As a child, my mother had once told me she emigrated from England to get away from the monsters. I think she meant to take me away from them too, but there are monsters everywhere, and America was no safer. As a child, I saw them but once, when I strayed from my home in Connecticut one night, lost in my dream. I had no recollection of how I found myself outside, walking barefoot down the dirt road, pitted with pot holes and studded with rocks, dressed only in my nightgown. It was always dark in Connecticut, living out in a country town, where the trees crowded close and the hills blocked out the city glow on the far horizon. This was different – a darkness that America had not seen in some time – a darkness before electric lights and the persistent spread of humanity. There were things just beyond my field of vision, I knew this, crowding past the first line of trees where the individual trunks were swallowed up into a mass of black, as if the world ended just there in the forest and beyond was nothing but the void. There was a man beside me, holding my hand, and I clung to him tightly as if he were a circle of light and that was the only thing that protected me. I knew, somehow, that he too was a monster and I could not explain why I wasn't afraid.
We turned up onto the driveway of my house, the asphalt cold against my feet, and I tightened my grip against the man's fingers. His skin was surprisingly warm, for a creature that wasn't human, and I looked up at his face. His hair was to the shoulder, tucked behind his ears, and his features were delicate and cold. He was not looking at me, rather, his chin was titled up and his dark eyes scanned a night sky that held no stars and no moon. I was shivering now, from the night chill, and I crowded in closer, my head against his hip, and I fell in among the folds of a half-cloak that fell to his waist. For a moment, it enclosed me in a different sort of darkness, cutting out the monsters that lay just beyond my line of sight, outside the sphere of the man's presence. I rested my cheek against the soft velvet of his vest. He smelled of roses, an overwhelming scent, roses in late bloom and dying on the stem.
"He's here," the man sighed and I heard relief in his words.
I remembered a gust of wind, pulling back the half-cloak, and there was someone walking out of the darkness and then I woke in my bed, safe and warm. The dream haunted me for weeks and while I never told my mother about this, I understood her when she said she left England to get away from the monsters. I was relieved when we moved away from Connecticut, for that road with its own monsters were left behind, and they had left me alone for all these years.
Now, thirty years of age, and the monsters had come to my house. Only they were flesh and blood this time and one had me at gun-point.
They were related to the dream I had, so long ago, as a little child. It wasn't intuition that told me this, as it had whispered to me that night when I held a stranger's hand for protection. I only knew this because one of them, the man that had his hands in his pockets, pacing the living room, had just repeated back to me the events of that night. I felt cold inside.
"I never told anyone about that dream," I said, astonished by the calm in my words.
It was as if a part of my brain had shut down, that I was acting on the instinct of civilized society alone for how to conduct myself. Both men were British and I could not help but wonder if they were related to my mother in some way, her and her monsters. She was dead now, five years gone, and they'd ruled it heart failure but even then, the doctor admitted that the entire thing had something odd to it. They had come to my house, knocked on the front door, late in the evening when the sun was finishing its downward sweep on the horizon. I tried to be safe, being a single woman living alone, but when the first edged his way into the house he had caught my wrist up before I could hit the panic key on the key-fob that connected to my security system. Twisted it and forced me back, onto the landing, and taken the key-chain from me and put it in his pocket. Then the other shut the door behind us and taken out a gun from underneath his windbreaker.
I sat on a chair in the living room now, my hands pressed against the edge of the wooden seat, shivering faintly. Somewhere behind me, out of my line of sight, was the man with the gun, and I wondered if he would actually shoot me if I were to fight back. I wondered if I was brave enough to actually try it. The other was pacing before me and when he turned, I could see that he too carried a gun in a shoulder holster underneath his denim jacket. They were dressed plainly enough, well-groomed with clean haircuts.
"There was an official report on the incident," the man replied tightly, "It was included when we asked your government for their files on you."
"I – you're from the government?"
He gave a slight nod and his pacing slowed. There was a sort of ease in his movements, I saw now, the unconscious grace of someone confident in what they were doing and in their training. These were no home intruders, overbearing in an attempt to establish their own courage. They were here with a plan – and presumably the blessing of my own government.
