Jasper dreamt of crimson liquid flowing down his throat, of pinning a struggling, screaming body down and drinking his fill.
As the human's dying moan filled his ears, Jasper's eyes snapped open. It wasn't real, he realized. Just a dream. (But the taste still lingered on his tongue.) When he blinked, the throat he'd ravaged splayed across the back of his eyelids. An invitation. A warning.
He stirred, adjusting his grip. It was too early to move, the sun still descending. His rust-colored eyes shone in the dim light of the cavern, catching on the countless tiny furry bodies dangling from the eaves.
It was too early to hunt but too late to drift off, however tempting that was. Jasper cursed, hating how much he wanted to resume the dream. He wished for oblivion, but his slumber was never peaceful, filled with nothing but red. Lurid red, dripping from lifeless fingers, trickling down the ruined curves of throats.
He licked his lips. Soon, he would drink, and even though it wouldn't be from the source he craved, it would be enough. It had to be.
Then, a flutter in the corner of his eye. He glanced outside.
There was a butterfly just ahead, a beautiful, shiny, little thing. It practically glowed under the moonlight as it danced through the air just outside of the cave.
It was courting death.
Every night, thousands like it would be swallowed without a thought by bats winging from numerous other caverns. It was safe from the denizens of this one, by sheer dumb luck.
Jasper watched as it dipped and looped in a neat circle.
He narrowed his eyes.
Or maybe not.
He was going crazy, he decided, as the others stirred around him. See where this desperate scheme had gotten him, staring at insects and thinking them impossibly sentient.
hellohellohello, Big Brown squeaked on his right. time to go!
Jasper stretched, ignoring him.
I could drain you, he thought idly, watching the chocolate-colored bat squawk in excitement. I could drain all of you in one night and be unsatisfied. Though their brains were too small to comprehend the truth of what he was, the rest of the colony sensed enough to avoid him instinctively. He lived among them but not as one of them.
That was enough for Jasper. He wasn't here to befriend bats. No, he wasn't crazy enough for that yet.
But he was starting to think he was a fool, Jasper thought grimly, flying into the night. One more bat among many. A fool to believe he could ever be sated like them.
He blinked, and again the pale throat floated across his vision. Blink. Red. Blink.
In the wake of such temptation, the curious insect was forgotten.
Jasper began the night in the middle of the pack, as usual. A wide space around him, as usual. Big Brown, incessantly cheerful and endlessly irritating, had tried to wing next to him, but a quick bite had resolved that.
Jasper exhaled, whiskers twitching. If only he could fix every problem as easily.
Last night, the colony had discovered a herd of deer. The blood was musky, unaccountably horrid, but filling. The only benefit to his current form, Jasper had come to realize, was that he required much less to be satisfied. If he had to undergo this process as a man, he would have given up already.
Still, it was not easy. This was the longest period he'd ever remained in his other form. It felt unnatural. The constraints of his tiny body chafed at him. He hated the cave, of being truly nocturnal. Even worse, he hated the instincts that came with his form; he loathed the part of him that longed to be accepted by the colony, that tasted what was clearly inferior blood yet felt content. It was the same part of him that wanted to groom Big Brown instead of bite him.
Jasper raged silently, his tiny muzzle snarling. Is this the only alternative to being a monster? A weak creature siphoning trickles of blood, one among hundreds, tiny and insignificant when I should be an apex predator, claiming what is mine because I am strong enough to take it!
Lost in thought, he descended amidst the colony absentmindedly. Soft chirps echoed through the air around him as they narrowed in on their prey for the night.
Jasper scowled, recalling the sour taste that had coated his tongue the night before. If it was deer again, he'd rip its throat open, he decided. He would not be reduced to lapping delicately for hours when he could drink.
Below, a paddock filled with white and black shapes lay waiting. Jasper eyed the cows unenthusiastically. Perhaps it would be richer, he thought dully. The milk might make a difference.
To the left of the fenced-in area, a square of light abruptly winked out of existence.
Jasper stilled in midair, hovering as the rest dove down. That was a window, he realized. These cows were tended by someone who slept nearby.
He cast around, his calls bouncing off of nearby structures until he identified buildings.
Real blood was waiting for him. He could be truly sated for the first time in days since he'd embarked on this idea.
