July 2, 2010

Following the Dragon's Tail

I had horrible dreams that first day. Nightmares that kept going through my head on repeat, visions of the temple, of killing those kids, over and over again. But I couldn't wake up from them. While that sun was out, I was at the mercy of the dreams, chained there, reliving the acts of violence over and over again.

On the plus side, there was no such thing as restless sleep for me anymore. I felt it, the moment the sun dipped under the horizon. My eyes popped open automatically, and I was fully awake as I felt the blood surge through my body. As I swung my legs off the side of the bed, I was silently grateful for the nightmares, in a way. It kept the hope that the whole thing hadn't been real out of my mind. I didn't have to deal with the crushing realization of my condition when I woke up. There was no illusions that it had all merely been a dream and I'd wake up alive and well in my own bed.

It was a weird sort of blessing.

I sat there for awhile, collecting my thoughts. I tried not to think about the dreams, about the dying kids.. instead, I tried to school my thoughts and direct them towards what I would ask Giuseppe tonight. I didn't feel the blood moving anymore, but I felt hungrier.

Giuseppe was waiting for me in the study. I settled slowly into one of the armchairs. I tried to get comfortable until I realized it wasn't an issue of posture.. I felt uncomfortable in my own body, not in the chair.

Giuseppe was reading, and didn't look up until I spoke. Then, he closed the book softly and set it on a small end table that hadn't been there the night before.

"When does it stop feeling so weird?"
He his mouth twisted into a very slight smile. "That depends entirely on what you consider 'weird'. It will take some time for you to become accustomed to it. How long, depends on you."

I nodded slowly. "Fair enough.. why did I nearly freak out and run out the door in the airport when another vampire came up to me? It didn't happen with you, or with Sundown." The word still felt strange to say.. vampire. But I had come to a decision when I woke up that night, before I'd left my room. I'd decided that hiding from the situation was pointless and pathetic. I may not like it, but it was what it was, and the faster I could get over it, the better. The self pity was gone, replaced by grim resolve.

"The predatory part of us.. the beast.. recognizes other vampires as potential threats. The reaction varies from a strong desire to run away, if the vampire is perceived as more powerful, or a desire to kill, if they are not. There are ways, however, to mask the... 'scent' of the beast from other vampires. This is why you did not 'freak out' when confronting Sundown and myself."

"Makes sense.. is there a way to keep this thing from taking me over again like it did on.." I paused, fighting back the memory, "...on the temple?"

"The beast is a part of all vampires, and it can be a struggle to retain control. The beast becomes more difficult to control in the throws of strong emotion, or hunger. If you allow yourself to go too long without feeding, the beast will force you to do so, and the end result usually tends to be rather..messy."

"The vampire asked me about clan.. and mentioned something called 'The Invictus'.."

Giuseppe nodded. "Your clan is the bloodline that you are embraced into. It will be the same as the bloodline of the one who turned you.. your 'sire'." He put a hand to his chest. "We are referred to as Mekhet..."

The night went on like that for hours. I grilled him endlessly on anything I could think of. What it meant to be Mekhet, about the beast.. and he answered some questions that I didn't think to ask. It was weird, Giuseppe being so forthcoming. Certainly there were some questions he didn't answer, whether because he couldn't, or thought I should find the answers myself, but mostly he gave me whatever information he could. And it was a lot to take in. Clans, covenants..he told me how to 'get along' in vampire society. There were rules, more rules that I thought vampires would have.. but a society needed rules to survive, even a society of monsters. He told me about the blood.. there was going to be a lot to learn about the blood.

He showed me how to use it to sharpen my reflection in the mirror. Looking at myself for the first time since the embrace was not a fun experience. I looked.. dead. My face was ashen, high cheek bones making my face look ghoulishly gaunt. No wonder people had been staring. I stood in front of that mirror for a long time, coming to grips with it. It wasn't until I had regained my composure that he taught me how to make myself look alive, using the blood, stressing the importance of hiding in plain sight.

He took me out, after that. We went to places with people. He showed me how to tell if someone was sick.

