The rough and ready carousing of the Vulcan Hotel spilled from door and cracked windows on Patricia’s left. On her right came the gentle complaints of the general store’s rafters as they struggled under the weight of snow on its roof. And down the middle, an alleyway smothered in darkness so thick she could have stuck her knife in it.
And the alleyway wasn’t empty. The blood on the snow told her that much. Black stains upon a sheet of white. Day or night, the blood was always black. That was Culler blood for you.
Before Patricia follows this black blood trail into this black alley, we should first consider who Patricia is, and where she is.
Ewington, Central Otago, New Zealand. 1866, the height of the Otago Gold Rush.
Patricia is a gun-toting woman in a time when gun-toting women were a rare breed indeed. Yes, the floral pearl-inlay lends her Henry lever-action rifle a rather feminine aspect. Her woollen trousers and coat are of a more tailored, better-fitted style than was the general fashion for men in Ewington. Nor, to her relief, did she sport the bushy beard customary to all colonial men.
But then, Patricia wasn’t a colonial. Not fully. Yes, her father, Patrick, had been an Irish sea captain, long drowned somewhere out in the Tasman Sea. Her mother, Hinewai, had been Ngai Tahu, a fact now inked upon Patricia’s chin in traditional Maori moko. When Patricia was in her teens, Hinewai had been taken from her by a particular virulent form of ‘pakeha flu’, along with more than half her whanau. She’d tracked down the young missionary who’d coughed and spluttered his psalms and germs all over her village and driven her father’s gold-plated letter opener through his throat. The blood that had poured from the boy’s jugular had been as black as oil.
It was only later that she’d met one of the Falconers, in a gaol cell in Fort Eden. That she’d learned about black blood, and Cullers, and all those tragic accidents that were no accidents at all.
She loaded the Henry with a deft flick of its lever, raised the rifle to her shoulder, and stepped into the alleyway. Her eyes were useless in the enfolding darkness so she screwed them shut and reached out with her mind, just as she’d been taught. The tendrils of her awareness trembled as they unfurled. Patricia took a couple of deep breaths of frigid winter air, calming her mind, steadying her Sense.
There it was, hunkered down behind a stack of empty ale kegs. It was hurt. It was afraid. Patricia could have pitied it, had she not known what it was and what it had done. Poisonous words of greed and misdeed whispered into the ears of the greedy Campbells and the fearful Tans. The resulting claim dispute had produced eight corpses. Not a bad day’s work for a juvenile Culler like this one. Five men, two women, and a Norwegian child of five years, his little chest shattered by a stray bullet.
Had Patricia not picked up its scent, followed it to Ewington, this isolated town would have been nothing but a charred cemetery by the end of the month. But that’s what Cullers did. And that’s what Falconers were sworn to prevent.
This creature was of a particularly slippery species. A Seeder. Planter of dark thoughts and cultivator of dark deeds. This one looked like a young woman, fair of hair and face. Rosie Prescott was her name. All lies.
Patricia levelled her Henry at the keg stack, confident that her gold-coated bullet would punch through rimu barrel and Culler alike. Cullers were vulnerable to gold, hence their growing numbers across the goldfields of Central Otago and the West Coast. Less miners meant less gold meant less that the Cullers needed to worry about. And a happy Culler tended to become quite generous in sharing its brutal confidence.
She breathed out, long and slow, and pulled the trigger. The roar and splinter silenced the carousers next door, but not the Culler. It came in under Patricia’s aim, fast and hard, pounding the wind from her sternum with a shoulder too sharp and bone-thick to be human. The Henry somersaulted from Patricia’s hands and stuck like a spear, barrel-first into the snow. Cursing through the steam of her breath, Patricia locked her left hand around the creature’s thin neck, struggling to keep teeth and ragged nails from her face as she drew her Beaumont-Adams .442 from her holster with her right.
It wasn’t until she’d pressed the muzzle of her Bian against the Seeder’s ribs, emptying three chambers into it in quick succession, that Patricia realised her mistake. The bullets tore through the woman’s chest, exiting in sprays of inky black that any squid would have been proud of. Yet Rosie simply smiled. A toothy, pretty smile that would have melted the heart of any beardless boy. Except, in this particular instance, it was the girl that melted.
In the brief moment that it took for Rosie Prescott to dissolve into a thick blanket of sable, squirming centipedes, Patricia understood that the creature’s attack had been a ruse. It didn’t want to bite, scratch or strangle her. It wanted to embrace her.
Patricia screamed as she struggled to her feet and peeled off her jacket, then her shirt, then trousers, boots and undergarments, throwing each piece of creature-laden apparel down into the snow. Then she pulled her father’s Bowie knife from her discarded gun-belt and used it to scrape her skin clean of each and every wriggling abomination that found its way to her flesh. Only a few had found their purchase and begun to burrow down, but that was all it generally took. A Seeder Spawn burrow through to a human heart in less than ten ticks of a fob watch. So she cut them free, centipede, skin, meat and all.
It wasn’t until she’d finished that she heard the gasps and the shuffling of frightened feet in the snow behind her. The revellers had come out of the Vulcan to witness the commotion. Now they stood in shocked silence, watching a mad woman cut herself bloody. Patricia ignored their appalled faces, focusing instead on the burning lantern held by a grizzled old miner at the front of the pack. She lunged for him and tore the lantern from his grasp. Then she swung it down onto her writhing pile of clothes and leathers. Hard enough to shatter the lantern. Hard enough to engulf the Seeder’s multitude in cleansing fire.
As the panicked miners rushed to douse the flames that now licked up the sides of both the Vulcan and the general store, Patricia took up her knife, her pistol and her rifle, and walked, barefoot and bleeding, down the white-clad street.
She didn’t look back. She didn’t need to. Her wounds would heal. She would get new clothes.
And she would live to hunt tomorrow. To a Falconer, that’s all that really mattered.