Chapter thirteen – Executing plans
The military base of Zephyr hills felt different from before.
I frowned, noticing the change of vibe immediately. My steps slowed down to a cautious walking along the road, that was now coated with a thin layer of snow. My feet made little crisping sounds as the white powder underneath got crushed together.
What had changed?
It wasn’t the environment. Although the leaves had mostly fallen from the trees and the rooftops of the buildings had turned a bright white, everything else still seemed the same as normal. In the distance, I could see a few men in uniform tending to the military vehicles. They looked peaceful, without any trace of tension, which meant that there was nothing wrong with the atmosphere, as well.
Then what had changed?
As I pushed open the iron gate marking the entrance to the barracks, I suddenly realized. It wasn’t the base itself, it was me. I had changed. I was different now- a whole other person in the same skin. Me and the base- we were no longer compatible. This place was meant to track down and execute vampires. The very same beings that I was now trying to help.
In their eyes, that would make me a traitor. An enemy.
I exhaled slowly.
Loud, male voices could be heard from the direction of the fire pit. My squad had developed a habit of sitting around that thing, making it their usual spot to hang out in between missions. The possibility of me finding at least one of them there had to be high.
I walked around the corner of the nearest barrack, right into the light of the fire. A few soldiers were roasting marshmallows, together with Tybalt. He was sitting with his back towards me, but I recognized those brown curls right away. The scene in the hotel quickly flashed in front of my eyes. I pushed the embarrassing image out again, hoping my cheeks had not begun blushing.
I could see that he was annoyed from being disturbed. He tilted his head a little and looked backwards over his shoulder, staring at a spot near my waist. His eyes rested on my dark suit for a second, before going up to meet my face. And then he realized who I was.
‘Ca-captain!’ he yelled, jumping up and saluting clumsily. ‘I didn’t know you were back already!’
‘Easy,’ I said, with a smile on my face. ‘I’m still on official leave. I won’t be your captain for another two weeks.’
‘Really? Then why are you back here?’ Tybalt asked, frowning. We walked a few meters away from the fire, giving the other soldiers enough room to start roasting their marshmallows again. The sweet scent drifted into my nose and made my mouth water, but I had better things to be doing.
‘I need to ask a favor of you. Do you know where the others are? It’s important.’
‘They’re playing football again in the mess hall,’ he responded. ‘Shall I get them?’
‘Yes. But don’t bring them here. Take them to the briefing room. I don’t want anyone overhearing us,’ I added softly.
‘Why? Is this a secret mission?’ Tybalt asked, lowering his voice as well. I had clearly caught his interest; there was a familiar sparkle in his eyes, that normally showed itself on mission briefings and when he was trying to flirt with a lady.
‘In a way. But it’s not given by the higher-ups. This is a personal favor. Now can you please get the men?’
‘Of course,’ Tybalt said. The threw his roasting stick back to the fireplace, and had already turned around towards the mess hall, when he suddenly turned back to face me again.
‘Eh, captain? Can I ask you a question before I leave? It’s kind of important.’
‘Make it fast,’ I nodded, and observed him a little better. He seemed nervous. Tybalt fiddled with the dog tags around his neck, suddenly trying not to look me in the eye. His lips were slightly pressed together, something that he had only done once before.
This couldn’t be good.
‘So, do you remember the night little over two weeks ago, when you were at that bar not far from here? Do you remember seeing me there?’
My heartbeat increased tenfold. Just those two lines, and suddenly I couldn’t look him in the eyes anymore, as well. I diverted my gaze to the fire on our left, and tried my hardest to keep my voice from sounding abnormal.
‘Of course I saw you. Don’t you remember?’
‘Yeah, well, that’s the problem,’ Tybalt said. ‘I’m not supposed to say this to my captain, but… it was my weekend off. I got a little tipsy, and… I don’t remember much of that evening. But, what I was wondering… did you perhaps see me leave that night?’
I realized I’d been holding my breath. As softly as possible I exhaled, my brain still processing what he’d been saying. He couldn’t remember what had happened? Could he really mean what I thought he meant?
