Six

Lars sighed as he watched the silhouettes down the street in front of him. Cassille was of average height for a woman, if not an inch or two taller, yet the man before her was easily an entire foot taller. Yet, the human was on his knees, hopelessly incapacitated as the insatiable, starving girl clumsily drank from the artery in his neck, spilling blood all over both their torsos and the ground underneath. But it wasn’t the vampirism that left an odd taste on the back of his tongue, but it was the pureness and ease of it. She was clumsy, yes, as to be expected.

But Changelings quite aptly fitted the modern phrase “hot mess”, incredibly over-emotional and chaotic during the three-day transition from living human to undead predator. Every Changeling Lars had met—over a few hundred, in all his years—was volatile, their senses even more heightened than full vampires, and were very difficult to control. The burning hunger that spurred on all vampires was new to them, they didn’t understand it and held onto the hope that they could soothe it. They were emotional, energetic, and desperate.

But Cassille was none of those things. From the moment she’d opened her eyes—the pupils reptilian slits like his own—on the hardwood floor of her apartment, every movement had been slow and deliberate, not frenzied. The girl had sat up, back straight, eyes flitting and nostrils slightly flared as she remained absolutely still, taking in everything and collecting information mentally and Lars watched as she didn’t even try to take a breath. Either she was just an outlier, or she was very good at hiding emotion.

So, Lars had filled her in of her physical state, how he had drained her body of all of her blood and then given only a portion of his own blood and venom, and then remained in her proximity the next two days. Tonight was the third night of her change, and though he wanted to just keep her locked inside until this difficult stage was over, he knew better. Changelings died if they didn’t feed, much quicker than full vampires, and by this afternoon her pale skin was tight over her bones and her eyes looked sunken, and purple bruises had begun to spread over her body as she fell apart. And when she’d stepped outside a couple hours after the sun had set, he’d caught her shoulders tensing as she heard all forty-three heartbeats of the residents in the nearest four houses.

Then he had folded one arm behind his back, taken her elbow with the other and led her down the street, thankful that she kept calm until they saw a man walking alone in a darker, more deserted area of her neighborhood. Cassille had independently jumped on the man, shoving him to the ground and biting into his neck before he’d even screamed. She was fast and sharp, Lars saw no hesitation or even thought to strategize. The only detail separating her from a centuries-old, experienced vampire like himself was the mess she made, and that was merely because instincts only took them so far.

At least she had so far been mindful of her status as a Changeling. She was no more immortal than a human for the next day. She would burn to ashes in the sunrise in a few hours if he didn’t get her inside.

There was a dull, wet thud as the human fell completely, and Lars shook himself out of his thoughts to notice Cassille standing at his shoulder, her body stiff and blood smeared across her cheeks, chin, neck, shirt, and hands. He raised an eyebrow at the mess, and felt a tiny part of his stomach wince when she just shrugged unapologetically.

“Better?” he asked, pulling out the dark red handkerchief he kept in his blazer pocket, substituting a sigh for an exhale through his nose when she shook her head. Her eyes flitted to the handkerchief, but she made no move to take it.

“I’m just going to get dirty again soon,” she stated bluntly, tone flat. He shrugged in agreement, folding the silk back into a neat, rectangular bundle and replacing it in his pocket.

“Perhaps that is true,” he allowed, masking his features so that she did not see the surprise continuing to spark. It was only human to dislike violence, to be upset at the sight and feel of their own species’ blood, and it often took time for vampires—even those who had been changed long ago, who had lived lives as warriors—to accept that they were, to an extent, against their own kind. Their own families, for a time. Yet, Cassille wore the man’s blood as though it were normal, her fingers not even flexing under the stickiness. “Did you know him?”

Perhaps this was revenge, finally being strong enough to hurt or get back at someone who had wronged her in the past. “No,” she said easily, though her head tilted as she looked at him. If she figured out his thoughts, she did not say.

She did, however, mention something. “You’re uncomfortable with me.” It wasn’t a question, but a statement.

