Cole was somber, his lips in a flat line. He nodded once, his eyes not meeting hers. Kahli swallowed hard. “It’s Cassie, isn’t it?” Cole didn’t answer, but he didn’t have to. Her gaze drifted to Cassie. This was a fight for her life, but she didn’t act like it. She acted happy to be alive, happy to be outside in the fresh air. It wasn’t fair. It was beyond that. This edict, this rule, was barbaric. Slaughtering the weakest didn’t do anything except spill more blood. “Cole, do they purge everywhere? Or is this something limited to the palace?”
He looked straight ahead, hands in his pockets with no expression on his face, “Purging wouldn’t work if it was only limited to one place.” He said it like it was a cold fact of life.
Kahli’s lips parted and she blew out a rush of air. She pushed past Cole, and walked over to Jess, “This is a game to the death? Why didn’t you say something?” She was seething, her hands balling into fists, but there was nothing to punch.
Jess’ gaze was sharp, her tone bitter—defiant—but not broken, “The rules don’t change just because there’s a new girl. We’re forced to perform in the worst conditions possible. The elements alone will kill some of us today. It’s what it is. There’s no changing it. And no one gets to sit out.”
Kahli’s eyes shifted over the little group. There were nine of them total. “The Queen only has eighteen humans at the palace?” That didn’t seem like enough.
Taylor who had been silent until then, replied, “There are twenty, nineteen before you came.” Her limp brown hair was pushed under her white cap. Listless strands managed to fall and frame her slender face, “Yeah, the math doesn’t add up. There are too many vampires and not enough people here. That’s why most of the vamps are weak. There isn’t enough blood. They’re dying. And so are we.” She looked down at her hands. “It’s supposed to be worse elsewhere. We’re the lucky ones, Kahli. The others get bled dry before they even had a chance to live.”
Kahli’s eyes were wild, burning like green flames. Hatred burned through her. It wasn’t a matter of fairness, it was a matter of survival and these people weren’t even given a chance. One life is not worth more than another. One faction should not dominate the world, control the food, and all of the blood. These people were being treated like animals, slaughtering the weakest to ensure the blood was sustainable. There was no way she was staying here, promise to Will or not. He was one of them. He condoned this. The thought was deplorable. The first chance she had to escape, she was taking it.
“We’re winning this today,” Jess snapped. “They can’t take Cassie. They can’t take any of us.” There was power in her voice, and they couldn’t help but listen to her. Kahli’s passion was contagious.
She glanced at the group. They were weak, pale, and thin. The elements threatened them as badly as the bloodsucking creatures inside the palace. Kahli nodded at her group, “Okay, tell me what I need to know.”
It turned out that the game was deadly, but there were no weapons. Each team was assigned a flag, an ice castle, and a list of items that had to be in their possession by sundown. They were not allowed to eat, drink, or return to the palace to ward off the cold. It was idiotic, Kahli thought. The weather was the worst she’d seen it in recent years. Anyone who ventured out could easily get frostbite, never mind other ailments that the cold created. If they all survived the day, it’d be a miracle.
Kahli, Cole, and Cassie were put into a group after much discussion with Jess. Cassie normally wouldn’t have ventured out with the scouting group, but Kahli wouldn’t leave her behind—and out of all of them, it made the most sense that Kahli be the leader of the scouting team. There was one safeguard if your flag was captured, and that was having the items on the list. The more you had the better, and if you had them every single item on that list, the other team lost.
Jess and the others would find the ice castle and guard it. Every year the frozen fortress moved. Jess explained that theirs would be located on the eastern side of the palace, the other teams would be on the western side. Other than that, no one knew where anything was. They had to find their castle, secure their flag, and return with items from the wild before twilight—hopefully the entire list.
“What happens if we capture their flag and get all the items on the list?” Kahli asked, but they laughed.
Well, everyone laughed except Jess, who glared at her. She noticed that Kahli seemed to act first and ask questions later. The fact that she was asking spoke volumes. Jess knew the new girl was planning on blowing off her assignment and going after the flag. Voice firm, she stepping into Kahli’s face, not intimidated by her, “If you go after their flag, you are throwing away Cassie’s life. We already discussed this. Our best bet is ignoring the flag and tracking down the items on the list.”
