“Being strong isn’t about acting tough on the surface, it’s about having a strong heart and getting back up when you fall.”
~ Hazel Dawson
Kaydence audibly gasped when my knee-high boots transformed into a pair of running shoes.
“I’m almost positive that she has the power to create magical clothing,” Alecx whispered half-jokingly. To think that he could be even the least bit light-hearted in this situation, he had to be using humour to calm his nerves.
But the thought of how Zach would handle a situation like this almost made me feel a fleeting heartbeat. I quickly wiped my mind of those worthless thoughts.
The first time I tried the track, I nearly bumped into one of the pylons since I hadn’t done this in years. Naturally, a stumble like that affected my time.
Quinn shook her head like she didn’t expect anything more. The stopwatch showed an embarrassing 8.23.
“Last chance,” she reminded.
I didn’t feel nervousness nor pressure. I strolled back to the starting line. I couldn’t feel anger, embarrassment, or hatred when I saw Henrietta’s expression.
I tried to motivate myself. Becoming a vampire hunter was the only chance I had to face Zach as a new person, perhaps even a rival.
I’d wipe that defiant look right off his face.
I left only a flickering flash behind me as I wove through the pylons at a speed so fast that the human eye had trouble keeping up. However, as I stopped dead at the finish line, Quinn’s coaching instincts allowed her to click the stopwatch right on time.
Her hands shook as she turned the stopwatch around in her hand.
I heard faint clapping and turned to the source of the noise. The men who had been engrossed in their basketball match applauded.
They were the first hunters who showed me some form of kindness. The congratulating smile on their faces briefly reminded me of Jeremy. He figured out that I was a vampire way back then, but he nonetheless tried to protect me and smiled at me.
I felt something crack within me, but I briskly fixed it.
“Kaydence, come with me.” Henrietta took long strides out of the gym. Kaydence glanced back at me while following her out.
The Kaydence I knew would never follow someone around like a dog. What the hell did Henrietta do to her?
My curiosity didn’t last long as Alecx invaded my vision. His words were encouraging, but I could tell that my being a vampire severely bothered him. Being a hunter meant that he must’ve been encountering nothing but vicious monsters. He was probably afraid that I’d end up the same some day.
Arthur patted me on the shoulder. At the same time, my running shoes morphed back into boots. I flung on my cardigan, and we set off to our next destination.
Alecx spoke to me as we traveled down the hall. I wasn’t listening. I pondered exactly why I decided to do this. Perhaps I wanted to prove to Zach that I wasn’t a burden, that he was wrong.
The smell of paper hit me and interrupted my thoughts. I blinked and refocused my vision. We passed by several rooms with desks lined neatly in them. They appeared to be classrooms, and they were empty.
“This is where trainees take day classes,” Alecx promptly explained. “We had to learn everything there is to learn about vampirism.”
We arrived in the last classroom at the end of the hall. Arthur politely knocked before entering. To no one’s surprise, Henrietta and Kaydence sat in the back row seats. None of us could question Henrietta’s presence since she could say that she was here to make sure I passed.
A scrawny-looking man stood behind the lectern. He greeted me with a natural scowl, then said, “I received the notice of this last-minute examination quite late, so I’m sorry to say that I don’t have a physical test prepared. However, I believe we can complete the exam orally.”
“We’ll be back here, Robert,” Arthur said, then found seats in the second last row with Alecx.
Robert nodded at them, then told me, “I will ask you forty close-ended questions and ten open-ended ones. I expect an answer within five seconds after I ask the question. There is zero tolerance for wrong answers. Are you ready to begin?”
These people sure knew how to make their tests unreasonable.
“Ready when you are,” I replied.
Robert began with simple ones that were practically common sense to me. When he got to the open-ended questions, I had to take a second to think.
“What kind of vampires have special abilities?”
“Purebloods. Elites have incomplete ones, and human-turned-vampires have unstable abilities that easily spiral out of control, typically aggressive types such as aerokinesis,” I answered, using my knowledge of Grant.
Robert nodded, apparently quite impressed that I delved into such detail. “Good. You’ve made it this far. Final question, where do vampires typically hide?”
I was sure something like that couldn’t have been an actual exam question. Vampires weren’t animals that preferred particular habitats. They could jolly well live in an ordinary house among their mortal neighbors.
But saying that would imply I knew of vampires who lived in a regular household. And I did; Ashlynne.
I struggled to come up with a perfect answer. Surely I couldn’t suggest an underground mansion because that would just be yelling hints that a significant vampire group’s headquarters was located underground not too far from a hunters’ headquarters.
