Author Note: Thank you all for your patience while I was gone. Now that I'm home, I'm looking forward to delving back into writing.
Is it wonderful that I should be immortal?
("Who Learns My Lesson Complete," Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman)
When we came to the compound, the sun was just rising, causing a slight shimmer on our hands and faces. Maria and her sisters were waiting in the shade outside of the buildings, and the three of us rushed inside, knowing how much they hated for us to be in the sunlight.
"I see all three of you made it back," Lucy said with a raised eyebrow.
"Yes, ma'am," I replied.
"Well, would you care to enlighten us on what happened?" Nettie asked, looking upset that one of us hadn't first offered.
Neither of the other two looked as if they were going to speak up, and that was certainly no surprise.
"There were indeed three of them, and you gave us perfect directions on how to find them. They weren't aware of us until we were nearly on top of them, and we were able to dispatch them quickly without any injury to ourselves," I succinctly reported.
Maria, who had also been quiet, raked us up and down with her eyes and seemed slightly relieved that we hadn't been hurt. It was the first time I had ever seen her show some sort of compassion, and I wasn't sure what to make of it.
"How did you manage it?" Lucy asked, pressing for details.
"It happened as you instructed: behead them then quarter them," I replied.
Nettie eyed the two beside me. "Do you not have anything to say about it?" she asked them.
They both looked to me with worried glances. It took me but a second to realize they were worried I was going to tell the sisters that I destroyed the nomads by myself without their help. Without waiting for them to answer her, I said, "I think they're just upset there weren't more of them there to take on. It was easier work than we had expected."
The sisters all looked impressed, if not slightly dubious, but the two male vampires looked wary of my intentions in covering for them.
Couldn't they just be grateful? Cheer up, I thought.
Immediately, they both grinned. "He's right. It was short work," one of them said.
"Good. You obviously enjoyed yourselves," Maria said with an uncharacteristic warmth to her voice. The sisters were also nodding in rare approval.
I was confused about their sudden mood change, but the longer I looked at them, the happier I felt as well. All three sisters began to smile, and I realized there was nothing that mattered as long as the three of them were pleased with us.
"I'm glad to see that some of my children are now battle-ready," Maria stated. "You may spend the morning freely, and we'll reward you all soon enough." On the last line, she looked at me, and though her tongue barely touched her bottom lip, I knew her words implied more for me.
"Our next training exercise will begin this afternoon," Nettie said before they turned to leave us to our own devices.
Except for when one of the older vampires brought me an unconscious man from whom to feed, I spent the rest of my morning sitting outside in the shade of the large brick building. I kept replaying in my mind what had happened with the nomads and how everyone had just frozen in place.
I retraced every second, dissecting each moment from when we left the compound until we returned. Was there something I was missing?
Trying to remember if there were any sounds or moments I had overlooked, I focused again on what had happened when we approached the nomads. I couldn't recollect anything, but it was almost as if everyone else had been spelled. What had I been doing that might have made me immune?
I'd had feelings of fear, but I'd focused on the wisdom of my former commanding officer and had tried to push the fear away from me.
Did that have something to do with it? It couldn't possibly.
As a vampire, I was capable of some pretty amazing feats, but magic seemed a bit outside of that realm. However, I couldn't discredit the fact that it had seemed like I had made them all freeze.
Feeling foolish, I looked to see if there was anyone else around who could see me next to the building. All right, I thought, I can at least test it out.
I looked at a leaf lying on the ground and concentrated on having it move toward me. Nothing happened. I imagined the leaf moving into my hand, but it remained motionless.
That obviously didn't work, but if I had done anything, I'd made something stop not move.
Next to the leaf, there was a tiny ant moving through the dirt. Stop, I mentally commanded him. When he kept going along his path, I concentrated harder. He paused for just a moment before continuing.
This was ridiculous. I didn't have magical powers, and if I did, trying them out on an ant wasn't the best method of testing.
It was past noon, and I decided to go inside to see if our new training session was going to start soon. As I walked through the door, it occurred to me that if I did have some sort of mental ability, maybe it only worked on other vampires.
I could hear someone rounding the corner, and I saw our only female trainee making her way down the hall with an armload of shoes, presumably those of our spent humans.
The only thing that happened was she slightly bared her teeth when she caught how intensely I was looking at her. The small sign of aggression was enough to fuel my own violent instincts, and soon we were both growling.
She was a newer vamp, and I could tell she was still a little apprehensive of being so close to me, despite her snarl. It would be better for both of us if she stuck to that apprehension.
Upon that thought, she backed into the brick wall and her eyes went wide before casting down toward the floor. For a moment, it seemed like odd behavior until I connected it to what had happened with the nomads.
Did I cause her to do that? What was the link?
As much as a vampire could, she skittered away, and I continued my way to the training room. The sisters had just come in, and the others were beginning to gather. I looked at one as he entered the opposite door. Jump.
I thought harder about making him laugh, and the corners of his mouth turned up in a smile. He let out the beginning of a chuckle before Lucy silenced him with a glare.
"Obviously the only extra sense this batch has is a sense of humor," she said sarcastically to Maria.
"Hmm," Maria replied. "Yes, they have appeared to be a very mirthful bunch over the last day."
Her eyes flitted to mine, and I felt an instant rush of lust before she looked away. I was indeed looking forward to whatever reward she wanted to bestow upon me for my actions with the nomads.
