October 8th, 1584 • Richmond, VA
“If your mind dislike anything, obey it. I will forestall their repair hither and say you are not fit.”
Tiermond smiled at the sound of his vessel’s voice as he wandered the crowded theater. The Viatrian wove through the rows, trailing his fingers over the heads of the audience. They were all riveted, watching the final scenes of Hamlet unfold on the stage of the Richmond theater. He could feel their enthusiasm buzzing through him as his vessel performed, and relished in the warmth of it. He looked toward the stage again with a fond smile, imagining how the young actor would grow over the years.
“You’re going to be great, boy,” Tiermond murmured.
Movement on the fringes of his vision drew his attention. Tiermond turned, but saw nothing. Curious, he moved through the audience, towards the edge of the theater. There was no one there but the ushers.
Sudden trumpet and cannon sounds from the stage made Tiermond and the audience start. He whirled, but saw only the captive audience and the actors. He shook his head, deciding he was being jumpy, and went back to brushing members of the audience.
“They bleed on both sides. How is it, my lord?” his vessel declared.
Tiermond found he had stopped following the action on stage. His eyes roved the theater. An unpleasant chill prickled up his spine, and a faint whiff of stale air crept into his nose. He turned a complete circle, seeking anything that could be the source, but saw nothing. He made his way to the back corner of the theater, in hopes of a better vantage point. As he picked his way through the crowd, his hand closed around the grip of his pistol Zincar, drawing it from his holster with slow, purposeful fingers. He scanned every direction.
“Treason, treason!” cried the actors on stage.
Something darted through the shadows on the edge of the theater. Tiermond spun, leveling his pistol, but it was gone. He stood in wary stillness, watching the place he had seen the shadow. He turned again, glancing behind him, but the theater was silent, watching in delighted horror as the poison crept through Hamlet’s veins.
Tiermond hardly saw the unfolding scene on stage. He continued through the crowd, creeping to the back of the theater. He could feel the nagging sensation of being watched, could feel fear winding around his feet like wisps of fog. He was almost to the rear of the theater when a rumbling growl sounded behind him. He whirled, Zincar’s startled shot ringing unheard through the theater, but his bullet cut through empty air. His knuckles whitened as he gripped his pistol, his breath coming in shallow quickening waves. His eyes darted into every dark corner, as he backed slowly into the rear corner of the theater. His foot connected with something that wasn’t the floor and he spun again, finding himself face to face with a cold silver-haired woman.
Belara thrust a fine needle-like knife into his side, and slapped the pistol out of his hand. Tiermond staggered back from her, a mask of shock and terror descending over his face.
“Now cracks a noble heart,” his vessel cried from the stage. Booth’s voice was laden with dismay, fueled by an unknown horror that blared into his mind from his stricken spirit. “Good night, sweet prince. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest! Why does the drum come hither?”
Tiermond collapsed, a hand going to his side, finding his fingers stained red and spattered blackish green with poison. Belara stood over him, her face as unfeeling as stone, while her party of Runners and Warmongers converged on the fallen Viatrian. Tiermond fumbled for his pistol, but one of the other Runners picked it up before he could reach it.
“Bring him,” Belara told him, and strode for the exit.
Tiermond felt rough hands seize his arms. His attackers dragged him from the theater, and he heard the voice of his vessel echo on stage behind him: “What is it ye would see? If aught of woe or wonder, cease your search.”
Tiermond had been tied to a black tree for hours, the thorns biting into his back as he gasped and wheezed. He could feel the poison burning through him as it seeped along his veins from the wound in his side. The hunting party roved about the makeshift campsite, but Belara was still. The silver Runner watched him from nearby, impervious to the way he shook and perspired as the fever consumed him.
“What do you want?” he demanded again, voice hoarse and breathless. “Why are you doing this?”
Belara did not answer, but continued to stare at him with her icy pale eyes. She was still in her human shape, unlike the other Runners in the group who loped about on four legs.
“I’m no use to you,” Tiermond said. “If you want me dead, just kill me.”
Belara remained silent. One of the Runners shrieked, making the ailing Viatrian start and twitch. Another woman sauntered in out of the Darkness. Belara rose to greet her, clasping her hands in front of her and bowing her head.
