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  1. #41
    xxxi
    Useless


    Simon could no longer keep track of what was going on. He saw a light in front of him and sat. He was so tired he forgot the pain of his wounded arm, and had been sitting for half an hour before he noticed his surroundings. He, Gabe, Orion, and a few other men sat around a campfire. Close by he could see the tents and wagons of Hazael's caravan. Perhaps if it had not been dark Simon would have noticed the blood dripping down his arm, but in his current state of mind it took Gabe standing, touching Simon's arm, and his coming away red for anyone to notice. Gabe pulled Simon aside to a tank of water and began washing his wound. Simon winced when Gabe removed the rope, but the water felt nice. When Gabe was finished Orion appeared with a needle and thread. Simon felt a rush of fear, but felt a little better when he saw that the anger in Orion's eyes had dissipated. Orion took the cork out of a tall bottle as the three of them found a place beside the fire once more.

    "What is that?" Simon asked.

    "Beer," Orion answered. "To ease the pain."

    "No thanks," Simon snorted. He wouldn't so easily forget what had happened the last time he drank the stuff. The other few men around the fire wordlessly drifted away as Orion began to stitch Simon's sword wound. It wouldn't require many stitches, but it was deep and would take some time to heal. Simon clutched at the stump beneath him and cried out softly each time he was stuck with the needle.

    "Quit squirming," Orion ordered, and Simon tried his best to do so. A few minutes later Gabe was wrapping a bandage around Simon's arm.

    "Why did you fight them?" Gabe asked Orion as he was tying the final knot. Orion tucked his needle into his jacket pocket, then removed the jacket and slung it over his shoulder.

    "I passed through this city once before," Orion explained "A month or so ago. I remember the man that they were attacking. He was begging for money to help sick children. And the empire, or the universals, or whatever you want to call them, have gone too far. They kill anyone who won't be 'baptized' or just use that as an excuse to do whatever they want." Orion's eyes grew distant and he looked suddenly like a young boy rather than a warrior in the firelight. "The pagans were about the last good thing this world had," he said sadly. The three of them sat silently and Simon thought of how useless he had been. Here he was trying to rescue Astrid, and he couldn't even do his part in a fight. Orion was still a boy and he had defeated armed soldiers. All Simon did was get slashed and nearly killed. He thought back to his other recent encounters and realized that he had never won a fight since this whole mess began. He had bested Pontus, but only because of a happy chance. What was he going to do when Gabe or Orion weren't there to save him? He buried his face in his hands when he recalled that even Alucard and Astrid had saved his life.

    "You sure know how to cause a commotion." The statement brought Simon suddenly out of his thoughts. He had not even noticed the man approaching. He was tall and thin with black hair and a trimmed beard.

    "What commotion?" Orion asked so casually that Gabe was about to explain it to him when the man spoke again.

    "At least you know how to keep your tongue, even if you can't keep your temper." There was a pause and Orion became his older, more solid, self again.

    "That's the empire's problem, not yours."

    "That's why I'm not going to turn you in," the man said, putting his hands up in innocence. "I have no more love for the empire than you do but, if you make your problems become my problems..."

    "Hazael need never know," Orion said, and the man smiled.

    "Make sure he doesn't or it will tun out badly," the man said as a final warning, then turned and left the circle of fire light. After a few seconds of silence Orion stood and doused the fire.

    "I think we should call it a day. After all, we came back to camp early and are surprised and shocked at what happened." He looked at Simon and Gabe in turn and they both nodded. The three walked to the main camp and got blankets and pillows, then found a relatively flat, unoccupied, place to sleep. Because the weather had cleared and the ground had dried a fair number of people were sleeping under the stars. Simon looked up and, as he always did, wondered if the stars were looking back. Gabe was already fast asleep when Simon broke the silence.

    "Orion?"

    "Yeah."

    "Will you teach me to fight?" Orion sat up and looked at Simon who had never laid his head down.

    "Why do you ask?"

    "You know I'm in a bit of trouble," Simon reluctantly admitted. "this wasn't my first fight and it won't be my last."

    "You won against Pontus," Orion interjected.

    "But only barely. If that fight had been to the death he would have killed me three times. I was useless today, and how can I save anyone else if I can't even save myself?" Simon was so frustrated that he didn't wait for a response. He put his head down on his pillow and shut his eyes in an attempt to force himself to sleep from sheer strength of will. His arm ached and he turned to make it more comfortable, all the while cursing his own stupidity.

    "I'll do it," he heard Orion say, but he didn't look up and as it always did, sleep eventually came.
    "All stories are true, but this one really happened,if that's what you mean." Skarpi, The Name of the Wind

  2. #42
    Over seven hundred views on a first draft! F'in awesome, Frivle! Congratulations! That kind of attention means you HAVE TO complete this novel. You've really got something here.

  3. #43
    WF Veteran Nick's Avatar
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    I agree with powerskris. You have a very easy and relaxed writing style that's fairly consistent, and though you manage to bring out distinct voices in the chapters, your own comfort with the progress of the novel is very evident when the narration is read. Continue it. You have a bit of a fanbase here already! I'm still going through it, but the story has drawn me in as a reader, so expect a larger critique soon. Good luck with the rest of it, Frivle!
    If a lion could speak, we could not understand him - ​Ludwig Wittgenstein

  4. #44
    Thanks so much. I will definitely finish it. The end seems very far away, but I've been at it too long to quit now.
    "All stories are true, but this one really happened,if that's what you mean." Skarpi, The Name of the Wind

  5. #45
    xxxii
    Secrets


    The courtyard and castle had always felt empty, but tonight it felt like a void. Astrid had risen and ascended to the courtyard to see Vladimir high above her carrying a ruined and tattered form down the mountain side. She waited in silence, knowing how bad it would be, but hoping against it. Just thinking about it brought tears to her eyes, but she wouldn't cry. Not any more. She had come to a decision and she was going to face her fears, no matter what happened. Long minutes passed before Vladimir emerged from the keep. Astrid wondered how it must feel to carry your own sister to be tortured and back again. Astrid thought she had been prepared to see Lisa, but nothing could have prepared her for the creature she saw. Lisa was unrecognizable, and Astrid had to look away. She noticed her hands trembling from the sight and made a conscious effort yo remain composed. Vladimir passed in silence and Astrid fell into step behind him keeping her eyes on the ground in front of her. To their right Shadrach fidgeted and edged away, his chains rattling and faintly echoing in the empty courtyard. He looked pale and annoyed, and stayed as far away from the man chained beside him as he could. Vladimir descended the spiral stair and broke away into a corridor that Astrid had never been in, then entered the first room on the right. The room was similar in size to Astrid's, but it was a bit more furnished. Vladimir set Lisa on a large bed as Astrid came in behind them.

    "Is she going to be okay?" Astrid asked.

    "In time," Vladimir answered without looking away from his sister. There was a long silence and Astrid got the feeling she should go, but wanted a few questions answered more.

    "You never woke me to keep watch," she said more as a question than a statement.

    "I owe her that much," Vladimir said sadly. Again Astrid felt she should leave and this time turned to do so.

    "I promise this will never happen again," she said from the doorway. Vladimir looked up and for an instant their eyes met, then Astrid left them alone, closing the door behind her. She wanted to be alone to think, and she remembered that it was her turn to keep watch over Shadrach anyway. She returned the way she had come, back onto the courtyard and sat on the edge of the fountain. The bubbling, churning water and the wind were the only things to be heard. Astrid glanced around and noticed clouds coming in fast from the west. She remembered what the river had felt like and wondered what rain would do. Did all water freeze and bite, or just the river?Astrid looked again at the gurgling water in the fountain and hesitantly reached out her hand. She took a deep breath and touched the surface of the water with her fingertips. It was cool, but not freezing. She submerged her hand and there was no pain. She smiled as she wiped her hand dry on her dress, then noticed how filthy the dress actually was. She needed something new to wear, but she had bigger things to worry about. Shadrach and the old man sat huddled at opposite corners of the cathedral doors, glancing occasionally at Astrid. The bite marks on Shadrach's neck had already faded into scars. Astrid wondered if the marks on her neck were still there, but she didn't have a reflection to look in. She was surprised to hear herself laughing and tried to figure out why. Was it at what she had become, or that she was helpless to change it? She stared at Shadrach for a long time as she wondered.

