VLAD SANK DOWN IN HIS CHAIR in the belfry, shivering. It had been a quick walk to his secret sanctuary, and one ended by the horrible task of learning just how to release his drudge. He stared, bleary-eyed at the tear-spotted page, rereading the words he’d hoped to never find.
To rid oneself of one’s drudge, one need only perform a blood cleansing. This can be accomplished by administering a second bite and feeding the vampire’s intent into the wound. However, it is crucial that the vampire restrain him or herself from imbibing any of the drudge’s blood, lest the ritual become tainted and ineffective. It is important to remember that once a human’s drudge status has been removed, it can never be successfully restored.
Beyond anything, he wished that he hadn’t been able to locate the passage, or that it had ever been written. But there it was, in black and white. Henry’s salvation.
The temptation to ignore the page, or even to rip it from the book and burn in it the flickering light of the candle, overwhelmed Vlad, but he remained vigilant and reread the passage so that he would know exactly what he was doing the next time he and Henry had a moment alone. After all, he had sworn last year never to treat Henry the way Vikas treated his drudge, Tristian. Henry was more than a servant. And Vlad had vowed that cold, crisp night in Siberia that if Henry ever asked for his freedom, Vlad would find a way to give it.
And here it was. On a piece of parchment. Ripping Vlad’s soul to shreds.
Candlelight flirted with every corner of the belfry, brightening his gloom against his will. Vlad pinched the wick, dousing the candle’s flame.
So this was it. With a bite, Henry would be free. And Vlad would face the world alone.
He couldn’t be angry at Henry anymore. After all, finding out that your will is lost to that of your vampire master would put a damper on anybody’s day. So anger was no longer a part of what he was feeling. Just sadness. Deep, immense sadness that he was losing his best friend, that Henry didn’t want to share that bond with him any longer.
It was agonizing. And Vlad’s heart felt like it had shattered into a million pieces, only to break away within him, jabbing at his insides with every splinter.
And because that pain couldn’t be made any worse by any other, Vlad withdrew Vikas’s letter from his pocket and read it over again.
I must say that I am greatly confounded by your recent letter, as I have not shared the company of your uncle in many months. Nor have I received any sort of communication from him since August. It is deeply troubling to me that you cannot seem to reach Otis by telepathy, as I am experiencing the same troubles. Please stay in touch, Mahlyenki Dyavol. I will do all that I can to locate your uncle.
Vlad sat back in his chair, sinking deeper into the soft, worn leather. It was bad enough that his uncle had been missing in action for over five months now, but losing Henry as a friend and a trusted drudge was unbearable. What’s worse, Vlad had absolutely no one to turn to for advice. Nelly wasn’t aware of Henry’s drudge status, and Vikas didn’t share his view of drudges. Vlad was alone in this. Alone and confused, with no way out but through.
He had to release Henry as his drudge, and trust that their friendship would be strong enough to survive the change. And if it wasn’t… well, then he’d deal with it. He had no idea how, but he would. After all, he didn’t have much choice in the matter.
He trusted Henry… or rather, he had, before he’d mistakenly thought Kylie had insinuated that Henry had divulged his deepest darkest secret. He’d just have to trust him on that too, and maybe everything would turn out all right.
Or… it would all go horribly wrong, and Vlad’s world would fall into a dizzying array of pain and loss.
Either way, it had to be done. Vlad would have to release Henry, and soon.
At the thought of once more tasting Henry’s blood on his tongue, two things happened almost simultaneously. Vlad’s heart shrank with guilt and sorrow and his stomach growled. In a burst of self-directed fury, he threw the Compendium across the room with all the force he could muster. The tome slammed against the wall and dropped with a loud thud to the floor. Vlad glared into the darkness, wishing it away, wishing it all away.
He closed his eyes and pushed as hard as he could with his mind, calling out to his uncle, wherever he was. “Otis, if you can hear me, please talk to me. Everything is so screwed up right now, and I desperately need your help. Please, please answer me. I need you.”
To his immense disappointment, only silence followed his plea.
After several minutes, Vlad dried his tears on his sleeve and stood, making his way slowly to one of the open arches. He stepped onto the ledge and closed his eyes momentarily, letting the breeze brush his hair from his eyes and gently dry his still-moist cheeks. When he was certain he had pulled himself together, he stepped forward and floated nimbly to the ground.
Soft voices found their way around the corner of the building. Vlad paused and, after a moment, made his way around to the front of the school.
October was the first to notice him. She smiled, her pale skin almost blue in the moonlight. “Out stalking the shadows tonight, Vlad?”
“You might say that.” He stepped closer, nodding in greeting to the skinny boy called Sprat. “What are you guys up to?”
October shrugged. “Just hanging out, as usual. Some creep attacked me on my way home earlier, so we were thinking of going after him.”
