Here we are! The fourth and final chapter of our tale.
The draugr writhed on the dirty cobbles like a snake in fire.
Arkyn had never witnessed anything like it. His confusion disarmed him, and forgetting caution, he watched, captivated.
The thrashing draugr wrenched onto its back, its white hair whipping across its ugly face in ratted streams. Something about its visage had altered, but its shaking made it difficult to identify. A violent convulsion revealed the creature’s jaw where a dark color bloomed. Arkyn squinted, leaning in.
“Red,” he breathed.
The liquid smeared the monster’s mandible, mixing with tendrils of hair and saliva. It couldn’t be blood. Draugar did not bleed. It didn’t make sense—then again, maybe it did. Arkyn’s chest ballooned with a panic of hope.
On the rim of the fountain, glass shards glinted dully. And there, dribbling down the stone, an ooze of crimson. Of course! Arkyn had passed this way earlier and left a vial on the fountain’s edge! Could it have shattered into the draugr’s mouth when it fell? Arkyn locked on the creature for another glimpse at its mouth. Yes, he was sure; it was the antidote!
It was finally happening!
The draugr cried aloud, but the timbre was disparate from before, lacking any trace of savagery as it echoed off the stone road and through the maze of buildings.
Throwing back its head in agony, it revealed the black rot that had eaten away most of its mouth and nose, up one cheek to its scalp and down its neck, leeching across its barrel chest, where chipped, yellowing bone showed between patches of bloated, veinless flesh. It had no eyelids, and one arm did not fit in its socket. In fact, much of its skeleton looked out of joint.
But as it howled, the serum began to spread in its veins, and it began to change. A translucent film spread over the exposed muscles and cartilage and bone like a sheet of gelatin. One by one, its rattling bones click-clacked into place, and new tendons formed, reinforcing the alignment. The film grew layer after layer, becoming opaque and supple, concealing its ribs, collar bones, Adam’s Apple, teeth, and cheek. Over this weave of fibers, a fresh dermis developed, and the rest healed to match until all of him was pink and fresh and unspoiled.
Bror gasped, deep and long, the maker of the four winds filling his lungs to the brimful. Clean blood filled his capillaries, flushing his skin with life. Neurons sparked; muscles oxygenated. The cataracts cleared from his eyes. His chest pounded the rhythm of a melodic stampede. Beautiful, zealous, deliberate.
The seizures slowed, the clattering jaw last to still. Bror lay, blinking, breathing, beating.
Struggling to prop himself up, Bror stared down at his body, bewildered. Fresh blood from his cut mouth had dripped onto his gutter filthy clothes. He raised his hand to touch his lips. The scrapes had healed over but not erased.
Bror’s pale, searching eyes settled on Arkyn, standing a few paces away, touching the scars around his own eyes. The two stared at one another, agog.
Bror frowned, suddenly. His complexion waned pale then flushed with hives. The shift flummoxed Arkyn into action. His hands flew to his shirt pocket, closing on the emergency vial. Closing the distance between them, Arkyn squatted and held out the last vessel of livsbrød to the new man.
“Drink this,” Arkyn’s voice cracked from disuse. “More will help the transition.”
Bror sat up, blinking at Arkyn, then down at his palms. He registered child-like pleasure at their graceful dexterity, but noticing the street grime, his lip curled at the street grime. He tried to wipe it away but only had his moldering clothes. His repulsion turned to shame, and he slumped under the weight of it.
Arkyn twinged with sympathy. Checking the adjoining streets, he inched closer and dropped the vial into one of Bror’s wide, clammy hands. The cylinder rolled on his palm, the red liquid sloshing within. Tentatively, Arkyn rested a hand on the man’s broad shoulders. Bror heaved a breath, clumsily removed the stopper, and downed the contents in a single gulp.
He wiped the red from his mouth with the back of his hand, wincing at his scabbed lips. In a matter of seconds, his breathing steadied, and his cast improved. His brightened eyes met Arkyn’s.
“Thank you.” He said. His voice, low and hoarse.
Arkyn twitched a grin, “I am Arkyn,” he said, helping the reborn to his feet.
“Bror,” the man patted his chest.
“We need to get out of here.” Arkyn’s eyes flicked here and there, always scanning, “The deep darkness is upon us. We will only survive if we reach shelter quickly.”
Bror nodded, his mind firing up like slow starting pistons.
“Good. Follow me.” And Arkyn was off, darting up the alley, Bror lurching after him like a lumbering bear.
What a joy it was to move. Bror could not help gazing around in wonderment as he ran. Scales had fallen from his blind eyes. Sound penetrated his once deaf ears. He walked on supported joints down the wonky alleys, past buildings, and cars, awake to the texture of reality. He felt the change of ground beneath his bare toes as lumpy cobbles became smooth, hard cement. He read the shop names, road signs, and graffiti. He sensed the temperature, cold on his face and neck.
Curiosity sparked at the faintly colored buildings—blue, green, and yellow—what they had been, what had they looked like? The stealthy pat, pat, pat of his companion played in his ears like wordless rhymes. The muscles in his feet and calves flexed flawlessly at every step, and his arm hairs prickled at the sound of encroaching undead.