"We're British agents, to be precise," he replied, "It's a very unusual thing, this, but we're in a tight spot and America is willing to help us out by expediting the immigration process, provided you're willing, of course."
"No," I said, standing. I was not able to simply sit here any longer. This was too much at once – they knew things that they shouldn't – things that weren't even real, that were just the figments of a child's subconscious – and I could not trust them.
My mother had told me that often, when I went off to college and in the years before she died. Do not trust so easily, she warned. People are not what they appear and they will find you and they will hurt you. That is what she said. I thought she referred to simply the way the world was, fearing for the safety of her daughter out there on her own, but there had been an insistence to those words – repeated again and again – that made me think that there was more, things she wasn't telling me. She told me once, almost in tears, in the months before her death, that I must never go to England.
The man behind me had a gun, but that was something I understood. The fear that drove my mother's flight across the ocean, the fear she tried so hard to instill in me, was something unknown.
"No," I repeated, "I won't. Get out of my house."
"We thought you'd say that," the man sighed, "And so we insisted that your agency not send anyone to accompany us."
There was a sudden, sharp pain at my neck. An arm around my chest, trapping my limbs tight, pulling me against the other man that had walked up close behind me, silent on the carpet beneath our feet. I jerked, once, against the hold and then a lethargy stole across me, deadening my body. I saw out of the corner of my eye an empty syringe when he pulled his hand away.
"We've already taken care of the paperwork, Miss Jennings," the man said calmly, "I'll pack some of your things and we'll have anything important I leave out shipped later."
Everything faded away then, and I was once against just a lost child in the darkness.
I woke in a large bed, curtains hanging from the canopy and drawn back to the four posters on each side. I was on my back, my head on a pillow, unharmed and unrestrained. The room beyond was dark and as I slowly sat up, I realized that I knew this darkness. It was difficult to think through the haze that clouded my head – far stronger than I would have expected the after-effects of drugs to be – but I knew this darkness with an instinctual part of my mind, the animal brain that could not only be quieted, but not silenced. It was the same sort of unnatural blackness that had pervaded my dream so long ago and as I turned to the lone window, almost unwillingly, I saw that beyond the pane of glass there was utter darkness, a black void with no stars, no moon, and no features whatsoever. The monsters were out there. I knew this with certainty and my mouth went dry at the thought.
"Amber Jennings," a voice whispered from the opposite side of the room and I jerked with surprise. I had thought myself alone.
I turned, sliding off the bed, struggling to regain my feet and present some sort of front to this man that had watched me sleep. My balance spun as soon as my bare feet hit the wooden floor and I staggered, went down on both knees, and knelt there with my hands against the ground as the world spun about me.
"They have you drugged," the man said, speaking more to himself, his voice holding a sort of detached interest. Clinical, almost. "That is... unfortunate."
"Where am I?" I whispered. I was too afraid to raise my head, both for what I would see and for the dizziness that still assailed me.
"England. The other side of it, to be more precise. And you know nothing of this because your mother ran and the agency let her go."
I heard him sigh.
"I would have handled it all differently, but... it is not my place." A touch of wry amusement. He did not care for authority, I thought, or believe they had any real power over him.
There was a touch on my back. I gasped and jerked away, falling back against the side of the bed, raising one arm to shield myself. I had not even heard him move. He stood over me, tall and lean, black hair past his shoulders and pulled into a ponytail, his clothing heavy and of an older era. Delicate features, as if he were made of porcelain, and a cloying scent of roses.
"I know you," I whispered, "When I was twelve."
"No, you do not." He straightened, tucking his hands behind his back and making no further move to come near or touch me. "You knew one of my kind, but we have not met until this moment. The incident as a child was handled entirely by the Americans and one of their agents. We were not even informed of what had been done to you until your mother passed away."
"What was done-"
"They bound your dreams," he preempted and I both heard and saw the anger in him, how his stance seemed to tighten, "Took you away from the other side. Left you half a person. Did you ever feel lost, growing up? As if you were missing something, that everyone else was going about their lives around you and you simply stood there, observing and never really understanding?"
