26 March 2018

Wild Hunger – Chapter One

PROLOGUE

“Noooooo!” A little girl’s voice echoed through the hallway. The cry was followed by footsteps, more yelling, and a petulant squeal.

“It’s mine! You give it back right now, Connor stupid Keene!”

The dark-haired boy stuck his tongue out at her—the tiny blonde he relished torturing—then tore down the hallway, holding aloft the plastic sword he’d taken from his enemy. “Victory!” he said.

She followed him, Mary Jane shoes padding down the carpeted hallway, but he was nearly a foot taller, and she knew she couldn’t catch him. Not by running. So she called in a reinforcement.

“Daddy! Connor stupid Keene won’t give me my sword!”

Connor stupid Keene stopped and spun around, then leveled his best glare at Elisa Sullivan.

“I’m a prince,” he said, sticking his thumb against his chest. “And I can take your sword if I want!” He was seven, and she only five and a half, so he was obviously the more mature of the two of them.

She jumped up to grab the sword but couldn’t reach it. “Give it back, you . . . you . . .”

“‘You’ what?” he asked with a wily grin, spinning around to keep the toy out of her hands. “What am I?”

“You’re . . . you’re . . . you’re a stupid boy—that’s what you are!”

“Children.”

They froze, then turned back toward the doorway to Elisa’s father’s office and looked warily at the vampire who filled it. “Is there a problem?” he asked.

“No, Mr. Sullivan,” said Connor, scowling at his companion.

Green-eyed Elisa, just as wily as he was, stuck out her tongue at Connor, then batted her eyelashes at her father. “He took my sword,” she said in a small, soft voice she knew was guaranteed to get her way. “And he won’t give it back.”

“Son, did you take her sword?”

They turned again, saw a tall man who seemed to fill one end of the hallway.

“No, Dad,” Connor said as his father walked toward him. Connor held out the sword and let Elisa take it back, but scowled when she stuck her tongue out at him. Again. She is so spoiled, he thought.

Gabriel Keene grinned wolfishly, crossed his arms over his chest. “I’m glad we resolved this peacefully.”

Ethan Sullivan smiled, one hand braced against the doorframe as he watched his daughter and her nemesis do what they did best. “As am I. Do we need to talk about the House rules again?”

“No, Daddy.” Elisa tucked the sword behind her back.

“Son?” Gabriel asked.

“No, Dad.” Connor shifted from foot to foot.

“We talked about this.”

There was a moment of uncomfortable silence in the hallway.

“I know.”

As she bit her lip, Elisa looked up at Connor and saw the flush of embarrassment on his cheeks. She didn’t like being teased—or not that much, anyway—but she really didn’t like that look on his face.

She stepped forward, putting her small body between Connor and his father.

“It was my fault,” she said.

Arching an eyebrow, Gabriel crouched down, hands clasped in front of him. “Was it, now?”

Worriedly, she looked back at Connor, then at his dad, and nodded once.

Gabriel leaned in and whispered quietly, “Is it your fault, or do you just not want Connor to get in trouble?”

In the just-slightly-too-loud whisper of a child, she said, “I don’t want Connor to get in trouble.”

“Ah.” He nodded gravely, then stood again, Connor moving to stand beside him. “I think we’ve gotten things cleared up, then,” he said, then ruffled his son’s hair.

Connor grinned at him, leaned against his father.

And stuck his tongue out at Elisa.

CHAPTER ONE

Vampires were made, not born.

All except one.

All except me.

I was the daughter of vampires, born because magic and fate twisted together. I’d spent nineteen years in Chicago. Tonight, I stood nearly four hundred feet above Paris, several thousand miles away from the Windy City and the Houses in which most of its vampires lived.

Around me, visitors on the second level of the Eiffel Tower sipped champagne and snapped shots of the city. I closed my eyes against the warm, balmy breeze that carried the faint scent of flowers.

“Elisa, you cannot tell Paris goodbye with your eyes closed.”

“I’m not saying goodbye,” I said. “Because I’m coming back.”

I opened my eyes, smiled at the vampire who appeared at my side with two plastic cones of champagne. Seraphine had golden skin and dark hair, and her hazel eyes shone with amusement.

“To Paris,” I said, and tapped my cone against hers.

