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MOST PEOPLE WOULD FIND being led into an underground bunker on a stormy night scary. Not me.
Things I could explain away and define with data didn’t frighten me. That was why I kept silently reciting facts to myself as I descended deeper and deeper below street level. The bunker was a relic of the Cold War, built as protection in a time when people thought nuclear missiles were around every corner. On the surface, the building claimed to house an optical supply store. That was a front. Not scary at all. And the storm? Simply a natural phenomenon of atmospheric fronts clashing. And really, if you were going to worry about getting hurt in a storm, then going underground was actually pretty smart.
So, no. This seemingly ominous journey didn’t frighten me in the least. Everything was built on reasonable facts and logic. I could deal with that. It was the rest of my job I had a problem with.
And really, maybe that was why stormy underground trips didn’t faze me. When you spent most of your days living among vampires and half vampires, ferrying them to get blood, and keeping their existence secret from the rest of the world… well, it kind of gave you a unique perspective on life. I’d witnessed bloody vampire battles and seen magical feats that defied every law of physics I knew. My life was a constant struggle to hold back my terror of the unexplainable and try desperately to find a way to explain it.
“Watch your step,” my guide told me as we went down yet another flight of concrete stairs.
Everything I’d seen so far was concrete – the walls, floor, and ceiling. The gray, rough surface absorbed the fluorescent light that attempted to illuminate our way. It was dreary and cold, eerie in its stillness. The guide seemed to guess my thoughts. “We’ve made modifications and expansions since this was originally built. You’ll see once we reach the main section.” Sure enough. The stairs finally opened up to a corridor with several closed doors lining the sides. The decor was still concrete, but all the doors were modern, with electronic locks displaying either red or green lights. He led me to the second door on the right, one with a green light, and I found myself entering a perfectly normal lounge, like the kind of break room you’d find in any modern office. Green carpet covered the floor, like some wistful attempt at grass, and the walls were a tan that gave the illusion of warmth. A puffy couch and two chairs sat on the opposite side of the room, along with a table scattered with magazines. Best of all, the room had a counter with a sink – and a coffee maker.
“Make yourself at home,” my guide told me. I was guessing he was close to my age, eighteen, but his patchy attempts at growing a beard made him seem younger. “They’ll come for you shortly.”
My eyes had never left the coffee maker. “Can I make some coffee?”
“Sure,” he said. “Whatever you like.”
He left, and I practically ran to the counter. The coffee was pre-ground and looked as though it might very well have been here since the Cold War as well. As long as it was caffeinated, I didn’t care. I’d taken a red-eye flight from California, and even with part of the day to recover, I still felt sleepy and bleary-eyed. I set the coffee maker going and then paced the room. The magazines were in haphazard piles, so I straightened them into neat stacks. I couldn’t stand disorder.
I sat on the couch and waited for the coffee, wondering yet again what this meeting could be about. I’d spent a good part of my afternoon here in Virginia reporting to a couple of Alchemist officials about the status of my current assignment. I was living in Palm Springs, pretending to be a senior at a private boarding school in order to keep an eye on Jill Mastrano Dragomir, a vampire princess forced into hiding. Keeping her alive meant keeping her people out of civil war – something that would definitely tip humans off to the supernatural world that lurked beneath the surface of modern life. It was a vital mission for the Alchemists, so I wasn’t entirely surprised they’d want an update. What surprised me was that they couldn’t have just done it over the phone. I couldn’t figure out what other reason would bring me to this facility.
The coffee maker finished. I’d only set it to make three cups, which would probably be enough to get me through the evening. I’d just filled my Styrofoam cup when the door opened.
A man entered, and I nearly dropped the coffee.
“Mr. Darnell,” I said, setting the pot back on the burner. My hands trembled. “It – it’s nice to see you again, sir.”
“You too, Sydney,” he said, forcing a stiff smile. “You’ve certainly grown up.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said, unsure if that was a compliment.
Tom Darnell was my father’s age and had brown hair laced with silver. There were more lines in his face since the last time I’d seen him, and his blue eyes had an uneasy look that I didn’t usually associate with him. Tom Darnell was a high-ranking official among the Alchemists and had earned his position through decisive action and a fierce work ethic. He’d always seemed larger than life when I was younger, fiercely confident and aweinspiring. Now, he seemed to be afraid of me, which made no sense. Wasn’t he angry? After all, I was the one responsible for his son being arrested and locked away by the Alchemists.
“I appreciate you coming all the way out here,” he added, once a few moments of awkward silence had passed. “I know it’s a long round-trip, especially on a weekend.”
