Neither of us got much sleep that night. Not after Tristan yanked out a damn wolf tooth out of my back muscle. I was in too much pain, and he was…well, he was his usual brooding self.
Without either of saying a word, once daylight broke we packed up camp and headed for the forked mountain pass. It felt so empty up there, no trees, just snow and ice and black rock as far as the eye could see. It was hard to imagine that there was a lovely hot springs on the other side.
Wind brushed fingers of snow across the banks as we rode up to the fork. Somewhere in the distance a murder of crows was raising a ruckus. It didn’t bode well. Felt almost like a death omen to me.
To the left was the suspension bridge that lead to Snakeneck, to the right, Deadman’s pass, where a huge pile up of fresh snow on the overhead rock was looking mighty precarious. I got off my horse, Tristan followed suit.
“Well?” I asked.
“Neither looks safe. If I had a choice in the matter, I wouldn’t take either at the moment. But…I don’t. So, we have to go on one of them.”
I sighed. “I know. I don’t trust that bridge though. It is looking awful aged, and the ice build up on the bottom of the slats? That can’t be good for it.”
“So what should we do?” he asked as he stared at the bridge.
“Hold my reins for a minute, I’m going to test the bridge out.”
He took them from me and my horse, Old Grey, side-stepped nervously. I called him old because he was cantankerous like an old man.
Grey wasn’t too fond of other people. We were kind of the same in that respect. The gelding was about to be put down, and I took his situation to heart.
No one ever bothered to train him right, and no one wanted to bother with him either. They said he was a bad seed. Bit people, bucked them off, refused to let trainers get near him. He was a free spirit.
I appreciated that, so I walked right up to it in the corral, looked him in the eye and said, “Hey, I get it. You hate people. I’m fine with that. But, if you don’t let me ride you out of here, they’re going to put you down. So, if you want to live, you better come with me, all right?”
He flicked his ears at me. I reached out and slowly put my hand on his muzzle and he nickered softly. I patted his side haunches, a lovely dappled grey, and hopped right on bareback, and rode that ornery bastard out of the corral.
The ranch hands were a bit taken aback by it. I told them that if they had just bothered talking to him and telling him what the deal was, he’d understand. They didn’t believe me. Thought I had some sort of horse charm on me or something.
It wasn’t magic. It was just being humane and talking to him like a person; that’s all he ever wanted. To be acknowledged as a smart horse. Me and Old Grey had been inseparable ever since. Tristan eyed my horse but didn’t move. Old Grey never tried to bite him, and he was used to dealing with all sorts of horse temperament. He was a Montebalm; his family raised and bred warhorses. He was practically born in the saddle.
I pushed up the brim of my Stetson hat and stood at the bridge entrance. The jute rope guidelines creaked and groaned. I could see a few of the wooden slats of the bridge deck had decayed and rotted through.
There was an easy way to test and see if it could handle two grown men and their horses. I took out a throwing knife and handle end down, slammed it onto the right post of the bridge entrance. The entire thing swayed.
I heard the wood groan and creak, and parts of the rotten boards snapped off as the heaviest icicles swung with the motion. There was a loud crack, and the middle section of the bridge gave way and plummeted into the ravine below.
I whistled. “Well, we have our answer I think.”
“You don’t sound enthused,” I said, walking back and sheathed my knife.
“I’m just tired. And worried. About…everything.”
“I know. One step at a time, right?”
I took my reins back from him and we started our way onto Deadman’s Pass.
“How far down you think?” he asked.
“Too far. Don’t look down.”
I shook my head and we plodded on.
The pass grew narrow, and we had to go single file.
Tristan let me go first, the gentleman. Most likely he did that in case the snow decided to fall on us, we’d have better chances if I got buried and he didn’t. He could dig me out faster, seeing as how he was stronger and had more muscle mass than I did. Not saying that I was a shrinking violet, I was strong, but Tristan was a bigger guy all around. He was a nobleman, his house was a cousin house, directly descended from House Andiron. And as everyone knows, House Andiron was started by first son of the Imperator, which meant that he was extremely gifted, both magically and physically.
As an end result, he had fighting magic in his blood. All of his family did. That made him built for battle. It also caused problems when he lost his temper, as he wasn’t in total control of it.
I wasn’t entirely sure why, but something about his psychic gift interfered with the fighting magic or vice versa. The end result was a deeply troubled man who never lived up to his family’s expectations, and who ran off before someone could turn in him to the Imperial Guard. I didn’t blame him any, I would’ve done the same thing. No way I’d sign up for a mystical lobotomy and mindless servitude to the Imperium. I’d rather die first.
“Rourke, watch your step up ahead.”
I nodded, not taking my eyes off the path. The snow was shin deep and getting deeper. I could see where ice had fallen off the mountain above and sunk into the snow, leaving small round pits in their wake. Step on one of those, the wrong way? You’d go ass over tea kettle and slide right off the damn mountain and fall to your death.
“I’m beginning to see why they call it Deadman’s Pass. If the cold doesn’t kill you, the damn ice will,” he muttered.
“Or an avalanche,” I shot back at him.
“Keep your voice down. Don’t upset the mountain spirits.”
“Tristan. It’s not the spirits that cause the snow to fall off violently, it’s just the weather.”
“Rourke, not now. I’m nervous enough as is.”
I snuck a glance back at him. He was rather pale faced.
“Are you…afraid of heights?”
“You know, it’s all right if you are. Most right thinking fellas are over-cautious when this high up.”
The pass started to incline, and my boots were having a difficult time gripping, I could feel my feet slipping and sliding. My horse wasn’t having much luck with it either. I paused, found my balance, waited for Old Grey to find his.
“Be. Very. Quiet,” Tristan hissed.