Vlad furrowed his brow. “Somebody attacked you?”
She nodded, adopting a casual tone, but her still-frightened eyes betrayed her. “Yeah, but lucky for me, Officer Thompson showed up in the nick of time.”
Vlad’s memory reached back a few years, to the officer who had questioned Nelly about Vlad’s nighttime activities. “I hate that guy.”
He blinked apologetically at October. “I mean, I’m glad he was there for you. I just don’t like him.”
October smiled. “Who does?”
Kristoff glared in their general direction. “Are we going after this psycho or not?”
Vlad wondered briefly what they would do once they caught up to her attacker. He mumbled, “Bad idea, following some crazy guy like that.”
October seemed to mull this over for a minute before looking at Kristoff. “No. Not tonight. I think we’ll let the cops handle this one.”
She met Vlad’s eyes, whispering, “He really cares, y’know? It might not seem like it, but Kristoff is a real sweetie. He just wants to watch out for his own kind.”
Vlad raised an eyebrow. “Is that why he’s always glaring at me?”
She chuckled. “You’re catching on.”
Sprat bounded up to Vlad with such a spring in his step that Vlad wondered if he had been downing sugar packets all night. His speech was equally overflowing with boundless energy. “Hey, do you think you might wanna check out The Crypt in a couple of weeks? They’re having a Blood Ball in honor of Valentine’s Day.”
Sprat’s eyes were eager, and try as she might to hide it, so were October’s. Vlad glanced at Andrew, who managed a halfhearted shrug. Kristoff didn’t react at all to Sprat’s invitation. Vlad chewed his bottom lip for a moment and thought it over. Thanks to Meredith’s dad, she was going to be busy that weekend, so it wasn’t as if his plans with his girlfriend were standing in his way. He wasn’t sure why he was hesitant to hang out with them. Maybe it was because, for as long as he could remember, only Henry wanted to be his friend. Maybe he’d been scarred forever-both literally and figuratively-by the one time he’d befriended someone who wasn’t his drudge. His experience with Joss last year had left him once staked, twice shy. Still… they seemed harmless. And how many nights had he spent watching them in curious fascination? Here was his chance, and he felt obligated to take it.
“Sure. What time?”
Sprat grinned broadly, and October squealed. Andrew managed a half smile. Kristoff snorted and said, “Valentine’s night, nine o’clock. Don’t be late or we’ll leave without you.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll be here.” Vlad turned toward home, flashing a small smile at Sprat. On his way, he stuck to the sidewalks.
It was a strange thing for Vlad, hanging out with people other than Henry or Joss or Meredith. And Vlad was beginning to wonder if the kids at school had kept their distance over the years because of his staunch unpopularity or because they could detect his differentness on some level. Was that why the goth kids seemed drawn to him now? Or was it something else, an obligation of some sort to repay his good deed of rescuing Sprat? Whatever it was, Vlad didn’t want to analyze it too much. He desperately needed the distraction from Henry and Otis for a night.
He made his way down the sidewalk, past houses with dark windows. Everything was shrouded in a cloak of black tonight, as the moon was new. Only fireflies lit his way.
A shadow amongst shadows shifted, and Vlad paused. It was a man, that much he was sure of. But he wasn’t sure if it was human or if D’Ablo had returned.
The man chuckled, low and gruff. “No. Not D’Ablo.”
Vlad furrowed his brow, doing his best to block his thoughts. “ Then who are you and what do you want?”
The man moved again, pulling up his sleeve. The tattoo on the inside of his left wrist glowed a cool blue, illuminating his face for a moment. “ To talk for a moment.”
Vlad stepped back, uncertain. He recognized the man from Eddie’s photograph. So he’d been following Vlad. But why? “Did D’Ablo send you? Are you here to… hurt me?”
The man laughed again. “It is clear that you have not been raised around your own kind, boy. You have no manners. It is customary to show your mark before we discuss things that pertain to Elysia. We must follow protocol, or hasn’t your uncle taken the time to teach you the finer points of vampire society?”
Vlad’s jaw tightened at the mention of Otis-Elysia, it seemed, knew too much about him these days. He pushed his sleeve up, revealing his own glowing mark, his eyes never leaving that of the strange vampire. “Answer my question, please.”
“I have been awaiting this moment for a long time. In fact, it wasn’t until recently that I actually believed you existed.” He slid his sleeve down, his features darkening once again. His voice was a harsh whisper. “ Tomas always had his own agenda. I just never dreamed he would actually manage to mate with a human. Not to mention, how he could stomach the touch of one without devouring every drop of her.”
Vlad bristled. Before turning to walk away, he said, “I don’t have to stand here and listen to you insult my parents. If it’s the journal you want, you can tell D’Ablo that the answer is still no.”
