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Forest of Famine

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Out on the edge of the city, beyond the suburbs and right at the boundary between civilization and a vast, untouched forest, there was a house. The house was old and well kept, with painted shutters and a high, gabled roof. The house had six occupants, though some of them tended to wander, and despite their wide range of backgrounds and personalities, they all shared a common trait; vampirism. 

The group had been living in this house in some configuration almost since the structure had been built. They'd seen the rise and fall of various international regimes and immersed themselves in the ever-changing culture of humanity, but ultimately none of it really mattered to them. As immortal creatures living in the darkened shadows of society's underbelly, all things were temporary except for them and their need to drink the blood of living creatures.

Sometimes the house was full of people as all six roommates spent their time living under the same roof. Sometimes the house was entirely empty as they fled to avoid certain suspicions, or left to explore another corner of the world. They'd returned from such a trip only a few days ago, and were settling back into their little house to stay for a while.

Nelson was relaxing on the couch in the living room reading a book. Eddie was sulking on the other end, having just come in from the forest after an unsuccessful night's hunt. About ten minutes ago he'd thrown open the front door and stormed inside, still shaking leaves out of his hair, before grumping into the front room and slumping down opposite his roommate on the sofa. Brooding, Eddie let Nelson continue reading his book undisturbed, and Nelson was content to let Eddie meditate on whatever was bothering him in peace. It was a good thing they had going on here; a sort of mutual coexistence where they quietly shared the space and let each other deal with their own preoccupations without interruption.

Guybrush and Manny were currently staying here as well, and Nelson could hear one of them walking around in the other room. Whoever it was, their footsteps were coming ever closer to the living room.

"Catch anything?" Manny asked, still tying his tie as he poked his head through the doorway. He was leaving soon with Guybrush to attend a party a few miles away in the city. Eddie hadn't been able to hunt much while they'd been out of town, and after he'd returned empty-handed the last two nights Manny wanted to check in on him before he left.

When Eddie shook his head, Manny's curious expression morphed to one of sympathy and concern. He stepped out of the room for a moment, and when he came back he had one of the blood bags Meche was sometimes able to get for him from her work with the volunteer blood drives.

"Chin up, mijo, I'm sure you'll find something soon." As Manny offered his condolences, he also offered Eddie the bag and set a reassuring hand on his shoulder. Eddie gave him a weak smile in return, but the disappointment was still weighing on him.

Any kind of blood would keep a vampire alive, but different subspecies had to fulfill different requirements to maintain their power and strength. For Manny and Guybrush, the actual source of blood didn't really matter - instead their satisfaction was mostly mental and came from lulling their would-be victims into a false sense of security. 

Right now they had plans to head across town to mingle with all sorts of people at whatever gala they'd scored invitations to. Once there, they'd schmooze their way through as many guests as necessary with empty promises, vapid conversation, and undeserved flattery, relying on their charisma and powers of hypnosis to bring their targets under their influence. Later they'd come home to complete their experience by consuming something they had stored in the fridge, and as long as the blood was red and nutritious it didn't matter where it came from.

In contrast, Nelson and Eddie were a little more selective with their food. Nelson preferred human blood, ideally with just a bit of flesh to taste, and Eddie needed the satisfaction of catching his target himself. Satisfaction he was missing out on when a hunt ended unsuccessfully. 

As Manny left, Eddie took a few swallows of the donated blood, sucking it from the bag like a juice box. He was only able to finish about half of it though, before swearing and offering the rest to Nelson in disgust. Hesitantly, Nelson took it from him. 

"What's wrong with it?" He didn't want to drink something that might make him sick.

"For you, nothing. For me though, down at the blood bank or wherever they add all kinds of preservatives and anticoagulants; I can taste it and it's gross."

Oh. Well, in that case Nelson wasn't going to turn down a snack. His dependence on human blood meant he was very familiar with drinking donations, and he’d never had any issues with the flavor. What was left in the bag was definitely enough to tide him over until they had dinner later. Another interesting quirk of vampire biology was that as long as they kept their basic blood-related needs met, they could supplement their meals with regular food if they felt so inclined. This made it easier to remain hidden, as it meant they needed less blood overall and didn't have to risk themselves as often trying to collect it.

Nelson set the 'straw' of the blood bag between his teeth and returned to his book, taking a sip every now and then. After a while Eddie got up to go find something to distract himself with - something to help him work off all the unspent energy making him restless and impatient. Eventually after he'd taken a few laps around the house he decided to head back out into the forest; he definitely wouldn't catch anything just sitting around in the living room.

&&&&&&

Eddie's run of bad luck continued on into the rest of the week. Every night he'd headed out into the same forest that had been providing him a steady source of prey animals for as long as he could remember, and every night he'd wandered around for hours with no sign of anything that could've potentially satisfied him.

He'd head home still craving a proper hunt, hungry and irritated, and then Manny would ask how things went and offer him something else to eat. More often than not though, the fact that he was drinking cold, stale blood from a container was repulsive enough that he couldn't finish the meal. In fact, as the nights crawled on he found it harder and harder to accept any kind of substitution, to the point that he'd started putting them back in the fridge or offering them to Nelson or Guybrush. Nothing he’d tried had been very appetizing, so despite the wide variety of blood-based foods they kept in the house he just couldn’t find anything he wanted to eat.

He didn't quite understand what was going on - blood was blood, and for a vampire as ravenous as he was he should've been eager to fall on whatever stores Manny was willing to share with him, but he just couldn't. He still had his heart set on the successful completion of a hunt, and every time he so much as looked at one of the replacement meals all he could think about was that it wasn't what he wanted, what he needed, and that it never would be. He needed to sink his claws into something, to bite down on the still-beating pulse in his target's throat, to rend and tear and feel the warmth of a dying creature's lifeblood filling his stomach.