    "I wanted to save you," she muttered softly, but in the silent courtyard her voice sounded loud and harsh. "I can't even save myself." She glanced around to make sure she was alone and Shadrach remained motionless. "Why did they do this to me? Why are they doing this to you?" Shadrach looked up and stared blankly while the old man took one glance and tried his best to dig through the wall.

    "Allow me to say something," came a voice from behind her, causing Astrid to jump and nearly trip over her own feet. Behind her on the other side of the fountain Vlad stepped out from the shadow of the statue. "We did not put this upon thee. It was thine own friend who gave thee his blood."

    "That doesn't make it his fault!" Astrid yelled, then she remembered who she was speaking to and quickly stopped herself from doing anything truly foolish. "I suppose it will be that man's fault when Shadrach is turned," she said, which was a big improvement on what she wanted to say.

    "If he sees the sun thrice and is strong, he will return to being normal. Just as it would have been with thee."Astrid hadn't known that before. She stood in silence, putting pieces of the puzzle together in her mind. She had been bitten by a full blooded Nosferatu and lived, then tasting blood within three days had transformed her. Helen hadn't seemed like she was going to change and she said that she had been here for some time. She must have been bitten by a half blood, and Astrid thought of herself. She then recalled that Simon had been bitten as well. Horror swept through her when she realized that he may not have had a choice to come back.

    “Tell me,” Astrid began, but when she looked to find Vlad, he was gone. Astrid didn't know when she arrived at the balcony and didn't remember walking there, but she did know that it still had Simon's smell. It wasn't as strong as the first night, but it was still there like a washed out footprint. He hadn't come for her, but she hadn't gone for him either, and now it might be too late. “Simon,” she muttered. “Don't leave me alone.” Rain began to fall and it felt like icy needles on her skin. She didn't move and in fact, she hardly noticed. Feet splashed through the puddled rain behind her, but she didn't care. All was lost.

    “He is alive.” The words jolted Astrid back into coherence and she turned to see who had spoken them. A few paces from her, in the rain, stood a tall lean man with white hair wearing a black cloak. For an instant Astrid didn't know who he was, then she remembered the man who had been protecting Simon during their escape. He knew Simon!

    “He's alive?” Astrid asked and the man nodded. Astrid almost collapsed with relief. She found herself running the short distance between them and throwing her arms around the man. He stood in shock as if he had never touched another person before, then slowly Astrid felt him return the embrace. She cried with deep sobs into his shoulder and he awkwardly stroked her hair. Finally she stepped away and when she tried to wipe away her tears she found that her eyes were the driest part of her. The rain suddenly stung her skin as she remembered what it was like to feel.

    “Come,” the man said with a smile, “lets take you in from the rain.” He led her through the wall of glass and when Astrid expected him to stop, he kept moving. He took her down a side passage to the circular tower that she knew led to the temple. She shuddered and the man took a passage into the mountain Astrid ran after him to put as much distance between her and the cursed temple as possible. Astrid recognized a few a few doors and passageways as those she had led Simon, Gabe, and Helen through. As he continued to lead her they went down stairs, then down more and Astrid no longer knew where she was. The perfect dark of the tunnels did not slow her leader down, and Astrid could hear no pulse from him, so she knew he was Nosferatu. He stopped her at a strange location in a hall full of doors, but not next to any of them. The man reached up and put his finger at what appeared to be a random place on the stone. He slid his finger slowly down the wall, muttering something incomprehensible, and the wall that was seamless and carved from the living rock of the mountain split into a door and swung inward. Astrid stared in wonder as the man entered the hole behind the hidden door. Lisa had done something similar, but this was different. It was as if the door had been summoned rather than having a hidden switch or trigger. The door had no visible hinges and, when it was closed, fit so tightly that the edges could not be seen or felt, as if they melted into the wall. Astrid slowly followed the man into the passage that was nearly too dark, even for her, to see in. She had been perfectly calm up til now, but when the door swung silently shut behind her she began to worry. She continued forward despite her fear, following the dark form in front of her which she could see only because he seemed to be darker than the shadows around him. After only a few steps she found herself in a small room where the man lit a few lamps by a simple touch. He glance over at her odd expression and smiled.

    “Alchemy,” he said softly, then closed a second door behind Astrid.

    “I guess nothing should surprise me anymore,” she said half to herself. “Simon is alive? You spoke to him?”

    “Yes, three nights past.”

    Astrid nodded.

    “Forgive me, my lady, for not introducing myself. My name is...”

    “Alucard Tepes,” Astrid finished.

    “Yes,” Alucard said, not used to being out witted, “and you are Astrid?”

    Astrid nodded impatiently. “Where is Simon?”

    “I'm afraid that will take some explanation,” Alucard answered and motioned for her to sit as he did the same. He explained everything that had happened starting from the moment they were separated at the castle gate and ending with Simon's near encounter with death.

    “So, they are going to Roma?” Astrid asked.

    “Yes, or so we decided when last I saw them in Cluj,” Alucard replied.

    “To find a cure for me,” Astrid muttered. It was her fault all over again. She sat in silence for a moment and for the first time noticed her surroundings. The room was perfectly square with a cushioned couch and chairs. There was a white desk with a marble top as well as a wardrobe in one corner. The rest of the walls were lined with chests and odd things. The room had and odd fell about it, as if it did not belong with the rest of the castle. It was too well kept and cared for. What caught Astrid's eye most, however, was a large painting hanging above a strange device on the far wall. She recognized the three people in the painting immediately. The first was Vlad, only he seemed different than he now was. It had nothing to do with age or even appearance, but he looked, happy. His arm was across the shoulder of a woman with light brown hair and eyes so beautiful and sad that they brought tears to Astrid's eyes. The same face watched over the courtyard from the fountain at its center. Cradled in her arms was a child that looked barely a year old. His eyes were pale, ice blue that Astrid recognized as Alucard's.

    “What is this place?” Astrid asked softly, swiveling in her chair to take the room in.

    “You ask hard questions,” Alucard answered harshly, but his voice lost its edge when he continued. “This too shall require an explanation.” Astrid looked to him attentively as he rose and gestured to the painting. “This room is my mother's. When Vlad became what he now is, mother used alchemy to hide this room as a refuge. A safe place. My mother noticed a change in him before I even entered this world. Were it not for her quick wits and talent I would not have lived to see my second year. She always said that that portrait marked the end of both our lives, for a life without love is not worth living.” Alucard paused for a moment to consider his words. “She fled this land with me when I was but in my fifth year, though I have returned to this sanctuary many times.”

    “Your mother,” Astrid said, never taking her eyes from the painting. “She was Nosferatu?”

    “No!” Alucard snapped. Tension flooded the room and Alucard's eyes flashed red. Astrid was startled, but not certain if she should be afraid. “My mother was beautiful and wise.” His tone softened as did his expression. “She was the loveliest human being I have ever known.”

    “She sounds like she really was.” Astrid wanted to ask him more, but thought it would be best to wait for a better time. Instead she changed the subject. “How long will it take for Simon and Gabe to come back?” she asked. Alucard sat back down heavily in an armchair.

    “Tis a week's hard journey to Roma, but nigh unto two at an average pace. If luck is with him and he finds his cure,” he said the last word with the smallest hint of disdain, “then he must be at least one week more returning. At best it will be a fortnight, but do not fear if it takes months.”