"Why does it matter if they're sick? How can a vampire get AIDS? We don't have normal physiology. Not that I'm eager to munch on the neck of a HIV patient.. but still.." Honestly, I wasn't eager to munch on any people..
"You are correct in one manner. We cannot contract the illnesses of those that we feed upon. However, we can act as carriers. Feed from a sick individual, you will pass on that illness to others that you feed upon."

My eyes widened a touch at that little tidbit. I realized I'd been unconsciously hugging myself. I forced my arms back to my sides. Talk of feeding was making me uncomfortable.

"You must never underestimate them, Harper."

I looked up sharply, somewhat confused. Giuseppe was watching me intensely.
"Why would I?"
"Perhaps not now, but in the future when you have learned what you are capable of, it will become very simple to view them as nothing more than prey. You would be wise to avoid that notion. They may only be mortal, but they can accomplish great things if given the right motivation. There have been many vampires that were felled because they did not think much of their 'prey'."

I turned away and watched the crowd again. They were nothing special from where I was standing.. but I had faced down vampires, werewolves, and other nightmares and had survived to tell the tale. It was true that human beings could accomplish impressive things if determined enough.

Giuseppe continued. "You are different from them now..."
I snorted. "That's nothing new." I interrupted.
Giuseppe gave me a scathing look. "You may not have felt very connected to your fellow man before, however, I assure you, this will prove to be much different. You no longer have the common trait of life with them. However, that does not mean you should seclude yourself from them. Those that do find their humanity slipping away at an alarming rate.."

I didn't really understand it at first, it took a few weeks before it started to sink in. I was different now. Emotions felt different.. desires, needs, everything.. felt unfamiliar. I slowly realized what Giuseppe had meant. I could feel the pull of the beast, fighting to do things that made me cringe, and the beast salivate.

So with Giuseppe's encouragement, I did things to keep some semblance of connection to the mortal world. Normal things. I went to the movies, to bars.. that early on, feeding wasn't involved. Giuseppe wouldn't let me feed on people yet.. which.. I was okay with. At least, part of me was. It was a lesson in self control to ignore the pull of hunger in crowded places.. but I managed.

Something else unexpected happened because of those trips. I realized I could really do without intimate social interactions. I had always been anti social.. but I'd never wanted to be. I'd always hated the people who could talk to anyone, be the life of the party.. but I'd been forced to do all those things in the weeks leading up to Mexico. I'd played the flirty club girl..among other roles.. and realized I found it.. distasteful. I much preferred to sit alone and people watch, or talk with someone with whom I had a genuine connection. The idea of being a social butterfly now seemed frivolous. None of those people actually cared.

So fuck em.

There were still moments when it was necessary. It was like a mask to slip on to meet a goal. One that felt oppressive and annoying, but still had its usefulness. Giuseppe encouraged other similar masks. He would talk to me often about the importance of change. Vampires were static creatures. Hell, I woke up with the same hair every night, regardless of what I'd done with it the night before. It was important not to become stuck in a routine. I didn't realize that this was more than just a philosophy until after I'd followed the Dragon's Tail.


A few weeks later, Giuseppe abruptly ended another philosophy lesson with a phrase that did not sound nearly as foreboding as it should have.

"We are going out." It was around 2:30am. It wasn't unusual, so I followed him through the streets without protest. I didn't bother asking where we were going, he wouldn't answer me anyway, and I'd know soon enough.

We stopped in a dark alleyway across the street from a bar. The place was already closed, the only movement inside were bartenders cleaning up the place.

"What exactly are we doing?" I muttered in a low voice.
"Hunting. Go."
I blinked at the abruptness, but gathered my wits pretty quickly. A lone bartender had exited the place and was walking towards the parking lot. He was, apparently, supposed to be my prey. I didn't feel very predatory at that moment. I knew that I shouldn't just go up and assault the guy.. I didn't want to blow my cover. So how did I go about getting him out of the open and none the wiser? Giuseppe hadn't given me any clues, but I was starting to get the idea that Giuseppe's idea of object lessons entailed pushing me in the river and seeing if I could figure out how to swim. I think he enjoyed watching me flounder at times.

I was terrified. I didn't want to feed from this guy. The concept of eating people still didn't sit well with me. But the other part of me had been yowling for it for weeks. It was getting more and more difficult to ignore it when I was out in public. So doing this, taking a little blood from this guy.. was definitely better than the alternative.. losing control and killing someone.

