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Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Story Notes: Written circa 2006.
1 Corinthians 13:6-7
It had been much easier, Gabriel van Helsing noted, to leave Transylvania than to arrive.
Scarcely had the ashes of Anna Valerious’ funeral pyre been given to the winds of the Black Sea than the infamous monster-hunter and a courageous young friar were making their arrangements to leave Eastern Europe. Though their mission had been a victory, the dawning realisation of having lost so much in order to save just as much was quite enough to cast a vague shroud of gloom on the rest of their journey. Let it not be denied that they were glad for the job to be finished and even more grateful to be alive, but one cannot simply shut out the sadness that comes to mind when reflecting upon all of the would-haves, should-haves, could-haves.
Van Helsing suggested that they depart Transylvania the same way they had entered—without permission or anyone’s prior knowledge. Carl had had no choice but to agree, well aware of the customary brand of farewell that seemed to accompany Van Helsing wherever he travelled. And so, like shadows in the background of the awakening town which they had liberated from the curse of vampires, the two men quietly slipped away without uttering a word of good-bye.
The voyage home was long and tiring, sapping what little strength that battling the forces of evil had not already stolen. Van Helsing and Carl seldom spoke to one another the whole way, perhaps both realising the futility of words in the aftermath of such a biblically-proportioned maelstrom. Nevertheless, they were thankful for each other’s presence; it would have been far worse to bear the silence by one’s self over the leagues of unfamiliar land, and they were comforted by the company they provided one another, however reserved it was. It was certainly better than nothing at all.
After making their way across the Adriatic and stepping once more onto Italian soil, their moods lightened considerably, perhaps in the notion that the great expanse of sea behind them had washed clean the dreary memories of death and darkness harboured in their minds. And as they continued towards Rome on horseback, they began to return to their usual selves, talking occasionally while passing through the picturesque landscape and looking forward to arriving at the place they called home.
“What are you going to do?” Carl had asked once while en route northwards through the province of Campania.
“About what?” Van Helsing replied.
The friar sounded meek and uncertain as he said, “When we get back to Vatican City. You’re not… I mean, you’re still going to be with us, right? The Order, that is. You’re not going to…”
“Run off and disappear?” Van Helsing removed his broad-rimmed hat and placed it on the saddle horn, turning his gaze towards his comrade. “Don’t worry, Carl, I’m not going anywhere. Not while smelling like this, anyway.”
Carl smiled and nodded, though the gesture was hollow and insincere. Van Helsing caught on immediately and narrowed his eyes in concern.
“You seem troubled,” he observed.
“Troubled?” came the echo. “Well of course I’m troubled. We both nearly died not too long ago, in case you’d forgotten.”
“I hadn’t,” said Van Helsing. “I just try not to dwell on in too much.”
“You do that,” Carl huffed somewhat peevishly, “and I’ll dwell for the both of us, because right now I’m dwelling like I’ve never dwelt before.”
“…is something the matter? Are you feeling well?”
“What? N-no, nothing’s the matter. I feel fine. Why would you ask a silly thing like that?”
Van Helsing made a dubious expression. “You look guilty.”
“Do I?” Carl asked with a hint of desperation in his voice. He realised his err and repeated more calmly, “Erm, do I?”
“What did you do, Carl?”
“If this is something direly important that you’ve been withholding from me all this time, it’s going to take an act of God to keep me from-”
“I-I slept with a woman,” Carl stammered quite suddenly, and Van Helsing’s eyebrows arched in mild surprise. “In Transylvania. After Dracula’s brood attacked the town.” The friar’s face began to turn beet red. “It was my first time.”
“Really? Well, congratulations then.”
“Thank you,” came the uneasy reply.
After a pause Van Helsing added, “So, how was it?”
Carl appeared to be quite embarrassed as he answered in a small voice, “It was all right, I suppose. Awkward. Messy. It was fun, though.”
Van Helsing smiled, perhaps for the first time since leaving Romania. “I’m sure it will make an interesting topic at confession.”
The friar slumped guiltily. “I know, I know,” he mumbled. “I’ve seen enough debauchery these past few weeks to last me the rest of my life.” He paused briefly before asking, “Do you suppose God will forgive us for all those sins we committed? I mean, considering the circumstances we were under, I think we ought to at least be granted some leniency, don’t you think?”
Van Helsing leaned back in the saddle. “I wouldn’t worry about God’s forgiveness, Carl. It’s the Church’s forgiveness I’d be concerned with.”
“Yes, I was afraid of that,” murmured the friar, pulling himself deeper into the recesses of his cloak. “I’m bloody doomed.”