    “You don't think they'll find anything, do you?”

    Alucard sighed and shook his head, then when he saw the worried look on Astrid's face he gave her a longer answer. “I have been searching for scores of years and found nothing. Not even in Vlad's personal library.” Astrid thought he would say more about it, but he said no more.

    “You never intended them to find anything,” Astrid said in realization. “You just wanted to be rid of them.”

    “There is only one cure,” Alucard said with certainty, “and I have made a vow to your husband that I would not take that course.” Astrid understood then that his original plan had been to kill her, but rather than being shocked or scared, all she felt was pity.

    “They will surprise you,” Astrid said with all the faith she could muster.

    “I sincerely hope so,” came a barely audible reply. Silence settled through the small room and Astrid idly fingered the fraying edges of her tattered dress. Now that she knew Simon was alive and was coming for her everything had changed. Plans and possibilities shot through her mind one after another. She had to escape, but how would she find him? She had to wait, but how could she survive? Should she take the offensive, or wait for her knight to come? Astrid was pulled from her musings by Alucard walking past and opening the large wardrobe. Astrid must have looked confused because Alucard explained himself.

    “We must go before they find you missing, neither would it be well if I were to be found on these grounds again. However, I can not in good conscience leave you in such a poor state.” He gestured to the contents of the wardrobe and Astrid's eyes lit up. At least a dozen of the nicest dresses Astrid had ever seen hung neatly with matching shawls, coats, and anything else Astrid could want. Impulsively she reached out and felt the fabric of a satin dress that was a deep bright blue, then looked to Alucard to be certain it was alright. He gave her a slight smile.

    “They belonged to my mother.” His face turned expressionless once more and Astrid wondered if it was possible for him to not look sad. She quickly turned back to the dresses and looked at each in turn. There were ruffled gowns and slender dresses that looked like they would fit like a glove. In the end Astrid decided on the first satin blue dress she had found. It was simple, but she felt it would be quite flattering. She glanced around to ask Alucard to leave her to change, but found him already gone. As she slipped on the new, clean, dress she noticed a looking glass in the doors of the wardrobe, but could see no one looking back at her. She supposed she would have to get someone's opinion. Astrid opened the door of the secret room to find Alucard waiting in the short passage outside. He had been leaning against the wall with his eyes closed, but stood formally before Astrid the moment she opened the door.

    “How do I look?” Astrid asked with the hope of getting something other than Alucard's normal lack of expression in return. She saw nothing in his face, but thought she saw a smile in his eyes.

    “It suits you,” he said. With a wave of his hand the lights in the room went out, leaving them in shadow. Alucard closed the door and lead the short distance to where the secret door let out, but it looked like only a dead end.

    “I will teach you how to open this room again if there should ever be a need,” Alucard whispered. “Touch here,” he put his hand high on the wall, “and here,” he dropped it the same way he had earlier. “Seth,” he whispered audibly and the wall was once more a door and swung inward. Alucard and Astrid exited into the hallway with many doors and secret passage closed behind them. Astrid watched as the door melted into the wall, leaving no trace it was ever there. When she turned back, Alucard was gone.

    Astrid idly retraced her steps and pondered her new found ally. Her fingers found their way to the pendant that still hung from her neck. She could remember Simon giving it to her, then it being covered in blood when she had bitten Shadrach. In a flash she remembered that she was supposed to be watching him. She quickened her pace and found a familiar passage that she knew would lead to the central stair. The sound of falling rain echoed down the passage and a dim light illuminated the passage ahead. Astrid began winding her way up the stairs and stopped at the threshold where the rain fell. She put her hand out into the falling water and everywhere a rain drop fell she felt the prick of a needle made of ice. She hesitated for a moment, then turned and started to Lisa's room so she could talk to Vladimir.

    “Aeline,” a voice said from above her. Astrid looked back to see Vlad emerge from the rain with his jaw open. His drenched face rapidly turned from shock to realization to anger as he stomped down the stairs. “Where have you been?” he said through clenched teeth. Astrid took a step backward, slipped on a damp step, and would have fallen if Vlad had not caught her by the arm. “Come,” he snarled, but his grip on her arm didn't give Astrid much of a choice. He hauled her back up the stairs and through the horrible rain until they came to a set of great double doors that led into a great circular building. Vlad threw the doors open, tossed Astrid inside, and slammed them shut behind him. The building was a single, enormous, room with a balcony circling the rim. Behind a circle of supporting pillars the walls were lined with shelves containing countless books. A few free standing shelves concealed the center of the room from view, but the domed ceiling painted to match a brilliant starry sky spread out above them. Astrid stumbled into a shelf, sending a few books falling to the carpeted floor, but quickly regained her feet and turned to face Vlad. She could see herself rushing at him and feel his body breaking by her hand. She wanted him dead, but knew it was folly to try.

    “He was here,” Vlad said with contempt. “Where is he?”

    “I don't know...”

    “Don't lie to me.” Vlad did not yell, but his voice carried power with it that Astrid had to obey. The cold fury of his words swept past her like a gust of wind. He slowly stepped up to her and felt the cloth of her dress between his fingers but she dared not offer resistance. “He came and thou art yet living.” He paused and took a deep breath. “Did he gift this unto thee?” Astrid felt herself shaking and found no words to answer with. Vlad released her dress and paced like a wild animal. “If thou hast desires to remain living, then stay away from him.”

    “Why?” Astrid stammered, finally finding her courage. “Will you kill me if I do?”

    “He will,” Vlad answered. “Why he did not do so already is a mystery.” Astrid remembered what Alucard had said.

    “He promised Simon,” she murmured to herself, but when Vlad looked at her she knew he had heard.

    “The man who gave his blood to thee.” Astrid turned away, ashamed that she had let any information slip. The last thing she wanted was for Vlad to do to Simon what he had done to her father. “Do you know to whom belongs that dress?” Vlad asked, stumbling through the Latin.

    “Aeline,” Astrid answered. Vlad nodded and Astrid was surprised to see sadness in his features.

    “She had blue eyes.” Vlad's accent got a little thicker. “So blue the sky was shamed. They had light from a thousand stars. When she laugh it is so pure, the gods grow jealous and plot to steal her from me.” Astrid had always seen Vlad as the monster that killed her family, the menace that haunted her life and destroyed life after life to get to her. The beast that had transformed her into one of his own. Yet now she felt something different. Whether it was pity, compassion, or simply understanding, she didn't know, but it was the first feeling she had felt for him other than unrestrained hate.

    “I was lord over the land beyond the forest,” Vlad continued unbidden, and Astrid was willing to listen. “I always give my prayers and offerings to deaf gods. Then I meet Aeline and know that they are there. But the gods do not allow possession of her and strike her with the fever.” Astrid thought she saw a tear roll down his cheek, but couldn't be certain before he looked away. “I beg the gods to spare her, but they become deaf once more. So I give an oath to do anything to make her whole, and the fallen one answers. I covenant the blood of the holy in exchange for my wife. Just as this Simon gave his own blood for thee.” She had heard the tale before, but now she saw it differently. She would have done the same thing. Simon did do the same thing. The dress you now wear,” Vlad said with a sad smile, “was her favorite.” Astrid suddenly felt self conscious. “It suits you.”

    There was a moment of silence as Astrid tried to sort through her feelings and failed miserably. She slowly stepped past where Vlad had stopped pacing and reached for the door. Vlad's voice barely carried over the sound of the falling rain, but it stopped Astrid with her hand on the door handle.

