It seems to me the easiest way to get this started is just to start. So here's a sample chapter for your perusal. Read it, comment. Follow me on Twitter @BenajahsKeeper or 'like' me on Facebook. You know the drill. And if you're really feeling up to it, PREORDER your copy today: https://www.etsy.com/listing/111829042/benajahs-keeper-by-aeryn-dougan-preorder
Before there was light, there was darkness. An inky black stretched over the peaks of formless mountains and sank into the deep caverns and canyons of oceans-to-be. The wind caressed the bodiless land with seraphic fingers, the world trembling beneath their touch. And the silence was so loud the shapeless rocks seemed to sing, the air thick with their melodic hum.
It was in this black and silent world that twelve entities lived. Like the rest of the world, they had no bodies, no faces—for where there is no light, there is no form. They were as much of a part of the world as they were not. They harmonized with the silent song, but from whence their voices came, they did not know. They shuddered at the wind’s embrace as it propelled them across the land but could not understand its touch. The weight of the dark, velvety blanket was heavy on their minds, but it was best not to care. So, carefree and immortal, they floated in the darkness.
And then a light grew from the sky to end the time of darkness. Its rays, bright and oppressive, touched these beings like the darkness had not. It revealed their pale limbs, wiry and weak. It singed their delicate skin and burned the eyes they had never known existed. The light birthed pain as much as it birthed their newfound forms. It tortured them; they begged for death. When the serenity they begged for did not come, they fled to the places light had not vanquished. It was there, in great shadows, that they hid for many years.
In time, the pain numbed and the Twelve began to examine their new world. They dared not venture away from the safety of the shadows, but they took in the beauty of the world from afar, marveling at the tourmaline mountains above them and the blue oceans spread before them. The Twelve watched with wonder as puffs of white cloud darkened before a storm; they covered their ears in the cacophony of thunder and rain. When the rains passed, the voices of the first birds filled the air with song. The sound brought the Twelve to tears.
From these waters sprang a garden. Tall fields of grass waved in the gentle breeze, and trees with twisted trunks grew, their branches laden with ripened fruits. Flowers swung their heads to the sky to drink the sun’s nourishing rays.
When the earthy and sweet aroma of the Garden found the Twelve, it was enough to pull them to the edge of the shadows. A new pain, an ache to touch and taste what lay before them, filled their bodies. But caution—and fear—conquered their desire. And so they watched.
The Garden grew and grew; after many years it spawned more life. Creatures began to move about the plants. Some had shaggy furs that covered their bodies from nose to tail and teeth that savaged through flesh and flora alike. Others were nimble, with fluted necks and elegant ears, and they darted about, springy on their long legs.
But it was the strangest of all these creatures that caught the Twelve’s attention. These creatures were not bound by the limitations of their bodies as were the others. They could run and climb, jump and swim, but they could also sing and laugh and form words with their mouths. Everything about them was beautiful.
The Twelve gazed from the shadows, hypnotized, coveting man’s long, strong legs and muscled arms; his lithe and nimble movements; the way his skin glowed, unharmed by the sun. But most of all, the Twelve yearned for man’s face: the colored eyes that peeked from below soft hair, the round cheeks that flanked plump lips, the bridge of nose that connected it all.
Yet as the Twelve’s vigil continued, they began to see that everything about man was not beautiful. Some men, it seemed, wanted to ruin the gift they had been given. They would rip apart the bodies of their brothers to cover the Garden with blood and gore. Others were more valiant and thankful for what they had been given but often became victims of this wickedness. And when evil—the word the Twelve had learned to explain these violent men—threatened to destroy the world, they came together to find a solution.
From this council, the Twelve decided to appeal to man’s Almighty. At first he would not listen, for he, frustrated and insulted by his people’s ungratefulness, had turned his back on them. When at last he could not disregard the Twelve’s call any longer, the Almighty answered in a thunderous voice.
“What would you have me do?” he howled.
“We ask that you not ignore your people! They will destroy themselves!” the Twelve called back.
“Let them,” he said. “It is what they deserve.”
“And what about us? This is our home. Even shadows need ground to rest on.”
“Why should I care? I did not make you—you are nothing to me.”
“Then let us protect what you have created,” they offered.
