Authors: Jaye Wells
aga limped ahead
of us into the book silo—a massive round room with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Tall ladders rose to staggered catwalks lining the fronts of the shelves. On the floor a massive wooden table was covered in old maps and open books and ink-smeared sheaves of paper. I’d seen all that before though, so my eyes went directly to the stranger.
“Six, this is Zed.”
I nodded at him. He tipped his chin. Neither of us spoke, as if aware that being the first to speak would somehow be a defeat.
The calm confidence in his posture hinted at maturity gained by experience, not age. He looked younger than Icarus, who had twenty-eight years under his belt. Closer to my twenty-three, maybe, but younger. The top of his hair was pulled back into a bun and the lower half shaved. Dark circles under his eyes and a tight jaw hinted at trouble—or maybe I was just presuming that last part. No one ever went to Saga because things were peachy.
As I looked him over, he was taking stock of me too. For the first time since my escape from the Troika, I felt conscious of being female. What’s worse, I wanted him to like what he saw. I had no patience for this sort of thinking. Saga wouldn’t have summoned me to meet this man unless it was a matter of life or death. And judging by the grimness of the man’s expression, his problem involved the latter.
“Zed is the leader of a rebel band from the western sectors,” Saga said. “Six days ago, a Troika patrol captured two members of his group, including his second-in-command and a child.”
Zed didn’t say a word. His expression remained unchanged, but I sensed keeping it so took some effort.
“Six days is a long time,” Icarus said from behind me.
“He arrived four nights ago with the remaining members of his tribe.” Saga motioned toward the corridor, as if to suggest the others were sequestered in another part of the bunker. “In the meantime, I’ve been sending out feelers to try to track down those taken. And, of course, I had to wait for you to arrive.” The rebuke in his tone came through loud and clear.
“Still,” Icarus said, “six days is a long time.” His implication came through loud and clear—it was too long to hope they’d still be alive.
“Normally, I’d agree with you,” Saga said, “but while we were waiting for you to grace us with your presence, I got in contact with a spy within one of the labor camps. I have reason to believe Zed’s cohorts are alive.”
My head snapped up. “Really?”
The word dropped to the bottom of my stomach like an anchor.
Icarus spoke the words I’d been thinking: “So they’re definitely dead.”
“They’re alive.” The sound of Zed’s voice affected me in a strange way. There was something in his tone, some emotion I hadn’t heard or experienced in ages, but I guessed it was hope. The fact that he dared to hope in our dark world made him either crazy or naïve. Either was a liability—with crazy edging out naïveté in preference. Crazy people could survive in Nachtstadt. Naïve ones didn’t.
“Krovgorod, though,” Dare said. “It’s impossible.”
“We all know that it’s not,” Saga said with a significant look in Icarus’s direction.
Icarus didn’t make eye contact with Saga. Instead he looked toward me with an accusing glare, as if I somehow was complicit in this conversation. I didn’t react because I knew he needed an easy person to blame.
“Saga, I really hope this conversation isn’t headed in the direction I think it is,” I said.
The older man didn’t have the courtesy to try to look innocent. “I’m afraid you’re about to be disappointed, my dear.”
Icarus turned and marched out of the room without another word. The fact that he hadn’t yelled or thrown anything was a bad sign. Loud Icarus was way less trouble than quiet Icarus.
“I can’t believe you’re actually suggesting we risk our lives breaking into a camp to save a couple of kids,” I said.
“Excuse me?” Zed said.
I sighed. “I’m sorry if that’s hard to hear, but the chance of one person escaping Krovgorod is slim to none, much less two weakened prisoners and a rescue party.”
He stepped forward, as if propelled by rage. “I’ll go by myself then.”
“Don’t be a fool,” Dare said. “You won’t make it within a thousand feet of the camp.”
“Children,” Saga said, raising his voice, “if you’d all kindly shut your mouths, I’d be happy to tell you exactly how this can and will work.”
Zed stared at me hard for a few more moments before backing down. I had to give the guy credit for being brave, even if it was likely to get him killed. Still, I wasn’t keen on risking my life so he could play hero to a bunch of brats.
“Six, if you would please wipe that bull-headed expression from your face,” Saga said.
I relaxed my jaw and went to lean against the wall.
Before Saga could continue, a cry spilled into the book room from the corridor. A child’s shout, but I couldn’t tell if it was from fear or fun. At first, Zed kept his gaze on Saga, but when three more cries joined the first, he sighed. “I need to go check on them.”
Saga nodded. “Please. We’ll fill you in once you return.”
With that, Zed walked out the door without so much as a parting glance. Once he disappeared, the bunched muscles in my upper back relaxed another fraction.
“Now that he’s gone, I can talk plainly,” Saga said. The relief in his tone set me on edge. “The truth is he has handed us the perfect opportunity for our next big move against the Troika.”
“How is saving some brats a big move?”
He smiled and leaned against the side of Polonius. “It’s not, my dear. That is merely the excuse for the mission. The true purpose will be much bigger.”
