Standard disclaimers apply.
No spoilers here.
This story is rated R for violence and sex.
Even Josef was a fledgling, once….
Introduction: Los Angeles 2008
Josef poured himself a drink and stared moodily into its amber depths. He'd told Mick that events from his childhood were hazy, and while that was not entirely a lie, there were certain events he remembered from almost that far back. Remembered with a perfect, crystal clarity, especially at times when the ghosts of all his regrets came out to torment him. Somehow he knew that, much like himself, certain dark moments would never die. The stories might remain forever untold, but that didn't mean the past was gone.
1631 Somewhere in Eastern Europe…
"Think of it," the older vampire said, extending a hand with the end of a golden chain, "as an exercise in control."
The fledgling gulped, looking from his sire to the woman at the other end of the chain.
She was blonde, pleasingly formed, although she bore multiple fang marks both on her throat and along all of her exposed limbs. The scraps of diaphanous silk that floated around her hid nothing from his gaze. He had seen her often before, chained at the side of his sire's throne. "Is she not one of your favorites?" he asked. His hunger flared suddenly at the prospect of feeling such delicate flesh beneath his fangs.
The answer was a negligent wave of one be-ringed hand that ignored the pleading eyes of the slave. "One may give up what one values easily, if the perceived worth of the lesson is its equal." There was a pause. "You have learned the first of your lessons well, my fledgling. Now we begin to learn anew. The mare is yours, although not outright. Use her as you see fit, yet do not drink. Her body is for your pleasure, but not her blood."
Josef bowed, the red haze of his hunger distracting him. He was grateful for the long hair falling forward over his face to disguise his dismay. "I'm not sure I understand, my sire."
The old vampire's hands lifted, graceful and dismissive at once. "The bloodlust is not all you must learn. Think on the lesson, and come to me when you understand."
Josef bowed again in answer, and accepted the chain from his sire's hand. He gave the chain a flip that pulled the girl off balance, sending her to her knees even as she reached out, yearning, to the vampire who had made her a willing slave to the fang. Another pull at her collar, and she stumbled to her feet, blind with tears, to follow her new master into the unknown.
A low fire cast its shadows in flickers across the subterranean chamber, but did little to heat it. The girl remained curled on the stone floor where Josef had cast her, the chain around her neck mingling with her hair to form a bright ribbon in the gloom. She did not dare to move closer to the hearth without permission. Josef, slouched in the room's only chair, his booted legs thrust out before him, regarded her with some consternation. He had rarely been so near a human woman since his turning, and he wondered a little that desire was beginning to arise in him. Not only the maddening ache of his fangs to find purchase in her skin, but in his loins as well. That seemed like an echo of humanity to him. He had known women in his mortal life—what man of his age and station had not? The women plundered in sack of cities, the tavern whores paid in silver coin, and the court ladies no less whorish, but paid in different currency. And further back, the sweet delights of country girls who eased their thighs to him on the strength of his handsome smile, his whispered blandishments.
Then, since his turning, he had spent years following a different set of desires. He knew full well what his sire had meant by the first lesson. He had been taught—or rather encouraged—to unleash the bloodlust, to use his fangs to tear open the throats of his foes, to near drown himself in their blood, to let it quench him and cover him in scarlet ferocity. And then to chain that ravening creature within himself. To loosen it at command, and not at the wild prompting of his vampire instinct. And in those years, the bloodlust had filled him, completed him to the exclusion of other desires. The hunt, the kill, the blood was everything. The terrifying ecstasy of listening to the frantic beat of a heart drumming slower as he drank and fading, too soon, into stillness.
He had been aware but dimly of his sire's blood slaves, the pretty boys and girls who served the master vampire. Body and blood. He had thought nothing of it, of them, until now. They were not for him, not for his consumption. And holding them at the far edges of his consciousness, it was easy to dismiss them from his thoughts. Now, however, the circumstances had changed, and it was impossible to ignore the racing heartbeat of this slave. His slave…
For a long while, they remained motionless, the girl's frozen, fearful anticipation broken at length by her shivering as the chill of the stone penetrated her flesh. The vampire pondered his sire's intent. He was meant to learn something by using this girl, but not drinking from her. Yet he had been told, repeatedly, that the sole purpose of humans was to feed the vampires, as lesser animals fed humans. But from this human he must not feed. No matter that her fear provoked his predatory instincts, no matter that he had not fed for several nights. He thought with some longing of the prisoner enclosure above, where huddled, sodden wretches waited for the fledglings of the castle to slaughter them one by one. He swallowed back his thirst.
"Control," his sire had said. That was the key, but what was the meaning?
