Torch flames danced in the gloomy corridor, like snakes fighting to devour one another. Myra reached to the stone wall to steady herself. Light and shadow played around her, creating images on the wall—battles, blood, death. She took in a deep breath. Her head was spinning, but she had to keep walking. She had to reach the children’s cellar and tell Thea what she had done. But what could she possibly say?
If you want to play the hero, do it in one of your theater plays.
Was it all a dream? Or had the play become reality? She finally saw it all clearly—the moment she had volunteered, she had not believed any of this was real. But it was. She was really going Outside, really sneaking into a vampire’s lair.
The task to assassinate Prince Vladimir is appointed to you.
The Resistance had been trying to assassinate the Prince since long before her birth. How could she hope to succeed where so many experienced Warriors had failed? What had she been thinking?
“You look gloomy today.”
Myra jumped, staring at her cousin who was standing in the middle of the passage barring her way. “Thea, sorry, I was distracted.”
“Clearly,” Thea said. “What’s up?”
Myra opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out. I should have planned this in advance. “Can you join me in the library?” she said after she finally found her voice. “I have something to show you.”
Thea nodded and fell in step next to her. “What is it? Did Alerie find any other super-food?”
“Do you always think about sweets?” Myra asked, forcing a smile. “You’ll learn soon enough. A little patience won’t hurt you.”
Thea stayed silent until they reached the library. They entered and Myra raised her candle, casting light over the shelves. She loved the sight of books, the feel of paper in her hands, the characteristic smell. She often told herself that she wanted to go outside and experience adventures just like her favorite characters, but in all honesty, she would have been happy to spend her life in the library, reading one novel after another.
Reading. That was what she was always doing. Reading other people’s adventures, and reading her own. Up until today her fate had been written down, every single day predefined. Get up, train, study, cook, clean, wash and sew clothes, hunt rats, discuss plans at the Headquarters, interrogate prisoners, eat, sleep. She had been a reader of her own life, and the story had been dark and dull. Now the time had come to become the writer of her own fate and to decide what happened next.
“Can you believe that in the Old World, authors often romanticized vampires?” Myra wondered as she took in the titles.
“Grandma Pia said people had no idea vamps existed,” Thea said. “For them it was only a fantasy.”
“A strange fantasy,” Myra said. “I wonder if any of those authors would exchange their place with mine and come and live it for real.” She trailed her hand over the row of books, brushing off the dust. “Ah, sorry, Thea. I brought you here to show you something.”
She knelt down to reach the bottom shelf and took out a box filled with her notebooks. “Last week I finished writing another play for the kids. It’s about two little pandas, exploring the world. I thought you and Anastasia could play the main roles.”
“Sounds great,” Thea said. “When are we performing?”
Myra hesitated. “Thea, I’m going Outside on a mission, and I don’t know how long I’ll be away. I’m showing you the play because I want you to organize the performance in case I am delayed. You’ve seen me directing before; I know you’ll do fine.”
Thea had blanched. “What kind of a mission is this? And why do you sound like you don’t expect to come back?”
“What are you talking about? Of course I’ll come back,” Myra said, trying to hide the tremors in her voice. “Where else would I go?”
Thea’s lower lip trembled, and her eyes were filling up with treacherous moisture. “You better come back. If you don’t, I’ll sabotage your play and make a tiger eat the baby pandas.”
Myra laughed at that. And then, she cried. And as she held her distraught cousin, she whispered promises she did not know how to keep.
Zack took his high chair at the end of the Conference Table and leaned back. “What is your plan?”
Myra unfolded the map and placed it on the table. “We need about three hours to reach the Rose Gardens. We should leave three hours before dawn, so that we arrive there in the early morning. If the place is sunlit, there will be no vampires before sunset, and we’ll have plenty of time to investigate the terrain before the Prince arrives.”
“That’s assuming Rim didn’t lie about the vamps keeping the sunshine on,” Alerie said.
“For now let’s assume Rim was telling the truth,” Zack said. “Otherwise we have no starting point.”
