I don’t know if it’s the fact that I’m no longer constantly running for my life, or all of the help that I now have in this endeavor, but I feel restless. So much is changing, but I feel like we’re at a standstill, even as we’re progressing exponentially.
We’ve spent the last month in the newly reclaimed outpost teaching the new progenies. Guiding them all through the transition and rituals required for daywalking. It took longer than anticipated, but was a relatively smooth process. We don’t force people to join our ranks, so it’s a relatively painless process so long as we have blood to heal after the fire. The only real hang-ups have been the personal items, but most of the new vampyrs had nothing to offer after the Loyalist invasion. All in all, they’re acclimating. We all are.
Our numbers continue to grow steadily. New vampyrs and small groups have been arriving sporadically. Most of them are green, and they haven’t been around humans to test their resolve. And while I understand that this time of preparation is necessary, I feel the impatient need to be pushing forward, moving faster, and I’m not sure why.
I don’t even know what it is I’m pushing towards, or what end I’m anxious to meet. I know that I’m not pushing towards Tina. And while killing Lilith is an extreme upside, I can’t seem to feel the need to tear her apart like I had. I just want it all to be over… I guess. It’s all very strange. I’m not fully aware of my own motivations any longer. I am still, however directionless, incessantly motivated.
Given that we’re growing and learning too randomly to be cohesive and deadly, we’ve decided to wait before heading to Serbia. We sent a few scouts to check on the situation at the outpost. Out of the four that we sent, only one returned, and just barely. We are going to need more support before we launch an attack, and not just new vampyrs that are reckless and easily killed. We have to be prepared and organized.
There’s no way to keep up with the Loyalist numbers outside of taking humans against their will. But we can go for quality over quantity, and that is our only hope in evening the odds. So, we sit tight; we learn, we teach, and we grow; and we know that we only have six months to bring this to an end, if that’s even possible.
Several of the new vampyrs attempted to retake Tel Aviv and find their loved-ones. As we had warned them, they’d underestimated the situation there and their own strength. However suicidal, I went with them. We were able to free some of the humans still trapped, but the city is a loss and we lost two of our own people. It wasn’t a total loss though. Outside of the humans that were saved, we gained some much needed intelligence.
The Loyalists have imbedded themselves in the city deeply; and if they have moved forward in capturing other cities, I’m fairly certain that there’s nothing that we can do to stop this. Ultimately, the only chance we have is to strike at Lilith and take her down specifically. Hopefully, with her gone, their cause will be lost as well as their motivation to fight.
Duffy has been an incredible resource. I’ve always used my strength and age to pull me through most confrontations, but she’s an expert in hand-to-hand combat and strategy. She has a slightly insane idea that could aid us, but it involves not only coming out to humanity, but trying to convince them of the danger that lies ahead. She wants to dispatch a… vampyr diplomat, of sorts… to key cities to try to warn and prepare them. I know that she’s been speaking with Kate to push this along, but Kate hasn’t approved it. And whether I like it or not, she and Laurel command the respect of the movement as a whole and therefore, they are our leaders.
I don’t know how I feel about Duffy’s idea. I see both sides of the equation. I suppose it wouldn’t hurt anything really, except that it would possibly send some of our best vampyrs to a needless death. Just the trek to those cities could get them killed, let alone once they arrive at the city to find that it’s either swarming with the enemy or the humans will panic.
I see the value in this plan, but there has to be a better way of implementing it. Perhaps this is what Kate is holding out for. Either way, Kate will be sending more contingents like Duffy’s to help, and what we have at this time is getting better by the day. As for me, I find learning to be of comfort, just like it always was. My mind absorbs the combat training easily and gives me something to focus on.
The same could be said of Alice. With what she’s learning and the strength that her age affords her, I doubt that anything less than sheer overwhelming numbers or Lilith herself could stop her. Her only hindrance is that she hates to fight, maybe even loathes it. But she doesn’t hesitate to strike, and she’s on our side. That’s all that matters.
Liam, Anna, and Dana are in their element. They find a great deal of joy in training and sparring, and while I enjoy it as well, I find that I want to spend most of my time alone if for no other reason than to keep my new progenies thoughts at bay. They’re all so… alive and naive. And while in some ways, it’s almost a relief to feel those things, it’s overwhelming. So I tend to remove myself for the most part, my only socializing when I’m helping with something necessary to the cause, which is, unfortunately, most of the time.
My situation with Liam and Anna has worsened. They still won’t tell me what bit of information Zihao related, and the man himself was even less help. He was here for one thing only, and he got it. He’s a daywalker now. It’s a huge risk by my estimation, but Liam made the deal and I don’t even know what could have possibly been worth it. I only know that Liam leaves today, taking Anna and Zihao with him. I have no idea where they’re going or why, and I’m left feeling conflicted, as I am in most things.
I worry for them because I care for them, though I still haven’t gotten used to that notion. And yet, I’m so angry that I almost hope that they don’t return. I have no energy to argue with them anymore, and there’s nothing that I can do to stop them from working with Zihao. Like all things, the past is written and the consequences are that which I can or cannot live with. Either way, I’m here and I feel betrayed.
Being alone seems to help because I don’t have to keep up appearances. I can be vacant and disagreeable and there’s no one there to notice. I fill what little bit of alone time that I have avoiding sleep and logging quality time with Hemmingway. I still dislike him, but Tina loved him, and as such I feel closer to her somehow. It’s not the same closeness that comes with sleep, but as I mentioned, I try to avoid sleeping at all costs.
It’s too difficult to move forward when I’m constantly looking behind me; but that’s all that I want to do. It’s like a drug. I want to sleep forever, stay suspended in time and reality as I gaze at the woman and the life that I’ll never have. That’s what sleep affords me, a much longed-for view of the past, present, and future. But it’s a dream and I’m not much of a dreamer at this point, though hope is still there in all of its unreasonable glory.
I know that I’m not the first person to lose someone that they love. But I hear that everyone handles loss and grief in different ways. I don’t even know what my way is anymore. I can torture vampyrs; it just does nothing to help. I can sleep, but it will suck me into a black void from which there is no return.
The only option I really have is to go with my gut, and it compels me beyond reason to finish what Tina started. All I know to do is take each moment as it comes and try to focus past the emptiness of it. I know that I’m a vampyr, but conceptually I’m just a zombie. I’m not very successful at moving through the emptiness, but I face each day and get a lot done.
