Penny’s head spun as the vampire carried her in his arms while he sped through the woods. Trees flew past her vision faster than she could process as Penny realized she didn’t even know where she was anymore. The only constants in Penny’s vision were the moon and stars shining above her and the vampire carrying her, his handsome features focused and determined. Out of all the vampires who had run with them, only he had survived. The others were either shot down by the night hunters or were torn apart by those large animals. In her muddled state, Penny couldn’t figure out what those creatures were. Not that she was trying. With what little willpower Penny had, she tried to jump out of the vampire’s arms. However, no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t pierce the dark fog hanging over her mind. She couldn’t even move her limbs.
Suddenly the forest went still, or rather the vampire stopped in his tracks. As Penny looked up, the unearthly creature looked down a certain path, his eyes wide with fear. Penny felt a chill go down her spine. Something was out there that made this creature afraid?
“Master,” said the Vampire. “I have to keep running. The hunters…” he shuddered violently, “No…no, my lord, I’m sorry. I obey.”
The vampire turned and walked down the path, slowly and reluctantly. Penny tried harder to break through the pressure on her mind, but still, her body remained relaxed and unmoving. Penny didn’t know who this vampire was going to meet, but she knew in her heart that she didn’t want to get any closer. And yet, the vampire walked on.
Soon Penny heard rushing water and could see a river before them. The vampire stopped at the edge of the river as it ran white with rapids, and he looked up. Penny followed his gaze to the sky where the moon cast its pale light over them. All Penny could see were stars, clouds, and bats silhouetted against the moon.
Actually, one bat seemed to be flying towards them, a tiny speck getting bigger and bigger. It flew in from the left, on the same side of the river as the two of them, and flew lower and lower as it came closer and closer. As it approached, Penny’s blood ran cold as she realized that it wasn’t a bat. It was bigger. Much bigger. As this new creature flew closer, she could hear the rush of its wings beating against the air. Penny could just barely make out a humanoid form attached to the wings but could make out no other features in the silhouette above her.
Finally, this new creature landed softly in a kneeling position, making no sound on impact. Then the monster stood up straight, wrapping its wings around itself. By the time Penny could see him clearly, however, she could no longer make out some batlike monster but a tall, handsome man in an immaculate suit with a black cape covering his shoulders. He had vibrant green eyes, a strong jaw, a cleft chin, and a muscular frame. Though Penny found him striking, she was vaguely aware that this handsome exterior hid the monster she’d seen moments ago.
She also realized that this one was different than the vampires that had attacked her father’s farm. Those didn’t have wings, for a start. Seeing this man’s…this monster’s piercing eyes, she somehow knew he was older, stronger, and more powerful than the others. He was also angry, his eyebrows slanted with displeasure.
It made her shudder.
The vampire holding Penny in his arms shrank back as he placed Penny on the ground. As she lay on the ground, the vampire above her bowed his head as he fell to one knee before this newcomer. The vampire that had taken Penny before had seemed boyishly handsome, but compared to the regal and princely lord before him, he seemed a mere boy.
“Lord Victor,” said the kneeling vampire. “I’ve retrieved the target’s cousin.”
“Stand up, Jack,” said Lord Victor.
Jack stood, fear written all over his face. Lord Victor walked up and knelt next to Penny, reaching down to examine her. Penny moaned fearfully even as she lay there motionless, and even Jack seemed worried by this action.
Lord Victor shushed her, almost tenderly. “Don't be afraid, my dear.”
“Master,” said Jack., “I’ve already drunk much of her blood. If you take too much...”
“I know,” said Victor, the tone in his voice sharp and stern. “But for me, a single drop will suffice.”
Lord Victor placed his finger at Penny’s neck, right where Jack had bitten her before. She squirmed, unable to move away as he pressed down, squeezing out a drop of blood which he wiped up with his fingertip. He raised his finger and closed his eyes, smelling the drop as if testing the aroma of a fine wine. He then licked the drop off his finger. His eyes rolled back into his head as he savored the taste for a moment, and then he swallowed.
