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Bryan Lankford tried to shout at his father—to tell him how sorry he would be later, when he remembered that though his third son was, indeed, his most troublesome, he was also his most talented, intelligent, and interesting—but another coughing fit gripped the seventeen-year-old so thoroughly that he could only gasp helplessly and watch his father’s horse gallop off. He couldn’t even fight as he wished he could when the Earl’s guard bound him, then dragged him through the dirt of the stables.

“It’s about time a little crowing c**k like you was brought low. Let’s see how you like being common.” Laughing sarcastically, Jeremy, the oldest and most pompous of Bryan’s father’s guards, tossed him into the back of a poultry cart, before bending to pick up Bryan’s sword and, with a calculating look at its glittering hilt, shove it through his own waistcloth.

By the time Bryan reached the port it was dark, both in the world around him and within his heart. Not only had his father disowned him and cast him from his family and out of England, but it was becoming more and more clear that he was in the grip of some horrible plague. How soon would it kill him? Before he was free of this stinking dock, or would he die after being dragged onto one of the merchant ships that bobbed in the black water of the bay?

“I’ll no be taking a coughing chit like this aboard.” The ship’s captain held his torch higher, examining the bound and coughing boy. “No.” He scowled and shook his head. “He’ll no be crossin’ the waters wit’ me.”

“This is the Earl of Lankford’s son. You’ll take him or answer to His Lordship about why not,” growled the Earl’s senior guard.

“I don’t see no earl here. I see a shit-spattered boy who’s got the ague.” The seaman spit in the sand. “And I won’t be answering to anyone, ’specially no nonexistent earl, if I be dead from this brat’s sickness.”

Bryan tried to stifle his coughing—not to reassure the captain, but to rest the burning within his chest. He was holding his breath when the man stepped from the shadows, tall, lean, and dressed all in black, his pale skin in stark contrast to the darkness that seemed to surround him. Bryan blinked, wondering if his feverish gaze was deceiving him—was that truly a crescent moon tattooed in the middle of his forehead surrounded by more tattooing? His vision was blurry, but Bryan was almost certain the tattoos looked like crossed rapiers. Then reason caught up with vision and Bryan felt a jolt of recognition. A crescent moon and the surrounding tattoo could mean only one thing: the man was no man at all—he was a vampyre!

It was then that the creature lifted his hand, palm facing outward directly at Bryan. The boy stared in wonder at the spiral that decorated that palm, and the vampyre spoke words that would forever alter his life.

“Bryan Lankford! Night has chosen thee; thy death will be thy birth. Night calls to thee; hearken to Her sweet voice. Your destiny awaits you at the House of Night!”

The creature’s long finger pointed at Bryan and his forehead exploded in pain as he felt the tattooed outline of a crescent moon blaze brand-like into his skin.

His father’s men reacted instantly. They dropped Bryan and moved away from him, staring in open horror back and forth between the boy and the vampyre. He noticed the ship’s captain had left his torch to sputter in the sand and disappeared into the darkness of the pier.

Bryan didn’t see or hear the vampyre approach—he only saw the guards moving nervously, grouping behind Jeremy, swords half drawn, indecision clear on their faces and in their actions. Vampyre warriors had awe-inspiring reputations. Their mercenary services were much sought after, but except for the beauty and strength of their women, and the fact that they worshiped a dark goddess, little was known by most humans of their society and inner workings. Bryan watched Jeremy try to decide whether this creature, who was obviously what they called a Tracker, was also a dangerous vampyre Warrior. Then he felt an impossibly strong grip on his arm, and Bryan was lifted to his feet to stare up at the creature.

“Return to whence you came. This boy is now a Marked fledgling, and as such is no longer your responsibility.” The vampyre spoke with a strange accent, drawing out his words almost languidly, which only added to the mystery and sense of danger he exuded.

The men hesitated, all looking to the senior guard, who spoke quickly, managing to sound arrogant and belligerent at the same time. “We need proof for his father that he has left England.”

