Chapter Twelve: When the Odds Are Against You
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After an exhausting day of training, Captain Wagner sent Alice and the other recruits to the trainee quarters on the facility's first floor.  This was the only floor above ground and served as the facility’s cover story.  The top floor took the form of a lavish mansion known as Aguillard Manor, constructed in the art nouveau style with lots of columns, arches, and curving flourishes.  The family that owned the manor had been associated with the Night Hunters ever since the mansion’s initial creation.  According to Wagner, they kept the trainees on the top floor because they weren’t ready for active duty.  If there was an emergency requiring evacuation during sleeping hours, this was the fastest way to evacuate the trainees so the full hunters could deal with the problem.

            The elevator to the underground floors was disguised as a normal hallway wall that slid open.  When Alice stepped out of the plain white elevator into this mansion, she realized she’d seen it before.  Her family would pass it on the interstate sometimes, like when going on road trips.  To think that it had been here the entire time and she never knew, but apparently every major city had a facility like this nearby to keep an eye on things, according to agent Walker at least. 

            Agents Thompson and Swan led them down the hallway to a T split.  Agent Thompson led the men to the right, while Agent Swan led the women to the left and held up a clipboard.

            “Remember,” said Agent Swan. “While we expect you to maintain your mental discipline on the job, we are well aware of how straining this line of work will be.  We have psychiatrists and religious leaders from various faiths on level five if you need to talk to someone.  And trust me, chances are that you will need to talk to someone at some point.  Now, when I call your name.  Take the assigned room.  You’ll have normal sleeping hours tonight but be prepared to have that schedule change.  This job will sometimes require you to perform it at night.  Now, recruit Paulsen, room twelve…”

            Agent Swan called out names until Alice was assigned room seventeen along with another woman, recruit Perez.  The room in question had two beds with a change of clothing and boxes filled with tactical gear and a place for their firearms.  Alice took one bed, and the other woman, recruit Perez, took the other.  As they both prepared to get some sleep after a wearying day, the other woman watched her from the corner of her eye.

            “So,” said Perez. “Looks like we’re roommates.”

            Alice glanced at her, seeing a woman of Hispanic descent with dark, wavy hair.

            “Yeah,” said Alice nonchalantly as she continued preparing her bed. “I guess we are.”

            “I’m Marcia,” she said. “Marcia Perez.”

            “Alice Hayes,” said Alice, doing the bare minimum to be polite.

            “Crazy day, huh?” asked Marcia.  When Alice grunted, Marcia continued, “So, how’d you end up joining the Night Hunters?”

            “Look,” said Alice. “I’m not really in the mood to talk.  I just want some sleep.”

            “Oh…” said Marcia, shrugging. “Okay.”

            They didn’t share another word until they went to sleep.

 

Even through the fog over her mind, Penny knew it was all a lie.  The ballroom they danced in looked exquisite, with a diamond chandelier and golden light illuminating the white walls and marble columns.  In truth, it was pitch black, with cracks on the walls and dust everywhere, the chandelier missing entirely.  She seemed to be wearing a fancy white dress with a rose tucked into her ear.  She knew she was wearing the same clothing she’d been taken in.  She seemed to be dancing with an enormously handsome man but knew she was dancing with a monster. 

            On some level, Penny knew that he couldn’t do any of this normally.  The vampires that had attacked their farm hadn’t done anything like this.  Was it because he’d drunk her blood?  That had to be it.  That somehow made her a part of him.  Gave him power over her.  Gave him ownership over her…

            No.  Thought Penny.  That’s what he wanted her to think.  He didn’t own her…and her name wasn’t Miranda like he kept saying.  It was Penny.  Her name was Penny Hayes.  Somehow she knew it was vital to remember that.

