General Rose looms over me, armor shining as she scowls through about five hundred scars. I’ve decided she must have given, like, half of them to herself—just so she could be that much more intimidating.
“You are not leading the invasion tonight,” she said. “Air, you have only been training for two weeks. You may be the Warrior Queen, but you are not close to being ready for the responsibility of that post.”
I pout. “First off, it’s not even an invasion. It’s a stealth mission. Leolani and I just need to find out if the bat-nosed snakes are planning on coming to Queen Plum’s peace treaty conference as promised, or if they’re planning something shadier.”
Rose opens her mouth, curling the point of her most prominent, star-shaped scar, but I wave my hand in front of her face.
“Eh-eh-eh! I’ll also have you know that Queen Plum asked me to do this herself. And I’m her Warrior Queen, so whether or not you think I’m ready, I’m thinking I’ve got to obey her over you, Rose.”
She really doesn’t seem to like it when I gloss over the “general” part of her name. Her top lip curls back to prove my suspicion. I grin awkwardly for about thirty seconds straight before she finally huffs and shoves me toward the Peppermint Palace’s main entrance. “Fine, then. But I will be speaking with Queen Plum about this myself. She gives you too many liberties.”
I grin wickedly over my shoulder and wiggle my butt at her. “You’re just jealous I get to have fun.”
In a very short amount of time, I’ve learned Rose’s face has a very special ability to be as flat and dark as the cookie dough caverns. But just for a second, the edge of her mouth ticks, and I think she might be trying to learn how to smile. Maybe.
Then she points a hard finger at the large, gingerbread doors. “Get going then, your ruthlessness.”
Maybe Rose isn’t all armor and hatred after all.
“Aw yeah!” I run full throttle for the doors. I’ve been trapped in this Peppermint Palace for too long. I’ve missed the taste of fresh air and anything that doesn’t smell minty.
I force the doors apart for my first gasp of clean, night air in a long time. I pause between the breaded slabs, eyes closed, feeling the cool wind. It brushes over my skin and swims between my eager fingers.
“You’re late,” a voice calls.
I pop my eyes open to find Leolani waiting at the bottom of the mint steps below.
My heart gives a thump. I thought I was so eager for this mission because I missed the outdoors, but I’ll admit it—I’ve just missed Leo. So far our schedules haven’t aligned at all. I think the last time I saw him might have been our first day here.
I beam and throw myself down the steps. “Leo!”
He makes a big “oomph!” sound as I smash into him. Then he gives a boyish laugh and pushes me off. “Hey, come on, the other guards are going to see you.”
I frown at him. “So? They know we’re friends.”
“And they know you’re the Warrior Queen.” His yellow eyes are somehow brighter than the starmoon, even hooded with huge waves of black hair.
He still needs a haircut.
“Ugh!” I roll my eyes. “Whatever, let’s get going.”
Leolani is smiling by the time we near the Candy Cane Gates. He leans over and adjusts the strap of my chest plate, making sure it’s tight enough.
“What, don’t trust me to put on my own armor?” I ask.
“Yup,” he says simply and straightens up to look at the Gates.
“Wow, Leo. Two weeks training separately, and now you’ve lost all faith in me.”
He rolls his eyes. “You’re such a drama Queen. Let’s just get going, your ruthlessness.”
It feels uncomfortable to have Leo to call me by that new title. I rub my arm down, not sure what to say. But luckily, just then, the soldiers on shift above us peek over the peppermint stone wall.
“Who goes there?”
I puff up my chest. “Her majesty the Warrior Queen, Air War-Bringer. Oh, and Leolani, best friend extraordinaire,” I call out.
Leo scowls. “She means Leolani, the Gaurdian to the Warrior Queen!” He lowers his frown on me. “No one’s going to take me seriously if you keep doing that.”
“That’s the idea, Leo.” In case he’s forgotten, he is my best friend, whatever Rose and the other guards want to call him.
The soldiers jump at our names. “Oh! Your ruthlessness, we’re sorry. We’re still not good at recognizing you.” The gate pries open as the two pull a lever. “Have fun out there!”
I squint at Leolani. “Have fun? What, do they think I’m a kid?”
“You’re sixteen. Of course they do.”
We exit the gates together and entered the lemongrass fields. I give only one last glance behind us. Rose stands on the peppermint steps, arms folded, her scar visible even from a distance. I turn my back to her and force back a shiver.
The Candy Cane Gates close with a creak and a rumble. When I face Leo again, he’s looking back at the great shadow cast by the palace. His eyes flash gold, his brow hard.
“Leo?” I ask.
He stares for a moment longer. Something in his eyes grows distant—and sharp. I lean forward, reaching for his shoulder. Just inches before I can touch him, his eyes suddenly blink to life, and he turns to me with a bright and focused smile.
“Ready for our first official mission?” he asks.
I frown sideways at him. He raises his thick eyebrows and keeps the smile. He doesn’t decide to share what the heavy look was all about, so I just shrug and turn to face the north east, toward the hazy, distant shape of the Licorice Forest.
