The fire snaps and pops, sending wisps of ash floating up into the dry desert air as a cool breeze pulls the flames in contradicting directions. Alice is sitting across from me on the other side of the fire snuggled up with Dana, the new girl, Anna, is reading a book. I’m sketching in my journal. I’m not exactly focused on what I’m drawing or why. My mind is far too volatile. So many things are trying to occupy my attention, but in the end, no matter what I try to focus on, it always come back to Tina.
I notice that my drawing is unwittingly taking her shape, like it has so many times before, and while I long to see her, to run my hand over every smooth contour of creation’s most provocative and soul-stirring beauty, I just can’t abide it. It’s not real. No matter how much I want her to be here, I can’t draw her into existence. If only I could. But, a picture is little comfort at this time, so I close the journal with a sigh and stare into the fire.
It was a risk to build it in such a flat and open expanse, but the orange glow provides light, which in turn provides a much needed lifting of spirits for all of us, but mostly it’s for Anna. Despite the fact that she is now immortal, she is still disturbed by the dark. She’s disturbed by many things that only time, grief, and intense processing will heal, but that is to be expected given what she’s been through, though I doubt that she will ever truly be whole again.
Like Tina, the vampyr blood that had been administered to her in an attempt to save her life was too late, and she’d died on the banks of a river in Peru just as her tormenters exploded in a far too quick and painless death. Truth be told, she’d died months before that though, as she’d watched her family tortured and killed right in front of her. From there, being trapped near their corpses in a dark pit filled with demons propelled her deeper into madness as she awaited her turn. Like me, her life had been taken from her long before her heart had stopped beating.
Dana, true to her word, had fished my body from the river, but to both of our surprise, when I awoke she had a progeny – someone that we can neither fix nor abandon, someone who now frustrates me to no end: Anna.
At first, she’d been impossible, frightened by her own shadow and, of course, us. She wouldn’t speak at all; she still doesn’t, and we learned rather quickly that we shouldn’t touch her, and we still don’t. So long as we leave her in peace, she is placid, almost devoid, but docile enough to vacantly keep up with us.
We discovered all of her quirks the hard way in the first two days. It was only when we’d relented from trying to force her or help her that she’d started to comply willingly. From there it was small steps on both sides of the equation. After the first week of uncomfortable distance and silence, she began to sing her nursery rhyme when she thought no one was listening. I supposed that it was progress, especially since she never attempted to run away, which I found odd, but there was plenty odd about the girl already and I wrote it off.
Within two weeks, I began to doubt that she would ever really be emotionally sound, especially when Dana spoke of what she was seeing in the girl’s thoughts. It was during this conversation that I understood Anna better. She was scared of the dark, so she didn’t try to run at night. And she couldn’t very well run during the day. She had no options that felt even remotely felt safe for her. It was then that I decided to extend and olive branch and we performed the ritual so that she could daywalk.
Like me, she had no offering to be consumed in the fire. Everything that she cared about had been destroyed the night that her family had been kidnapped from the village several miles south of the Peruvian stronghold. She wouldn’t drink from Dana or Alice for the ritual. While I didn’t understand why at the time, she would only drink from me. To my dismay, I discovered her reasons quickly after that and they both shocked and disheartened me.
Seeing what she’d gone through had resurrected some of my own demons, and that’s what I think changed her the most. Not only could she now survive in the light, but she witnessed my own suffering and knew me on a level that I hadn’t anticipated. That knowledge stirred hope in her for all of the wrong reasons. We are kindred, and she knows it. I know it, but the path of destruction and pain only leads to more destruction and pain. If she is aware of that fact, she doesn’t seem to care.
From that moment on, she became my own personal shadow. I could feel her eyes on me in everything that I did. She followed me everywhere, and even now, as I sit and lament her in my thoughts, she’s smiling at me from barely six inches away. I don’t hate her. She’s just far too young to have gone through what she has, and I know what’s happening to her heart and mind. She’s seventeen, powerful, and supremely foolish to want to be like me. But she does, and it’s evident by her actions over the last two months.
During that time, we ran into more than thirty belligerent Loyalists as we cut a swathe across South America, and we were forced to dispatch them all. Anna delighted in her new abilities and the brutality that she could visit upon them. It was her fervor and bloodlust that had brought her own personal death count up into the twenties in just two months-time. And while witnessing her spiral into a gruesome nature was unsettling enough, my own was filling me with guilt. I wanted to destroy them as much as she did. Did it make it okay that we were killing enemies? I’m not convinced, but there is little else to help assuage the darkness that threatens to overwhelm me, the same darkness that is overwhelming her.
It’s for this reason that I don’t begrudge her an outlet to the violence festering inside of her. In fact, her prowess may come to improve our chances of success, but she doesn’t have the will or knowledge that only time can bring. She also doesn’t have my Tina. I know what is happening to her all too well, and therefore, I watch her just as closely as she watches me. There is nothing I can do to help her should she go too far. Well, except that of death. And I came close to it once.
When we arrived at the Air Force base in Salvador, I had barely stopped Anna from killing the soldiers there. Those people were not the enemy. She understood what I was trying to explain to her, but the look that she was giving me told me that she didn’t believe me, and mostly because she knew that I didn’t believe it myself. No one is innocent anymore, and she saw right through me; but just like me, she controlled herself. I’m not sure what I think of that. No one should have to try to be a good person, but as time passes without Tina, I find that I struggle with it more and more. I just feel so… I can’t even give it a word.
