The immortal rules, p.5
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       The Immortal Rules, p.5

         Part #1 of Blood of Eden series by Julie Kagawa
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Chapter 5

 

  Fragments of nightmare plagued my darkness.

  Lucas and Rat, pulled under by grasping white hands.

  The dead deer, rising from the grass to stare at me, her gaping ribs shining in the moonlight.

  Running through aisles of rusty cars, thousands of pale things following me, shrieking and hissing at my back.

  Ripping the tops off metal cans, finding them filled with dark red liquid, and drinking it furiously. . .

  I bolted upright, shrieking, clawing at the darkness. As I opened my eyes, a searing light blinded me, and I cringed away with a hiss. All around me, strange noises assaulted my eardrums, familiar yet amplified a hundredfold. I could hear the scuttle of a cockroach as it f led up the wall. A trickle of water sounded like a waterfall. The air felt cold and damp against my skin, but in a strange way-I could feel the chill, but it wasn't cold at all.

  I felt waxy and stiff, empty as a limp sack. Gingerly I turned my head and fire spread through my veins, hot and searing, nearly blinding me with pain. I arched back with a scream as the f lames spread to every part of my body, liquid agony shooting through my skin. My mouth ached, my upper jaw felt tight, as if something sharp was pressing against my gums, trying to burst out.

  Flashes of emotion, like the shards of someone else's life, f lickered through my head. Pity. Empathy. Guilt. For a split second, I saw myself, my own body, writhing on the f loor, clawing at the cement and the walls. But then a bolt of pain turned my stomach inside out, doubling me over, and the strange image was lost.

  The pressure against my jaw grew unbearable, and I screamed again, sounding like a snarling animal. And suddenly, something did burst through my gums, relieving the awful pain. The heat through my veins f lickered and died, and I slumped to the hard cement, shuddering with relief. But there was a new pain inside me, a hollow, throbbing ache radiating somewhere from my middle. I pushed myself to my hands and knees, shaking, growling deep in my throat. Hungry. I was hungry! I needed food!

  Something pressed against my face, cold and wet. Plastic?

  I recoiled with a snarl. Wait, the bag smelled of food, it was food! I lunged forward, sinking my teeth into the bag, tearing it from the air. Something f looded my mouth, cold and thick, cloying. Not warm, like it should be, but it was still food! I sucked and tore at the f limsy plastic, freeing the food within, feeling it slide down my throat into my stomach.

  And then, as the awful Hunger faded and the ache inside was filled, I realized what I was doing.

  "Oh, God. " Dropping the mangled bag, I looked at my hands, covered in blood. The ground I lay on was splattered with it, dark stains against the cement. I could feel it around my mouth, on my lips and chin, the scent of it filling my nose. "Oh, God," I whispered again, scrambling away on my butt. I hit a wall and stared in horror at the scene before me.

  "What. . . what am I doing?"

  "You made a choice," came a deep voice to my right, and I looked up. The vampire loomed over me, tall and solemn. A f lickering candle sat behind him on an end table-the light that had blinded me earlier. It was still painfully bright, and I turned away. "You wanted to survive, to become one of us. " He looked to the torn blood bag, lying a few feet away.

  "You chose this. "

  I covered my mouth with a shaking hand, trying to remember, to recall what I'd said. All I could see was blood, and me in an animal rage, tearing at it, ripping it open. My hand dropped to my lips and jaw, probing my teeth where the ache had been. I drew in a quick breath.

  There they were. Fangs. Very long and very, very sharp.

  I snatched my hand back. It was true, then. I really had done the unthinkable. I'd become that which I hated most in the world. A vampire. A monster.

  I slumped against the wall, trembling. Looking down at myself, I blinked in surprise. My old clothes were gone. Instead of my thin, faded patchwork shirt and pants, I wore black jeans and a dark shirt without a single hole or tear. The filthy, torn and probably bloodstained jacket had been replaced with a long black coat that looked almost new.

