The fog clears up, and we find ourselves in Forgotten Hollow.
We park the car after a six-hour drive from Newcrest right in front of our lodgings, which is an abandoned chapel that the landlord allowed us to stay in until the next night. Being in this place brings back memories. After leaving the Don’s care, I found myself at the stoop of the Straud Mansion without anything but the clothes on my back. The ornate door opened, and the rest was history.
“So this is Forgotten Hollow.” Antonio looks around in wonder as we walk towards the plaza that is shaped like a coffin.
“Quite right, my dear pupil. The only place in Simia where nights are longer and supernaturals walk around in plain sight.” I reply as a scruffy-looking man who is probably a werewolf walks by, glaring at both of us.
“And this is where I learned much about being a vampire physician.” I continue to tell my student.
“Preston told me that this is also the place where you met him.”
“Ah, yes. He used to be known as the ‘Ghost by the Bog’ until I subdued him and made him swear an oath to serve me for eternity.”
“How did you make him submit? Preston can be quite stubborn.”
“It’s a long story, Tonio.” I recall my first meeting with Preston as a student at the Vampirical College. “But it involved a wager, some candy, and a freshly-roasted chicken.”
Upon saying that last item, Preston’s voice echoed in my head. Whenever he smelled roast chicken, he would exclaim that it is THE SMELL OF VICTORY or something. Antonio and I stand in the middle of the plaza, where the Grand Master’s statue watches over the small town.
“Since we’re here, does that mean we get to meet the Grand Master himself?” Antonio points at the old house by the mountains, where Grand Master Vladislaus Straud is said to reside.
“Only if you’re worthy enough.” I cross my arms, knowing that my pupil still has a long way to go. “Only vampires of great distinction are allowed or are invited there.” I add. I’ve only been in the old lecher’s house twice.
“I’m sorry if this sounds rude, Doctor, but how were you able to get that distinction?”
“By becoming a vampire physician, of course!” I laugh out loud. And probably for getting rid of Preston, who has been a nuisance to the local community for centuries.
The last time I was in Forgotten Hollow, it was when I got my medical degree from the Academy. The graduation ceremony took place in the Grand Master’s mansion, where he congratulated all graduates of the Academy and threw a huge drinking soiree, full of mesmerized humans ready for drinking.
Not many vampires take up the medical profession since they are more interested in other pursuits or are already content with their regenerative abilities. In my case, I took it up because it is one of the most distinguished professions that a vampire can take aside from being a criminal. There are apparently only a few hundred vampire physicians in the whole world. But that doesn’t stop me from having my own crime ring. I smile at the thought of planning more heists at art galleries, but I then recall what I brought Antonio here for.
“Antonio.” I get his attention while still looking at the statue of the Grand Master. “You have been my student for almost two years now. Tell me what you have learned.”
“Under your guidance, I have learned much about being a vampire, supernatural medicine, and how to open a can of plasma fruit without using a can opener.” Antonio speaks as I point to my fangs at the last item and grin.
“Very good! It is only natural that a pupil of mine would learn much. However, you have left out one more thing.”
As soon as I said that, I deliver a quick blow to Antonio’s mid-section, and he gets pushed back after failing to block it. He quickly recovers and shifts to his dark form out of instinct. Very typical of lesser vampires to resort to that immediately.
“Show me what you have learned, Ramon Antonio.”
Antonio hisses and delivers a counterattack by sliding towards me to execute a Dandy Punch, one of my signature moves. I simply grasp his incoming fist with my right hand, slightly disappointed.
“Is this all you can do? I haven’t even shifted to my dark form yet!”
I catch Antonio off guard and deliver a powerful uppercut, and we both rise in the air.
“You’re wide open!” I grin as I grab him by the collar and throw him down to the ground. But Antonio recovers from that and steps back in caution. He’s now taking a defensive stance.
It’s my turn now. I slide my way towards Antonio in a zigzag pattern, leaving shadow images to confuse him. I deliver an elbow thrust to his head, but he manages to see this and parries it by pushing my elbow aside and hitting my face with a quick jab.
“Impressive!” I step back and look at Antonio still in a defensive position. “But that did not hurt at all.” I see Antonio lunge towards me again and prepare to defend, but as I get ready to block the incoming punch, a sharp blow hits my head from behind, causing me to stumble towards the statue and fall.
