Chapter Seventeen: Death and Disease
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Alice’s next few days of training were lonely.  She was kept isolated at most times, only interacting directly with Captain Wagner and Agent Walker.  Both were supportive, or at least Wagner was when he wasn’t yelling at her during training, but Alice still felt the stress of the situation.  Every potential face she looked at could potentially be a mole.

            On the bright side, her training was getting better.  It would be a while before the maze was ready again, but Alice was already excelling at identifying supernatural creatures during written exams.  Even her aim was getting better, so Alice was confident she’d be ready for this job.  Her training with Jacqueline in the mental world was going well too.  Alice was more successfully hiding her thoughts from the vampire.  Hopefully, it would be enough if Alice was forced to use her plan b.

            Finally, they were presented with the optional training.  Alice and the other recruits were given a stack of papers.  Each page explained a type of training with a small form to fill out to apply for it.  Among the optional courses were magic theory, sniper training, monster trapping, and, of course, werewolf taming, among others.  Alice looked over the courses carefully.  Magic theory was an obvious choice, considering it might soon become relevant.  She wasn’t confident enough in her aim for sniping and couldn’t see herself trying to capture monsters alive.  Ultimately, she decided to take Wagner’s advice and fill out the werewolf taming form.  The only other course that she applied for was advanced scouting, where she’d be one of the first to go in and find out what sort of monster they were dealing with.

            When she finished, the final document at the bottom of the pile was slightly different from the others.  This one read:  Night Hunter Oath.  Please Memorize for End of Training.

            Curiously, Alice read it.  It said:

            I’ll stand to fight as the sun goes down,

            From terror steel my mind.

            I’ll hunt the creatures of the night,

            To safeguard all mankind.

            I’ll face the dark where evil lurks,

            Let none escape my wrath.

            With courage, strength, and righteous fury,

            I’ll walk this deadly path.

            Though evil’s malice may shatter my soul,

            For fellow man, I’ll pay this toll,

            To be the light and evil’s bane,

            Until the sun rises once again.

            Alice had been told that the Night Hunters used to be the Knight’s Templar, but she hadn’t seen many signs of that until now.  To Alice, this oath felt like something out of a legend or a fairy tale.  Alice only hoped she could live up to it, and she briefly wondered if Arthur had spoken this oath when he joined the Night Hunters.

            Arthur.  Agent Phoenix as he was known to the hunters.  She wondered what he was doing lately.

###

Something strange was happening in the city of Saint Vivia.  It started with a string of mysterious deaths and disappearances.  Those killed had been drained of all their blood, and those missing were always connected in some way to the dead.  When this happened, many people fled the city.  Those fleeing had trickled to a stop recently, even as more victims were reported and those responsible were still out there.

            But the situation had taken a turn for the worse when the sickness started.  Saint Vivia news reported a mysterious illness making rounds, one that doctors couldn’t identify.  While a lot more people started packing to leave, many were met with roadblocks set up by the U.S. Military, or what people thought was the U.S. Military.  As it turns out, the disease, labeled by federal health experts as bacterial anemia, had prompted the United States Government to place Saint Vivia City under quarantine.  No one was allowed in or out, and anyone who attempted to cross city limits was met with military trucks and soldiers.

            It was while the city was in this state that the crucivire and the dhampirs sat in a black, windowless van, their back against the vehicle wall.  They all wore trench coats to hide their swords and carried grim expressions after hearing the news.  It was inevitable that people would start getting vampire sickness with this many undead in the city, but that didn’t make it any less tragic.

            Jaiden was busy trying to ignore the sounds he was hearing.  In this environment, people were scared, and he'd hear someone crying every once in a while.  Not that he didn’t sometimes hear someone crying with his enhanced hearing, but right now, in this city, he was hearing more tears than he’d ever heard in his life.  Granted, being in a car with the wind drowning everything else out definitely helped, but he still caught the faint sound of someone crying in their car or even in public.  Seeing everyone else’s grim expressions, he doubted he was the only one disturbed by it.  Even agent Phoenix looked grim, though he stared out into space, not looking at the others.

            That wasn’t the only thing plaguing Jaiden at that moment, though.  He was, unfortunately, feeling a little hungry, and he could hear a fly buzzing around in the vehicle.  Even with something so small, he could smell the blood flowing through it.  Insect blood wasn’t even comparable to human blood, but apparently that didn’t matter.  It wasn’t the physical properties of the blood that was important to vampires and dhampirs.  What they really needed was the life force of other creatures.  Blood was merely the medium to facilitate that transfer, and insect blood worked just as well, even with a creature that small.

