-- "We shift
pulsing with the earth
company we keep
roaming the land while you sleep"--
Metallica, "Of Wolf and Man"
They were after him. Wedge swore to himself, cursing the day he came to this place. Legend was too strong here, folktales were still believed. No, the Carpathian Mountains were not a welcoming place for someone like him.
Shouts, crashing in the underbrush. He growled, fighting the urge to attack. They weren?t many; he could easily finish them. He was, after all, Gangrel; a warrior in body and spirit. Something inside Wedge urged him to assault the villagers. Fitting retribution-- to finally become the monster they believed he was.
Hidden by the shadow of the trees he paused, letting his heightened senses seek out his pursuers. Preternaturally sharp, his ears heard voices on the wind-- angry, fearful, grief-stricken shouting.
"Apa... copilul... mananca!"
His mind quickly translated the obscure Romanian dialect used in these northern villages. Blood... child... eaten. They?d found the body in the forest, drained of blood.
"Tepes!" The shout came from his left, too close for him to rest any longer. The villagers knew, then, that the murderer was a nightdweller. In their mythology, such a being could only be decended from Vlad Tepes.
A whimper sounded in his throat. He was blameless, yet still they pursued him. Wedge dropped to the ground, and channeled his rage through his limbs. He praised his Gangrel sire for teaching him to use his vampiric powers to become a wolf-- the trick had saved his life more than once. The primal energy filled him. An image flashed through Wedge?s mind-- Luke, eyes closed, letting the Force guide him. Is this what it felt like, old friend?
He was off like a shot, paws pounding the forest floor, a dark blur to anyone who might see him.
The others reached the cave with singed tails. Though the morning sun burned down through the trees, the clan continued to move about, exchanging news and comforting each other. Wedge stayed in the corner, watching the others join the circle. Already voices were raised, anger evident.
"They?ve turned against us!" "We found the haven burned to the ground!" "They chase us through the woods like animals!"
^^Exactly like you chase them?^^ Wedge projected toward them, not bothering to return to human form. He rolled onto his back and wriggled, scratching himself against the pebbled floor.
The tall Gangrel at the center glared at him, then let a fond smile drift across his face. "Don?t groom yourself in public, pup." He stood tall among the gathered clan; his black hair was peppered with gray, as was his long beard, and he spoke with the gravity of one who?d known a long, respected mortal life. He was Sergei, an Elder of the Clan Gangrel, one of the wisest of the Kindred.
^^We are in danger, Sergei,^^ another interjected. She had the form of a small white wolf, and as she spoke her ears turned this way and that, carefully monitoring the sounds of the waking forest.
The dark man nodded, worry creasing his forehead. "Many of us are missing. Some, I fear, were trapped in the haven." He sighed. "We have lived in these mountains for centuries. Who among us would compromise our safety with the murder of the village child?"
Wedge glanced around, feeling his antipathy toward the circle melt into sympathetic understanding. Whatever they were, none present would kill a child, and none would ever allow a body to be found.
He shivered. What kind of evil could bring the Gangrel-- the proud, strong warrior clan-- to such a state? Those solitary, honorable beings were now the hunted, pursued as mindless beasts, driven out of their havens into caves where they huddled together like frightened children.
Sergei shook his head. "There is nothing to be done while the sun threatens. We must take our rest now, and believe that night will bring hope." He crossed the floor as the murmurs continued and lay beside Wedge, scratching the brown wolf between the ears.
"They hunted you?" Sergei asked, concerned.
^^They hunt us all now,^^ Wedge silently replied. ^^We have become the prey.^^ He looked up as the white wolf approached the two males.
"Rest, Tori," Sergei commanded.
She regarded him with luminous blue eyes. ^^Our Kindred are dying. Some are your childer, Sergei; created of your blood. How can you rest?^^
He shook his head. "I am old. If I have learned anything in my existence, I have learned to save my anger until it can flow freely. This day I have no one to take my revenge upon, but I will find him in the night."
Wedge collapsed on the floor, setting his head on his paws. With a deep sigh, Tori stretched out beside him, burrowing her head under his chin. He saw Sergei watching them with a smile, then closed his eyes and let oblivion claim him.
