Bitter Blood (The Morganville Vampires #13)



It was so dark. Dark dark dark dark dark dark. Dark dark dark dark dark dark dark dark can't breathe darrrrrrrrrrkkkkkkkk… I gained control of my clattering, chattering mind with an effort that left me trembling. Had I been still human, still breathing-as I was sometimes in dreams-I thought I would have been drenched in the sweat of fear and gasping. I dreamed that sometimes, too, the sticky moisture on my skin, dripping and burning in my eyes, but in the dreams it wasn't dark; it was bright, so bright, and I was running for my life, running from the monster behind….

So many years running blackness turning red nothing nothing safe no havens no friends lost all lost until Amelie until this place until home but home was gone gone dead and gone…I gagged on the taste in the back of my mouth, the excruciating spike of hunger, and sagged against the wet, slick wal . Don't remember, I told myself. Don't think.

But I couldn't stop thinking. Ever. My mother had beaten me for fancies when I watched the stars and drew their patterns and forgot the sheep while wolves ate the lambs and my sisters with their cruel and petty wounds when no one saw and my father penned up like an animal as he howled al the thinking never stopped never never never a howling storm in my head until the heat burst through my skin and devoured me.

Stop. I shouted it inside my head until I could feel the force of it hammering against bone, and for a blessed moment, I gained the space of silence against allthe pressing weight of memory and terror that never, never went away for long.

There was time enough to think where I was and to remember my present situation…not my past.

The prison was familiar to me, familiar not from Morganville but from ancient and heavily unpleasant years past…. My enemy was still a great fan of the classics, because he had dropped me into an oubliette-a round, narrow hole in stone that was deep enough, and smooth enough, to thwart a vampire's attempts to jump or climb. In less civilized times, one would be dropped in to be forgotten entirely. Humans lasted only days, generally, before the confinement, darkness, hunger or thirst-or simple horror-took them. Vampires…wel . We were hardy.

It's a sad thing for a vampire to confess, but I have always hated the bitter, choking dark. It's useful to us to hide and stalk, but only when there is a hint of light-a glimmer, something that wil define the shadows and give them shape. A blood-hot body glows, and that, too, is a comfort and a convenience.

But here, there was no glimmer, no prey, nothing to relieve the inky and utter black. It reminded me of terrible, terrible things like the grave I had dug my way out of more than once, the taste of dirt and screams in my mouth, vivid and sour, and that taste never went away, leaving me gagging on it, gagging and unable to fight past the choking, awful sense of burial only blood could wash out, blood and searing light….


When I came to myself, I was doubled over and retching, my hands flat against the wal . I was on my knees, which was even less pleasant than standing. I sagged back and found the cold, wet stone of the wal only a few inches behind me. I could sit, if I did not mind waist-high filthy water, and my knees to my chin. well , it made for a change, at least.

It was my fault that I was here, entirely mine. Claire always chided me for my single-mindedness and she was right, right, always right, even Frank had told me to go but poor, surly Frank, starving for lack of nutrients no one to change out the tanks and care for him properly, and Bob, what to do about Bob, I couldn't leave him behind allon his own how would he catch his flies and crickets and the occasional juicy beetle without assistance he was so very much my responsibility and Claire Claire Claire vulnerable now without Amelie without pity kindness mercy no no no I could not go should not…

Chilly skeletal Pennyfeather, with his acid eyes and killer's smile…

Frank warned me warned me warned me…

Pennyfeather dragging heretics to the flames, hunting me, digging me out of my last safe nest and into burning sunlight where Oliver laughed and then the oubliette the darkness dark darkdarkdarkdarkdarkdark…

I opened my eyes again, eventually, with my screams still ringing back at me from the stone wal s. What a noisy chorus I was. It was still complete and utter darkness-the rock I leaned on, the water, my hand in front of my face, allbleak and black, not even a spark of light, life, color.

That was because I was blind. I remembered it with a sudden, guilty shock; it was odd that one would forget something that significant. But in my defense, one doesn't tend to wish to remember such things (Pennyfeather's awful pale grin, the flash of the knife, the pain, the fal ).

You've healed from worse, I told myself sternly. I pretended to be someone clear, someone practical. Ada, perhaps, in her better days. Or Claire. Yes, Claire would be quite practical at a time like this.