“Among humans?” I quickly schooled my unsure tone and rephrased, “Vampires could live in a house with a family, just like humans. They’d want to blend in as much as possible, so children would go to school as regular students and try to live ordinary lives.”
I did my best to describe a situation slightly contrary to Ashlynne’s. If someone got the sense to take a picture of her one day, she’d be exposed in the load time of a smartphone camera, but she still dressed in a way that turned every head down a street.
Which was why I sometimes thought it’d be great if vampires could live openly someday.
Robert nodded in satisfaction at my answer. I caught his glance at the back of the room when he said, “Congratulations. You know your stuff. I’d like to give you a formal pass on the written portion of the trials.”
Perhaps Henrietta spoke with Robert and rearranged specific questions so I’d slip relevant info, but unfortunately for them, I knew my way around tricky questions.
I turned to Arthur and Alecx with a proud grin. Even if I couldn’t feel pride, I could fake it. I noticed that Henrietta and Kaydence had already left.
The three of us were silent as the elevator descended to a below ground floor right on top of the dungeon that I was kept in a few hours ago.
Arthur murmured to himself, “I can’t believe it’s only been a little over two hours, and you’ve already completed three tests.”
Everything went by like a breeze, but I supposed most people would struggle with the sword fight. And if the written test were on paper, it’d probably be a ninety-minute exam.
Alecx agreed. “Now all that’s left is the duel.”
“What kind?” I asked.
“One in a stadium with a regular vampire. To prove that you have what it mentally takes to terminate a vampire. They’re not that strong. I’m sure it’ll be a piece of cake.”
“Did you and Kaydence go through that, too?”
“Yeah.” Alecx kept his reply unembellished.
I’ve killed before.
I killed the seven people who kidnapped me and many others while helping Zach massacre a room full of criminals. I wouldn’t be afraid to see blood and cut open flesh.
Though, I had never put an end to an immortal’s life.
Everything would be okay. I no longer felt empathy or fear. I’d finish it quickly.
When the elevator door slid open to the side, I observed the vast arena. Rows of bleachers ran around the outskirts of the round fighting ground. A semi-sphere cage locked over the fighting ground that had noticeable battle marks scratched on the ground.
I was surprised to see many people scattered on the bleachers.
Arthur led us down a flight of stairs and stopped at the entrance to the ring. There was a bench and a rack of weapons there. The only thing separating us and the field was a dropped-down gate.
I could tell the relevant parts of this stadium were made of silver containing pure blood to prevent any vampires from going out of control.
“The match will begin in approximately half an hour. We underestimated how fast you’d make it here. The committee is currently choosing a suitable vampire from the dungeon,” Arthur said. “In the meantime, you can select any of these weapons.” He stopped in realization.
“I can’t use any of them, right?” I asked. Long ago, Arthur had told me that all weapons built by vampire hunters were vampire-proof from tip to edge. I couldn’t even pick up anything.
To confirm that theory, I stepped toward the rack and wrapped my fingers around the handle of a spear; it burned me. I zipped my arm back. My palm sizzled and reddened before returning to its usual pale shade.
Alecx grabbed my hand to inspect it even faster than Arthur. They seemed to have temporarily forgotten that a momentary burn like that would only take seconds to heal.
“Your hand is icy,” Alecx commented in a whisper.
“Yeah, vampires are like that,” I responded, monotone. I unintentionally hit Alecx hard with a grim reminder that I wasn’t the girl he’d known all his life. His expression twisted to that of when a relative passed away.
“Anyway, I’ll be fine bare-handed.” I retracted my hand and changed the subject.
While Arthur spoke on the phone with someone, Alecx and I leaned against the wall and waited.
“Have you killed before?” Alecx suddenly questioned.
“Why do you ask?”
“You appear frighteningly calm for someone who’s about to kill.”
“The nerves just haven’t kicked in yet,” I said, lying. He fell silent after that, so did I.
Sometime later, I picked up sounds of chains shuffling from the other end of the ring. I peered through the gaps in the gate. Behind the entrance at the other side, someone was thrown into the entry passage, and a solid door shut behind. There were no means of escape.
“Wait a minute.” Alecx squinted. “That’s not any vampire, that’s an Elite.”
I reflexively gulped.
“Mr. Carrington, what’s going on?” Alecx turned to Arthur, who just got off the phone.
“Henrietta happened.” Arthur sighed. “She convinced the committee that Hazel should fight a stronger opponent. Since Purebloods are too valuable, they chose the next best thing.”
