“My, how the most unique minds fascinate me, I could churn and drink them. Care to join me for afternoon tea? I do not bite.”
~ Noerlaide (The Second)
I walked on clouds for the next few days. Life at the progenitors’ research base was free but productive. The human workers all lived by two shifts: day and night. The researchers rotated to sleep or work, and the workers took shifts to cook or clean.
The vampires had a lot more freedom. Since we needn’t eat or sleep, Zach and I spent days on the training floor, sparring with the other Purebloods. Afterward, we’d grab a snack from the dining hall then journey to the gaming floor. We played games, watched movies, sipped on red smoothies, shot zombies on a big screen.
The base had nine floors, the elevator covering eight of them. The highest level was the humans’ floor, followed by the vampire training floor, the bathrooms and relaxation floor, the dining hall, the meeting room, the entertainment floor, and the vampire resting floor. The lowest storey was empty but heavily-guarded, as it was right above the lab only accessible by stairs. I wasn’t allowed to enter the lab, but my mother was in there. Her break was in three days.
Just three more.
On the training floor, I watched Zach for a few minutes. He proved me wrong again: he held his own against these well-trained Purebloods in hand-to-hand combat. He only had to see a technique once to make it his own. I almost applauded when Zach practically flew up and snapped his legs like a pair of scissors around his opponent’s neck, flipping him down to his knees. Before I saw what happened next, something crashed into my back, faceplanting me onto the padded ground. I sure got knocked over a lot.
“Shoot, I’m sorry!”
The vampire who bumped into me grabbed my arm and pulled me up to my feet. I hadn’t felt so weightless since falling off a building tower.
“No worries,” I said, raising my head. A navy-eyed vampire girl came into sight. Short brown hair framed her face.
“You should lower your center of gravity more. Even if your guard wasn’t up, I knocked you over way too easily,” she said, chuckling slightly.
For most of my life as a human, I’d been teased for having a flimsy physique. Now even as a vampire, I still was teased for being a twig.
I returned a short laugh. “Noted, thanks. What were you practicing?”
“A swooping tackle!” she said enthusiastically. “I say tackle, but you’re meant to pierce the enemy’s chest with your hand, like this.” She raised her right hand, fingers straight and tightly pressed together.
“Vampires’ nails are such lethal knives,” I remarked, earning a look of puzzlement from her.
“Yeah, our bodies are meant to be weapons,” she said. I then realized that it was odd for me to speak of my own species in the third person. “So I’d leap toward the enemy and, hopefully, stab them in the chest!”
“Straightforward. Do you just jump off your feet?”
Face lighting up, she shifted her feet a bit wider apart, instructing, “First, you lower your center and shift your weight to your toes. Then you spring forward, not jump, to keep yourself agile. Because if the enemy reacts quickly enough and swerves your attack, you’ll need to tumble around in mid-air and chop down on them. Otherwise, they’d stab you instead.”
I mirrored her expression. “Can I practice with you?”
“Of course! I just scared away my sparring partner.”
For hours, she taught me her moves, and I served as her human dummy. Oops, vampire dummy.
“You’re pretty fast, you know that?” she commented, panting. “I’d say agility is your biggest asset. Your strikes feel like cotton balls, though.”
“Wow, thank you. I love constructive feedback.”
Twin laughs escaped our lips. All of a sudden, her head violently twitched to the left side, and her eyes briefly dulled. I hurriedly extended my hands but wasn’t sure if I should touch her. “What’s wrong? Is something hurting?”
After three seconds of motionless silence, she whipped her head forward and grinned. “I was telling you the truth!” she exclaimed as if the little episode just now never happened.
I blinked a few times. Perhaps it was a medical condition that I shouldn’t question. I still knew so little about vampirism.
“Oh, time’s almost up,” she said, glancing at the clock. “My turn here is over. I’m returning to the resting floor. I’ll see you around?”