His comrade sighed. “Well, looking on the bright side of the matter, at least the worst is over and done with. Sins can be forgiven and consciences can be cleansed,” he said reverently, gazing at the passing scenery as if searching for a familiar face. “Regardless of whatever means we employed to reach our end, I still think they will be glad to see us again.”
Cardinal Jinette could hardly contain himself. “Well done, Van Helsing!” he exclaimed with more fervour than the huntsman had ever heard him use, clasping the hands still dirty from travel. “Your success in vanquishing the evil of Count Dracula and allowing the Valerious ancestors to find eternal peace is perhaps the greatest of God’s work you have yet done for us.”
He frowned slightly and his tone became reprehensive, yet still the pride for his heroic ward could be heard running beneath it. “I cannot say much about the collateral damage you have caused, nor the rumours that will be circulating in Transylvania for years to come, but I am willing to overlook these inevitable flaws in light of the victory of your quest.”
“I could not have done it alone, Your Grace.” Van Helsing turned halfway to pull the sputtering young friar out from behind him. “Carl was of great help to Anna and I, may her soul rest in Heaven. We never would have succeeded without his bravery and expertise.”
Carl was nearly flattered into a speechless stupor. “Yes, well, I… it, it was all the Lord’s will. I was only a catalyst.”
Cardinal Jinette smiled and placed a hand on the friar’s shoulder. “And to think you had been so unwilling to be a part of this mission in the beginning; but you endured and went on, and you have accomplished many good things because of it, Carl. Your spirit has been tried and tested in the waters of the fiercest storm of iniquity, and yet you have returned to us with God still in your heart, and your spirit untainted by the poisons of that immoral realm in which you fought. Perhaps your journey has made a man of you, my son.”
“In a sense,” Van Helsing muttered under his breath with a grin.
Carl began to choke.
“What was that?” Jinette inquired.
“Innocence,” Van Helsing reiterated, trying to keep a straight face. “A pure heart is more valuable than a sword when battling wickedness such as we did.”
“Indeed it is.” The Cardinal smiled. “You two look weary from your travels. Come, let’s get you taken care of.”
Van Helsing could not recall ever having been more grateful for a hot bath in all his life. He lingered in the tub much longer than usual, partly because he was especially filthy and partly because he needed time to inspect his entire body for knots, bruises, swellings, cuts, scrapes, scratches, lacerations, punctures, and anything else that might require medical attention. What wounds he found were remarkably well-healed, although his limbs were still sore from dueling with Dracula and many hours spent in the saddle.
When he finally managed to reluctantly pull himself from the bath and into some comfortable clothes, he lasted only long enough to find his way back to his small, simple, maps-and-weapons-cluttered room and clear off a space on his narrow bed before dropping onto the mattress, practically asleep before his head even touched the pillow.
And for the first time in many weeks, he dreamt of nothing.
Sunlight was streaming through the narrow window high on the eastern wall when a rapping on his heavy wooden door roused Van Helsing from his slumber. He sat up with full clarity as a familiar voice called, “Hello, Van Helsing? Have you died in there?”
“I’m alive,” he answered, running and hand through his bed-tousled hair. “Come in, Carl.”
The door creaked and the friar’s blond head poked out from around it. “Are you decent?”
“I try. Salveo mane to you, too.”
“You need to work on your casual Latin,” Carl said, stepping inside.
“I’ve just woken up.”
“It’s never too early.”
“I beg to differ,” Van Helsing muttered, lying back down and rolling over onto his side.
Carl was walking gingerly through the room, taking care to avoid disturbing any of the clutter. “Are your quarters always this messy? Heaven’s sakes, some of this stuff could kill a person if they tripped over it in the dark. Pushing your bed against the wall like that won’t help either, I’m afraid. It just makes more space for rubbish to pile up.”
“It’s not rubbish. It’s my arsenal.”
“Well, I haven’t seen you use these sai in ages, and if something hasn’t been used in six months then you really don’t need it. And when are you ever going to fix that shelf? You’ve been propping it up with that scabbard for at least two years now, maybe even three if my memory serves me correctly-”
Van Helsing wrapped his pillow around his head and shut his eyes tightly.
“-think it makes any difference, but you should at least try to set aside some time to do a little spring clean-” Pause. “Van Helsing, are you listening to me?”
The legendary huntsman winced. “I’ve been trying my damnedest not to, but since you insist...”
“Cardinal Jinette sent me down here to see if you were all right.”
“I’m fine. Why would he wonder?”
“You’ve slept for an entire day,” Carl clucked reprovingly. “It is now Thursday afternoon, I’ll have you know.”
“An entire day?” Van Helsing sat up, brow furrowed.
“I hadn’t counted upon you being this exhausted, but you endured a great deal more than me so I guess it’s only fair…” He trailed off and looked at Van Helsing with a recognisable brand of seriousness. “Are you certain you’re feeling well?” he asked gently. “Be honest, I won’t condemn you.”