Nothing they had in the pantry or the fridge could hold a candle to a real hunt that culminated in the death of his quarry. Once, just once, he'd thawed a bag of frozen cow’s blood out and taken it with him into the forest, then strung it up from a branch to use as a target. He'd then walked a good distance away and began to pursue the stationary 'prey', tracking and stalking and doing everything he would've if the bag were a real animal, but the mock hunt had no stakes. His target was lifeless and never had a chance of getting away from him, he knew where it was from the very beginning, and in the end it still tasted just as preprocessed and stale as everything else he'd tried.

Nothing was working. As the nights dragged on the only thing he wanted continued to elude him, and there didn't seem to be anything he could do about it except hope he found something the next night in an area he hadn't tried yet. 

By the end of the first week Manny had tried to ask him about what was going wrong, exactly, but Eddie had brushed off his concerns with a simple reassurance that this was just a temporary run of bad luck; that there was nothing to worry about because sooner or later things were bound to go back to normal. Or at least, he hoped they would. 

In reality, he couldn't hunt because, as far as he could tell, there was nothing out there to catch. Everywhere he'd gone had been absolutely devoid of prey, to the point where the forest was eerily silent. He hadn't told anyone just yet though, because he wanted to make sure there really was something going on. It was a big forest, maybe he'd just gone to the one area that night that didn't have anything, and then when he brought everyone out there all the animals would be in the one place he hadn't checked and he'd look like a liar. No, if something was really going on, he was going to be sure of it first. Just… just one more night. There had to be something out there. There had to be.

As soon as he started going without any form of blood, his energy levels dropped drastically. He was lightheaded, dizzy, and spent most of his time in his room sleeping in preparation for his nightly attempt at hunting. Even then he only had the strength to be out there for an hour or two. 

It was a vicious and irritating cycle - he'd wake up and head out into an area of the forest he hadn't explored yet, spend energy he didn't have searching high and low for any sign of life, find absolutely nothing, and then haul himself back home to be offered blood he couldn't bring himself to drink. After he got rid of the well-meaning snack, he'd spend enough time with his friends to prove he was still alive and mostly fine, then head back to his room to sleep some more and start the whole process over again the next night.

It was infuriating. He was starving to death and there was just nothing in all the acres of territory surrounding them. He had never had this much trouble finding a meal before, and now for some reason there weren't even mice out there. Normally things that small were too much trouble for too small a payoff, but he would have taken anything at this point - as long as it was warm and fresh and he could eviscerate it himself.

It was a good thing no one ever went camping in these woods - killing a human could put the whole community of supernaturals in the area in danger, but if he came across someone just lying there… helpless… well, there was no way he'd be able to stop himself from doing what he had to to fill the empty, howling void that had replaced his stomach.

By the end of week two, he just didn't have the strength to handle running around in his beast form. Shifting took too much out of him and left him too weak to hunt properly, so instead he started setting traps and snares so he could still have a chance of catching something even while he couldn't be out looking. Honestly, he should've had them set up from the very beginning; he could only be so many places at once, and a good old-fashioned trap would still work even in the daylight. They wouldn't catch anything too much bigger than a racoon, but a dozen snares meant a dozen possible pieces of prey, and combined they'd probably be able to provide a full meal.

By the middle of week three, it was obvious that something was going to have to change, and soon. He either had to find something to eat, or the hunger was going to kill him. He was on day three of checking his traps - every one of them still dishearteningly empty - and after pacing a long and circuitous path through the territory far to the northwest of the house, the pangs of starvation had unexpectedly intensified to the point that they brought him to his knees right there on the forest floor. For a few minutes all he'd been able to do was wait for the pain gripping him to pass, all alone, helpless and vulnerable to anything that might have crossed his path. He was effectively immobilized with the looming threat of the sunrise coming soon to burn him alive.

As soon as he'd been able to stand he’d trudged straight back to the house as quickly as he could, hurting and shaken. He took whatever cup or flask it was that Manny had offered him with a wooden smile and wordlessly handed it off to Nelson as he passed him on the way to his room. Curling into a ball on his bed behind a locked door, he'd wrapped his arms across his ribs and hugged himself as tight as he could, hoping the pressure would help relieve some of the aching in his empty stomach. It didn't do much, and as he laid there in bed the potent combination of terror, hunger, and despair was enough to bring him to tears. As sleep took him once again, he wondered just how many more nights of fruitless searching it would take to finally kill him.

&&&&&&

The following evening Eddie slept in until almost midnight. When he woke, his hunt went exactly as he'd expected it to - disappointingly - and after he'd quietly tossed tonight's blood bag back in the fridge he went directly back to bed. He was too tired right now to deal with keeping up appearances and all he wanted to do was sleep.

Hours later in the early morning, the other occupants of the house were sitting down to dinner. It was Guybrush's turn to cook tonight, and the three of them were getting ready to dig into some fish tacos.

"Is Eddie not joining us?" Nelson asked as he filled his plate.

Manny shook his head solemnly; he'd checked on him, but Eddie was sound asleep. He'd thought about waking him up, but the fatigue etched into his friend's face told him all he really needed right now was rest. "Whatever's goin' on with him, it's really worrying me."

Nelson felt bad about it, but if he was honest with himself, he was just a tiny bit relieved. Eating and enjoying his food while Eddie clearly couldn't made him feel somewhat guilty, even though his friend insisted that he really didn't mind.

