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VAELA DENARR (SHE/THEY) & MICAH IANNANDREA (THEY/THEM)

The Gift of Blood (Crimson Tears: Book One)

The Gift of Blood Book Cover by Lexa @rocket_bird


Author’s Note


CW: This book contains gore, brief mentions of self-harm, and brief mentions of homophobia.


Chapter 1


***

Ryann wasn’t the type to scare easy. Monsters and vampires? Fucking bring it. But she still possessed a healthy sense of fear and caution. Her heart beat quickly as she watched her surroundings, muscles tense and ready to spring into action.

A few moments passed in that quiet tension. But no threats made themselves apparent. And still… that enticing scent remained, and with every moment that passed Ryann found her eyes drawn to the dark substance running down the tombstone.

She cleared her throat to try and break up how tight and dry it felt. It wasn’t like blood tasted especially good, even to her as a vampire. The taste was just as coppery and metallic as it used to be during any of her past matches, just more… right. Her body didn’t rebel at the taste. There was a sweetness to it that she had never tasted before.

Her stomach rumbled, reminding her that the one blood bag she had found herself with a week ago had not lasted nearly long enough.

Ryann pulled her hand away rapidly. She hadn’t even noticed that she’d reached out for the blood. Her fingernails seemed to recede a bit, tingling. She had yet to learn how to really control that part of herself. They just came out whenever they wanted.

She crouched down a little lower, now fully in control of her urge. Worse than being a vampire, worse than the horrid burning of sunlight on her skin, worse than being kidnapped and declared dead of fucking heart failure, was the not knowing. Was she going to be dependent on blood? She didn’t feel like it. Did she need it in her diet? She could still eat normal food and quite enjoyed it. Would she really need blood or just a specific part of it? Could she make do with a substitute?

She craved it, that much was true. She knew she could drink it and some part of her needed or wanted it. Was it like an addiction?

It’s fine, Ryann thought. You got this. You’re in control. You’ve got this. Focus. She didn’t want to just leave Jacob to die. Sure, her instincts told her to steer clear of him, but Ryann wasn’t devoid of morals. Even if she didn’t care about him, she would never leave someone to die.

… and also she was really curious about what had happened to him. It was, maybe, an unhealthy interest.

“Jacob? Can you hear me? Over.”

The crackle of the radio made Ryann look up. The voice was quiet, but she could hear the alarm in it. She spotted the earpiece laying on the ground, disconnected from the device. She picked both up. Leaving a trace hadn’t been in her plan. But the more help she had, the greater Jacob’s chances of survival.

Ryann clicked the answer button. “Hello? Can you hear me? Over.” She kept her voice steady. She had seen worse. Hell, she had literally been murdered and turned into a vampire, and that didn’t feature as the lowest point of her life so far.

Even if she hadn’t seen worse, she couldn’t panic. She needed to stay calm and assess the situation. I’m a vampire in a cemetery at night. Cool cool. There’s something that moves way faster than me. Cooooool. I got this. I got this…

“Who is this? Where is Jacob?” the person on the other end asked, dropping the formalities. It was a high-pitched voice with a hint of an accent that Ryann couldn’t quite place. It seemed a little… haughty, somehow. Like an accent you’d put on to try and sound more impressive.

“He, uh… I don’t know. My name’s Kate,” Ryann said. Using the fake name stung a bit. It was the name of an old friend that she’d lost touch with. Her only friend ever, really. “Pretty sure something just took him.”

There was a brief pause before the radio crackled again. “What do you mean ‘something took him’? Is this supposed to be a prank? Did Jacob put you up to this? Or did you steal his radio? Oh, the idiot probably lost it…”

Ryann sighed. She could be mistaken, but this sounded very much like deflection. “Yeah, he fucking lost it in a puddle of his own blood. So maybe we can cut the shit?”

There was another silence. Then, “What do you mean?”

“I mean I found his wallet,” Ryann shamelessly lied as she began to follow the scent of blood further into the cemetery, “and I saw the Argent Institute pin. And since I know what that is, you don’t really have to pretend with me.” She hesitated. “Also, update your fucking website, it is a nightmare to navigate.”

“I… Where’s Jacob?” the other person asked, more insistently.

Ryann sighed. She clicked the button. “Dude, I literally fucking told you,” she hissed into the receiver. “He got got.”

“By who?”

“I dunno? Something. I don’t think people generally smell like animals. And that place stunk.”

“So it was an animal attack?”