I’ve been trying to focus since what happened at the Air Force base, to make the lines of right and wrong vividly clear for Anna by hiding the thrill of a good kill and being more outwardly demonstrative of my goodwill towards those that we shouldn’t attack. We made quick work of compelling the soldiers, keeping our secret safe, gaining supplies, and even a private flight over to Africa. If she’d have killed one of them, it may not have gone so well. But I got to her in time, and we now safely find ourselves in Egypt.
We’d decided to go for the known Rebel outposts since we weren’t sure where else the Loyalists might be, and that’s why we’re here in the desert. We’ve already snuffed out three different nests in this area as well, and in the morning we go for throat of the Egyptian outpost buried in the barren wastes between Nigeria and Cairo.
Brazil was only the first step in our quest. There are outposts on every continent. And while we’ve only started, we’ve already encountered more vampyrs in two months than I’d previously seen in my entire life. We’d destroyed a huge number in Peru alone, but if Dana’s assessment from the execution is accurate, sixty out of six hundred has done nothing but cripple the limb of a beast with jaws that can and will destroy us. And I can’t piece together why this is happening.
The creation of a vampyr is not something done lightly. It’s an enormous undertaking and an insurmountable responsibility to create a progeny, like that of deciding to have a child. And as we make our way to the Egyptian outpost to further attack and flush out this beast, we keep finding more and more of the enemy.
Vampyrs are being created carelessly, without thought, regard, intention, or direction and the only way I can think of to refer to their small encampments is a nest. They’re unkempt, crowded, bloody, and without their maker, savage. These nests combined with what I saw in the fortress, what happened to the rebellion, and what Dana has said about the group that stood witness at the execution, it’s all very unsettling.
I can’t shake this feeling that something is changing, like a dark, ominous fog has materialized to linger in my thoughts, mocking me with its seemingly innocuous presence while it hinders me from seeing the whole landscape, a landscape that I’m sure is filled with the unseen enemy. But we are seeing them, little by little. As to what it means, I can only speculate, but none of those answers are anything good. Ultimately, I guess it doesn’t matter; nothing does – not the growing Loyalist numbers or even Anna.
Of course, when it all comes down to it, my worry is Tina. If I close my eyes, I can recall her smell with acute accuracy and hear her voice echoing off of the sand-laden landscape. She’s with me, and that thought scares me more than anything I’ve ever known. Is this all I’ll ever have of her – a ghost, a whisper, an ache? My hope to find her is compelling, steeped in what some might call denial and heartsickness. But I’m still determined, even while the reality is that there is no reason for me to hold any hope. Where is she?
A gentle breeze blows over me and I swear I hear her whispering on it. ‘I’m here…’
But that’s not enough, not nearly. I need her… here, present, and perfect in my arms. They took her from me and this empty husk that they left is just not enough. They must still have her; she can’t be dead, and I intend to find her, though I can’t figure out my own motivations.
This determination to find Tina – is it for the right reasons, or do I just need an excuse? Have I really changed? Those dead on the oil rig and the several vampyrs that I’ve tortured for empty answers might disagree. Anna sees it, sees me, the truth. I thought I’d destroyed that part of myself. I still hate it, but I now know that it will always be there, and as such, I’m scared for Anna. I’m not the one that she should take after. That would be my reason, my hope, my Tina.
But she’s not here to help this girl as only she can, and I know that I can’t fill her shoes, not with the rebellion and not with her compassion. But if there is one thing that I know for certain, it’s that she would want me to try. And I would do anything to honor her spirit and her memory, until such a time as her ghost becomes solid again. Until then, I can only do my best. And my best is to let Anna have her violence when possible, but teach her the difference between enemy and innocent. That’s the only difference between us at this point.
Anna finally returns her eyes to her book and I release a deep breath. I can already feel the anticipation settling into my limbs. Liam will be arriving before dawn to assist us with the attack, and while I’m not scared, I’m restless. Loyalist numbers are growing out of control and Tina could be here; Lilith could be here. Either way, I just want all of this all to be over and I want to know the truth. Is Tina alive? Another breeze prickles my skin and causes the hair on the back of my neck to stand on end, but this time, it holds no answers.
No, I take that question back. I don’t want to know the truth; I want to bend the truth to my will, and I will that Tina is alive. I shift to lie down on my side and stare into the flames as I grip the small medallion around my neck. Another eerie breeze flutters the flames and a thick buzzing picks up in my gut. There just… there are no answers, at least none that I’m willing to accept.
My eyes follow the sweeping curve of Tina’s hip as I drag the tip of the pencil across the paper in in my lap. The arcing moonlight streaking in from the window gives her skin an incandescent pallor. It’s almost as if she’s glowing from the inside out. Her blonde waves are swept behind her, showcasing her slender neck and naked torso. And just as surely as I can feel my hand smooth across the paper, I can recall what it’s like to press my palm against the various shapes and textures of her skin and know what it means to feel complete.
I do this often, watch her sleep and keep my eyes on her instead of the paper as I let my hand replicate her unparalleled form. It’s always the same result in the end: I capture a part of her soul and impossible beauty in vivid detail. I’m not sure if it’s just the countless hours I’ve spent memorizing her, studying her, and absorbing her, or the fact that my hands know her so well that even if I were blind I could immortalize her on paper or canvas.
