“A pretty illusion isn’t always real, and reality isn’t always pretty.”
~ Hazel Dawson
I saw Ashlynne’s watering eyes before I saw him. Out of nowhere, an arm swung at me like a bat. My instincts kicked in and dodged at the last possible millisecond, sacrificing only a few thin strands of hair. I hopped back a few steps and looked up.
There he was.
His dark hair bounced in the wind, and those familiar pale blues that I adored stared at me, steely and cold.
My lips parted, but he cut me off and zipped at me with his hand tensed into the form of a blade, aiming at my vitals. Against these dense attacks, I summoned my entire life’s worth of reflexes to dodge every last one of them. I almost chuckled at myself in mockery; this scene was familiar, wasn’t it? Not that long ago, our roles were reversed. I wielded my spear, trying with all my might to kill him.
“Zach!” Ashlynne shrieked.
“Keep an eye on Nœrlaide!” eyes stinging, I yelled back without glancing at her.
I wanted to curl up in my warm bed at home. I wanted to waste the day away surfing the internet and texting my friends. I wanted to gobble bags and bags of junk food while rewatching my favorite movie for the twentieth time. I wanted to return to school and worry about my own future, not that of the world. I wanted to drive around the city with Kaydence, banter about food and parties with Sophi, have childish sleepovers with Alecx, and learn how to cook with Arthur.
I blinked the tears away before they could obstruct my vision.
Not now, Hazel.
I flipped through the air, putting a bit of distance between Zach and me. With that extra half a second of time, I fished my key from my pocket and spun it. The handlebar of the spear fit perfectly into my hand. It broke my heart to once again point its tip at Zach, but the sight of the weapon seemed to confuse him a little.
“Abomination,” Nœrlaide growled. “You are no different from the humans who killed thousands of us.”
Empowered with Irinea’s truth, I was unfazed. “But you had a hand in hundreds of those, didn’t you?”
“That was necessary for the greater good.” Now that I knew the actual plan, he finally dropped his facade.
Suddenly, Zach appeared at my right side, center of gravity lowered. Knowing he aimed to pierce my side, I briskly swung the crescent moon of my spear toward him. Just then, my hands involuntarily gripped the spear harder, slowing it. But Zach didn’t hesitate; he palmed my torso, sending me flying across the air and shattering a few ribs. Knowing he wouldn’t leave me a second to breathe, I speedily regained my balance mid-air and, sure enough, parried his surprise attack. The pain numbed my senses a little, and I swished my spear downward at him. He was too close for the crescent moon blade to touch him. At this rate, he could block the handlebar of the spear and just sustain a minor burn injury.
But I am me.
The red jewels on the spear claws shone, roaring to protect me. Zach raised his forearm. At once, my spear glowed and morphed into a double-edged sword. It wasn’t sharp or heavy enough to slice through his arm, but it hit the bone and burned the surrounding flesh. Zach winced, forced to fall back. Even after I landed, I heard no snarky remark from Nœrlaide. He was confused, too. No other vampire hunter weapon in this world had the same properties as this one.
I had been counting the minutes and seconds in my head since Irinea ran. Gersełna and Hëdvig had been performing miracles, but they looked exhausted. According to my estimation of Ceallakánn’s range, Irinea should be close to the end.
I gazed at Zach, who inspected the slow-healing wound on his arm. I smiled a little. He said I saved him from himself before. What a troublesome guy; I now had to do it again. As he raised his head and our eyes locked, the scene in front of me changed.
I stared at the roaring waterfall, then turned around. Gersełna, Hëdvig, and Ashlynne sprawled on the ground, recovering from the shock. Irinea sat on the same boulder, head hung low. It seemed that the rewound time didn’t rewind our memories. And since Irinea couldn’t rewind death, the Reįglii clone didn’t reappear.
“I chose to preserve your memories in case something important happened during the battle,” Irinea said. “But that means their memories are intact, too. All of my clones are gone, I can tell, and we no longer have Reįglii to erase us. What can we do? We don’t know how to find the base, and someone with a tracking ability will find us soon. I knew it was senseless to fight against them.”
“I wish for all five of our presence to be erased and undetectable. I wish to know the location of the research base. I wish to know where Nœrlaide is.” I turned to the gawking Irinea. “You need to stop exuding negativity and giving up whenever there’s a minor setback.”
Irinea’s mouth opened and closed like a goldfish. I produced another series of wishes in my head. Moments later, I teleported Crysanthė here, carrying a trayful of all his signature red-tinted food. I made sure to erase his presence before teleporting him. I announced, “Let’s regroup and create a new plan.”
I couldn’t let Irinea lead us anymore. She was too disheartened by the past and didn’t have enough motivation to push through. Ashlynne did, but she lacked battle experience. This Hëdvig was only a clone with ten percent of the original’s power, and he was a rash child at heart. Gersełna panicked too easily, and Crysanthė was the soft support type; he lacked the confidence to command others.
I was calm but more motivated than ever. I will scatter the fog engulfing his heart just as he did for mine.
Eyes shut, I sat in the corner of the waterfall cave, munching on a brownish quesadilla. Irinea allowed me to transfer all her memories of Ceallakánn, Nœrlaide, and Anderson into my head. According to all of them, even after thousands of years, no one could figure out any notable weaknesses, especially the First and Second. They had always been closer with each other than with the others.
