Lol it is what it is y'all. If it sucks, well…in my defense I first thought of the idea literally a week ago. And I put in a rather full work week in the meantime too, I might add. Be happy I wrote you anything. /grouchybitch
So this is based on Bram Stoker's Dracula (the book, and only the book) sorta like a side story. And um, for the record, this is two parts and then we're done. No, it will not be continued. ^_^;
Ack, I dunno what else to say, Happy Halloween y'all!
3 March, Bistritz, Transylvania
The narrow street through the center of town was invisible under a heavy blanket of snow. The wind howled through alleys and little spaces between the shuddering small buildings that almost seemed to press closer together against the long and bitter winter. A few figures struggled through the snow, hurrying as the day drew to its early close, the light from the hidden sun beginning to fade even further as another long winter night prepared to swallow the village, the valley, the forest, and the mountains.
The smallest of these hurrying figures was making quick tracks through town, not pausing at any door until he had left the center of town. Then, with a sudden turn, he made for the door of the smithy, hauling on its large iron handle and slipping inside, pulling the heavy wood shut behind him.
Even near the door, the heat of the forge enveloped him at once, and the figure immediately began shedding hat and scarf and gloves, revealing a youthful face, pale, golden hair, and blue eyes that seemed almost impossibly bright against the frost-reddened face.
"Axel!" The boy called loudly, forcing his voice to reach over the hammering noise of the forge workers. Several pairs of eyes glanced up at him, most smiling and nodding to him and returning to work. One, however, smiled broadest, the young man waving quickly before calling back.
"I'll be only a moment, Roxas, let me finish this." The apprentice caught a nod from the blond visitor before applying his hammer to the red-hot horseshoe, finishing the form off carefully as the iron glowed duller and duller.
When the shoe was finished and doused in the water bucket, steaming and boiling furiously, the young man turned at last to his friend. It was the end of the day; all the workers at the smithy were finishing their tasks and preparing to brave the cold that stood between them and home. Wiping sweat from his face, the young man smiled.
"I wasn't sure you'd bother to come today, the snow being so deep. Wasn't it over your head?" He teased, resisting the urge to pat the blond hair. His hands were far too filthy at the moment; Roxas would have retaliated with a sharp, well-placed kick if Axel caused him to have to wash his hair unnecessarily.
Roxas gave him a glare that promised a slap in return for the teasing, just as soon as Axel cleaned up. Then he shrugged and smiled back. "Who says I am here to see you home? Father's plowshare should be finished by now. I've come to pick it up." He smiled again to see Axel's grin fade into a look of annoyance. "So remember to bring it for me when you've washed off a bit, and I may walk you home, as it is on the way."
Axel sighed, looking a bit mollified, and relented. With a promise to make haste, he hurried to clean off the worst of the soot and sweat, returning with his outer clothes and the plowshare for Roxas' father.
"See that you're dry first," Roxas reprimanded as Axel began to bundle up.
"Yes, yes, I'm dry, Mother. I'll not take ill." Roxas took the opportunity to slap Axel's arm, following quickly with another slap for the earlier teasing.
"I think you've grown more insufferable since advancing in your apprenticeship," he grumbled, replacing his own warm garments for the walk through town.
"And yet, you continue to suffer me," Axel sighed, smiling.
Blue eyes rolled. "Only from habit, I assure you. A habit formed, I might add, when I was three years old – long before I'd sense to know better."
Axel shook his head, preparing to drag open the door, waving to the other smiths. "Well, I think it just proves that you can't live without me. And don't say you can, because you've never tried." Narrow green eyes mocked him as Axel leaned in, a gloved finger jabbing at his chest quickly. Then, before Roxas could retort, Axel had stepped out into the snow. Roxas followed, and the howling wind and snow put their conversation on hold for the entire walk home.
Roxas didn't mind. It would give him time to think of a clever response.
Axel's mother called from the kitchen the moment she heard their steps in the lean-to.
"Axel! Is Roxas there? Ask him if he stays for dinner tonight!"
"He stays, Mama!" Axel shouted back without even pausing. Roxas didn't even bother arguing, just moved to free himself of his outer clothing and boots. "I can't stay the night though," he reminded Axel. "Father would like the plowshare tonight so he can finish repairing the plow…"
"I'll walk you home so Mama doesn't panic," Axel answered dismissively.
Roxas snorted. "If you can get her to let you out after dark, either." Axel could only wince; Roxas was all too right. His mother was unlikely to stand for that.
And indeed, after the hot dinner had been noisily devoured by Axel's large family and their usual guest, his Mama set up a great fuss about Roxas leaving.
"No! What can you be thinking? Going out at this hour, when it is full night! Your mother would never speak to me again if I allow it! You stay here."
Roxas was patiently respectful. "Yet my father will be more put out if I do not return with his plowshare. They are expecting me at home ma'am. I must go."
Much more persuasion was needed before the matron grudgingly gave in, and Axel's offers to accompany Roxas were, as expected, firmly disallowed.
"And then what? You walk back alone? No excuse for that, none at all!"
It was only the necessity of not delaying his own father's work that provided Roxas with enough excuse to win the lady over at last.
"Well. Be straight and quick."
"And take this lantern. You can bring it back tomorrow or give it to Axel."
"Are you wearing your rosary?"
A suppressed roll of blue eyes. "Yes ma'am."
The lady frowned, then made the sign of the cross over Roxas, followed by two fingers pointed at him – the charm to ward off the devil. Mumbling a blessing and a prayer against evil, she reminded him again to be quick and safe before bustling him out the door so quick Roxas barely had time to call over his shoulder, "I'll see you tomorrow, Axel!" Then Roxas was vanishing into the night, Axel calling back his farewells only to have the wind snatch his voice and swirl it away into the dark.
