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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 unholy.
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. 'Then why,’ he wondered, ‘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. “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 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. “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. “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. “Morning,” he called cheekily once the man was within hearing range. “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, “Think fast!”
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.
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.
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. “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.
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. “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. “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. “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.
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. “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. “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.
“You? Pray for me?” Richard pretended to clutch his pearls. "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.
“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. “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. “I… let you… win,” he panted. “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. “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. “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?”
Richard really knew how to push Erik’s buttons just right sometimes. And the German hated it. But he also refused to openly admit to such feelings. Some days called for more than just plain cursing the other man out. Today already felt like a day in which Erik wished to kick the Englishman’s chest in just to watch him writhe around breathlessly. And the snarky quips from Richard certainly were not aiding the other man’s survival rate. Not by a long shot at least. Erik felt like he was dead tired. And he was fairly confident this translated into the death glare the was giving. If Richard wanted to be an unrelenting smart ass then so be it.
“Well, I have been spending my free time discussing how to live in the godliest way possible with Father Niklaus.” Erik spoke, shifting his weight onto on foot. “Even though he is Swiss. God forbid he be anything other than neutral.” the German rolled his eyes as he spoke of one of the exorcist priests in the Vatican. “But the good news for you is that I am almost never neutral! I will hog tie you like a game animal and throw you into the woods to starve, Richard.” the man spoke flatly. “Or do you think you would have more fun playing a prey animal? Perhaps a good arrow to the knee to teach you a lesson?”, Erik wondered out loud, still firmly holding the stake’s point against Richard’s chest, “Do feel free to chime in here because I am just musing out loud here at this point.” Erik sighed.
Erik’s general persona was suspiciously ruthless in the eyes of their peers. There had been rumors all throughout training that he had definitely killed at least one human before. And while the German knew the truth, he was not inclined to dispel the cloud of speculation he had at the Vatican. This was in contrast to Richard who was cracking some type of joke or engaging in some kind of unexpected altercation or shenanigans that made at least one person laugh. Even if that one person was himself. Erik really had no idea how Arturo dealt with the Englishman as his pupil. Arturo really did seem like he had the patience of a saint, but the brutality of a demon. That appeared to be a common theme floating around the training programs at the Vatican.
The thought of Richard’s mentor made Erik reflect on his own teacher; Kristina. Much like himself, Kristina hailed from the Kingdom of Bavaria. But this woman was as tall as most men and was certainly a wall of a human being compared to other woman of the time, even by Erik’s standards in his home village. That was in combination of her being an immeasurably brutal mentor. From day one she was running her batch of recruits into the ground. Kristina made it very clear that if they did not like her being their mentor that they needed to quit. If they thought she was going to cut them slack? They needed to quit. She did not tolerate what she perceived as weakness among her ranks and threatened often early on in the process that she would expel them if she believed they did not have what it took to become vampire hunters. Erik could recall many a time that he witnessed Kristina criticizing Arturo’s methods saying that he was being ‘too soft’ with the new blood. Erik knew for a fact that Kristina could and would eat Richard for breakfast. In the German’s mind it was blessing that Richard did not directly have to train under Kristina’s tutelage. But has unforgiving as she was, she was efficient. And she prided herself on the hunters she had been able to train over the years.
But Erik’s mind was directly brought back into the present times when Richard chose to take an offensive route and attack him, leading to yet another one of their hand-to-hand spar sessions. Part of Kristina’s regime is that you cannot look at your opponent as a person. The need to disregard any bit of another’s humanity was quite difficult even for Erik during training because they were fighting each other, not the undead. But often times he employed his hunter mindset that when in spars. He treated it like it was a fight for his life every time. And Kristina didn’t care just how handsy he got. As long as he settled his scores and didn’t interrupt some Vatican function, she let him spar as he pleased outside of training. So, this particular morning battle with Richard was not much different. However, he did actually get a hefty kick to the man’s chest in before pinning him with stakes at Richard’s throat. Erik had knelt down for this just so he could stare into the other’s eyes to instill maximum ‘I will end you’ feeling to the tussle.
“I do not need the pity of a spoiled Englishman.” Erik remarked, voice low and accent thick. But he was indeed caught off guard when said Englishman raised a hand to wipe away leakage from a gentle nosebleed Erik had acquired. He did not know why the man would do that for him. He was perfectly capable of caring for himself. But it was not until he was stumbling back and landing on his own ass that he realized the caring gesture was a clever ploy to distract him. “Always a fox with your clever tricks, Richard. Good on you.” Erik nodded. While the German certainly had pride, he also felt comfortable enough to recognize Richard’s cunning skill. That he could at least respect.
Soon enough, though, Erik followed suit with sitting up, looking over at Richard to listen to what he had to say. The compliment made Erik cock his head slightly off to the side. “I think we all have a reason why we are here to fight. If the devil is who we are after, then he is going to have to deal with the giant chip on my shoulder.” the man huffed in response. “But I have to give it to you, your craftiness never ceases to impress me. I also think you will do just fine with graduation.” Erik nodded, genuinely feeling like Richard would make a fine hunter in grand scheme of things. But the man decided that he was going to take his sweet time to collect himself before getting back up again as Richard decided to be a busy bee and tidy everything up. The last thing he expected, though, was for a helping hand to be reached out to him to assist in getting him back on his feet. Erik accepted the gesture nonetheless and heaved himself up in the process. In return the German gave Richard a hand on the shoulder, contemplating what he would have wanted for breakfast.
With his hand still resting on Richard’s shoulder Erik leaned slightly. “I could go for a good plate of peppered scrambled eggs, wurst, and buttered bread.” he explained with a hand gesture to emphasize just how good he thought it sounded. That was honestly a typical breakfast for him back at home and he was quite homesick, so he definitely wanted something that could quell both his hunger and longing for home. Stepping away from Richard, Erik stood in contemplation before looking back at his training companion. “Although that must sound incredibly basic to your tastes?” he smirked, knowing that food preferences have always been a friendly point of contention between them for the past year. “You probably much prefer your scones and morning tea, yeah?” he asked with Richard’s imitation accent. “You know, long live the queen, or whatever you all ramble on about over there.” Erik rolled his eyes. It was ironic because they had a king where he was from, but Erik was fairly anti-royalist since he did not see the purpose and use that the royal family served. He was just waiting for the day that Bavaria was annexed by Prussia to further expand the German empire. Either way he did not quite care for all the politicking that sort of business entailed. He just knew that he didn’t like the current king and that it was just a matter of time before the larger force of Prussia took control.
But with the chatter aside Erik decided to lead the way to the kitchens because his stomach was going to get angry if it didn’t get some sustenance soon before the day of grueling training truly got started. “I don’t know what Arturo has planned for you and your group today, but I know Kristina is going to absolutely run us into the ground with final drills because according to her ‘training never ends, even after graduation.’” Erik admitted. “I heard that she is enlisting the help of the exorcists that are not out on assignment to hide themselves all over the city. And that we not only have to fight them but bring them back like we are on an actual hunt.” Erik was quite interested in the endeavor although he knew it was going to be a long ordeal because the exorcists literally fought like it was the devil they were after. “And we all know Kristina already gave them permission to use deadly force as necessary. Because if we die now then clearly we are not meant to graduate.” he laughed a bit. He thought of his mentor as completely ruthless even though it was with a purpose. Part of Erik appreciated the woman’s approach to teaching; however, it still blew his mind even a year later just how callous she was about anything, her students included.
