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A Hollow Faith

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Don't you realize that you become the slave of whatever you choose to obey? You can be a slave to sin, which leads to death, or you can choose to obey God, which leads to righteous living. —Romans {6:16}

The cultural richness of Roma Aeterna, the Eternal City, was almost too overwhelming. Remnants of past civilizations permeated the landscape, each and every palazzo, garden and fountain with a story to tell. Father Graham felt, acutely and immediately, the enormity of such a place – its boundless artistic, archaeological and religious significance. His deep appreciation for such a magnificent city did not go amiss, but the immensity of nearly three-thousand years of history weighed heavily on his mind. For all of its splendor and ancient beauty, it wasn't home. Father Graham wouldn't fool himself into thinking it was.

It was, however, the site of his furthered religious training… Specifically in the realm of demonic exorcism. Graham was aware that his was an unusual calling. Becoming a Roman Catholic priest had never been his first choice, but his affinity for the spiritual domain had quickly become apparent in his youth. He’d always possessed an uncanny sense of intuition, something that had plagued and isolated him for as long as he could remember. Coupled with his keen emotional sensitivity, a young Graham had made a lasting impression on the Bishop of their local diocese.

Growing up poor, church was one of the few places where he felt he fit in. Where he felt equal, as all men were in the eyes of God. Recognizing his excellent clergy potential, Bishop Crawford had offered Graham a unique opportunity: dedicate his life to God, and he would be provided for in every way.

He couldn't refuse.

After being anointed, Father Graham quickly gained a reputation for pure empathy – the ability and insight to see an individual's truest self; to suffer their plight and share in their fears, joys, or sorrows. He was taught to consider it something of a divine gift, encouraged by his fellow ordained to use it for the benefit of others.

It was no secret that amidst the shortage of priests, the need for qualified exorcists in the field was growing exponentially. Graham's background in theology, psychology and demonology naturally made him the perfect candidate, but he suspected that he was wanted for more than just his education. Perhaps his gift would prove useful in his battle against the snares of the Devil.

And, as they say in Italy… Il resto è storia.

It was still hard for Father Graham to believe that he’d been staying just outside the Vatican, in the city home to the holy Mother Church, for some time now. There were still moments where he had to remind himself he really was here. That, and it was odd for him to have such an uneasy feeling plaguing his nerves when surrounded by such beauty, however awe-inspiring. There was a definite disconnect of sorts, a lingering feeling of being mismatched to his environment that reminded him of childhood. A sense of belonging was extremely important to him, something he longed for deep within but would never admit.

Acting In persona Christi, Father Graham knew he'd never truly be alone – but still he missed his Virginia home, his church in Wolf Trap, his pack. He didn't feel like he quite fit in in Rome, but he had to remind himself that the nature of his visit wasn't sabbatical or leisurely… This was an opportunity. He was here for a reason: to serve an effective purpose and do God's work. To be the tool, the instrument, the mortal conduit through which His will would be done. The thought brought him comfort and strength, and Father Graham held his head a little higher as he made his way through the streets beyond the Vatican border.

It was a quiet night, the full moon a ghostly orb amongst wisps of thin, dark clouds. The priest had barely walked a hundred feet outside the city limits when he felt a tugging on his cassock. He turned, glancing down to see a mangy looking dog with long, tangled fur at his heels – it had the black garment in its mouth; pulling at it with dull, yellowed teeth. Another dog whimpered high in its throat just behind it, much smaller in size with a messy coat of brown curls. Graham was still getting used to the abundance of stray animals, mostly cats and dogs, scattered throughout the various Italian cities and towns. He didn't even have to go out looking for them.

Hey there,” the priest cooed sweetly, bracing his hands on his knees. He smiled down at the pair of strays, wishing he had some food scraps to give. “Hey buddy. This your friend?”

Graham had a special fondness for dogs, quite possibly his favorite of God's creations. Four-legged angels, they were simple, pure and innocent creatures. Humans, in comparison, had the potential to be beasts – they were susceptible to sin, possessing the capacity and capability for great acts of both cruelty and kindness. Despite his holy occupation, Graham sometimes found it difficult to remain unbiased when he knew of the darkness in the hearts of men… But even this was God's design. He knelt to pet the dogs gently, stopping to scratch behind their flea-bitten ears. Something seemed to catch their attention in the distance, and the priest lifted his head to glimpse a figure slowly approaching. A lone man.