There was so much to feel, see, smell, and know, so much to know. Life was deliciously overwhelming.
Before, he been a listless worm in a crypt, now, subverting all maxims of chance, he had become a bird of flight.
Elation bubbled inside him, urging him to run and shout and cry. He nearly gave into these impulses when, from a roof thirty meters ahead, a draugr dropped to the street. Arkyn shoved Bror into the shelter of a niched entry.
Their backs pressed against the solid door, they waited, panting, Arkyn from adrenaline, the reborn from the euphoric heights of liberation now pulsing in his cells. Arkyn fixed him with a reproving eye and mimed a calming breath. Bror obeyed, penitently.
Once Arkyn was satisfied he wasn’t about to break out in song, he craned his head around the doorframe. The draugr faced away from them, stalking the road, its lupine hackles raised. It took three short sniffs to the right, one long to the left, crept forward, and repeated the process until its form and shadow dwindled into the gloom.
Arkyn’s shoulders released, and he waved his companion to follow. Slinking down a sidestreet, they turned left and into a dingy gray shop. Closing the door behind them, Arkyn started to barricade it with a long heavy display case, and the eager reborn jumped to his aid.
Once it was in place, Bror started peering curiously out a window, and Arkyn grabbed his scruffy shirt front, with a finger at his lips. He pulled the new man into the back of the store, then down a half flight of stairs. At the bottom, they entered a small, windowless storeroom with two, tall vaults, a fine desk, a cot, and a thick, metal back door standing opposite.
Arkyn motioned for them to shift the vaults, one to block each door.
Rubbing his cold hands together, Arkyn judged their work, “I do not think we could not have made it back to my home base. This is my emergency refuge. It’s fairly safe.”
Arkyn faced his companion, who was turning circles, taking in Arkyn’s survival gear and reading material. He approached an arrangement of knick-knacks: postcards, a plastic troll, a flag, and incomplete sets of nesting dolls and playing cards. Bror ran his large, dirty fingers over the objects, coming to the black lacquer desk, where Arkyn kept the prizes of his collection: a painted jewelry box, silver teaspoons, pendants, brooches, and in the center, a gleaming pearl in a bed of red velvet.
Arkyn grinned. And for a moment, the two stood in silence, appreciating beauty and craftsmanship and the fact that there was someone with whom to share it. Arkyn removed his hat and kerchief, sniffed, and scratched his beard. Where to begin?
“You… you hungry?”
Bror looked down at the shorter man, his eyes intense, “No.” He smiled, astonished, “I’m… I’m not. I feel… sated!’ He snorted a short, disbelieving laugh.
Arkyn chuckled and shook his head, “All the same, it would be good for your strength.” He went over to a vault and rummaged through his stock of supplies, “I saved a can of herring and a bottle of punsch for a special occasion. I cannot think of a better one.” He turned with the items in hand and considered Bror’s attire. “Let me get you something to wear. Nights get cold.”
Bror touched his foul shirt, embarrassed, while Arkyn pulled a stack of clothes and a full canteen from the vault. He filled a chipped bowl and tossed in a clean rag, gesturing for Bror to make use of it and clean his body from the filth of his past.
Bror plunged at the water enthusiastically, stripping off his rags while Arkyn set to preparing their feast. It was impossible to become spotless under the circumstances, but by the time Bror had finished, his appearance had so improved he was hardly recognizable.
A moment later, Bror’s laughter caused Arkyn to turn. Bror’s white-blond hair stood on end like an albino porcupine, and a hand’s span of his pale, freckled arms and legs showed beyond the cuffs of his longjohns. Arkyn joined in laughing and the sounds filled the space like music.
With jolliness, Bror donned the rest of the warm, sturdy clothes, and sat across from Arkyn.
“I have many questions.”
“I expect so.” Arkyn leaned against the brick wall, “What do you want to know first?”
“What… am I?”
“An hour ago, you were dead. And now you are not.”
“The same as what happened to me happened to you. The livsbrød antidote got inside us.” Arkyn touched the scars around his eyes, and the reborn mimicked the movement, touching his scabbed mouth.
“You will mend, but the scars will stay with you. As a reminder.”
Bror took the can Arkyn offered and ate a bite of pungent fish, “But what did this livsbrød do?”
“Healed. Fixed. Revived.” Arkyn twisted his beard, “I don’t understand how. A magic called science.”
“Is there more of it?”
“There is always more. It comes in the morning. To the roof of the library. We will head there before dawn to make the drop. We must drink it every day.” He added gravely, and Bror nodded, comprehendingly.
The two ate, while Bror meditated on what had happened to him. Finally, he said, “With the light, my damnation has truly ended.”
Arkyn reached into his pocket and handed the reborn one of the many slips of paper.
Bror frowned at it, “To the dead?”
“But they—how do we—that cannot be very effective,” he ended lamely.
“It had not been, not for years, until you.”
Gratefulness lumped in Bror’s throat, met by a swirl of intimidation and unanswered questions. He sat, pensively for many moments, then shrugged, surrendering with a grin.
“Tomorrow, then?” he asked.
“Awake, O sleeper,
And arise from the dead,
And Christ will shine on you.”