We’d been on the trail for two weeks. Our rations were dwindling. We left in too much of a hurry. I didn’t think it through. Didn’t realize, nor count on, the bitter cold sapping our strength, increasing our hunger triple-fold. Poor sleep, worry, the constant painful itching of the wound on my back, the ever growing height of the snowbanks, it was, at best, a hellish combination.
I was irritable, tired, drained, starving, cold, so freaking cold. My fingers and toes had gone from painful cold to numb.
I wasn’t in the mood to deal with another hiccup in the journey. Tristan was quiet, even for him, he was unusually quiet. I knew he had a lot on his mind.
Every so often I had to reach over and grab his horse’s reins and pull it back on course. It tended to wander when he slept wild riding. I was beginning to suspect that was the reason why he walked it most of the way to Solomon; he was less apt to fall asleep walking than he was riding in his saddle.
The snow was wet and heavy. Thick big flakes weighed down the tree branches, causing a chunks of buildup to plop to the ground. It made me wary. I wasn’t looking forward to trekking across the Black Wolf Mountains. Heavy new snow on old, crusty iced snow on the peaks only meant one thing- avalanches.
We left the forest and bypassed the valley, staying on the plateau ridge. Ahead the black rock mountain faces loomed, framed by dark grey storm clouds. Sporadic gusts of wind buffeted us. My horse was nervous, eyes wide, staring with the whites showing. It nickered, and was answered by Tristan’s mount. They were used to traveling together, so it didn’t surprise me that the horses were trying to comfort one another.
I glanced at Tristan and he made eye contact.
“What?” he asked and cleared his throat.
“Nothing, just seeing if you were awake.”
He chuckled and shifted in his saddle. “Yes. I’m awake.”
I grimaced, squirmed, tried to reach my shoulder blade to scratch it, but couldn’t quite make it.
“Need to stop a minute?”
“Wouldn’t make a difference,” I said, skin on my back crawling and twitching. I hissed in a breath, hunched uncomfortably in the saddle.
“Rourke, you look as miserable as a wet cat.”
“There,” he said and pointed.
I squinted, but all I could see was white on more white in the distance.
He rode up alongside me. “Look closer.”
“I can’t see anything. What are you pointing at?”
His eyes were sharper than mine. He could see quite a ways, always noticed things on the horizon before I did.
“There’s an outcropping in the rock, we can take shelter there, warm up a bit, survey the land and decide which pass we’ll take.”
I grunted in agreement.
“Is that a yes or…?”
“That’s a yes.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Is something wrong?”
“Oh, no. Nothing is wrong. We’re just traveling north in the middle of winter, I’m freezing my ass off and my back is driving me crazy, that’s all.”
I sighed. “We’ll stop at that outcrop and get our bearings. This time of year, there’s only going to be two passes we can take through the heart of the mountains.”
“You say that as though it’s a bad thing.”
I scoffed. “It is. One’s Snakeneck. The other is Deadman’s Pass. Snakeneck meanders a bit, curves in on itself, it’s longer, but safer. Only problem is that we have to traverse a suspension bridge to get to it.”
He whistled. “Let me guess. Deadman’s Pass is shorter, but more dangerous.”
“Yep. I’ll show you the map when we take shelter.”
He nodded. “Rourke?”
“Are you kidding me?”
“You don’t talk for days, and you finally ask a question and you stop yourself? Come on!”
“You’re over-reacting. That never used to bother you before.”
“Oh, it did. I just let it go though.”
“Well? Go on, ask.”
He sighed. Gave me a very annoyed look. “Will it calm you down?”
“I don’t know, maybe?”
“I shouldn’t ask. Now is not the right time.”
“Says your exceptionally short temper. You’re not acting yourself. I am growing ever more concerned for you.”
Well, excu-use me.”
“See? This is what I mean. Your emotions have always been very stable. Upbeat, joking in the face of danger. Cavalier even.”