Lars exhaled slowly, clasping his hands loosely at his back and blatantly studying her up and down. She stood still. “You are unique to me,” he said finally. “Changelings tend to be a bit more…chaotic,” he settled diplomatically. Her gaze dropped and a small frown creased her forehead as she thought over his words.

She turned and began walking slowly, and he fell into step with her. The two left the man, slumped in the street though quietly groaning to indicate that she had been mindful of a public, unexplained death.

“Vampires are always described to be heartless, and evil,” Cassille shrugged, her tone much lighter. “Not that I’m actively trying to be, but it wouldn’t make sense to be crazy anyway.” She ended, but she looked at him with a slightly hesitant expression.

He nodded. “That is the portrayal, yes. Our nature illustrates us as predators, and our survival is dependent on a method that few other species perform.”

The two were quite for a few minutes, silently reaching the corner and she followed him to the right. They walked in the street, but off to the side in case anyone looked or happened to drive by. That, and it was simply habit for the girl.

“Your soul, your mind, does not change,” Lars said suddenly, though not breaking stride. “Vampirism is physical, your body has a new way to survive and depends upon it. Many choose to embrace the ‘monstrousness’ of it, but it is a choice. There is no ‘loss’ of your soul or mentality, nor an emotional light switch, so to speak,” he explained, not entirely sure why he felt the need to continue speaking. Lars had always been deliberate and exact with his words, centuries of meeting and coexisting with vampires and other species—both less and more powerful than he—had honed the skill.

“Seems scary, from a human point of view,” Cassille remarked, tone still thoughtful but light.

“That is the curse. That we know how wrong we are, and only through our own will and perhaps centuries of pleading and pain can we come to terms with—or refuse to acknowledge—it.”

******

Cass lived through the three days as a Changeling, unsurprisingly, and with Lars’s help had managed to be in relatively little pain and not incite any news on public injuries or unexplained deaths. In a fairly close-knit, in-tune city such as Boston, the population would have been more alert and, while still unaware, it would have made feeding more difficult.

Two weeks later, she sat alone in her apartment, listening to the footsteps, heartbeats, conversations, music, and breathing of the other students living in the converted house, watching the last of the sun’s rays slowly trickle out of the room. Her curtains were thick enough to shut out most of the light, but a bit, especially during the sunset, shot through the bottom in a thin line. Though now, according to Lars, it wouldn’t kill her, just burn continuously until she got out of it. She’d tested it a few times, tearing through the skin of her bottom lip as she held back screams of pain as every layer of her skin boiled and blistered, the burning spreading across her arm even to the skin that wasn’t in the light. Every time she pulled away, however, it would heal in a matter of minutes.

The light disappeared, and Cass huffed a noise that sounded quite similar to ‘finally’ as she uncurled from her desk chair and stood in the center of her bedroom. She was a student, so days had always seemed long while sitting in scratchy chairs listening to a professor lecture on and on for hours, making the hour feel like a week. But this made days feel like years. Lars had vanished her fourth day, stiffly congratulating her on being a vampire, no longer a Changeling, and promising that he would return soon. She hadn’t quite known what to do with herself, so during the days she’d been cooped in her room sleeping or doing online work.

A dull buzz caught her attention, and Cass almost felt her ears literally perk up. She looked over at her phone, her feet not moving from their spots.

What you up to tonight?

She grinned, feeling…not a pulse, but something pumping in her limbs as she quickly stepped to her closet to put on some clothing better than pajama shorts and a tank top. Within half an hour, Cass was striding down the street, shutting out the mixture of different emotions that wanted to take over her mind. She did scoff at herself, this being one of the few times she even had emotions strong enough to acknowledge, and thus to snap harshly at to shut the fuck up.

Peter opened his door to her with a lazy smile, the one he usually greeted her with that stirred multiple, distinct reactions in her stomach. He looked so at ease, so calm and content with life, while Cass had spent the months she’d known him confused and with her lungs writhing unprompted in her chest. She’d developed feelings for him, yes, but her friend hadn’t been quite so understandable.