“Yeah, see you.” I saw her off to the elevator. Before the doors slid shut, I said, “I’m Hazel. I didn’t catch your name.”
She grinned. “Ivy Anderson. Thanks for asking.”
I caught Emmy as her shift in the kitchen ended. She dashed toward me. “I saved you a piece of cake!”
“I have thirty-two hours off. What would you like to do?”
“You guys think of time in terms of hours instead of days, huh?” I commented, mouth full of red velvet-tasting cake that melted down my esophagus.
“Yup! It’s hard to tell the days around here since we don’t see the sun or moon.”
“True. Don’t you kind of miss that?”
Emmy rocked on her heels. “A little bit, but it’s okay. Nothing is too much to sacrifice for Second Majesty.”
There she went again. Her fixation on Nœrlaide was borderline infatuation. I think I could understand, though. He saved her from abusers and a dreadful life.
I sat on one of the tall chairs near the elevator to finish my cake, but Emmy shrieked. “No! You mustn’t sit here! This is the humans’ table. You should take the seats over there!”
Dumbfounded, I slowly stood up. “But, these chairs are higher.”
“Yes, tall chairs are for us. It’s easier for us to leave as soon as we finish our meal.”
“To get back to work, of course!”
I vaguely felt a sense of hierarchy between Emmy and me. Rather, between the humans and vampires here. Like when Zach and I first met Ceallakánn, the humans immediately left the hall after the progenitors entered.
I brushed it off, “Don’t be so formal. I’m almost done eating, anyway.”
Emmy’s cheeks puffed, about to retort, but the elevator ding interrupted her. Zach marched out, eyes rapidly scanning the floor until locking with mine. He warily glanced at Emmy while stomping toward us.
A sunset hue colored Emmy’s face again as her eyes followed Zach’s every movement.
I poked her arm. “Really? Staring every time?”
“I’m so sorry. Just seeing your friend reminds me of Second Majesty’s words.” She cupped her cheeks and closed her eyes. “‘Hold this knife and your destiny in your own hands. I will take care of the rest.’ What a prince!”
I froze, fork halting halfway into the cake. “Come again? He handed you a knife?”
She nodded. “Isn’t he such a gentleman, letting me do the honors?”
The world seemed to shrink around me. “So, you killed your foster parents, not him?”
“Nonsense! I couldn’t have done it if Second Majesty hadn’t promised to handle the aftermath. He’s the only hero.”
Aftermath meaning the police and the bodies.
I understood Emmy’s loathing for the foster care system and the parents that utterly mistreated her, but her emotions weren’t normal. Her pure detachment to her murders wasn’t normal. Her worshipping of Nœrlaide as an Emperor of the universe wasn’t normal.
“Emmy, you should go rest. You just finished a long work shift,” I said.
“Okay! I’ll be on the top floor if you need me.”
After the elevator doors shut behind her, Zach and I sprinted to the end of the floor, as far away from listening ears as possible.
“That scared me,” I murmured.
“Wait till you hear what I saw,” Zach said. “On their breaks, some of the researchers write entire essays about why humans should succumb to vampires as the new Lords or some shit. They said humans are destroying everything, and it’s about time they step aside and bow to a higher species.”
“That sounds like a whole sci-fi movie.”
“Either these people are fucking eerily supportive of vampirism, or they’re not actually working toward coexistence.”
I twisted my fingers, fidgeting. “Okay, so the people are a bit weird. The vampires we’ve met were nice, though, right? None of them commented that I’m not a Pureblood.”
“Is that normal?” Zach questioned. “Wouldn’t it be more normal to question why a non-Pureblood is here?”
“You’re right. I’m trying to convince myself otherwise, but something’s wrong.”
We paused for a minute, pondering an explanation. Zach spoke, “You can see your mother in a few more hours, right? Let’s see what she says.”
I sat up. “Yeah, she’ll tell us what’s going on.”
At the thought of seeing my mom, my heart pounded in strange nervousness. Twelve years. It’d been twelve years since I last saw her or heard her voice. I could barely recall her face and the touch of her hands. What if she didn’t recognize me?