“Yes. That’s why the women are always so warm with you.”
“I do have rakish charm, yes.”
“This is what I mean. Right now, that ever deepening scowl on your face. It’s not you.”
“Can’t help it.”
“I know. I am trying not to take it personally, but it is becoming difficult.”
“So I’m pissing you off, is that what you’re saying?”
“No. I’m not angry.”
Wind howled through the canyon. We both paused. It would be getting dark soon.
“Wolves?” he whispered.
I shook my head. “Wind rushing through the valley below. It sounds like wolves. Hence why they call it Black Wolf Mountain.”
My mind went to John, and I shivered. Half out of cold, half out of anxiety. I wasn’t looking forward to being in the vampire city. I really dreaded going there, and that dread was growing with every passing day.
Out of habit, I checked my pistols and counted my ammo. Six shooters, on both hips, all chambers full, 10 boxes of bullets in the riding satchel, 12 in slots on my holster belt.
I wasn’t going to use them until we got to Golgotha. Until then, it was throwing knives only. Once in the vampire city, we were going to need all the firepower we could get.
“Only a dullard wouldn’t be nervous about going to Golgotha. In winter. During the longest nights of the year. When vamps are strongest and most bold.”
We rode on, and I was having trouble focusing. My back hurt too much. It ached and itched, like something sharp was burrowing into my muscles.
Wait…if he wasn’t angry with me being short with him…what was he?
Tristan was hard to read at times. I blame bad parenting. He wasn’t allowed to voice discomfort or pain. He was punished for showing outward signs of it. So he learned to stay quiet, not show emotion. No displays of weakness were allowed when he was a child, or they’d beat him with a belt. To avoid it, he learned to hide his emotions. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how hard that was. He was tough, tougher than I’d ever be, by a long shot.
“Your thoughts are jumbled right now, aren’t they?” he asked suddenly and I stopped my horse and stared at him.
“Are you…reading my mind?”
“No. You’re just not walking your horse in a straight line, and are getting awfully close to the edge there.”
“Shit,” I pulled the horse back over closer to his and ran my hands over my face. I was getting scruffy. We both were. Tristan was a winter beard kind of fella. He said it kept him warmer. I shaved unless I was forced to go out in the snow on some fool’s errand, like this one. I didn’t feel any warmer, just unkempt and itchy.
Everything was itching now. My face, my back, my legs. I made a face.
“We need to stop. Soon,” Tristan said. “The horses need to rest, and you need to get warm.”
“I said nothing.”
He smirked and shook his head. We rode for about an hour longer and then I could see the outcropping of rock he had spotted. It was just deep enough to make a ledge overhead to block out the snow.
We set up our large canvas tent, using the rock face as a wind-blind, and sank the collapsible tent poles into the snow to anchor them. Then we went about our usual routine, minus John of course. He’d be off hunting for dinner while we set up camp. He was used to living off the land, and was very good at finding game, even in the scarcest of places. He had a talent for that.
Basically, when we set up camp, Tristan and I would get the tent up, then one of us would start a fire while the other tended the horses. We rotated. It was a simple process, but one that lent familiarity to unfamiliar territory. It usually calmed me.
But now? It just made me more tired.
I fed the horses, checked their hooves and cleaned out the snow before it froze to their shoes and made a big mess of things for them.
They headbutted me in turn, and I patted them down, brushed their backs, then stepped inside the tent.
Tristan had the fire going, the smoke vented through a hole in the roof. He was digging through his travel bags while I sat down and took off my jacket and started scratching my arms and back and sighed.
“Watching you do that makes me itchy.”
“Sorry. Can’t help it.”
“I know.” He pulled out several tins of food and tossed one at me and I absentmindedly caught it out of reflex.
“You been holding out on me, Montebalm?”
“We need our strength. The next leg of the journey appears to be vigorous. So…we should eat meat.”
“I’m glad one of us planned ahead. I sure as hell didn’t.”
