Oh, the girl's blood was intoxicating! The decadent, rich fluid entered my mouth, filling it with the sweet essence of Alice, driving every other thought from my mind.
I heard her soft gasp of pain and then she stiffened under me in her effort to remain silent. Being aware of her torment helped me to concentrate. I focused on my task, pouring as much venom as I could into her bloodstream, trying mightily to avoid spilling more of her precious life-fluid.
The draw of her blood was so powerful, so consuming, that I had to fight mightily to keep from reverting to my natural, monstrous state. Sweeter and more desirable by far than the elderly men I'd fed on the previous night. Her young, fresh, vibrant blood called to me, beckoning me to drink deeper, to forget all else.
The girl moaned softly and fought against her restraints. Her pain was growing stronger, just as I had known it would.
The knowledge of her suffering helped me to retain that last bit of sanity that was necessary to stop.
I released her throat and glided my tongue along the wounds my teeth had made, washing venom over the open incisions. Her flesh closed, fusing together almost instantly as my venom healed and changed it, sealing the burning fluid inside her body.
I leaned away and gazed into her face, amazed that she had managed to stay silent for so long. It had been nearly twenty seconds. Most others would have broken their vocal chords with screaming by now… only to have them healed by the twelfth hour and thus be able to resume their screaming.
Her face was scrunched up in pain, her white lips pressed tightly together. Her flesh was taking on a bright red hue. She wasn't breathing. Holding her breath when stressed was a habit with her, I'd noticed. She probably didn't realize she was doing it.
I was thoroughly impressed with her fortitude. Another ten seconds had passed and still she was silent. It was a testament to how ardently she desired to retain her precious human memories. She writhed in agony, but didn't make a sound.
I could see that the pain was growing stronger. Her writhing was becoming more frantic. I placed my icy hand against her cheek, wishing that the cold of my touch could ease the burning she was experiencing, but knowing all too well that it was a useless gesture. She probably didn't even feel my hand.
Then her agony must have reached a critical mass. All at once she opened her mouth, gasped in a deep breath of air and screamed in agony. The sound was chilling, almost inhuman. It was the sound of someone being burned alive. I'd heard that sound, under various circumstances, many times before. But hearing it now ripping from her throat… that was too much for me. And in addition to that motivation the hunter could easily be within earshot by now.
I had to stop her suffering. I didn't hesitate, but leaned in and placed my other hand on her face as well and focused.
For the first time, I dared to pass through the outer surface of her skull and delve into this beautiful girl's mind. Many times I had wished to do so. To see the memories and explore the complex workings of Alice's mind was a gift I didn't believe I deserved, but one I would have given much to receive.
With my eyes still open, and while seeing her tortured expression inches from my face, I dove deep into her memories.
It took me far less than a second to realize that I was out of my depth. Nothing was where it should be! Her familial memories were mingled together with her worldly possessions. Her fears were tangled together with her childhood adventures. And her memories of her sister tainted absolutely everything! Her languages, her motor skills, even her food preferences, were all inextricably entwined with memories of her sister. I had only ever seen something remotely similar to this once before, when I had altered the memory of an identical twin.
I balked. How could I do this quickly and still maintain enough of her "self" in the final result for her to survive?
Just then she opened her eyes. Her moist, hazel orbs burned into me, blood vessels rupturing as she screamed.
"KILL ME! PLEASE, KILL ME!" I heard the crack of her vocal chords snapping under the stress of her exclamation.
With her voice broken she wouldn't be able to make any more noise for a while.
Could I leave her to endure in silence for the next twelve hours until the venom healed her voice? If she cried out in pain then, would it be late enough in the process for the hunter to give up on his victim if I wasn't able to stall him long enough? I didn't think I could risk that.
She wanted to retain her memory; that was sure enough. But she hadn't figured on the level of pain she would be experiencing. And she wasn't able to remain silent.
It was obvious that she would rather die than continue to endure this torture. Living without memory was certainly preferable to death. Her human memories would fade over time, anyway. I could scarcely remember a thing about my own past. Would it be so different for her, when all was said and done?
She continued to writhe under me, the air hissed through her throat in silent screams of agony.