I froze, and listened.
There, under the howling wind that was rushing through the canyon below, a crackle. A snapping of ice. The sound of bits of snow sliding and rolling off the mountain above us. I swore under my breath. I was afraid of this. I knew it, I just knew we would run into trouble like that. I didn’t like the look of the fresh snow build up. It looked deadly. And I was right.
I slowly turned sideways, steadied myself on my horse and gave him a reassuring pat.
“Just move slow,” I whispered to Tristan. “Keep the vibrations from your steps light. That means not stomping your feet through here. Slide them or roll your feet as you walk.”
He glared at me. He knew I was right. He was the most flatfooted man I had ever met. And right now, our lives depending on him stepping softly and gently behind me.
“Guess I’ll have to, won’t I?”
“That’s the spirit. Nice and easy,” I said and rubbed my horse’s neck and whispered near his ear, “Hey Grey, we have to be very careful here. Watch your step.”
He gently nickered in reply. That meant yes.
“There’s ice on the path,” I said to Tristan. “The snow is hiding it. This whole incline is one slick ice patch, so don’t force your mount, let her take her time.”
We slowly moved forward.
We were at the most treacherous section of Deadman’s Pass. The mountain trail went uphill steeply, and the rock shelf overhead was covered sharp icicles as thick as my arm, or thicker in some places. If they fell on you, they’d pierce you clean through. I knew from personal experience, just how deadly falling ice could be. I had the scars to prove it.
About five years ago, before we met John, we had taken a hunting job in the winter. A hungry ghost was terrorizing the locals, and made the entire town a frozen wasteland. Ice covered everything. It was controlling the weather, changing snow to sleet, ice storms raged and ravaged their buildings, killed their animals, hell, even killed some of the townsfolk. So we went to stop that mess.
Damn near killed us in the process, but we did manage to halt it and send that spirit to hell where it belonged. Not before it sent a whole sheet of ice tumbling from the tallest building down atop of us. Pierced me right through the legs, cut my arms and face but good.
I dreaded having to live through something like that again. I shuddered at the thought of the entire snowbank above us suddenly rushing down and knocking me clear off the side of the pass, sending me bouncing off the mountainside as I fell and then landed and broke my body on the ravine below.
I slip-slided my way up sideways, pausing every so often to wait for my horse to pick his way up and find footholds on the slippery surface. I stood with my back to the mountain, so I could grab onto the rock if need be to steady myself, and grimaced as more ice cracking followed by a soft rumble sounded overhead.
I put my hand up, signaling for him to stop and Tristan stood still, waiting. The sound died down, I let out the breath I had been holding. Tristan however, did not relax. He stiffened up more, and stood there, his eyes wide.
“What?” I whispered.
“I looked down.”
“I told you not to. Come on. We’re almost at the top. Should be easier after this bit.”
“Rourke…” He was gripping his leather reins so tight, I could hear the leather squeak. “I…I’m not sure I can do this.”
“Don’t be silly. You’re already halfway up. Come on Montebalm, get the lead out.”
He was frozen in place. Terrified. I wasn’t used to seeing him afraid like that. It was rather unsettling. He was always the calm and reassuring one.
He didn’t respond. His gaze went blank, like he was seeing something very far away.
“Hey, can you hear me?”
He nodded, still staring at nothing, like he was a million miles away.
“Stay there. Let me get Grey up to the level part of the trail and I’ll come back and help you up. All right?”
He nodded again. Eyes still glazed over.
“Honestly,” I muttered under my breath. “Picked one hell of a time to have a vision. Like you’re the only one that’s scared here.”
I learned a long time ago that doing something brave was one part foolhardiness, and two parts utter and total fear. You have to push through the fear, or it will consume you.
I was a nervous wreck; heart pounding, breath fast, fogging the crisp winter air. I hoped to the gods that he wouldn’t wander off in a daze and fall to his death before I could get back to him. I couldn’t help him and my horse up at the same time. It was too treacherous.
The wound on my back twitched and started itching real bad. The more it itched, the more painful it became. I hissed and tried to press on and ignore it as I led my horse up the rest of the way. It was impossible to scratch my shoulder blade through all the layers of clothes I had on. And forget using the mountainside as a scratching post. That was not happening. Not here.
I gritted my teeth as the pain and itching became unbearable. I had to press on. I had to help Tristan get out from under that overpass, before it collapsed and I lost him in an avalanche, or he started daydreaming and walked clean off it. I put my horse’s reins down, when I saw there was nothing to tie him to at the top of the hill.
“Stay here,” I ordered, and prayed to all that was holy that he would listen to me, and then slowly eased my way back down towards Tristan. He was breathing shallow, and was so pale, he looked like he was about to be sick. I took his reins out of his tight grip and he looked at me.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry.”
“Tristan, snap out of it,” I said and, since I couldn’t slap him–the sound could start an avalanche–I pinched his cheeks really hard.
He blinked and jerked his head back as he came out of his psychic trance.
“What the hell was that for?”
“You spaced out. Now move,” I hissed at him and gently pushed him forward. “Slide your feet up, don’t step, just glide them across the surface. Like you’re ice skating.”
“Never been,” he muttered.
His horse, a yellow mare named Buttercup, was stepping in the holes that my horse made when he picked his way up, and she seemed to be doing all right. The mare slipped at one point and my heart stopped in my chest as I feared that she was going to slide right off, dragging me with her, but she regained her footing and tossed her head, indignantly.
“Almost there,” I whispered.
We were just a few feet away from the top when Tristan slipped and fell face-first onto the snow. He scrambled, struggling as the snow bank we were moving through gave way and slid off the edge, taking him with it.
