On the island of Okinawa, in the mid-20th century, the Black Wagon stopped to collect a Blood Traveler who had completed a new story. From within the Wagon, Messr. Night watched as Messr. Spring stumbled up the steps. His body swayed. Sluggish, bloodied steps stained the floor. It matched the blood-covered travelers' clothes he wore, clothes which were further sullied from sake no doubt spilled from the bottle in his hand.
"What a story. What a story this has been." He muttered under his breath. The bottle swung high as he drank it deep.
It was uncouth, but Night could excuse the behaviour. Young Blood Travelers are always prone to excessive drinking after visiting a vicious tale. Night, herself, could recall long weeks in her youth spent nursing bottles of vodka. The Winters were always the worst. Fortunately, like the Winters of her homeland, Night had grown numb to common atrocities.
"Night-senpai?" Spring blinked in a haze, finally noticing he was not alone on the Wagon. "Night-senpai, what a surprise!"
"It's good to see you, Spring. It's been too long."
"Too long, for sure. How long has it been? Aah, like that matters anymore." He waved away his question for the drunken afterthought that it was. He settled himself in a seat across from the European woman and produced two sakazuki cups from a hidden pocket. "Come! Drink with me! The stories I could tell you. ...Say, you're off a long way, Night-senpai."
Night nodded as she accepted the offered cup. "It appears so."
In truth, she has been riding in the Wagon for twelve days now. Twelve days sifting between centuries across Eurasia. The Rider would stop to pick up travelers along the way; yet, each time, Night was refused departure. Instead she made due with the flitting company. Conversing with Blood Travelers new and familiar alike. There had been one exception, an Ancient whispered to have hailed from Babylon had come aboard from Jordan and departed centuries earlier to the Ghaznavid Empire. With the Ancient one, Night kept her distance. It was shyness on her part. A rarity to her disposition. To attempt idle chat with one such as he felt improper, disrespectful. Perhaps, one day, she will be emboldened to ask for his time. To learn what has kept him alive for millenia when other Travelers inevitably chose death. To know of his experiences from when the Rider's tracks were still fresh on the earth. One day she will ask; but that day is a distant future, for certainty.
"Where are you headed to?"
"The Rider didn't say."
Spring smiled. As close to a laugh as that answer was close to a joke. An answer from the Rider is no easy thing to receive. "I see." He leaned into his seat. The sake sloshed in his hand as he made to swallow it whole. "We'll reach Hokkaido within the hour." He noted. How he knew that was his destination, she could only guess. "One day you will have to tell me how this journey ends."
Night raised the cup to her lips. A thought passed, with a flick of a toast in her companion's direction. "We always do."
Beyond the Black Wagon their laughter drowned in the winds of the night.
It was another six days before Night was finally free to leave the Wagon. She emerged from the carriage onto solid earth dusted with snow. There was a peculiar sensation to this place. The air was heavy with an unnatural fog. The sun was a high, yet hazy and red. Beyond the fog was a long road, with only one building in the vicinity. She could only just make out the sign designating the building. Six Mile Inn.
A hand still on the carriage railing, she turned and stepped toward the Rider. Braving a gaze at world's first murderer. "Why are we here?"
Cain returned her gaze. A malicious smirk etched on that time-weathered face. 'You'll see.' His smirk seemed to say. The phantom message slithered down her spine with a sense of foreboding.
'Of course.' She thought. The dissatisfaction punctuated by a snap of the reins as the Rider left her in the dust. 'What else should I have expected?'
She turned aboutface, eyeing the lone building with dismay. 'Well, let us see where this story leads.'
The air inside of the inn was perfumed with sweat, drink, and smoke. It was an oddly shaped room. Hexagonal. There were few patrons occupying various corners, while the Innkeeper busied herself at the bar. Night began a slow sweep of the room. To her left, a girl on the verge of womanhood sat at a table. A bulldog lay at her feet as her sole companion. The glance was enough to notice the withdrawn look about her face, and the Mark on her arm. 'So young and lost. A hard lesson taught.'
Her gaze moved further. A young boy was looking out the window. Too young. Still, it would not be unheard of. From this angle she could not see if the boy was Marked or not. If he isn't, then she will keep an eye on him. Her gaze drifted, noting a couple sitting at the bar. Again, unable to see a Mark. It would be best to come in closer and have a better look.
"What fortune smiles at us, Mister Tender!" A voice broke through the quiet of the inn.
"I said we needed a song, and in comes a nightingale!"
'Oh, no.' Night stifled a groan as she found the source of the exclamation. At the centre-right of the inn a man with curled hair and dirt-smudged face waved her over with a drunken grin. 'It's the Americans.'
"Messr. Storm, Messr. Tender." She greeted them casually, masking her surprise as she walked to their table. "I trust you fare well."
"Now that you're here, my dear Nightingale." Storm purred.
"We've been well." Tender answered. Blessedly professional.
Night resigned herself to an empty seat, keeping her hands away from the clutter of playing cards and alcohol on the table. Unconsciously her eyes moved upwards to continue scanning the room.