“Yeah,” Ryann said. “An animal that can carry a fully grown man across a cemetery faster than I can catch up with it. Fucking pigeons, am I right?”

There was a pointed silence from the other end of the line. “This isn’t funny.”

“Oh, I know,” Ryann said. “Honestly, it doesn’t really sound like a normal creature to me. More like something… not natural, you know what I’m saying?”

There was another moment of frigid quiet. Then, “I’m sure I don’t.”

She racked her brain. How the hell do you convince someone that you know about the supernatural without going ‘I’m a vampire, bleeergh!’? “Look, I know about supernatural shit, okay?” she said, coming right out with it. “I’ve literally watched a woman turn into a wolf. Freaked me the fuck out.” She really hoped werewolves existed, having put that lie out there.

“… when was this?” the person on the other radio asked. “No, fuck… Okay, right, we don’t have time for this.” They spoke slowly and very intently for the next few seconds. “Do you promise you’ve seen a werewolf before? Because I really don’t wanna get my licence revoked…”

“Sure, I promise,” Ryann lied through her fucking teeth. She really wanted to ask about licences for spooky shit. Did you have to go through training for that? Maybe an online seminar? Questions for later.

“Alright, listen,” the other person said. “I don’t know what you’re doing in a cemetery at this time of the night. Chances are I don’t want to know… But I need your help.”

Ryann nodded, looking around as she briefly lost the scent trail. “You need me to find your friend?” She could smell where he had been dragged away. She could smell his fear in the air and on the ground, though her nose burned with the bestial stench around it.

“No!” the person on the radio said, loudly, almost harshly. “It’s dangerous…” they added with a bit of a worried note in their voice.

“I’d say so,” Ryann muttered. “I told you there’s blood there. So we gotta hurry. Well, I gotta hurry,” she amended. “You gotta tell me what I’m walking into.” Talking helped. It made things less scary, less… sinister. She didn’t feel like the empty cemetery with the silent graves was like some sort of otherworld filled with secret dangers and monsters. Just a cemetery at night. Creepy, but still very normal.

“Actually, what’s your name?” Ryann asked.

“Rowan,” the person on the other end said. “Rowan Caller. I’m with the Argent Institute.”

“Neat. So, what are we dealing with?” Ryann asked. She grimaced when she smelled something acrid. Gunpowder? She followed the path, hurrying up as much as she could without losing the trail.

Rowan took a moment to get back to Ryann. “Honestly, I don’t know,” she said in a sigh. “There was an incident with the Umbra recently…”

“The what?” She frowned as she found another blood splatter, and leapt over a tombstone instead of going around.

“Vampires,” Rowan said. “Blood-drinkers. Nightwalkers, or whatever else they call themselves. Umbra is the ancestral term they’ve used for most of our records…”

Ryann rolled her eyes hard. Of course fucking vampires had to be posh shits. She made a face. “‘Oh yes, I am an umbra,’” she mocked quietly, not pressing the radio button. “‘Look at my fangs, I drink blood out of a wine glass like a posh bitch with my pinky up!’” She pressed the button after all. “Please tell me there’s a less inane name for them,” she said frankly.

“Well, some of them call themselves ‘Bloods’ these days,” Rowan said. That was already a much cooler name. Ryann approved. “Either way, I doubt they’d come back, so the only other option would be… a vertilacc.”

Ryann pursed her lips as she passed an old, overgrown headstone with deep claw marks on it. “What’s a vertilacc?” she asked and felt the nerves returning. She stopped to glance around again. No sign of movement.

“It’s a nocturnal scavenger. Part of the supernatural biosphere, and normally harmless. We didn’t think it’d be a problem.”

Ryann hummed a little. “Your buddy might have a different opinion on that,” she said darkly.

“He wasn’t my buddy.”

‘Wasn’t’, huh? she thought. Hold your horses, chief. He’s not dead yet. “So, what’s the plan for that vertilacc?”

“Just… try and find Jacob. If you see the vertilacc, or anything else not normal, try and hide. Don’t try to run, you’ll never make it. Also, if you want to back out now, because of the very real danger, try and get to the big lit up tent in the middle of the cemetery.”

“And hope Jacob is still alive and not bled out by the time we get to him?” Ryann said into the radio. “No way. I’m not leaving him to die.” She cast a look towards the distant point of light amidst the tombstones. That had to be where Rowan was. And, if she wasn’t completely mistaken, also where she’d find what she was looking for.

