Smoke, Vampires, and Mirrors – Dima Zales, Anna Zaires

“NERO,” I whisper loudly. Wriggling out of his embrace, I shake him. “Wake up.” His eyes snap open, then narrow in on my face as he jackknifes to a sitting position. He must’ve noticed my panic. “Did you have another nightmare?” he demands. I blink, momentarily distracted. “Another nightmare? When did I have the first one?” “You don’t recall?” Lifting his hand, he rubs the back of my head as if I were a cat. “You were making whimpering noises and soft cries in the middle of the night. Woke me up twice.” Seriously, nightmares? How come I don’t recall any? Could I have dreamed about the upcoming apocalypse before I had my awake vision? But no. Dream-based visions went away when I gained conscious control. They must be run-of-the-mill nightmares—and they probably pale in comparison to grim reality. Nero lowers his hand. “So what’s wrong, then?” I take in a breath, fighting the urge to put his hand back where it was.

“I just had two nightmarish visions.” “Visions?” He frowns. “What visions?” I draw in another breath and rattle out that Tartarus—the extremely powerful Cognizant who can feed on whole worlds—is coming to Earth for an all-he-can-eat buffet. “I saw both of my parents as dried husks,” I say, my chin trembling. “Everyone you and I have ever known will die.” Nero stares at me, then reaches out and pulls me against his powerful chest, his arms wrapping around me securely. Though soothing, his touch doesn’t calm me—especially when I realize that he’s not actually saying anything in reply to my story. I was hoping for a “let’s run to Earth and save everyone this very moment” kind of response. Stroking my back, he kisses my temple. “You sure this wasn’t a nightmare?” he murmurs, continuing to pet me as if I were a chinchilla.

I jerk away. “Of course I’m sure.” He studies me, then nods. “Okay. Given the circumstances, I had to ask.” “I was wide awake and stone-cold sober,” I grit out. “And it was two visions in a row. I’m sure this Armageddon is the real deal.” Jumping to my feet, I grab my clothes and furiously pull them on, then stuff the gate sword into the back of my pants. “Fair enough.

” Nero stands up, unconcerned with his nudity. Not that he has any clothes—he flew here in his dragon form. Stepping toward me, he says, “I want you to tell me exactly what happened after I left Earth. Specifically, how you ended up becoming a vampire. You mentioned it briefly at the castle, but I want—” “What?” My nostrils flare. “I tell you Earth is about to get destroyed, and you want me to tell you a campfire story?” His jaw tightens. “I need to consider every variable.” “And I need to know what our plan of action is,” I say sharply. “So let me get this straight.” Nero leans in.

“You don’t find it suspicious that Tartarus shows up so soon after Lilith and Nostradamus—two people who are obsessed with him?” I stare at him. “I didn’t get a chance to think about that.” Nero raises his eyebrows, waiting coolly, and I give in with a sigh. I tell him everything, starting with how the chorts attacked Felix and how they would’ve killed Mom and Dad if I hadn’t turned myself in. When I get to the part where they tortured me, Nero’s face looks so frightening I get the feeling the chorts are lucky they’re already dead. I then tell him about Nostradamus’s memories and his quest to avenge his family—who were killed by Tartarus—and how he prophesied to Lilith that Tartarus will be her doom. “Then Felix used his power to get me Lilith’s phone conversations, and I found out about the setup,” I say toward the end. “She was the one who sicced the chorts on me, and I’m a vampire as a result of that. Can we act now? We need to—” “Think before we ‘act,’” Nero says. Switching to Russian, he adds, “Measure seven times, cut once.

” “Assuming there’s anything to cut after all the measuring,” I grumble, recognizing the proverb from one of the textbooks I recently studied. “You want to be proactive? How about you ask your seer powers what needs to be done.” “How about I what?” I gape at him. “When I consult seers, I tell them my goal, and they look at the future to find a course of action that can bring about the goal in question.” “Oh.” I bite my lip. “I’ve never tried something so direct.” “Do so now,” Nero orders, his gaze falling to my lips. “Fine.” I close my eyes and do my best to calm down enough to jump into Headspace.

It takes me a few seconds to reach the necessary state of focus, but as soon as I do, I find myself floating, surrounded by vision shapes. Shapes that don’t seem to be interesting, as the tune they emit is reminiscent of elevator Muzak. There’s no way these bland visions have anything to do with Tartarus. If I had to guess, they probably foretell Fluffster talking about our yearly paper towel budget, or Felix prattling on about why he loves his favorite computer algorithm. But if these are not what I need, how do I do what Nero said? How do I “tell” my powers I want to see a vision of something that will prevent Tartarus’s arrival on Earth? Well, since everything else in Headspace often involves the essence of concepts and people, why don’t I try that? Somehow. I float there and do my best to get at the essence of the problem. I channel the grief I felt at seeing my parents’ empty husks. For good measure, I also add in my annoyance at Nero for not instantly jumping into action, and my awe at the enormity of the task at hand. Even though I’m not sure what I’m doing, it seems to work. New shapes show up around me, and they’re as unsettling as the others were boring.