And it’s for this reason that I have become accustomed to take the risk of walking alone along the shores of Mediterranean. I do it often just to keep moving or truly find somewhere that I don’t have to tune out thoughts or worry about someone noticing me. At this moment, it’s nearing sunrise, so the risk of stumbling across Loyalists is minimal, but honestly I don’t care. I need this. Whatever the reason I find myself here, I need this time to prepare myself for the intense focus required to push through each day running on nothing.
I know that I should hate the ocean. But for all that I lost beneath its waves, I find so much peace at its shores. I’m starting to believe that the ocean is much like Tina. Just like her, it gives and it takes away. She gives me a reason to live beyond myself, even as she takes that very reason away by being absent.
I hear someone approaching from behind and turn to see Anna. It would appear that I won’t have the entirety of my alone time. She smiles at me but I can’t return it. Instead, I continue walking, hoping that she’ll just leave me in peace.
No such luck. “Bette, we’re preparing to leave, and I was hoping to talk to you.”
I don’t acknowledge her, choosing instead to focus on my pace. There’s nothing more to say.
She sighs. “Look, Bette, I don’t know how long we’ll be gone and I just wanted you to know that… well, for what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”
I still don’t acknowledged her and I can tell that she’s getting frustrated, but again, I don’t care. Everything about this situation is frustrating for me.
She grabs my arm and tugs me to a standstill. “Bette, I owe you so much. You’re like family. I’m not trying to hurt you. Please just…”
I shrug her off and continue walking, but she follows. I exhale heavily and decide to just face this and her if it will make her go away. And while I don’t want to admit it, they’re leaving and any number of things could happen once they do. I’m angry, but if there’s one thing that I won’t do again, it’s live with unnecessary regret, and I would regret it if our last words were angry ones.
My voice is only slightly teasing as I interrupt her. “If you tell me to trust you again, I may throttle you.”
She laughs softly. “I’d deserve it. But no, I was going to say, please just… believe me.”
Several long moments of silence ensue, and I prompt her to just get this over with. “What do you want from me, Anna?”
She gazes out at the sea as she begins to explain, though her topic isn’t expected. “I was a wreck when you saved me.”
I can’t help the incredulous chuckle that escapes me and she smacks me lightly on the arm. She looks at me pointedly. “Stop interrupting, and just let me get this out.”
She takes a deep breath, falling in beside me. “I was a wreck. When I woke up, I was scared out of my mind. I was so lost, Bette, but then you know that. I wanted to be just like you, especially when you made me a daywalker and I saw what you’d been through. I realized that I could survive too, if I embraced that anger.”
She looks me in the eye. “It was… intoxicating – the power, the instinct. But it was survival, and survival is a far cry from living.”
I stare out the sea, hoping that the next wave will swallow this conversation up and carry it away.
I know all of this. “Look, Anna, if you feel like you owe me something, you don’t.”
She shakes her head. “No, no, I do owe you, but that’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that I know, Bette. I mean, I don’t know what you’re going through – I couldn’t imagine if something happened to Liam – but I do know how alone and empty you feel.”
She stops and grabs my arm again, looking me right in the eye. “You’ve given me so much – so much that I can never repay. And I want you to know that I’m only keeping this from you because I owe you… and because I care about you.”
It’s everything I can do not to laugh in her face. “Anna, that’s absurd.”
Her eyes harden and her voice raises slightly. “You have no idea how much I want to just tell you, but I can’t. I can’t give you what I don’t have yet.”
I want to scream, but I manage not to. “Anna, I don’t want anything from you except maybe enough respect for you to at least be honest with me. You don’t owe me anything and I’m nowhere near alive. If you’d have followed me, you wouldn’t be okay, not by a longshot. So there’s no way that I saved you. And even if I did, is compromising the entire rebellion really worth trying to pay me back for it?”
Her face becomes a mask of pain. “I know that you’re not alive. You walk and talk and breathe, but I know how empty it is. How do you think I figured out so quickly that I couldn’t follow you? I saw what that kind of darkness could do to me because it was doing it to you.”
Wow. I’m so terrible that she saw me as a cautionary tale. I’m speechless.
Her face is crestfallen as she reads my expression and tries to explain. “I couldn’t allow it, not for me, but not for you either. So, yes, the safety of the entire rebellion is worth trying to help you. You’re my family. Besides, I don’t think it’s a huge risk, even as much as I don’t like or trust Zihao.”
I can’t help but raise my voice this time. “You don’t think it’s a huge risk?! For the right price he could make the Loyalists daywalkers, and then we’re sunk. How many times have we used daylight to our advantage?”
She’s quiet and I laugh mirthlessly. “Besides, how is keeping secrets going to help me, Anna? How can you call me family and purposefully keep information from me, especially when the cost of this information compromises the only reason that I even push forward? Whatever it is, it won’t restore anything that’s been lost. Nothing is going to bring Tina back but an act of God, and God isn’t listening. All I can do is see this through and then try to keep going. I’m sorry if I’m not doing it quickly enough, but I’m doing the best that I can. And honestly… this nonsense doesn’t help at all.”
She looks down at the sand and I take a deep breath to calm myself. “I may not be alive, but I still try. That’s the best that I have. Maybe someday I’ll be strong enough to do more, but right now, I have to focus on the cause. It’s what Tina would want, and I owe her. You’re compromising that…”
She finally looks up. “I understand, Bette, and I’m sorry.”
I shake my head. She’s not listening.
“Look, I didn’t come out here to fight with you, but I wanted to make amends before we go, just in case…”
She can’t even finish the sentence and I don’t need her to. I frown and sigh in resignation. “I don’t understand, Anna, and you aren’t giving me any options in this. Whatever you’re trying to do, just… be safe. It’s not worth the cause; it’s not worth your life, and I’m definitely not worth it.”
She smiles sadly and nods in agreement, though I know that she hasn’t really heard a word that I’ve just said. It changes nothing. She turns to leave but stops and comes back. She’s hesitant as she wraps her arms around my waist, but she takes me firmly and hugs me solidly.
“You’re worth more than you know, Bette.” The embrace is over just as quickly as it started and I watch her leave, feeling a little awkward.
She only gets a few steps away before she stops again to call over her shoulder, “Bette, what’s the one thing that you regret most?”
I frown, considering why she wants to know and if I should tell her since she likes to withhold information. I don’t mean to just say it, but I do. “Tina and I had just gotten engaged when Lilith… I-I never got to marry her.”
