eugenica. There’s a rumor that in the catacombs there’s a sun garden, where human nobility get fresh food from, but I have no idea if that’s true or not.”

“Sounds lovely. Come on, let’s go find a room and a map.”


An hour later, we were totally and completely lost. 


Poor Tristan was limping and in obvious pain, his feet had to be a complete mess at this point.

My right knee was griping, the leg inflamed from absorbing the impact of Tristan’s Uncle Gideon’s fists.

Mary was getting grumpier and grumpier. And I was beyond annoyed.

We were running out of time.

Not just for me, but for John. The longer it took us to find him, the more time that evil vamp had to sink her fangs into him and turn him into one of her kind.

That didn’t sit well with me, at all.

I stopped in the middle of the street when I noticed that we had walked past the same building three times.

“Wait. Wait. Stop,” I said and Mary sighed angrily.

“What.”

“We’ve walked past this shop three times. We’re lost.”

“Are we?” she asked.

“If Rourke says that we’re lost. We’re lost. He has the best memory out of anyone I know. He knows what he is doing.”

“If you say so.”

“Look, I’m going to go inside and see if they can point me to somewhere I can purchase a street map. We can’t just go walking willy-nilly in such a huge place with foggy labyrinthine streets that just go in circles.”

“Fine, we’ll stay out here and keep the bench warm for you.”

I rolled my eyes and left them out at the side of the street, where they sat on a cement bench under a street lamp. It seemed a bit out in the open, but the smoke and fog made it hard to see more than six feet in front of you. It really hampered visibility.

I didn’t like it. Not one bit.

I silently prayed to Sophia that Tristan could keep Mary in line while I was gone and pushed open the heavy oak door to the shop. What they sold there, I had no idea. The sign was written in a language that I had never seen before.

The interior smelled of mothballs. My boots sounded loud on the polished wooden floors, the walls lined with faded yellow paper, and a man was sitting at a desk facing the door. A well-stoked fireplace roared happily behind him.

On the wall by the hat stand, was another rack, where a brass gas mask hung forlornly. He must be well-to-do, to own such a thing. Looked rather expensive.

The man was scribbling on paper with a fountain pen. He didn’t look up.

He was so pale like he would just burst into flames if he stepped out into the sun. Like the noblemen I saw on the train, his skin looked fragile, like parchment, and his blue and red veins were easily seen from within.

I saw posted on the wall by the door a wanted poster. It was of John- wanted for murder and theft. One thousand gold crown coins reward. That was a lot. Even for one of us.

I pulled down the kerchief to show my face and said, “Excuse me.”

The man finally looked up. His eyes sunken in. Tired. Hollow. They searched my face, then looked me over. The fact that he noticed the gun holsters slung at my hips and the throwing knife bandoleers I had strapped to my chest was not lost on me.

“Yes?” he asked, his voice almost a whisper.

“I was wondering if you could point me to where I could purchase a street map. I’m here on business and I’m terribly lost.”

“Ah. Well, I have one. It’s rather dated, but you’re welcome to it.”

“Oh, really? How much?”

“Don’t worry about the price. It’s on the house,” he said and slowly opened a desk drawer and pulled out a thick folded map. “Districts have changed, but the street names are the same. Should help I imagine. At least it will assist you in getting your bearings. I’m told by foreigners that their sense of direction gets upset the moment they step inside the city. Probably due to all the iron in the buildings.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes. An interesting phenomenon. One I would like to study someday, I think.”

“I can appreciate your healthy sense of curiosity. Keeps the mind sharp.”

He smiled tersely.

“Are you sure you don’t want payment for this?”

“Positive.” He handed it to me, looked me dead in the eye. He didn’t let go of the map. “Stay. Safe. Don’t go to the center of the city at midnight.”

“Oh?”

“The nobility. They’ll smell fresh blood on you. You won’t stand a chance.”

“What makes you think I would want to go there?”

“You’re a hunter, aren’t you?”

“Uh…yes?”

“You’ll find yourself drawn there, one way, or another. SHE always gets what she wants, after all.”

“Who?”

He smiled, it was a creepy, knowing smile full of yellowed and rotting teeth. “You’ll see.”

Great. One of THOSE. Cryptic messenger types. Gotta love it.

He let go of the map.

“Thank you, kind sir, your help is much appreciated.”

“Don’t mention it. Now, please leave. I never saw you here.”

“Understood,” I said and walked out, frowning. I started unfolding the map and instantly regretted it. I fumbled with it as I stepped over to Mary and Tristan.

“Found one, huh?” she asked. “In the first place you bother to step inside to ask too. How convenient.”

“Yeah…about that. The prince of the city, she knows we’re here.”

“Of course she does,” Tristan said. “It’s not as though we’re trying to blend in while we look for John.”

“You saying that we should’ve done more research before stepping into the snake’s den?”

“Mayhap.”

“I see. Thanks for mentioning that now. Damn it, I have no idea how to open this up right. It’s folds within folds.”

“Give it here,” Mary said.

Tristan’s head perked up and he looked around. “You hear that?”

“No.”

He stood up, alarmed.

A little girl’s scream pierced the air.

“Help! Someone help!” the girl called out.

Before I could say anything, Tristan bolted, running at top speed towards the sound of a girl’s panicked voice.

“Wait!” I shouted.

“Damn it,” Mary said and tossed the map at me. I shoved it in my jacket pocket and we both ran after Tristan, who quickly turned a corner into a dead end alley and drew his long sword.

