First: Part 001

Next: Part 003

Part 002

Metal slid against met­al and clanked. Ashe jerked awake. He grabbed at his throat, try­ing to stop the blood, cough­ing through dream-ter­ror. He gasped. His fin­gers ran rough­ly against noth­ing but scarred tis­sue. No blood, no miss­ing mus­cles, no exposed flesh.

Ashe’s heart ham­mered in his chest as he sat up. The oth­ers remained asleep in their bunks, and the con­crete block wall at his right reas­sured him he was­n’t trapped under the claws of a mon­ster. There was more than one rea­son to wake up in a pan­ic. This was just the lat­est trau­ma a vam­pire had inflict­ed on Ashe’s psy­che. Ashe turned his right arm under and pressed his thumb against the scar that used to be Yoseph’s name. It had­n’t all been a dream.

Precise foot­steps clicked down the hall and stopped sharply in front of Ashe’s cell. He glanced at Johnathon and offered the man a weak smile. Ashe had been so drained of blood last night that he near­ly passed out, which meant Will was up next. Ashe reached off the bunk to wake him when Johnathon made an abortive motion. He point­ed at Ashe.

”What?” Ashe croaked. ”That can’t be right. I almost died last night.”

”They want you, O. I just fol­low orders.”

”But…” Ashe did­n’t actu­al­ly have an argu­ment beyond it was­n’t fair. Of course it was­n’t fair. He was food. Privlaged food.

Like dessert.

Johnathon leaned one hand against a night­stick strapped on his hip. ”Don’t make it ugly, O. These guys need their sleep.” He point­ed loose­ly to the oth­er men in the cell.

Ashe sighed. He tossed his light blan­ket to the side and hopped off the edge of the bunk. Will did­n’t budge.

”You’re perky for a sleep­er,” Johnathon com­ment­ed. He lift­ed an eye­brow. He was right. Ashe felt more refreshed despite his night­mare than he had in a long time. Certainly not as exhaust­ed as a man who lost all his blood last night was sup­posed to feel.

The cell door squealed when it opened and Will jerked awake with deep gasp. Ashe sent him an apolo­getic look as he stepped into the cement hall. ”Go back to sleep, Will. You’re not being called.”

Instead Will jumped to the bars. He kicked his blan­ket aside. ”Wait, they’re tak­ing you again? You just got back.”

”Today, O. Don’t make me late.” Johnathon’s heavy hand land­ed on Ashe’s shoul­der and pushed.

Ashe went, shrug­ging in Will’s direc­tion. He did­n’t have an expla­na­tion.

Johnathon did­n’t speak fur­ther. He escort­ed Ashe to the show­er room and then released him to the mer­cy of the ele­ments, and the mon­sters, after­ward. Ashe jogged in the ear­ly evening glow to keep warm. The flood lights high­light­ed his breath. Every step took him away from the dubi­ous safe­ty of the cells and clos­er to oppor­tu­ni­ties for death. Ashe was­n’t gen­er­al­ly the morose type, but as he approached the tran­sit hub and gave his name, he won­dered what the point was. He was a pris­on­er or he was going to die. Life as a human was­n’t exact­ly ful­fill­ing. He could jump out of a lev­taxi or piss off a mon­ster or any num­ber of things that would ensure his messy end. Whatever await­ed after death could­n’t be worse than this. Even eter­nal silence and end­less noth­ing had to be bet­ter.

But as Ashe stepped into the lev­taxi assigned to him, he became caught up once more in the lights and bus­tle of the vam­pire city. More than a jail cell and death exist­ed in this world. He was so close, only sep­a­rat­ed by a pane of glass and 200 yards. There had to be won­ders hid­den in those build­ings, adver­tised in bright neon against the night. And despite the dan­ger, Ashe craved the trips out­side his cell walls. They were full of life, col­or, and expe­ri­ence. Even if the hosts were mon­sters. There were mag­ics out­side his four walls and Ashe want­ed to learn how to wield them, not to escape, but for the plea­sure of learn­ing. Anything could stim­u­late his curios­i­ty and every trek gave him anoth­er oppor­tu­ni­ty to learn a bit more.