    “Did Alucard tell you how she died?” Astrid turned and rather than seeing a monster she saw Vlad as a man. As a husband and father. “Did he tell you how he killed her? He betrays all who trust him. Be mindful young Astrid. Be careful in whom your trust is given.” Vlad turned and disappeared into the shadows of the library. Astrid opened the door and stepped into the painful rain. It had lightened up, but Astrid did not notice. She glanced at Shadrach as she passed and found both he and the man in the same position as before. Astrid wondered how long Shadrach's self control would last as she passed below ground level in a descent around the fountain. She went straight to her room and waited for dawn and the deathly sleep that came with it.
    "All stories are true, but this one really happened,if that's what you mean." Skarpi, The Name of the Wind

  6. #46
    Okay this is as far as I have written. As a matter of fact, I just finished writing and typing this chapter today. Thank you to everyone who read all of this. Your feedback has been and, I know, will continue to be great. I'll keep posting as I write, but it will probably be less frequent from now on. Enjoy!


    xxxiii
    Words


    “Everyone up! Something has happened!” Hazael's voice boomed through the still dark camp. Simon squinted from eyes that still longed to be be shut and saw that the sun was barely a faint glow on the horizon. “We must go,” Hazael continued. “Before this city is blockaded and under siege!” Simon quickly rolled his blankets and gave Gabe a knowing glance. Their stunt last night had caused more trouble than they thought. Simon stowed his borrowed things in a corner of a wagon and before he could offer any help, all the work was done. Orion motioned for Gabe and Simon to climb aboard the wagon and Simon's still sleepy body was glad it was his turn to ride. Beside Beside them, leading the horses, sat the thin dark haired man they had spoken to the previous night. The horses hooves clopped softly on the ground and wagon wheels creaked as the caravan ran away from the rising sun.

    “I never introduced you last night,” Orion said apologetically as the team took to the road. “This is Izaac, Hazael's second in command.” The man nodded and Simon was relieved that they would be able to speak freely while riding.

    “So, what happened?” he asked. “Why are we leaving so fast?”

    Orion's mood suddenly grew as dark as the land around them only Simon suspected the sun wouldn't rise for him any time soon. “After we left, the entire garrison of imperial troops were summoned. I heard from Jephtah,” he gestured to a man on the road behind them, “that they sealed everyone in that house inside, then burnt it to the ground.”

    Simon's jaw dropped and he thought he saw Gabe's eyes begin to tear.

    “They suspected a rebellion and wanted to put it down before it got out of control. The fools started one. Every Vandal in the city declared war on them, and while most are still in hiding they've been awakened and it won't be long before they strike.”

    Simon tried to imagine their simple act of protecting children starting a war and couldn't believe it.

    “So the old couple and the kids?” Gabe asked even though he already knew the answer.

    “All dead,” Orion muttered. They rode in silence for a long time, until the sun came up over the mountains and a stop was called for the morning meal. Simon collected his breakfast, then found a fallen tree to sit on. He gazed up at the quarter moon, which was barely visible in the morning sky, and stoically chewed a piece of bread. The mountains they had come from seemed very far away to Simon. He had never realized the world was so big. Endless hills stretched out before him and the forest that he knew was gone completely. Replaced by grassy hills with patches of short oak or something Simon thought looked similar. Simon stared down the road to the horizon, wondering where it would take them, when he heard a stick clatter at his feet. He idly picked it up as Orion and Gabe approached. Gabe sat beside Simon and Orion flourished his own stick.

    “I don't have a spare sword, so these will have to do,” he said with a smile.

    Gabe proceeded to see how quickly he could eat the pile of food he had been carrying as Simon swallowed the last of his own. “When do you want to start?” Simon asked. An instant later his knuckles were on fire as Orion struck the stick from his hand and put his own to Simon's chest.

    “It's already begun.” Orion smiled a little wider. Simon massaged some feeling back into his hand and shot Orion a sour look.

    “You could have warned me.”

    “Why?” Orion countered. “Would and enemy warn you?” Using the end of his stick Orion flipped the other into his hand then placed it in Simon's. Simon rose to his feet and held the make-shift weapon in front of him.

    “Are you ready now?” Orion taunted, then before Simon could answer he batted his stick aside and struck Simon's thigh with a loud crack. Simon knelt on his good leg, the motion of it causing his bad arm to ache a bit more, and tried not to get angry. After all, he had asked for this. Orion began to chuckle and made no effort to hide his amusement.

    “Lesson number one,” the boy said as he once more retrieved Simon's fallen stick. “Always be prepared. Most fights last only a few seconds. The epic tales speak of battles that can last days, but that isn't how it works. Most of the time the winner is decided at the first touch of steel.”

    Simon groaned and rose to his feet, and as he did so Orion handed him his weapon. Before Orion had taken another step Simon slashed at him. Orion's own weapon shot out so fast that Simon did not know what had happened until it was over. Orion had effortlessly blocked the blow and secured Simon's stick against the ground with his foot.

    “Better,” Orion said, and Simon thought he heard the smallest hint of pride in his voice. Then Orion shattered the pride Simon had only begun to feel. “But you swing like an ape.” The boy patted Simon on the cheek with his free hand and Simon flushed with embarrassment.

    “Moving on!” someone called, and instantly everyone began packing away to continue their trek. Simon noticed about a dozen people turn away from him and blushed all the more furiously. He wondered just how many had been watching. Within minutes the caravan was moving and Simon, Gabe, and Orion took a place near the front. The road was dusty and Simon was glad he wasn't at the back end of the pack.

    “I think you're getting worse, Simon,” Gabe laughed as he plucked up a blade of grass and put it in his mouth.

    “You're just getting better,” Simon replied. “And bigger.” He had not noticed before, but Gabe did seem taller and stronger than a week ago. Gabe had always been big, but now he seemed firm. He had always been an ox, but now he was a lion. “both of you put me to shame, that's for sure.” Simon had not meant for it to be a joke, but both Gabe and Orion laughed.

    “Well, size matters,” Orion said. “Some people might try to say otherwise, but it does. That is why those of us who are not so gifted in stature,” Orion winked up at Simon, “have to be twice as good as people like Gabe.” Simon smiled until Gabe nudged him in the arm, which made him wince.

    “You're plenty tough,” Gabe said. “You just need to learn to use weapons.”

    “There's a lot of truth to that,” Orion nodded. “But remember that all fights are not equal and you'll stay alive longer.” The three laughed softly and continued walking along the road that wove up and down hills toward the unknown.

    After a few hours the road began to level and a small stream ran along the side of it. Although Simon's arm continued to ache he liked the sound of the stream and thought it helped a little. They waded through the small stream several times as the terrain leveled out, and Simon was feeling a bit better as the sun reached its peak. Simon was just beginning to see the hazy blue outline of hills in the distance when Gabe's stomach growled loudly in his ear.

    “I'd say your belly was bottomless if I didn't have to look at it all day,” Simon bantered.

    “If you weren't so short you wouldn't have to,” Gabe retorted with a grin. Simon reached down and snatched a pebble off the ground.

    “The thin air must be getting to your head,” Simon said and tossed the pebble at Gabe's head, but it was swatted away before it hit its mark. Simon glanced to his other side and noticed that Orion was no longer next to them right before Gabe gave him a push that sent him stumbling forward.

    “Throwing rocks must be easy when the ground is so close,” Gabe laughed. Simon quickly regained his feet and fell into step beside his friend once more.

    “Where do you think Orion went?”
    the next moment a stick slapped Simon's good arm. “Hey that hurt,” Simon said right as he saw Orion coming in for the next strike. He barely managed to swat away the stick before it hit his head, then reached out for his attacker but fell short. Orion danced back a few paces and laughed lightly. “That's not fair,” Simon complained. “I don't have a weapon.”

    “Whose fault is that?” Orion asked with a smile. He then swung at Simon's legs. Simon tried to jump over the swing, but only managed to be hit in the ankle rather than the knee. Simon saw the ground coming up at him, but could do nothing to avoid it and soon had his nose and mouth full of dirt. His face stung as he spat and struggled to regain his feet.