The vampire growled and thrashed at the gate, flinching back each time due to the burns. He appeared to be in such immense pain, yet he persisted in struggling. He reminded me of an injured caged bird.
Just then, an obnoxious voice rang through the speakers of the packed stadium. It announced the fighters of today as well as my unique situation. I tuned out the noise and drowned in my thoughts.
What were Henrietta’s intentions? Choosing an Elite would still be risky, as I had proven more than once that I was quite powerful, too. This was the last trial. I couldn’t help but suspect that she had something up her sleeve.
“Hey, Alecx, who gets the final say in whether or not I could be a vampire hunter?” I asked.
“The committee has authority above all else,” Alecx said as if reciting.
I faced the fighting ground. I couldn’t figure it out. Maybe I was delving too deep.
At last, the gate in front of me rose. I stepped out, unarmed, into the open, surrounded by roaring applause. The other gate had yet to rise.
So this was how humans caged vampires and used them for entertainment purposes.
My gate clanked closed behind me. I fixed my gaze on the crossing gate as it rose. The vampire immediately bared his fangs at me, though still restrained by the chains around his wrists.
I couldn’t feel fear, but a tremor still ran down my spine.
I drew in a deep breath and shifted my weight from heel to toes, lowering my center of gravity. The thin coat could still camouflage my shape, but it might be less useful when facing an Elite vampire.
The shackles binding my adversary tumbled to the ground, and he lunged at me like there was no tomorrow. Perhaps for an Elite, there indeed was no tomorrow.
Fortunately, I predicted his actions and sped off to the side. We played cat and mouse. Under the light, his vampire eyes shone bright green, and his silver hair flew around in all directions. He was visibly disheveled.
“Die, traitor!” he yelled and came straight for my neck.
His outburst shook me, and his fingers clenched around my neck. Due to the impact, we flew into the wall of the ring. I was lifted off my feet by my neck, and I could feel his nails digging into my skin.
A hoarse yelp escaped my throat. I used my arms to keep him away while I kicked my legs up and down. Eventually, I landed a solid one on his stomach. My strength sent him flying backward.
“Fuck,” I muttered, landing on my feet. I cupped my throat, hoping that it would heal faster.
Silver-hair didn’t take too long to recover. As if the only thing he knew, he sped at me again with his claws and fangs.
He kept yelling “die” over and over again, which annoyed me since it was an uncreative one-syllable word. “Make your battle cries more original, man.”
I then finally began my counter attack.
When he came at me again, I dodged aside and grabbed his arm. What used to be a simple self-defense move became a vicious throw when combined with a vampire’s strength.
He hissed in pain as he collided with the metal cage that was the ceiling of the fighting ground. Contact with the silver bars made a couple of cuts on his arms. While he got back up to his feet, I caught a whiff of it.
Halos suddenly began doubling in my vision. My stomach twisted. I squeezed and opened my eyes to focus.
When I blinked again, my opponent vanished from my sight. Before I could turn around, a fierce strike on the small of my back sent me tumbling forward. I rolled off my side several times on the hard ground.
My breathing was growing uneven. The scent was getting too much.
He studied me carefully as I sat up. My eyes zoomed in on the blood that slid off his arms and dripped onto the ground.
I want it.
I bolted up and toward him. I could feel my fangs grazing my bottom lip and my orbs swirling blood red.
My enemy gasped as I moved at an entirely new speed. I stepped and leaped off of a wall and darted at him. He managed to react in time and swat his arm in my direction, hitting me in another direction. I crossed my arms in front of my face to absorb the strike.
I saw his leg zoom in in my vision and quickly rolled away before he could break my bones. Once again, I used a move I used to practice every Saturday in self-defense class. I tucked my right arm in and rolled myself back onto my feet like a ball.
I could almost feel the sanity drifting away from my mind the longer the match went on. The scent of blood only became denser as the seconds ticked by.
When I involuntarily swallowed, hard, my opponent realized the cause of my sudden change.
“If the scent of an Elite’s blood is tempting, you haven’t had a drink before, have you?”
“That fact will change in a couple more seconds.” I almost didn’t recognize the taunt laced in my voice.
In the next split second, my hand was an inch away from grabbing his throat. He stumbled to react and grabbed my wrist. I immediately pulled it back and brought my teeth closer to the veins running down his arm.
He retracted his hand in alarm. That was when his defense temporarily opened. I fixed my hand into the form of a blade and plunged it into his stomach.
