Chapter Sixteen: The Human Connection
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The next few hours were tedious. Alice and Captain Wagner were taken to the infirmary as a group of night hunters searched the maze. Terry Caldwell must have had some plan to get Alice out of the facility. They just didn’t know what it was. Wagner and Alice were both questioned by Agent Thompson, and he was surprised to learn that magic was involved in the incident.

            Soon afterward, Doctor Brown concluded that Alice and Wagner weren’t seriously injured and could be released. Alice had developed a few bruises on her forehead from where Caldwell had knocked her out but was otherwise fine. Wagner looked the worse of them, his face covered in bandages. Normally, Alice would think he was seriously injured, but as he so accurately put it, he wasn’t exactly a normal human being.

            Once out of the infirmary, they were led to a conference room. Director Farrow sat at the head of the table with Agents Thompson, Walker, and Swann sitting near him. Alice sat next to Captain Wagner, and across from her sat a man Alice didn’t recognize, a middle aged, mousy looking man with freckles and big, round glasses. Soon, more night hunters entered with a rolled up carpet.

            “We found this in one of the vents,” said one of them.

            The hunters placed the carpet on the conference table and unrolled it, revealing threaded lines, circles, and symbols Alice didn’t recognize. Tied to the carpet were little bottles with different materials in them. Most of the bottles had some sort of herbs, a few had an amber liquid, and one bottle had some sort of dust. Every face looked at the carpet with stoic expressions except for Alice. She felt confused. Director Farrow, however, looked astonished.

            “Professor Halloway,” said Director Farrow. “Is that what I think it is?”

            “I’m afraid so,” said the mousy looking man, adjusting his glasses as he studied the carpet. “It’s a teleportation spell, almost ready to go.”

            “And hidden in one of the vents,” said Wagner, clenching his fists. “He wouldn’t have had to leave the maze.”

            “And there was more magic besides,” said Halloway. “Upon examining the maze, we found a thin layer of paint on the levers. This paint was the same color as the levers themselves, so it’s clear that the paint was the medium for the spell that prevented you from controlling the doors. Mr. Caldwell must have been planning this for weeks.”

            Director Farrow leaned back, putting his fingertips together as he gave this some thought. “I thought magic had largely faded from the world.”

            “It has,” said Halloway. “The wells and leylines from which we would have drawn magic have largely dried up. While magical entities like vampires and zombies can still create more of themselves, there hasn’t been a new type of monster in over a hundred years. Furthermore, would be witches and warlocks are nowhere near as powerful as they used to be. The vampires must have found a leyline that hasn’t dried up.”

            “How did they find it before us?” demanded Farrow.

            “I don’t know sir,” said Halloway. “But it get’s worse. All sources I can think of describe teleportation as a spell requiring significant power. If they can do this, then they can also perform a displacement spell.”

            “What’s that?” asked Alice.

            “It shifts things to a slightly different plane of existence,” said Halloway. “In the right plane of existence, one can see what is going on in the normal plane but cannot interact with it. Those in the normal plane of existence can neither interact with nor even see those in the alternate plane. It’s the perfect way to hide something.”

            “Halloway,” said Farrow. “Are you suggesting what I think you are?”

            “I’m afraid so,” said Halloway. “There’s a good chance that we cannot find the vampires because of this. We could be right on top of the lair and never know it. Wherever they’re hiding, we may already have searched there.”

            Director Farrow gave an exasperated sigh. The night hunters in the room normally wore stoic masks, but those masks fell just a little upon hearing this news. Even Wagner looked worried, which made Alice even more worried than she already was.

            “So what do we do?” asked Farrow.

            “We still need to figure out where they’re hiding,” said Halloway. “We need reports of vampires or their thralls disappearing into thin air. If we can catch them doing that, we’ll know where the displacement spell has been cast. As for how to deal with it, it might be possible to break the spell with something from the Silver Armory.”

            “Silver Armory?” asked Alice.

            “Where we keep our most powerful weapons,” said Wagner. “Weapons of great magical power forged before magic faded from the world. Honestly, given the situation, we should have been sent at least one already, but the Night Hunter High Council guards those weapons jealously. While these weapons still hold some power, we can’t create more of them for obvious reasons. If any are destroyed, they can’t be replaced, so they’re only brought out during moments of the utmost need.”

