Over the next few weeks, I focused solely on the tasks at hand, which were regular trips to the grocery store and clearing houses along the roads we needed to take to get into the city. There weren’t many nests left, as vampires tended to form widely scattered small groups around large cities, but we knew Benoit’s would be an exception.
Justin and I spent our afternoons scouting for houses using electricity or with tinted windows. Then, we came back at midmorning to hunt and loot. Once the job was done, we returned to our house, trained, and jogged. Then, near sunset, we went back out for more surveillance, gradually widening our search area. It was a good routine—one that I could enjoy for the entire winter and one that kept Justin from having time to talk to me about his feelings.
My father was more convinced than ever that, if we found another group of free humans and solid intelligence, we had a chance at taking out Benoit. My part in that effort was to visit Human Foods on Wednesdays. While I shopped, Justin and Robert canvassed the area around the old governor’s mansion. In the role of friendly house servant, I cautiously pumped Mark, and any other customers who could carry on a conversation, for information about Benoit and his supporters. It was slow going, especially since I tapped out Mark after two visits.
At night, the family sat around in the living room, sharing meals that came mostly from cans. We whispered to each other about any gathered intelligence and poured over maps of the city.
My father was anxious for action. Still, he was a good leader. He wouldn’t ask people to fight without thorough knowledge of what we faced.
As with any decent sized group of humans, opposing sides formed. The fighters wanted to fight, and the hiders wanted to hide. Not everybody can fight, and I certainly appreciate the ones who work to make a house our home. The mixture can be good, but it often made my father’s preferred democratic decision-making tedious.
Then, one Wednesday in mid-November, I met Travis, an escort for one of the mindless drones Benoit was in the habit of sending out for groceries. He was tight-lipped at first, but after I flirted with him a bit, he loosened up some. That night, over a meal of red beans and rice, I told my family what I’d learned.
“I didn’t pressure him about numbers because I figured it would look suspicious. I just hinted that I’d heard good things about the living conditions and treatment of slaves. I don’t know why, but once he thought I was interested in new ownership, he went on and on about all the amenities living there would offer.” I shuddered. “Anyway, according to Travis, they live in one of those huge houses near Myers Park, on the golf course, off Magnolia.”
“They’re close, south instead of east,” my father said. “I assumed they’d go for the governor’s mansion.”
I shrugged and then remembered no one could see me in the dark. “The house on the golf course is probably bigger,” I reasoned. “Now that we know where they are, we need to be more careful about taking out nests.”
“Hmm. You’re right,” Justin remarked. “We don’t want to draw too much attention to this area if we plan to stay here.”
“Just in case, we should start scouting for a new house,” Robert said.
I heard a round of groans from the group. We just moved in, lucky to have found a house with working water, and it was getting colder every day. No one wanted to consider spending months in the woods scouting a new house.
“I think we’ve been careful enough,” I said.
“We need to be prepared,” Robert reminded us. “This would be a big move against them. Huge.”
Chatter continued for some time, and I found my mind wandering. I thought about Travis’ description of the Benoit feeding rotation. The idea of offering myself to a vampire to feed on me twice a week turned my stomach. When he’d suggested that I might qualify for a breeder or consort, I’d had a hard time stopping myself from crushing his windpipe and ramming his nose into his head. With violent thoughts clouding my mind, I got up and left the room.
As I walked toward the stairs to the basement, Justin grabbed my wrist and pulled me into his room. “What’s this about, Justin?” I managed to ask just before his lips fell on mine. After a solid minute of kissing, I said, “Well, I see.”
“Wednesday is my least favorite day of the week.” He kissed me again and rubbed his hands down my sides. I didn’t really know how to respond. I felt like this was an overreaction on his part, but I was wary of pointing it out to him. No matter how much I didn’t want to, he was making it hard for me to avoid hurting his feelings. He hugged me close and said, “I can’t pretend not to care.” With our bodies pressed together, I could tell he was aroused.
“I don’t expect you to, and I do care. Just don’t expect anything else.”
Justin cupped the back of my head in his palm. “I want you by my side every night.”
“What you want isn’t what’s best for all these people. You should think about that. This was fine when it was just sex, but now I know you can’t let it be. Not after what you said.”
I pulled free of his embrace, went back to the room where I slept, and curled up on my bedroll. I couldn’t afford to care much more for any of these people than was necessary to keep them safe and alive. So what if my heart grew a little colder each day? Caring made you weak, and weakness got you killed. I saw it first hand, many times. I didn’t want that for Justin, or anyone really. I had responsibilities and duties that few women, free or not, had pressing down on them, and I didn’t need someone’s heart added to them.
When I awoke at dawn, I dressed for training and went out the back door and up the path to the clearing. The clearing was tight, surrounded by trees, so that it had to be close to noon for any sun to reach the ground. The overcast sky indicated rain was on the way. It was chilly, so I made sure to stretch before I did any strenuous exercise.
I tumbled and practiced attacking with stakes, the easiest weapon to make and resupply. Not that a stake through the heart is a sure thing. In my years, I’ve learned that very little is effective at hurting or killing vampires. No classic symbols of faith and protection work, but sunlight does just fine and anything else that causes rapid amounts of blood loss or serious amounts of bodily damage. My method of choice is beheading, when I have a sword.
Since I no longer had a sword, I made do with knives and stakes. As I flipped and rolled, I drew stakes from where I had hidden them around the clearing. I leapt, bringing the stake down on the throat of my imaginary opponent, and then spun to stab the one at my back. I scrambled toward a group of bushes and snatched the stakes there. Taking one in each hand, I executed a series of punches and kicks, focusing my mind on each muscle and my timing, speed, accuracy. I did a dive roll and hurled one stake at a tree. Bull’s-eye!
Something blurred in the corner of my vision. I whipped my head in toward it, toward the edge of the clearing in the deepest shade. The something had been pale.
Stake ready, I crept over to the area. I could take a lone vampire, but this one—and even though it was daytime, I knew it was one—had the advantage of seeing me first. I couldn’t risk that it would report to its nest, so I went after it.
This one was hard to track—leaving few signs of passage. I went along as quickly as I could, sticking to the shadows, as I knew it would. It was on the run, and the further I got from the clearing, the more I realized that I was unlikely to catch up to it.
Deciding that it would be smarter to report to my father and begin packing than to keep going this way, I stopped. I gave the forest one last scan and then turned for home. That’s when it grabbed me from behind, pinned my arms to my sides, and wrapped its hand over my mouth. My scream made a pathetic woof sound into its palm, and the air made my ears fill painfully.
So, this was the end. I took a deep breath, braced for the bite, and hoped it would be quick.