He stood, walked over to the cringing girl, and by the chain around her neck, hauled her to her feet, her hands clawing at the choking pressure, the miasmic smell of her fear as thick as a fog around them both. Josef inhaled the scent with great appreciation, even as he forced her before him to pin her against the edge of his table, his hand heavy on the back of her neck. He pressed her face against the rough grain of the wood as he fought the barrier of his clothes. The silk of her flimsy garments ripped apart in his hand, and he pushed, hard, battering his way inside her.
The feel of her ripe breasts crushed in his hands, the warm living velvet inside her that fought and strained so futilely against the invasion of his cold flesh, his heightened senses found pleasures there beyond what he remembered from his days in the sunlight. He could hear every breath, every heartbeat, even the rush of blood through her veins. He could smell her fear and sense her pain, and later, when his rough assault drew a different sort of unwilling response, he could smell that as well, and found it pleasing. But the need to bury his fangs in her, to penetrate her skin with his teeth, was becoming overwhelming. He took one hand from her bucking hips to wipe across his mouth, and with that careless motion slashed one fang across the back of his hand. The scent of his own blood welling from the cut enraged him, and he sucked greedily at the wound, the pain making him plunge against her all the harder.
Later, he would take time to explore her more fully. Later, he would have exhausted the first frantic reawakening of his lust. For now, the fight between his orders and his instincts tore at him, made him savage with need. Somehow, in the scarlet depth of his hunger, he was able to refrain from the final step. Many times, he put his mouth to her skin, licking the salt sweat away, and knowing it would be too easy for his fangs to rip into the flesh beneath him, yet somehow he clung to that last remaining shred of rational thought, the one that kept him from committing that ultimate violation of her body.
When he left her with the dawn to crawl into the shelf-like niche in the living rock of his wall that served as his bed for the day, he had no idea that her broken, whimpering cries would disturb his slumber for hours to come. There was a part of him that gloried in the conquest, that found satisfaction in the brutal mastery of this fragile creature. And, too, he heard her strangled noises as a vindication of his control. Had he used her as he truly wished, she would be still indeed, a silent piece of refuse, needing only to be hauled out to the frozen midden.
By the end of the second night she was quiet, voiceless from screaming. Josef found it strangely peaceful, found the sound of her heart beating in his stone chamber welcome. It was as though he needed that presence of life to feel that his own existence continued.
Thinking he had absorbed the required lesson, but reluctant to give up this newfound object of his amusement, he waited two more nights, the difficulty of restraining his thirst growing with every passing hour. Then, knowing he was almost at the end of his endurance, he looped the slave's chain lightly around his wrist, and went in search of his sire.
"Have you done as I required, my fledgling?" The voice was barely a whisper, but the authority behind it was unassailable.
Josef bowed, and thrust the girl forward to roll in a heap across the floor. "She has been with me night and day, my sire, and not a drop of her blood has been shed."
"And what lesson have you taken from this?"
Josef bowed again. "That just as the red thirst may be called, it may also be chained."
"That is the first part of the lesson, my fledgling." At the sound of the ancient vampire's voice, the blonde looked up with a strange hope rising in her eyes. Josef could smell the birth of desire within her, underneath her pain, underneath the bruises blossoming on her flesh.
His sire motioned slightly, and the girl leapt up, hurrying to her true master to kneel silently at the vampire's feet. "It would seem, my fledgling, that she prefers my touch to yours. You did not use her gently, I fear."
"You said, as I saw fit," Josef responded, stung to petulance.
"And here is where the lesson truly begins. Tell me, my fledgling, do you kill every horse you ride?"
"Of course not, my sire. That would be…wasteful."
The vampire put out a dry hand to run through the slave's golden hair. After a long pause, the hand was withdrawn in a whisper of silken robes. "If you treat her as you should, this mare will bear you through many long rides. Continue to treat her ungently, and she will fail you sooner, rather than later."
Josef bowed in acknowledgement of that truth, while his sire lifted the girl's chin in one hand, gazing down at her with mild eyes as though in some unspoken communion. "She pleads with me, my fledgling," the older vampire said. "She would rather die than return to your—questionable—mercies." There was another pause, and the hand moved from her chin to her high, slanting cheekbone. With a deceptively small movement of one long-nailed finger, her cheek was laid open, and the blood began to drip down her face. Then her face was turned, as though the vampire was inspecting the artistry of the cut, or the depth of the pain. Josef felt his fangs burst down into his mouth, and the light of the burning lamps tinged suddenly red as the thirst invaded even his vision, but not so much so that he missed the subtle summons of his sire.