“Tristan! Stop!”

As soon as we caught up with him, we were immediately surrounded by a gang of men. No. Not men.

Vampires.

Their fangs and silver eyes glinted in the lamplight.

“Shit.”

Mary stood with her back to us, watching our only exit as she pulled her guns.

I took out my six shooters.

In the center of the alleyway, a young girl stood, blood slathered down her chin. It had soaked down the front of her white frilly dress and into her grey wool overcoat. Her white mary jane shoes had splashes of blood on them.

She stood there, smiling sweetly at Tristan.

A woman lay dead on the cobblestone, her throat gone, torn out by the vicious little vampire.

The corpse looked fake. My mind expected a puddle of blood to be beneath it. But she was drained dry by the pack of vamps that now surrounded us.

The girl had drunk her fill, her cheeks rosy from the blood she had engorged herself with.

The others were hungry.

I could see it in their silver eyes; empty, starving, half-mad with hunger.

“Have you come to help us?” the little girl asked. “My friends are very hungry.”

I could feel Tristan drawing on his fighting magic, the electric charge filled the air and made my hair stand on end. He was about to get serious and introduce her to the point of his blade.

“You killed an innocent woman,” he said, his anger barely contained.

The girl laughed and clapped her hands. “Uh-huh. And now we’re going to kill and eat you!”

I heard Mary cock the hammers on her guns. “Six behind, seven in front,” she muttered. I wasn’t sure if she was talking to me or not. But I appreciated the headcount.

I could handle four of them on my own, while Tristan went after their sire, the little girl who had eaten first. Vampires had a pecking order, and she was clearly the one in charge of this pack of fanged nightmares. She was the smallest, and toughest one there.

Mary could take the six behind, or so I hoped. I know she didn’t have her blessed magic guns, but still, she was no slouch when it came to firearms, and she had been fighting monsters for a hell of a lot longer than the both of us combined.

“Look, kid,” I said, hoping to distract her. “We’re not from around here. We don’t want to cause any trouble. All right?”

“I know. You smell delicious. Fresh stock for my brood. Maybe I’ll keep the big one to breed. He looks like a good strong bull of a human. I’ll mark him and sell off his seed.”

“That’s disgusting! How dare you!”

“Tristan, keep your wits about you, she’s trying to piss you off.”

“I know, and it’s working.”

The girl’s smile fell. “Aww, not happy to help now?”

“You,” he said darkly. “It was you who got us lost here. You drew us out, to this secluded space.”

“Yup! That was me!” She tilted her head, her dirty curled blonde locks drooped to the side.

“You’re different. You’re like us, mind-speaker.”

“He’s psychic. He’s nothing like you, you fiend,” Mary said and the tone of her voice made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Her words were laced with the black promise of murder and bloodshed. It was terrifying.

Boy, was I glad that she was on my side.

“Hm...I’m done playing. Kill them. Save me the big one,” she said, and we all braced for the attack.



Tuesday, October 24, 2017

I'm Gearing up for NaNoWriMo 2017! Yes, I am that crazy.



Here's a Sneak Peek at what I'm going to be writing next month! 


Rites of Passage
Author: Cassie Carnage
Genre: Horror/Supernatural

Synopsis

A coming of age story about a young teenage boy trapped in a hellish future where everyone is happy, all the time, especially when they're not.

To avoid harmful emotions that society has deemed as dangerous to people as a loaded gun, everyone, when they turn 13 years of age, must have an emotion controlling face mask surgically installed.

Thanks to this miracle breakthrough, no hate, no fear, no sorrow exists. Just happiness. The world is at peace.

But, is it all a lie?

Henryson is about to find out.

It's his 13th birthday next week after all. And his family is so very happy for him. But, Henryson is not happy. He has to lie, to cover up the growing anxiety that is gnawing at his chest. When his friend, Gusson, offers to sneak him into the masking facility, so that they can see how it's done, they both learn the gruesome truth of the world.


Excerpt

“Will it hurt?”

“What? No, of course not. Don’t be silly sweety.”

“But my child-friend companion and fellow classmate told me how it’s done. He says it hurts a lot. They strip everything off, reveal you for who you really are. Then cover it all up with a smile.”

“Don’t listen to your classmates, they don’t know anything about how it’s really done. Trust me kiddo, you’ll be fine.”

Until age 13 children wear removable masks that are blank silver mirrors with open eye holes. Since children are unable to fully control feelings, and can’t get a mask until they are 13 years of age, the mirror masks were instated to spare everyone from seeing emotions on their faces. Sadness, anger, jealousy, and hate are horrible feelings, and must never be experienced.

Tomorrow is my thirteenth birthday. Lucky 13 as they say. The day when everything changes. No more tears, no more anger or confusion or frustration. Just happiness and joy, forever and ever. A smile every day, all day. For the rest of my life.

“Joy to the World,” as they sing during morning flag salute. Our flag has a picture of the Earth on it, with a big happy smile pasted over it. Smile, and the world smiles with you. Cry, and you cry alone. No one wants to be alone, so we help them. Fix them. Make them happy. The bad emotions are gone from adult life. It has made our world a safe place, with each day the same as the last.

If you're doing NaNoWriMo, feel free to add me as a writing buddy!
https://nanowrimo.org/participants/cassie-carnage/novels/rites-of-passage-1281019

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.