“How would you do that? Even I, the Almighty, cannot curb man’s taste for destruction.”
“We will pull the weeds that strangle the flowers.”
“How? You can barely stand! How will you catch them if you cannot run?”
“Grant us the gifts you granted them. Give us their beauty and strength,” they demanded.
“I cannot,” the Almighty claimed. “Your bodies are hollow. What powers man does not run inside of you.”
“Then allow us to drink the blood they so willfully spill—to take the power we require.”
The Almighty thought on this for some time.
“I will grant you each one human of your choice. He must be good of heart and mind, merciful to those who deserve it, and trustworthy. When you have found such a man, you will bite him with your shadow teeth and drain him of his blood. When this is through, you will tear open your bodies, and whatever spills from the wound, you will give in return. And so you will become one.
“When next you wake you will see through the eyes of man, have his limbs, and his beauty. But you will thirst—your mouth will burn—for another man’s blood. You must find a man, this time unfaithful and evil, and you will draw his tainted blood into yourself and take his strength for your own. You must do this, or you will die. It will be your curse—your payment—for the gift I have given you. By this thirst, you will purge the world of evil.”
“But man grows in numbers every day! How will only twelve maintain control of such a population?”
“When it is necessary, you may create others. You will do this by placing your blood in the body of a man. He should, like you, be righteous.”
“And the sun? Will it still burn us as it does now?”
“Yes. But in time, if I am pleased by your work, I might grant you another gift. Though you might not live to see it, there might be a day when your kind will walk freely in the sunlight.”
“Why would we not live to see it, Almighty? For we are immortal and cannot die—”
“I am the only true immortal!” the Almighty roared. “Your lives will be long—thousands of years, if not more—but age will creep under your skin. Your hair will grow gray like that of a human’s, your skin leathery. You will die old men, eventually. It is a price you must pay.”
The Twelve considered this for a moment. They did not want to give away their immortality, but they did not want to live among the shadows for eternity, either.
“We accept your offer,” they said, finally. “Hear the oath of the Twelve. We live to serve you, Almighty, and protect what was made good in this World of Light.
The dark eyes that met my gaze glistened, beetle-like, from behind an expansive mahogany desk. They sank into the face of the white, withered man seated stiffly in the high-backed chair opposite me, hands crossed neatly in his lap. His skin draped loosely over a wiry skeleton, and the wispy tuft that extended from his scalp was only a shadow of the full head of hair from years past.
I crossed the room, each step punctuated by a dull clack as the heels of my heavy boots struck the floor. Keeper’s exasperated gaze lingered on the muddy footprints behind me.
“Evanna, my child, where have you been?” Keeper said with a sigh.
I ignored his question. My answer would only result in heavy-handed words.
“You asked to see me?”
Keeper steepled his hands and pressed the length of his forefingers against his thin lips. Each knuckle bulged distinctly, the skin stretched over antique bone.
Keeper abhorred filth; to him, a fight should be calculated and exact. My methods, however, left me crusted in earth and blood—a preference we had been unable to agree on for six hundred years. His papery eyelids slid over dark irises once, then twice, before he spoke.
“I have an assignment for you.” His voice was composed, an accented drawl that moved languorously to my ears. “There have been some disappearances.”
“Disappearances?” I responded with an uninterested sigh. “Ours or theirs?”
“Ours. There is a town that has acquired a self-proclaimed hunter. We believe that he has been responsible for the deaths of three of our newest fledglings.” He paused and dropped his hands. “And possibly Tannon’s.” Keeper’s narrowed gaze crawled across the room to pass slowly over the carved fireplace mantel. Tannon had been his blood brother, the Keeper of Ataveus.
Keeper’s assured tone sent an electric thrum through my body that tickled my fingers.
“Tannon? That would require a great amount of skill and more luck than a mere human could dream of.”
“I am quite convinced. He’s been missing for nearly a month.”
“Keeper, you can’t honestly believe—”
“I am not asking your opinion, Evanna.” His words halted my own instantaneously. He hated my opinions almost as much as my combat style. “You leave tomorrow.”
Keeper raised a single brow above his murderous glare. “Consider this your warning, Evanna. You must be more careful. Your tactless ways are not acceptable. I can look the other when you hunt in the city. Gore and brutality are a way of life here. But beyond the walls of Benajah—”
“I understand, Keeper. I can handle a low profile.”