The German then went about to gathering the cooking implements necessary to get both of them breakfast. The man was silent as he did this, quiet with his contemplation because with all jokes aside the final test to graduate loomed above him like a heavy, dark cloud. He wanted to know what the test was going to entail, but everyone in the Vatican refused to let any information about this year’s test slip. “I know that after graduation, though, I am going back to my home village to clean up the clear mess we have going on there. I will finally be able to help clean house and help everyone rest easier at night.” Erik pondered aloud. He then glanced over at his friend for a moment. “You have had a year to think about what you are going to do, Richard? After you get out of here, what do you think you will do first?...”
The morning spar and the rare compliment from the German had a bright grin widening Richard’s cheeks as he helped Erik to his feet. The sullen man was likely to cut him down rather than build him up more often than not, so Rich accepted the nicety gratefully. But not humbly. “You’re absolutely right. I suppose I am pretty impressive, aren’t I? Cheers, mate. I knew you’d come round to the idea of it sooner or later.” He laughed at the resulting scowl these words inspired. No doubt Erik was wishing he’d held his tongue. Rather than undermine the praise, however, he simply leaned against Richard’s shoulder and told him what his palate craved for breakfast. Followed of course with a witty jab about the Englishman’s own tastes.
Richard shook his head as he followed his friend out of the courtyard toward the kitchens. “We don’t toast to the queen every time we have tea and scones, you know. Besides, that combo is incredibly basic. Once we’ve washed our hands of this place, I’ll have to culture you some with a real English fry up. In fact, it’s not too far off from your mountain man meal. Keep the sausage, egg, and bread, but add bacon, hash, mushrooms, tomatoes, beans, and blood pudding to the mix. Now there’s a fine breakfast!” Drool was all but pooling at Richard’s mouth as he envisioned the heavenly spread hot and ready awaiting him in his family’s dining room. Individually, each component of the meal wasn’t much to sneeze at but eaten all together was enough to inspire deep sleep for at least five hours after consumption. While nothing nearly as excessive was served for meals in the Vatican, Richard hastened his pace to the kitchens all the same. The thought of food of any kind had set his stomach rumbling.
As they walked, he distracted himself from his hunger by listening to proposed lesson plan that Kristina had in store for Erik’s group that day. Firm was the hand that wielded the whip over the heads of the German’s fellow recruits. Or so Richard had heard, anyways. Kristina was infamous for being a hardened brute of a woman with a penchant for pain. No mercy, no sympathy. There was some argument about whether her methods were too tough, whether she was simply overcompensating for being born a woman in a male-dominated trade. But the bitch bred fighters. Strong ones. So, there was no real rush to rein her in either. While there was no question that her tutelage produced some of the best hunters, Richard did not envy Erik his assigned mentor. He’d never seen once her crack a smile and from that observation alone he was certain they’d have made an ill pair forever at odds. At least Arturo had a sense of humor about him.
“That bird needs a break from this place more than anyone else here, if you ask me,” Richard commented. “Running ragged all over the city I guess I can understand, but bringing your charges back? What’s the point? If it was me out there for real, I’d kill the bastard as soon as I saw him and be done with it.” There was a darkened edge to Richard’s voice that seldom made an appearance. It was only likely to arise whenever he made serious mention of the creatures they hunted. Just as quickly as the shadows crossed his features, however, he lightened once again. “But far be it from me to know how to best exhaust you lot. Just do your best not to die out there.” He clapped a hand to Erik’s back encouragingly.
“I think Arturo is walking us through fighting with injuries today or something along those lines.” He shrugged, uncertain what that could possibly entail. Arturo had failed to give them much information on what he’d meant about this upcoming training drill. It seemed like a redundant lesson to teach though in Richard’s opinion. The recruits typically sustained injuries in regular sparring sessions already. What more was the man going to do, chop a limb off to see how they fared? “I really can’t imagine him wanting to bloody us up too much before graduation,” he mused in response to his own thoughts. “Seems to me that would be counterintuitive to getting us to pass. So, we’ll see.”
The two reached the kitchens not long after the conversation about their respective mentors ended. Silence spanned the distance between them as Erik broke away to gather the necessary cooking tools. Richard did not mind this. Having spent the better part of a year by the other man’s side, the quiet was comfortable as opposed to awkward. He leaned against one of the countertops as Erik busied himself, arms crossed over his chest, and his gaze focused on one of the windows. Only the clattering of pots and pans filled the still air. With his chin tilted upward towards the rays of streaming sun, eyes gently shut to bask in the warm beams, even in his simple clothes he looked like a very pampered cat without a care in the world.
At Erik’s voice, he started slightly. He had dozed off. The restless nights quickly took their toll if Richard didn’t always keep himself busy. Acting as though he hadn’t been nodding, Richard pushed himself from the counter and met his friend in front of the breakfast ingredients he’d gathered. The man plucked four eggs from the open carton, two in each hand, and cracked them expertly over a glass bowl. Not a single sliver of shell slipped in. After tossing the freshly emptied eggshells, he began to season and then whisk the mixture with a fork. Simultaneously, he set a fire to the stovetop, put a skillet on, and started searing several links of bratwursts.
Having spent plenty of idle time at home while his parents worked, a younger Richard Morris often found friendship and company with the only other adults that occupied his house: the help. Though they were often instructed not to fraternize with the boy, they were hard-pressed to resist his charm and antics. In any case, the best kinds of fun were those that were forbidden. So, Richard learned the art of many of their trades. He certainly wasn’t a master of all of them – his sewing was shoddy work at best – but he could get by on his own well enough when others weren’t readily available to do things for him.
In answer to Erik’s question, he coolly said, “Some demon wreaking havoc back in your hometown too then, hm? I’ve the same situation. And now, a personal score to settle.” He moved the German sausages onto a serviette once they were done in order to help soak up the grease. Then, he dumped the eggs into the still hot pan to cook, shuffling them around with a spatula every now and again. “So, I’ll be eager to get back, see my folks, kill a fiend. Typical homecoming, you know.” The laugh that followed was a dry one. With the eggs now scrambled, Richard divvied up the portions onto two separate plates, followed by the sausage links, and finally a slice of buttered bread for each man. He shut off the stovetop, wiped his hands on a nearby towel, and handed a plate to Erik.
“And voila! Eat up and enjoy.” Prompted by the dull clawing of hunger aching at his insides, Rich dug right into the food without hesitation. The eggs were just slightly underdone, leaving them creamy in texture and accented by the liberal amounts of pepper. The sausage, on the other hand, were left on the skillet longer than necessary which resulted in a crunchy char on the outer layer while the inside remained tenderly juicy. And the buttered bread was thick, which made for a handy tool for sopping up extra grease as well as delivering the food in perfectly proportioned bites from plate to mouth. It was a good, hearty meal. Even if it wasn’t a full English fry up.
Richard finished his meal before Erik did and set about tidying up the used dishes. He waggled an eyebrow playfully at his counterpart. “How do the spoils of victory taste then? As good as home?” It was clear that the man was just fishing for another compliment. “Even better perhaps? I’d wager the cooking back in your village has surely dipped some if you’ve got a wild beast running around out there. They make for awful distractions, those things.” He tsk’d his tongue lightly, as if scolding an unfortunate, but minor accident. In reality, of course, he knew only all too well that the consequences were far more severe. Thinking then that the casual air with which he mentioned it might be some cause for offense on Erik’s part, he suddenly sobered. “What sort of mess does that leave you with when you return then? I don’t know that I ever did hear about why you came here in the first place.” Richard finished cleaning, drying, and returning the dishes to their respective cabinets. Then, leaning against the counter once more, turned his fully undivided attention to the German, looking expectant.