Days of drinking from animals proved that I was not meant to consume such filth, he thought. I am what I am. He felt a pang of guilt that was quickly overshadowed by the lure of sweet blood.
Jasper glanced at the paddock derisively, where the slumbering cows were crawling with living patchwork coats of various shades of brown and black. Fools, he thought—content to feast on such slop when ichor waited mere feet away.
He turned away, flying silently towards the window where the light had shone.
Jasper flapped his wings, gliding through the air like a silent spectre of death. He bared his fangs in anticipation, so eager that when the little butterfly flew into the edge of his vision, he didn't even notice.
Jasper stepped out of the house, now little more than a tomb, flexing his fingers again and again. A nervous habit. He watched them move, thinking distantly that they fluttered almost like wings.
If he had been a bat, the farmer and his wife would still be alive, Jasper knew. But when he'd flown to the window, it had been locked, and he had been so thirsty. Too impatient to try to think of some other way to gain entry.
Jasper had perched on the ledge, tiny claws scrabbling ineffectually to prise the window open. As he worked, he'd eyed the still forms on the bed within.
He ran his tongue over his fangs, remembering how they'd ached in anticipation.
As he'd pried at the sturdy wood, breathing fast, a hand had stretched out of the blanket and dangled off the edge of the mattress. An invitation. Jasper had watched, entranced, as delicate veins pulsed just under the skin. Swallowed hard. (His tiny throat convulsing with the force of it). He'd tugged at the frame again, weakly, already feeling his form expanding, claws becoming fingers, fangs enlarging, without consciously making the decision to change.
He'd ripped the window open with too much force, shattering the glass.
The humans hadn't had enough time to stir. He'd vaulted into the room and crossed it in one smooth motion to sink his fangs into the proffered wrist, too hungry to uncover the throat.
Then it was just a blur of blood and drinking. A brief surge of human panic. A shout. Jasper exerting his influence without pausing, projecting false calm. The taste was a revelation. It was like coming home, the sweetness kissing his tongue like a lover. He'd drank until his head spun, until it spilled from his lips and down his chin.
Now, outside the house, Jasper examined his hands. He held them out and watched them tremble. I feel good, he tried to tell himself. He did feel strong, at least, more than he had in the weeks prior.
There was blood caked under his nails. He lifted his hand halfway to his mouth, then abruptly felt sick.
He'd drained them all, the farmer, the woman beside him. (A wife? A lover?) Thank God there hadn't been children, he thought. The bats instinctively preferred adult creatures, avoiding younger spawn on instinct or maybe just out of practicality; small bodies hold less blood than large ones. As a bat, Jasper did the same. Before, even as a vampire, he'd never fed from a child.
"In times of crisis, always allow women and children to exit first. Always, son. Protect them with your life. It is a matter of honor." A hand descending on his shoulder, gripping tight until he'd nodded.
But just now? Jasper had been so thirsty. All he could remember was the taste: like honey, like ambrosia. So sweet it bit his throat. Everything else was a blur.
Had there been children? He clutched his head, shaking. He'd been so deep into the bloodlust—was the last body a dog or a child oh Hell
Jasper doubled over, his head whirling. Phantom pain hammered his brain, the echoes of the farmer's desperation. He tried to tell himself he was sorry, that he felt guilty. He tried to convince himself that he was nauseous, that he would throw up. But nothing came. After a while, he straightened.
In the corner of his eye flashed silver. There, by his foot, a jagged piece of glass. It must have fallen from the window. He looked at his reflection, illuminated by the light of the moon. He looked flushed, the result of his body merrily circulating his feast. His eyes were startlingly red. A trick of the light, Jasper thought. He touched a hand to his cheek.
It was cold.
In the pasture, the colony was still feasting. Jasper staggered across the grass until he walked no more. Until he was just one more bat among the colony. If he kept his eyes shut.
On the flight back, Big Brown chirped cheerfully.
yumyumyumyum, he sang into the night.
A chorus arose from the others.
They sang their satisfaction, the simple pleasure of a good night's feast, into the welcoming dark of the cavern.
Jasper looked ahead to where the first of the colony was flitting eagerly in and saw a gaping maw, waiting to devour him like he'd devoured so many. God help me, he thought, despite everything. Despite knowing that there was no such thing. I would do it all again.
I feel so good. I feel alive.
