THE HUMANS grew restless, irritated by my lack of progress as their tool in a war I’d started on their behalf. Their dark looks and gruff voices, however, were inappropriately cast in my direction, and that made me angry. An angry vampire in an underground bunker full of humans was hardly safe for them. I’d fed on one of my prisoners before coming to see them, but still, their rich, unaltered blood called me like a screaming beacon against my temple, and the deeper I went into their safehold, the less resistance I had to that siren call.

Through corridors made of cement and hanging metal lamps, I wound my way to the center of their base. It was one of many, but it was the only one I’d ever been invited into. Through my successes in battle and, I supposed, my lack of biting any of them, I’d earned their trust insofar as I no longer required a guard to lead me to the circular room at the heart of the humans’ home. I was not oblivious to the increased number of men who lined the halls where I walked, though. Some of them so young, their blood so delicious as it pumped in their veins, that I could hardly resist licking my lips as I passed by them.

The guard blanched, making him nearly as pale as me, and I smiled as I heard “monster” whispered at my back. I’d been called far worse, and that was one name I happened to appreciate. I was a monster. I owned that, embraced it, and lived up to it in every way I could imagine. At forty-two years of age, I had slayed thousands of my own kind and had enjoyed this war and its spoils immensely. No, monster was not a name I minded being called in the least.

“Prince Jai, you’ve come.” The elderly woman, the wife of their leader, greeted me from her place in a carved wooden chair where she sat surrounded by children, all of them appeared to be under the age of ten. Adelaide was frailer than most humans, and in my world she and her husband would have been overthrown years before, at their first sign of weakness. But she and Gregory kept their place as the heads of this human clan through the respect and adoration of those around her. Perhaps it was their sentimentality in situations like this that was to blame for the humans’ decline in population more than my kind’s capture of them.

I nodded to her and pushed the hood of my cloak down, revealing myself to the children gathered around her. I’d interrupted something, perhaps an evening story time or a late-night lesson of sorts. I did not approach them as I could already smell their rising fear and hear their quickening heartbeats. They were right to be afraid of me, of my kind. Three of them, especially the youngest girls I saw sitting closest to Adelaide’s feet, would bring an entire city crawling to me, and I wouldn’t have to lift a finger or risk any of my men to get it under my control.

It was good that they fostered that fear here, instead of letting the children know that not every vampire wanted to feed on them. I wasn’t immune to them in the least, but I’d made a promise and had kept my word to their kind at the start of this war nearly three years before.

“Children, go and find your parents please. Story time is over for now,” Adelaide told them as she rose from her seat.

There were groans from the children, and a few who had not yet realized I was there began talking loudly to each other as the others scampered away. I tried not to think of them like prey, but it was hard when they ran and my instinct to chase them down was so strong. Though I had fed before coming here, I knew I’d need to feed again when I returned to my men. Once the stragglers had spotted me as well, they took off as quickly as they could, their bare feet slapping against the concrete as they darted out of the room.

“What stories do you tell them?” I asked her as I approached. Men came flooding into the room, at least six of them, and I wondered why they hadn’t been there sooner to protect their children.

Adelaide spoke to me as if the men weren’t in the room, as if they didn’t have their knives drawn on me, as if I wasn’t surrounded and cornered. “We talk of old Earth, the way things used to be.”

I knew the tales she spoke of, because they had been my motivation to go to war in the beginning, but I failed to see how they would benefit the children. Adelaide motioned to the seat she’d been in, and I moved over to it. I had to clear my throat to get a young man to step out of my way or else risk me touching him when he slid too close to me. I removed my cloak from around my shoulders and laid it over the back of the chair, showing them that the only weapon I had on me was my bone knife.

What came next was more of the usual fare whenever I visited the compound, and though it was necessary for them to feel safe, I had hoped that eventually they would have simply taken my word that I didn’t prey on their kind. A man moved forward and pressed the dull edge of his knife to my throat. Either it was a warning—and not a very good one—or he was inept. “It goes the other way,” I told him. He blushed, and I waited as he turned the knife around in his hands, nearly dropping it, before the crisp edge of a steel blade was pressed correctly against my throat.

I had no reason to toy with them, or to correct him at all, except that if there came a time in this war in which I needed to enlist their help, I wanted humans under my command who knew how to use their weapons and didn’t need to be told how to hold a blade as if they were simple children.

“Don’t you move,” he warned me in what was likely his gruffest voice as he pressed the knife further against my throat. If he wasn’t careful, he might have actually cut me. I wasn’t immortal, not in the least, but over the years of being at war, I’d long since given up any sense of fear when it came to my own death. I lived and fought and drank because my life had purpose. This human wouldn’t kill me because they needed me to go to war for them. And I wouldn’t kill them because I needed their information.

I lifted my gaze to Adelaide to see what she would do with the man-child who currently had his knife pressed against my neck. “Are we to continue this game, or can we begin talking?” I asked her when she said nothing to me even after meeting my gaze.

