“There she blooms like a thorny rose. In a field where roses die.”
~ Nœrlaide (The Second)
I was rather proud of myself for formulating an intricate infiltration plan, especially the part about sneaking past the heavily guarded entrance floor and communications floor filled with Gersełnas. I thought that Zach’s quick-planning skills had finally rubbed off on me, only to be met with a tiny disappointment: we didn’t see a soul on the top three floors, not even any humans. The glasses-wearing researchers and workers that hurried about the office floor all vanished, leaving behind empty desks and bunk beds.
“I’ve never seen anything scream ‘trap’ as loudly as this,” Ashlynne remarked.
“Yup, but what choice do we have? He must be getting a kick out of this.”
I pressed the elevator button. There was no doubt about it. Ceallakánn, Nœrlaide, and possibly Anderson were waiting for us on the bottom floor. The lab. The elevator doors dinged and slid open, seemingly in slow motion for me. My eyes met a pair of emotionless crimson ones. The “Mihaela Ceallakánn” on the shiny name tag pinned on her white lab coat seemed to sneer at me. Her raven hair brushed against her shoulders as she turned to ask, “Which floor?”
I returned a polite smile. “Bottom, thanks.”
Ashlynne’s smokey eyes darted back and forth between us. She saw my mom when I shared my memory with her, but she stayed silent. I appreciated that. During the quiet elevator ride, I locked my gaze straight on the door. I thought I’d have a meltdown, but no. I wasn’t a six-year-old anymore. There wasn’t anything I could do right now to help my mother. If I didn’t hold it together now, I’d lose her and much more forever.
“If you’re gone, I’m gone,” Zach had said.
But I’m not gone yet. That means he’s still here with me. When I succumb is when he truly does, too, so I won’t.
I swiftly stepped out of the elevator as soon as the doors opened. Ashlynne followed. I’d been on this floor before. Right below it should be this notorious lab that I heard so many legends about. With shaky breaths, I pulled open the door and descended the final set of stairs. Ashlynne balled her hands into fists as I turned the final doorknob.
“I do not understand you, after all.”
The metal door slowly shut behind me. Before me, Nœrlaide leaned on a counter, playing with a small pill. My eyes darted around the place. The room looked like an enormous version of a high school science classroom. Rows and rows of tall desks with sinks, computers, and paper files filled the floor. In the middle of the floor situated two long conference tables with an aisle of space between them, likely pacing space for a presenter.
“There is something inherently contradictory to your character,” Nœrlaide continued. “You are a weak, emotional subpar, yet you possess strong faith, and you recover from devastations much more quickly than any being I have met. I effortlessly overwhelmed Mihaela, Zach, and many such powerful Purebloods. Why am I constantly concocting new plans for you?”
Half of me listened to Nœrlaide’s little monologue that sounded more like a soliloquy, and the other half busily scanned the floor, preparing for an ambush and searching for clues. I glanced at Ashlynne. Speaking with Nœrlaide for technically the first time, she reacted exactly how I did. A base instinct within her must have told her to shake in the second progenitor’s presence, especially since this was her progenitor. She wouldn’t exist if he didn’t.
“If the Purebloods back then had half the audacity and conviction you do, perhaps I would not have believed vampirism to be doomed.” Nœrlaide tossed the capsule in his hands in my direction.
I caught it, cautiously asking, “What’s this?”
“My opinion of subpars has not changed, but my opinion of you has. That is the ultimate achievement of our research. Put simply, it contains the modified DNA extracted from the arcane vampire bats. Each progenitors’ blood is also in it. Any human who swallows the pill will instantly implode; their body cannot handle such raw power. Even Purebloods have a twenty percent chance of regurgitating their organs if their bodies are not strong enough.”
I gulped. “Where did you obtain those statistics?”
Nœrlaide showed me an absolutely graceful but disgustingly cruel smile. “Those humans would do anything Ceallakánn or I said. And those Purebloods and subpars we gathered are not exactly in any condition to resist.”
I bit my lip, schooling my emotions to avoid satisfying his sadist streak, but Ashlynne couldn’t control herself any longer. Voice trembling, she muttered, “What did you do to Zach?”