Then he thought of the little farmhouse, empty now (of all that mattered). It made him want to tuck his wings and drop hundreds of feet onto the earth. It made him feel wild, torn apart by uncaring satisfaction and horrible sorrow.
I feel good, he thought, now feeling anything but. He closed his eyes. Wiped away his guilt.
When he opened his crimson eyes, Jasper smiled.
The cavern is just a cavern, after all, he thought dully, and I am the king of bats.
I am powerful, I am a Power, and I am satisfied. And he was.
Jasper dreamt of a pale wrist. His lips on thin skin, a gentleman's kiss. Something he remembered doing before. His dreams were never this kind.
He waited for the real thing to begin, for his fangs to descend. For his usual savagery, for rust to fill his vision.
Instead, the wrist moved, and a hand caressed his face. Slim fingers touched his mouth, smoothed the furrow between his brows.
And Jasper knew peace.
ahead ahead ahead
It was deer again the next night, deep in the forest—no farmhouse filled with humans nearby. It filled him with a mixture of relief and rage.
Jasper watched dispassionately as the bats flew down and latched on gently, one after the next. For the first time since he'd begun this last-ditch attempt to preserve a scrap of his humanity, he considered leaving the colony and finding a town to hunt in. He'd already failed anyway. Why struggle on so pitifully? If he was going to be a monster, he might as well make it easier on himself.
His throat burned. With thirst, Jasper tried to tell himself. Not with shame.
He cast one last glance downwards and paused. Below, a white speck fluttered, descending to the sleeping herd.
As if sensing his gaze, it looped a perfect circle. Jasper frowned, wavering. Obligingly, it flitted in another circle.
He drifted downwards without really making the decision to do so.
As soon as he moved, the butterfly dove down. He watched in disbelief as it landed neatly on the largest of the deer, which was covered in little lapping bodies.
Why would an insect seemingly choose to fly towards bats?
He pictured powdery white wings becoming splattered with blood.
Why would prey willingly go to its doom?
A woman stumbled down the road to him, smiling drunkenly. "Hey, handsome," she slurred, reaching up to touch his golden hair. "Shiny," she murmured. She'd died smiling.
Jasper shuddered. Fool, he thought. Idiot humans exist, so why not idiot insects? Regardless of how pretty it was.
Abruptly, he felt sick. The burn in his throat intensified.
He'd had enough of this. The air reeked of musk and iron, so thick it coated his tongue. He needed to get away, but he couldn't resist another glance downwards.
The butterfly had moved down the body to the belly. It was so still, wings stiff, that Jasper wondered if it had somehow died of fright.
He flew closer.
He didn't understand his sudden interest in a bug, but he would satisfy his curiosity and leave, he decided. Let this be the end to his stupid experiment.
The butterfly was not dead.
Jasper landed softly beside it, claws digging slightly into the underbelly of the deer, and stared. The delicate little thing was feeding, its proboscis extended beneath the pelt. It trembled minutely. From far above, Jasper had overlooked everything.
He watched it, swallowing slowly. He smelled blood beneath his claws. Surprised, Jasper loosened his grip on the deer but remained crouching. Watching this peculiar little thing, who was no prey at all.
Around them, the colony fed quietly, exuding contentment and satisfaction, feelings Jasper had grown used to absorbing at night. Bats were simple creatures. Their emotional range was small. They felt pain and distress and fear, but Jasper had never tasted happiness from a bat. Tonight, it was present.
But not, Jasper realized, from the mind of a bat.
Gradually, he became aware of the impossible truth.
The butterfly was incandescently happy. Pure happiness, something he'd never felt before, not even from a human.
Jasper swayed, closing his eyes, bathing in the simple joy of an insect. He felt almost drunk. Weightless, unburdened by guilt or self-hatred for one golden moment. He felt calm.
When he opened his eyes, a person was kneeling by the side of the deer. Her hair flared upwards in gentle curls. She wore a voluminous dress that gathered behind her shoulders and spilled downwards in two swathes.
"I've been waiting for you," she said. The girl broke into a toothy smile. "I'm Alice."
He glanced down quickly. The butterfly was gone, but the intense feeling of happiness remained.
Jasper shook off his confusion and focused. "Hello," he tried to say, producing a squeak instead.
The girl laughed. Beside her, the deer stirred.
