Copyright © 2012 P.G. Forte
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
New Year’s Eve, 1969
According to the clock on the living room mantel, it was almost midnight. Conrad Quintano glared at the offending timepiece. Its measured ticking grated on his nerves, mocking his attempts to ignore the relentless passage of time. He was tempted to pick up the clock and hurl it across the room. In fact, the only thing preventing him from doing so was the lack of a spare hand. As he paced the floors of the small suburban tract home he’d recently purchased, his arms were filled to overflowing with squirming infant vampire—two vampires, twins to be exact—both of whom appeared to be every bit as frustrated and wide-awake as he.
Conrad gazed at the babies with a grudging sense of wonderment. So small and yet still so strong. How was it they were still awake?
He should be able to subdue them, damn it. It was almost inconceivable that he could not. He was both their sire and their creator, albeit at one small remove, not to mention the undisputed head of a large and powerful household. He was also a Lamia Invitus, one of the last and strongest of his kind, with over a millennium of skill, experience and strength to draw upon. The idea that one such as he should be bested by two such tiny creatures was laughable. Yet the pair still resisted all his efforts to compel them back to sleep.
Oh, yes, they may have deigned to yawn a time or two, no doubt in deference to his pride. They might even have allowed their eyes to momentarily fall shut, but it was all just part of a cunning ruse, a transparent attempt to lull him into a false sense of complacency. Conrad wasn’t fool enough to fall for such obvious tricks—at least not after the first five or six times.
He could see right through their tactics. Were he to make the attempt to lay them down ever so gently in their crib, their eyes would pop open the instant their backs touched the mattress. Then their little limbs would start to flail and they’d begin once more to cry—those tearful, heart-rending, nerve-wracking sobs that always seemed disproportionately loud for the size of the bodies from which the sounds issued.
He supposed it was not really their fault they refused to be soothed. The baby books Damian had purchased, and insisted they both study, had had a lot to say about the terrifying maladies to which newborns were prone—things like growth spurts, teething pain, food allergies and colic. And even though the books had not been written with baby vampires in mind, Conrad was confident that what he was witnessing now was a reasonable approximation of what he’d read about within their pages. If only that wasn’t the only thing about which he felt confident!
The babies were hungry, that fact was indisputable. They needed blood—apparently more frequently now, and in much larger quantities than they’d been used to receiving. That too was a given. But how much did they need? And how soon did they need it? How long did he have before these newest of his children were irreparably damaged by malnutrition? Before starvation set in? Before they expired? Or before even worse things occurred? Only two months old and already their lives were in peril.
If vampire blood would have sufficed, Conrad would have happily opened every one of his veins in order to gain even a half hour’s respite. But, alas, only human blood could supply the twins with the nourishment their bodies craved. Unfortunately, their suddenly ravenous and increased appetites, while understandable, had caught him off guard. There was no blood left for them in the house.
Damian had gone out several hours earlier on what should have been a simple enough mission—a quick trip to the local hospital to purchase the needed sustenance from the connection he’d been cultivating, and then straight back home. He should have returned by now. He hadn’t.
If he doesn’t come back soon… No. He will. He has to.
What options did Conrad even have if Damian failed to return? He couldn’t just leave the twins unattended while he went out hunting. Nor could he take them with him. Exactly the reasons he’d appealed to Damian for his assistance in the first place!
Conrad should never have agreed with Damian when he’d argued that it made more sense for only one of them to risk getting caught trying to buy blood illegally. He should have made his own plans, cultivated his own hospital contacts. Why hadn’t he?
There was only one answer to that, an answer so screamingly obvious it should have shamed him to admit it—even to himself. He hadn’t wanted to accept the fact it might someday prove necessary. He hadn’t wanted to even entertain the possibility that Damian’s willingness to assist Conrad might, at some point, come to an end.
If Conrad were forced to go out tonight and find food for the twins, he’d have no one to blame but himself and little choice as to what he would have to do. He’d have to leave the twins unprotected, take to the streets, waylay random strangers and drag them back to the house.
