“Bette, there’s no reason to go looking for Lilith. We need to just get out of the city and track down Wischnia. He’s our safest bet.”
Duffy’s been pacing around me in the small space of my room for the last fifteen minutes as I finish getting myself ready. Lilith’s already left the city. It’s empty, but that changes nothing, not really. I plan to travel light and wear sturdy clothing. I don’t know when I’ll be able to stop again next, and even if I can, I don’t want to waste any more time than I have to. I need to get this over with and then get to Tina. I won’t know rest, not really, until I see her.
Duffy continues moving about, talking with her hands as she lays out the plan. I want to trip her, or maybe body-slam her, anything to make her be quiet and still, two things I need very much right now. She’s making me dizzy, but mostly, she’s just irritating the fuck out of me.
I finish tying my boot and tuck a stake into the side before lowering my pant leg and digging through the duffel for anything else that I’ll need. I only see extra clothes and some toiletries, but just as I’m about to set it down, my fingers brush against something smooth, flat, and cool resting at the bottom.
I lift the amulet out of the bag and stare at it as I stroke the embossed surface. The tree, the very one from my dreams, promises a future that I don’t know how to achieve. All I know is that I’m going to try, at least as soon as Duffy’s done with her tirade.
Duffy’s still going on, and on, so I take a moment to gaze at it, remembering what it felt like to dream-walk with my wife.
It felt like family.
It felt like belonging.
It felt like satisfaction.
It’s strange. These memories aren’t real, but the feelings that they inspire are the realest that I’ve ever known. Does that invalidate them? I know that it’s a lie, but I cling to it with desperation. I choose to believe the lie. And even if I didn’t, they’d still be there, a promise of a life that never existed. I guess some things are true whether I believe in them or not. I’ve never been much of a believer, but for once, I’m happy to say that I am.
I smile and close my eyes, trying to hold onto the image of three beautiful blondes chasing and loving each other amidst the roots of our tree, light and carefree. Just… happy. I can hear the childish giggles, see the bounce of blonde pigtails, hear the warm laughter of my beloved, feel the breeze on my cheek as it carries the sweet sounds to my ears…
I want to step forward and join them, open my eyes and force them to real, to touch them like I have so many times, but I can’t. As much as I feel it and believe in it, belief alone cannot make it manifest. And even if it were real, I’m afraid that I would taint them with the agenda that’s currently written on my heart.
None of the things that they stand for or represent.
I realize that it’s too quiet and glance up at Duffy, the mirage of my world vaporizing in smoke around her determined face. She’s finally stopped moving and speaking, and her arms are crossed over her chest as she looks down on me as if waiting for an answer.
I can’t help the sigh that escapes me. For fuck’s sake…
“Well aren’t you going to say something,” she asks.
No matter what I say, she is unmovable. She was a hard woman before, but her time out there in the thick of the city has made it worse. She’s still trying to lead, and while I see that she has merit as a leader, I still can’t agree with her plan. I know what needs to be done and we can’t be detoured.
I don’t like how she’s towering over me so I stand to my full height, squaring my shoulders and tightening my jaw. “What would you have me say? You don’t listen. You just keep talking, repeating yourself and trying to force me to see things your way, but I can’t. We have to go for Lilith. She’s the key to this. I understand that you disagree, but I know what we need to do.”
Her blue eyes are hard. “I thought that we were in agreement.”
I’m cool and calm as I pull on my sturdy, black jacket. “What do you mean?”
She drops her arms in frustration and runs a hand through her hair. “Someone has to lead, Bette, and like it or not, I’m it. I thought you’d agreed to follow me into this, to fight, to stick together-”
I put my hand up to stop her. “I never agreed to follow you into anything. We do need to fight and stick together, but Lilith is the priority. I’m sorry if you misunderstood, but I didn’t agree to take orders that contradict with what needs to happen. We do this together, Lilith being our main goal, or you’ll force me to go after her alone.”
I shrug tiredly. “Either way, what needs to happen… will.”
Her response is low and cold. “You’d condemn us all for a vendetta.”
It wasn’t a question, but a statement and I find myself at a loss for words. My first inclination is to be insulted, but then I have to stop and consider the merit of her assumption. Am I going after Lilith out of anger? If I’m honest with myself, of course I have a need to see her gone, to see her pay for what she’s done, but the closer I look at my motives, the more that I realize that I just want it all to stop, not just for me, but for everyone… forever.
