The freezing night air was lashing violently at my face and hair and rendering me sightless when I tried to open my eyes. We must have been going very fast, a speed no car could attain. A speed maybe even no plane could match. I could feel it in my stomach. And when we stopped, my senses continued to rush forward and I felt like I was falling through a tunnel for a long moment.
When my eyes stopped spinning, I saw that we were outside a huge curvilinear house of concrete and glass, two stories tall and at least an acre wide, built into the base of a small cliff-side. This mammoth house was the only thing for miles in the starlit sandy desert of what I guessed was New Mexico.
“This is Laramie’s house?” I asked as I visually scanned the face of this very industrialized twenty-first century mansion.
“Yes, you’ll get to see Laramie’s lab sooner than I planned,” he said. “I just wish it were under different circumstances.”
I grabbed Nicholae’s arm and pulled with all my strength to make him face me.
“Are you going to tell me what the big deal is, or do I have to beat it out of you?” I shouted.
Benny laughed, no doubt picturing the weak stick of a girl that I was punching the eburnean statue that was Nicholae.
“Be patient, please,” he said calmingly, all traces of his own haste hidden. “I promise I will tell you everything, but other things must be done first.”
“Okay,” I said submissively.
He went up to the door and led me inside.
The house held a strange allure. It looked so Malibu, like a beachfront house owned by a millionaire. There was not one piece of old world furniture in here, not one whisper of the past, only the bright flashing lights of the present and future.
“Nicholae,” said a smooth voice welcomingly.
I turned to the wall of windows and saw a tall, older, distinguished man walking toward us. He had short dark brown hair that fell in front of his forehead to touch his eyebrows and curled around his ears and the back of his neck. He was clearly a vampire, his skin even whiter and more polished than either Nicholae or Benny. His face had an air of wisdom about it that made him look much older than them, too; he didn’t have that boyish constitution like they did. He must have been in his early forties when he was made a vampire. So this was Laramie.
He greeted Nicholae in a short embrace, and I sensed that Nicholae was telepathically telling him whatever he was hiding from me. Then Laramie came toward me.
“And you must be Crimson,” he said, taking my hands together in his. “Nicholae was right. You are very beautiful.” He smiled. “So, are you ready to see my lab?”
“Oh, yes!” I exclaimed.
“Splendid.” He offered his arm and I happily slipped mine through it. “Oh, and William should be coming any moment also, Nicholae. I called him right after I got off the phone with you.”
Nicholae nodded and smiled contentedly.
Laramie walked me to the elevator at the back of the wide living room. The four of us stepped inside and Laramie pressed the button at the bottom labeled “Lab.” The elevator began to move and we descended down into the earth. I could feel us dropping, farther and farther. How far down is this place?
“A quarter mile,” Laramie answered my thoughts.
“Laramie, you seem like a straight shooter,” I said. “Can you tell me what all this fuss is about?”
“Certainly,” he said pleasantly. “We have reason to believe that you have a very rare gene known as ‘Amaranthine 17.’”
“How can you tell?” I asked.
“My eyes?” Then I remembered the first night I met Benny at the mall, before I knew what he was. He had been staring at my eyes like they were the two precious lost gems of an ancient Peruvian king.
I always knew that my eyes were odd, green with red at the center. I have never seen or heard or read about anyone with eyes like mine. But why should that mean I have a rare gene?
The elevator finally stopped and the doors slowly opened to reveal a white-walled wonderland of technology. Everywhere there were huge computers, towering blinking machines, two very long narrow tables with yards of test tubes and microscopes and Petri dishes and all other manner of chemistry tools. And at the very end of the room was a desk with a laptop hooked up to four different monitors and several other instruments.
“This. Is. Awesome!” I said with unmeasured reverence.
“Thank you,” Laramie said proudly. “Now, if you’ll come and have a seat over here.” He pulled out a cushy rotating chair for me at the head of the long table.
I sat down and he rolled my sleeve up past my elbow. He opened an alcohol swab and rubbed it into the inner bend of my elbow where the vein was accessible. Then he held up a syringe.
“Ah! What the hell!” I shouted, recoiling away.