I focused once more on her mind and started slowly leeching out what I knew would be innocuous: old memories already forgotten. I could tell that they were already forgotten because there was no connection to these memories in her mind. When something was remembered, there was a bridge that led from the mind's awareness to that memory, in that way it could be retrieved. But a human's mind held countless thousands of events in their storage faculties that had lost their access to the surface.
As I worked, excavating these memories, her writhing slowed.
I focused harder, trying to distinguish the important areas of her mind from the trivial. I started arranging her mental information into sections, preparing to wipe out large chunks of her past in stages to help avoid doing any damage. Her mind was a vast complicated labyrinth and it was my task to navigate it quickly in order to save her.
I decided to separate actual events from their effects on her personality. In this way she would not remember ever learning how to ride a bicycle or to dance, but she would still remember how to do both. She would not remember her father or mother, but she would have an idea of what a father and mother should be based on her experiences with them. She would not remember how she had come to understand the English language, but she would remember every word and rule of grammar and syntax she now understood. She would not remember her sister, but the idea of her sister would, undoubtedly, permeate every aspect of her character. I'd had no idea before of the strength of their attachment one to another!
It would be a sloppy job. I was very rushed, and the girl's mind made about as much linear sense as a mass of cobweb… provided the spider had been intoxicated during construction.
I focused on the first section of memory, isolating what was to be erased and what was to remain untouched. With one, swift, invisible act I wiped it away.
The effect on Alice was instantaneous. Her body relaxed, her breathing slowed.
I looked into her eyes and was surprised to see that she was still aware. This had never happened before. How could it be that I'd just wiped away nearly ten years' worth of memory and her mind was still functioning? Perhaps her mind was even more peculiar than I'd imagined.
She was obviously still in a great deal of pain. Her breathing was coming in shallow gasps; her face was nearly as pale as mine. Her eyes still watered; there was even a trace of blood in her tears.
She looked into my face and, in spite of the pain she was obviously experiencing, her expression was full of sorrow.
"Don't go," she whispered, hoarsely.
It was miraculous that her brain was still able to function with everything happening to her right now. Even as I continued to work I could feel the changes of the venom taking effect in the soft grey flesh of her mind.
I gazed back into her eyes, willing her to understand. I had to go. I didn't have a choice anymore. Surely she understood that. After what I had just told her, knowing how I loved her, she had to understand that I couldn't let the hunter come for her. If he killed her… if I failed to protect her, it would destroy me.
"Don't let him kill you, please. I love you, too." Her whisper was gentle, but urgent. It stabbed through my heart like a dagger.
She did care for me. She cared for me as I'd hoped she would; and now I hated myself for hoping such a curse would befall her.
What good was her affection now, when I would no longer be here to accept it or return it?
In an instant the future seemed to flash before my eyes, almost as though I was borrowing her gift. I saw us together, immortal and free. I would teach her to resist the urge to feed on the living and she would retain her innocence. We would explore the darkest and most beautiful places in the world, glorying in the sacred night. Our love would be a thing of legend, if there were any who knew of it to write such legend.
But that future could not be. It was a future that might once have been a possibility, but no more.
The only thing that came as a result of her declaration was a sharpening of pain, a new sorrow.
I had been cherishing a hope that I could leave a bit of myself in her memory. I wanted her to know who had created her, and that this had been her choice. But now…I couldn't let her remember me. My memory would only be a cause of pain for her.
I examined her mind once more; selecting every bit of memory I could find that involved myself. I was surprised at the almost violent tenderness associated with those memories. Seeing myself through her eyes brought a new wave of anguish. She cared for me far more than I deserved. And this was the last time she would know me, the last time I would speak to her. This was the end.
"I'm sorry, Alice." I managed to choke the words out, sobbing in the strange, tearless way of a vampire.
Her eyes widened in fresh horror at my words.
Then in one great sweep I ripped out the remainder of her memories.
She went limp on the flat boat as if I had struck her; her mouth fell open and her breathing relaxed. To any other observer she would appear to be merely in a sweet sleep.
I gazed at her for one more long moment, not wanting to leave her. She seemed so small and vulnerable. I had to leave her some bit of protection.
Her gift would be her best protection when she woke. But she would not remember her gift or how to use it. And there was no telling what her gift would be like when she first woke up. Would it intrude on her mind when needed? Would she have to put forth an effort to use it? It seemed that her gift initiated itself automatically whenever she was in danger. That was a promising sign. If she followed the normal pattern for gifted vampires then her first vision would probably arise out of self-defense. I had to let her know to heed that warning.