So, my wind working at light speed to figure out some ploy, I walked towards the guy. I kept to the shadows at first, until I figured out what angle I was going to play. I paused in an alcove, mussed my hair a bit, ditched the light jacket I'd brought for the sake of blending in, and made sure my clothes were slightly less than straight. Then I stumbled out of the alcove with a bewildered look on my face, my best impression of a confused, drunk chick.

"Hey.. hey have you seen my car?" I slurred just a bit, stopping right in his path.
The bartender stopped walking and gave me a half-assed smile and shook his head. "What type of car is it?"
"Blue Taurus..or a black Mazda.. I don't remember which one I drove.."
He glanced around the nearly empty parking lot and shrugged. "I don't think its here.. do you need me to call you a cab?" He seemed helpful, but annoyed. He was probably more than ready to be home.
I forced myself to giggle and tried not to let it make me sick to my stomach. "Well not here.. it was in the next lot over..can you help me?" I pointed through an alleyway to the neighboring street.

His smile started to crumble. "Look, I gotta get home.."
"Oh please? It'll only take a sec.. and I'm freezin' my tits off out here..see?" I reached for his face with one hand to illustrate, and he pulled back out of reflex. Which was fine, because it gave me an excuse to 'accidentally' lose my balance and stumble right into him.
I giggled again. "Oops.. sorry.."

He held me awkwardly and gently pushed me away from him. "Jesus, you are cold." He signed, looked around at the empty street then down the alleyway. "Alright, I'll help you look, but if its not in that other lot, I'm calling you a cab."

I gave him my best drunk smile and hung onto his arm as we turned down the alley. I started nuzzling his neck once we were about half way through the dank passage.

"Hey.. I've got a girlf.."
And then I bit him, and he stopped talking.

The first time I'd fed from a person, I hadn't been in control of myself. The beast had overwhelmed me and taken over my body and mind. The memories were still fragmented.

This was all me. The moment that hot blood hit my tongue, I knew why vampires hunted humans. The rush was a thousand times stronger than any morphine high I'd ever had.. and 10 times more potent than the animal blood I'd been subsisting on until this point. I drank long and deep. I could feel it coursing down my chin, and at some point I know I'd gotten him against the wall, my fingers in his hair pulling his head back to an awkward angle.

I nearly lost myself. In a panic, I realized I'd lost track of how much I'd taken. How many mouthfuls of blood equals a pint? Had I killed him? No, I could vaguely hear him making small noises, which meant he was still conscious. The rational part of me struggled to pull my body free of him. But the blood was heady and intoxicating. I didn't want to stop.. but somehow I managed to force my fingers to uncurl and begin to release him. I started to lift my face..

And couldn't. There was a hand on the back of my head, forcing me to keep my fangs in the guys neck. The thin reign of moderation that I'd managed to wrap around the beast suddenly snapped, unable to withstand the screaming desire for more blood. It drank, while the rational part of me struggled weakly to stop it. But the beast didn't stop until his heart stuttered once.. and then stopped. Then, sated, it stalked back into the shadows of my head. I tried to pull back again, and realized Giuseppe was no longer holding me in place.

I laid the bartender gently on the asphalt and turned slowly to glare balefully at Giuseppe. My face was covered in blood, my eyes were on fire, and if it had been anyone else standing there, it would've been scary as hell. Giuseppe wasn't impressed. My voice was rough and feral. My hands were shaking in rage. It was a fight to keep from screaming at him. Instead my voice was dangerously quiet. "Why did you make me kill him?"

He looked at me, unconcerned. "I did not. You are welcome to blame me, however. I provided you with a choice. Contrary to what you may believe, I only held you there for a moment."

My stomach twisted itself into knots. "You're going to tell me if I'd tried to stop a second time you wouldn't have held me there again?" My voice was bitter. The anger was rising.

"It is irrelevant, you did not try a second time." He said matter of factly.

I looked down at the body and felt something inside me break. I wanted to blame him. Giuseppe had made me kill him. He'd made me murder this random guy, who hadn't done me any fucking harm..

But he hadn't. He had facilitated.. but I had pulled the trigger. I wasn't able to control it. Even that rational part of me, the part that almost won out.. had been hoping it would lose.