I was silent.
"Did you ever wander," he continued, "Late at night through the streets? Looking?"
I closed my eyes.
"My mother said she let England to escape the monsters."
"She did," he hissed and I felt his hand again, on my knee, and my eyes shot open once more. He was crouching, close to me, his knees touching my shins and his eyes darted across me, studying my features like a hawk watches a field for mice.
"We're everywhere though," he continued, "And America has multiple bloodlines of their own, so they had no need for her or her daughter. So they bound you away and forgot about you. Then, when we asked for your back – now that your grandfather is dead – they said only if you agree to come and we knew you wouldn't. So they took you, didn't they, the British agents? Drugged you and brought you here, where I could undo what was done."
He reached forwards, touched my cheek. I flinched.
"I have watched over your family for centuries," he whispered, "I have been... so very angry that you were taken beyond my reach. There are two worlds, Amber, the one of humanity and the one of my kind. You name us and you fear us but for the most part, we remain separated. Oh, we come into your world sometimes to hunt, and sometimes we pull your kind into ours for the same purpose. But humans remain on their side – for the most part. There are bloodlines that walk the line between the two and you belong to one. Your government protects you on one side and I and those of the same mindset as myself protect you on our side. You, in turn, help preserve the status quo for both sides."
He stood abruptly, walking away into the shadows and taking with him the scent of dying roses. I let out a ragged breath and curled my fingers tight into my palms. His back was to me, his hands now folded at the base of his spine.
"I was going to show you my world," he said, gesturing absently towards the window before returning the hand to its place, "but sadly, they've drugged you on their side and that's going to make it difficult for you to walk. You're not physically here, you see – you're in a half-state. Transitioning. Physically, in a drugged sleep in your room at the manor in England. Mentally, here."
"It feels real," I whispered, tracing a finger against the grain of the wood beneath me.
"Of course it does. A bit more focus and you'll be here physically – please don't try, because you'll bring the drugs with you. Right now, you can walk around and touch and feel, but you can't really influence my world. Just observe. Someone like myself can see you and pull you through the rest of the way, so do not think you are safe."
He turned, staring down at me, his eyes narrowed and a lean, predatory look on his face. I was noticing that so many of his gestures were that way. He said his kind hunted mine and that was written into his motions, a tight alertness that seemed at odds with his cultured tone and dress. He looked like a noble though I could not place the era, with a jacket down to his knees, buttons all up one side. Trousers down past his knee and white hose beyond that, leather boots that buttoned up past the ankles.
"Don't ever think you are safe," he continued in a low voice, "Not unless you are in my presence. I will protect you."
A cold certainty to his voice. I remembered, as clear as if it had been yesterday, how I clung to the hand of another stranger that smelled of roses, knowing without a doubt that this man would not let the monsters come near me. That the monsters were even frightened of him, that he was dangerous – but not to me. Never to me. I exhaled, slowly. For all his quick gestures, for his imposing manner, I thought that perhaps this one would be the same.
"What is your name?" I asked, "And what are you, exactly?"
"My name is Avaln d'Verre. I'm a vampire, so your people have named me."
"Seriously?" My eyes flicked up to his face and I saw his lips were drawn in a thin line, a faint smile of amusement.
"I am," he replied gravely, "Not nearly as romantic or tormented as your human authors have painted us, nor was I ever human. We are born of the shadows, we emerge as we are, and the only commonality between our species is appearance. Your kind is quick to ascribe to us human characteristics – perhaps it makes you feel less like prey – but I assure you, this is merely camouflage. I hunt and kill your kind. I will continue to do so, and your government turns a blind eye because they need your family to stay alive, and I can guarantee that."
His voice softened. "And because they haven't the foggiest how to stop me."
I pressed my hand to my mouth, my stomach roiling in part from the drugs and in part because his words had sunk into a part of my mind. Those words. Hunt. Kill. Vampire. My mother had warned me, she said they would find me and hurt me.
"I don't want to be here," I whispered, "I want to go home. To America. My home."