In the dark and the cold, Roxas stepped quickly. It wasn't far to his house, and he knew the way with his eyes shut in any weather. Still, steps that began with haste because of the cold sped even faster now…with fear.
He shook his head and told himself not to imagine things. They were far from the mountain and the evil castle here, and it was only a few minutes alone. And he was nearly a man! It was time to be braver at night.
Yet he hurried, and hurried, and knew more and more with every moment that he wasn't alone.
And he wasn't wearing his rosary.
For the first time he could remember, Roxas had forgotten to put it on. He never took it off except to bathe, and not even always then, yet somehow today he had taken it off and left it by his bed. His mother would scold him fit to raise the dead if she discovered it before he returned, but at the moment Roxas would welcome his mother's scolding.
The wind felt alive. The night was breathing. And Roxas was close to breaking into a run to escape the brooding feeling of a presence close behind him.
The wind was whipping at his clothing, tugging and pulling almost like hands – like hands in a far-away place, the hands of strangers. Was the town still there? It didn't feel like home all of a sudden. Roxas tried to peer through the dark, through the swirling snow. He raised the lantern, but the vague shapes beyond it seemed suddenly so faint. His eyes were drawn instead to the snowflakes that whisked past the light, vanishing into the dark again.
A heartbeat, and then another, and Roxas was still watching the flecks of white. Something was strange about them…something off. He could not be certain, but he watched and watched, his steps slowing, pacing forward ever more gradually.
Until he stopped, his eyes entangled in the dance of white within the golden sphere of light.
It slowly crept into his mind – the understanding. The snow…wasn't blowing with the wind. It was moving in the wrong direction, against the wind. And it was slowing, even as the wind raced faster around him. The waltz of powder was slowing, slowing…becoming drifting…beautiful and strange.
Relaxing. Easing to his mind and worries.
His heart slowed to a gentle, calm rhythm. The wind ceased to sting, the cold no longer gnawed at his bones. And the darkness that took shape behind the pirouetting flakes of stardust neither entered his mind nor interrupted his enraptured stare.
The hand on his arm was warm and gentle, the voice that spoke was deep and reassuring. Tranquil blue finally looked up.
When the door opened, Roxas' father looked up from the finishing touches he was giving to the new coulter on his plow.
"Ah Roxas, been at Axel's for dinner? You have the plowshare for me?"
The reply was soft and slightly dreamy. "Yes, Father. Here it is." The farmer was already looking at his tools again, and he didn't mark how his son almost drifted when he walked across the room. His mother, churning butter by the stove, glanced up to chide him.
"Roxas, get out of those wet things at once, you drip on my floor! Go, dry yourself and get to bed, you are so late coming home, the others sleep already."
"Yes, Mama." The soft reply caught the lady's attention a moment, but her son had already turned to remove his coat and things, and she returned to her work. She didn't look up again until the soft voice called from the loft.
"Goodnight Father, Mama."
Then both the man and his wife raised their heads and answered with their own goodnights, kissing their fingers to their son and making the sign of the cross to bless his rest.
In the dark loft, Roxas stared a moment at the rosary that lay on his nightstand. Then, slow fingers gently opened the drawer and swept the beads and crucifix inside. The blond lay down on his bed, slipping from trance to sleep without a murmur.
Dawn broke, dark gray and still, over a little village struck with terror.
The holy crucifix that adorned the chapel doors and guarded Bistritz lay face-down in the deep, wet snow.
The priest's horrified cries for help woke the nearest neighbors, and the word spread from them to every other soul in the village before breakfast. The sign of the cross was repeated over and over from house to house, and the entire village's voice was raised in prayer.
"Our Father, which art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name…"
"Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death…"
"Deliver us from evil…"
Axel heard the stories thrown back and forth all day at the forge. The monster atop the castle rarely came as far as Bistritz, and usually his descent meant the loss of a child. For such things, the crucifix had never been cast down. It had been years since this had happened, but the town's memory was long. An assault on the crucifix meant the demon had come through the center of town, to the very heart of their streets…and he would only do such a thing for one reason.
To turn a Christian soul to his service.
Call them witches, call them demons or monsters like himself. Call them his vassals or consorts or familiars – they were traitors to their God, their country, and their own human flesh. And Bistritz would not brook traitors or demons among them. They had enough to fear from the castle itself.
The entire village would now be watching. Watching and waiting, eyes searching to discover the hellion in their midst.
Axel could remember the last witch hunt, though he'd been young. Everyone knew everyone in the village, and so of course he had known the girl accused. He had watched her face at the trial, seen her scream like a demon when faced with garlic and holy water. He had witnessed the execution. Long, luxurious hair evaporated in the flames that raged around the stake, yet the sound of their roaring could not come close to drowning out the shrieks of agony. The girl's own parents had given her over to be condemned.
The monster of the castle could keep no servants alive in Bistritz.
Axel's stomach was cold as a lump of iron in the snow, realizing that this would now happen again. The monster had descended, and if the convert was found before it could take her away to the castle, she would surely be tried and burned.
It calmed his jitters greatly when Roxas appeared at the forge around midday, bringing his own small parcel of food and joining Axel without a word as the blacksmith and apprentices paused in their labor to eat. Merely having his best friend beside him on the rough-hewn log bench made Axel feel reassured. He needed Roxas' smile to help him shake off the tension singing through his veins, the smithy, and the entire town.
Roxas extended a slice of bread to Axel. "Here. Mama sent extra panatone for you when I told her I was coming."
Smiling gratefully, Axel took the bread, his eyes meeting Roxas' meaningfully. "Thank you. And thank your mother for me." The blond nodded, understanding that Axel was thanking him for more than the dessert.
They ate quietly at first, neither feeling quite spirited enough to tease and laugh. Roxas' solemn voice finally spoke their thoughts.
"It will be the same as last time, won't it?"
Axel reluctantly nodded. "Most likely."
