Myra entered the small chamber and walked to the long table in the center, lighting all the tall beeswax candles. A gloomy light washed the room, playing across the half-empty shelves against the wall. Were Old World libraries ever so small or so dark?
Myra’s eyes moved across the top shelf, stacked with textbooks, encyclopedias, papers, and articles. She reached out to a chemistry textbook and flipped through the pages. The margins were filled with questions she had noted down, things she meant to ask Grandma Pia or Dr. Dubois. Myra frowned. The questions were so many; no one would ever have the time to sit down with her and answer every single one.
Perhaps she had to reread the section and try to figure out some of the answers herself. Myra sighed. Preserving the knowledge of the Old World was important, and she wished to learn everything humans used to know and pass it on to the younger generations. Yet, she had no energy for studying right now. All she wanted was to sit down with a good novel in her hand and lose herself in worlds far away from here.
Myra’s eyes moved to the lower shelf, where she had arranged all the fiction titles. She raised the candle and illuminated the thick covers. She had read and reread each of these books so many times that she had stopped counting. It had been years since a patrol had found a new novel during one of the raids. In all likelihood, they would never find anything new again.
Don’t be lazy, she told herself. Stop wasting your time with books you can recite by heart. The shelves won’t restock themselves. You have to contribute.
She knelt on the floor and reached out underneath the lowest shelf, pulling out a box filled with papers and notebooks. A cloud of dust rose in the air, and Myra coughed. She took the top notebook, labeled Ranger’s Quest, and opened it at the bookmark. Her novel was going very well. She had written over two hundred chapters now, each more exciting than the last. Myra smiled and grabbed a pencil. Perhaps she could steal some time for this before Thea finished her lectures.
Myra grinned as she jotted down words on the paper. She had reached the point where her protagonist, Maryabella, had to fight a band of trolls. Thea always complimented her on her ability to write action scenes, and Myra smiled, anticipating her cousin’s reaction once she read the new pages.
Myra paused and absentmindedly chewed on her pencil, staring at the page. She had to describe the scenery—green woods, a running stream, blue skies above. And yet, she had never seen any of those things. She had read about them in many books, but had never experienced anything she was writing about. Did her descriptions make any sense at all? Would someone who had seen the Old World laugh at her works?
She sighed and ran her hand through her hair. A few wavy brown strands remained in her hand, and she threw them to the floor with a quick, frustrated flick of her fingers. She wanted to write well. She wanted to create vivid worlds that would come to life. But how could she do this when all she had known was fear and darkness?
She could never become a better writer unless she went Outside and saw more of the world. She had to stop being a coward. It was time to ask Zack to send her on a patrol. And yet, there was no protection Outside. Anything could happen Outside.
I have to be more like Maryabella. She’s brave, adventurous, and a good fighter. I won’t find adventures in books I’ve read ten times. I’ll find them out there.
Yet, she knew how selfish that was. Warriors went Outside, risking their lives, so they could find food and clothes for everyone. She wanted to go so that she could become more sophisticated and find inspiration.
Myra rubbed at her forehead and placed the notebook back into the box. She glanced at the mechanical clock on the shelf. Thea’s lesson had to be over by now. She smiled and stood up—it was time to give her cousin a happy surprise.
Myra knocked before entering the classroom. Grandma Pia had finished her talk some time ago and was now answering the kids’ questions. A group of about forty children surrounded her; the youngest among them had barely turned five, while the oldest were Thea’s age.
Myra loved listening to the old woman. Pia was one of the few who had long and extensive memories of the Old World. She had been a little older than Myra during the Nightfall, and she always entertained and educated them with tales of the time before.
“Why did people make the WeatherWizard?” a little boy asked. “Didn’t they know vamps could come out if the sun was gone?”
“Scientists created the WeatherWizard for greater control over how many rainy and sunny days each place would get,” Grandma Pia explained. “Most days were made sunny so people could enjoy their time outside. But there was also rain to allow crops to grow and to stop the summer days from becoming unbearably hot.”
As she spoke, Grandma Pia sketched little pictures using chalk on the blackboard—a circular sun with rays going in all directions, clouds, raindrops, houses, streets, and little human figures carrying inverted basins on sticks; umbrellas, Myra’s memory supplied. Grandma Pia had told them that people of the Old World used umbrellas to keep the rain away.