Without even thinking, I lunged forward and grabbed his hands. I struggled to hold onto him. My feet were slipping. He was off the edge, dangling, gripping onto my wrists hard. He was heavy, and I had very little leverage because of the damn ice.
I grunted, could feel the stitches in my back rip open as I struggled to hold onto him.
“Rourke,” he said softly, panic in his grey eyes. His hat had fallen off, the leather strap the only thing keeping it hanging on his neck.
“Don’t let go,” I said. “Use your feet and I’ll pull you back.”
He nodded and pressed his feet against the craggy rock and pushed himself up while I pulled. I slipped back and fell on my ass, sliding towards him as he crawled up onto the snow. He swiftly put his leg out to catch me before I too went over the edge.
“Thanks,” I said and crawled over to the other side of the path and leaned against the wall.
He nodded and sat there, catching his breath.
“That was close,” he said. “I hate it when I see things right before they happen.”
“You could’ve said something.”
“Wouldn’t have changed the outcome. Besides, I knew you would catch me. I just wasn’t sure if you’d pull me up, or if I’d yank you down and we’d both fall to our deaths.”
“I hate this mountain,” I muttered and carefully got back to my feet. I put a hand out and he took it and used me to steady himself.
“This is all black ice,” he said, looking at the patch of the trail that no longer had snow on it. A thin layer of smooth dark ice covered the entire thing.
“I know. Come on, I want to get away from here as fast as possible.”
“I am all for that.”
We very cautiously picked our way up the rest of the incline and then rested a moment once we were on a safer surface. My shoulder was killing me. I was pretty sure I could feel blood dripping down my back and seeping into my undershirt.
“You are in pain,” Tristan said.
“Sorry about earlier.”
“You already apologized. No worries.”
“Yes. Don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to dip my toes in the hot spring,” I said.
He chuckled. “Mine are as well.”
“Wish I had a day or so to plan this trip before we left. Would’ve gotten us some metal ice cleats to strap on our boots. Definitely would’ve made that part of the trip a breeze.”
“Well…perhaps next time hm?”
“Don’t tell me you’ve had a vision of us coming back this way.”
“No,” he said with a small smile. “I meant next time we have to travel in the middle of winter.”
“Oh thank the gods for that. You had me worried there for a moment.”
Tristan looked past me, and stood up.
“Looks like someone had been through here not to long ago.”
I followed him as he walked to a crack in the mountain wall. There was a handprint, a smudge of charcoal ash, on the edge of the opening, about shoulder height.
“Well I’ll be. Who’d spend the night here though?” I said and poked my head inside. There was a remnants of a small fire on the cave floor, just outside of the snowline. I took the chance and rubbed my shoulder against the side of the entrance and hissed in relief.
“You rip open your stitches hauling me up?”
I put a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t sweat it. We’re going to a healing temple. They’ll stitch me back up in no time.”
He nodded, grim-faced.
“Whoever it was, they were traveling light,” he said. “Unless you think the snowfall was enough to cover tracks overnight.”
He slipped in, kicked the fire ashes with a toe and a tiny spark lit up and died fast.
“This fire was set last night.”
“Huh…Weird. Well, I suppose it’s possible. The snow and wind here are pretty heavy as is. If you look back the way we came, our footprint holes are already getting covered up.”
His lips twitched. “Mm.”
I made sure the horses wouldn’t go anywhere, and slipped inside the small cave. The floor space wasn’t that big, you’d have to sleep sitting up, or with your feet to the open snow. There was just enough space for the two of us to stand in there comfortably, but we wouldn’t both be able to sit down there.
“Had to have been just one person,” I said. “That is what I was thinking. Someone small, a woman perhaps?”
“What the hell would a woman be doing traveling by herself on this terrain? She’d have to be desperate, or crazy.”
I spotted writing on the wall and squatted down to read it.
“What is it?” he asked.
I ran my hand over the carving.
“Doves. A cross. And…some weird symbol I have never seen before in my life. Demonic, maybe?”
He peered over my shoulder, standing awfully close to me. My shoulder twitched, my skin crawled and I gritted my teeth, balled my fists.
“Yes, that is a demon’s sigil.”
“No. A warning, perhaps. But nothing nefarious.”
“Want to touch it? Get a read on it?”
“Not really. Just looks like something someone did out of habit. Like an obsessive compulsion.”
“If you say so.”
He stepped back and I stood up and stretched and pulled my shoulder up to my ear and rolled it back, trying to get the sensation to stop. It just made it worse.
“Nothing. Just itching like crazy.”
“Same as before?”
He sucked air through his teeth and shook his head. “I hope they can help you in Bethel.”
“Me too.” I sighed. “Well, this is strange, sure, but it doesn’t mean much. Maybe someone got hurt and whoever stayed here had run over to meet them at the temple in the hot springs.”
“Mayhap,” he said.
I clapped my hand on his shoulder. “Come on Montebalm, let’s get a move on. I want a nice hot bath and a good meal tonight.”
“That, sounds heavenly.”
We road the rest of the way in silence, both of us deep in our own thoughts.
I had a feeling we were going to run into someone I’d rather not see ever again, and I didn’t want to say anything and jinx us. If Tristan knew who it was, he wasn’t talking, which was fine by me.
Best not to speak of the Devil, lest he appear.
Or she…as the case may be.
Near nightfall, we rounded the last bend of Deadman’s Pass, and the trail opened up to a gently sloping valley covered in a soft blanket of white snow.
Nestled in the craggy hills at the foot of the mountain was a small town, surrounded by natural hot springs. The springs were walled in, segregated for privacy, and connected to a squat temple carved out of the rock face. The temple was here first, the town of Bethel raised up around it, and continued to slowly expand every generation.