‘Did you… by any chance… see me leave with a lady?’ he asked. By now, his voice was barely hearable. A bright red blush had gathered on his cheeks, one that perfectly matched mine. I opened and shut my mouth again, words unable to come out. The pure irony of this situation almost made me grin. He confided in me, his captain, for a weakness that I knew he had not planned on sharing with anyone. All while I was probably the one who had caused this situation in the first place.
‘Yes, I did. Although I’m not sure if who you left with can be called a lady, Tybalt. Why do you want to know?’
‘Look, I’m not normally like that,’ he pleaded with me. ‘I’ll admit that I’m a womanizer. I like chasing after women until I get what I want, and I normally succeed easily. But not like that. Not with the help of alcohol. That’s not the kind of person that I want to be, not anymore. I know I’ve laid with a lady that night, and I can’t even remember her. But if I ended up taking advantage of her because of the booze involved… then I need to apologize to her for it. She deserves that much.’
His sincerity surprised me. He really meant what he said, I could see it in his eyes. This was bothering him incredibly much. And maybe it was because of my recent change in personality… But I realized that, even though we’d been working together for almost six months now, I still knew very little about the person called Tybalt. About any of my underlings, actually. It bugged me somehow, a new feeling that I didn’t even understand at first. But now I did.
I wanted to get to know this person better.
‘Apology accepted,’ I said, a tiny smile crossing my face. Tybalt looked confused. He frowned, trying to figure out what my words had meant. I looked him straight in the eyes for a few seconds, and then it clicked.
‘Would you go fetch the rest of my squad now, Tybalt?’ I interrupted him, raising my hand. ‘We’re on a time limit here.’
‘Y-yes, captain. Right away.’
He opened and closed his mouth a few more times, and then violently shook his head before running off.
A few minutes later, Tybalt had led his three squad mates into the official briefing room, where I was waiting for them. It was the only room of which I was sure that no-one could overhear us. In advance, I’d even checked the walls for hidden camera’s or microphones, just to be sure. The room had proven to be clear of any of those, thank Maker.
‘Chief! It’s good to see you back!’
I had been standing with my back towards the entrance. Turning around, I could see Yurick entering with much bravura, followed closely by Tybalt and the others.
‘You left without even giving us the chance to see you off,’ Derek said, being the last one to come inside. ‘What were you in such a hurry to leave for?’
‘What Derek means to say,’ Hao quickly spoke after him, ‘is welcome back, m’am. But weren’t you supposed to be on official leave for another two weeks?’
‘It’s good to see you, too,’ I said, and flashed them a smile. Immediately, all three of them got a confused look on their faces. Yurick poked Hao with his elbow and mumbled something under his breath, so softly that I couldn’t understand it.
‘M’am, what did you… just do?’
‘What do you mean? I just thanked you for welcoming me back.’
‘You smiled, Chief.’
‘You never smile at us.’
‘I don’t?’ I responded, a little surprised. Then I remembered my behavior over the past few months and shook my head.
‘You’re right. I didn’t use to. But some things have… changed. I’ll explain it all to you in a moment.’
‘What’s going on, m’am?’ Hao said softly. ‘Are you in some kind of trouble?’
‘It’s not me. But there is someone that’s desperately in need of our help. Will you hear me out?’
All four of them nodded, with their face frowned into serious expressions. I beckoned for them to come further into the room and placed four chairs around the nearest table, seating myself next to my squad members. Casting a long glance on each of their faces, I mustered my courage and began to speak.
I told them in detail about the past two weeks. How I’d gone back to my childhood village, and the two children I’d found. How I slowly gained their trust, and promised to find their mother for them… at which point I couldn’t go on anymore. The story was still incomplete, because I’d left the most important detail out… and I didn’t know how they would take it.
‘You want our help in finding the kid’s mother?’ Derek finally said. ‘Why do you need us for that? You can just hand them over to social services, can’t you?’
His words were harsh, but the tone in which he spoke them was not. Maybe it was because of the long time that I had been away. Or maybe it was the new me shining through, but all four of them seemed… more open. Easier to connect to.
‘I can’t do that,’ I said, shaking my head. ‘Taking them to the authorities is… not possible. I need to find her without them, but I can’t do that alone. I need help. Your help.’