“It’s no problem at all, sir,” I said, hoping I sounded confident. “I’m happy to help with…
whatever you need.” I still wondered what exactly that could be.
He studied me for a few seconds and gave a curt nod. “You’re very dedicated,” he said.
“Just like your father.”
I made no response. I knew that comment had been intended as a compliment, but I didn’t really take it that way.
Tom cleared his throat. “Well, then. Let’s get this out of the way. I really don’t want to inconvenience you any more than is necessary.”
Again, I got that nervous, deferential vibe. Why would he be so conscientious of my feelings?
After what I’d done to his son, Keith, I would’ve expected rage or accusations. Tom opened the door for me and gestured me through.
“Can I bring my coffee, sir?”
He took me back into the concrete corridor, toward more of the closed doors. I clutched my coffee like a security blanket, far more frightened than I’d been when first entering this place. Tom came to a stop a few doors down, in front of one with a red light, but hesitated before opening it.
“I want you to know… that what you did was incredibly brave,” he said, not meeting my eyes. “I know you and Keith were – are – friends, and it couldn’t have been easy to turn him in. It shows just how committed you are to our work – something that’s not always easy when personal feelings are involved.”
Keith and I weren’t friends now or then, but I supposed I could understand Tom’s mistake.
Keith had lived with my family for a summer, and later, he and I had worked together in Palm Springs. Turning him in for his crimes hadn’t been difficult for me at all. I’d actually enjoyed it.
Seeing the stricken look on Tom’s face, though, I knew I couldn’t say anything like that.
I swallowed. “Well. Our work is important, sir.”
He gave me a sad smile. “Yes. It certainly is.”
The door had a security keypad. Tom punched in a series of about ten digits, and the lock clicked in acceptance. He pushed the door open, and I followed him inside. The stark room was dimly lit and had three other people in it, so I didn’t initially notice what else the room contained.
I knew immediately that the others were Alchemists. There was no other reason they’d be in this place otherwise. And, of course, they possessed the telltale signs that would have identified them to me even on a busy street. Business attire in nondescript colors. Golden lily tattoos shining on their left cheeks. It was part of the uniformity we all shared. We were a secret army, lurking in the shadows of our fellow humans.
The three of them were all holding clipboards and staring at one of the walls. That was when I noticed what this room’s purpose was. A window in the wall looked through to another room, one much more brightly lit than this one.
And Keith Darnell was in that room.
He darted up to the glass separating us and began beating on it. My heart raced, and I took a few frightened steps back, certain he was coming after me. It took me a moment to realize he couldn’t actually see me. I relaxed slightly. Very slightly. The window was a oneway mirror. He pressed his hands to the glass, glancing frantically back and forth at the faces he knew were there but couldn’t see.
“Please, please,” he cried. “Let me out. Please let me out of here.” Keith looked a little scragglier than the last time I’d seen him. His hair was unkempt and appeared as though it hadn’t been cut in our month apart. He wore a plain gray jumpsuit, the kind you saw on prisoners or mental patients, that reminded me of the concrete in the hall.
Most noticeable of all was the desperate, terrified look in his eyes – or rather, eye. Keith had lost one of his eyes in a vampire attack that I had secretly helped orchestrate. None of the Alchemists knew about it, just as none of them knew about how Keith had raped my older sister Carly. I doubted Tom Darnell would’ve praised me for my “dedication” if he’d known about my sideline revenge act. Seeing the state Keith was in now, I felt a little bad for him – and especially bad for Tom, whose face was filled with raw pain. I still didn’t feel bad about what I’d done to Keith, however. Not the arrest or the eye. Put simply, Keith Darnell was a bad person.
“I’m sure you recognize Keith,” said one of the Alchemists with a clipboard. Her gray hair was wound into a tight, neat bun.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said.
I was saved from any other response when Keith beat at the glass with renewed fury.
“Please! I’m serious! Whatever you want. I’ll do anything. I’ll say anything. I’ll believe anything.
Just please don’t send me back there!”
Both Tom and I flinched, but the other Alchemists watched with clinical detachment and scrawled a few notes on their clipboards. The bun woman glanced back up at me as though there’d been no interruption. “Young Mr. Darnell has been spending some time in one of our Re-education Centers. An unfortunate action – but a necessary one. His trafficking in illicit goods was certainly bad, but his collaboration with vampires is unforgiveable. Although he claims to have no attachment to them… well, we really can’t be certain. Even if he is telling the truth, there’s also the possibility that this transgression might expand into something more – not just a collaboration with the Moroi, but also the Strigoi. Doing what we’ve done keeps him from that slippery slope.”