“Well done, grey one,” said the newcomer. She was a lithe woman with tan stripes and short horns, dressed in fine forest satin and elegant embroidery, but her dress was tattered along the hem. She approached the prisoner, and Tiermond could tell just from the smell of her that she was a Demon. She pursed her lips and gave a concerned tut, kneeling in front of him.
“Poor fellow,” she said, and drew a stained handkerchief out of her bodice to dab some of the sweat from his forehead.
“Get away from me, beast,” Tiermond snarled.
“Beast?” Velserka echoed, with feigned indignation, “Is that any way to speak to your rescuer?”
“You’re not here to rescue me,” the Viatrian spat. “Kill me and be done with it. I’ve got nothing to offer you.”
“Oh, but that’s where you’re wrong,” crooned Velserka. “I think we each have things to offer each other.” She leaned in close and brushed his damp strawberry blonde hair back from his face. “You’re dying, and you’re afraid.” She held him rooted with sharp brown eyes. “If you really would rather die, you’d have succumbed to the poison by now.” She gripped his chin. “But you’re a fighter. I like that.”
“What do you want from me?” Tiermond muttered, jerking his head away from her hand.
“You.” The Demon smiled at him, a sweet smile, but one that was rotten just beneath the surface. “You know the train hopper, the one who comes and goes, the one who drifts and loops, the one who leads his bands of brothers through the years.”
Tiermond was silent, glaring at her with what he thought was defiance, but it looked only like terror.
“You know the Viatrian Wyatt, and his current alkesh of troublesome friends,” crooned Velserka.
Tiermond said nothing, but the answer was plain on his flushed face.
“You see,” she said, “He’s back in the plane where we can’t see him, and he’s causing us rather a lot of trouble.” She pouted at him. “With your help, we’re going to fix that.”
“I won’t help you,” Tiermond spat.
“I didn’t say you’d have a choice,” Velserka purred. “If you wanted to choose death, you should have let the poison take you before I got here.”
Tiermond shook with fear and fever as she leaned for him. A green fog wisped off the Demon’s breath as she took his face in her hands.
“No!” he protested, struggling against the ropes that held him. The thorns of the tree carved up skin on his back. “No! You leave me be, fiend! Kill me now, or let me–!”
Velserka silenced him with a kiss. Her cruel fingers knotted in his hair as she clamped her mouth over his words. He felt the foul vapor of her breath roll over his tongue. He struggled, trying to break free, trying not to inhale, but Velserka’s poison forced its way into his lungs. He bucked and kicked, tried to bite her, but she clung on, relishing his struggles. She caught his lower lip in her pointed teeth, biting him in return. When she pulled back, she spat a few flecks of his blood back into his face.
Tiermond sputtered and spat. Blood poured from his lip, trickling crimson down his chin. Velserka sat back and smiled at him. Tremors rocked through him. He retched and coughed, blood spraying from his mouth. As Velserka and her hunting party looked on, the blood pouring from his lip began to darken. He gagged at the taste of his own poisoned blood, and strained against the tree, as if he could pierce its thorns into his heart and end the agony. It took more than half an hour for the suffocating pain to pass, and by the time he slumped exhausted against the tree, black sludge was all that dribbled from his brutalized lips.
“Cut him loose,” said Velserka.
Belara approached, slicing through the ropes that held him. Tiermond collapsed into the dust, wheezing.
“You should rest,” Velserka told him. “We’ll be traveling tomorrow.”
Tiermond planted his hands under him and pushed himself up on trembling arms. He got a grip on the tree trunk, hardly noticing the thorns that bit into his hands. He pulled himself up on the tree, looking down at the pricks of black appearing in his palms in each place the thorns pierced.
“What have you done?” he slurred, as if drunk. He staggered away from the tree, stumbling back toward the theater.
“Where are you going?” Velserka inquired, making no move to stop him.
“My vessel…” he gasped.
“There’s nothing for you back there anymore,” Velserka told him. “You and your vessel, you belong to us now.”
“I belong to no one.” Tiermond limped away from the Demon, fumbling through the night back toward the theater. He got only a few steps before he collapsed, falling with a heavy thump into the dust.
Velserka rolled her eyes and waved a hand to two of the Runners. “Bring him back before he hurts himself. He’ll figure out the truth soon enough.”