I can’t see her face, but I swear that I can see the edge of her mouth rise slightly in the waning moonlight. And just like that, she breaks into a sprint and I’m left even more bereft than before I started my walk. I look out at the sea. All of the conflicting emotions swirling around inside of me settle into nothingness and I release a breath. The next one will take effort, and I’m weary, but I’ll take it and the one after that, because that’s what I have to do.
I wait for the sun to rise before making my way back to the outpost. Duffy is talking with two other vampyrs that I haven’t seen before while a huge crowd of even more newcomers mills about.
Duffy spots me through the crowd and waves me over, and I straighten my shoulders to put on a convincing façade before I comply. “Bette, this is Tasha and Jamie. Kate sent them to help.”
I shake each of their hands in tandem. Tasha has dark skin and her hair is pulled back in a tight, severe ponytail. Her posture is rigid, like that of a true soldier, but there’s a kindness in her eyes that belies her demeanor.
Jamie is so small that she seems almost frail, but she exudes warmth and kindness. And for a moment, the way she holds herself reminds me of Tina. Of course, at this point, most everything does. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it would be a relief to not have her constantly on my mind.
Jamie smiles oddly at me, and I can tell that she’s studying me. I feel like I’ve given too much of myself away, though I’ve not even spoken a word.
I’m thankful when she breaks the moment by speaking. “It’s nice to meet you, Bette.”
My returning smile feels plastic. “I’m glad that you’re here. We’re going to need help in Yugoslavia.”
She cocks her head and furrows her brows. “Yugoslavia doesn’t exist anymore…”
I consider her words and my smile becomes more genuine despite myself. “When you’re nearly two hundred years old, new names don’t stick so well. It’s Yugoslavia, no matter what they try to call it now, but I can say Serbia or the edge of Romania if you’d like.”
Jamie laughs and Tasha smirks, her voice smug as she intones a thinly veiled challenge. “Well, we’re ready when you are.”
I look around me before my eyes settle on Duffy. We exchange knowing a knowing glance and I speak. “I think our newest members need a little more training.”
I gesture in a general fashion to Tasha’s somewhat rambunctious group with over-exaggerated disbelief. “You sure about yours?”
Tasha grins and the challenge is now in full swing as her voice booms out. “FORM UP!”
Her group scuffles together into perfect lines with impeccably disciplined form quickly. Our recruits look at them like a little startled and Duffy chuckles, though I bite mine back.
Tasha’s folds her arms over her chest as she continues. “I’m a newer vampyr – only a couple of years old – but I was a captain in the army before I died in Iraq. I’ve been training them. They’re well-disciplined and capable. We can help you with training, if you’d like, and Kate and Laurel will be heading this way soon as well.”
Duffy grins and pats Tasha on the back. “That would be a tremendous help. If we push, we could be ready in a couple of months.”
Tasha’s eyes seem to light up. “Well, what are we waiting for?”
I step into my room and shut the door behind me. It does little to block out the noise from the keyed-up recruits in the common room, but I’m thankful for the illusion of seclusion. I’m exhausted. Tasha and Jamie have been driving the recruits nearly into the ground for the last month, and I find myself sparring constantly. Of course, it has nothing to do with my competitive nature… none whatsoever. Either way, I feel like I could sleep for a week.
This level of exhaustion would be welcome if not for the fact that sleep would kill me. I can’t go back there – to that intense place that Tina so fully inhabits – and watch her slip away anymore. Waking up is like losing her all over again, and it just makes the ache that much worse. The walks aren’t helping as much as they did at first, nothing does. I know that this can’t be normal. I feel like I’m haunted, and it makes it extremely difficult to let her go when she’s right here. Only she’s not. I can’t help but wonder if I’m going mad, or if she really is here, non-corporeal and lingering like a bittersweet perfume.
I jump, startled when there’s a quiet knock on the door, and straighten myself before I answer it. I’m as bright and aware as I can be as I crack the door open to see Alice and Dana standing there. I let them in, though I’m not in the mood for company, and Dana smiles as she produces a half-empty bottle of Jameson’s from behind her back.
“Liam gave this to us before he left, and I thought we should blow off some steam tonight. Everyone else is.”
I look at the bottle and consider it for a moment. If I get drunk enough, would I pass out and find a night away from the visions? It’s possible, but it would take more than a single bottle, let alone half of one split three ways. I look back up at Dana’s face to see her still hopeful.
She shakes the bottle for good effect. “Can I tempt you?”
I search my brain for a way to turn her down and realize too late that I’m taking too long to answer.
Her smile and words fade away and she lowers the bottle with a sigh. “Bette, come on. We don’t do anything but train and work anymore.”
Even Alice seems disappointed. God, she’s infuriating. We’re supposed to hate each other.
I don’t know what else to do, so I try to placate them. “I know, and I’d really like to. I’m just tired tonight and I want to try and get some sleep. Another time?”
They both look me over, and to my everlasting relief and shame, they don’t recognize the lie, just the weariness. “Yeah, it’s been a rough few weeks.”
Dana takes Alice’s hand and they move to the door. “We’ll let you rest.”
“Thanks,” I say as I try to smile.
My smiles never feel genuine anymore, but Alice and Dana don’t seem to notice and shut the door behind them with a quiet chorus of, “Goodnight.”
I nearly collapse onto my pallet. “Goodnight,” I say to the closed door.
I lean up against the wall, drawing my knees up to my chest and running a hand through my hair. I hate lying, but I can’t explain things; and even if I could, I wouldn’t. No one knows of my dreams, and they can’t. I have to see this through, and something tells me that if they knew they’d hole me up somewhere. At the very least, they’d harangue and harass me with worry and pity, and I just couldn’t abide it. I can and will get through this, but I can’t bear to sleep and now I’m stuck in this room. If I leave, they’ll know I lied.
I exhale heavily and fold my arms over my knees to rest my head against them. I try to focus on how I’m going to kill Lilith, hoping that if I can get in the habit of taking my mind off of Tina, maybe when I do sleep, it won’t be so overwhelming. For now, I’m not brave enough to test that theory, though I want to sleep desperately. So, I force my mind to conjure up death.
After a time, I catch myself nodding off and realize that I’m not going to make it if I don’t move. I draw myself up from the pallet and stare at the door longingly. The noise in the common room has died away and I peer out my door to find that the coast is clear.
