I leaned back, resting my head on the back of the couch. Kanin. My sire, the vampire who'd Turned me, who'd saved my life and taught me everything I knew-he was the one I had to focus on now.
Just thinking of my maker caused a frown to crease my forehead. I owed the vampire my life, and it was a debt I was determined to repay, though I could never understand him. Kanin had been a mystery from the very start, from that fateful night in the rain when I'd been attacked by rabids outside my city's walls. I'd been dying, and a stranger had appeared out of nowhere, offering to save me, presenting me with the choice. Die...or become a monster.
Obviously, I'd chosen to live. But even after I'd made my decision, Kanin hadn't left. He'd stayed, teaching me what it meant to be a vampire, making sure I knew exactly what I had chosen. I probably wouldn't have survived those first few weeks without him.
But Kanin had secrets of his own, and one night the darkest of them caught up to us in the form of Sarren, a twisted vampire with a vendetta. Dangerous, cunning and completely out of his mind, Sarren had tracked us to the hidden lab we were using as a hideout, and we were forced to flee. In the chaos that had followed, Kanin and I were separated, and my mentor had vanished back into the unknown from where he'd come. I hadn't seen him since.
But then the dreams began.
I rose, the cushions squeaking beneath me, and wandered down a musty hallway to the room at the end. It had been a bedroom at one point, and the twin bed in the corner was far enough away from the window to be out of the sun if it came creeping into the room.
Just to be safe, I hung a ratty blanket over the sill, covering the pane and plunging the room into shadow. Outside, it was still snowing, tiny flakes drifting from a dark, cloudy sky, but I wasn't taking any chances should it clear up. Lying back on the bed, keeping my sword close, I stared at the ceiling and waited for sleep to claim me.
Vampires don't dream. Technically, we are dead, our sleep that of a corpse, black and depthless. My "dreams" were of Kanin, in trouble. Seeing through his eyes and feeling what he felt. Because in times of extreme duress, pain or emotion, blood called to blood, and I could sense what my sire was feeling. Agony. Sarren had found him. And was taking his revenge.
My eyes narrowed as I recalled the very last one.
My throat is raw from screaming.
He didn't hold back last night. He was toying with me before, just showing me the edge of his deranged cruelty. But last night, the true demon came out. He wanted to talk, tried to get me to talk, but I wasn't going to oblige him. So he made me scream instead. At one point, I looked down at my body, hanging like a piece of flayed meat from the ceiling, and wondered how I was still alive. I've never wanted to die so badly as I did then. Surely hell would not be as bad as this. It was testament to Sarren's skill, or perhaps insanity, that he kept me alive when I was doing my best to die.
Tonight, though, he is oddly passive. I woke, as I had countless nights before, hanging by my wrists from the ceiling, mentally preparing myself for the agony that would come later. The Hunger is a living thing, devouring me, a torment all in itself. Lately I see blood everywhere, trickling from the ceiling, oozing past the door. Salvation always beyond reach.
"It's no use."
His voice is a whisper, slithering out of the darkness. Sarren stands a few feet away, watching me blankly, his pale face a web of scars. Last night, his eyes glowed feverishly bright as he screamed and railed at me, demanding I talk, answer his question. Tonight, the dead, empty look on his face chills me like nothing else.
"It's no use," he whispers again, shaking his head. "You're right here, right at my fingertips, and yet I feel nothing." He slides forward, touching my neck with long, bony fingers, his gaze searching. I don't have the strength to jerk away. "Your scream, such a glorious song. I imagined how it would sound for years. Your blood, your flesh, your bones-I imagined it all. Breaking them. Tasting them." He runs a finger down my throat. "You were mine to break, to peel apart, so I could see the rotted soul that lies beneath this shell of meat and blood. It was to be a magnificent requiem." He steps back, his expression one of near despair. "But I see nothing. And I feel...nothing. Why?" Whirling away, he stalks to the nearby table, where dozens of sharp instruments glint in the darkness. "Am I doing something wrong?" he murmurs, tracing them with a fingertip. "Is he not to pay for what he has done?"
I close my eyes. What he has done. Sarren deserves to hate me. What I did to him, what I was responsible for-I deserve every torment he heaps on my head. But it won't make things right. It won't put an end to what I caused.
As if reading my thoughts, Sarren turns back, and the gleam in his eyes has returned. It burns with searing intensity, showing the madness and brilliance behind it, and for the first time, I feel a stirring fear through the numbing agony and pain.
"No," he whispers slowly, in a daze, as if everything has suddenly become clear. "No, I see now. I see what I must do. It is not you that is the source of the corruption. You were merely the harbinger. This whole world is pulsing with rot and decay and filth. But, we will fix it, old friend. Yes, we will fix it. Together."
His hand skims the top of the table to the very end, picking up the item on the corner. It isn't bright like the others- shiny metal polished to a gleaming edge. It is long, wooden, and comes to a crude, whittled point at the end.
I shiver, every instinct telling me to back away, to put distance between myself and that sharp wooden point. But I can't move, and Sarren approaches slowly, the stake held before him like a cross. He is smiling again, a demonic grin that stretches his entire ravaged face and makes his fangs gleam.
