"Do not ignore the demon's thirst, or it will consume you."
Tristan stalked through the small camp in the middle of the forest. Tents lined the trees to create a path to a clearing in the center of the camp where a bonfire burned. Music blared. People danced naked around the fire. Others lay on the ground moaning in ecstasy as vampires fed with an appetite for sex and blood. This was the Celebration of Flesh.
Of all places to be, he’d ended up here. He’d spent a week shutting atrocities like these down in the northwest. But here he was in Italy as a rogue vampire desperate to fulfill his hunger; disgusted by the need to taste some stranger to calm the ache in the pit of his stomach.
Misery gnawed at his insides. He’d prefer to see them all dead, torn to shreds like the camps he’d found in Oregon. The werewolf had hated the frolicking mix of humans and vampires, and now Tristan understood why.
As much as he abhorred being here, he was quite hungry. He’d fed on animals for the past few months, and he was sick of it. Human blood had drawn him here, wherever here was, and he ached to feed. If he could find one person who would run from him, his adrenaline might spike and give him the energy to push on, but all these people wanted to be here. They loved the attention of vampires. And vampires loved to be treated like a God.
As Tristan searched the camp for a victim, he thought of Anna. He hadn’t sensed her but twice since he’d lost her, once when she lay in her blood on the shore, the other a few weeks ago. He’d envisioned her walking through a sunlit garden on the arm of another man. She looked happy and radiant in a white gown that covered her rounded belly. His insides warmed to see her with child—his child. Excitement had loomed over the darkness he’d carried his entire life until the vision ended and he awoke inside the cave he’d found refuge in.
Tristan stuck his hands in the pockets of his trenchcoat then sighed. Maybe Anna didn’t want to be found. She’d found pleasure in the arms of a stranger. Like a dagger to the chest, it hurt.
Voices came from a tent near the edge of the camp.
“Why don’t they ever take me?” a woman said, her voice distraught.
“You’re not the only one with that problem,” a man replied with a sigh. “I’ve been coming to this place for a month and I’m still waiting for a turn.”
“Three weeks here.” The woman whimpered. “I’d just like to stand near the fire. It’s not fair that I’m freezing to death in here while their favorites are out there having fun.”
“What do you think they’d do if we just went out there and joined in?” The man cleared his throat. “I mean, they need us alive, so they can’t kill us.”
“I want bit as much as you guys,” another male voice chimed in. “But I don’t want my invitation revoked. So I’m not going out there until I’m chosen.”
Tristan swiped the curtain to the side. The voices hushed. Eight people stood naked. Rope had been tied around their wrists. Prisoners. No. They’d consented to the bondage—another role to play for pleasure.
A young red-haired man fell to his knees, eyes pleading, and hands clasped together like he prayed to his God. “Please. Take me. Make me yours.”
Four others fell to their knees as Tristan entered the tent. Women touched his arms, his shoulders. Men clutched his jacket in hopes he’d choose one of them.
All these people were desperate to be with a vampire, to join in on the festivities going on around the fire. Did they enjoy torture? Did pain give them a spark to their pitiful lives?
Tristan made his way to a woman who stood quietly behind the group of people. Her long red hair covered her rounded breasts and matched her rosy cheeks. She held her hands below her plump waist to hide her lower body. Fear emanated off her skin as Tristan clutched the nape of her neck.
“My name’s Larissa.” She trembled as he led her out of the tent, away from the disappointed people who begged him to come back. “I…I’ve never done this before.”
“Are you frightened?”
She nodded. “Yes.”
“Then why are you here?”
She shuddered beneath his touch as he walked her toward the edge of the camp. “I heard that this experience will give meaning to my life. I want to feel something instead of nothing all the time.”
He knew better than to talk to his meal, but curiosity got the better of him. “Why do you feel nothing?”
