Instead, we were stuck with clear skies with stars winking down at us. The air was balmy, a skin I needed to tear free of, and every street was ablaze with orange lights.
It was the sort of nights we hated. Because everyone was wide awake.
Well, technically, not everyone. The children were still sent to bed at ten o’clock, latest. Adults, though – them of the vacant stares and cynical twist of the lips – they stayed up as late as they could, indulging in the freedom they thought night offered them.
Priffin and I bided our time. It didn’t take very long, usually, to grab one of them. We didn’t like calling attention to ourselves – it just wasn’t our style. Get in and get out, as they say. I’d even go so far as to label ourselves compassionate hunters. (Although Priffin disagrees, but he does concur that what had to be done must be done.)
We’d been waiting on the balcony for some time, taking our time to choose the least conspicuous one for the night. Downstairs, jazz music from the al fresco restaurant would have put me to sleep if I could sleep. It was too oily, too smooth, for my taste. But Priffin loved it, preferred it to the thumping hip-hop that I listened to.
“I see it. That one, over there!” Priffin hissed, getting up from next to me.
I yanked him back into the shadows. “Be careful!” Then I craned my neck in the direction he’s pointing. “Which one?”
“The young one in the red dress.”
The young ones always put up a struggle, but the kill was almost always worth it.
“Too obvious. She’s wearing a tight red dress.”
Priffin turned his yellow eyes on me. They flashed like a warning sign. “So?”
I sighed. He had so much to learn. “So, it means she’s the sort who enjoys attention, even seeks it. Such kinds don’t make for good prey. Too many people will notice.”
Priffin pouted. “Fine.”
I took a second look. “The one with her will make a better choice.”
He didn’t wear a suit, or even a crisp shirt, like the other men present. All he had on was a mangy grey t-shirt and jeans. He probably had no idea he was going to end up in an al fresco restaurant with the girl in the tight red dress and fake lashes.
He was strong, yes, but of course they were always no match for us. He would put up a struggle, but nothing that we wouldn’t be able to handle. Such men had few friends, too, and had a tendency to disappear for long periods of time. Nobody would realize he was gone until much later.
Next to me, Priffin inched over to the railing to get a better look. It made me nervous, how flippant he was about being undercover. I had yet to teach him everything I knew, but the first thing I told him was to never leave any footprints (quite literally) behind. He might have needed another lesson to drill that into his head.
The man had no car, which confirmed my theory. Such men were the low-key sort that no one would miss very much if they were to disappear out of the blue.
We waited until he had packed the girl into a cab (she didn’t look too happy about that) before sliding back down the stairwell.
He had his hands in his pockets as he walked down the street. His hair was messy, but he didn’t bother straightening it. The air was too still – I hated it. If Ylanna was here, she would have been able to stir up some wind, or even bring the storm that was supposed to come. But as it was, she was a little preoccupied at the moment.
So I could only make use of what I had – which, frankly speaking, wasn’t much. The lights were too bright, the air too still, and where we were walking, it was too quiet. Anything could give us away. I had to remind Priffin not to slobber too loudly. His hunger was getting out of control.
We rounded a corner bookstore with a huge sign that screamed of a clearance sale, and then … ended up back at the restaurant.
He stopped. I stopped, held out a hand to stop Priffin.
When he turned, I drew myself and Priffin into the shadows.
“You can show yourself, you know. It’s not like I haven’t been waiting for you.”
There was a smile in his voice that almost lured me out, but I held my breath and stayed where I was. He was bluffing. No one knew of us.
“I know of your kind. You feed, and as you grow stronger, you take shape. And finally, you ask for a soul, for what is a vessel without a soul?”
People were staring at him, talking to himself, but he paid no heed. Instead, he looked in my direction with his hands still in his pockets. I shut my eyes, squeezed them tight.
“I can make a bargain, if you’re interested.”
He strode past me, knowing I would follow. I was roped by his musky scent of wood smoke, and was on his heels before I realized it. I didn’t know whether to hate myself for falling for his ploy, or to excuse myself. Priffin growled soft enough that only I heard. I didn’t know if the man did.
We arrived at a dark corner at the end of an alley. Alleys were my favorite.
I didn’t take off my hood even as I stepped out to face him. He seemed as unsurprised by my appearance as he was by my existence, which certainly intrigued me.
“You said you can make a bargain.” I kept my voice low, so he wouldn’t recognize it if we met next time. (Would there be a next time?)
He nodded and pulled out a silver dagger from his pocket. “The beast is mine.”
I looked down at Priffin, whose eyes widened. He stared up at me, not making a sound, then turned to growl at the man, “I’m not going with you.”
“It’s not your place to speak, beast.” He didn’t even spare a glance at Priffin.
I stuck out my chin. “Why Priffin?”
The man shrugged. “I have my reasons. Deal?”
I considered. Priffin was a small price to pay for someone’s soul. I wasn’t particularly attached to the beast, anyway, and I always had to share my kill with him. But he was my responsibility, after all.
“Not until I understand what you intend to do with him.”
“He’s just a brute. It doesn’t do you good to get too attached to him.”
I didn’t back away when he loomed closer, dagger in hand. A flint of moonlight glowed upon the dagger. I wasn’t afraid, even though I knew what that dagger could do to an incomplete vessel like mine.
Priffin was clutching the hem of my robe. A whine slipped out of him.
I didn’t feel the scream of my skin until the man was right before me. His breath burned as the dagger twisted. I sank to the ground even before I could make a sound. Priffin fled. Damn brute.
“You should take a leaf out of his book,” the man said, staring after the beast. “He only follows whoever has blood on his hands. He’s no compassionate hunter. I thought someone of your caliber would realize that.”
I could feel myself wrenched from the vessel. My hard-earned shell. How could I have lost it in a moment of compassion? Compassion was for humans. I should have known better.
Next time, I thought as I slithered down the nearest crack in the sidewalk. Next time, I’d build a vessel strong enough. Blood on hands and bright yellow eyes.