            Rather than consume the fly as his vampire induced instincts compelled him, Jaiden pulled a flask from his coat filled with pigs' blood.  It was nasty stuff but would help with his craving and replenish his powers.  Jaiden grimaced as he drank but immediately felt less hungry.

            “I really hate this stuff,” said Jaiden.

            “Yeah,” said Gordon.  “I hate it too.”

            “We all do,” said Jasmine, sighing.  “I can remember the first time I started craving blood.  I was just twelve.”

            “That young?” asked Jaiden.

            Jasmine nodded.  “Vampires killed my father and took my mother…while she was pregnant with me, of course.  She was rescued by the Night Hunters, who told her what I might become.  She moved in with my Aunt and Uncle, homeschooling me and keeping me from other children unless I was highly supervised.  One day my Aunt had a papercut, and I had this strange urge to put my mouth on it and start drinking.  My mother had to explain what had happened to her before she was ready.  As you can imagine, I was terrified.”

            “Yeah,” said Jaiden.  “I can imagine.”

            “I had to start drinking pig or cows’ blood to keep from attacking people,” Jasmine continued.  “I’ve never gotten used to it.  What about you, Jaiden?  What’s your story?”

            Jaiden hesitated, “Mine’s…kind of embarrassing.  My mother was a Night Hunter and managed to escape from her vampire captor on her own.  She scratched a cross into her skin when he wasn’t paying attention and got out of the building during the day.  I knew from a young age what I would become, and my mother made sure to drill self control into me long before my powers kicked in…or at least she tried.

            “Honestly?  I didn’t take it too well.  It took a while for the thirst to show up for me, so I started to resent being told it would happen.  One day I was outside, hiding from my mom and stuffing my face with junk food.  Then I took a bite that tasted different.  I realized I’d…I’d finished my snack and started sucking the blood of a squirrel.  I don’t even know how I got my hand on it.”

            Jaiden gulped nervously.

            He expected everyone to grimace, but three faces looked at him with the utmost sympathy.

            “I threw up,” said Jaiden, embarrassed.  “But you can bet I listened to my mom after that.”

            “It’s okay,” said Jasmine.  “We get it.  We struggle with the urges too.  This isn’t your fault.  It’s the fault of the vampire who attacked you.”

            “She’s right,” said Cora.  “And…well…since we’re sharing, I grew up in an orphanage.  One day, my mother ran out of the woods, crazed and weak from a lack of blood and nine months pregnant.  She died giving birth to me, and no one even found out her name.

            “The first time I felt the thirst was on my first date.  I was out with a really nice boy.  I liked him a lot, but when he brought me home, and I was about to kiss him, I realized that I wasn’t looking into his eyes like I imagined I would.  I was looking at his neck, and I felt hungry, even though I’d just eaten.  I was so freaked out I went inside without a word.”

            Cora sighed.

            “After that, I noticed I could smell people’s blood, and it made my mouth water.  I started cutting myself off from my friends, afraid I’d hurt them.  Breaking up with my boyfriend was the hardest part.  When he asked why, I couldn’t answer, and he got angry with me…not that I blame him.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have anyone to explain the truth to me, and I resorted to catching mice and rats to satisfy the urges.  In some ways, that made things worse.  I was disgusted with myself, and my behavior really freaked out my foster parents.  I was lucky the Night Hunters found me when I did.”

            Jaiden nodded, then looked at Gordon, “What about you, Gordon?  If you don’t mind me asking.”

            Gordon took a deep breath, “I was almost as young as Jasmine.  Thirteen.  My mother was kidnapped by a vampire but wasn’t held for very long.  He got into a fight with another vampire, and she was able to escape in the confusion.  When she told people what happened, she ended up in a mental hospital, and I was born there.  My dad raised me, and I, like everyone else, thought my mom was crazy.

            “One day, I was at a family gathering.  A few of my aunts were making dinner, and it was taking a while.  I got hungry and wandered into the woods behind my house.  I kept getting hungrier and hungrier, and then I smelled a rabbit and…well…my dad found me in the woods, sucking the blood out of a rabbit.”

            Gordon swallowed.

            “I’ll never forget the look on his face,” said Gordon.  “And I was pretty horrified myself.  We quickly figured out that I was getting vampiric powers, and Dad made sure to get my mom out of that hospital.  They looked after me to make sure nothing happened, and it was terrifying.  Eventually, the Night Hunters found us, and…well…here I am.”