“Your needs do not interest me,” the vampyre said solemnly. “Tell the boy’s father that he boarded a ship tonight, though a much darker one than you humans planned. I have neither the time nor the patience to give you proof other than my word.” Then he looked at Bryan. “Come with me. Your future awaits.” With a swirl of his black cloak the vampyre turned and began striding away down the dock.

Jeremy waited until the creature had been swallowed by the darkness. Then he shrugged one shoulder and looked at Bryan with disgust, before saying, “Our mission is fulfilled. His Lordship said to put his brat of a son on a ship, and that is where he is going. Let us leave this fish-stinking place and return to our warm beds at Lankford Manor.”

The men were turning away when Bryan drew himself up straight. He took just an instant to inhale a deep breath and savor the relief he felt when the choking, debilitating cough did not come. Then he stepped forward and spoke in a voice that was, once again, strong and steady. “You are to leave me my sword.”

Jeremy paused and faced Bryan. Slowly, he pulled the sword from where he’d shoved it in his waistcloth. He ignored Bryan and instead studied the precious stone-encrusted hilt. His smile was calculating and his eyes were cold when he finally turned back to Bryan.

“Do you have any idea how many times your father called me from my warm bed to collect you from some brawl you’d gotten yourself into?”

“No, I do not,” Bryan said flatly.

“Of course you do not. All you nobles care about is your own pleasure. So now that you’ve been disowned and are not nobility any longer I’ll be keeping this sword, and the money selling it will gain me. Think of it as payment for what a pain in my arse you have been these past many years.”

Bryan felt a rush of anger, and with it came a surge of heat throughout his body. Acting on instinct, the boy closed the distance between himself and the arrogant guard. In some part of his brain Bryan knew his movements were preternaturally swift, but he remained focused on the one thought that was a driving force within him: The sword is mine—he has no right to it.

With a motion that blurred, Bryan knocked the sword from Jeremy’s hand and, in the same movement, caught it. As the other two guards moved forward, Bryan lunged low and stuck the point of the sword straight through the bones of the closest man’s foot, causing the guard to double up and fall on the floor in agony. Bryan automatically rebounded and, changing direction, flat-bladed the second guard across the side of his head, stunning him. Moving with a deadly grace, Bryan followed the motion of his sword, whirling around, and ending with the sharpened edge of the blade pressed firmly enough against Jeremy’s neck that his skin beaded with drops of blood.

“This sword is mine. You have no right to it,” Bryan heard his voice speaking his thoughts aloud, and was surprised by how normal he sounded—he wasn’t even breathing hard. There was no way Jeremy or either of the other two fallen guards could know that everything inside him was burning with anger and outrage and the need for vengeance. “Now tell me why I should not slit your throat.”

“Go ahead. Strike me. Your father is a viper, and even disowned you are his serpent of a son.”

Bryan was going to kill him. He wanted to—his rage and his pride demanded it. And why shouldn’t he kill him? The guard was only a peasant, and one who had insulted him, the son of an earl! But before Bryan could slice through the guard’s neck, the vampyre’s words sliced the air between them.

“I have no desire to be pursued and perhaps questioned by the British navy. Let him live. His fate, to return to serving those he despises, is far greater punishment than a quick death.”

Still holding the point to the guard’s neck, Bryan glanced behind him at the vampyre. The creature had spoken with a voice so calm it sounded almost bored, but his entire focus was on the guard’s throat and the small drops of scarlet that Bryan’s blade had freed. The vampyre’s obvious desire intrigued as well as horrified the boy. Is this what I am to become?

Bryan shoved the guard from him. “He’s right. Your life is better punishment than my blade. Go back to it and the bitterness with which you live it.” Without another look at the man, Bryan turned his back on him and walked to the vampyre’s side.

The vampyre inclined his head in a small nod of acknowledgment. “You made the correct choice.”

“He insulted me. I should have killed him.”

The vampyre cocked his head to the side, as if weighing the solution to a problem. “Did his calling you a snake insult you?”

“Well, yes. Calling me spoiled and trying to steal what is mine was also an insult.”