Everyone has bedded down for the night, some forced to lay pallets in the common room instead of the basement due to the excess in numbers. The doors along the opposite wall are shut, so those who matter are asleep. I step lightly and tread carefully, slowly making my way through the common room and up to the surface.
The two guards at the entrance aren’t the only ones that keep night-watch; there are others along the plateau and throughout the ridge. Fortunately, they’re still young and don’t have the wherewithal to tell anyone about my excursions, or even notice that I’m not exactly normal, at least my kind of normal. They don’t know me, not really. To them, I’ve always been this way.
I walk past them, and they give me a nod of acknowledgement but otherwise ignore me, just as I have come to expect. I make the mile trek to the shores of the Mediterranean as quickly as my tired limbs will carry me before settling into a crawling pace. I have to keep moving if I’m going to stay awake, and I have to stay awake.
My visions have been evolving. They started out as flashbacks, and then morphed into almost prophetic glimpses of what could have been had so many other things not gone so wrong. But they did, and now… now they feel as if they’re happening right in the moment.
It’s as if she’s here with me; so much so that part of me believes that I’ll find her in my room, reading and waiting for me when I return. They’re vivid and incredible, and it’s getting harder to tell what’s real and what’s not. It’s as if I bring them with me – bring her with me – everywhere I go and in everything that I do. But there’s no comfort in it and it’s far too real to let her be dead.
I’m dragging by the time that I realize that I’ve made it through the night. I won’t make it through many others this way, especially if Tasha and Duffy keep pushing us as hard as they have been. As I approach the entrance to the outpost, I notice that another group has arrived, and by the crowd that’s spilling out into the desert, I assume by the mass of numbers that they’re probably with Kate or Laurel. The outpost reached near maximum capacity roughly a week ago, and I have no idea where we can possibly house these individuals.
I wade my way through the tightly packed bodies as I enter, only to find even more of them. There are whispers and murmurs of excitement and there’s an anxiousness that’s coagulated in the atmosphere. A hum settles low in my stomach and I stop, looking around me with confusion. Everything in me is screaming Tina’s name but my eyes can’t seem to find her.
Face after face enters my field of vision as I start to push forward and search for my ghost. I know that she can’t be here, but this feeling… something’s wrong. The throng shifts as I cut through, and they look at me curiously, but I don’t care. I feel her and the feeling gets stronger as I move towards the back of the common room.
It’s far too congested in here to get very far, and in a moment of desperation I haul myself up on one of the tables so that I can feel her out. The vampyrs sitting at the table jump up from their chairs and back away as much as they can in the limited space, and I check and catalogue faces. None of them are her, but she’s here, she has to be-
There, at the entrance to the basement stairs, I see her. Her face is paler than I remember, almost translucent, and she wears a hard expression as she listens to what Duffy and those around her are saying. I can’t help myself as I shout her name, but it does no good. The incessant chatter around me is too loud as those closest stare at me like I’m a lunatic.
I only further their belief as I leap to the next table, scattering more of them like ants to get closer to her. I try again, shouting with all the air that I have in my lungs, and it works. Everyone, including her, snaps their attention to me.
My face hurts and my vision is clouded, but she’s here and she’s alive. I jump down and realize that I don’t even have to shove the masses out of my way. They give me a wide berth as I frantically move towards the basement entrance. The circle of vampyrs around me doesn’t break as it broadens but somehow she materializes through the boundary as if she’s made of vapor. I feel what’s left of my still heart shatter within my breast as I realize what this means.
Her eyes are wide and glassy as she approaches me. She reaches up to brush the curls out of my face but her hand finds no purchase. Instead of the warmth and comfort of a soft and infinitely needed touch, a chill runs up my spine, pricking my flesh as her touch passes through me.
“I’m so sorry, Bette,” she whispers.
Tears leak from my eyes as I shake with anxious control. My voice is broken as it tries to find room in the thick air. “T, no…
I don’t want to believe it, but it’s impossible to refute and impossible to live with. I should have stopped this. There aren’t words, but I try. “I’m sorry…”
She chokes out, “No… I-I should have listened to you. We should have stayed hidden…”
She shakes with sobs and I try in vain to brush the tears away. “Is-is this real,” I ask.
She frowns, a small wrinkle marring her brow before she shakes her head. “I don’t know. I’m not sure…”
I swipe my forearm over my eyes and step closer to her, pretending with every fiber of my being that I can feel her and smell her. It almost works, but that’s all it is anymore… just almost. Teary eyes peer up at me from pale lashes and I realize that this is all there is and ever will be, a fevered and irrational mind calling upon cold comfort.
“Real or not…,” I say, “Just know that I love you; I’ve always loved you, and I miss you… so much. I’m so sorry…”
Her words are strangled and I feel my own throat constrict. “You’re my heart, Bette. It’s my fault, not yours, baby.”
I lean in, closing my eyes as I press my lips to where I believe hers to be. I force it to be real, will it to be more, and after a moment everything else fades away and I would swear that it is. But she pulls away.
“Bette, what are you doing?!”
I blink at Alice and pull back from Dana abruptly, sending myself stumbling into the wall where I slide down and land hard on the pallet. I really, really don’t know what’s real anymore, and I put my head in my hands as I lean forward and bite back the scream of frustration that wants to escape me.
Dana crouches next to me, putting her hand on my shoulder. “Bette, it’s going to be okay…”
I snap my head up. “No it’s not. I can’t sleep. I have no idea what’s real. For all I know all of this is a dream, a vision or just… I’m losing it, Dane. I’m really losing it. I thought you were-”
For the first time since Tina’s been gone, I break down and sob. It’s not angry or violent culling of hollowness that it used to be, just the pathetic and destroyed writhing of an infinitely wounded soul.
Dana catches me and I hear Alice shuffle to the door to close it. I’m not sure how much time passes as all of it pours out, leaving me empty but alive – always empty but alive. This time though, as sleep begins to claim me, I feel as though it may be dreamless at least.
Two months may as well have been a lifetime even as it passed quickly. It’s spent in the state of what I’m starting to call the ‘hurry up and wait syndrome.’ So much has changed while so much remains the same, and both contradicting sides of this equation made the passing of time tedious and anxious. What’s changed?