The lev­taxi made a sharp ari­al turn and descend­ed quick­ly into the heart of the city. Dark build­ings loomed above, and the glow of neon rose up from below like a tide. Ashe’s taxi banked along a smooth street and came to rest in front of a wel­com­ing green sign. The Lotus Garden. Ashe popped out of his taxi, more eager now that he knew which mon­ster wait­ed on the oth­er end of his trip. Illia had called him this time, and she always indulged his curiosi­ties. He was even more grate­ful to her know­ing her name had prob­a­bly saved his life last night.

The Lotus was usu­al­ly full of vam­pires and loud music, but when Ashe pulled the door, the cen­ter stage was dark and there was no ten­der at the bar. The door swished closed behind him. Ashe scanned the club for any signs of hid­den mon­sters, but the only thing he noticed was the bright out­line of a closed door in the back. There was a prep room off that hall for dancers and the like, though Ashe had nev­er seen it him­self. He was usu­al­ly locked up in one of the ceil­ing cages as tan­ta­liz­ing bait. Illia had told him once that vam­pires could smell a human’s blood type from over thir­ty feet away. In any one of the cages that meant the entire par­ty knew exact­ly what he was… and what they could­n’t have.

Ashe approached the glow­ing door with reserve. His heart ham­mered in his ears in the silence. Why was the club closed today? Or rather, if the club was closed, why had he been called? Illia had nev­er tak­en blood from him, her claim on his arm had always been for the sta­tus he brought her. Which meant some­thing else had trig­gered this call and it made Ashe ner­vous. Yesterday had been out of the ordi­nary and he’d almost met his mak­er, what could he expect today?

Ashe paused in front of the door. Was he sup­posed to knock? Was this even where Illia want­ed him? Surely she could hear his thump­ing heart­beat from the oth­er side, so she knew he was here already. He decid­ed to wait qui­et­ly until called. Just as he sank to his knees, the door swung open.

A white suit wrapped around dark, black skin wait­ed on the oth­er side. Ashe’s vision flashed to the pre­vi­ous night; see­ing this vam­pire again was far too soon. He avert­ed his eyes and lift­ed his right arm for inspec­tion on auto­mat­ic, body trem­bling with uncer­tain­ty. Why did they have to be here, behind this door? Ashe was start­ing to think his order­ly, if dan­ger­ous, life had been tipped to one side thanks to them. Their white eyes had fea­tured promi­nent­ly in his night­mare.

And again they made no sound, gave no indi­ca­tion of life, they did­n’t even take Ashe’s hand for inspec­tion.

Instead it was Illia who spoke. ”Up, up, Ashe. Come here, now. We’re pressed for time.”

Ashe snapped his eyes up and spot­ted Illia across the room. There was a desk off to her right that looked like it had been shoved aside recent­ly. She was dressed ele­gant­ly, as usu­al, in a flow­ing sil­ver gar­ment that glit­tered even with­out the club’s strobe lights. She was point­ing to the floor at her left side. Ashe glanced at the vam­pire in his way. Did Illia out­rank them? Would he be pun­ished for mov­ing with­out prop­er acknowl­edge­ment? Illia was in some kind of state. If Ashe wait­ed too long some­thing was going to hap­pen. He did­n’t want to find out what.

A heart­beat passed, then the black vam­pire with white eyes tilt­ed their head a frac­tion to the right and kicked an inch toward Illia. Ashe rushed to his feet with­out hes­i­ta­tion. He twist­ed to avoid the white-eyed vam­pire in the door­way, and slid to his knees beside Illia, care­ful­ly not touch­ing her, but inch­ing as close­ly as he could. What was all this about?

She ges­tured word­less­ly to the white-eyed vam­pire and they took up a posi­tion on her right, just a half step in front of her. Ashe peered up at them curi­ous­ly. Were they a guard or defend­er? Some sort of–

Illia snapped her fin­ger on top of Ashe’s head and he instant­ly cor­rect­ed him­self. He straight­ened his back, looked down at his knees, and let his hands rest on his thighs. Not a heart­beat lat­er, the office’s door slammed open hard enough to punch the han­dle through the wall. Out of the cor­ner of his eye, Ashe saw Illia shift sub­tly to male. His fea­tures sharp­ened at the edges and his brow came down. A breath lat­er she had shift­ed back to female and brushed one nail-paint­ed hand down her glit­tered thigh, like tak­ing a for­ti­fy­ing breath.