“Crimson, we have to take a sample of your blood,” Nicholae said soothingly. “It will only hurt for a moment.”
I stared at the giant needle and winced.
“Look at me,” Nicholae advised. “Just keep your eyes on me and don’t think about the needle.”
I did what he said, staring at his face as I felt the pinprick of the needle in my arm. I whimpered and tried to hold my breath until the needle left. Then Laramie lightly pressed a cotton ball to my vein and wrapped my elbow in gauze.
“All done,” he said.
He took the dark vile to the opposite end of the table.
“See, it wasn’t so bad,” Nicholae said.
“I guess,” I said. “What’s he going to do now?”
“He’s just going to run a few tests.”
“You can watch me if you like,” Laramie said without looking up.
I went to his side as he distributed the blood into several smaller test tubes. I watched as he rapidly did different things to each test tube. I had no clue what exactly he was doing or what each procedure was for, but I was in awe of his precision and speed.
Within the next ten minutes, the elevator bell dinged and a handsome man about Nicholae’s age stepped out. He had a pretty face and shoulder length brown hair the color of milk chocolate.
“Hello, William,” Nicholae greeted and went to hug him. They embraced and kissed each other’s cheeks simultaneously.
“Hello, brother,” William said in return. “So what is the cause for all this commotion?”
“Crimson is an Amarant,” Benny said.
“We don’t know that yet,” Nicholae said.
“Nicki.” Benny tutted, shaking his head. “Don’t deceive yourself. She has the eyes.”
“It could be a coincidence,” Nicholae persisted.
Benny shook his head. “But you weren’t there when it all started. I was. And I know what I see when I look at her. I’m sure your ancient friend over there does, too.”
We all looked at Laramie, who was oblivious to us and hunched over a microscope.
“What is an Amarant?” William asked.
“Good luck,” I scoffed. “I’ve been asking the same question all night.”
“If you’ll please just wait a few more minutes,” Nicholae said. “It is better if Laramie tells this story. He was there. And he is dying to tell it, even though he may be distracted at the moment.”
What did they mean he was there? Where, and when? What did my genes have to do with anything? I was dying to know! I felt like I would scream if I didn’t get my answers soon.
I paced around the lab for a very long hour, looking over each strange new machine and wondering at its purpose, while everyone else remained perfectly silent. I can’t tell you how uncomfortable it is being the only human in a room full of vampires, especially when those vampires aren’t making a sound. It’s worse than being in that room by yourself.
“It’s done,” Laramie said, now sitting at the laptop at the back of the room.
I ran to see the results, but the three vampires with their impossible speed beat me to it. There was a virtual model of a DNA strand rotating on the laptop screen. On the monitor to the right, there was a 3-D model of a chromosome, on the left were rows and rows of numbers and letters that looked like gibberish to me, and on the top was a picture of a hundred little red circles, which I guessed was a microscopic image of my blood.
“Benny was right, as I assumed he was,” Laramie said. “Crimson is definitely an Amarant. There’s Amaranthine 17 right there.” He clicked speedily on the keyboard and a purple colored bond in the strand was highlighted and enlarged on screen.
“And you’re sure it’s homozygous?” Nicholae asked.
“My data is flawless,” Laramie replied.
“Well, that’s a relief,” he said. “Or at least, not as bad as the alternative.”
I crossed my arms and began loudly tapping my foot on the linoleum floor.
“Alright, Laramie,” Nicholae said. “Take it away.”
Laramie spun around his rotating chair and faced us with a smile. “This story starts in the mid-fourteenth century, the dark ages, when the Black Plague was wreaking havoc on all of Europe. I was in Amsterdam at the time, where word was spreading about a vampire named Alphus who had been created with the powers of the ancients, greater even than mine. As you know, vampires are ‘born’ with the superhuman strength, superhuman speed, and the ability to read minds. All the other talents, like telekinesis, and greater strength and speed, come over a very long time, so the vampire has time to develop those skills. But this Alphus came into his vampiric life with exceptional gifts that were beyond his control. He had killed his creator by accident, lashed out at him in anger with more force than he knew to control. Every vampire was afraid of him, of this newborn fledgling who could destroy any one of us without even meaning to.