“Look at me.” She stopped near the edge of the path. She pushed her red locks behind her shoulders. Though she was quite voluptuous, she was an attractive young woman—one he would’ve pursued in his human years. “I’m twenty-six years old. I can’t land a guy because men like thin model-like women.” She rolled her eyes. “Maybe that’s why I’m here. I want to be with someone who doesn’t care who I am or what I look like. I want the erotic experience for just one night. If that means I have to give my blood to get it, then that’s what I’ll do.”
As much as his demon ached for her blood, sex was never on the agenda. “I have chosen the wrong person to provide my meal.”
He left her beneath the string of lights and wandered out into the dark. Oh well. It’d be another night of animal blood. He’d miss out on the adrenaline rush and a possible connection to Anna, but at least his belly would be full.
“Wait.” Larissa called out. She held her arms over her breasts as she jogged toward him. “I’m sorry. Did I say something wrong?”
“Go back to camp. Find another to fulfill your desires.”
“After everything I said, and showing you my body, I get it.” Her voice wavered as she fell into place beside him. “I’m not pretty enough for you.”
“That is not why I reject you.”
“Then why?” She took hold of his arm. He didn’t want to stop, but couldn’t will his legs to move on. She grabbed hold of his jacket near his chest then leaned against him. A spark fired inside him. It wasn’t the desire to take this woman’s body, but to drain her essence—every bit of it until she fell limp in his arms. “Don’t you want my blood?”
“Yes.” He clutched her shoulders. He backed her toward the nearby tree. He shoved her up tight against the bark, fangs out, ready to dig into his meal.
His red eyes cast a glow on her face. Mouth open, eyes widened, she looked scared to death. That didn’t help this situation. It only made him want her more.
“I desire only your blood. I will not take your body for my heart belongs to someone else, someone who I have lost.” Anna. He’d give his life to find her. To be with her. To tell her how much he loved her. Dammit, where was she?
“Oh,” Larissa said in a light breath. “I didn’t know vampires fell in love. Though, I’ve never met one to make the assumption that any of you had morals. Of course, you’re the first vampire I’ve ever really talked to.”
He let her go. Morals. If he had any at all, he’d get this woman away from this disgusting place. She didn’t belong here and neither did he.
He shoved his hands inside his jacket pockets. “Get dressed and I will guide you out of the forest. Go home where it is safe.”
“Hm.” She folded her arms over her chest. “Take my blood if you want, but I’m not ready to leave yet. Not until I get the experience I came for. And if you’re not going to give it to me, then I’m going back to find someone else who will. At least I hope. I’ve been standing in that tent all damn night.”
Tristan’s stomach churned as she took off toward the glow of camp. He’d spent years in the dungeon of his dilapidated castle, starving, hoping to die for the sins he’d committed—for being this dark entity. But at this moment, as fresh willing blood walked away, his demon’s desire peaked. Hunger hammered down on him like a heavy stone.
In an instant, he was behind her, arms wrapped around her shoulders. He sank his fangs deep into her neck. She cried out as he drank in her blood—delicious, fresh blood pooled on his tongue and slid down his throat. Her voice fell silent. Her body went limp in his arms.
Though starved enough to draw in all she had to offer, he released her vein. He shut his eyes. It’d been too damn long. With the fresh blood, the awareness of his surroundings grew a hundred times clearer. Everything did. The sounds of the night, the cool breeze on his skin, even the scent of the ocean in the distance hit his senses. The black bottle had kept him sated and aware for years, but did nothing to give him a real edge in this world. This was the addiction and why there were so many camps like this one.
For a moment he held the woman close, wishing this was Anna’s warmth against him and the taste of her blood in his mouth. The scent of Anna’s hair and skin intoxicated him. She put a spell on his libido. This woman’s aroma was unfamiliar. As pretty as she was, she did nothing for him but satisfy his hunger.
He scooped her up in his arms. He carried her under a canopy at the edge of the camp, and then lowered her onto a cot. He retrieved a blanket from the table then covered her exposed body.