The Englishman’s response regarding his country’s reigning queen actually got a form of a laugh out of Erik. “I don’t know how you expect me to know that, though. I have literally never been to England in my life. You know I hate boats.” the German grumbled, automatically not liking even the idea of setting foot on a boat. Sure, he could swim just fine. But being on a boat of any kind made Erik horrifically ill. It was never pretty, hence why he avoided any and all travel by boat as much as possible. “I am perfectly fine riding by horse or walking to where I need to go, thank you.” he nodded his head to emphasize his statement. But then Richard mentioned his ideal food items for a meal and Erik couldn’t help but shake his head. “Hash?? We have already established this, Richard. They’re potatoes. Maybe take note from your Irish neighbors. I hear they know all about that.” the Bavarian man rolled his eyes. “Or better yet ask your favorite person in the entire world, Oisin, about it. I’m sure he’d love your curiosities.” Erik spoke, words dripping with sarcasm. From their very first days of training Oisin, an Irishman, made it very clear that he did not like Richard. Some days Oisin went out of his way to make Richard’s day miserable. Other days he didn’t even want to give Richard’s existence recognition. Even under Kristina’s tutelage Oisin was a very hot or cold person.
“Or even Charlemagne. Sometimes with how you two talk about each other I’d think you were an old married couple.” Erik added as an extra jab. Charlemagne, or Charlie to a select few, was a French winemaker who hated any English person purely ‘based on principle’. However, Charlemagne reserved his dislike for spar sessions mostly. But he was not immune to lashing out with some comment about how Richard was a spoiled brat and giving him the occasional ‘V’ hand gesture in passing. “Kind of makes me wonder what the world would be like if you English folk kept your noses out of everybody’s business.” Erik mused. He honestly found Oisin and Charlemagne ganging up on Richard pretty funny. But Erik often stepped in to break up squabbles as to not disturb the peaceful sanctity of the Vatican and to be adults. Did this earn him some dislike from their classmates? Absolutely. But Erik had long since made the decision that he was not there to make friends. Therefore, couldn’t care less what Oisin or Charlemagne had to say about him.
“I don’t understand her sometimes. All I know is that I am lucky to have already known to never cross an angry German woman. Apparently everyone else had to learn through trial by fire.” the man shrugged. “She said the only reason why we can’t kill them is that they’re actually exorcists that the Vatican needs. But apparently these exorcists truly don’t fear anything because they think this is a sport at this point.” Erik shook his head. “Eh, if I die, then clearly I didn’t do a good enough job. But we shall see what happens.” the man mentioned casually. He was not all that worried about his wellbeing during today’s exercise. The man was just hopeful that he’d be successful in bringing back one such exorcist without much fuss. “But best of luck to you. Especially with Charlemagne in your group. He’s quite short, but his agility is remarkable at this stage.”
But in the kitchen Erik was content with minding his own before striking up conversation again over the well earned breakfast meal. Pushing around bits of egg on his plate the German responded with a simple, “Isn’t that what we’re all here for in the end, though? To settle a score? To get closure. Claim revenge, whatever you may want to call it.” the man added. Everyone had their own unique story here at the Vatican, but the reason why they all signed up for training could boil down to the same reason or two. But when the Englishman talked about a homecoming Erik looked up from his plate. “Absolutely. You know, putting the undead back where they belong and all that.” accompanied by the slightest of smirks. Their humor while quite different found similarities in being dark and/or sarcastic.
But, the other man’s comments on what he thought about the food caught his attention. “For one, nobody on this planet can top my Oma’s cooking, thank you. My Mutti comes in a very close second automatically. Although we all kind of cook for each other in my village. One helping another type of business.” And he was about to tack on another comment in retaliation for Richard’s fleeting disrespect to the grave situation in which his home village faced. The backpedaling Richard did made Erik contemplate what he was really facing upon his return home and even brought him to the Vatican in the first place. These thoughts made Erik reach deep into the breast pocket of his buttoned shirt and pulled out a few worn photographs. He looked through the small pieces and put one particular photo back in his pocket. The others he set out on the table for Richard to look at. One was of Erik and his brothers all dressed and ready for Oktoberfest celebrations, clearly in the midst of drunkenly laughing at God knows what, causing some blur in the photograph. Another was a portrait of Erik gingerly holding a little girl who was sitting on his knee, her delicate braids secured with pieces of ribbon. The child was hiding her face in Erik’s chest but had peeked out at just the right moment. In the photo the man’s gaze was directed down at the child but was soft with a paternal sweetness. Another was a more formal family portrait of Erik and his brothers all standing behind their mother and father seated in front of them.
“One of my brothers is why I am here. Albert.” Erik noted, pointing out Albert among the brotherly and family portrait. Albert was clearly the most lively of all the brothers just by the glint in his eye and tearful expression from laughing so hard. “He is the father of this little girl, Viktoria. And she loved him to death like no other. She was her father’s shadow. They were practically inseparable.” the German sighed, thinking about his niece back home. “I love my niece more than I can express, but she fought so hard with her small body so I wouldn’t leave to come here.” Erik could remember Viktoria’s desperate shrieks as her mother peeled her off him when he was leaving the village. “But she fought so hard because Albert, her father, had been found slaughtered on the outskirts near dense forest.” The man sighed heavily. “Albert has been one in the string of many slaughters over the past few months. Of course, everyone is mourning the loss. Our mother has taken it quite hard. But his daughter Viktoria completely changed when she realized her father wasn’t coming home.” He then gathered the photos and neatly tucked them back into his pocket and buttoned it shut.
“While I am here to be able to stop whatever is terrorizing my village. I am also selfish in wanting to bring down whatever took my brother from us. He was far too young and ambitious to have been snuffed out like that." the male commented before going back to finishing his food, the conversation served as a sobering reminder why it was so important that he pass the final test to graduate in the coming days. “And honestly I’m pretty sure Viktoria hates me for leaving, but I can only hope that she’ll come to understand with time since she’s still young.” He couldn’t begin to imagine how Viktoria felt while was physically clinging to him like her life depended on it. “But I’ll be sure to braid her hair and go flower and berry picking as much as I can with her when I go home.” As the man spoke Erik figured the image of doing such activities was probably comedic to an outsider’s perspective, and likely Richard’s as well. But the more he thought about his niece, the more his heart ached knowing how hurt she felt. “I know that all sounds alien coming from me, participating in children’s activities, but my nieces and nephews are everything to me. They may not be my children, but I certainly treat them as such.” And that was as close Erik was willing to get to outright admitting he had a soft spot for anything.
But, his gaze shifted up and locked with Richard’s as if to indicate the seriousness of what was to come next bearing an ever-silent threat. “I hear the others talk about feeling homesick. And frankly, I really want to go home. I actually miss getting raided by the children all running errands for their parents. I miss the mountain air. I miss sitting outside beside a bonfire and just staring up at the stars at night. By myself and with select people. And while I hate it in the moment, I miss my mother nagging me because I smelled like death coming home fresh from a hunting trip.” the man huffed, getting some feelings off of his chest. “Then there’s the men here talking about their wives waiting for them at home. Like Charlemagne. He seems like a genuinely doting husband based on how he speaks of his wife Nadine. That kind of talk, though, I cannot grasp. I’m not married, nor have I been doing any ‘courting’ as the supposed proper people call it. But all of the banter about spouses makes me feel quite isolated. Definitely makes me want to go home even more.” Erik quietly mused before he refocused. “I know everyone says I’m too much of an asshole to ever marry, but if I hear you even whisper about this , you can kiss your ass goodbye.” the German added, covering his bases.
