She wasn't cold.
For a moment that was all she could think of. It should have been cold. The night had been cool (was it the same night?) and outside the theatre doors the breeze was sliding through her hair. She should have shivered, maybe hugged herself to keep the warmth in, and she didn't because she wasn't cold.
She wasn't warm, either. She was… nothing. Everything. The alley didn't smell of anything, which was wrong, because she could see the garbage and the piss stains on the concrete and she realized, startled, that she'd forgotten to breathe. It meant nothing to her when she finally did. Nothing at all.
She looked up.
The stars were bright. The air itself seemed curiously defined, or maybe that was just the smog drifting through in abstract patterns. Suddenly dizzy, she put her hand against the wall to catch her breath and shuddered that the intricate scratch of the brick under her fingers. A voice shouted from far away and though it was faint, she could make out every word. Trembling, but not from cold, she took a step forward.
Someone laughed, loud and hoarse. She whirled. A man – was he a man? Was she still a woman? – was leaning against the wall, smoking a cigar. He blew a desultory smoke ring and sauntered over.
"What a scene, man!" A dismissive hoot. "An' they just plop you out here like a naked baby in the woods. How 'bout that." He smiled at her, grim and fanged. "'S probably a lot to take in so, uh, why don't you let me show you the ropes?"
A step backwards. He looked like a marauder from a forgotten age, dark-haired, wild and tangled, and she wasn't sure if she trusted someone who smelled of smoke and spilled whiskey.
"Who are you?"
"Name's Jack. An' what's important is, I'm offering help. You even know what you are?"
"A – a vampire." She flinched as she said it. "The blonde man told me a little bit, about what had happened to me. He gave me some – " But her throat closed at the memory. He had given her a full plastic bag and she hadn't known what it was but she had even as she'd torn it open and gulped the contents. And it had been so sweet.
"LaCroix. Yeah. He's one of the power players in L.A."
"I've never heard of him."
"Well, you wouldn't have. We like to keep our existence a secret, know what I mean? What's your name, kid?"
"Let's sit down a bit, have a little chat. I ain't got much time but I'll give you what I have to spare. Mind if I smoke?"
Yes, she almost said, and then smiled for a moment. "I don't suppose it matters anymore, does it?" she asked, sitting next to him on the stoop
He laughed again and fished his cigar from behind his ear. "You catch on quick. Now, here's the basics. You're a vampire now, kid, one of the damned and forsaken, but that don't mean you gotta act like one. Hang on to every scrap of goodness you've got, 'cause that shit'll mean the difference between life and death one day."
"What do you mean?"
"The Beast." He stuck out his forefinger and pressed it hard above her heart. "You can feel it howlin' in there already, eh? Or you will, soon enough. It wants blood, and it doesn't care how it gets it. Keep it fed, and it'll leave you alone. Start killin' innocents and runnin' wild in the streets and it'll grow until you ain't you no more. Then you got to be put down like the rabid dog you'll become."
"So I don't – I don't have to kill anyone?"
"Not unless you need to, no. Self-defense ain't a problem; self-preservation's part of being human. My favorite part, in fact. Someone tries to fuck with you, pluck out their eyes and leave 'em for the crows."
"What about – you know – feeding…?"
He took another long drag. "Blood. Oh yeah, blood. Kid, what can I say? It's your new rack of lamb, your new champagne. Hell, it's your new fucking heroin. There's different flavors, depending on who you feed off, but it's all good. Better'n anything you had as a human. Don't even bother trying to eat human food, you'll just puke it up again." He eyed her for a long moment. "Bet that asshole LaCroix didn't give you much, huh? You'll want a full tank before you start runnin' his highness' errands."
"I – " She was going to say that she was fine, but at the thought of it – cold and sweet and luscious down her throat, unsatisfying but so, so much better than anything – something lunged inside her and she pitched forward slightly. Jack pushed her back. His hand was rough and strong.
"Easy there. See what I mean about the Beast? Gotta keep it happy, or it'll fuck you over first chance it gets."
"What do I do?"
"Down around the corner over there I saw a human. Poor sonuvabitch can't find his keys. Go on over there and creep up behind him. You'll know what to do. Just don't kill 'im. It'll be hard, but killing just to feed – that's the Beast talking."
She licked her lips. She wanted, oh god she wanted, she could feel herself growing slinky and powerful at the thought of something to devour, something real, not tasting of plastic and preservatives. But.
"What if I screw up?"
Jack grinned. There was no joy in it. "Then we move on to a new set of lessons."
