I was later than I had wished to be and the football game was well under way at Heinz Field. Virginia had the ball, though they were not advancing very far with their opportunity. The stadium was crowded with students cheering and jeering in raucous abandonment while the alumni and faculty members of the University of Pittsburgh were a trifle more sedate in their support. I found my seat in one of the lower tiers and sat down next to a tall woman whose attention was focused on the paperback in her hands, much to my amusement. Why she suggested meeting here I didn’t understand. Even after eight years she surprised me with unsettling frequency.
“I thought you’d never get here.” Kayla tucked a strand of honey-brown hair behind her ear before leaning over to drop a kiss on my cheek.
“I was unavoidably delayed.” I gave the western horizon a significant glance, ignoring the teasing dance in her eyes. The scoreboard showed the time winding down to the end of the second quarter. Pittsburgh was already ahead by two touchdowns against Virginia, who had managed a field goal. My brow furrowed. I’d missed half the game and there wouldn’t be another opportunity to watch another until homecoming.
“It’s been dead boring.” Kayla stuffed her Patterson novel into her bag. “Sometimes you surprise me, Kris. I never would’ve taken you for a sports freak.”
I leaned forward, propping my elbows on my knees, my eyes intent on our defense crushing Virginia’s attempt to move the ball up the field. “I like football,” I said. “It reminds me of the battle games I used to play.” In a whole other life and time that had long since faded away until it seemed as if it belonged to another person. “It’s a very elemental sport, sometimes brutal.” I cast the young woman next to me a glance. “It’s a game for warriors even though humanity has grown soft.”
Kayla rolled her eyes and held up one slim hand. “If you start comparing quarterbacks to generals I’m getting up and leaving.”
“Interesting analogy, but I’ll keep my peace.” My eyes scanned the crowd, weighing those around me. “So why did you suggest meeting here? You’ve resisted all my previous efforts to draw you into the sport.”
Kayla shrugged nonchalantly, though a brief shadow flickered over her elfin face. She tucked her arm through mine and made a pretense of studying the game below. “Can’t a girl enjoy an evening out with her favorite father figure?”
I had known Kayla for too long to be fooled by her casual demeanor. She was worried. I thought I had been clever and had managed to mask my decline from her. I should’ve known better. A familiar thread of apprehension wended its way through me as I looked down at my hands. They looked the same as they had for uncounted centuries. There were no visible symptoms for people to notice. Most wouldn’t suspect I was dying in slow degrees.
My enjoyment of the game was interrupted by the anxiety that followed me every single night. It was past time for me to find a new vessel, someone young and strong I could use to sustain me while I figured out how to halt the malady encroaching on my body and mind. I had nowhere to turn for answers to my questions. All those I might have consulted about my ailment had long ago succumbed to the same illness. I was alone.
Of course, there was always the possibility I was caving to my own paranoia. Maybe what happened to all the other ancients wasn’t an ending, but a reward. Legends went both ways. However, experience had taught me to prepare for the worst; then if the opposite happened, I could be pleasantly surprised.
Kayla’s long fingers tightened on my arm, drawing me out of my unpleasant musing. “I’m your only father figure,” I pointed out, covering her hand with my own. Her eyes were troubled and I smiled in response. The last thing I wanted to do this evening was burden her with my concerns.
“Yeah well, you were much better than the alternative.” The mention of her birth father flamed the smoldering anger I’d carried with me since she’d shown up on my doorstep, half-feral and determined to intrude on my privacy. She’d won that battle before it even started.
Kayla gestured to the knot of struggling men below as the latest play ended with three flags on the field. “So why don’t you tell me what all the silliness is about?”
“That gentleman there,” I pointed to one of Virginia’s tackles, “grabbed the face mask of one of our men and his friend retaliated by shoving him around when the play was over with.”
Kayla’s mouth twitched. “Boys will be boys.”
“Hush child, your prejudices are showing.”
“Like you can talk, and don’t call me child; it makes you sound ridiculous. I don’t care if you could’ve witnessed Christ’s crucifixion. You look like an older brother, not a grandparent.”
“Well, if the—”
Kayla dug her elbow into my ribs and I laughed. The joy of verbally sparring with the girl who had adopted me helped to suppress my worries. It had been awhile since we had time to share with each other. Kayla was busy with college and I had been distracted to say the least.
