I was floating, my body light as air and surrounded by a warmth that radiated peace, as though I was taking a nap on a warm spring afternoon when the season has nearly shifted to summer. When I went to run my fingers through the grass that should have been beneath me, however, I felt instead the chilly stone of a floor. My breathing quickened in the face of the disparity between what my mind was saying and what my body was telling me, and I began to struggle weakly against the sluggishness of my limbs. Trying to sit up, I pushed with my hand which slid through something liquid before I could get any leverage, and a faint squelching broke through the endless ringing in my ears. I froze, then swallowed as I slowly clenched my hand, the cold, slightly tacky liquid making my fingers slide over one another. Even if I could command my eyes to open, I wouldn’t have needed them to know I’d just put my hand in a puddle of congealing blood–likely mine.
I fought harder to come out of the haze stubbornly clinging to my brain, as well as the weakness of my limbs, as though I’d just run a marathon and obstacle course combo.
“I’ve never seen someone able to fight that hard so soon after being healed. Most humans are laid up for a day or two.” The voice spiraled around my mind like the swirls of the most delicious ice cream cone imaginable, and I groaned with delight as the sensory memory of such an experience washed over me. Seconds later it was followed by a clenching in my stomach up through my esophagus so intense, it curled me in on myself despite not having full use of my body.
“Ah, the healing hunger is already upon her. You should get her up before she gets much more uncomfortable,” the same person said, though the effect of the voice was decidedly less intense in the face of my stomach trying to gnaw its way through my innards.
“You get all the fun and then leave me with the dirty work, eh?” Oliver joked, my brow drawing down into a scowl as I did my darnedest to open my eyes, and if I didn’t know any better I’d say someone had glued them shut. When they finally opened Oliver was standing a few feet away, but despite his usual impertinent banter and cavalier attitude toward most supernatural beings, his shoulders and neck were tense. Interesting.
The other man, which my brain took three times longer than usual to process that it was the vampire from earlier, merely raised an eyebrow.
“There would be no dirty work if you had been more capable at your job, mio nipote, and not lost her in the first place,” he replied, then turned his gaze down to me. “You have lost quite a bit of blood. Mignonette has never been tidy with her meals, especially ones she does not intend to keep alive. She might have had a different plan for you, but the intoxication brought on by your blood was more than such a weak creature could handle.” His words were laced with profound disgust, but in his eyes I saw a flash of something else, something closer to regret.
Before I could attempt a reply, the vampire turned on his heel and headed to the door leading out of Mignonette’s dungeon. At the last second before leaving the room he stopped but didn’t turn.
“You are a rarity, little Mid. If ever you want something…more, come back to me,” he said. His innate power, one more powerful vampires exuded to attract people to them like moths to a flame, laced his words like a heady drug. At the word ‘rarity’ I felt special–needed. With ‘more’ I felt phantom fingers trail delicately over the skin of my back and along my right cheek, and when he said ‘me’ there was an undeniable pull in my chest that nearly lifted me from the floor.
Tears pooled unbidden in my eyes, and I widened them to keep them from falling. “You said only a little so I wouldn’t be bound to you. You lied!” My voice was nothing more than a raw, scratching accusation that I was barely able to whisper.
There was no discernible movement I could see, but somehow I knew a wry, quirk of a smile tugged at the right corner of his mouth.
“Perhaps Mignonette was not the only one carried away by the temptation of your blood,” he said, and then he was gone.
I gulped and looked back to Oliver, whose eyes were worried and his lips pursed. In jerky movements that showed just how furious he was, he knelt next to me and helped me sit up. I was even able to help him somewhat, miracle of miracles.
“When you get in a bad situation, you go big,” Oliver grumbled, and continued to assist me until I rose shakily to my feet.
“Yeah, well, you know me,” I rasped out, and began coughing, which was harder than it sounded since I had zero moisture in my throat.
“Come on, let’s get out of here before someone decides to finish you off, not to mention things have gone crazier since you went and got kidnapped.”
I bristled at the accusation and went to push him away from me, but my feeble attempt was laughable and Oliver didn’t even flinch. I also couldn’t curse at him without going into a coughing fit, so I was left with giving him a glare that might have been able to scare a rabbit.
