-- "’Till the rains fall no more,
‘till the nights no longer finds us here alone." --
Bella Morte, "Fall No More"
"The coterie in Constanta have agreed to join us." Sergei spoke quietly to Salvador. They sat against one of the cave’s walls, several meters from a small fire. The night was half gone and most of the clan were on the hunt. Wedge sat on a low stone shelf near the back of the cave, facing away from the others. He ignored the conversation, absently flipping through a book he’d taken from a woman in the nearest village.
He’d taken refuge in the cave for two long, boring nights, and after he drained a fox for the current night’s sustenance, he slipped into the town to find some stimulation. The black book looked like a weighty tome on some important subject, so Wedge lifted it from the woman’s bag and slipped back into the shadows.
Instead, Wedge found himself perusing a book of poetry, most of it utter rubbish. ‘Water, water everywhere.’ ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ And his personal favorite: everything by that sappy fellow Byron.
"Someone should have put him out of his misery," Wedge muttered, and immediately felt contrite. The poems reminded him of his old comrade Hobbie Klivian.
Wedge waited for the pain in his heart to flare up, and was disturbed to feel only a dull ache. The rage and grief he’d carried for so long had almost melted away. Guilt-- yes, it was still there. Good. As long as Wedge kept that, he’d still be a little human.
Slender fingers ran through his hair, and Wedge felt a slight, familiar pressure on his shoulder. Tori rested her chin against him and looked over his shoulder at the book.
" ‘And how shall I greet thee? With sadness and tears.’ Wedge," she murmured teasingly, "'are you a closet Toreador?"
He growled at the idea of himself as such a pointless hedonist. "If I were one of those Degenerates, I’d throw myself into the sunlight. Hmm... I wonder if we could get them to do it."
She laughed quietly as he turned his head to look at her. "They might. If you told them it was artistic."
He looked away, disconcerted by her nearness. "What’s the news from Budapest?" Tori had risked a trip into Cluj-Napoca, a city several kilometers north. The elders reasoned that since it was under the same Prince as the rest of the mountain cities, Tori wouldn’t have to present herself and thereby draw unwanted attention. As one of the youngest and most technically proficient of the pack, she was able to use the computers in Cluj-Napoca’s library to contact one of the Elders in the Hungarian capital of Budapest.
Tori smiled. "I sent Sergei’s proposition to her and she agreed to meet with us. She won’t call a blood hunt on Merando yet, not unless there’s no other way."
"There isn’t," Wedge muttered in his deep, gravelly voice.
The young woman was silent for a long moment, then she slipped her arms around Wedge’s middle and rested her cheek against his shoulder blade. He stiffened but did not pull away.
"I’ve heard the stories about Merando, what he did way back when, and it’s awful. No one wants it to happen again... but you take it so personally. Much more so than Sergei and Salvador and the other old ones."
"It is personal." Wedge’s growl was barely audible. He laid his hands atop Tori’s and squeezed gently, taking comfort in her presence though he would not admit it. She didn’t reply, but he could feel her curiosity.
"Merando murdered my friends."
The blonde Kindred tensed at the barely controlled fury in his voice. "Were they part of the Clan?" she asked quietly.
"No. They were mortals." He hesitated over how much to tell her. "We were comrades-at-arms. There was a battle..." he paused, "and we were separated from our company. We had no way to contact them, no idea where we were or how to get home; we didn’t even speak the language of the people who eventually found us. "
"If we leave our X-Wings, we might never find them again." Wedge fanned himself, sitting in the shade created by an ancient tree.
"If we don’t find help soon, we won’t need X-Wings," Hobbie pointed out. He leaned over the figure laying beside him, peeling back a bandage. "We’ve got to get a doctor for him."
Wedge crawled over and looked for himself. Tycho had taken the worst beating by the Imperials; though bacta patches had all but healed his various cuts and bruises, it had done little for his internal injuries. Wes Janson had gone looking for the remains of his fighter; he had extra med supplies in it.
"We shouldn’t move him, but we can’t leave him here." He sat down in the grass. "I don’t know what to do."
A figure appeared on the horizon, moving swiftly through the forest-- Wes Janson. When Wedge lifted his hand, Wes pointed behind himself and clapped his hands together in a gesture of victory.