Blind blind three blind mice see how they run who holds the carving knife where is the cat Dear God in heaven the cat and I am only a mouse, a blind and helpless mouse in a trap cheese if only someone would drop down a bite of cheese, or another mouse…The oubliette, I was not a mouse, I was a vampire, I was a blind vampire who would heal, of course, eventually, and see again. Stop, I told myself. I drew in a deep breath and smel ed ancient death, crushed weeds, rotting metal, stone. I had no idea where the oubliette was located. I was simply at the bottom of it, standing in cold, filthy water and thinking that this time, my favorite slippers were well and truly ruined. Such a pity.

All the whimsy in the world won't help you now, fool. I could hear Pennyfeather saying it; I could feel the cold clench of his hands on my shoulders. This town belongs to the strong.

And then the fall.

Well. I was strong. I had survived. I always survived. Not this time never no one to rescue me no one to know I was so alone alone alone darkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk.

The panic took some time to subdue; it lasted longer each time, it seemed; from a purely scientific perspective, I supposed I ought to have been taking notes. A monograph on the subject of terrors of the dark, with additions for the blind. I could write volumes, should I ever see again to be able to write.

Your eyes will heal, the rational part of me-a tiny part, at best, and by no means the best of me-whispered. Delicate tissues take longer to regenerate. I knew this, but the animal, instinctual part of me still shrieked in panic, convinced that I'd be left in this, choking nothing forever, doubly blind, unable to even make out the blank wal s that confined me.

The evil tide of panic rolled over me again, and when it finally passed and my screaming brain still ed, I was crouched low in the water, huddling to the chilly wal s and shaking in a near fit. My throat felt odd. Ah. I'd been screaming, again. I swal owed a trickle of my own precious and scarce blood and wondered when Claire would seek me out. She would; she must. I desperately believed she would. Surely she was not so angry with me that she'd spurn me and leave me here, in this awful place.

Please. Please come. I can't survive this I can't alone no no no not alone not blind no…

I was not used to feeling this horror, which combined allthe fears of my mortal life in a toxic elixir; the closeness of the wal s, the darkness, the filthy water, the knowledge that I might never leave this place, that I'd starve here to rags and bones until thirst robbed me of allshreds of the mind I'd struggled so hard to preserve, gnawing my own flesh until it was drained dry.

I have become my father after all.

My father had gone mad when I was only a very young boy, and they'd confined him…not in a well like this, but in a hut, a lightless and chained hovel, with no hope or memory of daylight. When I had nightmares-daily-that was my hel , that I woke dressed in my father's filthy rags, chained and alone, abandoned to the screaming in my head.

In the dark.

And here it is, nightmare come real, in the dark, alone, abandoned.

Nonsense. Pennyfeather has always worked for Oliver. I tried to focus on logic, anything to prevent myself from sliding over that muddy slope down into the pit of despair again. Ergo, Oliver wished that I be removed. Why would he wish it? Because Amelie trusts me?

It did not feel right. Oliver was not randomly cruel; he enjoyed power, but mostly for what power could do. He'd had many opportunities to remake Morganville in his own image, but he'd refrained, over and over; I'd thought there was genuine respect, even an odd and grudging love, growing between him and Amelie. Yet he'd changed, and through him, so had Amelie. For the worse.

Amelie, my sweet lady, so small and shy and quiet in the beginning when your master and mine had met, when as fledgling vampires we had learned the joy of the hunt, the terror of being owned. I rescued you from your vile father, and lost you, and found you again. Do you remember me at all, as that young and tentative vampire, full of fear and vague notions?

Amelie wasn't herself. Oliver should not have done this to me; he should not have been able to, without her consent. There was something missing, something I did not yet understand.

It was a puzzle, and I liked puzzles; I clung to them, here in the dark, a shield against allthe pieces fal ing apart, crashing together in my head, crashing and cutting….

Another panic attack swept over me, hot as boiling lead and cold as the snows that piled waist high in my youth, and what little mind I had dissolved in an acidic frenzy, thoughts rushing as fast as modern trains crashing through stone, veering wildly from the tracks, turning and burning into chaos closedarktoodarktooclosesmoothwallsnonono….

It was harder this time, coming back. I ached. I trembled. I think I might have wept, but water dripped cold on me, and I wasn't sure. No shame in tears. No shame at all, since there was no one to see me, no one ever ever ever again.

Come for me. Please, the lonely and lost part of me wailed. But no one did.