  "What. . . what happened to my clothes?" I asked, touching the sleeve of the coat, blinking at how thick it was. Frowning suddenly, I looked up at the vampire. "Did you dress me?"

  "Your clothes were torn to pieces when the rabids attacked you," the vampire informed me, still not moving from where he stood. "I found you some new ones. Black is the best color for us-it hides the bloodstains rather well. Do not worry. " His deep, low voice held the faintest hint of amusement. "I did not see anything. "

  My mind spun. "I-I have to go," I said shakily, getting to my feet. "I have to. . . find my friends, see if they made it back to the hideout. Stick is probably-"

  "Your friends are dead," the vampire said calmly. "And I would abandon all attachments to your life before. You are not part of that world any longer. It is better to simply forget about it. "

  Dead. Images f lashed through my mind-of rain and blood and pale, screeching things, hands pulling someone over a fence. With a hiss, I shied away from those thoughts, refusing to remember. "No," I choked out, shuddering. "You're lying. "

  "Let them go," the vampire insisted quietly. "They're gone. "

  I had the sudden, crazy urge to snarl and bare my fangs at him. I stif led it in horror, keeping a wary eye on the stranger, who watched me impassively. "You can't keep me here. "

  "If you want to leave, you may go. " He didn't move, except to nod to a door on the other side of the small room. "I will not stop you. Though you will be dead within a day, if it takes that long. You have no idea how to survive as a vampire, how to feed, how to avoid detection, and if the vampires of this city discover you, they will most likely kill you.

  Alternatively, you could remain here, with me, and have a chance of surviving this life you have chosen. " I glared at him. "Stay here? With you? Why? What do you care?"

  The stranger narrowed his eyes. "Bringing a new vampire into the world is something I do not take lightly," he said.

  "Turning a human only to abandon it without the skills it needs to survive would be irresponsible and dangerous. If you stay here, I will teach you what you need to know to live as one of us. Or-" he turned slightly, gesturing to the door

  "-you can leave and try to survive on your own, but I wash my hands of you and whatever blood comes after. " I slumped back to the wall, my mind racing. Rat was dead.

  Lucas was dead. I'd seen them, pulled under by rabids in the old city, torn apart before my eyes. My throat closed up. Stick, much as I hated to admit it, was most likely dead as well; he couldn't survive the trek back to the city on his own. It was just me now. Alone. A vampire.

  My chest felt tight, and I bit my lip, imagining the faces of my friends staring at me, pale and accusing. My eyes burned, but I swallowed hard and forced back the tears. I could cry and scream and curse the world and the rabids and the vampires later. But I would not show weakness in front of this stranger, this bloodsucker who might have saved me, but about whom I knew nothing. When I was alone, I would cry for Rat and Lucas and Stick, the family I'd lost. Right now, I had larger issues to deal with.

  I was a vampire. And, despite everything, I still wanted to live.

  The stranger waited, as unmoving as a wall. He might be a bloodsucker, but he was the only familiar thing I had left.

  "So," I said softly without looking up. Resentment boiled, an old, familiar hate, but I shoved it down. "Do I call you

  'master' or 'teacher' or something else?" The vampire paused, then said, "You may call me Kanin. "

  "Kanin? Is that your name?"

  "I did not say it was my name. " He turned as if to leave, but crossed the room and sank into a rusty folding chair on the other side. "I said it was what you could call me. " Great, not only was my new teacher a vampire, he was one of those cryptic, mysterious ones, too. I crossed my arms and eyed him warily. "Where are we?"

  Kanin considered th
is. "Before I disclose anything about myself," he said, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees, "I would like to know a bit more about you. I will be teaching you, after all, and that means we will be spending a great deal of time together. I want to know what I am up against. Are you amenable to this?" I shrugged. "What do you want to know?"

  "Your name, first off. "

  "Allie," I said, then elaborated. "Allison Sekemoto. "

  "Interesting. " Kanin straightened, watching me with intense black eyes. "You know your full name. Not many humans do, anymore. "

  "My mom taught me. "

  "Your mother?" Kanin leaned back, crossing his arms. "Did she teach you anything else?"

