DISCLAIMER: The Van Helsing characters and premise are Stephen Somers'. The plot is mine.
"What's going on?"
The hunter turned, ensconced in the few faint shadows which lingered in the well-lit catacomb laboratory. Dark, unruly hair was tossed back to let the hazel eyes hidden beneath focus on the slightly breathless friar. "I don't know." He paused, raising a brow at the friar's rumpled appearance. "I've heard that Jinette asked the entire Order to gather tonight."
"It looks as if nearly everyone has shown up," Carl observed, catching his breath and straightening his robes.
The two friends surveyed the catacombs in amiable silence.
It had been two months since the destruction of the Order's subterranean laboratory. Summer was burgeoning, the days growing warmer, and Deacon Ceslovas's gardens were awash with varied hues of green. The catacombs had at last been fully repaired, and craftsmen for the Order had returned to work there only three days past. Now, the largest stone chamber was crowded with members of the Order. Every conceivable empty space was being used as a chair, and even more men – and a few women – were standing, conversing quietly amongst themselves.
Gabriel stood in a corner near the back, his height an advantage. Ever one to attract attention because of his looks, skills, and the force of his presence, the hunter had remained quietly unobtrusive since the fight in the chapel.
"I think everyone who isn't on assignment, or ill, has arrived," Carl murmured absently, sharp grey eyes sweeping the large room. "Even Brother Yakov and Father Taddeo are here."
Gabriel raised a brow in silent question.
"I've rarely known Yakov to leave his archives," Carl explained patiently. "Whatever this is about, it must be important to drag him from his fusty parchments."
The hunter shrugged. "I wonder how long we'll wait to find out."
Carl stifled a yawn. "Not long, I hope."
Gabriel gave the young man a sideways glance. "Working late?"
The inventor wearily rubbed his eyes. "I've been trying to recreate some of the experiments I had in progress when the laboratory was destroyed, but a few of them were delicate, long-term projects. I need to get them up and running as soon as possible; they've already been considerably delayed by lack of materials and -" Carl was interrupted again by a yawn. "Where was I?"
Gabriel was about to answer when something caught his eye over the heads of the Order. "Look," he said quietly, gesturing.
Carl stretched, trying to see what had captured his friend's attention. "What?" he grumbled tetchily. "I can't . . . ah."
A space was being cleared in the front of the room, those nearest crowding back to open a rough circle. Santo, the burlier of Father Taddeo's assistants, lugged a sturdy wooden crate to the center of the circle. Only moments later, Cardinal Jinette stepped onto the box, raising his hand for silence. A hush quickly descended on the room, all present eager to learn why they had been summoned.
Jinette, with long practice at speaking to crowds, waited to assure that all eyes were focused on him before he began. "Knights of the Holy Order," he began, voice pitched to carry in the large room, "Thank you for attending this night."
Carl shifted uneasily. Jinette's manner was overly formal, unlike his usual practicality when dealing with issues that the Order addressed. Something unusual was going on.
"What I am about to say has no precedent," the older man continued. Candlelight glinted off the silver of his hair, peeking out from under the ceremonial red cap perched on his head. Despite his stern posture, he appeared to Carl's eyes very old. "I believe, however, that what I am about to suggest will benefit us all in this new age." He paused, searching the faces of the crowd around him before finally admitting, "I have decided to step down as head of the Order."
A quiet murmur flowed like a wave through the crowd, rising and falling on its own as the members of the Order waited to hear what Jinette was to say next.
"Since the creation of our Order, there has been an unwritten practice that the Head, once gaining this position, kept it until his – or her – death. The only exceptions occurred in times of great strife. It was an attempt to avoid the internal political maneuvering that would distract members from our true purpose. I have decided, due to my declining health and several recent events, that at this time the Order would be best served by the vigor of the young. I shall remain as an advisor, and a member of our Order, but I have spoken to the pope on this matter. I have his full agreement, and he has chosen the new leader of the Knights of the Holy Order."
"New head?" Carl was stunned.
Gabriel's eyes narrowed. "What recent events?" he murmured absently, attention fixed on the front of the room. A sinking feeling filled him, and he was struck by sudden intuition that made him fold his arms tightly across his chest and lean back against the wall, a small frown marring his features.
"I should think that would be obvious," Carl hissed, standing on tiptoes to peer over the heads of his fellows, as Jinette continued to assure the men and women nearby that nothing would truly be changing.