"Yet," uncertain blue looked up at him, "it may not be someone we know well, at least…"
"Let us hope so." Axel sighed.
"And pray," Roxas reminded him.
"Of course pray," Axel rolled his eyes a little. "We'll not stop praying until the end. And after all," A fond smile finally lightened his face as he ruffled Roxas' unruly blond hair, "we are safe, at least. I'll be fine, as long as you're not going anywhere."
Roxas laughed briefly. "Trust me, I've no plans to go live with the monster in the castle."
Now Axel felt like teasing. "I should imagine not. You are the most frightened crybaby I have ever known. How ever did you make it home last night, all alone in the dark?"
A growl of irritation. "By setting one foot in front of another, you ass."
Axel laughed freely, then sobered. "I am glad you had not stayed any longer…if the monster came through town last night, you might have been out when he was, had you tarried."
His little friend shuddered, pausing before taking another bite of his food. "Don't suggest such a thing! You're frightening me all over again! I had not thought of that," he grumbled.
"Well," the redhead smiled kindly, "you are well, so it doesn't matter." Then, after a pause, he cautiously asked, "You really didn't see anything, did you?"
Roxas shook his head. "A few steps from your house and I soon reached mine. I saw nothing but dark."
A tiny knot of worry in Axel's chest unraveled at that. "Good." The young men returned to their food, finishing the meal. Axel's chest expanded with sudden warmth when he felt Roxas leaning against his shoulder wearily. Reaching an arm around to pull his friend closer, he asked, "What's the matter? Sleepy at this hour?"
A yawn delayed Roxas' reply. "A little," his faint voice murmured. "I'm just rather tired today. Must be the panic in the town…"
Axel smiled as his friend's head rested against his chest. "Well, I think the blacksmith is closing shop early today, so that everyone can get home well before sunset. You can rest here, if the noise doesn't bother you. Unless your father wants you back for something?"
Another yawn. "No, father is still busy preparing the tools for spring, and the younger ones can help him with that. I think I'll wait here until you're done. It's no noisier than home." He smiled tiredly up at Axel, who grinned back before rising.
"Well, take off your coat at least, it's going to get hot in here again." Roxas still wore his coat, open, and his scarf; he'd only removed hat and gloves to eat.
The blond head shook as he moved to lie on the bench. "I'm rather cold still, and this is fine. Get back to work before the smith sees you for the no-good, lazy louse that you are."
Green eyes rolled. "Says the farm boy sleeping in the middle of the day." He smiled, however, and soon left Roxas there to resume work.
And while Axel passed a few sweaty hours hammering at the forge, Roxas drifted quickly off to sleep and never stirred until his friend returned, waking him to go home together.
Tension lay over the village thicker than the heaviest snowfall of midwinter. Mothers and daughters greeted their friends in the streets and shops with tense smiles and guarded eyes, searching for the telltale signs. Narrow pupils. Sharpening teeth. An injury on the neck in the form of two small punctures. Fearful imaginations conjured these sights a thousand times, before closer, suspicious stares were able to make certain of error.
It would not be long before the villagers ceased to trust their own eyes. Accusations would soon be flying. Women and girls and even men would soon be hauled before a council to search them for any trace of a pact with the Devil, any sign that the castle's monster had touched them.
Sooner or later, the convert of Satan would be found. The execution would be carried out without delay.
The people waited.
Blackness filled the loft where Roxas lay sleeping, his siblings in their own beds deep in dreams nearby. The shutters were open, and the clouds were slightly broken up tonight, allowing occasional patches of moonlight to pass over the village, filtering through the window and over the sleeping blond.
The moonlight disappeared. Not, this time, because of a cloud. A black shape blocked the window.
Roxas stirred a moment, then slowly rose. Sitting up, he only paused a heartbeat before slipping his feet off the bed and standing. With slow steps, he walked to the window. He paused there, as if listening. Then, with gradual movements, he opened the window.
There was a pause, and again Roxas seemed to listen, not focusing on the black shape just beyond an arm's length away. Then, he spoke in a soft but clear murmur.
The next moment, the shape no longer blocked the moonlight – it was beside him in the room, inches away from the boy who stood waiting, blue eyes vacant and dazzling in the moonlight.
The dark form towered over Roxas, swathed in an enormous black cloak. The wind from the winter night outside swirled into the room, billowing the cloak and Roxas' pale night shirt, and tugging long strands of silky hair forward. Like slashes of blood under the moonlight, the strands settled around the two figures, so close they stood almost on the same spot. A soft, deep murmur rumbled from the dark shape, so low only Roxas heard.
"Well done, my pet. Now…let me drink you."
Eyes half-closed, the pale face turned, tipping far to the side and leaving half the smooth, white neck perfectly open and bare before the intruder.
Smooth, that is, except for two puckered punctures.
Moonlight flashed on sharp white teeth as they descended, lips curled back in a hellish grin.
Within a fortnight, the first accusation was hurled.
Bistritz was already nearly shredded with tension, but no witches had been seen. Then, young Olette Sandulescu, innocently purchasing flour at the general store for her Mama, caught the sharp, suspicious eye of old Dame Vulpes. Before the day's end, the council had been called into session and the young girl apprehended for examining – accused of consorting with the Devil, betraying Christ, and turning to witchcraft.
The poor girl wept and denied the accusations before the inquisitors, yet her claims of innocence did not touch their hearts. There, they said to one another, look at the pale cast of her skin, the sickly color! Look at her too-bright eyes, her feebleness in daylight! Convinced that something was amiss, the poor girl was subjected to the full examination – strip searched by a female examiner for any suspicious marks, a vein opened to check the color and flow of her blood, and garlic, mirrors, holy water, and crucifixes all thrust in her face.
