As far out as the eye could see, the once lush Enchanted Forest had been scaled down to creaky branches and such a sad state of undress that, when I walked in the forest at dawn, even I felt kind of naked. Which is why I chose to spend time at the lab this morning instead.
I watched its red rooftop rise on the head of straight, cream bricks over the hilltop as I trudged downward, smiling coyly to myself at its grandeur. In issuing this building as the lab--a twenty-minute walk through a grassy meadow from the manor--I knew, and everyone else knew, it’d been David’s intention to put Jason out of sight. But Jase and his unlimited budget had outdone themselves. No one would ever have known it was once a stable. The horse crap and mouldy hay had been swept aside for an entirely new interior, complete with a sterile room, a morgue for all the bodies he tested on, or rather, failed on, and even observation rooms. I wasn’t sure exactly what kinds of experiments he planned to perform and why those observation rooms needed soundproof glass and steel doors but, at his core, he was a vampire and I was used to a certain level of sadism and poor medical ethics from his kind. I knew not to ask, because I knew I wouldn't like the answer. Still, the morgue had me concerned.
“Ara?” Jase called, catching up at a run.
I stopped and waited for him, squinting as the breeze parted my hair at the back and wrapped it around my face like a pair of stringy hands. “Hey, Jase.”
“Hey.” He stopped beside me. “You here to see those results from last week’s test?”
“Mm-hm.” I nodded. “You got them back from the Manhattan lab yet?”
He nodded, his lips split wide with excitement. “And you won’t believe it, Ara. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. I’ve gone as far as to seal your records—classified them Top Secret.”
“Come on.” He grabbed my hand and dragged me along. “I’ll show you.”
We passed through a narrow hall between the two observation rooms and entered the wide, open space of the greater lab. A giant steel wall cordoned off the morgue at the back where, through the open door, I could just make out foot ends of seven or so gurneys lined up ready for bodies, and the control panel for a giant freezer that I knew already housed a few dead humans. The only light in this windowless space was the glow from a wall of computers, blinking and flashing with information to my right, and the flicker of flames under test tubes being heated on a giant table in the centre of the room. The whole lab had that real mad-scientist feel to it, infused with million-dollar modern technology and sleek, clean surfaces. I thought of it as “Frankenstein meets modern science”. It was the dream lab of anyone in Jason’s field, he’d told me. But even as he’d said that, I’d noticed something oddly regretful under his smile.
He led me to the big wall of computers and pulled out a chair, offering me a seat, then leaned over the keyboard and focused hard on the smaller screen right in front of him, his face glowing blue.
“Shouldn’t we turn on the lights?”
“Nope,” he said, typing away. “That experiment in the corner needs a dim room.”
“Should I ask why?”
He turned his head and grinned at me. “Only if you want a lengthy explanation.”
I laughed. “Right. I’ll take silent wondering, thanks.”
He loaded up my test results and sat on the chair beside me, sliding back a little too far, then pulling himself closer again with a steady hand under the desk. “Go ahead. Check it out.”
I leaned in and peered at the graphs and numbers on the screen. “What am I looking at?”
“You results, Ara.” He pulled himself closer to the keyboard again and started typing. “Your electrical readings are off the chart. They’re some kind of crazy mix of static and … I don’t even know. It’s just a mess. But you, and those tiny little hands of yours, are more powerful than we’ve realised.”
“And you made me heat up water while we were in it?”
He winced. “Had I seen these, I might've thought twice about that.”
I sat back, slapping my brow.
“Anyway, you might not understand these numbers, but look at this—” He typed again at a-hundred-words-per-second, and a video came up on screen. “Remember when I filmed that training session last week—when you shot Falcon?”
“Check this out.” He offered the screen, and I watched the replay, seeing Falcon’s body shake as it absorbed the energy from my hands, lifting off the ground a second later to fly back and hit the wall.
“Okay, so, we should upload this to the Internet. It’s very cool, but I don't get what I’m supposed to be seeing.”
“Look now,” he said with a grin, typing something else.
