I. Alexander in Underland
Alexander sneezed, shuddering from the itching grass and the strong scent of chlorophyll. His first thought was that it was too early. He started to fall back under a heavy wave of sleep before his brain jolted into start. The sleepiness tugged at every limb, every nerve, but he forced himself to abandon it. His body folded upright, releasing some of the grass crushed under his weight.
Surrounding him was a strange scene. Youth, none over thirty and few under thirteen, dismantled shelters of various qualities. Some had camping tents; others made tents out of blankets, cloth, or tarp. The second type of tent was reminiscent of the sort that children string together to make forts. Yet those with play forts at least had more cover than the many campers rolling up their mere sleeping bags. Most of the people spread around the field were pale kids in dark clothing. Their complexions were the sort of pale that suggested a lifestyle with little time spent outdoors. Superficially, the site looked like the campground for an underground rock festival.
Alexander knew better. There was no rock concert fronting the gathering. Certainly, there was something underground about it. When people like him gathered, it was all business. They were dhampirs –half demons that made a living hunting vampires. There was just as much rebellion and angst to it as a rock concert. The main difference was that it lasted past the weekend. Alexander knew the situation well, but what he didn't know was how he had come to wake up lying on the grass on that field that particular morning.
Adding to his confusion was the realization of just how large the surrounding field spread around him, not to mention the multitudes of dhampirs that occupied the space. He had never seen so many in one place. Never had he imagined so many of his kind existing. Of all the people in all the world, he did not think his sort counted for hundreds. Were they not so pale, so awkward like himself, Alexander wouldn't have believed that the campground was entirely occupied by his kind, but they all appeared authentic.
From the sea of strangers emerged one familiar face. Louis locked on to Alexander, coming to stand between him and the sunrise.
"What are you lying around for?" asked Louis. "We're next." Alexander blinked, spiraling deeper into his confusion. Louis said nothing more. Alexander followed the blond haired dhampir into the crowd. People resisted Alexander's infiltration while Louis slipped away through their ranks. When the crowd thinned, Alexander caught sight of the blond headed guy entering a building.
The building had been there all along, looming around the edge of the field. It must have been around two stories tall, but was most impressive in length and width. Alexander could not fathom the other side of the building and it stretched along the entire expanse of the field. Alexander couldn't be sure of what he would discover inside. He went in anyway.
Louis had disappeared, save for his footsteps. Alexander chased the noise through the building's generic hallways, taking no note of the turns he made. Five minutes might have passed before he spotted Louis again, pushing through the doors to a gymnasium.
Alexander experienced a sudden, strange chill along his spine. Icy needles rolled down his skin. Someone tapped him on the shoulder. He did not have to turn to face the tall, suit-wearing man. The man appeared before him in pinstriped clothing with a Bluetooth device in his ear. Alexander did not like the looks of him.
"You slipped past screening," the man said, staring into the screen sitting in his palm. He had rings on most of his fingers, very old rings that seemed anachronistic with the rest of his attire.
"Screening?" Alexander kept his eyes on the rings, sure that he wanted to avoid meeting the man's eyes.
"Yes," the man said. "The screening." Alexander was shuffled down a stairwell by the man in pinstripes. At the base, he joined a line of dhampirs. The man proceeded to the front. There, he started inspecting the first boy in line. Alexander watched and waited as the man dissected each, taking only ten to twenty seconds to pass judgment.
"Yes, no, no, no, yes, no-" He stopped in front of Alexander, forcing his gaze straight into Alexander's vision. "Go ahead." And Alexander headed up the stairwell, unable to recall what the man's eyes really looked like.
Inside the gymnasium, Alexander found a spot on the bleacher next to Louis. There were only a few others sitting there. Alexander would not dare to raise his voice since it would be the only sound. He itched to question Louis about what was going on, but the others would undoubtedly catch his ignorance, too.
A new handful of teens filed in, then the man in pinstripes after them. The man in pinstripes stepped to the forefront of the group to address the twenty or so dhampirs assembled on the bleachers.
