The vampire prisoner stood on unsteady legs, supported only by the chains that kept his arms up. Angry cuts and bruises decorated his face, arms, and bare torso. His fingers hung down, bent at unnatural angles. Still, he looked up and gave Myra a grin. “The next one,” he said. “Let’s see if you can come up with something more creative.”
Myra tore her gaze from him. She would never break him with pain. If Lidia and Thomas had failed, she stood no chance. Her best bet was to be the good cop, as the prisoner had said earlier.
“I’m not here to torture you,” she said.
He snorted. “Right. So you fight for love and peace among all beings?”
“Far from it,” she said. “I know it will be pointless. My commander insists on me interrogating you, but that would be a waste of both your time and mine. I’m not going to make this even more unpleasant than it already is for either of us.”
“Who says it’s unpleasant?” the monster said. “I am enjoying myself.”
She forced herself to smile and sat down in front of him. “I admire you, really. You are ready to suffer so much in order to protect your Prince. He must be a remarkable vampire to inspire such loyalty.”
He laughed. “Is that your way of getting me to talk about His Highness?”
Myra bit her lower lip, but did not allow her smile to falter. Too obvious. “I’m just curious. He united all vampires and brought them together to work for a common cause. I admit I can’t imagine how he rules over the entire world. How do you even communicate with the faraway places? You have let all technology, except the WeatherWizard, fall to waste. It must take ages to send a message.”
He remained silent, but she pretended not to notice. “I guess your society must have something of a feudal structure. The Prince is the ruler in name, but every small region is under a local vampire lord or lady, who in theory reports to the Prince, but holds all the power.”
He stared at her and grinned. Myra sighed. She had done a poor job hiding the fact that she was fishing for information.
She stretched her legs on the floor, faking a yawn. “I should have brought a book along to pass the time. This is such a waste. I keep telling Zack we should just focus on survival and forget this nonsense, but he never listens.”
“Yes, you should,” the vampire finally said. “You’ll get yourselves killed if you go after the Prince.”
“Exactly,” Myra cried, trying to sound enthusiastic. “Last time we tried to do something major against your kind, it led to the Great Massacre, and over half of our Warriors died. If we target the Prince, it will be even worse. That’s what I keep telling everyone.”
“And your commander disagrees?”
She snorted. “Have you met Zack? He’s obsessed. Kill the Prince. Kill the Prince. It’s like a mantra to him.” She stood up, brushed the dust off her pants, and took a few steps away from him. “Forgive me. I know you don’t want to talk to me. I’ll let you brood in peace.”
He laughed. “No, please. I am bored. Tell me about Zack.”
“He’s not thinking straight,” Myra said. “He wants to attack the Prince full force. Can you imagine?”
The vamp laughed. “Honestly, I cannot. Your pitiful Resistance cannot hope to stand against an army of eight hundred vampires. You are right—this is insane.”
Eight hundred vampires. Myra fought hard to suppress a grin. They already knew the Prince ruled over the world, but naturally, it would be impossible to call all vampires from faraway places to his aid if he was under attack. The Warriors’ Council had often wondered how many soldiers were in the Prince’s immediate vicinity, ready to rise, and finally they knew.
She wished she could mock the monster and inform him that he had fallen into her trap, but she kept her facade. If she wanted to get any additional information out of him, she had to keep this up.
But what if the prisoner was deceiving her? What if he had seen through her game and had said that number to trick her? Perhaps the vamps were fewer and were vulnerable to an attack, but he had said a higher number to discourage any attempts. Or perhaps the number was greater, and the vamp wanted the Resistance to underestimate the Prince and fall into an ambush.
Myra looked at the captive, bound and helpless, tortured and in obvious pain, and yet still cocky. Did he still have the presence of mind to deceive her?
“Yes, I know we’d all die long before coming anywhere near the Prince,” she said. “To tell you the truth, I don’t know if I’d want to kill him even if I had the chance.”
“He conquered the world,” Myra said. “I keep thinking about the Nightfall and how he organized everything. It’s quite incredible. Honestly, I find him fascinating.” She walked closer to the vampire. “Tell me, what’s he like?”
