Into the Tiger's Den
“I wanted nothing more than to curl up in bed and fall into a slumber as soft as death.”
~ Hazel Dawson
~TWENTY-FOUR DAYS AGO~
My eyes popped open. Zach held me by my shoulders, peering at my face. His features relaxed as my vision focused.
“Zach, you’re okay,” I murmured, patting his arms and face.
He smiled. “Yeah. You’re alright, too.”
“Where are we?” I sat up on the stone floor and looked around. Zach and I were behind bars in a dark room, facing a sealed door.
“My power doesn’t work, so I think we’re near Ceallakánn.”
“The Eighth told me Anderson would likely bring you to her hideout. That seems to be where we are.”
Zach shuddered when I mentioned Anderson. “That witch is fucking crazy. She called me creepy names and then cast some sleeping spell.”
“She’s not dumb, though. I was careless. She lured me close and copied my ability.” I gasped. “Roman and Vivian were knocked unconscious! Where are they?”
“I haven’t seen them,” Zach said, standing up. “Maybe she left them behind.”
All of a sudden, the door across the room burst open. Anderson sped toward us, eyes shining, and fixed her attention on Zach. “I’m back! Did you miss me? Did you, did you, did you?”
“Aww, you’re cold. Just like him.”
Cringing, I whispered to Zach, “What the hell’s happening?”
“Apparently, I look like Nœrlaide.”
I slowly nodded, trying to ignore Anderson’s obvious ogles at Zach. “The two vampires with me, Vivian and Roman. Where are they?”
She blinked, noticing my existence for the first time. “Oh, them? They’re not useful, so I didn’t touch them.”
My shoulders rose and fell. At least they weren’t kidnapped like us.
“But you two are different,” Anderson continued, beaming. “You got through Hëdvig and Reįglii to follow me.”
“Who’s Hëdvig? And Reįglii?” Zach questioned.
“The Seventh and Eighth. I met them in the underground castle.”
“Hey!” Anderson suddenly rammed on the bars. “Don’t talk to Nolly so much!”
Holy shit. Hëdvig wasn’t kidding when he said this woman was fucking crazy.
I jumped again when Zach slammed right back. “Why are we here? What do you want?”
“I’d love to keep you here all for myself, but Kanny told me to bring back any Pureblood I find,” she replied, cupping her face, then tossed a glare at me. “As for you, you’re just some subpar loser, but your ability is strong. I had to at least let him know.”
My brows involuntarily drew together. “Who’s ‘Kanny’?”
The corner of her lips tugged upward. “Ceallakánn, of course. The First.”
Anderson had unknowingly led us to our target. From her words, I guessed that Zach and I would meet Ceallakánn soon. Perhaps I could try to win his trust and find information about my mother.
My eyes narrowed slightly. Anderson seemed to love and admire Ceallakánn and Nœrlaide a lot, but Crysanthė told me that vampire rankings determined not only power but also status. Humans and vampires alike fought for status, right? Maybe Anderson secretly wished to be ranked higher than fourth.
“Oh, I get it. You take orders from Ceallakánn since he’s three ranks higher than you,” I egged.
I wanted to see a bit of annoyance in Anderson’s expression. A quick scowl, or a twitch in the eyebrows. But she only tapped her chin in thought, then clarified, “I follow Nolly because I think he’s different. Kanny also follows him. They deserve their ranks. Actually, scratch that. None of us progenitors care about those rankings. They weren’t meant to be a hundred percent.”
She wasn’t phased in the least. I quickly recalled Crysanthė’s words and soon realized that he said, “Those rankings also connote the level of respect each family receives.” He said it affected families, not progenitors. It must be another hypnotic knot etched in his mind.
“When we battled to rank ourselves, it was to establish a basic order. We all agreed we shouldn’t try hard enough to injure each other, so we called the match whenever it looked like someone was about to win,” Anderson explained. “So, in a battle to the death, no one’s guaranteed to beat those ranked lower than them. Ceallakánn is the only exception.”
“He nullifies abilities. That’s an unparalleled advantage,” Zach commented.
Anderson swooned. “You’re so smart. That’s exactly right. Kanny’s also an unrivalled fighter, which means he’s invincible.”
“So that’s why you listen to Ceallakánn. What about Nœrlaide?” I inquired further.
“He’s the prettiest.” Anderson giggled like a high school girl looking at pictures of her celebrity crush. “And the most intelligent. He’s an invisible, brutal killer. Under his eyes, you won’t even know how you died. He could make you destroy yourself while thanking him. Everyone fears him but has a lot of respect for his intellect.”
I wasn’t sure why she was revealing so much inside information to us, but I sure as hell wasn’t about to interrupt her train of exposing the progenitors’ secrets. I briskly lured, “They sound so powerful. What are they doing now? Don’t tell me they’re hiding in the shadows?”
All signs of glee suddenly dropped from her face. “Nice try. I’m no snitch.”
My ears picked up on sounds of footsteps in the room from which Anderson first emerged. Zach and I peered at the dark room behind the opened door. A man soon strode through the doorway. Though his tailed tuxedo emanated a regal aura and his long hair veiled parts of his face, I instantly knew that this was Nœrlaide. From his complexion to his features to his face shape, at first glance, one could argue that he and Zach resembled a pair of siblings. Even Nœrlaide’s bone-chilling presence and piercing pale blues reminded me of when I first met Zach.
He casually leaned to the side to dodge Anderson’s swinging arms and stepped toward us. His eyes widened a fraction as they focused on Zach, noting, “You are a Nœrlaide.”
Anderson popped up beside Nœrlaide and leaned against him, saying, “I knew it. I didn’t see him fight, but I knew those eyes weren’t a coincidence.”
Nœrlaide scowled. “Why did you bring a subpar, too?”