He ran the back of his hand across her smooth cheek. “Thank you,” he said in a low voice.
“Oh, you are so welcome,” she whispered with a slur. Her eyes fluttered open and her lips stretched into a teeth-baring grin. “My God. I feel like I’ve drunk an entire bottle of rum. That was unbelievable.”
He swiped a red strand from her bright green eye. “I apologize for your discomfort.”
“No apologies. That was painful, but damn…it was also the most erotic experience I’ve ever had. Who needs sex, right? Just let a vampire bite you.” She gave a breathy laugh. “Of course, if you want to have sex now…”
“I must go.”
“I’m kidding.” She placed her hand on his arm. “But you don’t have to go, do you?”
He stood upright. “Will you be all right?”
“Perfect.” She sat up with the blanket held against her chest. “She’s a lucky woman, you know. The woman you lost. I don’t know the circumstances, but she’d be crazy not to come back to you. Don’t give up.”
Tristan gave a short nod then left the tent. He’d never give up on Anna. She was his world. His everything. Even if it took him forever, he’d find her. And if she’d accepted the arms of another man, then he’d let light take him. There would be no point in living.
“Well, I’ll be damned.” A familiar tenor voice sent a chill straight through Tristan. “What are the odds we’d meet each other in a place like this? And so far away from home.”
“Elric.” Tristan stood eye to eye with the man who grinned like he’d just met his best friend. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m taking a break.” Elric snorted a laugh. He clutched the fur edges of his maroon overcoat. He jerked his head to move a blond lock from his right eye that blazed blue. “Even the head of the snake needs a vacation now and then.”
Likely story. Elric had followed him here. Maybe he’d been following him all along. That meant Javon and his goons weren’t far behind. Or maybe they waited in the thick of the woods for Elric to give a signal to capture him. They’d take him to the prison and lock him up.
Tristan couldn’t let that happen. He wouldn’t. Nobody would take him away from his search for Anna.
“Whatever.” Tristan headed deeper into the forest. If he didn’t move now, he’d lose this power coursing through his body.
“I know what you’re thinking.” Elric fell into stride beside Tristan. “You’re worried that Javon is here to seize you. But I swear I’m completely alone. I would never do that to you. Trust me. I would never lie to you.”
“Trust?” Tristan stopped. Elric was doing it again, invading his mind just like he’d done at the Elders’ meeting. “How can I trust someone who would steal my thoughts?”
Elric sighed heavily. “I’m sorry. It’s a habit of mine—a bad one I must admit. I’ll try not to use my power on you again. But it’s so difficult not to. You have the most…intriguing mind.” He placed his hand on Tristan’s shoulder. “I know how much you love Anna. You’re in so much pain because she’s left you for another man. And Madeline?” He scoffed. “Fascinating. What reason would Anna have to break a woman who’d tried to murder her out of prison?”
“Get off me.” Tristan swiped away Elric’s hand. He had to clear his thoughts. To think of nothing. But that question Elric had just asked rolled around in his mind. Anna could’ve gotten the information from Madeline without letting the witch loose. Why? What was so important that she’d risk her life?
“If Anna was mine, I’d move heaven and earth to find her too,” Elric said as he followed Tristan down a short, branch-covered hill. “I’d be at camps like this all the time. Fresh blood makes us stronger, not only in body, but mind as well. If she’s anywhere in this world, you should be strong enough to make a connection with her.”
Tristan looked back. Elric followed close behind. His heavy boots crunched in the dead leaves and snapped thin branches on the ground. The man had no grace whatsoever as he slipped down the short incline of the path. His ankle twisted and he gave a short yelp.
“Why do you follow me?”
“I want to help you find her.” Elric’s overcoat caught on a protruding branch. He growled as he turned a three sixty to fight the menace off. “Though, I’d much rather search in flight. This walking through the woods thing is quite irksome.”
“I do not need your help.” Tristan picked up the pace, leaving Elric behind to fend off nature.