The prisoner’s dark eyes narrowed. “Why, you sneaky little idiot. You think you can manipulate me into talking about the Prince? Who do you think you are?”
Myra bit her lower lip and looked away. She had pushed too hard and too fast. She would never get anything more from this captive, but perhaps she could do better with the next prisoner.
She looked up and raised a hand towards a trail of bleeding cuts on his arm. “You bleed, and yet your heart doesn’t beat. How does that work? I’ve always wondered.”
“I thought you would have figured that out by now,” he said. “The dark magic that gives us life circulates our blood.”
“And this dark magic is fed by blood?” Myra said. “I see. That explains a lot. I’ve seen Old World depictions of vampires, and they were all sickly pale, while you’re not. I guess that’s how people of the past imagined the risen dead to appear. But truth is, the blood that flows through your veins gives you some color. Though I suppose you can never get a suntan.”
“Well, neither can you.”
She glared at him. “Yes, thanks to your Prince, my people have never seen the sun. You must be letting sunlight reach the ground in some places. Where are they?”
“Look, my dear. You said it yourself—let us not waste each other’s time. If you are not going to torture me, I suggest you go back home and do whatever you people do around here.”
Myra stood up and walked slowly and deliberately to the far wall. She picked a stake from the rack and held it up so the prisoner could see it.
“I could end it, here and now. Tell me what I want to know, and I’ll grant you a quick death.”
He smiled. “And what part of ‘I’m enjoying it’ did you miss?”
“I’m not going to torture you,” Myra said walking back to him. “But once my shift is over, one of my friends will come to relieve me, and they won’t be so gentle. I want to spare you the pain. Please, I want to help you.”
“Do I look like I care what you want?”
She gazed at the chained and hurt prisoner. Soon her friends would come one by one and resume their torture. The vampire claimed he enjoyed the torment, but she had heard his screams. Myra had no pity for this monster. He had killed many humans and would kill more if given the chance. Yet, abusing him did not seem right. At this point, he would reveal no new information. How long before they, the humans, turned into bigger monsters than the vamps?
Myra took a deep breath and plunged the stake deep into the vampire’s heart.
“He could have talked,” Thomas said.
Myra raised her water glass and took a slow sip. The thirty Warriors seated around the Conference Table at the Headquarters were all staring at her, and she was willing to bet that no more than one or two of them approved of her action. “He wasn’t going to talk,” she said. “He accidentally revealed information about the army size, but he wasn’t going to say anything more. We were wasting our time, when we could be doing something more productive.”
“I agree with Myra,” Lidia said. “This vampire wasn’t cooperating. We need to find one who will.”
“And what if we never do?” Myra challenged. “Even if a prisoner talks, do we really think any information will help us assassinate the Prince? And if we do assassinate him, will it solve all our problems? Will it help us destroy the Wizard and restore humanity?”
“Killing the Prince will cause disorder among the vamps and give us an opportunity to strike,” Thomas said.
“Do we really know that?” Myra said. “Perhaps the Prince will simply be replaced by another tyrant and we won’t even notice the change.”
“I can’t imagine that vamps appoint heirs,” said Thomas. “They never plan on dying. If the Prince dies, it will surely lead to some kind of a civil war.”
“You’re just guessing,” said Myra.
“What do you suggest, then?” Thomas asked.
“We could skip all the dubious intermediate steps and jump right into an attack on the Wizard,” Lidia suggested.
Thomas snorted. “Our Warriors are too few.”
Myra’s eyes darted towards Zack, who was sitting at the head of the Conference Table, strangely quiet. “Thomas is right,” she said. “We’re not ready to attack, but there might be something else we can do.”
An elderly Warrior cleared his throat, and everyone fell silent. “Our Warriors are too few, you say,” Andre said. “Well, there is a very easy way to get more.”
