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.
“What are you doing back here?”
“Watching the sunrise.”
“So that I have it in my head as a pretty picture to remember when things get bleak,” I said and tapped my temple with a finger.
“That’s…rather romantic of you.”
I shrugged. “I’m weird like that. I’ll see something and 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.”
“You are just full of surprises, aren’t you Mr. Whelan?”
“I reckon so.”
“You gonna be back here a while?”
“I’ll fetch you when the dining car puts out breakfast.”
I listened to her boot steps as she walked away, and made a mental note of her casual cadence. There was an easy stride to her steps today. She wasn’t stepping heavy and angry, like she usually did, slapping her feet down like she was punishing the world and hitting it with each step.
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.”
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.”
“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?”
“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.
“I’m fine. I’m not bleeding through my shirt am I?” I asked and turned so he could look.
“Good. That would be embarrassing to do in a dining car.”
A faint smile danced on his lips. “You are a ridiculous man Mr. Whelan.”
“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.”
“It is far too early for you to be making jokes such as that.”
“So…when will be a good time then?”
“How about, never o’clock?”
He hid a smirk and I chuckled and looked at the letter. And then stared at it closer, and turned it this way and that.
“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.”
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.
Mary pulled the seat out from under me and I landed on my ass hard.
“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.
“You need to mind your tongue.”
“Sorry about that.”
“I know that this is very trying for you, but you aren’t the only one hurting here. We all have our burdens to bear.”
“What are you talking about? Mary is fine.”
“No. She is not.”
I made an annoyed sound and looked back at him, over my shoulder. “What now?”
“She made me pay for her meal.”
“She also told me that she had come to find us because she had something for you.”
“Yes. 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.”
“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.”
“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.”
There was a knock at the door and Mary stepped in.
I raised an eyebrow. “Wow. You knocked?”
“I didn’t wish to interrupt anything between the two of you.”
“There’s nothing going on between us,” I said sharply. “He’s just looking at my shoulder. You know, the one with the gaping wound in it? The one you couldn’t fix? That one.”
She frowned and stepped up to me, grabbed me by the shoulders and spun me around roughly so that she could look.
“Sophia save you.”
“Yeah, I don’t think prayers are going to work here.”
“Shut up. I made something for you while you were sleeping, you idiot.”
“Yes,” she said and picked up a large roll of bandages from her bed. There was writing in red and black ink all over it. Holy symbols, some words I could read, others were in languages that were entirely foreign to me and just looked like squiggles and 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?”
“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.”
“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.
“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.”
“The angels, they say that John can help you. I’m not sure how they know, but I trust them, so, you just need to keep it together long enough for me to cast this spell. Understand?”
I nodded, tears welling up in my eyes.
Was I that suicidal? Or was that thing seriously messing with me and trying to break down what remained of my mental defenses?
“Rourke? Can you hear me?” she asked.
I nodded and cleared my throat. “Yeah, I hear you. I’m just, so tired. It won’t stop. It hurts so much. It’s getting worse. Every day. And I’m sick of it. It’s making me desperate.”
Tristan tightened his 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.
“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.
“I’m sorry. I can’t give you my word on that. Forgive me.” His voice cracked with sorrow.
It was too much. It was just too much. For all of us. That demon, whatever it truly was, wasn’t just eating at me. It was devouring a part of him as well.
Mary was right. Because we had made a blood oath, the magic that bound us together by our fates, meant that we would all be affected by my curse.
“Rourke,” Mary said gently. I looked up at her. “Come on. Let us ease your pain for a time, so you can rest, and think straight. You’ll need your wits about you, in Golgotha. You’re hardly yourself right now.”
“I hate to say this, but she’s right. Let her help you. Please.”
I nodded, let him steer me over to the table bench and 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 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.”
My head hit the pillow and I was out cold.
I slept like a log. It was a deep, healing sleep, and it was wonderful.
I woke up when I heard them arguing.
I yawned and rolled over to see them sitting across from one another on the floor of the train car. They were both drunk and playing cards.
“Stop cheating. It’s not ladylike.”
“I’m not. You’re just lousy at poker.”
“I am not. I know card games. And you are not as slick as you think you are.”
She pointed at him with a lit cigarette in her hand. “Maybe you’re the cheater.”
“You’re the psychic. You probably know exactly what is in my hand right now.”
“I would never use my powers for such an insignificant thing. Besides, they don’t work that way. They only show me when I, or someone I care about, is in danger.”
“Well, they would work like that, if you trained properly.”
“Shut your mouth woman, and deal the cards right, or I’ll deal them.”
I reached over the side of the bed and tapped him on the shoulder.
He was sitting against our bed, Mary was leaning back against hers and shuffling the cards. A fire roared peacefully in the stove.
He looked back at me. “Did we wake you?”
“Nah. Just remembered something.”
I slid down to the floor next to him. “I forgot to tell you, never play cards with her. She’s impossible to beat.”
“Mm,” he said.
“You want in? We have 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.”
“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.
“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.”
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?”
“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.
Along the river banks, 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.”
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?”
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.
“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.”
“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?”
“You’ll find yourself drawn there, one way, or another. SHE always gets what she wants, after all.”
He smiled, it was a creepy, knowing smile full of yellowed and rotting teeth. “You’ll see.”
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?”
“I see. Thanks for mentioning that now. Damn it, I have no idea how to open this up right. It’s folds within folds.”
“Give it here,” Mary said.
Tristan’s head perked up and he looked around. “You hear that?”
He stood up, alarmed.
A little girl’s scream pierced the air.
“Help! Someone help!” 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.
As soon as we caught up with him, we were immediately surrounded by a gang of men. No. Not men.
Their fangs and silver eyes glinted in the lamplight.
Mary stood with her back to us, watching our only exit as she pulled her guns.
I took out my six shooters.
In the center of the alleyway, a young girl stood, blood slathered down her chin. It had soaked down the front of her white frilly dress and into her grey wool overcoat. Her white mary jane shoes had splashes of blood on them.
She stood there, smiling sweetly at Tristan.
A woman lay dead on the cobblestone, her throat gone, torn out by the vicious little vampire.
The corpse looked fake. My mind expected a puddle of blood to be beneath 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.