Chapter fifteen – Origins
My apologies for the delay, guys. I hope you’ll enjoy! ^^
As fast as we could, Derek and I dashed away from the military grounds. Derek had taken Hao’s and the General’s cell phones and pagers, but the best that did was buy us a few minutes before the army would be called in to take care of us. Both of us knew the consequences of treason. We would never be able to come back to this place again.
‘Throw them in,’ I gasped, pulling Derek back by the edge of his sleeve when we passed a small creek. ‘They’ll be able to track us if we keep the pagers and phones on us.’
He nodded and did as I asked, dropping the devices in with a single swing of his arm. I watched as they disappeared underneath the murky water’s surface, until a few bubbles were all that was left.
‘We should throw in our own phones, as well,’ Derek said, taking his device out of his pocket.
‘Way ahead of you,’ I smiled at him. ‘I’ve dropped mine in the water three weeks ago. Switched it for a burner phone.’
For a second, it looked like Derek was about to smile back. But then his expression switched right back to serious, and he glanced a look back over his shoulder.
‘Better keep moving, boss. We can’t outrun them if they spot us before we can get to the car.’
I nodded, and followed as he took the lead. Derek silently walked past the riverbed, casting a glance around him every few seconds.
As I walked behind him, my thoughts flashed back to the scene inside the military base. I had not expected Hao to betray me like that. He had been the person I trusted most… the one from who I’d never have thought he was capable of doing that, even if he thought that he was doing the right thing. And because of it, both Derek and me were now labelled as traitors.
‘Derek?’ I asked, interrupting the heavy silence that pressed between us.
‘It doesn’t look like we can go back to the military anymore.’
He laughed. It was a dry, coarse laugh that didn’t seem to have any sincerity in it.
‘I figured as much, boss.’
‘We have to warn Tybalt and Yurick to get out of that house. We’ll never get back there before the military does.’
‘I’ve texted them when we ran out of the base. They should be on the road now.’
I frowned. His calm and collected attitude put me at ease, but… at the same time…
‘Aren’t you… upset? You’ve chosen to help me, and as a result, I make you look like a traitor to them.’
He stopped, taking a few seconds to build up nervousness in my body before finally turning around to me.
‘Of course not. We knew this might happen when we agreed to help you, boss.’
‘But…’ I spoke again, voicing my doubt. What kept him from reacting in the same way that Hao had? Why did the three of them stay with me, instead of being loyal to the base that had been good to them for all these years?
‘Listen, Raven. For me, the real chain of command is very simple. People have to earn their respect with me, and before they manage to do that, I’m not taking any orders from them. Those clerks in there knew that I was like that when they hired me. And right now, my respect for you is higher than that for any of those higher-ups in the military, that’s all. So if I get to choose, I’d rather be a criminal to them than a traitor to you. You’ve earned that from me, Raven.’
I frowned. That sounded too good to be true. No-one could have a view on life that was so black-and-white, not even Derek. There had to be something else, something that he didn’t bring into words. A different, more logical reason why he would have a viewpoint like that.
And then I saw it. His body language. As soon as he’d said those last words, he turned away from me, stubbornly looking at anything but me. It suddenly clicked in my head, and a small smile appeared on my face.
‘Derek, do you… like me?’
‘S..shut up,’ he quickly spoke, hiding his face by looking at the river to our right. ‘That’s not why… it’s about respect! Respect, I told you!’
‘All right,’ I said, not pushing him any further. ‘But, regardless, we need to come up with another plan. Did you have time to go down into the archives and look at any files?’
‘No,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘I did go down there, but I had a bad feeling when you ran off like that. So I came right back up.’
‘I see,’ I said, my voice dropping. ‘That’s… a problem, now that we can’t go back anymore.’
‘I wouldn’t say that,’ Derek said, suddenly reaching inside his pocket. ‘That I said I didn’t read anything, doesn’t mean I didn’t take anything.’
I raised my eyebrows, looking at him as he pulled something out of the fabric of his uniform. A thin, long usb-stick dangled on a metallic chain strapped to his pants.
‘Everything down there was digital. I jammed that in and copied as much as I could fit in there related to vampire activity.’
He gave me a smug look, clearly very pleased with himself.
‘Not bad for a backup-plan, eh?’
‘What would I do without you?’ I said, sighing in relief. That tiny stick had just made our entire visit worth our while. I’d already started to think that Hao’s betrayal was the only thing we’d gotten out of the whole operation, without even getting to the main reason why we’d gone in. But Derek, the hot-headed one that always looked at us for a plan B, had actually calculated ahead and given us another chance. If we could keep this up, things were going to work out.
Everything was going to be okay.
At that moment, the burner phone in my pocket began to buzz. I tore my eyes away from the usb-stick in Derek’s hands and grabbed the device, pressing it against my ear.
