Myra stumbled and waved her arms before she regained her footing. The sparse torches did a poor job illuminating the steep passage, and she strained her eyes to see better. Soon the corridor became so narrow that two people could not walk side by side, and Myra fell behind. If one was to lead, it had to be Alerie. She had walked this path countless times, while Myra had never gone past this point.
The corridor led them on a long descent, going even deeper underground before returning closer to the surface. Myra’s heart pounded so fast it made her ears ring. She was going Outside, into the world that had once belonged to her ancestors; in the world where people had lived, and laughed, and created. She had dreamed about this moment so many times, and yet all she wanted now was to turn back and run.
Myra had spent so much time in the library, reading about heroes and their fights. She had written tales of her own about brave adventurers fighting oppression. And Myra had wanted to be like the characters in her books and go on her own adventure. Now she was on a quest, the fate of the world in her hands. Why was she not happy?
Myra reached for the stake hanging at her belt, clutching at it as if it were a lifeline. Saving the world was a hero’s job. She was a dreamer, not a hero. The only adventures fit for her were the ones she had in her mind, from the safety of her own bed. What had she done? And was it too late to turn back?
They passed by a pair of guards, and Myra greeted them even though her throat was so dry she could barely make a sound. Sweat broke across her palms and her heart threatened to burst out of her chest. When were they going to reach the entrance? With every turn, she expected to see the end of this dark underworld, yet it never came.
Finally, the air felt fresher and much cooler. Myra pulled her worn-out denim jacket tighter around herself. She smelled something in the air, something strangely familiar, and yet she could not say what it was.
They passed by the last pair of guards, and there it was at last: a large hole in the stony wall, hidden from the outside world by a curtain of dead branches and protected by ancient magic. Once they left, there would be no protection. No safety.
Alerie pushed the branches away and left the cave without a moment’s hesitation. Myra froze, taking a deep breath to steady her heartbeat. It did not help. She exhaled slowly and stepped Outside.
All was dark at first, until Alerie lit a torch, and their surroundings came to life. They were in the middle of a dead forest, leafless branches cracking in the wind and fallen, rotting trees littering the stony ground. Night had fallen and the vampires had allowed the clouds to disperse, revealing twinkling stars and a crescent moon.
The wind caressed Myra’s face, and she smiled. She had read so much about the moon and stars, and now here they were, not in a picture, but right above her head, vivid and real. It was worth it. All her fears, all her worries, all the risk, it was worth all that. If Myra were to die right now, she would die happy.
She took a deep breath, savoring the smell of moist earth. Yet, there was another scent, one much more pervasive, and finally Myra realized what it was.
It smelled like nothing.
For the first time in her life, Myra was not surrounded by the scent of many people stuffed in a small place, baking food, rats, burning fire, rotting wood. Many smells mixed with each other deep in the Resistance’s hideout, creating a unique blend. It felt strange to lose it. Strange, and good.
Myra reached out and placed a palm against a tree’s bark. She felt connected, a part of the world. This world had belonged to her grandparents once. One day, it would belong to her and her friends.
“Come,” Alerie said, and Myra followed.
After they walked for about half an hour, the trees started to disperse. Myra could see no more than a few paces ahead, as far as the torchlight reached.
“We’re coming close,” Alerie said.
“Close to what?” Myra asked.
“To this.” Alerie stepped aside, letting Myra peek behind the tree.
The forest suddenly ended. They had reached what had probably once been a field, but was now a desert. No plants, no animals, only stony emptiness, as far as the light could reach.
“That’s good,” Alerie said. “We’re going in the right direction.”
“Aren’t we too exposed here? The vamps can see us from far away, and we can’t see in the dark.”
“Our prisoner said there were no regular patrols on this route,” Alerie said and walked forward. After a few steps, she seemed to realize Myra was not following. She turned back. “What’s wrong?”
Myra hesitated. “Nothing. It’s just that I never thought I would be going so far away from home.”
“The dank caverns are not your home,” Alerie said and gestured around her. “This is. It’s time we reclaim it. Come.” Alerie stretched her hand.
Myra took it and stepped forward. “Are we still above the caves?”
Alerie laughed. “Your sense of direction needs improvement, doesn’t it? The underground tunnel is running the opposite way. I know it’s hard to tell left from right when you’re underground, but you need to start learning. Here’s the map. Which way should we go?”