Elizabeth stood and padded over to the corner, joints sliding more smoothly than they ever had. The thought of feeding had something stretching inside her, languorous and anticipatory, and all the strangeness and the panic and the horror she wanted to feel faded to a dull background against the screaming hunger in her veins. Oh, yes.
She knew exactly what to do.
The man was pacing back and forth between the alley walls, scanning the ground but not quite willing to stoop low and search. Perhaps, if he had been, he would have found them by now. And she would still be hungry.
The vein was throbbing in his neck and without thinking about it, she snaked her arms around his chest and sank her fangs into his jugular. Blood pumped into her mouth, flooded her throat and spread tingling to every inch of her body. It was the first long drink of water after the hot sun, the first meal after a fast, her first kiss, her first orgasm, her first breath. She sucked hungrily as the blood began to slow; she didn't want it to slow, there should be more…
What was left of Elizabeth screamed in horror and her throat stopped up mid-swallow. She pulled back, licking quickly at the wound without knowing why and watching dazedly as the puncture holes closed. The man folded over with a quiet sigh and she laid him gently on the ground.
"I'm sorry," she mumbled, feeling for a pulse. It was slow, and weak, but steady. "I'm so sorry. I – I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
Warm blood turned to cold copper in her mouth and she stumbled back to where Jack was leaning against the stage door.
"Took it hard, huh?"
"I didn't – I mean – he's alive – "
"Yeah, and so're you. It's what you are now, kid. If you don't feed, the Beast will, and it don't leave survivors."
Elizabeth hugged herself against a cold that went deeper than flesh.
"And I have to do that every night."
"It's not so bad. Alright, so you'll never see the sun again, but most of the shit in the stories just ain't true. Garlic? Worthless. A cross? Shove it up their ass. A stake only works if it catches you in the heart, and then it just paralyzes you. Running water's no problem, either. I bathe." He winked at her. "Occasionally."
It wasn't funny. She laughed anyway.
"And there's some other fringe benefits: sharper senses, body that can take a beating, a chance at immortality. See, sunlight, fire, and decapitation'll kill you, but anything else'll heal on its own. And every day, while you sleep, your body resets to how it was the night you were Embraced. Which reminds me: you can't stay awake during the day. Don't try. Keep a watch on – "
Crackling explosions, and something invisible and deadly whizzed past her. Jack whirled, pushing her against the wall. His back loomed in front of her, solid and dark, and he cursed.
"Shit. Look, see that door over there? The garage next door? You go through there an' get upstairs, we'll meet there. I'm gonna go see what the ruckus is."
Voice hooted and screamed nearby, coming closer. Elizabeth darted across the alley as Jack sank into a crouch in her peripheral vision. The door was sticking, or maybe her hands were shaking; she forced it open and shoved against it to shut it tight behind her. The wild yells and spatters of gunfire were less immediate with half a foot of brick between her and the outside. She took a moment to look around. It was a standard garage, with lifts for the cars and a metal catwalk above leading to a hallway. There were no stairs, not even a ladder, but there was a promising pile of crates and boxes. She crept over, tense with gun-fear, and leapt onto the boxes, vaulting over the catwalk's railing almost in one movement.
She edged along the catwalk, marveling at how easy everything was. As if she had become more, or the world had become less. Anything was possible. Laughter welled up inside her and she wanted to run, to jump and leap and climb the tallest building in the city until she could touch the moon. The strange presence surged inside her, under her heart, and she opened her mouth to let out –
"Easy, kid." Jack was in front of her, hand on her shoulder and amusement in his eyes. "It'll take you like that sometimes, especially early on. Don't get too caught up."
"What was that?" It was her, and it wasn't. She was calm, precise and studied in her actions and decision. Yet the thing that had reared up and nearly burst her heart with joy hadn't felt alien and wrong as the other – the Beast, Jack had called it.
"It's, uh – well, it's hard to explain. It's like – look, kid, you're a predator now. You ever see a wolf cryin' over hunting a lamb? What you got there, it ain't exactly the Beast, but it's like a part of it. It's the part that'll make you feel less guilt about feeding, an' that's a slippery slope, but if you try to carve it out entirely – well, it ain't pretty. That much Beast you need to survive as what you are now. You follow?"
She knew that she was detaching out of shock and she embraced it, needing the clarity. There would be a later; there was always a later, a time to mourn, a time to weep, a time for every purpose under heaven. Now she needed to survive, and she understood survival. Things would sort themselves out and become clear in time, if she could only keep on the tightrope long enough.