            They all looked at him compassionately, except for Agent Phoenix, who stared into space.  Overall, Jaiden found it reassuring to talk about this with people who understood what he was going through.  He’d felt isolated and alone for so long.

            Suddenly something thumped, making everyone jump.  It was Agent Phoenix, who had hit the wall of the van with his palm.  Moments later, Phoenix pulled his hand from the wall and wiped the fly from it.  Now that the fly was dead, Jaiden noticed that the urge to feed on it was gone.

            “That should never have happened to you,” said Phoenix.  “Any of you.  The vampires are a disease on this world, and someday, we’ll kill them all.”

            Now everyone looked at Agent Phoenix, unsure what to make of that.

            “Well,” said Jaiden, shrugging.  “Can’t argue with that, I guess.”

###

The back of the windowless van opened to reveal an alley at night.  While Agent Phoenix and the dhampirs weren’t harmed by sunlight, they had sensitive eyes.  They could all see in the dark, but bright lights caused problems, so they did their best work at night.  Before exiting the van, Gorden cleared his throat, giving Agent Phoenix a stern glare.  Agent Phoenix glared back.

            “Low profile,” said Gordon.

            Agent Phoenix rolled his eyes before his skin shimmered.  The cross tattoos on his face and hands faded away, and dark hair appeared on his head.  His skin also appeared smoother, making him as handsome as a movie actor.  As they walked to their destination, Jaiden gaped at him.

            “Hey,”  said Jaiden.  “You can glamour?  That sounds useful.  Can you imitate other people?”

            “No,” said Phoenix.  “I can’t.  I can only make an idealized version of my own image.  Other’s people’s faces…their image…belongs to them, so I don’t have the authority to assume it.”

            “Authority?” asked Jaiden.

            “Take Magic Theory,” said Phoenix.  “You might find it enlightening.  Be grateful that vampires can’t imitate other people as well.  They could get inside anywhere with that power.”

            “Yeah,” said Jaiden, digesting the implications of that.  “But still.  You could disguise yourself pretty easily.  That sounds really useful.”

            “Don’t envy me,” said Phoenix.  “I paid a high price for this power.  I don’t recommend it.”

            Jaiden winced.  He’d been told how one became a crucivire.

            Gordon spoke up as they approached the alley they were heading for, “Alright.  This is the alley where Eric Hale was spotted.  We should be able to pick up his…

            He paused, then closed his eyes irritably, “Agent Phoenix.”

            Jaiden looked around, but Agent Phoenix had disappeared.

            “Does he do that a lot?”

            “Yes,” said Cora, frustrated.  “Yes he does.”

            Gordon put his hands on his hips and shook his head while Jasmine tried to stifle a giggle.

###

The young woman walked out of the bar with a handsome young man.  She shivered, though it wasn’t particularly cold out.  So much had happened in Saint Vivia lately with the murders and now this disease.  It was all so overwhelming.  People she knew were starting to think it really was vampires.  Everyone was going mad, so it was nice to meet someone who still seemed sane.

            “Thanks for walking me home,” she said.  Her apartment wasn’t far from here, so she hadn’t bothered driving.

            “Sure thing,” he said.  “It’s getting crazy out there.  Don’t worry.  I’m here for you.”

            “Thanks.”

            They walked in silence for a moment, the young man slipping his arm around her shoulder.  She felt grateful for his presence.  Something about him just seemed calming and comforting.  His arm did feel strangely cold, but she dismissed that as no big deal.

            “You look beautiful tonight,” he said.

            She blushed. “You really think so?”

            “I do.  The moonlight really brings out your eyes.”

            She bit her lip for a moment but then looked around, realizing he’d led them down an alley.

            “Why…” she began.

            The young man reached over with his free hand and gently pushed her face to look at him.  She found it difficult to look away from his piercing eyes.

            “You don’t have to worry about anything,” he said. “You’re safe with me.  I promise.  I would never let a treasure like you come to harm.”

            She felt flustered, “Treasure?  Me?  I…”

            Suddenly someone wrapped an arm around the young man’s neck, and the point of a blade stuck out through his chest.  The young woman screamed, backing away to see another young man with an angry look in his eyes.  This newcomer held the other young man’s neck with his arm and had stabbed him in the back.

            The young woman kept screaming, but her screams began to fade away as the young man she’d been suddenly changed.  His glamour fell away, revealing the desiccated form of a vampire, though he quickly formed into a much less handsome human man as the vampiric curse fell away.  His skin wrinkled, patches of it falling away as his skin grew pale, bruises forming in other patches.  The young woman was rendered speechless as the man who’d offered to escort her home now looked like a week old corpse.  She looked up to the newcomer, who was, of course, Agent Phoenix, his glamour fallen away to reveal a bald head and cross tattoos.