Zack stood up and started pacing back and forth, but said nothing. Andre followed him with his eyes before continuing. “I’m turning seventy next year. I’m one of your best and most experienced Warriors, and I won’t be allowed to fight.” He stood up from his chair and stared at Zack. “Remove the age restrictions. Allow everyone who can hold a weapon to be a Warrior.”
“Yes,” a girl, Estella, cried, and all eyes turned at her. “I turned sixteen last week, so this is my first Warriors’ meeting. A week ago, I wasn’t allowed to fight. Back then I could fight just as well as I can now. Age shouldn’t come into it.”
Zack stopped in his tracks and swept the room with his gaze. “We could remove the upper boundary and allow the elderly to fight, but only if they volunteer. I will not force anyone over seventy to take up arms.” He looked at Estella and added, “But I won’t allow children to fight.”
“But—” she started to protest, and he interrupted her.
“Enough. I am not allowing anyone under sixteen to be a Warrior. In any case, even with the babies and the oldest among us fighting, our numbers are far from enough to get through the Wizard’s defenses.”
Myra sighed. That much was true. Removing the upper age boundary would only add a handful of Warriors to their ranks. After all, few in the Resistance lived beyond the age of forty, and ten years ago the Great Massacre had further diminished the number of older fighters. “We can’t launch any attack if we starve to death,” she said. “There might be a way to find better food supplies.”
“Speak,” said Zack.
“The animals we hunt down must be feeding on something. There must be growing plants somewhere, which means the vampires leave the place sunlit. If we find that place, we could find edible plants and more animals to hunt. Moreover, if the place is sunlit, it will be safe during the day. Zack, I know how important the attack is, but we need to have a sustainable food source before we attempt anything.”
“Why would the vamps keep a sunlit place?” Thomas challenged.
“They do need something to eat after all,” Myra said. “They couldn’t let all animals die out.”
“If such a place exists, they must have set up some traps for us,” Zack said. “I don’t think it’s safe to go searching for it.”
“May I suggest something crazy?” Estella said.
“You’re now a member of the Warriors’ Council,” Zack said. “You have as much right to speak as anyone.”
Estella grinned. “Rat farm,” she said. “Think about it. Right now we kill and bake the rats that we capture right away. What if we kept them alive and put them together, so they could reproduce and multiply in a controlled environment? They’re low maintenance, and if the farm grows, we would have a steady meat supply.”
“It does sound crazy,” Thomas said.
“Yet it makes sense,” said Andre. “I like it.”
“They do multiply fast,” Zack mused. “And require little food to survive.”
He paused as the door opened, and Alerie stepped in. “General Wong. I have some news. We’ve captured another vamp.”
The silence that followed was deafening. Thomas was the first to speak. “Another? We capture two vamps per year if we are lucky, and now we have a second one in just a couple of days?”
“They are coming closer to our hideout and becoming more dangerous,” said Lidia. “We can expect more encounters in the future.”
“Any casualties on our side?” Zack asked.
“Tory and Daphne are dead,” Alerie said softly. “Three more are wounded but will recover.”
Everyone bowed their heads. Myra had not known the fallen Warriors very well, but it stung nonetheless. Death was ever present in their lives, and their small community was growing even smaller. The Resistance had numbered over two thousand shortly after the Nightfall, and now there were less than five hundred of them. Tory had two daughters, she suddenly remembered and closed her eyes.
“Is the captive secured?” Zack asked.
“Yes, she is chained in the prison cellar,” Alerie replied.
Zack nodded. “Very well. Let the vamp rot there for now. We’ll interrogate her later. First, we’ll take the time to bury and mourn Daphne and Tory.”
Myra knocked on the flimsy door and entered once she heard a reply. The cellar was dark, save for a single lit candle. Zack was sitting at the desk poring over some papers, a half-empty mug in his hand.
Myra leaned on the desk next to him. “What’s this?”
“I’m reviewing the inventory,” her friend and commander said. “I don’t need to tell you things don’t look good.” Zack ran his hands through his hair. “How am I supposed to do this? How am I supposed to feed hundreds on this?” He waved the paper listing their supplies.
