“We have a habit of reaching destinations around sundown,” Wendell said, as he wondered the streets of Troyes, “I wonder if there is any significance to that?”
Walking beside him, Mr. Baine shrugged and said, “Perhaps, but only to someone determined to find it. An unlikely, displaced holy man, perhaps?” Wendell allowed a brief smile to cross his typically stoic facade. He was in a surprisingly good mood, all things considered. Amazing the difference a day makes, he thought.
The weather had been pleasant and the road clear, allowing the farmer to make good time to the city. Wendell and Mr. Baine purchased some of the the food the man was hauling, primarily vegetables and cheese, and filled their bellies. The time riding in the back of the wagon was spent resting; the companions taking turns trying to catch up on the sleep they had lost the previous night. Wendell attempted to spend his time awake meditating as much as he was able, given their circumstances. The last onset of change in the chaos of the night before had unsettled him more than he cared to admit, and he was determined to remain in control should they find themselves similarly pressed in the future. Still, there were no unfortunate encounters on the road - human or otherwise - and, as far as either of them could tell, they were not being followed.
When they finally arrived in Troyes that evening, Wendell felt a measure of refreshment in both body and spirit. Mr. Baine was considerably less grumpy, as well, he noted, which was bound to have helped his own mood. Even the gunshot wound in his shoulder was feeling much improved. The farmer had taken them to a popular open-air market in the city and there they parted ways; he, to stay with relatives who lived in the city, and they to find reasonably-priced room and board for the night.
Due to their dwindling finances, the two men agreed that they should abstain from the comforts of a proper hotel and purchase only the most basic of accommodations. However, the pickings seemed spare in Troyes - at least in the part of the city in which they now found themselves. Wendell began to wonder if they would ever again have the luxury of down comforters and pillows. No, the monk within him spoke up, that was before, you are different now. I don't deserve it anyway, thought Wendell. The beast, for its part, slumbered quietly in the shadows.
The sun had nearly finished its westward trek for the day before Mr. Baine stopped abruptly before a nondescript townhouse with a sign in the window. Wendell could not read it, but guessed at what it said.
“Do they have a room to let?”
“If I'm reading it correctly, they do,” said Mr. Baine. He glanced over the plain facade, “Dare we enter? I don't imagine this to be the lap of luxury.”
“It would require a great deal of effort to turn me away from a bed at this point,” said Wendell. Mr. Baine nodded and the pair ascended the steps. The room was sparsely furnished; Wendell reasoned that this was for the best, given how small it was. To both men’s great relief there were two individual-sized beds; a cupboard, a small table and a washstand were also present.
The woman who owned the house, a middle-aged widow, had not expected anyone to show up so late, and thus had no food prepared. Instead, she directed them to a small cafe down the street from where they were staying that could provided them with a warm, affordable meal. It was a mild evening and the two men elected to sit at one of the tables clustered on the sidewalk, watching the stars emerge.
Draining the last of his wine, Mr. Baine sighed contentedly and said, “Barring the events of yesterday evening, this has not been an altogether unpleasant trip.”
Wendell glanced around at the other patrons, checking to see if any had turned an ear to what Mr. Baine had said. No one appeared to be paying attention. “Perhaps you can handle the next altercation should we stumble across any more … unfortunates.” he said, careful not to let his voice carry beyond their table.
“Unfortunates?” Mr. Baine chuckled at the abstract reference and sat back in his chair thoughtfully, regarding the purple veil that had fallen across the sky and was quickly darkening to a deep blue. After a moment, he sat up. “You know what? I will,” he said, “I have dealt with them before, and I will agree that you have shouldered the burden of dealing with them since we left London.” He picked up a stray crumb from his plate and casually tossed it into his mouth.