The video slowed, and I practically put my nose to the screen, squinting like an old lady reading fine-print.
“See this?” He pointed to a very thin blue line of light coming from my hand—wispy and branch-like.
“Now, look here.” His finger moved off to the far left of the screen—to where one of my knights stood watching, laughing—and the same kind of spark was there, emanating off his head.
“What the. . .?” I leaned closer. “How did the spark get there?”
“Simple. He’s a vampire, Ara, not a Lilithian.”
“So … do you know how lighting grounds itself?”
“Um . . . I think I remember something from primary school.”
He laughed and sat back, folding his arms. “Well, there are many different types of lightning: cloud-to-ground, ground-to-cloud, intracloud, heaps, right?”
“But, basically, all lightning is essentially the same thing—just an electrostatic discharge. It’s the conditions that effect the way it discharges, and how we, essentially, see it appear in our atmosphere.”
“So,” he started, using his hands to demonstrate as much as his words. “Imagine a negative build up of energy shoots from the base of a cloud, taking off through space and time in what we call a stepped leader—which is basically like a branch of negative protons rushing toward the earth. You following?”
“Before it gets there, though, objects on the ground sense the electric field and respond with their own positively charged streamers—” He made a separating motion between his hands as if pulling a string of invisible clay up from the ground. “When the stepped leader meets those streamers or, in layman’s, the negative and the positive meet, this violent charge of electricity can then drain toward the earth, right, creating a massive flash of light that we call lightning.”
“But, it began as a negative charge looking for a place to ground itself,” he said with hinting eyes.
“So … I’m the negative charge?”
“Right,” he continued. “When you use your power this way—” He tapped the screen. “That’s exactly what you are. And it really got my brain ticking,” he said, now tapping his head, leaning forward eagerly. “See, I think the reason you can sense vampires and the reason you can make them feel like their hearts beat is because that’s exactly what you’re for.”
“Why doesn’t the streamer rise off a Lilithian—or objects on the ground?”
“Because they’re not compatible?” I asked, the uncertainly moving my shoulders upward.
“Precisely. You’re not designed to shoot them. You’re a whole different kind of negative energy to the vampire’s positive. Like nothing we can measure with today’s technology. But I liken your power a little to Anvil Crawlers at this point. My theory may change.”
“Okay,” I said slowly, wondering where he was going with this. “So, you’re saying I was born to shoot vamps.”
“Something like that.”
“What am I then, some kind of vampire hunter?”
“No. Even better. I think I was right.” He wagged his finger at me, as if some vital piece of the puzzle was about to come together. “I think your light is the key to turning vampires back to humans.”
“That’s . . . that’s the part I haven’t figured out yet. But,” he added with another flick of his finger. “I may have a theory. It’s a long-shot, but I’ll needed venom for it--your venom.”
“Why?” I pressed my thumb to my fang.
“Because I think that, while Lilithians you create personally can kill a vampire, only your venom can really do what I think it can do.”
I rolled my eyes. “You’re not going to tell me until your theory’s complete, are you?”
He shook his head, grinning impishly.
“Okay, so you need me to sign off on a supply of my venom?”
“If you could.”
“Sure. Where’s the paperwork?”
He handed me the rolled-up sheets by the keyboard.
I grabbed a pen from the pencil pot but paused over the dotted line. “Jase?”
“What was with the shipment of human men I saw walking in here the other day?” I looked over at the observation room; the curtains were drawn but the lights were on. “Did you kill them?”
“No.” He pulled up a chair and sat down again. “I … need them.”
“I’m going to turn them all into vampires and try to cure them.”
“What?” I put then pen down. “Then what’s my venom for? To kill them if you fail?”
“No. It’s for the cure.”
“Look, don’t make me explain it now—it’ll ruin the surprise if I’m right. Just—” He took my hand. “Trust me?”
“And what if it doesn’t work?” I motioned to the observation room. “What if you can’t turn them back, or if you kill them in the process?”
“Well, if I can’t turn them back, I will kill them.”