Well, for starters, we outgrew our outpost to the point that we had no choice but to relocate. We’re about twenty miles away from the formally known Yugoslavian stronghold deep in the wilderness of what is now Eastern Serbia. It’s a beautiful place, for so much historical discord. And it’s private, which serves our needs perfectly. We’ve grown so much that keeping our forces organized is fairly cumbersome. But tonight, tonight is a celebration of many things, so disorganization is to be expected.
And that brings me to what’s changed. Bonfires glow behind the silhouettes of trees in our expansive encampment as people laugh, sing, and rejoice. We allow it because it’s needed. We take the stronghold at first light. For all of the ways that a vampyr is not a human, this one way in which we are. We need to let off steam, especially with what we face tomorrow. Some of these people will die, and for a cause – for Tina, and maybe even for me. This day is theirs and they’ve earned it.
We also allow this because there is cause: Anna and Liam returned today with a large following of seasoned vampyrs. They have swayed the advantage more in our favor, and that may be the determining factor in how all of this turns out tomorrow. But that’s not all.
When they arrived there was an oddly giddy air about them. Turns out that one of the vampyrs in their number was an ordained minister, and he agreed to marry them. That was only about an hour ago, just as the sun was setting. They’ve avoided me for the most part. I can tell that they wish to talk, but I get the feeling that they’re afraid to. It could be the issue with Zihao, who has parted ways, or it could be that they don’t want to hurt me by being so happy in front of me. Whatever their reasons, I’m thankful. It does hurt. I know it’s selfish and childish, but I can’t help but feel that way even as I’m happy for them.
It’s bittersweet – watching them obtain the very thing that I want more than anything else in this world but will never be able to have. But given what we face tomorrow and how they adore one another, I can’t begrudge them. Tomorrow is a fifty-fifty chance at success or failure. So I’m glad for them in my own way. I’m thankful for this reprieve from training and worry. The simple ceremony fostered morale and lifted spirits, and I mean the latter quite literally.
Tina’s ghost is quite real. Sometimes, even as I’m training or doing the most mundane of tasks, I see her and spend time with her. Sleep or no sleep, she’s my most welcome and uninvited visitor. To put it simply, on top of my dreamlike visions, I’m hallucinating.
Part of me doesn’t care anymore and I’ve given up on fighting. The low hum of her presence is constant, the breeze a warm and reassuring embrace. And in those moments when she appears, I get to hear her soothing voice and feel a little less empty. I can’t touch her while I’m awake, but it’s in these rabid moments of insanity that it almost feels like nothing’s changed. It’s almost as if I haven’t lost her, almost as if I’m home, even if that home is a place where I’m lonely.
Everything about this ghost that I’ve unwittingly summoned is authentic. She doesn’t just look like her or sound like her, she is the very embodiment of her. She argues, teases, infuriates, excites, and arouses. Even her aura of kindness and warmth is still thick around her like a soft blanket.
She feels like Tina. For all of the ways that she’s not real, she’s really is. I take a small measure of smug satisfaction in the fact that my mind can resurrect her with such perfect detail. I can even hear her thoughts, and they’re as beautiful as they always were, though her sadness and grief mirror my own.
She’s here next to me at this very moment, content and glowing in firelight as she relaxes with me in front of my tent. We’re removed enough from the raucous joy for the setting to be intimate while still remaining a part of it. And as I watch Anna and Liam dance in the distance while the others sing, all I can think about is how much I want to pull Tina over to rest between my legs and wrap her in my arms. They ache with the cruel emptiness of being so close to her that reaching out would take only inches, but those inches may as well be an abyss.
She sighs. ‘I know.’
I glance over at her to see her vainly run a finger over the exposed skin of my arm, passing over like a gentle wind. ‘You have no idea how much I miss that too…’
‘I think that I do.’
She lifts her gaze to mine, and I would give anything to be able to really kiss her. Sometimes I can’t tell if it’s better or worse to have so little of her or none of her at all. We hear a loud whoop of merriment and wolf-whistles, and look out to see Liam dip Anna back and kiss her thoroughly. I shake my head and the lilting sound of Tina’s laughter pulls me back to her. Though clouded without flesh, she is still luminous and breathtaking, especially when she smiles.
Her smile broadens as she hears my thoughts and she sighs deeply, her own thoughts reaching out to me. ‘I know that none of this real, but… I don’t understand what you’re doing on the other s-‘
“You’re not going to join us?”
I snap my attention to the intruder standing to my left. I remember her. Her name’s Jodi. She’s a one of the commanders that arrived with Liam and Anna. She grins brightly before taking a seat in Tina’s lap. There’s a squawk of protest and I have to bite back my laughter as Tina fumbles to separate from her and eyes me angrily.
‘That’s not funny, Bette,’ she glares at me as she comes to my other side and sits in a huff.
I have to keep my focus off of her, constantly reminding myself that others can’t see her. “Strong and silent… just how I like ’em.”
I glance back to Jodi to find her grin slightly more predatory, and I can feel Tina leaning forward to gaze past me incredulously. I’m not sure what to say to that, so I just raise an eyebrow at the extremely forward woman and study her.
She’s not unattractive, but not attractive either.
I hear Tina release a short, petulant snort of air as she hears me, and I can’t help but grin as I continue to examine Jodi.
She has a medium build. She’s stocky and her face is very unique. I would think that she’s of Native American descent if not for the naturally wavy, red tresses that crown her head. And while she’s arrogant, perhaps in a different life I would have found her intriguing. But in this one, I’m ruined for any other. I would be settling, and settling for all eternity is not something that I could abide.
Tina’s thoughts continue to be petulant, only this time they’re laced with sadly, smug satisfaction, and I realize too late that Jodi mistook my smile as flirtation. She’s leaned in, running her finger up that same skin that Tina had just attempted to touch, and I feel something in me grow cold. It’s like waking in the arms of your lover and snuggling in further only to realize that you’re actually alone.
“Does this make you uncomfortable,” Jodi asks.
I look her in the eye. “Yes.”
She grins and strokes me more purposefully. “Good.”
Now that my thoughts have settled, I move to pull my hand away. “You enjoy making people uncomfortable?”
She captures my hand with her own. “No, but…”
She leans in close and whispers, “If I make you uncomfortable, that can be a very good sign.”
I pull back and release myself from her all together. “I think you misunderstand my discomfort. I’m not interested in anyone or anything but bringing down Lilith.”
She shrugs. “You look like you need to loosen up and have a little fun while you bring down Lilith. Where’s the harm in that?”