After breakfast was done, Erik assigned himself the task of cleaning up, so the kitchens were damn near spotless by the time others arrive, especially the nuns. He was not about to be the one to piss off an Italian nun because he dirtied her cookware and didn’t clean it up. “I may be from the Alps, but I’m not a barbarian, unlike what some people here might say.” he chuckled a bit. So many things have happened at the Vatican since his initial arrival, Erik felt like he might actually miss it when he left. But he was simultaneously itching to get the hell out of there with the swiftness. The man’s thoughts were also lingering on what training exercise that Kristina was going to have them doing that day. Erik found himself to be fairly familiar with the exorcist priests at the Vatican. There were a few that he didn’t quite agree with, but most he could actually bare being around if the occasion called for it.
“While it has been a wonderfully aggravating morning with you, Richard, I must go get properly dressed for the day’s activities. Because I will be damned if I get dragged back by these exorcists who are just taking the piss out of us for fun.” Erik grumbled. Over the past year he spent listening to the Englishman speak, the German never could catch himself when Richard’s turn of phrases rolled off his own tongue. For those who did catch this, it was cause for some taunting because of how the two were almost always found together since the beginning of training. So, for Erik to be talking like Richard, albeit with a distinctly German accent, made for interesting conversation amongst their classmates. “I don’t know if we’ll be back and done for lunch, but worst comes to worst we can reconvene for dinner. Discuss the woes of the day and all of that.” Erik added with a casual wave of the hand. “Don’t get your ass kicked too much, though. The nuns and I can only do so much to help you.” the man said with a final little side eye before making an exit out of the kitchens.
Erik was preoccupied preparing for his day whilst Kristina was busy greeting and speaking with a fellow alumni of the program. The man she was speaking to was both feared and respected by most hunters who had a sense of a brain. The hunter was both infamous and famous in the eyes the Vatican. He had been a part of the class that Kristina and Arturo had been in. But as the years had gone by, Valentin, an Austrian, took no interest to teaching. However, he did make the occasional visit when he wasn’t busy working just to scare the shit out of the new blood and to also say hello to his old classmates. But Valentin was usually known as The Black Death to those who didn’t personally know him and to the covens of vampires he often snuffed out with a terrifying swiftness. Valentin’s penchant for tracking, baiting, and exterminating the undead, even at night, made him a prized graduate by the Vatican’s standards. His moniker coming from the time of the actual plague was given through groups of other hunters across Europe as Valentin usually kept his true identity close to his chest. Only a select few knew Valentin by his actual name and not just his nickname.
Kristina respected this, though, as he was one of the handful of people she actually had a healthy respect and fear of. She could recall the many times that they fought and just how vicious he was even as a recruit. At least in her mind she could remember a handful of times where Valentin absolutely bordered on hand delivering her soul to God. And those fights were always the roughest to recover from. Kristina knew she couldn’t speak for Arturo, but during training it seemed that Valentin did not hold back with his opponents regardless of their gender. Kristina just knew Valentin was violently efficient. And she was willing to bet good money that Arturo also had some stories about what it was like training alongside a person who was taller than doorways and just dwarfed most of what was around him. And this just so happened to be one of the days that Valentin made one of his unannounced visits since his schedule allowed it.
Kristina was not expecting Valentin to stick around for long, but the Austrian did want to see Arturo and rough up the upcoming graduates for fun. The German woman didn’t see anything wrong with this. While Valentin was definitely more experienced than the Vatican’s latest hunters in training, Kristina found it to always be a learning opportunity to experience the unexpected and how to outsmart a larger opponent given that Valentin was a bit over 213 centimeters last he said. However, Kristina did not know, nor did she care much, who it was that Valentin chose to harass that day. Her only stipulation was that Valentin not actually kill her students simply because she knew of his brutality. “The only thing I will hope for you if you kill one of my pupils is that you have already made peace with your God.” the woman said plainly, but with locked eye contact. This only made Valentin laugh. “If you are going to threaten me, Kristina, at least say it with conviction. Your thinly veiled threats really do not do much for you.” he taunted, tone cool and even. "I knew you were vicious, but I never took you to be a masochist.” she rolled her eyes exceptionally hard. This comment elicited a snort from Valentin. “If only you knew the truth then, hm?” It was almost like a game between the two to see who could get the other to back down first. But Kristina simply crossed her arms over her chest. “You’re about as blood thirsty as the undead, I know. Or does the big bad Black Death need a pat on the back that badly?” The two then got as close to a joint laughter by huffing air out of their noses simultaneously.
“Well, since Arturo wants to be a ghost and not say hello, please give him my regards. In the meantime, I’m going to see which of your precious children I can find.” Valentin straightened his posture before turning on his heel. As he was walking away he spotted Richard, which made Valentin stop. The Austrian then looked around for a moment and turned his gaze back to the other man. “Where’s your little pretzel munching friend, Morris?” Valentin inquired, referring to Erik. “You two are practically married with how I always see you together when I visit. Is van Kleve too busy for you now? Must be a right shame, innit?” Valentin was no different in mocking Richard for him being English. The only difference it seemed like from others in the current class was that Valentin did not actually have a dislike of English people. He found them to be quite funny and entertaining to be around, particularly in a pub setting. “Keep your head on a swivel, Morris. Also, tell Arturo I would like a proper greeting from an old friend.” was how Valentin bid the other adieu and going about his business, albeit with a slightly different mission in mind now. He did not have grief with Richard. But Valentin sure as hell did with Erik because the German refused to stop speaking poorly upon being Austrian. It truly was a weird circle of conflict.
Kristina seemed to make light work on sharpening her own weapons by the Pinecone area, waiting for her students to return with an exorcist in tow or to be brought back by the exorcists themselves. And it was a slow trickle effect. One by one her pupils would check in to confirm the completion of their main assigned task that day. Although, there were a small number of those who were delivered battered and bruised by the Vatican’s exorcist. Kristina could only shake her head in disapproval, pointing at her students with a dagger in hand reprimanding them for still being so weak so close to graduation. While she was not yelling at them, her speech was deceptively bored. “They might as well have killed you. What is the point of trying to pass through commencement if you cannot even hunt down a human being? How can we expect you to put down the undead if you cannot even complete this simple task? Now you are here wasting my time groaning and moaning on about how you are hurt. Save your sniveling for your parents and confessionals, not me. And you call yourself men? Pathetic.” While internally she was fuming because truly. How can these few students who failed be expected to survive long enough to support the cause of depleting the number of vampires that existed? Sometimes the longevity of a student genuinely surprised Kristina. How they could last so long was truly a mystery sometimes.
For the most part, though, she was fairly pleased by her class. A majority faired just fine, as she expected. However, she couldn’t help but wonder what was taking Erik so long. In Kristina’s opinion, the fellow Bavarian was usually the swiftest with his work. He had never been the very last one to finish what she assigned. For the trainees who were successful she asked if Erik had been spotted around during their exercise, but none could confirm the man’s whereabouts. That in itself wasn’t entirely unusual since Erik was very good at concealing himself when he wanted to. Kristina ended up pacing about the Pinecone area. Her students that were not too badly maimed hung about the outskirts out of curiosity, chatting amongst each other since they also were wondering what the hell was going on with Erik. And the outcome of Kristina pacing was usually either terrible or amazing. The trainees had no way to tell which one it was going to be.