Yet, she knew she matched his smile every time. “Come on in,” he jerked his chin as he already began to turn and walk back into the house. Cass felt the air thicken slightly, but her steps over the threshold and down the short hallway were uninterrupted.

The two settled naturally on his couch, the TV already on, their shoulders just enough apart that they didn’t touch, but each was aware of the heat radiating off the other’s warm, alive body. Cass tilted her head at that, her sudden thought unnoticed by Peter. She wasn’t alive anymore, there was no warmth radiating off her, and there was no heart to beat irregularly. She didn’t even feel the warmth of his body, just…blank air. She could feel the air shift as he readjusted his shoulders against the couch, but she didn’t feel him, as if her nerves were just ignoring him.

She was, however, incredibly aware that a living human with veins full of hot, rushing blood was mere inches from her. She could hear his pulse thudding dully, the pressure right up against her eardrums, and she could smell the faint copper as well as something tangy in the air. The scents filtered through the smell of the wooden house, dust, food on the counters not quite put away, and even Peter’s shampoo and aftershave. And it was intoxicating, she could feel her mind become slightly fuzzy as a rawness erupted in her throat and her mouth felt dry. Cass felt adrenaline and energy coil in her limbs, itching to strike out and grab the source of survival.

“Hey, Cass,” a slightly slurred greeting hummed, shaking her mind just enough that she refocused and saw three of Peter’s five housemates walk in, settling themselves on the other couch and chair. She nodded in response, not that they had even paid attention long enough to see, immediately being wrapped into the movie. She allowed a grin when she realized it was one she’d mentioned to Peter that she liked.

“You were right, I like it so far,” he leaned into her, whispering conspiratorially. She smirked, holding out her hands.

“I’m always right.”

Cass withstood the onslaught of senses for a solid ninety minutes, and really felt like she deserved some kind of congratulations. Or, as she glanced again at the closest guy’s neck besides Peter, a reward. She could hear other heartbeats, faint voices, music, televisions, and footsteps shuffle mutely in the neighboring houses, as well as from the duplex upstairs. But the four males in the room dominated. Their pulses tangled into one deafening thunderstorm, the hormones and slight sweat and coppery tang of blood smothered Cass’s nose and tongue, and her skin crawled and burned as her body, her animalistic instincts, begged for her to sink her aching teeth into at least one of them.

As if hearing the plea—call to nature, ha, Cass enjoyed her pun for a split second—the guy sitting in the fold-up chair stood and walked out of the doorway. Cass listened to his footsteps echo across the small hallway and step from wood to the tile that made up the kitchen floor. Sam, she vaguely recalled his name being.

He was leaning against the counter, a cup of water balanced on the edge with one hand while he typed rapidly on his phone with the other, barely even noticing her walk in. she stood just inside the doorway, gaze immediately locking onto the twitching vein at his neck.

She stood three steps closer, and his head jerked up. He gave a small, though not entirely comfortable smile, before dropping back down to his phone. “Hey, didn’t notice you got in here,” he chuckled slightly. Cass schooled her lips to twitch up in a shy smile, even though he wasn’t looking and she certainly wasn’t paying much attention to anything except that vein, the pulsing growing louder with each slow step she took. The distance, the slow time, was agonizing.

He looked up again, this time with his brow furrowed. “Uh, you need something? There’s drinks in the fridge, and we usually keep dry food—” Cass’s last step left her chest barely an inch from his, and her breath would have mingled with his if she had one to exhale. Sam did breath, and it fanned over her face.

They stood still for what felt like hours, but couldn’t have been more than a split second, because Cass’s body was screaming. Bite. Drink. Bite. Drink. Bite. Drink. Live.

“Woah, hey, what’s with your eyes—” Cass’s sharp, extended canines sank into his neck, smoother and easier than butter, hot, sweet blood spilling onto her lips and down her throat before she’d even finished biting into him. Her eyelids fluttered, but she didn’t close them, and Cass swallowed down the moan at the relief in her body. In the corner of her mind, she heard the male yell, just once before pain and shock took over and made him limp and quiet. But it was enough.