“Okay, but be careful,” Rowan insisted after a moment. She didn’t sound like she liked her orders being ignored. “If you need backup, tell me.”

“What are you gonna do? Stumble in my vague direction waving a flashlight about? Yeah, I’m sure that won’t attract attention. Speaking of getting eaten, what does a vertilacc look like?” Ryann fell quiet as a chill ran down her neck. Reflexes honed by dozens upon dozens of fights and hundreds of hours of training suddenly pushed her into action. She ducked low, and something rushed over her head. That bestial stench hit her nose again. She almost retched as a large creature landed right next to her with a dull thump.

An honest to goodness monster.

It was larger than Ryann and looked like an enormous bat. Dark, coarse fur covered its huge body, and its wings were leathery and huge. Its face was not that of a bat though. The maw was too long, the ears large but not quite round. It made a chittering noise as it turned to face Ryann. To her sight, the enormous eyes were white glowing saucers.

She didn’t stop to think. Her body fell into its familiar rhythms as she jumped with a twist. Her heel connected with the side of the thing’s head.

The beast’s huge eyes narrowed as its head snapped to the side. It let out a snarling squeal in surprise at the sudden pain. Huge, leathery wings flapped hard as it took off and vanished into the dark.

Ryann ran, racing along the narrow dirt paths, looking for cover. She knew that you just don’t fight animals. Certainly not ones bigger than you!

She could hear chittering screeches in the night above her, but looking up yielded no glimpse of the beast. A rushing sound warned her of the bat swooping down again. It clawed at her, almost caught her shoulder, and ripped her hoodie. The beast rushed past, disappearing back into the sky with wings that flapped much louder than when it had first dived down.

Ryann’s path ended suddenly at a gaping hole in the ground. She didn’t mean to jump into it. It was more of a tumble. Or just a plain fucking fall. Oh well, she thought as she came up on the soft earth in a roll. At least it’s decent cover, she thought, exasperated with her stupid stumble.

She held her breath, pressed herself to the wall of the grave and hoped it wouldn’t be hers as she heard the bat circling. It was a quiet sound, a faint rush of wind against membrane. Without her new and improved senses, she wouldn’t be able to hear it at all. Then it screeched, and she did hear that very clearly.

As Bruce (she had named the bat) circled overhead and yelled, Ryann felt around in the dirt. Her fingers found a single stone large enough to serve her purpose. She flung it out of the grave.

It landed somewhere with a loud clack!, that was followed by another screech and a chitter. Only then did Ryann become aware of the sounds coming from her hand.

“Kate? Helloooo? You still there?” Rowan asked.

Ryann’s hand was clenched tight around the radio. Shaking a bit with adrenaline, she put the radio to her lips in her white-knuckled grip and pressed the button. “Will you be quiet?” she hissed, annoyance and frustration bubbling up inside her. If only she hadn’t been injured. If only she had never been put in the hospital. If only she hadn’t fallen into a stupid coma! She could have taken that monster no problem!

If only she hadn’t been kidnapped. Killed. Turned into a monster.

“You just went dark on me! Don’t do that,” Rowan said, sounding frustrated herself.

“Well, next time don’t try and make small talk while fucking Batman over here tries to eat my liver!” Ryann shot back, hushed and agitated. The adrenaline was making it very eager to vent her frustrations on the woman on the other end of this.

“Batman? What?” Rowan sounded very confused.

Ryann clenched her fingers into the wet earth at her back and took a deep breath. She described the monster in as few words as strictly necessary. “You know, a fucking bat the size of a man,” she finished, looking herself over to check for any injuries. Her sweater had been ripped at the shoulder, but it looked like Bruce’s claws hadn’t broken the skin.

There was a moment of silence, then, gentler, Rowan asked, “Are you alright?”

“I kicked it.” She braced her hand on her knees, breathing deep.

“… you what?”

No need to sound so incredulous, Ryann thought with a frown. “I kicked it,” she repeated and craned her neck to see if she could spot Bruce anywhere. “In the face. Then I ran, then I fell in a grave.”

There was a moment of quiet before the radio crackled again and Rowan asked, “Did kicking work…?”

“Well, it didn’t eat my liver,” Ryann muttered, taking a moment to rest. She had to stay calm. Her wandering into the thing’s path had almost cost her her head. Her shoulder burned where the claws had scraped her. She wasn’t eager to test the speed of her healing since she still carried sunlight burns on her left hand.