Penny gasped as a new pressure replaced the one that had held her mind previously. Where Jack’s hold had felt like she was swimming through thick syrup, this felt like being wrapped in chains. The simplest thought took so much effort. She was only vaguely aware of the vampires standing above her as Lord Victor smiled down at her.
“There,” said Lord Victor, running his fingers through her hair. “That’s better. Isn’t it? I told you there was no reason to be afraid.”
It was true, Penny strangely didn’t feel afraid anymore, but at the same time, she wasn’t sure what she felt. As she lay there, her eyes glassy and unfocused, she could see Lord Victor stand and look the other vampire in the eye. Lord Victor stared with subtle anger while Jack looked away.
“Master, I…” Jack stammered.
“Go stand in front of the river,” said Lord Victor.
“Don’t make me repeat myself.”
Jack, reluctantly, walked up to the water. As he stood there at the edge of the river, he had the look of a man standing at the edge of a precipice, fearing the lethal drop below him. Were he still a living thing, Jack would have started sweating by now.
“Jack,” said Lord Victor. “You’re a newborn vampire, aren’t you? Been one for less than a year? Do you know why vampires can’t cross rivers without help?”
Jack swallowed nervously.
“It was said that the Christ was baptized in a river.”
Lord Victor smirked.
“Ah yes,” said Victor. “Our ever present weakness to the Christian faith. It’s a curious thing, but humans need not even believe in that faith to use its symbols against us. If only they did, then whenever that faith fell in popularity, it would make our prey all the more susceptible to us. Sadly, even when our prey is faithless, those symbols remain as significant to vampires as when they’re devout. Seems a bit unfair if you ask me. What do you think?”
“I think you’re absolutely correct, my lord,” said Jack quickly.
Lord Victor chuckled.
“You are certainly correct, Jack,” Lord Victor continued. “But I’m afraid you’ve misunderstood my question, so allow me to rephrase it. Do you know what happens to a vampire who attempts to cross a river unaided?”
“N…no, my lord.”
“Yes,” said Victor, his smirk replaced by a frown. “Judging by your…astonishing performance tonight, I imagine there’s much that you don’t know. Well, this is something you should know. Reach your arm out over the water.”
Lord Victor’s tone showed that he would not tolerate disobedience. Jack turned to the river, his eyes wide with fear, and reached his hand out. The moment his hand went over the water, smoke came up from it as Jack shuddered in pain.
“Keep going,” said Victor.
Jack reached his hand out and began shrieking as his entire arm began letting off smoke. His whole body trembled violently as he struggled to keep his arm up, his legs threatening to fall out from under him. The entire time Lord Victor watched passively, his eyes cold and merciless. Penny lay on the ground, watching, her mind so burdened that she didn’t really understand what she was seeing.
Finally, Lord Victor said, “You may step away.”
Jack moved away from the river and cradled his arm. Smoke still drifted off of it as he moaned in pain. Lord Victor put his hands behind his back as he waited for Jack to recover.
“My Lord,” said Jack. “I can explain.”
“Can you?” said Victor. “I know exactly what happened. I ordered Sebastian to capture the Hayes family, but you and your little friends, in your…heh…infinite wisdom, thought they could get the job done better. You thought you could claim the glory for yourselves, didn’t you? And now, most of the Hayes family is beyond our grasp except for this one. As far as I can tell, this is nothing short of blind ambition mixed with sheer incompetence. However, I’m nothing if not fair. This is your one chance to justify your actions. I suggest you choose your words carefully.”
Jack shrank back from his master but didn’t dare attempt to flee.
“We did everything we could to get the Hayes family,” said Jack.
“Too much, if you ask me. When only one of you managed to get an invitation into that house and was repelled by a cross, you could have sent in your thralls immediately. A single newborn vampire can be defeated by humans who are prepared for them. Throw an army at a small group, however, and it’s only a matter of time. And yet, the six of you decided to wait for Veronica to be ready, giving the Hayes family time to contact the night hunters and thus give the hunters plenty of time to arrive.”
“My lord, those humans were our food, and it took forever to enthrall so many. We didn’t want to lose them. We lost so many when they attacked the house.”