And then kill said strangers when he was done with them in order to prevent them from talking about what they’d seen.
The very thought sickened him. Not because it would be the first time he’d unjustly ended someone’s life. No, not even the thousandth time. But he’d been happy to allow the dust of several accumulated centuries to cover over those horrors, to bury and obscure his murderous past. He’d hoped never to have to dig it up and revisit it.
Now, unpalatable as the idea was, it had to be considered. It was possible he no longer had a choice—nor the luxury of scruples. The twins were his first responsibility. Everything else had to take a backseat to their needs.
How long should he wait? Conrad’s anxiety increased as his mind began to once again tick over the list of possible explanations for what could be keeping Damian. Maybe his luck had run out and he’d been caught. Maybe he was being interrogated, even now, by curious humans with questions as to what dire circumstances could have driven him to buy blood—or by other vampires wondering much the same thing. He might be dead, injured, incarcerated…
Or perhaps it was none of those things. Perhaps he’d merely stopped to slake his own hunger and lost track of the time.
That was always a possibility, wasn’t it? It was not as though either of them were strangers to such debauchery. If it turned out Damian had merely chosen to spend a few hours, or even the entire night, sating himself, gorging ‘til dawn, Conrad really couldn’t fault him overmuch.
Given that Damian was already risking his life at Conrad’s behest, that Conrad had no legitimate hold on him beyond blood and loyalty, that the two of them were no longer even intimate with each other… No, Conrad couldn’t fault him at all.
There was still another reason to consider. A reason Conrad dreaded, possibly more than any of the others. Maybe this was the night Damian finally decided he’d had enough, that endangering his life in an effort to help Conrad with this endeavor was too foolish a gamble even for Damian to continue to take. Perhaps this was the night he’d decided to never come back at all.
Conrad could not repress the sound that left his lips as the thought took hold. Part snarl, part howl, wild and not even slightly civilized, it was the sound of a man bereft, the sound of a man pushed to the very edges of his sanity. In some tiny, sane corner of his mind, Conrad was glad Damian was not around to hear it. For it was also exactly the kind of sound that would likely cause anyone with any sense at all—even someone who was not already thinking of leaving Conrad—to take to their heels and flee.
Even the twins were not unaffected by this evidence of their sire’s unstable temperament. They stirred restively in response, their whimpers steadily increasing in volume until Conrad forced himself to regain some measure of control over his emotions. He couldn’t afford to fall apart to this extent. Not when there was so much at stake.
If he were on his own now, so be it. He should have expected it. After all, he’d had misgivings all along about the long-term success of this partnership. Just look at how quickly Damian had reached the decision to help Conrad. As though it were nothing more than an impulse, a whim, a matter of no consequence. If Conrad had been a more honorable man, or a less desperate one, he would have demanded that Damian take some time to think before committing himself. A few days perhaps. A few hours at the very least. He hadn’t.
A thrill of unease shot through Conrad as he gazed at the children in his arms, so fragile-seeming, so innocent. Did they really have the potential to someday shake his very world apart? It seemed too fantastical to believe. How he wished those legends had never been written. It didn’t matter whether or not they were true. Either way, they made his twins a target.
Had they been someone else’s children, anyone else’s children in fact, Conrad would have been among the first to insist they be put to death—humanely, of course—but swiftly and without delay. Vampires didn’t have to be the monsters they were so often portrayed to be, after all.
Instead… Well, there was more irony for you. He couldn’t help but chuckle bitterly as he considered it. For four hundred years, he’d been the self-styled protector of the Vampire Nation. He’d done everything in his power to strengthen and solidify his people’s position in the world. No one had been more dedicated to the task than he. There’d been no one more vigilant, more diligent—or less merciful—when it came to seeking out and eliminating potential threats against his kind.
Now, he was throwing that legacy away. He was putting all of it at risk, everything he’d worked to build or safeguard or preserve, right down the last dying embers of his own humanity. He was branding himself a hypocrite, a turncoat, a traitor, and all for the sake of a promise made to a dying girl.