‘Raven! They’ve taken the child!’
Everything was going very, very wrong.
Slowly, the building that Tybalt had picked as a rendezvous point came into sight. It was an old, seemingly abandoned church, at the very outskirts of Bridgeport. The church was easily missable between the forest treeline and the tall skyscrapers on the other side of the treetops, if you didn’t know where to look. I was silently impressed: Tybalt had picked a good place for a refuge.
As I exited the vehicle and walked towards the building’s front door, I could see shadows of people from behind the tinted glass of the church. Derek and Yurick? I couldn’t be sure, and reached for the weapon on my thigh, just in case the shadows would end up belonging to something else.
At that very moment, the window to my left suddenly shattered. I jumped back from the glass flying my way, quickly bringing up my arms to cover my face. A chair had been thrown through the window, apparently with so much force that it had even cracked the window pane.
My heart skipped a beat as I realized who that voice belonged to. I wasted no further time and dashed the last few meters to the door, yanking it open with much more force than necessary. It was dark inside, darker than I had thought it would be. My eyes took a few seconds to get used to the darkness, after which the contours of a church hall began to form. Old tables and stools were neatly lined up near the walls and a carpet that probably used to be red ran in between them, ending at the end of the hall, where the walls were rounded off in an area that had probably been the place for a priest to stand and preach.
But the interior wasn’t the thing that caught my attention. No, it was Yurick, squatting behind the tables closest to me. He had bruises on his head and arms and he was obviously taking cover from the little boy in front of him, who was facing towards the rounded area.
‘Yurick?’ I said, cautiously stepping forward. ‘What are you doing?’
He looked over his shoulder, frantically waving his arm at me.
‘No, stay back!’
At that moment, Nikola finally turned around. The sight of the boy made me flinch from shock. His eyes were glowing with a crimson glow that instantly reminded me of my sibling’s killers. Pure rage shone out of them, and Nikola’s body trembled in uncontrolled anger. His tiny hand was wrapped around one of legs from the nearest table, and the moment his eyes met with mine, he yanked loose the wood as if it was a tiny match.
With another roar, he hurled the wood towards me. It shattered on the door, only inches away from me. I instantly knew where Yurick had gotten his bruises from as Nikola clawed his fingers into another chair, violently thrusting it away. More glass shattered and I quickly took a step back.
‘YOU PROMISED YOU WOULD KEEP HER SAFE!’ Nikola screamed, his voice almost unrecognizable. ‘YOU PROMISED YOU WOULD LOOK AFTER US!’
‘Nikola, calm down!’ I yelled back, evading another table leg. The raw power of the boy shocked me deeply. It reminded me of myself when I first joined the military, trying to shove my anger unto others, but this was different. That red glow… I’d seen that before. Nikola had lost control of himself.
The next piece of torn off wood hit me right on the chest. It ripped through the fabric of my blouse and I could feel it grazing my skin, leaving behind a small gash.
‘Raven, get back, he’s going insane!’
‘What happened?’ I asked Yurick, my teeth gritted from pain from the wood.
‘I don’t know, Raven! I brought him inside, and when he woke up and saw that the other kid wasn’t here, he just lost it!’
Yurick quickly ducked when another chair flew by right over his head, smashing to pieces against the wall behind us. With that, Nikola was out of things to throw, but his anger only seemed to increase now that he had his hands free. The boy looked truly fearful; where his sister had reminded me of a little angel, now the word demon came to mind as I looked upon his bright, crimson glowing eyes and the furniture lying in pieces across the room.
‘Nikola! Calm down.’
He growled at me, bearing his fangs in a way that I hadn’t even seen him do back when he didn’t trust me yet. This was not good. I could see his hands shaking, his fingers with nails that were shaping to be a lot like claws.
‘We can’t take him out without tranquillizers,’ Yurick yelled from behind the table. ‘What should I do, Raven?’
‘Leave him alone,’ I said quickly. ‘Just step back! I’ll handle this.’
He gave me a disagreeing look, but then nodded and slowly crawled back from the middle of the room. I nodded to him, before finally locking eyes with Nikola. With slow, but confident steps I walked towards the boy, lifting my hand from the gun strapped to my side.
‘STAY… BACK,’ he growled between his teeth. Nikola sunk through his knees a little bit, almost if he was ready to jump at my throat. I stopped, my feet freezing halfway a step. The image of myself fourteen years ago suddenly came into my mind. Before supressing my emotions, I’d lashed out in anger at anything and everyone, just like that. The poor boy. In a way, I knew exactly what he was going through right now.
My arms suddenly reached out on their own and wrapped themselves around Nikola’s body, pulling him towards me. I heard Yurick shout a warning, but ignored him, pressing the boy into the warmth of my own flesh.