    “You're lucky we're not walking behind the horses!” Simon yelled followed by another round of coughs.

    “Why? What would you do about it?” Orion taunted, then offered Simon his hand. Simon took it and the boy lifted him to his feet. As he dusted himself off those who had been behind them began to pass and had a few choice words to say about it. Simon shook a cloud of dust from his hair and heard Orion chuckle.

    “You think this is funny?” Simon asked incredulously.

    “No,” Orion answered and pointed at those who had walked past. “Them, not you.”

    Simon looked at the wagon rolling past him and those who were still muttering words he couldn't quite hear. Their clothes were different than his and their skin was darker for the most part, but he saw nothing funny about them. They didn't look as if they had said or heard anything funny, in fact they looked annoyed and upset, and Simon's face twisted in confusion. Simon listened and could only hear a few angry words and the creaking of wagon wheels. The three began walking once more, this time in the center of the group.

    “Did you listen to what they were saying?” Orion asked.

    “No,” Simon answered.

    “I try to ignore things like that,” Gabe added.

    Orion pointed to two men in striped robes walking ahead of them. “They suggested that you were a donkey that had fallen in manure, but as you pointed out earlier, we were clearly in front of the horses.” He nodded at a man and woman to their left. “They thought that you resembled a Germanic dog cross bred with a pig.” Orion then glanced at the wagon that had passed them. “And Hazael there mentioned something to the effect that when you hit the dirt you somehow obtained unlawful carnal knowledge.”

    Both Simon and Gabe had to laugh at the last comment, and all three of them laughed hysterically for a moment, drawing more than a few odd looks and murmurs from their fellow troupers.

    “People don't know what they're saying,” Orion said after he could breathe without laughing.

    “Or don't care,” Gabe said.

    “They don't know the power of their own words,” Orion muttered so quietly that Simon almost didn't hear it. A moment later Orion hopped over a large rock in the path and turned upon landing to walk backwards. “So, what did you learn?” he asked cheerfully.

    “That people are stupid,” Simon answered, sending both him and Gabe into another fit of laughter.

    “About fighting,” Orion emphasized.

    Simon calmed himself and said, “To carry a big stick.” Gabe laughed, but Orion considered the response.

    “not a bad answer. Do you own a sword?”

    “No,” Simon replied.

    “Then expect to be outmatched both in size, strength, and equipment. You have to learn to outmaneuver a weapon even if you have none.” He handed Simon the stick he had used. “But carrying a big stick helps,” he added with a smile.

    Simon smiled back and for the first time in days he felt happy. The sky was clear and the ground was warm. A cool breeze gave the trees and grass around them life, and the sound of the brook was music in Simon's ears. He was wounded and on a hopeless quest, but he was having fun. He hadn't felt this way since before Astrid had been taken. Simon wondered how Astrid was and instantly felt guilty. She was cursed and imprisoned, and he was having the time of his life.

    “What's wrong?” Gabe asked, calling Simon back to reality.

    “Nothing,” he answered right as Hazael's voice boomed across the countryside.

    “We rest!”

    Rolls and other small items of food were passed out, which Simon, Gabe, and Orion took gratefully. Orion checked Simon's wound and re-wrapped it. Before long the caravan was under way once more. Simon waited expectantly for another fighting lesson that didn't come, and later in the afternoon Orion was called on to give a song. The group never stopped and Orion didn't need them to. He quickly fetched his lute, climbed aboard Hazael's wagon, and began to play. Simon and Gabe had heard him play once before, but this time was different, not just the type of song, but the fullness of sound. He was not playing a saga as before, but his voice seemed to blend better with the sound of the instrument and his lute seemed better able to harmonize and match his tone. Orion played a number of songs, but neither Simon nor Gabe counted them. The songs were often simple and sometimes funny or silly, but always they told a story. Miles passed under foot as the train of wagons, merchants, travelers, and mercenaries lost themselves in the music's flow. Orion played and sang until the long summer day ended and the sun sank below the hills before them. Simon felt somewhat guilty about it, but he went to sleep that night with a smile on his face.
    "All stories are true, but this one really happened,if that's what you mean." Skarpi, The Name of the Wind

  7. #47
    I mentioned earlier that I had some of the later story written. I think now would be a good time to share some of that with you. This takes place four months after what is here. I tried to write it so that it could stand alone, so some of the descriptions may repeat. I originally intended it to be an alternate starting point as a short version of the story, but I don't think that is going to work. Let me know what you think I should do with it. Keep it by itself or tack it on to the other, and how I can improve it.

    i

    Coranthin stared at the rain falling in the fields and had to smile. He had been working and tending his crop for a few weeks with no water and was afraid his crops might die, but the raid had come. Just as it always did. It didn't matter when it came, Coranthin would have hauled water to the field himself before he let it die. For the first time in a long time Coranthin felt peaceful. He was content to watch the rain fall from the family's small home. There were eight of them together and two other families close by. Their community was small, but they helped each other through the hard times and that was enough. In the distance small streams and rills were forming in the hills and Coranthin was glad the plants were stable enough to hold the topsoil together. The harvest would be good enough tho get them through the winter, and maybe extra to barter with.

    The family made their usual noise as they set out their supper. Young Brigit shouted out orders that no one cared about, while Ragna set out wooden plates. Njord and Vibeke had been kind to Coranthin and he felt at home with their five children. Axel was the oldest and, being the same age as Coranthin, was preparing to start his own farm and family. He had had his eye on a neighbor's daughter for some time, and Njord knew it was only a matter of months until he left to make his own way. Coranthin suspected that that was the main reason Njord was so kind to him. He had no other sons and would need someone to take over his farm when he was gone. Ragna was the next child in line and, being a girl, it wouldn't do for her to take care of the farm and family on her own. Coranthin liked Ragna. She was quiet and had a great sense of humor. She had her mother's looks and her father's temperment, which was a good match. Coranthin had thought about her a lot lately, but she didn't seem interested in him at all. That left Freya who was barely old enough to consider. It was obvious that Njord and Vibeke were trying to match him up with Freya. She was nice and outgoing, but she reminded him too much of someone else. Brigit and Ingrid were like little sisters to him and constantly followed him because he was still a novelty.

    Coranthin watched them all for a moment in silence. Freya and Vibeke had finished cooking. Ragna sat at the newly set table in silence while Axel pretended he was in charge. Brigit and Ingrid fought about something only the two of them knew about and Njord tried unsuccessfully to wrangle them. It was all new to Coranthin and he had to say he liked it. Freya crossed the small room to tell Coranthin that their dinner was ready. He knew Freya was trying extra hard to be close to him and watched for any kind of reaction from Ragna. Freya stepped up and softly touched his arm before telling him about the food.

    "Thanks Freya," he replied, hardly taking his eyes Ragna, who gave no indication that she had noticed anything. He sat on a wood block at the table and breathed in the smell of steaming potatoes and mutton. It was plain food and nothing compared to what they had in the empire, but he thought it looked delicious just the same. Njord stood, just as he did every evening meal, and remained standing until everyone was quiet.

    "I thanks Odin for family," he stammered. Coranthin was grateful he was speaking Latin, but wished he didn't try so hard. "We may meet again in Asgard court." Coranthin smiled at Ragna next to him and whispered so that only she could hear, "Make that Hel for me."