We hobbled our way through a hall made of the same stone as the room, and as we went down various halls that slowly inclined upward, meaning we were underground, we made a variety of turns. There was only one explanation.
“You’ve been here before,” I said, keeping my voice a whisper and working my mouth around to try and generate moisture. “At least a few times.”
“I have.” He didn’t add anything to the statement, but tension singed through his body like the string of a taut bow ready to be released.
“Wh-” I coughed and cleared my throat. “What’s his name?”
Oliver snorted in disgust. “Only you could get partially bound to the Master of the City and do so without even knowing his name.”
“I’m a special kind of awesome,” I agreed, and Oliver shook his head.
“His name is Ciro, and he’s been Master of the City since the city was founded.”
I would have whistled but I couldn’t at the moment. “Wowza.”
“Don’t be too impressed. That leech doesn’t need anyone else falling over themselves to worship at the ground of his reputation,” Oliver spat, but the anger in his demeanor wasn’t based in the mindless hate of those who condemn supernaturals; vampires and werewolves in particular because of their popularity. It was far more personal than that.
“What’s your beef with him?” I asked, a hint of moisture coming back to my mouth. I thought back to what I heard after I’d first woken up. “Does it have to do what he called you earlier?”
“Yes, it does, and it’s none of your business.” A steel wall was more penetrable than Oliver at the moment.
I harrumphed but let it be. No use in making the one person who could get me out of this mess, mad.
“Fine, be mysterious. So what’s been going on since I left? Is it time for me to skip town?” I asked, then grimaced at the ache in my arm when I used it to motion in the general direction of the city. When I looked down to where Mignonette had ripped into my arm, the skin was pink and shiny from a freshly healed wound, but it would still be a ghastly scar. At least the pain was lessened. Some vampires had amazing healing abilities that would have left me with no scar and a skip in my step. Ciro was powerful, but healing wasn’t his forte. At least you’re not dead, my inner dialogue admonished. But at what price? I shot back, and there was no response.
My balance was getting better, but I wasn’t sure I was in any condition to high-tail it out of town. With my bike in disrepair and the closest relatives at least a few hours away–not that they’d drive into a potential apocalypse for me, the black sheep–I was down to no option but to walk past the city limits. Then, of course, there was no guarantee it would end at the edge of the city.
As we climbed a series of stairs, the increasing amount of time he was taking to answer my question was leaving a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.
“There have been more Stryx attacks throughout the city, and it seems our estimated numbers of how many there were, were conservative,” Oliver ground out, then pushed through a metal door at what was finally the end of the stairs and a short hallway.
We came out in the kitchens of an upper class restaurant, where our presence only paused the work of everyone for a split second. They looked at the two of us, and when their eyes hit Oliver they slid away before I could see anything that might reveal how he was connected to the Master of the City.
“So things are worse than we thought?” I had to shout to be heard, but my voice quavered at the revelation, and Oliver let me go as we made our way through the narrow spaces between the various cooking stations. The tantalizing aromas of cooking food redoubled the hunger pangs in my belly, though to be honest the food was likely too rich for my stomach to handle. I sighed miserably and hobbled along behind him, trying to walk normally so I didn’t make any of my injuries worse.
When we reached the exit out to what I assumed was a loading area for the kitchen, a cringing, sweaty man in a chef’s uniform stopped Oliver and spoke to him, though I couldn’t hear what was said. What made me salivate, however, was the white paper bag he had in his clutching, nervous hand, while he pointed toward me with the other. Food. Oliver nodded, took the bag, and motioned for me to follow him. When I came up even with him, he bent over and put his lips near my right ear.
“Once we leave you need to be careful. Things look normal in here because the humans trust the vampires, and the threat of their wrath, to keep them safe,” he said, and as I looked up I realized there was an undertone of panic in the kitchen. People were being far more careful with certain actions, like cutting food, than if they were in a relaxed environment, and a nervous tremble seemed to be present in everyone’s hands. The chef’s voice quavered as he called out orders, and I imagined all the patrons in the other room were counting on the vampires, too.
Too bad it was daylight.
Oliver waited for me to nod, then with grim resignation he pushed open the door, and my ears were met with the sounds of havoc.