How could Elric assist anyways? Sure, he was a leader who could have the entire vampire world searching for Anna. But there were already two vicious vamps out for her head. Tristan didn’t need a thousand more searching for a woman who had powers like none other.
“Wait.” Elric jogged to catch up. “Apparently, Anna can’t use her powers on just any demon. Only on those who have angels’ blood in their veins.”
Tristan stopped again. He turned to face Elric who practically ran into him. “What do you mean by angels’ blood?”
“I’m only reciting what Jack told you. From the journal. Anna is the descendant of an angel, is she not?” Elric gazed into Tristan’s eyes. “I’m sorry for prodding your brain again. I just want to understand what’s going on in my successor’s life.”
“I decline your invitation to become your successor.” Tristan sneered. “The journal said nothing of how Anna’s power might affect other vampires. Only that she is the descendant of a being who could heal.”
“Well, there’s actually a prophecy about that.” Elric twisted his lips to the side. “It sounds so ridiculous. Prophecy. I’d much rather use another word to describe this. Hmm…how about foresight? Forecast?” He gave a short laugh as he pinched his chin in thought. “Proverb? Axim? It’s like we’re in some sort of fantasy movie or some post-apocalyptic tale, and Anna’s our savior.” He spoke so nonchalant, like it was all a joke. Tristan didn’t find this humorous at all.
To think this man who had raised his hackles in the past, was nothing but a jester. “Get on with it.”
“Yes, yes.” Elric cleared his throat. “I chose you to be my successor and announced it to everyone, so you are my successor whether you like it or not. But I digress.” He folded his arms over his chest. “According to our history, the angels had different powers. One could heal the earth so crops could grow and wildlife flourished. Another altered the mindset of the ruthless to bring peace to the world. There was also an angel who could rip the demon right out of your body and send it back to hell if she really wanted to. That one sounds like Anna, right? She heals you with her touch.” Elric tilted his head. “Then again, she does sound a little more like the fourth angel, the one who watched over the other angels. A protector of sorts. She’d attained the power to heal, but could only use it on the other angels.”
Tristan cocked his head to the side. Anna had healed him with her touch, but she could not defeat the devil inside him. To think that he was the descendant of an angel was rubbish. He carried no powers inside him. He’d been the product of a woman who’d died during birth, and a man who’d despised his sons so much he’d taken his own life.
“Truth. To some degree.” Elric gave a short nod. “Listen. Whether you want me to or not, I’m going to help you look for Anna. It’ll be between us, and a handful of my most trusted soldiers. I swear on my life, no harm will ever come to her.”
Tristan wanted nothing to do with Elric. He didn’t trust him at all. But how could he deny someone who offered help when he needed it most, especially one as powerful as Elric?
“You will call Javon off his hunt?”
“Yeah. About that. The mice tend to play while the snake is out,” Elric said with a roll of his eyes. “I’ll make sure he stands down. But I can’t promise Anna won’t go on trial. After all, she did release a dangerous prisoner from her cell. But I will do everything in my power to keep her safe. For you, Tristan. I do that for you.”
Tristan shook his head. None of this made any sense. Why was Elric here? Why was he so desperate to help?
Elric stood in front of him with the answers, but Tristan didn’t care. The only thing that mattered was finding Anna and bringing her home.
It still wasn’t clear why Anna would release Madeline, other than to retrieve a journal that offered more riddles. Now more than ever, Tristan was desperate to find her. Whatever she was going through, they’d deal with it together.
All Tristan wants is to be with Anna, but there’s never enough time. Testing for a cure during the day and playing the part as an Elder at night has kept him busy. Not to mention Anna's unusual gift to heal him has taken its toll on his emotions. The effect is temporary. As much as he loves feeling human, he abhors the descent back into darkness. Distancing himself from the woman he loves wasn’t the answer, and now she’s gone missing. Will he be able to find her before the collective does? And if so, will she even remember who he is?