“We were rushed, but something told me to stop by the general store and buy canned foods before we left. So I did.”
“Sophia blessed you.”
“She blessed us both.”
“I can drink to that,” I said fished out a bottle of whiskey from my bag and handed it to him.
We cracked open the cans, stewed meat with potatoes and tomatoes, and set them near the fire to heat up. When the food started bubbling, he grabbed his without thinking and shook his hand.
I chuckled. “Don’t burn yourself.”
“I’ll try not to,” he said and used a glove to move it away, setting it in the snow next to him. The food was steaming now.
My stomach growled. I was so hungry, it smelled delicious. Normally it’d just smell like bland road food. But hunger has a way of making even the most boring meals delightful.
We ate our fill, and drank enough whiskey to put a glow in our bellies. Then he sat back and took off his boots and hung his socks up to dry.
“How are your feet?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Same. I guess. Maybe a little worse. Hard to tell when they get so numb from the cold.”
“We need to be careful not to get frostbite.”
“Agreed. How are the horses?”
“They’re fine. Much more adapted to rugged living than we humans are, that’s for damn sure.”
I took out the map and unrolled it on my blanket. He moved closer to examine it.
“We’re here. Up ahead, the trail splits off, left goes to Snakehead, right to Dead Man’s Pass. Both lead to the town on the other side of the mountain, which in turn, has a trade road that will lead us to the train station a few miles off. There we can hopefully get on-board a line that heads to Golgotha, if we’re lucky.”
“If we aren’t lucky?”
“Then we have to hoof it the rest of the way, and will be forced to buy more supplies for the road.”
“The train station has a bank, last I heard,” I said.
“I might be able to withdraw there. Maybe…depends on who owns it.”
“I understand. We’ll take it one thing at a time. We’ll get to John soon enough.”
Tristan nodded, and stared at the map.
“Nothing. Just…a nagging feeling.”
“Oh? Nagging feeling about what?”
He looked away, uncomfortable. “I’d rather not say. I don’t want to jinx it.”
“Suit yourself.” The liquor had calmed the itching and pain a bit, took the edge off. I laid back and stretched out and sighed.
“It’s awful that you have to get drunk to sleep anymore.”
“Yes. Yes it is. Good thing I got me some real fine liquor. Strong stuff lasts longer.”
He chuckled and shook his head.
“Get some rest Rourke.”
I put my hat over my face. “Hey, Tristan?”
“Sorry for being a pain in the ass all the time.”
“You’re not. You just think you are.”
“If you say so.”
“I do. Now rest.”
I fell asleep to a dull pain in my back and a full belly.
I woke up screaming and in serious pain. My shoulder was on fire, white hot pain seared through me. I was flailing about, fighting off an assailant that wasn’t really there.
Tristan bolted awake and looked around, alarmed. When he saw there was nothing attacking me, he grabbed me by the shoulders.
“Rourke! Snap out of it!”
“You were dreaming.”
“Oh…shit. Sorry. I…” I sighed. “Damn.”
“Sounded like one hell of a nightmare.”
“Want to talk about it?”
“Was it about the thing that bit your shoulder?”
“Something like that.”
I didn’t want to tell him because the dream had started out being about that. I was in Concordia, chased by the black beast with the shining white teeth, dagger sharp and wicked. It tackled me to the ground, savaged me with its jaws, I managed to break free, and ran and ran and turned a corner and ran into John. But, he wasn’t himself anymore.
He was pale. Fangs in his mouth. Eyes crying blood. He sank his fist into my chest and ripped out my heart and ate it while it was still beating. Told me to turn back. Not to come find him. When I refused, he bit my neck and started tearing through muscle and the pain felt so real, I screamed and kept screaming and woke up.
I was covered in sweat. My back was soaked with it.
Tristan took one look at me and made me sit down. “Take off your shirt.”
“Your back is covered in blood.”
I took off all my layers, and he was right, there was a big puddle of blood on my back, starting from the shoulder down to the waist.