Gabriel shook his head.
"I shall now present to you the new Head of the Knights of the Holy Order," said Jinette quietly. He stretched a hand out to his right, indicating a tall, stocky, fiery-haired man. "Gaspar Seaton of Caermarthen, in Britain."
The tall man with the crown of flame-colored locks took Jinette's arm, steadying the old man as he stepped down from the crate. Taking his place, the stern face of the new Head of the Order gazed out at the large crowd, his eyes locking on something at the back. Some turned to see what had so captured his gaze, and saw the unsmiling hunter propped casually against the stone, directing a measuring stare at the new Head.
"I greet you, Knights of the Holy Order," Gaspar began, just as the silence started to become uncomfortable. "It is an honor to lead the noble men and women who comprise our fellowship. I will do my best to ensure that we face the future with the strength and wisdom with which we have so long used to fulfill our mission. Thank you for your attention."
Gaspar inclined his head toward them for a moment, and then said, "Your Eminence, would you lead us?"
The old man, hiding his surprise, nodded and stepped forward. Within moments his familiar voice had taken on the resonance peculiar to worship, as he led them in a recitation of the mass' closing prayer.
Gabriel was silent as the chant rose around him, his eyes never leaving Gaspar, who had stepped from the crate and bowed his head in deference. As soon as the prayer was over, the formal atmosphere broke and people in the crowd began to talk. There was an awkward air permeating the room. Members of the Order did not know whether to celebrate or worry, for nothing like this had happened in recorded history.
Gabriel watched, pulling himself back to the meager shadows once more. Members of the Order were clustered in small groups, quietly discussing the strange turn of events. After several minutes of silent musing, the hunter stepped from the sparse shadows and turned to leave. He did not go two steps before encountering Carl, locked in conversation with Lamar. The dark-skinned man smoothly pulled himself from the exchange with the friar to address the hunter. "Ah, Van Helsing," he coolly greeted the taller man. "I had hoped to find you here this evening. Gaspar had mentioned a wish to speak with you after this gathering had concluded."
"Is that so?" Gabriel politely inquired, his face distant and tone bland. The hunter glanced from side to side, debating the ramifications of a quick escape, to find that there were men who openly supported Gaspar discreetly blocking his path. The hunter recognized several of them from the night he had been taken into custody, and raised a brow.
"It is a matter of most importance," Lamar continued, making careful note of the hunter's assessment of the situation. He breathed a quiet sigh when Van Helsing subtly relaxed his body, a silent acquiescence.
"Well then, when does he wish to meet with me?"
Eyes narrowing at the choice of words, which implied less acceptance to the request than was outwardly visible, Lamar tautly answered, "Immediately. If you will?"
He turned, and Gabriel stepped forward. When Carl moved to follow, however, he was gently pressed back.
"This is between Gaspar and the hunter," one of the men cautioned, not unkindly. "You have no business in it, friend."
Leaving the befuddled and concerned friar in their wake, Gabriel was escorted to the upper levels of the complex, and eventually was brought to the outskirts of the residence area. Gaspar's room was just as spartan as Jinette's had been, on the one occasion that Gabriel had been able to observe the Cardinal in his personal quarters. These rooms, however, were set aside from the quarters of the members of the Order for those who had more specific charges and heavier responsibility. Jinette still resided here, as did Taddeo, and several other men and two women who were in charge of various aspects of the Order's business.
He was left alone in the room, which contained a bed, a chest, and a small table and chair situated near the window. Gabriel ran his hand over the oak slats of the table as he thought. Gaspar wished to speak with him in private, and had held off until he had gained new authority. There were a myriad of subjects that had come up since his return to the Vatican nigh on two months ago, many of which would be somewhat troublesome to deal with. None of this boded well, but Gabriel needed to make the new head of the Order understand something that Jinette had easily come to terms with.
His contemplations were interrupted by the opening door, and Gabriel did not turn from his place, knowing that there would be only one person it could be. He waited several moments, measuring the silence behind him, before he slowly swung to face the man behind him.
"Gaspar." He greeted the tall man casually.
The head of the Order gave him an irritated glance, but let it be.
The two waited in silence a bit more, Gabriel openly assessing the other man. Finally, Gaspar broke the silence by stating, "Van Helsing." The hunter raised an acknowledging brow, ready to wait him out, but the new Head of the Order continued without pause. "I asked you here because there are a few matters I want to clear up."
