“A few nights ago,” said Director Farrow. “A security camera in a back alley caught a known vampire outside his glamour. This vampire has been identified as Eric Hale.”
Director Farrow stood at the head of a conference table, images projected behind him. Those images showed a vampire stalking an unaware woman in an alley before grabbing her from behind. Watching intently, Agent Phoenix, Gordon Brand, Cora Mires, Jasmine Ross, and Jaiden Blau sat on either side of the table, taking in every word.
“According to our source,” said Farrow. “Eric, a warrior class vampire, should know where the vampires are hiding. He’s been spotted on the southwest side of the city, near the nightlife district. Your mission is to capture him and get whatever information from him you can. Your priority, as I’ve sure you’ve guessed, is to extract the location of the vampires’ headquarters in Saint Vivia as well as the method they’re using to hide all those vampires. Any questions?”
Jasmine Ross raised her hand.
“What’s this source you mentioned?” she asked.
“Classified,” said Farrow. “Need to know only.”
“I think they need to know,” said Agent Phoenix.
All eyes turned to him, and for his part, Agent Phoenix didn’t flinch, his face hard and stern. Gordon shook his head gently, Cora pursed her lips, and Jaiden pretended to be fascinated by the wall.
“Well, that’s not your decision, Agent Phoenix,” said Farrow.
Agent Phoenix just shrugged. Jasmine squirmed uncomfortably in her seat, regretting even asking the question.
“Any more questions?” asked Farrow, and when no one answered, he said, “Alright then. You have your mission. Dismissed.”
The sight of the mirror prison was starting to look familiar to Alice. She paced around, her many reflections pacing with her as Jacqueline sat in her chair. Despite being familiar, Alice still wasn’t entirely comfortable here, and Jacqueline’s mischievous grin wasn't helping matters. Finally, Alice couldn’t stand the quiet anymore.
“Are you making any progress finding the vampires’ hideout?” asked Alice.
“I’m afraid not,” said Jacqueline. “Any vampires drawn to wherever they’re hiding are put into a sort of trance. I can’t glean from their minds where they’re going because they themselves do not know. Any vampire not put in a trance is skilled enough to thwart unwanted visitors. I can get bits and pieces of useful information here and there, but they’re being very careful with the important info.”
Alice clenched her fists in frustration.
“You’d think a gathering of a hundred vampires would be easier to find,” she said.
“You’re right,” Jacqueline admitted. “The Night Hunters are efficient. They should have found something by now.”
Alice took a deep breath.
“I want you to teach me how to defend myself in a mental world,” said Alice.
Jacqueline raised an eyebrow, “Why?”
“If the hunters can’t even find them,” said Alice. “Then buying Penny and Gary more time will be for nothing. I have another idea on how we can help them, but I’ll need to prepare for it. I’m pretty sure it’ll be dangerous, and I’m hoping it doesn’t come to that, but at this rate, we’re going to need a plan b. So teach me.”
“You still don’t fully trust me,” said Jacqueline. “Any training I give you could be a ruse for all you know.”
“Another reason I hope it doesn’t come to that. As I said, I need another option.”
Jacqueline smiled, “Alright then, I’ll teach you. For offensive options, you can already summon the image of a cross. Its uses in the physical world may be limited, but it will be very effective against vampires in a mental world.
“You’ll also want to learn to turn your emotions into a weapon. Nothing disrupts thoughts better than strong emotions. Think of something that makes you angry. The angrier, the better. Then take that anger and imagine it as a weapon.”
Alice nodded, thinking of Penny and Gary being prisoners of those vampires. She could feel the anger bubbling up, and she pictured it flowing out of her and into her hands, taking the shape of a rifle. The rifle Alice ended up with looked fuzzy, like a picture out of focus. She wasn’t particularly confident it would be helpful.
“Needs a little work,” said Jacqueline, rubbing her chin. “But it’s got a lot of emotion behind it. It shouldn’t take long to learn to use it, especially if you combine it with the image of a cross. Where you’re going to need the most practice, I suspect, is in defense. Without psychic powers of your own, your best defense will be misdirection. I want you to picture a playing card. It doesn’t matter which one.”
Alice nodded, thinking hard, and soon she held a card in her hands, the queen of diamonds.
“What I want you to do,” said Jacqueline. “Is see one image yourself, but project another to me without me detecting it. Learn to hide your thoughts. Oh, and by the way? I already know it’s the queen of diamonds, so try it with a different card.”
Alice sighed. She had a sinking feeling that this was going to take a while.