See, he hadn't actually eaten dinner with them for a few days now. Usually if he'd gone out hunting they tended to wait for him to get back so he didn’t miss out on anything, but starting sometime in the past week he'd given them permission to go on without him. If the meal was still going when he got in he'd still take his seat at the table, but he never bothered serving himself any of whatever dish had been prepared. He still hadn't been able to find a fresh source of blood, and now it was affecting his ability to eat anything at all.

Vampires could eat normal food only as long as they kept up on their consumption of blood; if they failed to maintain a supply of the correct variety, normal food began to sit unpleasantly in an unfortunate vampire's stomach like a rock, undigested until the proper source could be found. With the shortage in prey he'd been running into, it seemed Eddie had decided he'd rather not subject himself to a second layer of discomfort until he had some guarantee of getting rid of it.

"Yeah," Guybrush agreed, "what's it been, a week or two? You'd think he'd've caught something by now." Normally he would have made a joke about how the fearsome hunter was losing his edge, but right now it just felt wrong. Tasteless.

"Two and a half, actually," Manny said, "and I've tried talking to him about it. He says it's just bad luck, that sooner or later he'll get back into the swing of things and everything will go back to normal, but he still hasn't told me exactly what's wrong."

"Do you think there's any way we can help?" Nelson asked, concerned. "Maybe if he wasn't alone out there his luck would change."

Manny shook his head. "It doesn't work like that. Eddie has to do this on his own; that's the whole point. You couldn't help him hunt any more than Guybrush and I could take victims for each other."

"Maybe not directly," Guybrush interjected, "but you and I have traded marks plenty of times. Maybe we can't catch things for him, but we could help prevent the game from getting away, or flush it into the open or something."

"It's at least worth a shot," Nelson continued, "especially if he's starving. I'm sure trying to hunt half-dead is only making things harder."

Manny sat back in his chair with a hand on his chin, thinking it over. At last he slowly nodded his head. "Y'know, you two might just be on to something. I can't guarantee he'll go for it, but as soon as he gets up we ought to see what he thinks about the idea."

Guybrush and Nelson nodded, pleased that their idea could potentially prove useful.

"He's not starving, though," Manny added as he sat forward to continue eating, "don't worry about that. I've been making sure he still has something to eat when he gets home, so he ought to be getting enough to keep his strength up. He's definitely not a fan of the stuff we keep in the house, but it's not like he has much of a choice."

Nelson nodded, but as the conversation drifted in other directions he couldn't shake the nagging feeling that something was off. It wasn't until dinner was almost over that he realized the details of Manny's story didn't quite add up. 

Over the past week, Eddie had been quieter, more reserved, and everything about him simply screamed exhaustion. Nelson wasn't a stranger to starving; he knew what the symptoms felt like on the inside, even if he didn't know what they looked like from the outside. If what Manny believed was true, and Eddie was just down on his luck and frustrated, it shouldn't be affecting him so physically. Combined with the timeframe and how often he'd been giving him food for no reason, suddenly the idea that Eddie could be in some real trouble didn't seem so farfetched. 

"Wait… Manny, did you stick around long enough to actually watch Eddie drink what you brought him? Because he's been offering me a lot of blood this past week." Nelson said.

"Yeah, he's been doing that to me too," Guybrush added. "... Now that you mention it, I can't remember the last time I actually saw him drink anything more substantial than water."

Based on the dawning horror on his face, it seemed Manny couldn't remember either. The longer he thought about it, the more a creeping sense of dread curled around the inside of his ribcage. He racked his brain trying to come up with just one occasion he'd seen Eddie take more than just a polite sip from a snack he'd been given, but he just kept coming up empty. There's no way… he couldn't seriously be starving after all this time… could he?

Could he? Manny knew the compulsion to find exactly the right circumstances for feeding got more intense the longer a vampire had been without, but it'd been so long since he'd last gone hungry that he'd almost forgotten what starvation really looked like. 

He had noticed that Eddie was resting much more often and for much longer than he had before this mess started, but with all the differences between them he'd assumed that was just an unfortunate symptom of withdrawal. Like a hibernation, of sorts. In hindsight, this newfound doubt combined with Guybrush and Nelson's testimony meant there was only one conclusion Manny could reasonably draw.

The revelation that his friend was choosing to go hungry regardless of his efforts felt like he'd been struck across the face. For a moment, he couldn't do anything more than just sit there in shock. His disbelief scrambled into a whole range of different emotions - denial, concern, pity, alarm - but ultimately a profound feeling of having been lied to sparked his temper and, with genuine anger on his face, he got up and marched over to the fridge. 

Swearing under his breath, cursing Eddie for being such an idiot, he rummaged around in the back until he found what he was looking for, then stormed off towards Eddie's room to put an end to this nonsense.

&&&&&&

Eddie was startled out of his nap when the door was unceremoniously thrown open and bounced off the doorstop. Thoroughly awake, he sat up as Manny marched into his room with a look on his face that was usually reserved for those about to suffer death or dismemberment. More concerningly though, he had an unopened carton of pasteurized pig's blood with him and Eddie certainly hoped he didn't mean for him to drink from it. They mostly just used that stuff in cooking because the process of preserving it changed its flavor and texture so much, but on its own it was better than nothing when you were starving or injured. Or at least, it was for the other guys. For him it was one of the most disgusting things he could think of, and he would gladly continue to starve before he chose to drink it of his own free will.

"How long have you been starving yourself for?" Manny asked in lieu of a greeting. He was all business tonight, it seemed.