Loud cheering erupted from the spectators that I almost forgot about.
Blood dripped out of my adversary’s mouth, and he let out an inhuman screech. He toppled to the ground as I pulled my bloodied hand out. I licked the side of my index finger.
It tasted foul. Bitter and cold.
Despite that, my stomach didn’t allow me to be picky. It growled even louder, demanding a full-course meal.
I focused my gaze back onto silver-hair as he desperately tried to crawl away from me to buy himself time to heal. I strode up to him and towered over him.
“Vampire blood tastes revolting, but it has to do. I’m starving.” I smiled.
My movements were all blaze after blaze as I pulled back my dominant arm to prepare to pierce through his chest this time. But as my hand came down, a small smirk tugged at his lips.
The next thing I knew, an invisible force slammed my whole body upward, directly on the sharp cage that was the ceiling. I felt the pointed tips on my back.
As I fell, almost reaching the ground, my opponent had gotten up and landed a roundhouse kick square in my stomach, sending me zipping to the other side of the ring. I crashed into the concrete wall, feeling all of the impact on my spine and head.
Gravity pulled my body onto the dusty ground. My arms cushioned the impact from further hurting my head, and my face was down.
I had forgotten that as an Elite, he had an incomplete ability.
I had been restricting use of my ability so far, but he left me with no choice. I wished for a detailed explanation of his ability. He could generate a powerful force that emanated from his body outward; however, it required a ten-minute charging time after each use.
I turned my head and saw through my wild hair just as he leaped and came at me. Without thinking, I wished to teleport behind him.
The gasps around me were hard to miss as I suddenly appeared behind my opponent, in the air, and ax-kicked him to the ground. The impact of his body made a crack in the concrete.
Blood splashed onto my face and clothes. My outfit fluttered in the air and curtained me as I gingerly landed beside his limp body.
He squirmed and coughed as he pushed to get off his stomach. As soon as he managed to turn over, I gripped his jaw, forcing it sideways and bared my fangs once more.
My stomach churned and knotted in hunger. The sensation was comparable to a wild squirrel gnawing at my insides.
I stopped in the middle of leaning toward his jugular vein. At the last possible moment, I noticed that the audience was dead silent at a time that they were supposed to be cheering for the victor.
Silver-hair panted in exhaustion and agony, his eyes not leaving me. I scanned the stadium. Everyone held their breath, and many stood up, but none of them looked expectant or excited. Their eyes opened wide, but their lips curved downward. Why was that?
I quickly thought of everything that led up to this point. The people cheered when I penetrated his stomach; they cheered when he thrashed me at a wall, but they didn’t like it when I was about to win?
No, they disliked the method I was about to use.
I suddenly figured out what Henrietta was trying to achieve. Above all else, the committee had the final say; therefore, if they saw me acting like a savage vampire, they wouldn’t permit me to join their ranks. It wouldn’t matter that I passed the last three tests flawlessly.
I recalled the rules of this match. It only ever said that I was required to win the duel, not kill my opponent.
I knew what to do, then.
I twisted my opponent’s arm behind his back, forcing him to his stomach. I bound both of his wrists behind his back and said loud and clear, “Even if I were to exterminate you, it’d be in the ways of a vampire hunter, not a vampire.”
I was a bit skeptical of this outburst until thunderous applause roared throughout the entire stadium.
Soon after, hunters came around and seized my opponent, bringing him back to the dungeon, where he’d probably face inevitable doom. He glanced back at me several times, his eyes telling me that he wished I had killed him.
My hollow heart couldn’t feel empathy for him.
I turned to the gate where I came from, and a short man strode my way with Arthur and Henrietta behind him. I hadn’t seen Arthur looking that proud since I won the literature award at elementary graduation.
Henrietta stayed true to her words and no longer protested. The short man eagerly shook my hand, then raised it up in the air. He made a brief speech about a second vampire joining them. And something else about humanity left in vampires who rightfully rejected the vampire life.
I understood then why Hailee and Zach always tuned out when Harvick spoke.
“We welcome,” he announced, projecting his voice even more. “Second Class Dawson!”
I could not have come up with a better name myself, bruh.
I didn’t expect to be called by rank so soon. Second Class was the rank that all new vampire hunters went into right after graduating as a trainee. Both Kaydence and Alecx should be of the same level.
I stared at the floor with a blank expression as the cheers went on. Now that I was an official vampire hunter, the only thing on my mind was Zach. And the way he left. All of our memories together reduced to a black and white film without the colors of emotions.
I’m coming for you.