“No wonder I’m light-headed.”
He removed the bandages, now dripping with blood, and tossed them on the dying fire. The flames flared up and devoured the cotton, and purified the ashen remains.
“Rourke…I-I don’t like the look of this. Your wound is getting wider.”
“I don’t know. It’s almost as though something is trying to push it’s way out of it.”
I sat there a moment, tapping my fingers. “All right. Remove the stitches. Poke around, see what it’s doing, then sew me back up.”
“Are you sure? I thought you wanted to wait and have John take care of it. I’m not exactly a skilled healer.”
“It’s been getting worse. It’s not healing. It’s not closing up. It’s getting bigger, right?”
“Then, I trust you to find the problem and then sew it back up. Maybe something got in it that the Saint of Sinners missed.”
“I don’t know, she’s pretty thorough.”
“She was also in a hurry to follow that thing, so…maybe that one time, she missed something crucial. It happens. Even to living saints.”
He sighed and rolled up his shirt sleeves. “I’ll do it. But…”
“No buts. Just rip open the stitches and take a look under the skin. That’s all you have to do.”
“Right…” He cut through the silver wire and pulled out stiff pieces of it. I could feel it dragging through and out of my skin and shuddered. It hurt. It should’ve been healed, but it wasn’t. Not even the holes the stitches made were healing over.
He tenderly pushed the skin flaps up and made a sound that was half between a gag, and a gasp. Strangest noise I’ve ever heard him make in my life.
“How can a wound look evil?”
“I can’t describe it properly to you. Like a spiritual miasma is oozing out of it. Black oily blobs, slipping out of it, floating away and dissipating in the air.”
“Oh. So psychic stuff?”
“Sort of.” He eased the saints medal out of the wound and set it down. I glanced at it. It had bite marks on it, actual teeth marks in the metal.
I picked it up, wiped off my blood. The silver was tarnished, and the saint’s face was blotted out by a tooth indentation.
“What the hell? That is not normal.”
“No…it’s not. But, does it feel a little better, with that removed?”
“Hurts more, actually.”
He sighed. “You really want me to poke my fingers into your wound and feel around in there? Won’t it hurt?”
“It already hurts! What’s the damn difference?”
“Just do it.”
He grabbed the half-empty whiskey bottle and poured some on his hands.
“Try not to move. I’ll make this as quick as I can.”
“No. Don’t do it quick. Be thorough. Do it right. I’m serious. I’ll bite down on something. Just…try to find whatever it is that’s making it itch so damned much.”
“If you insist, I shall do that. Raise your fist if the pain is too much and I’ll wait before moving on.”
I laid on my stomach, and put my belt in my mouth and bit down as he tentatively stuck two fingers into the gash. It felt like someone was shoving a knife into my back. I balled my fists, tried not to cry out. But it was enough to make me tear up in pain and breathe fast.
“Sorry,” he muttered. “I don’t like this. I don’t like hurting you.”
“Mm-hm,” I said pitifully through gritted teeth and sucked in a breath as he felt around.
His fingers met something that shot a jolt of pain through me. I screamed and he jerked away fast.
“That cut me,” he said.
“What?” I asked, feeling even more light-headed. I wasn’t sure if I was going to pass out, or vomit, or both.
“There’s something sharp in there, on the right side, furthest away from where the medal was inserted. It cut my hand.”
He showed me. There was a long thin cut across his two fingers. Like the tip of a razor blade had raked it.
“Sophia give us strength,” I said and crossed myself.
“I don’t think…” He shook his head. He didn’t want to say it. I was in too much pain to press it out of him.
“Can you pull it out?”
“Maybe…let me get my toolkit.”
He stepped out of the tent to grab his kit from the bag I left on his horse.
I lay there and shivered. Scared out of my mind. I could feel something trying to dig it’s way into my skull, like clawed hands under my skin, reaching up my back and neck and pressing impossibly hard onto my head.
