THE MAN my master had commanded us to kill stood on the other side of the river. His wagon creaked as the wooden wheels rolled over the bridge. The man was a mere shadow, even to my enhanced eyesight, silhouetted against the rising moon.
To my left, another of us chattered her teeth, her fangs emerging from her lips. My own stomach growled at the thought of the warm blood that would gush from the man’s veins and feed us. Until now, Master had forbidden us human blood. This would be the ultimate prize. So much better than the deer and other forest creatures I’d been feeding from.
The wagon moved slowly, the horses straining to pull it across the arched bridge. There were two, both with dark-colored coats. One wore a frayed blanket across its back, and the other limped as though its shoes fitted improperly. This man was clearly no wealthy merchant.
One of us hissed, a sibilant, high-pitched sound that only those like us could hear. An answering hiss came from the bushes near the river. Our master had given us the plan, and we would follow it.
The lead horse flicked an ear. The man in the wagon seat shifted his weight.
As soon as the first horse set hoof on the grassy bank, the one to my left attacked. Four others joined her, dark shapes against the light of the moon, swarming toward the animals and their pumping, flowing blood.
I cursed in my mind. I had been turned too recently, and compared to them I was slow. I swallowed saliva, my fangs pricking my lower lip, and leaped forward, dashing through the forest.
Then light flooded the trees.
The four who’d run ahead screamed, their hissing drowned out by the sizzling of bodies exposed to solar light. I ducked behind a tree, screwing my eyes shut. Heat from the light prickled on my skin.
This was no weak man the master had sent us to eat, a gift to us. This was a vampire hunter.
And I was just a thrall.
The light died, fading to a dull orange glow over the horizon. A solar flare would work only once. I knew that from… somewhere. My life before, I supposed.
My muscles tensed when the man spoke—a word to his horses, or perhaps just a comment to himself. The man was mine. The other servants were dead. I would kill the hunter, take all his blood for myself. Me, the newest, weakest servant, able to take human blood. The command tightened my muscles further and pounded in my head. My master’s order—Kill.
I peered out from the edge of the trees, my vision sharpening with bloodlust. The man’s heart beat in a slow, steady rhythm. The light from the wagon made my eyes water, even used up as it was, but it couldn’t hurt me. Not any longer.
The hunter sat in the wagon seat, a weapon of some sort across his lap. He wore tight leather trousers, and my gaze lingered over his muscular thighs. For a moment I imagined taking more than just blood.
The thought died quickly. Since my master had turned me, any lust but that for blood never lasted.
The man had light brown hair, though it appeared red in the fading light of the solar flare. Dark eyes scanned the forest and then settled on me.
I froze, my own thoughts tangled, my body screaming for me to take his blood. His scent—human and sweat mixed with woodsmoke and the bouquet from the village over the river—filled my nostrils.
He raised the weapon. I now saw it was a crossbow outfitted with a wooden stake. His heartbeat was steady. In that moment, I knew I would die.
My master’s orders still screamed in my brain, in my very being—Kill. I was a servant. I obeyed. I was a weak vampire servant, nothing more. But I knew I would die if I attacked.
I didn’t want to die.
His horse snorted. The hunter held his crossbow trained on my heart. The sharp wooden stake that it would fire jutted from the barrel. A servant like me would never survive that.
I could attack. I wanted to leap, to try to sink my teeth into his veins, to obey the orders of the one who’d made me what I was. My teeth ground against one another, and my fangs drew blood from my lower lip.
Instead I turned and fled without truly knowing why. No shot came from the forest.
THE UNUSUAL silence in the forest as I ran back distracted me from my hunger, and it took me a moment to remember that every other servant was dead. I was truly alone.
I hadn’t known them. It shouldn’t matter. We hadn’t even spoken, only interacting when we fought during our nightly hunts for deer or other animal blood. Without them, there would be more for me. I should be glad.
But happiness, like anything else, faded quickly. I fought to keep running, to ignore the command in my mind that told me to turn back and kill the man I’d been ordered to kill. Doing so would be suicide. He was a hunter. He killed things like me for a living.
It was only when I entered the castle grounds that I wondered if my master would be angry with me.
The gates soared over my head, carvings of wolves seated atop iron bars. The castle blocked the view of the mountain that both overlooked it and kept it hidden from curious onlookers. Gray stone and old rotted wood melded against dead trees.
I took my usual path, through dusty hallways on the fringes of the main keep. Inside, thousands of scents mingled, mold mixing with cold stone and dead leaves and the sharp scents of the other thralls. Their scents would fade. The scent of blood wound through it all, and saliva filled my mouth.
I followed the scent, my bare feet silent on the cold stones, and found my master where the stone became plush rugs. A shiver of fear went down my spine but faded quickly, just like every other emotion or feeling I had.
“What are you doing here?” My master’s voice chased away everything else. “I still sense that man on my territory.”
The vampire who had made me strode closer. His blond hair was tied back with a blue ribbon, and deep blue eyes met mine. He frowned, and I ducked my head, curling in on myself like a cur. I should have attacked the hunter and been done with it.
“Where are the others?” my master said, his voice fainter, the presence of his power lessened on my shoulders and chest.
“Dead,” I managed. “The man was a hunter.”
“Hm.” My master turned on his heel, striding down the hallway. With a whisper of his power, I was compelled to follow. He always paced when he thought.