“A group of the ancients convened and decided to go after him together. His powers were apparently too great for him to control and we couldn’t afford such a risk to our secrecy or our existence. So they went after him and killed him.
“It wasn’t until a month later that they discovered he had created a fledgling of his own, his sister Danya. She was just as excessively powerful as he had been, and the ancients noticed that she had the same strange colored eyes he did.
“They killed her immediately. They tracked down another in his family with eyes like that and made him a vampire as an experiment. He turned out to be the same, with all the same exceptional powers. They experimented with a few more of that bloodline, some with the eyes and some without. They discovered that, while those with the eyes became prodigiously powerful, a great number of those without the eyes died the instant they made contact with vampire blood, their hearts bursting.
“Done with their experimenting and fearful for the safety of our species, they slaughtered all the newborns, and every other member of the bloodline they could fine. They ended up executing thousands of mortals, anyone and everyone who had any blood ties to Alphus. I would say at least a quarter of the deaths accredited to the Black Plague were the fault of this massacre.
“Then about a hundred years ago, at the dawn of technology, one rogue named Christophe was lucky enough to find a human with the eyes and conducted experiments on it. He found that a human with the homozygous form of the gene—that is, the gene is present from both parents—that human had the eyes and this phenomenal potential. He also found that a human with the gene in its heterozygous form, only from one parent, the human would die if an attempt at transformation was made.
“He called this gene ‘Amaranthine,’ for the unique flower-like design on the iris, and for the mythology behind the flower.”
I stood there, silent and still as a statue, barely breathing. I was an Amarant. I had this gene. It was right there in front of me, there was no denying it! How could this be? I wasn’t supposed to be anything special. And now Nicholae wouldn’t want to turn me.
“No, that’s not true at all,” he said, putting his arms around me. “I wasn’t worried about you having this gene because of that. In fact, just the opposite. I was afraid that you only had half of the gene, and that I wouldn’t be able to turn you. I was afraid that you would die if I tried to change you.”
“So…you still want to make me a vampire?” I asked. I hadn’t officially decided I had wanted it, even though we both knew I did, and having the choice almost taken away from me only made me want it more.
“Yes.” There was that angelic smile I so adored, the smile that could end wars and break even the most stubborn heart.
“You’re not afraid of me?”
“No. I will do whatever I can to guide you and teach you. And you are so mature and so rational, I’m sure you will catch on very quickly. I don’t feel you will be at risk.”
“Not from herself, perhaps, but certainly from others,” Laramie said.
Nicholae’s smile faded and his eyes darkened.
“I know… But no one is going to find out about her. How would they? She will be safe.”
“I, for one, can’t wait to see what she will become,” Benny said.
I looked around at each of them, Benny smiling wickedly, Nicholae with his arms around me, Laramie rubbing his thumb absently over his lips, and William standing silently, lost in thought. Oh how I wish I could read their thoughts as they could so easily read mine.
“Laramie, what affects does this gene have for humans?” I asked. “Is it detrimental?”
“No, not all,” he answered. “In fact, to the best of my knowledge, it has no use in human form. It is neither harmful nor beneficial, just a useless gene in the strand.”
“Why aren’t you afraid of me?” I asked tentatively. “You witnessed the power of the first ‘Amarant’. Why won’t you do anything about me?”
“I may have been there, but I took no part in those murders,” he said. “And even if I had, I would never dream of taking away something so precious from Nicholae. I don’t think you will ever really understand how much he truly loves you. When you have someone you love like that, you deserve to keep them.” I sensed that he wasn’t talking only about Nicholae and me now, and it made me curious.
“Besides, I see no threat in you. Even if you do have this gene, you have many around you who can tutor you when the time comes, something that those before you didn’t have. We will help you. That is, if you choose to become one of us.”
Laramie seemed detached for a second, distracted by something.
“We should take this discussion upstairs,” he said, getting out of his chair. “Arsinoe is getting hungry.”
“Arsinoe? Who’s that?” I asked. Was there another vampire here that I didn’t know about?
“Oh, you are going to enjoy this,” Nicholae said to me.