Wendell started to protest, to say that he was only picking at his companion, but Mr. Baine cut him off, “No, I mean it. The next one is mine. I've had quite enough opportunity to observe. I need to stay sharp lest I get slow and lazy and become just another helpless layperson. A man who can't defend himself in these strange times, they are the truly 'unfortunate.' ”
“I was not trying to imply such a thing.” Wendell said, feeling at turns guilt and fear. The former, for taking a verbal swipe at the man who had been kind enough to travel with him, taking care of their expenses and providing most welcome support in battling and ultimately seeking a cure for his affliction; the later, for encouraging him to stand in harm’s way out of … what? Pride? Guilt? Whatever the reason, it was Wendell who could afford to take the risk, and not Mr. Baine, who still had a future worth living for. After all, if he happened to be bitten, the end result was simply that two monsters would be put down, rather than one. Should Mr. Baine get bitten, however, two monsters would still fall, but a third would remain, wondering aimlessly for a cure that may or may not exist and always seemed to be just out of reach.
They had not known each other very long, but Wendell had to admit that his relationship with Mr. Baine was, by far, the closest thing to a friendship he had experienced since leaving Songshan several years earlier. Wendell had arrived on his doorstep one day, haunted, road-weary and seeking another. Any rational person would have simply turned him away. In fact, Wendell found himself wondering on more than one occasion if he had found Dr. Henry Jekyll, as he had intended, if he would have been given even a minute to explain himself. The man Wendell chanced across instead, Mr. Baine, had not only listened, but taken him in, worked with him in developing a serum to help fight the change, and uncovered the lead in Munich which they now pursued, but was happy to travel with him and cover their expenses out of his own pocket.
Wendell knew Mr. Baine’s had an insatiable curiosity, which accounted for his willingness to undertake this journey. Wendell was a curiosity; a person who had been places, seen things, and suffered a condition - all of which fell well beyond the boundaries of a normal life experience. On some level, though, he could not shake the feeling that his companion was pursuing something else - a destination or goal that he had yet to verbalize. He could also be presumptuous, tactless, and more than a little abrasive if the mood struck him, but did that warrant a challenge that placed the man in harm’s way? Something in Wendell’s expression prompted a smirk from Mr. Baine, spreading across his face like oil over water.
“One does not need the mysterious ways of the Orient or any supernatural gifts - for I maintain that is indeed what they are - to vanquish these creatures.” He raised a hand to stifle the protest for which Wendell had drawn a breath. “Knowledge and preparedness are all a person of reasonable vigor require. And, rest assured, when the time comes, I will be prepared.”
“I will be there, though, if the situation gets out of hand.”
They rose early the next morning, before the sun had even begun to crest the horizon. Their host, attempting to make up for her percieved lack of hospitality the night before, prepared a hearty breakfast, which they ate in silence as Mr. Baine poured over a map of France and the surrounding environs. At last the silence was punctuated by a murmur from Mr. Baine.
“We are still a fair distance from Munich,” he said, “A couple days by train, at least.”
“Can we afford that?”
Mr. Baine inspected his wallet, his mouth pulling down at one end. “Part of it, at any rate,” he said after a moment, “but that will pretty much finish off what little money I have left.”
“Perhaps we will find someone in need of hired help along the way.” said Wendell, hopefully.
“I'm not overly fond of the idea,” said Mr. Baine, “but if we must, we must.”
“Have faith.” Wendell said. The comment was made off-hand, but caused his companion to sit up and give him an appraising look. As he did so, Wendell noticed a slight bulge under his jacket that he did not remember seeing before.
“It strikes me as odd that a person in your position would mention faith.” said Mr. Baine.
Wendell glanced around to see if their host was nearby, “My position as a monk or my position as … one afflicted in such a way as I?”
Mr. Baine looked thoughtful for a moment. “Both.” he said.
“ 'Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen,' ” Wendell recited. “I have faith that what we seek is out there, somewhere. No faith, no hope; no hope ... no point in taking this journey.”
“That's not necessarily true,” Mr. Baine shook his head. “I have no idea if there's a cure, but I thought that this was a trip worth taking anyway.”
“Probably because this journey means something different to you than it does to me.”
It was Mr. Baine's turn to glance around the kitchen, but their hostess had left the room, "Is that why you're so insistent that your 'condition' is so terrible - you believe it's a punishment for your sins?"