"Okay, 'starving' is a little bit of an exaggeration. I haven't been getting everything I need, sure, but I've had stuff to eat here and there. Really, I'm not that hungry." All of that was a lie. Now that he was awake the insatiable hunger had him all but doubling over in pain, and his traitorous stomach chose to let Manny in on that little secret at that moment by growling loudly.

Incensed, Manny thrust the jug into his hands. He could understand that Eddie was having a rough time without his preferred source of food, but not eating at all was absolutely unacceptable. He wasn't leaving until he'd seen Eddie drink most, if not all, of what he'd brought him. "Drink it."

"C'mon, you're not serious, are you?" Eddie was looking at him like he'd grown a second head. Oh, he was serious all right. Dead serious.

"It's gonna take longer if you keep stalling, Eddie. You can't just stop eating like this; now you get to catch up on what you've been missing." When Manny raised his eyebrows at him and gestured for him to get going, Eddie realised he wasn't just going to drop the matter.

Frustrated, he weighed his options. He didn't want to consume any of the store-bought blood. It was so old and over-processed it was practically inedible to him, but he was weak and starving and at this point the odds that he'd be able to fix that on his own were getting dangerously slim. Sooner or later he was going to crash and then he'd have no other choice but the substitutes just to stay alive. He could drink it now and stave off a real emergency until much later, possibly never, or he could tell Manny to take a hike and keep going hungry for the foreseeable future.

… There was only one real option here, wasn't there. Dammit. After a few more moments of deliberation, he made his choice.

Twisting the cap off the jug, Eddie looked Manny in the eyes and made sure he knew he wasn't happy with the situation. "There's no way I'm going to finish all of this, and you know it."

Manny didn't respond, aware that Eddie would use it as an excuse to keep talking.

The first mouthful was always the worst. The refrigerated pig's blood was thick and slimy, and despite the attempts at preservation he could detect an underlying flavor of staleness, decay, and impurity, like it had been collected off the floor of a slaughterhouse and stored for months. The anticoagulants were almost overpowering, and combined with all the other chemicals added at whatever plant bottled this stuff it was hardly recognizable as blood to him. The chill and the age and drinking it from a carton was just wrong. Everything in him was screaming at him to spit it out, but against all his instincts he managed to choke it down.

Coughing, he could already feel his stomach revolting at the idea of drinking even just another mouthful, let alone an entire meal's worth, let alone the entire thing. Manny was still waiting on him though, and tapping his foot impatiently, so against his better judgement he soldiered on. 

The rest of it wasn't any better than the initial swallow had been. He tried to drink as fast as possible just to get it over with quickly, but every so often he had to pause for a moment while his innards twisted in revulsion. Having something inside him after being empty for so long should have been a relief in it's own right, but whatever comfort he might have been able to take from it was overshadowed by the absolute abhorrence he felt over trying to drain the carton. After a little more than half of it was gone, Eddie stopped and closed his eyes, breathing heavily.

He felt absolutely vile; he knew he could drink much more than that, and had in the past on a regular basis, but because he hadn't eaten in so long trying to take such a volume all at once was all but impossible. He didn't think he was anywhere near his actual limit, but regardless his stomach still felt fit to burst; bloated and heavy, stretched tight, the solid weight pressing down on the rest of his organs was almost unbearable. He knew that if he pushed himself onward he could find room for more. He really didn't want to though - the thought of having so much of the foul blood inside of him already, putrefying and probably poisoning him was making his skin crawl. The smell of it was making him sick, and intense waves of nausea were threatening to bring everything back up again.

Manny was relentless. "Keep going."

"Manny… I can't…" Shaking his head slightly, Eddie had to pause to let his churning stomach settle enough to keep talking, "if… if I have to drink any more of that I'm going to throw up. Please… no more…"

The look of pure misery Manny could see etched into Eddie's face told him the bottled pig's blood was trying to stage a mutiny. As he watched his friend struggle to keep it down his anger faded away and left only the underlying concern behind. Gently, he took the jug away from Eddie and capped it. Weighing it in his hands, he tried to be satisfied his friend finally had something in his system, but if Manny was being honest with himself this was a mistake. With his hands now free, Eddie had wrapped one of his arms around his midsection and started shifting around in discomfort, trying to find a position that would take some of the pressure off of his aching stomach. Standing face to face with the consequences of his irrational attempt to get Eddie to eat, he felt incredibly guilty.

What had he been thinking? Eddie had been starving - what he'd needed was a small portion of something as inoffensive as possible, not an entire carton of the least appetizing blood in the house. Manny had known how much Eddie despised this stuff, knew that eating too much all at once would make him sick, and yet he'd still insisted that he drink way more than he could handle. His misplaced sense of betrayal had clouded his judgement and turned what could have been genuine aid into a punishment just short of torture. Ashamed of his actions, he knew he needed to apologize, to try to fix this somehow.

"Eddie, I-" Eddie cut him off almost immediately, shaking his head and waving him off.

"It's fine," he said, still fighting his roiling internal organs, "just… just give me a minute - I'll be fine. You… you were right... I should've kept trying to eat something, at the very least."

"Yes, you should have. But this was the wrong way to go about this, and I'm sorry." Manny set the jug on the floor and moved closer to the bed so he could help Eddie up. He was sweating, and his whole frame had gone rigid with stress. "You probably shouldn't try to digest all that."

Grimacing, Eddie nodded his head in agreement. This was a losing battle; he could feel the tension in his abdominal muscles starting to escalate into weak convulsions. His body was going to force him to expel the incompatible meal one way or another, there was no reason to make this harder than it needed to be. As gently as possible, they made their way out into the hall and across the way to the bathroom so Eddie could avoid making a mess on his bedroom floor.