The vampyre laughed softly. “It is no insult to be called a snake. They are creatures allied with our Goddess, though I do not believe he was just in naming you such. I watched as you bested those three men. You strike more like a dragon than a snake.” While Bryan blinked in surprise he continued. “And dragons are above such petty insults as mere mortals might hurl at them.”

“Are there dragons in America?” Bryan blurted the first of the jumbled thoughts that filled his mind.

The vampyre laughed again. “Have you not heard? America is filled with wonders.” Then he made a sweeping motion with his hand, gesturing down the pier. “Come, let us go so that you may discover them. I have spent enough time on these archaic shores. My memories of England were not good, and nothing I have encountered during my wait for you has done anything to better them.” The vampyre started off down the dock with Bryan almost jogging to keep up with his long strides.

“Did you say you have been awaiting me?”

“I did, and I have,” he said, still moving purposefully down the dark pier.

“You knew about me?”

The vampyre nodded, causing his long brown hair to obscure his face. “I knew there was a fledging here I had to wait to Mark.” He glanced at Bryan and his lips tilted up in a slight smile. “You, young dragon, are the last fledgling I will ever Mark.”

Bryan’s brow furrowed. “Your last fledgling? What is happening to you?” He tried not to sound worried. After all, he barely knew this vampyre. And the creature was a vampyre: mysterious, dangerous, and strangely compelling.

The vampyre’s slight smile widened. “I have finished my service as one of Nyx’s Trackers, and am now able to return to my position as a Son of Erebus Warrior in the service of the Tower Grove House of Night.”

“Tower Grove? That’s in America?” Bryan’s stomach tightened. He’d almost forgotten that his world had turned upside down in less than the space of one day.

“It is, indeed, in America. St. Louis, Missouri, to be exact.” The vampyre had come to the end of the long pier—the darkest end, Bryan noted, as he could hear the creakings of a great ship and the lapping of water around it, but try as he might he couldn’t see more than a hulking shadow bobbing on the water. He noticed the vampyre had stopped beside him and was studying him carefully. Bryan met his gaze squarely, though his body felt like a tightly coiled spring ready to come loose at any moment.

“I am called Shaw,” the vampyre finally said, and held out his hand to Bryan.

“I am Bryan Lankford.” Bryan paused and then managed a smile that was only semi-sarcastic. “I am the former son of the Earl of Lankford, but you already know that.”

When Shaw took Bryan’s offered hand, he did so in the traditional vampyre greeting, grasping his forearm and not just his hand. Bryan mimicked his actions.

“Merry meet, Bryan Lankford,” Shaw said. Then he let loose the boy’s arm and made a gesture at the darkness and the ship that lay hidden within it. “This is the Ship of Night, which will bear me, and perhaps you as well, to America, and my beloved Tower Grove House of Night.”

“Perhaps me as well? But I thought–”

Shaw held up a hand, silencing Bryan. “You must, indeed, join a House of Night, and quickly. That Mark,” Shaw pointed at the outline of the sapphire crescent moon that still ached in the center of Bryan’s forehead “means you must be in the company of adult vampyres until you either make the Change fully to vampyre, or…” Shaw hesitated.

“Or I die,” Bryan said into the silence.

Shaw nodded solemnly. “Then you do know something of the world you are about to enter. Yes, young dragon, you will either complete the Change some time during the next four years, or you will die. This night you have begun a life path from which there is no turning back. Now, I told your father’s guards that you would be joining me as I make the crossing to the New World because I saw that they were set on your departure from England, but the truth is more than your fate changed when you were Marked.”

“For the better or for the worse?” Bryan asked.

“For exactly what you make of it yourself, Nyx be willing,” he said cryptically, and then continued, “You cannot control whether you will successfully complete the Change, but you can control where you will spend the next several years. Should you wish to remain in England I can arrange for you to be taken to the London House of Night.” The Tracker rested his hand briefly on Bryan’s shoulder. “You no longer require your family’s permission to pursue the future you most desire.”

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