Frequently stopping, Kiera leads us effortlessly through the trees, her skins and pelts in a bag hanging from her shoulders. Every now and then she slips one of them on and morphs, scampering ahead to scope out the area.
“That’s so cool,” Harold sighs after she turns into a fox and leaves us behind momentarily. “What an amazing creature.”
I wrinkle my nose at his comment.
“I think it’s pretty gross, actually. She’s wearing dead animal and people skins.”
“You suck blood out of people to live,” he points out.
“He has a point,” Adam chimes in. “I think we outrank her in grossness.”
I roll my eyes and walk faster to get in front of them so I don’t have to hear them talk about anything.
Kiera comes back and tells us the path is clear. She falls back to walk with me, her orange eyes locked on my face and watching me carefully.
“What?” I ask after an awkward moment.
“You’re so complicated,” she says slowly, almost as if she’s speaking to herself. “You want one thing, yet you think that you don’t, and that makes you do some stupid things.”
“Excuse me?” I say, offended a bit. “I don’t think the things I do are stupid.”
“Because you’re filled with false pride,” she says matter-of-factly and looks ahead at Harold and Adam, who are deep in conversation about something. “You think you hold the world in your hand because you’re one of the most powerful beings on the Earth.”
“Hey, I would—”
“So I’m right,” she says, her slight smile telling me it’s not a question. “The man you’d been beating the night you made the wish, what did he do to you?”
“How do you—”
“Oh, just answer my question.”
I glare at her and spit, “I was thirsty—”
“No you weren’t, or else you wouldn’t have given him to the goblins to eat.”
“How do you know all of this?” I hiss.
“Skin-walkers don’t need a dead pelt or flap of skin to do our thing. As long as we are in contact with skin, we can change. The only thing is the difference between dead and alive. Dead skin and fur gives us the ability to become the animal, and from what our brains know about the animal, that’s where it fills in the gaps of how to pull the creature off correctly.
“Living skin—that sounds so weird to say—is skin still attached to the host—obviously. When we touch the living skin of the animal or person, we literally become them while our brains are still ourselves. It’s confusing to explain, but it’s better understood when you are actually a skin-walker.
“When I became you for that moment, I acquired all of your memories and speech patterns, as well as the way you think. It saved in my brain for possible later usage, even after I let go. Letting go of the host’s skin is like taking the pelt off of my body, and I turn back into my original form, the same as what would happen with dead skin.”
“Creepy,” I utter.
“So what was it then?” She asks, returning to the former subject.
“You should know,” I say coldly. It’s bad enough Harold knows exactly what will happen to me in the future and won’t tell me (or that I won’t ask him). I don’t need someone playing mind games with me now.
“Yes, but you should say it.”
“Because you’ll listen to yourself,” she says, and then follows it with a nod, her orange eyes staying locked on mine. “Well, hopefully. You’ve just got to let the human in you have her opinion.”
I groan slightly and think back to the night of the wish.
“And stay down!” I said to the old man as he squirmed beneath my boot. “Boys, take him away.”
The goblins shuffled and roughly grabbed the man by his shoulders, picking him up and dragging him down the alleyway.
He didn’t do anything wrong... did he, Vanessa?
“No… please…” he whispered, blood spewing out of his mouth as he pleaded.
The poor man...
“That’s what you get,” I growled as the goblins chatted casually over what they’ll do to make him taste better in their soup.
“What?” I spat as I turned around.
It was Dracula.
You knew you did something wrong, didn’t you, Vanessa…?
I groaned, ready for the lecture coming my way.
“Vanessa, what did this man do to deserve this cruel fate?”
He was ancient. Almost twenty-five hundred years old. His snow-white skin was paper-thin, and his soot-black hair was slicked back neatly, as it always was.
“Does it matter?” I snapped.
I had a good reason, but I decided to forget about it and move on, though vampires technically can’t forget anything. Unless we choose to. And I choose to. The mind is such a powerful thing, especially with venom coursing through it.
You don’t remember now do you, Vanessa? You were so inhumane to that man that you purposely forgot what he did to you.
“I don’t remember,” I say quietly, almost shocked at myself.