“You will be bled, and we will check your blood for evidence that you’ve been drinking from humans,” she told me, as she always did when she had me in this chair with a knife pressed against my artery. The man’s hand was shaking, likely from his fear of me and my kind, but also from his inexperience.

I turned my wrists up to her, giving her the permission she didn’t need from me. A half-dozen men could easily overpower me here. I’d need something at least twice the size of what was admittedly a fairly spacious meeting room to be able to do any real damage to them. And my men, my closest friends and lords, who stood waiting for me at the mouth of the humans’ compound, would never know of the danger I was in until it was too late for me. It was a game, one of blood and pain, but at the heart of it was a war Adelaide and her kind needed me to win. So she was gentle as she brought out her knife. It was a thin thing that cut easily through the skin of my wrist and bled me into a waiting glass below the arm of the chair.

She didn’t take much, since only a few drops were needed, and I was given a cloth to place over the fresh wound. Adelaide took my blood and added a few drops of a chemical compound from a glass vial she kept in a pouch at her waist. I’d never been told what was in the vial, likely because it was a human secret and therefore not for my ears.

I knew what the compound did. If I’d had any human blood to drink, the compound would have turned the red blood cells nearly purple. It was a striking color and one I’d seen only once. That vampire had been killed for feeding on them. I hadn’t tried to help him.

Today my blood remained the same rich red color it always was when I’d fed so recently. Adelaide nodded, then tossed the glass and my blood along with it, into a wastebin. Once she’d offered the cup back to me so I could replenish myself with what she’d taken, but I’d gagged horribly on the taste of the chemicals mixed with something that was usually so sweet to me. She hadn’t offered it since.

Adelaide waved at the man who held a knife to my throat as she approached us. He stepped back and thankfully refrained from nicking me with it in his inexperience. “You’ve been good,” she said as the men produced another chair for her to sit on across from me.

I disliked how she praised me as if I were one of the children who crowded around her feet and clung to her mud-stained skirts. “It isn’t a matter of being good. I gave you my word that I would not feed on your kind,” I reminded her. I was a man of my word, as difficult as it sometimes was to keep it.

“And so you did. Where is your army now?”

I was glad to be off the subject of blood and biting humans when I was so tempted to feed while I was there. I would have been killed for it, easily, but I was also hungry. “New Dallas in the Texas Territory.” We were positioned outside of it, in long-abandoned warehouses that were far enough away from the resident vampire clan that they had little desire to engage with us.

“There is a clan near you now, isn’t there?” she asked me, though I was pretty sure she knew where each of our bases lay and was simply testing me to see if I’d lie to protect my own.

I nodded and crossed one of my legs over the other. I was relaxed in this place, despite the lingering violence and the threat of bloodshed around me, because I knew Adelaide needed me alive. As long as that remained a constant and I did nothing to change her idea of me in that regard, then I had nothing to fear here aside from the constant glaring and occasional mishap with a knife.

“Lord Varias has a clan there.” It was hardly a clan, from what I could tell. Through the scouting missions and various intel my men had been able to gather for me, it was little more than an encampment and a bunch of men sitting around, drinking slaves dry, and yelling at each other when they had nothing better to do with their time. They were undisciplined and, therefore, unpredictable. It made them dangerous, and though I could have easily underappreciated them, I chose to be cautious when I knew my kind lay so close to us.

Adelaide’s expression grew cold. “I’ve been told he keeps human slaves.”

“I haven’t been close enough to smell those who he and his men feed from, but it wouldn’t surprise me.” Humans were a delicacy, often traded between clans and given as part of peace treaties. Their untainted blood, unlike mine and far different from the werewolves in the mountains, made them extremely valuable as a food source for my kind.

“I want you to free them.”

It wasn’t a request, but I could have taken it like one certainly. Only my word and honor compelled me to do her bidding. There was more to our bargain in that I’d heard her stories of a time, over four hundred years ago, in which we didn’t live as warlords fighting each other at every turn and killing to survive. Once, she’d said, we’d had grand gatherings of people, called cities, and for the most part, everyone worked together and didn’t bleed each other dry in the streets. Her books told her that, and she told those tales to anyone who would listen. I’d simply been a passing ear while I’d come to spy on her clan years before.

I looked at my nails, chipped and dirty as they were, as I considered her words. “I am down to less than one hundred men, and we are running out of prisoners to feed from.” I lifted my gaze back to her. “It will be slower than my usual victories.”

“That is acceptable. How many clans do you see standing in your way before you get to the king?”

That had always been her end game, or simply one of them, I imagined. My kind had a king, of sorts, though none of us had ever actually been appointed for such a title. We earned it through bloodshed and other brute forces of our power. My king sat on a throne he’d taken through slaughter, capture, rape, and torture. But to stop the enslavement of humans, as I’d sworn to do, I needed to go through him.

“Twenty, possibly. It depends on how many will simply go to their knees at my approach.” I doubted many would, as the farther south I’d gone, the stronger and more willing to fight the clans had become.

“That will take years,” she protested.

I nodded. “At least.”

I saw the disappointment in her eyes and the way her shoulders slumped forward. I could push my men harder to take the clans faster, but then I risked losing many of them and having no army left.