"Looks like he found help."
"I didn’t see anyone land," Hobbie commented as Wedge scrambled to his feet. The lean, blonde man sighed. "I bet they didn’t send a rescue vehicle."
Hobbie was right; even with the mass of trees overhead , they should have seen or heard a ship. Something didn’t seem right. Wedge met Janson halfway up the hill, immediately growing suspicious at the merry expression on the lieutenant’s face.
"Where’s the med supplies?"
"With the tribe."
Wedge narrowed his eyes. "What tribe? You didn’t find your X-Wing? There’s no rescue team?"
Janson’s smile slipped. "Not exactly." He looked over his shoulder. "But I found them."
A group of perhaps six men, colorfully dressed, led a pack animal through the trees toward the Rogues. The were talking amongst themselves, pointing in wonder toward the ruins of Tycho’s X-Wing.
Wedge tore his eyes away when he felt Janson pressing something into his hand. Looking down, he saw it was an glass bottle filled with liquid. He raised it to his lips and sipped cautiously, then gagged. "What is this?"
"Milk, I think. They gave it to me." Janson nodded at the strange men. "I found a river; it looked fresh so I thought I’d load up on water. I walked about half a kilometer looking for a place where I could get down to the edge, and found their camp hidden next to the river in a valley."
Wedge didn’t know if the throbbing in his head was from the sun or the stress. "And they just agreed to help?"
"I guess so." Wedge looked up sharply. "They don’t speak Basic," Janson explained, "but I think I got the point across."
"Great. Wes, do you know what happened to Luke and Han Solo when they first stumbled upon the Ewoks?"
"The Ewoks tried to eat them!" Wedge hissed.
His apprehension was unnecessary. Though the tribe was technologically primitive, they were welcoming, kind, and willing to do all they could for their guests. Once they were in the camp, a man of full years visited Tycho, examining the visible wounds and giving him an herbal mixture to drink.
Wedge stood outside a wagon, keeping one eye on the sleeping Alderaanian and the other on their rescuers. Night covered the forest, and men, women, and children gathered around a campfire, some playing oddly shaped interments, some dancing to the wild, beautiful music, some telling stories.
From the blackness of the forest came more people, welcomed by the tribe loudly and fondly. Even at a distance, Wedge could see that they were not of the same blood... taller, paler of skin, some almost feral in appearance. As he watched, one of the outsiders, a tall, black-haired man, approached the tribe’s doctor and spoke to him at length. As he turned to look in on Tycho, Wedge saw the newcomer thoughtfully observing him. *
"They took us in, healed Tycho, and let us travel with them as far as Rome. Sometimes the dark man would visit, and he would always watch me, but never did he speak."
"That was Sergei." Tori knew the answer already, and Wedge didn’t bother to acknowledge her statement.
"We got separated from them and had to find a room to hole up in. Then Wes..." Wedge paused, letting the memory of his old friend wash over him. He still had bits and pieces-- his laughter, his strong, capable hands, his laughing blue eyes-- but Wedge no longer felt any sense of the man. He sighed and Tori hugged him tighter, silently encouraging him.
"We found Wes not far from our room. He was covered in blood. We took him back to recover but he wouldn’t eat, hid from the sun, and tried to bite us when we got close to him."
"He was Embraced!" Tori exclaimed, then Wedge felt her frown against him. "But you said Merando..."
"Tycho and I went to find help," Wedge’s voice was tight. "We couldn’t make anyone understand us, and it was getting dark, and we were in the Plaza in front of the Vatican. And we didn’t know how to fight them.
"They came on us shortly after sunset, when everyone with any sense was already home with their doors barred. We tried to fight them off, but they were too strong. I don’t really remember much about the attack." But he did. He remembered their fangs, and the way they could soak up a punch like it was nothing, and Tycho bleeding from the chest, screaming, Wedge’s arm hanging useless, the sickening crack of his spine bending the wrong direction. "They killed Tycho and took his body. They left me for dead."
"But Sergei saved you."
"Yes. He’d kept his eye on all of us since we passed through his territory with the Roma." Wedge chuckled softly. "He’d never spoken to me before, but as I lay dying, he asked if I wanted to live. Of course I did. And I became his childe."