There was a pause and he moved closer, walking slowly, and he knelt into a crouch just a few feet away, surprisingly careful this time. Keeping some distance and making no move to draw close or to touch me. I watched him, frozen like a rabbit, and he watched me in turn.
"That's no longer possible," he said and I wondered if the gentleness I heard in his voice was just my desire to hear something human, "Your grandfather held this position before you, but he has passed away from age now. You never met him, did you? Your mother shielded you from your family. You never even knew your father. He's gone too. You have cousins, but most are assigned elsewhere or have kids to take care of and I wanted you."
"I want what is mine."
"No." I struggled to stand, even with a fresh assault of the dizziness winding through my head. I swallowed hard, fighting nausea. "No, I don't belong to you."
"We're going to get along splendidly, I can tell," he sighed, also rising, "I think you should go back to your world. I'll let the agency deal with you. Come back when you're able to walk."
He stepped forwards, moving quick, and the palm of his hand hit me beneath the collarbones. A solid blow, not painful, but enough to knock me back so that I fell against the bed and the edge took my legs out. I fell onto my back, kicked futility, and then Avaln was leaning over me, a finger pressed against my temple, the thumb beside my eye. His touch dug into the skin until I felt his fingers against bone, and he stared down at me, eyes narrowed and his features strangely placid with a sort of inhuman concentration.
"Very soon, you'll be able to transition on your own," he murmured, "Until then... I'll send you on your way. I'll see you again soon."
The unnatural darkness closed in around me. I clawed for something of substance and for a moment, my fingers brushed against his shoulder, tangled in his hair, and then it was all gone.
I woke in a king-sized bed. There was an IV stand near the head of it, missing a plastic bag but with some wire tubes wrapped around the hooks instead. I glanced down and saw that my arm was laying out above the thin blanket they'd laid over me, palm upturned, the crook of the elbow exposed. There was a bandage over the vein. I eased myself back and up, and was relieved to find that I was at least still dressed in my jeans and t-shirt. The room was modern in décor, surprisingly large, with touches that hinted at a professional eye in choosing the colors and accent pieces. There were no windows and one door led to a bathroom, the other was closed. There was little furniture in the bedroom – a dresser with a mirror, a padded bench against another wall, and nothing more. A closet sat open against one wall and I saw a handful of bags stacked in front of it. I recognized them. My suitcases, all of them, along with my backpack and laptop bag. The laptop bag looked suspiciously light. I carefully eased myself over the edge of the bed, standing slowly, wary of the dizziness that had assailed me while I was speaking with Avaln. I raised a hand to my face, brushing where he had touched me, uneasy. Then I went over to my things, kneeling and checking them over. Clothing, mostly, along with my makeup and jewelry. My laptop bag contained the cords and accessories for most of my electronics, but the devices themselves were all absent. In fact, anything with any sort of memory capability whatsoever was absent. I hissed in frustration.
There was a knock at the door. I started, standing hastily, and then crossed over to open it. I did not recognize the man that stood just beyond. He wore a suit, black slacks, a moderate blue button-up with a plain tie, and a jacket. Very bland. Very professional. I stared at him in what I hoped was steely anger. These men had kidnapped me.
"I'm agent Ryans," he said, "I assume you've met Avaln?"
"Yes," I replied, not bothering to keep the anger out of my voice, "He says he's a vampire."
"He is. Became an ally of England long ago, when one of your ancestors – Sir Edmund – hunted him down. Avaln swore his loyalty in exchange for his life and has surprisingly kept his word for the past six centuries. Here, let's go sit down and I'll explain in full."
He gestured. The room beyond was a living room, I saw, also modern in decoration. There were some cream sofas with no arms and low backs, a plain wooden coffee table with a glass vase – empty – and a fireplace. I followed the man into the room, glancing about. There was a kitchenette connected to the room across a cut-out wall and in a nook just beside that was a counter-top with glass shelves lining the wall, completely stocked with alcohol. Like the bedroom, there were no windows. There was only one door and there was a pad beside it the color of smoked glass, and I wondered if that was the way out. The agent followed my gaze as he sat down on one of the chairs.
"It's not been keyed to your hand-print yet," he said, "We'll have to do that here."