The men were casting looks at each other, and I knew they weren’t too keen on the idea.
‘Listen, I know it’s just two stranger’s children to you, but they’re more than that to me. They’re important, and I have to help them. If I don’t…’
‘Is this about your siblings?’ Hao suddenly said, taking me completely by surprise. I fell silent, my mouth slightly open.
‘How… how did you..?’
‘I told them, Chief,’ Yurick said softly. ‘Right after that vampire hunt in Moonlight Falls. I know I shouldn’t have, and I apologize for that.’
‘No, it’s all right,’ I said, after a short silence. And at that moment, I really meant it. This was good. It was about time that I left my past behind, revealed it to the people that mattered. And right now, these four people mattered.
‘It’s all right, Yurick. I should have told them earlier, myself. I’ve been way too closed-off from everyone.’
‘You were,’ Derek said, frowning. ‘Why didn’t you tell us about that vampire? We could have helped, boss. We’ve been working together for over six months now- why do you always have to do everything by yourself?’
‘Does that mean that you’ll help me?’ I asked, bringing the conversation back to the original topic.
‘Fudging hell, boss, of course we’ll help. Haven’t we made that clear enough yet?’
‘Watch your mouth,’ I said to Derek, but with a smile on my face. The others laughed at us. It were open, honest laughs that made my chest glow with warmth. They were on my side. It felt good to have allies, people who I could count on.
‘He’s right, m’am,’ Hao nodded. ‘We’ll help in any way we can. That’s what we’re here for.’
Perhaps these men had been something else than mere underlings. Perhaps… perhaps they had really been friends all along.
‘Thank you,’ I said, trying to lay my feelings in the expression of my eyes. ‘That means a lot to me. It really does. But… I haven’t been entirely fair to you.’
‘What do you mean, captain?’ Tybalt asked, his eyebrows sinking.
‘It’s about the children that I’ve told you about. The reason that I can’t go to the authorities with them… is because they’re part vampire.’
The silence that followed was one of the biggest I’d ever been witness to. The men in front of me just stared, their eyes wide, their minds trying their hardest to process what I’d just said and failing utterly. I remained silent, waiting for their reaction. Derek’s mouth opened and closed a few times, without any words coming out.
It took an eternity for the silence to pass. When my words had finally sunk in, Tybalt was the first one to recover.
‘Whát?’ he snapped. ‘Is this some kind of joke, or something? Vampire children don’t exist! And half-vampires, even! What are you talking about?’
‘I swear it’s true,’ I said, looking deep into his green eyes. ‘The children have all the characteristics of the vampires we’ve been hunting- glowing eyes and skin, fangs instead of normal teeth. But they’re not like the vampires that we’ve seen so far. They’re actual children, Tybalt. Helpless children. Children that we need to protect. Their lives will be in danger if we leave them alone.’
‘You can’t be serious!’ Derek and Yurick yelled, practically at the same time.
‘Those things are monsters! You should be talking of killing them on the spot instead of leaving them alone and talking of protecting them!’
‘They killed your family, Chief! And mine! How can you even think of helping them?!’
‘I’ve tried to kill them,’ I sighed. Now that I had confessed this far, it was better to let it all out. The whole story, from the very beginning.
‘I first saw them back in the basement of the Van Gould mansion. I tried to kill them there, I really did. But I just couldn’t. They remind me too much of my own brothers and sisters, back when I was still a child.’
Yurick shook his head violently, refusing to accept my words. Slowly, I moved my arm across the iron table and placed my fingers on his right hand, that he’d balled into a fist from frustration. The gesture helped: I could see the anger slowly fading from his eyes as it got replaced by confusion. On the side, Tybalt and Derek both looked at our hands with frowns on their faces.
‘Please, try to understand. I’ve lived with them for over two weeks now. They made me… realize what a messed-up person I’ve been. You know how broken I was, Yurick. All of you do. After my sibling’s deaths, all I could think of was getting revenge. I was ready to give up everything for it, something that I’ve dragged you along into, Yurick. But it was wrong of me. It didn’t solve anything when I finally did it. I was lost afterwards, ready to just give up altogether. But those two children… they saved me. Made me whole again. Hao, can’t you see it? I’m a changed person now, a better person.’