            “He was a vampire,” said Agent Phoenix.

            He let the corpse drop to the concrete below.

            “You’re welcome.”

            The young woman backed away until she hit the wall.  She slowly lowered until she was sitting on the ground, beginning to cry.  Phoenix slowly sheathed the knife and pulled a small bottle out of his trench coat.  Kneeling next to the woman, he showed her the bottle and the knife, a line of silver running through the blade’s core.

            “This is garlic oil,” said Phoenix.  “Rub it on your shoulders and wrists, and if you’re attacked, that should repel the vampire long enough to get away.  If you think you have a shot, you can stick this in the vampire’s heart.  It’s a cross shaped knife with a core of silver.”

            He handed her the objects, and she accepted them, her eyes still wide with fear as tears dripped down her face.

            “Go home,” he said.  “Don’t go outside unless the sun is shining, and don’t let anyone you don’t know inside.  If someone you know shows up at the door late at night, demand to see their neck and wrists to check for bite marks.  Above all, only invite people into your home if you’re absolutely certain they’re safe.  Do you understand?”

            She nodded, and Agent Phoenix turned to leave.  As he did, the young woman rubbed oil on her skin, and Agent Phoenix nodded to himself.

            He encountered Gordon waiting for him as he walked back, arms crossed and eyes stern.  As they started walking together, returning to the other alley, Phoenix restored the glamour, hiding his crosses and putting hair on his head.

            “What’s the matter?” asked Phoenix.  “Someone was in danger.  Should I have left her alone?”

            “Of course not,” said Gordon, walking beside Phoenix as they returned to the others.  “But you shouldn’t be going off on your own.”

            “I can handle myself,” said Phoenix irritably.

            “In most cases, yes,” said Gordon.  “But there are elder vampires in Saint Vivia.  What would you have done if one of them had attacked you?”

            “I’d have killed my first elder,” said Phoenix, grinning at the thought.

            “No,” said Gordon.  “You’d be dead.  You’re not ready to fight an elder on your own.”

            “I’ll have to face one sooner or later.”

            “But not alone,” the warning in Gordon’s voice was clear.  “I’ll not have you die on us before you reach your full potential.  How many times have I had to pull you out of the fire when you rushed in recklessly?”

            Phoenix took a few seconds to answer, “I wasn’t counting.”

            “I was,” said Gordon.  “But I won’t rub the number in your face.  I trust you’re smart enough to get my point without it.”

            Phoenix sighed, “Fine.  I won’t try to fight an elder vampire on my own.”

            “Or keep running off by yourself?”

            “Or keep running off by myself,” with an annoyed roll of his eyes, Phoenix added.  “So I assume we need to get Eric Hale’s scent?”

            “Right,” said Gordon.  “But let’s let Jaiden try.  It’s about time we see what our newest recruit is capable of.”

###

Standing in the middle of the alley, Agent Phoenix and most of the dhampirs surrounded Jaiden, who felt a little twinge of stage fright.  Even so, the young man took a few deep breaths and then inhaled through his nose, absorbing every scent he could.  There were a lot to sort through, from animals to people and a few vampires.  The vampires smelled like human corpses mixed with the scent of fresh blood.  It was a disorienting, unnatural smell.  Jaiden always felt a little light headed from that scent.

            “Three vampires,” said Jaiden.  “At least three that I can detect.”

            “Very good,” said Gordon.  “Now, how do we determine which scent is Eric Hale?”

            Jaiden thought about it.  The answer was on the tip of his tongue, but he couldn’t quite remember.  Then he saw Jasmine mouthing something to him, trying to be discreet.  It seemed like she was mouthing, ‘recent,’ but before Jaiden could discern it, Cora cleared her throat and gave Jasmine a stern stare.  Jasmine looked away, feigning innocence.

            Jaiden thought it over.

            “We want the most recent scent,” said Jaiden.  “Eric was here only a few days ago, and two of the scents are faint.  Maybe a week or two old.  The third is still pretty fresh, so we follow that one.”

            “That’s correct,” said Gordon.  “Although,” he gave Jasmine a stern stare, “It would be more impressive if he didn’t have help.”

            Jasmine avoided his stare, trying to act nonchalant.

            “Alright,” said Gordon.  “Let’s follow that scent.”

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