After a week in the shooting range, Alice and the remaining recruits could reliably kill the chupacabras in four or five shots, three at best. Alice was proud of the progress she’d made, and by the end of that week, they’d managed to consistently kill every single chupacabra before they could reach the goats at the end of the track, earning them some applause from Wagner, Walker, Thompson, and Swan the first time they did it. In addition to this, they’d spent plenty of time in a normal shooting range learning to shoot a variety of different body types accurately. There were targets shaped like humanoid forms, creatures hunched over, creatures with four legs, and even a few with tentacles. All the recruits had increased their accuracy significantly since they’d begun.
During that week they also got information on a variety of supernatural monsters from their classroom sessions. Alice was alright in the shooting range at this point, but memorizing the various monsters and ways to fight them seemed to come more easily to her. She passed her written exams with flying colors. She just hoped she’d do as well in the field.
At the end of this particular week, Wagner, Walker, Thompson, and Swann led them to another area of the facility, each of the tall captain’s steps booming. He entered a room and had them line up. There were four plain white walls, a single blast door on the other end, and a weapons rack to the side. Wagner turned and faced the recruits, his face grave. Alice stood with Marcia, Harry, Jamar, Terry, and Robert next to her, waiting for the man to speak.
“You’ve taken a big step,” he said. “You’ve achieved the bare minimum skills we need for this job. Congratulations. Unfortunately, we come to the moment of truth. We cannot train you to fight monsters from the safety of a shooting range forever. Sooner or later, you’ll have to face these things head-on. We’ve decided that it should be sooner.”
“Excellent,” whispered Jamar, though out of the corner of her eye, she could see him swallow. She wondered just how much of that bravado was genuine.
“Inside that room,” continued Wagner. “Is a maze. In that maze, you will each encounter a supernatural creature. Your job is to correctly identify the creature and kill it with the tools provided, the standard equipment when investigating a supernatural event. For your safety, this maze can drop walls to cut you off from the monster if necessary, and you will each be accompanied by a full night hunter in case things go wrong. When you’re in the maze, you will work as you do on an assignment, with the full hunter acting as an observer. In the event something goes wrong, that hunter will assume command.
“Be warned,” Wagner’s voice went quite serious. “While we take every possible precaution, we are still coming face to face with some of the most dangerous creatures in the world. We’ll do everything we can to prevent serious injury, but we cannot fully guarantee your safety. Of course, if you are overly concerned for your safety, then you’re seeking the wrong career. With that in mind, if anyone wants to bow out before things get really dangerous, now is your last chance.”
Alice stayed where she was, taking in the seriousness of what Wagner had just said. Not a single recruit moved. Wagner looked over them for a few moments and then smiled.
“Excellent,” he said, his voice booming loudly. “Recruits Jones and Carson, you’re first.”
Robert Jones and another man went in, led by Agent Thompson, while the rest of the recruits waited. After about a few minutes, they came out, looking shaken but otherwise unharmed. Soon Captain Wagner called out another pair of names, and another pair of recruits went in, followed by another pair. Each new pair that went in came out shaken, and some of them came out with injuries. One was bitten by something, and one came out with his hair and skin turned pure white. Jamar came out with a hole in his uniform and a burn on his skin. The strange thing about this injury was that the hole and the skin burn were shaped like a human hand.
“You okay?” asked Alice.
“I’m Fine,” said Jamar, supported by Agent Thompson. “Don’t worry about me.”
That didn’t stop her from worrying.
All of those recruits were taken to the hospital wing immediately. Every time Alice saw something like that, she took a deep breath. This was going to be intense.
Finally, Alice’s name was called, alongside Terry Caldwell. Alice steeled herself and went to retrieve her weapon and equipment. In addition to her rifle with flashlight attachment, she had other standard weapons for a Night hunter to carry, including alternative clips filled with silver or iron tipped rounds, three incendiary grenades, three flashbangs, a bottle of flammable oil, and some flares. There was also a knife provided as a last resort weapon. Most of the blade was steel, but it was also inlaid with a line of iron and one of silver to kill multiple creatures. Last but not least, there was a flashlight to clip onto her uniform in case she needed to see something she didn’t want to point a gun at.
Alice strapped the items to her uniform and turned to follow one of the hunters inside. To Alice’s surprise, it was Agent Wagner himself leading them in. Alice noticed that he hadn’t done this for any of the other recruits, leaving Walker, Thompson, and Swan to lead those in. Though she noted this, she decided not to ask about it, instead focusing on the task at hand.
“You ready for this?” Alice asked Terry.
At first, he didn’t answer, his mind seemingly elsewhere, but he quickly noticed her and replied with a smile. “Yeah. As ready as I’ll ever be.”