“It’s really for his own good,” said the third clipboard-wielding Alchemist. “We’re doing him a favor.”
A sense of horror swept over me. The whole point of the Alchemists was to keep the existence of vampires secret from humans. We believed vampires were unnatural creatures who should have nothing to do with humans like us. What was a particular concern were the Strigoi – evil, killer vampires – who could lure humans into servitude with promises of immortality.
Even the peaceful Moroi and their half human counterparts, the dhampirs, were regarded with suspicion. We worked with those latter two groups a lot, and even though we’d been taught to regard them with disdain, it was an inevitable fact that some Alchemists not only grew close to Moroi and dhampirs… but actually started to like them.
The crazy thing was – despite his crime of selling vampire blood – Keith was one of the last people I’d think of when it came to getting too friendly with vampires. He’d made his dislike of them perfectly obvious to me a number of times. Really, if anyone deserved to be accused of attachment to vampires…
… well, it would be me.
One of the other Alchemists, a man with mirrored sunglasses hanging artfully off his collar, took up the lecture. “You, Miss Sage, have been a remarkable example of someone able to work extensively with them and keep your objectivity. Your dedication has not gone unnoticed by those above us.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said uneasily, wondering how many times I’d hear “dedication” brought up tonight. This was a far cry from a few months ago, when I’d gotten in trouble for helping a dhampir fugitive escape. She’d later been proven innocent, and my involvement had been written off as “career ambition.”
“And,” continued Sunglasses, “considering your experience with Mr. Darnell, we thought you would be an excellent person to give us a statement.” I turned my attention back at Keith. He’d been pounding and shouting pretty much nonstop this whole time. The others had managed to ignore him, so I tried as well.
“A statement on what, sir?”
“We’re considering whether or not to return him to Re-education,” explained Gray Bun.
“He’s made excellent progress there, but some feel it’s best to be safe and make sure any chance of vampire attachment is eradicated.”
If Keith’s current behavior was “excellent progress,” I couldn’t imagine what poor progress looked like.
Sunglasses readied his pen over his clipboard. “Based on what you witnessed in Palm Springs, Miss Sage, what is your opinion of Mr. Darnell’s state of mind when it comes to vampires?
Was the bonding you witnessed severe enough to warrant further precautionary measures?” Presumably, “further precautionary measures” meant more Re-education.
While Keith continued to bang away, all eyes in my room were on me. The clipboard Alchemists looked thoughtful and curious. Tom Darnell was visibly sweating, watching me with fear and anticipation. I supposed it was understandable. I held his son’s fate in my hands.
Conflicting emotions warred within me as I regarded Keith. I didn’t just dislike him – I hated him. And I didn’t hate many people. I couldn’t forget what he’d done to Carly. Likewise, the memories of what he’d done to others and me in Palm Springs were still fresh in my mind.
He’d slandered me and made my life miserable in an effort to cover up his blood scam. He’d also horribly treated the vampires and dhampirs we were in charge of looking after. It made me question who the real monsters were.
I didn’t know exactly what happened at Re-education Centers. Judging from Keith’s reaction, it was probably pretty bad. There was a part of me that would have loved to tell the Alchemists to send him back there for years and never let him see the light of day. His crimes deserved severe punishment – and yet, I wasn’t sure they deserved this particular punishment.
“I think… I think Keith Darnell is corrupt,” I said at last. “He’s selfish and immoral. He has no concern for others and hurts people to further his own ends. He’s willing to lie, cheat, and steal to get what he wants.” I hesitated before continuing. “But… I don’t think he’s been blinded to what vampires are. I don’t think he’s too close to them or in danger of falling in with them in the future. That being said, I also don’t think he should be allowed to do Alchemist work for the foreseeable future. Whether that would mean locking him up or just putting him on probation is up to you. His past actions show he doesn’t take our missions seriously, but that’s because of selfishness. Not because of an unnatural attachment to them. He… well, to be blunt, is just a bad person.”
Silence met me, save for the frantic scrawling of pens as the clipboard Alchemists made their notes. I dared a glance at Tom, afraid of what I’d see after completely trashing his son.
To my astonishment, Tom looked… relieved. And grateful. In fact, he seemed on the verge of tears. Catching my eye, he mouthed, Thank you. Amazing. I had just proclaimed Keith to be a horrible human being in every way possible. But none of that mattered to his father, so long as I didn’t accuse Keith of being in league with vampires. I could’ve called Keith a murderer, and Tom would have probably still been grateful if it meant Keith wasn’t chummy with the enemy.