When, however, her blood flowed red and her body appeared more or less pure – at least not unnaturally marked – and when she showed no fear of the objects thrown at her and even kissed the crucifix and recited the Lord's Prayer perfectly, then the charges had to be dropped. Not all the signs need show, but even the slightest taint of evil would show fear of the cross, and no one who met with the Devil could afterwards recite the Lord's Prayer without even a tiny error.
As it turned out, the girl's unnatural coloring was merely the result of an oncoming fever, and after the examiners released her, Olette remained in bed for a full week without rising once. When she did, Dame Vulpes was the first to visit, coming to kiss the girl and bless her, and express her relief that she had been wrong. Olette, ever the generous maiden, forgave her with tears of happiness.
The news spread fast as soon as the council released the suspect. The blacksmith's shop was informed at once, because Roxas ran from the town hall straight there to tell Axel. He had not been able to see the examination, for the council convened in private at first, but he had been waiting in great suspense for his old friend.
As soon as the smithy door opened, Axel left his post. The panting, gasping blond fell into his arms at once, shaking. Fear-filled green eyes searched the wan face of his friend as Axel gripped Roxas' shoulders.
"Is she…condemned?" He did not know Olette quite as well, but he knew her well enough to fear for her, and he knew Roxas would be devastated if she were the one.
The entire forge grew quiet as the other smiths listened to hear Roxas' report. The blond gasped as Axel supported him, then shook his head. "She is…released. She recited the Prayer. They have found her innocent." He choked on his relief then, as Axel pulled him close in a tight embrace, feeling the small frame shake with restrained sobs of joy.
He sighed deeply. Holding Roxas close, supporting his friend, he turned to call to the others, "Olette is released; the charges are dropped." The wave of relief spread out among the men – even though it meant the Devil's convert still remained among them, no one had wanted it to be Olette. She was far too sweet and beloved in the town.
Turning back to his best friend, Axel stroked Roxas' head soothingly, murmuring to him, "Come Roxas, come sit and rest. You are near to collapsing. It's all right, she's free. Come now…goodness you look ill! Don't worry, I'm sure it won't be any of our friends. None of them would ever have dealings with that monster, you know that." Axel kept his voice steady and reassuring as he guided Roxas to a bench to sit down. His brow furrowed in concern – Roxas really seemed to have strained himself running here. His face was flushed feverishly and his skin underneath white with fear, a cold sweat breaking out on his brow. He looked utterly exhausted. It touched Axel's heart to see such pain in Roxas on account of his fear for his dear friend.
"I know," Roxas nodded weakly. "Yet the accusation was such a shock…Hayner nearly went mad with it. I think he's with her now; he said he'd see her home…"
Axel nodded. Roxas' other close friend was courting Olette, and he could barely imagine the torture this ordeal must have been for Hayner. If the one he loved most were accused…
The redhead frowned again. "Roxas, you look terrible. You're sweating…here take your coat and scarf off." He'd already removed the boy's hat for him, but Roxas shook his head and clutched the coat, hunching slightly.
"It's all right, I'm fine. It's from running…I'm really quite cold still. It's freezing out there…"
Running across town hadn't warmed Roxas up? The thought was only momentary before Axel's concern took over. "Well, rest here a while. Your family and mine will have heard from others by now; you needn't rush off to tell them. Rest until you feel better, won't you?"
Roxas agreed, to Axel's relief, and leaned back against the wall, breathing heavily but more steadily. The young apprentice had to return to work then, but he kept an eye on his friend as he worked. Roxas rested there for quite a while before he finally made an effort to weakly rise, calling that he would see Axel later.
The redhead acknowledged the farewell and kept hammering, his stomach tightening slightly with a new worry. The monster's consort was still out there…but his mind had no time for that. Roxas seemed so weak lately…this terrible ordeal might be too much for him. Axel swore to himself that he'd find more ways to spend time with his friend and support him. His smile had been far too weak of late, not dazzling and strong, as before. Axel wanted that smile back with his whole being.
March lengthened toward April, and the snow turned to ice and rain, driving and frozen and achingly, torturously cold. The days were dark and the nights were black and filled with the sounds of the rain, clattering and splashing and driving against Bistritz.
The souls sealed within warm houses slept, waiting for spring.
Roxas slept, a huddled figure under mounds of blankets. He was often abed now, sometimes early in the evening, occasionally in the middle of the day. His mother's searching eye took in his pallor and the feverish flush to his cheeks, the too-bright shine to his eyes, and pronounced him ill. That his illness never developed into a full fever just seemed to be proof that her great-grandmother's homemade tonic was working. That her son also didn't become fully well again proved that the fever was quite a bad one, and the tonic was doing a miraculous job keeping it at bay.
Roxas went less to the blacksmith's, but Axel came more to his house. He kept Roxas company, whether up and about or too weak to leave bed. He only left for his apprenticeship and to return home at night, and sometimes he didn't even leave then. Roxas' bed was narrow, but then, so were both of the boys. And Axel was encouraged to see that the blond slept more restfully when Axel snuggled up beside him, much as they often had as children.
Tonight, however, he had gone home. Roxas slept alone, curled against the cold seeping in at the window, so biting in the warmer air that it was almost visible, like mist.
In fact, there was a faint mist seeping in now, trickling into the room through unseen cracks around the sash. It grew gradually thicker, an unnatural white fog, and began to pool on the floor, flowing over the boards, around the bedposts, until it surrounded the bed where Roxas now tossed fitfully.
With a sudden, strange twist, the mist began to rise, collecting together and piling itself into a tall column. A column that became dark, rather than white, and gained a form, black and defined – a cloaked figure.
When all the mist had vanished, the figure moved, bending toward the bed. One knee, then the other touched the mattress, and Roxas was surrounded and covered in the darkness, red silk strands dripping forward onto a pale pillow as wicked, sensual lips descended.