He didn?t want to be there, should have known it was a trap but the distress call was coded, how were they to know? In the middle of Wild Space, no help, no backup, just the rescue vehicle and the pilots, just twelve blips on a screen. Eleven blips. TIEs thick like coronet ants on ryshcate. Ten. Curious blue-green planet below them.
Torpedo detonating below him, shaking his fighter. Spiraling into the atmosphere. Asyr?s voice "Lead, punch out!" A vast green forest rushing toward him. Finding Corran?s X-Wing in pieces nearby. Figures huddled around it; Wes, Hobbie, Tycho?s face a bloody mess. Looking for life. Trees...
He jerked awake. Night covered the forest, shadows filled the cave. Most of the others were astir, some returning from the hunt to converse in low, angry tones. Tori, returned to human form, kept watch near the entrance. Sergei spoke quietly with two other Gangrel.
The old man raised his voice and addressed the furious crowd.. "We are not beasts." The others fell silent. "But we are warriors. And we will fight when threatened."
Another elder spoke up. "We cannot fight until we know who is behind it."
A bark from the entrance drew the clan?s attention. Wedge stared at the huge, muscled man, remembering him as a fearless combatant, an Elder of the clan. As the Gangrel advanced, his word was echoed by the others. "Ventrue..." spreading among them, dissolving into hisses and growls.
The newcomer approached the circle and bowed low. "It is the same in the West. The clans are being slaughtered by mortals. Only the Ventrue are safe."
"You have been to Rome, Salvador?" Sergei asked.
Salvador nodded. "For myself, I am sure that it is Merando up to his old tricks."
Wedge felt his fur stand on end. He knew the name, heard it long ago... when he lost Tycho Celchu.
Wedge blinked at the moonlight, trying to clear his head. His entire body felt as though something exquisitely warm were pumping through his veins. He rolled over, feeling every blade of grass that touched his skin and clothing, the scent sweeter than he?d ever sensed it.
"How you feel?"
The voice sounded golden and melting. "I feel... everything."
"You live, yes? You feel the life."
Wedge looked over at the source of the sound. A dark, bearded man crouched next to him, his face drawn with concern.
"I live," he answered, testing his limbs, delighted to feel no pain.
"We must go, pup. Must run. Rome is not safe."
The man took his hand and pulled him to his feet. "Merando is coming."*
He yipped in surprise and looked up at the woman standing over him.
"Getting soft, Wedge." She twirled a sandy lock around her fingers and sat down. "Your reflexes should be faster."
^^I was thinking, Tori.^^
"That?ll get you killed." She tugged at his tail. "You like this, don?t you? More than human form."
He was silent for a long moment, stretched out on the cave floor. ^^It seems natural,^^ he answered slowly. ^^I?m not really human anymore.^^
"But you have to change back to feed."
Wedge back fought a shiver at the matter-of-fact way she spoke. It was, he thought, one of the cruelest cuts of all-- being forced to take human form to participate in an inhuman act. He felt a strange deliriousness run through his veins and knew he would soon have to partake. Breathing deliberately, he forced himself to change, sensed his face returning to its normal proportions and the wealth of hair slowly disappear from his body.
Tori reached out and stroked the spot on his forehead where a blaze of black fur had cut the brown. Her eyes darkened and Wedge was reminded of the way Kindred looked at a meal. She stood, suddenly shaking with obvious hunger.
"I?m going out." She tilted her head to one side. "I think I?ll find someone who looks just like you."
He shook his head. Was he supposed to be flattered? He growled to himself for a moment, then noticed Sergei watching him. The man smiled, then came to sit beside Wedge.
"Frustrated, young one?"
He took a moment before answering in a growl to low for any human voice to manage, "How do you do it, Sergei? How do you go on for centuries knowing that every night brings another death?"
"There will be death without us to help it, Wedge. Truly, life itself is only the prelude to death." Sergei looked him steadily in the eye. "Not that you have ever been one to wantonly take a life. Perhaps, if you did..."
"... you would find the reason for our existence. You did, once, as I recall."
"I was young."
Sergei barked a laugh. "You are still young." He sat silently for a while. "You asked for this, Wedge. You asked for life. And now you are not living."
Wedge stood and headed toward the cave mouth. "I?m hungry."
"Enjoy your rabbit."
On to Chapter Three