"Where's my laptop?" I asked. I sat on a loveseat opposite him, on the other side of the coffee table.
"Our computer security people have it. You'll be getting a new one – they just need to finish transferring your data and then go over our security policies."
"So – where the hell am I?" I asked, gesturing at the room around me.
"ODV headquarters. Order of d'Verre. Your ancestor named us that, as he knew Avaln would outlive him as protector of England, and aside from taking on the abbreviation as our standard nomenclature, we've seen no reason to change it. We're an official branch of England's intelligence agency with a budget and everything. Good luck finding us on any public records though. We built this complex underneath the manor house that's been in your family, as the location directly coincides with Avaln's territory. America has a similar agency, as does a number of other countries."
"What is it you do? And why do you need me?"
At least he was being forthright. This certainly explained the lack of windows, as well. My new home was underground in a secret military base. I was starting to feel like a prisoner.
"Our main purpose is to maintain the separation of our world from theirs. Humanity is at a serious disadvantage when dealing with the otherworlders – they can cross over, we cannot – save for your family and the others like you. Our ignorance of their existence is our best protection, as for the most part, they regard us as a cat regards a mouse. We're hunted, we're killed, but infrequently so and they take no further interest in us unless we take interest in them. Then, we're no longer prey, but sport."
He looked grim and distinctly unhappy as he explained this. It was clear this was a situation that he, and I suspected this attitude came from his superiors, was not pleased with. I thought of Avaln's indifference when he described humanity as prey and the change to sudden animation when regarding me, as if I were something fascinating.
"But we have weapons," I said, "Avaln looked like he was out of the middle ages."
"17th century, actually. Their world is consistently behind ours in progress – we think it has to do with their long lifespans, brings a sort of reluctance towards change. They've only just adopted the blackpowder rifle. So yes, we have far superior arms. However, that doesn't help us much. They can pass through our world, invisible, unseen, until they're ready to kill. They can pull us into their world, either physically, or while we sleep and we've no defense against it. As I said, our best defense is their indifference, which is perpetuated in part by their existence remaining the stuff of stories. The job of ODV is to help keep it that way, by hunting out those from the other side that have taken too active an interest in our world. In addition, Avaln monitors the political landscape of the other side and serves as an ambassador for the humans. They're divided into many small territorial holdings and Avaln is old enough and powerful enough to keep most of the holdings in England in check. We have similar allies for neighboring countries and some portions of Europe have always been partly sympathetic towards humanity. The Tuatha, for instance, ensure Ireland remains safe."
"What are Tuatha?"
"Fairies." He shifted in his seat, laying an arm across the back and staring off to the far wall. "They're far scarier than modern stories would have you believe. ODV sometimes reaches out to them for assistance. We also have some responsibilities towards England's intelligence agency – they make use of your family's unique capabilities sometimes. See, you can pass between the two worlds as easily as Avaln or anyone else can-"
"Wait," I interrupted, "Avaln can come here? Like, right here?"
I pointed at the floor in front of me for emphasis. The man turned his attention directly back to me and nodded reluctantly.
"He can, but don't expect it to happen unless you insist," he said, "They're not overly fond of being present in our world. Most just pop in, grab some poor soul, and hop out. Anyway, you can pass between both worlds, either physically, or in a half-state that you experienced earlier. The correlation between our two wolds is almost identical in geography. So, if you traverse into their world physically and then walk, say, to the Buckingham Palace, then jumped back into our world, you'd physically be inside the Buckingham Palace. The same is true for the reverse. Furthermore, when in a half-state, you can pass through anything in either world – essentially, you're the perfect spy. You can't be seen by humans, but you can be seen by their kind and you will be vulnerable. That's where Avaln comes in."
"But I was in their world just now and I didn't seen any of this room."
I twisted to glance back towards the bedroom. I could see the IV stand through the doorway and I felt a brief flare of anger again at the sight of it. They'd used that to keep me under, then, so that I would be forced to meet with Avaln. As intriguing as this all was, I couldn't lose sight of the fact that I had been brought here against my will.