I selected a patch of smooth wood near her right shoulder and etched a message deep in the soft grain with my index finger.
ALICE, FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS
That should be specific enough to get the message across - I hoped - but vague enough that it should mean nothing to any human who might read it.
I then reached down and ripped a strip of fabric from the hem of her nightgown: a part of my plan to protect her. I rubbed the fabric gently over her exposed flesh, wiping up her tears and her sweat, dabbing saliva from her lips, strengthening her scent on the strip of linen.
With my token in hand I moved to leave, but paused.
I glanced back at her face, relaxed in sweet repose. I bent over her sleeping figure and, oh so gently, kissed her lips. Her scent, so strong and sweet, made my throat burn with thirst. But I hardly noticed it. The pain of my thirst was nothing in comparison to the agony in my chest.
I silently slipped into the water.
I swam ashore as swiftly as I could while keeping her scent above the waves so it wouldn't wash away.
It was in the dark of the night when I waded ashore several miles east of where we'd cast off.
I fetched a second small flatboat that I'd hidden in the trees at this spot and cast it into the waves. It would wash ashore again soon, thoroughly rinsed of any scent other than the briny, pungency of seawater. I hoped it would be enough to convince the hunter that I was stupid enough to come back ashore with her so close to where we left the land.
There was a northwesterly breeze; that would be useful. I waved my piece of fabric, casting the girl's scent in the wind so the hunter would catch it and follow.
Carrying my strip of fabric loosely, I raced north, heading inland. I kept on fairly level ground and ran carefully and slowly, as I would if I were carrying the girl with me. I swam through every lake I came across, changing direction while in the water so the hunter would have to circle the shore to try to find where I'd come back to land.
As the hours passed I was beginning to travel into Appalachia and still he'd not caught up to me.
I found the caverns I was looking for and darted into their dark depths, trailing the girl's scent behind me.
In the dank caves there was a strong odor of moisture and saltpeter. Things looked differently than the last time I'd been here; these caves must have been mined for gunpowder, perhaps during the Civil War.
I ventured deep into the caverns, past the mineral-rich pools, past the native burial grounds. To human eyes I would have been in utter darkness, but I could yet see.
I climbed a wall and squeezed into an opening behind a mass of stalactites, a shower of rubble scattered to the floor below me.
I crawled through my narrow tunnel and into an adjacent cavern. It was so dark I could scarcely see anymore. Everything was in the deep off-purple hue of infrared light. This part of the cave seemed to have remained untouched by the humans. I easily found my way into the next tunnel and descended deeper into cooler earth.
I followed the cave for several miles until the floor disappeared before me. I balled up my scrap of fabric tightly in my fist and jumped into the empty cavern below. I fell for nearly ten seconds before landing with a great splash into an underground river.
I let the water carry me along for several more miles, occasionally grazing my scrap of fabric along the wall to mark it with Alice's scent.
After several more minutes the water quickened and, with a great rush, the river cast me over a fall into a great subterranean lake all aglow with white-blue bioluminescence.
The lake was actually quite lovely. Under more pleasant circumstances I would have wished to bring the girl, Alice, to see it. I was certain she would have appreciated its serene beauty.
These caverns were very far beneath the surface. I could set off a ton of dynamite down here and no human would notice. Even if the sound did manage to reach the open air somehow, it would do so in a completely uninhabited region. This was a safe place.
I swam to the far side of the lake and made my way into the adjoining chamber.
I ran over to the far wall and crawled partway into a small opening near the ceiling. I tossed the scrap of her fabric into the dark hole and then I doubled back, hopped up onto an outcropping of rock over the entrance and waited, watching the passageway that led to the lake from whence I'd just come.
If my plan worked as I hoped the hunter would follow me here, thinking I had the girl with me. Even if I hadn't fooled him, even if he could tell somehow that I was traveling alone, I hoped he would follow me anyway in order to find out where she was. I couldn't imagine how he would be able to track her scent in the open ocean.
The thought of her out there, all alone and unconscious, exposed to the sea and the sun, so vulnerable… I wanted to race out of this place and find her, to keep her safe. But I couldn't do that. I was keeping her safe. If I went to her now it would be the end of her.