Hours crawled slowly, and I began to feel something odd…a pressure, a strange sensation that made me want to claw at my injured eyes…but I held off, hands fisted into shaking lumps, and pounded the hard, smooth wal s until I felt bones shifting beneath the skin. It healed faster than I would have liked; the distraction didn't last, and the pressure in my eyes built and built and suddenly, there was a breathtakingly lovely burst of light.

The glare burned so badly I cried out, but it didn't matter. I could see, and suddenly, the panic wasn't quite so desperate or overwhelming. I could manage this. I would manage it. As everything in my life, there was a way out, a single slender thread of hope, however insane….

Because that was, in fact, my secret. In an insane world, sanity made very little sense. No one expected me to live, and therefore, I did. Always.

I looked up, and saw a depressingly narrow tunnel closing into a tiny, dim hole far, far above…and the gleam of a silver grate above, a circle enclosing a cross. Pennyfeather hadn't just thrown me blinded into a pit; he'd thrown me into one of the levels of hel , and locked me in with silver, on the terribly unlikely chance I might scale the heights to crawl out. And who knew what lay beyond; nothing good, I was sure. If it had been Oliver giving the order, he'd left little to chance when he was determined in his course.

Still. At least it's not dark now, I consoled myself. I looked down, and in the faintest possible sliver of light I saw my legs-bare below the knees, since I had perhaps unwisely worn a pair of ancient velvet knee britches, and as pale as I had ever seen my skin. It was the color of dirty snow, and wrinkled to boot. I lifted one foot from the brackish water, and the bunny slippers were soaked and drooped pathetically. Even the fangs seemed robbed of any charm.

"Don't worry," I told it. "Someone wil pay for your suffering. Heavily. With screaming."

I felt I should repeat it for the other slipper, in case there should be any bad feelings between the two. One should never create tension between one's footwear.

That duty done, I looked up again. Water dripped cold from the heights and hit my face in sharp, icy stabs. It was cruel, since it could only irritate me, not sustain me. still , there must be rats. Every dungeon had rats; they came standard issue. Rat blood was not my favorite, but as the old saying goes, any port in a storm. And I was most definitely in a storm, a true tempest of trouble.

Water. Water water water falling cold in gray skies drowning the land gray dirt gray ashes gray bones of houses falling slowly into ruin gray eyes of a woman staring down with pity and tears so many tears mother so much disappointment in her face, and what I was now was not what I had been when she'd last seen me…the screams, the slamming door, no family left now, no one to care…my sisters, screaming at me to go away, go away…

I pulled myself sharply away from the memory. No. No, we do not think of those things. You should think of them, think of your sisters, think of what you did, something whispered in my ear, but it was a bad whisper, a vile and treacherous worm with the face of someone I had once loved, I was sure of that, but I didn't want to remember who might have warned me. I hadn't listened, in any case. I never listened.

I lifted up the right slipper again and addressed its soggy little head. "I'm afraid I might have to leave you behind. And you, too, twin. It wil be difficult enough to climb without you hampering me. And your fangs aren't very sharp."

They didn't respond. A smal bolt of ice-cold clarity swept over me, and I felt ashamed for talking to my shoes, and especially for apologizing to them. Clarity confused me. It was far less forgiving and kind than the general state of disconnection in which I liked to live.

Nonetheless, sanity-however brief-did force me to look again at the wal s. The surface wasn't perfect, after all; it was pocked with tiny imperfections. Not built, but bored out of solid stone, and while whatever dril had made it had polished the sides clean, it hadn't quite removed every hint of texture.

It wasn't much, but it was something, and I sighed at the prospect of just how unpleasant this was going to be.

Then I grimly jammed my fingernails into the wal and began to scrape tiny handholds.

Come and find me, I was still begging Claire, because I knew alltoo well that my nails-however sharp and sturdy-would be worn to nubs long before I reached the silver grate above. And said silver would be impossible for me to break from below, with no leverage and a chancy hold. And, of course, it would take days to scrape myself a ladder to the top, even assuming my nails could hold out so long.

But the least I could do would be to try. Pennyfeather might come back, after all; he might not be done with me. Perhaps I had been gifted to him as some macabre toy. If that was the case, I certainly needed to be ready to kil him, quickly, before he could invent new horrible things to do to me.

It might be the only chance I had to survive.