So there I stood, in nothing but a robe, my six shooter several feet away, hiding in my towel. My back twitching as the wound began itching like crazy. I balled my fists, clenched my jaw, tried not to draw attention to myself, well, no more so than I’d normally get, and failed miserably.
Mary, the Saint of Sinners– one of the most dangerous hunters in Creation– was also without her guns. She was side-stepping towards the exit, where Tristan and his uncle Gilead stood, glaring at one another.
Their fighting magic was surfacing, the electric crackle of it made the hair on my arms stand up. That was some serious mojo they were drawing up, and the scary things was, I was pretty sure neither of them was doing it intentionally.
It was a natural byproduct of their anger, of which House Andiron and by extension, their cousin House Montebalm was infamous for. Because Andiron was founded by the first son of the god king, our Holy Imperator, and the magic in their blood was strong and full of explosive potential.
Tristan did not like using his fighting magic. It made him lose control of his temper. The more he used it, the more volatile his emotions became, and the less control he had over his psychic abilities as well.
The bitter truth was, he had a lot of power, but it controlled him far more than he could ever control it. And his uncle knew it. I could see it on his face, that bitter arrogance. That haughty, “I know I can kill you in an instant” look in his gray eyes.
Tristan looked a bit like him, the family resemblance was striking.
Same strong chin, broad shoulders, lots of muscles, even the scowl was similar. Tristan was just a smidge shorter than him, and he has his mother’s nose and lips.
His uncle’s hair was almost completely white from age but other than that and the wrinkles near his eyes, he didn’t look a year over 50. Rumor has it that he was closer to 400, thanks to the royal blood that ran in his veins.
Mary, impatient, sighed and said, “Listen, gentlemen, I have no quarrel with you. If you would be so kind as to let me pass, I shall not have to get involved in what is clearly a family affair.”
Gilead regarded her cautiously. “And who might you be?”
“Mary. They call me the Saint of Sinners. Most know me by that name.”
“I have heard of you. Why were you in here with my nephew and that gene trash?”
By gene trash, he meant that I had dirty commoner blood, and was not from magically powerful breeding stock.
“That, is not your concern, Herr Montebalm,” she said darkly and I swear I saw viper fangs flash in her eyes.
“Are you here to wreak vengeance for a lost soul?” he asked, not for once taking his gaze off of Tristan.
“No. However, I sense that you are thirsty for justice, even though no true grave injustice has been done to you, or your kin,” she said.
“Mary, this is not your concern. Uncle, step aside. Let the lady pass in peace. You are blocking the door. On a saint.”
“His pride is making it difficult for him to be courteous,” Mary said. “It is typical nobleman behavior. I have seen it many times over the years.”
Gilead’s eyes flicked her way and he made a disgusted face.
“That is not the case. If I move, I give all three of you tactical advantage.”
“Uh…three?” I said. “Hey, I’m not looking for a fight with one of the heads of House Montebalm. But, since you included me, I guess that this worthless piece of gene trash will be forced to get involved after all.”
“Rourke.” He said and gave me a stop hand signal. It was subtle, just a few fingers of his hand moving, something we came up with, for situations such as these, where sudden movements would cause everyone present to break out into a fight. Gilead was looking for an excuse to throw the first punch, and Tristan didn’t want me to give it to him.
I shut my mouth, folded my arms, and waited for the inevitable to happen next.
“Nephew, I would like a word with you, if you please,” Gilead said and gestured towards the hallway. His words were not friendly, they were laced with the threat of violence and bloodshed.
“Might I remind you uncle, that this is a sacred place of healing. If bloodshed occurs between us, we shall surely be cursed by the local god. Such a curse could very easily extend to the entirety of our House, and no one of our bloodline shall ever be able to heal from a wound ever again.”
“He’s right, “ I said. “If you fight in here, you’ll get kicked out and the local god will curse your entire family for disrespecting her temple. She does that, and no one will heal well ever again. People will die from simple cuts because they will never stop bleeding. You really want to explain to his father why that happened? Think about it. And think on it good. You’d have to explain to the ruling head of the House why all Montebalms are cursed for eternity because you couldn’t control your temper in a healing temple?”
He narrowed his eyes and the heated rage coming from them made me take a step back.
“I don’t know who you think you are, but no one talks to me that way.”
“Wow, you really don’t listen, do you? Is your ire up that much, you have blood ringing in your ears so you can’t hear me? I can talk louder if you like. My name is Rourke Whelan. I am one of the Three Thieves of Night. And Tristan is my brother at arms. So no, I will not allow you to speak to him in such a way, nor will I allow you to harm him.”
“Rourke, shut. Up,” Tristan hissed.
“You should listen to your betters, and step aside, commoner.”
“No. I won’t. You want to hit him, you have to go through me first.”
“Stop,” Tristan said and put a strong hand on my shoulder and squeezed. It was like an iron vice grip. Yup. His fighting magic was just soaring through his veins now.
He let go, leaving a red hand print on my shoulder that would most definitely turn into a bruise.
Mary stood there, legs wide, hands at her hips like she was about to start dueling pistols, and then she made an annoyed sound and lowered them and balled them into fists instead.
Old habits die hard, I suppose.
