// Twenty Two //

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"She's... dying?" I repeated what Clara had just said.

"Cancer, apparently," she sighed. "I mean, she's never told anyone, but rumors spread quick in the coven."

"How long has she been sick?" I asked.

"A while now, I think. A year or two."

I wasn't sure what to do with the information. I put my hand up to my temple as a small pang of a headache crashed over me. "I'm... I'm sorry she's sick. But what does that have to do with anything?"

"It's got me thinking," Clara began. "How much do you know about vampirism, Aaron?"

I chewed on my lower lip. "Honestly, pretty much nothing. Only what you and Jen have told me about it. It means I have to drink blood, and I get sick when I go out in the sun. It's spread through sex, usually. I could also spread it with venom, but almost no vampires have fangs."

"Anymore," Clara cut me off.

"What?"

"Almost no vampires have fangs anymore."

"What do you mean?"

"Vampirism has been around for a very long time, Aaron. All the stories about it that you hear are pretty much based in truth. Hundreds of years ago, all vampires had fangs. But as the disease passed along, something about it started to change. Some new vampires didn't grow fangs when they turned, and they no longer had venom. As time went on, almost all vampires stopped growing fangs."

"Except me." I ran my tongue over the set of fangs that had grown in my mouth. Each of the four teeth was twice as long as the one next to it, and twice as sharp. "So, why did vampires stop having fangs?"

"I don't think anyone really knows," Clara said. "A mutation, perhaps, or some sort of recessive part of the disease that eventually faded out. There are other things about it that you should know, though."

"What?" I leaned forward and put my head in my hands. A dull pain throbbed in my ribs. The pain killers I'd been on at the hospital must have been wearing off.

"Some people believe that the disease used to extend lifespan."

"What, like immorality?" I asked, trying not to laugh. "I thought Jen said vampirism doesn't make you immortal."

"It's just a myth. It might not be true, but it was believed to be something like an invulnerability. Rumor is, hundreds of years ago, vampires had an increased lifespan and were resistant to death from natural causes."

"Like... cancer?"

"Exactly."

I rubbed the sides of my temples. I didn't like where this was going. "What does it mean?" I felt like I already had an idea, though. My stomach twisted into a knot.

"What if that was the breakthrough Richard was looking for?" Clara asked. Her voice was energetic as she got excited. "What if he was trying to find some way to synthesize the venom into something that would create invulnerability? Maybe that's why he was getting frustrated, because it wasn't going quickly enough, and he knew Venessa was running out of time."

"I can't... I can't imagine it," I said sharply. Richard was a narcissist and a psychopath. He didn't care about anyone.

"But it makes sense," Clara said.

"Then... then why wouldn't he just ask? If he was trying to help his sister, why would he kidnap me and keep me prisoner? Why wouldn't he just ask?" My voice hissed on the last word, and my eyes teared. "I would have helped him. He didn't have to put me through all of that." I whipped my eyes. "No, no. That can't be it. It has to be something else."

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