“The only near-death experience I’ve ever had was when you took my breath away.”
~ Zachary Nolan (Zakarieus Nœrlaide)
I expected at least half a ray of light on the outside of the prison tower, but no. It seemed that the entire dungeon was constructed underground and that Zach started on the level closest to the surface.
“Now we know we should be finding a way up, not out,” I remarked.
“At this point, I’d be glad to find any passage.”
Zach and I sped down an endless maze of hallways. Whoever designed this whole area was a real fan of puzzles and mazes. Half an hour later, facing another three-way choice, we were ready to admit that we were lost.
“Let’s start keeping track of every route we take,” I suggested. “But with what?”
Zach glanced around, then strode to the far right. Dragging his thumb across his fang, he drew blood and smudged a blood mark on the wall. “There.”
“If I knew back in the dungeon that I was a quick-healing vampire, I wouldn’t have needed to rip my shirt.” I then frowned. “Wait, the blood. It’s getting lighter.”
“The wall’s absorbing it,” he gathered. “We need another way to trace our steps. How much do you like your jeans?”
“Fine, I was joking. I’ll try denting it.” He pulled his fist back and hurled a punch at the wall, creating a couple of small knuckle dents. He scowled. “Solid ass motherfucker.”
After staring at it for a full minute, it seemed the material couldn’t heal itself. Just like that, Zach and I took turns punching the wall of the routes we took, denting below the first set if we had to repeat the path and denting vertically if it was a dead end.
“For how long have we been here?” I asked, watching my soul slip out of me.
“Almost three days,” Zach breathed out. “I don’t get it. We’re going in circles. How? This dumb maze doesn’t end.”
“It can’t be this complicated. Lab coat woman came and went so easily.” I huffed. We took a tight turn, then faced an unpleasant surprise. “Oh, we went full circle.”
Mocking us was the entrance to the prison tower that we escaped from not too long ago. While a series of extremely colorful words flowed out of Zach’s mouth, I glanced around us. Judging from the fact that Ivy said we were presumed dead and the lack of awareness that we were alive now, I could safely believe that there were no security cameras anywhere. Maybe vampires couldn’t appear on film. So then, how did that researcher know we were on the first floor?
She heard us. That had to be it. She was close enough to hear us busting our way down.
I walked along the walls close to us, knocking on them. “Zach, see if the walls over there sound hollow.”
After a few minutes of banging on metal, I finally heard a slightly different noise. “Trap door,” I said, pressing everywhere to activate something.
Zach sped over, reaching up to the higher areas. For a little bit, we looked like two mimes practicing on a wall. Eventually, a square that I pushed at the bottom sank down. I gasped, watching an entire rectangular door push out of the seamless metal and glide to the side, revealing a walkway.
I slowly and rigidly turned to face Zach, a massive giddy grin on my face. We both burst out in twin laughs of victory. In the spur of the moment, I jumped up toward him and threw my arms above his shoulders. When I realized what I’d done, I felt, for a quarter of a second, his arms wrapping around my waist.
At super-speed, it only took us another quarter of a second to jolt apart. I cleared my throat. Saying nothing more, the two of us dashed down the walkway and arrived in front of an elevator. I knew it was far too early to celebrate, but as the elevator doors opened, I couldn’t help the smile creeping on my face.
There were eight blank buttons on the panel. I clarified, “Assuming the top button is the highest floor, that’s where we should go, right?”
“Yeah, let’s get out of here and recover our memories. We’ll know what to do then.”
We stood in silence as the lift ascended. When it stopped, the door behind us slid open. We turned to see, other than darkness, rows and rows of desks. Muting our footsteps, Zach and I stepped out and glanced around. At the far end, dozens of bunk beds covered the ground. The steady sounds of breathing and snoring entered my ears.
“Humans,” Zach whispered.
“Kept as livestock? No, the condition’s too good for that.” We cautiously stepped further into the room. “Oh look, there are clocks here. It’s either five in the morning or the afternoon right now.”
“You think dozens of people would all be asleep at five in the afternoon?”
“Maybe they’re nappers.”
Zach and I quickly shut up when we heard echoes of bedsheets shuffling. Once we confirmed that no one woke up, we continued searching for an exit.
I spent a minute flipping through some papers on the desks, which were all research about the characteristics of genetics in mammals. My entire situation never ceased to confuse me. Just as I thought this was an evil, brain-washing organization that used vampires for experimental reasons, we encountered an entire floor dedicated to humans for office work. Why humans? Vampires could work tirelessly, but humans had to sleep, eat, and take breaks. From what Ivy told us, there was a vampire army more than capable of hunting for blood, so it didn’t make sense for there to be a stack of food source here, given the inconveniences.
