Richard Morris awoke the same way he did every morning: with the rays of the sun. Unfortunately for him, there was no avoiding the penetrating beams that seared into the back of his eyelids each day. Groaning against the intrusion, the man rubbed his tired eyes for a moment before pushing himself up into a seated position at the edge of his tiny bed. Brilliant blue orbs opened with sleep still hanging heavily upon them. The dark circles beneath indicated a restless night. But a decent amount of sleep had always been difficult to come by, even when he used to sleep in his own bed.
It had been almost a year since he’d been home to London. A year since he received a mysterious letter inviting him to stay at the Vatican, Italy’s righteous Holy City. A year since he accepted the vow to stay and train in order to take on the task of fighting the [i un]holy.
If someone had approached Rich several years prior with claims of monsters skulking around in the night, he would’ve written them off as deliriously ill with madness or, at the very least, one pint too many. There were many shady creatures in capital of England, of course, but none of supernatural nature. A pickpocket here, a violent affray there maybe. However, tales of demons who could only move through darkness while preying on the blood of unsuspecting victims were things of stories and fairytales, mere parables weaponized against badly behaved children. Or so he’d once thought.
He might’ve remained blissfully blind to the deadly pestilence had he not had a run in with one of the creatures himself. The memory alone, though the incident had taken place over a year ago, still had the power to keep him up at night. It lingered in the recesses of his subconscious, darkening the corners of his mind, never giving him a moment’s peace. The attack was far worse than that of any wild animal. It was brutal, bloody, and baleful. Rich’s stomach churned with revulsion and his blood boiled with anger at the mere thought. For that reason, he was only all too eager to accept the Vatican’s invitation to join the initiative in eradicating the beasts and sending them back to the Hell from whence they came.
As Richard stood, his joints loudly protested the movement with a cacophony of popping. He winced at both the sound as well as the soreness that accompanied it. Every muscle in his body ached. He hadn’t experienced such profound pain since the start of his training. Now that he neared the end of it, it seemed silly that he felt equally tender. Rich was far from the same person he’d been when he arrived, after all. Grueling sessions studying hand to hand combat and different weaponry fully transformed the boy into a man. He’d led a rather posh life at home, never really exposed to any true hardships, so he arrived soft and weak. After a year’s worth of rigorous physical preparation, however, Richard now boasted a defined muscular physique fit to match that of those he hunted; he was a strapping specimen. [i ‘Then why,’] he wondered, [i ‘Do I feel like such a bloody pile of pulp?’]
The answer became clear as he noted the purple-black welts that were beginning to darken along his arms and legs. The swords with which they practiced were blunted for obvious safety reasons, but the blows that landed still hurt like the devil. [#4169E1 “Bastards,”] Rich mumbled under his breath as he reached for his linen shirt, wincing slightly as he did so.
Richard referenced two men simultaneously with the pejorative. The first was Arturo Moretti, the teacher with whom Richard had most of his interactions since arriving. He was a short, tan spitfire of a man who often favored playful cocky ridicule during their sessions, but he’d been far more severe during the last few weeks. It was as if he was intent on running his recruits into the ground. Drills were longer, harder, and without respite. No doubt he, like everyone else, was anxious about the upcoming commencement that loomed ever closer. With only two days before the final trials, it was clear that he wasn’t keen to allow anyone to fail under his tutelage and risk smearing his reputation.
The second man that Richard cursed was Erik van Kleve. They’d come into the Vatican around the same time, and soon became fast friends – if only because they appeared to be the outcasts of their class for one reason or another. As the underdogs, they had much to prove. The two men subsequently pushed one another to become better each day, giving their all in both study as well as sparring, quickly rising through the ranks at all levels. It was for that reason that, just as Richard was most often taking lessons with Arturo, he was also most often paired with Erik as a fighting partner. There were hardly any others skilled enough to be pitted against them, so they’d go against each other. The years’ worth of camaraderie was no saving grace either. And Erik was a merciless brute. Rich found that strength admirable, even if at times extremely painful.
Resolved to return the favor, Richard finished getting dressed by pulling on his trousers and a pair of worn leather boots. Just as he was readying himself to leave, he quickly doubled back to grab something off his bedside table. He slipped the twine over his dark hair, the small wooden symbol of a cross resting comfortably against his chest. It was meant to be worn at all times as a final means of protection, but the thing was so [i damn] itchy. So, Rich opted to keep it off during the night. With everything else fully accounted for, he exited the room.
It wasn’t long before the man was standing outside the door of Erick’s residence and pounding against it loudly with his fist. [#4169E1 “Get your arse up, van Kleve!”] Seldom a day went by that Rich let the German sleep in. He figured that if he was forced to be awake, then so too was his friend. Misery loved company. [#4169E1 “I’m headed down to the pinecone. I expect you to meet me there in ten minutes, or I’ll be back up with a bucket of ice water.”] It was hardly an empty threat since Rich had done it once before.
