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The Craving (Chapter 1)

I picked out a heartbeat, a single life, in the near distance.

The other noises of the city faded into the background as this one called to me. She had wandered away from her friends and left the well-worn paths.

The sun had just set over Central Park, where I'd exiled myself since arriving in New York City fourteen long days ago. The colors in this expanse of wilderness were softening, sliding toward one another, shadows blurring with the things that made them. The oranges and deep blues of the sky morphed into an inky black, while the muddy ground dimmed to a velvety sienna.

Around me, most of the world was still, paused in the breath that comes at the end of day when the guards change: Humans and their daylight companions lock their doors and creatures of the night like myself come out to hunt.

With the ring Katherine gave me I can walk in the daylight like any normal, living human. But as it's been since the beginning of time, it's easier for vampires to hunt during the uncertain hours when day slowly becomes night. Dusk confuses those who aren't equipped with the eyes and ears of a nocturnal predator.

The heartbeat I now pursued began to sound quieter . . . its owner was getting away. Desperate, I took off, forcing my body to move quickly, my feet to push off from the ground. I was weak from lack of feeding, and it was affecting my ability to hunt. Added to that, these woods weren't familiar to me. The plants and vines were as alien as the people on the cobbled streets a quarter mile away.

But a hunter transplanted is still a hunter. I leaped over a twiggy, stunted bush and avoided an icy stream, devoid of the lazy catfish I used to watch as a child, until my foot slipped on mossy stone and I crashed through the underbrush, my chase growing far louder than I intended.

The bearer of the heart I followed heard and knew her death was close. Now that she was alone and aware of her plight, she began to run in earnest.

What a spectacle I must have made: dark hair askew, skin as pale as a corpse, eyes starting to redden as the vampire in me came out. Running and leaping through the woods like a wild man, dressed in the finery Lexi, my friend in New Orleans, had given me, the white silk shirt now torn at the sleeves.

She picked up speed. But I wasn't going to lose her.

My need for blood became an ache so strong that I couldn't contain myself any longer. A sweet pain bloomed along my jaw and my fangs came out. The blood in my face grew hot as I underwent the change. My senses expanded as my Power took over, sapping my last bit of vampiric strength.

I leaped, moving at a speed beyond human and animal. With that instinct all living creatures have, the poor thing felt death closing in and began to panic, scrambling for safety under the trees. Her heart pounded out of control: thump thump thump thump thump thump.

The tiny human part of me might have regretted what I was about to do, but the vampire in me needed the blood.

With a final jump, I caught my prey – a large, greedy squirrel who'd left her pack to scavenge for extra food. Time slowed as I descended, ripped her neck aside, and sank my teeth into her flesh, draining her life into me one drop at a time.

I'd eaten squirrels as a human, which lessened my guilt marginally. Back home in Mystic Falls, my brother and I would hunt in the tangled woods that surrounded our estate. Though squirrels were poor eating for most of the year, they were fat and tasted like nuts in the fall. Squirrel blood, however, was no such feast; it was rank and unpleasant. It was nourishment, nothing more – and barely that. I forced myself to keep drinking. It was a tease, a reminder of the intoxicating liquid that runs in a human's veins.

But from the moment Damon ended Callie's life, I had sworn off humans forever. I would never kill, never feed from, and never love another human. I could only bring them pain and death, even if I didn't mean to. That's what life as a vampire meant. That's what life with this new, vengeful Damon as my brother meant.

An owl hooted in the elm that towered over my head. A chipmunk skittered past my feet. My shoulders slumped as I laid the poor squirrel down on the ground. So little blood remained in its body that the wound didn't leak, the animal's legs already growing stiff with rigor mortis. I wiped the traces of blood and fur from my face and headed deeper into the park, alone with my thoughts while a city of nearly a million people buzzed around me.

Since I'd sneaked off the train two weeks earlier, I'd been sleeping in the middle of the park in what was essentially a cave. I'd taken to marking a concrete slab with the passing of each day. Otherwise moments blended together, meaningless, and empty. Next to the cave was a fenced-in area where construction men had gathered the "useful" remains of a village they had razed to make Central Park, as well as the architectural bric-a-brac they intended to install – carved fountains, baseless statues, lintels, thresholds, and even gravestones.

I pushed past a barren branch – November's chill had robbed nearly every tree of its leaves – and sniffed the air. It would rain soon. I knew that both from living in plantation country and from the monster senses that constantly gave me a thousand different pieces of information about the world around me.

And then the breeze changed direction, and brought with it the teasing, cloying scent of rust. There it was again. A painful, metallic tang.

The smell of blood. Human blood.

I stepped into the clearing, my breath coming rapidly. The thick stench of iron was everywhere, filling the hollow with an almost palpable fog. I scanned the area.

There was the cave where I spent my tortured nights, tossing and turning and waiting for dawn. Just outside it was a jumble of beams and doors stolen from knocked-down houses and desecrated graves. Farther in the distance there were the glowing white statues and fountains installed around the park.

And then I saw it. At the base of a statue of a regal prince was the body of a young woman, her white ball gown slowly turning a bloody red.

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