But that’s not a problem for us. She’s already immortalized, and not just in terms of years. She represents so many things to so many people, and while, when asked, no one of them will ever give you the same answer, that answer will also be the same in one way or another.
She’s effortlessly simple and impossibly complex, like the facets of a flawless diamond that’s been cut with masterful precision. And while you have to hold her gently because she’ll fracture in the light, she can cut through any hardened armor to warm the very heart. She is mundane and rapture, clear and deep. And I love these moments alone with my thoughts so that I can revel in her without an audience.
She stirs and I watch her hand glide across my side of the bed as it unconsciously searches for me. She frowns when she doesn’t find me, and while I hate the way the action mars her gorgeous face, I fall in love with her all over again. She wants me, maybe even needs me, and there’s absolutely no reason for her to. By some miracle, this woman, unmatched in so very many ways, chose me.
It’s humbling and redeeming, her uncanny ability to take me, someone so destroyed by life and self-loathing, and make me feel like I’m not just worth something, but priceless. I shift the paper from my lap to the window seat and pad across the room to climb in next to her, lying on my side so that I can continue to look at her. I can tell by her thoughts that she’s half-awake, but I don’t care what she hears at this moment.
Her eyes blink open and she smiles sleepily at me. ‘Can’t sleep…?’
I reach out and run my finger down her arm lightly and she closes her eyes again. ‘I can; I just don’t want to.’
She grins at my words. ‘Didn’t get enough…’ She glances back at the clock on the nightstand behind her. ‘…four hours ago?’
I smile as she resettles herself so close that we’re sharing the same pillow and breathing the same air. ‘Never.’
She kisses me sweetly before resting her forehead against my chin and closing what little distance is left between our bodies. Sometimes the closeness that I feel with her is so overwhelming that it seems surreal, like at any moment I’m going to wake up, still in the basement alcove of her father’s house, and know what it truly means to lose all hope.
I sigh as I rest my arm over her hip and she draws lazy circles on my collarbone with her finger. ‘It does seem surreal, doesn’t it?’
I kiss her forehead in agreement, closing my eyes to breath in the sleep sweetened scent of her. ‘Sometimes, I still can’t believe that you’re actually here.’ She tilts her head and gazes at me. ‘I spent so much time thinking that you were gone, and that I’d never see you again.’
She smiles, her eyes glassy and deep. ‘But I found you…’ Her smile fades. ‘…alive… but so lost that I wondered if it would have been better never to have known at all.’
I close my eyes, fighting off the guilt of who I was and how I treated her. Her entreaty is breathy and soft, just like her touch to my cheek. ‘Look at me.’
How can I not honor such a simple request? I deserve to see the pain that I’d so readily caused her. I force myself to meet her eyes, gazing at her with all of the regret that I can glean from my soul and willing her to recognize it. She has to know that she’s my world, my hope… my everything. She has to know that I don’t deserve her and how thankful I am that she stays with me. ‘I do know, Bette. But that’s not why I’m telling you any of this.’
I don’t understand and she brushes the curls from my face, settling her hand beneath my ear as she strokes her thumb over my cheekbone. ‘I know how much you love me, and how much you wish that you could change the past. But this isn’t about what I know; this is about what you know.’
I frown, trying to piece together where all of this is coming from and what I’m missing. Her voice, true and velvet soft, startles me as it echoes her thoughts. “I heard what you were thinking just a moment ago. Thoughts and feelings must not be enough, so I’m going to tell you.”
She frowns and exhales heavily. “You don’t seem to realize that you saved me. You gave me purpose and inspired me, even when I thought I’d lost you. You showed me what it meant to be true to myself, no matter the risk. You supported me and loved me, even when it killed you to do it. You sacrificed everything for me. Don’t you see it – your worth?”
I can’t look at her because I can’t believe her, even as much as I want to. And oh, how I want to. Even if it is true, I don’t deserve it. No matter what, it’s only a matter of time before she leaves or she’s taken from me, and it’s entirely my fault. She sits up, her grip on my face tightening and forcing me to drown in the hazel maelstroms that are swirling behind her eyelashes.
Her voice is adamant, and her words are piercing, leaving me breathless. “It’s you who’s priceless, Bette. It’s you who needs to know that you’re my world, my hope, my everything… you’re my miracle. I’m sorry that I neglected to make that clear, but I swear to you that I’ll keep saying it until you believe me, because it’s true.”
Her mouth is hot and needy against mine, pulling me in as if her very life depends on it. And if her words and actions are any indication, that very well may be the truth.
She rests her forehead against mine as her lips brush me once more, holding me so close that it’s almost painful, but it’s the kind of pain that relieves, even as her words make my ache more acute. “I will never leave you.”
I have been putting myself beneath her, beneath everything, refusing to believe what I’m seeing and feeling because I’ve never found myself worthy, especially not of her. I hate myself; and that hate is like a deep, festering wound that’s been bleeding and seeping with infection. Her words are like a balm, drawing the infection out so that it can finally heal. And while I know that only time will find it faded to nothing but a faint scar, it’s a start. And she’ll be here, like she’s always been, come Lilith and whatever may. She’s with me, my home. When did I stop knowing that? When I knew it was really true…
She has always been the start of everything that will ever be incredible and good in my life. It will always come down to her, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I return her kiss with one of my own, and for a moment I feel like we’re equals. And maybe we are.
Maybe, just maybe, she loves me as much as I love her.
Maybe, just maybe, she’ll never leave me, regardless of any possible separation.