            “I can’t guarantee it will work,” said Halloway. “I need to emphasize that without the ability to actually practice magic, my knowledge is entirely theoretical. There are some things I can be sure of, but honestly, breaking a displacement spell with one of those weapons is, at this point, an educated guess based on limited options.”

            “Even so,” said Director Farrow. “I think even the High Council will admit that the need is great enough now. I’ll contact them once we’re done here. This leaves one last order of business. What do we do with Alice Hayes now?”

            The room went silent for a moment.

            “I wish to continue my training,” said Alice.

            “Noted,” said Farrow. “And I’m willing to allow that. We know they would be targeting you anyway, but we need to rethink our approach if they can infiltrate us to this degree. Anyone who can access the maze must have strong security clearance, more than Caldwell had. That means we have at least one other mole, someone of a high rank.”

            Alice felt a chill.

            “I’m going to have to insist that we limit who you can be close to,” the Director continued. “Captain Wagner is obviously above suspicion, given his actions in the maze. We can also clear Agent Walker. He was the one who intercepted your call, and if he were a mole, he wouldn’t have alerted us. He would have just let you get captured. That leaves your roommate; recruit Perez. Professor, hypothetically speaking, if Perez was a witch working for the enemy and disabled Alice while she was sleeping, could Perez have used a teleportation spell in that room?”

            “Possibly,” said Halloway. “Some witches can cast spells by merely whispering the incantation, and the most powerful can even do so by thinking them. That being said, if Miss Perez were, hypothetically speaking, a witch at the same level as Caldwell, then she’d have to speak the incantations loud and clear. The guards would hear that.”

            “Very well,” said Farrow. “Then I won’t take the risk. Alice will be given a room to herself and supervised closely when training with the other recruits. At any other time, she will only have contact with Wagner, Walker, and myself. Last, but not least, I want whoever chose the pairings for the maze training to be questioned. I don’t believe for a second that Alice and Caldwell were paired by accident. Let’s get to the bottom of this and find his accomplices. Dismissed.”

            As everyone got up, Alice got a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.

###

Alice’s belongings were moved to a separate room, and guards were posted on her new door. When Alice was finished moving, she stood in the doorway of her new room with an ominous feeling. Captain Wagner stood behind her with some guards, his face still covered in bandages. As Alice stood there, Wagner caught movement out of the corner of his eye.

            “We have company,” he said.

            Alice looked to see Marcia, Harry, Jamar, and Robert approaching down the hallway, all with apprehensive looks on their faces. Alice started feeling a bit apprehensive herself.

            “Do you want to talk to them?” asked Wagner.

            Alice hesitated but said, “Yes. That’s fine.”

            The others came close and were a little put off by the grim looking guards but didn’t mention it.

            “Hey,” said Marcia. “How are you doing?”

            “About as well as can be expected,” said Alice, looking away.

            “Are the guards really necessary?” asked Robert. “I mean…they don’t think that we’re…you know…”

            “Moles?” offered Harry.

            “Yeah…that,” said Robert.

            “Of course, they think that,” said Harry, shaking his head. “Did you think Terry was suspicious?”

            Robert didn’t answer but just looked down.

            “I still can’t believe it,” said Marcia, shaking her head. “Terry just seemed so…nice.”

            “Yeah,” said Jamar. “But a mole’s gotta be good at fitting in. Don’t you think?”

            “Be a bad mole if he wasn’t,” said Harry.

            The hall stayed silent for a moment.

            “Tell me,” said Harry. “Why hasn’t training mentioned vampire worshipping cults?”

            “It’s at the end of the course on vampires,” said Wagner. “We prioritize fighting the vampires themselves as there’s more you need to know. Fighting other humans requires less training, and besides, vampire cults are less prevalent than they used to be. It’s hard for vampires to recruit willing followers when people generally don’t believe vampires exist.”

            “Wait,” said Marcia. “I’ve heard of vampire enthusiasts since the late two thousands.”

            “Not every group like that is genuine,” said Wagner. “Plenty of kids who playact at being vampires would run for the hills if they knew they were talking to a real one. Not that this would help them. Of course, it’s not like these cults don’t exist, but they’re rare.”

