The pain of hunger, of bloodlust, woke me first.
“Get up.” Johann’s voice was second.
My master’s command fired through my veins, mingling with my desperate hunger. I lunged toward his voice, my fangs snapping on air as iron shackles clanged against a stone wall and bit into my wrists. Light and heat from the torch in his hand made my eyes water and my skin prickle. Shadows danced around us in the dark stone room, bouncing off the wooden door behind him.
“Listen to me,” Johann spoke, and I lunged once more, his heartbeat loud in my ears. His scent was maddening, and I snapped my teeth again, my fangs cutting my bottom lip and the thoroughly disappointing taste of my own blood tinging my tongue.
“Kaiden!” Johann shouted, and I froze.
“Kaiden, what are you doing here?” My mother’s voice was weak, breathy. She looked like a doll from her place on the bed. A broken doll with graying hair among tattered bedclothes. A roach scuttled on the wall behind her, and the scent of sickness and rot filled the room. “You should go. There’s nothing left here.”
There had always been nothing.
“That’s your name. Kaiden.” Johann’s voice snapped me back to reality, to the crumbling wall I was chained to. Johann sat across the room, his gun across his lap. “Are you understanding me, Kaiden?”
Kaiden. Not servant, not vampire. That was my name.
“How?” I asked, my throat dry from hunger and thirst. How had he known my name? I had no idea how long I had been here, and no moonlight penetrated the stone walls, but the lack of complete exhaustion told me it was still night. My weakness and hunger, however, told me it had been hours. I had never gone this long without some kind of blood before.
“There are some in the village who remember you.” Johann’s words hammered in my skull. “A young man with white hair and red eyes. A useless drunk who’s mother was a whore. They say you were a demon, and that she fathered you with the vampire.”
“That’s not true!” I growled, then stopped, the anger fading as fast as it had come. Why should I care? That was another life. I—no, Kaiden—was long dead, killed in an alley by a vampire. My master.
I was dead. It didn’t matter anymore. My master’s orders were all that mattered. And he had said to kill—
“Kaiden!” Johann shouted, and I blinked. “Listen to me. I can help you.”
Saliva filled my mouth, and I swallowed. My fangs still pricked my lower lip. I could not find the words I needed, and growled instead, the scent of blood filling my nose. His heart beat loud in my head, a steady, calm drumming that inflamed my hunger with every pulse.
“Listen!” His voice cracked in the flatness of the stone room. “Do you want to survive as a man, or die as the demon everyone claimed you were?”
My growling stopped. I looked up, meeting his dark eyes.
“Tell me, Kaiden.” The sound of my name chased away the biting, curdling edge of hunger. “Tell me what you think you are.”
“I…” Saliva and hunger thickened my words. “I am a servant.” My master’s orders boomed once more. Kill him!
“You are not just a servant,” Johann said, his voice the only thing keeping me from snapping my fangs at him. “You are a thrall. A man turned by a vampire lord, bound by his blood, to serve him forever until you die.”
I fell silent. I knew that. I hadn’t known the name, the term thrall, but I knew what my existence was.
“But,” and now Johann stepped closer, his scent overwhelming. His heart beat steady. “If you truly didn’t care about anything but blood, were truly the mindless thrall that the others were, you would have died with them last night. But you didn’t. Why?”
I blinked, focusing on his gaze. He stared at me, his torch burning in his hand. The light hurt, and I looked away.
“Why, Kaiden?” Johann said again. The torch in his hand hissed as the wood and pitch burned.
“Why do you even ask?” I said. “I didn’t want to…” I trailed off. I was already dead. Saying that I hadn’t wanted to die would sound foolish.
But it was true. “I don’t want to die,” I said, a growl entering my voice again. “So if you’re going to kill me, I won’t let you.”
He stood, fast for a human but still slow to one like me. He left, the wooden door slamming shut behind him, leaving me in darkness so thick not even my keen senses let me see through it. I closed my eyes.
His light footsteps echoed on stone for at least a hundred paces before fading. A large building then, but clearly not one in the village. I would have heard familiar sounds, and there was also the fact that no sane vampire hunter would imprison a vampire in a human town.
I leaned back against the wall. His scent still lingered in the room, along with the stench of mold and droppings from small animals. One of the other servants had always complained about her sense of smell—“The whole castle smells like rat crap,” she had growled at us, “except for master’s room.”
Master. Without Johann here, the order had faded, but it was still there. Kill the hunter.
I lunged once more against the cuffs, pain flaring down my wrist for a split second. Any harder and my wrist would break.
If I got my fangs in Johann, the break, and any other injuries I had, would heal. I could get out of the cuffs and hunt him if I tried hard enough. That would be what my master would want of me.
I prepared to lunge again when his footsteps returned. And this time his scent was mixed with something else—fresh blood.
My nostrils flared, hunger cramping my stomach. Deer, just like I had last night.