"I take it this isn't a social call." Tender noted upon following her gaze to a man with a dried bouquet of wildflowers.
"It isn't." She replied. "I'll admit, it was unexpected that our stories should cross here."
The male Blood Travelers exchanged a confused look. Their faces growing serious. "I don't believe that's the case, Night."
"Oh?" She returned Tender's searching look. "How so?"
The answer was interrupted by the arrival of the innkeeper. "Good evenin', darlin'. Welcome to our little home on the road! How's about I start you off on the house special?" She cooed, her hands offering a bottle and a metal shot glass.
"That's alright, ma'am." Storm cut in before Night could accept. "The lady and I will be sharing this fine bottle of whiskey here for the evening."
The bizarre refusal had Night poised to snap at the hot-blooded traveler. "If you think I'd-"
Wait. There was something off. Storm wasn't showing his usual air of flirtation. If anything, he seemed almost… concerned. It was then Night noticed the marred skin peeking out from the innkeeper's sleeve. The arm, it was Marked.
"-I'd only share with you, that would be quite rude to your friend, sir. I'm sure the three of us can share this bottle evenly."
Catching on, Tender offered the innkeeper a friendly smile "We're fine, here. Thank you."
The innkeeper smothered a scornful look as she accepted the refusal and returned to the bar. At once Night felt thankful for the others' quick action. The drink must be poisoned. Not that it would kill them, per se. Blood Travelers are safe from the perils of men. Unable to fall to Cain's sin unless it be delivered by Cain himself. That, or by a higher power. All that considered, just because they were safe from murder did not mean that they were safe from the pain.
"Thank you." She muttered quietly as she eyed the innkeeper's retreat.
"Happy to oblige." Storm whispered in kind.
"I take it that she's your story?"
The others looked to each other again. "Not exactly." Tender admitted.
"It's all of them." Storm explained.
"The people here." Storm leaned in close. "All of them are Marked."
'All of them are-' Her eyes searched the room in a frantic sweep. Every bare arm she could see had the Mark. All of them. 'How-'
"How can they all be Marked?"
"His sin isn't a rare thing." Tender noted. "It can't be that hard to find a room full of killers."
"Yes, at random chance. But the fact that I've been brought here means that-" The thoughts raced. The arrangement of the Blood Traveler is to chronicle tales of murder. Those tales always begin with the Unmarked. After all, where is a storyteller to start, than from the beginning? To be left in a place with only those Marked means she has been put in a story after the beginning. Which means that this isn't her story to tell, at all. Which means… Which means...
"-it means that I'm here to babysit you two!" she growled out. Her face buried in the palm of her hand as the realization hit. 'Babysitting the Americans! Of all things!' Frankly, it was an embarrassment. A sign that the Americans have made a mess of things; and, by frightful possibility, that she was being viewed by the Rider as expendable enough to watch over them.
There was a beat of silence before Tender answered. "I think we're a little old for babysitting."
"I would agree, except there is no other reason why I would be here."
"Maybe he thought you could use some company." Storm teased. "Someone to warm your bed, and that cold, Russian heart."
A eye peeked out to glare at the man. "Tell me, Storm, do those lines ever work on the women you speak to?"
Behind her gaze, Tender snickered. Storm, at least, had the decency to deflate. Though he still attempted to charm her with a smile. "In all fairness, I don't know many Russian women."
"For the sake of the people of Russia, let's keep it that way."
They lamented in silence as drinks were poured and a round of cards were dealt.
'Babysitting. Pah! Ridiculous.'
"Alright. Best get this over with." She laid down a card, keeping her mind focused on the true task at hand. "How has the story played out, so far?"
The younger travelers took turns telling what they knew of those Marked at the inn. Each was learned in pieces. Overhearing boasts and tales of woe deep in their cups or through screams of childhood nightmares. What few Unmarked that came to the inn would find themselves spending the night, never to wake come morning. The Marked, though, remained untouched; and stayed nights at a fairer rate. As if the innkeeper, Lavinia, knew they were equally damned. A strange thing. A precogniscence questionable for a mortal to possess. If she were untouched by other forces, that is. Such a thought held their suspicions. Unsure of how to approach such a subject beyond waiting it out as all stories go.
"You're right to not act." Night admitted as she watched Storm and Tender duel the final round. "It's not our place to alter the course of a story. Only to learn of its ending."
"Which brings us back to our conundrum, Nightingale." The line was met with a winning hand by Storm. He raked in his winnings as a question mused over. "What brings you to our new-found nation?"
Night gathered the deck into a compact pile. "I'd like to know, myself."
"The Rider always has a reason." Tender noted.
The others muttered in agreement as the deck was shuffled for a new round.
It was as the sun was setting that the walls of the inn began to shake. The Winter winds, which had long been howling a storm, rose and shrieked to deafening volumes. From the window the snows doubled, and darkness threatened. The others gave the change but a passing, curious glance. For Night, however, there came a sense of foreboding she had only experienced once or twice before.
Night pushed from the table and raced to a nearby window. Out in the darkness there was a calling in the wind. Voices muttered and cursed in the swirling void. If she strained, she could almost make out the words.