            “But you still think any of us might be part of one?”

            Wagner sighed.

            “The truth is, this shouldn't have happened,” he said. “We vetted every single recruit thoroughly—every one of you. There’s only one way they could have done this. Terry must have gone without contact with his vampire master for at least a year. We’ve already determined that the vampires have been planning whatever this is for a long time, but this makes things worse. As it stands, nearly everyone in this facility is suspected of being a mole. I’m sorry, but that is the situation.”

            The others looked down, resigned to this new reality. Alice looked back and forth between them. A part of Alice felt bad for them, but another part of her couldn’t help but wonder if one of them was another mole.

            “Sorry,” said Alice. “I hate this too.”

            “You gonna be okay?” asked Marcia.

            “Yeah,” said Alice. “I’ll be fine. I just…it’s been rough, you know? Things just keep happening. I just keep getting attacked where I don’t suspect an attack. It keeps happening, and I have no reason to think it will stop happening.”

            Alice was trembling, just a little.

            “Oh, well,” she said. “It’s not so bad. I didn’t get as hurt this time. No new scars. That’s something.”

            She absentmindedly rubbed her scarred cheek.

            “Hey,” said Jamar, his face deadly serious. “You know what those scars mean? It means you’re alive and your attacker isn’t. Those scars are a badge of honor.”

            He pointed right at her.

            “You wear those with pride, Alice,” he said.

            Alice kept rubbing her cheek as she looked away. She wasn’t entirely sure how to respond to that for a moment.

            “Thank you,” she said.

            Jamar nodded, and moments later, the others went back to their rooms. Alice herself went to bed, and as she lay down to sleep, she noted the lack of another bed in the room. She’d been getting used to having a roommate.

            Now she was nearly alone.

###

That night, Alice entered the dreamscape with Jacqueline Castellane, and as Alice faced the vampire, she frowned.

            “Something happened,” said Jacqueline, a knowing look in her eyes. “Something bad.”

            “One of the other recruits was a mole,” said Alice. “A vampire worshipper. He tried to take me.”

            “Is that so?” said Jacqueline. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

            “And it’s got me thinking,” said Alice. “How someone can seem perfectly friendly but be a monster on the inside.”

            Jacqueline sighed, “You’re having second thoughts about our arrangement.”

            “That night, when you first appeared to me,” said Alice. “I was vulnerable. I’d lost people I care about, and there was nothing I could do about it. I felt so helpless, so when an opportunity to do something showed itself, I went for it without thinking it through. It’s occurred to me that you admitted you can hide thoughts in someone’s subconscious. How do I know you aren’t tucking thoughts away into the back of my mind to make me submit when the time is right?”

            “Wouldn’t this mole you mentioned have taken advantage of that?” asked Jacqueline.

            “Those vampires who attacked our farm had acted without the others,” Alice continued. “And Terry thought that capturing me might let him ascend, as he put it. Maybe Terry was acting before you were ready. The bottom line is I don’t know if you’re really helping me or even if I’ve actually been talking to Gary and Penny. So how can I trust you?”

            “I don’t have an answer to that,” said Jacqueline. “You’re right. You have every reason to be suspicious. But you have to trust me. If we weren’t contacting your partner and cousin, they’d already be completely enthralled. Victor is good at turning people quickly. Then, of course, if you’re not in my mental world, then Victor will come calling. I’m literally the only thing protecting you right now. I’m sorry, but that is the situation.”

            “Yeah,” said Alice bitterly. “We seem to have horrible situations going around lately.”

            Jacqueline looked at Alice very seriously.

            “If you wish to end our arrangement,” said Jacqueline. “I won’t object, but as I said, I’m the only protection you have and the only way you can help Penny and Gary right now.”

            They stared at each other for a few minutes, and Alice sighed.

            “I know,” said Alice. “Fine. Let’s continue the training.”

            “Very well,” said Jacqueline.

            Alice imagined a card, and Jacqueline guessed queen of hearts. It was the king of hearts. After a few minutes of this, Alice was able to hide what card she was using more consistently. A part of Alice wondered if this was all for show, but once again, she felt she had no other options but to take advantage of this situation.