“Alright, then,” Alerie said. “We leave, we follow the route Rim outlined, and provided she told the truth, we reach the Rose Gardens by sunrise. Then what?”
“We’ll have the whole day to look around the Gardens and find a good hiding spot,” said Myra.
“And we’ll sit and hide, waiting for him to appear?” Alerie laughed. “Now I see why we picked you for this mission. A brilliant strategy indeed.”
Zack frowned. “Captain Sanchez, now is not the time for sarcasm. If you have something to say, say it.”
“Myra has no field experience,” Alerie said. “She’s endangering herself, and she’s endangering me. Even worse, she puts the mission at risk.”
“How am I putting the mission at risk?” Myra asked. “Alerie, I understand your concerns, but I can assure you I won’t do anything to give away our position. I’ll follow your orders. You’ll be in command; I’ll just advise.”
Alerie stood up, walked behind her chair, and squeezed the backrest until her knuckles turned white. “Advise? How exactly will you advise when you have no idea what we are doing? You suggest we simply hide in the garden and wait? Do you even know how keen a sense of smell vampires have? Has it occurred to you that the Prince might catch our scent no matter how well we hide?”
“Yes, you need to conceal your scent,” Zack said. “Captain Sanchez, I assume you have a suggestion?”
“Of course. There are some very old fish cans in the storage. We could check if anything is smelly enough and rub it on our skin.”
“Wouldn’t the Prince wonder why there’s dead fish in his garden?” Myra said. “If the gardens are anything like what Rim described, there should be fresh grass and flowers there. We could rub those on our skin instead.”
Alerie reached out to pick the map and stared at it. “If you say so. Any thoughts on the actual killing?”
“You’re the expert here,” Myra said.
“You are the strategist,” Alerie shot back.
Zack sighed. “Captain Sanchez, I cannot tolerate this hostility. You are one of my best Warriors, and I’d like to have you on this mission. Myra claims she can contribute, and I trust her. I need both of you, and I need you to work together.”
Alerie frowned and stared back. “As you command, General.” She looked at Myra. “So? Any ideas?”
What answer did Alerie expect? All the vamps Myra had staked had been chained and incapacitated. Her only experience came from talking to the Warriors who had been out on patrols.
“Vampires are quicker and stronger than us,” Myra said. “I’ve heard that the best way to kill them is to weaken them first. It’s best to start with the guns. Once they’re wounded and slower, we can take crossbows and go for the kill.”
“Yes, you’ve heard this,” Alerie said. “While I have actually done it, several times. Myra, I know you have good intentions. And I promise to guide you and help you achieve all you are capable of on this mission. But you must understand that saying something and doing it are two different things. We start with guns, then we take crossbows; it sounds so easy when you say it. Yet, I can tell you it won’t be easy at all.”
“I know that,” Myra said. “Prince Vladimir has destroyed human civilization. He rules over the world and has armies at his command. Killing him can’t be so simple.”
Saying it aloud made their mission sound even more hopeless. Really, what were they thinking? This was the vamps’ leader they were talking about. He would never put himself in any position that would endanger his life. Myra stared at the map showing the road they had to walk. What had she gotten herself into?
Myra held her empty backpack and gazed at the supplies on the pallet. Guns and bullets, crossbows and arrows, stakes, water flasks, biscuits, smoked meat, blankets, a notebook and pencils. “Do you think that’s enough?”
“You’re the strategist,” Alerie said. “You tell me.”
Myra ran a hand through her hair. “Why do you have such a problem with me? You said it yourself that it’s a good time for me to start going Outside.”
“I meant you could start joining raids in search for food,” Alerie said, “not that you should join the Resistance’s most important mission ever. Look, Myra, I have nothing against you. You’re a good, caring person, and you’ve contributed to our community. In fact, I like you, and that’s one of the reasons I don’t want to see you killed. Which is exactly what will happen if you come with me.”
“Can you try to have a little faith in me? I know what I’m doing.”
“Do you? Well, then—are the supplies enough?”