“Rourke is right uncle. If we are to work this out, we must need do this outside of sacred ground.”
Gilead made an annoyed sound. He didn’t unclench his fists, but he didn’t exactly start swinging them either.
“I am very well aware of that, boy. Mayhap we should speak outside Bethel’s gates instead? That way, I won’t have to deal with your father’s disapproval for the rest of my life.”
Tristan slowly nodded. “That is agreeable. We shall speak there. And resolve our differences in kind.”
“It is settled then,” Gilead said and backed out of the room, not taking his eyes off of any of us, and then turned on his heels and walked away at a brisk pace. Even his footsteps sounded angry.
I sighed and rushed to the wood post and scratched my itching back and hissed in relief.
Mary whistled. “Well Tristan, I am impressed. Most would not be able to ignore such a challenge and would have started fighting right then and there.”
Tristan stared out the doorway, his fists clenched so tight that his knuckles were white. “It was not easy,” he said softly. “But there was more at stake than just my pride in that moment. Our entire family could’ve suffered if I had let him goad me into hitting him first.”
“That is true.”
“So…that was a declaration of war or something?” I asked, still scratching my back. It wasn’t easing the pain, and really, the itching wasn’t letting up any, but I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t stop.
“Yes,” Mary said. “You wouldn’t know, but it’s an old tradition. The old Houses, when they challenge a duel, they release an aura of magical power so everyone at witness can feel their intent. That is what just happened here. Their discussion is going to be one of blades and fists, not words,” she said.
“Lady, I could’ve told you that. It was pretty obvious what his intent was.”
Tristan sighed, shook his head, and walked out of the room.
“Hey!” I ran after him, grabbed his shoulder to make him stop.
He whirled on me and shoved me back roughly and I slammed into the wall.
“What is your problem?”
“Rourke. Do not get involved in this. It is not your fight. I made an error that I cannot easily fix, and now I must pay for it.”
“With your life?” Mary asked.
“If I must.”
“You seem to forget one thing,” I said and stood up straighter and looked him in the eye. “We’re blood sworn. We made a powerful oath, sealed by our own blood, to protect each other and keep one another safe. I will not break that oath. Even if it means angering you further, I will honor it. I always keep my word. Especially to my hunting party.”
“You two are blood sworn?” Mary said. The tone of her voice made me think that she knew something, and I braced myself for what was coming next.
“Yes,” Tristan said. “All three of us, Jon included, swore an oath when we formed our hunting party. It seemed a good idea at the time. It strengthened our bonds of friendship.”
Mary swore under her breath.
“What?” I asked.
“Any curse can spread to others that have made a blood oath with the original target of a dark spell.”
“And you, Rourke, are most definitely cursed.”
“Ah…well…that puts a damper on things, doesn’t it?”
“If I had known…” She shook her head. “Hopefully your companions are strong enough to keep the evil from influencing them.”
“Are you saying that I am contagious?”
“After a fashion, but only to them.”
Tristan, seeing that I was distracted, bolted down the hallway towards our hotel room.
“Oh come on!”
I ran after him, bare feet slapping on the smooth stone floor. Mary easily kept pace with me on her long legs.
I got to the room just as Tristan was shutting the door and shoved my arm through, forcing the door to stay open.
He glared at me, let go of the door and went over to his things to get dressed.
“Tristan. Don’t do this. It won’t solve anything.”
He didn’t respond. He just kept moving and getting dressed.
Mary, nonplussed by his now naked body, stepped up and stood in his way when he went to grab his pants.
“Tristan. Listen to your blood brother. He is right. This duel will not fix the damage that has been done. Fight him and you will suffer the wrath of your House.”
“I must. I injured his son. He demands satisfaction.”
“Taking it out on you isn’t going to heal Barnabas, nor will it make your idiot cousin a good man,” I said.
“I am aware of that, thank you,” he said and pushed past Mary and hurriedly put his clothes on.
“If you fight here, you won’t be welcome back inside. You know that, right?” I asked.
“However badly you are hurt, they won’t heal you or tend your wounds. You’ll be stuck with them, all the way to Golgotha. You’ll suffer the whole train ride there.”
“I know!” he shouted and turned on me, seething. I have never seen him so mad in my life. “I have to do this. There is no easy way out. I dug the hole, I must lay in it.”
“Why? So you can be punished for losing control and letting your fear get the best of you?”
“Yes! Damn it. I am weak. Don’t you understand? I can’t control my abilities or my temper. I–”
What he couldn’t say out loud, I realized then, was that he believed that he deserved to be punished for what he did. As though a serious beating would ease his guilt.
I knew damn well that it wouldn’t, but there was no telling him that. The stubborn fool had made up his mind.
“I’m doing this. Stay out of my way, or I will make you move.”
I put my hands up, “All right, all right. Go. I’ll get our things and the horses ready, and meet you at the town gates.”
Tristan, fully dressed, grabbed his sword and hat and stormed out.
I shook my head. “He’s going to get himself killed.”
“Not unless we stop them,” Mary said.
“We? Oh no. You are not going to get involved. He’d never forgive me if I let you fight his fight.”
“I won’t allow that man to kill him. It would be unjust. Tristan is a member of my flock. It is Sophia’s will that I protect the innocent.”