It was a freehold, an independent town. It was neutral, not loyal to Concordia or the Imperium. Every city in the world had a heart to it. A magical epicenter, where a single individual could connect to the flow of energy and guide the city and it’s people. Some benevolent entities did just that, and allowed people to freely do as they please, hence the term, freehold.
Other cities, like Golgotha, were ruled by iron-fisted madmen, or in its case, a mad vampire. Humans did not rule there. They were treated as cattle, property, food, and rarely, pets. But not treated like citizens.
It was dangerous for us to even step foot inside the city, which was the main reason why I really didn’t want to ever go to such a place. And yet, here we were, on our way to that very city.
We got into town, and made our way to the stables. A young boy met us. He was friendly and helpful, as all stable boys are. Or tend to be at the very least. I lined his palm with a gold crown piece and told him to keep a good eye on our horses, and warned him not to be offended if mine tried to bite because he was a cranky old man.
The kid laughed and as soon as we removed our travel bags, he took them inside to feed and brush them down.
Tristan paused by the barn entrance and frowned.
“I know that livery,” he said and I immediately saw the leather saddle he was referring to. It was hanging up on a fence inside the barn, waiting to be polished and cleaned. It had the same horse head crest on it as his travel bag. Someone from his family was here.
That could only mean one thing; trouble.
“Wonderful. You still want to stay here?”
He sighed, ran his hands over his face and nodded. “We’re exhausted. We need to get warmed up, eat and rest for a night before moving on. The horses need time to recuperate as well. We can’t push them any harder than we already have.”
“Well then, I guess we better keep our heads down and not get noticed, huh?”
“I reckon so.”
He wasn’t moving. He was just looking at the livery, deep in thought. Irritated, annoyed, and close to being downright cranky, I shoved him towards the inn.
“Mister, I am hungry and tired and cold and I don’t have time to fuss right now. Let’s get situated and deal with things as they come.”
“Fine, fine. Stop pushing me, I’m not a bairn.”
I let up and walked alongside him, keeping my eye out for anyone that would cause us problems. The streets were pretty empty. Most people were inside now, as the temperature was about to drop once the sun finished setting.
We stepped inside, and I took off my hat and the girl at the counter stared. I gave her a rakish grin and she blushed and looked away. They really weren’t used to seeing redheads in these parts. Most people were blonde or brunette.
Tristan stood behind me, waiting. He probably didn’t want to talk to anyone right now.
I stepped up to the counter and took off my gloves.
“Hi there. We’d like a room for the night, got any free?”
“Um…yes. Yes we do. It’s mid-winter, so we’re not overbooked or anything, like that…at all.”
She was staring at me again.
“Do I have something on my face?”
She giggled. “No. Sorry. I just…you look familiar.”
“I bet you say that to all the men.”
“I don’t! I really don’t,” she said, a little too fast.
I laughed. “I’m just playing. How much for a room? And what do we need to do to get seen at the temple?”
“Is your friend hurt?”
“What? Oh no, he’s just quiet.”
“I thought maybe he was a straggler from the group that just arrived a few hours ago.”
“Nope. We are not traveling with anyone else. Just the two of us.”
“Ah. Sorry. I just…forgive me sir.”
I leaned forward, took her soft, porcelain hand, and kissed it. “No harm done.”
She blushed and turned away, but did not pull away her hand, she gripped mine.
“Hmmm…you definitely see something you like.”
“Yes,” she said, her voice soft and light.
I chuckled. “Well ma’am, you’re cute as a button, but I don’t think your father would approve.”
She giggled and grabbed a room key and asked for me to sign my name on the register and give her payment, which was a lot cheaper than I had anticipated.
We really didn’t go traveling much during winter and this was off-season for pilgrimages to the healing hot springs of Bethel.
“Your room is to the left, down the hall there. Once you get situated, you can stop by the dining quarters or head on over to the temple. During winter we use the tunnel in the basement to walk over there. It’s heated by the hot springs, so you don’t have to put back on your winter coats or anything. It’s open until midnight.”
“Thank you kindly miss.”
“Pleasure to make your acquaintance Heather. I’m Rourke.”
She curtsied and I walked away with a grin on my face. Tristan shot me a look and then shook his head.
“What is it with you and innkeeper’s daughters?”
“It’s a gift, that keeps on giving.”
“If you say so.”
We passed by the dining area, which only had a handful of rough looking men sitting at it, eating stew and drinking beer. Tristan walked with his head and hat down, trying to avoid eye contact.
“Don’t tell me those are the fellas that are looking for you.”
“I didn’t want to risk it.”
“You stand out you know. What with that sword strapped to your back and the fact that you are on the taller side of things.”
“Thank you for reminding me.”
“Don’t mention it.”
I opened the door to the room and as soon as he got inside and shut it, I started peeling off my clothes. Tristan hung up his long-coat and bag and was taking off his boots.
“Damn it,” I said. There was a huge blood spot covering half of the back of my shirt.
He raised an eyebrow as he turned to face me and grimaced.
“Oh. Your shirt. I really do feel bad about that.”
“I noticed. It wasn’t your fault. That snow was about to give. Could’ve happened to either one of us.”
There was a soft knock on the door. I grabbed one of my throwing knives, Tristan’s hand went to his sword scabbard.
“Yes?” I asked, and stepped softly up to the door.
“I forgot to give you towels and complimentary robes for your stay here.” It was the girl from the front desk, Heather.
Tristan stepped back from his sword and I put my knife away and opened the door a crack. She tried to peer in, because she apparently was curious about us, and I graciously took the robes and towels from her. It was a nice sized pile. She gave us the new ones. Probably on purpose.
“Thank you, Heather.”