“And you lost them all when the night hunters arrived. If you had sent in the humans immediately, you could have escaped before the night hunters arrived. Not only would you still have thralls to obey you, you’d have the Hayes family, and Veronica wouldn’t have been slain.”
“That did occur to us,” said Jack. “But Veronica insisted she could handle it.”
“Oh, I see, Veronica insisted, did she? And thus, your plan hinged on the most incompetent of all. I don’t know which is worse; that you so grossly overestimated Veronica’s ability to take them or that Veronica actually tried to negotiate. We’re predators, and predators do not negotiate with prey. This is why little newborns obey their elders, Jack. We know better than you.”
Jack struggled to say something.
“Please, my lord,” he said, pleading. “Forgive me.”
“No,” came the reply. “Turn around and walk into the river.”
Jack shuddered and turned to the rushing waters, his body moving as if a puppet on strings. He walked forward, his face contorted in fear as he got closer and closer.
“My Lord,” Jack whimpered. “Please…”
“Be silent,” Lord Victor spat. “This is the last thing you will ever do, Jack. Do it with at least a modicum of dignity.”
Jack went silent, though his face remained contorted with fear as he drew closer to the rushing water. Soon Jack reached the edge of the river, and his body tensed. For a moment, he hesitated, but his resistance only lasted that moment.
Ultimately, Jack lifted his foot and stepped in, smoke and steam rising from where his foot landed. His face contorted, and yet he unleashed no shriek of pain, bound to silence as he was by the word of his master. Despite the terror and the pain, he kept walking in, and soon his entire body gave off smoke as steam rose from where his feet hit the water. Lord Victor watched with cold, merciless eyes as Jack walked further into the river, getting more submerged with each step. Soon Jack was up to his waist in water, and at that moment, his fell face forward, steam bursting up from where his torso and head hit the water. Seconds later, Jack’s body floated out of the steam, heading downriver.
Lord Victor watched him drift away for a moment, then turned back to Penny.
He spoke to her as he knelt, picking her up in his arms.
“I’m terribly sorry, my dear. A young lady as beautiful as you deserves better than a bed of dirt. We’ll get you a proper resting place soon enough. That I can promise you.”
Penny just looked at him with blank, expressionless eyes as Lord Victor walked next to the flowing waters, Jack’s body still flowing downriver in front of them before fading into the distance. After walking for a while, Lord Victor and Penny came to a bridge that crossed the river. Waiting there were two black vans with several men waiting next to them, all dressed as butlers. As Lord victor approached, the men opened the side of one of the vans to reveal a long wooden box. Within that box lay a coffin resting in dirt.
“My lord,” said one of them, bowing as Lord Victor approached. “Your carriage awaits.” This was a middle aged man with a distinguished air who bowed low to his master.
“Thank you, Walter,” said Victor, handing Penny off to one of the other men. “You. Take care of this young lady. She wasn’t our primary target, but I’m sure we can get some use out of her.”
“Yes, my lord,” said the man, taking Penny to the other van.
“Do drive carefully, Walter,” said Victor. “Since Alice escaped, I’ll have to meet her in the only place the night hunters cannot hide her from me.”
“Of course, sir,” said Walter.
Lord Victor entered the first van, stepped to the coffin, and lay inside. As Walter stepped to the driver seat, other men closed the lid on Lord victor and covered the coffin with more earth, moving it with their hands. When they finished, they sat down and closed the van door. Penny was shut in the other van, and moments later, the vans drove across the bridge and over the river. They traveled away from that area as the moon shone above them, bats silhouetted against its light.
“Welcome, Mrs. Hayes,” said the doorman. “I see you have your invitation.”
“I’m sorry?” said Alice.
“You’re invitation, Ma’am. You were invited to the ball, were you not?”
Alice found herself on the front steps of a mansion, a shining example of classic architecture. The building’s white walls and gilded windows shone in the light of the moon. People in formal suits and dresses came down the walkway and up the mansion's steps, excitement written all over their faces. A vibrant garden flanked either side of the walkway, and fountains of sparkling water decorated the gardens. Even the doorman, dressed like a butler, had a distinguished air about him. It was one of the most beautiful places Alice had ever seen, and for the life of her, Alice couldn’t remember how she’d gotten there.