He hesitated, eyeing me seriously.
“You will be staying with Zak Tamsin, posing as his sister. You will not return to Benajah until what you left to do has been accomplished.”
I nodded curtly. My stomach rolled at the thought of leaving the halls of Benajah for an undetermined amount of time. It was my home, my guild.
“And what is my goal?”
“To find and eliminate Rian Delmar.” Keeper rose a few inches from his seat to slide a tattered photograph across the wood.
The face that smiled up at me did not appear to belong to an estranged vampire hunter. He had a strong jaw framed by dark curls; his smile was crisp but not unpleasant; his ice-blue eyes flirted from beneath smoky lashes. The portrait could have been torn out of a teen magazine—suggestive but harmless.
“We know very little about him. Most who meet him do not survive. He knows things about us that no mortal should. Even our human informants, who reside daily beside vampires, do not share this man’s breadth of knowledge. He….” Keeper’s speech tailed off, and his dark gaze grew mysteriously distant. Detachment was not unlike Keeper, but his loss of focus was suspicious.
“Have you considered that he may be some sort of demented fanatic? Maybe seen a few too many of those films humans enjoy so much?”
“No,” Keeper muttered with a shake of his head. “This is beyond fanatics. He is dangerous; he must not continue.”
Keeper met my eyes. There was a plea beneath their cold darkness to which I was unaccustomed. Was this a personal favor? The thought caught me. Yet, before I had time to question him further, Keeper rose. He moved across the office to the door and opened it.
“Go and clean up. I will meet you in the hall at midnight for dinner.” He motioned to the dark hallway beyond. Wordlessly, I strode past him. He caught my shoulder just beyond the threshold. A foreign grin crawled across his pallid face. “And Ev? Don’t be late. The fledglings can be so intolerable when they get thirsty.”
My hair flew from around my eyes as the door slammed in my face. A short laugh escaped my lips as I rolled my eyes at Keeper’s pathetic attempt at humor.
The dark in the hallway sank around me, and the dank smell of mildew filled my nostrils. Every crevice and crack was revealed as my eyes adjusted to the sudden gloom, the green moss that oozed from the depths luminescent against the neutral grey stone. My lungs stilled within my chest as I gagged. I’d never been able stand the smell of the underground tunnels.
I made my way to my quarters at a brisk walk up the flights of stone stairs. Those who loitered in halls parted as I made my way through. I nodded to those who sought my recognition, but many bowed their heads as I passed, the courage to meet my eyes beyond them.
My hand had found the brass knob of my door when I heard my name. I turned, frustrated by the intrusion, and came face to face with a fledgling I did not recognize. She was young, newborn even; her serpentine green eyes still shone brightly beneath ginger eyelashes and a shock of red-gold hair.
“Good evening, my lady.” Her voice quailed beneath my gaze. She blinked once and swallowed hard before continuing bravely. “Will you be joining us tonight? It would be a great honor.”
“And why would that be, young one?” The brilliance of her eyes astounded me as they glittered in the torchlight. Surely, tonight would be her first hunt.
“Tales of Evanna the Favored are quite famous throughout these halls.” Her voice was low, not unsure but cautious.
I stepped closer and cupped her chin in my hand. Her jaw felt delicate beneath my fingertips. Muscles twitched as I turned her face one way and then another to examine her fine bone structure. I could see why her maker had chosen her; she was very beautiful. Yet, as she yanked her face from my grip with an audacity I had not anticipated, I saw the defiance in her eyes. My lips pulled away from my teeth into a sly smile. Whoever her maker was had chosen wisely. Benajah needed vampires with her courage.
“Yes.” I stepped back, and my right hand found the knob once again. “I look forward to it, fledgling.”
The girl nodded, her eyes firmly on mine. I twisted the metal in my palm and the door opened. With a final glance, I fell into the dark cavern of my room.
As I leaned against the cool wood, I fought the river of rage that threatened to overflow my body. The anger pooled dangerously in my chest at the thought of the vampires Rian Delmar targeted, fledglings like the one outside my door—young but promising—who probably hadn’t known what was coming, too weak to protect their still-exposed bodies.