But that didn't mean I wasn't pissed at Giuseppe, it just meant I was also pissed at myself. I clenched my teeth and glared daggers at him.

"It was necessary to illustrate a very important lesson. It is called Following the Dragon's Tail." He crouched down and pulled out the bartender's wallet. He tossed it to me. I swiped it angrily from the air. "Every death has effects.. consequences. You will follow the effects of this one."

I scowled at him. "And if I don't want to play this little game?"
His expression never changed. "I assure you, it is not a game. This is not an action to be taken lightly. It is a terrible thing.. that was completely necessary. If you do not chose to continue with the lesson, then we are finished, and this man's death will have served no purpose."

I felt anger and outrage bubble up, threatening my control. Once again, I was forced to shut down the majority of my emotions, to keep the beast from gaining footholds in my fury. I crushed the wallet in my fist and we stared at each other for several minutes. Giuseppe watched me like a statue, as though he could read my thoughts. I weighed my options.

It was possible, if I stayed, that Giuseppe may make me do more terrible things.. but it seemed unlikely. It was counter to everything he'd already taught.. but so was this, from what I could tell. But I couldn't just let the guy die for no reason. If I went through Giuseppe's little 'lesson,' there was nothing keeping me from leaving after that. Maybe I'd even decide Giuseppe had been right.. but I doubted it. I'd killed a man.. but if I went along with it, it would give me some time to do right by this guy's family, if he had one. And there was always the fact that it wasn't entirely Giuseppe's doing..

That was the thought that really made up my mind. I had murdered someone. I could blame him all night long, but I hadn't resisted. I had made the choice. I'd lost control...I couldn't just walk away and pretend it hadn't happened. Maybe I felt like following this trail would be my punishment.. or make the death mean something.. but either way, I couldn't pretend it wasn't my fault, and walk away..

I cursed long and colorfully and tore my eyes from Giuseppe. I knelt by the quickly cooling corpse and took all his valuables. He didn't have much besides the wallet and a cellphone, but I wanted it to look like a mugging, at least from the outside. He wore a simple ring that I hesitated to take.. but in the end also put that into my pocket. No normal mugger ever killed someone by exsanguination. I just hoped that no one would look that hard.

I flipped through his wallet. He had his tips for the night, a drivers license, TABC card, a photo of a woman, and a couple credit cards. I took the drivers license and put everything else back and put the wallet in my pocket, then I turned my back on Giuseppe and walked away, only pausing briefly to retrieve my discarded jacket.


His name was Vincent Hughes. I went to his apartment. I'm not sure why.. I think I wanted to be sure there was no one waiting for him to come home... thankfully, the place was dark. I heard no signs of life from within. I thought briefly about going inside, but there were bars on the windows, and I didn't have so much as a bobby pin on me to even attempt to pick a lock.

I sagged against the wall in the darkened hallway of the apartment building. I was not looking forward to this little assignment. Surprisingly, most of my anger had drained away, leaving me depressed and hollow. I liked to think that I had no illusions about the type of person Giuseppe was. He had never come off as a bastion of morality. He'd been willing to sacrifice all the others to get to me. It shouldn't surprise me that he'd kill someone if he thought it important enough..

What did surprise me, was that he didn't. I did. I'd never killed in anything but self defense before, at least not when I'd been in my right mind. Those kids on the temple.. I'd stopped having dreams about them. That guilt was quickly fading. They'd been dying long before I'd sunk my fang into them.. but this?

Giuseppe had told me it would be difficult to control myself. That's why I hadn't fed from any people yet. I knew it, intellectually. But now I understood on a whole new level. Now I got to see, first hand, the consequences of losing control. Maybe the lesson really had been necessary.. how easy would it be to give into the beast and take a life when you had no idea the ripples it caused.. the far reaching effects.. people could easily become nothing but cattle, if you refused to notice how one death could effect so many other things.

My thoughts were morbid and self loathing as I left the building. I used a payphone and called into the police department, anonymously, and reported the body. I was pretty sure I was only supposed to observe, but I didn't have much time tonight, and wanted to move it along. Besides, better the family know now, then to wait and wonder for hours or days.