I frown and she laughs, gesturing to me. “That’s what I’m talking about.”
I glance over at Tina, wishing vehemently that she could help bail me out of this. The look on her face surprises me as her thoughts break my heart. She’s the most compassionate soul I’ll ever know, even as that compassion angers me.
Her voice is resigned. ‘It’s okay to be happy… single, Bette.’
I gaze at her like she’s lost her mind and she looks away as Jodi continues obliviously. “I’m not asking for commitment. I don’t like to be tied down, unless you’re into that on occasion.”
Tina plays with her fingers. ‘Bette, you should be happy. I don’t know what’s happening here or how or if it’s real; I don’t know how to leave, but I can try…’
I jump to my feet before I can even think about what I’m doing and shout, “NO!”
Both women are startled by my outburst, but only one has my attention and she won’t even look at me. Jodi stands slowly, her face slightly amused even as she must think that I’ve lost my mind.
She lifts her hands in surrender before letting them fall to her sides and shrugging nonchalantly. “Hey, it’s okay. I was just looking for a little fun.”
I stare down at Tina’s prone figure, grateful that it must look like I’m staring at the ground. I’ve already made myself out to be a complete loon.
Jodi turns to leave and I hear, “Let me know if you change your mind…,” as she makes her way back toward the party.
I crouch down in front of Tina when the coast is clear, and I’m forced to wait for her to look into my eyes since I can’t touch her.
It takes a moment, but she finally does. ‘How could you even think that, Tina?’
She sighs. ‘I’m not saying that I like it or that I could move on either, but it’s bound to happen eventually, Bette. No one can be alone forever, even if it’s… less. There’s life on both sides, apparently, and if there’s life, there can be happiness, or at least something like it.’
Her words sting like a slap to the face, but what’s worse is that she’s right. As much as it kills me to even think it, I would want her to be happy and move on if she could manage it. I’d want someone to love her fiercely and hope that she’d find fulfillment in that love. Can she do that, wherever she is… if she’s real?
Her expression turns puzzled and I can tell that she’s about to ask me something but her head snaps to the horizon, and I know what that look means. She stands and faces me. Her eyes bore into mine as if she’s trying to tether herself to me, but it does no good. I’m helpless as I watch her diminish into nothing.
‘I love you, Bette.’
‘I love you too, T,’ hangs on the empty air that she’s just absorbed into.
I close my eyes and fight back tears. It’s been an unspoken agreement these last two months that we won’t speak on things that are too heavy. It’s too hard to even think about it. It’s all so strange and convoluted and disorienting. That last conversation is the first like it that we’ve had, and there’s so much in her thoughts that strike me as odd. But all I can really think about is that my fantasy may be unraveling. Will I really lose her so soon? Have I already?
It’s with a heavy heart that I crawl into my tent, and fall into an uneasy sleep, for once hoping to see her again.
Of course, I don’t.
I had been concerned that everyone would be useless this morning given last night’s activities, but if anything, they seem even more eager and energized. There’s a tense but excited vibration in the air as we move through the forests toward our impending failure or victory.
Twenty miles isn’t much when you’re well-fed and supernaturally strong, but we’re taking it steady and easy to avoid premature detection. We’ve split up into three groups of roughly four hundred each, and those groups are split by eight commanders, each with a specific purpose. Most are to wait for the signal before storming the gates. How fitting it is that the signal is the opening of said gate.
This outpost isn’t like the others. It’s neither a dark hole in earth nor small. It’s an old, ruined, and abandoned castle right on the edge of the Serbian and Romanian border. It’s sprawling, the back of it crawling up the base of the mountain, parts of it carved directly from that surface. It’s not the legendary castle that sets the scene of Dracula lore, but Dracula lore is a farce. This forgotten ruin is hidden and mostly swallowed up by the overgrown landscape, and it’s the real source of vampyr mythology, though the humans just don’t know it. The hardest part is that there is truly only one way in and one way out, and that’s the cliché, wrought-iron portcullis.
That’s where I and my ragtag group of deviants come in. We aren’t with the other groups. Given our history of doing precisely this type of sabotage, it seemed only natural that we would take on the task of sneaking in and opening the gate. I was perfectly fine taking on this task, but I wanted to do it alone. Of course, there was protest. Alice, Dana, Anna, and Liam wouldn’t hear of it. Alice and Dana I don’t mind taking in with me, but Anna and Liam… we’re not a cohesive unit at this time, and that could get us killed. That didn’t seem to matter though. I was over-ruled.
Even now, as the edge of the ruins comes into view behind the dense foliage, they’re both looking at me with crestfallen and somewhat contrite expressions. They’re making me uncomfortable and swaying my focus. Whatever it is, and I can guess, this is neither the time nor the place. We need to focus.
We crouch and wait. One of the teams is holding behind us as the two others creep further. One will settle in the front of the castle just beyond the trees, and the other on the adjacent side. Several minutes of silence pass and I feel the anticipation rise and settle on the forest like a sticky residue.
I catch movement out of the corner of my eye and glance over in time to see Anna poke Liam’s arm while they have some sort of silent argument. For fuck’s sake, they’re like children.
I hear Alice whisper, “This place is fucking creepy.”
I laugh quietly. “Medieval cultures are creepy in general.”
She glares over at me and I smile widely. That’s her era and she sees the barb for what it is. The moment passes and we’re still waiting, so I gaze at the giant metal structure that time, neglect, and rust couldn’t fully destroy, and look for any other entrance. There has to be a way in besides the gate.
There are twin spires at the two front corners with a wide portcullis suspended between them. The walls are high and thick stone that appears to have been carved up out of the earth instead of stacked. The architecture is sweeping and jagged, and the ruined portions make the structure perhaps even more imposing. The sun is up in the gray sky, fortunately still bright enough to keep the Loyalists hiding. There isn’t a sound to be heard; even the forest animals have fled from the safety of their woodland homes.
I look for any sign of life in the shaded safety of the skyscrapers that stand sentinel, but I can’t see anything. But while I may not be able to see them, I know that they’re there, and a high powered rifle scope will find them easily.
Liam and Anna continue their silent debate and I’m thankful for Dana’s focus as she points to what appears to be a small, metal door at the bottom of the left-most tower.
“There,” she says.
It’s partially hidden and obviously fortified, but I nod and turn to look deeper into the trees. Everyone’s in position. I smack Liam to get his attention and he scowls at me. I point to the towers and we all turn our eyes to them. It’s going to happen anytime now.