Maybe, just maybe, home isn’t just a place or a person, but that something or someone carried inside.
‘I love you,’ she thinks, the thoughts floating over me like a gentle breeze, reiterating the one phrase that sums up all other words of devotion, the one thing that it always comes back to in the end.
‘I love you,’ she says.
I close my eyes, letting it rush through me and sweep all of my doubts away. ‘I’ll never leave you.’
My body jerks, the air whistling lowly as it dusts away all traces of my beloved with the scattering sand around me. And for a moment, I want to follow it and find her again, but it’s gone. She’s gone…
The dying embers of the fire glow hotly as they smother and consume themselves; and I hear a shuffling sound getting closer behind me. There’s a twinge in my guts and I panic but lay still, my eyes darting from Alice to Dana before resting on Anna. They’re all sound-asleep.
Whatever it is, it doesn’t have a heartbeat and it’s coming towards us with purpose. I listen and wait anxiously until the noise is almost on top of me, and then in a flurry of movement, reach back and knock his legs out from under him. He collapses with a muted, “Oomf,” and I’m instantly towering over him, my boot pressing his throat in against his spine.
His eyes are wide as they meet my own. He quickly sizes me up and then he seems to relax, putting his hands up in surrender as he smirks. Ugh, seriously? Is that all men think about? Perhaps not. His hands are around my ankle, twisting it, before I even realize that I’m distracted, and I’m forced to roll with the motion to keep it from snapping the bone.
I tumble across the sand and right myself in time to see that he’s had the same opportunity. His stance is casual and he’s still smirking at me. I’m prone to wipe that smirk off of his face, but seeing as he must be Liam and while he should have known better than to sneak up on us, I won’t. “You must be Liam.”
His smirk becomes a roguish grin, highlighting his young, grizzled face. He pats the sand from his leather duster, spreads his arms, and bows slightly. “In the flesh.”
I roll my eyes and grab the lapels of my own jacket, shaking it to get some of the uncomfortably itchy sand out of my collar.
He chuckles softly and runs his hands through his thick, dark mane of wavy, shoulder-length hair before addressing me again. “Let’s see: you attack first, ask questions later. You’re tall for a girl, and you think quickly on your feet. You’re obviously not young and you have a perpetual scowl that would give you a deep wrinkle between your eyes if you were mortal. You must be Bette.”
I scowl at him before I can stop myself and he just laughs softly. “Alice and Dana have filled me in.”
I dust out my own hair. “Well, someone should have filled you in on sneaking up on people. I’d say that you might get attacked less frequently, but seeing as you’ve opened your mouth, I know that must not be true.”
His eyes twinkle with mirth and his deep voice drips with sarcasm, highlighting the soft lilt of his Irish heritage. “I wasn’t trying to sneak up on you. But since you bring it up, next time I’ll just start shouting from a few hundred yards away so that you know I’m coming.” He shrugs and grins. “It’s not like you were expecting me or anything.”
There isn’t much that I can say to that. I did know that he was coming, but I hadn’t realized it was him until I’d had a moment to think. “Sleep can do strange things to the mind.”
“Ah, yes, it can.” He sighs wistfully. “But whiskey does even stranger things.”
I can’t help but smile. The last time that Tina and I imbibed together was incredible fun, and we hadn’t even meant to do it. We’d fed on some party goers after a Pearl Jam concert in the late 90’s. Of course, they went on their way just fine, but Tina and I were wasted. We drank rarely, but that was part of its charm. And of course, that time with Tina is the best I’ll ever know.
I shake off the thought of her, for the moment anyway. “Too bad that we don’t have any whiskey out here.”
He picks up his fallen duffle bag and produces a tall bottle of Jameson’s, smiling as he says, “1996 isn’t the best vintage, but I thought we might celebrate later today.”
I nod and he grins as he tucks the bottle away. He sits down by the dying fire, stretching out his legs and getting comfortable against his duffle. I do the same, though I’m less relaxed. I know that sleep won’t find me again, so I just stare into the fire and wait. Sunrise is only a couple of hours away anyhow.
I keep glancing over at Liam. His eyes are closed and he seems relatively comfortable despite our surroundings. But something tells me that being comfortable in his skin is just part of his personality. I want to open my mouth and ask the question that’s burning on my lips, but I know that I don’t want to hear his damning answers, so I don’t speak.
This doesn’t stop him from calling me out, even as he doesn’t open his eyes or move. “Now, I know that you aren’t interested in me as a man, so can you explain why you keep staring at me?”
I turn my eyes to the flickering embers only to realize that I’d been fidgeting with the medallion around my neck and wasn’t even aware of it. He knows. He has to. He’s been very astute in his other observations thus far. Is he really going to make me ask?
I glance back over at him to see him smirk.
Yes, he is.
I return my eyes to the coals. But am I going to ask?
His voice is low and gentle, but it still startles me. “I was there and yes, I saw what happened.”
I don’t take my eyes from the embers. “Is she…?”
He exhales heavily, propping himself on an elbow as he follows my gaze. He’s quiet, too quiet; and for a long time, too long. And this is precisely why I avoided this conversation. I don’t want to hear how hopeless it is anymore. I don’t want to hear that I’m in denial anymore. All I want to hear is Tina’s voice, giving my hope credence.
There’s another breeze and I feel my guts churn. “I know that you don’t want to hear it, but yes, I believe that she is dead.”