Though he took over her consciousness, other heartbeats began to pound even louder against her skull, the smells of adrenaline and blood rose sharply even as his poured into her mouth. The scene blurred in her mind, becoming a rush of smells, tastes, blood, adrenaline, power, burning, and pure, animalistic action and satisfaction.

Her chin and shirt were coated in warmth, her body humming with renewed life, and she was positively giddy, as if on some kind of high from biting into and taking a few long gulps from the three guys. Cass faced the only one untouched, though her instincts scoffed and wondered why he was untouched if he was standing in the doorway, gaping and unmoving. She felt the snarl build in her throat, though it slipped out as a low, quiet growl. She was the predator, he was prey, and he was about to pay for such stupidity and not running.

Peter’s eyes were wide and glassy, with shock or unshed tears, Cass didn’t know or care. Her steps towards him were measured, stalking, and she stumbled back into the living room. Somewhere along the way, his mouth stopped opening and closing mutely and he managed to form words.

“C-Cass?” he started, not quite pleading for his life but more just…confused. He stared at the girl before him, always so pretty and quiet—hurt, obviously damaged and barely half-full long before he’d met her, but still had always been sweet to him. Yet now, black pupils nearly swallowed the luscious chocolate of her eyes; and her smile was all malice and designed so that her full, red lips twisted to reveal sharp teeth. Her mouth, chin, and shirt were smeared in fresh, dark blood like some twisted, horrific painting. And she was looking at him…it was unnatural, and it drove fear into his soul even more so than her twisted smile. She looked at him with cold, empty eyes, all hunger and predatory determination. There was no pity, or fear, or even anger.

“Cass, what the hell…what are you?” he struggled for words, trying to see something.

Her grin changed, but she said nothing. And then, Peter was screaming and Cass was relishing in even more blood, though his tasted even sweeter and hotter and better than the others, and she ran her nails through his hair and along his arms to keep him to her. Her scratches drew out small rivulets of blood, adding to the intoxicating aroma and Cass felt sparks in her limbs, tearing into Peter more viciously than she had the other humans.

Under her, she felt the gush of blood begin to slowly lessen, the muscled body begin to weaken and his attempts to wrench her off of him by her hair or shoulders were becoming weaker and sloppier. He was draining, and Cass felt energy fill her instead. She felt powerful.

The frustrated, confused scream tearing from her throat was high-pitched and inhuman as something stronger than steel wrapped around her chest, yanking her sharply away from her prey. Her mouth detached and the human slumped down in an ungraceful heap against the wall, blood still coating him and trickling from his many wounds. It kept her sense full and her body surged with energy to fight, to throw off this obstruction and perhaps even rip it to shreds for daring to be in her way.

“Stop this,” a low, gravelly voice hissed in her ear. “You’ve had more than enough, this isn’t about hunger anymore.”

Yes, it was. Of course it was. It couldn’t be anything else.

Somewhere in Cass’s mind, she heard Lars. She felt the fire in her body cool into smoke and a few sparks, and she stilled. Her feet hit the floor firmly, and she looked around as if noticing the room for the first time. Blood was still fresh and heavy in the air, though four heartbeats were faint but present. Blood was semi-dried, sticky and warm against her skin. Blood, blood, blood. Peter was covered in his own, unconscious and weak and looking so very wrong on the floor before her.

Lars was beside her. He had ripped her off of him, had called her off. Cass’s mind flashed to the first time they’d met, all that time ago and yet practically yesterday.

Lars hummed thoughtfully, arm still like iron around the girl’s relaxed torso, surveying the end result. The young men had struggled, starting before he’d arrived, and the few chairs and thin tables were turned over, blood streaking the floor in many thin lines. They were all unconscious, not dead, although the blonde one he had pulled her off of seemed a bit close for human comfort. His shirt was soaked in his own blood, but Lars could see the bite on his neck already healing. The young man’s thick, dark blonde hair was tangled and matted in blood, and trails of it were smeared on his arms as well. And in the middle of the messy, stained room, stood Lars and Cass, who was standing upright and calmly, not even gasping for breath out of habit.

He made up his mind. “It is time to move on,” he said, and she simply nodded.