This, at the very least, told me that I should take their advice with a grain of salt. So far, I interacted with Nœrlaide the most, and I could conclude two things. One, he was used to seeing all beings cower under his hypnotic gaze and schemes. He devised an awfully elaborate game to break my mind––what with using Ivy, Emmy, Roman, and Zach––only for it to fall through; my mind remained strong. I even spited him in my last moments awake. Instead of smirking and calmly devising a new “game” for me, he used his ability, draining more power than he would ever admit he did to hypnotize a “subpar.” Perhaps, when something entirely unforeseen occurred, he might lose his cool. Two, he was cautious yet still overly confident. The fact that he and Ceallakánn spared the time and effort to personally ambush us in the plain, betting that we hadn’t had a chance to tell Irinea that the research base now travelled, meant that I was stirring more trouble than anticipated. However, Nœrlaide was still more interested in seeing Zach and I brawl than breaking past Ashlynne to prevent Irinea from rewinding time. From that, I could infer that I was an unexpected variable in his plans, but not enough to honestly worry him. I had to take advantage of his underestimation. I had to see further into the future than he did. I was queasy at the mere thought of planning to best Nœrlaide at his own game.
The only noticeable trait I noticed about Ceallakánn, other than he often stood on the sidelines and watched Nœrlaide scheme, was that he passionately loathed “subpars.” Nœrlaide bothered to taunt me, set me up, emotionally torture me for fun, but Ceallakánn crushed my jaw the second I uttered a word. He seemed to care about bloodline supremacy even more than Nœrlaide did. And another thing, perhaps the most important of them all, was he trusted Nœrlaide too much. The only time I found an opening was when he was so shocked that Zach could still move after a direct mental battle with Nœrlaide that his grip on my neck loosened ever so slightly. But he might be more wary now that it’d happened once.
My brain hurt a little. Crysanthė set his bony hand on my wrist, re-doubling my replenished power.
Anderson. She was unpredictable, and I didn’t interact with her much. She was obsessed with Nœrlaide, but that was too surface-level. How far would she go? I wasn’t sure. Also, there was one detail about Anderson that particularly bothered me.
“Hazel!” Gersełna broke into my thoughts. “It happened.”
I had instructed the Hëdvig replicate to clone several copies of Ashlynne, who then dispersed throughout the forest with the waterfall cave as the origin. Gersełna mind-linked with each clone, and the moment a connection snapped, Gersełna would alert me that Ceallakánn neared.
Without hesitation, I teleported all of us across the continent. I needed more time. In the meantime, the same procedure was repeated in the new location. Irinea stared at me incredulously. “Will this really work? Has she devised anything intelligible yet?”
Ashlynne shushed her, returning my peace and quiet. Anyway, my issue with Anderson. I first noticed it when Roman, Vivian, and I pursued her from Reįglii and Hëdvig’s castle.
“Hazel, it happened again!” Gersełna whisper-shouted. My eyes popped open. This soon?
“Clones of Ceallakánn are searching for us all over the world,” Hëdvig deduced, frowning. “But that should mean the original’s power is sliced into each clone.”
I gasped loudly. Hëdvig’s comment tipped me off.
“I wish to know the location of the livestock tower,” I said, immediately obtaining a location. With a shrunken nullification range, the prison towers were the last priority. I remembered Ceallakánn mentioning a livestock tower, which could only consist of powerless humans that needn’t nullification.
Irinea’s gaze cast downward. “Did you find a slip-up, or was it intentional to lead us to them?”
“Doesn’t matter!” Ashlynne exclaimed, seemingly shaking Irinea awake. “Even if it’s a trap, we need to go there either way.”
“Tell me where it is, and I’ll take the information back to my original,” said the Hëdvig clone, steely-eyed. I nodded and told him the coordinates. Right after, he stabbed his chest and quickly faded into ashes.
I speedily teleported everyone else a little ways away from the coordinates I found. We appeared in a snowy tundra this time. I squinted. The nearby snow appeared entirely undisturbed. I questioned, “What does Anderson’s max power boost let her do?”
I figured that the hypnotic seal in Crysanthė’s mind forbade him from sharing, but luckily, Irinea knew. “It lets her store some thirty abilities and use each for up to ten minutes. She usually stores several copies of the same ability to compensate for the absolute time limit. But as long as you don’t use your power within her range, it can’t be copied.”
I stroked my chin. There was no way to be certain of my suspicions. I had to take a gamble, like how Ceallakánn and Nœrlaide always bet on the outcome of Nœrlaide’s little ploys.
“Our presence is erased right now, but it’d disperse the second we enter Ceallakánn’s nullification bubble,” I announced. “Are we ready? No turning back.”
Crysanthė set his hand on my shoulder. “I’ll give you one last boost, then I’ll stay here. I’m a hindrance in battle, I assure you.”
I glanced at Irinea, sensing similar reservations from her. I inwardly sighed. “Yeah, I understand. Reįglii and Hëdvig might back us up soon. You three don’t have to come with us. I’ll try to let you know if we need you.”
I knew Gersełna was inclined to stay with Irinea. I also knew Ashlynne appreciated that I assumed she was coming with me.
“Yes. Good luck and be careful,” Irinea said, doll-like face twisted anxiously.
Ashlynne and I sprinted in the direction of the livestock tower, which should be near the entrance to the base. On our way, I held Ashlynne’s hand, transferring my plan to her. She chuckled. “You’re pretty amazing, aren’t you?”
A smile briefly tugged at my lips. We brushed the snow around the area. Soon, Ashlynne’s ring clanked softly against another metal. The two of us exchanged one last glance. She quickly but quietly lifted the cover and climbed into the tunnel. I exhaled deeply as I followed suit and cushioned the lid shut, descending back into this place of nightmares.