“Rain was turned on late at night, to avoid inconveniencing people,” the old woman continued. “Sleet and hail were eliminated, as they could damage many plants. You have never experienced rain, children. On a hot day, rain may be refreshing, but it is mostly unpleasant. This wasn’t the only reason for the Wizard, of course. It also allowed control over greater problems, like tsunamis and hurricanes.”
“Tsunamis sound nasty, but I’ll choose them over vamps any day,” Myra said.
“No one expected what happened,” Pia said. “People in the Old World had no idea vampires existed. There were tales, but they were all attributed to legends and turned into fiction. At the time, vampires were far fewer. They always hid in crypts or caves, going out only at night. They hid their existence well.”
“And then people devised the WeatherWizard?” Thea said.
“Yes,” said Grandma Pia. “And about a century after the Wizard’s creation, this one vampire realized he could use it to take the world away from humans.”
“Vladimir,” Myra murmured.
Pia nodded. “He was once just another vampire, but ever since the Nightfall he’s been styling himself as their Prince.”
Myra snorted. “If he wishes to go around giving himself fancy titles, he should have at least changed his name. Honestly? Prince Vladimir. He sounds like some Old World Dracula wannabe. It’s hard to take him seriously.”
“He conquered the world,” said Grandma Pia. “It’s hard not to take him seriously.”
“He didn’t conquer the world,” Myra said. “He destroyed it. He rules over an empty world of ashes and death.”
“How did he stage the Nightfall?” a girl asked.
“We never learned all the specifics,” Pia replied. “In any case, the preparations must have taken years. He gathered his armies down below, and once all was ready, his accomplices took over the WeatherWizard and covered all landmass where vampires dwelt with permanent clouds.
“And then the Nightfall began. The conquest was short as humans were unprepared. We tried to fight them with full-spectrum lamps, but artificial sunlight never worked against the demons. Vampires killed by the thousands and turned the humans they considered beautiful enough, so their numbers kept growing. Nowadays vampires are many, and we are few. Even if the WeatherWizard is destroyed, the fight will be long and hard. These creatures have a taste for ruling the world. They won’t give up easily.”
“Is the whole world dead and covered in clouds?” a little boy asked.
“All areas our scouts explored are dead,” Grandma Pia said. “Though there must be patches of life here and there. Our scouts have hunted down animals, so there must be living plants.”
“There have to be,” Myra added, facing the boy. “Vampires need blood. They destroyed us, so now they have to feed on animals. They need to leave parts of the world alive to let animals survive.”
“Are there any other humans left besides us?” Thea asked.
“I can’t say,” Pia admitted. “So far our patrols haven’t found any other survivors.”
“I hope we meet other humans,” Thea said.
Myra had little hope that would ever happen. Ancient spells protected their cellars so that no vampire could find them unless led by a human. Druids had put the wards back in Roman times when people still believed in vampires, and all of their attempts to recover and recreate the spells had failed. She could not believe that there were other places protected by similar wards, or that human communities could survive without protection.
“I hope so too,” Pia said, “but to the best of my knowledge, all humans that remained Outside were either killed or turned. I have to say it’s strange. Vampires can survive on the blood of any animal, yet they have always preferred humans. Now that they have practically extinguished our kind, human blood is hard to find.”
They must be really happy whenever they capture one of us, Myra thought.
“So human blood is their favorite?” a seven-year-old girl, Monica, asked.
“They prefer it to animal blood,” Pia explained. “However, there is one single thing they like even better. Vampires enjoy drinking small amounts of each other’s blood, not as a means of sustenance, but as part of the games they play.”
Myra sighed. This information was not suited for children. “Thank you, Grandma Pia,” she interrupted before the old woman could elaborate. “Your tales are exciting as always. I have to leave now. I’ll take Thea with me, but I’ll come by to talk to you later.”
“I’ll finish my work in the school in about an hour,” the old woman said. “After that you can find me in my cellar.”
Thea stood up. “Grandma Pia, I have one last question before I go. You said people in the Old World had legends about vampires. What kind of legends? Were they true?”
Pia smiled. “A few were true, I guess. They did know about stakes, and beheadings, and fire, and sunlight, of course. However, most of their so-called knowledge was silly superstition. Humans believed vampires were repelled by such things as crosses, holy water, even garlic.”
“Garlic?” Thea snorted. “Now that would have been handy.”
“I suppose they needed some sense of false security,” Myra mused.
Monica cleared her throat. “Vamps breathe,” she said and blushed as all eyes turned at her. “My mom interrogated one, and she said he was breathing. Can we suffocate them?”
Grandma Pia shook her head. “They breathe so that they can talk and sense smell. They suffer no harm from lack of air.”