After he'd finished retching, Manny handed him a glass of water so he could rinse his mouth out. Guybrush and Nelson had been listening to the whole incident from the hall, and when their friends had relocated they'd done what they could to try and help. Guybrush had run to the kitchen to fetch the glass, while Nelson had removed the offending carton from Eddie's room and started looking through what else they had in the fridge and pantry to find something that might go easier on him.

As he shakily settled back into bed, Eddie still felt awful. Nothing he could do was going to get rid of everything he'd just consumed, and the remaining blood still coating the inside of his stomach and throat was bothering him. Manny went and got him another glass of water, to drink this time, then sat down at the foot of the bed.

"So. Let's talk about the right way to make sure you get fed. What exactly is going wrong, and how can we help?" Manny asked.

Eddie took a long, slow drink of the water, carefully considering his answer. "I don't… know, exactly. From what I can see, it's like there's nothing out there to catch. I don't know what happened, but it feels like all the wild animals have just gone missing. I don't know where they went, or why, but you'd think a forest that big would have at least something out there for me to find."

Eddie's tone was resigned and discouraged. After so many unsuccessful attempts, it seemed he'd just accepted at this point that Mother Nature had turned her back on him for some reason. 

"What do you normally do when prey dries up like this?" Guybrush asked.

"Well, that's the thing. In all the literal decades I've been living here, this has never been a problem. If my hunting was a huge disturbance for the wildlife I would've seen something like this before now," Eddie said, "I thought I was doing everything right. I don't need to hunt every night, so it's not like I was taking a ridiculous amount in the first place. I targeted a whole bunch of different animals, and I never hunted in the same spot two nights in a row. There should still be an entire ecosystem out there, but there just… isn't. I don't know what's wrong."

Guybrush rested his chin in his hand, trying to think about what could have caused such a widespread desertion. At that point, Nelson came through the door with a small mug for Eddie. There was steam gently rising out of it; it seemed he'd tried to make whatever he'd found more palatable by warming it up on the stove. Eddie could probably handle this small a portion as long as he went slowly.

Guybrush spoke up as Eddie tentatively took a sip. "Hmmm… How long has the forest been empty? Do you think this happened before or after we got back from our trip?"

"I can't be certain," Eddie said, "since I didn't go out for a night or two after we got home, but I think it was before."

"Okay. My first thought was werewolves, but if that's the case then the timing of the full moon is off. Besides, even if an entire pack showed up with every member of their extended families, I don't think even they would be able to completely clear a forest that big all in one night."

"Yeah, probably not werewolves then. Do you think investigating the forest would help? There might still be some evidence of what happened out there," Nelson suggested, "and at the very least we could rule out a few things."

Eddie hummed in agreement. "Yeah, I could show you around. I don't remember seeing anything too out of the ordinary, but it might help to actually be looking for it."

"I can also put some feelers out, see if anyone else in our community noticed anything weird while we were gone." Manny added. "To address the original problem though, we still need to find you something to eat. Would it help if I asked Glottis if you could borrow him for a meal or two?"

Eddie thought about it for a moment, before shaking his head and dismissing the offer. "I don't think that's a good idea. It would help, sure, but I think right now it's too dangerous. I can't promise I wouldn't lose control and hurt him."

Manny nodded. "Alright. I think our best option then is to go where the fish are. It's not hunting season, so getting a cabin out somewhere in the woods shouldn't be too hard."

"Oh! I know exactly where we could go!" Guybrush said. "We should be able to get there in one night, as long as we don't stop too much, and people are always talking about what a great getaway it is for hunting. I can put in a call in the morning and reserve a cabin for us."

"I… Wait, us? Are you guys gonna be okay if we go out in the middle of the woods, with no one else around for miles?" Eddie was getting some first-hand experience on starvation right now and it sucked. He didn't want his friends potentially facing the same by trying to help him out.

"Eddie. We'll be fine." Manny said, unwaveringly. "Guybrush and I will hit the club before we go, and we can stock up and bring whatever else we might need with us."

"Yeah," Nelson agreed, "and if things get too bad we can always head into whatever town is closest for a pick-me-up. Needing to drive for thirty minutes every couple of days is not nearly as much of an ordeal as you having nothing at all nearby for weeks."

"Seriously Eddie, we're not just sending you off somewhere to deal with this on your own. We'd be going with you even if you weren't on the brink of dying of starvation." Guybrush said, bluntly. "Which, by the way, we should have known about. From this point forward, nobody better be going hungry and not telling anyone about it."

Everyone nodded their assent. A rule like that seemed like it should have been a no-brainer, but apparently it needed to be said aloud at least once.

"Alright. We'll take care of getting everything set up in a few hours." Manny said. The others nodded, and for a moment the room was quiet. Manny looked down at his hands and frowned slightly, before looking up and addressing Eddie directly. "I really am sorry about earlier. I shouldn't have forced all that on you, and especially not the cooking stock."

"It's okay, and I'm sorry too. I should've told you about what was going on instead of letting you think everything was okay." Cocking an eyebrow and pointing a finger at him, Eddie warned, "If you ever come anywhere near me with another jug like that though, you're gonna walk away wearing it. I'm not doing that again."

Manny laughed, relieved his friend had accepted his apology and was in a good enough mood to tease him about it. "Fair enough."

Nelson gestured to the mug Eddie was still working on. "Did heating that up help at all?"

Eddie took another mouthful and made a face. Swallowing, he said, "A little. It's still off, but it's better than drinking it cold."

"Okay, that's good." Smiling, Nelson was glad he'd been able to help, even if it only made a small difference.