Nœrlaide’s gaze didn’t stray from me. “Oh, you are the sister––the half-Irinea half-Nœrlaide. Though you are nothing special, you are not considered subpar. I will graciously forgive your interruption this time.”
“Ashlynne, freeze him!” I commanded, to which she instantly reacted and did so. Violet eyes blazing, she gasped a little. Our abilities worked. At the same time, I made a silent wish but announced loudly, “What a coward. You can’t face me yourself, Nœrlaide?”
A string of laughter rang through the room. Nœrlaide appeared from behind a shelf. “Amazing…! Utterly fascinating! I have yet to begin taunting you to ingest the capsule, but you have deduced that you were speaking to a fake. I must know your thought process; I must know.”
I mirrored his usual unkind smile, stifling a cough and retorting, “What makes you think I’m giving you that satisfaction?”
He chuckled. “Fair enough. I suppose that also implies you are not considering the pill?”
I stepped forward and stabbed the fake Nœrlaide in the chest. Instead of perishing into dust, its face and clothes melted until an unrecognizable corpse emerged and plopped onto the ground.
“Doll-making using a corpse; a classic Djehutimesu ability,” Nœrlaide hummed. “Ceallakánn was controlling the doll. I suppose something he said tipped you off.”
I avoided looking at the corpse and did everything to quell the boiling fury in my heart. I held the capsule up.
“You’re not actually considering it, right?” Ashlynne whispered in my ear.
“Who knows?” I said aloud. “I can’t imagine how many wrongs I could’ve righted if I just had enough power.”
Nœrlaide grinned widely. “Precisely. You do understand.”
Ashlynne interrupted, “But, but what if it backfires? Like it did for even some Purebloods?”
I glanced at her. “I’m stronger than most Purebloods, you know. You don’t think I can handle it?”
“W-Well, uh no, but I mean––”
“Spit it out!”
“Hey! I’m just worried about you! Why should you take the risk of an unstable pill? And what if Nœrlaide’s lying and it’s poison?”
Ahh, don’t make such a logical point!
I retorted, “But if it does work, my physical power will greatly boost, too. I won’t get pummeled like last time.”
A deep growl emitted from the far end of the floor. A hidden gate slid open, and Ceallakánn emerged, rubbing his temples. “How irritating. Make them stop.”
Nœrlaide glanced at him, amused. “They pretended to argue to draw you out, knowing you must be nearby to control the doll and then nullify the room.”
Ashlynne knew I would never even consider eating a random drug that I knew nothing about. Nœrlaide saw right through the ruse, but it didn’t matter.
“I know. But they were like buzzing insects. It hardly matters, anyway,” Ceallakánn said. “They should be finishing up now.”
Ashlynne tilted her head a few seconds before I too heard it: footsteps descending the stairs behind us. I spun around and watched the door to the lab swing open.
“Hi, hi!” Anderson cheered. “Long time no see. I’m back!”
She stepped in. Zach appeared behind her, staring straight at nothingness. My eyes followed as she grasped his limp hand, circling around Ashlynne and me and joining Ceallakánn in the middle of the floor. My body trembled ever so slightly.
“There are two ways for you to revoke the hypnosis,” Nœrlaide began, the upper hand returning to him. “One, convince me to rescind it, which is out of the question. And two, break it yourself. But, as much as you enjoy defying bloodline, you do not possess such power. The backlash of even attempting to break my doing will grant you a painful death.”
No need to tell me twice. I still vividly remembered the time I tried to crack the seal for Crysanthė. My body burned like a boiling kettle, and black shimmers nearly consumed my vision before Zach overwrote the backlash and saved me.
Suddenly, I couldn’t suppress the violent coughs that prickled in my lungs. I crashed to my knees, coughing and croaking until I threw up a puddle of murky blood. Ashlynne screamed, but she couldn’t do anything.
“Zach, please! Wake up! Come to your senses!” she wailed. Zach didn’t even flinch. He stood, motionless, in the same spot Anderson put him.
