My gaze blurs in and out of focus as I concentrate on clearing my mind, wiping away every thought from the surface of my consciousness. Except, even the simplest things—the draft that wanders through the open window, the soft humming of the lights overhead, the occasional creak in the floorboards beneath my bare feet—stimulate some sort of response that interrupts my train of thought. Or more accurately, my non-thought.
At first, I didn’t think anything of compulsion—you want something, you speak it while making eye contact with the one you wish to control, and they’re under your command.
Except, in order for that to work, my brain has to be completely blank. I’d never considered just how many thoughts rampage through my mind at any given moment, and it’s a little overwhelming. Everything, no matter how minuscule or insignificant-seeming, is a distraction.
“This isn’t working.” I grit my teeth and drop my head into my hands so I can rub my eyes, scratchy and dry from being open for so long. I rise from the chair in my ancestor’s study and kick it backward with more force than intended, sending it straight into the wall with a loud crash.
Increasingly frustrated by my inability to compel anything, I clench my hands into fists and move toward the window to suck in a gulp of fresh air.
Smelling of rainwater and mildew, the chilly air spreads through my chest and into my lungs, taking off some of the edge. The weather in Ichorye has been so spastic lately that our power goes out every other day, and half of the town is officially run on overworked generators. Meaning, not only do I have normal everyday noises to block out, but also the persistent humming of every damn generator in town.
Vira sighs from across the room, rising from the couch with her arms crossed, looking anything but pleased with my lack of progress over the past thirty minutes.
“That’s because you’re not focusing. You have to—”
“Clear my mind, latch onto the eye—thing… and use my compulsion to persuade him,” I reiterate, forgetting a few of the technical terms she used earlier.
She groans in frustration, teeth digging into her lower lip—a habit of hers exhibited when she’s trying not to throttle me. And right now, her patience is waning.
“Retina. The optic nerve connects the retina to the visual cortex in your brain, which controls how your brain processes visual information. You aren’t so much controlling the mind as the way in which a person perceives the things they see and think. This information is then sent to another part of the brain that analyzes and—Aspen.”
I refocus my eyes and meet her hard gaze. “What? I’m listening.”
“No, you’re not. You’re probably over there daydreaming about my brother as though his tongue can teach you how to master compulsion.” She purses her plum-colored lips and tucks a dark strand of hair behind her ear, shrugging carelessly. “Whatever. Don’t learn anything about who you are now, what you can do, or how to hone your abilities. You won’t survive one second against the other clans, but that’s your problem. See if I care.”
I close my eyes. She’s right. I just can’t seem to focus long enough to try. I was a terrible student when I was in school, which doesn’t make relearning integral parts of the brain very fun. Never in my wildest dreams did I think using mind control required the understanding of such complicated sciences. I’d rather face the impossible choice of becoming a vampire all over again than learn about neurological pathways.
“May I offer some input?” Oliver speaks up from where he sits, bound at the wrists and ankles by a thick cord of rope. The bags under his eyes are deep enough to swim in, and his clothes are wrinkled and torn, emitting a stench that, with my heightened sense of smell, is anything but pleasant to be around.
It has been approximately one week since the Draven curse was broken by Elaine’s transition and Oliver was beaten and left on the Manor’s doorstep. One week since the siblings explicitly said he’s not allowed to leave the confines of the study until he clarifies how he wound up here.
“Of course,” Vira says in the faux-sweet voice she’s used on me more times than I can count. “In fact, we would love for you to explain to us why you were left on my family’s doorstep looking like you’d first gone through a garbage disposal.” She grabs the top of his thick blonde hair and yanks his head back. “Care to enlighten us?”
We’ve been unable to get Oliver to tell us anything about what happened that night. He refuses to speak with anyone but Elaine, and given her recent transition, the siblings don’t think that’s a smart idea.
Hunters grow stronger with age and experience. Some learn how to recognize a vampire on sight, but Oliver is only in his early twenties, so I highly doubt he’s advanced enough to notice the change in Elaine so long as he doesn’t get too close to her—after all, he had no idea that I was human when he tried to kill me.
Regardless, I was outvoted and with good reason.
If he discovers that his oldest friend has become the thing he dedicated his life to destroying, any chance of him telling us what happened will vanish. Oliver had an opportunity to escape the first night he was here, and he didn’t take it. I just wish I knew why. We can use it to our advantage if the hunters truly did cast him out, but if this is all a ruse to infiltrate the Draven clan, then we need to know, and the promise of seeing Elaine is the only advantage we have.