More voices filled the air, and Wedge looked around to see who had joined them. Salvador caught his eye and nodded in greeting.
Tori’s arms held him tighter and she spoke gently. "What has Merando to do with this?"
"The Kindred that attacked us were Merando’s pet Malkavians," Wedge spat. "So was the one who Embraced Wes. Sergei and I went back to the room as soon as we could, but he and Hobbie were gone. There were signs of a struggle, though, and we later discovered that a group of Toreador had raided the place and killed them both. I suppose they thought that Wes was one of Merando’s creatures. Hobbie was just in the wrong place at the wrong time."
He paused and leaned back slightly, into her arms. "I just wish I knew how those Degenerates found them."
Tori nuzzled his cheek. "So you’ve lost everyone you care for?" Her tone was neutral; she’d learned not to sound imploring.
Wedge growled low in his throat and stood anyway, thrusting her hands away from his body.
Sergei looked up as he approached, then glanced at Tori and frowned.
"You’re cruel to her," he said reprovingly, "for being exactly as she ought to be."
"She ought not to let the Beast control her," Wedge countered sullenly.
The elder Kindred stared hard at him. "Childer can be disappointing, can’t they?" His black eyes drilled into Wedge’s soft brown ones until the younger Gangrel looked away, disconcerted.
"We’re going to Budapest, then?" Wedge changed the subject.
"We are," Salvador’s bass rumble interrupted. The tall man stepped close to Wedge, watching him carefully through yellow slitted eyes. "But you aren’t."
The Elder’s voice was so firm, so certain, that Wedge almost didn’t question him. But the look in Salvador’s eyes-- sad, unsure-- gave him pause.
"Why is that?" Wedge kept his voice mild.
"You are too weak, pup," Sergei said quietly. "You are not strong enough to fight Merando."
"I have a right," Wedge insisted, raising his voice. "This debt is mine to collect."
"It is all of ours." Salvador gripped his arm and dragged him outside, away from the curious stares of the other Gangrel. Under the trees near the cave’s entrance, he spoke in a low voice, as though he didn’t wish the others to witness Wedge’s humiliation.
"You are a good man, Wedge. But you have not proven yourself. You are not a warrior."
Wedge longed to shove his fist through the other man’s face. To say that he-- starfighter Commander, survivor of two Death Stars, conqueror of Coruscant-- was not a warrior? But those were not feats of which he could speak. He spoke, instead, of minor victories, no less sweet for being smaller.
"I was with you in Russia, Salvador," he reminded the other. "I fought beside you; it was I who brought Anastasia to safety. And I was not so low then that you would not leave her in my keeping. It was I who guided the Tibetan religious man into exile, I who led Kossuth out of Hungary after the Revolution. And you say to me that I am not worthy?"
"Those are not the acts of a warrior. They are the acts of a den mother." Salvador’s face hardened. "You protect, not fight. You are not made to be Gangrel. You were a mistake."
He turned and strode back to the cave. Wedge stared after him, feeling an unfamiliar simmering rage grow within him. He was faster than Salvador, and had him by the throat just as the other man entered the cave. His victim growled and covered Wedge’s hands with his own, tearing them away. They stood, hands locked together in an iron grip, and Salvador laughed.
"Try to best me, pup," he sneered. With a push and a twist of his arms, he threw Wedge to the ground and loomed unharmed above the former Rogue.
"Succeed, and I may do you the honor of allowing you to fight beside me in Rome. Fail, and you can run back to your sire with your tail between your legs."
There was nothing left of him that was Wedge, there was only the pulsing crimson of pride injured and humiliation swallowed. He kicked out; Salvador blocked the blow and grabbed the offending limb, dragging Wedge along the ground by his leg. He expected this and used the Elder for leverage, swinging his right leg around and catching Salvador in the side.
The other Kindred dropped him and looked down imperiously, the pain no greater than an insect’s sting. Before Salvador could speak, before he could jeer yet again, Wedge was on his feet, lashing out with preternatural claws that glinted in the firelight an instant before he buried them in the larger man’s stomach. The nearest members of the pack moved away, further into the cave, but did not attempt to stop the battle.