“You’ll see.” He smiled.
Plagued with curiosity, I hurried into the elevator after Laramie, eager to see what Nicholae was talking about, who Arsinoe was.
The elevator brought us up, the doors slid open and a dog was sitting before the elevator, waiting. It was the most hauntingly beautiful dog I had ever seen; it was a Shiloh Shepherd, the plush fur on its legs, neck and belly diaphanous white, its back, face and tail coated in gossamer silver. Its eyes were two effervescent stones of fiery amber, holding inside them the truth of an intelligence greater than that of an average canine.
I knew instinctively that this was no ordinary dog. Could it really be?—a vampire!
Laramie passed me and went to the kitchen, and the phantasmal dog was gone and going after him in the blink of an eye.
“Is…is it really a vampire?” I whispered to Nicholae.
He smiled. “Yes. I knew you would like that.”
“I didn’t even know that was possible!”
“We didn’t either,” Laramie said when he came back into the room. “Until I tried it.”
I heard a lapping sound from the kitchen that mildly disturbed me.
“Before Arsinoe, I used to buy a new dog every few years,” Laramie said. “I’ve never been able to stand being fully alone, and dogs make great company, for man or vampire.”
“How did you get the idea to make it a vampire?” I asked, fascinated.
“Her,” he corrected. “And actually, I got the idea from the movie ‘Resident Evil.’ I was very intrigued by the zombie dogs and wondered what would happen if there were a vampire dog. As a devoted lover of science, if there is a question I am compelled to answer it. That’s how Arsinoe became the beautiful creature she is now. And it solved my tedious problem of having to find a new dog every decade.”
After another blink, the dog appeared at Laramie’s feet without a sound. He pat her head and she opened her mouth and let her tongue hang. She was so enchanting, so alluring. She was like a siren, a creature that drew mortals in with her beauty only to bring them to their death.
“You can pet her if you like,” Laramie interrupted the spell. “She won’t bite.”
Before I could move a step in edgewise, the dog was at my feet. Unable to resist, I fell to my knees and apprehensively lay my hand on the top of her head. Her fur was softer than the hair of a newborn babe, and cool as an autumn night. Under the plush coat, her body was just as hard and stony as Nicholae’s.
She leaned into my petting, closing her ocher eyes in obvious pleasure. I landed my butt to the floor and crossed my legs, and she put her front paws in my lap to get closer to my coddling hands.
She was so friendly, so loveable, she already owned my impressionable heart. And it was strange, but I could feel her thoughts. At first I thought it was just an illusion, but then the feeling intensified and I was certain that it was coming from her. She was telling me that she liked me, too.
Slowly, she tipped her nose up toward my face, then opened her mouth to lick me. But I glimpsed her shark-like fangs and terror drained all color from my face. I fell back in desperation.
She stepped back and lowered her head, creasing her eyes innocently and whimpering.
My heart continued to hammer inside my chest, but I knew that she wouldn’t hurt me. I swallowed hard and scratched the top of her head to show her that it was all okay.
“She’s amazing, Laramie,” I said as she put her head in my lap.
“I know,” he said reverently, dotingly. “It has been so enlightening to watch her transform, to watch her thought processes evolve into something so sophisticated and complex. She is capable of understanding very profound things. Sometimes, it’s almost like she is my equal with all her maturity. But then again, she is very much like a child, too. She is very playful and puerile, and she likes to break my rules when she wants attention.
“For example, if I don’t feed her right at the moment that she is hungry, she will sneak outside and kill every wild animal in a five mile radius.”
Arsinoe whined and put both paws over her nose, knowing she was the topic of conversation.
“But thankfully, she has learned not to kill humans,” Laramie said. “She knows that is the one rule that can never be broken.”
“Why? Don’t you feed on humans, like Nicholae?” I asked. I didn’t know of any vampires who killed animals instead of humans.
“Yes, but I don’t trust Arsinoe to be able to target only the bad humans,” he answered. “As smart as she is, I won’t give her the benefit of the doubt. I cannot allow even the slightest possibility of an innocent life being taken.”