Myra stood up. “Come, Thea, we have to go.”
Thea said goodbye to the children and followed Myra out of the room. “Where are we going?” she asked.
“Alerie returned from a patrol,” Myra said. “She found something you might like.”
Alerie greeted them, and Myra and Thea entered the small cellar.
“I’m so happy you finally found some, after so many years,” Myra said with a smile.
“I wish I could give you more, but it’s better than nothing.” Alerie handed her the small piece. “We found only two bars, and we need to make sure all the children get a bite.”
“I’m not a child,” Thea protested.
“Problem solved, then,” Myra said. “Nothing for you.”
Thea glared at her. “What is it, anyway? And why is it only for children?”
“Let’s go to the children’s cellar, and I’ll show you,” Myra said.
Once they were in the room and seated on Thea’s pallet, Myra held out the precious object for her cousin to see. “It’s chocolate,” she said. “We haven’t found any since before you were born. I’ve tried some, and now it’s your turn. I must warn you, though—it’s expired and smells a bit funny, but I think it’ll still be good.”
Thea stared at the small piece as if she were afraid to take a bite. “Is there enough for everyone?” she asked.
“It’s enough for all the children who have never tried it before,” said Myra.
Thea looked up. “Do you want to share it?”
Myra smiled. “I’ve had a few pieces before you were born. Chocolate was easier to come by back then. This one is for you. Enjoy.” She paused, wondering if she should continue. “Thea, chocolate was your mom’s favorite food. She liked it a lot. I think you’ll like it too.”
Thea played with the dark piece in her hand. “Then perhaps I should save it for her. In case she comes back.”
Myra looked away. “Thea, no one has seen her in over ten years.”
“But no one found a body either,” her cousin reasoned.
Myra sighed. That much was true. “Do you miss her?” she asked.
Thea shook her head. “To be honest, I can’t say that I do. I miss the idea of her, I think, but I don’t remember her. You’re my family now.”
Myra stared at the chocolate in silence. It was so unfair. Aunt Sandra had loved her baby girl more than anything, and now her daughter did not even remember her. “Try it,” she said.
“Only if we split it,” Thea declared stubbornly.
Myra was about to protest when she spotted something on the low wooden table next to the bed. She frowned and reached out, picking up the red silken ribbon. “Thea, where did you get this?”
Her cousin’s face brightened. “Remember the goods Thomas brought from his last patrol? He scavenged what he thought was useful and was going to throw away the rest. He told us to look through the stuff and see if we liked something. I found this!” She reached out to pick the ribbon from Myra’s hand.
Myra sighed. “Do you even know what it is?”
“Of course,” Thea said, scolding. “I’m not a baby. I’ve read books and seen pictures.” She tied the ribbon around one of her twin ponytails. “See? Don’t I look pretty? Now I just need to find a second one.”
Myra stared at the ribbon, bright crimson against Thea’s dark-golden hair. She had never seen anything like it except in old photographs. Myra frowned and gave her cousin what she hoped was a stern look. “Why should it matter? It’s the vamps who want to look pretty. We are above such trivialities.”
“Says who? Humans of the Old World wanted to look pretty all the time.”
“Yes, they did, and don’t you know how it ended? The prettiest of humans became vampires. Is that what you want to happen to you?” Myra untied the ribbon from her cousin’s hair. “We are better than that.”
“Better?” Thea said. “Why would wanting or not wanting to look good make you a better or a worse person? It is only one of the many facets of your essence and it neither negates nor validates your other qualities.”
Myra stared at her baby cousin at a loss of words. “A facet of your essence? It doesn’t negate your qualities? Where did you learn to use such words?”
“At school,” Thea replied with a grin. “So do I get to keep the ribbon?”
Myra handed it back. “Fine, if it makes you happy, but don’t lose sight of what really matters.”
A soft knock came from the door, and Myra fell quiet and looked up. The door opened and Lidia’s dark curly head popped in. “Sorry to be the bearer of bad news,” she said. “But the prisoner isn’t talking, and Zack says it’s your turn.”
Myra suppressed a shudder. “Do I have to? You enjoy this. Feel free to take my shift if you like.”
Lidia grinned. “I don’t hate it, I admit, but I’m practical. I’ve seen enough to know that I can’t make this one talk. Your tactics are different. Perhaps you can do something with him.”
Myra had no desire to do anything with the prisoner, but if Zack insisted, she had little choice. “Fine,” she murmured. “Let’s get this over with.”