It was Abigail who sensed the change first. The scent of new life emanating from the town was subtle, at first, and her age and experience picked it out of the background noise long before Elizabeth or the others became aware of it. But it was Elizabeth who wanted to go and look for it, to trace it to its source, and that brought her into conflict with Abigail. She was called to the big study to account for herself.
Abigail sat behind her oak desk, watching Elizabeth with exasperation in her eyes. Her books and notes lying open around her were forgotten for a moment. The study was colder than the rest of the house, as was Abigail’s preference, and the furniture here was more splendid and ornate than Elizabeth’s room. She was clearly irritated.
“You will not do this, my child,” she said, using the one term that emphasized the younger one’s inferiority. “It’s likely a large birth, twins or triplets, and the oath forbids our proximity to them.”
Elizabeth had been lounging in the nearest armchair, playing with the hem of her dark dress. She didn’t want to play this game. At the sound of her sire’s voice, she sat up straight. “I will not get close, Abigail. Do you really think I would put newborns in danger? I only want to observe.”
“At the required distance, you will not learn much.” Abigail leaned forward, staring at her over her steepled fingers. “I know you. You will be tempted to go past what is safe.”
“Do you think you can stop me?” she shot back. As soon as the words left her mouth, she regretted them. It made her sound petulant, as if she were a naughty child who could not get her way.
Abigail stood, and walked to the window. It looked out over the grounds of the old house, and a break in the trees showed the town of Amber Falls below them at the foot of the mountain. Elizabeth’s sire pursed her lips and took in the view with her arms folded. Her profile was tall and narrow, like an art deco statue, and her plain black dress did nothing to highlight her curves – such as they were after so many years. “You have not been Vigilant long enough,” she said.
“I have been Vigilant since you turned me,” Elizabeth replied, with no small measure of anger. “If a hundred years is not long enough, then how long? When will you trust me?”
Abigail turned sharply, her long white braid swinging around her shoulders. “It is not a matter of how long. You were young when I changed you, and you still have not fully matured.” She returned to gazing out the window, and frowned. “Yes, I could stop you. But I would likely hurt you very badly, and I cannot watch you every minute of the day.”
There it was – the tacit admission that her sire could only control her so far. And Abigail loved her, as she loved all of them, but her love was sometimes brutal. Elizabeth could not take her for granted. But the undercurrent of possible leave was there as well, as if she wanted to give her child a chance but still had not made a decision.
Nothing for it but to push her luck. Elizabeth stood. “I will not disappoint you. I will bring back news of what this is. You know this information will be valuable.”
“Hmph. You are too impatient, wanting to know everything immediately. We will discover the source regardless; whether today or in a few months makes no difference.” Abigail sat down at her desk, and toyed with her pen. “Go, then. You know the price if something happens.”
Elizabeth nodded, and left quickly. She saved the shiver of fear for when she was out of the room and out of sight. It made no difference, of course. Nothing escaped her sire’s senses.
She walked to the upstairs drawing room. The view down the mountain was spectacular here, and the lights of Amber Falls twinkled in the distance. The sun had not set yet, and even through the tinted windows it sapped her strength and reminded her that she was something more – and less – than human.
The source called. Even she did not know why it was so important to find it. Abigail had told her, once, that each of them must find a new calling to sustain themselves through the years. Her sire’s was the Vigil, of course, and taking others like them under her care, but Elizabeth had not discovered hers. Perhaps it was this; to investigate new, strange sources of vitality, and learn how they could be fed on safely by the Vigilant.
She retreated from the sun. Such a purpose would take her far away from her home here, and she could not bear the thought of that yet. Elizabeth shivered. Abigail was probably right about her still being immature.
It was easier to travel at night, but she wanted to be sure of actually spotting something. The evening light was tolerable, if she took certain precautions. In the hall, Elizabeth chose a dark blue coat with a hood to go over her dress, and solid walking boots. She briefly considered changing into something else, but the new fashion for women to wear trousers had never sat well with her.
“Going somewhere, sister?”
Marcus walked down the curving staircase, carrying a book. He wore simple jeans and a shirt today, probably at Abigail’s orders, but his blond hair was still long and tied back. Like her, he resisted some modernization.
“Yes, actually. I’m going to town, brother.”
He chuckled. “In defiance of our beloved sire, no doubt. Allow me…” He helped her into her coat. “Do let me know about the new source when you return. Christoph and I plan to feed tomorrow, will you come with us?”
She nodded. “Yes, on both accounts. Enjoy your book.”
He waved her off as she left the Vigil mansion. Elizabeth wondered about her brother, as she had done many times before. He and his lover almost lived in another world, sometimes, but Marcus occasionally showed an intense interest in current events that could be unnerving.
She flitted from shadow to shadow as she traveled down the mountain. The road was inconvenient, when tracking by sense; she moved through the woods like a wraith, her feet hardly touching the ground, without disturbing even a leaf in her wake. It was better than ten miles, but she covered it quickly and in a straight line, with the pulse of the source guiding her towards the suburbs to the west. It grew stronger as she got closer.
The dim evening light made her head ache, but that would pass as the sun set. The town’s muted heartbeat rose and fell in her mind’s eye, enticing her with the promise of all the vitality she could drink in and more, but self-control and the habits of a hundred years kept her bestial inclinations carefully under wraps. There would be time enough to feed tomorrow. Tonight, she needed to learn.
