A Shade of Vampire 30: A Game of Risk (3 page)

Victoria

W
e visited
my parents one last time in the hospital, informing them that I had taken the elixir, and assuring them that nothing terrible had happened to me. I was still myself. And we told them that we had to pass through the portal to the supernatural dimension now.

We embraced and they told me to be careful, even if I was traveling with Mona—and Brock, who had volunteered—before the three of us headed off. We arrived at our usual stopover place for entering the supernatural realm—the little island that led directly to The Trunchlands. We shot through the vacuum, landing on the other side, just beyond the borders of the ogres’ kingdom.

Rising to my feet, I steadied myself and gazed around. This beach had typically been empty when I had come here in the past; the ogres really didn’t seem to come outside their walls much. But now, I caught sight of a group of ogres in the distance, marching in our direction. We ought not stand here more than a few minutes.

I closed my eyes, trying to still my mind and focus on Bastien again. Then on his mother.

Well… we were in the supernatural dimension now, and I was still not feeling any mystical “pull”. I felt blank as ever. I hadn’t the foggiest idea of where Bastien or his mother might be. I was tempted to suggest to Mona again that I take another drop of the elixir she carried in her bag, but I didn’t. It was best not to pressure her.

Even in spite of the unexpected lack of psychic abilities, Mona was strangely still convinced that the elixir had worked in creating a bond. She repeated that perhaps I simply wasn’t strong enough to sense them, but they would be strong enough to sense the connection to me.

And so, as before, I had no choice but to blindly trust in her words.

But now we had the obstacle of figuring out exactly where we ought to look first. We all supposed that The Woodlands would be the logical place to start. Even though his mother had carried Bastien off in the opposite direction, we could stop by The Woodlands first and see if anyone there had a clue. Maybe someone in Blackhall mountain would know something.

We left the ogres’ beach and traveled to the outskirts of The Woodlands. Here, I asked Mona and Brock to make us slow down, so that I could take in our surroundings and figure out the way to Blackhall mountain. Although by now I’d visited The Woodlands a number of times, it was still a challenge to navigate the landscape from a bird’s eye view—with so many trees, much of it looked the same.

I asked them to soar around the outskirts for a little, and as we traveled over the beaches, I caught sight of two figures near the waves. They stuck out for me, because they were the first signs of life I’d spotted by the shoreline.

“Can you dip down there?” I said. “I want to see who they are.”

They swooped down with me. As we came closer, my heart practically stopped. Sitting there was a male and a female. And I recognized the male. His head was a tangle of curly black locks, and his body, his strong physique… It was Bastien. And the girl next to him?

As we moved closer still, I realized that it was Rona. They were sitting next to each other near a pile of boulders, apparently deep in conversation.

“Hey! Bastien!” I called out, as we touched down on the beach. I began to run toward him.

I expected him to turn around immediately, for a relieved smile to light up his face, for his arms to stretch out and welcome me against his chest. But he did nothing of the sort. He whirled around, but on spotting me, alarm filled his eyes. Even a look of…
guilt
?

Then, without a word, he grabbed Rona by the arm and raced across the rocks, and into the ocean.

I was so shocked, my voice was faint as I called out, “Bastien? Wha-What’s going on?”

He dashed into the waves with Rona before he twisted and yelled, “Stay away, Victoria!”

Then he dipped beneath the water, dragging Rona down with him.

My feet felt like heavy weights. It felt like I was sinking slowly into the sand. My hands trembled as I stared at the churning waves where they’d disappeared.

I wanted to run after them, into the water, reach Bastien, grab hold of his shoulders and shake him, demand to know what was going on.

But I remained frozen to my spot, stunned.

What on earth just happened?

Bastien

I
should have guessed
that Victoria would be coming to look for me. On spotting her with a warlock and a witch—two allies from The Shade, no doubt—my immediate reaction was longing. I ached to rush toward her, wrap my arms around her and claim her lips. But I could do no such thing. My mother’s warning still rang loud in my ears. I couldn’t have anything to do with Victoria while the Mortclaws were around. One might be spying on me even now. I still didn’t understand the extent of their strange powers.

I had to go by my gut instinct, which was to run, run far away from her, before she could approach me. Before she could stop me with her witches. And I yelled at her to stay away, even as my chest cramped up. It killed me to address her so harshly. But I was terrified. I felt I had to scare her somehow, and the only way I knew to do that was to be forceful. I could
not
have her approaching me!

Recalling the expression in her eyes cut me to the core, even as I swam wildly with Rona, further and further away from the shore. We stopped only once I felt we had reached a safe distance from the beach, and I prayed with all that I had that Victoria had not followed me into the waves with the witches. As I surfaced, I kept my head low against the sea level, while scanning the sky and the beach in the distance. I could spot her there, however small, still standing and staring out toward the ocean, her two witches behind her.

She had to heed my words and leave The Woodlands. Leave me. And stop looking for me. She had to return to her safe, beautiful island in the human realm and stay there with her family.

I prayed that someday soon I would be able to visit her again and explain why I had done what I had done. But I didn’t know how or when that could ever happen. For now she had to be shaken. She had to back out of my dangerous life.