It bothered me and again made me wonder who the real monsters were in all of this. The group I’d left back in Palm Springs was a hundred times more moral than Keith.
“Thank you, Miss Sage,” said Gray Bun, finishing up her notes. “You’ve been extremely helpful, and we’ll take this into consideration as we make our decision. You may go now. If you step into the hall, you’ll find Zeke waiting to take you out.” It was an abrupt dismissal, but that was typical of Alchemists. Efficient. To the point. I gave a polite nod of farewell and one last glance at Keith before opening the door. As soon as it shut behind me, I found the hallway mercifully silent. I could no longer hear Keith.
Zeke, as it turned out, was the Alchemist who had originally led me in. “All set?” he asked.
“So it seems,” I said, still a bit stunned over what had just taken place. I knew now that my earlier debriefing on the Palm Springs situation had simply been a convenience for the Alchemists.
I’d been in the area, so why not have an in-person meeting? It hadn’t been essential.
This – seeing Keith – had been the real purpose of my cross-country trip.
As we walked back down the hallway, something caught my attention that I hadn’t noticed before. One of the doors had a fair amount of security on it – more so than the room I’d just been in. Along with the lights and keypad, there was also a card reader. At the top of the door was a deadbolt that locked from outside. Nothing fancy, but it was clearly meant to keep whatever was behind the door inside.
I stopped in spite of myself and studied the door for a few moments. Then, I kept walking, knowing better than to say anything. Good Alchemists didn’t ask questions.
Zeke, seeing my gaze, came to a halt. He glanced at me, then the door, and then back at me. “Do you want… do you want to see what’s in there?” His eyes darted quickly to the door we’d emerged from. He was low-ranking, I knew, and clearly feared getting in trouble with the others. At the same time, there was an eagerness that suggested he was excited about the secrets he kept, secrets he couldn’t share with others. I was a safe outlet.
“I guess it depends on what’s in there,” I said.
“It’s the reason for what we do,” he said mysteriously. “Take a look, and you’ll understand why our goals are so important.”
Deciding to risk it, he flashed a card over the reader and then punched in another long code. A light on the door turned green, and he slid open the deadbolt. I’d half-expected another dim room, but the light was so bright inside, it almost hurt my eyes. I put a hand up to my forehead to shield myself.
“It’s a type of light therapy,” Zeke explained apologetically. “You know how people in cloudy regions have sun lamps? Same kind of rays. The hope is that it’ll make people like him a little more human again – or at least discourage them from thinking they’re Strigoi.” At first, I was too dazzled to figure out what he meant. Then, across the empty room, I saw a jail cell. Large metal bars covered the entrance, which was locked with another card reader and keypad. It seemed like overkill when I caught sight of the man inside. He was older than me, mid-twenties if I had to guess, and had a disheveled appearance that made Keith look neat and tidy. The man was gaunt and curled up in a corner, arms draped over his eyes against the light. He wore handcuffs and feet cuffs and clearly wasn’t going anywhere. At our entrance, he dared a peek at us and then uncovered more of his face.
A chill ran through me. The man was human, but his expression was as cold and evil as any Strigoi I’d ever seen. His gray eyes were predatory. Emotionless, like the kinds of murderers who had no sense of empathy for other people.
“Have you brought me dinner?” he asked in a raspy voice that had to be faked. “A nice young girl, I see. Skinnier than I’d like, but I’m sure her blood is still succulent.”
“Liam,” said Zeke with a weary patience. “You know where your dinner is.” He pointed to an untouched tray of food in the cell that looked like it had gone cold long ago. Chicken nuggets, green beans, and a sugar cookie. “He almost never eats anything,” Zeke explained to me. “It’s why he’s so thin. Keeps insisting on blood.”
“What… what is he?” I asked, unable to take my eyes off of Liam. It was a silly question, of course. Liam was clearly human, and yet… there was something about him that wasn’t right.
“A corrupt soul who wants to be Strigoi,” said Zeke. “Some guardians found him serving those monsters and delivered him to us. We’ve tried to rehabilitate him but with no luck. He keeps going on and on about how great the Strigoi are and how he’ll get back to them one day and make us pay. In the meantime, he does his best to pretend he’s one of them.”
“Oh,” said Liam, with a sly smile, “I will be one of them. They will reward my loyalty and suffering. They will awaken me, and I will become powerful beyond your miniscule mortal dreams. I will live forever and come for you – all of you. I will feast on your blood and savor every drop. You Alchemists pull your strings and think you control everything. You delude yourselves. You control nothing. You are nothing.”
