“I hated it there. The only place for me is in your arms, after all.”
~ Zachary Nolan (Zakarieus Nœrlaide)
Since we weren’t sure if hypnosis would come undone or remain stuck forever if the hypnotist died, we restrained Nœrlaide in an anti-vamp chair I found in the lab, probably meant for test subjects. Ideally, we would convince Nœrlaide to dispel his ability on his own, but that seemed to be a lost cause.
Also, Zach seemed… different.
He leaned on the wall next to the bound and blinded Nœrlaide, taunting, “You don’t seem aware of hypnotism’s one fatal flaw. You thought you had people figured out, but you can only see recent or surface-level memories when you weave your web.”
I didn’t remember that Zach became talkative after defeating an enemy. He must’ve been repressed real bad. Nœrlaide could only quietly scowl.
“You neglected to weed out two details in your foundation, which planted the seeds to your current predicament.”
Zach was dead serious, but I bit my lips hard, trying not to burst out laughing. He looked like a children’s movie villain.
Zach rested his hands on the chair back. “Mihaela Ceallakánn is not Hazel’s friend; they’re closer. I’m sure you realized that soon, but if you figured out that she’s Hazel’s mother, your plans would’ve been completely different. But that’s the thing! Hypnotism plants ideas into but can’t extract them out of people’s heads. And if you put the smallest of efforts, they’d never find out they were hypnotized at all. That’s where your ability and mine differ.”
“You didn’t find out Mihaela had a daughter because she knows how hypnotism works, so she actively thought about anything other than Hazel. She knew you would’ve killed her daughter otherwise,” Ashlynne interrupted, deadpanned.
I continued, “But normally, even if she’s my mother, it doesn’t change much other than my presumed stronger emotional attachment.”
“However, this isn’t such a normal case,” Ashlynne announced dramatically, waving her finger in the air. “You assumed Mihaela hid her memories of Hazel simply out of a mother’s instinct to protect her daughter, and while that’s definitely true, there’s a deeper layer. Hazel is a hybrid; the comorbidity of unpredictability and strange power.”
Zach was glaring a hole through my skull, but to me, he looked just like a puppy making “grrr” noises at its chewing toy.
“Thus, you severely underestimated me based on the sole observation that I lacked combat experience,” I concluded. “But Zachary here would’ve never made that mistake. With one touch, he could read someone’s entire life’s worth of memories. He’s way more awesome.”
Zach’s glare softened, and he averted his gaze. “Yes, that. I tore your tuxedo to read your memory, and that’s where I saw everything, including Irinea’s escape, so I told Hazel that clue. She managed to devise a sound plan and work everything out from just one name. So, she’s way more awesome than you, too.”
Ashlynne gagged. “You two are gross.”
We shared twin chuckles. Nœrlaide sighed, making a sound at last. “Fine, I admit. I was under the impression that you were either a unique Elite or turned. Does that mean, as you trembled and regurgitated blood, it was due not to fear nor despair, rather ordinary exhaustion from breaking the hypnosis for Zach?”
“Precisely,” I said. Wow, this was satisfying. Now I understood why every movie villain got carried away and monologued their entire masterplan to the protagonist after capturing them.
Nœrlaide gritted his teeth. “You took advantage of that brief gap when the floor was not nullified. But when you entered the base, you had no way to know that! What if Zach was in a nullified area? What if you never had a chance to use your ability? How could you gamble your life, Zach’s life, his sister’s life, and your mother’s life based on such a whim?”
I tapped my chin for a moment, not that he could see. “I logically chose to gamble because I trusted your analysis. I trusted that you’d conclude I’m a cautious overthinker who’d try to formulate a flawless plan and out-maneuver you. Based on your radical beliefs about vampirism and ‘subpars,’ I also trusted that you don’t think people can change. I figured you had me coined as this type of person and carefully concluded some ideas with that as the core.”
“Right before we came down here, Hazel told me her plan. You know what she said?” Ashlynne grinned. “She said, ‘Follow my lead. I trust you.’”
“...Everything was spontaneous?” Nœrlaide questioned.
“I had some ‘what-if’ scenarios in mind, but yes, I observed the ongoing situation and decided what to do based on what I knew about you.” I crossed my arms. But still, my energy went from nearly a hundred trillion percent to about two thousand percent to completely break his intricate hypnosis. So, honestly, it was a narrow win.
“And you hypnotized Anderson,” Nœrlaide stated, head tilting slightly in Zach’s direction.