  I bristled. I suddenly didn't want to discuss my mom with this bloodsucker. "Yeah," I said evasively.

  He drummed his fingers on his biceps. "Such as?"

  "Why do you want to know?"

  He ignored the question. "If you wish for me to help you, you will answer me. "

  "Reading, writing and a little math," I snapped at him.

  "Anything else?"

  "Where is your mother now?"

  "Dead. "

  Kanin didn't seem surprised, or shocked at my bluntness.

  "And your father?"

  "I never knew him. "

  "Siblings?"

  I shook my head.

  "So you have nothing on that side to go back to. " Kanin nodded. "Good. That will make things easier. How did she die?"

  I narrowed my eyes, about fed up with this interrogation.

  "That's none of your business, vampire," I snapped, wanting some emotion to cross his impassive face. Except for a raised eyebrow, his expression remained the same. "Besides, what's it to you? Why should you care about the lives of a couple humans, anyway?"

  "I don't," the vampire said and shrugged. "Like I said before, I want to evaluate my chances of success. Humans have a tendency to cling to the past, which can make teaching them difficult. The more attachments a person has, the harder it is to learn to let go when becoming a vampire. " I clenched my hands, trying to calm the sudden rage. I would have been tempted to leap up and punch him, ungrateful as that was, if I didn't know he could tear my head off without blinking. "Yeah, well, I'm beginning to regret that decision. "

  "It's a little late now, don't you think?" Kanin asked softly as he rose. "Take a moment," he said, walking to the door on the opposite wall. "Mourn your past life if you wish, for you will not see it again. When you are ready to learn what it means to be a vampire, come find me. " He opened the door and strode through without a backward glance, leaving me alone.

  After Kanin left, I sat on the chair, scraped the dried blood off my hands and thought about what I was going to do next.

  So. I'm a vampire now. I bristled, trying not to dwell on it-

  it was either that or die in the rain. Kanin was right, it was my decision, after all. I'd chosen this. I'd chosen to become undead, to never see the sunlight again, to drink the blood of the living.

  I shuddered and kicked the empty bag away. That was the part that bothered me-well, besides the whole undead, soulless-monster thing. I shoved that thought to the back of my mind. Vampires were predators, but maybe there was a way not to feed on humans. Maybe I could survive on animal blood, though the thought of biting into a live, squirming rat was disturbing. Did vampires have to drink human blood, or did they just prefer it? How often did they have to feed? Where and how did they sleep during the day? I realized that, even living in this city for seventeen years, I knew virtually nothing about its most famous citizens except that they drank blood and came out at night.

  Well, there is one person who could tell you all about it.

  I struggled with myself a moment longer. He was a vampire, but if I was going to survive, then I needed to learn.

  Perhaps later, when I had all I needed to know, I would take my revenge for my mom, for Stick, Lucas and everyone else who was taken from me. But right now, I could swallow my pride and start learning how to be undead.

  Reluctantly, I pulled myself to my feet and went looking for my new mentor.

  The door led into another room that might've been an office once. A few broken chairs were tossed carelessly to the side, and several long metal cabinets lay on the f loor, spilling paper everywhere. Against the far wall, Kanin sat behind a large wooden desk covered in dust and scratches. He glanced up from a stack of folders and raised an eyebrow as I came in.

  "I have a few questions," I said, wondering if it was im-proper to ask and then deciding I didn't care. "About vampires, and this whole drinking-blood thing in general. " Kanin shut the folder, put it aside and nodded to one of the chairs. I pulled it upright and sat down, resting my arms over the back.

  "Let me guess," he said, lacing his hands together. "You're wondering if you have to prey on humans, if you can survive by drinking the blood of animals or other creatures. You're hoping you won't have to kill people to live. Am I right?" I nodded. Kanin smiled bitterly.

  "You cannot," he said in a f lat voice, and my heart sank.

