Martin comes to in stages. First, the feeling of dry, cracked ground beneath him and a warm sun on his face. Then comes a fresh breeze, the scent of ozone, the taste of blood on his lips.
He groans. Blinking the dark spots from his eyes, he looks around. The place he finds himself is fairly desolate, scraggly plants clinging to life against all odds. On the horizon, the faint outline of some sort of town looms. His eyes fall on a crumpled figure nearby and he remembers everything: the Panopticon, that horrific decision, and so much blood …
Martin frantically scrambles over to his partner, whose shirt is soaked in blood. “Jon? Jon! Can you hear me? We made it. Everything is okay now. You just need to wake up.”
A tear falls on the face below, which twitches. Jon shoots upright, gasping for air and clutching at his chest. The wound seems to be gone but the evidence is still there. Martin collapses to his knees and both can do little but desperately hold each other for a time.
Eventually, Martin lets out a deep sigh and scrubs at drying tears. Clambering to his feet, he offers Jon a hand up. “Come on,” he says, “probably should get moving.”
After a couple of hours walking, the blur on the horizon coalesces into a bustling town. However, it is not a town as Jon and Martin would know it. Gone are the cars, the modern conveniences, the shining buildings stretching up to the sky. Instead, everything looks to be out of an old western movie.
“Jon,” murmurs Martin, “somehow I don’t think we are anywhere near home right now.”
Jon nods. “Time travel? Dimension travel? Neither seems completely impossible after everything else we have been through. But not much we can do about that now. First, we need information, and what better place than a tavern.” He gestures towards a building just off the town entrance.
Jon and Martin tentatively step into the brightly lit space. The tavern keeper looks up from the drink he is serving and his eyes go wide. “Well," he says, “this is unexpected. And for me, that’s really saying something.” He raises his voice above the hum of the crowd and makes eye contact with Jon. “Come, travellers, please take a seat. You both look like you could really use a drink. On the house, of course.”
Martin raises one eyebrow at Jon who, after a moment of contemplation, nods in agreement. They both slide into stools at the bar. A moment later, a mug of some unidentifiable type of alcohol is placed in front of each of them. “Trust me,” the tavern keeper says with a wink, “you’ll like those.”
Jon’s hands stay firmly in his lap and his eyes narrow. “Who are you and what is this place?” he demands, the weight of Knowing and of being Known bearing down on the other.
An indescribable emotion flashes across the tavern keeper for a moment before he just laughs. “I’m afraid that your spooky tricks won’t work on me. I’m the tavern keeper around these parts and that means something.”
He smooths a hand down his red waistcoat. “And as for the rest? Well, if you wanted a story, you could have just asked politely. Chapter, through its innumerable incarnations in time and space, has many hidden secrets, each one more fantastical than the next.”
He steeples his fingers, thinking for a moment. “Now, this tale is one that I’m sure you will enjoy and should provide you with a little … context as to where you have found yourself. It is rather different to those I normally tell. It took place right in this very town and concerns some, well, vampiric cowboys. Whether they were the heroes of the villains of this story, that’s up to you to decide …”