“And he is innocent? He punched someone into a coma.”
She gave me a bitter smile that made my skin crawl.
“It was just one hit. Bad angle, too much force. It was not his intention to kill or incapacitate, just to get his cousin to shut his big fucking mouth.”
“I will use whatever words I wish, when I wish.”
“Fine, but…how do you know that? Were you there?”
“No. I have angels on my shoulders, remember? They see the past and the present. They tell me what I need to know.”
“Well, lucky you, I guess.”
“We should make haste and stop that duel before it turns deadly.”
“Agreed. Three punches and they’re done.”
She chuckled and left the room to get her things.
“This is insane,” I muttered. “What the hell am I doing? They’ll pulverize me in an instant if I try to stop them.”
I was not one to eagerly enter a fist fight with men who had demi-god like powers.
In fact, most of the time, I’d find a way to talk myself out of a fight, if I could.
But not this time…not this time.
I double checked the room to ensure that I gathered all of our belongings.
Fortunately, since we hadn’t been there long, we not unpacked much of anything, so it was simple enough to grab our bags and go.
I dropped the room key off at the front desk and told the man working the night shift that something came up, and we were leaving early. He wanted to give me a refund, but I didn’t have time, and to be honest, I didn’t want it.
I told him to keep the money and ran out to the stables to saddle our horses.
Mary was already there, walking her horse out.
It was dark. The early morning air was harsh, cold and bitter. The sun wouldn’t rise for a few more hours. I wasn’t looking forward to riding without getting any sleep, but I didn’t have a choice.
I wouldn’t be able to sleep until we got on the train to Gologotha.
“Got everything?” she asked.
“Yes. And yes,” I said, putting the saddle on Old Grey and patting his haunches. “Be nice to her,” I said to him. “She’s a saint.”
He knickered in reply and I saddled Tristan’s mare, Buttercup, and then we started heading towards the town’s gates, where my friend and his uncle were about to seriously slug it out.
Mary handed her horses reigns to me and walked over to where they were arguing and I just stood there, wondering what in the hell was going to happen.
“Before you start, I would like to say something,” Mary said, her voice loud and clear and unwavering.
Gilead glared at her. “Oh?”
“I’m the Saint of Sinners. These men are under my protection. Kill Tristan, and I will kill you. Understood?”
“What?” Tristan and I both said at the same time.
“Is that so?” Gilead said in a measured tone.
“Sir, I’m a living saint. Don’t fuck with me.”
“Language!” he said looked perplexed. “What kind of saint has such a foul mouth?”
“This one. I have lived many years and walked the path of many lives, and I can tell you this, the old ways are still viable. Whoever draws first blood, wins the duel. Satisfaction shall be met without murder. If you demand more, you should require him to pay reparations, as per your House laws.”
“What do you know of our ways, woman?”
“Plenty. I knew Andiron when he was a child. Watched him grow up into a fine man with quite the temper. His father established rules of conduct so that he wouldn’t commit murder anytime someone challenged his authority and pursued a duel.”
I stared at her.
If she knew young Andiron, she had to be well over a thousand years old. Was that even possible? Was she of noble birth? Or was it a because she was sainted by Sophia and the goddess granted her an extremely long life?
I mean, I heard the rumors, I knew the tales about her being cursed with immortality, and even if I had teased her about it before, I didn’t really believe it. Until now.
“The law you stated is correct,” Gilead said. “We shall abide by it. Now, step aside. I shall not pull my punches if you happen to be in the way, and my nephew needs to be taught a lesson in manners.”
I could feel the electric crackle of their fighting magic growing stronger. Both he and Tristan were starting to form golden auras of light as they called on the full strength of their power. They lit up the area, made the snow banks sparkle. It would’ve been pretty if I hadn’t been there to watch my friend get beat all to hell.
They had to stop at first blood. That meant any blow strong enough to cut or break something open to cause the opponent to bleed would end the duel. It was not to the death.
Didn’t make me feel any better about it.
Mary stepped back, her hands at her hips.
“Do you require someone to start and call the end of the duel?”
“If you wish,” Tristan said.
Gilead narrowed his eyes at him. “That is…acceptable. I suppose.”
Great. With Mary acting as the referee, she wouldn’t physically get involved until either party was close to being killed. That meant it was up to me to rush in if they didn’t stop after drawing blood.
I walked the horses over to the hitching post by the gate and tied them off, just in case I had to run over quickly and end things.
If saving my friend’s life meant that I was used as a punching bag, then so be it.
It was cold. Our breath steamed the air. We stood on the outer side of the stone wall gate of Bethel, and Tristan and Gilead stared at each other.
I fought the urge to check my guns. I knew that they were loaded. I had looked at them before I left the hotel room.
This was starting to feel more like a gun fight, than a fist fight, and I half expected them to pull out weapons. Instead, Tristan took off his sword and tossed it to the ground near Mary. Gilead removed his guns and did the same.
Mary didn’t move or flinch when they were thrown. She must be used to that sort of thing.
“Remember gentlemen, do not get carried away. Your magic is highly destructive. The force of your blows alone could destroy the town if you are not careful.”