            The only part of this that was real was the music.  Victor Sorenson’s human servant, Walter, played a violin while other humans accompanied him on other instruments.  It was a soft, romantic tune that Penny might have enjoyed at one point but was making her sick right now.  The only ones dancing were Victor and Penny, though Penny didn’t wish to.  Her own body betrayed her as Victor led, and she followed.  Even Penny’s eyes betrayed her, showing this lavish scene when she knew the mansion was in ruins.  At least, she vaguely knew it.  It was so hard for her to think right now.

            To the side of the room, with dresses as fancy as her own, a line of vampire women watched the pair dance, looks of adoration on their faces.  The sight of them out of the corner of her eye made Penny cringe.

            Officer Gary Fraiser was in the room, though his situation wasn’t any better than Penny's.  The vampire that had taken him sat in a satin chair, using poor Gary’s back as a footstool while he was on his hands and knees.  Penny didn’t have many chances to check on him, though.  Any time she looked over, Victor would just gently move her face back to him so he could look her in the eye.

            “You dance beautifully, Miranda,” said Victor.

            “Penny…” she said, her voice catching in her throat. “My name is…is…P…Penny.”

            Victor sighed, “Still insisting on that nonsense.  Penny Hayes has such mundane life pouring over old books, studying people who’ve long since died and turned to dust, stressing out on what letter someone will stamp on paper to test your knowledge of such things.  Why bother yourself with all that when every day can be happy and carefree?  Miranda, I can show you such joy if you’ll only let me.”

            The vampire women to the side started agreeing.

            “Yes, Miranda.”

            “Join us, Miranda.”

            “You’ll be so happy, Miranda.”

            “My…name…is…Penny…Hayes,” said Penny, struggling even to think it.

            Victor stopped them dancing.  At the same time, his human servants abruptly stopped playing, the music cutting off like an audio playing turning off.

            “And my name’s Gary,” said Gary. “Not William.

            The vampire using Gary as a footstool lifted her legs and smashed them down, making Gary cry out in pain as he fell flat on his face.

            “Stop it!” cried Penny.

            “Follow me,” said Victor.  Despite how calm he was, Penny felt herself giving him her attention immediately.

            The vampire led her over to a section of the floor that seemed ordinary.  However, with a glance from Victor, two men came over and lifted a hidden trapdoor.  As this trapdoor groaned, it revealed stairs going down into darkness.  Penny could hear the distant shrieks of vampires coming up from that darkness, and it sent shivers down her spine.  She wanted to look away but could feel him in her mind keeping her gaze locked on the stairs.

            “You know what’s down there, don’t you?” asked Victor.  “That’s where the witches who owned this mansion did their work, performing arcane rituals on their victims.  I’m preparing an arcane ritual of my own on those vampires you hear, locked in the dungeons.  As I’m sure you’ve gathered, they aren’t happy about what I’m doing, but that’s their problem.  Your problem is this.  I have my share of patience, but it is not unlimited.  If you insist on resisting me, you can go down there instead of spending time with me.  Whether it’s to become one of those wretches or to be their dinner, I have yet to decide.  I suggest you decide before I do.  Now, tell me again, what is your name?”

            Penny whimpered, tears streaming down her face.  She could hear him in her head, saying over and over that her name was Miranda.  She was desperate to hold on to her own name but couldn’t focus.

            “M…Miranda…” said Penny. “My…my name is…Miranda.”

            “There,” said Victor condescendingly, rubbing his hand through her hair. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?”

Gary, still face down on the floor, glared, his fists clenched.

 

Once again, Alice found herself in that strange dreamscape, her reflection staring back at her from a thousand different places.  She’d found herself there the moment she’d fallen asleep.  The vampire, Jacqueline, sat in her glass cage, a playful smile on her face.  As before, the vampire sat in a chair that reflected from a thousand different places while she remained the only Jacqueline in the room.  She wasn’t drinking from a cup full of blood this time, but that was little comfort.  It occurred to Alice that, if this was taking place in a dream, there was no point in this vampire drinking blood then anyway.  The only reason Alice could think that she’d done so before was that it was just second nature to her.  That didn’t make Alice any more comfortable about this partnership.

