I am not quite awake when the back of my head rumbles up a flight of stairs, the steady thunk-thunk-thunk of bone against wood a screaming castanet in my thoughts. Each step, each thud sends a starburst of pain through my ravaged body, but more torturous than that is the furnace-like heat of mortal arms wrapped around my hips. I taste his sweat on my lips even when I’m half dead, a salty-sweet tang that reminds me of caramel and a coastal storm. Makes my teeth itch, having him so close. I’m half drowning on my own spittle when we finally make it up to the first floor.
When I open my eyes again, I’m staring down at wood, its grey patina speaking of years of dirt stomped into the grain until the wood had no other choice than to gobble it up. Mouse tracks light up both my sense of scent and my sight, but what little creature made them is long gone. They don’t like humans.
And I don’t like doors.
He is in this godforsaken room with me, huffing and shaking as he wrangles a sturdy looking metal door closed to lock me in. Another prison. Another tomb. Another keyholder.
The shadows scratch and scrape along my back, hissing angry, loathing taunts in my head until I’m on my feet and my limbs are hot and tense with this mixture of fear and rage I know all too well. He wants to keep you, they whisper. Kill him, eat him, maim him, run, they snarl. It takes all my willpower, all my hard-won control, to remind them about the amulet, the chain around my neck, that won’t let me do what they want. I could kill him though. My muscles ripple with interest.
The human boy chooses that moment to turn around, squeak and stumble back at the sight of me on my feet. His boots scuffle across the sticky wood, his bloody shirt whispers against his clammy skin, and there is a wideness to his eyes that looks like more than surprise. More than fear, even. My eyes follow his stumble, each jerking movement drawing my fangs out more. As small as the room is, he wouldn’t even be able to scream before—
He talks. He likes talking. Words flow from his lips, a garble of vaguely familiar sounds that I can’t quite place and don’t care to think about. I watch his mouth as it dances and flutters, piercing the inside of my cheek with my fang to keep myself from attacking him, and distractedly lap at my own blood behind closed lips.
I freeze when my prowling thoughts catch up to my senses though, feeling my eyes twitch and my pupils widen.
Words. He speaks words. I can hear words. And the more he talks, the more I realize that something is very, very wrong. The burning pain is lessening, the room’s air free of smoke and the stench of freshly cooking meat.
My fingers become claws as I paw at my chest, tear off the strips of rotting cloth in my haste, just to find… nothing. Gauges and crusts and fleshy pain, the wetness of a devastating wound, but no metal. No chain. No acidic burning. This can’t be. How?
The human keeps garbling, shuffling closer. If I had a mind to pay attention to him, I could probably recognize at least one or two words, but he is secondary to my panic.
His hand, though, is another matter. He holds it out like a peace offering, nervous and blushing. In his palm lies the lock to my chains, the bane of my life, softly glistening and speckled with burnt skin and the scent of magic and curses. Such a harmless, unassuming little trinket, one would never take it for what it is. And such a dangerous weapon in the hand of anyone.
I move before he draws his next breath, expend what little life I have left to snatch the devilish thing out of his hand and smash it to pieces, half buried in a wall that seems to be made of paper and hope instead of stone. My fingers tingle, not just where the amulet left its red-hot traces, but where I touched his skin, where I felt his pulse against mine, thready and nervous and so alive. His gasps echo against my back, birdlike and entrancing, and now my last argument against the shadows’ steady goading is gone, broken and buried. Nothing to hold me back but a hair’s breadth of self-restraint.
I can’t keep myself from turning, so I don’t fight it.
I can’t not look at the skin-colored gauze on his neck, where I smell a fresh wound and another vampire’s venom. Something about the scent raises my hackles, but my mind is such a maelstrom of chaos, I can’t pinpoint what it is about that mix that rakes my nerves.
I can stay where I am, though. My last resort, the one thing I won’t let slip out of my control. Stay where I am, frozen in time, and hope he leaves.
He doesn’t. Even shivering, dark-eyed, and sweaty, he doesn’t run. Instead he moves his hand slowly, ever so slowly, to slide into his pants pocket, nowhere near the butt of his gun sticking out of a leather holster beneath his shoulder. He makes sounds again, low and calm and soothing as he talks to me. I understand one or two of them, mainly because he talks so slowly. ‘Friend’ he says, but I do not know whom he means. Even thinking the word tinges it in the voice of my master, that rough, cold drawl, heavily accented.
It shivers along my spine and fills me with dread. Just thinking that word. And it never stays just that one word, no. It always comes with its minions, context and memories.
‘Your friends are dead.’
I gnash my teeth until my jaws hurt and try not to flinch at the voice in my head. I am not his friend. I am the thing that will kill him.