And Tannon. I could not even begin to ponder the death of Tannon. He had always been more unassuming than Keeper. Tannon’s love for humanity had continually interfered with his ability to kill; he inevitably found good in every person. Yet still he had been the Keeper of Ataveus, a leader of the twelve guilds. His existence, like that of all the Fathers, represented the strength of our kind. It was a strength not easily conquered.
I pushed away from the door, rolling my shoulders. My gaze traveled around my room. It was the same as I had left it—messy and disorganized, neutral. Nothing in my room could identify it as mine; nothing I possessed was typically “me.” The only thing I cherished within the four stone walls was the large pane of glass that overlooked Benajah’s training field, a spread of emerald green against the colorless sky. It was the symbol of the field that drew me to the window for countless hours at a time. I owed my life, my career, to that field. In the subtlest way, it reminded me of everything that had been bled into me—why I was what I was.
The hunter’s unexplained knowledge plagued my mind. To know of us was one thing; most humans had some notion of us, even if it was within the deluded religions or pop culture to which they had devoted their lives. And some, though certainly a
minority, knew that it was the vampire who governs man.
With a sigh, I turned and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I really was a mess. My navy shirt was torn in several places. Starkly white skin glinted through the holes, giving the ruined shirt an asymmetrical pattern. Mud spattered my arms, and smears of blood highlighted my high cheekbones like a macabre blush. The length of my chestnut hair was in knots.
“Well, that’s another one down.” I stripped my shirt and threw it into the high pile of clothing meant for the trash bin.
I showered, redressed, and combed through my hair until it fell freely to my elbows. I pulled on my boots—laced knee-highs that easily stowed several deadly daggers—over my snug jeans before I settled on the bench beneath the great window, my long legs stretched out before me. With my elbows across my midsection, each locked in the opposite hand, I vacantly watched the training session three stories below me. The synchronized movements of the vampires had a hypnotic effect. Before long, the sun had fallen and an eerie moonlight replaced its harsh rays.
* * *
I met Keeper in the atrium at precisely midnight. The five fledglings that surrounded him looked nervously up as the clock tower high above us chimed ominously. There were three men and two women, each brandishing the signs of newborns. Their skin dulled next to Keeper’s, its fleshiness like dough before baking.
Among them, as expected, stood the green-eyed girl I’d met in the hallway. She lifted her chin to meet my gaze with ferocity.
“Serah,” Keeper said, sensing my interest, “is new to our group.”
“Where did she come from?” I asked, my eyes on her red hair.
“She is one of Yakov’s. He brought her in yesterday. Too much for him to handle, he said. Thought that you might be interested in overseeing her training.”
“How pleasant of him.”
“Was he wrong?”
“Very well. She will hunt with you tonight; I will take the others. May I suggest the Thaleo district?”
I tilted my nod in her direction and asked, “Ready to run, little one?”
Serah licked her lips and sank into a crouch. With a laugh, I left Serah on the tips of her toes, dumbstruck, as I sprinted from the atrium and through the arched doors faster than any human eye could follow. Moments later, I heard her clumsy footsteps far behind me but close enough to follow my lead.
When we reached the district, I slowed my pace to a walk and waited for her catch up. When she joined me, she looked utterly bewildered.
“I’ve never been able to run like that. I mean, I was never obese or anything, just not fit. Have me run a block and I would be down for the count. Or, well, it used to be like that….”
Her chatter tested my patience. She was young, I reminded myself, not yet purged of her human tendencies. Tonight her true transformation would begin.
“Serah, where are you from?” I stemmed her stream of speech when we came upon an alley. On either side muted brick walls rose into the sky. The only light—a lamppost across the street—elongated our shadows into the inky blackness of the narrow cavern.
“Where am I f-from?” Serah stuttered. She looked around, her sense of loss apparent in her emerald eyes. “I can’t really remember. But that window … it looks familiar. My… my mother. She—”
I pinned her against the brick wall before she could finish the thought.
“You are from nowhere. You reside in this world, but you are not part of it. You have no family, no mother. You. Are. Not. Human.” With every word I
shoved against her chest. The wall caved around her, the shape of her body roughly outlined in the brick. With one last fierce glance at her flabbergasted eyes, I released her.