“Mind-controlled,” Zach corrected. “It’s instant and always effective.”
“Did you instruct him to do that?” Nœrlaide asked me.
I shook my head, not that he could see. “Nope, that was one wrong idea I had. I thought that Anderson had a suspiciously large number of abilities in her arsenal, and she could use each for way longer than ten minutes. Irinea told me Anderson kept several copies of the same ability as backups, but I still told Zach that I suspect Anderson would betray you and Ceallakánn.”
Zach’s eyes widened a fraction. “I thought that was you telling me to use her as a weapon. And it made sense. You were exhausted, and I could only take one at a time.”
“Oh. Well, I guess I almost messed up, but it worked out!”
Nœrlaide’s jaw fell open slightly. He cut into our prattling, “One more thing. How did you know the doll disguised as me was fake?”
“What a curious learner you are,” I remarked. “You enjoy the feeling of explaining your antics to confused people to toy with them, but Ceallakánn has a short fuse and low tolerance for others.”
He nodded slowly. “You knew it was not me when he said, ‘I will forgive your interruption this time.’ And you instantly concluded that an ability was at play, meaning the area was not nullified.”
I was growing a bit embarrassed. Pretty impressive, huh?
“Why did you give Hazel the pill, though? Whether it’s real or not, did you think she’d take it?” Ashlynne asked, somewhat quietly.
“He thought she’d have to, assuming she didn’t have enough power to break the hypnosis. He wanted to see if she’d risk painful death,” Zach side glanced at Ashlynne, speaking as if explaining basic addition to a high schooler.
“Whatever, I was testing if you knew. Maybe your brain shriveled after being under someone else’s control for so long.”
Ah, it must be nice to have a sibling.
That ticked Zach’s nerve. “Shut up, loser.”
I quickly and awkwardly intercepted, “But yeah! There was a bit of luck, but things went well. And you didn’t acknowledge Zach for nothing. He mind-controlled the fourth progenitor. That’s cool, right?”
Nœrlaide chuckled. “Indeed. He received a notable boost and experienced no backlash.”
A sticky, gloomy fog dawned on the blithe atmosphere. Ashlynne gulped and quickly asked, “I hate that you treated my brother like a lab rat. But yeah, he’s pretty lucky. But so are eighty percent of the Purebloods you guys tested on, right?”
My eyes immediately darted to meet Zach’s. He showed me a wry smile. “He lied. The survival rate is twenty percent, not the backlash rate.”
Like walking on clouds, my legs carried me to Zach, and my arms wrapped tightly around him. He quietly hushed my impending sobs, whispering, “Stop shaking, Hazel. I’m alive. I’m right here.”
“Twenty percent,” I reiterated over and over. “That’s an eighty percent chance you could’ve died.”
“Hey, who the hell do you think I am?” He spoke the toughest words with the softest tone. I was ready to melt. Or cry.
I jolted when I heard a loud thud. I turned to see Nœrlaide’s head turned to the right, left cheek swollen, and the shattered bones in Ashlynne’s right hand crack themselves back into place. Hot tears flowed and flowed down her face, running her mascara like a raccoon. Before I knew it, my lips began to quiver, too.
What eighteen-year-old girl who hadn’t even graduated high school went through all this? Who else had finally accepted and moved on from her parents’ traumatic deaths, only to find a snippet of hope that her mother might be alive? Who else tumbled all the way down a rabbit hole because of one clue found in the middle of a snowy cave? Who else teleported all over the world, chasing a bunch of super old vampires and trying to convince them to help so that my mother, boyfriend, and friend wouldn’t die brutal deaths? Who else had to keep herself together through all this?
Turning my shoulders, Zach directed my attention to Anderson, who just fully healed my mom. That was it; my dam broke, and I couldn’t suppress the sobs anymore. I tensed my entire existence and held my breath for long enough to numb my senses. Now that I relaxed, it finally kicked in how different everything would be if any tiny thing went wrong.
I kneeled beside my mother as her eyes fluttered open. I used my worn-out sleeve to wipe my face over and over, scared that she’d disappear again if tears blurred my vision for too long. As soon as she registered her consciousness, her muscles tensed. She retained the memories of being under hypnosis. I figured it’d been too long since she could hear her own thoughts.
“Good morning, mommy,” I mumbled as I did in my childhood.
Her eyes bugged, and she began moving her limbs. “Hazel…? You’re Hazel? How long have I been gone?”
“It’s been over twelve years,” I replied.