I shuddered, closed my eyes, and said, “It’s not real. You’re just paranoid.”
Tristan came back in, worry clearly visible on his face. This was bad. Very bad, if I could read it on him.
He unrolled the leather kit and removed a pair of pliers.
“Right. Now…this might hurt a lot.”
“I know. Just, get it out of me man. I can’t keep living like this.”
“It might not solve the problem you know.”
“I’ll try anything at this point.”
He poured more liquor on the pliers and his hands to disinfect them, then I felt him peel the skin up a bit further than before, and shove the metal head of the tool into my muscle. I bit down, and made pained sounds as he dug it in further and gripped something. Something that felt like it was a part of my body.
“What does it look like, can you see it now?”
“It…it’s a tooth Rourke.”
“A dog’s tooth, a canine. A fang. That’s what it appears to me at any rate.”
I let out a ragged sigh. “I’m so screwed.”
“We’ll help you. We’ll rescue John, and get you help.”
“So, do you want me to try to pry it out? Seems rather stuck in there.”
“I want that thing out of me. I don’t care if the pain makes me pass out. Just get it out of me.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes! Just do it!”
He took one of my throwing knives off my belt.
“It has a slender blade. My knife is thicker, would make a bigger mess than necessary. I need to cut the tissue around it, separate it more so I can pull it out at the root.”
“Sophia save me.”
“She will. She always does.”
I laughed, it was bitter, angry, full of sorrow. “Sure she does.”
“She does. Now, try not to move too much. I’ll be as quick as I can here.”
“Sure,” I said, and suddenly wished that I was punch drunk. I took a long swig of the whiskey, finishing it off. “Do it.”
Tristan did work as fast as he could. Which, considering the amount of pain it caused, wasn’t anywhere near fast enough.
He cut my muscle, a circle of it around the tooth, and pried it back. It hurt so much, I was gasping in pain and starting to see red.
I nodded, and worried that I’d bite through my belt before he got done.
I felt the pliers head shove in deep and grip onto something and then twist and pull. He kept twisting it and pulling it up. I screamed, and shouted obscenities at him and tried to kick him off but he batted away my legs and sat on them and kept pulling.
Pain ran from my shoulder to my back and neck and my head, like it was all connected by some invisible thread. Every twist and pull back made it wind tighter and hurt more. It drove me mad with pain.
“Fuck! Stop! Stop!” I screamed but he wouldn’t stop and soon, I felt it give and rip out. I HEARD it rip out of my back.
I roared in pain and he sat there on my legs while I cried and thrashed and saw red. I blacked out for a few minutes, before I came back to myself and heard myself say,“You bastard!”
“Sorry. You said not to stop though. You wanted me to do that.”
“I know! But it fucking hurts you asshole.”
“I gathered that. Done now? Or do you still want to kill me?”
My stomach dropped, and my body went cold. “What?”
“You said that you were going to kill me. In my sleep. You were going to rip out my tongue and make me swallow my own blood and choke on it, then you were going to gouge out my eyes and heart and eat them.”
“But…I-I–” Did I say that?
I tried to remember, but couldn’t. It hurt so much, it made me angry. I wanted to hurt him. I wanted to punish him for giving me such pain. But did I say those things? Was that really me?
“I don’t believe you,” I said, my voice small and soft.
Tristan moved off my legs and sat next to me, put a gentle hand on my good shoulder. It was then that I noticed that I was burning up. I was hot, my body felt like it was on fire.
“You have a fever,” he said. “Probably delirious from the pain.”
“No…” I rolled onto my side, could feel my blood seeping from the hole he just made in the muscle. I felt like screaming and crying and I just lay there, shivering and tearing up. “This isn’t right. This isn’t right at all.”
“Rourke. That is what I have been trying to tell you. You haven’t been yourself, at all. You never had a temper. You never flew into a blind rage like that before. Whatever is infesting your body, whatever is causing things to grow in a wound that won’t heal? It’s also attacking your mind.”