He seemed nervous, not that Alice blamed him. She had to admit she was pretty nervous herself.
The blast door opened slowly, five inches of pure steel going up as the mechanism strained to lift it. When the door was completely open, Wagner, Alice, and Terry entered. The space they found inside was wide and illuminated with very little light, presumably because the monster inside couldn’t tolerate any more. Alice saw a hallway in three directions; left, right, and ahead within that limited illumination. A few feet into each hallway was another blast door, each closed. Cameras lined the roof, presumably with people in a security room watching their every move.
Wagner stepped up.
“Prepare yourselves,” said Wagner. “In a moment, we will open you to a part of the maze where the monster has been, allowing you to deduce what we’re up against, though we’ll still be cut off from where it is now. Note the red lights on the floor.”
A line of red lights lit up at the base of every blast door in the hallways.
“When you see a red line on the floor light up,” said Wagner. “That blast door is set to make an emergency drop to protect you from the monster. Make certain no part of you is over that line when that happens.
“You will also note the levers on either side of each door. While our men watching through cameras will drop the doors when necessary, those levers are a manual override in case of a system error. Make sure you know where the nearest lever relative to the creature is at all times. Are you ready?”
“Ready,” said Alice and Terry at once.
“Alright,” said Wagner. “Let’s begin.”
One of the blast doors before them began to open, the sound of machinery groaning as the heavy metal door slowly rose into the roof. Once the door was completely open, they could see a hallway with rows and rows of open blast doors with another t split at the end.
Agent Wagner led them into the maze. This trip lasted a few minutes as they took a few turns along the way. Finally, they turned a corner to find a pile of bones smashed to pieces. Alice vaguely recognized the skull of a goat, split in two. She also noticed a layer of frost on the pile, frost covering the wall, and a trail of frost on the floor leading to a closed blast door.
“Alright,” said Wagner. “First, identify the threat based on these remains. If you are incorrect or fail to make an identification within ten minutes, then you fail this test. If you state the incorrect method for killing the creature, you fail the test. If you are correct, then we open the maze and test your ability to kill the creature. Begin.”
Alice and Terry knelt next to the pile of bones. There wasn’t a single piece of flesh left. Even the brain was missing from the split skull. While that narrowed the field, Alice started with the layer of frost, thinking of creatures that left a trail of it. Yuki-onna? Those didn’t eat flesh. Yetis? The bite marks were wrong. These were less like a gorilla and more canine. She couldn’t think of any supernatural dogs or wolves that left a trail of frost.
“Any ideas?” Alice asked Terry.
“Huh?” he asked distractedly. “Uh, no. Nothing yet.”
He still seemed nervous. Not that Alice blamed him, but this was exactly the wrong time to lose one’s nerve.
“I hate to interrupt,” said Wagner. “But you are on a timer. I’d hurry it up if I were you.”
Alice closed her eyes and thought some more. A creature that left a trail of frost but left canine teeth marks and devoured all of the flesh on a creature. A barghest, maybe? No. Those were a type of ghost. Ghosts left a chill in the air, but not enough to cause frost. Of all the supernatural canines Alice could think of, none of them left a trail of frost. Unless…it was only part canine. Something that left a trail of frost and devoured all the flesh on its victims. She thought of the yeti, the chenoo, and the wendigo, and then finally, one came to her, something that had a head like a wolf but was vaguely humanoid. It was the only explanation.
“A wechuge,” said Alice, pronouncing it as way-chu-gay. She looked up at Wagner. “It’s a wechuge.”
Wechuge. That was a human transformed into a type of cursed beast with a literal heart of ice. Alice remembered it clearly from her lessons.
“And how, recruit Hayes, does one kill a wechuge?” asked Wagner.
“Destroy the ice heart,” said Alice. “Shattering it by stabbing or shooting it will temporarily weaken it, but the ice will repair itself. To destroy the heart completely, you have to melt it. We can use the incendiary grenades or the flammable oil to set a trap.”
“Is that your final answer?” said Wagner.
“I’m sure of it,” said Alice.
At the corner of his mouth, Alice detected the barest hint of a grin.
“Alright then. What about you, recruit Caldwell?”
“Yeah,” said Terry, smiling nervously. “Wechuge. Sounds right to me.”
It was at that moment that Alice realized Terry was shaking. He wasn’t just nervous. He was terrified. Even Captain Wagner raised an eyebrow.
“Caldwell,” said Wagner. “Are you…”
The lights went out, plunging them all into complete darkness and making Alice jump.