Alice raised her arm, and sure enough, there was an invitation in her hand. Alice also noted that she was wearing a beautiful blue dress with a furred shawl around her shoulders. She was definitely dressed for a ball, but something about all of this seemed off to her.
“I’m sorry,” said Alice. “I just…I feel like I was doing something important just now.”
“How do you mean?” asked the doorman.
“I feel like I was looking for someone. Well…several people, actually. People I really need to find, and one of them is someone I haven’t seen in a long time. A very long time. I just can’t remember who it was. Who any of them were. I guess I’m just a little confused.”
“I’m afraid I can’t help you with that, Mrs. Hayes. Perhaps you will meet them inside?”
Alice thought about it and decided she didn’t have any better ideas.
“Maybe I will,” she said. “Thank you.”
The doorman took her invitation, and she went up the steps. Passing through the giant carved oak doors, Alice found herself in a massive ballroom where people danced to classical music, the couples gazing into each others’ eyes. A golden chandelier hung from the ceiling, casting golden light over the room, and in the back, Alice could see the musicians playing passionately.
It was an intoxicating atmosphere, and part of Alice would have liked to just let go and enjoy herself. No matter how hard she tried, though, she still couldn’t remember how she’d gotten there. Curiously, Alice went to a window and looked at the reflection over the gardens displayed outside. Alice could vaguely see people dancing behind her in that faint reflection, but she was mostly focused on her own image, finding herself almost unrecognizable.
Alice’s face had makeup on, with a subtle blush to her cheeks and soft eyeshadow bringing out her eyes. She wore sapphire earrings that sparkled in the light and matched her blue dress perfectly. Her hair went down in waves to her shoulders, shining like silk as she ran her fingers through it curiously. Alice couldn’t remember the last time she’d made herself look like this. A part of her wondered why she didn’t anymore because she had to admit that she looked good. Really good.
Behind her, a deep voice said, “Welcome.”
Alice gasped, startled, as she turned around.
“I’m sorry,” said the other man apologetically. “I didn’t mean to startle you. I’m Victor Sorenson, and this is my manor.”
“Oh,” said Alice, still a little rattled. “I’m Alice. Nice to meet you.”
Alice reached out to shake his head, but he gently took that hand, raised it, and kissed it, making Alice blush. She found this Victor Sorenson astonishingly handsome.
“A woman like you shouldn’t hide at the side of the room,” said Victor. “That’s like the sun herself hiding her face when all should revolve around her.”
“Oh wow,” said Alice, looking away as she tucked her hair behind her ear.
For a moment, Alice questioned why she was acting so flustered. She didn’t wear fancy dresses or go to balls or get flustered when a handsome man kissed her hand. At least, Alice hadn’t done anything like this as an adult.
It was upon thinking this that Alice realized what was so strange about this situation. It had been a long time since Alice had done anything even remotely like this. That last time she had, she’d been just a teenager at a high school dance. The reason this was all so strange because high school was the exact time she’d stopping doing things likes this in the first place. Alice had stopped going to dances, or any social event for that matter, not so much as a visit to a friend's house. Alice hadn’t even gone to her prom. She’d just withdrawn from the world after…after what she’d seen the day her brother disappeared.
Alice backed away, feeling faint at the thought of that day.
“I’m sorry,” said Alice, turning to leave. “I…”
“Wait,” said Victor. “Please. I don’t know what troubles you, but tonight is not a night for grief.”
Alice stopped. There was just something comforting about the sound of his voice.
“Look out the window,” he continued. “It’s a beautiful evening. The sky is clear, the moon is bright, and the stars are shining.”
Alice looked out the window at the moon and the stars and had to admit he wasn’t lying.
“Would you spend such a night alone with no one but sorrow for company? It would be such a waste. Tonight is not a night for sadness, Alice. It is a night for leaving your troubles at the door and getting swept off your feet, a night for joyous merriment and reckless abandon. Tonight, Alice, is a night for dancing your cares away as the music serenades you with a romantic melody. I’d like a chance to show you…if you’ll allow me. Alice Hayes, may I have this dance?”