I squeeze the pendant tighter and grind my teeth together, doing my level best to choke down the bile and pique that wish to explode out of me.
“But I also believe in what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.”
I swallow so harshly that I fear my tongue has been lost, and force myself to release the pendant. I look over at him to see the respect that is lingering in his expression, and the churning feeling burns with rage and confusion.
Some of it spills out against my will. “What, you’re not going to tell me how foolish and irrational I’m being? No accusations of disillusionment, denial, or madness… or my personal favorite – pity?”
He shrugs. “I don’t pity you. I think that you feel something in your gut and you’re going with it. Who am I to call that crazy? I tend to follow my instincts, and my instincts tell me to help you regardless of what I saw. Besides, it doesn’t really matter what anyone else thinks, now does it?”
The scalding torrent in my guts freezes into a solid lump and I shake as the cold, void of despair fills me. “You believe that she’s dead, but you’re willing to fight and maybe die, because I refuse to believe it?”
He grips some sand in one hand and lets it trickle through the fingers of his other as he says, “Tina wasn’t just a leader to me, she was my friend. We didn’t see each other often, but I spent a lot of time with her when she was just starting to track down Lilith.”
His eyes twinkle as he looks at me knowingly. “She was always the quiet sort… kind and warm, and I’ll admit that I had a helluva crush on her.”
I narrow my eyes at him and he chuckles. “She was sad though. She hid it well, but I could tell. And when she heard about you…” He whistles lowly. “… she was lit with a fire that nearly knocked me off of my feet.”
His laugh dies away. “She searched for you for ages. And when she found you, she wanted to rescue you.”
He shakes his head. “We all thought that she was crazy, that there was no way for you to be saved except by a quick death. You’re somewhat of a legend, did you know that?”
I’m… flabbergasted. I stare at him and after a moment, he laughs again. “Don’t be so surprised. I’ve seen some of your handiwork.”
He shudders and I feel one rattle through me as well. I swallow harshly, feeling exposed, and I’m thankful when he moves past that part of the story. “But, Tina insisted that you could be saved, and we did what she said.”
He drops the last of the sand, rubbing his fingers together to shake them clean, and I ask him, “Why?”
He looks up into my eyes, the respect evident. “Because it didn’t matter if her cause was foolish or impossible. We believed in her, and that was enough.”
His sincerity is overwhelming so I look back to the fire, my voice hollow as I reply, “Despite what you saw of my ‘handiwork,’ you don’t know me.”
He settles back against his duffle, releasing a deep breath as he closes his eyes. “I know a cause worth fighting and maybe dying for when I see one. If there is anything that you lack, it’s not conviction or love. I respect that; I respect this cause. I will see it through. And so will you.”
I don’t know what to say to that, other than he must be crazy to know what I’m capable of and want to follow me. But if he wants to be involved in this exercise in futility, so be it. Some time passes and I hear his breathe even out in sleep, leaving me alone with my thoughts. For once they don’t revolve around Tina specifically. I’m not sure how to take what he’s said. It’s all so senseless: from Tina’s death to my denial of that fact. But there is an intense heaviness in the realization that it’s no longer just me that will be affected by my choices.
I look over at Dana, Alice, and Anna to find them all still asleep. They barely stirred when Liam and I scuffled, and Anna is too deeply entrenched in her twitching nightmares to find awareness. All of them can sleep through a train wreck, and that’s what this is: a train wreck. And I’m driving. I have no idea how to stop and it’s too late to get off. All there is to do is push ahead, and I have no idea where ahead will lead us. I just know that I want to give up, but I can’t. I can’t give up on her, even if she is but the ghost of a memory.
The sun finally makes its appearance over the softly shifting dunes that line the infinite horizon, and I pull a pint of blood from my knapsack. The distant, burning marble looks like a mirage as the cold instantly lifts off of the dry land in plumes, distorting the bright rays that are mirrored in all directions. And that’s what this is all about: seeking Tina as pointless as seeking the sun. I will be walking the earth trying to reach what always appears to be just over the horizon, when in reality it’s worlds away. I will walk this way forever.
It’s calm and it’s quiet outside of the mess that is my mind, but I can’t help but think of a time when this harsh terrain had been a sanctuary that I shared with Lilith. I feel my muscles tense in anticipation of the confrontation that we’re about to embark on. I know this feeling well. It’s bloodlust. Since my escape from Lilith’s recompense, everything’s been predetermined, as if I have no choice but to dance like a marionette. Despite that, I now recognize my feelings for what they are: anger.
While that’s an emotion that I’m all too well familiar with, this is the first time that it hasn’t had a focus. There’s not one thing that I can pin it on. It’s in general, at everything, and while I swallow it, try to hide it, it seems to be growing. I know that I’m not hiding it well, but this is the best that I have to offer the world, and it’s a failed attempt at a farce.
I open the thick, plastic bag in my hands, drain its contents quickly, and toss it into the fire’s smoldering ashes where it starts to melt. That’s sort of how I feel, like I’ve been drained and thrown into a fire that won’t consume me. It only warps and twists me into something unrecognizable. And that’s only if feeling nothing is an actual feeling. I haven’t allowed myself much time to feel anything really, but that’s how it has to be, even as it’s not how it should be. But nothing is ever as it should be in life.
The gentle breeze that haunted me throughout the night seems to be burned away as the sunlight glints brightly and stings my eyes. I reach into my satchel and pull out my aviators to soothe the sting and focus on the blood soaking into my muscles, strengthening me. It’s time, and that’s a good thing; I don’t know how much longer I can wait to assuage that part of me that wants its pound of flesh.