  "Let me give you your first and most important lesson, Allison Sekemoto-you are a monster. A demon who feeds on human beings to survive. The vampires at the center of the city may look and act and pretend to be civilized, but do not let that fool you. We are monsters, and nothing will change that. And do not think that you can cling to your humanity by drinking the blood of dogs or rats or sheep. It is junk food-garbage.

  It will fill you for a time, but it will never sate the Hunger.

  And you will soon crave the blood of humans so badly that the mere sight of one will send you into a frenzy, and that human will die, because you will be unable to stop yourself from draining them completely. That is the single most important thing you must understand, before we go any further. You are no longer human. You are a predator, and the sooner you accept that, the easier this life, this existence, will become. "

  My heart sank even lower. It seemed everything I'd thought about vampires was proving to be right. But I still said, "I'm not going to kill humans to feed on them, I can tell you that now. "

  "It always starts out that way," Kanin said, and his voice was distant, as if remembering. "Noble intentions, honor among new vampires. Vows to not harm humans, to take only what is needed, to not hunt them like sheep through the night. " He smiled faintly. "But it becomes harder and harder to remain on their level, to hold on to your humanity, when all you can see them as is food. "

  "I don't care. " I thought of Stick, of Lucas and even Rat.

  They had been friends. People. Not walking blood bags. "I'll be different. I'm sure as hell going to try. " Kanin didn't argue. Rising, he stepped around the desk and beckoned with a large pale hand. "Come here. " Wary, I stood, edging toward him. "Why? What are we doing?"

  "I said I would teach you how to survive as a vampire. " He took a single step forward, and I now stood a foot or two away from him, gazing up at his chin. Geez, he was big. His presence was overwhelming. "To live, you must understand the vampire body, how it works, how it endures. Take off your coat. "

  I did, dropping it on the chair behind me, wondering what he was getting at. In one blindingly quick motion, he grabbed my wrist, yanked my arm up, and slashed it open with that long, bright dagger he carried. Blood welled and streamed from the wound, a second before the pain hit like a hammer.

  "Ow! What the hell are you doing? " I tried yanking back, but it was like pulling on a tree. Kanin didn't even twitch.

  "Let go, you psychopath! What kind of sick game are you playing?"

  "Wait," Kanin ordered, giving my arm a little shake. I gritted my teeth as the vampire held up my wrist. "Look. " My arm was a mess, blood everywhere, oozing down my elbow. I could see the wound, the deep, straight gash that probably went to the bone. Psychotic vampire. But as I watched, panting, the wound started to heal, the gaping f lesh drawing together, turning from red to pink
to white until only a faint, pale scar remained. And then nothing at all.

  I gaped as Kanin released my arm. "We are very difficult to kill," he explained to my shocked expression. "Stronger than humans, faster than humans, and we heal from most anything. This is why we are the perfect predator, but be warned, we are not invincible. Fire harms us, as does any massive trauma. The strongest vampire will not walk away from a bomb going off under his feet. But bullets, knives, clubs, swords-it will hurt, being struck by one, but it will not usually kill us. Although. . . " He touched my chest. "A wooden stake driven through the heart will not instantly kill us, but it will paralyze and usually send us into hibernation. That is our body's last-ditch effort to survive-it shuts down completely and we are forced into sleep, sometimes for decades, until we can rejoin the living world again. " He withdrew his hand. "But to completely destroy a vampire, beheading it or burning it to ash is the only sure way. Are you getting this?"

  "Kill a vampire, aim for its head," I muttered. "Got it. " The pain was gone now, and there was a gnawing ache in my gut, though I still wanted to learn more. "But why am I bleeding at all?" I wondered, looking up at him. "Do I even have a heartbeat? I thought. . . I thought I was dead. "

  "You

  are dead. "

  I scowled. "I suppose this is a case of death taking a while to kick in, then. "

  Kanin's expression didn't change. "You are still thinking like a human," he said. "Listen to me, Allison, and keep your mind open. Mortals view death in terms of black and white-you are either alive, or you are not. But between them- between life and death and eternity-there is a small gray area, one that the humans have no knowledge of. That is where we reside, vampires and rabids and a few of the older, inexplicable creatures that still exist in this world. The humans cannot understand us, because we live by a different set of rules. "

  "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 han
d, 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.