In the door­way stood a male vam­pire Ashe did­n’t know, fol­lowed by anoth­er he did. The feed­ing mon­ster from last night. The one who had near­ly killed him, then… did some­thing to bring him back to full health. Well, full if one dis­missed the stretch of scarred skin from his clav­i­cle to his jaw on the left side.

The lead mon­ster was clear­ly in charge. He kept Feeder in check with an arm across his chest and growled at White Eyes. ”I don’t appre­ci­ate you bait­ing my sen­tinel into Illia’s ser­vice.”

White Eyes grinned, but all of his teeth were human-flat. For some rea­son it made the smile more sin­is­ter.

Illia reached for­ward to ges­ture at Feeder, and when she pulled her hand in, the vam­pire seemed com­pusled to fol­low. ”Is that what this snake has told you? That’s not even a rea­son­able lie. What use would I have for a hal­lowed?”

Feeder’s feet dragged a lit­tle on the plush, cream car­pet, like he was try­ing to resist the pull. Illia’s pow­er was far above his, though. He came to a stop a few inch­es from her straight nose, and when he bared his teeth, all four of his fangs had descend­ed around his eye­teeth. ”I’m high­born–”

”You’re an untrained dog with a weak mas­ter and no con­trol.” Illia snapped her fin­gers. The paint on her nails glint­ed with the motion. Feeder’s com­pul­sion appeared to end, and he rocked on his feet to find bal­ance. Then White Eyes blurred and Feeder col­lapsed. His body slumped in front of Asher, head­less and puls­ing blood. It soaked into the cream car­pet with every throb: bright, liq­uid red. Feeder’s head land­ed a moment lat­er. Thankfully it rolled away so Asher did­n’t have to look at his eyes. White Eyes returned smooth­ly to their posi­tion on Illia’s front right. Asher missed what they had done to relieve Feeder of his head and did­n’t dare look up in case it should hap­pen to him.

Illia dropped her arm. ”For the insult of cross­ing into my ter­ri­to­ry with­out invi­ta­tion I claim your… sen­tinel. For the insult of imply­ing I might have employed ille­gal tac­tics against your coven lead­er­ship and the very like­ly pos­si­bil­i­ty you have spread this rumor beyond your coven, I levy a blood-tax.”

The intrud­ing vam­pire had lost much of his brava­do and held up both hands. ”Wait, Illia. Come on. Let’s not over­re­act. It’s just one O‑type.”

Ashe’s curios­i­ty burned. What had hap­pened last night? He did­n’t under­stand enough about the pol­i­tics between dif­fer­ent covens to fol­low how this devel­op­ment had hap­pened over him.

Illia lift­ed an eye­brow, some­thing Ashe heard clear­ly in her voice. ”Who’s over­re­act­ing?”

”Uh, me. That is. I did and now I’ve seen that I was wrong. There’s been some mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion here and I’d love to clear it up.”

”I’m delight­ed to hear that. The blood-tax will go into effect imme­di­ate­ly. I expect you’re famil­iar with these kinds of details.”

Ashe could­n’t help but strain the lim­its of his periph­er­al vision. He saw White Eyes make a ges­ture from his right tem­ple to the intrud­er’s direc­tion and some­thing lit up over­lay­ing both their eyes. A sec­ond lat­er it was gone.

”Delightful,” Illia said in a tone indi­cat­ing it had been any­thing but. ”Don’t come back, Kragen. You’ll be dead before your lev­car lands.”

Kragen gave Illia a half-bow as he backed out the door. ”Yes, Ma’am.”

Whatever was going on, Illia had clear­ly won. As Kragen exit­ed the Lotus front door, White Eyes knelt to place his palm on Feeder’s back. The body whooshed into flame only inch­es from Ashe’s knees. He flinched from the heat and avert­ed his face toward Illia’s dress. Her nails pet soft­ly into Ashe’s hair. He found the ges­ture odd­ly com­fort­ing. They were all mon­sters, but Illia was the strongest one here, and the less­er evil. He was lucky to have come under her pro­tec­tion.

The urgent ques­tion was: why?


First: Part 001

Next: Part 003