As the sisters formed their line in front of the room, I thought about what might have made me successful in making that vampire laugh but not in making him jump. Had my concentration been different?
"We have a new training exercise for you today," Nettie interrupted my thoughts.
"Three of you were successful in your mission to defeat our enemies and secure our blood source," Maria said with a hint of pride in her voice. "We must make sure all of you are combat-ready though. When you are in the middle of battle, sometimes you must continue fighting when you are injured. We need to be certain you can concentrate through the pain."
That introduction to our new training didn't bode well with the group. Postures and fists began to clench, and there was a low rumble in the room.
"Enough!" Lucy demanded.
"Just because you've made it this far, it doesn't mean you aren't replaceable," Maria warned, reminding us of all the soldiers who had met their final deaths during our trainings.
The rumbling stopped, but no one relaxed. None of us were looking forward to whatever pain the sisters were looking to inflict.
"This is an exercise in focus, which we know many of you have an issue with. We'll start with those of you who were not chosen to go on last night's mission."
Maria pointed to a sandy-haired vampire with a full beard, and he came to stand in front of her.
"Thank me for allowing you the honor of going first," Maria said.
"Thank you, Mama."
She grinned. "You will recite something for me."
He looked at her expectantly, as if he was waiting to be told what to recite.
"You shouldn't have to be asked twice," Lucy voiced from behind Maria.
"I don't know anything," the soldier confessed.
"You must remember something. I'm sure recitation was a part of your previous military training," Maria prodded.
His face momentarily clouded in concentration, as if he was searching through his murky human memories. It seemed unfair that the sisters wouldn't just tell him something to recite, but it wasn't my place to question orders.
His voice started out unsure of the words, but he began to recite something I could just barely remember. "I am a Confederate States Patriot, in service of the just—"
His words stopped as Nettie suddenly came forward and sunk her teeth into his arm.
"Keep reciting," Maria demanded.
"…In service of the just and honorable cause of the South, in behalf—" His face was contorted in pain, and his voice faded.
"Do you need to stop?" Maria asked.
"Please," the soldier begged.
Nettie released her bite on his arm.
"Very well. We can be reasonable," Maria soothed him.
Before he could reply, she struck at him and gave him a matching bite on the other arm. She quickly returned to her place in front of him.
"Next time, you'll recite more," Maria said with no room for argument.
The training continued like this down the line. Every soldier followed the example of the first and recited the Confederate pledge. Obviously, I wasn't the only one who'd had more vivid memories of my life in the army. Without fail, every man wavered around the end of the first line, and each one received a chastising bite from Maria when he failed.
When it came to my turn, I was determined to last longer than the other soldiers had. When Nettie's teeth sank into my arm, my voice tightened, but I kept focusing on the words.
"…In behalf of the citizens of the Confederate States of America. It is my purpose and mission…"
Every part of my body was tense while my arm throbbed from the searing pain of her venom. I reminded myself that I had been through much worse during my transformation into this life, and I could surely get through this bit of pain.
"...Who fought suffered, bled, and died in agony, in our nation's defense..."
Even through the pain and with my struggle to recall the words of my pledge, the back of my mind began to chant, Stop biting me. I hoped that whatever power I might have would show itself and make the pain stop. I refused to let myself actually ask her to stop.
I tried to keep my voice strong as I fought through the burn. I could feel Nettie's venom begin to drip down my arm.
"Unfurl and raise our Confederate States National Flag, to its rightful place and glory—"
Maria tapped Nettie on the shoulder before I could finish, and Nettie released her hold on me. Instinctually, I reacted to the pain she had caused me, and I snapped my teeth at her child-like face.
She lunged toward me, but Maria held her around the waist. I realized how in the wrong I had been and I took a step back.
"Now do you think he should be punished?" Lucy asked, stepping forward and glaring at Maria.
Nettie had calmed herself, and Maria was able to stop restraining her.
"I don't care what you say this time. He will be punished," Nettie said severely.
Maria looked enraged—both at her sisters and at me.
"You need to learn your place, Major. You will go a week without eating," Nettie declared.
Maria's head turned in shock. A week was unimaginable—tortuous. Not even the sisters went that long between meals.
"That seems particularly—" Maria started to say.
"He's just the same as the rest—or maybe not, as I would have had his head by now," Lucy said.
Maria looked cornered, and I wasn't sure of the weight of this conversation, but I was worried these moments were my last.
"A week it is," Maria coolly said. When she looked at me, it was as if I could feel her sense of betrayal and disappointment. "You will go a week without any sort of reward."
She stormed out of the room, and the sisters looked at each other, clearly upset about her parting insinuation.
Lucy turned to me. "You should watch yourself."
"One week." Nettie glared. "The rest of you may go find your next meal."
The soldiers immediately fled the room with Lucy behind them. As Nettie stepped out of the room, she turned back to me one more time.
"Don't for one second think that Maria's misplaced affection will keep you alive here," she said coolly. "I will eventually have your head. It's only a matter of time."
As she disappeared from sight, I knew that going without eating for a week was now only the least of my concerns.
Author Note: I love to hear your thoughts. Reviewers get a teaser for the next chapter. I apologize for the fail on the last round of teasers. I figured the actual chapter being posted was a better deal.