I stand and wake the others. They’re quick to respond, Liam greeting Alice and Dana with smiles and hardy hugs. And Anna, she’s just ready to fight, ready to take some pleasure in a seemingly devoid world, just like me. I sigh as I watch her drain the blood from her own bag and toss the remains next to mine in the fire to twist and warp. She smiles over at me, a few drop lingering on her lips creating a grim picture of a beautiful face in sharp contrast with the dark desires that burn just beneath the surface.
I’ll keep her close and hopefully, she’ll find happiness outside that of the sharp snap of a neck. I watch as Dana introduces her to Liam, and if I’m not mistaken, his cool, casual demeanor is shaken when he stumbles over his own name. She ignores him for the most part, and I can’t help but smirk smugly at him. He avoids noticing, though I know that he has, and I set about the task of packing up and preparing for our coup.
The others notice and start to follow my lead, packing what little is littered around and securely shouldering the load. I kick the fire into nothing but a pile of scorched and melted sand, and we make our way in the cover of unnaturally bright light for the underground cavern of what used to be a rebel stronghold.
Our preternatural speed is hampered somewhat by the unsteady terrain, but we arrive within half an hour. It looks like nothing more than another hill of sand next to a huge chunk of sun-bleached rock that I assume is there to mark this location. And when Liam locates the buried chain and pulls, shifting the granules to uncover a hatch, I know that we’re in the right place.
He opens it and I gaze down to see nothing but a tight space that seems to go on endlessly. This is a design that the Lilith used to implement as a failsafe from humans when technology wasn’t as advanced. Few would travel out this far in this climate to begin with, but it has happened. Without a ladder or rope of some sort, humans would never attempt to enter, and they would never leave. Only a vampyr can survive the fall and make the jump back out without assistance.
Liam steps up next to me. “You have no idea what’s waiting down there, do you?”
I don’t take my eyes off of the hole. “If I’m lucky, Tina and Lilith.”
“And if you’re not?”
I look over at him. “If I’m not, some very pissed off and groggy vampyrs.”
He nods slowly. “So what’s your plan?”
I clench my fists. “Go in, kill anything that moves unless it has blonde hair, and then blow it up on my way out.”
He smiles and pats me on the back. “Last one in has to be the bait.”
And with that he’s down the hole. I feel piqued at his actions, but as the silence drags on, too long, I begin to get frustrated. Just as I’m about to follow him down, I hear him shout, “It’s empty! Come on down!”
The bloodlust is still simmering hotly in my abdomen but his declaration leaves me feeling slightly deflated. I drop down into the hole, landing sinuously on the balls of my feet, and walk into the large empty room. There’s nothing but some overturned furniture, scattered trash, and the faint smell of blood.
There are a few doorways dotting the edges, and I look into each, finding nothing but some cots, more trash, and the bloodstains that are the source of the smell. There’s nothing, no vampyrs, no Lilith, no Tina. It’s all covered in a thick layer of dust I can tell that it’s been abandoned. It’s just nothingness, like the landscape that we’re entrenched in and the landscape of my mind. I watch Dana appear in the shaft of light that’s focused at the entrance, and start to grow frantic.
I start searching, for what I’m not sure, but there has to be something here. No trap doors, no secret compartments, nothing, just nothing. I walk back into the room as Alice materializes in the light, and steps up to Dana. I watch the silent exchange where Dana shakes her head sadly and I lose it. Whatever’s left of my sanity is starting to decay and fray and fall away, and I just can’t seem to get a handle on it.
I bust the largest table in half with my hands before I even realize that I’ve swung, and then proceed to throw one of the pieces into the concrete wall where it splinters into chunks. Dana moves to stop me, but Liam puts his arm out in front of her, and I continue to abuse the space. It was supposed to hold something, some answers, Tina…
Anna appears in the opening, staring at me with a puzzled expression that cocks her head. It reminds me so much of Lilith that before I know what I’m doing, I’m charging towards her to crush her skull in my hands. She’s cold, and cruel, and twisted, and so much like Lilith… like me, that I can’t take it. But I stop short when the light around her slips away with a resounding thud and dusting of sand.
We both look up at the hatch to find it closed, and the room starts to shake and groan as if there’s an earthquake. Anna looks around, looks at me, and grabs her head at her ears to panic, and I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t panicking as well. We’ve been ambushed. My desire to chase Tina’s apparition and kill my maker has trapped us here. But more than that, it means that someone has taken notice, someone who can daywalk.
I feel my guts churn and realize who it is. I hadn’t been paying attention, and now, the noise is fading away with soft, light footfalls that leave me in turmoil. “Lilith…”
The name escapes my lips with a strangled cry and I claw at the wall, tearing huge pieces of it away as I gouge my own hand holds into the surface and pull myself up to the hatch. I push and slam my hands against it with every ounce of angry energy that’s coursing through me, but it’s no good. Even as I rip through the metal seal, the solid stone beyond seems to go on forever.
I fall from my perch, tired and spent though my ire not nearly quenched. She was here; she watched and waited; she knew, and she’s closed us in easily. Everything becomes intensely silent except for the rushing noise in my ears. I feel like I can’t breathe as I’m inundated with that feeling – that unspeakable feeling brought on by the terrible vivid clarity of memory. I’m trapped. Why does Lilith always feel the need to trap and torture me? And why do I keep letting her?