The softest moan of pained ecstasy breathed from Roxas' lips at the first touch of the fangs.
"Roxas, are you sure you feel well enough? It's raining so heavily, you might fall sicker in so much damp…"
"I will go to Mass, Axel," Roxas panted slightly with the effort of dressing. "It would be a shameful display of weakness to admit that illness keeps me in bed two Sabbaths in a row."
The concerned redhead had only stopped by for a quick greeting before the service, thinking that, like last week, Roxas would be alone all morning as his family attended Mass without him. He was surprised to see his dearest friend looking sicker than ever, yet violently determined to get up and hear Mass today. What was more, as much as he worried that the drenching, chilly rain would be harmful to Roxas, he could not argue with the blond's determination at all. Not when Roxas' feverish blue eyes flashed with such a sharp determination.
"The doctor can find no cause of this malady, and no medicine improves it, no matter what mother thinks about her tonic. I will not allow myself to waste in bed without cause like some heartbroken maiden. And Mama says she will ask the priest to bless me today, which I hope may help break this disease."
Axel swallowed, unable to contradict his friend as Roxas struggled into his coat. He stepped forward to help the smaller boy, and at last sighed. "What makes you think a blessing will solve what the doctor cannot?"
The gaze that met his was serious. "It may help a great deal, if I am afflicted with a demon rather than a disease. A curse, perhaps even dealt by the monster's consort. We still have not found her, you know."
It was true. Five more accusations had been cast, three upon maidens, one upon a woman, and one upon a man of thirty-two who had not yet married. Yet all had stood the trials of the council and been released. And each freed soul had only served to tighten the strain on the people of Bistritz. Had they been mistaken? But they couldn't be! There must be someone…where were they? Who was it? How near?
Axel had seen even more of this mounting fear than Roxas, for the blond had been largely shut away for a few weeks. When he wasn't abed, he helped his father with the tools, and he made no trips to the smithy anymore, for Axel insisted upon always coming to see him. The redhead wondered if perhaps Roxas was so determined to attend Mass today simply because he was tired of being shut in.
For that reason too, he could not argue or force Roxas to stay home. He could only help his friend bundle up warmly against the cold rain and assist him through the muddy streets to the chapel.
Carefully, Axel supported his friend as they walked. Roxas' always-small form felt so frail, and he trembled more and more as they neared the chapel. Axel wanted to object again, wanted to pick Roxas up and just carry him back to his home and bed, but he didn't dare oppose Roxas like that. He just hoped and prayed that no one would decide the poor, sick boy looked deserving of an accusation. The whole town had been informed that Roxas was ill, and they were more careful now, after the mistake with Olette – he didn't think anyone would accuse Roxas of witchcraft simply because he looked as sick as they all knew he was. He hoped so, anyway. The thought of Roxas having to undergo an inquisition in this condition was enough to make him ill.
"Come on, Roxas," his voice was soothing, reassuring. "Look, there's the churchyard gate, we're almost there. We'll get you inside and warmed up in a minute…Roxas?"
Axel turned to look in surprise at the blond. Just as they were about to pass the gate into the churchyard, Roxas had stopped dead in his tracks with a sharp jolt. When Axel looked back, his friend's face was the most surprising, however. White as clean snow, with eyes wide and fixed, Roxas looked like a shocked statue.
"Roxas?" Real fear began to creep past the concern in Axel's voice. "Roxas, what's wrong? Come on…"
His ears could barely catch the hoarse whisper. "Yes…I know. I'm sorry, I'm coming. I…I don't know why…" The blond shook his head, brow furrowing slightly. Axel swallowed hard, understanding nothing apart from Roxas' clear suffering, and feeling nothing but his own misery at seeing his friend so tortured.
Slowly, shaking, Roxas forced himself forward with one step as he tried to speak confidently. "Let's go, Ax-ahhhhhhhhhh!"
The sound began as a normal cry, then became a high-pitched scream…and then curdled Axel's blood as it changed entirely into a sound unlike anything a human could produce. High, piercing, raw, and utterly impossible – a tormented demon's shriek. Axel was frozen in horror.
Falling backward, away from the gate, the blond dropped like a stone into the mud. For the space of a stopped heartbeat, Axel felt himself teeter on the brink of fainting as well – for Roxas looked exactly like a corpse in that moment. His face was frozen, eyes and mouth wide with the scream, and Axel couldn't see him breathing. Was he breathing?
He didn't notice the people running, gathering around. He was bent over Roxas in a panic, checking frantically for a pulse. He thought he could see a slight rise and fall to the chest now, but he couldn't be sure. The scarf came away with a quick pull as Axel yanked a glove off with his teeth, and he was about to place his fingers against Roxas' throat to feel for his heartbeat when he froze.
Two angry red dots marked the very spot he'd been about to touch. They were swollen and had holes in the center, and the edges of those holes were whitened and worn-looking.
Axel didn't hear the exclamations of shock in the crowd. He only saw the wounds…and then Roxas' face. What…what was wrong with his teeth? Had they always looked so sharp? No…no of course not…yet how could he not have noticed? Axel paused. How long had it been since Roxas had smiled widely enough to show his teeth? How long had it been since he'd opened his mouth enough to show them like this?
He was still in shock – he didn't understand at all – when the priest came running out, pushing people aside with commanding exclamations that Axel didn't hear. His bare hand came forward and he touched Roxas' cheek. Green eyes were swimming with unshed tears, and the normally confident voice was high and frail like a lost child's, but Axel wasn't aware of these things either.
"Roxas? Roxas…wake up, please. Answer me…please, Roxas, you'll be all right. Just…speak…please…" He didn't feel the hot tears mix with the cold rain on his face.
He didn't feel the hands that pulled him back. All he saw were hands lifting Roxas and taking him away, and Axel screamed after him, "Roxas!" and tried to follow, but he was held back and couldn't move.