As bidden wordlessly, he moved forward, falling to his knees beside the kneeling slave, and at a nod from his sire, he put his mouth to the cut and began to suck the blood that mingled with her tears. Under his hands on her shoulders, he could feel her trembling beneath the rough strokes of his tongue across her skin. Her blood was sweet, more fulfilling to him than his harsh use of her body, but he wanted more than he could pull from such a shallow cut. He knew he would have to move quickly, to strike like an adder, burying his fangs in her throat…then he felt iron fingers digging through his hair to the scalp, twisting in the long strands of it, forcing his head back, away from his prize. He snarled, snapping his teeth together.
"Vicious, vicious," his sire said. "You do not have my permission yet to bite her. But I thought you deserved a taste, for your forbearance." The older vampire released him with a twisting push that sent the fledgling sprawling, and Josef pressed his lips together, the muscles of his face working, as he rolled gracefully to his feet. His eyes were focused on his sire's face. The bond between them was still strong, superseding any tie he might feel to a mortal. He waited for the next words. There was a pursing of lips, a shaking of the head. "You have so much more to learn, my fledgling. Your skills for war serve you well, but you must survive without the spoils of battle as well."
"Will there not always be these two-legged cattle to feed us?" Josef asked.
His sire frowned. "You underestimate them, my fledgling. When you were mortal, did you have the strength of the bear? The speed and cunning of the wolf? The ferocity of the wild boar?'
"No, my sire, I did not." He looked down.
"Yet you hunted them." His sire smiled slowly, and Josef thought it was a terrible beauty, like the dawn. "You killed them for their meat. You killed them for your sport."
"The wolves raided our flocks," Josef said suddenly. He tried to block the memories of his former life, but now and then they bubbled to the surface unbidden.
"You make my point for me. What else is it that we do?" his sire dropped a hand to the head of a pretty boy who crouched beside the throne, wrapped in the pelt of a great gray wolf. "Even this pet lamb was stolen from someone's flock."
Josef looked aside, swallowing. He hated the need to bend down to anyone, even the powerful creature who had turned him. It took a moment to school his features to emotionless passivity, and still he feared lest he let his eyes express his anger. When he looked back to his sire, however, the vampire was not looking at him, having turned the force of his regard toward the girl who still knelt before the throne.
"Pretty poppet," the vampire said, smiling down at her. "Even I cannot give you her willing blood, my fledgling. But you can take it, gain it, if you truly want it."
Josef bowed, the mask of courtesy restored with some effort. "Forgive me, my sire, but how?"
"I think you know that," the vampire replied, head shaking indulgently. "Look inside yourself and find an answer. Or know yourself unworthy of the gift you were given."
Once again, Josef bent his head, his unbeating heart sinking like a stone within his breast. Always he had been first among the fledglings. Fastest to learn, quickest to adapt, to assimilate their sire's intent. To be thought in any way less than worthy was unendurable.
"I will prove myself to your satisfaction, my sire."
"That is surely for me to determine. For now," the vampire paused, catching the slave's chain and letting it run softly through a desiccated hand, "take her and learn from her…teach her to desire your—attention." Dropping the chain, a cuff from that hand sent the girl reeling. "Feed on her, fledgling, but I tell you again, if she dies from your use, I will be--displeased.
Josef reached down for her, thoughtful. This time he ignored the chain, and grasped her arm to pull her to her feet, ignoring her flinch away from his touch. The laughter of his sire followed them as he led her away. He knew she was following him docilely enough, even though her bare feet made little noise along the stone corridor. He could feel her trembling, smell the acrid stink of her fear, and the bitter salt of the tears that snaked tracks down her cheeks, past the drying blood of the cut on her face.
He felt a sudden unreasoning anger at his sire. How was he supposed win over this girl, when he'd been—he thought—encouraged to make her the mere receptacle of his long-forgotten need.
Josef stopped and looked around him. They were the only ones in this corridor dimly lit with ensconced torches The girl had checked her movement instantly when he halted, without ever looking up, and she stood very still, tense and alert. He lifted his hand and she cringed back to the end of her chain. He saw her take a quick glance to see where his blow might land, but he only motioned.
"Come here," he said, his voice as mild as he could make it. The girl's eyes flashed up again, warily, but she didn't move. Josef pulled the chain, a slow, steady traction that drew her forward inexorably. When she was close, he folded her stiff, shaking form in his arms, dropping his head to inhale the scent of her skin. The cut on her cheek still seeped blood, and even though it had begun to crust over, the smell of it assailed him
The taste of her he had taken earlier left him oddly torn. Normally, such a small amount would only have left him ravening for more, and he did feel some of the familiar pressure from his fangs, but it was not with the urgency he would have thought. He knew, somehow, that he could wait. He tried to stroke her hair, his hands feeling suddenly clumsy at such an unaccustomed gesture.