"Yes," she said finally. "I understand."
Jack nodded back, gravely, a spark of recognition in his eyes. Gunfire sounded again from outside, much closer now, and he gestured for her to follow.
"Keep away from the windows."
They crept along the catwalk as it turned and became a hallway. Screams and hollers drifted up from the alleyway, then a long burst of gunfire. Jack glanced out the window.
"Fuckin' Sabbat. Waste a' unlife."
Elizabeth went up to a window, carefully. Three men – no, might as well call them what they are – three vampires were charging along the alley, spraying bullets left and right.
"It's a Sabbat raid. See, the Sabbat are – well, they're mostly mindless bloodthirsty maniacs, that's all you need to know for now, alright?"
Jack shifted uncomfortably in her peripheral. She kept her eyes fixed on the drama below. The huge man who had killed Lucas strode to the end of the alley as his opponents emptied their guns, unflinching.
"It's politics, kid, an' I don't wanna tell you what to think, okay? But the Sabbat are bad news."
"Politics. Of course. I suppose there must be a whole world I haven't encountered yet, with its own sects and subcultures."
The man gestured. Two wolves sprung up behind the attackers and bore them to the ground, ethereal teeth tearing into arteries and releasing very real blood. The third attacker charged and he gestured again. A wind rose up and the charging vampire was reduced to ash.
"Why are they here?"
"They heard about the Prince's little to-do, figured they'd come down and put some heat on him, show him what he's up against."
The man looked up and locked eyes with her, and a shiver raced down her spine. She flinched away.
"LaCroix. The short blonde with the Napoleon complex."
"Does he rule here?"
Jack blinked at her. "Sorry?"
"LaCroix. You called him a prince. Does he rule here?"
Jack looked at her for a long moment, and she did not look away. This was not madness, this new reality, not if there was politics. Or if there was, it was a familiar madness. There was method in it, purpose and motive. She only needed to gather enough information and the patterns would come into focus.
"You might do alright, kid," he said softly. "You might do alright."
"And that's it, kiddo. Just like that, it's all over." Jack lit up a cigarette, clenching it between his teeth. His fangs were still out, faint traces of red around his lips. "Everyone slinks back home. Until the next night, when the Camarilla finds a way to retaliate. Parry, dodge, spin an' all that. Then the Sabbat strikes back, and so on, and so on, and so on…"
"And this just goes on, forever?"
"If you want, sure. Though t'be honest you came at an interesting time. The Camarilla an' the Sabbat, they're the new kids on the block. There's already plenty a' Kindred who had stakes down in California long before they moved in. Now we got all kinds'a ancient rivalries playing out all across the city. Lot a' fear. Lot a' jittery, high-strung predators protecting their little slices of eternity."
A horn sounded outside.
"I think they're looking for you. I was hoping to fill you in a little more, but… eh, you're smart, you'll figure it out. If you make it back from Santa Monica, drop by the Last Round an' I'll see if I can fill you in on some of the politics."
"Good luck, kid." The corners of his eyes crinkled like parchment. "You're gonna need it."
Elizabeth was tired; more tired than she'd known she could be. And hungry. Not desperate, not yet, but she could feel the gnawing at the back of her mind. The thing inside her, her Beast, it was stronger than her right now. She would need to be careful until she learned to cage and balance it.
A taxi was parked just outside. The driver waved at her, and she got inside.
"Good evening," he said, and she choked back a giggle at his light accent. Eastern European. Of course.
"Evening," she responded as he pulled away from the curb, settling into the comfortable hum of the engine. "Do you drink… wine?"
His sunglasses hid the reflection of his eyes in the rearview mirror (sunglasses at night, of course), but she thought there was a trace of humor in his voice.
"A reasonably recognizable question to one of our blood, yet easily disguised as a rather insensitive joke made by a tired young woman. Well done. No, young one, I do not drink wine. I am Epiktetos, a driver employed by the Prince."
"Pleasure to meet you," she said automatically.
"I see you have already met Mr. Jack."
"That is good."
"Why do you say that?" She would never be too tired to pounce on new information.
"He is quite old, and well-respected. What advice he has given you, it will be useful. Hold it close."
"I never disregard advice," she said quietly. "I might not follow it, though."
"A good attitude, I think. Then, let me give you advice that you will not disregard. When dealing with Kindred, give every courtesy and show no fear."
"Thank you. I'll remember that." She was staring out the window, watching the lights blur, and she did not see his smile.