Could only stand frozen in the rain, tears falling fast from hurt, uncomprehending eyes.
Gradually, Roxas became aware of his surroundings, but they only confused him. Why was he in this room? His last memory…he'd been walking to Mass with Axel. What were these deep voices all muddled around him?
"It's the mark, without a doubt."
"Look at his eyes, too. The pupils…"
"Bring the things."
Suddenly, a horrible scent struck his nostrils, like acidic air burning deep into his lungs. His body recoiled instantly as Roxas gasped and choked. Before he could understand the pain or resolve the fuzzy room and shapes into sense, a new searing agony tore through his body.
It felt as though someone had poured molten iron from the forge over his hands.
He felt the scream tear from his throat, but his own voice sounded distant in his ears. His hands throbbed in agony, and all else was blackness for a time. Then, the voices grew louder, commanding. He brought his head up, attempting to focus on the object right in front of his eyes.
When the haze finally lifted and the clear shape of the crucifix filled his vision, Roxas didn't even have time to wonder at the stab of pain that shot through him. It felt like an iron spike had gone straight through his body, his heart. The pain sent the world black around him, and he didn't open his eyes again.
"Please let me see him! Please, I'll do anything, I'll be in your debt as long as I live! Please, just a moment to speak to him!"
The burly butcher who guarded the holding cell grunted, trying to calm the frantic blacksmith's apprentice. "Axel, you can see him at the public trial tomorrow. The whole town must witness the proof."
Axel knew this, in a far-distant corner of his mind that remembered things like life and rules and sense. He knew that the public examination would be next. He'd witnessed the signs. The council had come out after the private examination. Roxas had not been released. Then, a man – he didn't notice who – had carried a limp form to the holding cell. That was Roxas. The public trial was announced. Roxas was already condemned. The townspeople must all witness the proof, and then the execution would be carried out.
Each fact, each truth felt like an enormous nail in Axel's coffin. He didn't understand, couldn't fathom it – his best friend could not die. Roxas could not be a consort of the Devil. It wasn't possible. He just needed to see him; there had to be some mistake! Hadn't Roxas been the one to insist on attending Mass today? That must mean something! No demon would ever voluntarily go to Mass!
"I need to see him alone, Xaldin. Please, I beg you!" Axel was on his knees before the butcher, who looked terribly unhappy about the situation. "Please, just let me take his food in to him! Let me do that for you, I swear I won't do anything else, please!"
He could think of nothing else to say or do but kneel before the guard and beg as though for his very life. If, indeed, Axel would even have begged so much for his own life. Probably not.
A heavy, frustrated sigh. "Fine. Take his bread and water in to him. And don't be long about it. Anything else from you and when the elders are done with you, I'll have a personal score to settle, you hear?" The man glowered threateningly, but Axel only felt as though an angel had smiled on him.
"Thank you, Xaldin! Jesus, Mary, and Joseph bless you and prosper you! Thank you, thank you…"
"All right, fine, get going!" The man gruffly cut him off, shoving the little plate and cup into Axel's hands and shooing him toward the entrance to the small shack that contained only the room with the iron bars.
When the heavy door closed behind him, Axel didn't even wait for his eyes to adjust to the light of the single dim lantern. He went straight for the bars that divided the room, keeping the prisoner away from the locked door.
"Roxas?" He knelt at once, setting the food and drink aside, eyes searching for his friend until he spotted a dark shape huddled in a corner. "Roxas! Roxas it's me, are you all right?"
"Axel?" The bundle unfolded and crawled forward, the light falling on Roxas' pale, haggard face, strained with tension. Axel felt a wave of relief at seeing Roxas and a stab of pain at how ill the boy looked at the same time. The fair face relaxed a bit, however, when Roxas recognized his friend. "It is! Axel!"
His hands were already through the bars, reaching for Roxas' desperately until they were grasped in return. "Oh God, Roxas, what is happening? Why have they done this to you?" Axel felt a sob already building, pushing to break free. His own tortured green eyes matched perfectly with the tear-filled blue ones that stared back.
"I don't know, I don't know," Roxas all but whimpered, the sound breaking Axel's heart. "I don't understand. I'm not even sure what happened. What have I done wrong, Axel?"
Swallowing hard, Axel couldn't hold back his tears. His voice wavered as he clutched Roxas' hands tighter. "They are saying…that you are the Devil's convert that the monster chose. They examined you and…and I think you've been condemned. Your public examination is tomorrow…" His voice broke with sobs. "Oh God, Roxas, tell me you haven't made a pact with that monster or the Devil or anything else! I cannot believe it…you didn't, did you? You aren't evil…you can't be…Rox-Roxas please tell me they're wrong!" Cold metal pressed into his forehead as Axel bent forward in despair.
A warm touch met him there. Roxas pressed his forehead against Axel's in return. "I don't understand…" He sounded so lost, so dazed, that Axel looked up, searching those so-close blue eyes…startled by the narrowness of the dark pupils within them. "How could they think that? I would never, never…! The idea!" Roxas shuddered. "I've never seen the monster or anything evil in my life, and I never want to! Why…why would they…?"
"I knew it! I knew there was a mistake! Roxas, I never believed them!" Axel felt giddy with relief and happiness. "Listen to me," he continued earnestly. "You have to prove it to them. I know you're ill, but you must be strong tomorrow. You must show them you are an honest, pure Christian, and answer all their questions, and say the Lord's Prayer perfectly, just like you always do. And then they must see it's a mistake, and they'll have to let you go!"