No, this isn’t simple revenge, but before I can say that, she snorts. “I should have known. You’ve consistently pursued your own agenda at the expense of everyone else.”
This time the inclination to be insulted is overwhelming. “You don’t know the first thing about my agenda, and I’ll be damned if owe you, of all people, any justification, Duffy.”
I can see the rage brewing in her eyes as my words hit their mark. She’s pursued her own agenda several times, and as a result, our chances at peace have suffered tremendously. The only difference between Duffy and I, between Duffy and Tina, is that Tina and I are willing to admit that we’re not infallible.
We’re human… or at least as human as we can be. Either way, it was a low blow to remind Duffy of that, but it’s difficult to ignore her petulance, and given her pride, she needs to be reminded. No matter what, we don’t have time for this. The city has a bullseye on it and I don’t want to be here when fire rains down.
I close my eyes and breathe deeply to center myself and make one last attempt at reasoning. “Listen, Duffy, Lilith’s the puppeteer in this whole fiasco. Surely you can see that?”
She shakes her head. “We don’t know that she’s doing this; we only know that she’s siding with the humans. She may be working for them, not the other way around.”
I sigh and clasp the amulet around my neck before meeting her eyes again. “That doesn’t make sense. Lilith hates humanity, sees them as animals. That’s just not how she operates. She’s orchestrating this, using them, and using us.”
Her voice rises to a frustrated decibel. “How do you know? What information do you have that the rest of us don’t?”
I laugh mirthlessly. “I lived with her for a century. She’s my maker. I heard what she said before I beheaded her. I know what I saw out there on the boat…”
I shake my head. “No, it doesn’t add up. Hell, just call it a hunch…” I throw my hand up. “There are myriad reasons. Take your pick.”
She shakes her head and I’m officially done. “Well, then I wish you the best in reaching Wischnia. We’d have to go for him anyway, so splitting up might save some time.”
Just as I’m about to turn for the door, I hear a commotion in the front of the train. Duffy and I look to one another before shelving this debate and breaking into a run. I breathe out heavily when I see that it’s Helena with a few other refugees in tow causing the uproar.
Helena heads right for Dylan and embraces her solidly. She catches my eye over Dylan’s shoulder and steps back, smoothing the front of her shirt down as if to hide her embarrassment.
I smile wryly when she as she approaches me. “I’d believed you to be lost…”
I gesture to Duffy next to me. “Duffy pulled me out and got me to safety.”
She takes Duffy’s hand in thanks before addressing me again. “I tried to get here to tell Tina as you’d asked, Bette, but right after the fight, moving through the city was nearly impossible. I had to hide and wait, and that’s when I found those four.”
She looks around to our motley crew and points out the four others with her. “Speaking of Tina, where is she?”
I swallow thickly. “She and Shane are headed to safety. They’re already out of the city.”
She meets my eyes in understanding and I’m thankful that she doesn’t question me on it further. “Well then, I’m surprised that there are this many survivors. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but we need to get out of the city fast. We heard talk while we were hiding. The humans plan to level the city.”
There are a few worried glances at her words, but I’m unfazed. “Did you see Lilith,” I ask.
Her green eyes burn like a forest fire and she nods curtly.
“What did you hear, Helena?”
She looks around to see who’s paying attention and jerks her head towards the maintenance tunnel. Duffy follows her and I get Dana’s attention. She steals Alice, Carmen, and Dylan, and the four of us make our way back into the maintenance tunnel for privacy.
Helena’s quick to speak. I’m thankful. I’m tired of long-winded melodramas. “We heard Lilith giving orders to Masters. Nothing unusual: kill, dismantle, burn, and be quick. But it was his reactions that I noticed the most. He was compelled, Bette. It was evident. All of them are.”
I take a deep breath as my worries are confirmed and avoid Duffy’s eyes. I don’t wish to exasperate our disagreement further by rubbing her nose in the fact that she was wrong. Hopefully now she’ll stop arguing and get a move on.
This also answers some questions too. The humans on the ship rejected our compulsion and turned on us because they were compelled to do just that. Lilith had already gotten to them. They did what they were supposed to do, which was placate us until she gave the order to attack.