Myra sighed. No matter what answer she gave, she would never convince Alerie that she was ready for this. “The food here is enough for a week. If all goes well, we should accomplish the mission and return in less than two days.”
Alerie sat on the pallet and started putting the supplies in her backpack. “Still, we may need to camp out at the Gardens for longer if necessary. We don’t know for certain that the Prince will come on the first day. Or he may come with company, and then we would need to hide and wait until he returns alone.”
“Rim said he goes there almost every day.”
“Almost,” Alerie said. “How many days in a row would he typically miss? How often would he bring others with him?”
“I guess we should talk to the prisoner again and ask her the specifics.”
Alerie took a crossbow from the pallet and started checking the string. “And the notebook and pencils are necessary because…?”
Myra looked at the floor. Alerie would not be happy to hear she was hoping to find inspiration out in the open and do some writing. “We might need to record information on the way.”
“We should record as little as possible. Anything we write down could fall into enemies’ hands.”
“I know how to use our secret code,” Myra said.
Alerie snorted. “Ah, the code. That’s one of Zack’s worst ideas. The vamps have lived for centuries and witnessed the rise and fall of all kinds of sophisticated encryption systems. Do you think they can’t crack a simple Vigenère code?”
Myra had never considered this. The code had seemed so intricate and complicated when Zack had first taught her how to use it, and she had honestly believed it to be unbreakable. Alerie was right—the vamps were beasts, but they were likely more knowledgeable than any of the Resistance.
Alerie raised an eyebrow. “Do you still think you’re up to this? It’s not too late to turn back.”
Myra looked away. “I don’t know. This mission is unpredictable, and I can’t say if I’m better suited than anyone else. What I do know is that I’ll never forgive myself if I let Lidia go instead of me and leave our people without a doctor. And honestly, even if we succeed, we still have many battles ahead. Our army isn’t big enough to assault the Wizard, whether the Prince lives or not.”
“It’s much smaller than it should be,” Alerie said. “Zack is wrong, keeping the minors from fighting.”
“You can’t mean that.”
Alerie put the crossbow in her backpack. “Why not? Adulthood is a fluid notion. At some points in human history, twelve was a respectable age to fight in a war, to make your own living, or to get married. And a few of the minors are very good fighters. Better than some of our Warriors.”
“Better than me, you mean? This isn’t about ability or maturity. They’re children. They haven’t lived long enough. We can’t place them in danger like that. And, to be honest, I can’t imagine Thea holding a weapon.”
“She’s like a baby to you,” Alerie said. “She’s twelve, you know.”
“I know. But I’ve held her when she was this big.” Myra put her hands two feet apart. “It’s hard to think she’s grown up and even harder to imagine her fighting. I hope to end this war before she has to.” She reached out to take a stake from the supplies and twirled it before placing it in her pack. “I’m going to talk to the prisoner. Will you join me?”
Alerie stared at her scattered supplies. “I suppose packing can wait.”
The heavy door came into view and Myra gasped and stopped in her tracks. The prison cellar was one of the few places in the Resistance with metal doors—the patrols had found only a handful of these in abandoned towns, and Zack had decided to install them in the dungeon, where security was the most important. Yet, Resistance members could never be sure that the titanium chains and the metal doors would be enough to contain vamps, so it was customary to have a guard or two in the passage in front of the door whenever they had a prisoner.
The corridor was empty.
Myra’s throat grew tight. “Where are the guards?”
“Sean was on guard duty today.” Alerie grabbed Myra’s arm. “The vamp has escaped. I don’t know what she’s done to him, but it can’t be good.”
Myra shuddered and took a step towards the closed door, but Alerie pulled her back. “Wait. The vamp couldn’t have gotten out unnoticed. We have too many patrols on the way. She’s probably still in there, biding her time.”
“Should we call for reinforcements?” Myra asked.
Alerie put a finger against her lips and walked away from the door, gesturing at Myra to follow. Once they had taken a turn into another section of the corridor, Alerie stopped. “If she’s in there, she was probably listening to us and planning her next move. She might want to take us hostages and use us in her escape.”