“And you’ll look for her?”

As always, I nodded, giving her my silent agreement that I would continue to search for the granddaughter stolen from her decades before. There was little hope that the girl, now a woman, would still be alive. I knew this, and I believed Adelaide did too. But still I promised, and with each clan I conquered, I searched through their cells and holding pens, and each time I failed to find a red-haired woman who answered to the name of Abigail.

Adelaide rose to her feet. “Good. I have something for you. I received it as part of a trade with another clan.”

“Then why give it to me?” I had no use for human things. They traded for food, for clothes, for medical supplies, and some of the wilder ones even traded their own kind. My men and I had no desire for anything but humans to feed on, and I’d forbidden them all from taking up that practice again, despite their often vocal protests on the matter.

She went to a shelf, then returned to me with a small trinket in her hand. I took the green statue from her, instantly wanting to give it back as the useless thing it was, but she’d already moved away, and I could hardly refuse a gift from her when she wanted to show me good will.

“It is an elephant made of jade, from China. I thought it would bring you luck,” she said as she retook her seat.

“There hasn’t been a China since the comet,” I reminded her. The vast land she’d shown me as once being China was now broken up into hundreds of warring clans, some mine, some humans, most werewolves. “It belongs to the werewolves now.”

She shook her head at my term, and I remembered that she did not use that word here. “They are feral people who survive in a way similar to your kind, not the legendary beasts that change from people to animals. It is a shame they were given such a name.”

What she thought of as being a shame, I considered simply another part of my everyday life. My kind had adopted the mantle of vampire, though we were not immortal, and sunlight only stung our eyes and burned our skin instead of killing us outright. The crucifix Adelaide kept above the door to this room did nothing to me, and if such a thing as garlic still existed, I doubt it would harm me either. I was a vampire because I drank the blood of people, most recently other vampires. They were werewolves because they survived by feeding on animals. I preferred my way, as vampires were slower, easier to control, and if they didn’t want to become prisoners to feed my army, then they could be turned into one of my men.

“Thank you for the elephant,” I told her as I slipped the little statue into one of my pockets. “Do you have what I requested in my last letter?”

“I would not have invited you here if I didn’t. The swords and knives are already with your men, along with two new horses. You are free to go. Safe travels.”

I got to my feet, gave her a nod to say good-bye, then headed toward the door. One man was partially blocking it, and he was the youngest I’d seen with a sword since arriving at this compound. I approached him, expecting him to get out of my way, but he hardly seemed to be aware of me. It was a lesson he needed to be taught, and quickly too.

Before he could move, and likely before he’d even realized I’d come close enough to strike him, judging by his harsh gasp, I had my right hand around his neck, my thumb pressing against his windpipe.

“You let me come too close to you. You let your guard down, and now you’ve let me kill you.”

“But Adelaide… she trusts you…,” he hissed out as I released some pressure on his throat only to reapply it quickly to punish him for his stupidity.

“I am a vampire.” I felt the need to remind him. “My kind eat yours. We think of you as the best kind of food. Your children’s blood fills our dreams. When we find one of you out, alone, vulnerable, weak, we take you. We’ll rape you as we drain you dry, if you’re lucky. If you aren’t, and the vampires who have you contain even an ounce of patience, you’ll be kept alive, slowly bleeding, as every part of your body is used for our needs.” He was shaking, and a merciful man might have stopped there.

“We’ve been able to keep humans alive for years, slowly torturing them, feeding from them, and raping them whenever we see fit. Humans go mad from their time with us. Most of the ones I free don’t even make it out of the vampire compounds before they kill themselves.”

“Jai…,” Adelaide warned me.

I smelled the acrid scent of piss and looked down at the man’s crotch to see that he’d wet himself in fear. Good. I released him, letting him fall to the floor in a gasping mess as he tried, and failed, to hold back his tears. Only once I’d released him did Adelaide let her men come forward. They pulled him to them, and I shook my head in disgust.

“Your men need more training. They should know better than to let a vampire so close to them unless they are ready to kill one of mine,” I told her.

She nodded, and I could see from her expression that she’d learned a lesson there as well. I was not her friend, despite our years of communication. She provided my men with weapons, as we broke ours easily, and I provided her with dead vampires. I was a vampire, a monster, and she needed to remember that if her clan had any hope for survival.

I let myself out and was secretly glad to be done with the humans for the day as I met Lords Hurgoi and Dimir at the entrance to the compound. It was after midnight, and I knew we’d have to ride hard in order to make it back to the warehouses we had taken shelter in before sunrise.

“Everything fine?” Dimir asked me as I came up to them. They were already mounted on the horses we’d ridden. The new ones, fine-looking beasts that they were, were laden with heavy-looking bags that I knew to be full of weapons by the sharp sound of metal hitting itself whenever they moved.

“Yes. We attack Lord Varias next,” I told him as I mounted the remaining horse.

Beside him Hurgoi smiled. “About time.”

It was easy to agree with him since we’d been between battles for too long, and my men wished for fresh kills again, as did I.