• The first thing I can remember is the way the ground felt under my cheek. It was damp and things were poking me. Grass, I thought. But what was I doing lying on the grass? I opened my eyes and at first, I wasn't sure if I was seeing correctly. I couldn't see anything. I tried to move my arms and legs and found they were in proper working order. So, I pushed myself onto my hands and knees and felt a swimming sensation in my head. I thought it was just dizziness, your garden variety of dizziness after standing up too fast. But it persisted and I knew that wasn't normal. I looked down at myself and only a faint outline of my body presented itself from out of the darkness. 'What the hell?' I thought. Why was I out here in the middle of the night? Where was here, anyway?

    I scrambled for something from my memories to align with my current experience, but nothing came to the forefront of my mind. There was nothing to recall, no sensations, thoughts, words or images came when I tried to think of them. Clearly, I had been drugged or something. There was no reason I should be out in the middle of where I presumed was nowhere, judging from the pure darkness. That kind of intense darkness doesn't happen in the city, I thought. That would mean I was out in the country somewhere. How had I gotten here? A thought briefly crossed my mind that perhaps I had been brought out here. I checked for my hunting knife in a sheath on my lower leg. Nothing was there, but then again, I didn't have on the sheath, either. I checked my pockets for a pocket knife, but found them completely empty. Not even my wallet. Had I been robbed? If so, why did the burglars take me out here? And how the hell had they disarmed me, a son of the vampire king of Longview? It didn't make sense.

    Another thought followed the first one. Sher Khan, my pet tiger, or so I would call him, but he was really more like a brother or companion. What had happened to him? If someone had gotten to me, I was sure they would have had to go through him first. It would follow that if I was out here, whoever had been responsible for this would have brought him here, if only to keep everything in order. Answers. I needed to get answers to all the questions I had. So, I had to find out just where I was in order to learn how I had gotten out here. I tested my legs to see if I could walk on them. I could, just fine. I took a few steps and slammed right into something hard and still. I bounced off of the obstacle and reached out to feel for it. I caught it and my fingertips ran over something rough and uneven. My hands searched around it and I realized the gradient surface was a tree trunk. The forest, I was in the forest. Where around Longview were there any trees in groups thick enough to call a forest? There weren't any places like that. Longview, Texas was on a plateau, and it was all plains and grasslands for a fifty mile radius. I wasn't anywhere near home, I thought. I was alone, in the dark, and I had no idea where I was.

    I'd like to say that I let the fear come and faced it down calmly and rationally in order to think of a way out of my situation. I'd also like to say that I was completely collected while I figured out just how deep I was in. But that wouldn't be the truth. I lost it, in a way so fundamental I can't describe what it did to me. If you've never been able to get to the light switch in the dark when you don't know if something is with you, then you know a taste of what I felt. If you've ever seen something in the pale light of the moon that looked like something or someone evil who wanted to do you harm, and it made your skin turn to goosebumps and froze you in place, then you know it. I turned my head around in a panic, searching for any light or sign of people, but I couldn't see anything. I couldn't even tell if my blindness was external or internal, because I didn't have a reference point on my own body. I felt the tension seize me up and out of pure, irrational, primal fear, I lurched against that tree trunk and my stomach emptied itself. The splatter I heard was nondescript so I didn't even know if I had anything in my stomach to throw up.

    I was going to die out here, alone, and I hadn't even had a chance to say goodbye to my family, my friends, the men and women who had fought every step of the way for me. I was going to die without being able to do a single thing for Sher Khan. Despair took over and I leaned my shoulder on the tree while I hunched over and I felt slow tears form in my eyes and fall, two at a time, every fifteen seconds or so. I silently wept. I had no hope of helping Sher Khan, I had no hope of seeing my father ever again. I slid down, away from my puke, and leaned on the tree while I cried. I buried my face in my hands and sat there for a long time.

    I don't know how much time passed that way. Just that it was the most miserable time in all my life. I'd never known sadness like that, even when my birth mother had died while I was young. My depression didn't so much recede as it begun to be won out by hope. I suppose it is human nature to hope, but I'm only half human. I guess it was the right half. I had hope as long as I still had strength to move, to breathe. As long as I could walk, I could find my way out of this mess and fix everything. I wiped my face and dried my palms on my pants. I was wearing jeans, I noticed, and my shirt felt like one of my work shirts, the button up ones. The weight on my feet was my heavy work boots, I was sure. That wasn't a casual outfit, I rationed. I had been ready to do some heavy labor. The only thing around the compound that was remotely labor-related was building a house for one of the new vampire families. I had been taken right around the time work was beginning, and that had been at 9 that morning. So, I had been out from mid-morning until at least nightfall. The only drug that I knew of that would incapacitate a vampire was made from distilled human blood, and it had been made as an anesthesia for vampire surgeries since human-strength was too weak.

