THE CONVERTED

A dark fantasy novel with a hint of steampunk, THE CONVERTED is set in a land where six-guns are sacred and personal genetic modifications called "verts" are the mark of wealth.

With his patients dead and his genetic research in tatters, Dr. Anton Springmann fled his homeland as a fugitive, taking a one-way diesel ship to New Alania. But within hours of his arrival, screams ring through the night. Hordes of grey, humanoid creatures--devils, to the townspeople--attack Anton's new home. Among the dead, Anton finds a single survivor: a young girl, Elisa Pierce. Her skin grows cracked and she begins to mutate. She's becoming a devil. Anton's seen it before.

Tormented by past sins, Anton struggles to save Elisa before the change takes her completely. But old enemies have pursued him across the seas, and now Anton is being hunted by more than just devils.

Redemption doesn't come cheap in New Alania.


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THE CONVERTED
By C. R. Hindmarsh


Chapter One


Anton looked out over the town of Orton and tried to pretend it didn't look like a prison. He leaned against the railing as the river steamer shuddered to a halt. The sprawling town clung to the side of the hill like a great stone spider, with the surrounding forest as its web. Was it any wonder he felt like a fly who'd had his wings torn off?
He shook his head and took a few deep breaths of the river air, trying to calm himself. He was just getting paranoid again. Orton wasn't a prison; it was freedom.

A whistle blew, and a pair of Skia workers shoved the gangplank down onto the wooden dock. Passengers surged around Anton, jostling to get off the noisy steamer. Anton waited and let them swarm off the boat. He didn't need to run now, not anymore. The thought was liberating, but somehow it didn't feel real. He'd half-expected one of his fellow passengers to recognize him, their faces turning from puzzlement to fear in the few seconds it took to work out where they'd seen his face. But no one did. These New Alanians were always in such a hurry, rushing off the boat like it might sink if they weren't quick enough. No one paid him any mind. He was a nobody, and that was just the way he wanted it.

When the crowd had thinned, Anton stepped off the deck and dragged his suitcase down the gangplank. His optimism died a moment later when he noticed a man threading his way through the crowd towards him. He wore a short blue coat of a neat cut and tall, black boots. His dark beard was cleanly trimmed, and a friendly smile sat naturally on his face.

The man's smile relaxed him, but then Anton's gaze caught on the revolver in the man's holster. It rocked back and forth with each step the man took. The man spread his hands wide, his palms towards Anton and his fingers pointed outwards. He kept them well away from the butt of his revolver.

"You the doc?" the man asked. The beard made him appear middle-aged from afar, but now Anton saw the man was younger than himself. For some reason, that reassured him.

Anton nodded. "Anton Springmann."

The man grinned and glanced down at Anton's attire. "I knew it. Only a Torlander would dress like he got spat out by a dog."

Anton looked down at himself. After three weeks on the diesel ship and another few hours on the river steamer from Tenith, he wasn't surprised he looked so scruffy. His long gray coat was crinkled, and his unkempt beard scratched at his chin. Shitting in a pot and throwing it overboard was about as close to cleanliness or hygiene as any of the passengers managed in the entire voyage. At least he hadn't got seasick.

He set his suitcase down on the dock and took off his spectacles to wipe away a few water droplets from the river. "And you are?"

The man stuck out his hand. "Benjamin Hale. Call me Ben."

Anton slipped his spectacles back on and took Ben's hand. "You're Master Hale's son?"

Ben raised his eyebrows and grinned wider. "That's the one. You friends?"

"We exchanged a letter or two. He said he could find work for me here."

Ben laughed and took Anton's suitcase. "There's always work for a doctor. Surprised you had to come halfway round the world to find some."

He was right, of course. There was always work for a doctor. Just not for Anton. Not anymore.

Ben slapped Anton on the shoulder. "Come on, I'll take you into town. Da wants to meet you before sunset so he can show you the shop-front he's got lined up for you."

Ben dragged Anton's suitcase down the landing, and Anton followed a few steps behind. A couple of people hurried past them from the opposite direction. Trying to get a good seat on the steamer before it set off back down the river towards Tenith, maybe.

Anton followed Ben onto a narrow street running parallel to the river, where flowers and grass poked out between the cobblestones. Ben stopped at a cart and hurled Anton's suitcase into the back. Anton cringed. All his equipment was in there, and it was by no means cheap. It hadn't been easy sneaking out of Torland dragging all that with him.

Anton was just about to mount the cart when the horse hitched to it caught his eye. It bore stripes, emerald green and black, all along the length of its body. Its turquoise tail flicked back and forth to rid itself of a persistent fly.