Was I really that bigheaded to forget what I sent a man off to his death for? And then to fell nothing but smugness towards the whole situation afterwards?
Am I really that out of touch with my humanity?
“No,” I say aloud, answering my own thoughts.
“No?” I hear Kiera ask beside me. “No, what?”
“I’m not out of touch with my humanity,” I mutter under my breath and kick a little too hard at a twig in front of me. “He had it coming.”
“For… what?” Kiera says, a little upset. “For something you don’t even remember?”
“Well, I’m sorry I don’t remember!” I growl as I stop walking. I can feel the poisonous venom pumping into my fangs and my fingernails itching to lengthen into claws. “Okay? I’m a vampire. That’s all I have been, and that’s all I’ll ever be! Okay? I’m not a human anymore, and that’s that. I have to survive too, you know.” I’m shouting now, and I can hear nothing aside from my voice.
“Yeah, well that man did nothing to you, as far as you can remember, and so did his—” she points to Adam, “—little brother, Brandon. You hate killing, yet you do it anyway, in sake of staying alive? That’s your reasoning?”
“It seems to be a pretty good one—”
“Do you know how long vampires can live away from blood, Vanessa? They can’t control the frenzy once they get to the low point, but they can if they’re strong enough to fight it—SMART enough to fight it. After the frenzy is gone, they could live off of animals, completely starve themselves and turn back to human, or they can go back to people-searching without the fear of the frenzy and the thirst. You. Live. Longer. That way.”
“And how would you know all of this? You’re just a skin-walker!”
“My brother happened to be an adopted vampire, who had been one for centuries! He knew all there was to know about vampires, almost as much as Dracula. How do you think he raised you all of those years without a single temptation to bite into you? How do you think he could raise a tiny human child as one of his own without getting in trouble with anyone? He knows all of the secrets to vampires. You were just too haughty to listen to what he had to say about them.”
I hesitate for a moment, not sure where to start my argument again.
“I listened, Kiera. I listened very well, and all I heard from him was that I let him down and that I was giving him a bad rep,” I growl in a low voice through clenched teeth. “He never taught me how to turn into a bat, never taught me how to control the frenzy, never taught me everything—”
“But he tried.”
“He didn’t try—”
“Yes he did,” she growls. “You just don’t remember because you’re too busy thinking about the negative things that he’s told you and the boastful things you’ve placed upon yourself.”
“Uh-uh. Let me finish” she interrupts. “You, as a vampire, remember everything. You just choose not to recall those thoughts.
“Dracula looked at you with this look of approval when you did the right thing, and, yes, disappointment when you did the wrong thing. But disappointment means that he expected more from you, that he knows you’re capable of something more. It’s not that he was worried about his own ego, but he was worried about yours and your choices. He loved you, Vanessa, as a father loves his child.”
I stand, smoldering for a moment, my brain going blank.
Dracula? Love me?
Could he have?
“And to tell you something else,” she says quieter, stepping closer to me. She looks over to Adam, who is looking intently on us two, trying to understand what sparked the argument, and Harold flutters, swooning over Kiera in a way no one has swooned for me.
Kiera looks me in the eyes, her orange irises on fire, and then looks away, as if to keep her voice from the two boys standing a good ways away.
“So does he.”
I look over at Adam, who looks at me immediately, concern written all over his face and questions on his perfect lips.
Kiera looks back at me and I meet her eyes again.
“No,” I say quietly, more to myself. Way too many things have happened in the past few minutes that I wouldn’t even think—
“Why else would he let you live? Why else would he have taken care of you for so long, even though he had no idea who you were? Why would he save you from the Ring Leader?”
“He’s not a killer,” I whisper and look back over at him.
“Mmm,” she murmurs as she backs away. “Well, we better get moving.”
I look up as she walks away, Adam never breaking his stare.
It can’t be true, can it?
Of course not. It’s completely absurd...
But she’s not wrong about him letting me stay and taking care of me... He didn’t even try to kill me when I was standing in front of him. Why didn’t his vampire instincts take over like mine do?
A thought strikes me.
Maybe it’s because he’s still in touch with his humanity.