Myra placed a hand on his shoulder. “Zack, we don’t expect magic from you. We are all facing this together. We’ll figure it out.” She took the paper out of his hand and left it on the desk. “Have you seen the new vamp? Any chance she may talk?”
He shook his head. “I let Lidia start the interrogation. I haven’t seen the prisoner yet.”
“More and more patrols fail to return unharmed,” said Myra. Suddenly the idea of joining the next party seemed less appealing.
“I know,” Zack said, looking tired. “But we can’t stop sending them. We are consuming the food faster than we are finding new supplies.”
“Yes, of course,” she said. “Zack, you were quiet at the conference today. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing, really. I just hoped Alerie would find more food.”
Myra smiled sadly. “We all did. Honestly, I hoped she’d find some glutinous rice. I was looking forward to your New Year’s cakes.”
Zack gave her a blank look. “What?”
“You do know it’s Chinese New Year next week, right?”
“Honestly, no.” Zack raised an eyebrow. “And you didn’t seriously expect me to make cakes, did you?”
She frowned. “Zack, you haven’t celebrated in the past five years. What happened? This holiday used to mean so much to you.”
“It meant a lot to my grandmother,” he said. “I never cared much. After her death there was no point in pretending anymore.”
That’s not true, Myra thought. I’ve seen you laugh and enjoy the holiday. Need is turning us all into beasts.
She took the inventory list from the desk and brought it to her face. “So you focused on fighting and surviving for one more day,” she said. “Have you ever wondered what your grandmother would think if she were still alive, watching you? We have become animals—eating, fighting, killing, and hiding in our dark holes. When was the last time we celebrated Holi, or Hanukkah, or Christmas, or Ramadan, or anything at all?”
“People of the Old World celebrated the coming of spring,” said Zack. “They celebrated the solstices, and the equinoxes. What would these mean to us when we have no spring? When we have no sun?”
“It doesn’t mean we should forget our cultures,” Myra said. “We’re so busy surviving that we have forgotten about all else. Zack, I finished writing another short story yesterday. Let me give a lecture at the school and make the kids read it.”
He snorted. “I’m sorry to be blunt, but the school system doesn’t exist to satisfy your ego. We have plenty of Old World books for the kids to read and discuss. I’m sure they can learn more from them than from your stories.”
“How would you know?” Myra said softly. “You never read any of my works. Besides, if you must know, we have exactly one hundred and seventeen fiction books in the library. This is hardly enough. We need new works, and we need to encourage the children to create art on their own.”
“The children need to train to become Warriors,” Zack said. “The combat training is our top priority. We can’t destroy the Wizard with art or science.”
But can we be humans without it? “Alright,” she said. “Let’s say we train every day and somehow destroy the WeatherWizard. What then? We’ll have to rebuild human society from scratch, and we need to be equipped with the right tools. Humans of the Old World had so much knowledge—on math and science, history, philosophy, art. They worked for millennia to accumulate it; we can’t let it go to waste. And, most of all, we can’t let the human spirit and the desire to create go to waste.”
“I agree that knowledge in a variety of subjects is important,” Zack said. “But there will be no world to rebuild unless we destroy the Wizard here and now.” He paused. “Still, I see your point. Perhaps it won’t hurt to organize another spirit-lifting event. We won’t be celebrating Chinese New Year or any other specific holiday. We’ll simply celebrate life, culture, and the strength of the human spirit.”
Myra smiled and placed a hand on his arm. “Thank you. How can I help?”
“You’ll stage a play. One of your own or something from the library. Something funny and uplifting. And, Myra, I can’t spare any Warriors at the moment. You should use child actors for all parts.”
“I can work with that,” she said and paused. Someone was knocking.
Lidia entered at Zack’s invitation. “General,” she said. “I think you need to meet the prisoner.”
Zack frowned. “Is the interrogation going well?”
“I’m not interrogating her,” Lidia said. “Or torturing her for that matter. She’s speaking freely. And she wants to talk to you.”
“What do you mean she’s speaking freely?” Myra asked. “Is she ready to reveal information about the Prince?”
“I think you had better come,” said Lidia. “Both of you.”