“You’re welcome.” She stood there, smiling. “Anything else you need?”
Now…if things were a bit different, say I was traveling here by myself, and didn’t have a horrible gaping, bleeding wound on my back, I definitely would’ve said yes. Yes, there is something else I need, and then would’ve taken her inside the room and given her exactly what her body desired. However. I was not alone. I was bleeding like a stuck pig, and Tristan was glaring at me.
I could feel him staring daggers into the back of my head. It killed me to turn her away, but etiquette demanded it.
“We’re good for now, thank you. I’ll let you know if we need help with something.”
“Ah. Very well then,” she smiled, her soft pink lips like rose petals were very tempting. As was her silky blonde hair and perky tits.
“Good night Heather.”
“Good night Rourke.” She walked away, gave me a sly parting glance and I returned it and shut the door.
“What the hell was that about?” Tristan asked.
“She forgot to give us towels and things. That’s all.”
“She was flirting with you.”
He sighed, said nothing.
In fact, he became very close lipped and sat on his bed and took off his socks and grimaced. Dried blood rimmed the skin between his toes. I could see cracks running up the toe webbing, between all his toes, on both feet. No doubt the sores were on his heels now as well.
“Good Sweet Lady, your feet are a bloody mess. They have to hurt like hell. Why didn’t you say something?”
“We couldn’t stop. Not on that pass.”
“No wonder you’re grumpy.”
“I am used to my feet hurting.”
“Then what is it? You were glaring daggers into my skull there just a minute ago.”
“I don’t like her.”
“What? Why? She did nothing wrong.”
“There’s something off about her. I don’t trust that innocent looking face, seems fake. False smiles hiding something more sinister.”
“Tristan, you are paranoid. She was just looking for some fun in the sack.”
“And to steal your coin.”
“Ah…yeah. I can see that. Good point. And here I was worrying that maybe you were jealous.”
“Jealous? Of what?”
“Maybe you wanted her to flirt with you instead.”
“Hardly. She is not my type.”
I laughed. “That is also a very good point.”
He preferred women with softer, more fuller curves. Rounded hips and bosoms were his cup of tea.
I sat on the bed and sighed. Rubbed my shoulder on the bedpost and he looked at me aghast.
“You’re bleeding and rubbing it all over the post.”
“Oh. Shit.” I wiped it off with a kerchief. “That was dumb.”
After we got settled in and changed into the nice fluffy terry cloth robes, which thankfully were brown and not white to show off bleeding wounds, and put on some house slippers that were left for us in the room, we wandered down the hallway towards the stone stairs that led to the tunnel. There were men walking up them, chatting.
Tristan grabbed me and pulled me into a doorway. I said nothing. We both stood stock still.
Tristan was breathing fast and shallow. He was nervous. As soon as the group passed and was out of view, we walked swiftly to the stairs and descended them. Only once we were a good ways through the steamy tunnel did he say something.
“That was them.”
“I gathered that. But who are ‘them’ exactly?”
“My cousins and uncle…they probably brought Barnabas here to be healed.”
“Oh…shit. What are you going to do? You want us to go somewhere else?”
“No. I’ll keep my head down, stay out of sight when possible. If confronted, I will attempt to apologize and make amends, however, they aren’t exactly the most forgiving types.”
“They’ll be itching for a fight, huh?”
“Well, good thing I brought extra towels,” I said cheerfully and kept walking.
I lifted up the top towel, showed him the handle of my pistol and winked. “Just in case.”
“I don’t trust people. You seem to forget that about me.”
“But you’re so friendly.”
“Being friendly and polite, and blindly trusting strangers are two different things.”
We made it to the temple, walked up the stairs and stood before the tall double doors. They had scenes of healing carved into them, and a pretty little tree sprite watching over it all.
“Cute,” I said and opened them and walked inside.
“Is nothing sacred to you?”
He sighed. “Just try to be respectful. This is a holy place.”
He shot me a glance that told me that he didn’t believe me for a damn minute.
A priestess walked up to us, a humble, homey looking woman in a big comfy robe that showed off her cleavage nicely.
“Greetings travelers. You are welcome in this house of healing.”
“Thank you,” I said and we both bowed, respectfully.
“This way please,” she said and shuffled slowly along the corridor. The place smelled slightly of minerals and sulfur. It wasn’t unpleasant, just barely noticeable, really. “How can we help you this evening?”
“Well…” I said and suddenly grew very self conscious and embarrassed.
She glanced back at me, curious.
“He has a wound on his back that needs tending,” Tristan said.
She nodded. “And you?”
“Nothing a good soak in the hot spring won’t cure,” he said.
She smiled and it was a nice, genuine, soft smile. I could tell, she really cared about people.
“Very well,” she said and walked us into a room that opened up to the outdoors.
The hot springs were steaming. Snow melted in a ring around them, barely stuck to the rocky ground.
“Sit here,” she said to me and I sat on a bench under the overhanging roof.
Tristan went right over to the hot springs and took off his robe, set it on a hook on the partition fence and got in buck naked. I shook my head and said nothing.
The priestess didn’t even blink at his disrobing. She must be used to it.
“Your robe,” she said and gently tapped my shoulders.
“Ah, yes. That.” I took it off and she hung it up for me.
She took one look at my back and gasped. “My goodness! What happened to you?”
“Grizzly bear. Big. Huge bear. Lots of teeth and claws.”
She pursed her lips. “Highly unlikely. You’d be covered in gashes.”
“There aren’t any mountain lions here. The black wolves keep them out.”
“If you don’t wish to say, you do not have to. I was just…taken aback. You don’t hold yourself as though you are seriously injured, and yet, this is one massive wound on your shoulder blade. How long has it been this way?”