It had been four years since I’d last stepped foot in Chicago. Tomorrow, I’d go home again and visit the city and spend time with family and friends.

For twenty years, there’d been peace in Chicago among humans and sups, largely because of efforts by my parents—Ethan Sullivan and Merit, the Master and Sentinel, respectively, of Cadogan House. They’d worked to find a lasting peace, and had been so successful that Chicago had become a model for other communities around the world.

That’s why Seri and I were going back. The city’s four vampire houses were hosting peace talks for vampires from Western Europe, where Houses had been warring since the governing council—the Greenwich Presidium—dissolved before I was born. And vampires’ relations with the other supernaturals in Europe weren’t any better. Chicago would serve as neutral territory where the Houses’ issues could be discussed and a new system of government could be hammered out.

“You look . . . What is the word? Wistful?” The vampire beside me smiled. “And you haven’t even left yet.”

“I’m building up my immunity,” I said, and sipped the champagne.

“You love Chicago.”

“It’s a great city. But I was . . . a different person in Chicago. I like who I am here.”

Paris wasn’t always peaceful. But it had given me the time and distance to develop the control I’d needed over the monster that lived inside me. Because I wasn’t just a vampire. . . .

Seri bumped her shoulder against mine supportively. “You will be the same person there as you are here. Miles change only location. They do not change a person’s heart. A person’s character.”

I hoped that was true. But Seri didn’t know the whole of it. She didn’t know about the half-formed power that lurked beneath my skin, reveled in its anger. She didn’t know about the magic that had grown stronger as I’d grown older, until it beat like a second heartbeat inside me.

Sunlight and aspen could kill me—but the monster could bury me within its rage.

I’d spent the past four years attending École Dumas, Europe’s only university for supernaturals. I was one of a handful of vampires in residence. Most humans weren’t changed into vampires until they were older; the change would give them immortality, but they’d be stuck at the age at which they’d been changed. No one wanted to be thirteen for eternity.

I hadn’t been changed at all, but born a vampire—the one and only vampire created that way. Immortal, or so we assumed, but still changing and aging.

The university was affiliated with Paris’s Maison Dumas, one of Europe’s most prestigious vampire Houses, where I’d lived for the past four years. I’d had a little culture shock at first, but I’d come to love the House and appreciate its logical approach to problem solving. If Cadogan was Gryffindor, all bravery and guts, Dumas was Ravenclaw, all intellect and cleverness. I liked being clever, and I liked clever people, so we were a good fit.

I’d had four years of training to develop the three components of vampire strength: physical, psychic, and strategic. I graduated a few months ago with a sociology degree—emphasis in sup-human relations—and now I was repaying my training the same way French vampires did, with a year of mandatory armed service for the House. It was a chance to see what I was made of, and to spend another year in the city I’d come to love.

I was three months into my service. Escorting delegates from Maison Dumas to Chicago for the peace talks was part of my work.

“How many suitcases are you bringing?”

I glanced at Seri with amusement. “Why? How many are you bringing?”

“Four.” Seri did not travel lightly.

“We’ll only be in Chicago for four days.”

“I have diplomatic responsibilities, Elisa.”

I sipped my champagne. “That’s what French vampires say when they pack too much. I have a capsule wardrobe.”

“And that is what American vampires say when they do not pack enough. You also have diplomatic responsibilities.”

“I have responsibilities to the House. That’s different.”

“Ah,” she said, smiling at me over the rim of her drink. “But which one?”

“Maison Dumas,” I said, in an accent that was pretty close to perfect. “I’m not going to Chicago on behalf of Cadogan House. It’s just a bonus.”

“I look forward to meeting your parents. And I’m sure they’ll be glad to see you.”

“I’ll be glad to see them, too. It’s just—I’ve changed a lot in the last few years. Since the last time I went home.”

They’d visited Paris twice since I’d been gone, and we’d had fun walking through the city, seeing the sights. But I still felt like I’d been holding myself back from them. Maybe I always had.

“It’s not about you or Cadogan or Chicago,” I’d told my father, when we’d stood outside the private terminal at O’Hare, in front of the jet that would take me across the world. I was struggling to make him understand. “It’s about figuring out who I am.”