"She's a beauty, ain't she?" Ben said, reaching up to stroke the horse's nose. "Just got her verted a few years ago. You should've seen Da's face when I told him how much I'd paid. Thought he was going to snap me clean in two."

Anton ran his hand along the mare's flank, peering closely at her hair. From a distance it looked like the horse had discrete stripes, but when he looked closer he saw the areas of green were interspersed with individual hairs of sandy yellows and browns. They formed a regular wave pattern that played with Anton's eyes as he tried to follow it. He'd never seen a vert this complex in an animal before. The New Alanian verters were undoubtedly skilled. "Who'd you get to do it? Donaway and Co.?"

Ben chuckled. "'Course not. They got themselves their market on Harth gentry. They ain't going to taint that with verting plainer's horses."

"Then who?"

"Black market. The peace officers turn a blind eye. Half of them have got their own verted pets anyway." Ben gave the horse one last pat and climbed up onto the cart. "You going to spend all day gawking at my horse or are we going to get going?"

Anton stroked the horse's flank once more and clambered up into the cart. The seat was nothing more than a plank of wood, but it was mercifully free of splinters, unlike damn near everywhere on the diesel ship from Torland. Anton's muscles ached after so many nights sleeping in a bed made for someone half a foot shorter than him. He prayed to Jeza he'd be able to have a good night's sleep tonight.

Ben snapped the reins and the verted horse began to trot along the street. He guided the cart around a bend and up a sloped street towards the centre of town.

The houses on either side of them were small and packed close together. No gardens or lawns like Anton was used to, just open wooden doors and painted window sills. Still, the place seemed friendly enough, and it didn't smell half as bad as Tenith had. On either side of the street, men and women walked arm-in-arm. Small groups of workers made their way down the hill towards the warehouses and docks. All of them were dressed neatly: the women in pastel-colored dresses and the men in short coats and dark trousers. Several people sported small patterns tattooed to their face or neck, and many of the women had elaborate systems of interlocking ear rings.

At every man's side was a revolver, clearly visible below each man's coat. The butts were wooden or occasionally white like polished ivory, but they all swayed with definite weight.

"Sweet Jeza," Anton said as he watched another man pass beside them. "Is there anyone in this town who isn't armed?"

Ben laughed. "Sure. The women. And the squids, of course. I wouldn't worry if I were you. Most of them guns ain't never been fired in anger. Most of these folks wouldn't even know which end to hold."

Anton didn't know whether to believe him. Every man wore his six-gun as comfortably as if it were his pocket watch. It was some strange hold-over from the Settler Wars, but Anton had never managed to get his head around having an entire populace of armed men. It just seemed dangerous, and he'd had enough danger in the last few weeks.

Ben took the reins in his left hand and slipped his revolver from his holster. He handed it to Anton. Anton took it carefully, keeping his fingers away from the trigger, and turned it over in his hands, inspecting it. It was a simple gun with a polished wooden grip and a bare metal barrel. There was a symbol stamped on the butt, a diamond enclosed in a circle. The whole gun shone. "It looks new."

"It's been around a while now," Ben said. "A good twelve years. It's my baby, so I like to keep it well maintained."

Anton handed the revolver back to Ben, who slid it back into his holster with practiced ease.

Ben pulled the cart to a halt on the side of the street. Shop-fronts surrounded them: clothing stores and butchers and green-grocers. They were outside the only two-story building in the street. Situated on the corner of two intersecting streets, it was twice as wide as most of the shops surrounding it. It was painted white with blue supporting beams, and large, spacious windows dominated both stories.

Ben jumped from the cart and went to the back to retrieve the suitcase while Anton climbed down. Anton glanced up and down the street. So this was it. This was home. For now, at least.

Ben hefted the suitcase towards the front door of the large shop and gestured for Anton to follow. The sign above the door was marked with the same symbol Anton had seen on Ben's gun, the mark of Orton's Gunsmith.

A bell above the door jingled as they stepped inside. The bottom story was just one large room, well lit by numerous oil lamps and the last of the afternoon sunlight streaming in through the windows. The shelves were stacked with repeater rifles and shotguns. Some of the guns were secured in glass cabinets, gold patterning running through the wood.

Ben led Anton straight across the room to a stairway behind the main counter. Anton heard footsteps creaking on wooden boards above him.

"Just me, Da," Ben called up as they started making their way up the stairs.

The stairs curled up to a doorway. Ben pushed open the door and gestured for Anton to enter. Inside stood an old man with a long waxed moustache and deep wrinkles around his eyes. Unlike Ben, he wasn't wearing a coat, just a simple gray shirt with a high collar. At his belt were two revolvers.

Ben placed the suitcase down and performed the same open palmed greeting he gave Anton. Was there hesitation in that bow?