"I find it hard to believe that the best way to reform a self-absorbed, materialistic fool is to turn him into an uncontrollable killer." Wendell kept his voice low, but his reply came more sharply than he had intended. The question had touched a nerve.
"Mysterious ways and all that." replied Mr. Baine in his typical flippant manner.
Wendell took a deep breath before he spoke again, "Not everything that happens is the part of some great plan. The key is to find some higher purpose - a means of drawing good from evil."
"But that's why it's so important to learn all we can about it!" Mr. Baine was no longer joking, "If all we do is find a cure and wipe it out, then all those people you've hurt have suffered in vain. However, if we can study it, subjugate it - turn it into a ... a tool, then it can be used for good."
"I am far from being the only one, you know," said Wendell, "Curing me will not rid the world of ... this illness. Study them."
"No, but you are quite possibly the only one I've ever heard of with as much control over it as you have." Wendell could tell Mr. Baine meant this as a compliment, but it felt to him like a confirmation of his existence as a freak, an odditiy - and a dangerous one at that.
Mr. Baine continued, "Most of the poor souls I've read about either take their own lives in a spectacularly gruesome fashion or succumb to it completely."
"It has to be ... drastic," Wendell's voice was barely more than a whisper, "Or it will not work." He absent-mindedly rubbed a thumb across a faint series of lines on his wrist, nearly invisible after all this time.
Mr. Baine's mouth dropped open. "Are you ... do you mean to tell me ..." he leaned forward and hissed, "You? The 'unforgivable sin?' "
Wendell wavied him back, "Catholic misconception. There is only one 'unforgivable sin,' and that is not it."
"Look at you, reading up on the competition."
"You know," said Wendell, "I did have a life prior to training with the monks. The time I spent there changed me, but not in every way. At any rate, I have appreciated your generosity and continue to appreciate your company, but it is because of the people I hurt that I will find a cure, no matter what. Beyond that, who knows?"
“Fair enough.” Mr. Baine shrugged and slumped back in his chair. Once more Wendell found his gaze drawn to the mysterious lump under his coat.
“What are you hiding under there?”
Mr. Baine looked around conspiratorially and, as their host had yet to reappear, opened his jacket to display a leather holster suspended under his arm by a series of straps that wrapped around his shoulder. The lump was the butt of a pistol sticking out from within. “It is a new style of holster from America. They are outlawing guns in public places, so people have taken to concealing them under their clothing.” He grinned. “I told you I would be prepared.”
The pistol was not a surprise, as Wendell had seen Mr. Baine put it into his bag back in London, but he was sure he had not seen the holster before now. Wendell could not help but wonder what other surprises Mr. Baine might have packed without his notice.
“That will certainly slow one down,” said Wendell, careful to avoid any mention of vampires, “But even that will not be of much help, should you find yourself in close quarters with an 'unfortunate.' ”
Mr. Baine cocked an eyebrow and tugged at one arm of his jacket and then the other, turning his palms upward. The ends of two wooden stakes just barely protruded from his sleeves, ending just below his wrists.
“I secured them using some bandages. All I have to do is slide them out like so,” he held his arms together, one above the other, with each hand turned towards the opposite wrist. “I did have to use my saw to shorten them a bit so that the points would not extend past my elbow.”
“Ah, so that explains why it took you so long to get ready this morning. I feared you might have given in to some base desire up there.”
Mr. Baine wore a look of puzzlement for a moment, which was quickly overtaken by one of exasperated understanding. “You have a corrupt mind for a monk - or whatever it is you consider yourself,” he said.
“It must be the company I am keeping,” Wendell chuckled, “Not bad for an unlikely, displaced holy man, eh?”
Mr. Baine rolled his eyes, “Touche.” Making quick work of what food was left on his plate, he said, “Let us finish here and be off - neither time nor trains will wait for any man.”
“I just hope you do not plan on taking your jacket off. I would hate having to explain why you are walking around with a collection of deadly objects strapped to your person.”
“I will make it a point to keep it on.”
With handshake from Mr. Bane and a respectful bow from Wendell, the two men resumed their journey, leaving the woman to wonder at the two curious - albeit polite - gentlemen who had lodged with her for but a single night.