"Such as?" Gabriel prompted him.
Gaspar's eyes flashed angrily, his lips pressed in a tight line. "It has been brought to my attention that you have been seen leaving the Holy City in the early hours of the morning. While this would not be a cause for concern, the fact that you return days later is troubling, without any explanation."
Gabriel frowned, a quick twisting of his lips, before smoothing his expression. Gaspar was a shrewd man – he guessed more than he knew and asked a single question which would involve several others to be answered without direct inquiry on his part. But if Gabriel could not trust and make peace with the new Head of this Order, he would have no choice but to leave.
"Do you remember what happened in the chapel two months ago?" he queried gently, testing the other man's memory.
"There was a battle to defeat a demon, for possession of a holy relic." Gaspar's words were clipped with impatience. He waved an irreverent hand, indicating for the other to get on with it.
"Think harder," Gabriel urged, widening the space between them. "Was there anything unusual about that fight? Taddeo tells me that all the watchers were somehow drained of energy after witnessing the battle – half the Order spent the next day or so recovering."
"What do you mean, Taddeo told you?" Gaspar scoffed, catching his turn of phrase. "You were there, were you not?"
"No, I wasn't," Gabriel returned. "Don't you remember what happened?" After a few silent moments, a frustrated Gaspar shook his head in the negative. And, standing across the room from him, Gabriel reached inside himself and brought forth the power sleeping within him, dormant and waiting to be called on. For a split-second, he shone with otherworldly light, brighter than the sun, before tucking it back down and away.
Gaspar paled, swaying a little at the force of the memory that rose within him at the momentary sight. Pieces that had been scattered in his mind reconnected with a jolt. Gabriel jumped forward, grasping his arm and guiding him down to the bed, where he not so much sat as dropped.
"I remember." Gaspar cleared his throat of the rasp, and straightened his backbone. "What has that to do with your disappearances?"
"I have not worked for the Order since that day," Gabriel said simply. He continued as the other raised angry eyes to him in protest. "I work with you. I cannot be under your command. I have a different purpose on this Earth. Even so, nothing keeps me from aiding you. I will continue to do so, as long as lending you my assistance does not interfere with my duty."
"And this is why you have been vanishing at all hours, for unknown lengths of time?" Gaspar demanded.
Gabriel nodded. "Yes – and it is also why I will continue to do so, despite protests from the Order, or even the Church. It is your choice, Gaspar, whether I work with you or not."
"And if these escapades are unacceptable?" Gaspar raised his chin, fists clenched on the edge of the bed, clearly challenging the hunter.
Not at all intimidated, Gabriel pulled back and shrugged carelessly. "Then I disappear. You loose someone uniquely qualified to do the most dangerous jobs this Order is faced with, and the lives of the men who will attempt to take my place."
"We could look for you," Gaspar offered a hypothetical threat.
Gabriel smiled a little. "How could you look for something that you would be unable to remember, someone with no more substance than a story?"
Gaspar frowned, his hands loosening on the covers as he thought. He stood, turning the situation over in his mind as the hunter waited patiently for an answer. There was only the sound of breathing as the man approached the one window in the room and stared moodily through the glass. "We need your skills," Gaspar finally admitted, turning from the darkened view to settle his gaze on Van Helsing.
"Enough to accept that I will have a loyalty that will always come before the dictates of this Order?"
That was the crucial point – Gabriel needed to ensure that the Head of the Order fully understood that loyalty to them was secondary, and always would be, to him.
Gaspar stared at him wordlessly for several moments, lips pursed and one hand absently tapping on the opposite arm where they were folded across his broad chest. "We both serve the same purpose, ultimately," he began, but the hunter cut him off immediately.
"No. I serve God, I serve mankind. You serve the church." Gaspar shrugged, and Gabriel cautioned him in a hard voice, "Do not make light of the distinction."
"Be that as it may, the two coincide more often than not," the Head dismissed his warning, and the destroyer sighed internally. "I can accept that your conditions."
"Good," Gabriel returned curtly, suddenly feeling the weight of his years. "Was there anything else that you wished to speak of?"
Gaspar frowned at him, and then shook his head in the negative. "For now," he murmured.
"Then I bid you goodnight." Gabriel closed the door quietly behind him, before looking up and down the corridor consideringly. There was someone he needed to speak with.