Ah, not a single thing in my body didn’t hurt.
“Eh, lame,” Anderson remarked. “Hey, listen up, subpar. Taking the capsule is the only chance you have, okay? Are you gonna watch him die here, or are you gonna risk it?”
I pushed myself up, legs shaking, and held onto the desk near me for support. Teary-eyed, I raised my eyes to meet Zach’s unfocused ones. I couldn’t help but break into a smile. “Don’t worry. I’m here.”
In my peripheral vision, I spotted Nœrlaide’s eyebrows knit together in a frown, then suddenly rise up. He caught on. I raised my arm and slammed it on the table. Within the same second, Anderson’s arm clawed through Ceallakánn’s chest from behind, Ashlynne used her ability to freeze Nœrlaide, and Zach raised his tensed hand aimed at Nœrlaide’s vital. I didn’t dare waste a millisecond on blinking. Avoiding Nœrlaide’s eyes, I fixated on Zach. He rapidly closed the distance. Just as he grazed Nœrlaide’s coat, Nœrlaide leapt back, flipping through the air. It seemed that Ashlynne couldn’t hold him for longer than a second or two.
Wheezing, I spun out my spear and sprang in Nœrlaide’s direction, aiming the sharp tip at him. His face shifted toward me, but he didn’t raise his arms to defend. Before I could fathom that abnormality, a figure flashed in front of my weapon, blocking Nœrlaide. It was too late to slow or change my trajectory; my spear pierced through my mother’s heart.
My self-control was at the brink of exploding into a bloody mess and bestowing me a breakdown right then and there. I had maintained my composure when I saw my mom in the elevator, when I watched Nœrlaide’s face melt off of a corpse used as a doll, when I threw up blood from overusing my ability, and when I acted like I sank into irreparable despair.
But my mother was just killed by her daughter using her dead husband’s weapon that was forged with her dead father’s blood.
Was it too much to say that this was all too much?
“We can revive her.”
I heard Zach’s voice and instantly pictured his hand resting on my upper back, supporting me. I didn’t have any time to think; I just trusted him with all I had. With one shove, the spear messily penetrated Mihaela, passing through her body. Never in his thousands of years of life did Nœrlaide expect that, and it was too late for him to block or parry. His arrogance didn’t even let him raise his arms as a last barrier of defence. My spear stabbed into his abdomen. His neat white dress shirt dyed in red, shattering his image entirely for the first time.
Straining herself, Ashlynne activated her ability on Nœrlaide again, forcing him to crash land. Zach speedily cornered him. I morphed my spear into a smooth sword to avoid dragging hooks and claws on the spearhead from my mother’s body. A vampire hunter weapon’s most feared damage wasn’t the pierce, like most weapons; it was the burn inflicted on vampires’ flesh. It was somewhat comparable to a human getting stabbed with an inextinguishable flame sword.
Immediately, Zach cupped his palm over Nœrlaide’s eyes, forcing them shut. The latter gritted his teeth and grabbed Zach’s arm, but in terms of raw physical power, it was clear which Nœrlaide had the upper hand.
Ashlynne zipped past me and used some bandages she found to quickly clog the gaping hole in my mom’s chest. Best to prevent her from disintegrating into cinders for as long as possible.
“Zach,” I whispered. The gleaming red rings around his pupils glanced at Anderson, who had identical rings locked in her brown irises. She briskly pulled her arm back. Ceallakánn dropped forward, blood pouring from his fatal chest wound. Progenitor or not, a direct injury in the chest couldn’t self-heal. Under mind control, Anderson rushed to Mihaela’s body and extended her hand. A soft green light glowed from it––a copy of the resurrection ability. Since the death was fresh, this process shouldn’t take longer than a few minutes.
I looked around. Other than the pooling puddles of blood and the desk that I dented slightly, there were scant signs of battle in the room. Everything happened so fast, unlike my long, drawn-out saw war with Henrietta. I inhaled deeply, then shakily exhaled. I telepathically informed Irinea that all went well and that they could enter if they wished.
I did it, right? We won? This is the end. Right?