She crumpled to the ground, bits of mortar caught in the nest of her hair.
“I … I’m sorry. You asked—”
“Vampires do not apologize,” I hissed. “Now, get up and watch.”
Serah did not move but watched from the ground as I moved through the darkness beyond her. The Dreg I sought leaned against a grimy trash bin. The pungent stench of alcohol rolled off his body. I crouched down until my face was level with his. Drunkenly, he looked up, a crooked sneer plastered on his inebriated features.
“Hey there, sweet thing.” His warm breath hit me in the face. It smelled of fermented fish.
“Hey, there,” I said in my most seductive voice.
I traced a line from the corner of his eye to the point of his chin with my finger. His cheeks were a fleshy red, cold even to me. As I touched him, thick white eyelids closed over his filmy eyes. I edged closer, an airy laugh in my throat, and brought my lips to his ear.
“Do you want me to show you something more pleasurable than your drugs? Something that will blow you away?” I whispered. The man shuddered as my breath slid over his hair and my cold lips tickled his skin.
I leaned away to study his response. His eyes were open now, pupils dilated. My offer confused him; he had never been offered anything for which he didn’t first have to fight.
I decided not to wait for an answer. My teeth punctured the skin of his neck before he took his next breath. Sticky, warm, salty liquid gushed into my mouth as I supped his blood with a dark savagery. When his body sagged against my arm, I tightened my grip until I felt bone crunch beneath my fingers.
Images of his crimes—theft, rape, even murder—flooded my mind. Our minds connected. I shared his memories, the faces of his victims. I let him hear their screams of terror, their final prayers. Soon, his voice joined them. His pain, his retribution, blossomed into a bloody rose inside my mind.
His body died in my arms within minutes. My stomach, full of his blood, sloshed as I dropped his limp figure to the ground. My eyes on Serah, I stood. While she wordlessly collected herself, her expression caught between horror and awe, I wiped the blood from my mouth.
“Why did he scream? I thought … I thought it was painless.” She was careful to control her voice so that it shook only slightly over her words.
“It can be. Or not. This was an evil man, Serah. He brought pain and death to innocent people. He deserved the most painful end I could give him.” I gave his body a solid kick. “It is our responsibility to weed out Dregs like him and remove them from this world. We kill the bad to protect the good. Do you understand?”
“Good. Now it’s your turn.”
I led Serah down the street in search for another opportunity. Soon we reached a park, and in its gloom stood a woman. She wore very little despite the chilly air; thin strips of plastic and nylon covered the most crucial areas. A prostitute.
My probe passed easily through the walls of her drug-ridden mind, and I found what I was looking for. Serah’s arm firm in my grip, I pointed her toward the hunt.
“She has three children. Bastards, all of them. Twelve, eight, and three,” I whispered from behind, my chin on her shoulder. “They go hungry often because their mother prefers to spend her makings on the drugs that are all too slowly killing her.”
“What will happen to them when she is gone?” Serah’s soft red hair brushed against mine as she turned her head toward my voice.
“They will be given opportunities they never would have had.”
“You can guarantee it?”
“I can guarantee that they will be visited by one of our people and relocated. Yet we cannot control
man. It will be the children’s choice to receive our gifts or not. From what I can tell, the eldest is quite talented. Smart. Could be brilliant, given the chance. I’m sure her potential will be wasted pleasuring sick men if we do not intervene. Her mother is already pressuring her. It’s not much of a future, is it?”
“No, it’s not.”
Serah flew away from my grip. She moved quickly despite her infancy, though her movements remained ungraceful. The prostitute turned to see the blur of fire a second before Serah tackled her to the ground. With a hiss, Serah sank her teeth past the golden earrings that dangled from her prey’s ears. The woman spasmed as the blood drained from her body, her long legs kicking at empty air. Serah chose to show her mercy, and it was over soon enough.
When she had wiped the blood away from her mouth with the back of her hand, Serah staggered to where I waited on a bench. I molded my face into a mask of approval; she had done well. Her skin was already paler, stonier with a pearlescent gleam. When she met my eyes, I saw that vampiric black flooded into green.