            “How long before we can contact Gary and Penny?” asked Alice.

            “Not long,” said Jacqueline. “The vampires have settled into their hideout.  They’re taking time to work on your cousin and partner, but when they focus on their plans for this city, we’ll have time to talk.”

            Alice considered this.

            “What we’re doing here won’t interfere with your ability to spy on the vampires, will it?”

            “You let me worry about that.  You just focus on helping your people.”

            Alice crossed her arms and tapped her foot.  Moments later, she began pacing back and forth, seeing a thousand reflections of her pace back and forth with her.  The vampire Jacqueline watched her with a mischievous glint in her eye, though Alice tried to ignore her for now, a feat that she found difficult.

            “You seem tense, Alice,” said Jacqueline.

            Alice stopped.

            “It’s just…”

            Alice hesitated.  She was reluctant to confide too much in this woman.  Alice hadn’t dismissed the possibility that this Jacqueline had her own agenda and was using her as a pawn for some ulterior motive.  That being said, Alice was desperate to do something about this situation, and she needed information if she was going to make this arrangement work.  Anything Jacqueline said, Alice would have to take with a grain of salt.

            Alice sighed and said, “I guess I’m still wondering what’s real and what’s not.  This place seems so real, and yet by your own admission, it’s all in our minds.  If vampires can do this, then how do I tell illusion from reality?”

            “Yes,” said Jacqueline cheerfully. “That does sound frustrating.”

            Alice grimaced.

            “Oh, don’t give me that look,” said Jacqueline. “I’m only teasing.  You really don’t need to worry so much about it.  Vampires can only cast their glamours under specific circumstances.  Most of the time, the only images they can alter in people’s minds are their own image or the image of something they own, such as clothing.  If they do not have a claim of ownership over it, they cannot cover it in a glamour.  Vampires only have one way around this restriction.”

            “Drinking blood,” said Alice.

            “Exactly.  By drinking the blood of a human, vampires take in a human’s essence, making that human a part of them, in a way.  This allows them to not only alter that human’s appearance in the minds of others, but they also gain more control over that human, including changing how they see the world around them.  Creating mental worlds and the like.  Without blood, a vampire’s power over you is limited.”

            Alice grew suspicious.

            “But you haven’t tasted my blood,” said Alice coldly. “And yet you can pull me into a mental world.”

            “I told you, I’m…”

            “Connected to Victor.  Yes, I remember.  All vampires are connected on some level.  That explains how you could appear in Victor Sorenson’s mental world, but it doesn’t explain why you could pull me out of it and into yours.  If it’s just about vampires being connected, then any vampire could pull me into a mental world.  Victor could just pull me right out of yours and back into his.  Victor may have only drunk Penny’s blood, but it’s more than you’ve got, so there’s no reason you should be able to do any of this.”

            Jacqueline frowned, and Alice looked her right in the eye.

            “There’s something you’re not telling me,” said Alice.

            Jacquline seemed to consider that for a moment, her demeanor growing quite serious.

            “Honestly, Alice, there’s a lot I haven’t told you.  I don’t want to risk my position with the Night Hunters too badly, after all.”

            Alice just glared at her.

            “Alice, I understand if you don’t trust me.  I even understand if you don’t believe I’m trying to better myself.  But Alice, you need me to help Penny and Gary, and I want to help you help them.  Really, I do.  I can’t do that if you don’t let me.”

            Alice clenched her fists.  She was a long way from being ready to fight vampires on the front lines, so naturally, Jacqueline was right.  Alice felt like she was being backed into a corner.

            “But you didn’t let me finish,” the vampire continued. “If you want to know if you’re in a mental world created by a vampire, there’s a very simple method to find out.  Just focus as hard as you can on a specific image.  You know the one.”

            That hadn’t occurred to Alice, but upon hearing that, she did know the right image.  She closed her eyes and thought of a Christian cross.  The first example of that symbol that came to mind was her father’s cross, and thinking of that seemed to summon that familiar weight around her neck.  Alice pulled out the little silver cross that her father had given her, her face showing in its reflective surface.