  Urban legends, of course, but who was I to say they weren't true? That was why venturing out of familiar territory was a bad idea at best, suicidal at worst. I knew which parts of the Fringe were gang turf and had avoided them like the plague.

  And now we were walking right into their territory.

  I eyed the vampire at my side. "You know they're going to kill us for being here. "

  He nodded. "I'm counting on it. "

  "You know that they eat people, right?" Kanin stopped, turning to me with intense black eyes.

  "So do I," he said evenly. "And now, so do you. " I felt slightly sick. Oh, yeah.

  The smell of blood was getting stronger, and now I could hear the familiar sounds of a fight: cursing, shouting, the smacks of fists and shoes on f lesh. We turned a corner and entered the back lot between several buildings, surrounded by chain-link, broken glass and rusting cars. Graffiti covered the crumbling bricks and metal walls, and several steel drums burned around the perimeter, billowing a thick, choking smoke.

  In the center of the arena, a group of ragged, similarly dressed thugs clustered around a crumpled form on the pavement. The body was curled into a fetal position, covering its head, while two or three thugs broke away from the circle to punch or kick at it. Another body lay nearby, disturbingly still, its face smashed beyond recognition. My gut twisted at the sight of the broken nose and staring eyes. But then the scent of blood came to me, stronger than ever, and I growled low in my throat before I realized I'd made a sound.

  The gang members were laughing too loud to hear and were too focused on their sport to notice us, but Kanin kept walking forward. Calmly, as if out for a late-night stroll, he approached the ring of humans, making no sound whatsoever.

  We could've sauntered right past them and continued into the night, but as we neared the circle of thugs, who still hadn't noticed us, he deliberately kicked a broken bottle, sending it clinking and tumbling over the pavement.

  And the Blood Angels looked up.

  "Good evening," Kanin said, nodding cordially. He continued to walk past them, moving at a slower pace, I noted.

  I followed silently, trying to be invisible, hoping the gang would just let us go without a challenge.

  But part of me, the strange, alien, hungry part, watched the humans eagerly and hoped they would try to stop us.

  It got its wish. With muff led curses, the whole group moved to block our path. Kanin stopped and watched impassively as a thug with a scar over one pale eye stepped forward, shaking his head.

  "Look at this," he said, grinning at Kanin, then me. "Lucky night for us, ain't it, boys?"

  Kanin didn't say anyth
ing. I wondered if he was afraid speaking to them would clue them in to what he was; he didn't want to scare away our food.

  "Look at him-so scared he can't even talk. " Derisive laughter all around. "Shoulda thought of that before you came through our turf, pet. " Scar-face stepped forward, the jeers and insults of his gang backing him up. "Gonna drop your pants so we can kiss your shiny ass, is that what you want, pet? " He spat the word, before his gaze f licked to me, and his leer turned ugly. "Or maybe I'll just save it for that sweet little Asian doll. We don't get many whores through here, do we, boys?"

  I snarled, feeling my lips curl back. "Bring your cesspit mouth anywhere near me and I'll tear it off," I spat at him.

  The gang hooted and edged closer.

  "Ooh, she's a feisty one, ain't she?" Scar-face grinned. "I hope there's enough of that to go around. You don't mind sharing, do you, pet?"

  "Be my guest," Kanin said and stepped away from me. I gaped at him as Scar-face and his gang exploded with eager, taunting laughter.

  "Pet's so scared, he pissed his pants!"

  "That's a real man, hiding behind a girl!"