My master’s shoes clicked on the stone floors, the sound loud and echoing down the halls. I heard tiny hearts beating from creatures racing along the floor and outside the open windows, the blazing fast pulse of mice, and once the slower beat of a cat that must be hunting them.
“Why did you return?” my master asked. I tore my gaze away from the bare stone walls.
“I… I could not kill him.”
“I ordered you to kill him.” My master stopped walking, pivoting on his heel like a dancer. He was far more graceful than a human dancer would be, though. “I’m surprised you returned. Why?”
I blinked, mind racing. My master stared at me, blue eyes steady, his mouth a firm line. His shoulders were thrown back and square. “I thought you might like to know that he’s a hunter,” I said, my fangs snapping on the words. “He’s likely hunting you.”
“I feed only on the unwanted, the criminals and the freaks of the village. I am a boon to those humans. Why did they send a hunter?”
The words brought a strange stabbing pain in my chest that it took me a moment to place. Distant, hazy memories, ones that used to matter, played through my mind.
I had been unwanted. Penniless, homeless, a slave to drink who everyone always taunted. The son of a whore, never amounting to anything. I remembered little of my life, fits and flashes, but I knew that much.
But not anymore. My master had made me strong. Nearly two months ago, he’d given me new life.
“Well?” my master snapped, bringing me back to the present and to the drafty halls of the castle. “Did the hunter speak to you, make demands, or any such thing?”
“No.” I had not heard his voice. “He killed the others with a solar weapon. He was going to kill me with a stake, but I ran.”
“A solar weapon.” My master’s words were cold. “A relic of the old Empire. Foolish to waste it on thralls, but he may have more of them. Hunters tend to know more history than I’d like.”
I didn’t respond. There weren’t many things that could kill a vampire lord like my master. I supposed a flare was one of them.
“And now you are my only servant.” My master frowned. “A disobedient servant.” I ducked my head.
“Go and feed on a deer in the forest. Do not enter the city. And stay very, very far from that hunter. I have nothing to fear from him, but you do.” My master waved a hand. “Dismissed.”
Before I could move, my master vanished the way he always did when he was done with me. His command thrummed in my brain. I headed toward the end of the hallway, out through a door of rotting wood and mold.
The soft wind rushing and the chirps and chitters from the forest quieted the clamor in my mind that competed with my master’s order. I had every intention of following his command—my fangs lengthened, saliva filling my mouth at the thought of a meal, even if it was just animal blood. I had yet to taste a human.
But another part of me wondered, even as I crouched into a hunter’s stance and listened for my prey, about the hunter and what my master was going to do. He had used his solar weapon, but he might have more. He might be hunting my master.
Of course, my master wasn’t stupid enough to charge a hunter as we had. He was no mindless servant.
Then again, I supposed as I picked up the gamey scent of deer, I wasn’t mindless either—I’d survived.
I wondered if my awareness, my mind, would last. The others had been older, had served Master for far longer than I. It had been a mere two months since Master had drained my blood and made me what I was now. They had been turned years ago, I think, and the only words they’d ever spoken to me with any routine had been “move, weakling,” or “wait your turn.” They always took the largest share of any animal kills we made. And they had leaped mindlessly to their deaths.
Once, weeks into my turning, they’d told me about a servant who’d taken a human from the village, who had crossed the river to work on the roads. He hadn’t had Master’s permission. He had been the oldest, according to the female among us, and finally he’d lost his mind completely. It happened to all of us eventually—we turned into animals.
Master had killed him. I supposed that was fitting. He would kill me, too, if I didn’t obey.
A strange fear froze me in place at the thought, and a gust of wind scattered the scent of the deer I’d been tracking. I wondered if all vampire servants feared death the way I did. The others had rushed to their demise without thought. And I’d already died once, in a way, hadn’t I?
I remembered very little of that. My master had stood over me, his blond hair a halo in the light of the streetlamps. The cloying scent of alcohol and my own vomit, along with the trash that had littered that alley, still singed my nose in my memory.
“What are you doing here?” he’d asked, his fangs sharp and long. I had thought he was beautiful.
When I’d opened my eyes again, it was to the stone wall of the castle hallways and to a hunger that never left.
The scent of the deer blew with the breeze again, thicker and more pungent. Prey was close. My memories scattered like leaves as I broke into a silent, loping run.
The deer stood out in my enhanced vision, standing like a fool in the light of the stars. I leaped, closing my hands around its neck.
Its hooves drew fiery trails down my sides. A lucky kick caught my knee. Bone popped but I held on, sharp fingernails digging into the fur of its neck. My jaw clenched, my fangs puncturing the skin of my lip. If I bit now, I would miss the vein and spill precious blood on the leaves.
Vertebrae cracked, and the animal went limp. My vision fuzzed. Drool dripped from my mouth as I leaned down to finally sink my fangs into my prize. It was strange not to have others fighting me for it.
I quickly sucked the animal dry, my mouth filled with the coppery taste of life. It infused my body, filling me with energy and power. My knee cracked once more as the kneecap slid back into place, and the pain of the torn skin faded as it mended itself.
I stood, the dark night a little brighter with the energy of the deer’s blood within me.
“Hold there,” a voice demanded, and I whirled.
The hunter emerged from the tree line, his stake-loaded crossbow in one hand. In his other he held a lantern, and it took me only a moment to realize it was another solar flare. He’d come prepared.
“You,” he said. “Servant. Stop right there.”