He kept her pulled close, stumbling beside him, the rest of the way to his chamber.
Once inside, he released her, shedding his heavy formal robe and folding it into a carved chest for safekeeping. As he did so, he heard her retreat quietly to the furthest corner, but when he had taken his accustomed seat, and snapped his fingers in her direction, she came to kneel before him without defiance. And if her trembling increased when he pulled her up to sit across his lean thighs, he could not tell, although the hand he laid on one breast let him feel the racing of flutter of her heart, the fearful quickening of her breath.
He wanted to put his mouth to her neck, to drink from her, but first he tried, this time purposefully, to call back the memories of his mortal youth. Not just what had come to him before, the body memory of what it was to sheath his flesh in the warmth of a woman, but everything he had learned about them.
A scant hour ago, he would have said he knew everything about the body of this woman he held, but now he took the time to explore further. His fingertips found every slightest difference in the textures of her skin, from the hard calluses on the soles of her feet to the incredible fineness of her eyelids. He had not bothered, before, to rein in his strength when he touched her, and the dark bruises on her skin bore mute testimony to his brutality. Now, he consciously held back, making his contact so light she could scarcely feel it, as she shivered against his cold flesh. Where before he had assaulted her moist recesses heedlessly, now he caressed, withdrawing when he realized the damage was too painful for her to bear even his gentlest touch. He found his thirst growing, his fangs descending, but it was not the fierce demand to rend and destroy that he had thought the whole of his vampiric nature. This was more akin, he thought, to the longing desire he felt re-awakened in his loins. A hunger, an ache no less strong than the killing urge, but different.
In her exhaustion, under this careful exploration she had passed from terrified alertness into a stupor close to sleep, and when at last he bent his head to her throat, she stretched her neck to him submissively, as she had long since learned to do for his sire.
It was hard, so hard, even though his fangs slid easily through her delicate skin, not to bite deeply, to thrust into her vein with savage intensity. Then the blood began to flow, and he gulped, feeling the sweetness exploding down his throat, assimilating itself into his flesh instantly. He drank, greedily, and almost forgot that he needed to stop while her heart still beat. Beneath his hands, her body arched, responding unbidden to her sensations. She cried out, but whether in pain or pleasure he could not tell, and the sound was enough to awaken him to his surroundings. With a few last strokes of his tongue against her neck, a final taste of her blood in his mouth, he leaned back, her body limp in his arms, his need at last assuaged.
For a long time, he sat, lost in thought, holding her against him, savoring the unfamiliar weight of a living body. Absently, he stroked her hair, his earlier clumsiness forgotten. At length, though, he felt a restlessness stirring in him, a desire to be out in the night, riding with the wind at his back, and he moved her gently, still sleeping, to a pile of cushions thrown negligently into a corner. Standing over her, staring down, he was moved to an unaccustomed tenderness, and covered her with a thick cloak. That sweet warmth, he now knew, needed some protection. Then he strode from the chamber, seeking solitude in the night.
Josef had never cared enough before to learn how the humans in the fortress were fed and clothed, but now it seemed he needed to know. When he returned, close to dawn, as soon as he had handed off his mount to a stableboy, he demanded the services of another groom, bidding him bring food and drink for his blood slave.
When the girl woke, weak and dazed, she found bread and meat and wine laid on the table, and the vampire asleep in his stone niche. She stared at him, sleeping, even as she ate.
And when Josef awoke for the night, his chamber was set to rights, the fire carefully tended and his slave freshly clad, kneeling by the hearth. She would not look at him, and he could hear her heart pounding with fear, but something had shifted. There was some small crack in the wall between them. When he approached her, she did not cringe away, but remained still, trembling violently. She inhaled sharply as he put his hand to her neck, but all he did was loosen the chain, and regarding it silently for a few moments as it lay in his grasp, before tossing it away to land on the table with a metallic hiss.
She feared him still. He knew this, in the way he knew she was constantly aware of his position in the room, and of his every movement. For his part, her presence was a perpetual temptation. He dared not feed from her again too soon, if he was to avoid harming her, but her blood, once tasted, called to him. And the knowledge of her body cried out to his awakened desires as well. He could, with care, use her in that fashion, although as the nights passed it became more difficult to bury himself in her without feasting on her blood, as well.