I spun around when I heard a low growl. Zach half kneeled near the wall on the far end of the room, beside the sound-asleep people. His sharp glare immediately sent a jolt down my spine. I hurriedly tiptoed over to him and spotted a hidden white door in between two rows of beds.
In an instant, bright fluorescent lights lit the whole floor, waking everyone and burning my eyes. I’d gotten so used to the darkness that I could see only white shimmerings in my vision. Around me, more and more voices began to shout and bark in panic.
“Move!” boomed a voice right next to my ear. As I discerned a foggy outline of Zach, he grabbed my arm and yanked me to the side. Right then, I heard something slam on the wall where I just stood. Through my clearing vision, I saw two people waving axes at me. Some ten others piled at the back, and another few ran to the elevator from which we exited.
Before a thought could form in my mind, with force strong enough to tear my arm off, Zach pulled me backward. For the first time since I had any memory, we encountered an unlocked door. As it slammed shut behind me, I finally came to my senses. We flew up the stairs like a pair of caged birds longing for freedom.
Unfortunately, the staircase wasn’t a one-way route to the surface. Just like in the prison tower, the stairs only connected two floors. And it appeared that it wasn’t just the humans’ floor that lit up.
“This room’s full of vampires. All Purebloods,” Zach stated. “It looks like they’re confused about why the lights turned on. One of them’s coming this way.”
Zach and I stuck ourselves to the walls on either side of the door. As someone walked in, Zach speedily but quietly pinned his throat against the wall, silencing any screams or cries of help. Immediately, the trembling vampire raised his hands in surrender. Zach loosened his grip ever so slightly.
“Please don’t hurt me! I’ll show you how to get out of here.”
Zach didn’t budge, so I chimed in, “We’re in a place full of vampires, and we don’t know where the exit is. This guy can lead us there.”
Reluctantly, Zach lowered his hand. The vampire nodded, then quietly reopened the door. I noted everything I saw. Some ten vampires crowded around a giant monitor at the back of the room, tweaking the control panels that surrounded it. No one noticed the three of us creeping across the floor on the other side.
I thought it odd that so many vampires, with their heightened hearing, didn’t even sense two invading presences in the same room. But I was too intent on remaining silent to voice my concerns to Zach. And, true to his words, the surrendered vampire led us to stairs connecting to the next level.
When Zach glanced back to check that I was following, I almost screamed.
“What?” he questioned, whisper-shouting.
“Your eyes. They’re red! And black!”
Right then, the surrendered vampire raced past Zach to escape back to the monitor floor. I panicked and messily reacted by slamming him into the wall with my shoulder. Zach stifled a laugh at my amateurish move, but the important part was that my move worked. The vampire fell to the ground. His eyes darted around, meeting Zach’s hard gaze. At that moment, I witnessed a red ring lock on his electric blue eyes. Then, all signs of fear wiped off his face, leaving it as blank and stiff as that of a puppet.
I looked to Zach for answers, but he was as confused as I was. I said, “I think you did this. You had red rings in your eyes first.”
“Holy shit, I have mind control? Can I move this guy however I want?”
Wordlessly, I watched Zach experiment with his ability. It was honestly amazing; he was a masterful puppeteer tugging the strings that tethered on anyone’s every limb.
“How come your power worked? Wait, is that why this guy offered to guide us away?”
Zach and I realized at the same time. “The ability nullification doesn’t work on this floor.” He quickly followed up, “What can you do? Is it helpful to get us out of here?”
“I… don’t know. How do I activate it?”
“Oh, hell.” He turned to the vampire that he was controlling. “Hm, I can’t get him to talk. Looks like I can only physically control someone.”
As Zach spoke, several thoughts ran through my brain. How did the other vampires here know this one’s plan to avert us?
When I figured it out, I briskly grabbed Zach’s wrist and sprinted up the stairs like there was no tomorrow. I ignored his protests and dragged him up to the next floor, which had bars separating the room into a cage and a small walkway. Every vampire sitting behind the bars looked the same as the four that Zach and I fought in the prison tower. One’s dull eyes followed us like lifeless zombies.
When we arrived at the next staircase, Zach finally put his foot down. “What’s up with you? We could’ve taken advantage of our abilities back there.”
“Dude, think,” I said. “How did the other vampires know what to do? How’d they know to pretend not to hear us?”
Zach considered for a few seconds. “Fuck. Telepathy.”