"In time, you'll be able to see both worlds," he said, "Avaln was most likely pulling you further towards his so he could speak with you."
"I can't believe this," I whispered, rubbing at the edges of my eyes with two fingers, "You want me to be a spy."
"Not just for us," he replied evenly, "Avaln will need you as well. There are things you will be able to help him with. We'll train you and protect you. Avaln will do the same."
"Do I have a choice in this?" I asked.
I snapped my attention to him, surprised by his answer. He returned my gaze, sincere in his even composure. He sat up straighter now, his hands resting on one crossed knee.
"We brought you here against your will, yes," he continued, "For that, I apologize on behalf of our agency. But if we simply explained it, would you have believed us?"
My silence was reply enough. No, of course not.
"Furthermore," he continued, "The incident when you were twelve ensured you wouldn't be able to pass into their world, and that could only be undone by an otherworlder."
"I want to know more about what happened. They said – back in America – that they had a file on me."
"I'll have it sent to your room later. Anyway, we brought you here so Avaln could undo that, and so that you'd be able to see the other side for yourself in a safe location. Now, you've seen it, you believe, and you know roughly what we need of you. We can't force you to cooperate."
He smiled thinly.
"The role requires enough independence that we could never compel you to help us. It'll have to be of your own free will."
"Avaln said he owned me," I whispered. The man frowned.
"He's old and possessive of your family line," he sighed, "And otherworlders do view humans they steal as belongings, if they don't kill them outright. Humor him, and push back when he gets too overbearing. That's how your grandfather handled him, at least."
"I never knew my grandpa." I stared at my hands. It didn't hurt to think he was gone, as grandfather was only a distant concept to me.
"He was a good man. Refused to retire because he didn't know who would take his place. Then he died, and we've gone for about six months without a Jennings present, and Avaln has been getting extremely testy about having to come to us instead of having a liaison."
Ryans rubbed at the back of his neck and shook his head.
"Demanded we bring you back to England and threatened to kill our director if we didn't. He's loyal to ODV all right, but the individual members he views as expendable."
I felt cold inside and for a moment, I only sat there in silence. It was still hard to think clearly. I stood and walked away, into the kitchenette, and started going through the cupboards until I found where the glasses were. There was an ice maker and filtered water on the fridge. I returned to the living room and sipped at the water, letting it clear my head somewhat.
"So if I refuse to help you," I said quietly, "Will he-?"
"I don't know. Doubtful, as the matter will now be between you and he. He swore to help your family line, though, and protect you, and he keeps to this. He can frighten you, but he will not hurt you. Do not forget this."
"Why was my mother so afraid, then?"
"The otherworld is... not hospitable to humans," he said carefully, "You'll see a lot of terrible things, even while under Avaln's protection. That's why she fled, we believe. It was within her rights. We tried to delay her emigration, but your grandfather insisted we let her go. Then she had you, and Avaln found out there was a child, and..."
He shrugged. That was how it went, then. I could refuse, could leave all this behind and return to my home in America. I thought of my luggage sitting in the other room, and my laptop off somewhere having all the data transferred off before it was most likely destroyed. They didn't think I would, and as much as I hated to admit it, I thought they were right. Avaln had touched on something and even though I had not said so, he had described how I had felt for most of my life. I would take long walks in the night, at college, across campus in the rain. Especially when it rained. I was seeking something, some other meaning in the darkness and in the storm, as if I was searching for a lost part of myself that I'd not known since I was a child. I was frightened of the dark, certainly enough, but I was also intrigued by it – as if it pulled at me, seeking to draw me into that black void. Besides, it wasn't like I had a particularly interesting life in America.
"Alright, I'll stick around," I sighed, "So, uh, what now?"
"Great," Ryans said, standing, "Let's get you introduced to our director, to start with. Then we'll get your security clearances set up and show you around the areas you'll be able to access. You won't be able to leave the compound without an escort, just so you know. After that, you can have some time to acclimate and unpack. Tomorrow, you spend with Avaln. We've agreed to trade-off until you're up to speed. Welcome to ODV, Amber Jennings."
He held out his hand. I reached across, took it, and shook.