In which Dodger awakes in his own bed.
The darkness was different this time.
Oh, she was just as cozy and loving and compassionate as she had always been. She still wrapped her inky arms about him, pulling him into the comfort of her dark bosom, inviting him to stay, to rest, to dream. Only this time she said as much. This time she had a voice.
And her voice sounded an awful lot like Rebecca of the Forsaken.
“Drink,” she whispered. “Drink the darkness and be healed. Drink and rest.”
“I can’t,” he said.
The darkness laughed, though Dodger felt it was not meant for him. It was a warm laughter, like a mother chuckling at the antics of her child. “Good. Recognizing your fear gives you control of it. Courage springs from fear. Drink and live.”
“I’m tired. I don’t want to go on anymore.”
“I know. You have seen much, too much for one man, but today is not your day to die. The world still needs a champion, Rodger Dodger. And our cursed half sister needs you more than she will ever admit. Now, drink.”
At her encouragement he drank. Not deep enough to slake his thirst, but enough to take the edge off. Heck, he didn’t even know he was thirsty until he got down that first wet throat full of … whatever it was. After he drank, the voice spoke again.
“We are kindred spirits. We are unique, yet alike. And we take care of our own.”
We take care of our own. The words swirled and spun in his mind, doubling in volume and intensity until all was darkness once more.
When Dodger awoke, he was not where he expected to be.
He expected to be in the brothel, in a bed, and perhaps in the arms of some lithe lovely. Maybe even two lithe lovelies. Or a few full bodied beauties. He never considered himself to be a picky man, especially when it came to the wonderful world of women.
But he wasn’t in the brothel. No.
He was in his bunk, in his quarters, on the Sleipnir. A quick peek out the slatted shades confirmed his suspicion that the train was indeed traveling. Sunlight pouring into the small cabin told a tale of an unexpected passage of time. How long he couldn’t be sure. Yet none of this was as startling as a single, stark fact.
Whoever put him to bed in his bunk had stripped him completely naked.
This didn’t bother him on a modesty level; it just left him wondering who got a gander at his goods while he was down for the count. More specifically, did some little lady have herself a look see while Dodger was at his most vulnerable? He wouldn’t blame her if she did. Hell, he sure would’ve had the roles reversed. Or would he? No, he supposed he wouldn’t after all. Again it wasn’t modesty that would’ve kept his eyes other places, but common decency. Sneaking a peak at her nudity would kind of take the thrill out of it when time came to face her nakedness head on.
And that time would definitely come, if he had anything to say on the matter.
Dodger pulled away his thin sheet expecting (aside from his usual scars) a horror show of lacerations and cuts, only to find himself well on the way to healed. Where the Jackal had laid into him were but thin, pink lines tracing the sides of his abdomen; a crowd of parenthesis fighting for the chance to frame the paragraph of his stomach and punctuation of his navel. The doc’s medicine again? He wasn’t sure. Just before he passed out Rebecca said something about tending to his wounds, which once again brought him back round to the fact that he was naked. Now, why was it that he associated those two things?
Snatches of memories drifted to him; light caresses, soft lips, the command to drink, chilled flesh under his hot hands, a cascade of blonde hair sweeping across his chest as deft fingers fondled his-
Welcome back to the land of the living, Boon whispered as his presence filled Dodger’s room.
Clutching the sheet over his bare groin, Dodger croaked, “Odd choice of words for a ghost.”
How are you fairing?
“Better than I expected. Tell me, did every job you go on for that man involve you blacking out? Because I’d like to think I will see at least one task through without falling unconscious.”
Boon answered with a soft laugh.
Dodger ran a hand over the tender pink scars. “Doc did a good job patching me up. I can barely feel any of it. Or for that case, remember any of it. What happened after I blacked out?”
The presence of the spirit roiled as he struggled to answer the question. Well … umm … I wasn’t there the whole time you see … and … well …
Without warning the door swung open wide, and the professor stormed inside carrying a silver tray. “Mr. Dodger! I am so pleased to see you up and about.” The professor dropped the tray onto the desk. “Feng was on his way here with this, so I assumed either you learned to eat in your sleep or you must be awake again. Good thing too, for we’ve almost arrived at our destination.”