More than once, made harsh by frustration, he withdrew from her, leaving her weeping, to throw himself on some cur of a prisoner and drink with the savagery of denied lust. He tried to tell himself that blood was blood, and the thin fear-tainted essence of a starveling wretch was the same as that from a well-fed blood slave moaning in passion. But it was not, and he knew it, and the temptation grew nightly stronger. Josef was beginning to doubt the virtues of control, although as the girl began to fear a little less, coming to him freely with downcast eyes and a gracefully offered wrist, he had to allow the wisdom of his sire. Still, he did not feed on her, waiting for healing, for ripeness.
Then came a night when he could smell her veins pulsing strong and full, when he knew he could drink from her again. Early in the night, he had been out on the ramparts of the fortress, enjoying the sharp clarity of the winter night, listening to the distant howls of the wolves in the surrounding forest. It was, he thought, a glorious night to be in the world, under a sky like diamonds scattered on velvet. He drew in long breaths, reveling in his ability to pull so much information from the myriad scents of the night. He remembered from his mortal time being told to fear the dark, and he smiled. He knew with utter certainty that he would never regret the change that had come to him.
The girl was on her feet at once when he strode in, and he was obscurely pleased. He threw his frost-rimed cloak to her, watching her fold it carefully away as he divested himself of the calf-length outer robe he wore, and untied the neck of his linen shirt.
He'd planned to read, to study in one of the heavy volumes of history piled on his table. While his sire professed to disdain the petty concerns of humans, even that ancient being realized the necessity of paying heed to the political struggles and changing currents of human nations. Josef, closer to being a child of the time, was beginning to understand that the games of kings were slowly being replaced with the broader concerns of merchant princes, but these matters would take more study, more travel than he was able to do as a fledgling.
And on this night, with eternity before him, and life almost bursting from this girl, study was easy to put aside. He let her pull the long boots, the woolen stockings, from his feet. Her hands were warm on his flesh, and he reached down to capture her. Josef felt her stiffen, but she made no resistance when he pulled her into his lap, and his embrace.
If nothing else, this time of waiting had taught him to go slowly, to savor every part of the experience. For now, as a start, there was the scent of her, the delicious aroma of the blood coursing beneath her skin. And again, as was his practice, he stripped the simple gown from her, so he could explore the textures of her skin. With the lightest of touches, he sought out the delicate places—the inside of her elbow, the back of her knee, the underside of her breast, and the slow trace of his hand up the inside of her thigh, to the most sensitive, quaking skin of all. As his fingers parted her, her face turned away, the hair falling away from her throat. Josef felt the familiar aching pressure of his fangs, but he was not ready to take her. Not yet.
Slipping an arm under her knees, he stood easily. The girl had made a pallet, a nest of blankets and furs, in a corner of the room, and Josef carried her to it. She braced a hand against his chest, for balance, he thought, her fingers against the cool skin of his chest just inside the neck of his shirt. The gesture touched him, and aroused him at the same time.
He laid her down among the blankets, pausing to shed the remainder of his clothes before lowering himself to cover her body with his. She cried out when he entered her, wrapping her legs around his hips, and cried out again when he growled against her neck and buried his fangs in the tender flesh, seeking the nourishment her blood would give him. The pleasure of this double impalement overwhelmed him, pulled him into a red and mindless state, and as he drank, his consciousness focused within himself, trying to comprehend everything he was feeling. The blood, the sweet blood, filled him like crash of thunder, obliterated all else. He never noticed when her legs slipped from around him, when her arms fell limply away.
When he raised his head, saw her staring, open eyes, and realized what he had done, he pulled away in shock. He had not intended to harm her. He had not intended to lose control. Josef sat next to her, knees pulled up, hands over his face, for a long time, cursing his nature, cursing the need that had led him too far from the light.
He bore mutely the flogging that was his punishment for carelessness, and his fortitude won him a handful of blood slaves to replace the one who was lost to him. After a time, he realized that he had never heard her speak, he did not even know if they had a language in common. She had never even had a name, in his mind or on his tongue. Over the years that followed, he took the time to learn better how to seal the minds of his blood sources to him, to use them carefully. To exercise control, over them and over himself. She was not the first kill he had made, nor would she be the last, but from those early years, in his mind her face was the one he would never forget.
Coda: Los Angeles 2008
Josef grimaced at the burn of the scotch as he swallowed. There were more memories, many more, in the locked chambers of his misdeeds, of the evil he had committed, or failed to prevent, down through the long centuries of his life. And he knew with the weary certainty of experience that as the years wore on, there would be more. That didn't mean he was unaffected, and it didn't mean he had no desire to avoid more black marks against what was left of his soul. Mick might think he was the only one concerned with redemption, but he was wrong. He was wrong.