Myra took the paper and studied it under the torchlight. Alerie was testing her. It was her chance to show that she was not clueless, but she was not sure how. She had seen many maps in old atlases, but had never used one to find her way. All she could see was that the dot saying “Rose Gardens” was to the upper right of the point marked as “Woods.” “Northeast?”
“Obviously. I was asking which way that is.”
The map remained silent, giving her no answer. Myra looked up. “Do you know?”
“Of course I do.”
Alerie grinned. “Think.”
“You know this terrain by heart?”
“That too. What else?”
“The stars? You can use them to figure out the direction.”
Alerie snorted. “Stop stating the obvious. Which way should we go? I’m still waiting for an answer.” She smiled. “Come, now, Myra, we both know you’re a nerd. I’ve caught you many times, studying maps of the stars. Surely you remember something.”
Myra bit her lip. Her maps had looked very different. For one thing, they had not been twinkling. The stars had been just stylized dots, with lines connecting them to show the constellations. She could not relate her maps to what she was seeing, but she would never admit this to Alerie.
She fell silent and gazed at the stars. The more she looked, the more her eyes adjusted to the dark, and more twinkling little dots appeared. She tried to find the bigger ones and to recognize familiar patterns. She gasped. “Ursa Major.”
Alerie grinned. “Very good. See, it’s not hard. Now, keep looking.”
“The others are harder to recognize,” Myra complained, but to her surprise, now that she had spotted one constellation, the others started coming. “That one’s Cassiopeia,” she whispered, “and there is Pegasus.”
“Are you looking for something specific?” Alerie prompted.
“Ursa Minor. At the end of its tail is Polaris—the North Star. It will show our way north. And there it is!” Myra was grinning now, her heart pumping wildly. She had read so much about travelers using stars to navigate, and now she was one of them. She was an adventurer.
“Lead on,” Alerie said.
Myra looked up. “Well, northeast should be a bit to the right of Polaris, I guess.”
Alerie rolled her eyes. “That’s not very specific, is it? Luckily, I know exactly which way we’re going.”
“Of course you do,” Myra said. “You just wanted to torture me.” She gazed at the map in her hands. Even though the route was clearly marked, she still had no idea how to reach those Rose Gardens. Being so dependent made her uncomfortable. If she lost sight of Alerie, she would have no idea how to find her way.
As they walked on, encountering no signs of vampires, Myra started to breathe more easily. She grinned, savoring the wind on her face, the fresh air in her lungs, and the twinkling stars high above. Words and sentences twirled in her mind as she thought about her book. A story started to take shape—a new chapter of Maryabella’s tales. Myra’s fingers curled into fists and her heart beat faster. Her hands itched to grab a pencil and write it all down. If only she had the time and safety to put it all on paper!
Her character’s adventures mirrored her own—Maryabella was tracking her missing friends through a stony desert, with the wind in her face and the moon and stars to light her way. In her head, Myra described every step, every stone, every gust of wind. Her smile grew. The words were coming to her so easily. It was working. Seeing the world would help her become a better writer, just as she had hoped.
The stony desert stretched endless before them; it was a miracle Alerie still knew the way. The wind blew in their faces, with no trees to stop it, and Myra’s fist clutched her jacket at the front. After a while, the wind’s caress turned from refreshing and exciting to mostly annoying.
They walked for almost an hour when Alerie stopped and brought the torch forward. Myra frowned. Dead branches covered the ground ahead, laid down like a carpet for as far as the light could reach.
“That can’t be natural,” Myra said.
“Why would the vamps make this?” Alerie murmured. She bent down to take one of the branches and used it to push the others aside. Underneath was nothing but stony ground, and they continued on their way.
The progress was slow since Alerie insisted on testing the way and removing all branches before they stepped anywhere. Myra was not sure why that was necessary, but her opinion changed when Alerie pushed aside a few more branches, revealing a gaping hole beneath.
“A trap,” Myra whispered.
“No animals live here,” Alerie said. “It’s placed for the Resistance. For us.” She looked up, her dark brown eyes meeting Myra’s. “Rim said nothing about this.”
A shiver ran down Myra’s spine. “You think she lied to us?”
“I don’t know. But we failed to keep our end of the bargain. It’s only fair she failed to keep hers.”