It wasn’t human, but it was better than nothing.
“Here,” Johann said as soon as the door swung open. The carcass of a fawn was slung over his shoulders, and it hit the ground in front of me with a dull thud. “Have your fill.”
I was on it before he finished speaking, my fangs in the animal’s neck through the tough, fibrous skin. The blood was cool, not the fresh heart-pumped blood I wanted, but it still filled my stomach, filled my body with strength and took the edge from my bloodlust.
When I lifted my head, Johann was staring down at me, his expression flat. “Animal blood is all a thrall needs to survive, yes?” he said. “You have never had human blood before.”
I nodded, licking my lips. The puncture wound from my fangs was gone.
“Why did you attack me tonight?” Johann asked. “Tell me.”
“I don’t serve you,” I answered back. “
“I could kill you, you know,” Johann responded, his heart still infuriatingly steady. “You are a vampire, and not a particularly powerful one. A thrall. The lowest of the low. Most do not have an ounce of intelligence. They are no more in control of themselves than that animal who’s blood you just consumed. So let me guess. Your master ordered you to kill me?”
I stayed silent.
“I thought so.” He nodded. “But you, Kaiden,” and when he used my name I paid closer attention, “are different. Slightly, anyway. You ran when you suspected your life was in danger. You planned. You are not mindless.” He leaned closer, and if I had not just eaten I would have snapped at him again. “And if you listen to me, and believe what I have to say, I think I can help you.”
I narrowed my eyes. “What could you possibly have that I want, that you’d be willing to give?”
He smiled. “Pretty words for a thrall.”
“You’re the one who said I was different.”
“Yes.” He nodded, pausing, the smile fading from his face before he took a breath. “What if I told you that you could become a vampire lord in your own right?”
I fell silent, awash in the small sounds of vermin scuttling in the stones I was chained to and the steady beat and breathing of the human next to me. A vampire lord. Like my master. The beauty, power and grace of my master, would be mine. I felt no excitement at the prospect.
“You think I want power?” I finally said. Johann frowned.
“Do you want to die instead?” he asked. “Because your only option is death or moving on as you are—a vampire. Become a lord, and you won’t be such a slave to your own bloodlust.”
I stared at the human, his scent filling my nostrils. With my stomach full, he smelled different, a combination of spice and pine that I found pleasing for a different reason.
I wondered if becoming a vampire lord meant I could bed others the way my master did.
“How would I do this?” I asked.
He shifted his weight, tensing muscles the way I would if I anticipated an attack. “By killing your master,” he answered.
Something in me thudded hard. Not my heart. It was deeper, an instinct I didn’t know I had that made me bare my teeth and narrow my eyes.
“I knew you would react that way.” Johann spoke louder, and I realized I was growling, my teeth clenched. “You’re a creature of instinct, a dog defending his master. But think, Kaiden!”
My name again. The room grew silent.
Johann moved, putting his back to me and turning back, a thoughtful pace. A very human thing. “If you kill your master, you will feel again. I mean really feel,” he leaned closer, sending his scent over me. I don’t think he realized it. “Feel emotion, feel pleasure beyond slaking your hunger. You will feel ambition. Your life will have meaning!” He met my eyes, his a startling gleam. “Don’t you want that?”
I dropped my gaze. In my mind, I saw the same image, of a woman dying on a bed. I tasted a hint of alcohol, a bitter tinge on my tongue.
I had never wanted anything. I had never thought my life had meaning. The realization made me feel deader than I already was.
“I had no life before,” I said, clinging to those memories. It was strange to do it. I had been so ready to forget, but now it seemed important that Johann understand. “You know. You spoke to the villagers.” I met his eyes this time. “They called me a demon. I had nothing. Why would you think I—”
“You chose it, didn’t you?” Johann snapped. “You let him bite you.”
I didn’t blink. “Yes.”
Johann rocked back on his heels, his gaze fixed on a point above my head. I craned my head up. There was nothing there.
“Did you know what would happen to you?” he asked finally.
The emptiness I expected didn’t come. It was simple nothingness, not sadness the way it had once been, what had made me seek out my master. The vampire.
“I thought I would die.”
“Perhaps that’s why,” Johann said, and his tone made me tilt my head. “Most who become thralls desperately want to live, and the vampire violates their wishes by giving them complete absence of life. But you…you wanted to die, didn’t you? So your master’s commands aren’t as strong as they should be. You chose it, Kaiden.” I swallowed. “For all the pathetic life you may have lived, you made a choice.” He sighed. “Was it really what you wanted? Because I could kill you, right now. It would be quick.”
I leaned my head back, the stone scraping against my hair. He would give me what I wanted.
No. What I had wanted. Before I had run from a hunter who I knew would kill me, disobeying my master’s orders.
Regret almost climbed my throat. Regret for the life I once had, thrown away.
“No,” I said. “I don’t want to die.”