What little energy Eddie had was fading fast in the wake of all the excitement, but somewhere in the slitted depths of his tired eyes Manny could see a few sparks of hope returning. Sliding off the end of the bed, Manny walked over and clapped a hand on Eddie's shoulder. 

"You oughta get some sleep, mijo. Don't worry about the preparations for the trip, there really isn't that much to do anyway. Just focus on feeling better."

Relieved that there might finally be a real solution within his grasp, Eddie nodded and started to smile. "Thanks guys."

He finished his drink and gave the empty mug to Manny as everyone started to leave, and this time as he fell asleep - still haunted by his cravings, but no longer entirely empty inside - he couldn't help but be glad his friends were so ready and willing to help.

&&&&&&

Now that the full extent of his infirmity had been revealed, Eddie was confined to bed rest for a few nights to let him recover some of his strength before they explored the forest. Several times a night someone brought him a small snack; once at each mealtime, and a time or two in between. Overall it was a good balance between making sure he had enough to eat and not forcing him to drink too much all at once, but even warmed over the stuff they had on hand was still gross.

By the time he was allowed out of bed he wasn't quite so exhausted anymore, and enough of his strength had returned to allow him to show his friends around plenty of his empty hunting grounds.

The silence was probably the most disturbing part of the whole expedition; the only things that made noise were the trees and the small group of vampires. No birds, no mice, nothing. It was like the forest itself was holding its breath, waiting for whatever evil that had cleared out the wildlife to return. It had definitely been something too - many of the trees were sporting deep gashes like some creature with wicked claws had slashed up the scenery while depopulating the forest. Now that he was looking for clues and not just animals, Eddie realized he could also detect faint traces of blood in the topsoil. Whatever had happened here, it had been an absolute slaughter.

Returning to the house, none of them were very certain what could have cleared out so many acres of woodland so thoroughly. With any luck, though, someone had seen something and Manny would hear back about it soon.

As soon as they'd picked up enough supplies to last them a few weeks and Manny and Guybrush had indulged themselves on as much polite conversation and deception as they could handle, they all piled into Nelson's car and were on their way to the cabin Guybrush had reserved.

Eddie still felt a little bad about bringing everyone out here with him after they'd only been home for a short while, but he was glad he didn't have to be alone in this anymore. He'd meant to tell them, he really had, he was sure of it, but looking back he realized the hunger had definitely been clouding his judgement. After only a few days of searching, the thought that there just had to be something out there that he could find if he just looked hard enough had overtaken him to the point that he'd almost entirely forgotten about trying to get help.

Whenever they'd stopped for a quick bite to eat, Manny had tossed a flask at him and pointedly continued watching him until he took a drink. Rolling his eyes at the theatrics, Eddie always drank as much as he could handle before re-capping it and handing it back. Whatever Manny had prepared, it was… tolerable. It had far fewer preservatives than usual and was fresher than a lot of the stuff they kept on hand, but it was still coming out of a flask and he hadn't drawn it himself. Overall though, it could have been a lot worse.

They arrived at the cabin just before sunrise. Quickly, they hauled everything they absolutely needed inside before replacing the decorative curtains that came with the cabin with their customary blackout curtains and immediately going to bed. 

They slept through most of the day, but by the time the sun began to set, Eddie was already awake and starting to grow restless. He was trying to be patient, but they were surrounded by acres upon acres of potentially viable hunting grounds and he was tired of being inside. He desperately needed an outlet for all the energy the new environment was giving him, but at the same time he was also somewhat afraid of what might happen once he finally got out there.

Despite the evidence to the contrary, what if the problem still had something to do with him? What if there was something about him that was letting every piece of prey know he was coming? What if he still couldn't find anything?

It wasn't a very rational fear - he'd never heard of a vampire like him scaring off their victims before they'd even laid eyes on them, and these forests were supposed to be chock full of wildlife - but after the past couple of weeks he wasn't feeling very rational.

Manny was the only thing stopping him from leaving before the sun was well and truly down, and as soon as the last traces of red had faded out of the sky Eddie took off into the trees like a bat out of hell. Once he was in deep enough, he slowed to a stop and caught his breath. The night was quiet, and being so far away from civilization meant he could see a glittering tapestry of stars in the sky through the gaps in the forest's canopy. It was peaceful. He was all alone; just him, and whatever else lived out here in the wild. Closing his eyes, he let the scents and sounds of the forest wash over him.

He could hear mice, birds, and squirrels scurrying around nearby - too small, not worth the effort, but the fact that they were here was reassuring. Exciting. Breathing deeply through his nose, he turned his head a few degrees to the right. The wind blowing through the trees smelled of pine, rushing water, and fallen leaves. And deer.

Somewhere upwind of him, he'd caught the scent of deer, maybe some elk, as well as the faintest hint of a bear and some other smaller animals. It almost made him want to cry. He was so close.

Laughing in relief, he let himself take the shape of his beast form, and opened his glowing eyes onto the darkened forest. His night vision let him see every scrap of movement - every falling leaf, every rustling branch, every last living breathing animal with a heartbeat he could tear into. 

Falling forward onto all fours, he flexed his claws into the loose dirt and rolled his shoulders, stretching out his joints and getting ready for a run. He scented the air once more to make sure he was heading off in the right direction, before charging into the darkness.

He was a being of pure instinct now, swerving between trees and leaping obstacles without a second thought. As he raced through the forest he felt no fear or hesitation; he was at the top of the food chain, perhaps even beyond it - a predator unmatched by any mortal creature. Up ahead of him, he could see moonlight glinting off the surface of a lake peeking through the trees. He slowed as he came to the treeline, scanning his surroundings. He could still smell prey somewhere nearby.