In Chicago, I was the child of Ethan and Merit. And it had been hard to feel like anything more than a reflection of my parents and my birth, which made me a curiosity for plenty of sups outside Cadogan House who treated me like a prize. And the possibility I might be able to bear children made me, at least for some, a prize to be captured.

I’d wanted to be something more, something different. . . . Something that was just me.

“You couldn’t fail us by living your life the way you want,” my father had said. “It’s your life to live, and you will make your own choices. You always have.”

He’d tipped my chin up with the crook of his finger, forcing me to meet his gaze.

“There are some decisions that we make, and some that are made for us. Sometimes you accept the path that’s offered to you, and you live that path—that life—with grace. And sometimes you push forward, and you chart your own path. That decision is yours. It’s always been yours.”

“I don’t want you to go, because I’m selfish. Because you are my child.” His eyes had burned fiercely, emeralds on fire. “But if this is your path, you must take it. Whatever happens out there, you always have a home here.”

He’d kissed my forehead, then embraced me hard. “Test your wings,” he’d quietly said. A suggestion. A request. A hope. “And fly.”

I had flown. And I’d read and walked and learned and trained, just like everyone else.

In Paris, I’d been just another vampire. And the anonymity, the freedom, had been exhilarating.

“We all carry expectations,” Seri said quietly, her eyes suddenly clouded. “Sometimes our own, sometimes others’. Both can be heavy.”

Seri came from what the European Houses called “good blood.” She’d been made by a Master vampire with power, with money, with an old name, and with plenty of cachet—and that mattered to French vampires. Seri had been the last vampire he’d made before his death, and those of his name were expected to be aristocrats and socialites. Unlike in the US, French vampires selected their own Houses. She’d picked Maison Dumas instead of Maison Bourdillon, the House of her Master. That hadn’t made her many friends among Bourdillon’s progeny, who decided she was wasting her legacy.

“Are you excited to see Chicago?” I asked her.

“I am excited to see the city,” she said. “If not optimistic about what will come of the talks. Consider Calais.”

The most recent attack had taken place in Calais a week ago. Vampires from Paris’s Maison Solignac had attacked Maison Saint-Germaine because they believed they weren’t getting a big enough cut of the city port’s profits. In the process, four vampires and two humans had been killed.

The European Houses had lived together peacefully, at least by human standards, for hundreds of years. But after the GP’s dissolution, all bets were off. There was power to be had, and vampires found that irresistible.

More than a dozen delegates from France, including Seri and Marion, the Master of Maison Dumas, would participate in the talks. Marion and Seri would be accompanied by nearly a dozen staff, including Marion’s bodyguard, Seri’s assistant, Odette, and me.

“Yeah,” I said. “I don’t know how successful it will be, either. But refusing to talk certainly isn’t doing much good.”

Seri nodded and drank the last of her champagne as two guards passed us—one human, one vampire—and silenced the chatter. They wore black fatigues and berets, and looked suspiciously at everyone they passed. Part of the joint task force created by the Paris Police Prefecture to keep the city safe.

The vampire’s eyes shifted to me, then Seri. He acknowledged us, scanned the rest of the crowd, and kept walking, katana belted at his waist.

Vampires in the US and Western Europe used the long and slightly curved Japanese swords, which were sharp and deadly as fangs, but with a much longer reach.

Sorcerers had magic. Shifters had their animal forms. Vampires had katanas.

“There’s Javí,” Seraphine whispered, and watched as they kept moving, then disappeared around the corner. Javí was a Dumas vampire doing his year of service.

These weren’t the only guards at the Eiffel Tower. Humans and vampires alike stood at the edge of the crowd below, wearing body armor and weapons and trying to keep safe the tourists and residents enjoying a warm night in the Champ de Mars.

We turned back to the rail, looked over the city. So much white stone, so many slate roofs, so many people enjoying the warm night. But the specter of violence, of fear, hung over it. And that was hard to shake. No city was perfect, not when people lived in it.

“Let us take a photo,” Seri said, clearly trying to lift the mood. She put an arm around me, then pulled out her screen and angled the narrow strip of glass and silicon for a perfect shot.

“To Paris!” she said, and we smiled.

The moment recorded, she checked the time before putting the device away again. “We should get back. The Auto will arrive in a few hours.” She slipped an arm through mine. “This will be an adventure, and we will be optimists. And I look forward to pizza and Chicago dogs and . . . Comment dites-vous ‘milk shake de gateau’?”