Most vampire literature depicted vampires as nearly indestructible, only affected by silver, sunlight, crosses and stakes. Bullets weren’t supposed to work on them at all, same with claws and knives or other blades.

Ryann didn’t feel indestructible. She felt tired and annoyed and kinda pissed. And there was only one reason for her to keep up this song and dance. Jacob’s stupid ass getting kidnapped by Batman. She wasn’t really curious anymore about what had happened, so that driving force was gone. She could imagine it. She really didn’t need to know for sure. Just get Jacob out of the shit he’d gotten himself into.

Ryann took a deep breath before she pulled herself out of the grave and took off again, quick as she could without making too much noise.

“You just kicked it?” Rowan asked again for the dozenth time. “Just like that? A giant monster? Maybe you were mistaken. Maybe it was… a dog. Or a person? Or just a really big bat?”

“Jesus fucking Christ on a pogo stick, it was Batman,” Ryann growled into the radio, getting fed up with this. One more time and she’d put Rowan on mute. “It wasn’t a dog, it had fucking wings. It wasn’t a person, it had fucking wings. And it wasn’t an actual bat. You know how I know that? Because it was taller than me, had fucking wings, looked nothing like a regular bat and oh yes, I kicked it in the face and it didn’t die!” She didn’t have time for this. She needed to listen for Bruce so he didn’t swoop in and eat her face.

“It just doesn’t make any sense!” Rowan said. “Vertilacc eat dead things! Not living ones…”

“Oh, so that’s a vetilacc! Good to know! Well, maybe it has fucking rabies or something,” Ryann sighed in exasperation, kneading the bridge of her nose. “Also, thanks a lot for warning me that it can fucking fly, that would’ve been nice to know!”

“Look, I only had limited intel myself,” Rowan said back. She sounded a bit agitated. “We don’t even know where those things nest.”

“Somewhere under Toronto?” she suggested.

“How do you figure?”

“His name is Bruce,” Ryann muttered, trying to lighten the mood. “He probably lives in a cave with lots of other bats. Like Batman, you know?” She really needed a laugh. Not that the bat had freaked her out. She wasn’t scared so easily. Not at all.

“What are you even doing here?” Rowan asked, sounding a bit exasperated. “I’m trying to wrap my head around it. One of my co-workers gets picked off by a monster, and, you, who knows about the supernatural, just happen to be there?”

“I came here because I heard rumours that vampires hang out here,” Ryann lied. This was probably her best chance to find out something about her kind. Vampires. Bloods… Shit, that still sounded kinda cool.

“That doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence,” Rowan said as Ryann darted between the headstones, following the trail. “Also, you shouldn’t go after vampires. We know barely anything about them.”

Well that’s just fucking great, Ryann thought and rolled her eyes. “Really? Not a little bit of trivia? Like, does sunlight burn them? Or do I only have to watch out after dark? What about garlic? Or blood drinking?” She didn’t quite know why she asked those questions in particular. Maybe they were the most pressing.

She rubbed her hand gently. It had only taken a few seconds of touching it to the light for it to flare up painfully and turn red and blistered. Even now, three days later, it looked raw and red.

“Garlic will put you on any vampire’s dinner table,” Rowan sighed. “You know, since it’s delicious and does nothing to hurt them. Sunlight also doesn’t really hurt them either,” she added, getting a scoff out of Ryann. “Some lose a measure of their powers in direct sunlight. But only the weakest and least dangerous of vampires actually burn in it. And it’s less bursting aflame, more like a really bad sunburn, from what we’ve observed.”

“Ah. Good to know,” Ryann muttered, feeling a little disappointed. She had to be a vampire and a weak one? She hated the thought of being weak. She’d worked hard all her life to not be weak.

“They do drink blood. In fact, most seem to subsist entirely on it,” Rowan went on, babbling away. “They need more if they use abilities like enhanced strength, healing, bursts of unnatural speed, or other things like that. Usually a vampire will feed every couple weeks to a month. Otherwise people would definitely know about them.”

“Speaking of, why don’t you tell people?” Ryann asked, trying to bite back the hostility in her tone. “You could save lives!” You could have saved mine!

“Or we could have people try to become vampires so they can live forever and murder,” Rowan said. “Either way, it’s out of my hands. The Institute is very need-to-know with its secrets.”