I pushed off the wall and paced toward a bookcase filled with old books Saga called “encyclopedias”. He claimed they were quite rare. After humans began relying on the Internet for their information, many threw such reference books in the trash, believing them obsolete. But once the vampires gained control over all the servers and the digitized record of all human history, no one had access to even basic information. Saga had started collecting his enormous library long before the vampires became a threat, and as far as I knew, owned more books than any other being on earth. To me, they were dust collectors, but to Saga, they were as precious as blood to a vampire.
With my back to him, I said, “The mission?”
“Krovgorod is a work camp.”
“We already know that,” Dare said. After months of living with her, I knew the frustration in her tone wasn’t really frustration, but anxiety. She was extremely loyal to Icarus and was torn between learning Saga’s plan so she could share it with him and going to comfort him, even though she knew he’d reject it.
“Labor is not all that goes on there.” Saga’s tone was patient.
I turned around. Something tickled the back of my mind, but before I could snatch it, he continued. “As you’ll recall, our little adventure a few months ago put a crimp in the Troika’s plans to dispose of humans once they succeeded in creating a synthetic blood formula.”
The building we’d destroyed was called “The Factory”, but the only thing the Troika had planned to make there was ash from the burning bodies of human prisoners. We’d fought fire with fire and destroyed every brick.
He smiled because he’d hooked my interest. “You remember the name Pontius Morordes?”
“Dr. Death,” Dare said. “Icarus said that asshole experimented on the prisoners of Krovgorod.”
Saga dipped his head. “Yes. He’s also been in charge of creating the formula for synthetic blood.”
I held up my hand. “What does this have to do with Zed’s friends?”
He was quiet for a moment, as if hoping I’d figure it out on my own. But I was tired from our journey and frustrated with the old man’s insistence on drama. When I stayed stubbornly quiet, he finally relented. “Imagine how devastated the Troika would be if the creator of synthetic blood were killed before he’d perfected the product.”
I frowned. “How would we manage that?”
“By killing him and blowing up his lab to destroy all his research.”
His expression went slack, as if I’d finally managed to shock him. “What? But I haven’t even told you how.”
“I don’t care how,” I said. “No matter how you spin this, it’s a suicide mission. I didn’t escape the Troika only to put myself right back in their clutches—in a labor camp, no less. Have you heard what they do to regular people there? Imagine what they’d do to me.”
Me, the daughter of Alexis Sargosa, leader of the human resistance in the Blood Wars. Me, Meridian Six, who’d been raised by the Troika to be a propaganda piece and blood slave to the top echelon of the vampire directive. Me, the woman who’d escaped the Troika and joined the rebels, even if it was against my will. I wouldn’t just be punished, I’d be publicly humiliated and tortured as an example to any other humans who might have thought to rise up against our vampire oppressors. Not to mention that the target was someone called Dr. Death, who had proven he had no qualms about torturing people.
I didn’t need to remind them of all of that. They knew all too well who I was and what I’d come to stand for, because they were the reason the rumors had started. It had been Saga and Icarus who decided to use my name to rally the rebels. In the months since they used intel I’d provided to find and blow up a secret factory, Saga had spread the story of Meridian Six, former Troika blood whore who’d struck the first major blow against the vampires. According to him, throughout the winter, other rebel groups had pulled off minor skirmishes and rebellions under the rallying cry, “Red means life!”
Those had been my mother’s final words to me. At the time, she’d been telling me to run and find shelter among the Sisters of Crimson, a group of vampire nuns who provided aid to the rebels. But now those words had been twisted to mean something else. As Saga explained it, he was telling all the rebels that the only way to buy their freedom was to make the Troika bleed. He was fond of telling them that “Freedom is a luxury paid for in blood.”
And now he was asking me to shed my own blood—to sacrifice my own life—for a cause I didn’t believe in in the first place. When the Sisters of Crimson turned me over to the rebels, I had been given a choice—fight or die. So I’d fought, hoping it would buy me my freedom. But as the cause grew, their demands grew more dangerous and freedom slipped further from my grasp.
“Carmina—” Saga began.
I interrupted him. “Stop it.” He only called me by the name my mother had given me when he needed to manipulate me. “I said no. I will not walk willingly into a Troika labor camp. Not for you, not for anyone.”
Saga drew a breath in through his nose. “You’re tired. Perhaps some warm food and a good night’s sleep—”
“Will convince me to commit suicide?” I laughed. “Not too fucking likely, Saga.”
His left eyelid twitched at my use of profanity, but he managed a paternal expression. “Regardless, we should hold off on this discussion until you’re less…brittle. I just ask that tomorrow you give me a chance to lay out the plan before you reject it outright.” He stepped toward me and placed a warm hand on my shoulder. “Can you at least do that for me? Just listen?”
The words, the tone, and the expression were crafted in such a way as to subtly remind me of all he’d done for me since I’d escaped. Woven through those words was the reminder that without him and the others I never would have survived the first week of my freedom from the Troika.
But there was something else there. The threat flashed between his words like neon. If I refused, I would be shunned. No shelter offered, no food provided, no protection from the elements or the monsters who hunted us every night. I’d be alone in the world.