In the meantime, Vira has been graciously forced into assisting my compulsion studies. Except, instead of trying to infiltrate an unsuspecting human mind, we’ve been using Oliver as a test dummy while I get my bearings. Mind control doesn’t work on hunters—they’re trained to withstand it—but I’ll still know if it’s working or not.
“Is it possible,” Oliver continues without batting an eye at Vira’s aggression, “that compulsion is a vehement form of manipulation and should never be practiced to begin with? Bending another’s will to meet your own hardly seems fair to me.”
Vira releases him, dissatisfied that her show of force didn’t intimidate him in the least. Why should it? I’m sure whatever he went through to become a hunter was much, much worse than sarcasm and hair-pulling. “We’ll take that under advisement.”
He smiles smugly despite being at a severe disadvantage. Most of his injuries have healed besides a few of the deeper cuts and an ugly bruise on his left rib cage where we think his ribs were fractured. His arm was dislocated as well, but once Elliot popped it back into place, it healed fairly quickly.
“Say, I’m quite famished,” he says, turning to me with his hair sticking up at odd angles. “Would it be possible to get some of those raviolis your mom made the other night?”
I glance toward the crack in the door, where my mom comes into view carrying a small stack of freshly washed sheets. She begins stretching them to fit her lopsided bed, and I watch as she lifts the corners of the mattress, delicately slipping the sheet beneath each one.
Looking away, I hide my frustration at her behavior. I’ve tried everything I can think of to bring back the woman she was before we uprooted our lives to move here, but nothing has worked. My father is acting more like himself, and although that’s not particularly a good thing because he’s more aware of who comes and goes, it’s better than the wasted drunk he became under Ambrose Draven’s influence.
But Mom… the only difference between now and then is that she gets out of bed more often and doesn’t make nearly as many thoughtless mistakes while cooking. Still, she hardly speaks.
“What’s the matter?” Oliver pouts, shifting so the wooden chair squeaks annoyingly. “You’re not still upset that Elliot’s compulsion couldn’t fix her, are you?”
Before I can snap at him, Mom looks up. Her lips turndown subtly when she notices me, and I move to close the study door. We had to compel both her and my father to think Oliver was a friend from when we lived in Colorado. They’ve also been compelled to overlook his bound hands and feet, and not to notice the giant hole in the wall that leads into the hidden room we discovered. Still, the less they’re exposed to the things they shouldn’t see, the better the compulsion works.
As much as I hate to admit it, Oliver might have a point—maybe the layers upon layers of compulsion we’ve put my parents through have damaged more than just their memories. Yet, my father seems unbothered by it all, so I’m not sure why my mom is struggling.
“Strike a nerve, did I?” Oliver taunts, and I’ve noticed that he does this when we ignore him. It’s as though he’s not content if he doesn’t have the upper hand. Even tied up, the boy needs some sort of leverage to hold over us.
As if it weren’t bad enough that he’s the reason I became a vampire in the first place, he also takes every opportunity to remind me of how “wretched” and “disgusting” my kind is.
The only time he’s remotely pleasant to be around is when—
My phone starts to buzz.
“Elaine,” he whispers. His cocky demeanor falls away as he cranes his neck over the table to see the screen.
I slide the device out of his reach and answer the video call, but before I can say a word, Oliver is spouting apologetic excuses over my shoulder, pathetically begging Elaine to talk to him. To forgive him.
She completely ignores him.
“I’m so sorry I’m late, but I’m almost there.” Her ponytail swishes back and forth as she walks, puffs of air escaping her mouth in the cold. “Did I miss much?”
Vira and I exchange a look, and it’s clear we’re both thinking the same thing; we’ve had enough of each other for one afternoon.
“I think we’re actually done practicing for the day,” I admit, regretful that she missed out on the lesson. Since the two of us are both new vampires, we figured it would be best to learn things together so we could help each other along the way. Lucas and Miles have been teaching us to fight using our enhanced abilities, while Danielle educates us on vampiric history and Vira focuses on compulsion. We’ve learned a lot in a short period of time, but compulsion continues to elude me.
Elaine stops walking. “What do you mean? I’m only half an hour late.” Then her expression becomes accusatory. “You couldn’t possibly have mastered compulsion that quickly.”