The music they emit makes me wonder if I’m about to see a future where I personally skin every fluffy kitten on Earth in a ritual to make Tartarus go away. Or make soup out of Fluffster and Lucifur. Leave it to fate to turn something good—like preventing apocalypse—into something bad. Metaphorically shivering, I float for a bit, unsure if I dare to touch the shapes in question. Well, there’s no helping it. I must know. Gathering my courage, I reach for the nearest shape and ready myself for the worst. CHAPTER TWO I WAKE up to the sound of familiar voices. “Batman v Superman should still have a higher score on the movie review sites,” Ariel says from somewhere. “Even the last Matrix movie—your own least favorite—has higher ratings.

” “Why do you always have to bring The Matrix into it?” Felix grumbles. “Is it because you’re still jealous that the first Matrix has better scores than any Batman ever?” “I’m not going there again,” Ariel says, and I can almost see her eyeroll. “You must at least agree that Armageddon—a movie that also stars Ben Affleck—shouldn’t have a higher score than Batman v Superman.” The word Armageddon sends a jolt of adrenaline through my system, dispelling the remnants of my grogginess. Sitting up, I rub my eyes. Felix and Ariel are both looking at me with worried expressions on their faces. Speaking in unison, they say, “How are you feeling?” “I’ve had better days,” I say, trying to figure out where we are. The bland room doesn’t have any furniture besides my bed, and there are no windows. It also smells vaguely of medicine—so maybe it’s a nurse’s office or a hospital room? With a loud bang, the gray door behind my friends breaks into shards. Hovering a few inches from the ground is Lilith—my biological mother and, on one of the Otherlands, an evil goddess.

Eyes turned into mirrors, she flies inside. Ariel turns. “Stand there, and don’t move,” Lilith orders in a honey-laced voice. Ariel’s body tenses as the glamour turns her into a mannequin. “You too,” Lilith croons to Felix, who instantly turns into a statue. “Good job,” she says to my friends before her eyes turn back to normal and she faces me. “Sasha, dear, how are you feeling?” “What are you doing here?” I jump off the bed, staring her down. “I’m here to check on you.” Her beatific smile shows off her fangs. “Your well-being is very important to me.

” “Yeah, right. Which is why you called the chorts and told them to ask me about Rasputin. Are you going to pretend you didn’t expect them to kill me?” Her smile disappears without a trace. “I was working with a seer, which means I knew you’d turn. Every mother wants her children to reach their true potential. You should be thanking me for this.” “Uh-huh, sure. Thank you so very much. Getting tortured was a blast.” Frowning, Lilith floats down until her feet touch the gray linoleum floor.

“If you’re going to be an ungrateful brat, I’m going to stop playing nice mommy with you.” I stare at her uncomprehendingly. All the people she brutally killed in front of me, all attempts to get me to finish off the injured chorts—that was the nice version of her? “It’s a lot to take in,” I lie, deciding I don’t want her to turn off the charm. But it’s too late. She narrows her eyes and says, “Since you seem to hate me for no reason, how about I give you one—and make you that much stronger in the process.” She looks at Ariel, then at Felix and says, “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.” A horrible feeling grows in the pit of my stomach as her gaze lands on Felix. “It’s settled then,” she says with a predatory smile. “I want you to kill this one.” I stare at her, dumbfounded, but she just stands there expectantly—like she really thinks there’s a universe where I’d kill my friend just because a psycho asked me to.

“Listen,” I say, putting more acting into it. “I’m not ungrateful, I just—” “Did I not say it clearly enough?” She rubs her chin. “How about this? I command you to rip out his heart.” The word “command” slams into my brain like a truck, and I feel like I’m falling. Except I’m not really falling. It’s my free will and the core of my consciousness that are being banished somewhere deep down. A millisecond after the strange sensation comes over me, I feel as though I’m locked in some secret underground bunker inside my own brain—and my body begins to move with a zombie-like determination. “There you go,” Lilith croons. “I know this can be tricky in the beginning.” From deep in my exile, I want my mouth to scream in horror, but nothing passes my lips.

Desperately, I will my body to halt, but that doesn’t work either. Before I can process what’s happening, my right hand lifts in a marionette-like movement, then plunges into Felix’s chest with a speed and strength I didn’t know I was capable of. Despite being under the influence of glamour, Felix screams in pain—but only for a second. Then he slumps around my hand, unconscious. What am I doing? What is my body doing? How can this be happening? “No. Please stop!” is what I would be shouting if my mouth worked. Oblivious to my will, my body grabs Felix’s no longer-beating heart, rips it out, and tosses it at Lilith’s feet. What remains of Felix collapses into a bleeding heap of meat on the floor. In the depths of my mind, I’m howling in horror and grief—but my body just stands there, calm as a stone. “Very good,” Lilith says.

“Now as your reward, you can drink that one.” She nods at Ariel. This is one of the nightmares Nero mentioned. It has to be. There’s just no way— My body leaps toward Ariel. I struggle to snap out of it, but my fangs enter Ariel’s throat and her blood floods my system with unwelcome, unholy pleasure. “Finish your food,” Lilith commands—and to my horror, my body keeps drinking until Ariel has no more blood to give. “Ready to go?” Lilith grins at me as Ariel’s dead body collapses on the floor next to Felix’s. Turning, she heads to the door, and my treacherous body follows.

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