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  • by Mackenzie O'Rear

Chapter 24 - Return to Ashes

Edited by Brien Bigelow

Illustrations by Lucas Marra

Frederick was dead. The remains of his body were found among the ashes of the forest, with no sign of his blood having been drained. The bruises on his neck told Marlowe how he had been strangled to death by Lady Corrine, as Vincent’s strength would have simply broken his neck completely.

They had lost her wedding ring, reclaimed by its owner in a fit of sentimentality, but it mattered very little. They still had the vial of Vincent’s blood, and it indicated he was still close, proving the two creatures were still in league with one another. They were currently headed north, and if it hadn’t been for Frederick’s reckless use of his invention, they might have had a chance to catch up to them.

They hoped to cut them off here in Bulgaria, having lost the chance to ambush them in the Ottoman Empire, but it was of little effort to simply transfer to a new train headed north. A simple trek through the woods, and there was the resurrected Lady De Marine. Marlowe had to admit, Frederick had done fine work. He remembered bartering with her husband over her dismembered corpse, and now she looked good as ever, baring a few scars.

Frederick had proved to be an interesting loss to Marlowe and Father Grigori. The latter mourned him some, buried his remains in the forest, and said a small prayer over his grave, thanking him for all he had been taught in their time together. Marlowe found grim amusement over the fact he was saying a Christian prayer over Frederick, who had never believed in a God of any kind.

According to Father Grigori, the Flamel Notes had been incinerated in the fire. It was a shame to lose such a valuable tome, but Frederick had been a compulsive note taker, and Marlowe was sure the translations would more than likely still be at the lab in London. Marlowe had been too preoccupied with the novelty of Frederick’s death to note Father Grigori’s travel bag seemed somewhat heavier now, a fact that would have interested him greatly.

The bad news flowed like a river. When they used the candle to contact Richard and Blake with the bad news, they found that there seemed to be a third party following them, if not directly interfering. It was Blake who had told them, which seemed to anger Richard, who was embarrassed to let yet another foe examine him. He seemed to be devolving, Marlowe noted, from a proud and methodical hunter to a madman, on the brink of starvation, given how he had snapped at his companion.

Time was running out, and not just in terms of the sanity of his underlings. Marlowe could feel it in his lungs every time he breathed. It was getting harder and harder to do so, and the mountains that lay ahead promised him no favours. He had been so close, and thanks to Frederick he was that much further from his goal. He couldn’t turn back to London now, knowing he could not survive the journey back to retrieve Frederick’s notes.

It was not long after the inferno he had decided against his own better judgment to confide in Father Grigori with his mystic arts. The Russian had listened to him quietly, with an unchanging expression, as he learned of Marlowe’s illness, something that could have killed him later, but for now he was desperate. Father Grigori nodded, and silently pulled out a vial of mysterious liquid Marlowe was to take three times a day. It would not cure him, but it would buy him time.

For Marlowe, it was not a matter of if they would catch these monsters, only when, and thus he kept his calm in the face of the enormous setback. He saw on the map they were headed deeper into Romania, where they would soon reach the Carpathian mountains, where Richard had procured the blood sample. Perhaps Vincent hoped he would find a cure there, but Marlowe knew better.

The Romanian caravan took Finn,Sarah, and Maria in, as if they were their own family. Apparently, they had been sent there to help give safe passage to the three travelers, but they remained silent on their benefactor. They had traveled for three days, from their home country to meet them on the outskirts of Hungary. The old woman in particular who had snuck up on them had been interesting for Finn in particular.

Maria had noticed he stared at the old woman, the only one among the Romanian people to have an Irish accent. There was a familiar gleam in her eye whenever she looked over at Finn, who was too shocked to look away.

‘Do you know her?’ Maria asked him, curious.

‘No. Yes, he stammered. ‘Maybe. She smells…familiar.’ He scratched his head nervously as he absentmindedly ate away at a leg of lamb. Sarah had been offered food as well, but declined. Their hosts had been offended, until they explained her situation,which they seemed to understand fully.

‘What do you mean?’ asked Sarah. ‘Is she dangerous?’

‘I don’t think so,’ replied Finn. ‘I really don’t know.’ He stood and nodded to Sarah and Maria. ‘Excuse me. I have to take care of something.’ Sarah nodded, and he disappeared behind some trees. That had always been his way of politely excusing himself for some privacy when that particular urge had hit him.

What surprised the two even more was when the old woman came by and sat next to them with her mischievous smile. She leaned over to Sarah and spoke.

“Is he healthy? she asked. ‘Doing well?’ Sarah stared at her, confused. ‘You do speak, dontcha girl?’ Sarah nodded.

‘Who are you?’ Sarah asked. ‘How do you know Finn?’ The old woman gave out a hearty laugh that rang familiar to Sarah, as if she had heard it recently.

‘I’ve known him since he were pups,’ said the old woman. ‘Not that he would remember me. It’s been ages.’ Sarah and Maria exchanged a nervous look. The way she called Finn a pup clearly made them nervous. Did she know his secret? Or was this just a common phrase? Maria’s instincts had to know more. ‘As for who I am, you may call me Neasa. Though I’d prefer if you kept it to yourself.’