Liam is the first to break the silence and approach Anna, who’s now crouching in the corner and trembling. At first, when he touches her, she flails and screams, and it takes Alice’s strength to stop me from snapping her neck to shut her up. Fortunately, Liam subdues her into tear-soaked sobs and while I register that she lets him hold her, the curiosity of it is lost on me.
He meets my eyes. He’s not accusing, but I look away and shrug Alice off. It’s frustrating that she even touched me at all, but even more so that she can so easily overpower me. Mostly though, I’m frustrated with myself. What if I never find Tina and somehow survive? Will I always be like this? Either way, she would be infinitely disappointed in my behavior and honestly, so am I.
I step away from them and approach an overturned chair, setting it right before collapsing into it. I don’t want to sit. I want to break things, kill things, but I won’t because I shouldn’t. I won’t ever get used to being without Tina, but I have to learn to cope with it or I’m no use to her or her cause.
I stifle a bitter laugh. Her cause… All of Liam’s grand words ring in my ears and make me choke. They believe in me for no reason and I’ll do nothing but get them killed, or worse, trapped for all eternity in a hole with me and my anger. I’m no leader. I’m not Tina. Tina… A deep and abiding panic washes over me and leaves me dizzy. Tina… I still have to get to her. I have to try. No matter what, I have to at least try.
As my senses clear, a sound pricks at my ears. It’s a muted beep, like that of a cellphone with a dying battery. I stand and make my way to one of the rooms on the edges. There’s nothing but the broken remnants of furniture and the incessant hollow tone of technology that doesn’t belong there. I follow the sound to the far wall, shoving debris out of my way and feeling over the concrete surface as I hone in on the sound. There’s nothing… nothing but walls and torturously consistent beeps.
I look down at my blood-stained hands, newly healed but still slightly sore, before starting to pound them into the wall. It breaks away so easily that I nearly fall through it, revealing a small space and the real wall beyond. I’m steeped in anger as I start pulling at the edges of the fresh hole, and Dana comes up to help me. We lay it to waste and find a medium-sized metal box resting on the floor beyond. The irritating sound is emanating from it, and I know immediately that I’m still being played. This is all just a joke to Lilith, and her games never end well… at least not for anyone else.
I crouch down, leaning over the bottom edge of what appears to be packed sand and gray spray paint, and lift the lid on the box to see a tangle of wires and two canisters of fluid all winding throughout the torn and tattered remains of a decaying human heart. Resting on top is a small unmarked envelope.
I stare dumbly at the explosive for a moment and let the realization of what’s about to happen settle in. We’re all about to die. This information finally hits the bottom of my skull and I feel the need to move, to do something, not for myself but for those with me, for Tina. But as I see the name on the envelope, all thoughts of imminent death fade away.
I lift the envelope with shaking hands and read her name out loud. “Tina…”
It sounds strange to my own ears and a deep knife plunges into my guts and tears a dragging wound up to my heart. Her name is etched in a delicate, feminine script with deep, crimson ink. I slide the flap open, forgetting the bomb and the heart, already knowing in my soul what this all means, but I have to confirm it. If I’m going to die, I need to know.
Inside is a small square of paper, and I pull it out. The same script runs over the surface in the same dark red. “You have grieved me, dear one, but given your circumstances, I thought that I’d have mercy and visit you this last kindness. This is all that remains of your beloved Tina. I snatched it from her chest after I had her torn to pieces. This is my most prized possession, but it’s yours, my last gift to you.”
I drop the card, gazing down at the heart, my voice broken. “Is it true… did she…?”
Dana touches my arm and it feels like a branding iron even through my clothes. “Bette…”
“IS IT POSSIBLE?!” I’m shaking with rage and she needs to respond.
Her hand drops away and I grit my teeth as she speaks. “It’s possible. Lilith was rushing through the execution so quickly that it was hard to track everything that she was doing. But, Bette… we need to focus. We have to get out of here.”
She gestures at the box and I stare at it, my mind working though I have no idea why. I’ve read about explosives, and I’ve rewired a circuit before, but this is out of my league, and I have no idea how much time I even have. There’s no readout, no nothing, just canisters of damning liquid waiting to combine and the one thing in this world that I was supposed to protect, but failed to so miserably.
I hear Alice approaching the room and Dana jumps to her feet, nearly carrying Alice away before she can see what I’m crouched over. I hear them arguing and close my eyes. I’m not a leader. I’m not Tina. Even she wouldn’t know what to do, would she? What would she do?
I tear my eyes up from her heart to the wall in front of me, feeling the bile rise up in my throat as what’s really happening sinks in. I’ve failed. I’ve come up short. I always have in my life. I never can seem to do things right or with any semblance of grace. All I’ve ever done is shut down; and I want to this very moment. I want to shut down and let oblivion take me, but it won’t happen. That’s one thing that I know that Tina would never do. She’d fight to the bitter end to save those around her without thought or regard for herself. But look where it got her…
I’m not her. I’m not even capable of outsmarting Lilith. In my defense, she planned this well, using my own hot-blooded carelessness and desperate love for Tina against me. I stare at Tina’s heart and I swear that it’s beating. I get sick again and stammer to my feet, kicking a can of spray paint that I hadn’t noticed.
