"I'm still not sure I understand."
"We have no heartbeat," my mentor continued, lightly touching his own chest. "You wonder how the blood can pump through your veins, right? It doesn't. You have no blood. None that is your own, anyway. Think of it as our food and drink-it is absorbed into the body the same way.
Blood is the core of our power. It is how we live, it is how we heal. The longer we go without, the farther we slip from humanity, until we resemble the cold, empty, living corpses the humans think us to be."
I stared at Kanin, looking for any sign that he wasn't human.
His skin was pale, and his eyes were hollow, but he wasn't corpselike. Unless you looked really hard, you wouldn't know he was a vampire at all.
"What happens if we don't...uh...drink blood?" I asked, feeling a pang in my stomach. "Can we starve to death?"
"We're already dead," Kanin replied in that same infuriatingly cool tone. "So, no. But go long enough without human blood, and you will start to go mad. Your body will shrivel, until you are nothing but an empty husk wandering around, very much like the rabids. And you will attack any living creature you come across, because the Hunger will take over.
Also, because your body has no reserves to draw upon, any damage that doesn't kill you could drive you into hibernation for an indefinite amount of time."
"You couldn't have told me all this without slicing my arm open?"
"I could have." Kanin shrugged unrepentantly. "But I had another lesson in mind. How do you feel?"
"Starving." The ache in my gut had grown more painful; my body was crying out for food. I thought longingly of the once-full blood bag, lying empty on the f loor. I wondered if there was anything left that I could suck out, before I caught myself in horror.
Kanin nodded. "And that is the price of such power. Your body will heal itself from most anything, but it will draw upon its own reserves to do so. Look at your arm." I did and gasped. My skin, especially the area where Kanin had cut me, was chalk-white, definitely paler than before, and cold. Dead f lesh. Bloodless f lesh. I shuddered and tore my gaze away, and felt the vampire's smile.
"If you do not feed soon afterward, you will fall into a blood frenzy, and someone will die," he announced. "The greater the wound, the more blood you need to replenish it.
Go too long without feeding, and the result will be the same.
And this is why vampires do not become attached to humans, or anyone. Sometime in your life, Allison Sekemoto, you will kill a human being. Accidentally or as a conscious, deliberate act. It is unavoidable. The question is not if it will happen, but when. Do you understand?"
"Yeah," I muttered. "I got it."
He watched me with depthless black eyes. "Be sure that you do," he said quietly. "Now, from here, you must learn the most important part of being one of us-how to feed." I swallowed. "Don't you have any more of those bags?" He chuckled. "I procured that from one of the guards at this week's bloodletting. It's not something I'd normally do, but you needed food immediately upon waking. But you and I are not like the vampires in the city, with their slaves and pets and cellars of 'wine.' If you want to feed, you must do it the old-fashioned way. I'll show you what I mean. Come, follow me."
"Where are we going?" I asked as he opened the door, and we stepped out into a long, narrow hallway. Once-white paint was peeling from the walls, and glass crunched under my feet as we walked. Every few yards, a doorway opened into another room, the remains of beds and chairs and odd machines I didn't recognize scattered about and broken. A strange chair with wheels lay on its side in one doorway, covered in dust and cobwebs. I realized I could see perfectly in the dark corridor, though there was no light, and it should've been pitch-black down here. Kanin looked back at me and smiled.
"We're going hunting."
We turned a corner, and the hallway opened into what looked like an old reception area with another big wooden desk in the middle of the room. Above the desk, tarnished gold letters hung on the wall, most of them skewed or broken, so it was impossible to make out what it had once said. There were a lot of smaller signs, too, on walls and at the entrances to hallways, all difficult to make out. Glass, debris and sheets of paper were scattered about the cracked tile f loor, rustling where we walked.
"What is this place?" I asked Kanin. My voice echoed weirdly in the open chamber, and the silence of the room seemed to press down on me. The vampire didn't answer for a long moment.
"At one time," he murmured, leading me across the room,
"this was the sublevel of a hospital. One of the busiest and most well established in the city. They did more than treat patients-there was a team of scientists here, researchers committed to ending disease and discovering new cures. Of course, when the Red Lung virus hit, the hospital was over-run-they couldn't keep up with the amount of patients pouring through their doors. A lot of people died here." He gazed at the desk, his eyes hooded and far away. "But then, a lot of people died everywhere."
"If you're trying to creep me out, congratulations. So, how do we get out of here?"
He stopped at a large, square hole in the wall and gestured at the opening. I peered through the gap and saw a long shaft, leading up into darkness, with thick metal ropes dangling from somewhere up top.
"You're kidding, right?" My voice echoed up the tube.
"The stairs to ground level are collapsed," Kanin replied calmly. "There is no other way in or out. We have to use the elevator shaft."
Elevator shaft? I frowned and looked back at him. "There's no way I can climb that."
"You aren't human anymore." He narrowed his eyes.