“The opposite, actually.” I sigh, exiting the room so Oliver can’t hear our conversation, and so he’ll stop trying to speak over me like an insolent and undisciplined child. “While we were waiting for you, Vira suggested I practice on Oliver. It didn’t go well, and my God, Elaine, I don’t know how you were ever friends with him. He’s a raging moron.”
“No. My Oliver was a sweet, kind, funny moron. The man he’s been hiding from me—well, I don’t know that Oliver, and I’d rather keep it that way.” She tips her chin up and squints against the sun. “Has he said anything more about who beat him half to death?”
I shake my head, reaching the base of the stairs and easing down onto a hardwood step. “He still maintains that you’re the only person he’ll talk to.”
Elaine is quiet as she chews her bottom lip, and after a few seconds, an apprehensive look crosses her face. “Do you think I should just talk to him? Aren’t we wasting time if I don’t?”
Despite the Dravens practically forbidding Elaine from seeing Oliver, she wants to see him even less than they want her to. In fact, she outright told them that she wouldn’t. I thought she’d jump at the chance to interrogate him about how he became mixed up with the hunters, but becoming a vampire changed her perception, and with her enhanced emotions, his betrayal cuts even deeper.
“No. I’m sure Elliot will break down and enlist Vanesa’s help soon enough. Besides, Oliver thinks that by not talking, he’s going to force us to put the two of you in a room together. Once he gets what he wants, we lose our leverage.”
Elaine cringes at my mention of Vanesa. After she tried to bite Elaine, kill me, and then left me to die at the hands of a hunter—in the short span of fifteen minutes, I might add—she’s been mostly absent from Draven Manor.
Elliot stayed true to his threat to keep her on a tighter leash, which only makes her hate me more. She’s still convinced I’m the reason her family has all but disowned her instead of taking responsibility for her choices.
Either way, I’m sure she’d love to sink her teeth into Oliver, though I fear she’d murder him out of excitement before we got any real information.
“How’s Dallas?” Elaine changes the subject, making my hatred of Vanesa multiply.
I lower my voice, moving deeper into the kitchen. “Better than I expected, I guess. He’s quiet. Kind of reserved—at least, more so than usual. But his nightmares…”
I shiver. Dallas’s nightmares started when our older brother got high and attacked us. They grew worse when he discovered that vampires exist and I’m one of them; however, none of that compares to how bad they are now, and it’s all Vanesa’s fault for biting him. I’ve never seen anything like it—the way he screams in his sleep and the things he recounts when he finally wakes. I don’t know how to help him, and he refuses to see a doctor. He’s afraid that he’ll become an addict like Derek if their only solution is to put him on medication to help him sleep.
“Have you talked to Miles? Maybe there’s a remedy for nightmares in the armory,” she suggests, lifting a shoulder.
“Maybe, but he has too much to worry about with the coming war. They’re chasing their tails at the Manor right now trying to figure out what to do.”
My stomach twists. Not even Miles knows about the deal Vira and I made with Adrian, the leader of the American clan, and guilt consumes me every time he and his siblings wonder why Adrian hasn’t attacked yet. Why it seems as though he and his men have left our territory altogether.
“I can ask Owen if he has any ideas,” Elaine offers, referring to her vampire ex. The two are strictly friends now, but at least she doesn’t despise him for ignoring her anymore.
“Huh? About what?” I ask, lost in thought.
She blinks curiously, then says slowly, “To… help with Dallas’s nightmares…”
“Oh, yeah. Right.” I force a smile and fight the urge to turn down her help. I could use it, after all. I just feel bad asking her for things when she’s already done so much. More than any friend should ever have to, yet she never complains. “Would you mind?”
“Not at all. Whatever you need, I’m here for you. You should know that by now.”
I give her a tight smile. “I do. And you know that goes both ways, right?”
Elaine looks away, button nose scrunching slightly. “There might actually be something you could do for me.”
She sighs. “If Elliot does request Vanesa’s help in getting Oliver to talk… can you please just make sure she doesn’t snap his neck or anything? I know you hate him for what he did to you, and I’m furious with him, too… but I wouldn’t wish Vanesa Draven on my worst enemy.”
“I’ll do what I can,” I promise, against every instinct telling me to let her tear him apart after everything he’s done to me. But Elaine’s right.
Vanesa is a different breed of inhuman, and I wouldn’t wish her cruelty on the devil himself.
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