Ryann let go of the radio button and growled loudly. She turned and kicked against a headstone that shook under the force of her anger. Her fist clenched tight enough to make her feel the claws again. All she cared about in that moment was how the Argent Institute had known about vampires… about Bloods… and they had done nothing.

And now Ryann would never feel the warmth of the sun again.

A gentle breeze stroked past her cheek, carrying with it the sickly sweet scent of rotting wood and flesh. Ryann looked to the source, narrowing her green eyes with the red inner ring to make out details in the monochrome of her night vision.

What she had taken for a dark plot of earth turned out to be yet another deep, open grave, not two metres away.

Something was wrong with it.

Ryann felt a shiver run down her back as she looked at the gaping hole. Was it somehow darker than the rest of the cemetery? Even with her night vision, some spots were darkened, but this… This was different.

There was a noise in the air. Ryann frowned, tilting her head to try and make it out. But, for the life of her, the hole just captured her attention more. Its edges were perfectly straight and dark…

She leaned back with a start. When had she moved so close to the edge of the grave?

And where was its bottom?

She suddenly and abruptly felt a cold chill run down her back. Why was there this open grave here? And why was it so dark? She craned her neck to try and pierce the darkness with her gaze. She wished she’d taken a flashlight.

That sound was getting louder. What was it? It sounded almost right next to her, but when she looked, she couldn’t see anything but empty cemetery. She looked back at the hole.

Was the darkness creeping out of the grave? Ryann rubbed her eyes. They finally focused on the bottom of the hole, reaching through the darkness like through inky water. A glint showed varnished wood. Ryann’s eyes wandered along it over the tiny, black gap in the wood. She looked over the spindly fingers hanging out, the bony hand, the long, dirty fingernails of the dead inside, and Ryann began to lean down to get a closer look.

The fingers twitched.

The sudden smell of rot and beast hit her, and she heard a chitter above her. Ryann threw herself to the side and brought her fists up. Bruce’s claws slashed past her head as he came down and landed hard. His momentum carried him further and he hooked a wing on a headstone to twist towards Ryann.

She backed away against a tombstone. It was a large monument, square and rising into the night ominously in a gothic design with few ornamentations, looking like a little tower that narrowed towards the top.

Only the open grave separated her from Bruce as he lowered his upper body to the ground and crawled over the headstones. His eyes were white saucers as he tilted his head gently.

“Kate? Kaaa-aaate? Helloooo?” Rowan’s voice sounded in Ryann’s hand. That was what the noise had been. She had completely missed it.

Ryann swallowed and kept her eyes on Bruce. He curled a wing claw over a gravestone. His head was now hovering over the grave. His wet nostrils flared. The big, pointy ears twitched. Then Bruce opened his mouth. The jaw expanded into a set of fanged mandibles filled with rows of sharp teeth. He screeched loudly, a chittering sound that shook the air, and lunged.

Just at the mandibles alone, Ryann had decided that she’d had enough. She dashed around the tombstone and stopped in a skid, facing back the way she’d come. Her fists were up in her usual boxing stance, leg ready to send another kick at Bruce’s face.

Instead, she heard screeching and snarling from beyond the cover of the stone next to her. She remained there, frozen, as something heavy crashed into stone and made it crumble. There was more screeching and an ungodly gurgling sound. Finally, a crunch and a wet tear that made Ryann’s mind conjure up the most horrific ideas of what could be going on.

After a few moments of eerie silence, she heard wings in the air. The smell of rot and beast slowly dissipated. Ryann shuddered. Her heart still beat hard. Slowly, she made her way back around the tombstone.

The grave seemed completely innocuous now. Like it had just been all in her mind. No darkness spread out from it, of course not.

It had been her imagination.

Or, much more likely, Batman had done something to whatever was lurking in that grave.

Ryann couldn’t quite push down her curiosity. What had summoned the darkness? What had made it look so inky and solid? She carefully leaned back over the grave. There was a coffin there. Its glossy black lid had been torn away and was in pieces. There was nothing Ryann could see inside besides a pile of pale bones.

Rowan still babbled away on the radio. Ryann’s anger reared its head again at the sound of her voice. She was stuck in a fucking cemetery, with monsters and darkness, and all because some stuck up assholes had decided to keep actual supernatural threats secret!

‘Need-to-know’, my ass! Ryann growled loudly and trudged away. She had needed to know! She hated being a vampire. Sure, the healing without intensive physical therapy was great. But she hated the thought of being weak. Of never seeing the sun again.

Most of all, she hated not having been given a choice.


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