But… “I still don’t understand how she knew that we’d planned to attack the carrier,” I mumble out loud.
“I know how.”
We all look to Duffy.
“What do you mean,” Dana asks.
Duffy expression is unreadable as she squares her shoulders. “We’d been laying low in the city, planning the attack on the ship, but apparently we weren’t low enough. A human seek and destroy party found us.”
She looks to me. “That’s how we were forced through the perimeter and separated. They captured two of our number…”
It’s quiet as she leaves the sentence open, but then she doesn’t need to say anymore. Knowing what I know of Lilith, those two vampyrs were brutally tortured to the point that they would have given anything to make the pain stop. Something as small as a little intel… in the face of that kind of agony, I can hardly blame them for spilling to Lilith.
I exhale heavily. “It doesn’t really matter. What’s done can’t be undone.”
I hadn’t meant for that statement to apply to more than the current topic at hand, but as every face looks at me with pained, pensive, and some angry, eyes, I feel the immense weight of those words settle fully around us. For just a moment, I finally face the fact that there is no winning here. We’re all losers, one way or the other.
Lilith’s already done what we’d initially set out to do, which leaves us no choice but to kill the humans. We can’t undo her compulsion. There’s no humane way to end this now.
All that’s left is death.
And killing the opponent is an empty victory.
Nothing will ever be okay again.
Everything is irrevocably changed, from the soil under our feet to the very chromosomal makeup of each sentient being that treads over it. And even if we do succeed in killing those compelled and brutalizing the survivors into surrender, there’s no way to change hearts and minds, not all of them. Hate and anger will survive, and in fact, our victory will perpetuate it, because there will always be one who can’t cope with the truth, one that will hold onto prejudices. And that’s all that it takes: one – one to pollute the whole.
No matter what, there will be loss, and more death, and even if it’s not entirely in vain, will the struggle and sacrifice really be worth it when all’s said and done?
If there is an answer to that question, it’s not an easy one, but nothing worth having ever is easy. If I could snap my fingers right now and make the world the way that it was before, would I? Hiding, feeding off of the lives of others, struggling and scrounging, being afraid…
Is it so different than now?
It’s always been clear that things needed to change, but into what? Maybe we defeated ourselves from the start. Maybe, unfortunately, the bad has to survive too. Darkness is immortal. It survives. It always has and always will.
But does that mean that I shouldn’t try to squash it? Is it all really just an exercise in futility? What would I give to see my wife and child alive, healthy, smiling, and playing freely beneath the shelter of a tree like the one of our dreamscape even if it is just that… a dream?
The shadows may survive; they may always lurk, but what point is there in living if we don’t fight to preserve and protect innocence? First things first, though: we have to be sure that innocence will indeed survive as well.
We’re here, we’re born, and we’re reborn… to at least try.
The silence around me feels like it’s lasted an eternity when really it was little more than the flutter of one lash. But that’s all the time that was needed for the arguing to start. Duffy still wants to go for Wischnia, Alice wants to go for Lilith, and Carmen, Dylan, and Helena want to cut our losses and hide away from civilization.
Dana just looks to me helplessly. It’s good to know that I’m not the only one that’s fed up with the bickering. As they argue, their voices begin to rise and I realize that the others in the tunnel have gathered around to watch and listen. I pinch the bridge of my nose as I feel a twinge bloom angrily in my brain. Humanity, no matter who is practicing it, is utterly flawed.
I can go after Lilith alone, but will that be enough? I meant it when I said that we needed to stick together. If we can’t do that, then there’s no reason to fight and try. Everything we intend to achieve revolves around uniting, not just us, but humans as well. And here, we can’t even decide whom to kill first.
I feel sick… sick and fed up.
“Listen… all of you!”
I wait until every eye in the tunnel is looking at me. “What are we, savages?”
I shake my head sadly. “There’s no reason to argue, because there’s no reason to do this if we can’t pull it together.”
I look to Duffy. “You want to go off and lead these people into a bloodbath with the humans, then go ahead. You’ll wipe them out and then what?”
I laugh sardonically. “And that’s if they don’t wipe you out first.”
I look to Carmen, Helena, and Dylan. “And you want to just hide and hope for the best? Do you really think that the humans, that Lilith, is going to allow you to live? It may take centuries, but she’ll find you and she won’t just kill you.”