“What’s going on?” Rona panted, voicing the same question that Victoria had asked of me.

“Let’s keep moving,” I told her, even as I turned my back on the beach and continued to swim.

“Keep moving
where
?” Rona asked, desperation rocking her tone.

She was still overtaken by grief over witnessing the harrowing loss of her father and the other Northstones at the hands of the Mortclaws.
My family
. And I had not even told her about her mother’s death yet.

“I don’t know where we can go,” I said. “Or what we can do.” The reason we had been stalled by the beach was because I had felt unable to leave my homeland while it was under such a threat, while all those in Blackhall mountain were at risk of being targeted next. But what could we do about it? We had sat there among the rocks, Rona sobbing and hardly capable of offering a single useful idea, while I racked my brain for any possible solution.

We swam a little further, and I kept twisting around and scanning the beach for Victoria, to see if she had left yet. She was still standing there, though it appeared that the witch and the warlock were trying to persuade her to move on. Still, she stayed put. Then the warlock reached out and touched her shoulder. They stood facing each other for a minute or so longer before Victoria climbed onto his back and all three of them rose into the air.

My blood pounded in my ears. I immediately assumed they were going to come after me. I submerged myself again, along with Rona. I resurfaced a minute later. They were not upon us. They had vanished from sight, nowhere to be seen in the sky or by the shore. Hopefully, the witches had convinced her to return to The Shade.

“Bastien,” Rona breathed beside me. She clutched my shoulder, tugging at me to face her. Tears were still streaming from her eyes, mixing with the saltwater on her cheeks. “What are we going to do? We can’t just float here in the ocean.”

“No,” I replied, my voice cracked and rough. “We can’t.”

What we needed was to tackle the root of the problem. The Mortclaws. As insurmountable a problem as they seemed, everybody had a weakness. That belief had been instilled in me by my father… my Blackhall father.

I reflected for the next half hour or so, and admitted what I already knew deep down; the idea of escaping was a foolish one. An idea born out of blind desperation, not out of strategic thinking, which was the only way I ought to be conducting myself right now.

In truth, there was no escape. Even if I managed to distance myself from the Mortclaws for a day, two days, even a week or a month—eventually I would be brought slamming back to reality. My mother would find me again, just as she had found me before. And the ocean was treacherous—I had almost died in its depths before. While the waters immediately surrounding The Woodlands were not so bad, the further we swam, the more lethal the waters became. And now, I had more than only myself to think about. Rona had become my responsibility, too.

Every fiber of my being fought against it, but I couldn’t help but conclude that perhaps the only way out of this mess was to ride right back into it.

Ben

A
fter my father
made his demands to Killian, the Hawks obliged. They went about gathering volunteers, only the largest and most powerful among the assembly.

As my father, uncle, Kailyn, Horatio and I waited in the center of the platform while they all went about their preparations to leave, my mind returned to my daughter—though it wasn’t like it had ever actually left her. Thoughts of Grace punctuated every minute of my day. She would be back in The Shade by now. But what state would she be in? How would she be keeping? Would she have gotten any worse since I’d last seen her?

The most frightening aspect of her predicament was having no idea of the timeline of her degeneration. We were at the mercy of the disease that had her in its clutches.

It was all that I could do to pull myself out of such negative thoughts and focus on positive action. Yes, Grace was deteriorating fast, but for all I knew, the witches had made some breakthrough by now with the sample of trees that Ibrahim had taken back with him to the island. And we were going to save more trees now. A whole cargo ship’s worth…
We just need Lawrence to hurry up and figure out what the hell we’re supposed to do with them.
Lawrence
struck me as a smart man. And hopefully, any cunning he had inherited from his father, he could now use to outsmart him. Lawrence clearly held affection for my daughter, which would only spur him to move faster, and that was leaving aside the fact that his mother had died fighting to expose the antidote. That alone should be enough to make him give it his fullest, most intense effort.

My father gripped my shoulder, apparently guessing what was going through my mind. I was sure that he was experiencing the same thoughts. We Novaks were close. There was barely a distinction between daughter and granddaughter, father and grandfather. It felt like we loved one another just as much, no matter how far apart we were in our bloodline.

I found myself turning back the past in my mind—to before Grace had been bitten, to before she had gotten the brave, yet idiotic idea to venture into the IBSI’s headquarters in Hawaii by herself. Her fate hung on that one decision, and yet… I supposed I could not blame her for it. She had been brought up to look fear in the eye, to not cower away from danger, but face it. As much as I couldn’t help but think that all this had been a completely unnecessary danger, deep down, I knew that it was only my selfishness letting me entertain such a thought.

If Grace had not embarked on that mission to uncover Georgina’s secret, we never would have discovered that a cure even existed. If her curious mind had not led her down the path that it had, millions of lives—both Bloodless’ and the affected families’, and those who were to be affected in the future if the pandemic continued to spread—would never even have a chance of hope.

I was sure that Grace didn’t realize it, but she had altered the future of Earth.

That was certainly something to be proud of my daughter for. I was sure that the oracles would be proud of her too… Though, of course, they would’ve seen it coming, wouldn’t they, before they took their lives?