Once he'd stepped out of the shadows and into view, the moonlight had cast a saintly glow around the stranger – a brilliant halo of sorts. He looked almost ethereal, moving toward him with a calm, easy confidence. Very well-dressed and groomed, as Father Graham observed… and looking right back at him.

The man moved toward him casually, closing the space between them with long strides, hands in his pockets. "Wonderful creatures, aren't they, Father?" he began, in a practiced English-tongue. "I always see these two here... I wish I had something to offer them. You seem quite fond of them as well."

Father Graham blinked in mild surprise, straightening up to regard the stranger. The dog biting at his cassock relented with a whine, and both strays seemed to take a step back as the man came closer. The priest offered him a courteous smile, letting his gaze trail briefly over the unfamiliar form. He could appreciate the man's charm and light-hearted conversation.

Graham had grown so used to Italian and Latin that it had nearly become default, and had to catch himself before he spoke. It was nice to hear his native tongue again; put him a bit more at ease. He reminded himself to make eye contact as he slid his glasses a bit higher on his nose… It was good practice when interacting with people. Father Graham wasn’t unfamiliar with being sought out or approached in the slightest – he was a priest after all – but he found himself tensing inexplicably. Those with heavy souls had a tendency to gravitate toward him, and he could usually sense their conflict with ease, though he didn't feel that now.

“I admire them. I think we can learn a lot from dogs—I have a few back home.” A few. No need to specify just how many. Surely he’d adopt these too, if he could. He was a sucker for strays. “These two… Well, they were rather friendly, believe me.”

The animals had retreated some distance away. Graham shifted nervously – he wanted to make a good impression as a priest, not a dog-lover. He wondered if this man had something he needed to confess, was in need of advice or perhaps divine intervention. He extended a hand warmly. “Father Graham. I'm a priest at one of the nearby churches. Well, two, actually.”

The stranger wondered for a moment if the priest expected him to be another mindless follower, seeking spiritual guidance. He considered telling Father Graham about all of his sins, wondered what the priest would think of them, what he would do after hearing them all. The poor man would probably be terrified, to say the least. It was a humorous thought. He himself was too old and had more sins than he could remember – but he couldn't care less about sin, or God, or priests. Except for this one, who looked and smelled far too delicious for his own good. What a waste, a beautiful man like that being so... Untouchable. Curiosity piqued, the mysterious gentleman wondered how long Father Graham had been a priest; just how pure his soul and body were. He seemed to be too innocent, too spotless, precisely the opposite of himself… It only made the unsuspecting priest all the more appetizing. He knew it wouldn't be easy, but accepted the challenge gladly, knowing, without a doubt, that this man would be his.

"Dr. Hannibal Lecter," the stranger replied, shaking Father Graham's hand. Hannibal – Graham recognized the name and its Latin derivative. Grace of Ba’al… In a biblical sense, the associations were not positive. In fact, they were predominantly demonic. Funny he also shared the name of an enemy of Rome; the brilliant Carthaginian general. It was wildly ironic that they meet here – God had quite the sense of humor. But doctor...

"It's a pleasure to meet you,” Hannibal carried on with a smile. It will be an even bigger pleasure to feast on your blood; feel as the life slowly drains from your body…

“The pleasure’s mine,” Father Graham answered, staring back into dark eyes. “Are you a physician?”

"I’m a psychiatrist. I tried to be a surgeon, but… That didn't work as well as I intended it to.” It was too bad he’d felt the urge to drink all of his patients’ blood. Hannibal had killed three people whose lives he was entrusted to save – not that he truly cared about saving them… He simply took an interest in medicine. The problem was, if too many patients died under his so-called care, people would begin to catch on. That had been centuries ago, and since then Hannibal had gained a lot more self control. He’d decided to pursue a career in psychiatry instead.

"Well, to err is human. Surgeon or psychiatrist, you help people,” said Graham. “In the grand scheme of things, that's what matters, isn't it?" He hoped Dr. Lecter felt fulfilled in his career; it was important to give back to one's community, and as a psychiatrist he had the chance to do a lot of good. Not all afflictions were spiritual in nature. "It may seem odd to hear this from a priest, but I have a lot of respect for the field of psychiatry." The priest flashed a crooked smile before removing his glasses, wiping at the lenses with his cassock.

"It's good to hear that. Not all priests think like you,” Hannibal said with a small smile. He was interested in picking his brain.