    The two laughed softly as the family began their meal. The rain continued to fall on the small home and drench the earth. While the earth was wet and cold Coranthin knew that the whole world was warm within four walls and a thatched roof.

    ii

    Miles away a giant of a man could be seen taking shelter in the forest. His companion was smaller and less noticeable only because of the giant she traveled with. The man looked as though he was a creature of myth roaming the real world for his size, just as the woman with him did for her beauty. The two slowly picked their way through the trees in a vain attempt to keep themselves dry until they came to a small clearing with a monolithic gray stone standing as a sentinel in its center. The large man looked small next to the stone as the two took shelter in its shadow. The giant removed the blanket he had been using as a cloak to reveal a tan face with blunt features and sun bleached hair. The woman was tall for a normal person, but looked small in her present company. Her long gray hair fell to her ankles in a ponytail, the color having nothing to do with her young age. Both looked in their early twenties, but their eyes spoke of more experience than the most traveled elders. The two waited patiently, listening to the falling rain until a small shadow made its way toward them. The shadow quickly crossed the clearing to the stone and threw off its cloak to reveal the face of a young girl. Short red hair fell around her young face and one beaded tassel of hair fell beside her face. The other two each gave the girl a quick embrace before she started her report.

    "I believe I found something, but perhaps you should tell me what you found first."

    The man took the hilt of a sword, fashioned like feathered wings, and hefted a blade wrapped in the blanket that had served as his cloak. "Take it," he said, handing it to the girl. "I barely found it and already it's getting to me."

    "None of us should hold onto it for too long," the girl answered as she took the sword that was nearly as tall as she was.

    "It makes me wonder how he carried it for so long," the woman said.

    "That's why we need him back," the girl replied sadly.

    The giant gave her a sympathetic look and had compassion in his voice. "You found him then?"

    "Yes."

    The faces of the other two brightened. "you've spoken to him?"

    "No," the girl sighed. "It would be best if you did that." A long silence followed until the girl spoke again. "It won't be easy."

    There was another long silence, but this time it was broken by the man. "I miss him."

    "We all do," the woman echoed. The three gazed into the falling rain where the two that constituted the rest of their group approached.

    iii

    Coranthin went about his usual chores the next morning, and as he did, he remembered how he had met Njord and been taken in. He had been looking for somewhere to settle down and disappear when he saw Njord and Axel arguing in their field. Coranthin knew he wouldn't be followed in daylight, but he glanced over his shoulder anyway. He would have to cover a lot of ground if he was going to lose his pursuer. He deviated from his course to go around the bickering farmers, but then thought better of it. His hunter was expecting a chase, expecting him to run, but if he stopped now perhaps they would pass him by. It was a long shot, but he knew how futile an effort it would be to try and out run them. He corrected his course again, this time so that he would pass close by the older man and boy. He glanced over his shoulder twice more out of habit before he reached them. The older man called out to him as he passed and Coranthin wasn't surprised that he didn't know the language. It sounded vaguely germanic, but there were so many dialects around here that even if Coranthin did know the language he still had little chance of being able to communicate.

    "Hello," Coranthin greeted.

    "Is that Latin you speaking?" the old man asked through a thick accent.

    "Yes," Coranthin replied, "how's the harvest?"

    The man said something in his native tongue to the boy, then answered. "It going good. Where is stranger from?"

    "Over the sea and above the sky," Coranthin replied truthfully, knowing that no one in their right mind would believe it. The older man jabbered excitedly to the boy and the boy laughed in response. Coranthin waited for the man to speak, but instead it was the boy who broke the silence.

    "My father wonder's how many of the nine worlds you have been to." The boy laughed again, then continued before Coranthin could explain. "My name is Axel and this is my father Njord." Axel held out his hand and Coranthin accepted it.

    "Coranthin," he said as he released the boy's hand. "You speak Latin very well."

    Axel smiled at the compliment. "My mother and father taught all of us. Me and my sisters are fluent, but my parents weren't raised with it."

    Coranthin didn't know how much these people knew of eastern myths, but he supposed that even if they did it was so far from the truth that they would never suspect his background. "I wonder if perhaps you have any olive oil to trade?"

    Axel translated a few words, but before he had finished Coranthin heard something coming out of the woods behind him and turned to look in a defensive crouch. A small flock of sheep came one by one from the forest followed by a young lady who looked as though she lived with the animals. Coranthin's nerves took a few moments to settle, after which he turned back to the father and son. Axel looked to Njord with anxious eyes before the man waved him away. Axel ran to the flock, which was now following a small path toward a distant farm, and embraced the girl that was leading them.

    "Heh, kids!" Njord grumbled. Coranthin waited a long moment and wondered if Njord had forgotten about him, then the man gave him a long look. "You in trouble," he stammered, "running?"

    Coranthin had to smile at how quickly he had given himself away. "If I could stay the night, I would appreciate it." Coranthin was surprised at his own words. After all he had been through and done he was still willing to put others in danger for his own sake. "No," he corrected himself, "never mind, I'll find somewhere else." He had not even taken a step away before he felt Njord's hand on his shoulder.

    "Wait, you stay. We give olive you."

    Coranthin knew he would regret it, but something in the man's eyes convinced him to stay. This time would be different. "Thank you."

    That had been more than a month ago, and despite what Coranthin had felt then he had never regretted it. He grabbed a spade and trudged his way across the muddy ground. Njord had told him that the snows would come in only a week's time, and he had to have everything harvested before then. He went about his work of collecting roots and turning fertilizer into the soil to prepare it for the next year. The morning wore on. Coranthin could see Njord working in the distance and could hear Freya yelling at their few sheep and cattle. He looked at the small cottage that he had learned to call home and saw Ragna through the open door helping her mother pack food for the winter. He took a moment to take in the sight until Ragna looked up. At first he thought she was looking at him and turned away with red cheeks, but then he noticed she was not looking at him, but past him.

    iv

    He turned and couldn't believe what he saw. They were still a long way off, maybe they hadn't seen him. Maybe it was a coincidence. Coranthin quickly wheeled his cart full of roots behind the house to the cellar, hoping that if he stayed out of sight they might pass by. He wasn't surprised that they had found him, just that they had only now found him. He was expecting this a month ago or not at all. He dropped his cart off at the closed cellar door and didn't bother to unload it before he made his way to the small stable that housed the family's single horse and milk cow. He closed the door securely behind him, then peered through the gaps in the warped wall boards at the two figures that approached Njord at the far end of the field. He had a sinking feeling in his stomach and knew he was found. His mind raced through what he should do next, and it wasn't until he started pacing restlessly that he discovered he wasn't alone.

    "What's wrong Coranthin?" Freya asked as she rose from her stool and dusted herself off. Coranthin saw a half filled pail of milk under the cow and tried to think of an excuse to tell her.

    "Just seeing if you need any help," he said with a fake smile.

    Freya gave him a questioning look, then shrugged. "Can you feed her while I finish milking?"

    "Sure," Coranthin sighed with relief. He took the hay fork and scooped grassy stalks into the feeding trough.

    "So, what brings you here, out of the field?" Freya asked with a smile. "You just wanted to be alone with me?"

    She said it as if she were joking, but Coranthin thought he heard some hopefulness in her tone. Coranthin was about to answer when there was a knock at the stable door. Freya stared at him in confusion and he realized how frightened he must look. "I'm not here," he whispered right before diving into the stack of hay. He couldn't see anything after that, but he heard Freya laugh softly as she opened the door. Njord's voice greeted her.

    "Good morning to Freya. Will you get Coranthin out of hay pile for me?"

    Coranthin had to laugh at how easily his meager cover had been blown. "No need," he said as he rose with stalks sticking from his tunic and hair. He knew what he would see before he looked out the open door. Right behind Njord stood a tall young man with sun bleached hair and a long sleeveless red coat, beside a young woman in a green tunic with gray hair that fell past her knees. "I expected you a month ago," Coranthin said as he exited the stable.