I lean heavily against the wall as something terrible floods through me and out of my eyes. I slam my fist against the wall, cracking both surfaces – one stone and one flesh. The movement sends a jolt of painful fissures spreading through both. The pain feels good against the sobs that are jarring through me, and I keep going, hoping that I’ll eventually stop feeling, even for a moment, but it’s not working.
Dana re-enters the room and pulls the bomb away from the debris that is crumbling down onto it before covering it and admonishing me. I don’t care what she says. In fact, I don’t even really hear her words. I keep going, because even if I can’t stop the overwhelming rage inside of me, at the very least I can abuse myself into exhaustion.
By the time I slip down to the destroyed mess that I’ve made on the floor in a quivering heap, I’m even worse than when I started. None of my pique is sated and all I’m left with is being paralyzed within my battered body while my mind boils in rage and anguish. Dana ignores me and abandons the bomb, going to the wall and laying into it where I left off. I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one losing it, but when she calls for Liam and Alice, I realize that she’s not motivated by anger, but by hope.
The come at her call. She explains what’s happened and after the initial panic fades, they start to frantically help her. As they progress, I begin to notice that more and more of their bodies are disappearing past the wall until finally, with a whoosh, sand starts cascading in with extreme force and pushing us out of the room. Dana drags me as she scrambles quickly to get through the door.
The space fills and floods us out into the main chamber beyond, and we slide along with the sand, clawing to keep ourselves above the gritty tide as it continues to pour in and fill every crevice. Liam helps Anna and Dana and Alice help me, and by the time that everything stops moving, we’re partially buried and there’s only about a foot of air left above us.
The room with the bomb is now bathed with a bright shaft of light and they look to each other for an awkward moment of silence. It’s then that I hear the muted thud of a switch and the rushing sound of compressed fluid. Time’s up, and I welcome it.
The sound may as well have been the explosion itself, because Dana is instantly dragging me as they all start to rush for the light in the cramped space above the sand. Liam makes it first, standing in the light, crouching, and using all his force to jump up into the shaft with Anna in his arms. Alice follows quickly and Dana pulls me to my feet.
Her features are hard as she holds me by the shoulders and shakes me. “Get your ass up there!”
I stare at her blankly. I don’t care, and she knows it. She shoves me. “GO! NOW!”
I don’t budge and she shakes her head. “You miss her. I get it, but if you really love her, you’d care about what she’d want.”
She shoves me one last frustrated time and leaps. The rushing water in the explosive is slowing and I know that the end is close.
Dana tries one last time, calling down from the top. “BETTE! COME ON! DON’T GIVE UP YET!”
I’m not sure what I want to. It would be so easy to let Lilith win, but as that thought occurs to me, I realize something else: Dana’s right. Tina’s gone. And while that is impossible to live with, if I really do love her, I will not just avenge her, but I will finish what she started. I’ll fight for what she believed in because she believed in it with so much conviction that she gave her own life for it. It’s not just expected of me, it’s the right thing to do. It’s the only thing to do.
I have no idea how I’ll make it through this without her, but my decision is made. Just as I jump, I feel hot air and melted sand slam into my back, rocketing me upwards. The edge of the opening passes my field of vision as I keep going, higher and higher before I arc and I’m hurled back down towards the earth to land in a heap of smoke, debris, and sand.
Everything goes black and clouded for a moment but it doesn’t take me, even as I gasp and choke. Long moments pass, but when I’m able to somewhat focus, I can see the faces of my companions hovering around me. “Bette…?”
I can tell that Dana’s said my name, but it sounds like she’s under water. I blink at her as the ringing dulls into a low hum. “Bette, here, drink this.”
A pint of blood is in her hand and she’s lifting my head so that I can take it down. It’s gone almost instantly, and I can feel broken bones and searing wounds start to heal, even though the pain of them hasn’t even registered yet.
After a moment, my head feels much less foggy and I sit up. Everyone falls on their asses in weariness and I look around until I see the crater left in the earth. Small objects litter the ground as they burn, and ash and other debris continue to rain down around us. I can even see the huge bolder that Lilith used to shut us in. It’s hardly moved, though it’s now lopsided and poised precariously on the edge of the exploded depression.
Just then a scorched can of spray paint lands at my feet. I pick it up and I stare at its dented surface, my resolve doubling as I come to grips with what it all means. This is war, pure and simple, and I’ll win because Tina would have won.
I look at each of the tired, dirty faces around me, and while I’m still only half a person, I feel a sense of family among them. Perhaps this nightmare is what it took for me to realize it. Either way, they have put their faith in me; Tina has put her faith in me, and while I’ll never live up to what any of this means, I can be a friend and I can keep going for her.
I shake the can, a small smile splitting my face as I hear the rattle of the mixer inside. I’m not sure what pushes me to stand and start walking towards the bolder, but I do. I’m slower and stiffer, and I’ll need more blood, but what I’m about to do shouldn’t take all that much strength.
I approach the lopsided bolder and hold up the can. With several quick, precise movements, there’s a tree painted onto its surface. I reach up and squeeze the pendant around my neck as the others approach and smile knowingly at my work.
There’s a moment of silence and I feel a soft breeze wash over me. This time I close my eyes and embrace it. For the moment, it’s enough.
It’s not over, not by a longshot, and Liam reminds me of that. “To Russia then?”
I grin back at him. Pain and suffering and heartache will always be a part of life. But Tina started this and I’m going to finish it for her. I defy Lilith, and I want her to know that it will take so much more than death to stop Tina or to stop me. She has no idea whom she’s fucking with.