The suburbs were an expanse of white picket fences and large, comfortable bungalows. Trees shaded the long, wide roads. It seemed like only yesterday that they were being planned and planted as saplings. Elizabeth couldn’t help feeling a little nostalgia for the old forests back in England, before Abigail had made the decision to uproot them all and bring them across the ocean. She would never see their like here.
She followed the road, initially. Moving between the houses was risky. In spite of their careful record-keeping, there were too many families for her to memorize where all the children lived. She could not take chances, not until she could prove her control of when and how she fed to Abigail. She kept her distance, as the source drew her on.
A single house at the end of the street was the one she wanted. The source – the force of it rippled through her mind – was inside. Elizabeth frowned. This simply couldn’t be a birth; not even ten newborns projected that kind of power, and what woman would birth her children at home in those circumstances instead of the hospital? She glanced in its direction, in the center of town. It was strictly and absolutely off-limits to her and the others, and not even curiosity would make her break that particular part of the Vigil oath.
She circled around, carefully keeping back just in case. There was a large, almost empty moving van parked in the driveway. Newcomers, of course, but nothing indicated who this mysterious source could be. She moved to the back of the house, where the slightly overgrown lawn provided a view of the kitchen window, and lurked in the shadows beneath the trees there.
The back door opened, and a large, shaggy dog raced out into the garden. Elizabeth reached out to it with her senses, searching, carefully holding back her vampiric touch from its foreign vitality. She had never fed on a dog, or any animal for that matter. The mutt held no indication of the source. It was happy, playful, glad to be outside, but it was ordinary – and it would not come near her. Its mind was simple, and easy to push away.
Then he came to the door, and everything but him faded into the background.
The source was a young man. He was plain, if anything, in his looks. His sandy, wavy hair was unremarkable. His jeans and sweater were cheap. His white sneakers were tattered. Surface details, easily forgotten in the face of what lay beneath. She perceived him through her supernatural senses, and he was all at once terrifying and alluring; he burned with life, with the vitality of a thousand souls, in defiance of all she thought possible.
He came out to play with the happy dog, patting it and talking to it and scratching its belly as it gamboled around the garden. The part of her that had reached out to the animal immediately jumped to him in spite of all her training and control. The connection was instant, overwhelming, and literally made no sense; she should not be able to do it at this distance. Her uncaring bestial nature began to rage inside her, begging and demanding a taste of that life, and she drew a sliver of light from him – just a little, not enough for anyone to notice. The power of it filled her and fed her all at once.
Not possible, she kept thinking. Not possible. He cannot be human. He is something else.
He looked up, and straight at her.
Elizabeth froze in terror. Feeding clouded the mind; he should not be able to see her. She broke the connection with difficulty and focused on concealment. Still he looked at her with a puzzled expression on his face, his light burning through her meager ability. She stepped back behind the tree, hoping that he would think her a figment of his imagination. The evening light beat down on her uncovered face as she leaned against the rough wood, but it could not weaken her now. The little sip of vitality she had taken would sustain her even in direct sunlight.
Her senses tracked him moving towards her, and her stomach dropped through the ground.
“Hello?” he called out. “Hey, I saw you there. You gonna come out or will I let Maxwell here eat you?”
He was too close. Elizabeth was torn. She could not reveal what she was, but what was he? They had had close calls before, and Abigail’s foresight and wisdom had protected them. Their own natural abilities were more than enough for hiding day to day. But this, this was unprecedented. Nothing in the Code of the Vigilant even hinted at something like this.
“C’mon, lady, I can see your arm,” he said rather dryly. “I could just call the cops, you know.”
He thought she was just another woman. Elizabeth took a deep breath. She could do this. She would find out what she could, and tell Abigail. Her sire would know what to do then.
She slowly moved around the tree, fighting the urge to either run away or drink in his vitality again. She met his eyes. The irises were a striking blue, in contrast to her own pitch black. His gaze traveled up and down her figure, and his brow furrowed in confusion.
“You always creep around in other people’s gardens?” he asked.
“I’m sorry,” she said quickly. “I just wanted to see who was moving in here. I didn’t mean to intrude.”
“Uh huh. You live around here?”
“…Yes.” A lie was a little easier when it was close to the truth. “What’s your name?”
He held out his hand. “Benjamin – Ben, for short. What’s yours?”
She shrank away. Being within twenty feet of him was already setting her senses on fire and making it difficult to think. Physically touching him would stretch her self-control too far. “I’m Elizabeth,” she said softly.
“Nervous little thing, ain’t you?”
Her pride twitched. She was not nervous. She was Vigilant and in good standing, with a record as pure as one of her kind could hope to achieve – though that would surely be in jeapordy if she didn’t leave him, and soon. She could not inform him of this fact, of course. Elizabeth fell silent while she debated what to do.
“Why are you wearing a hood?” he asked abruptly. “It’s not that co-”
“I should go,” she said, backing away. This was too much – he was too much. She couldn’t risk him coming any closer. Foolish ideas… The dog barked at him, still looking for someone to play with, and Ben turned around to call him to heel. When he turned back, Elizabeth was already gone, running down the dark street a hundred feet away and still accelerating.
She didn’t stop until she was back at the door of the mansion. Moving away from him was hard, and even now she could still feel the faint pulse of power in the back of her mind. What she had taken kept the same rhythm in her chest. It made her warm, contented, satisfied, as if the dreaded hunger would never return, and it had not diminished his vitality in the slightest.
She slipped inside, and hung her coat back up. She ran to Abigail’s study, her mind buzzing with questions and answers she didn’t understand.
Not due for release until the end of August 2012 (I haven’t finished it yet).