    "You didn't make it that easy," the man replied as Coranthin motioned for them to follow him to the house. Coranthin could feel Njord and Freya's eyes on him as he led the two strangers to a more private place to talk. Coranthin had expected this to happen some time ago, but now he found himself unprepared. He opened the door of the two room home and saw Vibeke and Ragna, one packing food while the other worked a loom. The two women stopped what they were doing as soon as they saw the two strangers in the doorway.

    "I'm sorry," Coranthin said to Vibeke, "but can I borrow the house for a few minutes?"

    Vibeke nodded and motioned for Ragna to follow her out. Coranthin was shocked when he saw Ragna hesitate. She was concerned for him, and as nervous as Coranthin was, the idea of it made him glad.

    "Come," Vibeke beckoned, and this time Ragna began to follow. As she passed Coranthin touched her shoulder and smiled.

    "I'll be alright," he said softly, and with that reassurance Ragna left the room. Coranthin was left alone beneath the shadow of the giant in the doorway, but right then he felt ten feet tall. The two travelers entered and took seats at the far end of the table in the center of the room. Coranthin closed the door behind them and sat facing them.

    "It's good to see you, Simon," the big man said with a wide smile.

    "Good to see you too, Gabe," Coranthin replied. "Grey," he smiled and nodded to the woman and she smiled back. "But I think you are mistaken, my name is Coranthin now."

    "You look good," Gabe said. "You look like you're happy here."

    "I am," Coranthin assured a little too quickly for it to be the truth. "You've grown, and Grey you look as beautiful as ever."

    The woman shot him a look that would make most men fall to their knees, but Coranthin knew her too well to be caught in her snare. "How long do you think it will last?" she asked softly. Coranthin had no answer, so she continued. "I've tried what you're doing and the past always caught up with me."

    Coranthin looked away and refused to say anything. Finally Gabe broke the silence.

    "We need you."

    "No," Coranthin half shouted. "I can't help you, and even if I could, I'm needed here."

    "You can't replace her. You know that don't you?"

    "She doesn't want me."

    "Do you think she had a choice?" There was a short silence where Coranthin had no fast answer to shoot back. "After what she went through, after what she had to become..."

    "She abandoned me, Gabe."

    "No, she left to save you. She never abandoned you."

    The memories were to strong and Coranthin could feel them start to seep from his eyes. "What do you want me to do?" he cried. "I'm not a Nephilim, not a Varcolac. I'm not Atlantian, or Nosferatu. I don't have noble blood! I'm not even any good with a sword!" He then added in a softer tone, "I have no guardians, no chance, no hope."

    The other two sat silently until Gabe softly said, "That never stopped you before."

    Coranthin no longer tried to stop the flood of tears that poured down his cheeks. "Do you know what I did?"

    "You can't stop now, Simon, we've come too far."

    Coranthin stared at a pebble on the floor near his toes. "Tell that to Riga," he whispered. He opened his mouth, but no words came. The memories were too horrible to tell. Coranthin was blinded by tears and didn't notice Gabe and Grey patiently waiting for a few minutes. He tried once more, but the only words that escaped his lips were, "Eighty-two."

    "Eighty-two what?" Gabe asked intently.

    "That's how many people I killed," Coranthin barely got out each word. "Eighty-two and... My brother."

    Gabe and Grey wore faces of such confusion that under other circumstances they would have looked comical. Coranthin took a deep breath and prepared himself to tell the tale.
    "All stories are true, but this one really happened,if that's what you mean." Skarpi, The Name of the Wind

  8. #48
    The month of July is always busy, so it's been a while, but I finally finished another chapter. Right now the story is getting more into some filler parts in between major events, so any comments would be helpful. Does it negatively affect the flow of the story? Is it down right boring? I've read books before where it seemed like the author got tired of the story half way through and I don't want that to happen, so please critique away.

    xxxiv
    Choices


    The balcony always felt peaceful and seemed to draw her there, but tonight Astrid stopped to sit with Vladimir in the courtyard. She had just come from visiting Lisa and although her skin still had marks and scars across it, Astrid was amazed at how fast Lisa was healing. Astrid had only stayed a few minutes so that Lisa could rest, but before she left Lisa had told her that by the next night she would be fully recovered. Astrid approached Vladimir cautiously. She was unsure whether his agitation toward her had subsided and thought it best to keep to a safe distance. She took a seat on the edge of the fountain beyond arms reach of him and followed his line of sight to where Shadrach and the old man huddled against the church doors. The man clutched a piece of stale, moldy bread against his chest as if it were his only child and every now and then took a small bite. Shadrach sat with a blank stare and was shivering despite how warm it was. His skin looked pale and he didn't look well at all. Astrid rose to her feet and began bridging the gap between them when Vladimir spoke.

    “Don't. He is in no danger yet.”

    Astrid glanced from Vladimir to Shadrach and back again. She hated turning her back on Shadrach, but knew she could trust Vladimir and returned to her spot at the fountain. Astrid gazed up at the stars and anywhere except where Shadrach sat shaking.

    “I talked with Lisa,” Astrid said just to have something to keep herself distracted. Vladimir gave no indication that he had heard her and could have easily been mistaken for a statue like the one in the water behind him. “She said she would be better tomorrow,” Astrid continued. She looked for any kind of response from Vladimir, but found none. She wondered what he was feeling. Was he angry at her? Was he sad? What did he want? She sighed in exasperation and followed Vladimir's stare once more to Shadrach. She could hear his pulse though it was faint and irregular. It made her hungry, but she pushed her yearning aside and looked once more into the sky. “The stars seem brighter than before,” she said, no longer expecting a response, but still hoping. “The sky is so full, but before it always seemed so empty. Lonely.”

    “Your eyes have changed,” Vladimir said and Astrid wanted to smile because she had coaxed him into speaking, but kept her happiness to herself.

    “So there were always this many stars?” she asked just to keep him talking.

    “Human eyes seek the light and need it to see. They capture it, that is why they are so dark. Our kind reject the light. That is why the sun blinds us.”

    “Do you know about the stars?”

    Vladimir chuckled softly at the question. “I was born in darkness. I live in darkness. My life is the night. How could I not?”

    “Bram used to say that the stars told stories. He would tell us about great hunters or bears or dragons, but I can't see them. The whole sky seems too crowded for them now.”

    “You said you thought the stars were lonely,” Vladimir smiled sadly. “I was always told that they are proof that we are not alone.”

    Astrid cocked her head and shot Vladimir a look of perplexion.

    “Do you know how they came into being?” Vladimir asked.

    Astrid shook her head and gazed up at the moonless sky once more.

    “Legends say that when man was young and still in the presence of the gods, that there were no stars in the sky. There was only sun by day and moon by night. Then when man left the presence of the gods and the gods saw him wandering in darkness, they put the stars in the heavens to be a guide and remind him of what once was. Also to tell him where he is going and light his way.” Both of them thought silently for a moment before Vladimir continued. “No one knows what they are, but my own belief is that the stars were not made by the gods at all. I believe they were made by people who defied the gods and reached so high into the heavens that they ripped holes in the sky.”

    Astrid smiled. She hadn't known Vladimir was a poet at heart. “A lot of people must have reached the heavens,” she said and gazed into the starry sky.

    “Nothing is impossible,” Vladimir said quietly. “That is why I think the stars are there.”

    Astrid thought of Simon and his search for a cure for her. “Nothing is impossible,” she echoed. A sudden gasp from Shadrach drew their attention and Astrid impulsively rushed forward. Shadrach began to moan and lurch uncontrollably as if he were having a seizure. Before Astrid was half way to him Vladimir appeared like a wall in front of her.

    “You can not go to him. It is forbidden.”

    Astrid pushed Vladimir aside, but he was so big that she may as well have gone around him. She was done following orders. She had let Lisa be tortured and vowed it would never happen again. She would not abandon Shadrach. She knelt next to the boy and put her hand on his shoulder.

    “What's wrong?”