“In any case, there must be more traps underneath the branches.”
Alerie nodded. “If the vamps set this up, they must be returning to check on the traps. This place isn’t safe. Let’s backtrack and go around the covered area.”
They returned to the point where the branches had first appeared and started circling around. To their surprise, the covered area stretched on and on. The wind grew stronger, blowing in their faces and pushing them back. Myra put a hand in front of her face to stop the dust from flying into her eyes. She could barely see anything. The torchlight flickered in the wind, the flames dancing in all directions, thinning and almost disappearing.
After half an hour, the covered area gave no sign of ending. Why had the vamps built such a large trap area? That must have taken a lot of effort, and they were not known for hard work.
The road took them far away from the original path, and Myra had no idea where they were or how to find the Rose Gardens. Hopefully Alerie knew what she was doing; otherwise they were lost. The wind was blowing from all directions, whipping at their faces. Myra could no longer see what she was stepping on.
Prince Vladimir controlled the WeatherWizard. He must have decided he wanted strong wind, at this time and place. Why? Was it another line of defense around the Palace?
Alerie stopped in her tracks and raised a hand.
“What is it?” Myra asked.
“There’s something ahead of us.” Alerie walked forward slowly, raising the torch.
A thick wall of dead trees rose ahead of them.
“Another forest?” Myra whispered.
“We should continue our way through the woods,” Alerie said. “We’ll be less exposed, and we won’t steer far from our original path.”
“Rim claimed there were no patrols on our original route,” Myra said. “We know nothing about this place.”
“I think we should take everything Rim said with a grain of salt. We’re on our own now. We should trust our instincts.”
The woods grew thicker as they ventured deeper, but all the trees were still dead—rotting trunks, some fallen on the ground and some still standing. Myra had expected they would provide protection against the wind, but the tempest was as strong as ever.
She looked up, trying to get a sense of their direction from the stars. Only, the stars were gone. Over an hour was left until sunrise. Why would the vamps need clouds?
Something hit her face. A drop of water, cold and wet, and then another, until the wind was blowing the rain full force into her eyes. Myra unbuttoned her jacket and put it over her head, trying to stop the torrent of water and air.
The torch flame sizzled and hissed, and then it was dead. Darkness engulfed them, pressing around them on all sides. Not a single light could be seen, neither on the sky, nor around them. All was black.
Myra shivered from the cold, her clothes soaked. Alerie grabbed her hand so they would not be separated in the darkness, and they walked on, not sure where they were going.
“We need to find shelter,” Alerie said. “We have to wait for the rain to stop.”
Myra nodded, then realized her friend could not see her. “What if it never stops? The vamps control the rain. What if they’ve made it rain until sunrise and then all day?”
“We have no choice. We can’t go on like this. We have enough food and water for a week. If we find shelter, we can wait for a few hours, even days.”
Finding shelter was easier said than done. They walked through the darkness, blindly feeling their way. Myra saw nothing but black.
Vampires could see in the dark. They were quiet and stealthy. What if there were vamps around them, watching them? What if they were just a few steps behind? Myra shuddered. At any moment, a vamp could grab her, sinking sharp teeth into her neck and drinking her alive.
A sharp, painfully bright light tore through the skies, illuminating the dead forest for a second. Myra gasped. “What was that?”
“A bolt of lightning,” Alerie replied, her voice drowned in the thunderous boom that followed. “Come, we should keep moving.”
Keep moving, but where? Were they even going in the right direction? Myra strained her eyes, trying to see something, anything, but all was blackness.
Another flash of lightning tore through the sky, and Myra squeezed her eyes shut and pressed her hands against her ears. When the thunder was over, Alerie grabbed her arm. “Did you see that?” she asked.
“See what?” Myra had been too afraid to look, but now she realized her mistake. The bolts of lightning were their only chance to examine their surroundings.
“I saw a large wooden house. Four stories high. We can hide there until the storm passes.”
“What if vamps live there?”
“A house like that needs maintenance,” Alerie said. “It looked to be in bad shape. Vamps wouldn’t pick a place such as this. Come. I remember where I saw it.” She pulled her arm, and Myra followed.
Another bolt of lightning illuminated their path, and this time Myra saw it too: a large building, right in front of them. “We are almost there,” Alerie said. Myra’s feet sank into thick mud as she followed. The water had soaked through her shoes, and her socks and feet were completely wet. She no longer cared about vampires and danger—as long as the house was dry and warm, it would be all she needed.
