Author: Guede Mazaka
He comes to buried under crushing stones, jagged tiles. A twisted piece of metal has driven itself through his right calf, narrowly missing the bone, and he can feel the blood ooze from it every time he moves. The pain is dull and low-because of shock, he presumes-so he is unable to tell whether the great tendon had been severed.
Shock also leaves him able to consider that he is no longer a vampire without feeling overly concerned about it. Mostly Vlad wishes to wrench himself free of the claustrophobic space and find air.
He looks down at himself and sees his chest moving. When he makes it stop, he grows dizzy and lightheaded, and his own lungs rebel against him as they haven't in hundreds of years. Vlad finally gasps and presses his palms against the rubble, unmindful of how he is slivering his hands on the broken rock and glass. He humps himself without thinking, impatient to be free. A great weight falls off his back, and at the same time the metal through his leg tears so the pain travels up him as fast as lightning and takes away his sight.
As fast as Transylvanian horses.
When Vlad first hears the beating, he thinks that perhaps it is Gabriel returned to the scene of his…of their undoing. But then he listens longer, ignoring his harsh breathing, and he understands that it is the pounding of his own heart. He is cold, and not because his flesh is dead-he is cold and shivering and he remembers warmth with more strength than a lost memory should have. The fingers of his right hand curls so fragments of glass are driven up beneath the nails.
He uncurls them quickly, dizzy with the suddenness of the pain. Vlad closes his eyes.
If nothing else, he is Vlad Dracul. Vladislaus Valerious, Count of the Valerious lands as he'd no heirs and he had never departed so any could take his place. He had fought the Turks and made their women curse his name throughout their vast empire. He had bargained with the devil for strength to hold his borders forever, and…
…he wonders idly if his current condition means that his soul had not been lost to that bargain after all. Then he shakes his head as much as the space will allow and concentrates on freeing himself. If someone would have him live yet, then he would live, and not die a third time in this pathetic position.
* * *
Even now, no one ventures into his castle. The magic is down and people can once again pass freely between the rest of the world and what had been Vlad's prison, but no one has. The thick layer of dust that overlay everything is unmarked until Vlad drags awkward grooves through it and spots it with blood.
It has been a long, long time since anyone living in the castle has needed to eat, but occasionally his wives had kept victims for short times in the rooms, and that had necessitated food. What little is left is stiff with frost, or turned foul, but he eats what he can. Then he crawls to the water-pail and breaks the ice on it, and drinks until he feels his stomach curdle with the cold. The blood trickling from his leg and his back chills on him till he can sweep clumps of it from himself.
In the stables he finds an old horse-blanket, falling apart from age, and he wraps its rags around himself. There is some hay left and he burrows into it till feeling starts to return to his extremities. Then it hurts, and in some ways he misses his unfeeling vampiric state, but his body will not let him ease back out where the cold can chill him into painlessness again.
In the morning he hears a whickering and feels something press against his hand. He does not recognize the horse, but he does see it for what it is. Vlad crawls onto its back and then passes out, his fingers twined in a corpse's grip in its mane.
Finally, he is leaving his prison, and not merely escaping for a time.
* * *
His time as a soldier keeps him alive and moving, even if Vlad can barely remember it. Another change from before-vampiric memory was unnervingly crystalline and it did not fade with time. Now he has flashes of sneaking past this small house so unwisely alerted to his presence. Of hacking frozen chunks from a side of pork hanging in a storehouse with a knife he could not remember finding. Of getting off the horse one day and being able to limp instead of collapse.
The day he wakes with his mind clear and his body only exhausted instead of near-death, he sees that he is still in Transylvania. But there is a broad river below the cliff on which he huddles, and there is a pair of boots misshapen with wear standing beside his head. Vlad tries to speak and finds he could only cough.
"It's three months, nine days afterward," Gabriel tells him. "I pay attention to time now."
"What…" Another cough cuts Vlad's words in two. He pushes himself up and pulls at his matted, tangled hair so he can look at the other man.
Gabriel looks the same. Always the same, no matter what the time. His clothing retains the same careworn look no matter what their cut and age are, and his face is too young and the eyes he turns on Vlad were too old. They are neutral, but the same bitterness lurks in them. The girl had not done anything new to him, though she might be blood of Vlad's blood and though Gabriel had once named Vlad as the only infuriating thing in his life.