“You’re right,” I said, finally. “I need to rest.” And also to think and plan. Tomorrow, if after listening to the scheme I still didn’t want any part of it, I’d need to know my next steps. I’d need to prepare for them to try to force me through blackmail or physical violence. “We’ll talk about it tomorrow.” I tried to summon an apologetic smile, but my lips felt too stiff to pull it off.
He patted my shoulder. “That’s a good girl.”
I turned to walk away. My legs wanted to run out of the room, but I forced them to walk slowly. On my way past Dare, she caught my eyes. Her yellow irises glinted dangerously with an unspoken threat. No doubt she was hoping I’d refuse again tomorrow so she could unleash hell on me.
I didn’t react to her expression. Instead, I simply nodded and tried to look as exhausted as I suddenly felt. I knew it would gain me no sympathy, but maybe it would buy me some time.
the girl to me just after dawn. The other children were already asleep but when the door burst open, the heavy clomp of boots on wood woke everyone up. Judging from the lift of the girl’s chin, her first few days in the camp hadn’t damaged her too much.
That was why I’d requested her to be assigned to my bunker. She had a toughness to her that spoke of hard living in the Badlands. But she was sturdy and certainly had plenty of spirit that only begged for a little taming to be truly useful.
She struggled against the guards holding each arm until they tossed her to the ground. I didn’t move forward to help. It was safer that way. The boy, Mica, who’d been with me for the last week and a half, tried to come forward, but I grabbed him and pushed him behind me.
,” said Judas, placing scornful emphasis on the last word.
Judas wasn’t his real name, but it was what all the prisoners called him behind his back. He wanted us all to call him Captain, but we all found ways around it. He wasn’t a vampire, but one of the humans who’d betrayed their race to work for the Troika. Since vampires couldn’t function in the daylight, they relied on traitors like him to oversee the camp. Meanwhile, the traitors were under constant video surveillance from inside the vampires’ underground bunkers. If any of the humans betrayed the Troika during the day, it was a simple matter of unleashing the bat drones to take out and kill them and any other humans not following Troika rules.
“Is she healthy?”
He shrugged and laughed. “Healthy enough.”
I looked him in the eye. “We’ll need extra rations, and uniforms.” The uniform she’d been issued was already in tatters from toiling in the fields every night. The stench of her body odor filled the space between us like a green fog. A bath would be required immediately. Luckily, I had some lye soap I’d traded for from the laundry workers.
The captain laughed at my request. “You’ll have what you need. Just be sure your output increases. The doctor will be very disappointed if you do not meet quota.”
The threat was useless. I’d lived under constant knowledge that disappointing the good doctor would be very bad for my health as well as the health of the children I protected. “Understood. Now leave us so I can get her working. The children need to be ready to work at sundown.”
He watched me for moment with the look I suppose he considered threatening. But I’d survived in that camp too long to take the bait. “Good day, Captain.”
He and the other guards turned to go. As he passed the girl, he elbowed her in the ribs. She didn’t make a noise. She just curled into herself, like a fist.
I touched her shoulder. She jerked away, as if she expected me to harm her. I smiled. “Relax. You’re safe.”
Mica broke free and ran to her. She knelt to hug him hard. “Are you okay?” She pulled back to look him over.
“I’m okay. Matri’s really nice. She even gives me a candy after—”
“Mica,” I said, “please go wash up.”
“But, Bravo just—”
I shot him the look I’d perfected over the years. The one that even the naughtiest young couldn’t ignore.
Bravo hugged him again. “It’s okay. Do as she says. We’ll have plenty of time to talk later.”
He complied, skipping off to chatter with the other youngs as they went to the buckets at the rear of the bunker. I didn’t like that she’d been the one to convince him to follow orders. I’d need to reestablish the pecking order as soon as possible.
I approached her slowly, stopping at a distance that wouldn’t threaten. She needed time to adjust. “Welcome.”
She frowned and surveyed the two-dozen children gathered around behind me. “Why are you the one in charge of the youngs?”
“They have different work from the rest of the prisoners. The vamps needed an adult to oversee them.”
Her eyes narrowed. “What kind of work?”
I waved a hand. “We’ll get to all that as soon as you’re settled in.”
She ignored my implied order that the conversation was over. “Why am I here?” She looked at the young faces surrounding us. “I don’t see anyone else my age here.”
“You, I will train to take over once my time is done.”
Her mouth fell open, but no words came out. Good. We’d have a talk soon enough about how I’d damned her, but for now I needed her to shut the hell up so we could get busy with the work of indoctrinating the youngs into the camp.
“Your new uniform should arrive soon. We have special ones with a patch that identifies us as prisoners with certain privileges.” Her brows rose in surprise. I soldiered ahead before more questions came. “In the meantime, I have a spare you may wear.”
“Thank you, Matri.”
“Thank me by following my orders. If you do a good job, you’ll find your time here will be less hellish than it is for other prisoners.”
She crossed her arms. “And if I don’t do a good job?”
“You will be reassigned to the mines.”
Her face paled. No doubt she’d heard the nickname the other prisoners had given the mines.
“You don’t want to spend the rest of your life in the Grave, do you, Bravo?”
She shook her head. I rewarded her with a genuine smile. “Good. Run along, dear. We have a lot to do before sundown.”