Some of Kristina’s pupils even were wondering if they should approach Arturo to see what he had to say. But as soon as that idea began to circulate there had been a distant commotion heard. It sounded extremely aggressive with the sounds of at least two men yelling at each other, although what was being exchanged couldn’t be identified. As it drew closer Kristina could hear that it was all a mishmash of some of the most seething German that could be spoken. And it was then she knew exactly what was going on. Then it even began to dawn on the other trainees what was happening. Valentin had found Erik, and the two were deep in a struggle with one another and it sounded like the yelling and sounds of hasty footfalls were approaching the Pinecone. Quickly Erik came into view, bloody and running with a knife in hand. The trickle of a bloody nose from his spar with Richard earlier that day turned into a bloody faucet out of both nostrils. He also had a decent cut on his cheek that was not doing him any favors along with other lacerations that turned his clothes into a splattered mess. Not far behind Erik was Valentin who also did not look well but was equally pissed off. The Austrian had a pretty disgusting split lip, cuts all over, and just as soiled of an outfit as Erik.
Kristina’s expression had turned from one of concern to surprise as she watched Erik run like his life depended on it. And it looked like it really did in the moment. They had been beating the shit out of each other and chasing the other around all day. Valentin had not planned to go so far, but Erik of course had gotten mouthier than the Austrian cared to listen to. Thus, their current round of fisticuffs was in a stage of pursuit. However, fatigue was getting to Erik because Valentin was quick to close the distance in a few strides before violently snatching Erik by the back of his shirt collar. The German then found himself getting choked out by his shirt while already low on air from running so damn much. And as quickly as that happened Erik could feel the razor thin blade of Valentin’s dagger against his neck. For a split second he was surprised by the predicament, but he was winding up to stab Valentin himself. But Kristina swiftly strode up and slapped the back of Erik’s head and back handed Valentin in a singular fluid motion. Erik already had enough of a splitting headache at that point and dropped his weapon, Valentin’s clattering onto the ground as he redirected his attention to Kristina.
Upon being released from being choked out by Valentin, Erik crumpled to the ground into a hacking heap as he regained is ability to breathe. This was coupled with having to spit out blood every few breaths while Kristina chastised the two of them for being so disruptive in the Vatican. However, Erik really did not hear much of what Kristina had to say over the insults Valentin was cursing him with. The German was just trying to form coherent thoughts through the sharp pain in his face and head in general. Erik couldn’t tell if Valentin broke his nose or not. But what he did know was that Valentin was a massive asshole in the grand scheme of things. But Erik did his best to get himself back on his feet regardless. He turned to face both Valentin and Kristina only to get hit with a, “And what are going to do? Go home and cry to your little boyfriend about it?” from Valentin. And almost as quickly as those words left the man’s mouth Erik spat blood in the other’s face. “Valentin, you need to get the hell out of here. Make yourself useful somewhere else because your petty vendetta is not needed here. Erik, get your shit together and clean yourself up, you’re soiling the courtyard. We will talk later.” Kristina sternly intervened.
And for a minute that felt like an eternity there was a tense silence in the air that was prone to burst again at any moment. Erik was shaking with rage and adrenaline, but he pushed his feelings down and moved to walk away as Kristina pushed Valentin to go in the opposite direction. Erik’s newest objective was to clean up and assess the damage and see if anything was something he could fix himself or if he would need to see Dr. Riedl, one of the physicians the Vatican had on grounds for everyone; hunters, exorcists, priests, nuns, etc. Erik had no idea if he would be able to make it to dinner with Richard despite having previously planned on it earlier. But with how everyone loved to talk about each other’s business within the program, Erik was sure the incident with Valentin would circulate promptly. For now, the dazed German just wanted to get ahold of a basin of water to begin the arduous cleanup process while muttering things like “Jesus Christ” and “What the fuck." to himself…
Richard pushed himself from his counter in order to get a closer look at the one that held Erik’s portraits. He leaned over the moments frozen in time, examining them perhaps a little more intensely than was necessary. The man couldn’t help himself, however; he’d never been given a glimpse of this side of his friend before.
The formal photo didn’t offer much aside from the basics: he was one man in a family of many. No wonder he had such a masculinity and roughness about him. Goodness knows it was no doubt shaped by his father and brothers. The one with Erik and the rest of them gathered in what appeared to be an inebriated state showed a bit more. A fun loving, carefree, and – dare Rich even say it? – downright jolly man was pictured before him. It was a complete 180 from the man typically skulking about the Vatican. His smile, it seemed, was contagious as Richard grinned at the sight. And the final portrait peeled back yet another layer more. Soft, gentle tenderness lined Erik’s face as he gazed at the small child in his lap. He looked at her with a love that could dwarf oceans.
Something in Richard’s face shifted as he stared at the fatherless little girl. The tip of his finger traced her half-hidden face. He breathed her name as an inaudible whisper, almost like a prayer.
He cleared his throat as Erik gathered the pictures back up again. “Well, I’m terribly sorry for the loss. Of your brother. Of her father. That’s awful.” He shook his head as Erik purported selfishness in wanting to go after his brother’s murderer. “I don’t think that’s selfishness, mate. Like you said, we’re all here to settle a score. There wouldn’t have been any fire to fuel the fight if those damned things hadn’t made it personal for all of us to begin with anyways. Viktoria will understand,” he offered encouragingly.
Richard sighed as Erik admitted to some feelings of homesickness. Many of the recruits did. And who could blame them? They were hundreds, if not thousands of kilometers from the place they knew and the people they loved. It was natural to miss home. The Englishman, on the other hand, did not. Even in spite of the grueling training, the consistent mockery, and the weight of the heavy baggage that brought him to the Vatican in the first place, Richard far preferred the home he’d found in the Holy City to the home he left behind. Little was left for him there. Still, he nodded along as though he could empathize.
Regarding wives and marriage, however, Rich was barely able to stifle his snort. “You’re going to base your ideas of relationships on the frogs? All they do is smoke and fuck each other’s overgrown bushes!” he exclaimed incredulously. “You’ve got nothing to grasp from the likes of Charlie. Besides,” he added with a now unrestrained laugh. “If you got a wife, that means we’d have to breakup.” Rich was referring to the fact that they were often the butt of many homosexual jokes and allegations thanks to the amount of time spent in each other’s company. He’d always found it amusing, though, and leaned into the bit every now and then. “I shouldn’t have to worry much about that, though, I think – you are too much of an asshole to ever marry. I wouldn’t.”
The two said their farewells to one another for the day and agreed to reconvene at dinner.
As Richard left the kitchens to prep for his own training session with Arturo, he was accosted by the infamous Black Death’s voice booming across the courtyard. Unlike his classmates, however, the expert hunter hardly meant ill by it. Rich flashed a cheeky smile back at him and raised his hand to wave off the man’s comments. “You didn’t hear? We are getting married; he’s just off to buy me a ring now!” Erik wouldn’t have appreciated such a joke – especially one made in the company of someone who already had a problem with him – but Erik was nowhere to be found so Rich could get away with it at least this once.
He then assured the Austrian he’d send Arturo round to him after they were finished with their lessons for the day and continued onward.