“Stay calm,” said Wagner, stepping close to Alice. “That wasn’t supposed to happen, but the creature should still be separated from us, and even if it isn’t, the manual override for the blast doors will be on emergency power.”
He pulled out a two way radio, and Alice turned on the flashlight on her rifle as well as the one clipped to her uniform as she looked around for the unlikely event that the wechuge came looking for them. She shined her lights down the empty corridor. Despite the creature supposedly being cut off from them, she couldn’t help but imagine it lurking in the shadows where her lights couldn’t reach.
“Agent Swan, what’s going on?” said Wagner into the radio. “Agent Swan? Agent…”
Suddenly Alice heard a crackling sound as Agent Wagner fell over, the impact of his body hitting the floor almost shaking the room. Alice aimed her uniform light down to see Wagner convulsing on the floor; his face screwed up in pain as taser bolts stuck out through his uniform.
She only saw this for a second before a dark figure came at her. Alice gasped as she tried to raise her gun, only for the figure to move the barrel away before she could fire. For a moment, the light from her uniform flashlight revealed Terry, his face set in determination as he punched Alice in the face.
Everything went blurry as Alice fell over, Terry ripping the gun from her hand and throwing it away. As she hit the floor, her sight managed to clear up just in time to see Terry, his face hidden in shadow as he tossed the gun away, a syringe in his right hand.
Alice reached for the knife at her belt, but Terry just grabbed her hand, pinning it to the floor as he put the syringe at her neck and knelt on her chest. Thinking quickly, Alice reached for the knife at Terry’s belt wither left hand. Feeling the knife slide out, Terry reached down with his syringe hand and Alice barely managed to get the knife out and cut that hand, making him cry out in pain and drop the syringe.
Alice tried to stab him, but he grabbed her hand. As her arm came down, Alice just managed to aim it so that her elbow crushed the syringe. As he held her wrists to the floor, he saw the broken syringe on the floor and grunted in frustration. Alice struggled to get him off of her, but she couldn’t budge him. She looked up at his cold, uncaring face and couldn’t find a hint of the friendly man she’d met just a few days ago.
“Why are you doing this?” she pleaded.
“Sorry,” he said. “No time to explain. But if it’s any consolation, this is nothing personal.”
Terry slammed his forehead into hers, which in turn hit her head against the floor.
Once again, Alice felt everything go blurry, and this time the blurriness persisted. Alice weakly tried to resist as she felt him tying her hands and feet and removing her gear. Alice felt everything go dark for a little bit, closing her eyes.
When Alice came to, she was being dragged by her feet through the maze, her arms and hands bound and her mouth gagged. The only lights were those of Terry’s gun and his uniform light. Alice struggled but couldn’t get free. The cords around her hands and feet were too tight, and Terry was strong. Alice tried to speak through her gag, wanting desperately to ask him why he was doing this and, more importantly, plead that he let her go.
“Shut up,” said Terry.
Alice kept trying to speak through the gag.
“Would you shut up already!” Terry cried. “I’ll…”
He was cut off by a sound, one that Alice heard as well. Terry looked back where they’d come from, his eyes wide with fear. It was a sequential series of something impacting the floor and echoing through the maze. Judging by the rhythm, it could have been something running, but it would have to be something very big and very heavy. Terry raised his gun flashlight, illuminating the corridor.
Alice twisted to look up. Around a corner in the distance, Alice saw Captain Wagner stumble into view in the light of Terry’s flashlight, rifle in hand. He looked the wrong way first, prompting Terry to raise his rifle and fire. Alice could just barely see bullets striking the large man, piercing his uniform, but Wagner’s only movement was to turn to look at Terry. Despite Terry shooting bullets into him, he didn’t look hurt.
He looked angry. Very angry. And it was at that moment Alice realized Terry had never been afraid of the monster in the maze. He was terrified of Wagner.
Terry started breathing heavily, his own face contorted with fear as he reached for an emergency override Lever. As Wagner raised his rifle, Terry pulled the lever. The red line lit up on the floor and the blast door fell, the impact sending shockwaves up and down Alice’s spine. Alice could just hear the bullet ricocheting off the metal. Moments later, Wagner’s renewed footsteps were audible even through the closed blast door.
In a panic, Terry pulled Alice over towards the next blast door line. As Alice struggled with her bonds, she started to feel Wagner’s steps reverberating through the floor. Before Alice and Terry crossed the next door, the one blocking off Wagner began to rise, presumably because Wagner had turned that lever. Before Terry could pull the next lever, they heard the machinery of the door groan as it started rising fast. Laying there, Alice saw the astonishing sight of Wagner pushing the door up with his bare hands. He groaned from the effort, but he was able to do it nonetheless.