The ‘pinecone’ that Richard referred to was an expansive courtyard within the Vatican. It was so aptly named because of the large, bronze pinecone-shaped statue that decorated a vast niche in one of the walls at the end of the courtyard. Lush green lawns sprawled out in front of it, leaving plenty of space to maneuver for sparring. Behind the statue, tucked away out of sight, were a couple of antique armoires where the practice weapons were kept. Rich flung open the double doors of the one on the right to reveal a modest collection of smallswords, cutlasses, daggers, stakes, and a few pistols. Though guns were a generally more powerful weapon, there were so few in the mock-up armory because they presented very little danger to the enemy. It was useful to know how to use but would hardly be the weapon of choice in real combat. Less than enthused to be on the receiving end of more swordplay, Richard’s settled on using the stakes that morning. He grabbed two – again, both with blunted tips – and shut the doors.
As he was turning the corner from behind the statue, he could see Erik’s figure coming from the opposite end of the pitch. [#4169E1 “Morning,”] he called cheekily once the man was within hearing range. [#4169E1 “Slept well, I hope.”] Rich smirked, tossing the stake in the air, allowing it to flip several times before catching it deftly. Then, spinning suddenly, he slung the wooden weapon with great force toward his friend. It sped through the air, aimed directly at Erik’s chest followed by the words, [#4169E1 “Think fast!”]
[center As of late it genuinely felt like that pure exhaustion was Erik’s perpetual state of being. No amount of sleep was ever enough. Sure, his lifestyle back home as being a part of a group of game hunters providing for his village was difficult. That kind of work put his body through a special type of hell. The constant travel, tracking, and killing of animals was enough on its own. But depending on how big they were, sometimes it was an absolute pain in the neck to break down and haul home. However, the skills the job imparted upon him were invaluable in Erik’s eyes. It gave him strength, endurance, a sharp eye, and swiftness with blades. He also felt very comfortable surviving in the woods by himself. Climbing trees and carrying tools of the trade and the meat it yielded conditioned him to rougher, more nomadic way of living. And Erik typically preferred this as he did not like being in a singular place for very long, although it was nice to have a home to go back to when he finished a hunting trip.]
[center Given the fact that he liked going from place to place he regularly found himself going stir crazy in the Vatican after being invited to participate in a training program for hunters of the undead. Before he had received his letter of invitation Erik had heard whispers of ferocious beasts in his hunting colleague circle. Some of the men claimed to have come face to face with a creature fiercer than any animal they had come across. Erik had not thought to take anything they said very seriously simply because he felt that he was more of a logical person. However, he did find what the others had to say were interesting. The Bavarian man found the gory tales of missing people and mutilation acting more like gruesome ghost stories while out in the mountainous forests. But these doubts certainly changed when Erik came home to find out that somebody near and dear to his heart had been mutilated and dumped on the outskirts of their village. It had been quite upsetting as it appeared that it was more brutal than just a simple murder. And the body was not the first to end up in such a state either.]
[center But in his bed Erik was sweating in his sleep, having a nightmare about what had happened back home. However, the uncomfortably warm anxiety was stopped dead in its tracks when the man found himself waking up to loud banging on the door of his Vatican dwellings. For a moment he couldn’t understand who was yelling and what even was being said. But the only person who really did this to him was Richard Morris. The Englishman really did have a lot of nerve, in Erik’s opinion. [b [i “Come in here and I will string you up by your ankles!”]] was the man’s immediate response when he processed what was happening. But as quickly as Richard was there, he was presumably gone as the yelling and assault on the door stopped. The man heaved himself to sit up in his bed, blinking to get his eyes adjusted to the sunlight seeping into his room. He certainly did not want to have to get soaked and then fight Richard at whatever hour in the morning it was. Erik was the farthest thing from a morning person, though. So, with great effort he actually got out of bed and went to wipe the nightmare sweat off his face. Erik could feel in his bones that today was going to be a long day. Regardless, he dressed casually and comfortably before pulling on his well-worn boots. He simply combed through and shook out his hair while walking out of his residence to make way down to the pinecone. He wasn’t so much scared of Richard’s wrath. But it was his pettiness that irritated Erik to no end.]
[center The actual walk to the pinecone was short, but Erik really tried to relish the simplicity and quiet of the atmosphere during the time he had to himself. The German felt that he wasn’t the most religious of men, but he was hoping to God that Richard wasn’t up to anything ridiculous. But upon approaching the pinecone Erik let out a heavy sigh, hearing the other’s cocky energy come out with his words. Instead of responding he stared dead at his comrade with an unwavering glare. And it didn’t take long for Erik to be on the receiving end of one of Rich’s early morning attacks. Was Erik excruciatingly tired? Yes. However, he still had working eyes. It was hard to miss what the Englishman was doing. Out of reflex Erik snatched the stake flying straight for his chest. [b “I would say that I will pray for you. But every day you give me a reason to gift you with express courier service to God to let Him sort you out.”] The German spoke. [b “Because I don’t know what makes you think it’s smart to try and do this before breakfast. I know you’re English, but that’s not an excuse.”] Erik was certainly vicious with his words in the morning, especially after being rudely awakened. He gestured at Richard with the stake he now possessed. [b “I would think that by now you would understand that I am a firm believer in making those lie in their own graves that they dig. You certainly would not be the first.”] the man spoke in a matter-of-fact tone.]
