It was almost time, a few minutes before midnight on New Year’s Eve. New Year, new vampire hunter. Would I be the one?
I sat down shakily in the ancient stone chapel of the former Universidad de Salamanca, the most ancient university in Spain. When the war broke out, most of the universities in Europe shut down. The Americans figured the vampires would never attack us on our native soil. We paid dearly for our arrogance.
For the last twelve years, Salamanca had been the home of the Academia Sagrada Familia Contra los Vampiros. It was the school for vampire hunters—my school. There were foreign students from all over the world, because the Academia was the best. Academia graduates took out the most vamps, and they had the highest survival rate. There were six living Academicians; Juan Maldonaldo had been a hunter for nine years. Unbelievable.
Not that the survival rate was very good—out of the original ninety-six of us in our class, we were down to eighteen. We shuffled into the chapel in our ceremonial black robes, our hoods concealing our faces. We were about to take our final exam. Only one of us would pass.
I had dreaded this moment for two long years—the moment my foot crossed the threshold of the Academy—and feared it for two months. Diego, our Master, had warned us that as the time grew near, we would experience high anxiety. About a dozen of my classmates woke screaming from nightmares. There was a lot of jogging in the middle of the night. Even though drugs and alcohol were forbidden, I knew that people were swigging wine and taking Xanax so they could get some rest.
None of them carried the extra burdens—or the accompanying terror and guilt—that I did.
I should say something, tell someone, I thought. But I would sooner cut out my own heart than tell them what I’d done. What I might do.
At the thought, my heart skipped beats, and I clung to the back of the carved mahogany pew.
In the last two months, I had broken a lot of rules. For some of the things I had done, they didn’t even have rules. No one would have dreamed of crossing the line I had leaped across last Halloween.
Exactly two months ago, on October 31, everything had changed. The Vampire War had taken a brutal turn when the vamps had murdered the daughter of the president of the United States. The Cursed Ones didn’t put it that way, of course. They claimed they had “liberated” her—changed her into one of them—and that our side had murdered her when we drove a stake through her heart and cut off her head.
Like everyone else, I demanded payback. I couldn’t wait to take revenge. Although we were pledged to run together, I wanted a vampire to die by my own hand. I ran with my grupo across the ancient medieval bridge as the dying sun turned the stone city a golden color. We scoured the hills for blood drinkers, Spaniards and Americans, Koreans and Swedes. In our body armor, we sang our song, which had always sounded so corny to me before. Translated into English, it went like this:
We are the vampire hunters.
Our cause is holy.
From Spain we come to save the world.
Race from us into the sunlight, demons of hell!
Better that you die in flames than by our hands!
That night, Antonio de la Cruz was by my side. Sometimes he held my gloved hand in his as we charged through the darkness. My crossbow smacked the bruises I had gotten in Advanced Streetfighting the day before.
Fog rose around us like smoke from a wildfire. I heard shouts and Antonio’s hand left mine. I called for him; he answered, very far away. I saw a face floating in the fog before me, and I ran toward it. But it wasn’t Antonio.
It was Jack.
Don’t think about him, I ordered myself, my vision blurring as I focused on the stained glass windows of the saints. The Savior melted and blurred. Think about your legacy, and the promises that you made. Think of your grandparents.
Charles “Che” and Esther Leitner, my grandparents, were former revolutionaries, or at least that was their term for it. Nowadays we called them terrorists. During the Vietnam War, they had bombed banks and military bases. I had a picture of Papa Che and Gram in a locket around my neck. In the picture, Gram was my age. Her super-curly hair—like mine—tumbled down to her waist. She wore a leather headband, round wire-rimmed glasses, an army jacket, and a pair of tattered jeans. My grandfather could have been her twin, except he was taller.
They were so proud of me for joining the Academia. My parents … not so much. Not at all, in fact. They were pacifists, and they said that it was time to stop the fighting and listen to the vampires, find a way to coexist. We fought about it, bitterly.
My grandparents said my parents were hopeless dreamers. When the war became more brutal, I sided with Gram and Papa Che. There was no way we could sit down and negotiate with the vampires. They were monsters, ravening beasts. We might as well walk up to them and show them our necks.
But now …
“Let us come to order,” Diego said, as he swept into the chapel from the side door by the altar. We all had to learn Spanish. In the old days, before the vampires declared war on us, students came to Salamanca to learn Spanish, not hand-to-hand combat.
Diego stood in front of his ornate wooden chair, which was upholstered in black velvet. Black was our color, the symbol of darkness. The sun was not for us. More than once I had stopped to think how much more in common we hunters had with the vampires than with the rest of humanity.
So, it begins, I thought, trembling. The bell would toll at midnight, both a celebration of the new year and dirge for the seventeen of us who would not become vampire hunters. The vampires would hunt all of us for the rest of our lives. Our identities were known. Only one of us would receive the sacred elixir that would strengthen him or her for the ordeal ahead, and make them quick to heal. The rest of us would be vulnerable, easier to kill.
The elixir itself was magic. Rumor had it that it was made up of some incredibly rare herbs that could only be harvested on a single night of the year and lay in the heart of one of the vampire strongholds. Armand, one of the priests at the school, was the only one who could make the elixir, and there was never enough for more than one hunter.
I looked across the stone chapel at Antonio, who was busy crossing himself. He was dressed in a black robe, like me. Beneath the robe he wore body armor, like me. His profile was sharp. Tendrils of loose black hair brushed his cheeks. Like every other girl at the Academia, I had had an intense crush on Antonio. It took almost a year to understand that his heart had no room for romance or girls. Vampires had slaughtered his entire family. He was the only one left. They took everything from me, was what he said. He burned with a hatred that astounded me; it made him seem like a different kind of being.
In his presence I often felt foolish. No one had slaughtered my family members, or friends. I had come to study how to fight vampires because it sounded cool, glamorous, and because I wanted to be more like my grandmother than my mother. I had been a stupid kid. As my thoughts drifted back to Jack, I realized that I still was.
On the night I met Jack—Halloween night—Antonio had told me that of all the girls in the class, he respected me the most. Would he still have respected me if he had known that I had fallen in love with a vampire? No, he probably would have killed me himself.