The old man smiled and patted his son on his shoulder. He turned his smile to Anton and looked him up and down. "So, this is our new Torlander doctor. My name is Fredrick Hale. I'm Orton's Gunsmith."

Anton knew of the Gunsmiths, but he had never met one before. A man Anton spoke to on the ship had spun a tall tale of the origins of the Gunsmiths. He reckoned they'd been appointed by Jeza as the guardians of His new country during the founding of New Alania. The truth was much simpler. The Settler Wars had called for militias, and the militias called for guns. Ever since, the Gunsmiths had replaced mayors throughout New Alania. The strange custom was something of an amusement in Torland, but he knew enough to keep his mouth shut.

"It is an honor to meet you, Master Hale." Anton bowed.

"You had a smooth journey?"

Anton thought back to the unexpected storm that had nearly thrown him overboard one evening. "Smooth enough."

Fredrick nodded. "I hope you know how much the people of this town appreciate you choosing to come all the way out here to perform your craft. We don't get many doctors this far south."

Fredrick took a small box from the desk behind him and opened it. He pulled a tyco cigarette from the box and offered one to Anton and his son, then took one for himself.

"I'm sorry I don't have a proper gift to welcome you to our town," Fredrick said as he struck a match. Anton leaned forward to have his cigarette lit. "Fortunes rise and fall in Orton, and at the moment, they are falling."

Anton breathed the acrid smoke deep into his lungs, exhaled. "I'm sorry to hear that."

Fredrick waved his hand. "This is a good day for our town. My son and some others will be over in the morning to help you set up your office. In the meantime--"

A scream rattled the windows. Anton jumped, feeling like he'd just been punched in the chest. Fredrick's hand dropped to one of his revolvers.

Ben rushed to the window. There was another scream, and then the crack of a gunshot cut it short.

"What is it?" Fredrick said, the corners of his mouth creased with worry. He had dropped his cigarette.

"I don't know, I..."

More gunshots rang out to the east. Anton came alongside Ben and stared down at the street. The evening sun bathed the street in a blood red glow. There were more gunshots now, one every second or so. People were rushing past outside. What in Jeza's name?

A woman with her skirts hitched up dashed across the street. Anton opened his mouth to shout out the window to her, but before he could make a noise, she dropped to the ground. Her fingers clawed at the stones as she tried to get up. Her blood dripped down into the cracks between the cobblestones. Another gunshot cracked, and then she was still. A figure darted past.

Ben jerked away from the window, wide eyes searching the room. He made for the stairs.

"Ben!" Fredrick grabbed his arm before he could rush out. "What is it?"

Anton saw the fear on his face as he turned back to face his father. "Devils."

Fredrick took a step back. "This far from the mountains?"

Ben looked around. He jumped a little when he saw Anton standing there, as if he had forgotten about him.

"Doc. Come on. There'll be wounded."

Anton took another look out the window. Smoke rose from a nearby building. Screams. So many screams.

"Doc!" Ben ran back and grabbed the sleeve of Anton's coat. "Let's go."

Anton let himself be dragged away. His fingers started to tingle, and he realized he was hyperventilating.

"Benjamin, wait," Fredrick said. "What are you going to do?"

Ben dragged Anton down the stairs and Fredrick followed. Ben let go of Anton and snatched a repeater rifle and a shotgun from the display rack. He ducked behind the counter to rummage for ammunition.

Anton looked outside just as a gray, half-naked body rushed past the window. Blood pounded in Anton's head. What the fuck was going on?

"Benjamin!" Fredrick said.

Ben emerged from behind the counter and started loading rounds into the repeater. "We got to push them back. I'll round up who I can and we'll make for the east quarter."

Fredrick glanced out the window. "The church will be strongest."

"I ain't going to the church."

"Don't be stupid. This isn't about Nina. That's where people will gather."

Ben glared at his father. Tension crackled between them. "Fine. Only because they'll need the doc."

Fredrick stared at his son for a second, then nodded. "All right. I'll evacuate central district and provide shelter to anyone who needs it."

Ben nodded sharply and tossed the repeater to Anton. It was heavy. Maybe this was a fever dream. Maybe he'd caught pneumonia and was still on the boat.

Ben shoved the last slug into the shotgun and made for the door. "You shot before, doc?"

Anton slid his fingers into the grip of the cocking lever. "Once or twice, when I was younger, shooting rabbits, but--"

"Good enough. Come on."

Ben shoved open the door. The bell on the door sounded strange amidst the screams outside. He ducked outside and disappeared.

Fredrick put a hand on Anton's shoulder and unholstered one of his revolvers. "May Jeza watch over you, Torlander. I have a feeling we'll need you before the night is over."

Anton nodded and stepped out onto the street, his heart in his throat.