“I’m not feeling wolfish, if that’s what you’re implying,” Van Helsing replied, offering a playful half-grin to lift the curtain of worry from his friend’s face. “Though I think I could eat a whole sheep if I tried; I’m ravenous.”
“The Cardinal thought you’d be. I suggest you get dressed and I’ll meet you in the Square in twenty minutes, unless of course you think you can stomach the tasteless fare from the kitchens.”
“I’ll be ready in fifteen.”
The friar nodded and shuffled his way out of the room. Van Helsing stared at the door for a few moments, and, as expected, Carl’s innocently smug face popped into view once more.
“Oh, and by the way,” he said, “it’s ave mane*.”
Roughly fifteen minutes later, Van Helsing met Carl in the centre of St. Peter’s Square. It was a gorgeous day in Vatican City: crystal blue skies streaked with the occasional slender white cloud, sunlight shining down from above and warming the stones of otherwise cold and formal looking architecture, and a mild Mediterranean breeze blowing gently from the west. It was difficult to believe that less than a month ago all of this was in danger of being plunged into eternal darkness.
“Well, look at you!” Carl exclaimed in disbelief as Van Helsing approached. “I barely recognised you without the duster. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you could pass for a proper gentleman.”
“Don’t flatter me too much. I wouldn’t want to develop an ego,” Van Helsing said with friendly sarcasm; he had traded his usual rugged outfit for a more casual attire consisting of brown pants, a white shirt with the sleeves rolled to the elbows, and a matching brown waistcoat.
“Don’t worry about flattery—you’re still missing the necktie and kerchief,” the friar tutted as he deftly adjusted Van Helsing’s collar for him.
“I’d rather be strangled by a python than wear a necktie and you know it.”
“Naturally. I can’t say much about those boots or that old hat of yours, but it’s still an improvement from your recent look. Why, you’ve even shaved. Good show.”
“I’m glad I’ve passed His Majesty’s inspection.”
Carl nodded several times and patted Van Helsing’s shoulder in approval. “Well, come along then, I won’t keep you waiting. There is still much to be discussed about the Transylvania assignment, and Cardinal Jinette had charged me with collecting all the information from the case, including any statements you or I might have.”
As they walked from the Square, Van Helsing frowned. “Jinette assigned you as a clerk? Keeping records isn’t exactly in your job description.”
“And the Lord knows I tried to tell him that, but he insisted that it would be easiest –and wisest– if we kept this matter as discreet as possible, even amongst our own.”
“Hn. That’s odd.”
Carl adjusted the heavy satchel that was slung over his shoulder, undoubtedly containing the papers regarding their most recent mission.
“I was hoping to get it out of the way as soon as possible, because I’ll go blind with insanity if I’m forced to deal with paperwork while commissions are piling up on my workbench,” he said. “And the Cardinal plans to have you back in the saddle as soon as possible. A few incidents arose while we were in Romania and he’s been postponing them, waiting for when you feel ready to take them on.”
Van Helsing’s eyes turned towards the sky briefly. “Is anybody else working up there, or do I have to do everything on my own?”
“I’m sorry?” Carl asked.
“Nothing. Just blaspheming to myself.”
“Now now, just leave the going-mad business to me, that’s more my forte anyway. Besides, it wouldn’t do at all to have our best agent losing his marbles.”
“Is that what they’re calling me now? ‘Agent’?” Van Helsing inquired.
“No. It just sounds more professional than ‘monster hunter’, don’t you think?”
Nothing was quite so effective when it came to instilling a great appreciation for coming home to a place like Italy as a freshly-baked Pizza Napoletana and a half dozen valigette from the little outdoor restaurant on the corner. Carl tried to resist Van Helsing’s prompting to join him at first, but for a man of the cloth he was incredibly vulnerable when it came to abstaining from worldly indulgences. Only after Van Helsing assured him it was pure charity did the friar relent; they sat together at a small iron table under the shade of an awning, poring over papers between bites of Italian cuisine and trying to keep from slopping too much sauce and meat drippings all over the documents, which was nearly impossible due to Van Helsing’s gusto.
“You weren’t joking about being ravenous, were you?” Carl gawped. “I’ve studied physics, and right now you’re defying the properties of spatial displacement.”
“Sounds riveting. You’ll have to explain them to me one day.”
“You’ll be dead of boredom after the first ten minutes.”
“Why Carl, I’m offended,” Van Helsing said with mock-indignation. “I’m not one to die that easily.”
“So I’ve noticed, thank God for that.”
“At the most I’ll be comatose after the first ten, but death would come much, much later,” he added with a sly grin.
Carl narrowed his eyes and cocked his head slightly. “You’re in an awfully good mood.”