  "Hey, thanks, pet," Scar-face called, his mouth split into a truly evil grin. "I'm so touched, I'm gonna let you go this time. Thanks for the Asian doll! We'll try not to break her, too quickly. "

  "What are you doing?" I hissed, betrayed. The thugs stalked forward, grinning, and I backed up, keeping them in my sights while glaring at the vampire. "What about all that talk of 'teaching' and 'preparing' me and all that crap? What, you're just going to throw me to the wolves now?"

  "Your sense of predator and prey is backward," the vampire said in a low voice, so that only I could hear. I wanted to throw something at him, but the approaching gang members were more of a problem. The raw lust in their eyes made me feel sick, and I felt a snarl rising in my throat. "This will show you exactly where you stand on the food chain. "

  "Kanin! Dammit, what am I supposed to do?" Kanin shrugged and leaned against a wall. "Try not to kill anyone. "

  The thugs rushed me. I tensed as one grabbed me around the waist, trying to lift me off my feet and push me to the ground. I hissed as his arms touched me, planted my feet, and shoved him away as hard as I could.

  He f lew backward as if he weighed nothing at all, crashing onto the hood of a car twenty feet away. I blinked in astonishment, but the next thug came rushing up with a howl, swinging a fist at my face.

  Instinctively, I raised a hand and felt the meaty fist smack into my palm, surprising us both. He tried pulling back, but I squeezed hard, feeling bones crunch and grind together, and gave it a sharp twist. His wrist snapped with a popping sound, and the thug screamed.

  Two more Blood Angels came at me from different directions. They moved slowly, like they were running through water, at least that's how it looked to me. I easily sidestepped the first lunge and kicked the thug in the knee, feeling it snap under my ankle. He jerked sideways and smashed to the ground. His friend swung at me with a lead pipe; I grabbed it, wrenched it from his grasp, and backhanded him across the face with it.

  The scent of blood from the gang member's cheek misted on the air, and something inside me responded. I pounced on him with a roar, feeling my teeth burst through my gums.

  The bark of gunfire shattered the night and something small whipped past my head. I felt the wind from its passing rip at my hair, and I spun into a crouch, hissing and baring my fangs. Scar-face's eyes went wide, a string of swearwords falling from his lips as he pointed a smoking pistol at me.

  "Vampire!" he shrieked, amid a f lurry of cussing. "Oh, shit! Shit! Get away from me! Get away-!" He took aim, and I tensed to f ling myself across the pavement, to pounce on my prey and drive my fangs deep into his throat. But suddenly, his eyes went wide, and he was lifted off his feet, kicking helplessly as Kanin picked him up as easily as a cat, wrenched the gun away, and threw him into a wall.

  The crack of the Blood Angel's head against the brick pierced my wild, foaming rage and brought everything into focus again. I shook free of the bloodlust, the consuming Hunger, and gazed around in both horror and amazement.

  Five bodies lay on the ground, moaning, broken and bleeding.

  By my hand. I looked at Kanin, who tossed the gun almost disdainfully and raised an eyebrow as I approached.

  "You knew," I said softly, glancing at one dazed Blood Angel. "You knew what I would do-that's why you let them attack me. " He didn't answer, and I realized I wasn't shaking with fear or adrenaline or anything. My heart was still and cold. I glared up at Kanin, furious at his manipulation.

  "I could have killed them all. "

  "How many times must I tell you?" Kanin said, peering down at me. "You are a vampire now. You are no longer human. You are a wolf to their sheep-stronger, faster, more savage than they could ever be. They are food, Allison Sekemoto. And deep down, your demon will always see them as such. "

  I looked at Scar-face lying in a heap beside the wall.

  Though his forehead was cut open and a large purple bruise had already begun to form, he groaned and tried to get up, only to slump back again, dazed. "Then why didn't you kill him?" I asked.

  Kanin's stare went cold. Turning, he walked stiff ly over to the gang leader, grabbed him by the scruff and dragged him back to me, throwing him at my feet.