The gadget he pulls from his pants is black, like a tiny book. It doesn’t look like a weapon, he doesn’t handle it like a weapon, and it makes noises when he paws at it. Little chirping sounds, almost too low to notice, like poking a cricket. He proceeds to hold the thing up to his ear, where it disappears between strands of feathery black hair, clicking when it touches something metal. I cock my head curiously. Does he wear jewelry on his ears?
And again with the talking. I haven’t heard this many words in the last half dozen centuries. The boy’s voice grates my nerves. My head tries to make sense of his blubbering until it throbs with pain, like atrophied muscles trying to remember how to move. I can’t. I don’t understand him. I just wish he would shut up.
And as if the heavens heard my plea, he does. The shapeless voice coming from the little trinket cuts off and it disappears back into his pants. Silver gray eyes bore into me as he carefully steps back and leans against the wall, arms hanging at his side. His fingers twitch ever so often, like he is trying his hardest to keep his hands where they are, but would much rather do something else with them. I suddenly find it easy to stay where I am and simply watch him. Study him. Spoil myself with the luxury of not having to kill.
It feels like both eons and no time at all when the sounds of hesitant but hurried steps echo through the building. I listen half-heartedly as I keep my eye on the boy, not yet trusting he won’t be stupid. The scent of whoever is joining us reaches me long before he knocks at the door. His scent is heavy with soap and tinged with fresh blood, but I would smell the musk of vampire even if he drenched himself with vinegar.
The human called a vampire on me. So much for not killing.
The door swings open and my body crouches, bares my teeth before I’m done thinking about the implications of what is happening. No matter who is joining us, no matter what the boy was thinking, I will be ready. My muscles ripple with tension, pulling and tugging at the wounds my body is covered in. No matter. A single vampire is no match against me. Especially not when he still reeks of life, like this one.
The neophyte stumbles through the door like a jovial breeze, babbling happily until his eyes meet mine. He falls silent and stumbles back into the corner next to the door in the blink of an eye, squeaking and flailing like a worried pig. His reflexes are human-slow, even when startled. It gives me pause. Why would the boy call such a weak creature to his aid?
When he tries to flee, I am not ready for him to leave. I snap at him, more sound than movement, and he tugs his hand away from the door knob as if burned.
He knows who I am. Interesting.
The human boy still doesn’t seem worried, jabbering at the fear-frozen vampire and turning his back to me. I keep an eye on the cowering neophyte, letting the singsong of voices wash over me as I look for more honest things, like expressions, movements, the rising and falling tension in both their bodies. I have to be ready to fight. I always have to be ready to fight.
Until my name falls. I almost didn’t recognize it, hidden in the staccato of words, but it rings like a bell through my head, sends shivers down my back. Whispers the master’s snarling voice through my head.
‘You have nothing left, Cor. Nobody. Not even your name. And I will keep on taking. Sight. Sound. Thought. I will grind you into breathing dust for what you did.’
My saliva turns into a bitter, venom-tinged glob and sticks to my palate when I try to swallow.
The boy moves, breaks the never-ending staring contest between me and the neophyte, and suddenly everything fades away except for him. The rustle of his sweat-slicked shirt against his clammy skin. The groan of leather hugging his tense shoulders. The wheeze of air in and out of his lungs, still too fast, still wet and breathless.
I see what he does. I’m not dumb. He’s taken a protective stance between us, and maybe he thinks it’s to protect his vampire friend from me, but his back is turned to me. His attention is on the neophyte. I am the one he’s worried for.
I pierce my lip with my fangs when the skin-colored patch on his neck ripples and creaks, swallowing down a strangely possessive growl. He doesn’t know what he is doing. That doesn’t make him any less mine though. And whoever bit him will have to contend with me now.
Wounds tug and bloody crusts pop as I strain forward, closer to that mixture of lime and gun oil and worries. He fits against my front perfectly, each swell and curve a negative to my positive, his body warm and cold and throbbing with life. His struggling ceases when I wrap my arms around him, mold myself to his body.
I’m still not close enough.
My fangs catch in the adhesive strip of the wound pad, scraping lightly across the skin beneath it. The urge to bite down is there, itching at my gums until my fings hurt. I tug the gauze off and spit it to the side. The other vampire is watching me wide-eyed, as if I’m doing something I’m not allowed, as if I’m about to rip his favorite doll apart. I stare him down as I give in and sink my fangs into the shivering little creature. His blood gushes against my gums, hot and thick like honey mead. I let it trickle onto my tongue, lap at it, but don’t drink. I would have to drain him to get something akin to satisfaction out of his blood. My hunger doesn’t matter, though. As my venom seeps into his blood, everyone will know whom he belongs to, who he is. What he is to me.
When I realize my mistake, it is already too late.