Graham shrugged. “I try to keep an open mind. Do you live here in Rome?"

"I do. I have a few houses around the world, but I’ve decided to settle here for the time being. I must confess that Rome is one of my favorite cities, even though I still prefer Florence." Hannibal smiled again, watching Father Graham's face. The man had beautiful blue eyes that were big and bright, even in just the light of the streetlamps – clearly visible in part due to Hannibal's keen eyesight. He could see better than anyone else around them, especially in the dark of night. It would almost be a waste to take Graham’s life and not be able to see those eyes shining anymore.

“Rome is… truly beautiful,” said the priest. “I’m sure there’s nothing quite like it, certainly not where I’m from. I’ve yet to visit Florence myself, but I’d like to.” He chuckled. It was an anxious habit.

"To me, it's the most beautiful city in Italy. Although I'm originally from Lithuania,” Hannibal continued. “You're not from here either, you… Look like a foreigner. Perhaps a tourist—don't take it as an insult, please. I've lived here long enough and believe I'm too observant." His smile was apologetic, even though it wasn't real.

Father Graham inhaled sharply as rush of heat surged through him, and he found himself suddenly self-conscious. “N-Not a tourist, no. I’m from the States but was sent abroad to finish my studies. It seems we’re both quite far from home,” he said, wincing internally.

Graham was sure he stuck out like a sore thumb, and if Dr. Lecter was observant enough to pick up on his “touristy” presence, then it was certainly noticed. Hannibal seemed to fit right in. Looked like he belonged. He had never met someone from Lithuania before – it was a first as a priest; surely one of many to come. Father Graham traced a finger along the chain of his silver cross.

In Persona Christi, he remembered. In the person of Christ. He didn’t have to feel inferior, not as a Roman Catholic priest. He mirrored Hannibal’s smile tentatively – it wasn’t often that people took a particular interest in him, although he freely offered his services to the general public. They requested his religious guidance but were seldom curious about his own life. Then again, what life did he have outside of serving God? His life was not his own, but dedicated to Christ. The personal life of the man known as Will Graham was insignificant.

“How long have you been here, Father? If, of course, you don't mind me asking."

The priest considered the question, innocent but requiring some careful thought. How long had he been here? “If my memory serves, tonight actually marks my… Second month here in Rome,” said Will, voice carrying a lilt of surprise. It didn't feel like it'd been nearly that long at all. “Perhaps it was fated that we meet. How can I serve you, Dr. Lecter?”

"Hannibal, please," Hannibal corrected. He found it a dangerous question to ask. You can serve me with your body and your blood. “Don't worry, Father. I didn't intend to ask for anything. I saw you interacting with the dogs and thought you seemed friendly… Approachable. We have that in common. Our love for dogs, I mean." It was a blatant lie, but he did not dislike them. "Dogs are fascinating. They have pure hearts; cannot be corrupted,” he said fondly. This much he believed himself. It was why Hannibal would never hurt an animal. "So different from humans."

The problem with dogs, and all other animals, was that they avoided Hannibal, as if they could sense what he was. In fact, Hannibal was sure they could, because all animals had pure souls, and Hannibal's soul was precisely the opposite of pure. Nothing in Hannibal could be called pure, and he knew those two dogs could feel it. That's why he didn't have dogs – why he only had humans that he kept for a short period of time, killing them and replacing one with another. He respected animals, as vampires were beasts in themselves, and didn't wish to hurt them. But humans were something different. Humans were sinners, some more than others, but not a single human being possessed a completely pure heart and soul. Not even Father Graham, Hannibal was sure.

“I don't have many friends here, and I have to admit that I tend to feel quite… Well, lonely, at times." And I eat every person who tries to get close to me, he thought, but kept it to himself.

Graham felt a stab of sympathy at the doctor's words, and his brow furrowed slightly. Dr. Lecter had asked for nothing, and yet Will somehow felt compelled to offer his assistance.

"You're never alone, Dr. Lecter. Know that God is always with you. At the risk of sounding...completely stereotypical, have… Have you perhaps considered attending church?" His eyes were clear and searching in the light of the moon, a gentle breeze ruffling the dark curls of his hair. His question hung heavy in the night air, and Will worried that perhaps he’d struck a sore nerve.