‘I can see it,’ he mumbled slowly, his brown eyes looking straight at me. ‘But… they’re…’
‘I swear to you, those two are not monsters. They’re victims, and all they want is to find their mother again. I owe that to them. They’ve helped me reconnect with my past… and now I want to help them reconnect with theirs.’
I fell silent again, looking at each of their faces. What I saw upset me. There was doubt, anger, and a lot of mistrust. Each of these men was doubting every mission we’d set out on. Everything we’d just talked about, before I mentioned that I harbored two vampires willingly.
If they decided to betray me… would it be too late to turn things back?
‘I know that this goes against anything that you stand for. And I know that this is an impossible thing to ask from loyal soldiers. So I won’t force you into anything. But if you do not wish to help, please don’t mention this to anyone else in the base. Their lives are at stake if you do, and I’m not willing to risk that. I’m already risking too much by just talking to the four of you here-‘
‘Captain, could we see them?’ Tybalt suddenly spoke, interrupting my plea.
‘You’ve always been right about our targets, and about people in general, actually. Don’t you remember how good a judge of character she is, guys? I’m willing to put my trust in them if she is. But I want to see them, see what they look like. If they are really just children, we should be able to see it in their eyes. Don’t you agree?’
‘I can’t believe I’m saying this, but… you could be right,’ Yurick said, still frowning, but with a much calmer voice. ‘I don’t want anything more than to have all of those bloodsuckers put down into the ground, but that doesn’t stretch its way to children. I’m not a child murderer. So… I’m willing to take the risk if you guys are.’
‘If you see them… what will you do?’ I asked cautiously. Derek shrugged, shaking his head.
‘I don’t know, boss. I’ve never even heard of vampire children before. What are they like? Are they dangerous?’
‘The oldest one has quite a vocabulary,’ I smiled, trying to lighten the mood. ‘And he’s very protective over his sister. But I can’t imagine them hurting a anyone willingly.’
They weren’t in the slightest bit convinced of how harmless they were, I could see it in their eyes. And yet, they placed their trust in me. It made me feel relieved and very nervous at the same time. I noticed that my fingertips were still on the palm of Yurick’s hand, and removed them quickly. A small blush appeared on his face, something that did not go unnoticed by the rest of the group.
‘I’m all right with introducing you to them. But I want to ask the oldest if he’s all right with this, as well. It’s been very hard to win his trust, and I don’t want to ruin it by coming with unexpected surprises. So I’ll go back home and talk it over with him, and then I’ll come back here. Is that all right with you?’
‘Talk it over?’ Derek repeated. ‘Just how smart is that kid?’
‘Too smart for his own good, Derek. Too smart for his own good.’
Nikola had agreed to the plan, and roughly two days later, the big meeting had been scheduled. Derek, Hao, Tybalt and Yurick had taken a short leave from the base, with the excuse of going on a male bonding trip. At the agreed time, I received a text message from Tybalt saying that they were on their way.
Nikola had been beyond nervous all day long. He kept marching from one room to another, checking the doors, checking the windows, and running back to the living room every three seconds to see if Selene was still there. His behavior closely resembled mine. I did not run from room to room, but my mind was one big battlefield. Doom scenarios quickly followed after each other, playing in front of my eyes like a horror movie. They had lied to me and brought the army. We would have to flee while in pursuit of the Special Forces. They had been followed by the general. So many things that could happen in the next two hours, so many things that could go wrong. It was maddening to think about, and yet I couldn’t bring myself to think of anything else.
The only person who seemed unmoved by it all was Selene. She kept peacefully playing with her stuffed bear, unaware of all the panicking around her. Just looking at her toddler figure calmed me down, and so I stayed close by her side.
‘Is that them?!’ Nikola suddenly screamed from the hall, where he’d been pressed with his nose against the filthy window. ‘There’s a car stopping, Raven! A car! Is it them?!’