Arsinoe rolled over with her head still in my lap and stretched out her belly. She mentally signaled for me to rub her belly, and I did.
“Aw, you are just so cute!” I crooned.
“How long will you all be staying?” Laramie asked, and I noticed that Nicholae and William had soundlessly moved to sit on the couch.
“I don’t know,” Nicholae said. “I would like to stay the rest of the night, and maybe even tomorrow…”
“Can we really?” I asked.
“Do you want to?”
“Yes! That would be amazing!…But what about my Mom?”
“Don’t you worry about that,” he said confidently. “If you want to stay, then I will arrange everything.”
“Yay! You hear that, Arsinoe? I get to stay with you.”
She stretched up her neck and licked my nose and my cheeks, and I giggled.
“And I will stay as long as they do,” William said. “It will be nice to catch up with you, Nicholae, and to get to know Crimson.”
“Splendid,” Laramie smiled. “We shall all go on a hunt tomorrow night, then, for old times sake.”
“I suppose you will be staying, too, Benny?” Nicholae sighed.
“Thank you, I would love to,” Benny said.
I giggld and he winked at me.
Nicholae rolled his eyes.
“Crimson, will you be alright here for a minute if I leave you with them?” he asked as he got up from the couch.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“Just back to your house to leave your mother a note, in your hand writing, of course,” he replied with a handsome smirk. “To let her know not to expect you home tomorrow.”
“Oh, okay,” I said, continuing to pet Arsinoe, who didn’t like it that my attention was being drawn away from her.
“Yeah, don’t worry about it, Nicki,” Benny said, patting him on the back. “We’ll take good care of her.”
Nicholae bent down to land a lingering kiss on my forehead, then disappeared. Now it was just me and four vampires I barely knew.
It was really silent for a long moment when nobody spoke, so silent that I began to feel very alone. Vampires don’t make a sound when they breathe, don’t make small, accidental movements that rustle their clothing, they can start to feel like ghosts if they sit still for too long.
I saw William get up slowly off the couch and walk to me. Just as with Nicholae and Benny, his movements seemed so slow and sluggish, because I knew just how fast they could really move. I was sure that their measured movements were all for my benefit, and that they would not dally so were I not here.
He knelt down next to me and started scratching Arsinoe’s belly, and she was loving it. I couldn’t help but stare at his face. This was the once-human that Nicholae fell in love with, Nicholae’s only fledgling. I had learned so much about William’s personality from the stories, and he seemed like such a sweet and passive and tragic person, very likeable and yet pitiable at the same time. And now here he was, so casually petting an immortal dog right next to me, regarding me as an equal.
“This is so like Nicholae,” he said, surprising me with his broken silence. “Only he would fall in love with a mortal with such deadly potential. It’s like that phrase mortals use now, ‘dumb luck.’ Nicholae is the epitome of dumb luck.”
“How so?” I asked, just wanting to keep talking to him.
“Well, the fact that he became an immortal, at all, for one,” he said. “And then he was taken under the wing of the very vampire who killed his creator. If it were any other person but Nicholae, I’m sure Laramie would either have killed that fledgling or just passed him by without a second thought. But not Nicholae. He just has that air about him that makes people want him. I’m sure you know how that is.”
“I guess you two are a good match, though,” he said after a pause.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because you are the same as him,” he said. “You have that same magnetism. It may not be as strong, but it’s there. And, dumb luck, you have mountains of it.”
I thought about that, and he was right. All of this had worked out just so perfectly, the way I discovered Nicholae, and then he fell in love me without me even being aware of it, and then of course that day in the mountains when Nicholae narrowly saved me from the bear. I did have dumb luck, and thank God for that.
“Can I ask you something?” I said. “Why don’t you and Nicholae live together anymore?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I think it’s just something that happens. Fledglings don’t stay with their creators for very long. In fact, vampires in general don’t stay together for very long, unless they are part of a large coven. Like humans, we drift apart and go off in search of privacy and change.”
I didn’t like this answer at all. Would Nicholae eventually get tired of me? Would he leave and start looking for someone new.
“Crimson, it wasn’t Nicholae who wanted to leave,” he said. “I left. It’s not that I don’t love him, it’s impossible not to. But I wanted a life of my own, and some time alone to think.