"You're stronger, you have unlimited endurance and you can do things humans cannot. If it puts your mind at ease, I will be right behind you."
I looked at the elevator tube and shrugged. "All right," I muttered, reaching out to grab the cables. "But if I fall, I expect you to catch me."
Tightening my hold, I pulled.
To my surprise, my body rose off the ground as if I weighed nothing at all. I shimmied up the tube, going hand over hand, feeling a thrill I'd never known. My skin didn't tear, my arms didn't burn, and I wasn't even breathing hard. I could've done this forever.
I paused, my rhythm stumbling to a halt. I wasn't breathing. At all. My pulse didn't race, my heart didn't pound...
because I wasn't alive. I was dead. I would never age, never change. I was a parasitic corpse who drank the lifeblood of others to survive.
"Having problems?" Kanin's deep, impatient voice echoed from below me.
I shook myself. Empty elevator tubes were not the best places for personal revelations. "I'm fine," I answered and started climbing again. I would sort all this out later; right now, my dead-corpse stomach was telling me I was starving.
I found it very strange that my heart and lungs and other organs didn't work, but my stomach and brain were still functioning. Or maybe they weren't-I had no idea. Everything about vampires, I was learning, was a complete mystery.
A cold breeze hit my face as I scrambled out of the shaft, gazing around warily.
There had been a building here once. I could see the remains of steel beams and girders surrounding us, along with maybe half a wall, falling to pieces in the long yellow grass.
The plaster was blackened and scorched, and charred bits of furniture-beds, mattresses, chairs-were strewn about and half hidden in the grass spreading across the f loor. The tube we'd just come through was nothing more than a dark hole in the tile, hidden among the rubble and weeds. If you weren't standing directly above it, you might never see the gaping hole until you tumbled down the shaft and broke your spine at the bottom.
"What happened here?" I whispered, gazing around at the devastation.
"A fire," Kanin said, starting across the empty lot. He moved quickly, and I scrambled to keep up with him. "It started on the ground f loor of the hospital. It quickly grew out of control and destroyed the building and most everyone inside. Only the lower levels were...spared."
"Were you there when it happened?"
Kanin didn't answer. Leaving the hospital ruins, we crossed an empty lot where nature had risen up to strangle everything it could get its green-and-yellow claws around. It pushed up through the once-f lat parking lots and curled around several outbuildings, choking them with vines and weeds. When we reached the edge of the lot and looked back, you could barely see the hospital remains through the vegetation.
It was dark on the streets of the Fringe. Clouds scuttled across the sky, blocking the moon and stars. But I still saw everything clearly, and even more amazing, I knew exactly what time it was and how long we had until dawn. I could sense the blood on the air, the lingering heat of warm-blooded mammals. It was an hour past midnight, long after the bravest humans closed their doors against the dark, and I was starving.
"This way," Kanin murmured and glided into the shadows.
I didn't argue, following him down a long, dark alleyway, subtly aware that something was different, though I couldn't put my finger on it.
Then it hit me. The smell. All my life, I had grown up with the smells of the Fringe: the garbage, the waste, the aroma of mold and rot and decay. I couldn't smell any of that now. Perhaps because smelling and breathing were so closely linked.
My other senses were heightened: I could hear the scuttle of a mouse, scrambling into its hole a dozen yards away. I could feel the wind on my arms, cold and clammy, though my skin didn't respond as it should and pucker with goose bumps. But when we passed an ancient Dumpster and I felt the buzz of f lies from within, heard maggots writhing through dead, rotting f lesh-of an animal I hoped-I still couldn't smell anything.
When I mentioned this to Kanin, he gave a humorless chuckle.
"You can smell, if you want to," he replied, weaving around a pile of shingles that once belonged to a roof. "You just have to make a conscious effort to take a breath. It's not a natural thing anymore because we don't need to do it. You'll want to remember that if there's a situation where you're trying to blend in. Humans are usually unobservant, but even they will know something is wrong if you don't appear to be breathing."
I took a breath and caught the stench of decay from the Dumpster. I also smelled something else on the wind: blood.
And then I saw a splash of paint across a crumbling wall-a skull with a pair of red wings on either side-and I realized where we were.
"This is gang territory," I said, horrified. "That's the sign for the Blood Angels."
"Yes," said Kanin calmly.
I resisted the instinct to scramble away from him, to f lee into the nearest alleyway and head for home. Vampires weren't the only predators to roam the city streets. And scavengers weren't the only groups to stake their territories in the Fringe.
While some Unregistereds were simply thieves, bands of kids looking to survive, there were other, more sinister groups.
Reapers, Red Skulls, Blood Angels: these were only a few of the "other" gangs that had carved out certain parts of the Fringe for themselves. In this world, the only law was to obey the Masters, and the Masters didn't care if their cattle occasionally turned on each other. Run into a bored, hungry gang, and you'd be lucky if all they did was kill you. I'd heard stories of certain gangs who, after having their "fun" with a trespasser, would slice them up and eat them, as well.