Liam’s voice is low and it grates on my nerves. “Bette, I, um…”
I don’t take my eyes from the tower, choosing instead to lift my hand and silence him. Anna prods him and he tries again.
“Look,” he says, “I just want you to know that I really-”
Dana interrupts him for me and I’m thankful. Her voice is a harsh whisper. “Quiet.”
A few more moments pass and Liam gets irritated. “We were trying to find Tina, damn it!”
I furrow my brows as his words register, and turn my head slowly to confirm I’m not losing what little is left of my sanity and he actually just said what I believe I heard. Anna lifts her eyes to the sky as if she’s praying, and that’s when I hear the muted whistle of two bullets slicing silently through the air from silenced barrels. I look back to the towers just in time to see the crimson mist of exploded blood bloom heavily on the breeze at the top of each, and glare at Liam one last time before I make a mad dash for the door that Dana found.
Anna, Dana, and Alice follow, and we reach it without a sound. We lie against the wall and listen for any sign of movement from inside. I can hear some heartbeats coming from somewhere deep within, but other than that, it’s quiet.
Dana pushes on the door but it won’t budge so I join her, shoving Liam away when he tries to help. I can’t deal with him right now. I want to. He said that one word that means everything to me – more than this cause or my anger with him, but there is more than my desperate desires on the line here. There are lives that will be lost if we make one wrong move, and I can’t consider the implications of his words until I’m done. By then, he had better hope and pray to whatever gods he believes in, that I don’t tear his heart from his chest.
Alice moves me and Dana out of the way, and with one long and steady push, the door groans until something inside snaps with a shrieking pop. She manages to catch it before it collides against the wall and further fucks up this plan, and we file in quickly, leaving it askew against the opening behind us.
It’s quiet again as we all hold our breath and listen for any indication that we’ve been heard.
“Bette, I’m sor-”
I round on Liam and my look alone finally shuts him up. He runs a hand through his hair and Anna smacks him on the back of his head as I take in our surroundings. The spire landing is small and round. The walls are crumbling in places but still strong and thick. There are rusty hand-holds along the wall that lead to the top of the murder hole where long tendrils of ivy cascade through.
I see the ruined head of the vampyr hanging over the edge of the opening, a bright spot of read against the muted natural colors of stone and foliage. There’s a huge hole in his skull and blood is trickling down the ivy. The head twitches and I realize that the Loyalist is still alive. Liam doesn’t hesitate to climb up the hand-holds and tear the head from the host, tossing it down where Alice catches it on reflex before letting out a disgusted noise and tossing it like it’s scalding to the touch.
I catch the head before any other noise can be made and consider ordering them all to leave. This isn’t going well at all, and we’re making far too much noise. Mostly though, I want to strangle them, except for maybe Dana. Liam climbs down and Alice scowls at his bright smile while I put the heady quietly on the floor.
I turn to them, frustration and anger bubbling up in my chest. “All of you can be quiet and take this seriously, or you can leave.”
There’s nary a sound and no one moves to go, so I press forward. I brush the ivy out of my face as I approach the door on the opposite side of the circular room, and pull back the thick lock-hatch slowly. It grates from disuse and rust, but eventually gives with a resounding thud. I push against the barrier gently, cringing as it squeaks, and look out to see a long, dark hallway beyond.
It’s empty. Spider webs are so thick that remnants of them swirl on the stale air. Moss and decay litter the floor and walls and dust kicks up as I move the door further. Just as I step out, a raucous chorus of sharp squealing assaults my ears and sends me stumbling back into Dana.
I watch incredulously as a mischief of rats hiss and scurry out of the way and clench my teeth as Liam chuckles behind me. I turn and glare at him and he begins to choke. Anna pats him on the back and looks at me apologetically. I hear Alice snicker and turn to see her covering her mouth with her hand while Dana finds some of the ivy overhead enthralling.
I run a hand through my hair and step out into the newly vacated hallway. The others follow behind me and I stop in confusion. We’re in the bottom of the front spire, so the gate release should be here somewhere, but it’s not. There’s only one way to go, and that’s deeper into the castle. This doesn’t make sense.
Alice starts walking down the corridor without a word and I look at Dana curiously. She smiles and shrugs before following, and I release a sigh as the rest of us do the same. We’re going the wrong way, but Alice seems to know precisely where she’s going. There’s a door that would seem to lead to the outside and she approaches it.
“In here,” she says.
She opens the door, letting out a disgusted, “Ugh,” as more rats move away and we all follow her in.
“How do you know where to go, Al?”
She turns to me and smiles. “I’m one of those creepy medieval people that lived in castles most of her life.”
I smirk and look around at the room. It’s round with a spiral staircase winding up the walls. Alice starts to climb and we follow, but the stairs aren’t stable and I stop, letting Alice and Dana go on ahead.
I turn to Anna and Liam behind me. “Let them go first. I’ll follow, and you two can bring up the end.”
They nod and we wait, watching Alice and Dana climb higher, each step groaning on the splintered boards.
Liam takes this time to further irritate me, speaking quickly so that I can’t stop him. “I’m sorry, Bette.”
I glare at him and he continues. “I didn’t mean to tell you like that.”
I cross my arms over my chest and return to watching Alice and Dana impatiently.
Liam continues. “I wasn’t sure how this would turn out, and I didn’t know how to tell you. Again, I’m sorry.”
I still don’t say a word, dropping my arms as I watch Alice’s foot break through a board to send splinters and dust cascading down. Dana catches her and I release a weary breath. “I wanted to tell you when Zihao told me, but he wasn’t certain. It was a rumor, and I couldn’t give you false hope. That’s why we left. I went to see for myself. It wasn’t…”
He sighs wearily, choking on his words. “She isn’t…”
I see Dana disappear onto the top landing and turn to Liam. “You should have told me when you found out, but you didn’t. You shouldn’t have told me just as we were about to enter the castle, but you did. You’ve got this all backwards, Liam.”
His eyes implore me to understand as he talks with his hands. “I didn’t want to get your hopes up. You were so destroyed already. I couldn’t do-”
I cut him off. I’m not angry anymore, just tired and defeated. “The worst thing about this, Liam, is that if you’d have just told me before you left, it would have saved us all of this trouble.”
