The breeze chilled Sebastian. He tried to pull his gaze away. Gunpowder consumed his nostrils, and a ringing swarmed inside his ear. His gaze traced the tufts of fabric. He stared at the stump of a neck sliced clean, blood pooling around shoulders. A crimson trail fled out the door, splotches on the snow.
“All wrong from the start,” said Sebastian. Sweat dripped down his brow. The floor tilting towards him then away. From the shotgun welcome at Dunston, hurrying off in search of Tabitha meeting Father Young, the riddle, Tabitha teasing his gun away. Even the weather had been against him, beyond the turning point forcing him here, Roan, the killer.
“I should have stayed with her.” Glancing back he spotted the innkeeper crouching at the corner of the bar. “I should have asked more questions at Dunston. More insistent. More protective of my gun.”
Running fingers back through his hair, Sebastian gazed down at the headless body. He recalled the hellfire. “But you were right, Tabitha.” He pictured her sharp teeth. Tears flooded his eyes blurring vision. “They would have executed you without a trail.”
“But if I had done better,” said Sebastian. He remembered the moonlight kissing her smiling face. “Same result, only sooner.”
With the killer on the loose, there was still a chance for justice. Leaning down over the body, he snatched the shotgun. “Where’s my hat?” He felt naked without his hat.
Creeping around the bar, Balmer held it up, shaking.
Sebastian snatched the hat, smashed it on his head, and tugged the brim down. His boots thumped across the floor and over the body. Pausing at the door, he glanced back at Balmer. “Fetch the lawman.”
The nearly pristine snow beneath the hanging lanterns made the trail easy to follow. The blood droplets made it obvious. Turning a corner, boots skidding over slick cobblestone, Sebastian found a narrow street between stone buildings. Light spilled a few meters into the street before being swallowed by darkness. At the other end of the chasm, the red horizon outlined the forest, dark spindly fingers reaching for the sky. Before the trees, a white mist, nearly glowing beneath the moonlight, grasped at the air.
Sebastian inspected the shotgun, a double barrel with a single shot remaining. Entering the shadows, Sebastian held his breath. Snow crunched beneath boots. The cold gripped him, icy fingers digging into his back. He searched the white ground. Every shadowy divot leaped out at him, his mind turning them into footprints and blood drops.
Then he saw him, a silhouette of a slender figure surrounded by burning red around the flat brim of the hat, white mist surrounding torso and legs. At his side, something hung from his hand, long threads reaching to the bulbous mass at the man’s knee; the killer held the head by the hair.
Sebastian stepped, one foot in front of the other, and raised the shotgun taking aim. His heart thundered in his chest. Beyond range, he continued. “Conrad,” he said, “show me your hands!”
Conrad released the hair. The head fell and thumped in the snow.
Red pressed through spindly trees turning the mist into a dance of writhing white tendrils, and painted the far end of the street.
Shotgun level, finger over trigger, Sebastian crept placing one foot before the other, heart slamming his chest. Keeping his eye on the shadowy figure, he heard the crunching and clacking of his boots, a morning bird singing to the coming sun, heartbeat in his ears. Ten paces from the corner, he stopped.
A bird tweeted. Another answered. Distant boots clomped over cobblestone.
Conrad stood motionless. Behind him, the horizon brightened.
“Your hands, Conrad!” Sebastian squinted into the light.
Flutter of shadow, and the shotgun slipped from his grasp. Conrad stood before him his parted duster revealing weapons hanging from belt. At the end of an extended arm, slender fingers held the barrel of a revolver, wood handle outward. It appeared very similar to the one lost to the river.
Heart slowing, Sebastian stared at his father’s other revolver held out to him. Confused, he peered at the face. Blood dripped from thin lips onto the pale chin. High cheekbones, slender nose, the face nearly appeared feminine. The narrow eyes, confident cold blue steel gaze pierced into him. A shiver scrambled down his backside. He felt small, naked. He tried to hold the gaze, but his eyes deceived him and he peered down at the revolver in the hand.
“Your father,” said Conrad, whispering through clenched teeth. “A great warrior.”
Sebastian gulped down saliva, and licked his lips. He felt like a child, small and helpless.
“His,” said Conrad, “death.” He peered down at the revolver. “A good death.”
Reaching out, Sebastian grabbed the revolver by the handle and held it against his chest. Peering down at the offering, he understood the words. The two warriors had fought with honor. Conrad respected Rhemus the Giant.
His father felt closer.
Sebastian looked up finding the street empty. Sunlight struck his face, and he held up his hand blocking the light. Glancing back, he searched the empty street. Before him the empty meadow cradled pristine snow. Somehow he knew, no matter how improbable, the creature had departed with the night.
Tabitha’s head rested in the snow, dark hairs fanned over cheek. Dropping to a knee, Sebastian brushed the hair aside revealing the wound. Instead of a clean cut, he found a gash, torn flesh hanging from the back, and within, broken skull fragments slick with blood. It appeared as though Conrad had chewed his way into the back of the skull.
Hearing footsteps, a cane tapping cobblestone, he twirled around finding Father Young.
“No. I’m not following you, boy.” Father Young pointed his cane towards the building on the left. “My church.”
“That’s how you knew how to find Conrad.” Sebastian slipped his father’s revolver—his revolver—into his holster. “What is he? A vampire?” It sounded too much like folklore, but he had no other explanation.
“Nonsense, boy.” Father Young rubbed his balding head and peered down at the head. “Something old. Older than I even.”
Sebastian peered at the dark glasses picturing the strange gold orbs within. Father Young was something not quite human, and he wanted to know more. “Father, I’ve seen evil.”
Father Young peered up and wrinkled his nose. Sunlight glimmered on the dark lenses. “Conrad?”
“Ignorance,” said Sebastian. “We all choose our path, Father Young, and sometimes that path offers very few forks.” He shook his head at the limited choices along the way. “How can I help anyone? With all these secrets! I must learn about your people. Tabitha’s people.”
“You truly are your father’s son.” Father Young shook his head. “A hunter.”
“A defender.” Sebastian held his head high. He felt refreshed knowing his path. “I must return to university.”
Father Young nodded. “I’ll message Father Gustav.”
“But first I must visit Dunston. Let them know their monster is gone.”
“Didn’t you notice? He’s a demon hunter.” Sebastian scowled. “My father’s final assignment. You sent my father after Conrad, didn’t you?”
Father Young cringed.
“I’d sleep with a gold eye open if I were you, Father Young.” Sebastian grinned. “Conrad is still out there.”
Picking up the Dunston Monster’s head, Sebastian held it to his chest. He brushed the dark hair aside finding the serpentine teeth within gaping jaw. Vision blurred. He felt tears streaming down his cheeks. Recalling their talk in the woods, sitting in the trees, his tears became a shower.
“No,” said Sebastian. “You’re not evil, Tabitha.” He took a step, wobbling. He pictured the moonlight splashing off her cheeks, her smile, and peered down at her dead eyes. The hellfire was gone. Clenching teeth, he marched into town.
“No more evil than the rest of us monsters.”