“Nicholae, on the other hand, loves company, he thrives on it. He tries desperately to preserve his intimate relationships. That’s why we three keep in such close contact.” He smiled at me, and it was just such a handsome smile. “And while vampire companions don’t always stay together, vampires that are pair bonded tend to stay that way. You hear of very few divorces among vampires. I know of one couple who were brought together as vampires and have never parted. They are only a century old, but a century still seems a very long time to stay together to me.”
“So you prefer being alone?” I asked.
“It is not really that I am alone,” he said. “I own a farm in Louisiana, and I am constantly surrounded by mortals. I enjoy their company very much, perhaps for the very fact that they are not what I am. Often times, I’d rather not be reminded.”
There was silence for a moment, and neither of us was paying much attention to Arsinoe anymore.
“Do you think you will ever make your own fledgling?” I asked.
I watched his face subtly change as he thought about it.
“I don’t think I will,” he said finally.
“Don’t you think you will ever get lonely, ever want a real companion, or maybe a lover, a mate?”
“Nicholae and Laramie are the best of either species I have ever known. There is no better company. And as far as a lover goes, I can’t imagine loving anyone other than Madeline”—his long dead fiancée—“I don’t want anyone if it’s not her.”
How sweet. He stays true to his love, even in death. I guess it’s true what he said about vampire mates, even though he and his fiancée were both human when she died. Vampires must love more fiercely than humans do.
I looked over at Benny, sizing him up. Why was he here? Perhaps he did have a little vampire crush on Nicholae, but it was clear that Nicholae didn’t want him around. Was he trying to win Nicholae over? Maybe through me? He was an interesting character, that’s for sure. From Nicholae’s descriptions of him, he seemed the screw up of the vampire community.
“What’s your story, Benny?” I asked. “Is there a special girl in your life?”
“You mean besides you?” he jested. “I prefer not to be tied down, unless it’s with rope or handcuffs.”
I laughed, and he came to join William and me on the floor.
“You’re the boy who keeps killing Nicholae’s victims, aren’t you,” William said.
“I see my reputation precedes me,” Benny said happily.
William laughed shortly and shook his head. “You are very lucky that he hasn’t killed you, yet.”
“I’m not afraid.” Benny shrugged.
“But isn’t he more powerful than you, even though you’re older?” I asked, trying to get my facts straight.
“He may be more powerful, but he’s really just an old softy. I think, deep down, he likes the rivalry. I make his life more interesting.”
“Why do you do that, anyway?” William asked him. “Why intentionally provoke him?”
“That’s simple. Nicholae’s the most famous vampire in the world. Everyone knows about him. And because of his ‘dumb luck,’ as you call it, everyone is afraid of him. I just wanted to see what they were all afraid of. But now, I just keep doing it because it’s fun for me.”
“You know that he will kill you if you keep it up.”
“No worries there,” Benny said. “I have promised to leave him alone now, well, his victims anyway. But I will definitely keep hanging around, now that I have gained his trust. If it weren’t for me, he would never have known about Crimson being an Amarant.”
William didn’t say anything to that.
“Lucy, I’m home,” Nicholae said with a chuckle as he came into the living room. He saw the three of us sitting together on the floor and came to join us. “Did you kids play nice?” he asked, eyeing Benny.
“Yes, we’ve just been getting to know each other,” I said. “And I adore Arsinoe. She’s so cute and cuddly.”
Arsinoe licked my palm at the compliment.
I yawned, and though I didn’t want this night to end, I was quite tired.
“Laramie, do all your spare bedrooms have blocked windows?” Nicholae asked.
“Of course,” Laramie replied.
“Then I think Crimson and I will retire for the night.” Nicholae lifted me up off the floor, and Arsinoe looked longingly back up at me.
“She’s mine, mutt,” Nicholae said proudly and tauntingly to her.
Arsinoe barked for the first time, and it was so loud it made my ears ring.
“Alright, you can come, too,” Nicholae said.
The vampire dog happily followed us up the stairs to our room, where I promptly collapsed on the bed and fell asleep.