“But…why? Why didn’t I notice that?”
“It won’t let you. Not until it’s too late.”
“So what do we do then?”
“I’ll keep the tooth,” he said, cleaning it off with a kerchief. “The town we’re going to next has a hot spring. They should have a healer there. We’ll stay a few days to recuperate from traveling across the mountain, and you can spend time in the bath in the temple. It should help a bit.”
“I don’t know what to do,” I whispered. “What if…what if I go from saying awful things, to DOING awful things?”
“We’ll take this one step at a time. Right now, I’m going to sew it back up, and put fresh bandages on it. We’ll clean up and head out after we eat.”
I slowly sat up, shivering. A cold sweat dripped down my back. There was a pit of fear in my stomach.
My body was no longer my own. My mind was no longer unbreakable.
I was a mess.
Tristan did as he said, and patched me up and gave me clean clothes and got us food and I just sat there, numb and in terror.
Whatever it was that had attacked me in Concordia, it didn’t just bite me. It INFECTED me with something. That’s what he said. I was infested.
“The medal the Saint of Sinners put in your back, was it bit all to hell like that before she inserted it?”
“No. It was brand new. I saw it. All polished and shiny, not a single wear or chip on it.”
He frowned, chewed his tack biscuit slowly as he thought.
I didn’t have an appetite, but was trying to force myself to choke some food down anyways. It wasn’t working very well, so I just drank some more coffee that he had made on the fire.
“When that great black beast attacked you, it bit you, and said something you couldn’t understand. Then, Mary appeared and stopped it and drove it off. Correct?”
“Yeah. That’s about the gist of it. Why?”
“I suspect that mayhap it was casting some dark magic on you. The spell was not completed. She stopped that from happening, saved you from a worse fate than what you are suffering now.”
“I think it was trying to use your body for something sinister. But the spell backfired because it wasn’t finished.”
“What are you saying, that it was trying to transmute me into something else?”
“No. Much, much worse. It was trying to sacrifice your body.”
“Like…I was the spell component?”
“Something like that. Your blood was spilled, it started chanting, it was interrupted, and driven off before it had a chance to finish.”
“You think it’s going to come back to finish the job?”
“It’s a possibility. If it does, we can kill it and hopefully break off the enchantment when we send its vile soul to hell.”
“And if it doesn’t come for me?”
“Then we need to figure out how to safely revoke the spell. And out of the three of us, John has the most knowledge about such things.”
“Of course he does. So…my back isn’t going to get better. Just worse. Is that it?”
“I’m afraid so. It appears to me, that your wound is not healing because something is trying to use it as a means to…become.”
“To come into being. To enter Creation. To become a living, breathing thing.”
“But what? And why?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. This mystery is quite perplexing.”
“You’re still itching?”
“Yeah.” When I saw that he didn’t put the medal in, panic gripped my chest. I held it up. “Why didn’t you put it back?”
“It wasn’t helping. Besides, with the face marred out, its power is depleted. It is no longer a holy item. It has been defaced. Sorry.”
I sighed. “It’s not your fault. Thanks for yanking that thing out of me though, it doesn’t hurt as much, just feels tender and swollen now.”
“That is good. I was worried. I didn’t want to hurt you more. You are suffering enough as it is.”
I gave him a sad, grateful smile. “Thank you. For everything. I mean it.”
“Of course. You’re like a brother to me. We stick together. Until the bitter end. Right?”
“Damn right we do.”
I saw that he put the tooth in his pocket. He didn’t show it to me. I didn’t want to know why at the time. But maybe, I should’ve asked. It might have saved us some trouble and heartache.
Then again, maybe we wouldn’t have been able to prevent what was going to happen to us, what was going to happen to me, in the long run.
I tried not to think about it, but I knew, deep down inside, I knew, that I was in serious trouble. Even more so than John was at the time.
And it was going to get worse.