2 AT SUMMER’S END
VLAD SQUEEZED HIS EYES TIGHT and listened to the thumping of his heartbeat and the whoosh of his blood as it pumped through his vampire veins. Well, half-vampire veins, anyway. His stomach had been rumbling loudly for the last half hour, and the hunger eased the task of locating his uncle with nothing more than his vampire intuition. Otis hadn’t thought that it would. Actually, he’d presumed quite the opposite-the same way Vikas had been surprised during their training sessions in Siberia last year when Vlad confessed he found it easier to push into people’s minds when he was hungry. It turned out Vlad was a freak in that regard as well. But maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing. After all, the hunger seemed to sharpen his vampire skills.
He tightened his stomach muscles and refrained from pushing into Otis’s mind. As his uncle had said, sensing a vampire’s location wasn’t about tapping into his thoughts. It was about reaching out with your blood, your very vampire cells, and feeling the presence of one of your kind, gauging the distance they stood from you.
With a deep breath, Vlad reached out and sensed his uncle’s presence northwest of where he stood on the front porch of his Aunt Nelly’s house, the house he’d called home for five years. The corners of his lips rose in a half smile as he spoke to Otis with his thoughts. “Oh come on! That’s too easy. Go farther away! You’re only a half mile out. Even Henry could detect you at this distance.”
“Your drudge couldn’t detect the Stop & Shop with the aid of a GPS.”
Vlad laughed aloud, brushing his black hair out of his eyes and dropping his gaze to his shoes, the smile still firmly fixed to his lips. “How am I doing, anyway?”
“Exceptionally well, Vladimir, but I’d wager you don’t need me to tell you that. In fact, better than any vampire I’ve ever encountered. Most can detect our kind up to roughly six hundred yards. But you… you’re clearly gifted in this regard-your father would be proud. Now, clear your mind and try again in five minutes.”
He sat on the steps and stared up at the star-speckled sky. A cool breeze brushed his cheek. As of tomorrow, summer would be at its end, and Nelly would no longer have an open mind about his late-night activities-even those with Otis. He had hoped this evening could last forever, but the first day of school was looming, and with it, something disturbing that he’d been pushing out of his mind all summer.
There was no stopping it. Not anymore, anyway. He’d whined, pleaded with, and appealed to his uncle until he was blue in the face. But there would be no further delay. It was inevitable. It was time.
Uncle Otis was leaving.
Worse yet, there was absolutely nothing that Vlad could possibly do to prevent it.
It wasn’t just that Otis was going away again that jangled Vlad’s nerves; it was the fact that he’d gotten used to Otis’s comforting protection in the past few months. What was Vlad supposed to do if his former friend Joss decided to return to Bathory and unleash his Slayer skills all over again? He didn’t think it was mathematically possible to survive another stake through the heart. Surviving it once was bad enough. And it had raised the possibility that he just might possibly be, maybe actually really be, the Pravus. The half-vampire, half-human, ruling-over-vampirekind, enslaving-the-human-race subject of prophecy that Elysia had been watching out for for centuries. Just thinking about it gave Vlad the chills.
And even if he really were the Pravus, he seriously doubted that D’Ablo would back off for another entire year, especially since the last time Vlad saw the fanged jerk he had all but mimicked Arnold Schwarzenegger’s catch-phrase of “I’ll be back.”
Man, sometimes it really sucked being a vampire.
Especially a teen vampire.
Whose vampire uncle was about to pull outta town and leave him to his own defenses.
Vlad stood back up and listened to his heartbeat: slow, strong, amazingly healthy after his encounter with Joss last year. After a moment, he reached out to Otis and felt his presence. Only this time he didn’t just feel him standing three blocks away; he could almost see him there, leaning casually with his back against the streetlight across from Mr. Craig’s old house. It was as if he were watching the scene through the lens of a large, omniscient camera.
He furrowed his brow. “Otis, are you standing across from Mr. Craig’s house, leaning against a pole?”
Otis’s voice, hesitant in Vlad’s mind. “ Vladimir, you’re supposed to be judging my distance from you. Are you tapping into my thoughts? I can’t feel you in there.”
“No. I’m watching you. At least, I think I am. From the outside.”
Otis grew very quiet and walked quickly out of view from the camera in Vlad’s mind. Then the camera clicked off, and Vlad chewed his bottom lip in contemplation. In moments, thanks to his vampire speed, Otis was making his way up the street to where Vlad stood. His face seemed paler than usual, his eyes large and wide, almost suspicious. When he opened the gate, he frowned, his eyebrows drawn together as if he were distressed. “How did you see me, Vladimir? Exactly what were you doing?”