‘It’s a secret,’ said Sarah. ‘I don’t like keeping secrets from Finn. He’s my friend.’ Maria nodded enthusiastically at that. This caused Neasa to smile warmly at them.

‘I am glad to hear that,’ she said. ‘Very well. But don’t say anything just yet. I promise it won’t harm the lad.’ Sarah nodded. She was beginning to see something familiar in Neasa that made her trust her.

‘Very well,’ said Sarah. ‘But we must off soon. The sun is setting and-!’

‘And you don’t want a faoladh scaring these fine people?’ laughed Neasa. ‘ I assure you, they won’t mind, girl.’ Sarah and Maria both stared at her in shock with their mouths open. Neasa looked back at her in confusion. ‘Was that some big secret or something?’

Marlowe had done extensive research on the affliction, and there simply wasn’t a cure in existence. Vincent and Corrine would trap themselves, along with Blake’s daughter and her animal of a companion. It was a backup plan he had hoped to avoid, but it would fail him. He was nothing like Frederick or Richard, and was willing to accept the loss if it meant he could get what he wanted, and now it had been assured.

There were no train stations that would take them where they were going, but were able to procure a carriage that was bound there. Once they reached Transylvania, they would meet up with Richard and Blake, and that would be that. Their hunting party would be assembled, and he would force Vincent to give him what he desired, its now being his only option. From there, self-experimentation would be required, a small price to pay for his inevitable immortality.

Marlowe didn’t like being desperate. It reminded him too much of his youth. He would keep a calm head, hide his anger and frustration and win in the end. He always won in the end. It did give him some sense of gratification that the only one who could be his equal was now a buried, half-charred corpse. He eventually would have to kill them all, of course. This simply saved him the trouble of one more body to dispose of.

They sat in their carriage and were soon off into the wilds of Romania. Land of monsters, mystery and mystics, as well as the Romanian people Marlowe understood would not be happy to see Richard, but that was a minor issue. There was very little money couldn’t make go away.

The sun set, as Father Grigori drifted off. Marlowe stayed awake as the carriage rumbled along in the darkness, its path illuminated by a small lantern. Soon, all of his problems would be solved, and he could put this terrible mess behind him. After all, he was a master at what he did.

Before Sarah could answer, Finn came back from the forest. He edged nervously round Neasa, before sitting on the other side of Sarah, who gave him a look of confusion.

‘Is everything alright?’ he whispered to them. Before Sarah could shake her head, Neasa spoke up.

‘Everything is just fine,’ she said. ‘Just us girls talking away.’ She winked at Sarah and nudged her with her elbow. Finn stared, confused.

‘Right,’ he said. ‘Anyway, thank you for your hospitality, but we must be going.’

‘You will do no such thing, Finn Whelan,’ said Neasa. ‘You’re coming with us. You’ll be fed nice and proper like us, and we’ll take you where you need to be going.’ Finn stared at her in horror, then confusion. Before he could say anything, Neasa interrupted. ‘If you try and leave, I think my companions will be awfully offended.’ She smiled, and got back up to join in the festivities. Sarah put her hand onto his shoulder.

‘She knows,’ said Sarah. ‘They all do.’ Finn stared at her in fear.

‘You didn’t…’ he started, but stopped when he saw Sarah’s expression.

‘Of course she didn’t,’ said Maria. ‘Neither of us did.’

‘Right,’ said Finn. ‘But that’s not what’s bothering me the most.’

‘What is, then?’ Maria asked.

‘She called me Whelan,’ replied Finn. ‘That’s not my last name. But…’ He looked away sorrowfully, and Sarah knew he was being dragged into some sorrowful memory.

‘Finn?’ He looked back her, his eyes watering.

‘Nothing,’ he said, finally. ‘It’s just that my ma used to call me that when I was young.’ They spent the rest of the afternoon in silence, as Finn filled up on any food that was handed to him. Some of the Romanians would forget about Sarah’s condition, but rather than offend them, she would take it, and Finn would eat it for her.

As the sun set, Finn looked round nervously. He had hoped they would be able to sneak away, as everyone grew tired from their chores, but they were a hearty people who had too much to do. They went about their business and packed away their caravan, but just as Finn was beginning to feel the pangs of the transformation, Neasa tapped him on the shoulder.

‘Come with me,’ she said. ‘All of you.’ They followed her to a dark little corner of the forest, just out of the sight of the caravan. ‘It’s best to do it here. It’s not a very pretty sight, is it?’

Before any of them could say anything, Finn doubled over in pain, his skin beginning to ripple and tear. ‘Why is he fighting it?’ asked Neasa.

‘He’s…he’s afraid,’ Sarah answered, compulsively. Neasa nodded.