It was still early yet so by the time Richard reached the training grounds he was one of the first in his class to arrive. Arturo was there as well, a short and slim bald man with an impressive mustache. There was a running joke that during the instructor’s first vampire encounter, he’d been so frightened that all the hair on his head ran for cover under his nose. It was all hearsay, of course. No one could mock his renowned fighting skills.
Unlike his former classmates Kristina and Valentin, the Italian did not rely on brute strength nor violent fierceness to overcome his enemies. With his stature, it was simply not in the cards for him. And for that reason, he was immediately targeted as a weak link during his time training in the Vatican. It took numerous beatings both in and out of the sparring ring for him to find his footing and play to his strengths. What he had that others simply could not match was speed, agility, and endurance. The mustached man could make a sword swing and dance circles around his opponents. Not only was he quick on his feet, but his mind was as sharp as a whip to boot. Arturo could do more than hold his own and endeavored to teach his students to do the same, no matter their background.
Although he’d trained many a successful hunter, there was perhaps none that he felt was as great of an accomplishment as Richard. The boy had come into the Holy City as some scrawny, spoiled rich brat, but he’d leave a seasoned (albeit still not entirely disciplined) killer. When he saw the Englishman approaching across the grounds, he straightened up from his weapons setup and greeted him with a warm smile.
“The Black Death’s come knockin’ for you, you know.” Richard stated.
“Oh? That so?” Arturo craned his neck to look past Richard’s shoulder as if he expected the Austrian to follow up behind him. It’d be nice to see his old classmate again, especially if he’d be willing to perform a demonstration of sorts for his pupils. But, no. Valentin opted out of teaching, and Arturo already had a lesson planned for the day.
Almost as if he’d read his mind, Richard asked, “So, what is it you’ve got planned for us today?” He picked up a nearby sword and sliced it through the air absently a couple of times, curiosity lining his eager face.
“Something fun.” Arturo had a dangerous twinkle in his eye.
“Fun for us, or fun for you?” Rich asked hesitantly, the corners of his mouth dipping in dismay.
“You will have to wait and see!”
The rest of the class slowly began to trickle in. As they did, Arturo instructed that they all pick up a weapon of their choosing, whichever they considered their best. Richard held onto his sword. Once they’d made their selections, Arturo stood before them with his hands clasped behind his back.
“Buongiorno, everyone, welcome! I hope you all rested well. You are going to need all your strength and wits with you for this next lesson.” From his breast pocket, Arturo withdrew something small, sharp, and white. He held it up for everyone to see clearly. “You might wonder what I have here. While we all have our swords and crossbows, here is the vampire’s weapon of choice: fangs. And you must remember that because of this, you will never catch it unarmed. Plus, this is no ordinary weapon. The scrape of a vampire fang? It burns. But the bite of one? It blinds.” The class held its collective breath. “You can barely think, let alone fight. Even if you get away from that – and that if is a big one – if you do not cleanse the wound instantly, your blood becomes dirty, tainted. Unless killed, the vampire that did the biting can exert more influence, more control over you. This is the half-vampire. This… was almost me.”
Arturo raised the hand holding the fang higher so that his long sleeve fell further down his arm. There, on the front of his forearm, was a light crescent shaped scar. He’d never forget the day he got it and how it almost cost him his life. The Italian would not let his class suffer the same fate.
“I do not want you to be me; I want you to be better. So today, you come up one by one, submit to a wound by this fang, and try to disarm me in ten minutes.” He paused, then added, “Most of you will not succeed. But still we try!”
One by one, each of the recruits were called forth in alphabetical order by first names. They were able to select where they’d get punctured by the fang, but no one place on the body truly seemed all that preferable to another; the results were all the same. Awful. Seasoned soldiers were almost instantly brought to their knees, writhing and howling in unparalleled pain. Arturo did his best to talk them through the agony of the wound, but most had to tap out before the ten minutes were even up. The handful of people that were able to get to their feet flailed around more than fought coherently. It was all too easy for their instructor to evade their oncoming attacks with no more than a few flicks of the wrist. Charlemagne did well enough holding his own, but in the end even he was still unable to disarm Arturo before time ran out. He was dismissed to cleanse his bite just the same as those that went before him.
Richard was one of the last ones of the day. He’d tried to glean what he could from his fellow classmates’ fights, but he was sure there was little that could be done to help him now. He presented his right forearm to Arturo. “We can be a matching pair,” he said to the Italian cheekily, referencing his scar. The mustached man only nodded grimly before driving the fang down into his flesh.
The pain was instantaneous and indeed, blinding. Rich cried out horribly before collapsing onto the ground. It was unlike anything he’d ever experienced before. The agony burned like a thousand suns all searing past flesh, muscle, and bone. He could feel it boiling in his blood, infecting and weakening him. His breath hissed out between teeth clenched so tightly together he felt as though they might shatter. Although his hand remained gripped on his sword, he could barely form any coherent thoughts let alone think to use it. Yet one thought did manage to slice through the pain over and over and over again…
This is how she felt.
In her last moments, this is how she felt.
“Emmy…” he moaned pathetically. The saltiness of tears began to sting his eyes.
“Are you going to die like her, Richard, hm?” Arturo’s voice seemed leagues away, but Rich could still just make out the words. “Or are you going to fight for her?”
Rich could barely keep his eyes open against the pain, but he managed to raise his gaze to the short man towering over him. “Don’t,” he snarled viciously, nearly spitting as he did so.
“Then your death will be in vain as much as hers.” Arturo brought his sword down towards Richard’s head, but the Englishman quickly rolled away. Suddenly, he was on his feet, the adrenaline of rage kept the burning at bay for the moment. “Five minutes left. Come on then.”
With a roar, Rich charged his instructor. The Italian was ready for him. He swiftly sidestepped out of the way and stuck out a leg to trip the Englishman, sending him flying forward. Richard used the momentum to tumble into a somersault before rising to his feet again and spinning around. This time he came at Arturo with the blade. Steel clashed with steel, the ringing sounds echoing across the courtyard. Richard had the upper hand as far as strength, even in his injured state, but Arturo beat him in strategy. The man pivoted, breaking their hold and sneaking his arm into the unguarded space in front of Richard. He smashed the hilt of his sword into his nose. Richard’s vision swam sickeningly before him as the warmth of his own blood began to dribble down his mouth. He took a moment to swipe some of it away and it was half a moment too long. Before he knew what was happening, Arturo kicked him square in the chest, sending him stumbling backwards. Another quick sweep of the legs and he sent Richard crashing to the ground.
Once again, the teacher stood over his student. And once again, Richard saw the point of the sword driving down to strike the killing blow. Be it an act of stupidity or one of genius, Rich abandoned his weapon and quickly caught the flat of the blade between the palms of his hands. This move shocked Arturo for a second, but a second was all the Englishman needed. Mustering up the last remnants of his strength, he rotated the blade so he could grasp it fully in both hands, then jerked it upwards with enough force to knock the hilt into Arturo’s face. The mustached man cursed in his mother tongue as he faltered back, cradling his right eye with both hands. And therefore, leaving his sword in the hands of Richard.
Cheers erupted from the sidelines. Although he’d normally revel in the praise, Rich stayed on the ground, panting heavily. Not only did the bite still scorch him from the inside out, but his hands were severely sliced open and bleeding profusely. Dulled weapons were still dangerous ones, after all. People took notice of his state and began rushing toward him, focusing on his palms, but Arturo shooed them away, stressing instead the importance of cleansing the puncture wound first.