            The moment she did, the room started shaking, and Alice could hear the rumbling of an earthquake.  Looking around, Alice saw cracks forming on the walls, starting small and slowly webbing out.  Then Alice saw Jacqueline.  The vampire had her hands on her head, and her eyes shut tight.  She was clearly in pain.

            Alice put the cross back into her shirt and put it out of her mind.  Within moments the room stopped shaking, the cracks on the walls began receding, and Jacqueline seemed to recover.

            “Yes,” said Jacqueline. “As you can see, that image is poison to our minds, especially when tied to a familiar object like yours.”

            “I thought vampires could become immune to that,” said Alice.

            Jacqueline, rubbing her temples, said, “It’s more like we can train ourselves to ignore the symbol and focus on other things.  Our hunger, for instance.  But that’s in the real world.  In a mental world, connecting to a mind focusing on that image is a different story.  Don’t expect it to work on a vampire that’s drunk of your blood directly, however.  He can just feed his pain right back to you.  Still, it will at least confirm if you’re in a mental world and should protect you from vampires who’ve connected to you indirectly, so remember that.”

            Yeah, thought Alice, I’ll remember that.

            Jacqueline looked to her left and said, “It’s time.”

            One of the walls turned transparent, showing the rooms with Penny and Gary in them.  Alice walked over and put her hands on the glass.  Penny and Gary came over, and this time they didn’t seem surprised to see her.

            “Hey Gary,” said Alice. “Penny.  How are you holding up?”

            “I’m holding,” said Gary, smiling halfheartedly.

            “Y…yeah,” said Penny, looking down as she fidgeted with her hands. “I’m holding.”

            “Okay,” said Alice, nodding. “Then let’s start from the top.  Your name is Penny Hayes…”

 

“So,” said Paul Hayes, his voice raspy and strained. “My little niece, a vampire hunter, eh?”

            “Apparently we’ll fight more than that,” said Alice. “But yeah.”

            It was early morning as Alice sat by her Uncle’s hospital bed on the hospital floor of the facility.  She’d been given time to visit him, but she’d have to start the day’s training soon.  Alice’s mother still lay in a bed nearby, unconscious, and Alice spared her a periodic glance.  Her Uncle smiled at her, but she could see the worry in his eyes.  He still had an ugly bruise on his neck, which Alice tried not to focus on.

            “I’ll be fine,” said Alice. “Really.  And I’m going to find Penny, I promise.”

            “All by yourself?” he said jokingly.

            Alice smirked.

            “No,” said Alice. “There are more of us here.”

            “Good,” said Paul. “It’d be a pretty tall order to fight an army of vampires on your own.”

            They smiled for a moment, but silence hung in the air as they did. Alice found that putting a brave face on all of this was exhausting. Uncle Paul must have felt the same way, as his next question was decidedly less teasing.

            “Where are they keeping Betty and Ryan?” he asked, his voice still slow and strained.

            “They have a morgue,” said Alice. “They're keeping them frozen until we can have a proper funeral.”

            He swallowed, a tear forming at the corner of his eye, “I still can't believe they're gone.”

            “Yeah,” said Alice, her own eyes watering. “I know what you mean.”

            “Alice,” said Paul. “Promise me you'll find someone you can trust.”

            Alice tilted her head, wondering where this was coming from.

            “I'm serious, Alice,” he struggled to get the words out.  “I know what happened after Arthur disappeared, how you withdrew from the world.  I can’t say I blame you, Alice, but this time is different, and it’s different from facing a single monster.  I don’t know if there’s anyone you can trust with these Night Hunters, but I don’t think you can do this alone.  Not this time.”

            Alice didn’t answer for a moment.  She took his hand in hers and squeezed.

            “You just worry about yourself, Uncle,” said Alice. “And try not to talk too much.  You can say all you want when your neck gets better.  Okay?”