Arms, thick and strong as clubs, struck out, knocking the younger Gangrel away but not felling him. Fangs bared, Salvador ripped into his young attacker, his claws finding purchase in Wedge’s torso and right bicep. The Rogue howled in pain and threw himself against the muscled Kindred, tearing into him furiously with teeth and claws.
They fell against the cave wall and Wedge grabbed a handful of the other man’s hair, jerking it sharply to crack Salvador’s skull against the stone. The hand in his breast twisted and Wedge felt himself collapsing, his chest cavity suddenly depressurized. Brightness glinted near him, and he threw his body to the right, taking his adversary with him.
Salvador hit the ground first and Wedge landed atop him, his own fall softened. He didn’t keep the upper hand for long; the Elder forced him to the floor, pressing him to the earth with unrelenting force. The clawing hand left Wedge’s chest and grasped his arm, tugged once, and left the limb useless.
"Yield." Salvador’s voice was a strained hiss.
Wedge twisted, ignoring the agony in his ruined arm, and slipped further under the larger man. He gripped the wrist that had so recently dislocated his own arm and rolled, his weight pushing Salvador over with him until their locked hands lay less than a centimeter from the fire.
Salvador’s eyes widened, and Wedge saw the light of Rotschreck, the red fear, in the older Gangrel’s visage. Howling, spitting, struggling madly, the strong man fought Wedge’s grip as the younger Kindred held him, his body coiled tightly in his own suppressed terror. Caught in the frenzy, Salvador reared up and struck with his free hand, striking Wedge again and again until the smaller man’s vision blurred and his hold loosened.
Then the fire was gone and only moonlight trickled into the cave, illuminating the figures of the pack as they stood, silent as before. Wedge lay where he fell, next to a charred spot on the cave floor. Salvador crouched next to him, gazing at nothing, it seemed. Finally, his voice broke the stillness.
"Do you hate Merando as you hate me?"
Wedge lay silent, feeling soft puffs of air caress his face. "Worse."
Salvador might have smiled, but Wedge didn’t turn his head to see. His voice sounded amused. "Channel that and fight with us."
An invitation, then. Not because he was one of them, or because he had a score to settle, or because the pack respected him. Because he lost control and let his anger and bruised ego lead him. Because he had become like them, despite his centuries of fighting the Beast. There was no acceptance in Salvador’s voice, only the cold gloating sense of bringing another down with them.
And down with them he was. But he would not stay there. Wedge stood, wincing against the pain in his chest where the wound was still perceptible. The pack watched him stand, some wary, as though he might attack one of them, some curious, all quiet and respectful. He looked around at each of them, finding in every face the sense that at last he was one of them.
He had no possessions. Nothing to be missed. Slowly, weighted by his shame, Wedge stumbled into the night. Someone caught up with him as he reached the awning of trees and he turned to face Sergei.
"You are leaving?" The dark man looked angry and remorseful.
"How can I stay? Look what I’ve become. I was ready to rip Salvador’s head off because my ego was bruised; what does that make me?" He looked back toward the cave and saw Tori standing by the mouth, looking worried. "I don’t know who I am anymore, Sergei."
The Elder crossed his arms over his massive chest. "You are not going after Merando?"
Wedge shrugged. "I am. But not with you. Not with the clan."
The forest was too dark, or Wedge might have seen unfamiliar expressions flicker across Sergei’s face. "And what of Tori?"
Wedge looked on her unfeelingly. "She knows all that I can teach her and plenty that I can’t She’s been presented to the Prince. She doesn’t need me."
"I don’t believe the issue is need, Wedge, but desire."
"I can’t help that. She’s more yours now than she ever was mine."
The older Kindred took one step backward and nodded. His voice was rougher than usual. "Do not forget what you are. Do not forget Gangrel’s words to his childer: ‘Let no one say that the House of Gangrel is a dishonorable one. Let no one say we are not brave. Let no one say that we are not fair.’"
Wedge’s voice blended with his sire’s as the verse drew to a close. Sergei looked hard at him, then continued. "Let no one, Wedge, not even you, say we are dishonorable. Let no one say that you are not exactly like us. You fought well there," he looked back to the cave, "and I am proud of you."
Wedge regarded his sire silently, then stepped forward and enfolded him in a backbreaking embrace.
"I’ve waited forever for you to say that. I wish you had when I could still be proud of myself."
On to Chapter Six, page 2