He dashed back to the living room without waiting for an answer and positioned himself between Selene and the door, shielding her from the possible danger. I slowly exhaled and stood up from the crates. The tension of the situation made me feel dizzy, and slightly sick. Pushing the unpleasant feeling in my stomach away, I walked towards the front door and pushed it open.
There they were, just the four of them, without any armed escorts, tanks or army helicopters. I allowed myself to sigh from relief before walking up to them.
‘I’d say welcome to my house, but this place is far from properly liveable,’ I tried to joke. Tybalt let out a tiny smile, but the rest of them seemed too nervous to react. They were stiff like a board, and I could see especially Derek trying to reach for the gun that was not on his waist anymore.
‘Are they inside of there?’ Hao asked.
‘Yes. Shall we?’
They nodded, and I led them across the front yard full of weeds into the building. I’d taken the time to open all of the curtains from the living room windows in advance, so that it would look at little threatening as possible. But, moving inside from the sunny lawn, the dust on the floor and dark crates still made it look pretty creepy.
‘Nikola?’ I called, as soon as all of us were inside. ‘I’d like to introduce you to my squad members.’
He had put Selene behind the cover of the wooden crates, making it impossible for them to see her. Cautiously, he stepped out into the open. His muscles were tense and he looked like he was ready to take off at any second.
‘These are Derek, Tybalt, Hao and Yurick,’ I said, pointing at each of them as I called their names. ‘They’re the ones I’ve been telling you about.’
I kept casting glances on each of their faces, looking for signs of aggression. But they merely stood there, dumbfounded by the little boy. They looked the same as I must have looked, the first time I’d seen them.
‘Nice… nice to meet you,’ Nikola then said, much to my surprise. His hands were shaking and he looked up at the four men with huge, scared eyes. Speaking must have taken a lot of courage.
His words, in turn, seemed to surprise the men even further.
‘He can… but how… how can he…?’ Hao mumbled to my right.
‘I don’t know,’ I admitted. ‘But that’s how it is. These two are special. I don’t know how, or why, but I do now that they need our help.’
‘Two?’ Tybalt said, frowning at me. ‘Where? I only see one.’
‘He’s scared of you, so he put her behind the crates where you can’t see her. Nikola, can I pick up Selene?’
The vampire boy hesitated for a few seconds, before finally nodding. I flashed a calming smile at him, trying to silently tell him that everything was going to be all right. I then walked past him, around the pile of crates where Selene was still playing with her bear. She saw me, dropped the toy and raised her little arms into the air, asking me to pick her up.
‘Hello, sweetheart,’ I mumbled, wrapping my fingers around her tiny figure and lifting her from the ground. ‘There’s some gentlemen that I want you to meet.’
‘That’s right. Gentlemen. They’re right over there, do you see them?’
Selene’s charm was my last resort. I placed her on my hip, walking back to the group of men. Nikola followed closely behind me, torn between shielding his sister and hiding behind my back.
‘That’s my friends, right over there. Can you see them? Say hello to them, Selene.’
‘He..hewoo,’ Selene giggled, waving her tiny little hand in the way I’d taught her to. I could see more than one pair of eyes visibly softening as they looked upon her.
‘Tell me, Derek. Do you think that something this little could hurt anyone?’
‘I… I don’t know,’ he mumbled. ‘This is… I’ve never…’
‘This is… not a joke, is it?’ Tybalt asked. ‘They’re really real, aren’t they?’
‘They are. The boy’s name is Nikola, and this is Selene. Do you believe me now?’
Another silence fell. The tension in the room was almost touchable, but I didn’t dare break the silence by trying to speak to their conscience again. It was at that moment that Yurick, who had been the most silent of them all, stepped forward. He was headed straight for Nikola, who flinched and took a step backwards out of fright.
‘You’re Nikola, right?’ he eventually said, towering far above the boy. His face lacked any emotion as he looked down upon the boy, in a way that even made my heartbeat accelerate from nervousness.
‘Y-yes… You’re Yurick, right?’
‘So… Ever heard of foosball before?’
If I was expecting anything, it sure wasn’t this.
‘What’s that?’ Nikola asked, frowning. ‘A new game?’