Jasper closed his eyes. When he opened them, he was a man again, kneeling across from her, the deer between them.
"Hello, miss," he said, voice rusty from disuse. "I'm Jasper Whitlock, at your service."
"I know," Alice said simply. She watched him with unreadable eyes, but Jasper didn't have to depend on her face. He filtered her emotions and felt such a potent mixture of happiness and hope that he dipped his head to hide his confusion.
When he lifted his chin again, he stilled briefly, shock flitting across his features. Too consumed by everything else about her, he hadn't noticed that Alice's eyes were a soft yellow, too vibrant to be human but like no vampire he'd ever seen before. (But hadn't his eyes faded from their ruby redness over the weeks, up until last night?)
"Pardon me for my intolerable rudeness," Jasper said hoarsely, "but, are you..." He took in the way two tendrils of her hair stuck upright and the way her dress fell. "Are you—were you the butterfly, miss?"
Alice looked briefly startled, her eyebrows shooting upright. Jasper had the sudden thought that she was someone who was rarely surprised.
"That's the first time anyone has ever thought me a butterfly! How lovely," she said, recovering. "I am only a moth, I'm afraid. But I am the little white insect you are thinking of. I hope that's not disappointing."
Jasper felt a foreign twinge inside him, where emotions he absorbed collected. She was nervous, he realized. About his opinion?
"I should have known," he said quietly. "It makes sense that you are a creature of the night, more beautiful than any butterfly. Lovelier by far than the rest of us, stuck as bats. I never knew that there were other forms."
Alice flushed, her pale cheeks suddenly rosy. "My sire is the same."
"My power is unusual," she admitted. "It's powerful. My other form is a compromise, I think. To maintain balance."
"Is that how you knew who I am?" Jasper glanced around. The first of the colony had finished their feeding and were taking to the air. "And where to find me?"
Alice nodded. "Yes."
She was so happy, Jasper thought as he watched her. So full of hope. So much emotion contained in such a tiny body.
"Why are you so happy, miss?"
Alice blinked. "Because I'm finally here," she said, as if it was obvious, "with you."
Jasper stilled. The remnants of his meal from the night before rushed to his cheeks, painting them red.
"I know what you're trying to do," she continued. "I know it's nearly impossible alone. That's why I'm here."
"You did it, though," Jasper said suddenly, realizing. "Your eyes..."
"Only because I knew it would lead me to you," Alice said. She bit her lip, exuding distress for a brief moment. "It was awful. No one deserves to go through it alone." She shook her head. More bats rose into the air, the draft swirling her dress, sending its ends dancing along the forest floor. She turned to watch them go.
"I'm sorry," Jasper said. "I wish I could have been there." It surprised him how much he meant it. ("Protect them with your life.") He hadn't cared about honor in a long time, not since the War and everything else that came after it. Honor was a noble sentiment, but it was quickly buried by mud and carnage. He'd been submerged in filth for a long time, Jasper realized, even after he'd left the battlefields and Maria behind. It'd left his body but caked his mind.
"You were," Alice said softly, "All along. You were the first thing I Saw." The edge of a wing brushed her cheek. She didn't even blink. "I Saw this moment the day after I was turned. The future we share made me strong enough to succeed alone. Will you come with me?"
Jasper looked at her. She was ethereal in the dark, looking for all the world like a fairy among the woods. She was the loveliest person he'd ever seen. For a brief moment, he thought of his eyes and his equally bloody past and faltered. But the hope she exuded, the intensity of her feelings (for him!) crowded out any hesitance he had.
"If you'll have me, miss," Jasper said, knowing that there was never any other answer.
Alice looked faintly pleased. She extended a hand. He took it, pressed a kiss to her delicate wrist.
"Please call me Alice," she said, running a hand through his tangled hair gently. It was snarled and knotted, but he felt no pain.
"Alice," Jasper said, pressing another kiss to the back of her hand. Alice exuded yet another emotion, something somehow more powerful than the already overflowing happiness she exuded. Something distantly familiar.
As Jasper puzzled over it, Alice pressed her other hand to his cheek, thumbed his mouth. "I love you," she said.
"Oh," Jasper breathed, understanding.
As she pressed her lips to his, all the emotion he held within himself coalesced into a feeling he hadn't felt since he'd been turned. Since even before that.