‘I see,’ she said. As she said this, her own skin began to ripple and tear. Sarah and Maria watched in shock, as for the first time, a single wolf did not stand before them, but two. Neasa had become like Finn, though she was smaller by comparison, and her fur was a lush and soft gray, as opposed to his dark black coat. She walked up to him, and they stared into each others’ eyes, a conversation Sarah would never be able to hear.

They began to circle one another, sniffing the air, and occasionally snapping at one another. Not violently, but almost in a playful manner. They were testing one another, and learning. Before long, Neasa pounced onto Finn, and they began to roll around on the ground in mock combat, before Finn pinned her to the ground and howled triumphantly into the air.

Maria could have imagined it, but she was almost sure Neasa’s wolf had a look of satisfaction on its face as Finn let her up. They soon walked back to the caravan, where the Romanian barely seemed to notice their existence. One of the young men walked over to the girls and offered them seats on his wagon, which they accepted.

Finn and Neasa walked along the caravan, Finn making sure to stay close to Sarah, as Neasa playfully nipped at him. Even as a wolf, Finn seemed nervous, like he was unsure of how to be a wolf at that moment. They spent the entire night that way, moving slowly along the path in the forest.

As morning came, the two wolves ran off into the forest. Sarah and Maria got off the caravan and followed them, along with another Romanian female, who carried a bundle of clothes with her. When they came across the two, they had reverted to humanity. The Romanian woman gave Neasa a set of clothes, as Sarah gave Finn his belongings, and they soon rejoined the caravan in silence.

To Sarah, Finn seemed like a lost child, and she wondered if this if he had been this way as a child. Not the confident and street-smart rogue she had met in London, but the quiet and meek boy he had told her about. The one that had gotten sick, who feared his own father and sister. Her thoughts were interrupted by Maria, who whispered to the driver of their caravan.

‘How long has the old woman been with you?’ she asked him. He thought for a moment, and responded in a Romanian accent.

‘Almost a week,’ he said, which stunned Maria. ‘Some of the elders seemed to know her, though. Apparently she is an old friend.’ The mystery seemed to be growing. Finn sat between Sarah and Maria, and attempted to make himself as small as possible, as though were trying to hide from Neasa.

This pattern would repeat itself over the next few days, as they made it into Romania, none of them daring to say anything. Maria had done her best to question the elders, but they would all tell her the same thing, that Neasa was an old friend from Ireland who visited occasionally. They had no idea how she knew Finn.

Every night, Finn and Neasa would become wolves and walk alongside the caravan, as if they were protecting it, though Finn would look up at Sarah, as if he were looking for comfort. On the third day, they were deep within the Romanian wilderness, and the caravan stopped. Neasa got off of her own seat and walked back to the trio, motioning for them to follow her.

They reluctantly got off and followed her through the woods, and soon came up to a cliff face, where Neasa stood over a valley and a large castle embedded in the mountains. She pointed to it.

‘That is your destination,’ said Neasa, before turning to them. ‘Your journey is almost over, but I’m afraid this is where it will be the hardest.’

‘Do you know if Vincent and Corrine are there?’asked Maria. Neasa shook her head.

‘I’m afraid I have no way of knowing. I’m sorry, young one,’ she said, sincerely. ‘The Romanian will take you to the forest at the base of the castle. After that, they will go no further.’

‘You say that like you’re aren’t coming,’ said Sarah.

‘Indeed,’ replied Neasa. ‘This is where I leave. I must return home, where I am needed.’

‘In Ireland,’ said Finn. ‘Right?’

‘That’s right, pup,’ she said, smiling. ‘And it will need you too, if you survive.’ She walked over to Finn and placed her hands on either side of his face, as he looked nervously at Sarah and Maria. ‘You’ve grown strong. Strong enough to reclaim what is rightfully yours.’

She let go of Finn and walked over to Sarah. ‘You have been a good friend to him,’ she said. ‘He will need you. As for your condition…’ She looked down at Sarah’s bag. ‘Choose soon, or you may not have a choice.’ Sarah looked at her, speechlessly clutching her bag, before she moved on to Maria.

‘I am afraid I do not know you,’ she said. ‘But your heart is in the right place. I hope you find what you are looking for.’ She walked back over to the cliff and turned back to them. ‘And with that, I wish you all luck and happiness. I hope to see you soon, Finn.’ She gave him a wink and laughed, before diving off of the cliff. The three ran over and looked down to see her catch herself on a branch jutting out of the mountain. Like an acrobat, she made her way down the mountain, laughing all the way. When she was out of sight, they all looked at one another.

‘Who was she?’ asked Maria. She looked at Sarah, and they both nodded, before turning to Finn.

‘She said her name was Neasa,’ said Sarah. ‘Does that mean anything to you?’ Finn thought for a moment, and then walked over to the cliff.

‘That was the name of my Gran,’ he said. They all joined him and stared at the massive castle in the distance. That was their final destination, where they would soon gain all the answers they sought, and perhaps more as Maria hoped against hope Vincent would already be there, waiting for her.

Presented by Lake Arrowhead Repertory Theatre Company

Victorian Nightmares 2018

All Rights Reserved

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