I’m not sure how these next words escape my lips or how I feel the honesty of them so deeply in my bones, but I do. “Tina’s gone, Liam. I could have told you that.”
He blinks, his face incredulous with shock as he stares at me. “What? But you…”
“I know, but things have changed.”
He’s silently processing what I’ve said and I see Dana’s face peer over the top. I raise a finger at her, asking for a moment and she nods.
“But… how,” Liam asks.
I look back to him. “I just know.”
Anna doesn’t believe what she’s hearing either. “But you also just ‘knew’ that she was alive.”
She steps up passed Liam, searching my face and realization dawns in her eyes. Her words are more of a comment than a question.
“You’ve seen her, haven’t you?”
I don’t say a word, just stare at her for a moment and hope that she can see that there’s no need to broach the subject again. She doesn’t speak and that’s good enough for me. I continue cautious up the stairs, especially careful in the area that Alice almost fell.
Something in me has changed, snapped maybe. I can still feel Tina. The low hum of her life is still vibrating within me, almost to the point that I feel sick. Part of me knows that she’s here, and it’s that same part that’s writhing in agony as the truth of what I just said seeps in. She’s gone, and for the first time, I actually believe it as much as I know it. I have a ghost, a memory. It’s confusing and terrifying and incredible, but at least I’m standing on something solid, even as it may fall away at any moment.
I reach the top of the stairs to see Dana holding Alice from behind as they stare out at the panoramic landscape. It’s breathtaking from this height, the only blemish on this moment is the fact that my ghost isn’t here. But she is and I feel something sad and beautiful swell within my heart. It’s a sharp pang of grief laced with joy. I close my eyes and let it envelop me, let the breeze ruffle my curls, and let my thoughts carry out on the incredible landscape and all of the ether between to tell her how much I love her. And for a moment, I swear that I can hear her say it back.
Anna and Liam breech the landing and Alice and Dana finally break apart to finish this. I understand now why we had to come up here. We need to walk along this wall back to the front of the castle, over the portcullis to the other spire, and there, we will find the gate release. I suppose it makes sense to make accessing this part of the castle difficult. After all, castles were built to protect against attack.
We make the trek quickly. The structure up here is open to the sunlight except for the tops of the towers themselves. As we approach the other spire, I see this vampyr still alive as well. His head is mending but we dispatch him quickly and I look at the large boulder suspended by thick lengths of chain over a sturdy, reinforced beam at the top. Another chain plunges all the way down the tower and I find the counterweight system to be ingenious.
We head down the stairs, and as we approach the bottom, we find that the floor has been dug out, the other chain stretched down into the murky depths. The sickly clean smell of stagnant water permeates the room and against the wall, I see the control cranks that operate the counterweights.
Alice approaches them and releases the lock on the lever. As she turns, another boulder starts to rise as the one above starts to fall. Both sway precariously as they pass each other, and we all just wait in tense silence. I can hear the gate moving and the heavy footsteps of our army moving as quietly as possible into the courtyard out front, until eventually, the lever and gate slide into place with a booming clang.
Just as soon as the sound bounces off of the mountain, there’s an incredible shriek and groaning, as if the castle itself is screaming and tearing apart. Everything shakes, and I close my eyes. I knew that this was too easy.
We race back up the stairs and look down on the courtyard. The part of the castle that’s up against the mountain is almost completely destroyed as the crag continues to collapse and tumble down on top of it. Loyalist and rebel alike are caught and buried in the massive debris field, and with a resounding shout, Loyalists come pouring out into the sunlight disoriented but unaffected.
Chaos erupts as a massive fight ensues, blood and gore and limbs are being slung everywhere. I turn to Liam and Anna. Their faces are paler than usual as they realize what they’ve done, and I feel guilty. They thought they were doing this for me, and as much as I tried to stop them, I obviously didn’t try hard enough.
I shove all of my anger low into my stomach, compressing it into a tight ball, and race to the back of the castle from the top of the wall and use the slope of the avalanche to slide down into the fray. I leap at the last minute and tackle two Loyalists, rolling with the motion and taking down three more. I’m on my feet quickly, tearing limbs and heads from flesh in a flurry of blinding anger.
The cascade of rock around me seems to scream and bleed from those trapped beneath and I push my hand through the chest of one Loyalist, straight into the chest of another rushing up behind him and pull a single heart through both of them. I turn to see that more of us than are possible are pouring in from the gate and other teams have made it up onto the walls, using chunks of the mountain to pelt Loyalists from above.
I see one rush Duffy and watch as a Molotov hits him before he reaches her. We only had supplies for a few of them, but it’s put to good use as he erupts into flames, flailing about with blood curdling screams and catching others on fire. One of them hits Duffy and I tackle her to the ground to put her out in the dirt. I feel something hard land on my back, collapsing me onto her, and all of the air is pushed out of me in a whoosh of snapping bone and gasping breath.
The weight is gone just as quickly as it came, and I roll off of Duffy and look up, trying to catch my breath. Jodi holds her hand down to me, her eyes worried. I reach up to take it just as I see a fist explode through her chest and retreat. Her eyes glaze over and blood trickles from her lips before her head is torn from her shoulders. I scream and push to stand, but I can’t.
My legs… I can’t feel my legs.
I look down to see them listless and splayed at odd angles before a bloody hand enters my field of vision, grips my shirt, and lifts me up. Lilith’s eyes are glassy and black, fire and destruction reflected on the surface as she grins at me. I feel the blood in my veins harden and I claw at her face and eyes to get her to release me.
It’s no use as she pushes her hand into my chest and grips my heart in a vice-like hold. I can’t breathe and I want to scream, but there’s not enough air in me. I taste blood well up in my mouth as she squeezes and realize that I’m going to die. I go limp in her hands as that realization washes over me. I look around me. There’s nothing but pain and carnage and death in this world. Tina’s waiting for me; our family is waiting for me.
I look back at Lilith and return her smile. “Go ahead… bit-ch.”
She cocks her head, her smile fading, and the shift allows me to see over her shoulder. More rebels come pouring in through the portcullis, but there’s a ghost among them, my ghost, beautiful and radiant and here to collect me. She stops, her eyes meeting mine over the din as bodies brush past her. They’re wide and wet with unshed tears, but it will be okay. Soon, I’ll be with her, able to touch her.
“Tina…,” The word escapes me like a prayer that’s been answered.
I hear Lilith scream and my ghost rushes toward me as the world is plunged into black.