"I can't kill you, yet," he says, touching my chest with the very tip of the stake, right over my heart. "No, not yet. That would spoil the ending, and I have a glorious song in mind. Oh, yes, it will be magnificent. And you...you will be the instrument on which I compose this symphony." He steps forward and pushes the tip of the stake into my chest, slowly, twisting it as it sinks beneath my skin. I throw back my head, clenching my jaw to keep the scream contained, as Sarren continues. "No, old friend. Death is still too good for you. We're just going to send you to sleep for a while." The stake continues to slide into my flesh, parting muscle and scraping against my breastbone, creeping closer to my heart. The wood becomes a bright strip of fire, searing me from the inside. My body convulses and starts to shut down. Darkness hovers at the edge of my vision-hibernation pulling me under, a last effort at self-preservation. Sarren smiles.
"Sleep now, old friend," he whispers, his scarred face fading rapidly as my vision goes dark. "But not for long. I have something special planned." He chuckles, the empty sound following me down into blackness. "You won't want to miss it."
The vision had ended there. And I hadn't had any more dreams since.
I shifted on the bed, bringing the sword close to my chest, thinking. I'd tracked Sarren to one place he had been: a rotted-out ruin of a house in an empty suburb, a long flight of steps leading down to the basement. The scent of Kanin's blood had hit me like a hammer as soon as I'd opened the door. It had been everywhere-on the walls, on the chains that hung from the ceiling, on the instruments spread over the table. A dark stain had marred the floor right below the metal links, making my stomach turn. It didn't seem possible that Kanin had survived, that anything could have survived that macabre dungeon. But I had to believe that he was still alive, that Sarren wasn't finished with him just yet.
My hunch had been confirmed when, as I'd explored further, I'd discovered the stiff, decaying bodies of several humans tossed casually in a closet upstairs. They had been drained of blood, their throats cut open instead of bitten, a stained pitcher sitting on a table nearby. Sarren had been feeding Kanin, letting him heal between sessions. Closing the door on the pile of corpses, I'd felt a deep stab of sympathy and fear for my mentor. Kanin had made mistakes, but no one deserved that. I had to rescue him from Sarren's sick insanity, before he drove my sire completely over the edge.
Gray light was beginning to filter through the holes in the blanket over the window, and I grew evermore sluggish in response. Hang in there, Kanin, I thought. I'll find you, I swear. I'm catching up.
Although, if I was honest with myself, the thought of facing Sarren again, seeing that blank, empty smile, the fevered intensity of his gaze, terrified me more then I cared to admit. I remembered his face through Kanin's eyes, and though I hadn't noticed it in the dream, I'd later recalled the film across his left eye, pale and cloudy. He'd been blinded there, and recently. I knew, because the pocketknife that had been jammed into his pupil the last time I saw him...was mine.
And I knew he hadn't forgotten me, either.
Four months ago, I walked away from Eden.
Or, more accurately, I was forced out. Much like Adam and Eve getting kicked out of their infamous garden, I had reached Eden with a small group of pilgrims only to be turned away at the gates. Eden was a city under human rule, the only one of its kind, a walled-in paradise with no monsters or demons to prey on its unsuspecting citizens. And I was the monster they feared most. I had no place there.
Not that I would've stayed, regardless. I had a promise to keep. I had to find someone, help him, before his time ran out.
So, I'd left Eden and the company of the humans I'd protected all the way there. The group I'd left was smaller than the group I'd first joined; the journey had been hard and dangerous, and we'd lost several along the way. But I was glad for the ones who'd made it. They were safe, now. They no longer had to worry about starvation or cold, being chased by raiders or stalked by vampires. They no longer had to fear the rabids, the vicious, mindless creatures that roamed the land after dark, killing anything they came across. No, the humans who'd made it to Eden had found their sanctuary. I was happy for them.
Though, there was...one...I regretted leaving behind. The sky was clear the following night, spotted with stars, a frozen half-moon lighting the way. The wind and the crunch of my boots in the snow were the only sounds keeping me company. As always, while walking alone through this quiet, empty landscape, my mind drifted to places I wished it wouldn't.
I thought of my old life, my human one, when I was simply Allie the street rat, Allie the Fringer, scraping out a meager existence with my old crew, facing starvation and exposure and a million other deaths, just to declare that we were "free." Until the night we'd tempted fate a bit more than usual and had paid for it with our lives.
New Covington. That was the name of the vampire city where I was born, grew up and ultimately died. In my seventeen years, I hadn't known anything else. I'd known nothing of the world beyond the Outer Wall that kept out the rabids, or of the Inner City, where the vampires lived in their dark, gleaming towers, looking down on all of us. My whole existence had consisted of the Fringe, the outer ring of New Covington where the human cattle were kept, herded in by fences and branded with tattoos. The rules were simple: if you were branded-Registered to the masters-you were fed and somewhat taken care of, but the catch was, you were owned. Property. And that meant you had to donate blood on a regular basis. If you were Unregistered, you were left to fend for yourself in a city with no food and no supplies except the ones the masters allotted; but at least the vamps couldn't take your blood unless they caught you themselves.