“With all due respect, Father, I’m afraid I’m not a frequent church-goer,” Hannibal said – Father Graham’s face was the picture of pure acceptance. Admittedly, he was a bit surprised, although his expression did not betray him. It was rare to avoid church in a city with such a large denomination of Roman Catholics, but he was sure the good doctor had his reasons. He was far from offended; his job was not to forcefully convert others to his faith, but to gently guide them toward the path of grace and light. Father Graham cocked his head to the side, arching an eyebrow curiously. He didn’t push the subject, instead turning to beckon the frightened strays closer, clapping his hands before bracing them on bent knees.

The dogs came running and he stroked them gently, soothing their nerves – the priest huffed out a breath of surprise at the touch of wet noses nuzzling eagerly into his palms. "You’re right… See? Even dogs forgive. I see how trusting they are and I know I could never betray them.” He laughed in earnest at the sight of two furiously wagging tails. “If you're not a church-goer, maybe one of these guys could ease your loneliness. Everyone needs a companion."

Hannibal didn't miss a beat. "I would love to, but you see, Father, I travel all the time. I would have to leave them alone and I couldn't bear to neglect them.” He couldn't take one of the dogs with him, they would never accept him; would fight to go back to Father Graham and the priest would just know something was wrong. What he had told the priest wasn't a complete lie, however. He did like to travel. "They would be much safer with you, I'm sure." He smiled again, looking at the dogs and then to the priest.

"One does get used to being alone, I suppose,” Hannibal continued. “With the life I lead, it's hard to keep a companion." He reached inside his pocket to retrieve a business card and offered it to the priest. "I don't know when you get some free time, but if you'd ever like to talk about anything or perhaps see some new places in Rome, consider me a friend."

Hannibal held the card between two fingers, in a way that would be almost impossible for the priest to take without at least brushing the tips of his fingers across his. He craved the contact, yearned for it, and he couldn't wait to seduce this man – corrupt him forever, corrupt his soul like he’d done to many others before him. A priest would be so much more fun than other humans, because priests knew about the vampire's existence. Father Graham would inevitably notice what Hannibal was, eventually, and by then it would be too late. Hannibal enjoyed seeing the fear in his victim's eyes right before he leaned in to bite into their throats.

“Are you offering to be my tour guide doctor?” Graham asked, sounding a bit more flirtatious than he’d planned. Dr. Lecter was clearly a cultured man, if he said he was too busy travelling to take care of pets or have… companions, then he had no reason to doubt him. But he'd felt his face flush at the playful tone of his own voice; could feel it spreading to the tips of his ears – he was suddenly thankful for the darkness and the soothing coolness of the night breeze against his heated skin.

In truth, Graham had forgotten how good it felt to have such simple interactions with another person, free of judgements or expectations. As a priest he was far from secluded, but he spent much of his free time alone when he wasn’t performing religious duties. On top of that, his studies made it difficult to find time for socializing, and he had few connections in Rome besides his mentor, Father Pazzi. Overall, Will had little time for himself, let alone others as he continued his training to become an exorcist. Maybe a friend was just what he needed. The priest stood up tall and straight, finally reaching out to take the business card from Dr. Lecter’s hand – it was an innocent touch, but the moment their fingers brushed it felt electric. Father Graham had to suppress a gasp at the sensation zinging down his spine – it was embarrassing how strongly he registered the contact. Surely he wasn’t that touch-starved, desperate for the feel of something physical.

“Thank you, Doctor. I may take you up on your offer.” Will traced the engraved lettering on the card stock with his thumb. Dr. Hannibal Lecter, M.D. Something inside of him ached, a small hole where something was missing, a void that perhaps even God had failed to fill. No – that was blasphemous thinking, but he couldn’t deny that there was a very distant part of him that craved companionship as well; more than just the company of strays or members of the church. He was a priest, but also a human-being – and as such, a social creature. It was only natural that he desire camaraderie, a casual acquaintanceship. Father Graham knew he wasn’t supposed to feel alone with God in his corner, but it was hard not to feel somewhat misplaced so far away from home. Yes, he thought. He could use the connection.

“Um, I know you’re a busy man Dr. Lecter—but if you ever find yourself in a dark place, you can find me at the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica on weekends. I’d be happy to offer my services—but if you’re not keen on church… I walk this same path back to my apartment in the nearby palazzo nightly.” Father Graham bowed his head and crossed himself swiftly. “I hope our paths cross again. May the Lord be with you, doctor.”