As crazy as Hortencia’s methods of “preparing” me had seemed at the time, she had molded me into a person capable of not only coping with, but changing, this new world… and apparently raising a daughter who would do the same.

As I mulled all this over in my head, I realized to my disturbance that, subconsciously, I was already preparing myself for the eventuality that Lawrence might indeed be too late. That we would be forced to watch Grace turn before our very eyes into one of those abominations. I was assuring myself that whatever suffering she was going through now, and was about to go through, was noble and for a cause far greater than her, myself, or any of us.

But it didn’t make it hurt any less.

I snapped out of my daze as Killian arrived with the rest of the army of Hawks and declared that they were ready to leave.

At least now, I would no longer be standing still. We would be on the move again, and I would be forced to think of other things.

I gazed briefly around the army Killian and Tidor had assembled while my father climbed onto Killian’s back. Killian and Tidor were to accompany us, along with the fifty other soldiers—soldiers who had undeniable fear in their eyes, but also surprising determination. My father’s address had done its job. They had taken the leap, jumped in with both feet, and placed their trust in us.

They took off into the air while Lucas, Kailyn, Horatio and I soared behind them. Traveling back across the sprawling, Jurassic land that was Aviary, Lucas and I dipped down into the trees when we passed over old Aviary City. We searched the IBSI’s temporary box residences and discovered that indeed, the hunters had left by now. As we continued traveling and passed over the large clearing several miles away from the portal, much of the machinery remained. Though that was in theory defunct anyway, thanks to Horatio’s tinkering.

We stopped when we reached the trees above the portal. Up until now, the Hawks along with my father had remained above the jungle in order to avoid the fumes that still hung in the area. But in order to reach the portal, they would have no choice but to brave them. They took in a deep gulp of clean air before holding their breath and zooming down all at once. They went darting into the clearing and piled through the portal in a rush. Kailyn, Lucas, Horatio and I were the last to enter the vacuum, joining them in the race to the other side.

We went rocketing out into the clearing, which was thankfully devoid of IBSI members. We couldn’t afford to start getting into a fracas with them here. There would be time for that later.

Before we took off, Horatio gripped my and my father’s shoulders. We turned to face him, eyebrows raised.

“Uh, I know this is bad timing,” he said tensely, “but I wish to return to my wife. We recently found out she’s pregnant and it feels like I’ve been absent from home for so long… I want to check in on her. You’ll be able to manage with these Hawks?”

Aisha’s pregnant!
“Oh, wow, congratulations!” I said, my heart momentarily lifting for my two old friends.

Then I exchanged glances with my father. Horatio’s absence would certainly reduce our security, but we could hardly refuse.

“Go home, Horatio,” my father said, gripping his shoulder back. “We have three fae with us still. We’ll figure it out.”

“Thank you. Take care of yourselves, and good luck.” With a nod of his head, he disappeared.

Now the rest of us were left with the mission of soaring over the ocean to track down the cargo ship. It was a large ship, and although it must’ve departed quite some time ago, it could not have gotten far. The task of finding the vessel ought to be the least of our worries.

We took to the air again, flying high in the sky. All the while, the Hawks flew above my father, providing him with shade, although evening was setting in. Soon it would be dark.

* * *

T
he Hawks’ vision
was sharp even at night, just like my father’s. They kept their eyes focused far ahead, even as we spread out to cover a few miles so that we could cover more ground and search more efficiently.

We passed a number of large ships, but none of them were nearly large enough… until finally we spotted it. The monstrous black IBSI cargo ship. I could make out the shapes of logs on its sprawling deck, protected and covered by blue tarpaulin. The deck appeared to be otherwise empty, at least from what I could see from this height.

We slowed as we hovered directly over it, maintaining a safe distance.

Now we needed to decide on a strategy. We had to somehow get through this with as few casualties as possible. And we could not afford to damage the trees.

The first logical step was for Lucas, Kailyn and me to descend and scope out the vessel. The three of us thinned ourselves before touching down on the deck. Moving around the piles of logs, we double-checked that nobody was on the upper deck. It appeared to be empty. They had to all be on the lower levels.

We sank to the floor below and emerged in a cabin containing a bed, chair and a desk. Otherwise it was empty.

We continued moving through the ship, coming across some hunters in their rooms, resting or writing letters, and then we heard a crowd of voices coming from the direction of the bow. Following the noise, we arrived in a large oblong recreational room. There were several pool tables, couches and chairs among which hunters were mingling, holding cups of coffee or smoking cigarettes. What truly caught my eye in here, however, was a long table lining one end of the room, piled up with what appeared to be machine guns.

Those would come in handy during the hijack… I eyed the large window behind the pool tables again, a plan forming in my mind.

We retreated from the boardroom and returned to the hallway. “Let’s go back up,” I whispered.

Traveling up through the vessel, we soared into the sky to reunite with the Hawks and my father.

“Well?” my father asked, raising his brow. “What did you discover?”

“There’s a large recreation room at the bow of the ship—first level down. It contains not only a large window, but also a pile of weapons. So what I propose is this….”

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