            “Good,” said Jacqueline. “You’re getting good at this, but this isn’t going to be enough to defend yourself. We vampires tend to fight each other all the time, and when we do, we attempt to read each other’s minds. To protect yourself, you’ll need the skill to protect your mind while focusing on other things.”

            Jacqueline waved her hand, and a knight in full armor appeared next to Alice, sword at his side. The knight drew his sword and stood at the ready.

            “Swordfighthing?” asked Alice. “Actually, I’ve been wondering about that. The vampires don’t use guns against the Night Hunters, and even my brother was using a sword. Why is that?”

            “Our senses,” said Jacqueline. “Even a human with too much exposure to a gun’s sound can suffer hearing loss. Imagine how it is for us.”

            That makes sense, thought Alice. Even a silencer was designed to make guns more tolerable for human ears. Despite the name silencer, guns with such attachments were still as loud as a jackhammer. That also meant vampires wouldn’t use explosives. Still.”

            “What about flamethrowers?” asked Alice.

            “Too heavy,” said Jacqueline. “Slow us down too much. Also, fire is one of the easiest ways to kill us, so we tend to avoid it.”

            “Okay, can you use earplugs?”

            “Not as effective as you’d think,” said Jacqueline. “Even with earplugs, the vibrations from firing a gun can rattle our bones, which ultimately gets to our sensitive ears. Besides, even if that did work, a vampire prefers to hunt with stealth, and a key aspect of stealth is detecting your prey before it detects you. Our enhanced senses are vital to that.”

            “Fair enough,” asked Alice. “So why do this with me?”

            “Complexity,” said Jacqueline. “Guns are simpler to use than a sword. With a gun, you point and shoot. Yes, I’m sure there’s more to it than that, but sword fighting requires you to know your stance, technique, footwork, and more. That’s in addition to understanding your enemy’s technique and footwork while anticipating their next move. It’s a very mentally demanding skill. If you can learn to hide your thoughts while sword fighting, you’ll be ready to defend yourself from any mental attack.”

            Alice shrugged and raised her hands, imagining a sword. Moments later, a katana appeared in her hands.

            “A katana?” asked Jacqueline.

            “Yeah,” said Alice. “I like katanas. They always just seemed so elegant to me.”

            “Well,” said the vampire, smirking. “You’ll get no argument from me. Let’s begin.”

###

Miranda sat at a library table, surrounded by a forest of bookshelves. She’d been working for hours, but no matter how much homework she finished, there seemed to be more. Just how many periods of world history could one person study in a week? Despite Miranda’s passion for history, even she couldn’t study forever.

            Miranda paused, closing her notebook as she sighed. She was just so overwhelmingly tired. She looked up at a bulletin board showing various college events. One that stuck out to her was a dance at a historic manor on college grounds. That honestly sounded kind of fun and might relieve some of Miranda’s stress. She’d just need a good dress and…

            Wait, she thought. Something felt wrong. She wasn’t sure what it was, and she looked around for a few moments. Finally, her eyes landed on her notebook, where her name was written on the cover. Miranda.

            And suddenly, a chill ran down her spine as she realized what was wrong. Miranda wasn’t her name. Her name was Penny.

            Upon that realization, the illusion faded away. Penny once again sat in that decaying manor, sitting at a table in the room they’d given her. Lord Victor Sorenson stood behind her and placed his hands on her shoulders, holding her in place with a sudden, vicelike grip. Penny froze, her eyes wide with fear as she dared not move a muscle.

            “Why can’t you understand what I’m trying to give you?” said Victor, his voice stern. “You could be so much more than you are.”

            She knew what he was trying to do. He would make her old life seem as boring and as drab as possible and then make being a vampire as glamorous as possible. It wasn’t as if college was all sunshine and rainbows. She did sometimes feel burnt out and exhausted. But she’d never trade a promising career with a history degree for preying on innocent people as a monster. He couldn’t make her want that.

            Could he?

            He brushed her hair away from her neck, making her shudder.

            “Well, no matter,” he said. “You’ll see things my way soon enough.”

            She felt him bite into her neck, and she gasped from the pain. Despite Victor’s assurances, Penny felt a tear going down her face.