I shuddered past the strange, nostalgic feeling that washed over me. Serah reminded me of my young self—strong-willed and a fast learner. But I could not afford a motherly affection for her. An emotion like this—any emotion, really—often led to unacceptable mistakes. Feeling anything for this girl, no matter what bright future I saw for her, was beyond reason.
* * *
Over the coming week I came to one realization: Zak Tamsin’s apartment was sickeningly human. The walls, covered in a tangerine orange paint, and his furniture, upholstered in yellow ochers and rusty reds, annoyed me beyond words. The flat-screen television that hung ostentatiously over a homey brick fireplace made my stomach roll. And the art, some of the paintings even marked by Zak himself, made me want to run away screaming. But it was the heat, the absolute coziness of his residence, that drove me to near insanity.
Yet, as Keeper had reminded me countless times, we all had our role to play. Zak’s role, though it drove bile into my throat, was to pose as a human. He watched the goings-on of mortals and reported anything of worth directly to Keeper. His reports, it was said, were crucial to maintenance of society, but I had always felt that such a job was meant for the meek. Only vampires who could not sever themselves from the depths of humanity served as Zak served.
His career, as the color scheme and art-filled room suggested, was an obsessive one. Day and night, Zak lived as a human. He went to school. He made friends.
Eight days after my arrival, my impatience had crescendoed into an audible hum. When Zak toppled over the crest of the armchair into my lap, the words little sister on his lips, I closed my eyes and begged for forgiveness. Whatever sin I have committed, let it be repented.
Without a word in his direction, Zak noted my irritation and rolled off my lap with a resigned sigh. He chose a seat for himself across the room.
“You’re going to have to lighten up, or this charade is never going to work,” he said. His voice grated against my ears, his accent caught between this millennium and one long since dead. “Right now you scream supernatural. I know you think you’re being stoic and shit, but really, you’re not fooling anyone.”
I sat in silence, fuming internally.
“What’s your name going to be?” He prodded when I did not respond.
“Excuse me?” I snapped.
“You can’t exactly go around by Evanna Amaranthine or the Favored One.” The straightness of his tone patronized me. “Unless you’ve decided that we have crazy parents who would curse only one child with such a dark name. But that’s really a decision we should make together.”
“I don’t know. What would you suggest?” I rolled my eyes.
“I do what I can.” He flashed a brilliant white smile. I supposed that he thought such a flippant attitude was amusing or charismatic. I, however, found it distasteful.
“What do you know about Rian Delmar?” Annoyed, I changed the subject to one that I could stomach.
The sudden darkness that grew in Zak’s eyes was a deep contrast against the blue ring around his pupils. His spiky, chestnut hair seemed to bristle at the mention of Rian’s name.
“That he’s an asshole.” He paused to consider his words. “I’d never take him for a vampire hunter, though. It’s always been my impression that he lacks in the brain department. Some of the shit that comes out of that guy’s mouth …”
“So you know him?”
“I wouldn’t say that I know him. Know of him, yes. Friend of a friend, you know? He used to date my friend’s sister but then left her brokenhearted. He’s a cheat and a drunk and generally just pisses me off.” Zak kicked his foot against his chair. There was a deep crunch. “Oops.”
“Well, according to Keeper, he’s—” Zak let out an audible scoff. I stared at him. “Keeper says he’s dangerous,” I continued.
“Do you ever think that Keeper might be wrong?” Zak sighed.
“No,” I answered flatly.
“Really?” Zak cocked an eyebrow. “I mean, I’m telling you—this guy’s a weirdo and an ass to say the least, but I honestly don’t think he’s capable of the kind of things—”
“I think that you forget your place. If Keeper deems an investigation necessary, then I will do it willingly, as any member of Benajah should.”
Zak opened his mouth to retort, thought better of it, and closed it with a hollow smack. For a moment there was a blessed silence.
“What are you wearing tonight?”
My stony silence indicated I had no notion of what he meant.
“There’s a party that I’ve been invited to—I did tell you this. Guess you weren’t listening….” He trailed off.
“And what makes you think I am accompanying you?”
“Nothing, really. Just that Rian will be there.”
I pressed my lips into a hard line. The prospect of being around humans for longer than it took for me to drain them repulsed me. Yet, I had an assignment. The sooner I took down this monster, the sooner I could leave this wretched place—and the humiliating excuse for a vampire that occupied it.