I shake my head again. “No, she’ll torture the people that you love in front of you before leaving you to rot, barely alive, with nothing but your memory of their deaths to keep you company while you slowly go insane.”
I lift my hands in exasperated surrender. “Go ahead, argue, fight, and splinter off because I want no part of something that’s obviously failed from the start. It’s true that we can’t undo what’s happened. Nothing’s ever going to be the same again… ever. But making things better was the goal to begin with, and that should still be the goal now. And if it’s not, then forget it. There’s no point. Go ahead and become the thing that you claim you hate, or hide from it, but I won’t. I refuse.”
I run a hand through my hair and turn to leave. If this is truly how it’s going to be, if this is really the end of life as I know it, I want to spend it with my family, but a hand on my arm stops me.
I track it up to Dana’s understanding face. “Come on, Bette. You know that’s not what we want.”
I look around me, and I want to believe her, but at this point, I’m not so sure. “This is something that’s going to take time, consistency, and helping each other. Do you all want it enough to fight for it, die for it?”
Duffy steps in totally oblivious. “You won’t lead, but you won’t follow. You say you want us to work together, but you intend to go off on your own if we don’t do what you say.”
I sigh. “Only because what I’m doing has to be done. She is the key, Duffy. You want to bust into the white house fangs flashing. I get it, but if we tear down the door to get through to humanity, we have no way of stopping what might follow us through, or what might be let out.”
I look to the crowd. “It’s true that I don’t want to lead you. I don’t feel that I’m good enough to be responsible for anyone’s lives, let alone everyone’s.” I look pointedly at Duffy. “I don’t think we need a leader at all, but if you must have one, it has to be someone who’s careful… someone with a cool head, rational mind, and compassionate heart. A leader has to be worthy of that responsibility, because all of our futures rely on it. I’m sorry, but I don’t think that’s me, and I don’t think that’s you either, Duffy.”
I can tell that I’ve angered her, but she controls it well. In a lot of ways, she is effective as a leader, but her pride and tendency to over-estimate herself is too risky. She’s a brute. She lacks finesse, and while we need someone strong, we also need someone who knows how to be soft, who reveres life…
We need Tina…
“Bette,” Dana says. “I think that’s why you would be the best candidate. You don’t want any power and you won’t abuse it.”
I shake my head emphatically. “No.”
“Someone has to lead, Bette, and whoever that is, we all have to follow.”
I look at Duffy, mulling over her words. She’s arrogant and power hungry, but mostly, I get the feeling that she just wants to see me follow her. It’s almost as if there’s some perverse pleasure for her in seeing me submit.
“I think that we should all take a vote,” Dana says.
I sigh and Duffy adds confidently, “That’s fair, but once the vote’s been made, we have to all agree to follow that leader’s orders. No going off on your own. No arguing. Just do as you’re told.”
I glance over at her. If she wants to see me submit, fine. I have no pride left in me, but I won’t submit to failure, especially not for the wrong reasons. Leaders aren’t necessary, not really. Maybe people should be allowed to live and die by their own principles.
But I’m aware that these people, these desperate, tired faces around me, they aren’t ready to lead themselves yet. Right now, they need someone to look to.
They need Tina…
And I sent her away…
Dana looks at me beseechingly and I nod once in reluctant agreement. Alice raises her voice, and addresses each person individually, taking the name of who they wish to follow. I decline the vote, only going along with this because we’re all that’s left. No matter what philosophy I cling to, we need each other.
When all is said and done, Dana received three votes: Alice, Helena, and Dylan. Two other vampyrs, a woman named Paige and a man named Mark, each got two votes. Duffy got seven votes, and I sighed as my own name was said eight times.
Perhaps, if I feign mathematical ignorance…
Dana smiles at me – the victor.
This is all a charade, a joke. I don’t want this, because no one should tell others how to live, especially not me. Yet here I am, and there they are, all looking to me, some willing and others resentful. What should I do? If I refuse, then we’re divided, and I’m going to need all of the help that I can get. I could look to Tina’s influence and try to remember that sometimes a leader can just inspire and organize, show others not how to live, but why. I would like to be that kind of person.
But I’m not.
And if I look even closer at Tina’s example, loyalty is fleeting when you’re not perfect. And I’m not. Maybe they should just be aware of that from the start.