            “Some things just need to be said,” said Paul.

 

Captain Wagner, Agent Walker, Agent Thompson, and Agent Swan led Alice and the other recruits through the facility’s hallways.  Alice was expecting another brutal day of training.  She didn’t know if she’d be able to kill one of those monsters in the shooting range but would consider it progress if she didn’t throw up again.  As Alice tried to prepare herself mentally, something happened.

            “Recruits, stand aside!” shouted Captain Wagner.

            The recruits backed against the wall, letting a group of people pass.  They all wore military style gear and had swords at their sides.  As Alice stood with her back to the wall, she saw five individuals.  At the front was a man with skin black as night, a grizzly beard, white streaks in his hair, and sunglasses over his eyes.  Behind him walked Agent Phoenix, his face as impenetrable as ever.  Alice noted that she was still thinking of this man as Agent Phoenix even though she’d gotten confirmation that this was Arthur.  She was having trouble connecting this man to the little boy she remembered.  He was just so cold and withdrawn.  He didn’t even seem to notice Alice as he walked by.

            Next came a red haired man with sharp features and a cocky grin.  After him walked a woman with short, dark hair who looked Greek to Alice and had piercing green eyes, and finally, there was a dark skinned woman with her hair in cornrow braids.  As they walked, the red haired man tailed Agent Phoenix rather closely.

            “I’m just saying, dude,” said the redhead. “You like killing vampires.  I like killing vampires.  We’ve got something to talk about, right?  Hello?  Anyone home?”

            Agent Phoenix didn’t answer and just kept staring ahead.  The redhead rolled his eyes.

            “Good grief,” said the redhead. “Does anything cheer this guy up?”

            “Oh, leave him alone,” said the green eyed woman. “If we wants to brood by himself, let him.”

            The group walked on, turning a corner, and Alice felt vindicated on her previous judgment.  Agent Phoenix, her brother, was cold and withdrawn indeed, not just to her but to everyone.

            “I’m sure a lot of you are wondering who those people are,” said Captain Wagner once the other group was out of view. “You might as well know that the Night Hunters have agents with powers similar to those we fight, such as those five.  Four are dhampirs, and one is something called a crucivire.  You’ll see them around and may one day get to work with them if you’re lucky.  Now that you know, don’t concern yourself too much with them.  You have your own training to worry about.  Let’s move.”

            Alice watched Agent Phoenix leave for one more second before she fell in line.  Captain Wagner was probably right.  She should just focus on her own training.

 

The day’s training included more footage of supernatural creatures for mental preparation, a classroom setting going over the various types of creatures and how to fight them, crash courses on the various weapons the night hunters used, and another round in the atypical shooting range.  Alice once again failed to kill a single chupacabra and had to watch another set of goats get ripped to shreds.  That was frustrating, though she was far from the only person struggling.  None of the recruits managed to kill one.  Two bullets to kill one was the ideal, one to slow it down and one through a vital point, but Alice doubted she’d ever do it with five.

            At least she didn’t vomit this time.

            By the latter half of the day, Alice was feeling exhausted again.  Captain Wagner led her and the other recruits in the other direction.  As they walked through the plain white walls of the facility, Alice started hearing something, a set of clangs.  She realized it was coming from a door on her left.

            As she passed by, a night hunter in uniform left the room, and Alice momentarily got a glimpse of the inside.  The clangs were swords, and it was Agent Phoenix sparring with the Greek woman.  They moved faster than Alice could track, spark flying as their swords collided.  The door closed soon, so Alice only got a glimpse of what these people could do, but it was enough.  These people were easily out of her league.

            And she’d be expected to monsters with power just like that, and not just animals in a controlled environment.  The thought of this sent shivers down Alice’s spine.