‘LET ME GO!’
The boy struggled against me, and when my arms wouldn’t open up again, he ripped his sharp fingernails into my shoulder. The pain burned right through my flesh, as if my whole arm was on fire. I bit my teeth together and endured it, softly whispering into his ear.
‘Calm down, Nikola. It’s all right. You’re not alone.’
‘I AM alone!’ he growled from under me. ‘She was all I had! She was all I had, and I trusted you with her, and you betrayed us!’
‘I’m sorry,’ I whispered in his ear, stroking his quivering figure. ‘I’m sorry, Nikola. I was supposed to be there and protect you from something like this. I’ve failed you, while I’d promised to keep you safe. I failed you. But she’s not lost yet, Nikola. Would you please calm down and listen to me? Please?’
I half expected him to rip into me with his claws again, but slowly, his trembling got less until he was able to stand on the ground normally. I moved my head back slightly, looking in his still crimson coloured eyes.
‘She’s… she’s not?’
‘No, Nikola. Yurick knocked you out when they came for you, didn’t he?’
‘Those soldiers didn’t come to kill you, but to take you away. Selene is still alive. Tybalt saw them take off with her, and now he’s following their trail. As soon as he knows where they will go, he’ll contact us.’
I moved my arms from around his body to on top of his shoulders, squeezing his skin slightly.
‘She’s really still alive? You’re certain?’
Slowly, I could see the crimson glow in his eyes residing. They turned back to their usual colour, at the same time that the claws on his hands retracted and vanished until there were normal fingernails again. The rage that had filled the air was slowly fading away, as well.
I took a small step back, letting one hand rest on his shoulder as I exploited his calming down to continue talking into him.
‘I wíll return her to you, Nikola. I will do everything I can to make sure she comes back safe. But I need you to stop lying to me.’
‘I… I’m not,’ he mumbled, finally calmed down. ‘I told you everything I know about our mother.’
‘You know that it’s not your mother I’m talking about,’ I said. I looked deep into his eyes, trying to make my emotions clear. Behind me, I could sense Yurick slowly getting closer to us again.
‘You’ve told me about your mother, and I know that the humans would want to capture you if they knew you were alive, but you’ve told me nothing about the vampires trying to track you down. Why not?’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking-‘
‘Yurick has told me about the rise in activity from the vampires,’ I said, forcefully cutting him off. ‘Ever since finding you two in that basement, they’ve increased their violence. They’ve even started raiding homes, almost as if they were looking for something. As if they were looking for you. Am I right?’
Slowly, his shoulders moved downwards. Nikola allowed his eyes to be covered by his dark bangs of hair, and nodded.
‘It’s… hard to explain. The story is too long, you wouldn’t understand it. You don’t even know about the Gate. You don’t know, even though you’re…’
‘Then explain it to me,’ I interrupted him. ‘I can’t help you if I don’t know everything, Nikola, and I won’t know a thing unless you tell me what is really going on. With everything.’
‘We’re trying to help you, kid, and we’re going to fail if you keep holding information back,’ Yurick added, taking another step closer until he was standing almost right behind me. ‘Just tell us and get it over with.’
‘But… it’s a long story. And you wouldn’t believe me if I told you.’
‘Try me,’ Yurick said, unable to completely ban the hostility from his voice. ‘It’s about time we get some answers out of you. So what is it? Are you the vampires’ new weapon? Did they teach you to turn into a monster like that?’
‘What’s so important about you? Spill it!’
‘They’re using us!’ Nikola suddenly yelled, his eyes closed and his hands clutched into fists. ‘Me and my sister. They’re using us to let more vampires into your world!’
A deadly silence fell after he’d squeezed out those words. Yurick and me looked at Nikola, dumbfounded, trying to figure out what in Maker’s name he could mean. The boy himself had started shaking again. Suddenly, the silence got pierced by the ringing of my newly bought burner phone, which was so loud that it startled all of us. I quickly reached for it and checked the number.
‘That’s Derek,’ I said, tossing the phone to Yurick. ‘See what he wants. Nikola, come over here.’
I grabbed his arm and dragged him back a few tables, while Yurick pressed the phone to his ear. Placing my hands firmly on his shoulders, I gazed deep into the boy’s eyes.
‘Now. You’re going to tell me everything. All of it. Everything you know about vampires, and humans, and you and your sister. Every single detail. From the very beginning. Can you do that?’
He nodded, seemingly more at ease now that Yurick wasn’t listening in to the conversation.
‘All right. But… it’s a long story.’
‘I don’t care. Just start from the beginning.’
He nodded again, taking a deep breath before starting his story.
‘The things that you people call vampires… do you know where they come from?’
I shook my head.
