He spared nothing of himself, taking the longest jumps through the wayshrines he had ever dared, ignoring the recovery periods mandated by the old writings, until finally he arrived at the frozen rock of an island, Bleakrock.
An apt place for a vampire to claim, it was desolate and sparsely populated since the incursion of enemy forces had sent the inhabitants fleeing. The occasional poacher, looter, or unwary mercenary no doubt proved an ideal meal. It was here he had left Wulfran to watch and wait, and here he prayed the lad would be found safe and hidden watching the cave to which they had tracked Erikk.
He staggered as he stepped out from the void, the cold of the icebound island warm compared to the chill settled in his bones from shrine travel. Almost he wished his haste had claimed him; that he would have been lost to the icy ‘between’ of the celestial pathways. The thought was a flicker quickly set aside by his urgency to find the camp where he had left his friend.
The though settled uncomfortably on his mind. His friend. How long had it been since he had felt that bond with a mortal? How many lifetimes had he been part of the Wild Hunt, where companionship was simply the pack united by the lust for the prey? It had been a long time….a very long time.
He found the energy to pick up his speed to a stumbling run. Exhaustion was the toll for his travel and his very spirit felt thin and ragged and not all together here. Up the steep game trail to the hidden place between boulders overlooking the frozen lakebed he found their camp. The small fire had burned down to embers- he had been here just a short time ago! Axel looked out over the bluff, scanning the surroundings, desperately searching before finally seeing them- a man with coppery red hair fighting another whose skin was as pale as snow, dark hair contrasting vampiric complexion.
The young fool!
Something very close to fear drove him back down the path to the lakeshore, his lungs and muscles burning as he summoned every bit of remaining stamina he possessed, his arm reaching back to free the massive sword strapped to his back. He had eyes on them now and he gave a shout it did not seem they heard. Wulfran had backed the undead creature up against the edge of a cliff, and the vampire seemed the worse for wear. He watched as the lad dropped his shield and seemed to be saying something, his sword pointing at Erikk. As Axel approached at a dead run, he saw the hidden movement from preternaturally quick hands and the blur of a small metal weapon flung towards the young warrior.
Wulfran staggered back as if struck by a powerful blow and as he neared he could only watch as the vampire smiled a terrible smile and the lad slumped to his knees in the snow, sword falling from his hand, a puzzled look on his face.
Too late…..too late. Always too late.
He was no longer an old man watching a comrade fall on a frozen island. His personal nightmare broke free of the deepest, darkest pit of his mind where he had buried it.
He was young again- a different man all together…and he led a warband up the steep incline to his clankeep where black smoke and red flame had awoken dread and fear in his heart such as he had never felt before.
Bodies were strewn across the ground between the Meade Hall and the sturdy homes wreathed in fire and flame. With dread closing off his throat he slid from the back of his mount before the beast had come to a stop, a hoarse cry escaping him, calling for his wife….his sons….
His people had not gone quietly without a fight. Among the dead where men of another clan…clad in wolf skins, their faces blackened and painted in patterns of war. His lieutenant reached for him, calling his name, the horror in his own heart reflected in the man’s voice. He shrugged the restraining hand away and ran for the smoking forge where his wife worked her trade. His mind struggled to reconcile the burning ugliness of his home with what it had been a day ago…where he had teased his wife, ponderous with what she swore was a daughter this time- for being too fat to sit astride a horse and come answer the Thane’s call with him…
Something broke in him when he found her. Something essential and good and vital that sent shards of agony through every part of what was left. His boys had been cut down outside the entrance and lay partially cooked where they had fallen in her defense. And her…his heart and his joy and the other half of his soul…she had been staked down and used by the animals that had done this. When he saw the babe had been cut out from her belly his mind broke and he began to howl….
…and he howled now as he leapt into the trampled snow where the young man and the vampire had fought. Startled, the injured creature exploded into a mist but Axel was relentless, and this trick could not save him from the wolf whose keen senses tracked the fleeing essence.
It was not long before the vampire materialized again, lunging at the werewolf that savagely tore and clawed and shredded dead flesh. The thing laughed and choked as it faltered, echoing the refrain hammering in his heart…
A black leather vial came free of the vampire’s hand and the scent of it filled Axel with dread. He wrenched control back from the wolf, forcing his shape back to that of a man. He was gasping and panting and had expended resources beyond natural limitations. His heart thundered and his hand shook as he snatched up the vial, checking again…
In his mind’s eye he replayed the moment the vampire had flung something at Wulfran and the slow toppling of the tall warrior. He staggered away, forgetting the quivering mass of savaged undead flesh as he backtracked to where the lad had fallen. He found Wulfran writhing in the snow, the virulent poison tracking black pathways under his skin. Foam froze on his lips and his eyes were wide and agonized.
“I told ye t’wait ye damn pup…” Axel half sobbed as he tried to assess the effects of the poison. He fumbled at his beltpouch, trying to calm the other Nord, holding him down as he emptied the contents of a vial into the younger man’s mouth. He prayed the neutralizing reagents would halt the advance of the virulent concoction and buy them some time.
Grimly he bound the lad to minimize the thrashing, and drug him through the snow to his horse. With the very last bit of strength he had, he slung Wulfran over the destrier’s back. He had to get to the priestess…or maybe Smiles in her infinite knowledge of poison would have an antidote. He pushed away the taunting inner voice that told him there was no hope and he would only be too late again.
As the Old Wolf led the horse to the docks, the vampire pulled himself toward the cave, his savaged flesh slowly reknitting as he went.