“Excited?” Zach asked.
Nonsense. Of course she’d recognize her own daughter. I beamed. “Yeah. Are you coming with me?”
“If you don’t mind that I’m intruding on your reunion, sure.”
My hypothetical pulse quickened when I realized the implications of this situation. This was like introducing my boyfriend to my parents for the first time. I reached out and wrapped my arms around him. Immediately, he hugged me back tighter. For a little while, we stood in silence, holding on to each other.
“Thank you, Zach. I love you,” I whispered.
Chuckling, he kissed my hair. “I love you, too. Let’s go.”
I repeatedly crossed my fingers and pressed on my knuckles as the elevator descended. On the lowest floor, a guard stood before the door that led to the lab. His tan-colored vampire orbs narrowed as I approached. I quickly clarified, “I’m waiting for someone.”
But the guard didn’t react. His glare locked on me, unmoving, ready to pounce if I so much as glanced at the door behind him. Zach waved in front of the vampire’s face; he didn’t even blink.
“What the concentration?” I mumbled.
Just then, I heard footsteps ascending the stairs behind the metal door. I stared as the knob finally turned, and a figure in a white lab coat stepped out. She raised her head, caramel eyes meeting hazel ones.
“Hi,” I breathed out. It was almost like peering into a mirror. Our twin black hair, although different lengths, curtained our faces. It seemed that the only features I received from my father were my eyes and my old blonde hair.
Without a word, she dropped her clipboard and ran, swinging her arms around me. At last, I felt my muscles loosen. I quickly embraced her tighter and buried my face in her shoulder. Even as an eighteen-year-old, I instantly felt six again in my mom’s arms. I raised my head to avoid staining her coat with tears.
I suddenly recalled that my mommy used to smell like fresh roses. Now she carried the scent of a bunsen burner, but that couldn’t be helped. She was working in a biology lab, after all.
When she took a step back with a bright beam, I was honestly about to burst out sobbing. I started, “All these years, I didn’t know you were alive. I missed you so much, m–”
“I missed you a lot, too, Hazel!”
“I know I should’ve called or something, but our work here is really secretive.”
Why didn’t she call me “Hazy” like she used to?
“I heard from the Second about how you found your way here. I honestly don’t deserve such a great friend like you.”
Am I really deprived of regular mother-daughter interactions, or do moms not usually treat their daughters whom they haven’t seen in 12 years like a best friend?
“What have you been up to? I’m going for some food right now. Let’s chat in the dining hall!”
It took days and days for my anticipation and emotions to build up to this point, but only a few short seconds for everything to crumble to ashes. Mihaela looked at me, eyelids batting, waiting for my answer. My lips parted, and I mustered every last one of my brain cells to utter, “Sure, I just have one question. Where’s Devyn? Is he here with you?”
Seemingly in slow motion, Mihaela’s smile faded. She averted her gaze for a moment, paused, then said, “He’s not here. He was killed in action.”
Everything was wrong with that response. Her sadness felt scripted, acted. She logically demonstrated a perfectly timed faded smile, eye aversion, and hesitation.
Most importantly, her eyes were cold. Freezing cold.
I spun and sprinted into the elevator, pulling Zach with me. Before Mihaela could react, I pressed on the top button and closed the doors. Neither of us made a sound on our way up. We were both focused on confirming our suspicions once and for all.
We stormed across the humans’ floor toward the back. Ignoring the warnings of the people behind us, I yanked open the door that led to Anderson’s hideout, where we first set foot in the research base. We had to either leave this place or demand a progenitor for an explanation.
Instead of a walkway, an ascending staircase greeted us. This was a different entrance from the one through which Anderson led us. All this time, we thought the humans’ floor was the highest, but there was this door behind the bunk beds that led further up. Before anyone could stop us, Zach and I exchanged a quick nod and sped up the stairs.