“Well, ready or not here we come,” I say.
We set off, and Leo smirks at me. “Are you saying you don’t feel ready?”
“After two weeks of Rose beating me up and showing me how to turn people into minced mint, you bet I’m ready.”
Leo shakes his head a little, and his smirks dissipates into something a little closer to worry. “Yeah?” he asks, voice softer this time.
We wade through the lemongrass. The light of the starmoon haunts our backs, and the Licorice Forest grows closer with each step.
“I’ve never seen a vampire, Leo,” I whisper.
He nods. “Magical races don’t like Citrus Gorge. There probably hasn’t been any there since the fissure opened up thousands of years ago. Too acidic.”
“You helped me manage,” he says, lips pursed. “And I was careful not to eat anything too acidic.”
I bob my head, and my gut tightens as the forest closer ever closer. The trees—winding ropes of tall, thick licorice, splinter out into spindly arms of deep black and purple. I swallow the bitter air. Even from here, I can smell the sharp anise.
Leo nudges me. “Hey. Vampires probably won’t want to eat you anyway. Your personality has too much acid in it for them.”
I guffaw and shove him. He chuckles and stumbles sideways. From the twinkle in his eye, I can tell he said it just to try and make me laugh. Make me relax.
My face softens. “Leo?”
“I’m glad we’re in this together.” I face the Licorice Forests. Its shadows draw near to my toes. “I don’t want to do all this stupid **** without you.”
We pass into the forest. Leolani falls quiet, but that doesn’t concern me. He knows we’re in dangerous territory now.
Rose has been training me in several things since I came. Combat, particularly, but also knowledge about the other races in Candyland and the best defense mechanisms against them. Acid, like Leo mentioned earlier, is probably the greatest advantage humans have over the other races. Especially vampires, since their undead bodies are particularly susceptible to sour essences.
That being said, when I see a shadow moving in front of me, I unclip the sour bombs Rose had loaded me up with and throw a single pellet at it. At the piercing shriek, I know I’ve just found the beginning of enemy lines.
“Get behind me!” Leo yells and dives in front of me.
Three other shadows melt in from our dark surroundings. I pull out my dagger. It secretes acid, so even a slight cut will do damage. The only problem is, I’ve heard it’s pretty much impossible to get close to a vampire without receiving a nice little love-bite in return. And I still don’t even know what a real-life vampire looks like, so getting the aim down will be difficult.
But it’s do or die.
The nearest shadowed figure dives towards me, a sweep of its black limbs scattering my vision. I do what Rose taught me—duck, and dive forward with your dagger pointed out. When an agonized scream echoes from above me, I know I’ve hit something vital.
I pull back, but not before the vampire comes down on top of me. I choke on the smell as its rotting innards pour out onto my lap, and I get my first good look at a real life vampire when its white forehead slams down on mine.
It’s hideous. Its eyes are milky and filmed—the way only a corpse’s days after death and after all moisture has pulled from the body. The eyes bulge as its thin, white, chapped lips part in desperate, soiled gasps. What should be a nose at the center of its face looks only like filmy *****, a bat nose, that shivers with each dying choke.
Its breath comes out in stretches of steam that smell like boiled skin.
I gag as I slam the butt of my dagger against its chest. I push and beat at its body until it slumps backwards. It lands with a heavy thud among the licorice needles.
I stagger back, still reeling at the smell, just in time to feel a swipe of teeth against my shoulder. I duck and whirl around. Leo’s battling an onslaught behind me, protecting my weaker side automatically, so I have time to take this one out.
The vampire lunges at me. This one is a woman—and I know that because of the long hair and only slightly more attractive face. She shrieks like a banshee before trying to gnaw at my shoulder again. I slice her peeling, marble complexion with my knife. As she’s crumpling to the ground, nursing her wound, another leaps over her. I scream and duck as it roars like some kind of grotesque bat on steroids.
I barely manage to throw my arms up over my neck and face as the disgusting being falls down on me. I smack down against the wet grass. I twist the knife in my hand, aim, and plow it down into the vampire’s skull through its left eye.
Its weight convulses, and I shove before it has a chance to die on me. I can’t stay pinned to the ground. It finished its last writhing twitches before falling still among the fallen tea leaves.
I stand up, sweeping the area, and find Leo’s wiping his knife clean after the last vampire falls still behind him. His eyes flash to mine—we nod. I lean down then, close my eyes, and rip my knife out of the vampire’s eye.
The thing, squelching sounds brings up a wave of bile in my throat, but as always, I swallow it down in time.
I wipe the knife off with my acid cloth and re-sheath it. My exhale comes out a little shaky.
Leo takes up my left side again.
“That made more noise than we were supposed to, I think,” he whispers.
I nod. “We should get away from the area. Take a northwest circle, get some high ground. You think you can get us up in the trees once we’re near enough? Rose says vampires don’t climb. Plus then we can get a good vantage point.”
He nods. “I think I can do that.”
Honestly, this just reminds me of how bad I am at stealth missions in video games. I love them, but I’m much more of a boom-stick kind of person.