###

Soon after this, Victor stood atop one of the mansion’s balconies, watching the vampires train. He tapped the railing with his index finger, and though it was disguised as a thumbnail, he could feel the claw on his fingertip beneath his glamour. He was feeling agitated and had little recourse to vent his frustrations.

            One of his vampire servants, Isabella, hung on his arm like a date to the ball. She wore a fancy blue dress and had her hair in curls like a southern belle. She looked at him adoringly, which was reassuring.

            Some new arrivals brought crates filled with silver tipped spears and crossbows with silver tipped bolts. Victor didn’t like bringing this much silver into their lair, but they were necessary given some of the Night Hunter’s more supernatural resources. At least the newborn and warrior vampires were coming along with their training. He’d have a decent army by the time they were ready to move.

            In other good news, a Night Hunter patrol had passed through the area just a few days ago. Due to the displacement spell, the hunters had passed through both the vampires and the manor itself like ghosts. From their perspective, all they’d seen was an empty clearing with a patch of dirt where the mansion would be.

            Victor had almost been tempted to have his pet warlock Walter summon them into the alternate plane so his vampires could feed on them, but that would be counterproductive. Alive, the hunters would return to their base and report that nothing was there. The vampires would remain hidden and their plans free to proceed. So far, everything was working according to plan.

            Of course, none of this was enough to ease the disquiet in Victor’s mind. What weighed heavily on his thoughts was the girl Penny and Alice’s partner. Somehow they were resisting their efforts to change their minds. Victor could hear the vampire who captured Gary Frasier trying to convince him that he’d love serving such a beautiful woman. Gary simply replied that he’d prefer a real woman. The newborn vampire then slapped him, knocking him to the floor, before pinning him down and feeding from him.

            If it were just the man, Victor would have put it down to an inexperienced vampire still learning to use her powers. This was different. Victor hadn’t had this much trouble turning someone to his side in over a hundred years.

            “Having trouble?”

            Victor looked behind him to see the elder vampire Fara, for once sporting a satisfied grin rather than a snobbish sneer. In her glamour, the red dress and platinum blonde hair made her a feast for the eyes. Isabella clung to Victor’s arm tightly and hissed quietly, her fangs bared.

            “Easy, Isabella,” said Victor. “Show your elder some respect.”

            Isabella quieted down as Victor looked up to Fara. Despite his reprimand, he found Fara’s grin to be quite irritating.

            “I’ve never seen you hide a conquest,” said Fara tauntingly. “You usually like to parade them out for everyone to see.”

            Victor had been forced to move Penny to a back room where other vampires couldn’t see her. It could cause his followers to lose faith in him if they saw him struggling with an ordinary girl like this. Some lowly warriors might even think to challenge him, and Victor was reluctant to waste any. Not now. Not at this crucial moment in vampire history.

            “Do you want her?” asked Victor. “If you think you can do better, then take her.”

            Victor, with a certain satisfaction, noticed her grin waver just for a moment.

            “No,” said Fara. “That won’t be necessary.” A moment later she added. “How do you think she’s resisting you?”

            “I have a few theories,” said Victor. “But you let me worry about that. You need to worry about the quality of your acolytes. As I understand it, Terry Caldwell failed. Didn't he?”

            She frowned.

            “Yes,” she said. “So he did.”

            “It matters not,” said Victor. “The Crucivire is on the move. We’ll have what we’re here for soon enough.”

            “Yes,” said Fara. “Soon enough.”

            As Fara Turned away, Victor turned to Isabella and smiled.

            “At least you appreciate the gift I’ve given you, don’t you?”

            “Oh yes, master!” said Isabella, her eyes wide with adoration.

            “Show me.”

            Gleefully, she pushed her hair behind her ear, showing her neck to him. Victor Smiled, bending down to feed. He stopped for just a moment.

            “Perhaps you’d like to join us?” he said to Fara as she walked away.

            Fara hissed at him, still walking away, and Victor chuckled as he leaned down to feed. Isabella let him bite into her neck, closing her eyes contentedly.

            Down below, out in the courtyard, Gary lay on his back on the ground, weak from a recent feeding. The vampire woman controlling him paced back and forth angrily, upset with Gary’s defiance. He was vaguely aware of the other vampires around him, but Gary’s attention was on Lord Victor and Isabella, high up on that balcony. From a distance, it looked like a man kissing a woman’s neck, the woman swooning. Gary knew better, however. He was feeding on her, and she seemed to love every second of it.