Without realizing it, I had automatically shifted to my dark form after getting hit hard. I hiss at Antonio and unleash a barrage of sharp slashes with my nails. Antonio manages to dodge each slash as we then go into a series of punches with each other. We trade blows that do not connect as we keep predicting each other’s movements. Seeing that this might end as a stalemate, I push Antonio back with a roundhouse kick to the chest, but he recovers by leaping into the air to slash me from above.
I manage to grab him by the chest, hissing as I throw him back to the ground. With Antonio on his knees, I realize that he has exhausted all of his vampiric energy. I descend from the air to check on him.
“I can still fight.” Antonio manages to say despite the dark energy seeping out of his eyes.
“It’s over, Tonio.” I say as I offer a hand. “I admire your tenacity, but you are not ready to meet the Grand Master yet.” I tell him this, knowing that no vampire has ever defeated the Grand Master in a spar.
Antonio firmly takes my hand as I help him up.
“So this was just a test?” Antonio asks me as I shake his hand and give him a pat on the shoulder.
“I wanted to see how far you’ve come. But you have a long way to go. If you cannot defeat me, there is no way you can earn the title of Count.”
“Yes, that is an acceptable title as well.”
“But Doc, what about your title?”
“I have walked the earth for more than 200 years and have amassed various titles, like Archon, Don, and Count Whatsisname. But I consider myself a Doctor first.”
Antonio just nods at that last sentence as I remember how I earned the title of Count. Each aspiring vampire had to defeat their master in a spar to earn a title. But getting a title from the Grand Master himself was an honor, since he is every vampire’s master. Simply lasting ten minutes against him is already considered a feat. The average vampire wouldn’t last a second.
“Let’s take a breather by playing a little game of chess, shall we?” I sit at the nearby chess table as Antonio joins me.
Antonio sits and sets up the pieces then asks me another question.
“Were you able to defeat the Grand Master, Doc?”
I laugh at his question and watch Antonio move a pawn forward.
“Eight minutes and thirty-four seconds; that was my personal best. It was probably what prompted Leclerc to nominate me as an Archon.” I smile and move a knight from the rear. I was so close to defeating that ancient vampire.
“That makes me curious how much power the Grand Master has. He must be some kind of monster. No offense.” Antonio says and moves another pawn forward from his left.
“You might be quite right about that. He is a being who does not show pain, or even any emotion at all. Someone who has detached himself from many things, with the only exception being when young girls visit his home. That’s the price of gaining vampirical power.” I move another pawn forward as I remember that it’s the only time when the old lecher shows any charm or emotion.
“The Grand Master seems terrifying, then.”
“Quite. But a redeeming quality is that behind that cold facade, he cares about the welfare of every vampire, laying the groundwork for the League and Associations. That’s why he’s the Grand Master.”
This time, Antonio moves his knight.
Antonio then hisses, which I assume is involuntary.
“You’ve been hissing more often lately.” I comment as Antonio seems to look embarrassed. I move a pawn forward.
“I’m sorry, Doc. It started just last week. I don’t know how to stop it.” Antonio says as he hisses again, spraying a bit of saliva on the chess pieces on the table. He then moves his queen next to one of his pawns.
“Being a hisser is nothing to be ashamed of. Boguslav the Malevolent was a hisser, and that uncontrollable hissing means that your vampiric energy is getting stronger. You can liken it to humans who go through puberty.” I explain to Antonio as he covers his mouth. I then move my bishop to guard against the queen.
Antonio then moves one of his rooks out of nowhere and says “Check.”
“You’re already luring me out with your most important piece. Quite interesting.” I commend Antonio as he hisses again.
“Because I’ve got nothing to lose.” Antonio replies as I move a knight to block the queen.
After a few more moves and hisses, Antonio manages to land a checkmate. I applaud him for that and recommend that we retire for the night, as dawn is coming soon.
We both walk away from the park and go to the abandoned chapel where two cozy coffins await us. The old ghoul caretaker leads us inside as I hand him a wad of simoleons as payment. He then thanks me as he continues nibbling on a severed finger that still has a mood ring on it.
Lying in the coffin, I just look back at my memories in Forgotten Hollow. Getting a scholarship from the Grand Master, making Preston my minion, and graduating as a full-fledged vampire physician.
Then I hiss involuntarily, thinking that it might be a sign of growing power.
I will defeat the Grand Master someday.