 

Alice made her bed for the evening, recruit Perez doing the same.  Alice felt tired, more tired than she had the previous night.  Her arms and legs were sore, and her head was throbbing.  Worse than the physical exhaustion was the mental exhaustion.  The more Alice learned about all these monsters, the more she was second guessing her decision to join the night hunters.  At the very least, she was considering a trip to level five, as Agent Swan had suggested.  She had no intention of quitting now, though.  Penny and Gary needed her.

            Gary.

            Thinking of him made Alice pause.  She thought of all the times he’d invited her to socialize with the other officers outside of work.  They got along when on the job and had a perfectly fine working relationship, but Alice hadn’t let it go past that.  She thought of all the movie nights, bowling nights, and game nights she’d missed out on, preferring instead to stay home alone.  There were never any romantic implications to his invites, just a chance to hang out with the people they worked with.  Chances that Alice may never have again.

            For a moment, Alice glanced at recruit Perez out of the corner of her eye.  Once again, Alice was paired with someone who tried to be friendly, and Alice had shut her down.  She was slipping into her old habit of shutting people out when things got hard.  It got her thinking.  She’d been judging Agent Phoenix…Arthur…for being cold and withdrawn, but was she really much better?  At that moment, she realized that her uncle was right.  She couldn’t afford to face all of this alone.  Not this time.

            Alice took a deep breath.

            “The hard way,” said Alice.

            “What?” asked Perez.

            “You asked me how I got recruited by the Night Hunters,” said Alice. “I found out about vampires the hard way.  Almost got taken by one and barely managed to kill it.”

            The two women finished their beds and lay down.  They lay on their sides so they could look each other in the eye.

            “Trial by fire, huh?” asked Perez.

            “Yeah.  How about you, Recruit Perez?”

            “You can call me Marcia when we’re off duty,” she replied with a smile.

            “Okay, Marcia,” said Alice. “I’m Alice.”

            “Hello, Alice.  Anyway, I was in the U.S. Army for three years.  I was set to serve more, but when the Night Hunters need recruits, various world governments offer a transfer to any servicemembers they think are a good fit.”

            Alice wasn’t surprised that the government, much less others around the world, were aware of the Night Hunter’s existence and kept it a secret.

            “I was given the offer,” Marcia continued. “I’ve seen some action, including some missions that went wrong.  I’ve seen things that have broken some people.  I managed to keep myself together and continue the fight, and I guess the Night Hunters thought I’d have the mental fortitude necessary to work for them.  I joined the army to make a difference in the world, and I figured this was an opportunity to make a pretty big difference, so I accepted.”

            “Did it help?” asked Alice. “Prepare you for this job, I mean.”

            Marcia sighed.

            “Not as much as I would have liked,” said Marcia. “I swear, five minutes into that footage on day one, and I’m already having second thoughts.  I mean, I’ve seen stuff like that in horror movies, but those were always kind of safe.  In the back of my mind I always knew it was just special effects, but it’s pretty different when you know it’s real.  Honestly, I’m surprised I got any sleep last night.” 

            “Yeah,” said Alice. “I know exactly what you mean.”

            “And what about you?” asked Marcia, a mischievous glint in her eye. “Did killing a vampire give you a surge of confidence?”

            Alice looked down.

            “Not as much as you’d think,” said Alice. “Honestly, I was terrified.  I just wanted us to survive the night.  I ultimately joined because the vampires took people close to me.  I don’t know if I’ll be able to help get them back, but I won’t know unless I do this.” She looked up.  “It’s a terrifying job, but someone’s got to do it.”

            Marcia nodded and said, “Yeah.  I know what you mean.”

            They lay back, getting comfortable.  Both were ready for a good night's sleep, and Alice felt just a little better about all of this.

            “Hey,” said Marcia. “One more thing.  That guy who showed up in the cafeteria.  The one with the cross tattoos.  He’s one of those special agents, right?  How do you know him?”

            Alice felt her mood drop instantly.

            “Sorry,” said Alice. “It’s complicated.  I don’t want to talk about it.  At least…not yet.”

            Marcia nodded and said, “I understand.  Goodnight, Alice.”

            “Goodnight.”

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