I surveyed the crowd again, picking through possibilities. I didn’t take vessels often. In fact, in the course of my lifetime I’d only done so twice and for reasons other than necessity. I was discriminate in those whom I chose to feed from and would be no less so when it came to something as important as the person who was going to shelter my heart within their body.
I wanted someone young enough so they could be led, but with fire and passion as well, someone I could trust. And if worse came to worst, someone I could spend my last days with. Damn. I was jumping ahead of myself again. Kayla would accuse me of being maudlin if I continued to brood over my lack of a lover. As much as I loved her she couldn’t ease the emptiness gaping inside me. I’d had occasional hints from the girl that she wished our relationship could be something more than it was, but I kept it platonic, both because of my personal inclinations and because I couldn’t see her as anything other than my daughter.
The crowd roared its approval as Virginia’s initial advance in the third quarter was halted. I sat back in my seat letting the energy of the fans wash through me, revitalizing me. I was always a trifle lethargic when I first awoke and it took some time before my predatory instincts kicked in.
“You’ve got that gleam in your eyes again. When was the last time you hunted?” Kayla asked.
“That’s a bit personal, don’t you think?”
“Not really. Besides, I don’t keep any secrets from you,” she said, averting her eyes.
Was that an accusation? I weighed her words, the nuances of her tone. “I seem to recall a few quite interesting ones.” Skipping school and taking day trips out of state came to the top of my mind.
“Those were hardly earth-shattering, Kris.”
Oh yes, it was an accusation, and I was at a loss for how to respond. I clasped my hands together searching for the right words, and then sighed. “What do you want me to say, Kayla?”
She looked at me now, her eyes darkening to violet with a hint of moisture in them I knew she would deny if I mentioned it. “Just promise me you won’t keep me ignorant. Don’t shut me out.”
I hesitated and then nodded, squeezing her hand. “I keep forgetting you aren’t a little girl anymore.” She did have a point. She was my only family and it wouldn’t be fair to her if she woke up one morning and I wasn’t there, without an explanation or forewarning.
“I wasn’t a little girl when you met me.”
There she was wrong. Kayla had been so young, with all the gangling awkwardness teenagers expressed, holding onto her anger and defiance with a tenacity that amazed me. We made a strange family, but it worked for us so who could say it was wrong?
“I didn’t want to worry you.”
Her breath huffed out and her lips thinned, always a dangerous sign. “You failed, spectacularly I might add.”
“I hate to do anything half-assed.”
Kayla’s lips twitched before she turned to glare at me. “Cut me a little slack here, okay? I can handle it, whatever it is. But I can’t handle not knowing something’s bothering you and you’ve been keeping it from me for months.”
I studied my hands again, the faint pattern of old scars across skin that was otherwise healthy-looking, and then tightened my hand into a fist. “You have her journals.”
When Kayla had appeared at my doorstep she carried with her my Mistress’s journals. It was how she knew of my promise to guard her bloodline, and Kayla had held me to it. I never had any desire to examine them once I realized they contained no answers to her disappearance. My relationship with the woman who created me had been tumultuous, often fraught with tension, and reliving it would serve no purpose.
I nodded. The crowd roared around us, reminding me of the game I was missing. I looked down at the field, not really seeing it. My attention was caught up in the nuances and shades of Kayla’s voice, wishing I could spare her this worry.
“Yes, but what does that have to do with what’s been bothering you?”
I met Kayla’s eyes and tucked a strand of hair that had fallen across her face back and tapped the end of her nose. The words stuck in my throat and before I could force them out comprehension dawned. Kayla sat up straighter, her hand tightening in mine. “You’re having the same symptoms she did at the end?”
Again I nodded. “In almost the same exact manner if my memory serves.”
“What does it mean?”
“I wish I knew.” I leaned back into my seat again as her eyes lingered on my face. “But since you know now, maybe I can narrow a few things down.” I hesitated, one question burning uppermost in my thoughts, but I couldn’t bring myself to question my sanity to her. “I have a plan though.”
“Excuse me while I die of shock.”
I glanced over, studying Kayla’s face, and decided to follow along with her attempt to lighten the tension. “With a plan you can place everything else into perspective.”
“Can I do anything to help?”
I gave her a smile and leaned closer to kiss her forehead. “Of course, little one. You can go through her journals with me. You know them much better than I. There has to be something we can use.”