Alerie pushed on the door. “Come on, it’s unlocked,” she said and pulled Myra inside.
Even though Myra’s clothes were soaked and she was still freezing, it felt so good to be away from the wind and rain. She leaned against a wooden wall and slowly exhaled. “Do you think the torches in our backpacks are dry enough?”
“Time to find out,” Alerie said. “I’ll light one for now, but we have to be careful—light is easy to spot in the darkness.”
Myra heard some shuffling and in a minute a bright flame was dancing merrily before her eyes. She could not help a mad grin. Finally she could see something other than endless blackness.
Now that there was light, Myra saw that they were standing at the end of a long corridor. They followed it to the rotting wooden door at the far end, into a spacious living room. The chamber was empty, apart from a table, eight chairs, a cupboard, and a cast-iron wood burning stove. Alerie opened the cupboard. “No food, no kitchenware,” she murmured.
Myra examined the stove. “No one has used this in a while. And everything’s dusty.”
“The inhabitants were probably killed during the Nightfall, or shortly after,” Alerie said. “We can use the stove to dry our clothes. But come; let’s first check the other rooms. We need to make sure the place is safe.”
Myra opened the next door, and her breath caught in her throat. She stopped in her tracks, pressing a hand against her mouth. Pieces of a shattered mirror were scattered all over the floor. Among them lay the remains of two people, the skin and flesh so decomposed that only the bones remained, pale under the torchlight.
Alerie pushed her aside so she could step in. She knelt by the skeletons and reached out to examine them. “The vamps must have drunk them and left them here,” Alerie said softly and stood up.
“They lived so close to us,” Myra choked. “Do you think this happened after the Nightfall? We could have met them. We could have helped them.”
“The Palace is too close to this place. They couldn’t have survived long here,” Alerie said. “Even if they died after the Nightfall, it must have been long before we were born. Come, now, let’s search the other rooms. We may find something useful.”
They found nothing; no medicines, clothes or durable food, only the rotten remains of a third person. “This makes no sense,” Myra said when they stopped to take a break on the fourth floor, after examining the last room. “This could have been a comfortable home for twenty people.”
“And an uncomfortable home for a hundred,” said Alerie. “Yet, we found only three. What happened to the rest?”
“Perhaps the vamps couldn’t eat everyone and took the remaining humans to finish them later,” Myra whispered, her stomach turning. “And what happened to all the supplies? I can’t imagine the vamps needed them. Did they really destroy everything just to prevent us from finding it?”
“I don’t know,” Alerie said and approached the wall, pressing her ear against it. “The rain is still strong. Let’s make camp for a few hours.”
“Should we light the stove and dry our clothes?” Myra asked.
Alerie frowned. “I’d love to, but I’m worried about the light. There could be vampires in the woods.” She walked to the window. “The shutters are closed, but there is a crack between them. The light would be visible.”
“If we do nothing, we’ll freeze to death,” Myra said.
Alerie nodded. “Very well. Let’s use the stove, but we’ll put it out as soon as the clothes are dry.”
Myra walked downstairs to light the stove and hang her jacket on a chair in front of it. She picked up their backpacks and carried them back to the room on the fourth floor. She shuddered. They were staying in this house full of death. She wished she could do something for the dead people, but she could not bury them in this rain. She had never before seen a human skeleton, she realized, startled. She had seen so many dead bodies, but never one so decayed that no trace of the person remained.
“We should take some rest while we wait for the rain to stop,” Alerie said once Myra entered the room. “After we leave this place, we’ll likely make no stops before the Rose Gardens. One of us should keep watch.”
Myra was certain she could not sleep anytime soon. “I’ll take the first watch,” she said.
Alerie nodded and stretched out her sleeping bag on one of the beds. Myra sat by her side, watching the flames. The rain kept tapping against the roof and the wooden walls. A bright light shone through the shutters, and a loud thunder shook the house.
A shudder ran down Myra’s spine, and she stood up, smiling, facing the shut window. Out there, behind these flimsy wooden shutters, the storm was raging. Out there was the world, wide and dark and dangerous and terrible. Out there was her true home, scary and insecure and unknown. And now that she had seen it, she could never go back to the life she had lived before.