‘You don’t know? That won’t do. It’s the best game ever invented, kiddo. And I just happen to be a pro at it!’
‘What the fudge, Yurick?’ Derek yelled from behind him. ‘We’re trying to have a serious meeting here. Don’t go ruining it with ranting about foosball!’
‘Shut up, old man! If I want to talk about foosball, I talk about foosball!’
And just like that, the tension in the air was gone. Nikola watched with a confused look on his face as Yurick and Derek began a heated discussion about foosball, with Tybalt shaking his head at the both of them. I put Selene back down, sighing from relief. It had gone well. They hadn’t given me an answer yet, but all of them seemed to accept the existence of Nikola and Selene. It had taken them much less long than me, too. Without trying to kill them, even. If you thought about it, they’d actually done better than I had.
Maybe it was because of the tension from a few minutes ago, but my dizzyness didn’t go away. Quite the opposite; it slowly got stronger, until a wave of nausea almost made me throw up.
‘Raven? What’s wrong?’ Tybalt said, noticing my uneasiness right away.
‘Nothing. Excuse me for a second.’
I turned my back to the six of them and walked away quickly, fleeing into the dusty bedroom. There, I placed both of my hands on my mouth and rested my forehead against the nearest window. I couldn’t throw up. That would be a really bad idea. Not even to speak of the mess I would have to clean up afterwards, but I couldn’t show myself doing something so unsightly in front of Nikola or the men. So I pressed my lips shut and waited, waited for the nausea to get less. It felt like an eternity.
‘Raven?’ I finally heard behind me. ‘Are you all right?’
It was Tybalt. He looked at me with eyes full of worry, making me in turn blush and look away quickly.
‘I’m fine. It’s nothing.’
‘Are you sure? Because you’ve been standing there for over ten minutes.’
It had been that long?
‘Nikola- how are the children?’
‘They’ve retreated into the other bedroom.’
‘I see,’ I mumbled, and slowly turned around.
‘Raven, we’ve talked it over while you were in here,’ Tybalt said, cutting me off before I could even open my mouth. ‘We don’t trust those two yet. I mean, we can see that they’re just children… but none of us have seen something with fangs that isn’t trying to bite us to death before. So it will take some time, but… we’ll do it. We’ll help you.’
‘Really? You will?!’
‘Yes,’ he nodded. ‘But we’re not doing it for them. We’re doing this for you, Raven. Because you’re our captain… and… I think I don’t speak just for myself if I say that you’re more to us than that.’
‘That’s all I wanted to say,’ he said, jokingly saluting at me before walking straight out of the room again. I stared at his back, trying to come up with a good response. But my head wouldn’t listen to me. His sentence echoed between my ears, multiplying in volume every two seconds.
I was more to them than that. More than that. More. What did that mean?
Finally, I snapped out of it and followed Tybalt back into the living area. I could see Nikola and Selene in the other bedroom, looking at the men from behind the glass.
‘Are you all right, Chief?’ Yurick asked, turning around as soon as he saw me. ‘You look pale.’
‘I’m fine. Are you guys sure about this? The military won’t forgive you if they find out.’
‘We’re sure,’ he smiled. ‘Honestly, it’s about time that you asked us to help with something.’
I gave him a warm smile back.
‘Thank you, Yurick. And… thank you for breaking the ice like that.’
Yurick turned away from me again and looked at Nikola, who was still watching from behind the glass door. Much to my surprise, he raised his hand and waved at the child, who waved back after a short hesitation. All this time, I’d thought that Yurick was the one that would be the hardest to convince.
‘Raven, do you think he’ll mind if I go over and try to talk to him?’
‘Go ahead,’ I smiled, very pleased. This was all going so much better than I had expected. I wanted to thank them again, tell them how much I appreciated this. It was then that I realized someone was missing from the group.
‘…Guys, where is Hao?’
‘He went outside,’ Derek shrugged. ‘Said he needed some fresh air. He’ll be back soon.’
I looked through the door, into the night sky. It had gotten dark before any of us had noticed. They’d probably have to sleep here tonight, seeing how it was already too late to drive all the way back to the base.
… That meant that I would need a lot of sleeping bags.