    He jerked away and moaned. “No, not again.” He reached out for the man only a few feet away, then jerked his hand back as if he had been burned. Astrid looked back at Vladimir with a worried face.

    “What's happening?” she asked. Vladimir stayed where he was, indicating that he wasn't going to help and that she shouldn't either.

    “He is beginning to change.”

    “I thought he had to drink blood for that,” Astrid said, beginning to panic.

    “He does,” Vladimir answered, “and he is fighting not to.” Astrid looked at Shadrach and saw the color of his eyes fade until they were all white. His mouth was open and his teeth looked sharp and unusually white. He moaned again and lunged at the old man. Astrid held him back, but the old man jumped away and hit the end of his chain, causing him to lose his treasured lump of bread.

    “We have to help him,” Astrid pleaded. She could see her words beginning to sway Vladimir as he shifted his weight uncomfortably.

    “I can not,” he persisted. “It is my duty to see that my father's wishes are carried out.” A soft laugh came form the shadows and a moment later it was joined by another.

    “That's right brother, do your duty.” Anhael stepped from the shadows the the right of the cathedral, then another voice came from the left.

    “Your sympathy is in vain.” Eve chuckled as she emerged into the courtyard. “The kind thing to do would be to give him the blood he seeks.” The two stopped on either side of Astrid, like predators circling their prey. She looked to Vladimir for any kind of assurance.

    “It is still his choice,” he answered her unasked question.

    “Unless you force him,” Anhael sneered. At the same time Shadrach launched himself toward the old man again. This time it took all of Astrid's strength to hold him back.

    “This doesn't look like much of a choice to me,” she half snarled at Vladimir. Her attention was brought back to Shadrach when she felt him grab her hand.

    “Astrid?” Shadrach gasped. He was sweating and breathing heavily, but his eyes had returned to normal.

    “I'm here,” Astrid answered, trying to sound calm. Shadrach struggled to speak, but only managed to moan. His mouth formed the words, but his voice seemed unable to say them.

    “It... Hurts,” he finally said through clenched teeth. Astrid looked to Vladimir for help, but he remained motionless. She began to rise to her feet.

    “Vladimir, what do I...” She suddenly fell back to the ground when Shadrach's grip on her hand tightened.

    “...Don't leave me.” Shadrach swallowed and wet his lips. “Don't... Alone.”

    Astrid nodded as tears began to form in her eyes. “I'm right here,” she answered with a shaking voice. She bit her lip and forced the tears back. She wouldn't let herself cry. Shadrach continued to breathe heavily for a few minutes, then stopped completely. Astrid could not hear his pulse and looked questioningly to Vladimir. He remained expressionless and she began to fear the worst. A sudden tug on her hand brought her back around to face Shadrach. His face was coated in sweat and so contorted with pain that he was hardly recognizable. His eyes appeared dead once more and his teeth were sharp. Astrid let out a startled breath as Shadrach closed his jaws around her throat. She expected it to hurt, or for herself to grow faint as she had the first time, but she felt nothing. After the moment of initial shock had passed she pushed Shadrach off of her and he fell limp to the cobbled pavement.

    All was silent for long seconds. The last bit of the moon was beginning to rise over the mountains in the east and cast long shadows across the castle. Astrid could feel the heat being pulled out of the air by the cold stone beneath her as if the castle itself were a creature that stole life. The silence was absolute and felt like it filled the whole world. The shallow breathing and faint heartbeat of the old man thundered in Astrid's ears and Astrid wondered what it would be like to be terrified and alone, surrounded by monsters. The silence lasted so long that Astrid thought it may never end. Was Shadrach truly dead? Had she killed him? Astrid edged closer to the boy's body, then he suddenly moaned and shifted, startling Astrid and causing her to flinch away. Shadrach was face down in the corner of the cathedral door and turned his head just enough to see Astrid. A gurgling sound came from his throat and Astrid noticed that his eyes were their normal color again.

    “Please...” The rest of what he was trying to say came out in incomprehensible wheezes. Astrid moved to his side once more and held his hand. What was she supposed to do?

    “Be strong,” she said, but wasn't sure if her words could get through to him. Astrid glanced at the old man and looked at Shadrach once more. He was too young to die and the old man was doomed anyway. Should she sacrifice one to save the other, or could they both make it through after all?

    “Vladimir,” Astrid said over her shoulder, “if he doesn't taste blood he will live, right?”

    “He will not transform,” Vladimir admitted, “but he is very weak. He will most likely not survive.”

    Just when Lisa was beginning to recover it was her fault all over again. How many more people would have to suffer because of her weakness?

    “Let us make the choice easier for him,” said Anhael, who Astrid had completely forgotten was there. He stepped up to the old man, who began chanting or reciting something in a foreign language, and knelt down. Anhael ran his clawed fingertips across the man's chest, ripping his tunic and leaving bright red stripes of blood behind. The scent of fresh blood washed over Astrid like a warm blanket, but she managed to keep herself from moving. Every muscle tensed and blood lust filled the air, but only Shadrach lurched upright and sprang for the bloodied man. Astrid clung to his tunic, but couldn't find a good enough grip. Shadrach thrashed like a cornered animal and after kicking Astrid in the eye finally broke loose. Astrid squinted through the pain and saw Shadrach stop mere inches away from the old man with his mouth open and gleaming teeth sharp and ready. Everything was frozen for an instant, then Shadrach shuddered and the monster melted away. Shadrach scrambled back toward Astrid, his chains clattering loudly across the ground. Astrid couldn't believe it. He had stopped himself. She welcomed him back and held him like a child.

    “No,” he repeated over and over. His whole body shook uncontrollably and Astrid knew he was past the limits of his strength and willpower. Anhael stepped back with a sour look and meticulously licked his fingers clean.

    “You bore me,” Anhael said after he had finished.

    “Come Anhael,” Eve concurred. “I can't bear to be here any longer.” The two walked toward the outer wall, Anhael giving Astrid a threatening look as he passed, and hopped the giant wall as if it were a picket fence. Quiet settled into the courtyard. Vladimir remained standing a few paces away and Astrid continued to cradle Shadrach. He constantly shook, sometimes violently, but never lost himself to the monster within again.

    “Did I hurt him?” Shadrach asked in one of his calmer moments.

    “No,” Astrid answered with pride. “You were very brave.” As hours passed he shook less and less, and his breathing got shallower and fainter. The light of approaching dawn began to grow in the east and still Vladimir kept his vigil and Astrid held her dying victim and friend.

    “I'm sorry,” she would whisper every so often, but never knew if he heard her. As the eastern sky brightened and was near blinding Shadrach struggled weakly and began to choke and cough. The sun broke above the the tops of the mountains like and enemy breaching a line of defense. The cathedral cast a long shadow over the four figures in the courtyard, protecting them from the awful light. Astrid still felt the dead heaviness of day, but she was in no immediate danger yet. She wouldn't leave Shadrach, not until it was over. His skin looked almost transparent and he seemed to be made of sticks.

    “Astrid,” he said softly and she leaned forward to hear. “Thank you.” His last breath left him and with it his life ended. Astrid steeled herself against the sorrow and grief she felt rising in her. She cradled the boy's body against her own until she felt Vladimir touch her shoulder.

    “Come,” he said softly. “You can say goodbye to him tomorrow. Astrid had little desire to rise, which made her dead limbs seem that much more heavy. Vladimir supported her as they clung to the shadows and retreated underground. Astrid reached the corridor on the stairs where she and Vladimir would part ways and stopped.

    “He did have a choice, didn't he?” she asked Vladimir who was still descending in front of her. He stopped and without turning answered.

    “There is always a choice.” He disappeared into the darkness and Astrid did likewise.
    "All stories are true, but this one really happened,if that's what you mean." Skarpi, The Name of the Wind

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