I gave it some time, and since I was pretty familiar with the process, arrived at the morgue only a few minutes before the family. I sneaked into the morgue. I knew the place well enough, I'd transported my share of bodies there, back when I had a normal job. Two people showed up that night. An elderly man, and someone closer to Vincent's age, maybe a bit younger. There was enough of a family resemblance that it would be pretty safe to assume it was his brother. I wasn't stealthy enough to actually be in the room when the family identified the body, but I saw the faces as they left. I heard the wailing. Something inside me withered. The old man left looking wretched and haunted. The younger man had the look of someone holding up a dam that was about to burst.

I went back to the haven feeling like someone had put vice grips around my heart. I didn't speak to anyone, I just shut myself in my room and let the unseen sun steal me into oblivion.

((a reminder to anyone who may need it, Mona is a detective for the New Orleans Police Department, and, like Giuseppe, has been a ghoul for a very long time. She's now Giuseppe's ghoul..))

The next night I got straight to work. I asked Mona if she could run down the addresses for Vincent's family. To my surprise, she'd already done so, handing me a small piece of paper. I still wasn't sure Mona liked me being here too terribly much, but it was hard to tell. She didn't talk to me often, but then, I was usually busy learning shit from Giuseppe. I thanked her and left.

There were three addresses on the piece of paper. Two apartments, and one house in the suburbs. I headed there first, as it was the furthest away.. and was the father's house. I figured it was likely that everyone would congregate there.

And I was right. It was late enough in the evening that all the friends of the family had already left, or were in the process of doing so. Soon after I arrived, there were only four people left inside the house. The two from the morgue, a woman who shared the same family resemblance, and a girl who matched the photo that had been in Vincent's wallet.

I watched them grieve. It was probably one of the most unpleasant things I've ever had to do. I watched the sister get into a fight with the brother, a screaming match that devolved into her breaking down into tears and crying into his chest. The elderly man didn't speak much. He ignored offers of help. It was like his other kids weren't even there. It didn't take long before he disappeared into his bedroom for the night...but he didn't sleep. He just stared at the ceiling.

The woman on the couch, Vincent's girlfriend, just sat there, tears continually rolling down her pretty cheeks. She, more than the others, looked stricken. She was the only one who eventually left the house. The others stayed to find comfort in the presence of family.

So I followed her. I followed her for a month. I checked in with the other members of the family, but its difficult to keep tabs on so many people at one time. The longer I watched, the more detached I became, and the more I realized how much one death could effect the world around that person.

I watched as Vincent's girlfriend fell deeper and deeper into depression. She had been cheating on him. Her guilt fueled her grief, and wouldn't allow her to let it go. Eventually she swallowed two bottles of sleeping pills and washed them down with a fifth of vodka. When I got to her apartment that night, I found her dead, surrounded by photos and letters. It cut through my detachment enough to shake me. I decided that I'd had enough of this experiment for one night, and went home.


I closed the door softly and rested my forehead against it with a sigh.

"She killed herself today. The brother resents Vincent for dying and leaving him to take care of their dad, and the sister has actually started visiting her father more since the death." My voice was quiet.

"Is that all you have found?" Giuseppe asked from the shadows of the living room.

I shook my head and turned around to lean on the door. "After a month? Not by a long shot. This is going to be a long project isn't it?"
He nodded. "Some kindred follow the Dragon's Tail for generations."
I looked at the floor. "I can see why..." I had only just started to observe the ripples. I knew they would spread out and out and out. The prospect of documenting it all was daunting.

He turned and walked back towards the bedrooms. "We have work to do."
I blinked, confused. "What?"
He did not turn around. "Following the Dragon's Tail is an important exercise, however, there are other lessons that hold equal value. Your nights will encompass both." And he disappeared into the dark hallway.

I stood there a moment, considering my situation. I had been doing almost nothing but follow this trail for the past month, and something unexpected had happened.

I had become grateful for the experience.

Every night, I could feel the beast wrestling for control. And now I knew first hand what consequences letting it loose might bring. It really was a good lesson...one that would help me retain my humanity as I became more and more familiar with what it was to be a vampire.

As important as this lesson was, and would continue to be for the foreseeable future, the thought of other, less morbid pursuits put me in a slightly better mood. I pushed off the door and followed Giuseppe down the hall. That night, he gave me my first tattoo.

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