Slowly, Alice turned around to see Victor offering his hand, right as the music swelled to a crescendo. Alice considered for a moment. A part of her just wanted to go home and be alone like she always did. And yet, as she stood there, the moon shining through the window and the music singing in her ears, Alice felt captivated by Victor’s deep voice, piercing green eyes, and charming smile.
Before Alice even realized what she was doing, she’d accepted his hand. Soon her hand was on his shoulder as his was on her waist as they danced through the crowd of people. Alice could practically feel the blood rushing to her cheeks, and she into those eyes that threatened to swallow her up.
“I…I don’t normally do this,” said Alice.
“Why not?” asked Victor. “You are young and beautiful. Why shouldn’t you live life to the fullest? Should not a bird fly when it can spread its wings? Should not a flower bloom when the sun shines upon it? Should not the stars shine when night has come?”
Alice looked away. No one had ever talked about her like this. It was so overwhelming. A part of Alice was quite flattered by his attention, but something nagged at the back of her mind telling her that she should leave right now.
“There’s no need to be nervous, Alice,” said Victor.
“I’m sorry,” said Alice. “This is all a bit much.”
“For a woman like you,” said Victor. “I’d fear doing too little.”
Alice felt dizzy. She had to admit to herself that the nagging warning in the back of her mind was fading. The chandelier sparkled above them, the music echoed in her mind, and everyone who danced around them seemed joyous and carefree. For a moment, Alice almost, just almost, let herself get swept away by the glamor of it all.
And then, as they danced through the room, a woman in the crowd stuck out to Alice. While the room was filled with couples smiling as they looked into each other's eyes, this woman stood alone, staring straight at Alice and Victor. She wore a striking black dress with billowing sleeves, had long hair as red as blood, and blue eyes that sparkled with mischief. Yet, despite this woman’s playful eyes and sly grin, she carried herself with an almost regal demeanor. Alice only saw her for a moment, just long enough for the other woman to put a finger to her own lips, telling Alice to remain silent. She disappeared just as quickly, leaving Alice to wonder who she was.
“Alice,” said Victor.
He took his hand off Alice’s waist just long enough to lightly touch her chin and move her gaze back to him. Alice found herself unable to tear herself away from those vibrant green eyes.
“Listen,” said Victor. “Listen to the music. Someone wrote that music for a night such as this. He poured his heart and soul into a sound that would exemplify romance, a sound for couples to while away the hours just staring into each others’ eyes. It was made, Alice, for people just like us.”
To their side, a snide, feminine voice said, “Someone like her, maybe.”
Alice and Victor looked over to see who had interrupted them, she with curiosity, and he with venom in his eyes. It was the red headed woman from before, and faster than Alice could process, this woman reached up, grabbed Victor’s face, and ripped his skin clean off.
Underneath that skin was the hideous, monstrous face of a vampire, dripping with blood.
The vampire shrieked, grabbing Alice’s arms, and Alice screamed as she struggled to break free.
“Let go of me!” she shouted. “Let go of me! Let go of me!”
“Mrs. Hayes! Mrs. Hayes!”
Alice froze and looked around. She wasn’t in a ballroom. She was lying in a hospital bed, connected to a heart rate monitor and an IV line as a few nurses held her arms. She wasn’t dressed up for a ball but wore a hospital gown. Finally, her hair wasn’t long and wavy. It was as short as it usually was. Alice also had a bandage on her cheek and another right over a spot on her neck that was throbbing. Something about that seemed important to her, but she was too confused to think of why. Alice looked around at the nondescript hospital room as she breathed heavily, the nurses holding her arms firmly but gently.
“W…where am I?” asked Alice, confused.
“You’re in a secure facility,” said someone to her right.
Alice looked over to see a balding, rotund middle aged man with a kindly but concerned expression. Alice felt disoriented, her heart pounding in her chest. On some level, she knew she’d been having a nightmare but couldn’t seem to remember what it was about. Something about a ball, but that was all that stuck out to her. At the moment, she was more concerned about what was going on right now.
“Who are you?” she demanded. “Where am I?”
“Mrs. Hayes,” he said. “Please calm down. I promise you are perfectly safe now.”