“About three months, give or take. Probably a little longer now.”
“It’s not healing?”
“It hasn’t started healing and then you did something foolish, repeatedly, and kept ripping the stitches open?”
“No. That…just happened. We, had a little accident on the way over Deadman’s Pass.”
“Sophia save you. Did you lose anyone?”
“No, no. Almost fell off, but that’s about it. Had to haul him up over the side. And well, he’s a big guy, so you know, it put strain on the stitches and they gave and ripped apart.”
“My goodness. Well, I…hm.”
“I can tend it, clean it up, stitch it back together. But…there’s something that doesn’t look quite right about it. You sure it wasn’t made worse by your…accident?”
“Because there’s tears in the flesh, here and here, at the sides of the wound” she said and pressed on my skin softly. I flinched. It hurt. A lot. “They’re fresh. Just recently split open.”
“Worry not. I shall mend it up for you in a jiffy.”
How the hell did that happen? Was my back slowly pulling itself apart? Pulling stitches was normal if you stressed the skin too much, but splitting open the wound wider? That required a bit more direct force. And I know Tristan didn’t do that when he yanked that tooth out. He was very careful to only cut where it was necessary to get a hold of it with the pliers.
I sighed and tried to relax as the priestess washed off my back, put healing salves on it, which calmed the itching down immensely, and then sewed me back up.
She made new holes for stitching though, and the needle pulling through my skin sent jolts of pain down my back. I kept jerking away from her.
“I am sorry sir. I’m being as gentle as I can.”
“No, it’s fine. It’s just really tender.”
“That is perfectly understandable. Poor thing.”
Normally, I would’ve objected to being called that. But I was too tired and worn out to argue.
“There, all done. Go soak in the hot springs. Stay as long as you like, and heal.”
“Thank you priestess,” I said and she bowed and left. I slipped into the hot water and hissed as my body got used to it.
Tristan opened an eye and glanced at me. “Better?”
I grunted in reply, grabbed a washcloth from the small bucket on the side and dipped it the water and rested it over my eyes. I sighed and sunk down in the water, and just let it wash over me, heating me up to boiling in no time.
“This is nice.”
“Mm,” he said in agreement.
I was dozing off. It was comfortable. The heat eased the pain, knotted muscles in my back and thighs loosened up. I didn’t even realize how tense I was.
I heard soft footsteps approaching, and didn’t even think about it, figuring it was the priestess coming back to check on us. I should’ve looked.
I heard the click of a pistol hammer, and then the cold end of it was shoved into the back of my head.
“Where’s John?” It was a woman’s voice; deep, gruff, hard edged. “Ah. Not a move there mister, or your friend here gets a bullet in his brain. Now…where the hell is he, Rourke?”
“Who?” I asked.
“Oh, him! Yeah, he’s not here.”
“Put your hands up where I can see them, now.”
I raised up my hands, and slowly pulled the cloth off my face and tossed it aside.
“Get up out of the tub.”
“Technically, this is a natural hot spring, so it’s more like a bathing pool, than a tub.”
“Get. Up. Now,” she said through gritted teeth.
“I don’t see why you’re being so hostile. I’m naked and unarmed.”
“A good hunter is never truly unarmed.”
Tristan was staring at her, looked like he was ready to pounce and start one hell of a fight.
“Rourke, who is this woman?”
I stood up, slowly turned to come face to face with Mary, the Saint of Sinners. One of the toughest, roughest monster hunters in all of Creation.
She was wearing a robe, and even barefoot, she was taller than I was.
Her dark brown eyes burned with rage. Would make even the most stalwart of men pause before messing with her.
They say she’s a living saint, with an angel of heaven on one shoulder, and an angel of hell on the other. One of the best hunters alive today, and not one I would willingly get into a fist fight with, even if I was in top form…which I wasn’t.
“Tristan, this is Mary. She’s a hunter. You know, the Saint of Sinners? That one.”
His eyes narrowed, he balled his fists. He was ready for a fight. I could feel the familiar crackle in the air as he unconsciously drew on the fighting magic in his blood. Instantly growing twice as strong as normal in one breath.
“Mary, this is Tristan Montebalm.”
“Oh, he’s Tristan?”
“Yes, what of it?”
“Nothing. Impressive looking beast.”
I smirked. “Uh huh. Could you please put down my six shooter now? It was very unkind of you to steal it after I had taken great pains to smuggle it in here.”
She made a face, then uncocked the gun, spun it on her finger so that the handle faced me.
I put it back under the towel and grabbed my robe and threw it on.
“Now, what the hell are you doing here? And why did you put my own gun to my head? That’s very rude.”
“I already told you. I’m looking for John.”
“Yes, but why?” Tristan asked. He had stepped out of the pool, and was in the process of putting his robe back on.
She sighed, sat down on the bench, looked utterly crushed with her shoulders slumped. It made her appear vulnerable…almost. That took me aback.
“Hey, are you…is everything all right?”
“No,” she said and tucked her hair behind her ears. She had cut it since I saw her last. It was now shoulder length; the ends haggard, as though it was chopped or sawed off with a knife. There was a new scar on her neck, looked like a human bite wound.
“What happened? Who bit you?”
Her hand went up to the scar on her neck. “John did.”
“No. That’s not right,” Tristan said. “He would never–”
“Well, he did. I wouldn’t lie. I have no reason to. He attacked me, stole my guns, bit my neck and left me to die.”
My stomach sank. “He…bit you? And stole your guns?”
Mary’s weapons of choice were not normal six shooters. They were magically enchanted silver pistols; they never needed bullets or reloading, and they always hit their mark. Allegedly she won them from the Devil in a poker game, but I never believed that story.