“That’s it? That’s your plan? Research.” Kayla’s voice betrayed her exasperation and she punched my arm. “Well, it can’t be that serious yet.”
“Does that mean you’re done sniping at me?” I slipped my arm around her shoulders, grateful for the respite. Maybe the journals would have some answers. I doubted it, but it wouldn’t hurt to look, and maybe it would keep Kayla from fretting. Improbable, though I doubt she would let me see her upset.
“Yep, unless you give me further reason.” She searched my face and then poked a finger into my ribs. “You didn’t promise me yet.”
“I won’t keep things from you, I promise.” I squeezed her shoulder. “I’ve been trying to get you to come to a football game with me ever since you started college. Let’s enjoy it and save the worrying for another day.”
Kayla smiled and relaxed, turning her attention back to the game, and some of the tension gripping me eased. I disliked keeping her ignorant. The guilt had weighed on me. It was niggling at me now, remonstrating for the way I downplayed the seriousness of my condition, the depth of my worry.
One thing at a time. Once I found a vessel, I could go into more detail and maybe have some progress to report. I forced my attention back on the game, though the restless thoughts did not want to be contained. They continued to whisper and nag until I shut them up by pulling Kayla into a conversation about the game, answering her questions and pointing out the various positions.
“It seems to me that the refs just like throwing those little flags around. Nobody did anything that time.” Kayla gestured toward the field after the latest play ended before it really began.
“The backfield was in motion, probably attempting to lure us into making a false start. They can only move so far before they’re in violation.”
Kayla snickered. “Backfield in motion. That sounds like a porno movie title.”
“Attempting to educate you in the finer points of football is an exercise in futility.”
“Challenges are good for the soul, Kris. You’re moldering.”
I didn’t deign to reply, watching as Pittsburgh’s quarterback passed the ball deep. This game was going to be a sweep, which wasn’t as interesting as when the game was close and both sides fought for every inch of ground ceded to them.
“They aren’t very good, are they?”
“I think the term is woeful, especially their defense,” I replied as we picked up another down.
The throng roared around me, waving banners of blue and gold. I leaned forward again as Pittsburgh snapped the ball. The defense blitzed, rushing toward the quarterback, looking for the sack. “Watch there.” I pointed as the ball was handed off to a waiting running back, number twenty-six, who bolted, dodging and weaving through linebackers twice his size.
Kayla winced. “It’s gonna hurt when he gets squished.”
“If he gets the first down, he won’t even notice it until after the game is over.” I had to smile at her new interest though I was careful not to let her see it.
The stadium went wild when the running back found a hole and pounded off toward the end zone, orange-clad warriors chasing after him intent on bringing him down before he reached his goal. I hadn’t seen anybody run with that kind of zeal in a long time, at least not at Pittsburgh. As much as I loved the university, football wasn’t their passion as it was at other campuses. As he neared the end zone, one of Virginia’s players caught up to him. I found myself sitting forward more, willing him over the line. Number twenty-six ducked and dove as fresh screams erupted around me. Touchdown.
A slow grin passed over my lips as I watched the young running back showboat in a manner that earned him a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. It was a ridiculous rule. He was lapping up the adulation of the crowd and his teammates, despite the foul. I was captivated by his unique vitality, a familiar hunger arising as he trotted off the field toward the bench.
“I’ll be right back.” I stood, impatient to have a closer look, and Kayla watched me go without comment, used to my abrupt departures. I masked my presence, leaving the stands, and slipped into the locker rooms. As I made my way out onto the field I stayed out of the way of the players, under coaches and lackeys so I wouldn’t get bumped into and lose the glamour. The young man was studying the field and I paused at the end of the row of benches to drink him in.
His golden-brown hair was plastered against his skull, sweat-darkened from his helmet. When he ran a hand through it, it stood up in spiky tufts. I drew closer, mesmerized. He froze, his vivid blue eyes glancing in my direction, sweeping over me, and he frowned. Surprise and awareness jolted deep within me. No one had ever noticed my presence before; not unless I wanted them to.
He jumped up, distracted from my presence, and tucked his helmet under his arm. “Yeah, Coach?”
I watched him go off to be praised and reprimanded, my eyes lingering on his form before turning back toward stadium proper. I bought a program at the stand, flipping to his page. Number twenty-six. Jacob Corvin.