"Welcome," he said. "You select few made it past the primary screening, and will now be allowed to compete for the judges. But before we commence with auditions, I am required to give an Orientation presentation. So, here is your Orientation." He stepped off to the side. Meanwhile the lights went off to be replaced by a projection:
Slide 1: "The Inconvenient Truth"
Slide 2: "Hey, we made this presentation in 1666. If Al Gore has any complaints, he should realize that Hell has a lot of lawyers."
Slide 3: "Welcome misbegotten bastards of Hell." "We have good news for you."
Slide 4: [Picture of earth] "The end is soon near."
Slide 5: [Picture of a smoking volcano] "Hell is overheating* and it won't be long until it boils over." *(The True Cause of Global Warming.)
Slide 6: "As the world degenerates, someone shall lead the reign of Armageddon…This will be one of YOU!
Slide 7: Who is the LUCKY ONE?
Slide 8: Who…will…be…the next…Antichrist?
The slide show ended, leaving the group to sit in the dark. When the lights came on, it was instantly too bright. Alexander's eyes hurt.
Before them stood the man in pinstripes. He wore a nasty grin for the group gathered on the bleachers.
"Delightful, isn't it?" he said. "That this happened to happen with your generation. What a lucky, lucky bunch you are!" Alexander did not feel particularly lucky. He felt like he was sitting on a set of bleachers in an under heated gymnasium. That was all.
With a sneer, the pinstriped man continued, "We can't allow all of you to audition –we only have a time slot for ten or so. Alas, some of your journeys will have to end early. What a shame, what a shame.
"Janie Avila." The girl, tall and thin like a stalk, rose from her place in the center of the bleachers. She seemed unsure whether to stay or go down to the man in pinstripes. Sucks to be first, Alexander thought.
"Alexander C-" Alexander shot straight up from his seat.
"Simon Deadman, Louis Lock, Salem Pall…" Each stood up as they were called. Alexander stared ahead at the girls sitting in front of him.
"Veronica—" The older girl, wearing a red blouse, stood out and stood up. Her partner on the bench, young and blond, followed suit without her name being called.
Half the group was standing while the other half remained sitting. The man looked grimmer than ever. There was a large silence, and for the thousandth time that day, Alexander wondered what he was doing there.
The man in the pinstriped suit started to speak: "Now some of you, I am afraid, are unnecessary contestants, less lucky than the rest…" Against his will, Alexander's heart started to sink into the depths of the silence that ensued next. The silence lapsed long enough for him to think the news would never reach them…"Annnd—" Alexander blinked, in which time, the seated contestants were instantly set alight in spontaneous blazes. "You get to stay!"
Alexander and the rest of the standing contestants breathed their sighs of relief. The screaming, burning individuals around them weren't at all unnerving in the face of this good news. Those eliminated were gone up in flames quickly enough.
"Now," said the man in pinstripes, clasping his hands together, "Who's first?" It was Janie Avila's curse to have a last name beginning with the letter "A." She always had to go first. The only benefit of that was getting to be line leader in kindergarten. With those days long passed, however, there was really no benefit to being at the top of any alphabetical list.
Janie Avila did not know what to do. She stood in the center of the gymnasium, hands folded behind her back.
"Well, Janie, we're waiting," said the man in pinstripes.
"…For what?" asked Janie. The man was annoyed by her apparent naivety.
"I'll give you thirty more seconds, Janie," he said. "Show the world how you are going to end it." In spite of her occupation of killing things, Janie was a good girl. No malicious thoughts came to her within her allotted thirty seconds.
"Next." The man in pinstripes sounded bored, disappointed. Before being ushered back to the bleachers, Janie raised her hand to show the camera the longest of her fingers. It wasn't the middle finger, but the gesture served its purpose.