Vlad shrugged, his nerves fraying some-he’d seen that look in Otis’s eyes several times over the summer, and each time had ended up reminding him what a freak he was, even in the vampire world. “I didn’t do anything different, just reached out with my blood, the way you taught me. Why?”
Otis shook his head. “Vampires can’t tell who it is we sense or precisely where they are, only how far away from us they’re located and how many there are.”
Vlad sighed. “Great. I can’t do the simplest thing without screwing it up with my weirdness.”
“It’s not a curse, Vladimir. It’s a blessing.” But in Otis’s softly spoken words lurked a lie.
Vlad’s jaw tensed, but he kept his tone light. “ Then you be the Pravus. I’m too tired to reign over vampirekind, let alone enslave the human race.”
Otis smiled, but it was forced. Behind his casual pose Vlad sensed fear. “Is that what you want, to do as prophecy deems you will-if, in fact, you are the so-called Pravus?”
“I don’t know. Being godlike might have its perks.” The corner of Vlad’s mouth rose in a smirk, but then he shrugged with one shoulder and dropped his gaze to the ground between his feet. “But even if I am-and… well, I think we both know that’s a very real possibility.”
Otis shifted his feet, and Vlad braced himself. Vlad wasn’t stupid. He hadn’t failed to notice Otis’s changed behavior-the discomfort and awkward, nervous glances ever since Joss had put him in the hospital with a stake through the heart. Only the Pravus could have survived something like that. Worse than the idea that he could be a danger to humans everywhere, and a tyrant to his fellow creatures of the night, was that his uncle, his last living relative, was living in fear of him… or rather, of what he might be, and probably was.
“Even if I am the Pravus, it’s like you told me, Otis. A man is the choices that he makes. And I fully intend to make good choices, to be a good man. Like my dad was.” He met Otis’s eyes then and smiled, hoping his words would be enough to calm Otis’s fears, if only for the evening.
But Otis still looked troubled.
Vlad looked up into the night sky. “It sucks that summer is almost over. No more late nights outside with you, learning new skills. Not that there could possibly be much more to learn.”
“Oh, there’s one or two that I haven’t taught you yet.” Otis winked. “Are you hungry?”
“Famished.” Vlad’s fangs slipped down from his gums in acknowledgment. He ran his tongue across their tips and met Otis’s eyes. “By the way, I wanted to thank you. You know, for not feeding on humans while you’re here. I know it hasn’t been easy, living on bagged blood when you’re used to feeding straight from the source. But I really appreciate the effort… even though you’ll probably gorge on whole families after you’ve left Bathory.”
Otis chuckled but, Vlad noticed, he didn’t negate Vlad’s jibe. “And I want to thank you,” he said.
Otis turned and led the way up the steps of the porch. He opened the front door, holding it for Vlad, then followed his nephew inside. “Many things. For putting up with an old fool’s superstitions. For outshining our brethren in wisdom and skill. For allowing me to share your home. And mostly, for helping me to see your father, Tomas, again, through you.”
Vlad felt his cheeks flush a little. “It’s not like I even had a say about you staying here-there was no way Nelly would let you stay anywhere else. And neither would I. You belong here with us, Otis.”
Otis grew quiet for a moment, and then nodded, as if making a momentous decision. “Come, Vladimir. I want to show you something.”
Otis led him into the kitchen, where he rummaged through several drawers before finally withdrawing a paring knife. “There is power in blood. I’m certain you know this. But something I have not yet taught you is how that power may be utilized for your protection, and the protection of those you care for. And with me leaving… well, I’d feel better if you knew more about how to protect yourself.”
Otis placed the knife on the counter between them and kept his voice low, as if afraid that they would wake Nelly, or maybe, Vlad thought, afraid that Nelly would overhear. “Reach back, Vlad. Do you recall me carving my name in Elysian code into that small box in your dresser two years ago?”
Vlad nodded. How could he forget it? He’d thought Otis was some psychotic vampire, marking him for death. It was funny how wrong he’d turned out to be.
Otis pushed up his left sleeve, revealing the thick black tattooed symbol on his wrist. When he placed it near Vlad’s own tattooed wrist, both symbols glowed brightly. “I was marking you, vowing with my life to protect you by inscribing my vampire name into one of your possessions. It was a warning to any vampire who wanted to cause you grief that they would have me to deal with. You remember my explanation of that?”
Vlad smiled at their tattoos and offered a nod. “Of course I do. But what’s with the knife?”