That would have made Hannibal flinch if he didn't have so much self control. It wasn't something he liked to hear, in fact, it was almost offensive to his ears. ‘The Lord’ wasn't with him, had never been with him. God, in fact, was against him. And Hannibal was certainly against God. But he nodded and smiled – he couldn't deny that the fact that Father Graham hoped their paths would cross again excited him. If that's what Father Graham wanted, that was what he would get. "I wish the same. Perhaps our paths will cross again very soon. May the Lord be with you, Father," Hannibal answered, wondering if the priest would notice the hint of a threat. It appeared he did not.

Father Graham watched as the doctor took his leave, standing quietly in the middle of the darkened city street until he disappeared from view. He pocketed Dr. Lecter’s business card, gaze flickering to the two stray dogs beside him, panting happily with lolling tongues. He whistled and they answered with a whimper, ears perking up in interest. He’d have to remember to bring them something from his pantry next time. The priest bid them farewell and they did not follow, content to stretch out on the pavement instead. It wasn’t a far walk to the Renaissance-style palazzo just beyond the Vatican boundary – he made his way inside and into his modest apartment, equipped with all the necessities for living.

Feeling strangely exhilarated by his encounter with Dr. Lecter, Father Graham had found it difficult to unwind that night. He’d struggled to rid his thoughts of the charming psychiatrist, of the moonlight reflected in those dark, intelligent eyes. When he undressed he did so quickly, ridding himself of shoes and socks before removing his cassock and underclothes. He retrieved the card from the pocket of his robes, leaving it on the bedside table. Clad in his boxer-briefs, he folded his clergy attire neatly and put them away, the doctor’s words echoing in his mind all the while. Will made his way to the bathroom to brush his teeth and splash his face with cold water – he studied his features in the mirror and ran wet fingers through his curls, the cross around his neck glinting in the artificial light. With a sigh he returned to the bedroom, kneeling at the foot of his cot to say his nightly prayers.

In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.” Father Graham finished, crossing himself before bringing his pendant to his lips. He stood and took the business card from the table, reading the fine script again and again as he moved to sit on the edge of his bed. Dr. Hannibal Lecter, M.D. “Hannibal…” He tried, but the name tasted heavy on his tongue. He turned the card around in his hands a few times, front to back and back again, before reaching over to return it to its place.

His sleep was fitful that night, plagued by waking nightmares of a gaunt, shadowy figure. He dreamt that he was being smothered; long, spindly fingers tipped with claws wrapped tightly around his neck. Piercing eyes the color of freshly spilled blood stared back at him as he fought for breath – Will shivered and gasped in his cold sweat, mouthing the Lord’s Prayer until his tired body had no choice but to still.

That same night, Hannibal found himself an easy victim – he was too hungry to be too picky. He was glad that his eyes hadn’t simply turned red right in front of Father Graham when the priest had blushed in front of him, because in that moment, all Hannibal had smelled was blood. Father Graham's blood smelled so delicious that Hannibal tried and failed to be completely satisfied by the blood he was drinking now.

Most vampires would hide in wait for the street to empty, save for one potential victim. They’d pull their victim into a darkened corner and sink their teeth into their necks, drain their bodies and return home covered in blood because they were careless when they killed. Those vampires wouldn't even allow their victims to look them in the eyes, because they didn't care about having fun with them. To vampires like Hannibal, that was boring. What he truly enjoyed was approaching his chosen prey, talking to them, finding out their names and addresses and when they would be alone. Making his victims want him. Making himself irresistible – they didn't know what he was, they would never know, but he would visit them, have sex with them, drain their blood in their sleep and leave them for the polizia to find.

He wasn't an unusual vampire for the gratification he obtained from playing with his victims, but Hannibal also loved to eat their flesh later, after he drained them. When a victim tasted particularly good, he would even take some of their organs home to cook. He always hid the body in the end, it was easier for the police to deal with disappearances rather than vampire attacks – most people weren't supposed to know vampires even existed.

His current victim was a young woman, early twenties, that had seemed overly interested in him when he’d stopped at a pub to get a drink. The woman had been constantly hitting on him, so he asked if they could go to her place. He kissed her, touched her, made her ride him, then lay her on the bed and sank his fangs into her carotid. The blood tasted good, he couldn't deny it – except for the fact that she had been intoxicated, and the alcohol she consumed altered the flavor. Still, it made him less hungry. But it didn't taste as good as Father Graham's blood had smelled, and Hannibal knew that this man, this priest, was the start of a new obsession. He would have him all to himself soon enough, whether it would be easy or not.