"Yes," relief and trust washed over Roxas face, and the boy smiled, a broad smile filled with hope…filled with sharp, strangely-pointed teeth. "Yes, you're right. It's nothing to be afraid of. I can prove my innocence, surely. You're right, Axel. It will be all right…"
"Of course it will," the redhead replied firmly, his voice hoarse. "You'll see, Roxas. You'll be free, soon." The lump in his throat made it hard to speak again, and Axel instead pulled Roxas forward, hugging him through the bars. The kneeling boy straightened to meet him, and they held one another close, almost able to ignore the cold metal between them for a few moments. Axel's worries eased as he felt the warm, slender body in his arms, felt Roxas' heartbeat and the faint touch of his breath near Axel's ear. His scent, too – the familiar smell of his best friend filled him, and Axel calmed. Roxas was alive. Roxas was still Roxas. Everything would be fine.
"When you are free," he murmured gently, "and well again, when summer comes, we'll find time away from our tasks again, like we did when we were younger. And I'll go anywhere and do anything you want. It will be so much fun, Roxas…summer is the most beautiful season. We'll enjoy it together, all right?"
A soft sigh. "Only way to do it. I could never enjoy summer without you."
The examination took place in the town hall. The chapel would have been less crowded, but it was well-known that nothing evil could set foot on hallowed ground. The large room was cold, but soon began to warm slightly with so many bodies as the entire village crowded in.
Axel stood at the front, near Roxas' family. On the dais were the places for the council, and one place for Roxas to stand before them all. When the solemn men of the council were assembled, the signal was given to bring Roxas in.
It nearly broke Axel's heart all over again to see him.
He looked so small, so thin and pale and weak. Axel could see Roxas trying to remain calm, even as Axel was, but the fear lurked in the corners of his expression. Axel breathed deeply, reminding himself that it would be fine, it would be fine, Roxas was here to show them all his innocence.
Trembling slightly, the boy reached his place. The questioning began.
"When did you meet with the monster? Did he take you to see the Devil?"
"I never saw the monster. I never met the Devil."
"What was your pact with the Devil? What did you promise to him? What did he promise to you?"
"I have no pact with the Devil."
"How do you explain the mark on your neck?"
"I-I cannot. I…I do not know how it got there…I swear, I have no idea!"
"Recite the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah."
"Ah…I was never taught…"
"Recite the Lord's Prayer, then."
Axel breathed deeply again, in unison with the slight rise of Roxas' chest. This was the perfect chance!
The thin, trembling voice began.
"Our Father…w-which a-art in…Heaven…" Axel blinked, his brows drawing together. What was wrong? Why was Roxas stuttering? Why did he look like the words nearly choked him?
"Hal…hal…" Roxas' voice strained, growing higher as his eyes widened with effort and confusion. "Hal…hallowed! Hallowed b-be My…I mean, Thy! Th-thy…Name…"
Axel's blood was ice the moment Roxas had said the wrong word. It wasn't even a stutter, which could have been nerves. It was…an error.
Roxas had made such a simple error in the Lord's Prayer. What…what did that mean?
"What is His Name?"
Pausing as he was interrupted, Roxas hesitated. "His…His Name…is Y…is Y…!" Eyes were going impossibly wide as Roxas seemed to be trying to force out the name of Yahweh.
"Y…Y-Yah…Yah!" Panicking, his voice high and terrified, Roxas cried out, "Why can't I say it? Why won't it come out? What is happening to me?"
The stone faces didn't crack as the boy began to cry desperately, but Axel couldn't stand it. Pushing forward as far as he could, he cried out, "Calm down Roxas, it's all right! Just breathe a moment and…"
"Silence!" The acting magistrate glared at him angrily, then turned to the man acting as bailiff. "Bring the articles." The man nodded and was soon back.
Axel couldn't look away. His insides were pure ice, frozen in dread now, but his mind was still lost, hovering in denial.
A simple clove of garlic was held before Roxas' face. The boy began to gag and retch and withdraw with a violence that was shocking.
Then, holy water was sprinkled on the boy's hands. The shriek Roxas released put the one from the day before to shame. Axel jumped and covered his ears against the agonizing, inhuman sound. His eyes remained on Roxas, however. On Roxas writhing in torment and scratching at his hands as if they were on fire.
It was some time before he could be quieted and made to look at the crucifix.
When he beheld it, the howl that tore from the small young man sounded like the rage of a thousand demons.
Axel wept. Roxas was hurting, and he felt every stab of pain as his own. And Roxas was damning himself with every moment, and Axel didn't understand. Couldn't believe it.
The blond seemed as incredulous himself. Gasping with the agony of the trials, tears streamed from his eyes. "Why?" He sobbed. "Why? Hurts…I don't understand…what is wrong with me?"
The last object to come forward was a mirror. It was held up before Roxas, and Axel didn't know what the boy saw in it, only that the mirror showed the truth, or so the belief went.
Roxas collapsed in a dead faint.
There were pronouncements from the council and a unified response from the gathered townspeople, but Axel's world was soundless and sightless except for Roxas.
"Though it is tradition to burn a convicted witch, the weather prohibits a sufficiently lethal fire. Therefore, the carpenter has constructed a makeshift gallows, and the prisoner is hereby sentenced to hang on it by the neck until dead. May God have mercy on his soul."
Only family were permitted near the condemned. Axel watched in horror as Roxas' mother, father, and siblings all bid him a guarded farewell before the rickety gallows. The rain poured down as if trying to hide his best friend from sight, but Axel pressed forward. And he pressed forward. And strong arms held him back, and he didn't care if the town would now wonder if the witch had a companion in his Satan worship, because he had to get to Roxas, had to stop them, make them see he was innocent, he was innocent, he was…He is my best friend, he is my life, don't take my life away from me, let me take his place, let me…let me…
Through the blur of streaming tears he saw Roxas led onto the scaffold. He saw the horrible, disgusting rope placed around his neck. And he saw Roxas' eyes, his perfect blue eyes as they met his own, and they were filled with tears and blank, uncomprehending terror.
And Axel was screaming.