“Marking someone is taken very seriously in the vampire world. But it is more of an oath, a vow, than an element of power. The real power of our Elysian names is when they are used in the creation of glyphs.” Otis plucked the knife from the counter and pressed the tip against the soft pad of his pointer finger. The shiny metal broke the skin, allowing a crimson bubble to form. Vlad’s stomach rumbled. He and Otis exchanged somber looks-one hungry vampire to another. Otis nodded apologetically. “Normally I’d just bite my finger, but I fear the taste of blood-even my own-would be too much to bear at this point. And I made a promise to you that I intend to keep. No feeding from the source while I am here in Bathory.”
Otis placed his bloodied finger against the wood of the nearest cupboard door and, with his blood, drew his name in Elysian code, the tattooed symbol on his wrist. As he did so, the blood soaked into the wood. Seconds later, the wood began to burn where his blood had touched. Otis looked at Vlad. “Open it.”
Vlad furrowed his brow and reached for the knob, but it was stuck fast. “I can’t.”
“I know. I empowered that as a locking glyph. As I drew my name, my mark, I fed my intent into the blood with my thoughts.” Otis smiled, but beneath his smile there was something else-concern, maybe. Or fear. Again, fear. “In blood, there is power. But your name is powerful as well. Combined, you can protect loved ones and precious objects, keep secrets, even harm unwanted trespassers. Glyphs are crucial to vampire society, to our way of life. But they are also dangerous, Vladimir, when used incorrectly or not respected. Use your glyphs wisely, and keep your distance from those that glow red.”
Vlad ran his finger along the glyph, wondering briefly what Nelly would say about the unusable cupboard and its damaged surface. “Why?”
But Otis either didn’t hear his question or didn’t acknowledge it, because he washed off the knife in the sink and turned back to Vlad, almost anxious. “Now, your turn. Nip the end of your finger just a bit. We don’t want the blood to flow too well. It’ll smear your glyph, and a flawed glyph won’t work.”
As Vlad bit into his finger, Otis turned his head, shivering. Suddenly Vlad felt enormously bad for restricting his uncle’s diet. As the blood blossomed out of the small cut, Vlad squeezed, encouraging the wound to remain open.
Otis closed his eyes. Vlad could feel his uncle inside his mind. His presence was comforting. “Now visualize, for example, that none but you can open the knife drawer.” A pause, then “Excellent. And now you simply write your name on it, with your blood, in Elysian code.”
Vlad breathed deeply, dragging his bloody finger along the drawer, drawing the symbol that was his vampiric name, the image that was forever burned into his left wrist. When he’d finished, he met Otis’s now open eyes. “How do we know it worked?”
Otis pulled the knob, but the drawer was locked tight. He smiled proudly. “It seems to have worked just fine.”
Vlad examined his handiwork, a smile finding its way onto his lips, but his smile faltered when he realized what an enormous mess would be awaiting Nelly in the morning. “How do you remove a glyph, anyway?”
“Only the glyph’s master can remove it, and it must be washed away with spring water.” Otis moved to the refrigerator and rummaged around inside for something. Successful, he withdrew a small plastic bottle. He tossed it to Vlad, along with a rag. “Fortunately for you, it comes in bottles now. Your father and I used to walk for miles to locate a spring.”
Vlad poured some water on the cloth until it was soaked, then wiped at the marked drawer front. His glyph sizzled a bit and then evaporated completely, leaving the drawer just as it had been, with no sign of the apparent damage his blood had caused to its surface. He tossed the rag to Otis, who scrubbed the cupboard door clean. “Let me guess. Uphill? Both ways? Through four feet of snow?”
Otis chuckled. “At times, yes. We faced many obstacles seeking out springs in our younger days, when we were still learning how to use glyphs. I’ll never forget the time we had to cross straight through a grouping of roughly a hundred members of the Slayer Society, who were all regaling one another with boastful tales about how many vampires each had killed. The only spring for miles was at the center of their encampment.”
Vlad’s eyes grew wide. “They didn’t see you?”
“Of course they did. But for all of their apparent skills, not one attacked. We were approached by a small group, stakes at the ready. They asked to see our Society Coin. All slayers carry a coin as proof of their membership in the Slayer Society. Tomas withdrew just such a coin from his pocket and told them of the three vampires that we had just slain, not a mile from their encampment. ‘Three at once,’ he bragged. When in all actuality it had been three Slayers that he and I had just feasted on, which is how he’d come by the coin. And they believed his ridiculous tale.” Otis grinned at Vlad’s disbelieving stare. “Have I mentioned that your father was a master of mind control?”