            It made Gary nauseous.

            But what disturbed Gary the most were the implications. Vampires needed blood to live, yet they could feed on each other without killing each other. Furthermore, both Gary and Penny were fed on sparsely at first, but the feedings were getting more frequent. It went from once a week to twice, to every other day, and now every day. By that amount of blood loss, the pair of them should have died, yet they lived. Gary didn’t understand how it worked, but he couldn’t deny it was the case.

            To make matters worse, Gary had been having cravings. He'd see a rat in the mansion and suddenly feel thirsty, his mouth watering as he imagined splitting the creature open and drinking its blood. Even now, he saw a tiny mouse out of the corner of his eye and had thoughts of taking it into his hands and splitting it open. Ultimately, Gary was confronted with yet another horrifying reality.

            Gary and Penny were changing, and he couldn’t see any way to stop it.

###

Alice entered Captain Wagner’s office after being dropped off by agent Walker. The first thing she noticed before even entering the room was the music. She barely recognized it as Siegfried’s Funeral March by German composer…Richard Wagner.

            Alice wondered if there was a connection there.

            The office itself was decorated with various landscape paintings, making for a surprisingly relaxed environment. An old fashioned record player sat on Wagner’s desk as Wagner sat there filling out paperwork. A record player seemed an odd thing to keep in an office. Alice didn’t think she’d ever seen one in person, just pictures.

            Alice also noticed that despite the small amount of time, Wagner’s bandages were gone, and his wounds healed.

            Wagner looked up and said, “Ah, Alice, come in, come in.” he turned off the record player. “How are you feeling?”

            “As well as can be expected,” said Alice.

            “You take coffee, yes?” asked Wagner, walking to a coffee/tea maker in the corner.

            “Yes,” said Alice, “Thank you.”

            Wagner had a cup of coffee for Alice and a cup of tea for himself already prepared, steam rising from each beverage. Alice took her coffee, and they sat down for a moment, drinking.

            “So,” said Wagner. “I suppose you’re wondering what I am?”

            “The question had crossed my mind.”

            “I…” Wagner began. “Was not born, as you would think of being born. Rather, I was created in a laboratory, artificial flesh grafted over a metal skeleton, making me tougher and stronger than a normal human and granting me advanced regenerative capabilities.”

            That was precisely the last thing Alice expected.

            “An artificial human?” asked Alice. “Seriously? Did the night hunters create you?”

            “No,” said Wagner. “Regrettably, I was not created by them. If they had the power to create people like me, they wouldn’t need ordinary soldiers. No, I was created by Doctor Günter Alsman, a madman with dreams of world domination. In addition to me, he created some truly horrific things.

            “Ultimately, the Night Hunters were forced to deal with him and surrounded his laboratory. Rather than let his research fall into enemy hands, he set off an explosive device, killing himself and taking his research with him. To this day, no one has managed to recreate the experiments that created me, and so here I stand, both the first and last of my kind.”

            Alice took a sip of her coffee, just taking this in.

            “So,” said Alice. “In addition to ancient monsters, we have mad science to deal with?”

            “I’m afraid so,” said Wagner. “There is a course on it in training, but it’s not very extensive. We’ve had hundreds of years to study supernatural monsters, and without magic, no new supernatural monsters have been created since ancient times. Monsters built in a lab are almost always something new, thus it’s harder to prepare for them. Sadly, even though magic has largely faded from the world, mankind hasn’t finished finding new ways to create monsters. In fact, you’ll often find that some of the worst monsters imaginable are nothing more than ordinary men.”

            Alice nodded. She could think of several historical figures that fit that bill, from serial killers to tyrannical dictators. Of course, there was one thing about Wagner’s story he hadn’t explained.

            “You said Doctor Alsman created you,” she said as Wagner took a sip of his tea. “And now you’re working for the organization that took him down. What made you turn against him?”

            “It’s a long story,” said Wagner. “But if you’d like the short version…I was nothing more than a weapon to Doctor Alsman. He’d use me as an enforcer to defend him when he was under attack or kill whoever he wanted dead. I didn’t know anything else and was trained to follow orders without question, so I did. One day I was sent to kill a man who worked for the Night Hunters named Jonathan Bearse. By this time, I was known to them, so when I went to kill Jonathan, they were prepared with heavy weapons and I took a bazooka to the chest.