“I’m telling you, he wasn’t himself. At all. His eyes, they were…blood red. And he had fangs.”
“Vampire fangs,” she said and crossed her arms. She wasn’t looking at us, she was staring at her scarred feet.
Most of that woman was muscle and scar tissue. She had impressive scars crisscrossing her body from top to bottom, even had one on her lip. Mary was one hell of a fighter, and a survivor.
Even if I didn’t care for her all that much, she really had no reason to lie about him. However, something about what she said just didn’t sit right with me. It made me angry. Very angry. Defensive maybe?
“You’re saying that John, our John, overpowered you? I don’t believe it.”
“Well he did.” She looked up, rage burning in her eyes. “So, where is he? I want my fucking guns back. Now.”
“I hate to tell you this, but he’s in Golgotha.”
“Golgotha? What in the world would he be doing there? Unless…”
“Unless what?” Tristan asked and I jumped, startled. “What?”
I didn’t even notice him standing beside me. Didn’t hear him walk over. For once.
“Nothing. Ignore me.”
“As you wish,” he muttered.
“Unless he went looking for someone, or something,” she said.
“You think he stole your pistols out of desperation?” Tristan asked. It sounded like he already knew the answer.
She sighed. “Yes. That has to be it. He doesn’t normally use pistols, does he?”
“No,” I said. “He never needed to before. He was always so fast.”
“Even so, that doesn’t explain why he would not ask for your aid in the matter,” Tristan said. “He didn’t want anyone to help him. To the point where I had to get into a physical altercation to attempt to stop him from running off alone. I knew I should’ve done something more. I should’ve pursued him…made him think it through.”
Mary smiled bitterly. It sent a chill down my spine. I had never seen her smile. She was always either blank-faced and neutral, or very pissed off.
“Perhaps he fought you off, because he was afraid of what he was becoming. Mayhap he already knew, and couldn’t find a way to tell you.”
“Tell us what?” I asked.
“That he was turning into one of the damned.”
“Bullshit. I refuse to believe it.”
Tristan pursed his lips. “It is possible, I suppose.”
“Oh, now you are on her side? Come on!”
“Rourke, she is making sense. Something was wrong, I sensed it. I tried to help, he pushed me away. Pushed us all away, the way he always does when he has a problem. He always wants to solve his personal problems on his own, even though we all swore an oath to protect each other on the hunt.”
“Yeah…but…a vampire? Him? Naw. No way in hell that’s the case.”
“Would you prefer werewolf instead?” Mary asked.
“No. What I would prefer, is to have my friend safely rescued from that damn city without us dying in the process. But that, is going to be nigh impossible without a miracle or two, or maybe twenty. Hard to say. It’s a vampire city. The gods have no power there. At all.”
Mary stood abruptly, and we both tensed up, waiting for her to throw the first punch. Instead, she put her hands on her hips, leaned back and popped her back vertebrae. The sound made me shudder. Always hated that noise.
“Gentlemen, there is no way in the Gods’ Green Acre you are going to be able to survive that hellhole of a necropolis without serious back up.”
“What are you proposing?” Tristan asked.
“I’ll go with you. Get my guns back, and try not to kill John in the process. No promises on that last part though.”
“That’s not very reassuring,” I said.
“Too bad. That’s the best I can do. No one steals my shooters and gets away with it. No one. Not even Mr. Esten.”
“Without your magic guns, how are you going to give us serious back up?” I asked, and immediately wanted to bite my tongue in half for saying it. She glared at me like she wanted to rip my head off and spit down my throat.
“In case you have forgotten, I am a living saint. I’m still quite formidable, even without my guns. And you two, are going to need all the help you can get. Perhaps this all happened for a reason, Rourke. Perhaps Sophia willed it and sent John to run into me, so that I came looking for him, and found you two here instead, all so that I can accompany you to Golgotha. Perhaps that will be your miracle or two, or twenty that you require. You smart ass.”
My shoulder started tingling, which turned into a prickly itch. I twitched, tried to ignore it but that only made it more annoying and urgent of an itch.
“Excuse me a moment,” I said and walked over to a support post and scratched my back on it and hissed in relief.
“What’s his problem?”
“That wound you sewed up? The one he received in Concordia? It never healed.”
“What. It’s been months. What do you mean it hasn’t healed?”
“It hasn’t healed,” I said, still scratching my back. “And it hurts, and itches and hurts some more and itches, and it’s a vicious cycle, really. I don’t recommend it.”
“I consecrated that wound. Exorcised the pain spirits even. It should’ve healed up twice as fast as normal.”
“All the other bites and scratches that beast gave me did. But the big one on my back, the one you put that medal in? Hasn’t healed. At all.”
“It desecrated the sacred medal you put under his skin. I saw it,” Tristan said softly. “There were tooth marks, over the face. It had no holy power left to keep whatever it is that has taken root in his flesh at bay.”
Mary made an annoyed sound, stomped over, bare feet slapping on the smooth stone, grabbed my shoulder, whirled me around and roughly pulled the robe top down.
“Son of a bitch,” she said.
“You didn’t notice when I got out of the pool?”
“No. I was busy staring at the back of your head, contemplating if I should shoot you or not.”
She grabbed my shoulder, ran her hand over the wound and my skin crawled and I pulled away awkwardly.
“You know, I prefer to be wined and dined before getting frisky. I know you’re not the romantic type, but…a little bit gentler would be nice.”
She slapped the back of my head.
“Ow! What the hell woman?”
“You’re an idiot.”
“And you’re the one that ran off after that damn thing and didn’t even tell me what the hell it was, nor what it was trying to do to me. So we’re even on the idiot front.”
“I reckon so. I…” She sighed.