Now? Alice thought, trying to get her bearings. When was she…the vampires!
“Where’s my family?” she asked.
“Please, Mrs. Hayes,” he said. “Calm down, and I’ll tell you everything I can.”
Alice, still tense, vaguely knew that panicking wasn’t going to help, so she let herself relax. The nurses beside her finally let her arms go as she lay back in the hospital bed. Alice looked around. She lay in a room with white brick walls, hospital beds filling the room. She saw her mother and her uncle tied up to life support in two other beds, a mask pumping oxygen into their mouths. Alice immediately noticed two absences.
“Where’s Penny and Aunt Betty?” said Alice, holding her breath.
“I’m sorry,” said Dr. Brown. “One of the vampires escaped with Penny.”
It was like getting hit in the face. Alice fell back and closed her eyes, trying not to cry.
“What will they do with her?” she asked.
“Feed on her and slowly turn her into one of their servants. Given time, they will eventually drain her completely, at which point they will either kill her or allow her to be resurrected as a vampire.”
Alice took a few deep breaths but maintained her composure.
“Now it’s not all bad news,” Dr. Brown went on. “The Night Hunters have already begun a search, and it takes time for a vampire to take over someone’s mind. At first, they will only take enough blood to keep her under control, but she can make a full recovery if we get to her soon enough. I won’t sugarcoat it, though. Your cousin is in for a bad time.”
“Alright,” Alice, just taking it all in. “What about Aunt Betty?”
Dr. Brown sighed, “I’m sorry, but the vampire carrying her got cornered. It must have panicked and lost control. It fed on your aunt and drained her completely before the hunters could get to her. She didn’t make it.”
Alice struggled to maintain her composure, and a single tear escaped from her eye. She held on, however. She had a few more questions she knew she had to ask.
“What about my Uncle and my mother?”
“Your Uncle is going to be fine. He still can’t speak, but there’s no permanent damage to his neck. Your mother’s physical symptoms are fine, but I’m afraid the stress must have been too much. She’s fallen unconscious, and we don’t know when she’ll wake up.”
It took every ounce of willpower for Alice not to break down. Instead, as she clenched her hospital bedsheets, she kept her cool because she had one more question.
“The man who rescued me,” she said. “The one with the cross tattoos all over. Who is he?”
Dr. Brown hesitated.
“Oh…him. That would be Agent Phoenix. He’s…well. He’s something alright.”
“He could move like they could. The vampires, I mean.”
“So I hear. I don’t really know the details myself, but he’s something…different. Not a vampire, and he doesn’t feed on human blood, thank goodness, but he’s something on their level.
From what I hear, he’s something called a crucivire. That’s all I know.”
Alice swallowed nervously.
“The vampire,” said Alice. “He…He thought this Agent Phoenix was my brother.”
“Arthur. Vampires took him. He was only thirteen.”
“I see…I’m afraid I can’t say anything about that. Agent Walker might be able to answer your questions. I’ll see if he’ll talk to you.”
Alice didn’t respond. She wasn’t sure how to feel about this. Alice had a small sliver of hope that her brother was alive. At the same time, however, she feared this was all some sort of cosmic joke. This Agent Phoenix didn’t seem to have even recognized her.
“Well,” said Dr. Brown. “There is one thing I might be able to do for you now.”
Dr. Brown went over to a table in the corner and picked something up.
“This was found in the grass outside the farmhouse. Given that we fight vampires, it’s the kind of thing we take seriously.”
He showed her the item in his hand. It was her father’s silver cross.
“Agent Walker mentioned that one saved you before. Is this it?”
Alice slowly reached out her hand and took it from him.
“Yes,” she said. “It belonged to my father.”
And Alice knew that if she hadn’t worn it that night, she’d have been taken, just like Penny was. Suddenly the weight of everything that had happened and all that had been lost came crashing down on her. Alice clutched the little cross to her chest and turned to her side as she began crying in earnest.
“We’ll give you some time,” said Dr. Brown.
He drew back and pulled some curtains around her. Alice didn’t even notice as tears fell down her face and all her emotions washed over her.