“Twelve…,” she murmured, staring at the ceiling. “Devyn… is still….”
I blanked for a moment. Oh, true. For her, the time she spent under hypnosis flashed by in a second. It still felt like my dad passed away just yesterday. She eventually turned to me, saying breathily, “Your eyes look exactly like his.”
My chest clenched a little, but I forced my lips to tug upward. “Yeah. Do you need a minute?”
She raised her arms over her eyes. I briskly stood and beckoned Zach over, telling him, “Let’s go find the remaining Purebloods.”
Zach directed his voice at Nœrlaide. “Do you feel like dispelling all your hypnotisms to save us some trouble?”
Nœrlaide didn’t utter a word. I sighed. “Ashlynne, can you keep an eye on him?”
“Oh, I’ll be keeping more than an eye on him,” she said, cracking her newly healed knuckles.
Nœrlaide’s yet-to-heal jaw clenched. “Wait, fine. I can no longer use those Purebloods, anyway. Just get this freakishly strong woman away from me.”
Ashlynne beamed proudly, resembling a cartoon raccoon baring its teeth in a wide grin.
Zach and I made our way to the prison towers. He said, “Don’t blame her.”
“I know, but I can’t help feeling a bit lonely.” I felt up the wall in front of me before finding the contraption that slid open the seamless door, revealing the somewhat familiar dark maze. “But I know my dad’s death is still fresh in her mind.”
We pushed open the doors to the prison tower that we escaped from so long ago. At the back, two hidden doors led to the two other towers; one for livestock humans, one for vampires.
“She’ll come to her senses soon. She’ll realize that the best way to compensate for the unchangeable past is to cherish the present and future.”
That earned a genuine chuckle from me. “When did you get this cheesy?”
“Personal experience teaches you lots,” Zach responded. “And I stopped considering whether I sound dumb around you long ago, anyway.”
I slipped my hand into his. “I’m comfortable telling you everything, too.”
We sprinted across the lobby, and Zach clicked open a hidden entrance to the third tower. It looked more like a traditional prison. Jail cells wrapped around the tower walls in levels. Each level connected to the center pillar that housed four fast elevators. Following Zach, I rode up to the sixteenth row and sped past the cells. Soon, I saw a familiar face.
“Roman, thank goodness you’re alive! Can you hear me?” I briskly chopped the lock. I expected to see the same image of a hollow-cheeked, collapsed Roman who could barely lift his gaze to meet mine, but his complexion appeared normal, and he stood as soon as he saw me. I then spotted the dead human tossed to the corner of the room.
“Ashton chased out Nœrlaide’s voice a few days ago. I lured this one in,” Roman answered my unspoken question. “Get me the hell out of here.”
Get me the hell out of here is exactly right. But first, we had this entire tower’s worth of vampires to free. Or, rather, twenty percent of a full tower’s worth. There weren’t that many survivors. Since they had walked themselves into prison under hypnosis, they each used their last ounce of strength to dash out of this hellish research base once and for all.
Roman stood in front of Nœrlaide. I hadn’t ever seen him frown and shake that much.
“The Andersons are a curious case,” Nœrlaide spoke to himself. “None of them procured ability-copying powers like Anderson’s. Something mutated, and a history of dual ability wielders transpired instead.”
“You can punch him,” Ashlynne egged. Roman only shook his head and teleported away.
“You’re so violent,” Zach remarked.
I tuned out their banter and sat beside my mother, who curled against the foot of a table. I had no idea how to talk to her. I always imagined my mother-daughter relationship to be like that of a pair of best friends. Not quite like Kaydence and I, but something very close. But now that my mom was right here, her reaction to seeing me wasn’t what I expected.
“I’m kind of lucky,” I hesitantly began. “I spent the past twelve years of my life telling myself that my mom and dad are gone forever, but I found out my mom is still alive. She’s here. Isn’t that great? I have her, and she has me. I may still have lost my dad, and I really wish I could’ve spent more time with him and gotten to know him, but those who’ve passed can’t undie––at least not after twenty-four hours. So, I think the best I can do is live out my life following my rules and making him proud. I don’t remember him much, but I think he’d want me to do that, right?”
I watched my mom’s shoulders rise and fall slowly. After minutes, her sniffling ceased. Her hand dropped onto mine and gripped it. “Yeah, he’d want that. I do, too. I’m sorry. It’s been hard on you.”
I hummed in response, turning my hand in her palm to squeeze her hand back.