I address the group, weary though I’ve not even begun. “You want me to lead you? Fine, you have me. But I’m not your master. No one can make anything better for you. It’s up to you to shape your own fate. You need to learn to think for yourselves. Nothing I do here will ever be enough. I can’t fix it all. This responsibility falls on every single person’s shoulders. That’s why it’s so important that we stay together.”
They all shuffle their feet and I find that to be a rather ominous omen. I suppose that it’s true what they say: the truth is hard to swallow. But it’s all that I really have to offer, and like the lost sheep that they are, they’ll grasp at anything, even when they know that it doesn’t amount to much.
“If you’re looking for false promises and empty reassurances, you’ve chosen the wrong person. I don’t know how any of this is going to work out. I only know that it’s going to be hard, and painful, but that’s no different than it ever was, not really. If you want a life, something better, then stop trading one tyrant for another. Stop looking to someone else for the answers.”
I don’t believe that I’m inspiring anyone. In fact, I’m fairly certain that I’ve offended some of them. Well, good. I don’t have time for hand-holding. We all have to find our strength so that we can face our imminent mortality.
“Lilith’s compelled the humans to wipe us out. We’re going after her. We have to end her reign over us, and maybe we can free the humans too. I don’t like how the humans have handled this situation any more than Duffy does, but I believe that people should be able to choose for themselves, even when their choice is wrong. I’m thankful for your help, truly, but if I can’t rely on you to see this through, to show compassion, to make leaders of yourselves, then leave. If you think that anyone can keep you safe then stop kidding yourself. Some of you will die. I may die, but that’s the price that I’m willing to pay to try. No matter what we do, even if we find a way through this, it’ll never be perfect. It may not even be better, but it might be a start.”
It’s quiet, eerily so, and something in the air smells different. The hair on the back of my neck prickles and I realize that time’s up. There’s a hauntingly low whistle drawing closer above us, the sound bleeding into the others that follow it from the distance.
“GET DOWN,” I shout.
An explosion on the ground above shakes the tunnel, knocking the dirt and cobwebs from the roof down in grainy showers and plunging us into pitch black. Shouts erupt around me, and I dive under the train car as a large portion of the tunnel structure above comes crashing down.
The initial blast leaves a disorienting ringing in my ears that causes time to feel lethargic. I blink a few times to clear the dust from my eyes and cough raggedly to rid it from my lungs, and find myself in a moment of strange clarity. It’s in this moment that I notice that I’m about to be entombed beneath the car as more and more cascading rock floods in around it. Throwing caution to the wind I pull myself out, narrowly dodging the worst of the mess coming at me as the smaller chunks tear into my flesh.
I get to my feet and I’m forced back against the car as the heavy rain of debris continues, and I inadvertently wind up using the side of the car to pull myself up as the ground beneath me fills and rises.
“STAY ABOVE IT,” I shout again. “CLIMB!”
It’s hard to hear amidst the screaming, the intense crunching of stone, and the slam of other missiles as they collide with the city above us, but I’m able to hear others scrambling to get to the top of the train car above me.
I reach up and try to find a grip so that I can get above it as well, but a large piece of concrete careens from the side of the tunnel, thick chunks of ripped rebar dangling dangerously from the side, and aiming straight for my stomach.
I pull harder, trying to get out of the way before it hits me, but I’m not fast enough and my grip on the rounded edge of the roof slips, leaving me to be impaled to the side of the car.
I imagine that I should feel nauseated, or the blinding agony of the intrusion ripping through bone and organ, but I don’t. I’m in shock, and all I can do is watch the blood seep out around my new appendage as more rock threatens to entomb me here.
I feel a hand grip my shoulder and glance up dazedly to see Dana. I lift my hand and she begins to pull me. Finally, the dreaded pain registers and I’m forced to scream as the rebar tears the hole in my abdomen wider.
She stops and looks down at me worriedly, and I realize that I can’t feel my legs. I glance down to be sure that they’re still actually there, but I can’t see them beneath the sheet of blood stained concrete pinning me.
The pulling starts again, the screams again tearing from my throat without my consent, and I feel the need to black out and let death find me, but fight it. I don’t want to wake up in this agony and buried in this tunnel.
I find myself holding onto the pain, reminding myself that I’m alive and all of the reasons not to give up. Really, it’s all one word that crashes around in my brain like an angry bull in a china closet: Tina.