“We know. Call the start already,” Gilead said. He sounded impatient. Angry. Ready to kick the ever loving shit out of his nephew.
“Just had to say it. In case you forgot.”
“Mary, just call it. We can handle ourselves. After all, this isn’t the first time we’ve fought, is it uncle?”
“No. It is not. And it most likely will not be the last either. You still have a lot to learn about your place in Creation, nephew. It’s time I taught you a thing or two.”
“So be it.”
Mary glanced at me and I shrugged. I had no idea what their past was like. Apparently, they’ve been fighting for some time. Tristan never once said a word about it. Maybe it embarrassed him.
I stood by her and she tipped the front of her Stetson hat up.
“Get ready,” she said.
Gilead rolled his head, cracking his neck with the action and put his fists up.
Tristan dug his boots into the snow, stance wide, and hands loose at his side. He shook his arms out and raised them up, fists at the ready.
My heart was racing.
I didn’t want him to get hurt. I couldn’t care less about what happened to his uncle, but still, if he killed him, the rest of his House would come after us. And we didn’t need that right now.
All of this was a waste of time.
John was in trouble, and yet here we were, waiting for Tristan to duke it out with his asshole of an overbearing uncle.
“You might want to shade your eyes,” Mary muttered.
She raised her hand. “When I lower my hand, you shall begin.”
They watched her, waiting and in a blink of an eye, she brought her hand down, Gilead started glowing so intensely bright it was like looking at the sun and I was blinded for a moment while snow flew around us and the ground shuddered from the force of their blows.
I could barely make out their silhouettes in the brilliant golden light. Tristan’s power was nowhere near as bright as his uncles, his aura was a lighter almost silver color in comparison, and it was drowned out, subsumed by the bleed-off of his uncle’s magical power.
I could hear their fists hitting, sending out rushes of air with each arm stroke.
It was incredible.
I never saw Tristan use his fighting magic to its full extent.
Whatever they were saying to each other was personal. I couldn’t make out most of it, but it sounded rather nasty to me. Tristan’s uncle was cruel and cut him with words, as well as bruised him with his fists.
I didn’t like it.
Not one bit.
I hated seeing him so upset. He was a good friend. Probably the first true friend I ever had in my life. He saw something in me that no one else ever did. He saw that I could be a hero, that I could and would save people’s lives from the evils of the night, and it changed my whole life.
There was no way in hell I was going to let anyone take him away from me.
Not Gilead, not Mary, and certainly not the damned vampires of Golgotha. No. I would rather die than see him hurt.
The longer I stood bathing in their golden magical auras, the stronger my anger at Gilead grew.
I wanted to hurt him. I wanted him to suffer. I wanted him to die, horribly, at my own hands.
“Mind yourself,” Mary said and put a hand on my shoulder. I shoved it off.
“Don’t touch me.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Rourke? Are you affected by the light?”
“I have no idea what you are talking about,” I said and stepped a few feet away, heart pounding in my head. I wanted so desperately to run in there and rip Gilead off of him, but I couldn’t.
All I could do was watch as they moved in fast blurs of motion and gold, the snow throwing up from their feet as they rushed two and fro.
Tristan was blocking the flurry of blows, trying every so often to get a hit in, and missing completely. He was getting frustrated, I could hear him make a sound of annoyance.
Neither was getting in a good solid punch, nothing that would draw blood. They’d have to hit each other in the face to do that.
“You’ve gotten sloppy nephew, hunting has not served you well.”
“And you’ve grown soft and slow, old man. Mayhap it’s time for one of your sons to take over for you?”
“Rourke.” Someone whispered my name behind me. A chill ran down my spine. I could feel their breath tickle the back of my neck and when I turned to look, I saw my shadow being cast on the ground by the Montebalm’s golden auras, but it wasn’t in my shape. It was a wolf-headed beast, black as death, with hellfire green eyes.
I had seen that beast before. In Concordia. Its face flashed at me right before it bit me and ripped a hole in my shoulder. And that wound has not healed. At all.
My entire body ran cold. I started shivering. I couldn’t look away. I felt stuck, staring in those unholy eyes.
“Rourke,” it said, its voice dark, deep, colder than the very depths of hell itself. “It’s time.”
“No. No…I won’t let you.”
“It’s far, far too late for you little lamb. Can’t you see? Your throat has already been slit and you are bleeding out as the sacrifice.”
I felt something hot and wet slide down my throat and my hand went up to it and came away slick with red steaming blood.
“Death is too good for you, don’t you think? You should suffer, greatly, before you die. Yes, I think that will do nicely.”
“This isn’t real. You’re just messing with my head.”
I tried to pull away, but I could feel my mind getting pushed further and further down like I was so very far away from my own body, and I could see out of my eyes, I could feel my body, but I wasn’t in it. My mind was in my shadow, somehow.
It was cold. And dark. And I was terrified.
Mary stepped up to me, and I turned and smiled and said, “When are you going to tell them about him? About you and I? And that bouncing baby boy of yours?”
“Excuse me? What did you say?”
“It’s been far too long, sweetheart. Did you miss me?”
“Rourke? What’s wrong?”
“Oh, he’s not here right now. He’s taking a nap. In hell.”