"What is it?" Tender asked by her side. Night had not noticed his approach. Too fixated on the outside world to note changes from within.
"Something's coming." Her fists clenched at the window ledge. Knuckles growing white as those threatening snows.
"Something like what?" Storm asked.
The snows echoed in warning.
Murder! Murder! Murder! Murder!
Her eyes widen in fear. "An exorcism. A spirit with a vendetta against Cain's sin is on it's way here." This was bad. This was very, very bad. "We have to leave before it can kill us."
"Us?" Storm asked in alarm.
"I thought we were safe from death."
"Not from something like that!" She lashed out. "It's an agent of God. Of Life. That's more powerful than Cain can ever be!"
It was quick to see that the realization had dawned on the others. "How did it find us?"
'No. Not us.'
"Lavinia." Night breathed the realization. "That fool's been inviting death to her door. She thinks she's appeasing a devil yet offers a feast to the righteous!"
"So what do we do?"
Her mind raced for an answer. They couldn't fight something like that. Not a chance. They could try to run. But they were Blood Travelers. Their Marks would only serve to save the inn. Three Travelers on the run. The load of their sins would catch the attention of the spirit and draw it to them; but, with the way the others had drunken out their whiskey, they will end up falling to the spirit in no time. She wouldn't be able to save them from that fate. Unless…
'That's why you sent me here.' She realized at once. 'You knew what would happen. Curse you, Cain!'
"Night, what do we do!"
"You don't do anything!" She instructed. "Stay here. I'll distract the spirit. It won't stay when it catches scent of me."
Storm and Tender looked at each other, then Storm turned back to her. "...Why?"
"Because I've lived longer than everyone else in this room combined." 'and I've enough blood on my hands to drown you all.' "The spirit will hopefully see me as a greater prize."
"That's not what I meant." His eyes softened. Conflicted with the situation.
"Listen," She grasped them both by the shoulder, "the spirit is drawn to this place. Even after I go, there's a good chance it will come back. When it does, you have to leave here immediately. You can't hesitate! Understand?"
Tender thought for half a heartbeat "The story will-"
"The story will end when the spirit comes again!" She half-shouted at the man. "Survive long enough to see it and tell it for yourselves."
Tender gave a nod to the instruction. Storm moved in kind, and smiled. "And here I thought you didn't care, Nightingale."
If she wasn't planning on saving the fool with this suicide mission, she'd be of a mind to slap him. Instead, she fixed Tender a look and flicked her head in Storm's direction. "Tender, try to keep this idiot alive before he gets himself killed."
Tender grinned. A laughter sparked in his eye that was only muted by the gravity of the situation. "I make no promise of that."
She smiled a small thing in turn. "I thought as much." Outside of the inn a gale swept through and shook at the foundations. “I must leave now. Remember what I told you. Goodbye and good luck!”
Without another moment's hesitation, Night raced out the door to the inn's stable. She grabbed a nearby horse, a mare frightened and cold from the oncoming doom, and stormed away from the inn. The wind howled all around her as cries of the approaching spirit nipped at the mare's hooves.
Murder! Murder! Murder! Murder!
One dead horse and an aching body later, Messr. Night finally outran the storm. Her legs quivered in pain as she settled by a riverbank. She basked in the sun, warming the cold in her bones as she rung out blood from her clothes.
Behind her came the wicker of horses and the sound of wheels slowing to a stop. Night did not turn to the sound, instead keeping her gaze on the narrow stream of blood as it trickled to the river.
"You know," she began, "if you wanted me dead you could have just done it yourself."
No answer came. The silence was an annoyance. As unbearably cruel as it's source. She turned to the Wagon, a sudden rage cut through the woman.
"Why leave me there, just to die?" She shouted at the Rider. "Is this some kind of sick game! The spirit turned around! It won't be enough to save them, so why bother?"
The Rider watched her. His eyes appraising.
"You live. They live."
Her body froze and thawed in successions. Those four words were small. Their meanings heavy. Did he know? Was it enough? Did she matter? Are they safe?
She could not bring herself to ask, and received no answer in kind. The Rider, instead, gestured to the Black Wagon. It's door opened with a creak. Foreboding and beckoning at once for her to enter. Night rose from the ground. With slow steps she came closer, not stopping until just past the lip of the entrance.
"Numb, no more." Cain spoke again with a cunning sneer as she stepped inside and the door slammed closed. The comment shocked her. It left her unguarded as Cain whipped the reins, the jolt of movement causing her to fall to her knees.
Numb. Numb as the Winter months. Numb to the pain and death she's watched and caused over the centuries. That's what she had said. Felt. So real to the touch that she knew one day soon she will ask the Rider for death, only for the fact that death held no significance anymore.
Yet one night and seven words seems to have ended that thought. She was feeling. Hot and cold. Compassion and Selfishness. Fear and-
-and she didn't want to die. For the first time in centuries she fears death as she had feared it all those years ago when she first struck the bargain.
Tears formed in her eyes as she realized what it is the Rider has done.
'Damn you, Cain. Damn you to the pits of Hell!'