And so I waited, motionless and silent. With every moment that passed I felt equally more confident and more anxious. If he was following me, each second that passed was making Alice more immortal and less vulnerable. If he wasn't following me, but instead searching for her out at sea, then every moment I waited he could be getting closer to her.
The conflict was torturous. The day must surely be coming to a close now. Why was it taking so long for him to find me? Perhaps he'd given up?
When that thought crossed my mind I had a fleeting glimmer of hope. Perhaps he had found her after all and decided to give up? If I hadn't fooled him he may have gone out to sea to seek her out. Perhaps he had - though I couldn't imagine how – found her. And if he found her, seeing that she was well on the way to becoming an immortal, she might no longer be of interest to him. Why even bother following me at that point?
At that moment I heard a sound, a distant splash of something large falling into water.
He'd made it to the river. He was coming after all.
I steeled myself for his arrival, reminding myself that this is what I'd really hoped for. It was better that he had followed me. I would rather be torn to pieces this moment than to ever let him get near her again.
Another twenty minutes passed and there was no further sign of him. He was taking his time, it seemed. He must be letting the current carry him, making certain that he was following the correct path. Good. Every moment that passed the girl drew nearer to sanctuary.
I heard the slight rush of water as he went over the falls, and the splash as he dropped into the lake in the next cavern.
He swam to the shore and I heard his wet footfalls as he circled the water, checking for any secondary path we might have taken.
And then he followed my scent into the chamber where I waited.
I saw him enter below me, following my scent trail toward the far wall. I wanted so badly to jump at him, attack him, and catch him off guard. Though I'd been in fights before, even wars, I was still no match for this one in battle. My best chance was to avoid conflict altogether. And so I let my enemy pass beneath me unharmed.
He seemed to notice that something was unusual. Something about the way he was stalking forward told me that he was waiting for the unexpected. Like a listener who any moment expects to hear the punch line which will make sense of a long drawn-out joke.
When he got to the far wall I decided to speak.
"You will not find her. I've hidden her well."
He whirled around, surprised, and stared at me, then leered.
"So, you have hidden her. I thought as much. Her scent has been growing weaker. And I doubted you would bring your little pet here, unless you were completely ignorant of the effects of carbon dioxide poisoning in humans."
"True," I admitted. "And it is rather too cold here for one so small and weak as she."
My calm answer seemed to make him more wary. He paused, studying me for a moment before answering.
"You're wrong, though. I will find her. You'd better not let your guard down now. No matter where you've hidden her I will seek her out."
"She smells that good to you, does she? Do you expect her to taste as pleasant as she smells? Will that be reward enough for all your trouble?" Keep him talking. He thinks he has all the time in the world. I know better.
"This isn't about her blood, you old fool," he growled with narrowed eyes. "Her blood will be a sweet reward, but this is about the hunt. I only wish there were more of you, and better skilled, to defend her. This game is almost too easy."
"Is it, now? How have I failed you, my master?" There was a sneer in my voice. He sneered back.
"I've known since I came across your little clear-cut logging area that you've been leading me on. If you really intended to flee with her over the water you would have taken food and warm clothing for your human, and you would have hidden your efforts to build her a watercraft rather than laying it out for me so obviously. Though… it was plain that she did board your little raft."
He seemed to lapse into thought as he spoke.
"The trail you left for me, leading me here, seemed to me designed to slow my progress, but not to get me off your track. The girl isn't with you, and yet you took no provisions for her from the asylum. Not even a blanket to keep her warm."
"We have been having warm weather of late," I noted, interrupting him. He just glared at me in response.
"The raft I found washed ashore could have been a duplicate. If so… I'm guessing that you left your little pet out there on the water, all alone, so you could lead me away from her. Am I right?"
"That hardly seems likely. As you said, I didn't bring food, or water, or warm clothes for her. And what if she should fall overboard and drown? Is it not more likely that I threw you from our trail when I left on a side-venture to hide the girl on the way here."
He continued as if I hadn't spoken.
"But maybe she doesn't need human provisions anymore. Maybe you knew she wouldn't need to eat or drink. Maybe you've been leading me as far away from her as you can, on a path that you knew would take time to follow, because you only want time. And a full day has already been wasted in following you."