I didn’t know how to feel about these progenitors constantly calling me “subpar.” I thought I was on the same power level as the average Pureblood. At least theoretically. I glanced at Zach, meeting his gaze. We had to stay silent for a little while longer.
Anderson turned and hugged Nœrlaide’s arm. “I should’ve killed her, I know. But guess what her power is?”
“That does not concern me. Ceallakánn and I have issued clear orders to kill subpars on sight.”
“She grants her own wishes,” Anderson whisper-shouted like an excited child. Nœrlaide’s shoulders tensed, and he looked me in the eye for the first time. “It’s every possible power compacted into one, Nolly. I copied and tested her power. As long as I had energy left, I could do anything.”
“How?” Nœrlaide demanded, glaring at me. “You certainly are not a Pureblood. I believe you are not an ‘Elite,’ either.”
“She was turned by a Ceallakánn,” Zach cut in.
Nœrlaide hummed. “I see. The Ceallakánn bloodline is indeed unpredictable.” He took a step backward, letting Anderson, who had been leaning on his arm, lose her balance and fall to the ground. “I am quite curious about something. How did you two find Anderson?”
Judging from his tone, I could feel that he was much less hostile than a minute ago. Perhaps he valued power and usefulness more than bloodline. This could be my chance to earn his trust. I voiced, “I wished for the Tenth to give me a clue.”
Nœrlaide sneered. “Preposterous. Anyone who attempts to break my web would die from the poison.”
“I broke it,” Zach interjected. “I went into her mind and neutralized the backlash.”
At last, there was a chip in Nœrlaide’s composure. He eyed us back and forth, letting our words sink in. Once he realized that there was no other plausible explanation, he smiled ever so slightly. “I must say, I am exceedingly impressed. Now, why were you tracking Anderson?”
“We were actually looking for you,” I said. “I’m looking for a missing person.”
Nœrlaide arched his brow. “Someone your wishes cannot locate?”
“Nope, because she’s near the First. My power is completely nullified,” I explained while wracking my brain to form a reasonable lie. “I’m looking for a friend, Mihaela. I found a cave in the snowy mountains that had traces of her blood and your blood.”
Because hybrids were far too rare, I could face unknown dangers. To avoid that, Zach said I was turned. Going with that story, I had to say that Mihaela Ceallakánn was my friend instead of my mother.
Nœrlaide shut his eyes and inhaled deeply. “I understand your objective. As I respect your loyalty to a comrade, I shall tell you. A little over twelve years ago, Ceallakánn and I passed a village; it was utter chaos. We heard that a group of vampires slaughtered an esteemed vampire hunter.”
My nerves tensed as he spoke. The hunter spoken of was my father.
“We snuck up the back of the mountain. No one saw us. And you know what I witnessed?” Nœrlaide glowered at the wall behind me. “Some five subpars had rendered a Pureblood unconscious and continued to drain her life. We immediately fought off and annihilated the attackers. Ceallakánn carried her, and we eventually found a cave. For a while, we helped her recover. She told us her name was Mihaela Ceallakánn.”
I realized that I’d been holding my breath. There it was. That was what happened. Zach couldn’t find those attackers because Ceallakánn and Nœrlaide had long exterminated them. I quickly followed up, “Does that mean she’s here?”
Nœrlaide showed me a soft smile, reassuring, “Yes, she is. She works with us.”
Tears welled up in my eyes. It’d been twelve entire years since I last saw my mother. Zach acted as my last remaining rational brain cell and asked, “How come we never heard from her? Are you holding her here against her will?”
Anderson, who had been lying on the floor contently drooling over Nœrlaide, suddenly shot up. “Nolly! Kanny said not to trust strangers so easily, remember?”
I gazed at Nœrlaide’s face, scrutinizing every little change in his facial cues. My brain routinely overanalyzed everything, and I soon began to mentally fill in his personality. Just because he had an icy exterior didn’t mean he had a cold heart. Maybe, secretly, he was a softie. Or perhaps seeing Zach’s shadow in him was impeding my judgment a little.
“They came all this way. I believe they deserve to know,” Nœrlaide stated. “We have a grand plan for which we have made many, many enemies in the vampire world. You are to listen to this plan, swallow it, and let it rot in the pits of your stomachs, understand?”
Interesting diction, but I nodded regardless.
“We are researching methods to alter the genetics of vampires. Specifically, a ‘cure’ that allows vampires to digest human food and abandon blood altogether.”
A barely audible gasp escaped from Zach’s mouth. I couldn’t move at all.
“Mihaela agrees with our goal,” Nœrlaide added. “She chose to stay.”
I stuttered, “You can make vampires… human?”
Nœrlaide paused. “At this point, it is rather odd for us to converse like this. Let us discuss over dinner tonight.”
At his command, Anderson zipped to the back room. A moment later, the bars in front of us rose.
I was still stunned to the spot; Zach didn’t move a muscle, either. He, too, was considering this genetic modification project. It didn’t seem half bad.
If the plan succeeded, vampires could resign from being killing machines. Hailee, Kass, and others who didn’t hunt could fearlessly coexist with humans and live life however they liked. Ashlynne would never need to drink another animal’s blood again. She could go to pet stores, cafés, conventions, and parks without worrying about cameras and hunters. Arthur, Alecx, and Jaxson no longer had to risk brutal death every day to protect humans from vampires. Kaydence would be relieved from pressures to become a hunter. Civilians could stop worrying about running into a rogue vampire in the dead of the night.
And after peace dawned upon the world, my mother could come home with me. Seeing his sister alive, Harvick would cry.
When I returned to my senses, Nœrlaide had left. Zach sped around the hideout, learning all the trap triggers and internal structure. Anderson gleefully followed him around.
At last, the suffocating cloud that hung in my chest for the past week dispersed.