Stop it don't hurt him stop stop don't do that leave him alone stop it stop stop stop stop…!
And Roxas was crying.
And blue eyes were calling to him, calling, calling, begging him to help, save him…
As the executioner moved to kick away Roxas' support, Axel went wild, frenzied…
Stop stop no don't no no Roxas no no no no Roxas!
…And then the world crashed into blackness as pain exploded behind his eyes, someone knocking him out before he could break free.
He never saw Roxas die.
When Axel woke, he was at home, drenched and shivering, and his mother was solemnly tending to him, drying his wet face and preparing to get him out of his soaked clothing.
With a gasp, he sat straight up. "Roxas!"
His mother's strong hands latched onto his arms, pushing him back again. "Shhh, Axel. It is over. They take him to be buried. Now let me get this shirt off…"
He violently threw her off. "What are you talking about?" Incredulous, angry, his voice a rasping whisper as he stared at her surprised face. "What are you saying?" His voice was rising, becoming a yell. "Roxas needs me; I have to go help him! Where is he, where's Roxas?"
He felt himself pushed back again, but he fought her without even thinking. "Axel! He is dead, Axel, calm down!"
"No!" He screamed, panicked, struggling to get away. "I have to help him…!"
His mother's hands grasped his face, holding him still as her voice grew hard and her eyes drilled into his. "Axel. He is dead. The whole town saw. He hangs a quarter of an hour after he moved no more. They take him down and there was no breath, no pulse. He was cold. Roxas is dead, Axel. He is in his coffin and soon his grave. You never see him again."
Her voice cracked and tears of pity filled her eyes, but Axel didn't see these things. Firmly, he removed her hands and met her gaze with a hard, frantic one of his own. His voice was low and not quite steady when he answered.
"Roxas can't die. Roxas can never, never die. We're going to spend the summer together. He's my best friend. He's never had a wicked thought in his life. He can't die. Now. Tell me where he is." His words were cold, deliberate, and terribly intense. His mother backed away, eyes wide.
"You know they take him to an unmarked grave out of town, Axel…he cannot rest in hallowed soil…"
His feet were under him, and Axel was gone. Out the door and into the rain.
The streets were nearly empty of people, except for the carpenter, now taking down the scaffold. Axel didn't hesitate – he raced forward, grabbed the man by his coat, and demanded in his face, "Which way did they go?"
Momentarily frightened by the sudden fury, the carpenter stammered and pointed. "T-toward the hills in th-that direction…wh-why?"
But Axel had already dropped him and vanished, racing toward the hills. He had to get there before it was too late, had to save Roxas from being buried like some corpse, had to, had to…
He couldn't see far in the driving rain, but he found tracks in the mud on the main road out of town, and he latched onto them like a hunting dog finding a scent. He followed them through the rain, onto narrower and narrower trails into the hills, and he didn't feel the cold. He ran and ran until he couldn't run anymore, and then he tripped and slipped in the mud, hurrying and gasping and stretching forward with everything in him.
At last, he caught sight of motion ahead, and his stumbling steps quickened again automatically. Hurrying forward, he could see half a dozen men of the village…but no Roxas. The men were just turning away from a large stone slab that leaned against an incline in the ragged, hilly terrain. They stopped when they saw Axel.
"Where is he?" He gasped, unaware of his shaking hands or failing legs or broken voice. A face he might have recognized as the blacksmith, his master, came forward, and a heavy hand was laid on his shoulder.
"It's over, Axel. We've sealed his tomb already. You know it must remain unmarked."
Shaking him off, Axel focused on the stone. It was three-fourths of his height, and looked to have been placed over the opening of a small cave. He stepped forward quickly, laying his hands in disbelief against its frozen surface.
"He's here?" His voice was a soft gasp of utter shock. "You put him in here?"
The hand touched him again, but it didn't feel comforting – it was heavy, so heavy. "He's gone, Axel. You'll never see him again. Come back to town now, before you freeze to death."
For a long moment, his mouth struggled uselessly. He couldn't think of words past the floods of emotion that kept washing over him, drowning him in each one. Shock at the thought of Roxas in this hole, fury at the men for putting him here, and then agony, sharp and unbearable, as the reality began to sink in.
Roxas was dead. Gone. Forever.
"Leave me." His voice was so frail he wasn't sure it had been heard, so he swallowed hard and tried again. "Leave…I will return later. Leave me alone for now."
Murmuring voices consulted with each other, debating what to do. In the end, it seemed they agreed to give the boy some time, because the steps faded away.
Axel sank to his knees in the mud, hands and forehead against ice cold stone.
For the longest time, it was silent. Only the sound of cold, endless rain pouring from the dark slate sky surrounded him. Green eyes were sightless, unfocused on the rough surface only an inch away. Numb thoughts circled endlessly through Axel's mind. It isn't really true, he isn't gone, he can't be, it isn't true…
Hot tears welled in his eyes as Axel fought the harsh, bitter evidence before him. His heart screamed that there had been some mistake, he hadn't seen Roxas die, so it couldn't have happened!
"Roxas." His voice was only a whisper. "Roxas…come back. Come out of there, Roxas…please. S-summer will be here s-soon, you have to come back and tell me what you want to do. We…we have to always be together. We…we've never been apart since we were born…we have to stay together forever. You have to come back and…and we can grow up and…and grow old." His voice was growing more uneven, sobs shaking his body more than the cold. "I need you to…to stay beside me when I'm old and ugly. We have to sit at the tavern together and complain and tell stories like our grandfathers and…and I won't ever care if your nose gets huge or your hair falls out or you get a big stomach and smell like stale tobacco. Because…because…" The words had become of cry of anguish. "You'll always be my best friend…"
Axel fell forward, collapsing against the stone and sobbing, unrestrained and utterly, completely brokenhearted.
Roxas didn't come out.
The silence of death had truly closed between them.