“Exactly. I think that floor isn’t nullified because those vampires are the direct mental link to everyone, so their abilities must work. The surrendered vampire probably told the others what to do.”
“And we’re running because he might’ve also contacted the big boss, whoever that is,” Zach continued. “You’re right. We can’t stay another minute.”
We moved farther up the stairs, but I still had worries. “Doesn’t it feel like all these people want us to escape? You know, instead of killing us or something.”
“There’s a tunnel that leads up,” Zach said, peering through the window. “We’re almost out.”
“Oh, yay,” I mumbled. If he didn’t find anything suspicious, perhaps I was overthinking it.
Using our element of surprise, we burst through the door and bolted across the room. I swiftly dodged and swatted away the claws of the alarmed vampires that guarded this floor. As I neared the hole in the ceiling, I leapt up with all my might and grabbed onto an edge. Noticing the metal bars on the inside of the tunnel, I wrapped my hands around them and pulled myself up. Zach followed closely behind me and kicked down pursuers. A minute later, they stopped trying to chase after us altogether.
The more I climbed, the more unsettled I felt. Finally, in the middle of the tunnel, I halted and voiced, “Something’s very not right, Zach.”
“What? I can see the exit from here!”
Above us, maybe fifteen meters or so, was the inside of a metal cover. Beyond that was most certainly freedom at long last, but it had been too easy. I turned to sit on one of the ladder bars. “Ivy believed this place to be inescapable, and it does seem that way. This place was designed to be needlessly complicated, so no one can escape. But everybody we encountered practically shooed us out of here.”
Zach exhaled and relaxed his tightly knitted brows. He climbed up beside me. “I’m listening.”
“Those humans waved weapons at me to scare me off. A bunch of them crowded at a wall as if protecting something, and a few more ran to the elevator that we came from, but they didn’t ring it. They stood in front as if shielding it. But we were on the highest floor that the elevator could take us, and we definitely wouldn’t ride it back down to the dungeon. So, why’d they cover it?”
“There’s something on the lower levels that they really don’t want us to find,” Zach realized. “Even the vampires on the other floor all let us leave instead of seizing us with their abilities before we’d realize we could use ours. And the vampire guards on the top floor barely tried to catch us.”
“I’m guessing we haven’t even scratched the surface of this place. What we’ve experienced so far wouldn’t even constitute a quarter of the fear in Ivy’s voice.”
“But why? How could it benefit them in any way for us to escape? Even if it prevents us from discovering their secret now, we know the location. We’d recover our memories and bust them sooner or later.”
“That’s where I have a somewhat crazy hypothesis.” I gulped. “What if this place can move?”
Zach’s jaw popped open. “Teleporting the entire base.”
“Or a portal.”
“Or tunnelling underground.”
“Either way, I think if we leave now, we’d never be able to find our way back again. My only dilemma is whether we’d ever have a reason to return.”
By my influence, Zach quieted to comb his thoughts and observations. I had no idea who he was, and both of us were equally disoriented about our situation, but for some reason, I trusted him to make the final decision. That feeling entrenched deeply into my blood and bones.
I knew that he was the ‘zach’ that my note to self told me to find. He had to be the real Zach.
“We’re here for a reason, too,” he asserted. “Instead of being used as a soldier, we were memory-wiped and thrown into prison. That means we’re a threat to them, but we also must be useful in some way because they didn’t immediately kill us.”
“I saw genetics research on the humans’ computers.” I sucked in a breath. “I got it. We’re super secret vampire detectives who infiltrated the hidden research lab of mad scientists who are mutating and hypnotizing Purebloods to be bioweapons intended for the destruction of humanity.”
Zach mirrored my chuckle. “Yes, that is exactly what I was about to say.”
For one second, our proximity felt as familiar as day and night. Joking to relax each other’s nerves seemed like second nature.
“We have yet to unveil the truth, which is why they’re willing to let us go. When this place relocates as soon as we leave, I’m sure we’d regret it once we remember everything.”
I stared into his pale blues as he quietly shared his thoughts. I didn’t find a single fault in his logic. “Agreed. Let’s hop back down, then. We’re going all the way to the lowest floor and finding the reason we came.”
After we exchanged a nod, I slipped forward and let gravity do the rest. I heard, in a faint whisper, “You’re pretty amazing.”
Before I could respond, I softly landed on the ground and stepped forward. Right as I lifted my head, a wave of fear shook me to the core, freezing me. I barely heard Zach land behind me.
Two people met my eyes with defiant, chilling gazes of their own.
“See, I told you they would return.”
“You win every bet, Nœrlaide. How unfair.”