            “When I came to, the very man I was sent to kill was tending my wounds, much to my astonishment. I just couldn’t understand why my enemy was helping me, especially since he had an inkling of what I was. It turned out that Jonathan had some…unconventional ideas about monsters. He believed that monsters that were human once could be rehabilitated.” Wagner smiled wistfully. “He even attempted to start a program to capture vampires alive and rehabilitate them, reminding them of who they used to be.”

            “Really?” asked Alice. “Did it work?”

            Wagner sighed and said, “No. Unfortunately, he was killed by one of the vampires he tried to help.”

            “I’m…sorry to hear that,” said Alice.

            For a moment, Alice had hoped that it was true. It would give her evidence that Jacqueline was on the level, but ultimately accepting her help still seemed like a significant risk.

            “Anyway,” Wagner Continued. “He did have one success, and that was with me. It took a while to recover from my injuries, but pull through I did. He kept tending to my wounds during that time, and I got to know him. He was a kind man, who always put others first, and as I got to know him, I did something I hadn’t done before, something my former master forbid me from doing. I asked a question. Why was it necessary to kill this man?

            “The more I got to know him, the less I wanted to go through with it. When Doctor Alsman sent more of his creations to kill Jonathan where I’d failed, I fought against them. Afterward, I gave the Night Hunters all the information I had on Doctor Alsman and his lab, helped them stop the doctor once and for all, and…well, here I am.”

            “That’s quite a story,” said Alice, sipping her tea. “So, how’d you get named after a German composer?” she asked.

            “Jonathan called me Richard,” said Wagner. “Dr. Alsman just called me number twenty seven, so Jonathan had to call me something. He was a fan of the original Richard Wagner’s work and just picked it on a whim listening to Ride of the Valkyries.”

            Then, with a sad look in his eyes, Captain Wagner looked at an old, black and white photograph on his desk, pointing at an angle Alice could see. It showed a middle aged man with a kind face wearing the black uniform of the Night Hunters. Water formed just under Wagner's eyes, though he didn’t quite get to shedding a tear.

            “I miss him very much,” said Wagner.

            Alice didn’t interrupt him for a moment. Judging by the black and white picture, this story took place a lot longer ago than she’d thought, which meant he’d been missing his friend for a very long time.

            “You know,” said Alice. “You seem a lot nicer here than you are in training...horrifying origins notwithstanding.”

            “Oh,” said Wagner, waving his hand. “That’s just for training.”

            “Right,” said Alice, smiling. “Because if we can’t handle a belligerent man screaming at us during training, we can’t handle fighting supernatural horrors.”

            Wagner nodded. “Speaking of training.”

            He pulled out some papers from his desk.

            “Your evaluation,” said Wagner. “In the end, you defeated the monster, and you did so under duress, which I can guarantee will happen in the field, so I saw no reason not to grade you like we originally intended.”

            Alice, surprised, took the paper and looked it over. While the evaluation did deduct marks for failing to hit the Wechuge’s ice heart with her rifle, she was able to identify the creature correctly and make effective use of shield oil to finish it off. Finally, they added points for dealing with the unforeseen event of a traitor, earning her an overall score of eighty six percent.

            Alice smiled for a moment, but that smile wavered.

            “It almost seems unfair,” said Alice. “I won’t have an entity with super strength helping me all the time. Will I?”

            Wagner smiled, “You’d be surprised. We’re going to begin more specialized training for different roles, and among them is werewolf taming.”

            Alice felt surprised, but only for a moment. She remembered something big and ferocious hunting the vampires that night on her uncle’s farm.

            “Werewolf Training?” she asked. “Well, this place is just full of surprises, isn’t it? Next, you’ll be telling me that space aliens exist.”

            “Not that we know of,” said Wagner. “But who knows? It’s a big universe, and no matter how much we learn, there’s always something else out there. Despite all the horrific things I’ve seen in my life, I doubt we’re done seeing new horrors.”

            Wagner sipped his tea, and Alice sipped her coffee, reflecting on just how right he probably was.

 

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