Good, Vlad thinks with a fierceness that surprises him. He had thought that that dead a long, long time ago. But perhaps it had been only frozen.
"I made good time to Rome, dropped off Carl-did you bother learning his name?-there, and then I was standing on the dock waiting for my ship. There's an evil house in America. Providence, Rhode Island." The other man lifts his chin and closes his eyes to the morning sun. His hands hang loosely at his sides, but Vlad watches them anyway. "I could still taste your blood in my mouth. For that matter, I can still taste it now."
A sense of humor is allowed even to the undead, and so that sense is not as rusty as the rest. "You do not, as far as I know, catch vampirism from biting a vampire."
"But you become a werewolf by way of a bite. I started thinking about that." Silent and quick, Gabriel squats beside Vlad.
Vlad realizes with some of his own bitterness that that is because he has lost his equal footing. When he was a vampire, he could finally match Gabriel for strange feats. But also when he was a vampire, Gabriel hated him.
Gabriel is still looking at the bright rising sun. "When you have wings, you can fly in dawn forever if you wish to."
"Or forever in night," Vlad rasps. He means it as a reminder, but for whom and about what, he does not know.
"I had wings," Gabriel abruptly says. His head turns and he finally looks at Vlad. His hands are dangling between his knees, not so loosely now for they clench and unclench. "I thought it was odd that I'd succumb to a werewolf bite so easily, once I'd remembered."
He would know, for Vlad had never had. Vlad supposes that somewhere beneath his wish to remain undefeated at any cost had also been the wish to know something of the many mysteries that had enshrouded Gabriel from him.
"But I was a werewolf, for a time, and the werewolf fought the vampire, and now both are dead." Gabriel's hands are long and large, carelessly scarred from many years. But they hold a power that Vlad has never been able to break, and that is fascinating even as it is dangerous.
Vlad's hands, splayed against the soft grass, are thin and spindly, the skin loose and the bones brittle where they jut. Once they were muscled and strong, but that still hadn't been enough for him. He had asked for more to fill his skin. "You subscribe to the idea that vampirism is a demon in a dead man's skin? Gabriel, that was I."
"I know it was," Gabriel says, a touch irritated. It comforts Vlad to know that that is still there.
But then Gabriel's hand is around Vlad's wrist, and Gabriel brings warmth even as he brings pain so Vlad cannot ignore him for any reason. The breath catches in Vlad's throat and the anger on his tongue. And once again, after being blessedly absent for so many years, the slow pull that detaches him from all he holds dear and throws him into the unknown. Power, corruption, pure evil-into that he had been born. Gabriel, however, had come far later.
"Just as it was I who had thoughts about how my friends would taste, their screams crushed in my jaws. And I who wandered the earth for centuries though I can remember less than half of it. And I who could kill you and still have a fever that made me cut the finger from you instead of taking the time to slide off the ring." The sunlight shades away as Gabriel moves to block it from Vlad. He does not need to; it is less than a mild distraction compared to him. "And I who is something like a man now, whatever I was before."
His other hand rises to Vlad's throat and it is impossible to tell from his face whether he means to snap Vlad's neck or run a finger along it, an ale-dream of a younger Vlad. If Vlad were still a vampire, he could resist this or he could submit to it and he could remember either with crystal clarity for millennia after. But if Vlad were a vampire, then he would never in all those years feel it.
The calluses of Gabriel's fingers rub painfully over a scrape below Vlad's jaw, run soothingly across a bruise just above the great vein. Fingers stroke to one side, thumb to the other and Vlad is caught neatly in the fork of Gabriel's hand. "You would know more about changing lives," Vlad says, so softly he can barely hear himself. "I was never anyone but Vlad Dracul, whatever the form."
Gabriel's grip tightens, though his fingertips still reach farther to touch Vlad's hair. "What about now?"
And Vlad will die now, if he has not already. In the end, Gabriel's beckon had never meant anything else to him. He had seen, dimly, and had tried to forestall it but he no longer has the will or the want.
He closes his eyes. "So who am I now?"
The hand on his throat clenches so he chokes and red spots dance painfully against the inside of his eyelids, but he will not fight Gabriel. And then it loosens and he opens his eyes, breathes. The sun is rising as he rises anew, and the first that he sees is the glory of Gabriel's eyes, and himself reflected in them.