“See?” said Zeke, shaking his head. “Pathetic. And yet, this is what could happen if we didn’t do the job we did. Other humans could become like him – selling their souls for the hollow promise of immortality.” He made the Alchemist sign against evil, a small cross on his shoulder, and I found myself echoing it. “I don’t like being in here, but sometimes… sometimes it’s a good reminder of why we have to keep the Moroi and the others in the shadows.
Of why we can’t let ourselves be taken in by them.”
I knew in the back of my mind that there was a huge difference in the way Moroi and Strigoi interacted with humans. Still, I couldn’t formulate any arguments while in front of Liam.
He had me too dumbstruck – and afraid. It was easy to believe every word the Alchemists said. This was what we were fighting against. This was the nightmare we couldn’t allow to happen.
I didn’t know what to say, but Zeke didn’t seem to expect much.
“Come on. Let’s go.” To Liam, he added, “And you’d better eat that food because you aren’t getting any more until morning. I don’t care how cold and hard it is.” Liam’s eyes narrowed. “What do I care about human food when soon I’ll be drinking the nectar of the gods? Your blood will be warm on my lips, yours and your pretty girl’s.” He began to laugh then, a sound far more disturbing than any of Keith’s screams.
That laughter continued as Zeke led me out of the room. The door shut behind us, and I found myself standing in the hall, numbed. Zeke regarded me with concern.
“I’m sorry… I probably shouldn’t have shown you that.” I shook my head slowly. “No… you were right. It’s good for us to see. To understand what we’re doing. I always knew… but I didn’t expect anything like that.” I tried to shift my thoughts back to everyday things and wipe that horror from my mind. I looked down at my coffee. It was untouched and had grown lukewarm. I grimaced.
“Can I get more coffee before we go?” I needed something normal. Something human.
Zeke led me back to the lounge. The pot I’d made was still hot. I dumped out my old coffee and poured some new. As I did, the door burst open, and a distraught Tom Darnell came in. He seemed surprised to see anyone here and pushed past us, sitting on the couch and burying his face in his hands. Zeke and I exchanged uncertain looks.
“Mr. Darnell,” I began. “Are you okay?”
He didn’t answer me right away. He kept his face covered, his body shaking with silent sobs. I was about to leave when he looked up at me, though I got the feeling he wasn’t actually seeing me. “They decided,” he said. “They decided about Keith.”
“Already?” I asked, startled. Zeke and I had only spent about five minutes with Liam.
Tom nodded morosely. “They’re sending him back… back to Re-education.” I couldn’t believe it. “But I… but I told them! I told them he’s not in league with vampires.
He believes what… the rest of us believe. It was his choices that were bad.”
“I know. But they said we can’t take the risk. Even if Keith seems like he doesn’t care about them – even if believes he doesn’t – the fact remains he still set up a deal with one.
They’re worried that willingness to go into that kind of partnership might subconsciously influence him. Best to take care of things now. They’re… they’re probably right. This is for the best.”
That image of Keith pounding on the glass and begging not to go back flashed through my mind. “I’m sorry, Mr. Darnell.”
Tom’s distraught gaze focused on me a little bit more. “Don’t apologize, Sydney. You’ve done so much… so much for Keith. Because of what you told them, they’re going to reduce his time in Re-education. That means so much to me. Thank you.” My stomach twisted. Because of me, Keith had lost an eye. Because of me, Keith had gone to Re-education in the first place. Again, the sentiment came to me: he deserved to suffer in some way, but he didn’t deserve this.
“They were right about you,” Tom added. He was trying to smile but failing. “What a stellar example you are. So dedicated. Your father must be so proud. I don’t know how you live with those creatures every day and still keep your head about you. Other Alchemists could learn a lot from you. You understand what responsibility and duty are.” Since I’d flown out of Palm Springs yesterday, I’d actually been thinking a lot about the group I’d left behind – when the Alchemists weren’t distracting me with prisoners, of course.
Jill, Adrian, Eddie, and even Angeline… frustrating at times, but in the end, they were people I’d grown to know and care about. Despite all the running around they made me do, I’d missed that motley group almost the instant I left California. Something inside me seemed empty when they weren’t around.
Now, feeling that way confused me. Was I blurring the lines between friendship and duty?
If Keith had gotten in trouble for one small association with a vampire, how much worse was I? And how close were any of us to becoming like Liam?
Zeke’s words rang inside my head: We can’t let ourselves be taken in by them.
And what Tom had just said: You understand what responsibility and duty are.
He was watching me expectantly, and I managed a smile as I pushed down all my fears.
“Thank you, sir,” I said. “I do what I can.”
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