Kahli nodded, noting the other girl’s tension. Getting the most items made sense, but if they accomplished that and the opportunity arose, she wanted to know about the outcome of getting both. “If we’re going to win, you have to tell me everything. That includes answering my damn questions,” she growled. Jess didn’t like her, but Kahli didn’t care. She was defending Cassie and needed all the facts to be able to do so.
Cole interrupted, shouldering his way between them. His tall, slender form towering over her, “No one knows what happens if you win both. The rules aren’t written down somewhere. Everything is determined by precedent. No one has captured the flag and returned with everything from the list.”
That was good enough for her. Cole seemed to be smart and silent. He only spoke up when he could speed things along.
Jess was scolding her, her brow pinching together as she barked out words. “We’ve already wasted precious time this morning. The slut sisters were out hours ago. They have a jump on us, so stop asking stupid questions that don’t change anything. The best we can hope for is getting the most stuff on that list… enough to spare Cassie. Now go!”
“Fine,” Kahli grumbled, “I’ll get the junk on the list. Just make sure they don’t get that flag.”
Kahli traipsed through the snow. Cole held the list. Cassie shivered, following behind them. Kahli couldn’t believe Will didn’t mention this. Anger raked up her spine, making her prickly. She tried not to show it, but she’d grown attached to Cassie. She cared about her, and didn’t want to have anything to do with her death. No, it was more than that. She didn’t want her to die. Not if she could prevent it. There was a false sense of security at the palace. Everything seemed pristine and perfect, but then the vampires had stuff like this, and drinking blood. Too many thoughts rushed through her mind, forming various contingency plans if she messed this up. Cassie wasn’t going to die today. She’d kill the King with her bare hands before she let that happen, although she didn’t think that would work out very well. She couldn’t save Cassie if she was dead. There had to be an alternative, some wild card she could pull if today went poorly. Kahli wasn’t the kind of girl who waited for luck to find her. She made her own luck.
Sunlight poured over the frozen landscape in a blinding array. Kahli shielded her eyes looking for the grove. The first thing they were getting was willow bark. Cole said there was a frozen forest to the south of the palace, and he was right. A patch of frozen trees jutted from the ground like bones glistening in the sun. It must have been odd to see this place green and covered in grass. At one time flowers grew and the sky wasn’t always gray. The trees were green, some even grew fruit. Those times were long ago. Now the dirt was hidden beneath layers of permafrost that never thawed.
The things on the list weren’t horrible, as long as she could find them. Something like frozen bark wasn’t a big deal, especially if the trees were still above ground, which was rare. Most had been covered in ice and snow. It was like the white earth swallowed everything whole. “How do they expect us to get this stuff? We need tools to get a bunch of this stuff, and they didn’t even give us anything.” Kahli’s mind was racing.
Cole shrugged, watching Cassie spinning in front of him. She had her arms out and was smiling, breathing in the cold air. His sisters actions concerned him. She’s already given up, he thought. She’s accepted her fate, even if we haven’t. Cole’s gaze cut to Kahli. “We have to make do. It’s part of the game.”
“That’s easy to say when they’re warm inside and not being threatened with death,” Kahli bit back. She realized her words were too harsh. She was upset, but didn’t mean to take it out on him. Cole’s shoulders slumped, his dark lashes obscuring his eyes. He ignored his sister’s good mood. He was probably more upset than Kahli. She breathed, “Sorry. I just—it’s beyond me how things have gotten so bad. I was isolated for so long. I had no idea.”
Cole nodded and looked up. His dark eyes scanned the horizon. “They said you had a nasty wound when they brought you to the palace, one that could have killed a vamp.” She nodded. Her shoulder would never be smooth skin again. Cole was intrigued. Asking her about it was rude, but he didn’t care. There was something glaringly different, besides the red hair. “You didn’t bleed out.”
“So?” Cassie asked, noticing the silence that passed between them. “Lots of us get scraped and heal. What’s the big deal?” Cassie didn’t know the extent of her injuries, but Cole seemed to know it was much more than a little cut. Kahli eyed him cautiously.
Kahli glanced back at Cole, she echoed Cassie, “Yeah, what’s the big deal?”
Cole stopped in his tracks, “You know what I mean. The rest of us die if we get a nose bleed, but a wolf ate your shoulder and you survived.”
Cassie stopped now too, her jaw hanging open. “A wolf did that? I thought they were joking.”
“No, they weren’t,” Cole answered, eyeing Kahli like she was a demon. “What kind of human can kill wolves with her bare hands and recover without vamp blood?”