Alexander was next, and he had no physical deformities to display to the world. There was the slight tail, but he was not going to be the one to flash the viewers at home. He kept his hands shoved in his pockets while staring straight into the lens from across the gymnasium. He felt like an idiot. That luckiness had not caught up with him. As he exited from the camera's attention, Alexander decided that he would at least make his exit a memorable one. He would do what Janie had not quite accomplished.
His exit was memorable, though not the way he had planned. He lifted his hand from his pocket, then promptly tripped. Before falling straight on his face, Alexander was able to ask himself, "How'd that cord get there?"
Through the next few auditions, Alexander nursed a nosebleed a distance off from the rest of the contestants. Dhampirs were not vampires; in fact, they were quite sensitive about the topic of dietary needs. They, like any normal human being, required the five food groups, too: sugars, pizzas, oils, carbs, and meat. Vampires subsisted off blood, not dhampirs. Alexander wasn't avoiding the other contestants for their sake. It was to avoid the snickers that followed his fall, which he had certainly heard.
Mary plowed through the gymnasium doors. She acted like her tardiness was stressful, but she had been planning to arrive fashionably late. Her stress was faked. Rock stars were supposed to sleep in. It was an image thing, Mary had read. Mary was actually an early riser herself, except nobody needed to know that as far as she was concerned.
She pulled her shirt down over her exposed, rounded middle and huffed, "Sorry I'm late guys." From there, Mary proceeded toward her stage. Unlike the other contestants, she knew exactly what she was going to do there.
"Microphone, please," said Mary. The man in pinstripes handed her one before stepping off to the side to give her space. Mary fixed her skirt. "Hey, America! I'm Mary Hayes! I'm going to be a famous singer someday! (I wrote this song, well, Jadyn helped –Hey Jay, look! I'm gonna be on TV!)-" She coughed once, and launched into heavy, monstrous shrieking into the microphone:
Mary belted out lyrics that would fly into high octaves, only to be dragged down into a much lower note a moment later. Her song was heavy. The sort of heavy that can usually be obtained through the combination of electric guitars, basses, drums, and a good PA system. Mary's words sounded like an archaic monster language. The syllables blurred together, her voice acting as a blender to a mixture of strange, obscure ingredients that no one would actually want to taste. Perhaps she was vocalizing no real words at all. The noise she projected through the microphone was full of erratic pitch changes: "Yucatanyucatanchichenekbalamquetzacoatltlachlitlachcotulumchacyucatanyucatanpuuckabahchacchichenitzacampechetikalpalenqueuxmalsayillabilyucatanyucatantulumyucatan!" So the song went as it reached its climax. Mary channeled a hurricane through her singing. Her song battered the audience before her just as a hurricane would. Then, breathless, Mary dropped the microphone. There was a loud, irascible tone that resounded through the gym as the microphone landed and rolled away from her feet. Mary waited in stunned silence for her standing ovation. In the bleachers, her audience remained frozen in their shocked stillness. Their ears rang above the noise of the irritated microphone resting on the floor.
So Mary left her stage slightly indignant about the crowd's reaction. It was quite rude, she thought. She took a seat next to Alexander.
"Hey Mary," said Alexander, rubbing his left ear surreptitiously in her presence. "It's been some time. What've you been up to?"
Mary was quick to forget being wronged. She smiled at Alexander, excited to say, "I have a real job now… I'm in a band." Alexander wasn't so sure that being in a band was a "real" job, but he wasn't one to talk. Getting rid of the Undead didn't pay as much as it used to -it didn't pay at all.
He and Mary turned their attention to the next act: "Salem Pall," a dorky-looking teen with his own "musical" performance up his sleeve (literally). The sheep game continued, Alexander supposed, with one audition building off of the last. Alexander and Mary listened politely as he performed a cover of a particularly over-played pop song. It required the use of his armpits and a very immature sense of humor. Salem received a few polite claps.
"Big deal," muttered Mary. "My song was an original composition." Alexander could agree that the performance was nothing special. He wished he hadn't gotten up that morning.