I turned to face her. She was uncomfortably close to me. Her body brushed against mine. I froze, put my hands up so that she didn’t think I was about to grope her. I didn’t want to do anything to piss her off any more than she already was. She hits hard when she’s mad…and she’s usually very angry. Righteous fury of the saints and all that.
I saw a flicker of regret on her face. Just there, a smidge, a brief moment, like a single beat of a butterfly’s wings.
“I’m sorry. I should’ve made you come with me, so I could keep an eye on you. I don’t know what that thing was, nor what it was trying to do to you. No one does.”
“Tristan thinks it was trying to use my body as a living sacrifice, if that helps.”
“Makes about as much sense as anything, I suppose.”
I could feel her breasts, even if they were on the small side, rubbing against my chest and I cleared my throat.
“Uh…you are standing awfully close to me. Something you want?”
She narrowed her eyes. “No.”
“You sure? I mean, I’m flattered and be happy to oblige, even if you aren’t my type.”
She shoved me back away from her and my back bounced off the support beam.
“Hey! Hands off!” Tristan shouted and got in between us. “Touch him again, and I will retaliate.”
He was getting loud.
“Tristan…keep it down. They’ll hear you.”
“This woman is the type that will not listen unless you are yelling at her. She does not take soft-spoken men seriously. But, I mean what I say. Touch him again, and I shall be forced to intervene. Consider yourself warned.”
Mary laughed, which made me even more uncomfortable. I didn’t even know she was capable of making such a sound.
“I understand Mr. Montebalm. I will not harm him. Not until it is absolutely necessary.”
“What do you mean? What are you implying?”
“Yes, what are you implying?”
She shook her head. “It shouldn’t come to it, but if it does, I will gladly put you out of your misery Mr. Whelan.”
“Gosh. Thanks lady. You’re so reassuring and kind. I feel so much better about all of this now.”
“I thought you would.”
“I was being sarcastic!”
“I know,” she said and smiled wickedly. I didn’t like this new behavior trend of hers. Not one bit.
“My gods, you’re like a cat with a mouse,” Tristan said, and put his arm out when I tried to step around him. “Don’t encourage her.”
I made an annoyed sound. “She’s bluffing.”
“She is not.”
I looked up to the heavens and shook my head. “Sophia, save me from these morons.”
“That, is no way to talk to the Goddess of Wisdom and Light,” Mary said.
“My apologies, oh great saint who was sanctified by said goddess many many moons ago and is doomed to roam the earth forever until a great evil is finally defeated. Must be awful, being forced into immortality during such difficult times. You must be really lonely, to want to team up with the likes of us. Aren’t you?”
“Shut. Up. Not another word, or so help me.”
“What? Sophia wills it that you kick my ass? If you haven’t noticed lady, I’m already in a ton of pain and misery. I don’t need you adding to the pile.”
“You really ought to stop talking now,” Tristan said.
“Hey, you are not helping either.”
“I cannot help it. I have no reason to trust this woman. Everything about her screams danger. I can almost smell death coming from her. Her aura is black as pitch. So pardon me if I err on the side of caution.”
Mary raised her chin, looked him right in the eye, which wasn’t difficult as they were the same height.
“I didn’t know you were psychic.”
“Most people don’t, so if you could, please keep it down.”
“Oh, sensitive subject?”
“Very punny,” I said and ducked under Tristan’s outstretched arm and stepped up to her and said softly,“Please, for the love of all that is holy, keep that to yourself. The imperial guard is getting rather aggressive with their recruitment. I’d rather not have to rescue him from them if I can help it.”
“I know. I’ve seen them. Distasteful practice if you ask me.”
“On my way back from Eugenica. Passed by a whole cohort of them when I left the domed city. It was not long after that I ran into John.”
“When was that?” I asked.
“Late fall, near the harvest moon. Before the first frost. Why?”
“You ran into him then?” Tristan asked. “It must’ve been right after I parted ways with him.”
“To be honest, I was surprised to see him on the trail. Hadn’t run into him in years, not since you three started hunting together. I thought it was good for him, to have a hunting party. He was no good on his own. Stayed in his own head too much. Made him…a bit crazy.”
“I know,” I said. “When we first met he was talking to himself, constantly. The poor bastard.”
“And what about you? Why are you fine hunting alone?” Tristan asked.
“I’m never truly alone,” she said and raised her hands up to her shoulders. I swear, I could see a green flame on the left, and a golden one on the right. Angelic fire.
Tristan cursed under his breath and crossed himself. “So it’s true.”
“Angels follow me where others fear to tread. In fact, they never leave me alone. A gift, from Sophia.”
“Truly a blessing,” I said, not meaning a single word.
Mary moved forward in a blur and punched me, knocking me clean on my ass. She pounced on me, went to punch me again and before I could hit her back Tristan picked her up by the wrist and tossed her away, effortlessly.
She caught herself before falling into the water, and regained her balance. She chuckled and rubbed her knuckles.
“Rourke, you have the hardest head I have ever hit.”
“Uh, thanks?” I said and stood up, rubbing my jaw. She damn near broke it.
Tristan stood there, seething, but not acting on his anger. His fists were balled, he was ready to hit her back. They were starting to glow with golden light, he was pulling more magic to his hands and arms. He was preparing for a serious fight. I stepped up to him and put a hand on his arm.
“Stop. Let it go man. It’s fine. I had it coming. Besides, she held back, pulled her punch so she wouldn’t break my jaw.”
“Why hit you to begin with then?”
“Because,” a man said from the doorway to the springs. “She can’t control her temper. And neither, can you.”
We turned to look. All the color drained from Tristan’s face.
“Nephew. You and I need to have a long talk. About Barnabas. And what you did to him.”