“You son of a bitch, let him go.”
I could feel everything, even my mouth moving, but I couldn’t control what I was doing or saying. I was there, and yet, I was not. I was just along for the ride. My mind was split into two places at once, in my body, and in my shadow. I was fractured, and it was hard to focus.
It ignored her and stood there, with my hands clasped behind my back, rocking on my heels
“Such a great morning for a good fight. Do you think they’ll kill each other?”
Mary pulled out her cross necklace, a modest thing made of carved wood with a leather string and held it up.
“By Sophia’s will, I command you to leave this corpus and go back to hell from whence you came.”
It laughed, waved my arm and her cross caught on fire.
Cursing she tossed it off.
Tristan cried out in pain and I saw that Gilead had knocked him down to the ground and hit him hard in the ribs.
Anger flashed in me, white hot and painful. In that instant, I felt myself wrest back control, just enough to move, in the blink of an eye, from where I was standing, to in between the two Montebalms.
My right arm grabbed his fist as it lowered to strike him again and I held it, the force of the blow reverberated through my body and pushed my feet down into the frozen earth. The ground snapped and crackled under the weight of the blow, my feet buried in the dirt and snow spilling into the tops of my boots.
In that moment, I had managed to overpower that thing with my will, and we were both using my body at once.
My hand…my arm…there was black shaggy fur on my arm, it had tripled in size, ripped open my shirt and coat sleeve with thick rope cord muscles, the fingers ending in black sharp claws. Like a werewolf.
I shouldn’t have been able to hold Gilead back, let alone with a single hand, and yet, I was. The demon…it was strong. Far stronger than any of us had ever realized, until just then.
“That’s enough,” I said. “You have proven your point. Step down, or I shall be forced to kill you.”
“What is this?” Gilead said through gritted teeth. Blood trickled down his knuckles as I stood, still gripping his fist with my strange hand.
“I should kill you for what you did to him. I really ought to. It would be ever so satisfying to rip your intestines out with my bare hands.”
“Rourke,” Tristan whispered.
It, that thing controlling me, ignored him as we struggled for control. My anger, my rage at my friend being treated so poorly by his family, overpowered it. But just barely. I could already feel myself slipping away under its fierce hold. It affected my words, tainted them with malice and cruelty.
My legs were about to buckle, Gilead was still pushing down his fist, and not letting up.
I made an annoyed sound. “Shall I break his arm, Tristan? Would that be enough compensation?”
“Stop. This isn’t your fight.”
“No. And you can’t make me, even if you wished to.”
Still gripping his fist, I shoved Gilead back and pushed him down, forcing him to kneel.
“Down on your knees, you filth,” I said and I started bending his arm to the side at an awkward angle. If I kept going, I was going to snap it in twain.
“Enough!” Mary shouted and ran forward. I saw my shadow reach out and grab her and toss her into the stone wall as though she weighed nothing.
She hit her head and landed hard on her side and groaned.
I turned my attention back to Gilead, glaring at him. His eyes were no longer filled with rage, they were filled with fear.
“You know, Gilly, you are just like your father. What do you think he would say if he saw you acting like a coward? Would he take the belt to your back, like he did when you were a child? Hit you so hard your skin breaks open? Like old times?”
“Who are you? What is this? I demand you tell me who you are!”
I could feel his arm giving way and gleefully applied more pressure until it snapped. Bone broke through the skin, glistened in the weak morning light.
The man’s golden aura faltered and died off as he passed out from the pain.
“Pathetic. I thought he would’ve put up far more of a fight before he dropped like a dead squirrel from a tree. I guess you never can tell, can you?”
“Rourke…what have you done?” Tristan was holding his side, trying to stand and falling back to his knees. His face all battered and bruised, his left eye was starting to swell up.
When he saw my face, he jerked away and fell on his ass and backpedaled until he hit the stone wall.
“No. Not you. Not again.”
“Oh yes. It’s me. Been a while, hasn’t it?”
“Not long enough,” he said and I saw that he was reaching for his sword.
“Too slow,” I said and knelt on his free hand. He winced and pulled it out from under my knee. “I should’ve killed you in Solomon when I had the chance. But someone was too much of a coward to do it. Such a pathetic and weak vessel they chose for me. What a disgusting man.”
“Rourke is not weak. He has fought you off longer than any other man ever could. And you know it.”
I laughed, got in his face, he fell back against the stone wall.
“You should tell him, lover boy, how you really feel. I’m sure he’d like to know. About your secret. About what you fantasize about when you’re alone.”
Tristan looked mortified.
I laughed. “The look on your face! It’s perfect!” I leaned closer and whispered, “He’d never accept you if he found out. He’d push you away, and you’d lose the one person you love the most.”
“Shut up!” he screamed and shoved me off. He cried out, grabbed his side again and rolled away, crawling to his sword.
“And what are you going to do with that? Cut his arm off? Hurt your friend? You think that will get me out of him? It’s far too late you know. I’ve already taken root in his mind. Eventually, I will get to his soul and devour it. And then, I’ll completely possess his body. His sleek, muscular form that you admire so much, especially when he’s not looking your way.”
Mary moaned, her eyes fluttered open and she sat up, looking completely and utterly pissed off. She got to her feet, staggered towards where I stood over Tristan, mocking him.