“Cake shake,” I said with a smile. “You and my mother are going to get along just fine.”

We’d only just turned to head toward the elevator when screams sliced through the air, followed by a wave of nervous, fearful magic that rolled up from the ground.

We looked back and over the rail.

Even from this height, they were visible. Five vampires in gleaming red leather running through the green space with katanas in one hand and small weapons in the other.

Not knives; there was no gleam from the flashing lights on the Tower.

What was shaped like a knife, but held no metal, and would turn a vampire to dust?

Humans had been wrong about vampires and crosses, but they’d been absolutely right about stakes. An aspen stake through the heart was a guaranteed way to put the “mortal” in “immortal.”

I didn’t know which House the vampires were from. I was too high to see their faces, and the gleaming red leather didn’t give anything away. Leather was a vampire favorite, and French vampire Houses appreciated fashion as much as the French fashion houses did.

But their intent was clear enough. They ran through the crowd, weapons drawn, and took aim at everyone in their path. Screams, sharp and terrified, filled the air. I watched one person fall, another dive to the ground to avoid the strike, a third try unsuccessfully to fight back against the vampire’s increased strength.

Paris was under attack. My stomach clenched with nerves and anger.

I wanted to help. I was stronger and faster than most humans, and trained as well as any vampire from Maison Dumas would have been. But there were rules. There were roles and responsibilities. The Paris Police, the task force members, were supposed to respond to events. I was just a civilian, and only a temporary one at that. I worked for Dumas, and should have been focused on getting Seri safely back to Maison Dumas.

But the screams . . .

The guards who’d walked past minutes before ran back to the rail beside us and stared at the scene below in horror. And neither of them make a move toward the ground. It took only a second to guess why.

“Can you jump?” I asked Javí, the vampire.

He looked at me, eyes wide. “Quelle?”

I had to remember where I was, shook my head, tried again. “Pouvez-vous sauter?”

“Non.” Javí looked down. “Non. Trop haut.”

Too high. Most vampires could jump higher and farther than humans, and we could jump down from heights that would easily kill humans. But the trick required training, which I’d learned the hard way—believing I could fly from the widow’s walk atop Cadogan House. I’d broken my arm, but vampires healed quickly, so that hadn’t been much of a deterrent. My mother had taught me the rest.

Javí couldn’t jump, so he’d have to wait for the elevator or take the hundreds of stairs down to ground level.

But I didn’t have to wait.

I squeezed Seri’s hand, told Javí to take care of Seri, and hoped he’d obey.

Before anyone could argue, or I could think better of it, I slid the katana from his scabbard, climbed onto the railing, and walked into space.

I descended through rushing darkness. A human might have had a few seconds of free fall before the deadly landing. But for a vampire, it was less a fall than a long and lazy step. Maybe we compressed space; maybe we elongated time. I didn’t understand the physics, but I loved the sensation. It was as close to flying as I was likely to get.

The first level of the Eiffel Tower was wider than the second, so I had to jump down to the first level—causing more than a few humans to scream—before making it to the soft grass below. I landed in a crouch, katana firmly in hand.

My fangs descended, the predator preparing to battle. While I couldn’t see it, I knew my eyes had silvered, as they did when vampires experienced strong emotions. It was a reminder—to humans, to prey, to enemies—that the vampire wasn’t human, but something altogether different. Something altogether more dangerous.

Two humans were dead a few feet away, their eyes open and staring, blood spilling onto the grass from the lacerations at their necks. The vampires who’d murdered them hadn’t even bothered to bite, to drink. This attack wasn’t about need. It was about hatred.

I was allowed only a moment of shocked horror—of seeing how quickly two lives had been snuffed out—before the scent of blood blossomed in the air again, unfurling like the petals of a crimson poppy.

I looked back.

A vampire kneeled over a human woman. She was in her early twenties, with pale skin, blond hair, and terror in her eyes. The vampire was even paler, blood pumping through indigo veins just below the surface. His hair was short and ice blond, his eyes silver. And the knife he held above the woman’s chest was covered with someone else’s blood.

Anger rose, hot and intense, and I could feel the monster stir inside, awakened by the sheer power of the emotion. But I was still in Paris. And here, I was in control. I shoved it back down, refused to let it surface.