“Rim doesn’t even know the way out,” Myra said. “She was blindfolded when they brought her in.”
“She could have memorized the steps and the turns,” Alerie said. “But I agree—I don’t think she’ll manage to get out. Still, if she’s running free inside the Resistance, she can do a lot of damage before we kill or recapture her. Sean is probably dead already, and she could kill others. We need to get reinforcements, but we can’t abandon this post. If she’s still in the cell, we need to watch her moves.”
“Should we split up?”
Alerie nodded. “I’ll stay here. You go and tell Zack.”
“Are you sure? If Rim is free of her chains, she’ll be stronger than you.”
“I know,” Alerie said. “But I don’t see any other options. Go.”
Myra had barely taken a few steps when she stopped, listening. Someone was running down the corridor, approaching them. Thankfully, the steps were heavier than what she would expect from their delicate vampire prisoner.
She gasped as a tall man appeared in front of her. He wore a shirt of faded red, his head was shaven, and a dark woolen patch over his left eye socket concealed the damage done in an old battle.
“Sean!” Alerie cried. “What happened? Is the vamp out?”
Someone else was approaching, running almost as fast as Sean had. Oh no, this can’t be good. Myra’s heart stopped when Zack appeared.
“Shanice was here,” Sean said breathlessly. “She said Zack was looking for me. She claimed he ordered me to leave my post and come immediately.”
“As you can imagine, I’ve done no such thing,” Zack said. “Come, and let’s hope it’s not too late.”
Myra’s heart raced as she followed them back to the cell. “She couldn’t have gotten in, right?” she said, her voice breaking. “The door is locked at all times.”
“All Warriors have keys, Tory included,” said Alerie. “Shanice could have taken his keys, or someone else’s.”
Myra opened the door to the prison cellar, her hand shaking. It was unlocked. She breathed in sharply as she walked in and pressed a hand against her mouth. Alerie pushed her aside and cursed.
Alerie and Zack were saying something, but Myra could only gape at the scene in front of her. Shanice stood there, her face, arms and gown spattered with blood. A bloodied stake was in her hand, and her empty eyes stared into nothingness.
The prisoner’s body hung from the chains, a stake in her heart. A few more wounds surrounded the stake—the killer had not hit the heart the first time. A bloodied hammer lay on the ground, perhaps used to drive the stake in.
Myra’s eyes moved back to the ten-year-old girl. “What have you done?” she breathed.
Shanice turned angry dark eyes at her. “You planned to let her go. She killed my dad. And you planned to let her go.”
Sean looked away, shaking his head. “It’s my fault. I should have known.”
Zack frowned. “We’ll discuss this later. This isn’t about you.”
Alerie knelt in front of Shanice and tried to take the stake from her hand. “Shanice, there were bigger things going on. The situation was more complex than—”
“Complex?” the girl cried and pulled back. “She killed my dad. What’s complex, exactly?”
Alerie took a step back to give the girl more space. “In the end, we want to defeat all vamps,” she started, but Shanice glared at her.
“I don’t care what you want! It doesn’t matter anymore!”
Myra stared at the girl’s clothes, stained with blood. It would wash away, but she doubted anything could erase the blood from Shanice’s memories.
“What is done is done,” Zack said. “Come, now, Shanice. Let’s go to your mom.”
“You go,” Myra said. “I’ll take care of the body.”
“Shanice, come.” Alerie pulled the girl out, practically dragging her. The bloodied stake was still in Shanice’s hand. Zack and Sean silently followed.
The door closed with a bang. Once the sound of fading footsteps died away, the prison cell was silent as a tomb. Myra forced herself to look at the vampire. No, not a vampire. A body. A human body. Rim had been a human woman once, before some vampire had killed her and turned her into a monster. Myra sighed and started with her grim task.
Rim is Shanice’s first kill, Myra thought as she unlocked the shackles around the vampire’s wrists. How many children had to turn into soldiers before all was said and done? Myra pressed her lips together and stared at the body. If she had any say in the matter, Shanice would be the last.