Out of the corner of his eye he caught movement on the edge of the lake; there on the shore, a lone elk had bowed its head to drink from the surface.

He couldn't help the wicked grin that spread over his face as he backed into the shadows and vanished into the darkness. Slinking through the underbrush, he was nothing but a whisper as he stalked around to take his prey by surprise. The poor, pitiful creature never stood a chance. 

He crept up behind it in its blind spot, low to the ground and mindful of any twigs or loose rocks that could potentially give him away. When he was within range, so close he could practically hear its heartbeat - slow, even, completely unaware of the danger looming just over its shoulder - he crouched and got ready to pounce.

Just as the elk had finished lapping from the lake and raised its head to look around, Eddie lunged forward and sank his claws into its flank, wrestling it to the ground and roaring in triumph. His prey tried to struggle, but there was no saving it now. He plunged his fangs deep into the elk's throat, rending the flesh wide open and drinking his fill of the fresh, warm blood pulsing through its veins.

At long last, he'd found something satisfying. He was probably going to make himself sick again just based on how quickly and intensely he was draining the elk, but the sheer euphoria of finally being able to eat freely again had wiped any thought of self control from his mind.

This went beyond just satisfying his hunger. Sure, gorging himself like this soothed the pain caused by an empty stomach, but filling his belly with blood drawn by his own fangs was also dispelling the cold oppression that had been weighing on him for weeks now. It was like he'd been slowly suffocating, drowning and choking and unable to breathe, and now all the barriers between him and a lungful of fresh air were just gone .

The relief was liberating.  

Sated at last he fell onto his back, shifting as easily as breathing, and laid there stargazing and simply enjoying the comfortable feeling of fullness after his meal. He was pleasantly surprised to discover he could see every one of the constellations his Dad had taught him about so long ago; as time wore on and light pollution blocked out the stars, a lot of them had been erased from the night sky back home.

He indulged himself in just lying there without any urgency or obligations for a while before getting up and washing his hands and face in the lake. He didn't particularly care about his appearance at the moment, but the feeling of drying and congealing blood on his skin was annoying.

When he'd cleaned up enough to get rid of the minor irritation, he sat back on his haunches and took a moment to replay the hunt in his mind. Reviewing the event, he felt a swell of pride in his chest at how quickly and cleanly he'd been able to make his kill. Thinking even further back, he couldn't remember exactly what he'd been so afraid of before coming out here. Manny had tried to tell him everything was going to be fine before he'd left, but he hadn't really been listening. In hindsight though, Manny was right - success had been inevitable.

Manny… Y'know, his friends were just the best. Without them, he'd still be running around an empty forest like a zombie and searching endlessly for something that just wasn't there.

He ought to thank them - bring them something to show them just how much he appreciated their help. The elk was a start, he shouldn't let all that fresh meat go to waste, but he knew he could still do better. Shifting into a beast once more, he bounded into the forest in pursuit of a suitable gift.

&&&&&&

Manny had woken up at sunset, but it seemed his concern wasn't enough to get ahead of his impatient friend, because Eddie had already been awake. It wasn't really a surprise, per se - as soon as they'd started driving through the trees, Eddie's entire demeanor had changed. For most of the trip he'd been slouched in his seat, somber and withdrawn, but as soon as they'd crossed into the wilderness he'd sat up straight and started staring out the window with rapt attention to their new surroundings. When Manny had entered the kitchen this evening, he'd found Eddie pacing anxiously in circles in front of the door, raring and ready to go.

Manny had sat him down at the table before he could bore a hole in the floor; it was still too early to be safe, he could wait ten more minutes for the last traces of the sun to disappear completely. Eddie had taken the chair reluctantly, his shoulders stiff and drumming his fingers on the table. Manny had tried to alleviate some of the stress by offering reassurances, but they both knew the only thing that was really going to help was to get out there and get it over with. At last, as soon as he could see a star or two twinkling in the inky indigo sky, Manny had sent him on his way.

With Eddie out on the prowl, the cabin was almost too quiet. The other two were still asleep, and probably would be for at least another hour or two, so it was just him in the darkened cabin. Somehow, it still seemed too early in the evening to bother turning on any of the lights, so Manny had settled into one of the chairs at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee to think.

Alone in the shadowy kitchen, contemplating the path that had led him there, he took a moment to really feel some of the emotions he'd been setting aside for the past few days. It was scary just how close he'd come to losing one of his friends. At the time, he'd just been angry that he hadn't known about it despite his repeated attempts to help. In the aftermath, though, when Eddie had been restricted to bedrest was when the actual implications of the situation had started to set in.

With the chance to actually look at his friend and really see just how much he'd started to deteriorate, he could finally appreciate the weakness and exhaustion for what they were - real, serious signs of starvation. And they terrified him. If they hadn't caught this, hadn't realized in time and stepped in, Eddie could have died. He could have starved to death right there in his room and there wouldn't have been anything the three of them could've done to stop it. 

From what he could tell based on what Eddie had told him, it didn't sound like he could've stopped it either. He'd been so focused on scouring the forest that going somewhere else had never once crossed his mind; no one had been prepared for something like this, least of all Eddie himself. Without his friends he would've kept wandering the same barren forest until he used up the last of his strength and collapsed. If he'd been out hunting when it happened, he'd've burned away a few hours later in the sunlight and they'd never have known what had become of him. He couldn't decide if spending an eternity wondering was worse than finding him curled up somewhere in the house and having been unable to prevent it.