Dodger narrowed his eyes at the man. “How long have I been out?”
“Fourteen hours, from my measure. And for a while there it was a bit touch and go. We weren’t sure you would wake at all. But no worries, you’re right as rain now.”
“Thank you, sir. Again.”
The professor started at the gratitude. “Thank me? No, no, no, no my dear boy. You should thank-” His words cut short as he lifted the cover from the tray and eyed the breakfast piled high. “Bacon! I do love bacon. Lelanea never lets me near the stuff. Raises my blood pressure through the roof, you see. Maybe the tray was meant for me. Feng always knows best.” He settled in beside the tray, swinging his feet from the side of the desk as he nibbled on a slice of bacon. “Where was I? Oh yes, not me. You should thank the ladies of Waxford.”
“Waxford,” Dodger echoed.
The beast wounded you deeper than you professed, Boon whispered. She left you in a hell of a state. You would have never made it back to the line alive. Rebecca and her sisters saved your life.
“How?” Dodger asked.
“I’m not exactly sure,” the professor said. “But I suspect it has something to do with their chosen profession. They seem to posses a healing touch, as it were.” He leaned closer to Dodger and lowered his voice as he added, “Quite frankly, I wouldn’t mind a little healing like that every now and again.” The man giggled a bit before returning his attention to the breakfast tray. “Then again, the danger one must face to receive such affections gives a man pause.”
“I’ll bet. Speaking of which, I have half a mind to quit on you after that stunt.”
“What stunt?” the professor asked around a mouthful of bacon.
“It wasn’t like I didn’t ask.”
“Ask? Ask what?”
“You knew Waxford was populated by vampires and you just let me wander in there like nothing was amiss.”
The professor blew a meaty raspberry at Dodger. “Pshaw! Vampires! I’ve never heard such nonsense. Oh, there’s coffee too. You should really eat, lad. It’s nice and warm.”
Dodger waved away the offer of food. “If they aren’t vampires then what in the hell are they?”
“What are they? Interesting question. Yes. Very interesting.” The professor shoved another strip of bacon in his mouth and chewed as he considered his theory. “I’ve given this much though, and near as I can surmise they suffer from a blood disease that slows their metabolism to an almost standstill, with a corpse like effect. They appear, for lack of a better word, dead. No pulse, little blood pressure, and cold as stone. This infection keeps them in a sort of metabolic stasis for a number of years. Hundreds, if Miss Becky is to be believed.”
Down went another strip of crispy pork, followed by a sip of coffee.
“As a side effect they seem to have a heightened sensitivity to direct sunlight—scorches the poor things to a crisp I’m afraid. I theorize it’s a lowered level of melatonin in direct relation to their slowed blood flow that causes this. The infection also goes to great lengths to keep the host alive, mending the most astounding levels of damaged tissue.” He paused to chew on another handful of bacon. “Another interesting side effect to note is that they must consume extraordinarily high levels of protein in order to survive. The young ladies feel human blood is the best source for this. They might be right, but it’s a heck of a way to survive.”
“They weave an impressive tale that makes them out to be vampires.”
“Hogwash. They overlay this vampire fairy-tale atop a complex disease as a coping mechanism. Simple as that.”
“What can I say? They’re as imaginative as they are beautiful. And I also think that the disease eventually drives them madder than they already are. Hence the beast you fought off.”
“How did you know …” Dodger thought twice about that question before he decided to back up and start at the source. “How did I get back here?”
“Ched went into town to fetch you after you stayed gone half the night. He practically busted down my door he was so convinced something was wrong, and wouldn’t shut up about it until I let him go in after you. I thought he was just after a fling with that floozy of his. Are you sure you don’t want some of this. I’m afraid I’ve eaten most of it.”
“Suit yourself.” The professor dove into the rest of the plate, the eggs and toast stood little chance against his hungry attack. Between mouthfuls he finished his tale. “As I was saying, only Ched would be willing to walk fifty miles to meet his lady friend. But as it turned out, he wasn’t just after a quick romp in the sack. He came back a few hours later with you piled up in the Rhino, all patched up by Rebecca and her ilk, with the fantastic tale of how you won me two vials of … well, what you went after. I suppose you owe him some level of thanks.”