  "Drink," he ordered in a steely voice. "But remember, take too much, and you will kill the host. Take too little, and you will have to feed again very soon. Find the balance, if you care whether you drain them or not. Usually five or six swallows will suffice. "

  I looked down at the gang leader and recoiled. Chomping through a blood bag was one thing, but biting the neck of a living, breathing person? I had been so eager to do it a moment ago, when my Hunger and fury were raging, but now I felt nauseated.

  Kanin continued to stare at me. "You will do this, or you will starve yourself to the point of frenzy and kill someone," he said in a f lat voice. "This is what being a vampire is about, our most basic, primal need. Now. . . " With one hand, he hauled the thug up and grabbed his hair with the other, wrenching his head back and exposing his throat. "Drink. "

  Reluctantly, I stepped forward. The human moaned and tried fending me off, but I easily slapped his arms away and bent close to the hollow at the base of his throat. My fangs lengthened as I inhaled and sensed the warm blood coursing just below the surface of the skin. The scent of life was overwhelmingly strong in my nose and mouth. Before I could even think about what I was doing, I lunged forward and bit down hard.

  The Blood Angel gasped and jerked, twitching weakly.

  Warm thickness f lowed into my mouth, rich and hot and strong. I growled and bit down harder, eliciting a strangled cry from my prey. I felt heat spreading through my body, filling me with strength, with power. It was intoxicating. It was. . . I couldn't describe it. It was bliss, pure and simple. I let my eyes slip shut, almost in a trance, consumed with wanting more, more. . .

  Someone took my hair, pulling me back from my prey, breaking the connection. I snarled and tried to lunge forward again, but an arm barred my way, moving me back. The thug's body collapsed bonelessly to the ground. I snarled again and tried to reach it, fighting the arm that held me back.

  "Enough!" Kanin's voice rang with authority, and he shook me, hard. My head snapped back like a rag doll's, making me dizzy for a moment. "Allison, enough," he repeated as my vision slowly cleared. "Any more and you'll kill him. " I blinked and backed off a step, the Hunger slowly ebbing away into something that wasn't frantic and raging. Horrified, I stared at the Blood Angel crumpled on the pavement. He was pale, barely breathing, two dark puncture wounds oozing crimson from his throat. I'd almost killed him. Again. If Kanin hadn't stopped me, I would've drained him dry. Self-loathing curled my stomach. For all my hatred of vampires, all my resolve not to be like them, I was no better than the worst bloodsucker to stalk the streets.

  "Seal the wound," K
anin ordered, pointing to the gang leader. His voice was cool, unsympathetic. "Finish what you started. "

  I wanted to ask how, but suddenly I knew. Bending down, I pressed my tongue against the two small punctures and felt them close. Even then, I could sense the blood slowly pumping beneath the skin, and it took all my willpower not to bite him a second time.

  Standing up, I turned to Kanin, who nodded his head once, watching me. "Now," he said, his voice dark and unyielding,

  "you understand. "

  I did. I gazed at the bodies scattered about the lot, at the destruction I'd caused, and I knew. I was truly inhuman. Humans were prey. I craved their blood like the worst addict on the street. They were sheep, cattle, and I was the wolf, stalking them through the night. I had become a monster.

  "From here on," Kanin said, "you will have to decide what kind of demon you will be. Not all meals will come to you so easily, ignorant and seeking to do you harm. What will you do if your prey invites you inside, offers you a place at the table?

  What will you do if they f lee, or cower down, begging you not to hurt them? How you stalk your prey is something you must come to terms with, or you will quickly drive yourself mad. And once you cross that threshold, there is no coming back from it. "

  "How do you do it?" I whispered. Kanin shook his head with a chuckle.

  "My method would not help you," he said as we started to leave the lot. "You will have to find your own way. " As we entered the alley, we passed one of the thugs who was just starting to come around. He groaned and swayed as he staggered to his feet, gasping with pain, and though my Hunger was sated, something inside me reacted to the sight of a wounded, helpless creature. I half turned with a growl, fangs lengthening, before Kanin grabbed my arm and dragged me away into the darkness.

 
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