Incredibly, the cleansing was even worse than the bite itself. The only way to purify the injury was to pour blessed holy water on it. And, unfortunately for Richard and the other recruits, it reacted in much the same ways it would if it was administered to a vampire. The skin surrounding the wound sizzled and burned while a thick mixture of blood and puss slowly eked from the small hole in his forearm. Richard thrashed wildly, his body seizing against the torture of the process and Arturo instructed the bystanders to restrain him. They held him down firmly as he begged them to stop, but the water continued to stream onto the bite even long after he’d passed out from the pain. They only stopped once the wound ran as clear as the water itself.
“Get him to the infirmary, have Dr. Riedl patch up his hands,” Arturo said, motioning to the recruits still holding Richard down. They scooped his unconscious body up by the arms and half carried, half dragged him off. There was barely a hint of a smile playing at his lips even as his eye began to blacken. He turned to the next student, “Who’s up?”
Richard awoke in a hospital bed a couple of hours later feeling as though his entire body had had a bad run in with a lorry. He groaned as he tried to push himself up into a seated position, but he quickly hissed out in pain and fell back again after a sharp stinging sensation cut across his palms. He lifted his hands to his face to find them covered in bloody bandages.
“Oh good, you’re up. We’ll want to change those.” Dr. Riedl, an older gentleman with a kind face, hobbled over to Rich and took a seat across from his bed. He gestured for one of his hands. Richard presented it, wincing slightly as he started unwinding the soaked gauze.
“Is it bad?” he asked.
“Under what circumstances would you say that a sliced-up pair of hands is good?” the physician retorted with a smile. He surprised a small chuckle out of the Englishman.
“You’ll live. Some routine bandage changes and healing ointment ought to have you good as new within a week’s time, maybe two.” He finished unwrapping the bandage to reveal the four cuts on Richard’s hands: two on each palm and two more across the middle of his fingers. The bleeding appeared to have stopped, but the dried blood that surrounded the newly administered stitches made it look rather grisly.
“A week or two… you’re certain?” Richard asked. The elder nodded, letting what was left unsaid hang in the air. Graduation would be upon him before he was fully healed. “Well, maybe that vampire bite will give me the same sort of healing traits too,” he said, forcing himself to be optimistic.
Dr. Riedl nodded amicably. “Maybe.” He slathered some of the cooling ointment into the stitches and wound a new bandage around his hand again before working on the other one. “I was surprised when you showed up here, truth be told.”
“They told me it was your friend that was supposed to be coming my way. Never did. I found it funny you showed up in his stead – always one part of a pair with you two.”
“Do you mean Erik?” Richard’s brow furrowed with concern. “What’s wrong with him?”
The doctor shrugged. “I’m not one for gossip, really.” He paused. “But I heard that he’d gotten into it in a bad way with The Black Death. Not sure how bad, per say, but from what everyone’s been saying it wasn’t pretty. They nearly killed each other.” Richard’s face fell. As soon as Dr. Reidl finished rebandaging the second hand, Rich stood. The sudden movement made him dizzy, but he steadied himself against the bedframe.
“I have to go,” he stated abruptly.
“Of course. Take these with you,” He handed Richard some miscellaneous medical supplies before he could rush out the door. “And mind those stitches!”
The sun was setting, casting long shadows across the Holy City as Richard hurried out of the infirmary. He ignored the congratulatory comments that followed in his wake and made a beeline towards Erik’s room. He burst in without so much as knocking to find him sprawled in bed with his face badly beaten and his body even worse for wear with several cuts, scrapes, and bruises. “Oi!” he exclaimed sharply, his voice cutting through whatever peace the German may have previously been enjoying. “What’d I say to you just this morning about trying not to die out there? So you, what? Decide to run off and pick a fight with someone who’s literally called The Black Death?!” It was like a mother scolding an insolent child. “Well, you’re a right proper idiot for that one, aren’t you?”
Richard shook his head and made his way to Erik’s bedside, dropping his stash of medical supplies to the floor. He sifted through the goodies until he found the same ointment that Dr. Riedl used for his sliced hands. “Lucky for you, one of us actually accepts quality treatments when injured.” Rich began to gingerly apply some of the stuff to the worst looking injuries on his friend.
“What the fuck were you thinking? You know, aside from the fact that you weren’t.”
It felt like with each passing moment that Erik spent standing in his room trying to tend to his wounds, the more the pervasive sensation of burning ache affected his body. The adrenaline from the near-death match was quick to wane, thus making Erik’s body tremble more while weakness and nausea crept up on him. Once safe within the confines of his room, the German quickly realized there was no salvaging his clothing. Everything was soaked in blood and torn up in some way. So, he had stripped everything off as fast and his injuries would allow in their current state and simply replaced them with as comfortable a pair of trousers that he could find in what few clothes he did have.
Actually accomplishing rinsing off the now semi-caked on blood and dirt was a different story. Erik was not so much fazed by the sight or smell as he was by just how much his neck hurt from being strangled and his head ached from quite literally being beaten within a breath of his own life. He had prioritized attending to what he believed was a broken nose since it covered practically the lower half of his face with splashes of solid bright red. Sure, there were stab wounds, cuts, among others scattered across his body. But Erik knew that if he did not want his nose to forever set crooked, he’d have to reset it himself and that was likely to be the most painful part of any process he’d have to handle at the moment.
And horrifically painful it was. Erik had braced himself as best he could before taking his already agonizing nose and swiftly readjusting it so it would sit about as close to normal as possible given the swelling and early formed bruises. The man had cursed enough to make even the holiest of priests second guess their convictions about confessionals. The German felt like something pointy and sharp had stabbed him straight through to the back of his skull, causing his eyes to weep profusely. The pain made him question whether skipping out on seeing Dr. Riedl or not had been a smart idea. Despite having open access to medical care for nearly a year within the Vatican, Erik still couldn’t get himself to grasp the concept of seeing a doctor if he was sick or injured, hence why he had often been spotted over time tending to his own ailments.
While all of the bleeding had not stopped entirely, Erik was perfectly happy to just not look like an entire corpse when he shuffled over to his bed to carefully lie down on top of the blankets. His logic was that he just needed to lie down for a while and then reassess the status of his wellbeing and move on from there. And as much as the man wished to be swept unconscious by sleep, he found great difficulty in simply relaxing as even breathing felt agonizing in his chest, back, and neck. Erik knew there were early signs of a ligature mark like somebody tried to hang him. And Valentin had definitely tried to strangle the German, just it was without rope like in a standard execution. Erik simply found himself stuck in a painfully half-awake and half-asleep state of limbo.
He was not aware of how much time had passed, however. But Erik was as content as he could be given his circumstances simply withering on his bed whilst semi-conscious. But the beaten man swore that God had to have had it out for him that day because he was immediately ripped from what comfort he had when Richard came barreling into his room unannounced. The man groaned, not even daring to attempt sitting up. “The last thing I need to hear right now is you trying to chastise me like my mother.” Erik huffed, eventually getting the will to squint at the Englishman through angry, but aching eyelids.
But even hearing the mentioning of Valentin’s infamous moniker made Erik shift on his bed. He felt as through his head could cave in at any moment but he very slowly sat up, leaning against the headboard of his bed to for up upper body support. “That vile bastard speaks ill of what he does not understand, Richard. And I will be damned if I let some half-rate jack ass disrespect and try to kill me. I would rather die if it meant proving a point to that Austrian piece of shit.” Erik stated so surely, although his voice was quite hoarse from practically getting his throat crushed.