“Jase, you can’t—”
“Relax, Ara, no one will miss them.”
I stood up, shoving the wheelie chair back way too far. “Why, because they’re homeless or something?”
“No, no, Ara, of course not.” He jumped up, too, reassuring me with a steady pair of hands to my arms. “They’re criminals—convicted and sentenced criminals.”
“So, what, you just plucked them from the prison?”
“No.” He looked over his shoulder. “I snatched them after they’d done their time.”
“Jase, that’s not fair. They—”
“They’re convicted child sex offenders, Ara,” he said dully, and I shut up. “I figure I’m doing the world a favour.”
“Oh … okay.” My lips sat slightly apart, my head moving in a nod. “Well, in that case, go ahead and kill them. But. . .”
“What if we succeed? What if we actually turn them human again? You won’t just put them back out there in society, will you?”
“No. I’ll snap their necks,” he said with a casual shrug. “Or, better yet, feed them to the Damned.”
“Now that is poetic justice.” I grinned and grabbed the pen to sign that venom order. “There is just one thing, though.”
I put the pen down again turned to face Jason, propping my hands on my hips. “How do you turn them into vampires?”
“How?” he repeated as if he wasn’t sure about my question.
“Don’t play dumb with me, Jason Gabriel Knight. I want the secret, now, or I’m not signing this.”
He looked at the paper, then at me, and his eyes narrowed.
“I’ve got you by the proverbial balls now, Jase. You have to tell me.” I laughed.
“Fine.” He scratched his eye, clearly stalling. “The human has to have a mix of blood and vampire venom in their system in order to turn. It’s not enough just to bite them, they have to drink it as well.”
I swallowed, thinking back to the night of the masquerade, when Jason’s lips touched mine and he spat copious amounts of what I thought was saliva and my own blood into my mouth while I was dying, the confusion I felt—the thoughts I went over repeatedly after that night—all surfacing for a moment.
“Please don’t do that.” He put his hands on the sides of my head gently, stopping the memory. “I can’t stand to see those memories, Ar.”
“Sorry. It’s just…”
“Yes, that’s what I did to you,” he said. “I made it look like a kiss so David wouldn’t know I tried to turn you.”
“Wow.” I stared at nothing for a second, reliving it. “You know, you tried to turn me to save me, right?”
He nodded. I was looking down at the page now, so I didn’t see it, but I knew he nodded.
“But, I couldn't be turned because I was Lilithian?” I added.
“Well, technically, by spitting your own blood into my mouth, you gave me a real fighting chance to survive,” I said, and felt the energy in the room change. “If a Lilithian gets hurt, what’s the first thing you give them?”
“Vampire blood,” he said, and I heard the smile in his tone.
“See?” I turned my head with a flick and grinned at him. “You saved my life that night, Jase.”
“I also nearly took it.”
“Details.” I waved a hand and signed the dotted line.
Jase laughed, scooping the document up. “Thanks, Ara.”
“Hey, before you go.” He grabbed my wrist and pulled me back toward him. “I wanna say hello to my baby.”
“Your baby?” I said, looking down as he knelt and lifted my top.
“Yes.” He kissed my belly so softly I barely felt his lips. “I told you, I’m claiming her.”
“And what if David suddenly decides to come back and play daddy again?”
“He can be Dad Number Two. I—” He stopped talking and looked up quickly with a sparkling grin. “Did you feel that?”
“What?” And then I felt it: it was a sharp, quick tap from inside me—like a bubble had popped right next to my skin. “It kicked.”
“Hello, baby,” he said, his hot breath wetting my skin. “Hi.”
“She kicked,” I said to myself. “I can’t believe it.”
“You haven't felt one yet?”
I shook my head.
“So. . .” His hands froze right above my belly. “No one else has then?”
I shook my head again.
“Oh.” He stood up, drawing my top back down. “Might not wanna mention that to David.”
“No,” I said, running my hands down the bump. “Could be cause for another sore spot when it comes to you.”
Jase laughed softly. “Well, on the bright side, I think our baby approves of me.”