[center But Erik at his core didn’t actually hate his friend, though. He would never admit it, but Richard’s antics helped him stay sane being cooped up in the Vatican for so long. That didn’t pardon Rich from Erik’s retaliatory taunts. The German cleared his throat and adjusted his posture. [b “You absolutely can sod off, you pompous prick.”] Erik added, purposely imitating the other’s accent. Over the course of the last year this was a new skill Erik worked on purely for the comedy value of giving Richard shit. But he took a couple of leisurely strides, so he stood directly in front of his friend. Erik then took his stake and pressed the blunted tip against Richard’s chest in return for his attack. [b “So we can either squash this morning squabble to see who has to make breakfast. Or we can leave for the dining hall peacefully. It’s up to you whether or not you want your ass kicked yet again to start of your day…”]]
It came as no surprise that the German was quick enough to stop Richard’s oncoming attack, but the Englishman feigned impressed incredulity all the same. This joking gesture clearly had no effect on Erik’s early morning foul mood, however. The other man wielded weapons that were not locked in the armoire armory with all the rest. Instead, they tumbled out of his mouth testily. And while they were not blades, they were equally as sharp. Whereas others might’ve withered beneath the words, Rich only grinned; they slid off his back like oil on water.
[#4169E1 “[i You?] Pray for [i me?]”] Richard pretended to clutch his pearls. [#4169E1 “And here I thought you weren’t a very religious man, van Kleve. I’m honored.”] To add to his dramatics, the Englishman delivered a mocking low bow. He made sure to keep his eyes up on his friend, however, just in case he saw fit to retaliate. Again, Erik only did so with his words. A threat this time. Followed by a near spot on imitation of Richard’s accent. Both of which made him laugh.
Erik was a bit of a wonder in that way. He could seem so stoic sometimes, ever soured by the stick lodged firmly up his arse. But he had a sense of humor that could shock when one least expected it. Richard liked this about the man. Laughter was the one thing the Vatican could use ample more of, in his opinion. Everything was otherwise so by-the-books. There was a sense of solemn severity that came with the task of protecting the innocent from the undead, of course, but that didn’t mean that everyone had to refrain from having fun with it. Richard was often scolded for this stance, but Erik was one of the few who enjoyed it. Or, at the very least, tolerated it.
[#4169E1 “Oh, come off it. You wouldn’t want to go putting me into any grave.”] Richard kept a wary eye on Erik, but his tone remained lightly mischievous. [#4169E1 “You’d miss this ‘pompous prick’ too much.”] He gave the German a wink even as the man sauntered closer to press the stake into his chest. Rich’s gaze wandered down to the weapon slowly before looking back up at his friend. His opponent. The challenge was clearly written on the man’s face in answer to the ultimatum that Erik posed. Richard swatted the stake away and attacked.
Within fifteen minutes, Richard was lying on his back gasping for the air that had been knocked out of him while both wooden stakes pointed directly at his throat. Erik hovered over him, blood trickling down from his right nostril. Inexplicably, despite the pain and exhaustion, Rich’s smile still lingered. [#4169E1 “I… let you… win,”] he panted. [#4169E1 “Just… felt bad… for waking you… up.”] Lifting a hand, Rich used the cuff of his sleeve to swipe the blood from Erik’s upper lip. Sensing that this caught the German by surprise, with a mighty shove Rich used the momentary advantage to push Erik off and join him on the ground. Laughter rang throughout the empty courtyard.
Richard pushed himself up into a seated position, his knees propped up and his elbows extending his arms limply on top of them. He shook his head as his laughter died down. [#4169E1 “Hope you’re not too worried about your graduation, mate. You’ve certainly no reason to be. You fight like the devils we’re after.”] Not much was known about the graduation ceremony that the new hunter recruits faced. At least not by the recruits themselves. All the information they were given was simply that all aspects of their training would be put to the test. There was a rumor that the commencement even changed every year to keep the inductees on their toes, so there was no telling what they were supposed to expect. Therefore, it wasn’t uncommon for anxious nerves to run rampant throughout the complex the closer graduation came. Even at the top of the class with Erik, Richard could feel the pressure to perform creep up. But that was nothing an early morning sparring session couldn’t fix.
Rich’s hair stuck to his forehead slick with sweat. He swiped his fingers through it, combing it back and simultaneously sending beads of perspiration flying. With a grunt, he pushed himself to his feet, stretching out his newly aching back as he did so. Rubbing it gingerly, Rich collected the weapons, cleaned them, and placed them back where he’d found them. When he saw that Erik was still on the ground, he offered him a hand to help him up. [#4169E1 “Well, I’m a man of my word. And I’d say that was a fight worthy of whatever breakfast you’d like. So, what’ll it be today, van Kleve?”]
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