He then directed a hard glare at Richard. “Lucky for you, you grew up with that being your normal. That is a luxury of the rich, you posh prick. Electricity. Medicine. Let alone a doctor just being right there if you get the sniffles.” Erik was bitter, but it didn’t have anything to do with Richard personally. “So, pardon me for finding ‘accepting quality treatments when injured’ difficult. In some places of the world people still have to take care of themselves. And even then they can still die. Just like with doctors.” Erik huffed, thinking about how he could count on one hand how many times he had seen a healer back home in his village. And the maybe two times he had seen a medical doctor ever, Dr. Riedl inside the Vatican being one.
Tiredly, he watched as Richard went to work with supplies Erik could only assume came from Dr. Riedl. The German again had a river a curses flowing out of his mouth feeling the ointment being applied to his nastiest of wounds. Erik attempted to compose himself, though. “Richard. Think of the never-ending feud between you English and the French; you and Charlemagne, particularly. But take that distaste and magnify it violently however many fold you must. What you get out of that is much like what it is between him and I. But with a bit more blood because he does not understand what it means to mind his business. If it takes all the fight and life in my body to get that mountain to piss off, then that is what it takes.”
But in the back of Erik’s mind the man could not let go of what Valentin had said to him, rather threatened him with. Erik did not know exactly how Valentin had come about figuring it out, but the Austrian knew Erik had a lover back home. Hence why the out loud ‘boyfriend’ comment during their fight made Erik immediately respond by spitting blood in the other’s face. The German had been mentally set on killing Valentin for threatening to air out that information to the other trainees purely out of spite. And as much as the relatively harmless accusations that floated around because of how close Erik was to Richard irked him, Erik figured those who heard would have assumed Valentin had meant the Englishman during their argument. It had been the German’s staunchest rule since he entered the Vatican; under no circumstance was anyone in attendance to ever hear even a whisper about Emil. At the Vatican Emil did not exist. But of course, Erik secretly kept a photo of them stashed away especially for a particularly gloomy, homesick day.
“Now I have no idea what is going to happen. Kristina is beyond upset that we fought like that. And I haven’t heard anything since she banished me after breaking up our skirmish. I don’t know if this threatens my chance to attend commencement even though I didn’t start the fight. If I wasted a year of my life away from home all because of him, I swear to God, Richard, I will personally have his head mounted like a deer.”
But Erik sighed. “Do you have any stitching supplies with you? Some of these stabs definitely will not heal well with just gauze and a prayer. I can pull it back together.” He croaked, filled with mixed emotions but resigned to the fact that this was his current situation. “I really don’t want to have to bother Dr. Riedl with any of this. You know he’ll be mad that I reset my own nose in addition to this mess.” Whether Richard would afford him that small mercy or not was unknown to Erik.
The more he watched the Englishman in silence Erik noticed the neatly wrapped bandages on the other’s hands. “And you invade my domicile to berate me when you yourself have your own problems to worry about. How are you going to fight with a lame set of hands?” the German inquired before narrowing his gaze. “More importantly, why did you clearly ditch Dr. Riedl for me? You also look like you have seen better days.” It certainly was not the first time that they indulged in misery loving company. Days of them commiserating together had been much more common in the beginning of their days in training. “Although, I must admit having my own private nurse is not unappreciated.” Erik added, trying to at least lighten the mood with some humor however dry it actually was…
Richard scoffed and rolled his eyes, giving his head a shake as he did so. “The Austrian and your lack of medicine growing up isn’t your problem, you ignorant buffoon. It’s your goddamn pride.” He jabbed a finger into Erik’s chest to emphasize his point. “You mean to tell me you don’t want to pay a visit to a doctor now that one is finally available to you because, what? Do you prefer dying from a wayward sneeze or in a puddle of your own shit? I seriously doubt it. You don’t go because you’re a big man trying to muscle through the pain. Which, by the way, is incredibly – stupidly – contradictory when a few barbed words manage to get under your skin.”
He continued to apply the ointment, ignoring Erik’s steady stream of cursing. “What did he do? Insult your homeland, disrespect your character? So what. I get that on a day-to-day basis, and not just from one person, but several. Present company included. You don’t see me trying to make a scene or pick a petty fucking fight over it. He riles you up because you let him, and frankly, it isn’t worth it. You only do yourself and the people you’re trying to get home to – Viktoria – a disservice by recklessly rushing headfirst into these silly little skirmishes and damn near dying. Use that uneducated brain of yours for once, van Kleve.”
Richard didn’t know why he felt so heated by Erik’s brashness suddenly. The Austrian and the German went together like oil and water; they’d always had it out for each other. Perhaps it was influenced by all that the man had shared with him at breakfast. He had a family, people who depended on him. In truth, Richard found that he was a little jealous of it if he searched himself hard enough. His familial bonds weren’t strong ones, and the only one that was had been quickly severed. Life was lonely in the upper crust. People only talked to other people in order to get something from them or flaunt what they already had. There was no sense of community – unless, of course, it was to sneer down at those without means. Richard figured if he had a village and a larger family, he’d take greater care to make it back to them. It was foolish of Erik to do anything otherwise.
And even deeper than that, perhaps it was the fear of losing his friend. When Dr. Riedl said that the two nearly killed each other, Richard was suddenly gripped by a very real, very scary sense of concern. Valentin and Erik had been in fights before, of course, but none that bordered on deadly. And, knowing that Erik was too stubborn to see the doctor, Richard had been scared that he’d simply limp off like a mortally wounded animal to die in solitude; that seemed well within his nature. Erik was made of tougher stuff, thankfully, but it didn’t assuage Richard’s feelings. And so, they manifested themselves into a severe scolding instead.
“You’re one of the best hunters here,” Richard grumbled as he continued to focus on Erik’s wounds. “Kristina isn’t about to jeopardize the safety of this world because you were off behaving like a naughty schoolchild.” He paused. “She might skin or scalp you though.”
The majority of Richard’s fire had died down as he reached back to his stash of medical supplies in order to procure the thread and needle for stitching. As Erik moved to take the tools, however, Richard swatted his hand away. “You try to pull yourself together with those fat fingers and you’ll look like Frankenstein’s monster. I’ll see to it you’re nice and pretty again.”
At Erik’s comment about having a private nurse, Richard chuckled softly before it faded into a sigh. He shrugged at the man’s prodding about his bandages. “I suppose we’ve both reached our stupid quotas for the day. I grabbed a sword in training, but I’ll be fine. Dr. Riedl did all he could for me already. You’re the one falling apart at the seams.” But Richard couldn’t help but wince as his wounds worked Erik’s.
Richard managed to stitch the man’s skin back together with work that rivaled the doctor’s. Afterwards, he tossed aside the excess and sat on Erik’s bed beside him. He leaned in towards the man slowly. At his friend’s facial expression, he smirked and remarked, “Relax.” He then raised both of his hands to the man’s neck and gently prodded the bruised skin with the tips of his fingers. He felt up and down his windpipe, searching for any abnormalities. “It doesn’t feel like you’ve got any internal bleeding here. Swelling and bruising, yeah. Brain damage may also still be a consideration, though. …from lack of oxygen, of course.” Richard waggled an eyebrow at Erik. “But otherwise, I determine that you’ll live to fight another day, recruit.” He leaned away from him and rested his head against the wall. He only then realized that it was aching.
“What a fucking day.” Silence for a moment. “You hungry?”
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