* * *
An hour later, Zak and I walked through the chilly night air. The silver dress that had been practically forced over my head fluttered uncomfortably around my exposed thighs. Zak, who had deemed such attire obligatory, donned a silk vest over a long, pinstriped shirt. On his head sat a matching, crooked fedora, tilted to cover one eye.
Even from outside, the music that pulsed from the squalid building boxed my ears. I shuddered to think how loud it would be once inside. Even with my excellent hearing, it would be difficult to hear whispered conversations in such cacophony.
“So, how do you want to do this?” Zak whispered once we’d ducked through the low doorway. “Do you want introductions or what?”
“No, just let me be.”
I glanced around the room. Beams of light bounced in and out of a sea of gyrating bodies. Men and woman alike threw their hands into the air; their hips ground to the beat and sweat poured down their bodies. With a single step, I was swallowed by the vast crowd.
I began my work straightaway. With my mind open, I searched for anything unusual. Mostly, I heard chatter. Human worries, joys, and regrets. Occasionally, Zak’s face would appear in someone’s mind, and only once was it with any sort of suspicion. And several times, a face curtained by dark hair and shadowed by a hardened expression would flash before my eyes. With a jolt, I recognized myself.
I circled the room twice with no hint of mischief before I settled on a red leather couch hidden in a dark corner. From where I sat, I could see the entire dance floor and the crowded bar to my right. I watched the scene absentmindedly, acidic comments on my mind. Clumsy. Rigid. Graceless.
Zak’s sudden appearance by my side made me jump. I looked up at him with a scowl. When I saw the blonde waif of a girl that hung from his arm, my expression turned to pure disgust. His face twisted in response, his tongue pressed to the points of his canines in warning. Silently, he dragged a gangly arm upward. I followed the line of his long, pointed finger across the room, but when I looked back, unsure, he was gone.
I studied the spot Zak had indicated. A group of brawny men banged shoulders as they downed miniature glasses of golden-hued liquid. Drunken boasts bellowed from their mouths, calls to the bar tender for another round. As they pounded the counter, all civility gone, I rolled my eyes. Humans.
I’d almost lost interest when I saw him. He sat at the end, barely part of the group, though drunk all the same. His hair was shorter than I’d seen it, his body more built, but it was undeniably him.
I reached for him with my mind to find nothing but dead air. Then, like a bird hitting a window, I plowed into a wall. Pain unlike anything I had ever felt before throbbed through my head. My vision blurred, the usual clarity replaced by tiny blips of light, and the world slid sideways.
Lost in the pain, I barely saw Rian’s narrowed eyes sweep across the room in search of his silent assailant. He had felt my mind rub against his. When they fell upon me, I sat mortified in my seat, unrecovered. I flashed an innocent smile, but my hesitance had given me away. Within a moment he stood before me.
“Is there something I can do for you?” His eyes were vigilant, but there was humor in his voice. He indicated the empty seat next to me. “May I sit?”
I opened my mouth to reply, but found that words failed me. I could not understand what had happened. In my dumbfounded silence, Rian assumed my answer and took the seat. A plume of cologne coated my throat and choked my second attempt at refusal. I leaned in and caught his hand at the base of my throat. His blue eyes, marbled like sea foam rolling atop waves, trapped me.
“Yes, that happens quite a lot. You see, I have this uncanny ability to—”
“Rian!” A new voice rang through my head. Through my inexplicable stupor, I looked up to see a surprisingly sober man. His square jaw jutted from beneath a wave of dirty blond hair, a strange expression plastered on his face. His gaze was intent upon Rian, like I was invisible to him.
To my relief, the moment of distraction freed me of Rian’s spell. I yanked my hand from Rian’s grasp and dissolved into the throng of dancers. In a split second, I was out the door.
To my dismay, outside was nearly as crowded. People smoked on the surrounding stoops, while latecomers traipsed up the steps. Groups that gathered to chat or exchange mumbled hellos blocked my way, trapping me. My ears rang as I pushed between couples and tripped over squatters. Desperate for untainted air, I ignored the dirty glances and rude remarks shot my way. I needed to be free of this mortal mob.
My breath was ragged by the time I broke free of the crowd. Shaken and confused, I strode away down the lamp-lit street. The temperature had dropped since we’d gone inside, and the cool breeze was a relief on my unusually hot face.