Then the man appeared before him, quicker than Vlad could blink. He growled, “I know nothing of the journal you speak of, boy. I’ve only come to see what thing Tomas has created, before dragging your lifeless body back to the council in Stokerton.”
Vlad swallowed the frightened lump in his throat and said, “Well, I guess that answers the question about D’Ablo. But you still haven’t told me who you are.”
The man’s hand shot forward, clutching Vlad by the throat. His raspy voice was surprisingly rich in tone, as if he were enjoying himself. “I am Ignatius. And to you, I am the end of all things.”
Ignatius threw Vlad back, and Vlad hit the ground hard. Before Vlad could stand, Ignatius was there in a blink, grabbing Vlad once again by the throat. Vlad pulled at his fingers, to no avail.
“ The Pravus.” Ignatius laughed.
Vlad shivered inside.
“Isn’t that what they call you? The halfling boy who will come to rule over vampirekind and enslave the human race. Yet you can’t even manage to escape an old vampire’s grip.”
Ignatius effortlessly tossed Vlad several feet through the air. As Vlad flew, he gasped. It felt like it wasn’t happening-a weird sensation, almost like he was watching a movie rather than truly experiencing it. Then Vlad collided with the trunk of a large oak tree, and reality sank in. The air left his lungs in the form of a yelp. He had to get away, far away, but the moment he stood, Ignatius was on him once again, gripping his throat and choking him into silence. For a moment, Vlad thought he might pass out.
Ignatius’s lips were so close to Vlad’s ear that they brushed his skin as he spoke. “I have spent over eight hundred years walking the earth as a vampire, and you are nothing more than a mistake made by an idiot daydreamer. I shall take great pleasure in introducing you to my blade. After all, I wouldn’t compromise my palate by tasting the filth that runs through your veins. Be glad your parents are already dead, boy, or I’d kill them myself tonight, and you along with them.”
Fury boiled through Vlad, and as he met Ignatius’s eyes, he saw a grim flicker, as if his attacker had witnessed something he hadn’t expected. Vlad bet that his eyes had flashed that weird iridescent purple again, and for once, he was glad. With all the anger he was feeling, Vlad peeled Ignatius’s hand from his throat, leaving Ignatius a bit stunned. But Ignatius wasn’t the only one. Vlad marveled silently at his sudden onset of vampiric strength and continued to twist his attacker’s hand back, forcing the man down on one knee. The pained expression on Ignatius’s face reassured Vlad that his words would be heard. “Don’t you ever talk that way about my parents. My mother was a saint, and my father was a far better man and far better vampire than you ever dreamed of being.” He shook his head. “Whatever you want from me, you’re not getting it.”
Vlad released the man’s hand at last. “I suggest you leave.”
Ignatius stood and loosened the leather strap that bound his curved dagger to his thigh. He met Vlad’s gaze with clouded eyes. “I’m not going anywhere until I get what I came for.”
Vlad tightened his hands into fists and growled, his fangs long and bare like that of an animal. “ Then come and get it already.”
Ignatius moved so quickly that Vlad didn’t see the raised dagger till it had nearly pierced his side. He swung around and picked Ignatius up, then tossed him several yards. Ignatius slid to a stop in a catlike pose, poised to strike again. He sprang forward, and Vlad mustered all his strength. He punched Ignatius as hard as he could in the chest. Ignatius fell again, this time losing his balance and meeting the pavement with the side of his face. As Ignatius began to stand, Vlad could see the scrapes on his cheek beginning to heal. Vlad moved. He wasn’t sure how, but he moved with a speed that he hadn’t known before. Ignatius had managed to make it up onto one knee before Vlad appeared next to him. The surprised expression on the old vampire’s face mirrored the thoughts in Vlad’s mind. Vlad struck out with his foot, making contact with Ignatius’s side. He felt ribs breaking. Ignatius got up and flew down the street, crashing down on the hood of a parked car. Again, Vlad found himself standing next to this older, more experienced vampire. He was winning. He didn’t know how, but he was winning.
He grabbed the collar of Ignatius’s shirt and moved in until their faces were mere inches apart. “It looks like you’re gonna have to leave here empty-handed.”
As Vlad pulled back his fist, ready to plant it in the face of his foe, the first rays of the sun peeked out over the horizon. Before Vlad’s fist had the opportunity to fall, Ignatius let out a howl of pain, and his fist met Vlad’s chest. Vlad flew back, coming to land in his own front yard. He braced for the next blow, but Ignatius was nowhere to be found.
Vlad was alone. He stood and began to make his way up the front steps. He reached out with his mind to Otis, but as expected, no answer came. Vlad was beginning to think that his uncle had abandoned him.
Once inside, he climbed the steps to his bedroom, where he would find no rest.