Alice lay there, her eyes wide as she wondered just what Captain Wagner was.
Terry, panting with fear, pulled the lever to cut him off before dragging Alice to the next blast door as fast as possible. As Wagner opened another door, pulling it up with considerable effort, Terry cut him off yet again. A third time Terry dragged her to the next door, Wagner forced one up, and Terry cut him off.
As they repeated this process, turning a corner at least once, Alice noticed Terry slowing down. With each new door he dragged Alice to, he seemed to tug at her legs with less strength than before. The man was practically hyperventilating with fear, and seeing this, Alice came up with a plan. It was risky, but she wasn’t about to just let him carry her out of there.
When Terry dragged her across yet another line where the blast door would fall, grunting from the effort, Alice watched his hand go for the lever in the light of Carson’s uniform flashlight. As Wagner pushed up another door, Alice waited for the moment he had the lever almost all the way down and pulled her legs away.
“No!” cried Terry.
Alice ignored the red line of light as she rolled over, getting on the other side of the blast just before it crashed to the ground. The impact ran through her body as she felt goosebumps on her flesh. She lay back, panting heavily and trying to slow her breathing. Moments later, Captain Wagner walked up and knelt next to her.
“A bold escape, recruit Hayes,” he said as he grabbed the cords on her hands and ripped them as easily as one might rip paper. “Well done.”
He ripped the cords from Alice’s legs as she undid the gag from her mouth. Wagner offered a hand to help her up, and Alice accepted. Once standing, she still felt shaken from the experience. She also felt a little dizzy, her head still throbbing from the blows she’d received. Alice looked at Wagner with a newfound appreciation, even if she was a little intimidated by him now. She could see the bullet holes in his uniform and still no sign that he was hurt.
“Permission to speak freely, sir?” asked Alice.
“You want to ask what I am,” said Wagner. “But that’s a question for later. Right now, we have more pressing questions. What was his plan for getting you out of here? There’s no way he turned out the lights himself, so who’s he working with? Also, why haven’t we gotten backup? After an outage like that, someone should have come in to extract us. We need to get out of here, so follow me.”
Alice nodded, and they turned to leave. Soon they walked through the empty corridor, heading for the exit by following the same path they’d used before. The maze felt eerily silent now, with no sign of Terry. Their footsteps echoed as they went, Wagner’s more than Alice’s.
“The Night Hunters knew something like this would happen, didn’t they?” asked Alice.
“What makes you say that?”
“Because they sent you to be my bodyguard.”
“Yes, Miss Hayes,” he said. “We thought the vampires might make a move to capture you, though we didn’t necessarily expect it to happen inside this facility. I can’t believe we have traitors here, but it’s the only explanation.”
Traitors. Like Terry.
“I can’t believe Terry would do this,” she said. “He seemed so…nice.”
“That’s the problem with moles,” said Wagner. “If they’re good at their job, you won’t know them for what they are until it’s too late.”
Alice couldn’t argue with that.
Fortunately, Terry had simply discarded Alice’s equipment, and they found it lying on the floor. Wagner went ahead and signaled her to pick it up, their flashlights illuminating the floor where all of it lay. It took a few moments for her to pick up her items. In the middle of picking up her gear, she suddenly felt his hand on her shoulder.
“Alice,” he said, his voice a whisper. “Don’t make any sudden movements.
The older man looked down the hallway, and Alice followed his gaze, careful not to move suddenly. It was then that Alice heard something that sent a shiver down her spine; deep raspy breathing from down the corridor.
Neither Alice nor Wagner raised their flashlights, but Alice could barely see something in the distance. The first thing she saw was a pair of pale yellow eyes glowing in the darkness. Whatever this thing was, it was tall but hunched over with long, slender limbs. As Alice watched it, goosebumps forming at her flesh, Captain Wagner slowly but surely stepped over and reached for the emergency override lever next to him.
It went from still to moving fast in a moment, making Alice jump. Wagner wasted no time, moving to the right and pulling a lever, slamming a blast door in front of them before the creature could get close. For a few moments, they heard feral growling on the other side of the door, which started to frost over.
Just as Alice and Wagner were catching their breath, they heard a lever being pulled behind them. They turned to see a split second of Terry just before the blast door fell, trapping Alice and Wagner between Terry and the creature.
“Brace yourself, Alice,” said Wagner, hefting his rifle.
Alice quickly finished gathering her equipment and raised her rifle as she stared at a blast door, preparing herself for the worst.