“That’s enough foul beast! The sun is rising. This is Sophia’s domain now. You have no more power over him this day.”
I looked at her and smirked. “You know, for an immortal, nine months really isn’t that long at all. Before you know it, that little seed growing in your belly will be born.”
All the color drained from her face. “What?”
“You don’t know? Didn’t you suspect? I mean, I don’t work for the demon lord personally, but I think it’s great that you would give him a child. Any time darkness gets a foothold in Creation, it is a time for celebration. One step closer to humanity’s destruction, on step closer to my dark father’s rule.”
“No….no, that’s not possible.”
“Oh my dear, anything is possible, when a demon is in love with you.”
“Shut, up!” She grabbed Gilead’s gun and pointed it at me. “Let him go or I will shoot you between the eyes.”
“You’d kill him? But he’s innocent. I don’t think you have it in you.”
She swore under her breath and I heard something stir the air around us, like large feathered wings beating down as a bird took flight.
“You bitch, you wouldn’t dare.”
“Oh I would, and I am,” she said and muttered an ancient prayer in a language that has long since gone dead.
A halo of tarnished bronze formed over her head, and white wings dripping with blood unfurled behind her as she prayed.
The beast inside of me panicked and I tried to run but Tristan tackled me and held me down as Mary strode forward, her feet not actually touching the ground, like she was floating just inches above it.
“It’s too late,” I snarled at her. “You can’t stop what is coming. Creation itself will be destroyed when we’re done. My master is on his way. You won’t be able to stop it. Not you, not the Venerable August, not these Three Thieves, not even the Crow and his Wolf will be able to end our reign of darkness. All of the hunters will fall. We will take root in the world and finally kill the Imperator once and for all and plunge Creation into an era of darkness and despair. You can do nothing to stop what is coming for you all. You will fail! You will all fail!”
“It is Sophia’s will that I fight,” Mary said. “And it is by her will that I bind you inside this vessel.”
I could feel her righteous saint’s fury, I could feel the holy power within her stirring and coming to life, and it terrified me.
“No! No! I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you all!”
I screamed and flailed and she reached out with a glowing white hand, blood dripping down from the stigmatic spot on her palm.
She touched it to my forehead and said, “I anoint thee with saint’s blood. I call upon the power of the heavenly hosts and all of Sophia’s angels to protect this soul, and bind the evil within so that it may do no more harm.”
Her blood burned!
My body was on fire.
My arm was killing me, the wound on my shoulder was puffed up and pulsing as the demon struggled to break free.
Tristan held me down, the arm out at an angle in a submission hold as Mary finished her prayer, using words not once uttered by mortal man.
Glowing sigils of holy power glowed in the around her, wrapping around her in a ribbon and then winding down her arm and around my body.
It hurt. It hurt so much.
I screamed and hollered and said awful things about her and Tristan, and how I was going to hurt them both.
It wasn’t pretty.
Then…the horrible words could be uttered no more. The rage subsided. Sputtered out and turned into numb horror.
I froze, then went limp and lay there gasping in the cold snow. My throat raw from screaming obscenities. My whole body wracked with pain, tendon’s torn from the impact of Gilead’s fist when I grabbed it.
My arm started shrinking back to normal size, the shaggy hair dissipated, the claws disappeared.
The wound on my shoulder screamed in pain. I could feel it bleeding. The stitches were ripped out.
“Please, let go. You’re going to dislocate my shoulder,” I said hoarsely, face pressed down into the snow.
Tristan sighed and let go and sat next to me, breathing hard. “Sorry.”
Mary collapsed to her knees, her tears of blood plopping on the snow and on her pant legs. The holy light of her saint’s power dimmed and dissipated, her wings gone, but the stigmata on her right hand still bled.
She held it out in front of her and stared at it.
“I don’t believe it. It can’t be true,” she whispered.
And then I heard a beautiful angelic voice that sounded like ringing crystal, answer her back, “But it is. You are with child. With HIS child.”
“But…we didn’t. I mean, I don’t recall us doing that. We didn’t. I never would have let him do that to me.”
“It matters not, all he had to do was touch you. You forget how powerful a demon he is.”
“Who are you talking to?” I asked softly. I sounded so weak.
“Rourke?” Tristan said and helped me roll over.
“Hey. You look like shit.”
“I know. Thank you. For stopping him.”
“Sure. You’re welcome. No Problem. Anytime man.”
He shook his head. “You are out of it.”
“No. You are out. Of it,” I said and poked his shoulder. “Out. Of. It.”
“Stop. That hurts. Everything hurts now.”
I slowly sat up. I felt like I had been hit by a train.
I looked over at his uncle and said, “Oh…no. Gilead.”
“You broke his arm. You shouldn’t have done that.”
“I didn’t…that wasn’t me! It really wasn’t! I swear!”
“He’s right,” Mary said, and she sounded so tired and defeated. “It wasn’t him. He had no say in it. He was trapped in his own mind. I haven’t seen a demon with the ability to manipulate its host’s shadow, let alone take the full brunt of a powerful hit like that, and overpower someone of the Imperator’s bloodline, in a very long time.”