“Arrête!” I yelled out, and to emphasize the order, held my borrowed katana in front of me, the silver blade reflecting the lights from the Eiffel Tower.

The vampire growled, lip curled to reveal a pair of needle-sharp fangs, hatred burning in his eyes. I didn’t recognize him, and I doubted he recognized me beyond the fact that I was a vampire not from his House—and that made me an enemy.

He rose, stepping away from the human as if she were nothing more than a bit of trash he’d left behind. His knuckles around the stake were bone white, tensed and ready.

Released from his clutches, the human took one look at my silvered eyes and screamed, then began to scramble away from us. She’d survive—if I could lure him away from her.

The vampire slapped my katana away with one hand, drove the stake toward me with the other.

I might have been young for a vampire, but I was well trained. I moved back, putting us both clear of the human, and kicked. I made contact with his hand, sent the stake spinning through the air. He found his footing and picked up the stake. Undeterred, he moved toward me. This time, he kicked. I blocked it, but the force of the blow sent pain rippling through my arm.

He thrust the stake toward me like a fencer with a foil.

The movement sent light glimmering against the gold on his right hand. A signet ring, crowned by a star ruby—and the symbol of Maison Saint-Germaine.

I doubted it was a coincidence Saint-Germaine vampires were attacking the ultimate symbol of Paris only a few nights after they’d been attacked by a Paris House. While I understood why they’d want revenge, terrorizing and murdering humans wasn’t the way to do it. It wasn’t fair to make our issues their problems.

I darted back to avoid the stake, then sliced down with the katana when he advanced again.

“You should have stayed in Calais,” I said in French, and got no response but a gleam in his eyes. He spun to avoid that move, but I managed to nick his arm. Blood scented the air, and my stomach clenched with sudden hunger and need. But ignoring that hunger was one of the first lessons my parents had taught me. There was a time and a place to drink, and this wasn’t it.

I swept out a leg, which had him hopping backward, then rotated into a kick that sent him to his knees. He grabbed my legs, shifting his weight so we both fell forward into the grass. The katana rolled from my grasp.

My head rapped against the ground, and it took a moment to realize that he’d climbed over me and grabbed the stake. He raised it, his eyes flashing in the brilliantly colored lights that reflected across the grass from the shining monument behind us.

I looked at that stake—thought of what it could do and was almost certainly about to do to me—and my mind went absolutely blank. I could see him, hear the blood rushing in my ears, and didn’t have the foggiest idea what I was supposed to do, like the adrenaline had forced a hiccup in my brain.

Fortunately, beyond fear, and beneath it, was instinct. And I didn’t need to think what would bring a man down. He may have been immortal, and he may have been vampire. Didn’t matter. This move didn’t discriminate.

I kicked him in the groin.

He groaned, hunched over, and fell over on the grass, body cowed over his manhood.

“Asshole,” I muttered, chest heaving as I climbed to my feet and kicked him over, then added a kick to the back of his ribs to encourage him, politely, to stay there.

Two guards ran over, looked at me, then him.

“Elisa Sullivan,” I said. “Maison Dumas.” Most vampires who weren’t Masters used only their first name. I’d gotten an exception since it wasn’t practical for a kid to have just one name.

They nodded, confiscated the stake, and went about the business of handcuffing the vampire. I picked up the katana, wiped the blade against my pant leg, and dared a look at the field around me.

Two of the other Saint-Germaine vampires were alive, both on their knees, hands behind their heads. I didn’t see the others, and unless they’d run away, which seemed unlikely, they’d probably been taken down by the Paris Police or Eiffel Tower guards. Fallen into cones of ash due to a deadly encounter with aspen.

Humans swarmed at the periphery of the park, where Paris Police worked to set up a barrier.

Some of the humans who’d survived the attack were helping the others. Others stood with wide eyes, shaking with shock and fear. And more yet had pulled out their screens to capture video of the fight. The entire world was probably watching, whether they wanted to see or not.

I found Seri standing at the edge of the park, her eyes silver, her expression fierce and angry. She wasn’t a fighter, but she knew injustice when she saw it.

I walked toward her, my right hip aching a bit from hitting the ground, and figured I’d passed my first field test.

I suddenly wasn’t so sad to be leaving Paris.

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