“He’s not the only partner I should thank,” Dodger said, glancing about the room.
Anytime, partner, Boon whispered.
Misunderstanding the statement as directed to him, the professor said, “Yes, but we won’t return to Waxford for some time. I’m sure you’ll still be with us when we do, so you can thank them then. As for now, I need to get back to my work, which I’m pleased to say is almost complete. Thanks to your diligent effort I have enough of the compound to help a whole infantry of the poor fellows. In fact I should have plenty of it left over for my other research projects as well.”
“The research concerning Lelanea?”
The professor stared at Dodger, all of his humor lost. “What do you know about that?”
Dodger didn’t know much about it, but he remembered hearing tale of such research among the other bits and pieces and fragments of the last few hours. “Rebecca mentioned your niece. Several times. Said she was cursed. That like the Forsaken, death and damnation was her only cure.”
“Yes, well, the ladies of Waxford are a touch melodramatic. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Dodger would agree, but he wouldn’t be sidetracked. “Is Miss Lelanea ill?”
“Not exactly.” The professor furrowed his brow. “But she does have a right to her privacy. Just as you have right to yours. I hope you understand that. And can find it within yourself to respect it.”
The old man had him there. “I reckon I can’t argue with that.”
The professor was visibly relieved at Dodger’s response.
“But,” Dodger added, “can you at least tell me what in the world I almost laid my life down for?”
“Haven’t you figured that out yet? After all, the ladies of Waxford deal in but one commodity.”
Dodger smirked. “I supposed as much, but you’d really pay five thousand dollars for a vial of blood?”
“It isn’t just any blood. It holds the source of their special condition.”
“I guess I just don’t understand how their infected blood will help keep those men stable.”
“As I said, it holds amazing self healing properties. Of course I won’t inject it directly into them. That would be suicide. Or rather murder. No, I’ve diluted it with a variety of other chemicals that should stave off the unwanted effects of the Forsaken disease but at the same time allow the infection in the blood to act as a stabilizing compound.” The professor hopped down from the desk with a little nod at the empty tray. “Sorry about your breakfast. I’m sure Feng will bring you another tray. We should arrive at your … or rather Mr. Carpenter’s farm in the hour. Unfortunately you returned to us in your current state. Visa vie, your nudity. I don’t know what other clothes you packed, but you will find a replacement suit there on your bureau. A gift from your new admirers.”
Dodger shot a glance to the chest of drawers, and sure enough there rested a folded pile of garments with his hat perched on top. His jacket hung from a peg on the wall beside the dresser. A phrase lingered at the back of his mind, as if reminding him of something he always knew: We take care of our own.
The professor checked his pocket watch, and clucked his tongue. “Get dressed and be ready to round up those men, as I will be prepared to begin treatment the moment we arrive.”
“Yes sir,” Dodger said.
The professor nodded once more, stepped into the hallway and closed the door behind him. As the professor’s presence faded from the door, so did a certain ghostly presence begin to dissipate from the room.
“Hang on there, bucko,” Dodger said. “Not so fast. Get your ethereal ass right back in here.”
You wish to speak with me further? Boon asked.
“Are you going to tell me about Lelanea or not?”
Please, Dodger, I beg you not to put me in this position.
Dodger smiled wide as he realized what Boon meant. “That’s right. Dead men tell no tales. You can’t lie. So tell me the truth. What’s wrong with her?”
Don’t be so callous. Nothing is wrong with her.
“You know what I mean. Is she … is Miss Lelanea sick?”
The ghost hesitated. In a way, yes.
“Is she dying?”
We’re all dying. Some of us faster than others.
“Why would the Forsaken say those things about her?”
Again, the spirit hesitated before he whispered, I’m afraid the truth of the matter is something she will have to share. You should ask her. Though I wouldn’t recommend it.
“That’s not an answer. It’s just a dodge, you know.”
A dodge, perhaps, but not a lie. Much like Ched and myself, her story is hers and hers alone. Until she is ready to share you will have to be patient. You may never know. Rest assured she is healthy, just … afflicted.
“Afflicted? Sounds terrible.”
You have no idea, my friend. You have no idea how terrible it really is for her.
And the sorrow in the spirit’s whisper left Dodger even more worried for Miss Lelanea than he was before.