“Oh? How long are we talking here?” I asked.
She shook her head and gripped the wrist of her bleeding hand. “Last time I met one that could do that…” She went still, her eyes wide. “Oh no.”
“What?” Tristan asked.
“This is bad. This is very bad.”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” I said and moved to sit next to Tristan with a sigh.
“We…may be in serious danger here.”
“Please specify, we are not well versed in demons. That is John’s specialty,” Tristan said.
“The last time something that powerful wandered the earth, the angelic war broke out. It almost destroyed all of Creation.”
Tristan looked at her funny, his left eye now swollen shut. “You…you were there. I can see it. You walked among them.”
“Yes. I did. I lost everyone, and everything then. And then I became someone else.”
“That is how you were sainted. Your righteous fury, your cries for justice, they were answered by Sophia. She heard you. She…she stood before you? You were touched by the goddess?”
“Seriously? That’s…unheard of.”
“Yes. At that time, the celestial gods walked the earth. To bind the powers of darkness and chaos, they had to give up their worldly forms and ascend to the heavens. They made a huge sacrifice for us all. And in return, I fight the good fight for Sophia. I am her vessel here in Creation now. I am her arm of justice. Her weapon. And I shall never rest until all the world’s evils are destroyed.”
“Damn. That is unfortunate,” I said. Tristan hit me and I winced. “Ow! Please don’t hit me. I feel like I was hit by a train. No joke.”
“Shouldn’t I be the one complaining about pain?”
“What do you want to do about your uncle?” Mary asked.
Tristan nodded towards the town. I saw a man running down the street towards us. It was one of Tristan’s cousins that we saw in the dining area of the hotel.
He stopped when he saw us. “What in the blazing hell happened here?”
“We had a duel. Your father won,” Tristan said, sounding defeated and tired.
“If he won, why is he passed out in the snow with a broken arm?”
“Oh uh…” I said and we all looked away from him. “He…tried to block a hit and Tristan knocked his arm the wrong way and, well, it snapped. You know, it’s a wound from trial by combat. It happens. The important thing is, that he won. So he has satisfaction and justice has been gained for Barnabas.”
“Ah. I didn’t even know you were here, Tristan.”
“He must’ve seen us come in and decided to take care of it himself,” Tristan said with a shrug. “You know what your father is like. He never tells anyone anything until afterward.”
His cousin nodded, picked up Gilead’s gun belt and then hefted his old man’s arm over his shoulders and made him stand up.
Gilead moaned and looked around bleary eyed.
“Hey, congratulations, you won!” I said and he blinked in my direction.
“I did?” he asked.
“Yes. You beat the ever loving hell out of Tristan. So, you won the duel. Are you satisfied now?”
“Yes. How did I break my arm?”
“Battle wound,” Tristan’s cousin said.
Gilead nodded. “Tristan hits harder than I remember. It is good. Let’s get some breakfast, I’m starving.”
“All right, all right,” his son said and they walked away, both shooting us a parting glance and whispering to each other about stigmata and weird wolf shapes in the snow.
I looked around.
Where I stepped when I was possessed, large wolf prints were left behind. Not boot prints. And where I had fallen in the snow, the shape of a wolf was, not a human body.
“Uh…guys? I didn’t transform did I?”
“Just your arm,” Mary said.
“Then how come I left wolf prints in the snow?”
She shrugged. “It’s a very old and powerful demon.They do things like that. Warp and twist reality. It’s in their nature. It’s not even something they attempt to do, it’s just something they do. It’s like a tell of theirs. It’s a sign of a strong possession. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I was even going to be able to force it to back down.”
“You can’t exorcise it? You can only put it to spiritual sleep?” Tristan asked.
“Wait…you didn’t send it packing? Just made it take a nap?”
“Unfortunately, yes. This is something that is beyond me. It is too ingrained in you. It is fusing with your soul.”
“Do you think John might know how to stop it?” Tristan asked.
“If he doesn’t, the Crow would.”
“The demon mentioned him,” Tristan said. “Said his name with such contempt too. Must not care for him much.”
“There’s a posse of hunters in Eugenica. They call their leader the Plague Crow, but don’t let the name fool you. He’s a healer and a man of medicine. He treats the plague victims that are sent to Eugenica. He’s a good soul. Sharp as a knife and smarter than I’ll ever be. His magic is quite strong. I don’t even think he knows just how powerful he is yet.”
“Oh…wonderful. So, if John can’t fix it, we go to Eugenica? Is that the plan?”
“Sounds like it,” Tristan said and sighed. “I’m so tired.”
“Are your ribs broken?” I asked.
“No. Just bruised.”
I leaned back against the stone wall, closed my eyes. Everything hurt. The wound on my back was throbbing, and I could feel blood seep into my shirt and grow cold in the crisp winter air.
“I’m so tired,” I muttered.
“So am I,” Mary said. She sounded closer than before and I opened one eye. She was resting next to me. Sitting awfully close in fact.
Her arm was resting against mine.
“You wrecked your jacket,” she said.
“I can mend it. I’m used to darning things back up.”
She was shaking.
Tristan was breathing shallowly, and I feared that he had been hurt more than he wanted to let on, but would never admit it until he was forced to.