What had happened back there? I’d completely lost control of my body. I couldn’t talk, move, or even think. It was as if someone had sucked the power from my limbs and the air from my lungs. My brain had been sludge, my thoughts like water through a swamp, murky and unrealized. I had felt excruciatingly weak. Excruciatingly human.
I had gone three blocks before I noticed the footsteps behind me. I willed myself to stop, my feet shoulder-width apart with my arms relaxed at my sides. Ready, I listened.
The footsteps slowed. Stopped. Whoever they belonged to hesitated in silence. When I heard the slightest shift of weight, a push off the ground, another step closer, I wrenched by body around.
“Why are you following me?” I snarled in a low voice. Through slitted eyes, I saw him. The blond. From the party.
He eyed me carefully and raised his arms, palms out in peace. His breath was labored, his chest a bellows. When I didn’t move, he grinned.
“Sorry, I, uh, just wanted to make sure you were OK. You hightailed it out of there pretty fast. And Rian, well, he’s a charmer.” He laughed. Deep creases carved around his eyes and mouth, the lines alive with memories of past laughter.
I studied my stalker. He was reasonably tall; his tan skin complemented the golden locks that fell in loose waves to the broad, angular shoulders that emerged from beneath his white undershirt; a green leather jacket slung over his arm. Harmless. Easement massaged my tensed muscles, and I straightened from the crouch my body had instinctually found.
“I’m fine, thank you. I just needed some air.” I spoke across the distance to him.
He lowered his hands. My eyes followed the movement.
“Some air?” He took a step forward; I took step back. “You sure walked a long way for some air.” Another step. I countered. He tilted his head to the side, humor in his deep brown eyes. “You’re Zak’s sister, right?”
A step forward; a step back.
“You look alike.” He stepped forward again.
“We do?” I suppressed a laugh. It was our vampiric qualities—our complexion and dark eyes—that made us passable as siblings, not any sort familial resemblance.
“Yeah.” As he took his next step, I realized I had forgotten to counter the last one. “I never did catch your name, though.”
“My name?” My feet were frozen, my tongue tied. Silently, I scolded myself for not heeding Zak’s advice. “It’s, um”—I wracked my brain, frantic—“um, it’s … Wrenna.”
“Wrenna. I like it.” He took another step, the gap slowly closing between us. “I’m Messiah Scarborough. It is a pleasure to meet you, Wrenna.”
He stepped across the remaining distance and extended his hand. I fought the urge to recoil. Instead, I stared at the large, tanned hand. His nails were short and generally clean despite the dark smudges on his fingertips.
I stood there, nonplussed, as his laughter blossomed above my head. It was brilliant and cheerful, with an edge of nerve. The hair on the back of my neck rose at the noise. I swallowed, tickled by the salty breeze on my face.
My eyes traced the length of his arm. A blue falcon, mid-dive, was tattooed on his bicep. Something stirred inside me—an unfamiliar purr—at the sight of it. My chest tightened around the sensation. I could not place the feeling, but I was positive I had seen this bird before.
When I found his face, he was smiling. Again I was struck by the toothy grin that differed from the rotten-mouthed ones I usually encountered. It was inexplicably beautiful, framed by his crinkled cheeks and strong chin. The smile extended to the pools of his chocolate eyes that shone brightly in the beaming neon light above us.
Slowly, his smile faded into a pleasantly serious face. A crease formed between his eyebrows. Silence rang between us as we studied each other, his outstretched hand forgotten. For the second time in one night, I felt miserably human.
“Can I … can I buy you a coffee?” Messiah motioned behind him. I glanced around and saw a coffee shop.
“I should go.” The words were no more than a breath shaped haphazardly by my lips. I swallowed again. My mouth and throat were uncomfortably dry. “Zak’s probably worried.”
“Can I walk you home?”
“No.” The word came too fast. The crease between Messiah’s eyes deepened.
“Some other time, then?” His voice was level, but I could tell my quick rejection had thrown him off.
“Some other time.” I nodded with my best attempt at sincerity.
It worked. With one last hesitant look, he turned away and walked down the street. When he’d rounded the corner, I took off at a dead run in the opposite direction.