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I ran the entire circumference of the boundary surrounding The Oasis. There was no way out. The brand on my upper right arm burned more than ever. It felt like my skin was on fire.
There was no point trying to break through any longer. I wasn’t going to escape. Not now and not like this.
I had to return before someone noticed me up here. I hoped that Marilyn had been too drunk to remember what had happened once she woke from sleep.
I hurried back across the sand toward The Oasis. I was within one mile of it when I spotted something north of the coven’s entrance. A stable, filled with camels. There must’ve been at least fifty of them. I wasn’t sure why they were there, because Jeramiah and his people seemed to have no shortage of human blood in their cellars. I couldn’t imagine why they needed camel blood too. Tearing my eyes away from the stable, I raced back toward the trapdoor leading down toward the atrium.
Before descending the staircase, I poked my head down through the hole in the ground as far as I could and looked around, listening for any sign of someone having woken up nearby. I could hear heavy breathing, and the occasional snore. As far as I could tell, everyone was in bed. I climbed down the stairs and closed the trapdoor above me as quietly as I could.
Almost as soon as my feet touched the floor, the burning in my arm stopped. I thought I might have been hallucinating at first. Then I wondered whether the hot air outside had aggravated it. It was bizarre. I could still feel it prickling slightly, but the pain was nowhere near as agonizing as before.
I lowered the sheet filled with sacks of blood that I had flung over my shoulder, and proceeded to take off layer after layer of shirts I had piled on. I didn’t want to be caught looking like I had just tried to escape.
I stopped peeling off the layers as I reached the last one. Bunching up the clothing under my left arm, I picked up the bundle of blood and tucked that under my right arm. Although I looked less suspicious without so many shirts, if I bumped into a vampire they would smell the blood. I had to move quickly before anyone started waking up.
I took the elevator down to my level and sprinted along the winding veranda toward my apartment door. It was wide open. I stepped inside and locked the door. Heading straight to my bedroom, I expected the worst—that Marilyn was still in here. But she wasn’t. I searched the rest of the apartment just to be sure. She had gone. Perhaps she had returned to Jeramiah, or taken up my suggestion to find some other apartment to sleep in.
Heading for my bathroom, I removed the two pairs of pants I had layered on, then removed my shirt. I stared at myself in the mirror. My breath hitched at the sight of the tattoo. Previously pitch black, now it was tinged red. The skin around it was glowing, like an ember dying down after a fire. This was no ordinary tattoo. It clearly had some kind of magical power. Perhaps one of the witches residing here had etched it into me…
I grabbed a towel from the railing and wet it with cold water, then dabbed it over the tattoo. I held it there for about ten minutes before letting it go. The prickling was practically nonexistent by now, and the glowing of the tattoo seemed to have died down.
Then I stepped into the shower and turned on the cold water, calming the rest of my body after being exposed to the sweltering heat outside. Once I had finished showering, I dried myself, pulled on a clean pair of pants and another shirt, then returned to my bedroom. I walked to the bed and sat down on the edge of it.
I rested my head in my hands, closing my eyes and trying to plan my next step.
I had to escape. That much hadn’t changed.
Jeramiah had told me about the boundary—and warned me not to go near it. He’d told me the story of the vampire who used to live in this very apartment, who had gotten drunk and ventured outside, only to be killed by the hunters who patrolled this area closely.
I had assumed that I would have the freedom to step outside, just as that vampire had, however dangerous it was. I could only guess that the witches had set up this barrier spell and hadn’t yet granted me permission to come in and out as I pleased.
My first step became clear to me. I had to gain these people’s trust, by whatever means necessary.
And that meant only one thing: I had to seek out Jeramiah. He was the clear leader of this place. If I gained his trust, everything else would follow.
I stood up and paced around the room. Now that I knew Jeramiah was the bastard child of my uncle, conceived before Lucas turned into a vampire, just the thought of looking him in the eye felt so awkward. Although I guessed that he didn’t know I was Derek Novak’s son, and indeed believed that my name was Joseph Brunson, there was no way I could be completely sure.
Still, it wasn’t like I had any other choice.
I picked up the sheet wrapped with blood sacks from the floor and took it into the kitchen. Rolling it out on the table, I picked up the sacks and replaced them in the fridge—except for one, which I poured into a glass and drank. I needed some blood in my system for what was ahead of me.
Then I left my apartment. As I looked around my level, people were beginning to wake up and step out of their apartments. There was still no sign of Marilyn.
“Joseph,” a male voice called behind me.
I turned around to find myself face to face with one of the vampires from the crowd the night before, when Jeramiah had introduced me to everybody. He had short hair and a nose that was disproportionately large.
“Good morning… Or good day, whatever time it is,” he said, grinning. “I’m Lloyd.”