    So, whoever had knocked me out might have had help from the vampire pharmacy on the base. That would be my first stop when I got back. If I got back. I stood and closed my eyes, trusting in my subconscious to guide me. Even if I had been knocked out while on the way out here, my subconscious might have retained its sense of direction. I turned slowly until I faced one specific direction I felt a pull to. I opened my eyes and started to walk, my left leg bumping a fallen log on the ground. I knelt to try and see the darn thing and in the faint I saw broken twigs on the ground. I hadn't broken those just now, or I'd have heard the snapping. I was on the right track; whoever had brought me out here had snapped those twigs from the log I had bumped. I stood again and swung my leg around the stump to step around it and visualized a compass in my head and pointed it in that direction. So long as I could keep that sense of direction, I could find my way to where my captors had entered the forest.

    I walked in a crouch, keeping an eye on the ground and my compass firmly in my mind. In the darkness, I saw the imprint the size of a human foot off to one side and I moved toward it, and aligned the compass accordingly. As I moved toward it, more prints began to appear, in several pairs, in the distance. Apparently, whoever had carried me out had done the last leg of it alone. They continued more or less in the direction of north of my mental compass and I traveled along for a while, keeping the compass lined up and following the tracks. I finally came to a more cleared out area where tire treads marked up the soft, wet soil. The smell of rain that I hadn't even noticed until now was fainter here, instead of it I smelled the lingering scent of motor exhaust, it smelled heavy and thick. Perhaps it had been a four wheel drive vehicle, like a truck or an SUV to put out such strong exhaust. I sniffed around while keeping my feet in place and my compass up. I smelled it the strongest to my right and I stood for a second, my mind working out how to keep the compass directed and still follow the trail. Once I felt I had a handle on keeping the two senses of direction separated, I took the first step to the right and up a slight incline for a solid sixty seconds. Then, the incline straightened out to a flatter path, marked with shallower tire treads in two lines. The exhaust smell followed to the right and I set out along the dirt road.

    I followed it for a long time. Perhaps hours or maybe just a few moments, but it felt like a very long time. Eventually, stumbled out into the moonlight that the forest had hidden and I found myself at the road. My heart rose to find that first milestone, so to speak. I had made the first leg of the journey and I was that much closer to finding my captors and Sher Khan. But now I had a new problem. The exhaust smell was lost within a myriad of other similar but subtly distinct smells. I closed my eyes and forced panic away. I had not made it out of the forest only to lose it now. I tried to clear away as much from my conscious mind as I could and let my subconscious take over. I let it turn me to one side, my left this time, and I opened my eyes. I had a 50-50 chance of being right, here, and if I was wrong, it might mean the end for my pet tiger. The only thing worse than being wrong, though, would be to be too afraid to do anything at all.

    I set out, jogging at first, but the air and the moonlight and the clear path of the road brought the energy of hope and I was soon full-out running. It didn't take long to reach city limits sign and the sign named the town Mesa and declared it's meager population of forty-two hundred residents. The roads were empty, but I did manage to find a payphone and make a collect call to the compound. Lawrence, the butler answered.

    "Lawrence, it's me, Archie," I said rapidly.

    "Master Long, thank the Lord. It's good to hear your voice," Lawrence replied, heaving a sigh of relief.

    "Lawrence, you need to know, I have no recollection of the last twelve or so hours," I told him, holding back on my anxiety. "I'm outside a convenience store in a town named Mesa on a payphone. I don't know what happened to Sher Khan or my Dad."

    "Your father is here, or rather, he was. He is leading the search party for you and Sher Khan. He discovered you were gone two hours ago and recruited every man he could get to find you. In the meantime, he left me in charge here. I shall call him straight away to tell him where you are. Mesa is only thirty minutes from here. I shall drive personally to come get you," he said dutifully.

    "What about Sher Khan?"

    "I'm afraid we have no leads there, Master Long."

    "What do we know?" I asked in frustration.

    "The infiltration was nearly seamless. There hasn't been much to go on."

    "Infiltration? This was an inside job? Someone who lives and works in my house is in on this?!"

    "It would seem so, young master. They must have been professionals to drug you both. I suspect it was in the blood wine, because several other members of the household were affected. As for the way they delivered it to Sher Khan's system, I have not yet determined. What we do know is they did not make a clean escape and witnesses on the base described a dark van leaving the compound at approximately 9:15 am."

    "That would have been more than enough time to secure me and get out of the compound. What else is there, Lawrence?"

    "Not much, Master Long, I'm afraid. The only other helpful information I have gathered is that this may have been the work of the Black Claw cult."

    "The Black Claw cult?" I repeated. "I was kidnapped by vampire groupies?!"

    "Master Long, while an accurate description, that might not be the entire scenario."

    I shook my head at the phone. "I think I get it. They're big believers in vampires as a higher power, and they think of us as the wisest, so perhaps they needed royal blood for some kind of ritual or ceremony. But if so, why did they dump me in the middle of nowhere?"

    "I cannot answer that, Master Long, but judging from your tone, I believe you think you can."

    "I'll have to. Solving this puzzle is the only way I'll ever see Sher Khan alive again."

    To be continued...