“Scientists,” I scoffed playfully, turning away. “Interpreting situations to fit their own theories since time began.”
The last time I saw David was as he disappeared behind his closing bedroom door. We never talked again after that last argument, and frankly, I didn’t much want to. Over the last three weeks, everything he said or did to hurt me had boiled up like a storm cloud inside me and, now, the only thing I felt for him was a kind of stormy rage. I didn’t want him to come home next week. I didn’t want him in my life anymore, and while that didn’t mean I was ready to move on with Jason, I was sure as hell not wanting David back.
The thing about time for reflection is that it gives you perspective. I cried my eyes out the day David left for Paris, but after a few days, I realised that the only thing that’d changed with him being gone was that I didn’t feel so scared, like I was gonna run into him and he’d say something to hurt me again. I was glad he was gone. I could handle his absence better than seeing the hatred in his eyes every time he looked at me.
I checked my phone to see if Vicki or Dad had responded to my messages, and when an empty inbox came up, I dumped the phone in my pocket and wandered into the Great Hall. Everyone stood as I took my seat, going back to their private chatter once my butt was on the chair.
“Hey,” Jase said.
“Hey.” I smiled at the vampire sitting in Morgaine’s unoccupied chair.
“You okay?” he asked.
“It’s not like you to be late for dinner.” He nodded once at my fork, hinting at the many times it’d been to my mouth and back to the plate in the last ten-seconds.
“Oh. Um.” I shovelled some more food in, not self-conscious of my ravenous behaviour at all. “I was leaving another message for Dad.”
“He still hasn’t called?”
I shook my head. “Today marks three weeks.”
Jason’s eyes narrowed and he sat back, taking his blood goblet with him.
“I’m sure they’re just busy, Ara,” Mike assured me. “I can take a trip down there and drop in on them if you want. I need to make an appearance at your old house anyway—it’s been two weeks since I was last there.”
“If you could, that’d be great, Mike,” I said. “Maybe get a few pictures for me, too. I haven’t seen them in so long now I’m starting to forget what they all look like.”
“Well, last time I was in the neighbourhood, I ran into Sam, and all I can say is,” he said with a breathy laugh, “he’s bloody-well as big as me now.”
“Yeah. Remind me never to pick a fight with him.”
I laughed, sitting back then. And my calmer, now more relaxed gaze went across the room and onto the last seat at the table—the empty one.
Walt and Arthur spoke to each other across the plates and candles, muttering something about a new plant Arthur had created, and all the other vampires and Lilithians carried on about unimportant things—movies or books they’d read—but not once, not at any point as my wandering thoughts moved from conversation to conversation, did I miss David. Until I realised I didn’t miss him. And that made my heart sink a little.
How had it gotten to that? How had I let his anger hurt me so deeply that I never wanted to see him again?
“Clean slate?” Jase said, placing his hand on mine.
He motioned to David’s chair. “Maybe you should offer him a clean slate.”
“Because I hate seeing you hate yourself for hating him.”
I smiled a little, looking away from Jase. “He won’t want a clean slate. He won’t even want to talk to me.”
“I know.” He nodded. “And he’ll outwardly deny any need for forgiveness from you, Ara, but everyone says things they don’t mean when they’re hurt—my brother is definitely no exception.”
“For once,” Mike said, saluting with his glass, “The vampire has something of value to say.”
Jase laughed to himself, choosing to take that as a compliment.
“I know he’s right,” I said to Mike. “It’s just …i t’s not so much what David said to me that makes me want to stay away from him, but more … that he meant it.”
“Yeah.” Jase winced, scratching his temple. “Guess that kinda does sting, doesn’t it?”
“What’d he say to you, Ara?” Mike asked, looking from Jason to me.
“It doesn't matter.” I sat back. “I’m sure, in time, we’ll start talking civilly with each other.”
“Well, you’ve only got eternity to sort your issues out,” Jason said.
“Yeah. I guess.” I looked into my lap, wishing I could tell them about my eighteen-year deal with Drake.