The rider dismounted. I saw his legs swing down, but his feet didn’t make a sound when they landed. He walked over to me, still silent when the ground should’ve crunched beneath him, and he crouched down next to me.

His face was hidden in the darkness, but I heard him sniffing the air, inhaling deeply. He touched my arm, covered in drying in blood, and then put his hand to his mouth.

“Can you move?” he asked finally, his voice deep with a heavy accent. Something about it made me feel strangely comforted.

“No,” I whispered, barely making a sound at all.

“You’re dying.” It wasn’t a question or filled with pity. He was merely stating a fact. “Do you want to live?”

I was surprised by his question and didn’t know how to answer it. Of course I wanted to live. I had so much that I still wanted to do, so much I hadn’t done yet.

But it didn’t matter whether I wanted to live or not. My body wouldn’t move, and it was getting hard to breathe. I didn’t have a choice whether I lived or died.

“Do you want to live?” he repeated, this time with more force.

“Yes,” I whispered.

“Very good.”

He pulled something out of his pocket, and the moonlight glinted on the blade. He ran it down his arm, slicing it open, and I smelled the blood mixing with the pine and dirt around me. But his blood smelled unlike anything I’d ever encountered. It was sweet and tangy and… delectable.

He put his arm to my mouth, and the hot liquid poured down my throat. It tasted even better than it smelled – rich and sweet. I swallowed it so quickly I nearly choked. Some part of me knew I should be disgusted about drinking this stranger’s blood, but I couldn’t help myself.

I could feel his heartbeat in his blood, pouring through me. I could feel him – his intelligence and strength filling me, radiating through me. It was like warmth and love, only so much more powerful.

He pulled his arm away much too soon, and I suddenly felt cold and small. The pleasure and contentment of his blood had been ripped away, although a haze of it still lingered around me, making me drowsy.

“Please…” I whispered, begging for more of his blood. My voice had already grown stronger, and my throat had healed.

“You’ve had enough,” he said.

He reached out, taking me in his arms, and I hung limply. I couldn’t even lift my head. He climbed onto his horse, letting me hang over his lap so I didn’t slide off. I was fighting to stay awake, but once the horse started moving, almost rocking me to sleep, I passed out.

The next time I awoke I was in horrible pain. Worse than anything I had ever felt in my life, worse than I had even imagined pain could be. I lay on a cold dirt floor, writhing in pain and screaming at the top of my lungs.

My insides were moving around. I could feel them squirming inside my belly. I wrapped my arms around my stomach, and I didn’t even care that I could move my arms again. I would gladly take the paralysis and numbness for the agony that overwhelmed me.

When I opened my eyes, the dim light from a nearby candle shone too brightly. It scorched my vision, and I squeezed my lids shut again. I curled up onto my side, trying to hold myself together, but nothing I did eased the pain.

I couldn’t hold it back any longer, and I struggled to get to my knees. I leaned over, vomiting up everything inside me. A long black string of my own intestines came up, covered in something dark that almost resembled blood. It spilled out all over the dirt floor as pain ripped through me.

“Shh,” a man said, the same stranger that had given me his blood before. He knelt down next to me, setting a pail of water on the ground. “Screaming will only making it worse.”

“What have you done to me?” I wept. I wanted to stay on my knees, but I collapsed back on the ground.

“I saved your life.” He reached into the pail, pulling out a rag soaked in cold water, and he began to wipe my face of sweat, tears, and my own blood.

“You didn’t save me,” I groaned, gripping my chest. My heart felt like it was about to pound out through my ribcage. “I am dying.”

“It only feels that way,” he said, his voice deep and comforting as he wiped my brow. “You’re turning. You’ll feel much better soon.”

I knew I should be terrified of this man. He’d fed me his blood and made me feel this horrendous pain. But I couldn’t fear him. I trusted him implicitly, and I even felt a longing for him. Not the way a man longs for a woman, but something more basic and primal. The way I longed for spring after a terrible winter or water after a lengthy drought. I needed him.

“Who are you?” I asked, peering up at him through half closed eyes.

“My name is Ezra.” His dark brown eyes rested on mine, warm and meaningful. “Go back to sleep. This will all be over soon.”

I tried to sleep, but I never seemed to truly be asleep or fully awake. I existed in an awful nightmare place between the two. The pain only intensified, and I begged for death. My dreams were filled with insects and snakes eating my flesh, and even that was a reprieve from how I actually felt.

I’m not sure how long it lasted. It might have been days or even weeks. It felt like eternity when it was happening.

Then I opened my eyes, and I realized I wasn’t in pain anymore. I didn’t feel like anything. I’d been asleep, my cheek rested against the cold floor, and when I awoke, I’d never felt better. Even the dirt against my skin felt amazing.