As he spoke his expression shifted from amused speculation to dark hot rage. I waited, feigning calm disinterest, wishing that I could simply will him to calm down as well.
He looked hard at me.
"You've fed recently," he accused.
I shrugged. "An elderly man passed away at the asylum the night before we left."
He closely examined my eyes and inhaled deeply. You've had more than just one old man. You've had at least two. Probably more. And I'd bet that they were alive when you drank them."
I couldn't help my shock. "How do you know that?"
He grinned savagely.
"Because you've been practicing. Haven't you? Practicing on people you felt were worthless so you could save your precious little girl. Well if that isn't a load of hypocrisy!"
I glared at him in return.
The hunter eyed me darkly in the light from the lake, which filtered softly through the passageway. His lip curled over his teeth and his brow furrowed. For a vampire, he was exceptionally ugly to begin with. This expression made him even less attractive.
"You really did it, didn't you…? Of course you did!"
I crossed my arms and looked down at him through half-closed lids.
"What are you accusing me of now? If you're saying that I've consumed her then you're entirely mistaken. I wouldn't ever let harm come to her. I actually care for her. I don't suppose that's something you could possibly fathom, though."
He bared his teeth and his glare transformed into a mask of pure hate.
"You've changed her!"
I stood motionless for a moment, gazing at him impassively while he waited for my response.
"Once we were free of the asylum I changed her the first chance I had. She is lost to you now. So leave and find yourself some other source of amusement."
His anger only seemed to build as I spoke.
"Idiot! I will destroy you for this! And when I've finished with you I will still find her and drain what's left of her blood!"
His threat against the girl, at last, elicited a snarl from me.
He seemed to take that as his cue and launched up at me, roaring in rage.
I dodged his attack, jumping up to the ceiling and crawling through the stalactites like an insect. He pursued me, of course, ripping the columns of stone from the ceiling as he came. The cavern shook from his violence and filled with thick dust.
Soon there was no more refuge for me and I jumped back down to the floor. He was faster than I was and caught up to me. But I was yet not without skill. I'd learned many defensive techniques in the wars and battles of my time. Some I'd used on him already and he would probably be expecting, but there were yet many others in my arsenal.
I fended him off as best as I could. But he struck at me swifter than a cobra, more rapidly than a hummingbird's wings. He was lethal.
I felt sharp jabs of pain as I lost several fingers, then an ear, and then a piece of my nose.
He was taking me piece by piece, in spite of my best defenses. Soon I wouldn't be able to fight anymore. My life would end very quickly after that point was reached, and then he would seek the girl. Would she be safe by the time he found her? I couldn't be sure, so I had to do whatever I could to buy her more time.
He took my left hand then and I knew it would soon be over. I couldn't delay in this way any longer.
He was faster than I was, and more skilled, it was true. But I was more desperate than he. And I could do something now, completely unexpected, and perhaps slow him down for a good while after I was no more.
He came at me again, aiming for my right hand this time. Instead of blocking his advance I darted in. My unexpected movement did catch him of guard and he missed my arm completely, grabbing my head instead, because I'd ducked down to grasp his left leg.
He had my neck in a firm grasp and could perhaps rip it from my shoulders in an instant. Before he had a chance to do that I heaved mightily on his thigh with both arms, kicking against his waist with my legs for added force.
He keened out a sharp cry of pain as I ripped his leg from his body and the sound of stone being torn apart mingled with his lament, echoing off the walls.
I felt his hands constrict painfully around my throat and he pulled hard, though he didn't seem to have leverage enough to do the job.
I took my small moment of opportunity and heaved his leg, with perfect accuracy into the small hole at the far end of the cavern. That hole descended straight down for miles before meeting its end in another subterranean lake, in blackness so completely void of light that even vampire eyes could not see. He would have a very hard time finding that limb again. And he would undoubtedly not leave this place without it. Hopefully that would be all the time she needed.
His cry of surprised pain transformed into a roar of renewed outrage when he realized what I'd done.
He threw my body violently down to the rocky ground.
I caught a glimpse of his face, now contorted by pain and fury into something truly ghoulish. He grasped my head again. My efforts at fighting him off were useless now; he had me pinned and completely helpless.
My final thought was about the girl. I hoped I'd done enough for her.