“What reason do I have not to be?”
“I don’t know. I suppose I.” He tried for the right words. “Just expected you to be more… solemn after the ordeal that we- you’ve just been through. You can’t tell me that that hasn’t been the most difficult mission yet—I’ve read the record books and listened to you ramble on about horrific escapades all the time down in the lab. I just don’t understand how can you remain so unaffected by it.”
Van Helsing nodded sincerely. “I understand what you’re saying, Carl, but it’s not quite as easy as that, I’m afraid. It may seem as if I blind myself to the dangers I encounter, but just because something is out of sight doesn’t always mean it’s out of mind; I dwell on it all only long enough to be thankful that it’s over, and then I move on. Life is all about moving forward and leaving behind the ghosts of an awful event. One cannot live in the present with their mind still in the past.”
“That’s easy for you to say. You have no past.” Carl caught his breath suddenly and looked ashamed. “I’m sorry. That was rude of me.”
“No, you’re right. It’s the truth. I suppose that’s why this job suits me so well; I’m able to witness the nightmares of humanity and bear their weight upon my shoulders, then throw off the yoke at the end of the day.”
The young friar absently fingered a paper’s corner, staring at the table deliberately. “Some would call that a gift.”
“Perhaps,” Van Helsing admitted, “but I’ve learned in my time working with the Holy Order that anything of great importance is never given freely, including talent.”
Carl nodded thoughtfully. “You know, I’ve often wondered what kind of man you would be if you weren’t with the Church. Er, not to sound fawning or anything, but of all our field men, you’re the one most revered.”
“And the most reprimanded, don’t forget.”
“But don’t you see? That’s why everyone likes you, even if we sometimes wonder whether or not you’re actually human. You really seem bigger than life, especially to all of us labouratory rats who hardly dare to leave our beakers.”
Van Helsing smiled despite himself and shook his head modestly. “Ah, Carl,” he sighed. “I deal with dire situations the same way as any other man, though my methods of expressing them are perhaps a little different. But I am human—I feel pain and fear and sorrow and love and joy, just like everyone else on this earth. I am no more special than you are.”
The friar arched an eyebrow. “Was that a compliment?”
“What do you think, Newton?”
Carl smiled. Van Helsing smiled back.
He left for northern Europe two days later, once he had been briefed by Jinette concerning a demonic disturbance somewhere in Denmark. It was more of an investigative assignment rather than the typical seek-and-destroy mission, and he was to report his findings (if any) and handle the matter in accordance with the Church’s stipulations, though the latter was considered negligible by Van Helsing’s terms. If hunting monsters and/or maniacal men had a scale of 1 to 10, this job would probably rank a 4 at best.
Carl missed his chance to see him off, being rather occupied with the Buddhist monks’ experiments in the pyrotechnic division elsewhere in the subterranean labouratory. He had been disappointed at first, but confided in the fact that he would see Van Helsing again once the assignment was over. However, even these hopeful thoughts and silent prayers could not stave off the invasive coldness from the young friar’s spirit, nor quell that trembling feeling of anxiety whenever he reminded himself that Van Helsing –protector of the innocent and defender of the weak– was travelling farther and farther away.
It was an accidental sort of co-dependence, most likely brought on by the recent life-and-death situation they had endured on their last venture; Carl himself failed to notice the reasons behind this newly-developed behaviour of his, but he was a deep thinker, one who was occupied with straining details and intensely scrutinising the most minor elements, and it wasn’t a rare occasion if he found himself overlooking the forest for the trees. The fact of the matter was that he missed Van Helsing, or more precisely, he missed the safety and peace of mind he felt when the huntsman was around. So long as he was present, no creature that lurks in the shadow of God would dare lay harm to those protected by that legendary Left Hand.
And Carl also happened to be a Class A worrier to the nth power. No matter how certain something was, he could always propose a deviation –and a logical one at that– which upset the stability of even the most meticulous project. Every worker in the lab knew about the ‘Carl Variable’, and that was one of the reasons the young friar was allowed access to potentially lethal and sometimes highly volatile chemicals; for as scatterbrained as he looked, Carl was tenacious, dedicated, thorough, and the cardinals knew they could trust him not to blow the entire facility straight to Kingdom Come, even if he was the cause of several small explosions from time to time.
It was only natural that Carl would worry about Van Helsing, especially after witnessing the hunter almost fall to the very powers he fought against. But he kept his thoughts to himself, and kept his brain occupied with chemistry and mechanical sciences, and in the meantime he worried and wondered and prayed.
And he waited for his friend to return.
Chapter Endnotes: *Ave mane - a quite literal translation of good morning in Latin, though my knowledge of 19th century dialect regarding this language is astoundingly limited. Any and all errors to be expected, please pardon.