Fully aware he'd allowed his mind to drift into dark and unpleasant territory, he let the fear gripping his ribcage have a few more moments to make itself heard before turning his thoughts away from all the things that could have gone wrong to all the things that went right. He's still alive. Everyone's okay. We're fixing the problem right now, there's nothing to worry about. We can deal with whatever happened to the forest when we get home.

And wasn't that a question - what were they going to do after this? Was Eddie even coming home with them? Despite any attachments he had to the house, he couldn't stay there if there wasn't a steady source of food for him. In the Noctonaut community, one of the hardest parts about groups of vampires living together was all the different requirements that had to be met. Unless everyone was the same type of vampire, gatherings stayed small just because keeping everyone healthy was so difficult. 

Leaving Eddie behind and just moving on without him, however, was absolutely out of the question. Despite whatever illusions his usual cool and detached exterior provided, Manny deeply valued his friends simply because they were so hard to find. Vampires got other vampires just because everyone else was so short-lived. No human could know what it was like to live for hundreds of years, functionally immortal and constantly driven by one sole purpose. At this point he'd had plenty of time to really get to know each of his roommates, and he couldn't imagine what it would be like if any of them just left. No, he'd sooner die permanently than just abandon one of them. They could move if they had to.

Eventually his peace and quiet were disturbed by Guybrush stumbling into the kitchen in a fuzzy bathrobe. He'd flicked on the lights and shambled to the fridge, and was halfway through pouring himself a glass of juice before remembering where they were and why - all at once his attention snapped to one of the kitchen windows, and he wandered over to move the blackout curtains aside before addressing the lone vampire at the table.

"So he's gone?" Guybrush asked, peering into the forest through the blinds. "Shouldn't one of us have gone with him?"

Manny took a sip of coffee from his mug. By now it was cold, but he could use the caffeine and he didn't feel like getting up to reheat it. "Probably. But last time I checked, hunting like this isn't really our specialty - and I'd hate to get in his way."

Taking one of them with him would have only made the hunt harder for Eddie, but if Guybrush wanted to run around in the forest with a hungry predator on the loose, Manny wasn't going to stop him. It'd be his own fault when Eddie pounced on him and tried to tear his throat out, and then Manny could say I told you so.

Catching his meaning, Guybrush conceded the point and nodded. "Yeah, I guess you're right. Still, did he mention when he'd be back? What if something happens?"

"He didn't say," Manny responded, "But Eddie's a big boy, he can take care of himself."

Guybrush stopped scanning the forest and turned to stare flatly at Manny, unimpressed. I'm sorry, remind me how we got here again?

"Eddie knows his stuff when it comes to hunting," Manny amended. "He's been doing it for longer than we've known him, and performance issues didn't cause this problem. C'mon 'brush, have a little faith."

Despite all he'd just said about trusting in Eddie and his skills, internally he was still worried about his friend. By now he'd been gone for several hours and normally hunting like this didn't take very long. The kindest explanation was that he was taking his time enjoying the wealth of prey now available to him. 

There were other, less pleasant scenarios though. Maybe he'd gotten lost in the unfamiliar territory. Maybe he'd eaten too much too quickly, made himself sick, and passed out. In the worst, most unrealistic case, maybe he'd run into a vampire hunter by sheer coincidence all the way out here in the woods and been injured.

After another fifteen minutes with no sign of the Beast returning, Nelson wandered in and started making some toast. There wasn't anything the three of them could do but wait, but with how weak Eddie still was and how many possibilities there were, Manny hoped he got back soon. Maybe… maybe if he wasn't back in the next twenty minutes, the three of them could-

His next thought was cut off by the front door slamming violently open and bouncing off the wall with a bang. If he wasn't technically already stone cold dead, Eddie kicking in the door absolutely would've given him a heart attack. The large vampire had a manic grin on his face and a full-sized buck and an elk over his shoulders, which he dropped out on the porch before stepping inside to properly greet his friends.

Any explanations aside from what had taken so long were wholly unnecessary. It was pretty obvious what had happened - the animals he'd left outside were evidence enough of his success, and despite whatever efforts he'd made to clean up he was still absolutely coated in blood. Guybrush had very gracefully avoided the hug Eddie had tried to give him; despite how long he'd lived, he still had yet to figure out the best way for removing bloodstains from his clothing and he wasn't willing to spoil this outfit just yet.

Clearly Eddie was still riding the high that came with being fulfilled, and after going without for so long it was intense. Manny had tried to get him to sit down at the table just to try and control the mess he was making, tracking mud and blood all over the floor, but he couldn't sit still and in less than a minute he was back on his feet. His excitement was almost tangible, and as he shared tonight's adventures out in the forest with them, Manny took a moment to assess the state of his friend, evaluating how successful the change in scenery had been. 

Very , he concluded, just based on the fact that Eddie had been able to eat on his own at all. The marked improvement in his state of mind was all too obvious, and it warmed what used to be Manny's heart to see his friend so animated and cheerful.

His posture was so much more relaxed and open, with none of the tension or weakness caused by the hopelessness and pain of starvation, and his interactions with the three of them were much freer than they'd been in weeks. Most noticeably, his normally slit pupils were still rounded in satisfaction, indicating happiness and contentment on a level Manny hadn't seen in him for quite some time.

As the conversation turned to the dead animals currently bleeding all over the floorboards on the porch, Manny felt a lot of the stress and worry that had been weighing on his mind finally start to dissipate. They still had problems that needed to be solved, but for now, knowing that Eddie was on the mend was a huge weight off his shoulders. The four of them could figure out what to do next later; tonight, he was willing to take the success and call it a day.