The pulling stops again and I’m able to catch my breath only to realize that I’m truly stuck and there’s nothing that Dana can do.
I have to help myself.
I still can’t feel my legs, but I don’t need them. The rebar is stuck in the left side of my torso, just between the bottom two ribs. That’s why she can’t pull me up. I muster up all of the strength and determination that I have in me, and grip the rebar to push myself to the right.
Another drowned scream tears from my throat and I watch as my flesh and bottom rib are pulled from my body to be left dangling from the bar.
But I’m free.
It would be horrifying; it should be, but I find myself smiling as I’m finally pulled up and out of the avalanche.
Dana and Alice haul me up over the side onto the roof just in time for the front of the train car to be slammed hard, lifted, and we all start to slide. Fortunately, the angle isn’t steep and those on top are able to stop their downward spiral, but I’m not as fortunate without the use of my legs.
That doesn’t stop Dana from grabbing me and holding tight. Explosions still ring out around us, the train is still rocking as the last of the deadly stone floods in around us, but when it’s all over, calm silence reigns.
I lay still and watch as those around me get up and start to dig for other survivors, most having been lucky enough to stay above the torrent. I look down at what used to be our tunnel and realize that this would have been so much worse had we not broken the walls down around us when we first arrived, but we did and we still survive.
Alice thrusts a muddy stalk into my hand and I glance down at its bleeding end.
“Drink,” she says.
I don’t hesitate to lift it to my lips and pull heartily, wincing as my spine snaps back together and the odd angle of my legs is corrected.
I sit up and feel for the hole in my chest to find it closed, but knowing that I no longer have one of my ribs. I’m sore and already exhausted, but somehow this trial, the very beginning of my fight for freedom and peace, fills me with that much more determination.
I get to my feet and use the stones to pull my way up out of this hole and to the surface. The others follow, all of us helping each other until we’re all standing on the ruined lip of the maw that could have been our graves.
The breeze is thick with dust, but it’s settling and the silver sky is clearing. I take a look at the wasteland of what used to be my home, and while I’m saddened and overwhelmed, something in me just knows that it’s okay. Something in me finds the hope in our purpose and the will to find strength.
I feel ready.
I turn and look to the others around me as they take in the vast land of ruined civilization with anger and trepidation, and allow myself a moment to feel my own emotions. To my surprise, I find myself grinning… and then laughing.
Everyone focuses on me, but I don’t care. I lift my face to the sky, open my arms at the chaos of revolution, and laugh.
Why? Well, I’ve not lost it, though some might debate that fact. I’m not happy to see what’s happened, or even just glad to be alive. I laugh because for all that she does, Lilith cannot get rid of me, of us. At the end of the day, no matter how harrowing the outcome of our choices and actions, we will always be here to fight and to try. I laugh because she’s sad and pathetic, and it’s for those reasons that nothing she does will ever win her a queen’s mantle.
No matter what, someone will be here to try, to fight, to survive, to eventually make it right.
I laugh because she can’t win.
I laugh because one way or the other, we’ll set things as right as they can be for a moment in time.
I laugh in Lilith’s face because I can.
And I laugh because knowing this fills me not only with hope, but with joy.
The dark may survive, no matter what, but then so does the light.
I laugh harder, reveling in the freedom of the moment, finding joy amongst so much ruin. And when I start to calm down and look around me, I realize that I’m not alone. Others are laughing, some are cheering, and some are solemn and determined.
I see Dana and Alice kissing and I grin.
I see Helena and Dylan smiling at each other, and I feel heartened.
I see Duffy fighting off a smile of her own as she shakes her head and I breathe deep with confidence.
This is the start that we needed. It had to be hard and painful because no one is useful to any cause if they lack endurance. And we have endurance in spades because we have a reason to fight, live, and die.
And that gives us the advantage.
Our merriment is interrupted as three helicopters fly overhead and we all look up to watch as they head southwest.
I look to my small army. I didn’t get to Lilith before she left the city, but there’s no time to waste.
“Let’s get moving.”
As a group, we take a few steps before breaking into a dead run, following the sound of propellers as they chop at the air and determined to give those on board the surprise of their life.
This isn’t over. If there’s a future, we want it now.
I’ll never stop until I get it.
We… will never stop.