We all needed to rest before we left for the train station. We couldn’t go back to the hotel, but maybe…
I slowly stood up, groaning.
“Where are you going?” Tristan asked.
“Just over to the stables for a minute. I’ll be right back.”
“Mm,” he said and watched me go.
I could barely walk in a straight line and I leaned against the open stable door like a drunkard and peeked inside.
The stable boy was busy with his morning chores.
“Hey, kid,” I said and he looked up and smiled.
“You back already?”
“Sort of. Listen, me and my friends need to warm up before we head out on the road today. Would it be all right if we rested in the barn here for a few hours? I can pay you.”
He grinned. “Sure! Pa said you might want to do that, seeing as how you all got into a scuffle outside of town. I was waiting for you to show up.”
I chuckled. “Smart man, your pa is. Here, for your trouble,” I tossed him a gold coin and he bit it and smiled wider.
“No, thank you,” I said and wandered back to Tristan and Mary. “We can stay in the barn for a bit. We all need to grab some shut eye before we head out. So let’s take advantage of it and rest, shall we?”
“I am not going to argue with that,” Tristan murmured and I helped him stand up. He winced, pressed a hand against his side and limped towards the barn behind the stables.
The stable boy ran out and took the horses off the hitching post and walked them back for us.
Mary said nothing, just wrapped her bleeding hand in a handkerchief and shivered. She looked haunted. Scared out of her mind. I didn’t want to tell her that though. She hits hard.
I helped Tristan sit down on the fresh hay in a corner of the barn, away from the other animals, and he sighed.
“You’re going to have to wrap those ribs up before we go,” I said.
He nodded. “I know,” he said and leaned back against a bale of hay and put his hat over his face.
I plopped down unceremoniously and groaned as my shoulder throbbed in pain and all my joints complained at me.
“Taking a hit like that is not good for your body,” Mary said.
“Why did you do it then?”
“Couldn’t help it. Besides, I wasn’t exactly in full control back there, remember?”
“Yes. I am fully aware. But, that demon didn’t decide to protect Tristan, you did. Your force of will made it do that.”
“Yay for me, I guess.”
She scooted up next to me, and I saw that she was crying. The tears of blood had dried on her face and she was crying normal tears now, washing streaks out of the dried blood stains.
“Here,” I said and handed her my handkerchief. “Your face is a mess.”
“Thank you.” She wiped off the blood and sat there, staring at the white cloth and shuddered.
“I just…” She looked away, shame burning red on her face. She was blushing, embarrassed. Flustered. Scared? Maybe?
“What? You can ask me anything. Tristan is already asleep, so it’s not like he’s going to hear it.”
“Yeah. He can sleep anywhere. Lucky bastard.”
“Huh. I guess he is.”
She scooted next to me and I froze as she hugged me tightly and whispered,”Sorry, I just…need comfort. I know this is awkward. But…I don’t have any family left. To bring a child into the world, alone? It terrifies me.”
I made a sound of pity and patted her back. “I see. Well, in that case, feel free to cuddle away. But don’t think that it means anything because it doesn’t. I’m just being nice because you’re a saint. We shall still hate each other after the hugging is over. Got it?”
She made a pathetic laugh and buried her face in my chest and clung to me and cried.
We lay there a while like that until she calmed down and abruptly let go of me and rolled over, putting her back to me.
“Thanks,” she said bitterly and sighed. “I am so fucked.”
“No, you’re not. You’re the strongest person I know. You’ll get through it, raise a great kid to be the world’s best monster hunter and the two of you will be a force to reckon with. You mark my words woman. You will do just fine.”
She rolled over and glared at me. “You think so?”
“Uh…is that a trick question? Will you hit me if I say yes?”
“No. I won’t hit you.”
“Then, yes. I think so.”
“Don’t treat me any different, I just had a moment of weakness.”
“I know. It happens to the best of us. Don’t worry about it. I won’t tell a soul.”
She made a face of annoyance. “Uh huh.”
“I know, Rourke. I know. And for the record, I like Tristan more than I like you.”
“I gathered that. Most people do. It’s because he’s the strong silent type, and I’m the rakish charming type that never shuts up. I talk way too much. It’s a blessing and a curse.”
“You’re an idiot.”
“I cannot dispute that.”
She sighed, wrapped my now dirty handkerchief around her other hand and pressed it to her lips. “I’ll get you a new one for your troubles.”
“No need. I have plenty. Keep it. It’s yours now.”
“Very well then. Thank you.”
I glanced over at Tristan, who was sleeping soundly.
“Hey, do you think we’ll survive Golgotha?”
“If Sophia wills it, we shall. That is all I can say on the matter. If I can get my guns back, it will triple our odds of survival. Until then, it’s a fifty-fifty chance that we’ll make it and get John out of there in one piece.”
She was right. She was always right. I hated that, but it was the truth.
“Get some sleep, Mr. Whelan. Today is going to be a very long day, for all of us.”
I yawned and nodded.
We all slept for a few hours before the stable boy came in and said that it was safe for us to travel on the main roads, and with that, we all painfully got on our horses and rode down the mountain pass to the train station, where we would start the final leg of our journey to Golgotha, where even more fresh hells awaited us.