‘When people die, their soul crosses a thing called the Gate of Life. They’re cleansed there, and eventually our Maker sends them back to this world for rebirth. That’s how life and death are supposed to work…’
‘But?’ I thought out loud, sensing instinctively that there was a “but” coming.
‘But sometimes, when a soul desperately wants to get back to life on its own, they try to pass back through the gate by themselves, instead. Doing that… taints them. Our Maker won’t allow their souls to go through rebirth anymore, so they wait on the other side of the Gate, for an opportunity to cross back over.’
‘That’s a good story, Nikola, but what are you trying to get at?’ I said, my eyebrows raised. I found it hard to believe what he was saying. No one knew what happened after death, after all. How was a little boy like Nikola supposed to know something that researchers had been investigating for centuries?
‘Sometimes, certain… people,’ Nikola continued, resting his eyes on me briefly, ‘refuse to accept their loved ones crossing over. They find a way to get to the Gate, and try to open it and bring their souls back. When that happens, the tainted souls that still linger there come out instead. They steal the human’s life energy, and use that to crawl back out into this world. That,’ he finished, ‘is how vampires are born.’
I opened my mouth to question his theory, when my own body stopped me. This tale sounded… familiar. As if I’d heard it somewhere before, a long time ago. As if I was supposed to know this. It felt like a past bedtime story or a really old song, and that sense of deja-vu when you heard it again after many years. A bad feeling crept up on me, and I felt the hairs in my neck slowly rising up. I knew this tale. And at the same time, I knew that it wasn’t just a made-up story. I felt it in my very bones, a realization that at the same time confused me and scared me more than I could have imagined.
‘How… how do you know this?’ I mumbled, my eyes fixed on his. ‘The only one I’ve ever heard talking about a gate was… was…’
Was my mother.
‘I know,’ he said, dodging the question. I briefly looked behind me; Yurick was frowning deeply. He was still on the phone with Derek, which probably meant that something important had happened. But I needed to know the whole story now, the whole truth. Derek could wait.
Suddenly, the image of the altar that we’d come across in Moonlight Falls came back into my mind. Back then, we had no idea of what it was, but if you added Nikola’s story to the picture… It suddenly made sense. There had even been scratch marks across the floor in front of the gate, as if something had tried to claw its way out of somewhere. A chill ran down my spine as I added the puzzle pieces to the whole picture.
‘I believe you,’ I said, eyeing Nikola again. ‘I probably shouldn’t, but… I do. But what does this have to do with you two?’
‘We weren’t supposed to be born,’ he whispered, looking straight through me. ‘We came from a mother from this world and a father from the world beyond the gate. Nothing can be alive and dead at the same time. We’re not supposed to exist.’
‘Your father was one of the souls that came back?’ I asked, my voice just as soft as his. ‘How is that even possible?’
‘It’s not,’ Nikola answered, barely hearable. ‘The Gate doesn’t work with us. It has no effect, like it does with other souls that get too close. It can’t pull us in. Because of that, they can make me open it, and Selene…’
‘What?’ I said, digging my nails into his shoulders. ‘What’s wrong with her?’
‘The tainted souls that come back need life energy,’ Nikola whispered, his eyes widening a fraction. ‘It takes whole lives… whole lives just to get all the energy they need. But not with her. She never runs out…’
‘What do you mean?’ I said, my insides suddenly turning to ice as my heart understood what my brain was still refusing to admit.
‘Because she never runs out… They can make more vampires cross over, and more, and more…’
My hands started shaking uncontrollably as I realized the full meaning of his words. He was talking about an army. An endless amount of monsters that could come crawling in. Hundreds of new vampires, if they were given the chance…
‘…ile the cause is unknown, these things have dramatically increased in numbers over the last ten years…’
I remembered the General’s words, during his briefing of my squad. I’d seen the records. But that this could be the cause, this little boy… that surpassed all of my levels of imagination.
They wére the weapon. No, they were more than that.
They were the direct reason behind the monsters’ rampage.
I stumbled back, grabbing the nearest table to support myself as the world around me suddenly started swirling. Yurick jumped forward, pressing his hands against my back to keep me from crashing down.
‘This can’t…’ I sputtered, still struggling with the huge truth that had suddenly been thrown on top of me. This changed everything. Everything I had planned, everything that I had in mind for their future.
The vampires wouldn’t leave them alone. They would always keep looking for them. And so would the military, if they even as much as suspected them to be the vampires’ weapon. And if they ever figured out the truth…
They would never be safe, no matter where they would go.
‘Raven,’ Yurick mumbled, trying to get through to me. He removed his hands from my back and placed one on my shoulder instead, tugging at it to make me turn around.
‘No, this can’t… I can’t…’
‘Raven, listen to me.’
‘It’s Derek. He’s found the mother.’